Thursday, July 31, 2008

OMG another rant. Blame Michael Moore....

I bestirred myself this morning and actually did some work around here. Guess what? I cut the grass! (Seems I do a lot of that!) Here, "cutting the grass" really means "mowing the driveway," because that's the only place green stuff of any consequence grows. It's not a small job--the driveway is 167 feet long and 16 feet wide. But it doesn't exactly take all day. What we actually walk on, where a lawn would be, is just sandy forest floor, covered with fallen oak leaves, hickory nuts and pine needles. I did throw some grass seed along the front in our little outdoor living room, and a few clumps struggled to rise in this unproductive dirt, but all I need for them is a string trimmer.

Inside, the place does look like a slug has been occupying it, and I do need to wave the Swiffer at things and run the vacuum. I owe at least that much to Steve, who supposedly is driving in this evening after he arrives in the late afternoon at Washington National. Yes, people, I truly am a housewife.

I watched Michael Moore's "Sicko" for the first time last night. I'll start by saying I've enjoyed his past movies while at the same time recognizing them for the one-note screeds that they are, and while I may agree with their general thrust, I find him too often a camera hog who gets in the way of his own narrative, and also assume there's plenty of "yes, buts..." behind his most shocking anecdotes. "Sicko" is different. The story itself is so horrifying and so disgusting it needs no embellishment. But beyond the demonstration of how badly skewed the priorities of the U.S medical establishment have become, the overarching narrative of our having been "ruled by fear" is what really stays with me. We are suckers, played like violins by anyone who can make a buck (or attain power) by scaring us. How convenient for the AMA that a push for "socialized medicine" came along precisely when the Red Scare had us in its thrall. Fast forward to the "politics of fear" created by 9/11, again so conveniently for the simple-minded team currently holding the reins. They already knew they wanted a more powerful presidency. The "war on terror" could have come from their play book. I'll never accuse these people of not having the best interest of the country at heart. I believe everything they have done has been done in good faith. I would never want to get up every morning knowing that the lives of 300 million of my fellow citizens were in my hands....literally. But the fear they feel in their own hearts has been handed to us in the form of their style of governing. And they have shown clearly that good faith effort and monumental, blinding hubris are not mutually exclusive.

In the movie, someone says, "In Eurpoean democracies, the governments are afraid of the people. We are afraid of our government." I don't buy that. As bad as things have gotten here, I'm still secure in the knowledge that I'm not about to be tortured by anyone on Uncle Sam's payroll. It's more a case of our having just given up, zoned out, lulled by consumerism, morbidly obese and loving every minute of it in our 21st century cathedral, the shopping mall. And that indifference is exponentially worse than any imagined fear of the government. It creates fertile ground for the power mad among us, who after almost eight years have gone some distance in chipping away at our hallowed foundations. (All for our own good, of course!)

At long last, we seem to be waking up, and there's a move to reclaim whatever qualities made us a legitimate beacon for the world. Maybe it took the trauma of 9/11 to show us how off course we could go. The promise "never again" has been made repeatedly throughout history, after every paroxysm of human stupidity, only to be forgotten. I hope this time we mean it.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A "shaky" start!

I ran out of decaf this morning and so had a couple of mugs of the delicious 8 O'Clock Colombian Roast we keep in the freezer for high-test drinking guests. It's definitely a guilty pleasure. I'm feeling the effects now, all jittery, eyes twitching....I have very little tolerance for caffeine. It's a good thing I don't have anything high-pressure to do this morning. I'd be shaking like a leaf.

I discovered the downside of too much caffeine many years ago, at a job interview. It was a pro forma affair: I was a shoo-in for the position, and the interview was with someone with whom I shared membership in pretty much a mutual admiration society. But I'd tanked up on coffee before the interview, and there was just enough edge to the occasion to put me at what would normally have been high alert. Add the caffeine and I was buzzing like a goddam bumblebee. My potential boss must have wondered who she had before her--the modern-day version of Don Knotts's "Nervous Man"? It was every bit that bad. I was embarrassed beyond words, but I got the job, and it opened doors to the most prolific and meaningful years I would spend at the Peace Corps. I always wanted to explain to her what was going on at that fateful interview, but I never got around to it. In the end, we remained mutual admirers.

It is deathly quiet here. I'm in the cooled room, so there is the white noise of the air conditioner. Outside a breeze stirs in the thick air; the sun tries its best to break through the muggy haze but so far without much success. There is not even the sound of the occasional boat plying the water. Earlier, I sat outside and read the paper next to the water, but now I've moved in. Later I'll turn on the radio for some vicarious conversation. There is no TV reception here to speak of. For entertainment we either rent DVDs or watch movies I've recorded off the DVR at home and brought with us. I'm well stocked.

Things on the house moved apace yesterday, almost too much so. Construction loans are cheap now and the broker was ready to finalize things right now. We had to put on the brakes--we don't have enough ducks in a row yet, and won't until we know what the house in Arlington will bring. (And there's always that pesky matter of employment....) but for now, anyway, things aren't looking half bad.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

In Delaware

I greet you from the Delaware hovel, where my wi-fi connection is tenuous at best and I may find myself unceremoniously dumped from the ether with no warning. I hope it's not a hard landing.

I can write for about 20 minutes, at which time I must join a conference call between Steve, a mortgage broker, and myself to discuss a construction loan we've applied for. We've been approved, but there are some small details to iron out, such as: Both Steve and I may be unemployed at the time we need the money. Um...what then?

It's as muggy here as it was in DC when I left. The water looks muggy, sort of thickish and green, as if there's just enough heat to incubate algae perfectly to full bloom. The water temperature in this 3-foot-deep rivulet does get into the upper 80s at times like this, so I guess algae that would be considered benign at other times of year can thrive and become too numerous now. I'm not trying to catch any fish in it, but our next door neighbor, a professional bait dealer, does grow fish fry in big traps off his pier until they are big enough to sell as bait. (Acutally, I guess they survived to market size because the traps are out of the water now.)

