Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Goodbye to 2008

The changing of the year is a man-made construct. I know that. In Steve's and my life, if there is an annual sense of renewal, it comes not now, but in September, at the tag-end of summer after our Nags Head vacation. (That, in turn, is rooted in the universal experience of the school year: the end of vacation, the start of a "new year.") Still, the infrastructure around us that makes life possible--the banks, government--goes through a slow-down/start-up cycle at this time of year, and despite the fact we don't necessarily feel "renewed" when we add the annual digit, we are unavoidably carried along with the tide. So such a time is as good as any to formally say "goodbye" to something, to a time, to the past. My regular visitors know only too well what 2008 was like for me. It was dominated by hopes and fears about our house; indeed, the whole idea of this blog is to document those hopes and fears, and I'm grateful for the space in which to do it, and for your patience in reading about them. Next year promises more of the same. I've said enough about all that.

So here is a farewell song I wrote. It's from 1973, at the end of my time in Boston, where I'd lived a life of contradiction, full of great joy commingled with an equal amount of frustration. I was headed to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, to begin a new life as a recruiter for the Peace Corps, and I sang this at my sendoff party.

I had arrived in Boston with the idea of taking the city by storm as a singer-songwriter. I left with new knowledge, hard-won: that I didn't have the ambition required for the stage, and that at the ripe old age of 28, I needed to start everything over, from the ground up, having prepared myself for absolutely no practical occupation in the workaday world. I arrived believing there should be a "life after Peace Corps;" I left returning to the Peace Corps' embrace. It took a period of just over a year for these realizations to sink in. During that time, day-to-day living was full of joy because of the people surrounding me, but the over-arching lessons in life were very, very hard.

I've hardly ever sung this song since that party because I never mastered the guitar part to my satisfaction. It has great vocal leaps that I also never mastered because I never practiced it enough--because of the guitar problem. But I love the sentiment in it and it stands for any goodbye time, including a goodbye to 2008. It's in three-quarter time, if that helps you imagine it.

The Music Goes On

One more walk down the road,
One more tear, one more load.
One more page to be turned,
New lives and loves, with new ways to be learned.
So let's all have one more toast to the past;
One more hand for the cast.
And then I'll be gone with the break of day;
When more has played out, we'll find the way back to each other.
The music goes on.

I'm not perfect, I know.
Now too fast, now too slow.
But love has filled all I've done,
And I know this time, I've lost much less than I've won.
I know they say, "Out of sight, out of mind."
But I hope you know that I was never that kind.
I'll take all that comes, I'm bound to explore,
I'll fly to the moon and maybe much more, and you'll still be with me.
The music goes on.

So bring out the bottles and empty the jars,
For I know right now, wherever we are, we'll still hear the laughter.
The music goes on.

See you in 2009. Have a good and safe time tonight.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Betwixt and between...

I seem to be maintaining something of a holiday mindset this week. Until New Years Day is past, I'll have one foot in the gentle present and the other in the mundane future, still grooving on the holiday but also thinking of things that are pending and need to be done. Between being sick and then a severe cold snap that made pavements too dangerous to navigate by foot, I hadn't done any walking until today. That was three whole weeks of relative inactivity, and the movement felt good this morning. There's still a load of leaves to be raked both front and back--our neighbor's oak is always the last to be heard from--and I will be tackling that this week.

Christmas was exactly as we wanted it, very low-key. We had no tree, and with everything else going on in the house at the moment we didn't miss one. We piled our presents on the coffee table and had a wonderful time surprising each other on Christmas morning. The cats, as usual, had a field day chasing balled-up wrappings--great presents as far as they were concerned. The rest of the day was quiet; we went late to my sister's house for a delicious turkey dinner. My presents to her and her daughters were cuttings from my beautiful yellow Christmas cactus.

New Year's Eve is still tentative. We may do nothing at all, or we may have a couple of friends in for a game of cards and dinner, depending on how they're feeling. They are getting over a major illness, and simultaneously mourning the Christmas Eve passing of their dog, who had been a part of their family for 15 years. We'd love to see them but will certainly understand if they'd rather be at home.

