Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Busy Day

I must be running very soon to keep appointments and do some emergency yard work--it seems we have allowed tent caterpillars to run amok in our flowering crabapple this year, to the point where there are no leaves on the tree at all. I hope the tree's not a complete goner as a result of our negligence.

I said in an earlier post that I hoped my mother's irises survived the drought and heat last year. My picture proves they did. They are back this year with great energy. These are the earliest bloomers in a series of cultivars we have in our front flowerbed that keeps us in irises of various colors for a couple of months. A cool, rainy spring, plus a little time-release fertilizer, does wonders. These particular Dutch irises are true heirlooms, the same ones my mother planted at the little house on Stuart Street here in Arlington, where my family was living when I was born. I've had them everywhere I've lived. They're care-free and prolific. Over the years as I've thinned them I've given tubers to friends far and wide, so that these beautiful flowers are gracing yards in various spots around the country. My mother did the same, so these flowers have spread far and wide. That's a nice legacy.

I hope flowers are filling your life, too.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Winds of Spring

Looks like my plans are made for this week. Above is a picture of the maple helicopters that had fallen onto the deck as of about an hour ago. As I sit here listening to the strong breezes knock more off the trees and against the house, I know these have been added to by now. It's stopped raining and now it's windy and chilly outside, but with a promising sky. I'll let these dry off today, and collect still more, then go to work on them tomorrow with a broom and rake. These seeds are everywhere, on roofs, in the fertile ground of the garden, and in the rain gutters. They'll have to be dealt with. In the meanwhile, there's plenty to do inside here, sweeping up the last of the oak pollen. That will keep me busy for a day or two.

Not to sound like I'm 62 years old or anything, but I'm kicking and screaming towards the realization that I'm going to have to do something about joint pain I'm experiencing more and more. It makes these daily chores a painful ordeal, and I'll be damned if I'm going to be sidelined if I can help it. I come from a line of people rich in many things, among them rheumatoid arthritis. My mother had a case that hid itself until she was in her 50s. Sometime during that decade, she was working with my father, helping in the construction of their new house by the water, when she had an accident and fell, landing from some height on her back. It was then that the rheumatoid arthritis was discovered. I'll never forget seeing her carried to her bed nor the extreme pain she was in, which lasted weeks. As time passed, the disfigurements of the disease became visible; her fingers were badly twisted by the time she reached her 70s (but she was able to knit me the bedspread I still use). It wasn't just on my mother's side of the family, either: my Aunt Grace, my father's sister, suffered with the disease for as long as I knew her. I only remember her with the bloated ankles brought on by the cortisone she took to control the pain. My sister, who makes her living at the piano, has so far been spared any pain or disfigurement. Good for her.

I've always assumed I would get osteo-arthritis simply as a function of the use of my joints. Cartilage does break down. And even with the pain in my hips, I'm still able to take my morning walks, because walking at that brisk pace is far different from a slow stroll, which does become painful after an hour or so. But with RA in my background, I owe it to myself to know what it is I'm dealing with. An eventual hip replacement is by far preferable to an auto-immune disease that simply progresses at its own, inexorable but unknowable speed. So I guess I'll be making a doctor's appointment this week, too.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Cape Verde

Listening to Cesaria Evora, by far the most famous Cape Verdean in the world, takes me back to Cape Verde and reminds me that I've been meaning to write about the country since I started here. I have some knowledge of the place because it was one of the countries for which I was desk officer in the last phase of my career at the Peace Corps. It's a fascinating place I'd know nothing about otherwise, and getting to know it was definitely a highlight of my career. I got to the country twice, once in 1998 on my "desk trip," (what amounts to a forced march a desk officer must take at least once, visiting as many volunteers at their sites as possible in all the countries s/he works for, a week per country, all at once. I had three countries, so including travel time, I was traveling, non-stop, for a month. That's worth an entry on its own!) On that trip, I got to the islands of Sal (where the international airport is), Fogo, where there is an active volcano, and the main island of São Tiago, (the Portuguese rendering of Santiago) which hosts the capital city, Praia. I went again in 1999, spending a month as the acting director of Peace Corps operations there, spending all of my time in Praia.

Cape Verde, as you can see from the illustration, is an archipelago; it sits about 600 miles straight west of the city of Dakar, Senegal, a series of flyspecks in the Atlantic. The islands were uninhabited until their discovery by the Portuguese in 1444. The name they gave it, which means "green cape," is a mystery, indicating either drastic climate change in the past 500 years, or that the discovery was made during the islands' extremely short and unreliable rainy season. However the name applied at the time, it's misnomer now. Most of the year there is little green to be seen on the islands; what you do see instead are fantastic moonscapes virtually untouched by water erosion, craggy peaks overlooking incredibly beautiful beaches. The island of Sal, named for the salt produced there, is especially barren. As home to the international airport, it hosts an impressive tourism infrastructure of hotels and restaurants, frequented mostly by Europeans; it's the first, and in may cases the only, place seen by visitors to the country. For all the empty landscape of Sal, the tourism there is a rare source of good employment for Cape Verdeans, whom the government is doing everything possible to keep in the country, but that is a losing battle. The Cape Verdeans outside the country outnumber by hundreds of thousands the 450,000 who live there. Most of the diaspora are young men who follow the well-trod route to Europe and the U.S. to seek better lives. The biggest Cape Verdean community in the United States (in fact, the biggest U.S. community of all Portuguese speakers) is in southern Massachusetts.

Cape Verde exists as a country because of the slave trade. The Portuguese used it as a holding area, essentially a depot, for people brought from all over West Africa to be warehoused before they were auctioned and forwarded to the New World. Its history can only be called tragic. The people who live there now are descendants of the slaves owned by the Portuguese colonists themselves. While it is considered an African country, the strong Latin influence left by the Portuguese lends the place more of a European/Caribbean feel than distinctly African, and Cape Verdeans identify most strongly with other former Portuguese colonies; not necessarily with Africans first, but with other Lusophones, from Brazil to Angola. The local language, Kriolu, which you are hearing when Cesaria sings, is a mix of Portuguese and the various African languages brought by the original slaves. Given the paucity of rain, the lack of jobs and the general poverty, it is a hard place to live. All Cape Verdeans who live in the country have relatives who are living outside it.

In spite of everything, Cape Verdeans in the diaspora love their uniquely beautiful country and most of them would return there permanently, instead of merely visiting it, if they could. Wherever they live, they know how to have a good time. A party in Cape Verde means two things: dancing and grogue, a home brew made from sugarcane, and it flows freely and lethally. It's usually served in a huge basin mixed with ice, sugar and lime. It goes down so easily you don't realize what's hit you until it's way too late, and the melting ice only makes you think the effect is weakened. (I speak from experience!) The local music is called morna, a relative of the Poruguese fado. It's melancholy, sort of akin to our blues, and can be about lost love or nostalgia for home. Technically, Cesaria is a morna singer.