Gas at the local station is $3.79! Non-U.S. friends, I wish I could translate that to dollars/Euros per litre, but suffice to say that this price is a full 30 cents cheaper than what I paid as I left
Arlington this morning. It's always cheaper here than at home, and if we play it right, we only buy fuel here in Delaware. But I really never thought I'd see anything below the $3.80s again.

I will stop here before I really begin to babble. My mind is distracted by the f&b world and there is momentarily no space for things nostalgic or philosophical. I'm just saying boo.

Monday, July 28, 2008

One more house project?

It's gray outside and muggy, quintessential late July weather in our Nation's Capital. It's a good day to stay inside and that's probably what I will do. I did tackle cleaning the dust in the bathroom yesterday. I discovered minute paint splatters and not-so-small platters of spackle in various places, and will be scraping them up today. No biggie.

As if we aren't doing enough in that bathroom, we might have one more project for it before we are done. When we created that room in the early 1990s, we got custom-colored ceramic tile for the vanity, the surround for the jacuzzi, and various walls. The main color is gray, and the trim was supposed to be a muted, dusty rose. The "rose" came to us a much brighter pink than we wanted--not quite bubblegum, but too close. Since it was a custom job, we were stuck with it, and for all these years we've lived with that color. We've been pretty proud of that room overall, with its walk-in glass block shower, the jacuzzi--the upgrade we created in general. But when we had a house stager come through this winter, the silence was deafening when she entered that fancy bathroom. The clear message was that the pink and gray either had to go or it had to be muted somehow, with attention taken away from it. Ideally, we would hop on the current granite bandwagon (as we did in the kitchen) and replace all the tile with that. But the cost for that would be prohibitive and we decided against it. We were left with creating basically a blank slate for new owners, removing all suggestion of color from the walls and painting them apartment white, and that is what we had settled on.

Then the other day a friend told us she'd just seen a new show on HGTV (that network is quickly becoming the instant reference for all things realty, for better or worse), on which she saw tile in a bathroom being "re-glazed," essentially, painted. You know how people sometimes have antique enamel bathtubs re-glazed to look like new and give them a second life? Turns out the same thing can be done for ceramic tile. Had no idea.

So today, I have a guy coming in to give me an estimate for re-glazing that pink and gray tile to something very sleek, maybe a biscuit or eggshell. If it's feasible, we'll go ahead and do it, and still keep the walls stark white. The floor will remain what it is now, an extremely pale pink, and shades of red can become the color accent in the room--towels, occasional pieces, etc. I think it could be quite a good, clean look and have gotten psyched for it. Wish I could supply some before and after pics, but I never got around to taking any before Steve left, and he has the camera, believing hopefully he may have some time to do sightseeing in Nevada. Anyway, I'll let you know what I learn.

Have you done anything like this? Would love to hear your experience with it.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

A quiet Sunday (I think)

I was up at 4:30--early not only for a Sunday but any day of the week--to see Steve off for a trip to Reno, Nevada. This seminar will no doubt be the last traveling he will be doing for his present employer. The supervisor who suggested and authorized this trip is gone now; it was a parting gift to Steve. As a perk, I think Steve is appreciative of the gesture, but I'm sure he'd rather forgo the travel. Soon enough he'll be able to.

There was no getting back to sleep for me so I came here and started listening to music. I'm yawning as I write, so a quiet day is probably in store. I'll luxuriate with the newspaper for a few hours, and then see what happens. Either today or tomorrow I will tackle one of those drudge jobs I find satisfying: cleaning up all the drywall mess in the bathroom. Yes, that task is moving along. Primer is on all the walls; they simply await a finish coat of paint. That means all the dust that was raised by the spackling necessary to get to this point can be cleaned up. I armed myself with 15 tack cloths from Home Depot yesterday. We are on our way back to shiny surfaces!

A peaceful Sunday to you.

Friday, July 25, 2008



Don't tell anybody, but Friday is usually an easy blog day for me because I don't have to sit here and pull something out of thin air to write about. A recipe is easy--it's either already in my head or written down someplace to copy. So this morning, instead of trying to stitch meandering thoughts together into a coherent narrative, I've been totally immersed in music for the past hour or so, acquainting myself with some of the stuff I've been acquiring right and left lately, knowing I like it but never really giving it proper attention. Not a bad way to spend the morning. And I'm glad to learn that my musical intuition has proved accurate!

Today's recipe is a just-about foolproof way to prepare thick-cut pork chops in a way that preserves and enhances their flavor and keeps them moist. They will come out lightly pink on the outside, with a beautifully carmelized crust. The technique is adapted from one of my prime go-tos, Cooks Illustrated magazine. The onions are my own addition, so they're optional; the glaze is a word-for-word lift from the magazine. The whole thing takes less than 30 minutes to prepare from beginning to end, and makes a quick but sophisticated weeknight meal.


You must use your heaviest, most evenly-heating griddle to make this. Cast iron is best. (Before you email me to take me to task for preparing the acid-based glaze in cast iron, I'll tell you now that I do it regularly and get no metallic taste. If your pan is properly seasoned, that won't happen.)

Use bone-in chops. They have much more flavor than boneless.

The amount of glaze is enough for 4 chops


2 medium yellow onions, peeled, halved pole-to-pole and sliced into thick half-moons
1 tablesoon olive oil
salt and pepper


1/2 cup distilled white vinegar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/3 cup apple cider or apple juice (or 2 tablespoons apple juice concentrate) 2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon soy sauce


2 bone-on pork chops, 5-7 oz. each, 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil

For onions: place all ingredients in cold cast iron skillet, turn heat to medium, and gently sauté to sweat and soften onions but not to brown. When desired softness is reached, remove onions to a bowl and set aside. Wipe pan clean and return to burner.