Through all, house painting continues. Steve has almost finished working his magic on the bedrooms upstairs, then will come the hall and stairway, the basement, and, finally, the kitchen. It's looking gorgeous as he makes his progress and we re-arrange furniture. Housing issues are unavoidable and hang above everything, as always. I should have something substantive to report in a couple of weeks.

Have a wonderful day.

Friday, December 19, 2008



Here's one that's quick and delicious for a weekday, full of good things for you like lowfat chicken breast and plenty of veggies. It's a jump-off from a Washington Post recipe which, as usual, needed a lot of work. The original recipe called for a chunked, seeded cucumber as one of the vegetables, and it's great that way, too, but, as with most Chinese dishes, this is infinitely adaptable to whatever you may have in the fridge, or may appeal to you in the produce aisle on any given day. Those of you who must watch your sodium can feel free to use "lite" soy sauce; I've tried it and find the full-flavor of regular soy more satisfying. I just make sure I take my blood pressure meds that night--so far, so good!

As usual, once you start cooking this, the train leaves the station and dinner is ready in a flash. The most time-consuming part of this type of cooking is the prep.

1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup Chinese cooking wine, or dry sherry
1 tsp sugar
1 lb. skinned and boned chicken breast, cut into bite-size chunks

6 cloves garlic, minced
a knob of fresh ginger, 1 to 1 1/2 inches long, peeled and minced
1 cup sugar snap peas, tough strings removed
1 medium onion, peeled, top removed but root end retained
1 large stalk celery, chopped on the bias into bite-size chunks
1 medium red bell pepper, cut into thick strips, then strips halved
1 bunch scallions, chopped
1 cup cashews

2 teaspoons cornstarch

Fresh black pepper

Combine chicken and 3 tablespoons of the soy-sherry-sugar mixture in a plastic bag. Marinate chicken while preparing other ingredients, reserving remaining marinade for sauce.

Cut onions into wedges. They will remain intact because they are attached at the root end. Put in a bowl with the chopped celery.

Combine chopped ginger and garlic in a bowl

Heat 2 tablespoons oil (peanut or vegetable) over highest possible heat in the bottom of a wok or large skillet until the oil is shimmering and just starting to smoke. Remove chicken from marinade and add in a single layer to hot oil. Discard marinade. Let chicken sit for one minute, until some carmelization takes place. Toss to cook other side. When chicken is cooked through, remove to a bowl and set aside. Leave as much oil in the wok as possible.

Still over high heat, add sugar snap peas, allow to sit undisturbed for 30 seconds, then toss another 30 seconds.

Add chopped onion and celery with ginger and garlic. Toss for 1 minute.

Add chopped pepper and scallions, toss for 1 minute.

Add cashews and return chicken and any accumulated juices. Toss for a minute to heat through.

Stir cornstarch into remaining marinade and pour over ingredients in wok. Stir until thickened. If too thick, add more sherry or water.

Add several good turns of the pepper grinder to finished dish. Serve immediately over rice.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

On the upswing....

I do believe things are looking up, health-wise! Through all this bitching and moaning I never mentioned that Steve was away on another one his marathon trips, sick as I was. He's back now, and taking the day off work to regain his strength, which he had no chance to do while he was on the road. It's good that one of us can convalesce and take care of the other. My head feels just about normal-sized at the moment and I have no sore anything--throat, ears, etc. (a cold always seems worse at night, however, so we'll see how that goes), and Steve is relatively better today than he was last night when he rolled in. Little by little....

This is just about the darkest December I can remember. It's been more like February with its extreme cold and stuff falling out of the sky. It's still cloudy today and yet more rain is predicted for tonight and then on into the weekend. Sounds like comfort food time to me! One thing I know I'll be doing is rummaging through some favorite recipes. (Look out, you may be eating it yourself in the not too distant future!)