I'm so sorry I have none of my own pictures of the country to share. At the time I retired, I made the decision that pictures I took on my trips were more useful to whomever succeeded me on the desk than they would ever be to me, so I left them at the office. So stupid. I regret it now, but there you have it. If you google Cape Verde images you'll get some excellent, evocative pictures, and Cape Verde Peace Corps volunteers are great bloggers, so if my words here pique your curiosity, a little exploration will be fruitful.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Lazy Sunday

The day dawned windy, cool and cloudy, threatening rain. We made a quick, rather chilly run to the crab pots to bring them back. I didn't get much of a catch, about 16 crabs, but only half of them were of legal keeping size, so I let them all go. Eight crabs is not enough to do much with. Next time, when it's warmer....

It's a good thing we took the boat out when we did, because the rain started soon after we returned and hasn't stopped. Steve got a wild hair and decided to clean the house. I read the Sunday paper, then we sat down and watched one of the videos I made at home. (We have no TV reception here to speak of, so the only things we watch are DVDs, either from Netflix or ones I make by recording movies off the DVR at home and then transferring them to disc. I use RW discs, so I can simply reformat them after we watch a movie and reuse. It's a whole lot cheaper than going to a video store, and the selection--my own--is better!) This afternoon's choicce was "Madame Butterfly" by the New York City Opera. It has music we've all heard, but I had never seen the opera itself. How beautiful, and what a great tear-jerker!

I tried to get a lot of the Bette Davis movies TCM ran to celebrate her 100th birthday a few weeks ago. Maybe it'll be "All About Eve" tonight. We watched another Davis vehicle last night, "The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex," a 1939 Technicolor costume extravaganza featuring two of the biggest egos Hollywood ever produced, Davis and Errol Flynn. It was a hoot watching her camp it up as the Virgin Queen. No matter what role she played, she was always Bette Davis, all spastic mannerisms. She looked lost without a cigarette.

This is a perfect day for cozy, and one of the last we'll have for many months for cool-weather food. Tonight's dinner will be meatloaf. Yum! What could be better?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Life on the water, then and now....

It's been a good Saturday morning so far. We started off by going to our favorite breakfast joint, a little guilty-pleasure café that's attached to a small motel in downtown Rehoboth. We've been going there so long we know the maîtresse d'/proprietress, Bev. She greets us with hugs and while we pig out on frittatas and omelets she fills us in on the news about how business is doing in this tourist town. So far, not so good. Small business owners and large alike are noticing a reduction in their early-season receipts; they blame the tight economy and gas prices.

They have a point, of course, at least about the gas. Filling our 4 5-gallon gas cans to have on hand for the boat is more of a major outlay than it used to be--and gas prices here tend to be at least 20 cents cheaper than at home in DC. The cheapest we found here was $3.41 per gallon of regular. At home it's more like $3.65, at least when we left. Who knows what it will be when we get back? We try to fill up here and then run around at home on the gas we get here. We do so little driving at home, that's usually an achievable goal.

When we got back here to the trailer we took a beautiful boat ride to check the crab pots. I've caught less than a dozen in 24 hours, and some of those are too small to keep. I'll give it another day and if not many more make an appeaerance I'll just let them all go. This is a bit early for crabs, but this time last year I was catching enough to steam and use. More evidence of the depeletion of the crab fishery. (Crabbery?)

Fishing and crabbing were big parts of our family summers when I was a little kid. Both my parents, DC natives who grew up next to the Potomac and who also vacationed with their families into the wilds of the Chesapeake wetlands and its tributaries, were water-folk at heart, and wherever we vacationed, water and its fish were nearby. Depending on where we were, fishing either in the far, rural reaches of the Potomac River or the Chesapeake, in half a day we would bring home enough fish to make a good meal. My father and I cleaned the fish, and then my mother fried them up very simply, in flour, salt and pepper, and butter.

I wish now I had savored those meals more, because Steve doesn't like those little saltwater fish at all; I haven't had that simple feast in years. He'll eat crabs, but only in small doses, the ocasional crab cake. Homemade crab cakes are a rare delicacy for most people, and I have a good recipe. When we have company here, I like to serve them, but that means if we have a lot of company, that's too much crab for Steve. This calls for one of the many little compromises of married life; it's led me to experimenting with freezing crab meat. The first year, I simply put the picked meat, as is, into freezer containers. Thawing that batch in mid-winter yielded tough, dried-out meat much too strong in flavor to be palatable. Last year I tried freezing it in water. The thawed consistency of the meat was good, but it lost its flavor. This year, if I get enough to preserve, I'll try freezing it in a flavored brine. Maybe that's the trick!

Crabbing was a major highlight of my childhood vacations. We would tie chicken necks to lengths of string and toss them over the side of the pier. Soon, the string would become taut and appear to be floating out to sea. That meant a crab had grasped the chicken neck and was there for the taking--if you were careful! You had to pull the string in very slowly so the crab wouldn't notice it was moving. It always felt like you were catching a monster! String in one hand, a net in the other, you carefully scooped the crab off the bait as it became visible at the surface, and into a bushel basket it would go with its compadres. We'd catch at least a bushel in a day that way. I've tried crabbing off our pier here, but this is a small body of water. It's mostly a nursery for baby saltwater wildlife of various kinds...the crabs I've caught have all been too small to keep. Thus the boat rides out to bigger water. It's a tough job, but somebody has to take those glorious early morning rides on the mirror-smooth water......

Life is sweet.

Friday, April 25, 2008



Well, I hope you weren't holding dinner for this recipe! (Only kidding.) Another busy day next to the water, starting with putting out the crab pots, then cutting some firewood our neighbor gave to us, shopping, cleaning up the yard, etc., etc., etc. Before I know it, it was 3 o'clock. The day has been a bit chillier and more overcast than it was yesterday, but still pleasant enough. There's a chance of rain tomorrow, so it's a good think we've had these two days to finish the outside things. Later this afternoon we'll take the boat out one more time to see if any crabs have found our offering of stinky, oily fish irresistible.

These kebabs are a fun party dish. I don't usually enjoy making kebabs, what with all the tedious assembly, but these are so good and so much fun too eat I don't mind the work of putting them together. I say "fun" because the shrimp marinate and then cook in their shells, so they become finger food when it's time to eat them. You have to shell them like you would crabs or lobster--in my book, any meal that involves elbows on the table and playing with your food in order to eat it is a fun meal. Dignity and greasy fingers don't go together.

Notes: use whatever vegetables you like. The pearl onions are something of a pain to peel, but they are delicious grilled and marinated and a standard part of the dish. I used red bell peppers as an addition in the version in the picture; I've also used zucchini. Whatever you use besides onions, cut the vegetable into the size you want, zap it in the microwave for no longer than a minute, and then plunge it, still warm, into the marinade.

This is an adaptation from a recipe in

16 pearl onions
1 1/4 cups herb-garlic marinade (see below)
2 large red bell peppers, cut into 24 chunks
24 jumbo shrinp (about 1 1/2 lbs), shell on
8 10-inch wooden skewers
Boil onions in water to cover until just tender, 3-4 minutes. Remove from heat and pour off water. When just cool enough to handle, peel, leaving root ends intact. Place still-warm onions in 1/4 cup marinade. Marinate all day.

See note above about additonal vegetable. Place, warm, in marinade with onions.

Place unpeeled shrimp in remaining marinade. Marinate at least 1 hour and up to 4.

Soak skewers in water 30 minutes.

