Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Thanksgiving truly is the most American of holidays. This is just a stock photo. It's not my table and not yours, but it's a safe bet that each and every one of us will be sitting down to a table loaded with pretty much the same things you see here. There are individual variations, for sure (wouldn't be America without them!), but the menu for all of us is pretty much the same.
The menu also includes family and its dynamics. There are usually reasons we don't see some of these people more often...as a good friend of mine says, "you can choose your friends, but you're stuck with your family." I know we'll all enjoy ourselves, if not entirely during the get-together, then by all means telling stories about it afterwards. I love the grand messiness of these human encounters.
Today's music is a personal favorite, and I'm grateful for this seasonal opportunity to share it. It's the traditional Christian benediction, "The Lord Bless You And Keep You," put to music by Peter Lutkin. I've known it since high school, when it was a favorite of my singing group. Our repertoire was mostly madrigals, but during any get together we were sure to sing this because it's so pretty, and those soaring "amens" at the end are so much fun.
I'll probably be silent for the next few days, which means there should be plenty to talk about on Monday. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving!
Monday, November 24, 2008
Greetings from the basement. Well, as you can see from the photo above, it's more than just a basement. It's the den/office/TV room where we do most of our living. My little operation (a slice of which is just visible in the right foreground) was moved down here so that my room can get The Treatment. Wallpaper is coming down, chinks and dinks in the ceiling and walls are being filled, and soon inviting, buyer-friendly colors will be up. Furniture will be switched around to create an illusion of more space. I'll have a new room to enjoy until it becomes someone else's. Sorry I have no "before" picture to show. Completely slipped my mind as we started moving things Saturday. I'll show the "after" when it's done.
Our goal is to have the house on the market by February, March at the latest. We want to be among the first that cabin-feverish house shoppers will see as they break outdoors, the holiday crush behind them. The inside work should be do-able in that time frame. Outside, a few slats of siding need to be replaced, and the old siding really needs a powerwash. I guess we'll have to hope for a freakish warm day to get that accomplished. Also, to show the house that early, we'll have to find a place to park the plants, which are now stuffed next to any window that provides some light. (Very few in this north-facing house.) We'll figure that out. If we have to, can even use my sister's east-Jesus house if we can renew our passports to get that far out into Vuh-gin-yuh.
It'll be a truncated week, with all of T-day being spent at my niece's house. (She lives even further out than my sister.) It'll be the first time she's hosted Thanksgiving for the family, and we'll be rooting for her. She wants to do all the courses herself, so I was doubly flattered that she asked me to bring my Pumpkin Custard and Green Tomato Mincemeat pies. (I know all anybody needs is another pumpkin pie recipe, but I'll share it anyway 'cause it's good. I don't think mincemeat is popular enough for anyone to be interested in....)
Friday we head to Delaware for just the day to get a few things left in the trailer.
And off we go. I'm headed out for some paint. Benjamin Moore's "Fresh Air."
Friday, November 21, 2008
It appears that I now have a new venue for my writing jones to express itself: I've been invited to write a monthly column for a new online publication called Peace Corps World. The first issue is scheduled to go out in January, and, depending on if the thing takes off, I might even get paid for it. It's all very informal so far, no contracts or legal agreements are involved. The publisher is an old Peace Corps colleague with deep roots in the New York publishing scene (and a published novelist himself) with whom I've maintained occasional contact. His idea is to cover topics of interest to the entire Peace Corps community, current and former volunteers and staff alike. He wants me to talk about gay stuff, but I think I'll be able to branch out a bit from that rather limited track. (How would you like to have to write about just "straight stuff"?) We'll see. Anyway, that's where I was yesterday. He asked for two submissions by December 1, and I was working on the first.
On the house front: there is some good news to add to the otherwise still-troublesome mix. The Realtor told us that if we continue with the cosmetic work on the house, we should be able to ask for even more than we were hoping. In the process, he made it clear that this property is too special, and the market too crazy, to show it in anything less than perfect condition. So our work is cut out for us. We could save time by marketing the house "as-is," but we'd be shooting ourselves in the foot if we did. Which leads to the "troublesome mix" part: the clock is ticking. Between the time limits on the bank's commitment and Steve's job, we have a fairly small window in which to get this house sold. The Realtor recommended putting it up for sale in February, to catch the first people with post-holiday cabin fever out looking. Given all we have to do, February is just too fast, but we will bust butt to make it in March. Then it'll be up to the market place.