Just checking in. You may now return to your own devices....

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Crawling back

I'm like the turtle taking a guarded peek out of its shell this morning, and confirming that there is life yet to be lived. If I'm a turtle, then my shell today consists of heavy jeans, and an overshirt over a sweater over a t-shirt. My engorged sinuses make my head feel like it's bigger than it's supposed to be, but I've already proven to myself that it's no heavier than usual. I can hold it up and move it around, and I have actually moved my entire body gingerly from room to room, even from floor to floor.

I had a flu shot this fall, so I know this thing is only a cold. But what a cold. I was totally sapped yesterday and barely moved. I've been getting 10 hours' sleep at night and still feel exhausted during the day. It's at times like these that the pleasant memory of actual life serves as the main impetus to return to it. You're not exactly living it at the moment, but the desire to get back puts some fight in you. Actually feeling better is like re-birth and I can't wait for it to come.

Being sick when I was little meant extra attention, being fussed over. It meant not having to change out of my pajamas. If I had a fever, my mother gave me half an aspirin in a spoon mixed with sugar and water, a real treat. I loved the bitter-salty-sweet taste. It meant I was being cared for. I could lie back down with my comics on the living room couch and have no care beyond how Bugs Bunny would outwit Elmer Fudd. "Sick" was fun. The memory of that is the next best thing to feeling better itself.

Monday, December 15, 2008


The temperature is headed to the balmy 60s today, and already it feels like a spring morning outside. But the skies are a bleak gray, and rain is supposed to start again, and stay with us the entire week, again. I have an outdoor job to do and I want to get it out of the way before the rain starts. I'm helping Steve get a head start on painting the front porch by scraping off all the old paint that's starting to peel. He won't actually be getting to the porch for a couple of months (it has to be warm enough for the paint to dry), but at least this initial grunt work will be done.

I actually started the scraping job yesterday. Not a minute into it, a tiny chip of paint blew into my left eye. We had no Visine in the house and I suffered with the irritation until late last night, when I remembered we had some Simply Saline nasal spray in the medicine cabinet. It worked! (Why didn't I go out and just buy some Visine? Oh, you and your questions!)

So, between the continued minor irritation in my eye, the tooth thing that has not really gone away but is not acute, and a cold that I just can't shake, with its coughing and stuffiness, I feel these days like a collection of parts that are only somewhat inter-operative. Add the constantly gloomy skies and you get blah. A new refrigerator is due for delivery today, so that'll be fun to set up and admire. How grateful we can be for life's tiny diversions!

I'll now shuffle off to the day's adventures. At least my music is bright.

Friday, December 12, 2008



Here's a new word for you: pulpitis. As in the pulp inside a tooth. It appears I have it. Infected pulp, beneath a crown, no less. When was the last time you heard somebody say they had a toothache? Between flossing and brushing twice a day with my Sonicare, I was convinced my teeth would outlast the rest of my body by at least a century. But I've been having this toothache for the past week or so, and my dentist told me I had pulpitis under one of the crowns in my mouth and I needed a root canal to have it fixed. And it gets better. My Cadillac Aetna Dental PPO, part of an overall policy for which I will be paying a group rate of over $200 a month next year, doesn't pay for it! All that sucker pays for is prophylactic care, the six-month cleanings and checkups. If one of those checkups should uncover a problem, you're on your own.

Well, not entirely on your own. For an additional mere $30 a month, you can by a supplemental policy that will cover everything else a dentist can do to--I mean for--you. Aarrgghh!!! After spending a couple of hours in the rat's maze of federal health benefits web pages yesterday, I finally figured out how to add the supplemental to my policy, but it won't go into effect until January 1.

Meanwhile, the tooth feels better today. I spoke with my dentist again this morning and he said this is something that can come and go, that if there was an infection it may have cleared up spontaneously, but that if the tooth is still sensitive to pressure and temperature, there is probably a crack in the nub of tooth left beneath the crown. The root canal would have cost $800, so I cancelled it. It'll be the old "watch and wait" until my new policy kicks in next year. I'll just chew my beef stew carefully.