Drain shrimp, discarding marinade. In a seive set over a bowl, drain vegebables and reserve marinade for basting. Thread all ingredients evenly onto skewers. Kebabs may be assembled up to one hour ahead.

Grill kebabs on a lightly oiled rack set 5 to 6 inches over glowing coals until just cooked through, and lightly charred, about 3 minutes per side. (Alternatively, broil kekabs under pre-heated broiler 2 to 3 inches from heat about 2 1/2 minutes per side.

Drizzle cooked kebabs with reserved vegetable marinade and serve.

Herb-Garlic Marinade:
6 large garlic cloves
1/3 cup packed fresh thyme sprigs
1/4 cup packed tender fresh rosemary sprigs
1 cup fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 cups oilive oil
1 tsp. salt
Pepper to taste
Mince garlic, herbs and salt together in a food processor. Woody stems on the herbs are OK--they will not be eaten. Add lemon juice and olive oil to herbs in processor bowl and process until emulsified.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Greetings from Delaware

Surprise. We usually don't get away from home until Thursday afternoon, but Steve's boss told him to take the day off--he's attached electronically to the office no matter where he is anyway--so we left yesterday afternoon. Having this extra day is great.

It's glorious here, the temperature is in the 70s, and the sun is shining. We're doing the usual "fun work," getting annuals into their pots; Steve's setting up a weather station that shows wind speeds, rain amounts, etc., that I got him for Christmas. The "official" reason for the weather station is it will give us an idea of what the weather is like when we want to take boat rides. The real reason is that it's a cool toy. It hooks up to your computer so you can keep running, historical tabs.

We have a few more chores to do and then we'll take the boat out. We hope we can get all the way out to Rehoboth Bay this time to give the boat engine a good workout, and also see what's new out there, if anything. Due to the current scarcity (near depletion, really) of blue crabs, Delaware for the first time is requiring a license to catch them. I'll be in line to get my license (and catch crabs responsibly, of course). And I have to get some bait.

The big meetings yesterday at Steve's office didn't really settle anything, and in a perverse way that could be good news for us. TSA has until June 25 to award the new contract; to meet that date there are several preliminary things they should be doing now, which they are not. If they drag their feet--this wouldn't be the first time--that merely adds time to the current contract, which means, of course, everybody's employed that much longer. We can deal with that.

Enjoy, dear friends!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


I'm giving your eyes and my fingers a rest. I have plenty more stories to tell but will save them....we have all the time in the world, right? Outdoors calls today. It's been raining the past few days and after these morning clouds burn away the sun will make a welcome, warming return. The grass needs a haircut and weeds have been enjoying the damp weather, so there are jobs to keep me busy enough as an excuse to soak up the fragrant breezes.

I've just loaded up my new flash drive for the Delaware visits. This one is just as tiny, but it's silver. It should stand out among the black wires and casings and whatever else is in that black hole next to the computer in Delaware.

Steve made the cut for an interview for that job within the company. Wonder of wonders. Are they just going through the motions because that have to? We'll see....meanwhile, today is a series of meetings concerning the closeout of the project. We should get some timelines.

It's hump day! Get through this one and there's only two left. Hang in.........

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spirits and other fun people

Spiritualism, the belief that the spirits of the dead return to earth to commune with the living, was a big flapper-era fad. It popularized Ouija boards, and mediums--those who claimed to act as go-betweens who could facilitate communication with "the other side"--found a ready market among the great unwashed (and not so unwashed) American public. Most of these were debunked during the '20s by those who made it their mission to do so, thus saving the gullible from themselves; this exposure of frauds became the mission of the great magician Harry Houdini towards the end of his life, among others.

We don't hear much about it now, but a resurgence of interest in spiritualism was one of the things about the 1960s that made the decade so interesting and so much fun. Psychics once again held sway: Jeane Dixon, from right here in DC, wrote an auobiography, The Gift of Prophesy, in which she claimed accurate predicition of world events; she became a fairly regular presence on the talk shows of the time and the go-to girl for predicitions on everything from hurricane seasons to presidential elections. Jane Roberts produced a collection of books called the "Seth Series," which she claimed was dictated to her via automatic writing by an ancient spirit named Seth, who wanted to impart the wisdom of the ages to the enlightened generation of the time (read: Boomers). Ruth Montgomery, who remained active until her death in 2001, also channeled ancient spirits and wrote many popular books of predicitions of events to come and explanations of those past.

I ate all this up when I was in was in college. To me these phenomena were, and still are, not so much beliefs as tantalizing possibilities. No matter where this wisdom comes from, much of it makes sense in a down-to-earth, Ann Landers sort of way, and I can't help thinking that if people would just pay attention we might start treating each other better. I am too much of a skeptic to be snagged hook, line, and sinker on any such belief, but I love contemplating the possibilities, and I made explorations while I lived in Kentucky.

Kentucky, with its deep religious and spiritual traditions, is fertile ground for this kind of activity. Lou Spencer, my singing partner, told me about a woman in Lexington, a Mrs. Fightmaster, who did free readings. Many of Lou's friends swore by her, were regular visitors who designed their lives according to Mrs. Fightmaster's advice and predictions. I was as skeptical then as I am now, but I was also terribly curious, so I made an appointment.

A well-dressed, matronly and pleasant lady greeted me at her suburban neighborhood door. Once I got inside, the first thing I noticed was that her living room was filled with photographs that looked like a series showing the growth of a little girl into a woman. Mrs. Fightmaster told me both the girl and the woman were her daughter, who had died as a little girl many years before and made herself visible as she aged on the other side via these pictures. She demonstrated how she held photographic paper against her solar plexus and said that when the time was right, the pictures simply appeared. This was obviously her way of coping with an unfathomable loss; my heart went out to her and I said nothing to challenge her belief.

I am completely open to the proposition that anything is possible; that there is more to this existence than meets the average human eye, and that some people may have gifts that others of us do not. But when I sat down for my reading, I sensed that Mrs. Fightmaster knew she was dealing with a sightseer rather than a true believer. She tried very hard to impress me with her powers, but I was probably too much in a "testing" mode, unwilling to give her any clues about myself from which she may be able gain knowledge and present it as out of the ether. I do remember her telling me that I would have my parents with me for a very long time, and that did come true, but at the time it felt generic. She could say that to any young person and make them feel good. I was left respecting Mrs. Fightmaster's beliefs and the help she was able to give others, but not won over.

My boyfriend Ron was deeply into these phenomena--the hollers of Eastern Kentucky, with traditions of speaking in tongues and "getting the spirit," are open to them. He and his younger sister consulted the Ouija board regularly; they showed me the notes they took from their sessions. What at first appeared to be gobbledygook could actually be broken down into recongnizable words, which then coalesced into messages written in a biblical style but not necessarily from the bible. They seemed to be parables, from which it was left up to the reader to draw lessons. Ron's sister said she was psychic, and at a time when I was still a total stranger to her, I sat with her to see what she knew about me. I sat across from her at a table and she extended her right little finger, palm up. I touched the tip of her finger with my own. She concentrated very hard; I remember she described my father's red hair and the kind of car they had just bought. Then I asked her a question--I forget what--that made her think very, very hard, and she gave a little "mmph" in her effort. At the exact time of that "mmph," the lightbulb next to us exploded. I was impressed! This pretty little redheaded girl, still in high school, and not anything like a weirdo in her day-to-day life, could make lightbulbs explode with her sheer mental energy. If this was a gift, she seemed unimpressed by it. It was just something that happened sometimes.