We were very impressed with the Realtor. He knows this area like the back of his hand. Before he gave us any numbers, he put our sale in context with the entire market in Arlington to show us the conditions we are working in. (One astounding fact: while Arlington as a whole has fared better than most of the rest of the country through the real estate downturn, 50% of the sales in our Zip code in the past 12 months have been foreclosures. Half!! Those distressed prices bring all the rest down, and that's just a reality we must contend with.)
I know this blog is called "Days of Transition" and it's meant to document what we go through as we try to move. But I didn't know how hard it would be, and how boring and depressing (to me, anyway) this "woe is us!" trope would become. I had decided not to go into the Realtor story and just let it lie, but people actually emailed me wanting to know what happened, so here we are. I appreciate your interest and your good wishes. But I hope you'll understand if sometimes it just feels like too much and I need a rest from it. It takes time to put these words together and that means time thinking about the situation, analyzing, prognosticting, guessing, worrying. For my own mental health I'll lay off house stuff until some major milestone is reached. (Or at least I'll try!)
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
As glamorous as "career at the Peace Corps" may sound, I confess that whatever travel was part of my responsibilities was something I endured rather than relished. I'm a creature of routine and find long periods living out of a suitcase and a different hotel room every night enervating. And my Peace Corps trips were more like forced marches than merry jaunts through the countryside. Yes, I saw things and places most people never do, but the cost in discomfort and strain was high. One of my "trips" was actually a 4-week stay in Praia, the capital of Cape Verde, where I served as interim director while the Peace Corps hired a permanent replacement. That was actually somewhat enjoyable. At least I could stay in one spot for a bit and explore at my own pace. But four weeks away was a long time and I was anxious to get back home.
Having said that, another two-year stint in the Peace Corps is not an idea I dismiss out-of-hand--although it'll never happen because the Peace Corps, subject to Uncle Sam's outdated policies, doesn't accept "unmarried couples" who want to serve together (how's that for a catch-22 for gay people?). But if I could join, and I knew I'd have something productive to do and could be in a place long enough to call it home, then I know I'd find the experience as exciting as it was the first time around; perhaps even better because I'm a lot smarter now and less of a hormone-driven brute. It's just the idea of being on the move constantly and at the whim of whomever your host is for the day that I don't find appealing. I empathize completely with how Steve is feeling now. If it had been me, I might fare even worse!
Monday, November 17, 2008
You may wonder why we hadn't taken this step earlier. Honestly, we didn't think we had to yet. The shock we had a week ago today, to which I've only alluded because I was still absorbing it, was that the bank doing the construction loan suddenly pulled the plug. Unbeknownst to us, our mortgage broker wasn't being straight with them, or with us. As settlement day approached and we were learning more details about the documentation the bank required to process the loan, we realized we were coming up short. We had no signed builder's contract, for one thing, and no "draw schedule"--an agreement between the bank and the builder as to how and when funds would be used. Our plans were nebulous because we knew we had to wait until this house sold before we could start building the new one, and the broker had led us to believe that the bank would roll with that ambiguity. Well, no.
An unrelated phone call I made to the bank, which led to a few questions from them I found odd, thinking the bank should already have those answers from the broker, made it clear that the broker was treading a fine line just this side of fraud. When the broker started telling us, "Don't worry!" but was foggy on details, that's when we should have started worrying. She was building a house of cards that was bound to collapse, and the one thing we're grateful for is that the inevitable happened before we were all seated at the settlement table and thousands of dollars had been committed.....
Anyway, this setback has forced us to re-group and take some logical steps we now see we should have taken earlier. The commitment letter we have from the bank is good for six months, or until the first week in May. We know what our window looks like now and have our marching orders. Ergo, the question: will we get enough for the house now, showing it "as-is," or do we wait and do the repairs? Given the time frame, the quicker we can sell, the better. But given our needs, the more we can get for the house, the better. This week, we hope to learn in which direction those marching orders will be sending us.