Mix all glaze ingredients and set aside

For chops: turn heat under pan to high and spread oil evenly inside. While oil is heating, remove chops from packaging, pat dry with paper towels, and season both sides with salt and pepper. When oil is very hot and beginning to smoke in the pan, gently and carefully add the chops. They should sizzle upon contact with the oil. Cover immediately, leave heat on high, and cook without touching for 5 minutes. Some smoke will begin to curl out from under the lid; that's OK. At the end of 5 minutes, remove lid, turn chops (get a load of that beautiful crust!) and quickly pour glaze over all. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook, with glaze bubbling rapidy, another 4 to 5 minutes.

Remove chops to a bowl. Continue to boil glaze until it is thick and begins to coat the bottom of the pan, 3 to 4 minutes. Return chops and accumulated juices to pan, spoon glaze over, add onions, and continue cooking a minute or so to heat everything through. Serve.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Look out: a gay rant

The day's music choices reflect a news story I will be following: yesterday, a House subcommittee revisited for the first time since its enactment 15 years ago the "don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays in the military, signed into law by that great friend of gay people, Bill Clinton. (If you're interested, Diane Rehm will be devoting her first hour this morning to a discussion of the issue.) If any changes are in the offing, they of course won't come until after a new administration is in place, but it's heartening to know that a re-examination is starting now, as ugly and personally insulting as I know I will find the conversation. Just as when I pass a serious car wreck on the highway, I find myself morbidly drawn to this discussion, simultaneously relishing and hating hearing myself referred to in the third person, as if I were not in the room.

I hope whoever advised Clinton to make this issue the very first one to tackle after he was sworn into office was drawn and quartered, or at least summarily fired. The "born politician" overplayed his hand disastrously on this question, and he ended up codifying into law the lying that, up to then, gay people in the military had only occasionally been forced into, by individual circumtances. At the time, it was viewed as a humane compromise, but that view was held, of course, by people who weren't forced into hypocrisy by it. The inevitable witch hunts ensued: under this law, more than 12,000 patriots have been drummed out of the service for loving whom they loved. That number includes field medics and scarce Arabic speakers. The policy is a national disgrace. (Funny. As I wrote that I realized we've experienced so many national disgraces since this one that the expression has lost much of its punch. But this still outrages me, which I guess means there's hope yet for our dear country.)

Me, I'd never have touched a military career. I wasn't made for one, and am grateful that another means of expressing my patriotism was available. But I am also grateful to anyone willing to put his or her life in danger in order to protect mine. And isn't that what it all boils down to? These people have volunteered to give their all, literally, to this country, and this is the gratitude they receive. If they kiss the wrong kind of person they aren't worthy.

Have I made myself clear how I feel about this? Carry on, dear friends.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Where did all this come from????

People who think all things in life are pre-ordained ought to sit down in front of a blank space and try to fill it with some meaningful words, which then by some miracle form into meaningful thoughts, every day. It casts the definition of existentialism in high relief: this space is an extension of life itself. It will be what I decide it will be.

I find great comfort in routine. It gives my life a certain framework; there are some events in my day you could set your clock by. The safety of that framework in turn makes room for life itself, both the unexpected and the highly anticipated, long planned-for milestones that give a life true meaning.

As a French major, I had a formal introduction to existentialist thinking. It was a balanced affair. For negativity there was Sartre's "No Exit," and for a positive take on things we read Camus' "The Little Prince." (Since Kirkegaard wasn't French, I never got around to Christian existentialism at the time and haven't since.) I sat in classrooms and discussed these works, but nothing, really, sank in back then. It's life itself that teaches these lessons, and it becomes our choice to see it either as an absurd trap (Sartre) or a beautiful opportunity (Camus). From one day to another, life presents itself in these two guises, often even a mix of the two simultaneously. The great, sometimes difficult, lesson that life teaches us is that it doesn't really care; it's just there, doing what it does. It's we who give it whatever meaning it may have.

In some ways, I envy those who have great religious faith or some other system of thought that automatically imbues life with what they call meaning. At least all the work, all the searching, has already been done for you and you can sit back and either enjoy or fear the ride, whatever your system tells you to do. But I couldn't possibly live that kind of life: the way my mind works wouldn't even allow it. I question most assertions I come across; certainty is the shortest route to mental atrophy. If I couldn't challenge, I might as well be a garden slug.

I cherish this daily blank page, this responsibility to give my own meaning to whatever a day may present to me. On some few, rare, days, the page may stay blank. That is the luxury of taking each day as it comes, on its own terms. I can decide that there's just nothing interesting to say. Or maybe there's too much interesting happening, and reporting it will have to wait. Either way, it's my call, it's my own definition of life, and I like it that way.

And now I will go cut the grass. Very meaningfully!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's not the heat....

....oh forget about it. Of course it's the heat. The humidity part of the rest of that expression, "it's the humidity," is mostly nowhere to be found, at least here. But a dry heat, Arizonans' protestations notwithstanding, is still hot. It's so hot the grass is stressed, so it hasn't grown at all and I don't have to mow it. That's a small recompense.

It's at the times of these temperature extremes, of either heat or cold, that my imagination goes to those who had to brave them without the taken-for-granted ability we now have to change our own micro-climates. When I lived in Boston and experienced true winter cold for the first time, I thought of the Pilgrims, and, beyond them, to the Native Americans who thickly populated that area before any Europeans came. How did they survive that bitter cold? Or is it all a matter of what you're used to? (Then again, they did die early.....)

