Friday, October 31, 2008



This recipe is the offspring of a TV show and a hankering for some seafood. We're big fans of Tyler Florence on the Food Network and his show Tyler's Ultimate. He's always upbeat, and his style of cooking fits mine: big, bold, and kind of sloppy (but he calls it "rustic"). He made something recently with a very simple tomato sauce. I didn't want that dish, but the sauce looked great, and it had been a long time since we'd had the two seafoods that both of us like, shrimp and scallops. I decided to experiment, and I got a winner. It's very rich, delicious, easy, and fast. There's so much tomato that it really comes out rather stew-ey (thus my name for it), and I like it that way. If you want to make it less wet, try using just one can of tomatoes. Either way, you'll like it. Plain spaghetti would work as a bed for it to lie on, but I lucked out and found some hand-made sun-dried tomato and basil flat pasta at a Pennsylvania Dutch market in Delaware. Given the cost of seafood, good pasta is appropriate for this dish. It's definitely company-worthy.

On the artichokes: if you can't get the frozen ones, don't bother with the marinated or canned. Their flavor will overpower the rest of the dish.

1 lb. sun-dried tomato-flavored ribbon pasta

2 tablespoons good olive oil
1 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 medium red onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic (or to taste) peeled and minced
2 28-oz. cans whole peeled tomatoes, broken into large chunks, with juice
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped
1 package (10 oz.) frozen artichoke hearts
1/2 lb. large shrimp
1/2 lb. small bay scallops. (If you can only get the larger sea scallops, cut them in half.)
1 cup whole, seeded kalamata olives
3 tablespoons heavy cream

Good Parmesan cheese

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan deep enough to eventually hold the entire dish, including pasta. Add onion, garlic and pepper flakes and sauté until onion softens and garlic is fragrant. Add tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, until sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes. Add basil and artichokes and simmer about 10 minutes more, until artichokes are cooked through. Stir in shrimp and scallops and simmer about 5 minutes, just until seafood is firm and opaque. Stir in cream to combine.
Taste for salt and add if necessary. Add cooked pasta to sauce and toss to combine.

Serve with grated Parmesan.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Good Times

Just a quick hello before I run to complete Thursday chores and then head out to Dulles to pick up our visiting friends, who are arriving at 11:30. I need to give myself a bit of wiggle room because it's been literally years since I've picked anybody up out there and I'll want to make sure I can figure out on-ramps, parking, and all the other ins and outs of what is now to me, essentially an unknown destination. (When I was in high school and that iconic building had just been completed and was still sitting in its isolated splendor, an ideal summer night excursion was to take a ride out to Dulles. You could park your car anywhere you liked and just go into the terminal and walk around like a tourist. I did that many, many times. Imagine! Those days are long gone and Dulles is now an overcrowded small town in the no-longer-so-far DC suburbs.)

We always look forward to Chuck and Sandy's company. Theirs is a great love story. They nearly married in their 20s, then life got in the way and they traveled in different directions, raising families with different people. Then, life being full of surprises and sometimes even accommodating of our deepest desires, they reconnected in their 50s and took up where they'd left off thirty years before. They had a beautiful wedding in 2001 on the Cornell campus, where they met, and are living happily ever after. Chuck and I were in the Peace Corps together, and we were in close enough proximity that we visited often and formed a bond as only such unique shared experiences can foster. I had met Sandy once, when I first returned from the Peace Corps, and was happy the two of them were together and that they'd both be in my life for a long time. When things between them turned out as they did, there was major disappointment among their friends. We welcomed Chuck's new spouse into the fold, but she never seemed to feel at home there, and there ensued some years of awkward estrangement. Then one day Chuck called me out of the blue and told me that he and Sandy had found each other again. I was overjoyed, as was everyone who cared about them. Being with Chuck and Sandy is a constant reminder that sometimes life really can turn out as you hope it will.

Food for the occasion will be a crockpot pork stew made with Thai spices inspired by a dish Cuidado mentioned a few days ago in her blog. (Don't worry. If it works out, I'll post it.) Friday I'm wowing them with Peruvian Shrimp Soup. When we're not eating we'll be seeing the sights in DC. They should go home well toured and well filled. As a bonus, the weather is cooperating with its cold temperature, so we can build a fire, have some wine, listen to music, and gab.

See you tomorrow morning with Food Friday.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


One of my father's most recognizable attributes, the one that is the basis of many funny family stories, is his conservative outlook on life, his innate caution. He could deflate a new idea faster than a pin in an over-filled balloon; his fallback position was invariably a list of the reasons why a thing was not only not possible, but outlandish, if not ouright crazy. To the question, "why do people climb Mount Everest?" most people answer, "because they can." He'd answer, "because they're fools." As much as I always swore I'd never be anything like him, to my horror, I'm finding some remnants of that old mind-set in me.

There are those who relish a jump off a cliff, the adventure of the unknown, walking on the razor's edge. Apparently, I'm not one of them. That's the only explanation I can come up with for the at-times crazy-making trepidations I have about The Impending Move.

The thing is, I've been known to jump off my share of cliffs. I joined the Peace Corps. I came home from that experience with no certain future, did what I had to do, followed a certain star (which only led me down dead ends, it turned out, but at least I followed it) and finally, with a healthy slathering of luck, landed on my feet. We bought this house at the height of the early 80s recession and were house-poor for years, paying 16 ¾% interest on our mortgage. For a while it was hard, but in the long run we flourished here. I retired early, and that felt like jumping off a cliff, too. We had sensible fears of what the financial impact of that step would be, and despite all the worry, things turned out fine.

I think the difference between those times and now is that before, I always sensed a safety net somewhere. There were other sources of income, other jobs to take if necessary, or we could simply lie low until conditions improved. This time I don't have a sense that these other possibilities exist. We're moving to a smaller town where employment opportunities are fewer, and the current economy is not producing jobs, anyway. And we're not getting any younger. I don't think I'm wrong to worry about these things--just because you're paranoid, that doesn't mean they're not out to get you--but I wish my thinking could always be as positive as it is at this moment, when I'm feeling fairly optimistic about the future. Unfortunately, it's not. I worry. Maybe it's just a simple matter of a good night's sleep?