How's that for a segue? Tyler Florence is our favorite "personality chef" on the Food Network. He's always bright and cheery (but he doesn't overdo it like Rachel Ray), and his cooking style, full of big chunks of food and bold, rich flavors, is the same thing I strive for in my own cooking, so I use a lot of his ideas. This recipe is pretty much as he does it, except that I decided that the rich sauce deserves a bed to accompany it, so instead of just putting potato chunks in the stew as is traditional, I decided to mash the potatoes and serve the stew over them. It's really good that way, but do what you want.

Just two tips: make sure the initial browning of the meat is thorough. It's that carmelization that adds depth of flavor to the finished product. Also, there is a lot of liquid here, a whole bottle of wine and then two cups of beef stock on top of that. I suggest that you simmer the "partially covered," but really, it'll be OK if you just leave the cover off for the entire 2 1/2 hours of simmering. That liquid does need to cook down considerably.

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 to 3 pounds boneless beef chuck roast, cut into 2-inch pieces
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 bottle good quality dry red wine (recommended: Burgundy)
8 fresh thyme sprigs
6 garlic cloves, smashed
3 1-inch strips orange zest
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
2 bay leaves
2 1/2 cups beef stock
1/2 pound carrots, peeled and sliced
2 cups frozen pearl onions, a large handful
1 pound white mushrooms, cut in 1/2
1/2 pound garden peas frozen or fresh

9 small new potatoes, scrubbed clean and cut in 1/2

Preheat a large heavy-bottomed saucepan or Dutch oven over medium-high heat with the oil and butter.

While the pan is heating, arrange the flour on a large dish. Season the cubed beef with some salt and freshly ground black pepper and then toss in the flour to coat. Shake off the excess flour and add the beef chunks in a single layer to the hot pan, being careful not to overcrowd the pan (you might have to work in batches). Thoroughly brown all of the cubes on all sides. Once all the meat has been browned remove it to a plate and reserve.

Add the wine to the pan and bring up to a simmer. Deglaze the rich browned bits from the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon. After de-glazing, return the meat and accumulate juices to the pan along with the thyme, smashed garlic, orange zest strips, ground cloves, freshly ground black pepper and salt, to taste, bay leaves and beef stock. Bring the mixture up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook uncovered until the liquids start to thicken, about 15 to 20 minutes. Partially cover and continue to cook on low heat for 2 1/2 hours. (There is a lot of liquid here and you will want it to cook down.)

After 2 hours add the sliced carrots, pearl onions and mushrooms, along with a pinch of sugar to balance out the acid from the wine. Leave uncovered and simmer for 30 minutes more, until the vegetables and meat are tender. Add the frozen peas during the last minute of cooking. Season with salt and pepper and remove the thyme sprigs.

While stew is on its last simmer, boil potatoes in salted water until done, and mash, using your favorite recipe. Serve stew over mashed potatoes.

Thursday, December 11, 2008


It's a day that invites me to do not very much, though I will get the Thursday chores done, plus all of the very little actual Christmas shopping I'm doing this year. (The rest of it's been done online.) The temperature outside is so warm and the air is so wet with rain that it's actually close in the house and I feel damp. I turned on the overhead fan just to create a breeze and evaporate the humidity gathered on my skin. This won't last long. The dreaded Wintry Mix sets in tomorrow.

I've imagined trying to describe blogging to people who not only don't do it but have never even entered this sphere except by accident, and only peripherally, such as when a friend sends a link to something inflammatory written by some hot-headed brother blogger. Those people probably believe that all blogs are political because that's all they've seen. That's what I used to think before I discovered there is a vast variety of communities out here. None of the blogs I read are political except in a very sideways fashion (pointing me to links elsewhere that usually have an interesting or amusing take on some issue, but never inflammatory). And the only time I get "political" is if some example of egregious injustice pushes my buttons, which is not so often.