Ron and I bought a Ouija board and started asking it questions. In the course of time, I had learned that Ouija spirits did not always have the best interests of their flesh-and-blood interlocutors at heart. Some were spirits in limbo, peeved that they hadn't yet been released to the next world, and got even by playing tricks on people, so my skepticism remained. Still, I loved the explorations into the unknown and was an eager participant, especially since Ron had such excellent "connections." Once we took the board to a cemetery and found a mausoleum with some dirt coming away from it, creating an opening--we could, if we'd had a flashlight, have looked into it. We sat next to the opening and summoned the spirit of the departed inside. His name spelled itself out on the board; then he said he would prove his existence by visiting us some night in our apartment. We laughed nervously to each other at that, and left. A few nights later Ron, scared out of his wits, swore he saw a mysterious light in the bedroom. I can't say I saw it.

I decided that the Ouija spirits had my number as a doubter the next time Ron and I sat down with the board. We positioned ourselves next to a window to allow easy entry to whomever we summoned. By this time I was worried about my life after college--would I be drafted? Would the Peace Corps come through? I asked Ouija this question of all questions, and the response spelled itself out: D-R-A-G-Q-U-E-E-N-I-N-C-I-N-C-I-N-N-A-T-I. Ron and I looked up from the board at each other. The horror in my face must have mirrored what I saw in his. This thing was talking to us and was not making nice! We threw the board away and never went to it again.

And I was never a drag queen. Anywhere.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Music Lessons

Music is in my DNA, there is no doubt. My parents not only loved music of all kinds, but they were both truly musical, both coming from long lines of parlor entertainers. My mother had a good singing voice and loved to sing the popular hits of her day. My father, on his banjo, could pick out the chords and accompany her. When they were young newlyweds in the early 1930s, they'd go to parties and my mother would be the entertainment. Somebody brought a mike and a speaker for the occasion, and she was in business. (Both my sister and I followed those footsteps exactly in our own lives later on. We never consciously set out to copy our mother; things just seemed to work out that way.)

A baby grand piano in our living room was like the sofa or the settee as I grew up, an unremarkable feature of the interior landscape. The piano I was born to was the one that followed me to this house: a Brambach from the 1930s. It was built during the hayday of "parlor entertainment," when people bought the sheet music of popular songs so they could perform them at home for their families amd friends. People played the piano in those days the way they play the guitar now; small piano manufacturers had a ready market and thrived. The Brambach was no great shakes as an instrument, but it was a pretty piece of furniture and muscially, it did the job. My parents bought it used in the 1940s before I was born.

My earliest memories are full of music. I'm either in the back seat of the car on a long drive with my head in my mother's lap as she sings "I'll Be Loving You, Always," or listening to my sister, who is either playing the pop songs of her 1950s teen years, or practicing for her lessons in the classics. Czerny's exercises roll rhythmically in my brain as I write this, and I love them.

I started piano lessons at the old Brambach when I was six years old. I was the first in an endless line of students my sister now teaches professionally. She introduced me to Middle C, F-A-C-E and Every Good Boy Does Fine, and ushered me through the earliest beginners' books. As I got older, however, that arrangement fell apart. She is a standard pianist who can play chords, automatically knowing where the inversions are on the keyboard and when to play the black keys and when the white, in which key. She tried to teach me these theory basics so that I would be able to entertain myself and others with pop songs, but for some reason it just didn't click. I'd get frustrated and start to cry when she'd lose patience. At that point our parents unburdened my sister and me of each other and I started to go to a professional teacher, Mrs. Wheeler.

Mrs. Wheeler drilled me in exercises (I learned my own Czerny!) and assigned me interesting pieces, but didn't overtly push theory. At that time, in my pre-teen years, I learned to play my assignments in a mechanical way, but I was either too young or too dumb to intuit how a given piece should "feel." After recitals, people would compliment me on my "interpretation" and the feeling I'd put into my playing, but honestly, I had no idea what they were getting at. As far as I was concerned I was just doing what Mrs. Wheeler told me to do.

I finally gave up piano lessons when I entered high school, and actually did no music at all until the 11th grade, when I started singing. Finally I found my true talent, and I really flourished. I auditioned, a complete unknown in the little world of Falls Church High School music, for the prestigious Madrigal Singers, and got in on my first try. Since the school's sports teams had reputations mostly for one ignominious defeat after another, my participation with the Madrigals and other choirs was as close as I ever got to high school jockdom.

I was in high school when I picked up the little plastic ukelele that had been gathering dust in our house for years, and with my father's help I easily learned those four-string chords. Lo and behold, where piano chord theory never clicked with me, I found I knew automatically which chords to play where in a song. Innumerable doors swung wide when I discovered that if you can play four basic chords, you could "play" (well, accompany) virtually any song. I quickly graduated from the uke to my father's banjo, and then decided to go whole hog and ask for a guitar. Enter my Sears Silvertone, Joan Baez, and a whole new identity for myself as a folk singer. For the longest time, I was Joan Baez, but Anglo and with short hair. (Oh. And male.)

The Brambach remained with my parents as they sold the old Falls Church homestead and moved to the house they built on the water south of town. My sister, by then married and established in her own life, also had her own, better piano; she had no interest in the Brambach beyond nostalgia. After college and the Peace Corps, and after my post Peace Corps "starving artist" years, when I finally got on my feet, the Brambach re-entered my life. It followed me here to 12th Street, where it took up an enormous space in this little house, but I still noodled on it occasionally, and actually taught myself to play a few things. I could play by ear as long as I stayed in the keys of C, F, or G. I borrowed all my sister's old sheet music and fooled around with that on occasional nostalgia trips. For a very long time I felt a loyalty to the old gargantua, keeping it tuned and repaired in spite of the professional opinion of the tuner, who told me there would come a time when the repairs really necessary on the piano would be more expensive than than what it was worth. As time went by, I played it less and less, and it became a space-hungry thing on which to display other things, family pictures, etc., and on which dust settled in abundance. I finally came to terms with the fact that I no longer harbored even a vestigeal impetus to play music, and then I realized that I owed the dear old piano as much kindness as it had given me. I put an ad on Craig's List and found a young family who wanted their daughter to learn to play the piano. I gave it to them.

I never really learned to "play" either the piano or the guitar. I can sight-read certain popular tunes on the piano, and if the music of a familiar classical piece is put before me, I can pick it out by sight---if it's easy enough. On the guitar, I am an excellent strummer and I learned the most interesting picks used by Baez. My purposes were accompaniment, that's all I was ever interested in learning, so I guess you'd call me a "rhythm guitarist." As for actually "playing" the guitar, picking out melodies and moving all over the neck like George Harrison or Eric Clapton? Never in a million years. Some people have a natural technique. They just "know" where to put their fingers for chords on the piano and melody on the guitar. I "know" what chord fits a melody--the purely musical part. But I have no technical facility at all, in spite of practicing until my fingers bled.