Meanwhile, back to my father and his caution. When I was in elementary school and all the kids started wearing penny-loafers, my parents wouldn't hear of it for me. They insisted I wear sturdy tie-shoes so that my feet would "develop properly." (So now I have hard-to-fit B-width feet.) When kids in the neighborhood started riding two-wheeled bikes, I was not allowed to ride in the streets with them. My parents proudly gave me an old "English racer" bicycle that had been saved by the family just for me (it was really quite sleek and trim, but it looked silly next to the fat Schwinns of the day), and then allowed me to ride it only in the front yard. Our yard was divided down the middle by a flagstone walkway from the house to the street, with a maple tree planted in the middle of each half. For close to a year, I rode that skinny racer in figure-8s around those maple trees, while my friends raced up and down the street. I cheated by making the loops of the 8 bigger and bigger until they took me out to the pavement, but was invariably caught in my transgression and told to stay in the yard or just get off the bike. Driving a car was the same: the other kids started at 16; I had to wait until I was 18.

So sometimes for better and sometimes for worse, I'm stuck with these habits of mind. They've no doubt stood me in good stead at certain times in my life, but now, they're in the way. Things will work out; they always do. Rationally, I know that. But it appears for peace of mind, I'll just have to throw caution to the wind. (Think I will? HA!)

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


We haven't even had much of a leaf-fall yet and it's already blustery and winter-like outside, with rain falling out of skies that don't seem in the mood for clearing any time soon. It's a good day to stay inside and busy myself here, which I can do, as I extend house cleaning to a multi-day project. (No sense breaking my back doing a job that will just have to be done again in two weeks.)

I've never really minded a little bit of rain. When I was a kid, inclement weather outside always meant feeling snug and warm inside. The very unpleasantness of what you could see happening on the other side of the window pane made you happy and grateful for what you had to protect you from it. I still feel that way, but there's a different quality to that comfortable feeling now that I am responsible for it. As a kid, I had literally not a worry in the world. I remember that sensation, sometimes with longing. But longing gets you nowhere, and full-fledged adulthood brings too many joys, along with its responsibilities and occasional heartaches, for me to waste too much time on regret. Life, with its sunshine, rain, and everything else in between, is the only gift that any of us ever gets. Even at that, it's just a temporary arrangement.

And so I'll charge ahead, making an effort to remember to be grateful for every speck of street grime that demands I sweep it away. Whoever thinks life isn't full of challenges just isn't looking in the right places.

Monday, October 27, 2008

A restful interlude

I'm looking forward to this week because it promises to be "normal." We're having old friends from out of town for the weekend, and the only thing I'll be thinking about is getting ready for thier visit--removing 12th Street dust from all the surfaces, planning meals and fun stuff to do. No thoughts of any houses, new or old, nor of mortgages and their rates, nor constructions or demolitions. It'll be a pleasant, relatively care-free interlude. The house and yard have been winterized, meaning all the dead annuals have been dug out of the gardens outside and the house plants have taken their accustomed spots inside. A couple of them are outgrowing their pots, and Sandy is a great plant audience, willing to take cuttings that I'd otherwise have to throw away. All to the good.

A new Pompeii exhibit that's supposed to be breathtaking has just opened in the National Gallery of Art downtown. Something in the neighborhood of 100 objects that have never been out of Italy, let alone collected in one place, is making its world-wide rounds, and DC is lucky enough to be on the itinerary. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunty, one of the rare happenings for which I'll bestir myself to brave the crane-necked throngs that usually accompany these one-off cultural events. It's the type of thing Chuck and Sandy, our friends, love to do, so it will be the centerpiece of their time here. Since they're arriving Thursday, we can shoot for going to town on Friday and, just maybe, avoid the worst crowds.

The Delaware weekend was relatively uneventful but instructive nonetheless. We finished choosing lights and fans so the builder can fill in those blanks for his final proposal. More interesting, we got enough figures to do the math and figure out what the payments on the construction loan will be for just the initial steps of clearing the land and putting in the septic system. It's now clear that after these two steps are taken, we will be unable to do more construction until this house is sold--we can't pay this mortgage and that complete loan at the same time. So now we know that additional storage is a certainty, as well as our having to rent a place to live for the interim between the sale of this house and the completion of the new one. The first half of 2009 promises to be expensive and chaotic. And we still don't know for sure exactly what we'll get for this place nor how long it will take to sell.

Aren't you glad you hitched onto this ride? You're lucky--at least you can hit "delete"!

Friday, October 24, 2008


This recipe got its inspiration from my good friend at Zooey and Me who recently told me he's been feasting a lot on simple spaghetti with olive oil and lots of garlic and Parmesan cheese. That's a combination I love, too, and, never one to leave well enough alone, and always looking for ways to use those healthy and delicious Aidell's chicken sausages, (this is a free plug, I swear) I tossed this together one night last week. It was so good it had to be shared. It meets all my criteria for good food: it must healthy, simple, quick and, of course, delicious, and it should use as few dishes as possible. It's also versatile--throw in any veggie you may have in the fridge. (Note: thinly sliced, pre-cooked cabbage is one of my favorite secret ingredients in many things. Cabbage is very good for you, and it adds a certain sweet depth to anything it's part of. I think of it is the anchovy of the vegetable world: totally misunderstood, but irreplaceable when used right.)