So now that I do it, what is it? I started out by mentally characterizing blogging as something retired people do, but then I immediately pulled back from that thought, realizing that most of you reading this now are busy contributing to (what's left of) the economy in your respective work places, and maintaining your own really interesting and fun sites at the same time. It's true I'm retired and had not given blogging a thought until I entered this blessed state, but I don't really think of it as a retirement activity. As I was leaving the ranks of the actively employed, the most common question from friends was, "what are you going to do now?" (And it was always asked in that disbelieving "you're really retiring????" way, as if it was just unthinkable.) I always answered, "I don't know. This is a time when I can truly allow something to bubble up." I know it's terribly un-American not to have a production plan, but that's me.

Blogging is what bubbled up. It was purely organic, just as I had hoped. I like to write and always wanted the time to do it. I thank Kat for opening my eyes and disabusing me of the notion that blogging must be political. All I do is string words together in some coherent way, and I love doing it. You read it and for some reason you seem to like it. That's icing on the cake, but then again, it's what writing is all about. It's words. Words communicate. And at bottom, that's really why I do it.

When I was a young man and it was still appropriate to ask me, "what do you want to do with your life?" my otherwise incoherent response always included communication. In the "motivation statement" part of my Peace Corps application, I said, "I want to communicate." That's all I've ever hoped to do all my life. Teaching, singing, explaining, writing, talking, and any other thing you can think of that requires words. This blogging thing wasn't just plucked out of thin air, it turns out. It's just an extension of what I've been doing all along.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

A quiet day

It's a regular tropical heat wave today, with highs predicted in the 60s, and steady rain. This is quite a difference from the bright, teen-temperature days we've been having lately, days when no matter what I did nor how high I turned up the thermostat, I couldn't get warm. As I write, I'm still in my heavy winter uniform. But I'm comfortable, not feeling constantly chilled. Conditions will change soon enough tomorrow, when this rain could turn to snow. (Or that wonderful mid-Atlantic invention, the "wintry mix.")

I've spent this morning composing a friendly email to the person at the Peace Corps who would know of temporary assignments that might fit my background with the agency, if there are any. I admit to being of two minds about all this, when I get down to brass tacks. Even though I know we need the extra money to pay down debts, and getting out from under constant concern about The Move will do me good, still, I do enjoy this life I'm living now. Even as exciting a place as the Peace Corps must be at the moment with the change in administrations, and as much fun as it would be to see old friends, the idea of having to be in a place every day, doing someone else's bidding, is less than attractive.

Who knows? Maybe nothing will come of this little foray I'm making. But I still really should get a job, for the extra money. I could always cashier at the local supermarket, I guess, but that's even less attractive than office work. At least at the Peace Corps I'd be using my mind on something interesting.....

Just thinking out loud on a gray day....

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


One of the hazards of my line of work (for today's purposes, being gay) is being discussed in the third person while you're right there in the room. These days, thanks to the recent California referendum, the topic of whether or not Steve and I should be allowed to get married is on everybody's lips. As usual, nobody's asked us what we think, I guess because the assumption that we want to marry is automatic. Well-meaning straight friends wish us well out of straight guilt, while the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the big gay lobbying group, assumes that of course we want to get married and then presumes to speak for us to Congress and the rest of the civilized world.

So just to remind you I'm here and do have an opinion, here it is, unsolicited though it may be:

The HRC was wrong-headed beyond belief when it insisted on "marriage rights," tossing that red-meat "M" word into the ring to be ravished by the religious right. The right was in the ascendancy from the White House on down, they owned the pulpit (word choice well-considered), and they had and continue to have a field day rousing the bible-toting rabble with our attack on the holy sacrament of marriage. Like that other completely private matter, abortion, how I choose to conduct my life with the person I love has become one of those polarizing public topics that just won't go away. It didn't have to be that way. Civil unions could have been quietly recognized, state by state, until, before you knew it, you had a defacto national consensus. The federal government would have been forced to follow suit. "Marriage" as co-opted by the HRC would have had nothing to do with it.