Living on the edge. I thought I'd left that behind when I turned 26 and could no longer be drafted. Well, at least it's a familiar feeling!
Saturday, November 15, 2008
It's a schizophrenic mid-November day. The temperature is 72, and the warmth has driven me into a pair of shorts instead of the usual heavy denim uniform. I've opened the windows of the house to release the energy-efficient closeness and allow in some fresh air. In the midst of all this unaccustomed warmth, my Thanksgiving cacti are doing their thing more-or-less on schedule. I love this unusual golden one and have been waiting for a chance to show it to you. The enormous fuschia-colored one will come next, a true Christmas cactus. (I also have cacti that flower in the Spring. I've named them after Easter. All I need is one for the Fourth of July!)
The Kate Clinton gig was just what the doctor ordered last night: shamelessly politically partisan, hilarious, brainy fun, the gleeful irreverence Jon Stewart brings to his nightly observations, but on steroids, if you can imagine such a thing. I can only remember one of the fast-and-furious gags: "The economy is so bad! I went out to buy a toaster and they offered me a bank!" but we were all rolling in the aisles. And it was a wonderful time out, seeing old and treasured friends and catching up. The only thing missing was Steve.
Today it's deathly quiet around here. This is one of extremely few weekends, no more than 10, in nearly 29 years that Steve and I have not been within shouting distance of each other. He's supposed to be here, restless to start some project (and there are plenty) and goading me on in the same direction. Instead, I'm dawdling at my own contemplative pace. I read two newspapers this morning, and then caught up with all the blogs I'd missed during the two days I was buried in my mp3s. (You guys are a prolific, thought-provoking bunch, each fascinating in your own way. It was fun to dive into one big dose.)
Steve will be home, completely worn out from this business trip from hell, on Tuesday. We thought we would be going to Delaware Thursday to sign the contract with the builder (that's a major milestone, folks!) but now Dale tells us the contract won't be ready for another couple of weeks. We'll still have to go, but perhaps for a shorter stay, to close the trailer down, empty the fridge, and get things ready for winter. (And of all goes as we hope and we can finally finish business with the bank, we'll go back to finish emptying the trailer completely to prepare it for demolition. But we'll cross that bridge when it comes, after we find out for sure what we can get for this house. We have an appointment with a Realtor next week that should shed some light in that corner.)
There I go again, talking about houses, trailers, demolitions, builders, money real estate! Aarrgghh.... THERE IS MORE TO LIFE!!!!!
I'll now return to my mental vacation....
Friday, November 14, 2008
So it's done now. My mp3s are all in in one place and cleaned up. And that Elbow album? Still doesn't play! I've now resorted to purchasing an actual CD (at a discount price), which I will load onto my computer. If that doesn't work, I give up.
Here's a dish inspired by the lovely Cuidado, who mentioned something like it at her place not too long ago. I think she called it "pork with peanuts and peppers." I went googling and found a recipe, which I fooled around with and came up with this result. It's really delicious and about as easy as it gets since it uses a slow cooker. (There are a few last-minute preparations but 'tis nothing.) The mix of flavors is delicious!
(I don't know why the typeface changes below. Blogger's in a mood.)
2 to 2 1/2 pounds pork loin roast, cut in 4 or 5 pieces
¼ cup teriyaki sauce
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 garlic cloves (or to taste) minced
1 cup red bell pepper strips
1 cup fresh green beans, cut into uniform 2-inch lengths
1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into strips
1 pound fresh green beans, cut into uniform 2-inch lengths
6 cups hot cooked basmati rice
1/2 cup chopped green onions
3 tablespoons chopped, dry-roasted peanuts
Trim fat from pork loin. Place pork, teriyaki sauce, vinegar, red pepper, and garlic in slow cooker. Cover and cook on LOW for 8 hours. Remove pork and chop.
Add the peanut butter to liquid in slow cooker; stir until well blended. Stir in the chopped pork. Set aside.