1 12-oz. package Aidell's Sun-Dried Tomato and Parmesan chicken sausages
3-4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

as much garlic as you like, peeled and chopped fine
dried red pepper flakes, to taste
1 cup cabbage, sliced into very thin strands
1/4 cup parsley, chopped fine
1/4 cup fresh basil, chopped fine
3 tablespoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped fine
2 large shallots sliced thin
1 large red bell pepper, sliced into medium sticks lengthwise and then halved crosswise
1/2 medium tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons tomato paste
salt and pepper to taste

12 oz. spaghetti

Cook spaghetti according to package directions

Place cabbage in a microwave-safe container and steam, covered, at high power 5 minutes. When cabbage is done, remove from microwave and set aside, still covered.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a wok or a deep non-stick skillet until it shimmers. Cut sausage into thin slices on the diagonal and lay in single layer in hot oil for 2 minutes without touching. When carmelized well on one side, turn sausage slices over and repeat. Remove browned sausage to a separate bowl and set aside.

Allow same deep skillet to cool and add 2 more tablespoons olive oil. While oil is still cold, add garlic and pepper flakes and slowly heat oil over low heat to infuse it with the garlic and pepper, but taking care not to brown the garlic. While infusing the oil, chop herbs and vegetables.

Raise heat to moderate and add chopped herbs, stirring to coat them with the garlic oil and to release their flavors.

Raise heat to moderately high and add bell pepper and shallots. Incorporate with other ingredients in the skillet and then stir-fry until pepper begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add chopped tomato and continue stir-frying another 2 minutes.

Add reserved sausage and steamed cabbage, then add tomato paste. Stir to mix until all ingredients are heated through.

Drain spaghetti and add to ingredients in skillet, stirring to coat pasta evenly. Correct seasoning. Serve with Parmesan.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Come Along With Me

I'll be hopping in the car in a few hours for the drive back to Delaware. On a perfect day with perfect conditons and no stops, I can do the trip, door-to-door, in 2 1/2 hours. "Perfect conditions" usually means no traffic tie-ups going through DC, which we hit maybe 50% of the time. Much depends, of course, upon the time of day we start the trip. If I start at noon, I should have smooth sailing, so I may get the shorter version.

After all these repetitions, we are getting to know the roads as if they were familiar trails through the woods. Here is my running commentary:

US 50, the great road that starts in the sand at Ocean City, Md., and crosses the country all the way to Sacramento (where it is subsumed into I-80 for the rest of the way to San Francisco) makes up about a third of the trip, and it is by far the most unpleasant part. It is a limited-access superhighway from the DC area to the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, and it's treated by drivers like a speedway. The posted speed limit is either 55 mph or 65 mph, depending on where it runs, but whatever the limit, it's ignored. If you're foolish enough to try to stick to the limit, you find yourself being passed on all sides, a hazard. All you can do is keep up with traffic and hope the cops aren't out this random day nabbing speeders. If I ever am stopped, the first thing I'll ask is "what about that car that passed me doing at least 90?"

Most of the rest of the trip is the complete opposite of the US 50 experience. You follow a series of two-lane roads through rural Maryland and Delaware, and that's always wonderful, a cleansing transition from the city mindset that makes you speed on US 50. The familiar sights change with the seasons. You watch the endless feed corn and soy fields progress from seedlings to dried stalks, waiting for harvest. There's one field with a large pond that is host to thousands of snow geese every year as they migrate. They stop there to feast on the leavings of the harvested corn and beans. In the past couple of years, I've seen the unexpected sight of millet growing on its stalks, familiar to me from my days in Africa, where it is a major food grain for human consumption in the drier regions of the continent, but rare here except as bird food. And that's what the farmers use it for, to protect their more important feed crops. It's a humane and eco-friendly approach I was unfamilar with.

Further along, you pass through a tiny place in Maryland called Starr, which despite the fact that it appears to have but two houses and no town center, somehow merits a center island done up with pavers and a reduced speed limit. A Maryland State Police car is aways parked at one of the houses and we figure whoever drives that car must be a bigwig. We always make a stop for coffee at the town of Denton, Maryland, where you can choose between a McDonalds and a Burger King. The Burger King is better because a) the coffee is better and b) nobody seems to frequent the place and service is grateful and immediate. (I've always preferred the Whopper to the Big Mac anyway when it comes to food of the poisonous, artery-clogging variety. It's that char-broiled taste and the big, sloppy tomato slices.) There are a few antique shops along these back roads, too--some pretty fancy and others barely standing. We've stopped at a few and found them expensive.

The final stretch is one more speedway, US 113 in Delaware. It seems more tolerable than 50, though, because at 20 miles it's relatively short, it's a completely straight line, and there are a few traffic lights along the way to keep drivers alert. After 113 it's just a few miles of local roads until you get to the familiar dust and gravel of Big Oak Lane, where you turn left into another world full of trees and water, and you're home.

Food Friday tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

It's Been A Long Time!

Or at least it seems that way. I had every intention of posting an update yesterday but events just overtook me, and I'm shoehorning this session into the wee hours of the morning before today's steed takes off under me, too. Between chores (both regular and seasonal), appointments and some fun times (today I'm having lunch with some old Peace Corps buddies) I've had very little time for reflective noodling.

First things first: Monday night Sussex County, Delaware, granted us the variance we needed to build the deck on our new house. It was so simple, after all the anticipation, expense and mystery. We just stood at a podium and stated the reasons for our request to five well-fed guys (all guys) seated on a dais. Our presentation was backed up by architectural drawings and the county plat, which show the tiny space we are building on and why the deck could only go where we requested. We were expecting questions and comments about being so close to the water (part of the deck will be built literally right out to the bulkhead), but their questions were off-subject entirely, having to do with lot preparation, old wells and cesspools and the like. It was as if they felt they had to ask something and were groping for just what. We were case number 5 on an agenda of eight. After ten minutes and a compliment on the thoroughness of our presentation (thanks to Steve), it was over and we were free to build our beautiful deck.

Now we're awaiting formal paperwork on the construction loan to be completed. It's taking extra time because, in the words of the man hired by the bank to assess the value of the proposed property, "that's quite a house you're building." (Someday I hope to have a color rendering to show you.) It's taking him longer than usual to find comparable houses in the area. (On the subject of loans in general, you may be interested to know, given current economic blues and the tight credit situation, that we are finding the cash spigots opened wide. If your credit score is good, you won't have a problem in the mortgage market. The banks are awash in money; they're just being more careful now about to whom they are lending it.)