First: most gay couples are already able to cobble together legal protections equivalent to those automatically conveyed by what's conventionally called marriage. Steve and I own everything together, from our house (right of survivorship) to our joint bank account. We have given each other legal and medical powers of attorney. Our end-of-life documents make it clear that we consider everything in our life equally and jointly owned. In short, in a legal sense, we are already "married."

(Here is an illustrative sidebar to the matter of health care. I discovered a few years ago during a medical emergency in Delaware that despite the scary bugaboo about hospitals having the option to ignore medical powers of attorney on moral grounds if they disagree with our living arrangement, HIPAA and standard medical practice make the nature of our relationship irrelevant. First, HIPAA forms simply ask, "whom should be contacted in the event of an emergency?" "Relationship" is not part of the question. And second, in order for treatment and follow-up care to continue after hospitalization, doctors need to know who will be the primary caregiver. I was accepted in that role with gratitude and the utmost respect, no questions asked. If the hospital had insisted on Steve's unavailable blood next-of-kin, it was clear that I could have sued for malpractice and won.)

So we are as well-protected as we can be within the present legal framework. But there is a behemoth in the room: no federal acknowledgement of our relationship. Steve can't legally name me as a survivor for his Social Security payments, nor can he receive any share of my federal reitrement pension after my death. When Steve's job ends in June, 2009, he will lose his medical insurance, and I can't put him on my federal policy. Remember that thing the great friend of gays Bill Clinton signed into law, the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA)? I had thought that until that was repealed, we would have no recourse and just have to deal with harsh reality, as we always have.

But lo and behold, there is a glimmer of light. A move is afoot in Congress to work around DOMA. Last September, there was actually a committee hearing, chaired by Senators Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Susan Collins of Maine (that is: the Homeland Security Committee!), to explore ways to implement equal benefits for same-sex couples in the federal work force. The issue is being cast in terms of civil rights and homeland security, the rationale for the latter being that the government has to be at least as competitive as the private-sector institutions that already have these equality protections on their books. The Feds face a serious brain drain as Boomers retire, and the best minds are needed to protect the country. Many of those good minds happen to be in love with people of the same sex.

DOMA will remain as a fig leaf. Essentially, Lieberman and Collins are saying, "we don't care what you call it. Keep your 'marriage.' For the security of the nation, these people need equal protection and we're working to see to it that they get it."

So call it marriage, call it civil union, call it whatever you want. It's all the same to me, and as far as the government is concerned, the "civil" part is the essence of marriage, anyway. In a church wedding, the clergy pronounces the happy couple husband and wife "by the powers vested" in him/her by the state. The pronouncement may be part of a fancy ceremony with religious trappings, but as far as the government is concerned, God has nothing to do with it. Go ask any Justice of the Peace: marriage is a legal contract. And that's all we want.

Friday, December 5, 2008



OK, I grant you a proper New Orleanian would blanch at this concoction, saying it doesn't deserve to be called anything like gumbo. I bow to them and put the name in quotes. It's something I've been tossing together for many years, since before I knew what a roux was. I admit I was aiming for something with the same rich and complex flavor as the real thing, but since it's the roux and it's nutty browned flour that gives authentic Gumbo its distinctive flavor, and since I was ignorant of the technique at the time, what I ended up with was a very tasty shrimp, sausage and okra stew that stands alone. It takes no time to prepare and makes a good weekday meal.