I am old enough to remember what it was like before central air conditioning. My Grandma Mac's house in Washington had what was once a common accommodation in all DC rowhouses: a sleeping porch on the back of the second storey. To the extent possible, people lived outside when it was too hot and still inside. They stayed on their large front porches most of the day, where they would sit and fan themselves, watching the rest of the world move about in heat-induced slow motion. Sleeping was "outside," too, on the screened porches built for that purpose. (Those old houses are worth fortunes now, and the porches for the most part have been closed in and made into bonus rooms.) I suppose there were also electric fans to blow the moist air around and create a breeze, so you had the illusion of cooling off, but you still must have stuck to the bedclothes.

Before my family got a window air conditioner--which as I remember did a pretty good job, with enough time, of cooling both stories of our house in Falls Church--we used a huge window fan given to us by my Aunt Grace and Uncle Charlie. It fit snugly into a regulation-size house window that was fully open. You installed it so that it would blow out. First, you closed all other windows in the house except those in the rooms you wanted to cool (at night, the bedrooms), then you turned the fan on. It created a vacuum in the house, sucking all the hot air out and forcing the cooler, outside air in through the selected open windows. The smaller the opening, the stronger the breeze. It did an excellent job of cooling down the bedrooms enough to be able to sleep, but there was still the problem of the humidity. That was uncomfortable, but you dealt with it because you had no choice.

In the daytime I contrived to do as little as possible. We had a screened side porch where I spent most of my time on a cushioned glider, doing my best to ignore my mother's complaints about "that awful music" on the radio that kept me constant company. Sometimes Judy and Don, my two age-mates and proxy brother and sister on the street, would come over and we'd just sit, maybe play word games--one summer the local radio station had a contest that challenged you had to find as many words as possible in the slogan of a local pharmacy. ("Don't say 'drug store,' say 'Drug Fair.' There's a big difference!") That killed countless languid hours. Another summer I sat at a card table on the side porch working on a mystery story about somebody poisoning the glue on S&H Green Stamps. The summer ended before the mystery was solved.

Now here most of us sit in centrally air-conditioned luxury, and we still have the temerity to complain. If you stop to consider, it doesn't take long to realize that we are a pampered people for whom technology has made life possible in what used to be considered climates fit only for Arctic wolves, gila monsters, or extremely hardy humans--Alaska winters and Arizona summers come to mind. The irony is that the more fossile fuel we use to power the very technology that makes life on a large scale possible in these places, the warmer it becomes, and the more we need to cool ourselves, thus burning more fossile fuel. The classic endless circle.

I dare you to be the first to turn off your air conditioner!

PS: the picture above is sunset on Hopkins Prong, July 18, 2008. Couldn't resist.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

It's Hot!!

Sometimes you can just tell when a day is going to be a scorcher. It really is no warmer now than it was this time yesterday morning, but the humidity has burgeoned and somehow the heat from the sun feels much more fierce. Steve, of course, is out in all of it, installing pipes on the dock, eventially to have running water out there. (To clean the boat, you know. No sense schlepping buckets from the house.) At least he's able to stand in the water as he works, so that's a bit cooling. (But he has to wear long pants in the water to fend off the jellyfish. Delightful. Nothing like the feeling of clinging, wet denim.)

We've taken our early-morning boat ride to check the crabs. Quite a few big ones caught since yesterday morning, but as the water temperature rises there will be fewer and fewer of the critters. Since all the water around here is so shallow--even Rehoboth Bay doesn't get any deeper than 6 feet--its temperature very closely approximates what we feel on land. Yesterday afternoon the water temperature at the end of our dock was 90 degrees, somewhere in the 30s C. Crabs head for very deep, cooler water when it gets that hot, so these dog days may well see a drop in our catch. That's OK with me, because the worst part of the whole crabbing experience is picking them. I already know how my Sunday morning is mapped out. The finished product is so worth it, though.

I hope your weekend is rolling out as nicely as ours.

Friday, July 18, 2008


First: Today those us of a certain age mourn the passing of singer extraordinaire Jo Stafford, at the age of 90. Among her musical peers, she was noted for her extremely true pitch and clear voice; for those of us on the leading edge of the baby boom her song "Shrimpboats" is a dominant part of the soundtrack of our earliest childhoods. In the 1960s, she and her husband, noted orchestra leader Paul Weston, together discovered a parallel comedy career as Jonathan and Darlene Edwards, two of the most un-musical musicians imaginable. They played on their reputations as exacting pros to create their mirror opposites: Jonathan was the quintessential cocktail piano tinkler who never knew when to stop, while Darlene couldn't carry a tune in a bucket and never encountered a tempo she couldn't mangle. What started out as a party joke turned into several albums, now on CD. If there really are choirs of angels, Jo Stafford's voice is a welcome addition.


Here is a simple summertime dish that works for picnic sandwiches or as a quick, toss-together weeknight dinner. It's a great use for a leftover ham, and is inexpensive enough to make on its own using a 1-pound ham slice, which is what I do. It's inspired by the sandwiches my Aunt Mary used to bring to family get-togethers at my parents' place on the water. Once I started eating them, I could barely stop. This version isn't quite as sweet as Aunt Mary's, just to make it more universally palatable.

P.S. As must be abundantly clear by now, a food stylist I am not. The salad would have shown a lot better in a dark-colored bowl, I know. But this is the picture I have.

a pre-sliced ham steak approximately 1 lb.
2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
4 spring onions (scallions) thinly sliced
1/2 sweet white onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup coarsely torn romaine (cos)
2 tablespoons fresh parsely, chopped
2 hard-cooked eggs, coarsely chopped

1 generous tablespoon sweet pickle relish
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1 scant teaspoon yellow mustard
*salt (see note below)
Black pepper to taste

Cut ham into chunks and place in bowl of food processor. Chop meat fine and move to a medium-size mixing bowl. Add chopped vegetables, herbs, and eggs.