Place green beans in microwave-safe dish, Add 1 tablespoon water, cover, and steam on at high power until beans are crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from microwave and uncover.
Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in wok or large non-stick skillet. Add pepper strips and stir-fry until crisp-tender.
Add beans and peppers to meat in slow cooker, then transfer all to large serving dish
Serve over rice, garnished with green onions and peanuts
Wednesday, November 12, 2008
"Elbow" is the name of a group I've just discovered and in whose music I have been completely immersed all morning. I'm devoting today's post to them. I'm blown away. (And no, they're not gay.)
I'm one of those who used to say with pride, "I never watch TV." But that was before the miracle of the DVR and the explosion of choice that cable affords. The Sundance movie festival has a channel called, appropriately enough, the Sundance Channel. In addition to showing their indy films, they also feature shows they produce for the channel, among them one called Live From Abbey Road. If you like learning about good new music, this show is, in a word, spectacular. It brings the cream of the crop of contemporary musicians into the legendary recording studio and gives them a showcase for their best music, all the while filming their performances, documentary style. They generally feature three artisits/groups per episode, each doing two or three songs. There are interviews with all of the performers that dig deep into what their visions are and what they are trying to say. You see great musicians working at the top of their form in the best possible surroundings. I've watched, among too many others to list, Joan Armatrading, Teddy Thompson, and Martha Wainwright. I'm suddenly a fan of Mary J. Blige, convinced she's the real deal, having seen the passion she puts into her performances. And I've learned about people I've never heard of before, like this group, Elbow.
These guys from Manchester, England, named their group after a line in the BBC show "The Singing Detective." A character says that "elbow" is the most sensuous word to speak in the English language, not for its meaning, but for how it feels to say it. And that's their starting point. Since I'm not a great connoiseur of all new music, I have no extensive context within which to place the group, except to lump them loosely with Coldplay and The Trash Can Sinatras. I found the Sinatras much more interesting musically than Coldplay (though not consistent), and now I find Elbow consistently better and more compelling than either of them.
They're young men who have been performing together for 18 years; their cohesion and understanding of each other is evident. I'm a sucker for big (not to say triumphant) music that is melodically sophisticated and creatively orchestrated, and Elbow fills all those bills. What this band can do with the usual instruments of a rock ensemble is something to behold.
One appeal is lead singer Guy Garvey's voice. It echos Gary Brooker of Procol Harum but is more in tune and a bit more refined, though not much. The music itself is as interesting as the Harum's, too, but the production is much more polished, less scruffy. You may or may not like that....
I hope you enjoy as much as I do!
Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Bali Ha'i, Rodgers and Hammerstein
The less said about yesterday the better. I'll leave it here: the construction loan deal fell through because of misinformation from the mortgage company we were dealing with. We are back to Square One. It was a black day.
For sanity's sake I'm putting all of the house crap we've been dealing with out of my mind and just playing with beautiful fantasy. What is more beautiful or fanciful than Bali Ha'i? This too-short version is the one that has always transported me to another world. It's the reprise, sung by the Island Women, and is meant to intoxicate with sound. That's what it does to me.
Monday, November 10, 2008
The blogs will be full of Miriam Makeba's music today in commemoration of this wonderful woman, whose life suddenly ended early this morning after a concert. She was 76.
Miriam Makeba was an African Piaf, the voice by which the country of South Africa became known to the rest of the world. It was she, more than anyone else, who raised the world's awareness of the ugly reality of apartheid. She did it with her voice, sometimes overtly political, but just as often merely celebrating her culture and the people from whom she sprang.
I'm playing two traditional songs plus one in English with more of a maistream pop feel. I love the traditional songs because I love Africa, and even though I've only been to West Africa, there are some sounds from the continent that are universal. I can imagine my Ghanaian friends singing this joyous music just as well as South Africans.
The first two songs are from Sangoma, which was released to the rest of the world in 1988 but didn't make an appearance on these insulated shores until 2004. The word "sangoma" refers to South African shamans: herbal faith healers who call on ancestors for advice and healing for the living. Makeba's mother was a sangoma in the country of Swaziland.