I know there's a whole community of people who can't stand okra because of its "slimy" texture. If your okra gets that way, you've overcooked it. When it simmers gently from the frozen state for only about 20 minutes, as it does here, you get all of its warm flavor and none of that stringy mess. I had always liked okra the few times my mother served it, but I got to know it very well in Ghana, where it is a staple vegetable and forms the basis of some indescribably delicious seafood stews. (The most memorable meal of my life was a seafood-okra-palm oil stew with fermented corn cakes I gorged on one day at the beach in Accra. The seafood, which included the usual shrimp and fish but also included whole crabs, scallops, mussels, snails and squid, had been swimming in the ocean not 30 minutes before I consumed it. This was at no fancy restaurant, either, but with the family of a Ghanaian who simply befriended me on the beach. We ate it right there on the sand. I can never hope to replicate that meal; this dish is a vaporous but honorable copy. At that moment I did learn, though, where gumbo comes from.)

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. pre-cooked andouille sausage (can use plain smoked sausage if andouille isn't available)
1 large onion, chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, chopped into bite-size pieces
3 cloves garlic (or to taste) minced
1 15-oz. can whole tomatoes with juice, crushed into large pieces
1 12-oz bag frozen cut okra
2 bay leaves
2 tsp. dried oregano
1 lb. (30-count) shrimp, peeled and de-veined

Slice sausage on the diagonal into 1/4-inch coins, and combine with chopped onion, pepper and garlic in a large saucepan. Cook until sausage is slightly browned and vegetables have softened. Add tomatoes, okra, bay leaves and oregano, bring to a boil, then reduce heat, cover, and simmer for 10-15 mintues, just until okra is thawed and slightly softened. With stew continuing on a slow simmer, add shrimp and cook about 5 mintues more, or until shrimp is just opaque. Adjust salt and pepper, cover and let sit about 15 mintues.

Serve over white rice.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

'Tis the season....

One of the great things about having a blog is that you can say whatever you please. This will be one of those days, cathartic for me. Since I started writing here in January, I never had reason to go into this subject. I will now, just to get it out of the way: it's not that I dislike Christmas. I do like the idea of it. I just make it my business to get through December with as little of it as possible.

In this space you'll find a few Christmas songs maybe sometime during the week before Christmas Day. But not before. I just can't get into the frenzied merrymaking. Life is pretty much the same during the month of December as it is at any other time of the year; Christmas is merely a day in the month. The lead-up to that day is typically filled with activities I can't stand, mainly shopping at malls and an endless round of crowded standup parties where I can't hear what's being said by all the short people around me, and everybody eats and drinks too much. In this consumerist society of ours, where we were exhorted, "Be patriotic! Go shopping!" after 9/11, the winter holidays represent the pinnacle of that lucre-larded way of life.

This jaded attitude comes, of course, from Christmases past in my own life. The season seemed to bring out the most unpleasant traits in my family, and it only progressed from bad to worse. First, it was just seeing my parents drink too much at parties I was too young to be at but were too far away for me to be left at home alone. Then my brother-in-law (my sister's ex-husband) entered the family. He is Eastern European, a refugee from the bad old Iron Curtain days, who bought the American way of conspicuous consumption hook, line and sinker. Along the way, he enabled the worst qualities in my parents, entering their lives when they were transiting from their 40s to their 50s and only too happy to resume the party-hearty life they had enjoyed in their own youth. He lived mortgaged to the hilt, a true believer in "using other peoples' money." My sister and her family always traveled to our Falls Church house for Christmas, no matter where they were living, so the holiday became, for me, an inescapable orgy of toys, cardboard and wrapping paper that only grew along with the family. By the time all four of the kids were born, you literally could not see the Christmas tree. It was buried beneath presents not just under it, but climbing up it, leaning against it.

Of course, that was once we even got a tree. My father, ever thrifty, never bought one until close to midnight on Christmas Eve, the better a bargain to find. So the fabled "Night Before Christmas" in our house had anything but the sense of peace and awe described in the poem. It was an alcohol-fueled late-night frenzy of putting up and trimming some poor, picked-over tree, and the last-minute wrapping of those hundreds of presents. Add to that the record player blaring and voices yelling over it, and you have a perfect storm of insanity. (The question does occur to me: why was I constitutionally unable sit back and just enjoy it all? It probably had something to do with being a repressed, closet-case gay teenager. But all I knew at the time was that I hated everything about Christmas in my parents' house.)