Can you imagine what your life would be without music? I can't. When I think of all the gifts from my family, music is standing on the shoulders of all the rest. For me, it's a necessity. I loved the performing and the composing that I did and am proud of them. Early on, performance gave me a place in the world when I needed one; now it enriches any musical experience I have because I empathize so closely with that person on the stage. I know what she's doing; I know what drove him there.

Once you've been bitten by the stage bug, you find any excuse to indulge it. They say singers will sing to the light in the refrigerator if they happen to have an off, non-performing day. Me, I'll give speeches, teach, or, now, write a blog. Audience? Just a few ears or eyes will do.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Transition Status

Those of you who started with me back in January (is it really that short a time?) know that the "transition" in the title of this space refers, on one level, to our hoped-for move from this house, where we have lived since 1981, to a new one, to be built on the little parcel we have in Delaware on Hopkins Prong, which is pictured at the top of the page. The move is to be financed by the proceeds from the sale of this house. On a much deeper level, we hope to transition into a completely new life. Steve would be able to retire at the end of next March; as a first step we have hoped to put this house on the market about this time next year.

I made a glancing reference yesterday to the idea that things in this regard are not looking so rosy at the moment. We're faced with two hurdles we were not planning on. One barrier, the slump in the housing market, has been sneaking up on us and is really not a surprise. Since our plan hinges on getting top dollar for this house, and the "top" seems to be lowering as time passes, we can adjust to the fact that we may have to wait maybe a year for things to settle down.

The other hurdle is much harder to deal with. It has to do with Steve's job. He works for a small California company which had contracted with the Transportation Security Administration to recruit and train all of its baggage inspectors. In the long run, the company decided, in spite of the enormous size of the contract, that it no longer wants the headache of dealing with the federal government and did not bid when the contract came up for renewal. So when the current contract ends, Steve is out of a job. That would be bad enough, but it's worse because, as a company chartered by the California state government, there are certain benefits open to employees who spend, or can administratively buy, enough time with it. As things with the contract wind down, Steve will be 59 years old and within mere months of grabbing that brass ring of vestment. He has asked the company if they will allow him to purchase--at his own expense--the additional months of credited service to reach his goal, and they have said "no." Both the company and the state itself have thrown up one block after another, telling him why things cannot be done rather than seeking creative solutions to his unique situation.

Another job within the company? It's a very tiny operation and is scaling back; besides, there is bad blood between the company and this despised TSA project to the extent that it's looking as if they simply want to wash their hands of the entire experience, employees on the project included. A job has in fact opened, and Steve has applied for it, but we aren't optimistic.

The result of all this is that Steve, approaching age 60, will be searching for a new job at a time when he is ready to call it a day, and not only that, he may have to stay with it well into his 60s in order to receive any benefits from it.

Needless to say, this is a rough time. The days are still 24 hours; life continues with its day-to-day comforts and irritations. But this huge dislocation hangs over everything and is proving very hard to adjust to. Next Wednesday will be important, we think. Concrete plans for the close-out of the project should be presented, along with timelines. We may find out how much longer Steve will be employed with the project.

So there is this new backdrop to the scribblings I share with you. I'm not one to stay down for long, and our visits together will continue as they've always been. I need this expressive outlet and am grateful for the eyes that bother with it. Steve is devastated and coping as best he can. I can be and will be here to help him, but it's frustrating to realize that it's his journey and there is only so much I can do.

I hope the next time I write about The Transition it will be with good news. To quote a song of Édith Piaf: "Tant qu'il y a de la vie, il y a de l'éspoir"--as long as there's life, there's hope.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Spring Fever

I think we can safely say spring really has sprung here in the mid-Atlantic states of the USA. All of the delights, all the headaches, and all the work attached thereto have presented themselves in one neat package, yesterday and today.

I did a careful check of all my weather report sources and saw that the temperatures will no longer be dipping below 50F in the forseeable future, so that gave me permission to get the plants out of the house and onto their summer home on the deck. Friends, we're talking plants. Some of them have been with me for nearly 30 years, before I even knew Steve, and have become specimens--huge Christmas and Easter cacti, a common mother-on-law's-tongue that must weigh around 40 lbs. and every summer treats us to spiky flowers with an incredible scent redolent of cloves and cinnamon, a jade that started with a few sticks stuck in dirt and is now a bush, and a tree from the Caribbean island of Saint Lucia whose name I don't know but whose seeds filled every crevice of our suitcases after a 2004 trip there, and I planted. It's about 5 feet tall now. (No, we did no illegal importations. We didn't even know the buggers were in there until we started unpacking.)

Most of these plants live in the only sunny room we have in the winter, the upstairs bathroom where the jacuzzi is. The day will come when I can no longer carry these mothers up and down the steps, and I dread it, because parting with them will be very hard. We had hoped this might be the last trip down before our move; in a new house they'd have their own dedicated sunroom, but things aren't looking too optimistic on that front these days, so....I guess I can keep carrying them for a year or two more. It's only two days out of a year, after all, a trip down and then a trip back up.

So the plants are out, which leads to cleaning the house. A phenomenon I forget every year is that it is exactly at this moment that the big oak next door starts releasing its pollen. No sooner is every surface in the house cleaned than it is covered with silver-yellow tree spunk. That'll go on for weeks.

(Just so I don't forget the "delight" category: Steve cut flowers from the lilacs and put them in vases all over the house, so the place is filled that indescribable but instantly recongnizable scent. Wonderful.)

And then back to work: this morning I planted red and yellow petunias on the terrace bed along the street, and then went to the back and weeded, raked, and generally cleaned up that part of the garden that will be grassed over. Steve painted (oh yes, that's still going on!) while all this was going on. When we were done, we had planned a trip to Homo Depot to get stuff we need for that new grass, but we called a halt. We'd never have got to that job today, and rain is promised for a good part of next week starting tomorrow, so we had an excuse to stop.

The picture at the top is the happy discovery of the day: my rhubarb is struggling to make a reappearance after all. That is what survived the heat and drought of last year. I'm amazed--this is very late for rhubarb--and I am coddling it like a sick child. We may have rhubarb pie from the garden yet!

Dinner tonight: Grilled chicken that's been marinated in lemon juice, salt, sugar and garlic. It's a Brazilian dish I learned in Cape Verde (a former Portuguese colony). I'll take pictures. Soon you'll be eating it, too!

Friday, April 18, 2008



I've been anxious to share this fantastic dessert ever since I started doing these things, but I had to wait until I made it again so I could get a picture of it. That chance came when we had our company last weekend. It's so good that it's edging out all the other desserts in my repertoire.

This beautful treat has a great back story. The recipe is my adaptation from the one in Tender at the Bone, the first memoir by the current editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl. (This is a breezy read, chock-full of laughs and recipes, and you finish wanting to meet Reichl in some cozy spot for coffee and maybe some raspberry tart. I've read all of her books since.)

Ruth Reichl's family life growing up is an example of why we needed the word "dysfuntional." Her mother was what was in those days called "moody," later diagnosed as bi-polar. In her manic states, she would plan parties which became ever bigger and more elaborate, and her idea of cooking for them meant dumping literally everything in the refrigerator and cupboards into a pot, regardless of their nature or condition, cooking it up, and presenting the result as an "invention." More than once, guests became ill. As a matter of survival, Ruth had to learn to cook very early, and what started as a necessity became a passion.