Mix all dressing ingredients together in a separate small bowl and pour over ham mixture. Stir to mix well, *taste for salt, and add as needed. Cover and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, serve.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Gathering clouds

Looks like we're approaching the bitter end at Steve's work. The government has named the new contractor, and with that, Sacramento HQ is moving fast in acting as if it already has nothing to do with the project: scheduling teleconferences not mindful of DC hours, and generally leaving DC staff out of major decisions still left to be made for the closeout. The only other person left in the office just accepted another position, leaving only Steve and the part-time receptionist. We were expecting a drastic slowdown and a trickling out of staff, but when a once-buzzing and vital office is reduced this way, the reality of it is pretty stark. I think it's only a matter of time (though there have been no overt moves) before Sacramento tells Steve they can take over whatever functions he may have filled for closing the project, effectively leaving him with nothing to do. Our hope is that he can last out the rest of the year, and ideally into March, but at the rate things are going I am not optimistic. At almost 60, Steve's getting his resumé together and preparing to play the interview game. If worse comes to worst, just in order to continue paying for the Delaware land until we can sell this house, I will be going back to work if Steve is suddenly let go before he can transition to something else. This is not what we had in mind.

Looks like we are becoming players in this hard economy, but our problems aren't the economy's fault. They all stem from the fact that Steve's company didn't re-bid on the contract that employed him. The national real estate mess is something we must contend with here, of course, but the sale of the house and the move to Delaware suddenly seem to be the least of our problems. The construction industry is completely in the tank, making our potential business like candy to the companies we are dealing with. The hard in-between time, patching an income together for that duration, may be the biggest test.

We head for Delaware today and a respite from these concerns. I'll be posting tomorrow and will try for the rest of the weekend, but we've seen my weekend record is becoming pretty spotty.

Have a good one.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A little Peace Corps jingoism

I've spent a lot of time this morning poring through a blog I've just been told about, Chengdu Chronicles, written by two friends of mine, Charles Enciso and Chris Ray (I think Charles is doing most of the writing). Chris is working as Peace Corps staff in Chengdu, China (yes, recently of earthquake notoriety), while Charles, his partner (husband, actually, at least in Canada), is there with him, going to school. Charles was a co-worker of mine during my Peace Corps Placement days, and we progressed on parallel tracks, moving to different regions but doing the same jobs for a while. After I left the Peace Corps he and Chris went to Canada to get married, then resumed their careers in Washington. I lost track of them for a couple of years, until a mutual friend had us together at a New Year's Eve party, but I was unaware of the blog. The same mutual friend, who visited us for dinner over the weekend, put me on to it.

The blog (again, I truly hate that ugly word, a catch-all that does nothing to capture the nature of this work) is a treasure trove of travel columns documenting their "excellent adventures" in Central China. They've been there since July, 2007. They don't post daily, but still, there's a lot to catch up on, and I am making it a project to catch up. The writing is engaging, the stories are both funny and fascinating; their bright personalities shine through, and it is full of pictures. I know most of you justifiably can't imagine adding yet more reading to your day. Still, this is well worth the visit.

Remembering Charles and Chris makes me grateful all over again for the great fortune I had in being able to call the Peace Corps my place of work for nearly 30 years. I was lucky because the Peace Corps attracts such sterling people, but doubly so because I actually had a full career there--most people who work at the Peace Corps never get the chance: written into the legislation which enables the operation of the agency is a rule which limits staff employment there to 8 years at most. I was among a very few people--40 or so--who were in the right place at the right time at a certain period in the agency's history when some people could be given career status. I did nothing to deserve that status except be there.

As a permament employee, while always engaged with the crowd, a part of me was also aware that I was watching a parade of stellar people, each contributing their unique characters to the overall stimulating atmosphere of the place. During relatively stable periods, I'd think there could be no more wonderful a crew to be with, but always, people would move on, only to allow more wonderful people out of the wings. I can't say anyone was "replaced," because individual characters were irreplaceable. There were just always more people, always unique, always memorable. Even the occasional losers in the bunch were losers in memorable ways. I get together now with former colleagues and we still have that bond. Since I worked in so many offices, I have more than one Peace Corps "family," and each is a joy.

All returned Peace Corps volunteers share the unique experience of having discovered parts of themselves they never knew existed as a result of working at the grassroots level in a completely alien culture. Our experiences were different in detail but exactly the same overall; virtually all returned PCVs you ever speak to will tell you that while they feel their work was worthwhile, they gained much more than they gave.

When I hear of the bond shared by former combatants in wars, I identify with their experience while, I hasten to add, in no way claiming the same sort of sacrifice. The self-knowledge we gain is similar, though, and if there is any hope for this country in the long run, I believe some of it resides in those of us who have lived other lives in other places, who have had to plumb own depths at times to survive, and who bring that knowledge, both of self and of the corners of the world in which we lived, back home with us. Most of us may never do anything else so "big," but our experience informs all the things we subsequently learn about the world. It improves us as individuals and can only make this country a better place. I always hope parents will encourage their kids to get out into the world and challenge themselves somehow, before they embark on full "adulthood." The Peace Corps is an excellent vehicle, but it isn't the only one. Take a few months and drive across the country, or tromp through Europe or Asia with a backpack. Work for a political campaign. The possibilities for growth and self-awareness are endless. Choose any one of them, but please, do but choose!

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Short break from the humdrum

For those of you curious about the kitchen project, here are the b&a pics, as promised. The "before" shows the place denuded of appliances, etc., as we were getting ready for the job when I took the picture, and the "after" shows it lived-in, but I think the difference is still pretty stark and wonderful. I think it looks great, love the look of the granite, the new sink, everything. If you are thinking of having similar work done, go to, the website my niece told me about. It's a nationwide clearinghouse for local, small businesses that do just this kind of work. We had an estimate from Sears at $10,000 for this job. The company we chose charged us $3190, including the new double sink and faucet. You can't beat that.