My natural reaction to all this is to make Christmas as low-key as possible in my own life. Steve is from a family tradition the complete opposite of mine: they lived so much to themselves that they never entertained at all; his mother wasn't much of a cook, so their idea of a festive meal was something different, to say the least, than what I may imagine. She was a master craftswoman, though. Their tree may have been aluminum, but it was hung with ornaments she made herself. And her house was always neat and beautifully decorated. There was that sense of order that was so lacking in my own experience.

As far as the observation of Christmas is concerned, then, Steve and I complement each other perfectly. I bring a bit of festivity and good food, and Steve brings his quiet and that inherited sense of decorative beauty. In our earlier years we were known for the big Christmas party we threw. We catered all the food ourselves, with pat├ęs, a turkey, a Virginia ham, hundreds of hors d'oeuvres we served from silver salvers as we circulated in the crowd, cheeses, fruits, cookies, nuts, home-made egg nog--a true groaning board. We stopped that blowout after about a dozen years because we got tired of the cleanup, but we still try to have a festive dinner with our good friends. Once that dinner is over, so, for us, is Christmas, for all intents and purposes. On Christmas day we quietly exchange presents, and then we gird ourselves for the onslaught at my sister's house, where the tradition of insanity reigns, driven by her, her kids, her kids' kids and their various husbands/partners. There are more of 'em than there ever were in Falls Church.

God love 'em. If that's Christmas, great. As long as you can leave it at somebody else's house.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

ODETTA 1930 - 2008

It seems I'm doing this too often, writing these memorials to people whose voices and music informed me and my generation. It's not an exaggeration to say they helped make many of us who we are, and I, for one, feel their passing as much as I would those of close family members, if not more. I was not aware of Odetta's health problems, so was shocked to hear of her death this morning at the too-young age of 78.

I just missed seeing her perform in early 1965 when she toured to the University of Kentucky. I had left the University for one semester, and missing her was one of the many reasons I regretted the decision to leave. Friends who saw her described a towering vision in a sweeping white gown and a headdress, illuminated by single spotlight. I've kept that imagined vision in my mind all these years.

Odetta's public posture and stentorian voice gave her a burden of "Great Personhood" for her entire career. These two selections catch her just having fun. This one, "Baby, I'm In The Mood For You," is from my favorite of her albums, Odetta Sings Dylan, 1965.

MP3 File

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Getting back....

Well, it's about time, right? The weekend that started with Thanksgiving (the day itself seems ages ago) was so varied and so busy that yesterday I had trouble wrapping my brain around sitting here for a couple of hours just listening to music and cobbling words together. I felt like I should be "doing something."

We made a one-day trip to the Delaware property on Friday for a couple of errands and to see what the place looks like now with most of its ancient trees cut down. Since we're taking the whole project one day at a time these days we really didn't want anything done to the trees yet--if, God forbid, the whole scheme falls apart we still want to be able to enjoy the lot and the trailer. We told the demolition contractor to hold off on any work, but he didn't get word to his subcontractors until they had done what you see above. It was a shock, and I can only imagine what that barren landscape would be like in the depths of summer with only the trailer to escape from the constant sun. There was one huge loblolly pine, must have been 90 feet tall, that was cut. We counted 128 rings in the stump. All of the oaks were over 100 years old, too. They all did have to come down, but we're sorry it had to happen now. At least word is out that all further work will be on hold until we sell the house.

When we got back here we set to clearing out my room and re-creating it. Steve has now become expert at removing wallpaper. In an amazing three days he had all of it down, chinks in the ceiling and walls spackled and smoothed, and half the room painted. If we continue at this pace we may actually finish this work by March.

I am starting phone calls to some friends in town to see if there are any contractor positions I may be able to avail myself of after the first of the year. We'll use the extra money to pay down debt, preparing for the lean times we're expecting after June. And frankly, getting out and using my mind for something besides fretting over uncertainties wouldn't be a bad thing.