When Ruth was 15, her mother decided that the only way Ruth would learn French properly was to live for a summer in France. So Ruth had a summer abroad, but it was not the usual family stay. Her mother found her a job at a girls' summer camp on the island of Oléron, on the French Atlantic coast. One day Ruth played hookey from work and hiked out to the countryside. Along the way, she stopped at a farmhouse, where she was given a piece of this tart by its originator, the farm's proprietress, who also gave her the recipe. This is truly a dish à la bonne femme, the French country housewife cooking which gave rise to the great national cuisine everyone knows.

Notes: if you're intimiated by pastry making, let this be your reason to get over it. The result is so worth the trouble. Over the years I've become pretty fair at making crusts, but I admit this one is tricky. It has sugar in it, which can make it sticky. The only moisture in it is one egg yolk and some cream, so it's dry and hard to make it hold together. I've found that adding a small amount of water makes life a lot easier and the finished product is fine. The secret: cold temperature. Make sure the butter is fresh from the refrigerator when you work it into the dry ingredients, chill the dough at least an hour before rolling it out (this allows the moisture to distribute evenly), and roll it out cold. Also, the short step of kneading the finished dough before refrigerating it is a huge help. It develops the gluten in the flour just enough to help it keep its shape.

Make the tart early in the day. It can sit, covered, at room temperature until the last step, just before serving.

Equipment: 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom.

1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
¼ lb. chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 Tbsp. cream
1 egg yolk
Icewater as needed
¾ cup blanched almonds
¾ cup sugar, divided
3 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
3 egg yolks
1 tsp. vanilla extract
4 cups raspberries, divided
2 Tbsp. raspberry preserves
1 Tbsp. water

Preheat oven to 350F

Sift flour, sugar and salt together into bowl. Add butter cubes and toss lightly with until butter is coated, then cut butter into dry ingredients until mixture resembles cornmeal.

Mix cream and egg yolk and pour into flour mixture. Mix lightly with a fork until pastry holds together in a small ball. If not moist enough, add a tablespoon or so of icewater to bring it together.

Place dough on floured work surface. Knead lightly but thoroughly, about a minute, then gather dough into a ball, flatten it into a disc, wrap in plastic wrap and let rest in refrigerator at least 1 hour.

When ready to work, remove wrap and place pastry disc on floured work surface. Flour rolling pin. Roll cold dough into an 11-inch circle. (Roll firmly from the center of the dough, turning slightly with each pass to keep it as much as possible in a circular shape. If dough starts to split at the edges, moisten where the split is, draw the edges together, and press.) When the needed size is reached, roll dough onto pin, then unroll off of pin into tart pan. Press dough into corners and trim off overhang.

Blind baking: Cover pastry in pan with foil or parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake 20 minutes. Remove foil and weights and bake 4-5 minutes more, until golden.

Leaving oven on, remove baked shell and allow to cool on rack while making filling.

Put almonds and 3 tablespoons of the sugar in food processor and grind to a fine powder. Cream softened butter with remaining sugar until fluffy. Add egg yolks, stirring until smooth. Add ground almond-sugar mixture and vanilla extract.

Spread almond cream into bottom of cooled tart shell.

Carefully place 2 cups raspberries over almond cream. Sprinkle with 2 teaspoons sugar, bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes. Remove from oven and cool at least 2 hours. (See note above about making early.) When pan is cool enough to handle, removed ruffled cuff from bottom and, if the tart moves around on the pan bottom easily, slide it onto serving dish. If there seems to have been some sticking and it won't slide, that's OK; leave the tart on the pan bottom.

Just before serving: make a glaze by placing preserves and water in a large microwave-proof bowl and heating to combine into a syrup. Remove bowl from microwave, add remaining 2 cups fresh berries, and toss so they are evenly covered with glaze. Distribute over tart and serve.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hair Today, Here Tomorrow?

We got haircuts last night. Our hair guys, Frank and Rick, used to have a shop, but the rent on it got too high, so they went on the road instead. Now, instead of their clients going to them, they come to their clients in their homes. They've been doing this for a good ten years now, and for a while, when they first started the new business, we had friends and neighbors lined up for Friday night "haircut parties" at six-week intervals. The boys cleaned up! Things have calmed down considerably by now, but still, the regular visit is always fun and a time to catch up with these two men who have become old and true friends.

At age 62, I'm glad to say I still have a decent head of hair. It seems to be thinning exactly as father's hair did, only at the front corners, leaving a widow's peak. (You can't see it because I don't comb my hair--I cut it short enough to just wash it and then dry it by running my fingers through it--what there is in front just hangs down.) My father had auburn hair which retained most of its color throughout his life. In hair color, I am now, as always, taking after my mother. We both had almost black hair in our youth. At my current age it's a gunmetal color, and I expect it to become a blazing white as I get older. I'm not complaining.

I confess to a certain lifelong vanity about my hair. I've always liked it. When I was a kid I always wanted it longer than my parents thought proper for a boy, although they did hold out the option that if I would "train" it (meaning always comb it back in a pompadour the way my father did) I could have it long. But I liked it floppy, so off it came. I was stuck with flat tops and "butch" cuts through high school. When I was in college and The Beatles came along and liberated men's hair, I and many others rejoiced, felt almost vindicated. No grease, no barbers, just h-a-i-r. There was even a Broadway show about it! When I finally was able to let my hair grow really long, shoulder-length, though, I discovered that it had a tendency to grow out as well as down. I'd end up with a look similar to the onion domes on St. Basil's cathedral in Moscow. So barbers and I have always maintained an acquaintance, and thinning shears for the sides are welcome.

I said all that to say this: For the life of me, I don't get the current--what, shame?--men have been taught to feel about hair. I'm talking about hair elsewhere on their bodies, places where men are supposed to have hair, their chests, their legs--where in the world did this fetish for depilation come from? At first blush it would seem to be a phenomenon limited to a fussy segment of the gay culture (the "gay asthetic" is something I don't understand intellectually but of whose existence I am aware), but it doesn't seem to be limited to any particular group. Instead, it's everywhere. Women tell their men they don't like the hair on their bodies, so we are treated to the sight of shaved, waxed, or otherwise de-nuded male flesh in gyms and on beaches. Until now, the only person in my life I'd ever seen who had no hair whatsoever was a late cousin of mine who went bald during childhood because of a bout with scarlet fever. That was an acceptable excuse for which she (yes, a woman) was given sympathy. Nowadays, sympathy would be the last reaction she'd garner. More likely, she'd be envied.

Men in our culture, from the bumbling sitcom husband to the supposed oaf who thinks only between his legs, often get a raw deal. Maybe this body hair thing is meant in some perverse way to "civilize" men, to mitigate the supposed threat of their manliness. But I say, if a lion can have his mien, a man can keep whatever hair he was meant to have. It's his birthright. Does this make me a men's libber?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Daily Obligation

This morning I got out for the first good walk I've been able to take in a couple of weeks, what with the sad weather we'd been experiencing and the not-very-walker-friendly environs of the Delaware hovel. I felt the long time since a workout. Pains that aren't usually quite so pronounced spoke up a bit more clearly. Breathing was a tad more labored. It is amazing how the human body is subject to entropy just like everything else in creation. If you're not working it with some regularity it'll just fall apart on you. The flip side is the miraculous difference a little activity can make in how you feel.