Other than that, I am casting about for inspiration today. I've been preoccupied all morning with the humdrum, completely uninteresting things that have to be done to keep this old plant running. There's always the weather.........

It's in the 80s outside but not humid, so it actually feels coolish (except when you climb into your closed car. I hate it when that happens!). My potted tomato plant, which I had despaired of ever growing any fruit because its blossoms wouldn't set, is now laden down with little green nuggets. I was prepared to relegate my potting experiment to the dustbin, but it turned out the problem was just the temperature. Our spring was too hot for the blossoms to take--they need temps in the 80s (20s C) and we were consistently in the 90s (30s C) for weeks on end. Now that we've had a bit of a chill, my coddled tomato plant is justly rewarding me. The fruit may all still rot or be attacked by something; I won't believe I have actual tomatoes until they are red and in the house, but it looks promising.

I'll wander off now and take up more of the humdrum. Into each life a little humdrum falls.....have a wonderful day yourself!

Monday, July 14, 2008



All I can say is I hope nobody starved to death over the weekend because I didn't put up a recipe on Friday. For that I have simply no excuse. It didn't even dawn on me until yesterday, Sunday, that I was supposed to talk about food last Friday. I can't imagine what happened--I must have been focused on the weekend or something. I know I wasn't on autopilot because you can't do this absent-mindedly. I did have great fun last Friday remembering all my old summer jobs, and I hope you did, too.

I've been interested in fried chicken ever since I first tasted it, and I'm sure most people can say the same thing, whether they are cooks or not. I think I can say unequivocally that I've never met anyone who doesn't at least like, of not love, fried chicken. This recipe has been evolving since 1974, when Esquire Magazine did a long article on the dish, comparing different recipes, analyzing what made a good one, and coming up with its own. It was very much like what Cook's Illustrated does now, long before Christopher Kimball sat in his first grease spot. I've been playing with the basic concepts presented in that article--buttermilk, seasoned flour, vinegar, even the paper bag to shake the pieces of chicken in--ever since, refining it as I've learned more technique. I've been settled on this iteration for a few years now.

Some notes:
  • I've always known that buttermilk and brining both make chicken tender and more flavorful. Cooks Illustrated came up with the idea of combining the two--brining in buttermilk--and it not only saves time but works like a charm.
  • Don't cook the chicken wet. Coat it and then let it air dry before putting it on the fire.
  • Fat: advice runs the gamut from pure bacon grease (delicious but deadlier than necessary) to plain vegetable oil. I settled on a combination of Crisco for its high smoke point and peanut oil for its flavor.
  • Intense flavors are a must. Use plenty of everything. An acid such as cider vinegar intensifies the tanginess imparted by the buttermilk. A light sprinkle just as the meat goes in the pan is all that is necesssary. The point is depth of flavor, not attention to the individual ingredient.
  • In my opinion, this old-fashioned dish only works in an old-fashioned cooking utensile: a cast iron skillet. Nothing holds heat more evenly. I have an ancient cast iron skillet from my grandmother and have collected more in antique stores. You may have the more fancy and expensive enameled variety. Whichever you have, use it.
  • Note there is no salt in the coating. Saltiness is imparted by brining. Adding more to the coating will make the product too salty. And on that subject, do not brine for more than two hours, for the same reason.
  • This is one time when dried, powdered spices work better than fresh. There's nothing worse than charred fresh garlic or herb leaves.
  • The chicken won't stick to the pan if it is dry and the fat is hot.
  • Don't crowd the chicken pieces in the pan. This recipe will need two frying pans if you want to cook the chicken in one batch.
  • Clean-up: there's no way around it, this is a messy dish to prepare. Fat will splatter on the stove during the uncovered phase of the cooking unless you have a strong back-of-cooktop vent. I use splatter screens to help keep some of the grease in the pan. For cleaning and reseasoning the skillet: scrape the biggest pieces of detritus into the sink, then fill pan with about an inch of water, bring to a boil over high heat, and allow the principle of de-glazing to work. Stir up any stuck on bits, scraping with a spatula when necessary, and pour it all down the drain. Place empty, clean skillet back on high heat to dry; then, while pan is still extremely hot, spray lightly with cooking spray to re-season. Wipe off excess oil with paper towels.
1 broiler-fryer 3/12-4 lbs., cut up
2 cups buttermilk
2 tablespoons salt

3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon garlic powder
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 teaspoon powdered thyme

Crisco or other vegetable shortening plus peanut oil in equal measure to give an inch of fat in pan when Crisco melts.
2 tablespoons cider vinegar

Stir salt into buttermilk to dissolve. Place chicken pieces in a plastic storage bag, pour buttermilk brine over, close bag and refrigerate for two hours.

Place flour and spices in a paper bag large enough to hold two chicken pieces at a time, and shake to mix coating ingredients. Remove chicken from brine, shaking off excess liquid, and place directly into coating mixture in bag, two pieces at a time. Shake to coat chicken thoroughly, then place coated chicken on a rack to air dry at room temperature for 30 minutes.

In a heavy cast-iron skillet place Crisco and peanut oil. Melt Crisco over high heat. Put chicken in hot fat, largest pieces first, with the thickest parts towards the center of the pan to the extent possible. Drizzle with vinegar, reduce heat to medium low, cover tightly, and cook without moving for 15 minutes. Remove cover, turn chicken, drizzle with vinegar again, continue to cook, uncovered, sizzling slowly, another 10-15 minutes. Check for doneness at the 10 minute mark by piercing the thickest part of a large piece with a sharp knife. Flesh should not be pink and any juices should be clear.