Steve is facing numerous trips over the next months in his capacity as property manager of the soon-to-be-defunct project. He has to go to various off-site cities to account for their property, some of which is leased from the feds, and make sure it is disposed of properly. I took him to the airport this morning for a trip to Florida, from where he will return (to Delaware--I'm in Virginia now) on Friday. Tomorrow afternoon I'm headed back to Delaware. Friday, I'll collect Steve at the aiport there, and then we will take up where we left off last weekend, packing away the contents of the trailer and attending contractor meetings--this time we meet the lighting lady. Since there is no heat in the trailer, we've never been able to spend any time in the winter there. We always closed it down for the season. This time we are closing it down for demolition in December; we hope to have the place completely empty by November 10. As the little place becomes more and more denuded I can't help feeling a lump in my throat. We've only had the place for four years, but it represents an entire new life--one we'd only dreamed of over so many years--and we are very emotionally attached to the decrepit old wreck. Great joy and great drama have been packed into it. The house that is supposed to replace it is still a beautiful dream, but the dream is inching closer and closer to reality. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

One more small step....

Just a shorty today. I have a doctor's appointment (routine) in about an hour and then I'll be getting ready to head out to Delaware. This is an "off-time" visit--we usually go every other weekend and this one isn't an "other," but we were summoned to the county zoning board to request a variance for our deck on Monday night, so we decided to make a weekend of it. Steve's flying in from Sacramento, I'll pick him up at the airport, and off we'll go. We'll use the time to get some things packed into boxes and taken to the storage place. Monday will be a long day because we'll be heading home that night after the zoning appearance. I'll be back Tuesday with the board's verdict.

Sorry, no Food Friday tomorrow--I haven't done any decent cooking this week, and even if I had, I left my camera in Delaware so I couldn't take pictures of anything, not even a dish fit for the king. The recipes I have in reserve either aren't ready yet or aren't good enough. So you're on your own.

And I'll slip this in: I started watching the debate last night, but when I found myself yelling at the TV during answers to the negative campaigning question, I decided I'd had enough and switched it off. The contrast between mud slinging and sticking to the issues was too stark and too pathetic.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A sound investment

Have you ever received one of those invitations from Harris Polls to participate in some "short, fun" questionnaires? They make the offer more attractive by giving you bonus points for each questionnaire you complete. Once you get enough points you can redeem them for various nifty consumer products, the more points, the niftier the products. I took them up on it a while back. I discovered that the more you participate, the more invitations you receive, to the point where your inbox is indundated daily with new questionnaires and reminders to complete old ones. A lot of those questionnaires are neither short nor fun, especially the ones that ask detailed questions about various savings/retirement plans, or about a seemingly endless line of products from say, Rubbermaid. It's easy to opt out by simply deleting the emails unopened, and that's what I eventually did.

But not before I racked up enough points to get a prize, and it came yesterday: a new set of earbuds with built-in noise reduction. These suckers are so comfortable and fill your ear so efficiently you literally can't hear anything else (must take extra care on my walks!), and the sound quality is amazing. I thought the previous set of buds I had (which, alas, broke) were the last word in sound reproduction, but these make that old pair sound like Edison's phonograph.

It's amazing to realize that as ubiquitous as music and the spoken word are today, we are a mere 100 years or so past the time when people had to go to concerts to hear music (or make their own) and gather in large crowds to hear a speech. The advances in communications and the science of sound in such a short time boggle the mind and attest to the human quest for perfection. When I was a kid, Emerson, Stromberg-Carlson and Zenith were the radio-phonograph brands that promised the best sound. They tended to be huge consoles, meant to function as integral parts of the living room, pieces of furniture constructed of fine wood. The radio-record player in our house when I was born was a huge Emerson model. It looked like a big mahogony credenza, except it opened at the top instead of the front. Inside were the controls to the radio (all AM stations) and a 78-rpm record turntable. Below, there was cabinet space for the bulky records of the day. "Record albums" were truly that: a collection 78s collected in a bound book of record sleeves.

The late 50s ushered in the new 33 1/3 "long playing" records with high fidelity engineering ("hi-fi"). The LPs, even bigger and more space-hungry than the 78s, could hold more music, so they swept away those multi-leaved books of records, but the collection, now on one disk, was still called an album. The various components of the best hi-fis were separate, allowing you to put your receiver and amplifier in one place in the house and the speakers in another. The sound was better, the ability to direct it from where you chose proved enticing, and those big, beautiful consoles with their 78 turntables soon became dinosaurs. Stereophonic sound technology built on the separated hi-fi speakers and was yet another quantum improvement.

And then there were transistor radios. They were my generation's portable music, the precursor to the Ipod, and were an integral part of the communications revolution. As far as sound quality went, they were a leap backwards from the concurrently burgeoning in-home music scene, but they were a must-have for any cool teenager. All of us would meet on the street, either plugged into our transistors with earphones or holding the radios themselves to our ears if we were trying to converse at the same time we were listening to them. The radios came with belt attachments and shoulder straps, often encased in fancy leather carriers. Mine was a little white Zenith model with gold trim. John Hill, always ahead of the rest of us, had a big Zenith in a leather carrying case with a shoulder strap.

We're all familiar with subsequent progress. People competed to see how big and fancy their component stereos could get. FM radio, with its superior sound, put a huge dent in AM's position in the marketplace. Transistor radios gave way to casette players, and the compact disk edged out the LP, which in turn made the Walkman possible. Currently, we have a medium which you can't even hold in your hand, the mp3, and its Ipod. You connoiseurs say what you will about sound compression, I am still blown away by the sound reproduction of my Ipod with these new earbuds, with which I started this whole discourse.