I am a product of the frumpy 50s. We Boomers (or almost Boomers) have witnessed a sea change in American attitudes towards physical fitness--when I was growing up, if somebody was seen running in the streets in their shorts they were either crazy or escaping a break-in. Oh, there were some exercise gurus making themselves heard--local DC TV had a show called "Inga's Angle" in the mornings. In 30 minutes, Inga showed housewives how to make a good pot roast for hubby, and then slipped into a pair of leotards and demonstrated calisthenics. And of course there was always Jack LaLanne in his jump suit. I confess even back then I found Jack much more, um, interesting to watch than Inga, but it wasn't thoughts of good health that he engendered.

Through elementary school, regimented exercise was something I just had to get through. Then came high school and gym class. I was terrible at all things "gym," and the taunting and bullying I received were remoreseless and incessant; my attitude towards any kind of organized exercise was least colored, if not altogether ruined, for life. It took a very long time for me to realize in an enlightened, self-interested way that exercise was good for me. It had something to do with the heavy smoking habit I had developed and an attempt to mitigate the damage I knew that was doing. I looked for things I could do on my own without the embarrassment of having witnesses. Remember the Canadian Air Force exercises? They were a series of calisthenics done in a certain order every day for 15 to 20 minutes, including push-ups and running in place. I did them for several years and really felt they did me good--but of course back then I still had the metabolism of a 30-year-old and couldn't have gained weight if I tried, so whatever cosmetic advantage I thought I was getting was purely imaginary. (And as for fitness: as soon as I was done with the exercises, I'd reward myself with a cigarette.) Real, outdoor exercise, in the form of these walks I take, really didn't enter my life until I hit my 40s, and my always slim "drink of water" physique started giving way to middle-age spread. I stopped smoking in 1984 and my metabolism went crazy. I started having to buy pants and shirts in sizes I'd never dreamed I'd find myself in. Vanity, thy name is gay man--although I swore to myself I was more interested in the health effects of exercise than the shallow cosmetic.

Whatever. I started walking the hills here in South Arlington and have kept it up more-or-less regularly (with a couple of admittedly lengthy hiatuses) for over 20 years. There is no question that I am in the best cardiovascular shape of my life, and, while it is not the complete answer to weight control, it certainly helps. And there's an ineffable result, too: I just feel good when I do it. That's priceless.

For a few years now, I've been thinking I need to work on my upper body and get some strength training in, but I can't bear the thought of paying hundreds of dollars for a trainer. I know I don't have to do that--all I really need is some hand-held dumbbells for my limited purposes, but so far I haven't pushed myself in that direction. Well, it took me 40 years to start what I'm doing now in earnest. Maybe, just maybe, if I keep it up, I'll have another 40 years to think about it! You think?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


I'm back in my cramped little computer chair, ready to--excuse the expression--blog! I've figured out the odd feeling of dislocation I was going through the last few days: I missed this! It was like being on a vacation from a job you like and wouldn't mind getting back to. This, my friends, is a totally new experience for me. I love the whole Delaware thing and know that it is nothing but an enhancement to my life, but so is this daily dose of concentration and stringing words together, and of sharing music, and of checking in on the creativity of the other cool people I've discovered in this virtual world. The two aren't at all mutually exclusive, but they sure are different! Here, we can be totally self-indulgent, say what we want, play the songs we like, and know there's somebody out there who enjoys the products of our indulgence. Out in the physical world we have to be a bit more circumspect and make room for others. I'm getting spoiled in this virtual place.

It's a bit warmer here than it was 135 miles east, by the water, but still coolish. It looks very, very inviting outside and if I got to work on something out there I know I'd be in my shirtsleeves soon enough. The grass is a tall, thick green after its mowing just last week--needs to be cut again. The daffodils blasted while I was away and need to be dead-headed. Rosebuds are forming. The lilac is just about ready to burst and is giving off its heavenly scent; flowerbuds are showing on the peonies and I'll be looking every day for buds on the irises. I'm actually a bit anxious about the irises because I thinned them two autumns ago and they didn't come back very strong last year. They seem to be doing better this year. Among the newer hybrids are progeny of the old-fashioned Dutch irises my mother planted in the yard of the house I grew up in, and others she planted in the 1970s at their retirement place by the water. You never can tell what you're taking up and discarding when you thin. I hope plenty of my mother's plants are'll be a tragedy if they're gone.

OK, that other world awaits and I must go see where I best fit into it at the moment. But it's great to be truly "virtual" again!

Monday, April 14, 2008

Coasting to normal

Things are settling down to a bit more normal now, with company gone and Steve rested up from the trip and looking for projects. Unfortunately, the cold snap being felt further up the east coast has hit here, too. The sun is very bright and the breeze is brisk, but it's cold. Too cold to do much of anything outside. I guess we'll do a bit of vegging.

Our guests while they were here, and Steve, as he set up this wi-fi capable office laptop, looked for the flash drive. Nope. You'd be amazed at how tiny the space is and how impossible it would seem to lose something in it. But that sucker's gone!

Tomorrow we head back to city life. I'll buy a new flash drive (so glad they're cheap!) for the next trip here, and I'll once again have the time to visit properly. The eclectic pundit has tons of space-intensive stuff up I can't wait to have the selfish time to dawdle over...

I've said a similar thing before but it bears repeating: the introduction of the computers was one thing; the creation of virtual communities spawned by broadband internet connection on those computers, in the short space of 10 or 15 years, is amazing. The doomsayers were telling us we'd be isolated by the phenomenon, but I feel far from that. My life was just fine bb (before broadband), but now it's enriched in ways unimaginable such a short time ago. I took to life after broadband as naturally as a bird to wing, so quickly that I seem to have taken all that enrichment for granted until it was closed to me for these past few days. Today broadband again. Tomorrow, music!

The grass truly is greener, at least in some ways....

Sunday, April 13, 2008

A Busy Day!

Sorry for this late post, and there won't be much because I haven't had the luxury of time to do much thinking of any great interest, and, reading my last few entries I realize I am slipping into mere reportage of the mundanities of my life. That's not why I'm doing this and certainly not what I wanted to show you by inviting you here.

And I'm really feeling bereft in this place without music.

So suffice to say Steve got in OK, we had a wonderful day showing our guests around, and that's about it. Thanks for stopping by. I'll be back Tuesday.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Gearing up

Just a short hello today. Things for me are starting to move as I get ready for Steve's return and the arrival of our guests. I'm mostly busy with the do-aheads for dinner--marinating, making a salad, etc. (It's gorgeous here as I write, and I've decided to do the grill thing--the kabobs--whether it rains or not. Worse comes to worst, I can stick 'em under the broiler.)

Steve called from the Austin airport to say that he was checked in and had a seat assignment but, two hours before takeoff, there were no planes on the tarmac by the gate. And his isn't the first flight of the day from Austin to DFW. I've set up an account with American Airlines to email me of the status of the final flight, DFW-DCA. If by some miracle he actually makes it all the way to Washington, he still faces a three-hour drive here, only to face a big dinner and company. As often happens, this weekend could have been better planned. Still, there's no nicer place to be tired.