Remove from skillet to paper towels or a paper bag to allow excess fat to drain for 10 to 15 minutes. Gobble up!

Friday, July 11, 2008

You Gotta Work.....

I've been mired in music once again this morning--what a way to spend your time! I've said it before: if any of the jobs I'd had when I was a working stiff had been like what I do most mornings now, I'd never have complained....I might still even be working.

I never really had any idea what I was going to do once the wombs of college and the Peace Corps finally said "good riddance" and set me out into the world on my own. I'd always had a vague idea about music (actually, it was the strongest idea I ever had, but even at that, it was vague), but when I finally got the chance to do it for real I found I enjoyed the acts of composing and performing, but I that was simply not riddled through with the requisite ambition to carry through on a career. The older I got, the more I wanted nothing more than financial security and somebody to share my life with; as a result, as late as my early thirties I found myself pretty much starting at zero and building a life from scratch (having blithely acquired absolutely nothing in the way of job skills in college). I fell into my first real Peace Corps staff job sheerly by happenstance, and if that had not occurred, God knows what I'd have ended up doing.

My parents required that I have some kind of job even before I was old enough to have a Social Security card. I was a paper boy with the now-defunct Washington Star, the afternoon paper, for about three years through high school. Every afternoon I'd come home from school to find the bundles of papers left at my doorstep by Mr. Pinson, my route manager. I'd change clothes, load up my canvas paper bag, and walk the neighborhood, putting the papers on everybody's front porch, if you please. If I'd had the temerity to simply toss the paper in the general direction of the driveway, as is routinely done now, I'd have never been paid by my customers. And the customers were in a prime position to give me feedback on my service, since every month I had to knock on their door myself and collect the money they owed. If they didn't like what I was doing, I heard directly about it. In retrospect it was great experience in learning now to deal with the public--oh, I could be quite charming! But in those three years I never saved any money. As soon as I had a wad of collected dollar bills in my pocket, I'd spend my share of it on records and chocolate cokes at the Drug Fair, leaving barely enough to pay Mr. Pinson for the papers.

Once I got my Social Security card, I was allowed to graduate to summer jobs only, and my first was at that self-same Drug Fair. During the summer between my junior and senior years, I was a "utility cashier" at one of their stores, subbing for regular staff who were on their summer vacations. My favorite assignment was working the checkstand at the store's exit because it was always busy and it was fun to chat with the customers as they made their purchases. Other assignments I had were behind the photo counter, where my supervisor caught me more than once going through pictures that had never been picked up (voyeurism was an early and delicious vice of mine), and behind the prescription counter, where I'd take and ring up orders, and chat with the pharmacist as he counted pills on his drug company-supplied plastic platform and push them into bottles with this metal putty knife-looking thing. It was at the Drug Fair where I heard this story from Lois, an older maiden lady who was a full-timer at the store: once while she was working behind the prescription counter a man came up and asked her for a pack of Trojans. "Cigarettes are down in the front of the store," she said. I've told that story for close to 50 years now. God bless Lois for that eternal chuckle.

When I started my senior year I also started a job with the venerable J.C. Penney store here in Arlington that I had been visiting with my mother since I was a little kid. During school I worked at nights--I can tell you from first-hand experience that there is nothing more boring than a department store on a rainy Tuesday night. When summer came, I switched to full-time and stayed at the job until just before I left for Kentucky and college. This budding gay boy was assigned the men's department. Could have been worse. I discovered I loved doing inseam measurements (and some of the customers seemed to enjoy them too...hmmm...). The early-morning store meetings were memorable for their unintended comedic content--even at the age of 17 I had an eye for satire and was only too willing to lampoon anybody I thought deserved it. The store manager was Mr. Selman. Yes, Selman. He'd ask each blue-haired department head to report on sales for the week, singling out the most successful for special praise. All this took place under the wall-sized protrait of old Jesus Christ Penney himself. It ended with Mr. Selman exhorting us all, "Remember, folks, show 'em, tell 'em, sell 'em!!" Off I'd go, in high hopes of measuring another couple of inseams.

I had one more summer job between my freshman and sophomore years at college: I went back to the Washington Star and became a substitute route manager for regular employees on vacation. For two weeks at a time, I was the paper boys' Mr. Pinson. That was a pretty good job. I was paid Teamsters wages, so I made a lot of money, I developed good muscles in my arms from driving those panel trucks that didn't have power steering, and I got to know a couple of areas of suburban Maryland--Kensington and Takoma Park--very well. And music was never far away in anything I ever did: I first heard the Beatles' "Hey, Jude," and Aretha's "Baby I Love You" on the radio as I drove the truck that summer.

After that summer I became more involved in life in Kentucky and more adept at spending my parents' money: I stayed in Kentucky the following summers and did some three credit-hour courses to make up for the mere 12 hours I started carrying during the regular school year. Oh, I shamelessly gamed the system--and had the time of my young life doing it. I may not have learned much about what I would do in life when I was in college, but I took giant steps towards learning who I was. Who can say that's wrong?

Anyway, my parents forgave me.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008


Amazing the happiness simple things like petunias and coleus can exude, no? These greet you at the door to our trailer in Delaware. (We also have a display of flowers to mark the septic tank. Tasteful, don't you think? What won't these gay boys think of next? Pink flamingos? Oh, right...we have them!)

It's cloudy and so muggy the humidity is actually coalescing into drizzle. This weather is supposed to be the leading edge of a cold front that will usher in pleasant and dry conditions for the weekend. That couldn't be better for our crab cake dinner outside on Saturday.

When I started writing in this space last January I was full of important stories to tell. Over the ensuing months, I've told many of them, and what's left, I struggle with putting into words. There are some life situations we don't over-examine because to do so would only make the frustration they represent too clear--best to let insoluble problems sort themselves out and in the process give off their faint whiff of dissatisfaction, which you just build into your life as a given. Put petunias on that septic tank and call it a nursery. There are worse solutions.......