But one important decision did come of the weekend. We had our final meeting with Dale, the designer. We arrived still with every intention of showing the plans to a couple of other companies to see if we could get a better price. But when we left and had some time to think about it, we realized that Dale, with his intimate knowledge of the place and of our desires, not to mention his total investment in the process, was too good an asset to let go. He has been a true partner through all of this and it was impossible to imagine the same kind of relationship with somebody else. On top of that, the price his company offered turned out to be a bargain impossible to pass up. The fact that prices will probably change by the time we get around to building is unavoidable and would be true regardless of the company we ended up with. Given all these considerations, we decided we couldn't do better anywhere else and still be assured of the service Dale will provide. So we removed one cumbersome step from the process. One load gone. It feels like an accomplishment!
I'm a bachelor yet again this entire week, until Friday. This closeout of Steve's project, of which he is hands-on director, is more complicated than anybody thought it would be. (I guess that's par for the course.) I hate rattling around here alone, and he returns from these marathon away jobs like a rag doll. But it'll soon be over and it's helping to pay for this huge project we've taken on. Hate living with it, can't live without it. What else is new?
Friday, November 7, 2008
GREEN SALAD WITH NAVEL ORANGE, RED ONION AND OLIVES
This final dispatch from the Delaware trailer is a simple but snappy concoction I served to Chuck and Sandy with the Peruvian Shrimp Soup a week ago tonight. It's inspired by flavors from south of the border and is a perfect foil to the richness of the soup. I could have sworn I'd collected it somewhere, but when I went looking for the recipe last week I couldn't find it, so I winged it from memory. It's different, and it's good!
2 medium sweet navel oranges, peeled, sections separated and cut into bite-size chunks
1 small red onion
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons chile powder
1/2 cup seeded kalamata olives
1/4 cup lime juice
3/4 cup olive oil
1 bag torn soft lettuces (hearts of romaine will also do)
Peel onion and halve from pole to pole. Slice halves into very thin half-moons.
An hour before serving, place orange chunks and onion slices in salad bowl. Toss with salt and set aside about an hour, allowing juices to extract.
Add remaining ingredients in order listed, toss to combine well, serve.
Thursday, November 6, 2008
All of this will change over the next two days. Today I'll pack the entire kitchen except for what we'll need to eat until Saturday night. Always remembering that when we finally move here we'll be consolidating two houses, I'll decide on what should be stored and what can be given to the thrift store.
Tomorrow we will spend several hours with the builder, who will present his final proposal. It will include a detailed price list of every choice we have made: exterior treatments, wall paints, carpets, tiles, appliances, light fixtures, deck railings, the bamboo floors and stairs, the stone fireplace facing. It will list the cost of paving the driveway and landscaping whatever grounds we end up with; in short, we'll have his grand total for key-ready construction of our new house. After that, we will shop this package (except the final cost) to other builders to see if they offer a lower price. We've enjoyed working with Dale, the designer, and his construction company very much. He's taken a personal interest in the house because it's been a stretch for him, a challenge. He's proud of the ideas he's come up with to create a very nice but unobtrusive house on a tiny lot. We'd love to go full circle with him and let his company do the construction, but we owe it to ourselves to see what the marketplace has to say. If we get a lower bid from elsewhere, we'll ask Dale if his company is willing to match it, and if they are, we'll still go with them. If not, we'll shake hands with Dale and invite him to the housewarming.
Saturday, most of what I'm looking at now will go. All the furniture will return to the thrift store from whence it came. The stove, refrigerator and hot water heater will be uninstalled and taken to the storage shed, to be sold, along with the window air conditioner (we hope), on Craigs List when we're here for good. (We'll keep the fridge, though, which is new and will work well in the garage for overflow from the kitchen.) The TV and its stand, along with a couple of fold-up rocking chairs, will spend the last night here with us so we can watch The Wire DVDs while we eat a pig-out pizza from Vinny's off paper plates. Our last supper.