These revolutionary changes did have transition periods. For a long time some people had simple hi-fi sets even after stereo came out--for a while, LPs were produced in both hi-fi and stereo versions--and others held on to their LPs after the advent of the CD. As you know, I'm in the middle of that transition myself and still hoping to complete it. God only knows what's coming next. I just hope I can get one change overwith before I have to start on another!

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

And that's the truth

When I was young and really stupid, there were some rules I just thought were nonsense, so I broke them. They were tiny, like my habit of running red lights if it was very late and there was no traffic in sight. I rationalized that traffic lights at that hour and under such conditions should be blinking, with stopping required only if there were pedestrians or other cars present. Any reasonable cop would have to agree with me if I should be caught. (I never was.) When I was very little and my parents made me go to bed earlier than the rest of the family, I would never go right to sleep. I'd lie awake until my parents came upstairs to bed. I knew they'd come in and check on me, so I'd close my eyes, lie very still and pretend to be sleeping. But I'd move something they couldn't see--a finger or toe or something--right at the moment when one of them stuck their head into the room. I was pleased to be able to fool them. Got one over! Proved it was dumb to make me go to bed so early. (Of course my parents never knew about these machinations, so the point was made only to myself, but that was its own reward.) I never harbored any guilt about these little ruses because they proved some point or other, demonstrated some tiny injustice.

Outright lying is something else again. I'm at a total loss when it comes to that because I'm not capable of dissimulation. Any time I've tried to lie, or to cover up something important, I've failed when the chips were down. Whatever I was trying to hide would invariably be overtaken by events beyond my control and I'd be forced to own up to something I should have admitted from the start. My most memorable such occasion was when I was in the 4th grade. My teacher, Mrs. Wilson, gave me special jobs because...oh heck, I was a goody-two-shoes teacher's pet. One day she gave me a check for $20 and asked me to go to the bank in the shopping center next to the school and cash it for her. Very cool! I got to lord it all over my classmates by doing something special for the teacher, and I got a walk outside to boot! I cashed the check and, instead of just carrying the money visibly in my hand (something the world told you never to do), I tucked it inside my coat. There was no pocket in there but the coat was tight and I knew the bill would rest securely.

Of course, when I got back to the classroom, the $20 bill was gone. It must have slipped out of my coat. In that moment, I came crashing down from my pedestal. I'll never forget the look on Mrs. Wilson's face when I told her I couldn't find the money, morphing from a kindly, expectant smile to horror, and finally utter disdain. (Twenty dollars was a lot of money at the time.) I was undone for the rest of the day, just sat limp at my desk, feeling my classmates' eyes all on me. In the cafeteria, even other teachers pointed at me and whispered to each other.

This episode was too shaming for me ever to tell anyone about it, least of all my parents. I resolved to shoulder the burden alone. I wrote a note to Mrs. Wilson apologizing for the loss and telling her I would pay her back in weekly installments from my allowance. I put the note in my pants pocket to sleep on it, and then forgot about it--until my mother found the note as she got clothes ready to wash. It was a Saturday afternoon. She called my father and they both confronted me and asked what happened; I had to spill out the whole sordid mess, in full expectation of being berated for my irresponsibility. Indeed when they heard the story my parents were furious....but not at me! They couldn't believe that Mrs. Wilson had entrusted a 9-year-old boy with such responsibility (I really had never had $20 in my hand before), and that she had the nerve to ask me to do such a thing in the first place. So instead of my groveling note, Mrs. Wilson received a blistering reprimand from my mother and father.

Mrs. Wilson never mentioned the incident again, but a while later she gave a lecture to the class about responsibility that included a claim that we were "not too young" for certain things. So she got the last word, but my life was liveable once again, and I'd had lesson number one, literally, in "life isn't always pretty." I was a bit more seasoned by the time I reached 10, a bit more careful. And I never tried to lie again about anything. The shame at being caught was much worse than simply admitting whatever it was at the start and accepting the consequences.

It was a good lesson but sometimes I think I took it too well. With me, what you see is what you get. I'm so implacably myself that I've never been a good actor. I'd find an acting class a worthwhile challenge just to be able to learn to pretend creatively, gaining some new insight from living for a while in someone else's skin. I'm envious of people who can pull such a thing off so effortlessly and movingly. But then, I can do things they probably wish they could do. Everything balances out and the world spins on....

Monday, October 13, 2008

Choices, choices

We're headed for a bit of Indian Summer in these parts this week, with temperatures close to 80 here in mid-October. As far as chores go, both indoors and out beckon. I'm a bachelor this week so I'll need things to keep me busy. I don't think I'll have trouble finding them.

We had an extremely productive weekend, spending more hours with our builder, deciding on interior paint and trim colors and nailing down design details. We also started filling up a storage unit we rented in Delaware with those boxes I showed you in last Friday's post, some big pieces of furniture that were in the garage here, plus things we know we won't be needing any more this year at the soon-to-be-defunct trailer.

Whenever we see the builder, he gives us homework assignments. This time he told us how much of a budget we'll have for appliances and lighting, and sent us out to specialty stores to see what's available. He knows southern Delaware like the back of his hand and can tell us which good people to talk to in which stores. Appliances were fun and relatively easy, because we were referred to a guy who has done nothing but sell them for more than 30 years, his knowledge is encyclopedic, and he still enjoys his work. He was a treasure trove of inside information about various brands and their claims of excellence, and marketing tricks. We'll probably go a little bit over budget in the kitchen because I want a separate cooktop and wall-mounted ovens, but we'll find savings elsewhere.

Lighting is quite a different story. We found another enthusiastic walking encyclopedia, but while I was in the store I started feeling the onset of what I call "museum syndrome," brought on by too much information and too much choice. She loaded us down with catalogues (I mean a good 15 pounds worth!) which are full of pictures and specs, but stingy with price information. When I leaf through all those books I'm first amazed that there are people who actually make a living dreaming up these amazing combinations of metal, wire and sockets--and then my eyes glaze over completely. But in the next two weeks we must make choices so the builders will know what to install. The lighting lady gave us an idea of which brands were top dollar and which were mid-priced, so we at least know where to look. We'll take our choices back to her and she'll tell us what the price will be with the contractor's discount.