In something I read the other day, somebody said, "nobody's life is perfect." It was a response to someone who had complained that everybody else's life seemed "better" than hers--the complainer was happy and well-adjusted enough, but why didn't she have this or that thing that everybody else seemed to have?

The reminder that nobody's life is perfect was a good one for someone like me. I am by nature a fixer, an expediter. Unresolved situations drive me to distraction. I don't shop; I make a decision before going to the store and buy. (Junk--I mean antique--stores are an exception.) Too much choice just frustrates me: all those options vie for my attention and I resent having to test them all. Of course, it's impossible to predict such things with 100% certainty, but the thought has crossed my mind that if I was confronted with a split-second emergency, I just might shatter. I've built so much comfort and predictability into my life--consciously--that I can't imagine what I'd do if, say, somebody drew a gun on me when I answered a knock on the door. When I imagine these things (an idle mind is the devil's playground, yes!) I remember a medical emergency that Steve had a few years ago, and am reassured by the fact that I sprang to positive action without even thinking about it, and took complete charge of the situation for its duration. But that was taking care of someone else. I've never been tested by a personal crisis. I just knocked on my wooden desk. May I never.

On that positive note, I shall now take my life into my hands, get into my car, and go get some food for tonight's dinner. Look out for life's Mac trucks!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm ba-a-a-a-ck.......

But back where, exactly, I'm not sure what I mean. I'm back here in the ether, for one thing, but unfortunately for just a short stay because I'm also back here at home, where work galore beckons after a week's absence. The most pressing job is cutting the grass, and I need to get that done before the heat sets in. (An aside Canadian buddies, speaking of heat: I have to chuckle when you complain about how "hot" it is up your way. You start sweating when the thermometer soars to the non-metric 70s, I've discovered. Try the 90s. With the same humidity you have. Now that's hot. This morning it was 72 degrees when I took my walk and I felt like I was in an air-conditioned universe.)

Above, as promised, is the picture of the red-and-blue pie, with optional patriotic white added by the amount of whipped cream of your choice. It was delicious. Here's another fun pic from the week:
Yes, we normally cook the crabs first, but Steve wanted to play with this monster we caught. And that, by the way, is the closest he'll ever get to eating a crab--although he will countenance the occasional crab cake. I caught two dozen crabs on this outing and harvested 1 1/2 lbs of meat. That meat will feed friends crab cakes this weekend. How many "yum" occasions can one body take?!

The kitchen counter was done while we were away and it looks beautiful. I promised b&a pics of that, I know, and they will be forthcoming, but there's still some touchup work to be done in the kitchen before it is camera-ready.

All this fun has its price, and I must be off to pay it. I'll catch up with my work today and I hope for a better visit tomorrow.

Nobody needs a vacation more than someone on their first day back from vacation.

Friday, July 4, 2008


Here's a quick and dirty recipe for the holiday. No picture because I just made it up here in Delaware and I have no photo software on this computer. I'll take the picture and post iot next week.

Call it "Red, White and Blue Pie." Make this Fresh Blueberry Pie. but substitute 1 cup pitted fresh Bing cherries for one of the cups of blueberries. Don't cook the cherries as part of the syrup. Just fold them in with the uncooked blueberries.

The "White" comes when you add whipped cream!

And now a silly 4th of July story:

By the time July 4, 1976 and the Bicentennial fireworks extravaganza rolled around, I had come back home and was living in downtown Washington, D.C. To miss this avidly anticipated event was unthinkable, of course, and since I lived right in town it was a matter of mere few blocks' stroll to be at the very heart of the celebrations.

But Riley, my boyfriend at the time, was perenially slow on the uptake, and never slower than at this special time, for some still unfathomable reason. Despite our proximity to all the sights, we arrived so late we'd have had better seats for the fireworks if we'd stayed home and watched them on TV.

I couldn't believe we had botched this incredible opportunity so badly. I made Riley promise he'd be better prepared for the tricentennial.

Happy 4th!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Never A Dull Moment

It's 2:30 and I just found the time to sit in front of the computer for a few minutes. With Steve as the Cruise Director on this Titanic we call life, there's always some activity of which to partake. If you have to take the Titanic, you might as well go first class, right? I go along with all of it, marveling at his never-ending creativity and energy.

The day had to begin with some shopping, of course. We brought some old window boxes with us from the Arlington house which go perfectly on the deck railing here. That meant flowers, so it was off to Lowe's to buy the last of their straggly-looking petunias, and some soil. These purple and pink invalids will explode to sprawling life with the fertilizing, moisture-retaining dirt I get for them. Then of course we had to buy the things for his project for the day, which is installing lights on the pier. Conduit, wire, junction boxes and other electrical things most normal people can't name. (I thought I did pretty well with "conduit.") He's now happily creating another new reality while I do this.

While we were out, we did do one extraordinary thing. It only took a minute, it was shoehorned between Lowe's and the grocery store, but it felt huge. We had the forms notarized that will notify the State of California we are domestic partners, so that I can be included in various benefits from Steve's retirement income should that awful time ever arrive. We can do this because Steve's company is chartered in California. In nearly 30 years, we never even considered that a government entity, anywhere, would call our relationship anything but illegal. This crumb from California feels like a banquet. Bless you straights. The things you take for granted....

The weather is pleasant, warmish but with a cooling breeze. We took the crab traps out this morning to see what might be lurking about this first week of July. We'll check them tonight and then again twice a day for a couple of days. I hope I get as good a haul as the three dozen I got on the last crabbing foray.

And there you have it, a day in a week next to the water. Who knows what wonders the Cruise Director will come up with tomorrow? I'm along for the ride.