Saturday night will be last one this little trailer will enclose anyone in its ancient arms. Sunday morning we'll deflate the airbeds, pack the bedding, the TV, its stand, and the rocking chairs, and we'll be off, first for one last visit to the storage shed, and then back to Virginia. One day in December, we know not yet which, this cozy little place, so full of happiness and plans, will cease to exist but for a photo album and our memories.
Wednesday, November 5, 2008
So many others have said it, but I share the feeling: for the first time, I felt unvarnished pride at being American. At last, we are living up to our promise. No matter what happens from here on out, that can never be taken away from us.
It's now up to all of us to make sure the joy of this moment is not wasted, and that our better angels usher in the changes this country so badly needs.
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
It's somewhat embarrassing to remember that I was 30 years old before I voted the first time, for Jimmy Carter in 1976. In my defense, my life had been pretty peripatetic until then; that was the first year I'd actually lived in one place long enough to know that if I registered to vote, I'd still be living there on voting day. I can also say that I haven't missed an election since, so I've made up for my previous lost chances. I remember the feeling I had after casting that first vote. It was a sunny, warm day for November in DC and I felt very happy and proud to be strolling along the bright streets of the Nation's Capital, showing off my "I voted!" sticker. No matter how many times I've done it since, I still feel the same way. I'm not usually much of a flag waver, but the vote is the most basic duty and privilege we have as citizens of the United States. The simple act of doing it makes all the lessons we learned in civics class resonate deeply in me, and I'm grateful I still feel that way.
Monday, November 3, 2008
The Pompeii exhibit was all one could hope for, crammed with paintings and sculptures, true antiquities--not reproductions--that have never been brought together in one place before, much less left Italy. It's a transporting experience to be able to reach out and literally touch some carved piece of marble that you've seen pictured in countless history books. (No, I didn't really touch anything. But I ciuld have!) And, at least here in DC, it's free! (Well, not really. We've all paid for it with our federal income taxes. But about the free exhibits in the Smithsonian museums in DC I've always said: if this is socialism, I'll take it!)
On Saturday we did what we jaded locals consider one of the most trite things you can do: visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's grand plantation house south of town on the Potomac. It's one of those historical treasures we take completely for granted because of its proximity (a mere 15 miles from our front door) and the ubiquitous references to it in the local landscape, with roads, neighborhoods, and every sort of commercial enterprise named after it. The last time Steve had been there was in 1976, on the occasion of a family visit. I couldn't even remember the last time I was there. Well, things have changed.
We were there literally all day and enjoyed every minute of it. For a mere $13 you get a guided tour of most of the rooms in the mansion, which have been restored with period furniture and paint to the comfortable opulence George and Martha experienced daily (except for the times when George wasn't off fighting wars or running the country). Additionally, you are free to sit on the grand veranda on the back of the house, which looks out on the beautiful river panorama, and roam the grounds at will. You see how the place was run, the wash-house, the smoke-house, the horse barn and paddock, and the little house next to the main one where the house slaves lived. Since George was the 4th generation Washington to live at the house, there was already a family crypt, which was decrepit even in his day. When he died in 1799, he was buried there, but he stipulated in his will that a new family burial ground should be prepared and that he should be moved there when it was completed. You see both burial grounds. We happened to be there to catch the chanving of the Marine guards at his grave.
And then there is the pièce de résistance: a George Washington museum, completed only 2 years ago. It represents state-of-the-art curatorship, giving a viewer-friendly overview of the conditions leading up to the Revolution, including the battle in the French and Indian War in which Washington distinguished himself for the first time as a field commander. There are three short films about various aspects of his life in small theaters that give you a welcome chance to rest your bones after all the walking you've been doing, and there are eerily life-like reproductions of Washington himself at various ages. You even see his famous false teeth (no, they weren't made of wood) and a video showing how they were made.
We parked the car at 11 AM and didn't pull out until 4:30. The day was beautiful and warm; the hours flew by, and we settled in for the ride back home grateful for a day well spent. If you plan on a trip to DC, there are worse things you could do than visiting Mount Vernon. It is admittedly off the beaten track if you're only planning on seeing the sights on The Mall, but if you have a bit of extra time, the day's excursion is well worth the effort.
And now we forge ahead.....