If you're ever in need of something to keep your mind off impending chaos, your own or somebody else's, try designing a house. It's a fantastic diversion!

Friday, October 10, 2008


I don't know where this recipe came from. I just know I've had it for years and always avoided making it because it seemed like duplicated effort make a full batch of chili and then cook it some more, baking it in a casserole with a topping. Finally last Saturday I decided to give it a try--and all I can say is: where have you been all my life? This is simply delicious, the operative concept being "simple." It is a bare-bones chile recipe whose flavor is intensified by a deeply meaty flavor (it uses carmelized cubed beef instead of ground) and a slow, uncovered simmer. I used black beans, which have a much less aggressive character in the mouth than the traditional kidney beans. The topping is just as intensely flavored and has a little crunch when you bite into it. This is a great weekend meal you can set on the stove and forget about until it makes you hungry with its aromas. You'll love it!
For Chili:
Vegetable oil
2 pounds boneless beef chuck or rump, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 large onion, chopped
2 large fresh jalapeno chiles, seeded if desired and finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
3 tablespoons chili powder
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes in puree
1 10-oz. box frozen corn .
1 1/2 cups water
1 15-oz. to 16-oz. can pinto or black beans, drained and rinsed
1 cup chopped pimiento-stuffed green olives
Salt to taste

For Topping:
I cup all-purpose flour
I cup yellow cornmeal (not coarse)
3 ounces coarsely grated sharp cheddar (3/4 cup)
1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 medium fresh jalapeno chile, seeded and finely chopped 3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Make chili: Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 5 to 6-quart heavy pot over moderately high heat until shimmering. Pat meat dry with paper towels and sprinkle with salt and pepper. To avoid crowding in the pan, brown beef in 4 batches, allowing cubes to stay in direct contact with the heat, without stirring, 2 to 3 minutes or until it meat well-carmelized. Turn pieces to brown the other side. As batches are done, transfer to a separate bowl. Add oil to pan as necessary. A good, dark fond will form in the bottom of the pot.

Add 1 tablesppon of oil to pot and cook onion and jalapenos over medium heat, stirring, until onions are softened and moisture from them has deglazed the pot. (The onions will take up the color of the meat fond and become dark.) Add garlic and chili powder and cook, stirring, just until fragrant. Return beef to pot with any juices that have accumulated in bowl and stir in tomatoes, corn, and water. Simmer chili, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until meat is very tender, 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

Remove from heat and stir in beans and olives. Taste for seasoning and add salt if it is needed. Transfer chili to a shallow 3-quart baking dish.

Make topping: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Whisk together flour, cornmeal, cheese, sugar, baking powder, salt, cumin, and jalapeno in a large bowl. Whisk together milk, butter, and egg in a small bowl, then stir into flour mixture until just combined.

Drop batter by large spoonfuls over chili, spacing them evenly, and bake in middle of oven 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake pie until topping is cooked through, about 30 minutes more.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The First Step

This is the scene in our driveway as I write. We have emptied the garage of all the boxes we've been collecting there this year as we've gone from room to room updating the house. Behind me is the interior of the garage, which still has furniture in it. In about an hour we'll go get the rental truck, put everything you see here plus the furniture on it, and take off for Delaware and storage there. It's the first step in the move. We'll be packing up the trailer in Delaware in the coming couple of months, keeping some stuff for storage and giving the rest of it back to the charity store where we bought it.

Tomorrow we will meet with the builder for a couple of hours in the morning to complete choosing colors and materials for the interior of the new house. Then it'll be off to an appliance store to continue our search for good, but not break-the-bank, modern conveniences. It's a real education to look at washers and dryers and dishwashers if you've been out of the market for 20 years, as we have. The things practically talk to each other.

This will be a curtailed visit. We must return Saturday so Steve can take one last business trip (we think)to company HQ in Sacramento. I'll be here by myself until Thursday night, when I'll pick him up at the airport and take off again for Delaware for more packing, another builder meeting, and The Big One: our appearance Monday October 20 at 7 pm before the zoning board to request a variance that will allow us to build our waterfront deck. We went through the variance process here in Arlington and found a very sympathetic board. We have no idea how we city slickers will go down with the good ol' boys in Sussex County, Delaware. But the house is hardly worth the trouble without the deck, so this will be an important occasion.

And so I leave you to your own devices. My recipe for tomorrow is already posted, just waiting for tomorrow morning to appear. See you again Sunday or Monday.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The Slug

I am totally without ambition today. I've been dawdling around in Youtube most of the morning, sent there initially by a picture on Zooey's blog of a little calico cat that is "master" of a train station in Japan. Somebody's dressed her up in a cape and a little hat and now the cat is one of those silly national crazes the Japanese seem to enjoy so much. I went looking for a video of the cat and then just followed one strand after another. Totally aimless, which, like I said, is where it's at today.

The company came for dinner last night, we had fun, stayed up too late, and I had a bit more wine than I'm used to anymore. This morning I just slept in and now here we are. How wonderful not to have to do anything, or be anyplace. (Like work. This would have been a call-in-sick day.)

There is a definite chill in the air, to the point where I'm fighting the impulse to change out of my shorts and put on a pair of jeans. I do believe that is the most complicated decision I'll make today.


Monday, October 6, 2008

A busy Monday

You'd never guess it from the way it looks now, but the sun is supposed to come out sometime today and get us to a temperature in the 70s. Right now it's chilly and overcast. We've had some very necessary rain in the past few of days, and between that, the cooler temperatures, and the most recent ministrations of Lawn Doctor, the grass needs cutting. That's on my list for the day. We have friends coming for dinner (fried chicken), so I need to get stuff for that, and I need to pack a box or two to empty my mother's big desk, which we'll be moving out of the living room to a storage facility in Delaware. The desk is a pretty piece of furniture, but it won't show well because it doesn't quite look at home in the room. (Always thinking about staging the house!)

Our garage is now full to bursting with boxes and furniture we've moved out of the house to show it. We'll be renting a truck for the trip to Delaware Thursday, moving all that stuff to storage. Then we can tackle emptying the garage--which has functioned as an attic over the years. What a job that will be! (And of course, painting will be starting up again soon. The room from which I entertain you with these words is next.)

So there you have it. Busy, busy! Hope your Monday is/was splendid.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

LP Update

I've finished my inventory. You'll all be relieved to know that of 318 albums, I decided I couldn't do without 134 of them. Eighty-four will go out on Ebay.

The ones I'm keeping are a lot of comedy albums (vintage Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller and Jonathan Winters), all the Carly Simons (I surprised myself with that one!) all the Randy Newmans, all the Jim Kweskins, all the Moody Blues, and many, many, one-offs that were minor when I bought them, I still love, and I know they'll never be re-released as CDs. (Ever hear of Dory Previn? She was André's wife until Mia Farrow, a sylph, virtually fragility incarnate at the time, came along and wrecked the Previn home in 1970. Dory's catharsis was a series of bitterly angry, sarcastic, funny and musical songs. What started out as a rich LA woman's vanity project turned into a career that lasted a good part of a decade. But Dory Previn is gone with the bellbottoms along with her music. I couldn't let those albums go.) (Soon enough Frank Sinatra came along and turned Mia's head--and then of course there was Woody Allen, but those are different stories....)

So dear friends please don't worry. You all made good, heartfelt points--your comments came in as I was tossing albums this way and that. I'm still stuck with my quandary: What am I going to do with these things?!
But I'll figure it out.

Yoo betcha!!

Don't want to but have to....

I have set myself a difficult task today, made necessary by the consolidation of our belongings as we get ready for The Move.

Regulars will recall that I've been grappling mightly with the question of what to do with my old LPs. I've been swearing to myself that I would digitize them and add them to my mp3 collection, but that is a daunting, time-consuming and expensive project that I know in my bones I will never get around to. I've been ever-so-gradually purchasing CD substitutes for my favorites among them, and am now faced with the cold fact that those old records are taking up a huge amount of storage space and dust. There are a few that I know cannot be replaced: Buffy Sainte-Marie's out-of-print second album, Many a Mile, with its original, superior version of "Piney Wood Hills," is one. Another is a collection of classic Mike Nichols and Elaine May routines. Yet another is an irreplaceable collection of Russian folk songs performed by an extraordinary singer named Natania Davrath. The rest, I fear, are mementoes from various past lives which I honor on that basis but which I also have to admit I never lay eyes on.

And so today I'll inventory my records and remember the time in my life when I bought each one. I'll look inside the jackets for any treasures I may secreted away who knows when. And then I'll offer them up for sale. A once-indispensable part of my life will make way for something new, still unimagined. The records were always good to me. Now maybe they'll buy me a good dinner, and I'll return the favor by finding a new caretaker to whom they mean as much now as they once did to me.

Friday, October 3, 2008



If you've followed these recipes at all over the months, you know that I'm always on the lookout for quick and easy one-pot meals for weeknights. They make having a well-balanced meal convenient. You can get all the food groups in the dish in one forkful, and I like the mingling of the different flavors. Others must feel the same way, since this type of cooking is so popular. This is another winner from Cooks Illustrated.

A plug for Cooks Illustrated: if you like food food and don't know about this magazine, check it out. It is the guiding light behind America's Test Kitchen on PBS. Their speciality is re-working classic favorite recipes, from cookies to stir-frys and everything imaginable in between, that have either gone stale from overuse or, despite their popularity, never seem to come out like their pictures for the average home cook. An ideal for a particular dish is decided upon, and then its recipe is deconstructed step-by-step to figure out its weaknesses and eliminate them. New and unexpected life is given to such basic classics as home-made tomato soup (canned tomatoes are fine, but heighten their flavor by roasting them first) to macaroni and cheese (cheddar is not the be all and end all). What they come up with is usually truly revelatory.

The magazine is also sort of a Consumers Reports for the food world. They take no ads (and therefore like CR is heavily, sometimes irritatingly, self-promoting) and so are free to do tests of popular brands of various foods and kitchen equipment. They explain their methods and how they come to their conclusions. And yet another useful feature is novel kitchen hints sent in by readers. (Rest assured these hints are above the level of Heloise's endless hints on how to extend the life of worn-out panty hose.)

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch strips
Table salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons vegetable oil (or olive oil)
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
3 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through a garlic press (about 1 tablespoon)
1/4 teaspoon dried oregano
1/8 teaspoon red pepper flakes
8 ounces ziti (2 /12 cups)
2 3/4 cups water
1 2/3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
12 ounces broccoli florets (4 cups)
1 cup roasted red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 oz. grated Parmesan cheese (1/2 cup), plus extra for serving
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a deep 12-inch skillet or Durch oven over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add the chicken in a single layer and cook for 1 minute without stirring. Stir the chicken and continue to cook until most, but not all, of the pink color has disappeared and the chicken is lightly browned around the edges, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Transfer the chicken to a clean bowl and set aside.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil, onion, and 1/2 teaspoon salt to the skillet. Return the skillet to medium-high heat and cook, stirring often, until the onion is softened, 2 to 5 minutes. Stir in the garlic, oregano, and pepper flakes, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Add the ziti, 2 cups of the water, and the broth. Bring to a boil over high heat and cook until the liquid is very thick and syrupy and almost completely absorbed, 12 to 15 minutes.

Add the broccoli, red bell pepper and the remaining 3/4 cup water. Cover, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the broccoli turns bright green and is almost tender, 3 to 5 minutes.

Uncover and return the heat to high. Stir in the Parmesan and reserved chicken with any accumulated juices and continue to simmer, uncovered, until the sauce is thickened and the chicken is cooked and heated through, 1 to 2 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve, passing more grated Parmesan at the table, if desired.

Thursday, October 2, 2008


These waning days of the warm season always make me nostalgic. I can smell the halls of my high school and see myself standing in the middle of a huge clot of friends outside somebody's homeroom, oblivious to passing crowds whose progress we were hindering, laughing at each others' cleverness, gossiping about who was "going with" whom, or continuing the hours-long conversations we'd just had the night before on the phone. After those long talks we'd write even longer notes to whomever we'd been talking to, delivering them at those morning gab fests, continuing the conversation. Oh, we were a talky, analytical bunch. And we laughed. A lot!

When I was a bit younger, the earlier darkness made for great hide-and-seek games. It was very neat to be running in the street, feeling the cold air on your face, actually allowed out in the dark until somebody's mother called them in for dinner. That was the signal for everyone else to get back inside for the evening's routines: dinner, homework, TV and bed. If I didn't play outside I amused myself in my room with a book or a game of solitaire, and I can still feel that coziness, safe in the warm light of my bed lamp against the encroaching cold outside. The aromas of dinner wafted upstairs, and the murmer of my parents' voices as they compared notes about the day added to my feeling of snugness as I reposed quietly in my own little space. For a very short time, life was perfect. Social upheaval had not yet made me think about injustice and my parents' complicity in it. We disagreed about little. I rode high in the estimation of my teachers and my peers at school. The future and adulthood were so far distant as to be unimaginable. (At some point, I realized that I would be alive for the turn of the new century. I would help usher in the year 2000 at the unfathomable age of 50-something! I never thought about the kind of grown-up I'd become, for my mind didn't work that way and it still doesn't. All I knew was that I'd be "old" and I was very curious about what I'd look like. Mostly, the prospect was just grist for utter wonderment that tiptoed into my mind from time to time.) Music filled the air, either from the radio or from the piano as my sister (or I) practiced, accompanied by the beautiful warbling of Petie, my mother's beloved canary.

These memories of perfect comfort and security formed the framework for the life I tried to build for myself and had pretty much attained by that magical year 2000. Of course, we can't occupy the planet for any length of time without collecting a few bruises. They inform us, open our eyes to danger and help us be safe. Life can no longer be "perfect" because we know too much--the price of adulthood. But my memories of perfection sustain me and live on in the beauty with which Steve and I have been able to surround ourselves. We were both blessed with great models for warmth, comfort, and peace, and they still protect us from the buffeting winter winds.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The Light Fantastic

The lady across the street on Meadow Lane, Clara Miller (Don's mother), was a dance teacher. Tap, ballet, and ballroom. When she first started, she held her classes up at the Teen Canteen, across Hillwood Avenue from the high school, and my sister Marie played the piano for those classes. When the Canteen closed, the classes moved to the Miller's basement. They didn't have a piano down there, so Marie couldn't play, but Mr. Miller, Joe, was a hi-fi buff and the entire house was wired for sound. He had a huge collection of records, both 78 rpms and those new 33 1/3 rpm "long playing records," and of course Mrs. Miller bought her own records with music for her classes, so there was no dearth of accompaniment for her budding ballerinas and Arthur Murrays.

When we three Meadow Lane musketeers, Judy, Don, and I, were 11 or 12, Mrs. Miller started a big new ballroom class for kids our age. Those classes were held Saturday nights in an elementary school cafeteria and they attracted a pretty good crowd. All three of us went (Don had to, of course, because how would it look if the neighbor kids were there and Mrs. Miller's own son wasn't?) and it was there that I became confident enough in my all-legs, baby-fat laden pre-adolescent body to glide along the dance floor in a pretty good slow-dance (basically a box-step that eventually relaxed into the kind of rhythmic, wandering shuffle that we all still do today), cha-cha (a must, because much pop music of the day was driven by that one-two, one-two-three beat, even though entirely non-Latin in theme) and jitterbug. We had to get dressed up for those classes. For me, that meant a sports jacket and a clip-on bow tie. In those days when my parents were doing everything they could to point their iffy boy in the right direction orientation-wise, I was not allowed to have the long, floppy hair I so loved seeing on my head. Instead, I had to have a flat-top. The picture above is of Don and me in front of his house on my 11th birthday. For some reason we had to get dressed up for the occasion in our dance costumes. I don't remember which mother talked the other into bow ties.

Those dance skills, and the self-confidence that came along with them, carried us kids a long way. We had innumerable impromptu record hops in each others' basements after school, and of course formal parties and school dances were actually fun for us because we knew what to do on the dance floor. We started high school in the 8th grade and stayed in the same school all the way to the 12th. Even in the earliest years, we never witnessed the typical scene of having all the boys on one side of the gym and all the girls on the other. Even if some of the younger kids arrived with that idea in mind, they were disabused of it soon enough by the example of the older kids who made no bones about being there to get close to the opposite sex. In spite of the personal torture I endured in gym class for three years, I have great, fun memories of high school, and Mrs. Miller's dance classes were what made that fun possible, at least for me.

Chubby Checker had his hit with The Twist in 1960. The song introduced an entirely new dance style that I was very uncomfortable with--all that gyrating and frank sexuality right out there in front of everybody--but for a few years it was just another style; when it came on I could sit it out until something I liked better was played, and most of the music was still the kind that at least allowed you to hold your partner's hand. As we all matured into our late teens and twenties, of course, the music became much more laden with sexual meaning and dancing morphed in the same direction, to the point where all anyone ever did was stand there and bump and grind (or try to) for their partners. This gave the word "spastic" a whole new meaning, especially as applied to the clueless guys who thought they were gyrating themselves right into the sack with their giggling partners. The poor saps never knew what those partners were giggling at.

Me, I didn't want to be giggled at, so I basically became a non-dancer. Things stayed that way until I went to Ghana, heard Santana for the first time, and won a dance contest. That's a whole 'nother story.