Regardless of how things turn out, I'm looking forward Steve's eventual return, the company, and the FOOD! I'm ready for a party. Think of "Quarter to 3" by Gary "U.S." Bonds and "Dancin' in the Street" by Martha and the girls.

It's Saturday! Do enjoy your day.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Oh yeah........... is Friday, isn't it? Isn't there supposed to be something about food in this space? Well, there'll be no recipe today because the picture of the food I was going to tell you about was on the flash drive. I've literally torn this little corner apart looking for the thing, dismantled a bed, moved the desk, cleared the floor of everything, cleaned off the top of the desk. No tiny plastic stick to be found. Maybe when some other eyes arrive tomorrow, it will miraculously appear to them. But I'm giving up.

So I'm cut loose even from that routine. Somehow the scenery and location have separated the days of the week from their usual meanings anyway (I had actually forgotten there was supposed to be a recipe today until I sat down to write), and the week itself has lost its rhythm. That's not such a bad thing, but since the scenery and location are temporary, and new meanings and rhythms won't have the time to affix themselves to anything, what's left is a state of limbo. I'm in-between, left free to do what I want.

The way things are turning out, I'm doing what I actually imagined I would be. I'm sitting at the keyboard with an extra cup or two of coffee, occasionally glancing up at the placid water outside. There's the call of a lone crow--that comic "uh-oh!" sound crows make that makes you think they've found something suspicious--and a goose just went honking its way down the prong towards the ocean. A squirrel got Ivy-cat's attention by gnawing on a hickory nut right outside the front door.

Temperatures in the mid-70s are promised for today, so I know these heavy jeans will be jettisoned for a pair of shorts, and maybe even a tank top. I'll drive into Rehoboth and take a walk around the village and then down to the boardwalk. Tomorrow, I'll be cooking for the first time this week and that will be fancy company food, either a shrimp and chorizo "paella"/risotto made with arborio rice, or, depending on the weather, grilled shrimp kabobs with couscous. So contingency shopping for both recipes beckons. (Dessert will be the same either way: Ruth Reichl's Raspberry Tart Oléron from her memoir, Tender to the Bone. More on that next Friday, I promise.)

To be perfectly honest, this feeling of being un-moored takes me some getting used to. I wrote elsewhere a while back that I am an unapologetic creature of habit. I think I grew so tired of uncertainty during those 10 years of floundering on the edge of poverty that led up to my present life, that when I could, I dove headlong into the cushy folds of security and never cared to look back. Occasional chinks in that so-called security over the years, mostly minor but some major, have given me first-hand knowledge that we really own nothing in life--it's all borrowed, to be passed on when we do. It's a healthy attitude to have, even if I don't remember it every day. A day like today is a reminder; it's a day to be made the best of. Book idea: The Joys of Limbo. Somebody probably already wrote it in the 70s.

My friend Ravel had a great idea to substitute for the missing music: suggest songs for people to remember rather than actually hear. So for Food Friday, think of Helen Forrest's saucy rendition of "Tangerine" (OK, she was really singing about a woman from Tangier, not the fruit, but on a lawless day like today we can take some chances), and Dean Martin's recipe for remembrance, "Memories Are Made Of This."

There. If that was fun for you, put in a note of thanks to Ravel.

Thursday, April 10, 2008


Well, unless some miracle happens I won't be posting any music while I'm here in Delaware. I've had a rather ridiculous past couple of hours during which the following took place: I thought there was no USB port for my flash drive on this computer, discovered there was a whole four-socket USB hub, plugged the flash into that, upon which all the blue lights on the hub stopped twinkling, making me think I broke it. I pulled the flash put of the hub, and the lights twinkled again. Thank God. Then the flash dropped out of my fingers. And I can't find it anywhere. This computer is a borrow from Steve's office, so I've been in email back-and-forths with the tech support woman, who happens to be the one who will be visiting us this weekend. It was from her that I learned what a USB hub is. These infernal blue lights have been blinking forever and I never knew what they were. She's been very nice dealing with my inanities, perhaps because she knows she will be eating well in a couple of days.

Meanwhile, Steve's at his training in Austin, Texas, which he flew to, and plans on flying from on Saturday, on American Airlines. You know, the one cancelling more than half of its flights because of badly bundled wires.

The sun finally came out here after an extremely foggy and dreary morning, and things now, on the way to 1 pm, are warming up beautifully, and that's how it's looking outside now, too: beautiful. When I'm done here I will do a bit of raking outside just to enjoy the day and get myself moving a bit. It's not easy to take my regular walks here, unfortuinately, so I have to find some other ways to get my heart rate a bit elevated. (I accomplished that with the flash drive fiasco, of course, but that had more to do with blood pressure.)

It is utterly silent here except for the AA-battery powered ticking of various clocks and tide indicators. There aren't even any waterbirds outside to make their welcome noises. The local NPR station is doing a fund drive, and since it's such a small donor area here they seem to go on and on with their begging, making for rather unsatifying radio. I'll turn on the ipod if things get really bad. And I have a lot of movies to watch.

I can remember when I was a little kid, how I hated it when my parents went out, leaving me alone in the quiet house. My folks never went far in those days--just across the street, in fact--and my mother's laugh was so loud that you could hear it all over the neighborhood in the summer, when the windows were open. Still, I'd have to call where they were just to say "hi," or make up some pretext. I felt silly doing it but was comforted to hear my mother's voice on the other end.

How the worm turned! When my teenage rebellion finally came, it was in a very healthy dose. It got so I could hardly stand to be around my parents. As I moved into my teens, I relished the entire weekends I'd have alone when my parents built a house on the water forty miles away and would visit it, leaving me on my own. Things stayed that way until I was well into my 30s, and then we were able to stand each others' company again. I'm so glad that happened. We were a "normal" family after all!

I will now do one more search for my little flash drive--it's so frustrating because it has to be here, and can only be in a small space, too.......then, if I don't find it, I'll just have to give up to maintain my sanity. Raking some leaves will help with that, too. Sorry for the silence.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Headed Out

I'm so efficient! I managed to compress all the weekly chores into two days so I can hit the road for Delaware today, when I'm done writing this. Of course, there are still a few things that need to be done around here. The house is beyond ready for a dusting and a few sweeps of a wet mop. But with Steve having stopped in the middle of a paint job two weekends ago and things thus in somewhat of a state of disarray, and with it being only a matter of days before I get all these everlovin' plants out of here to their summer home on the deck, this prompting a major spring clean, I managed to quell my conscience and leave the house in the condition it's in. Besides, I'll be doing my share of cleaning once I hit the trailer in Delaware. (I'm not proud. I'll grasp gratefully at any excuse to get out of cleaning the house!)

The trickiest part of taking these drives to Delaware is dealing with the cats. Over the years they've become adept at recognizing what I call "trip movements"--the particular things we do as we prepare to leave. The piling of things next to the door, trips in and out to the car, bringing the cooler in from the garage to pack food---I haven't yet figured out exactly which of these things is the definitive clue for them, but something lets them know. Once the jig is up, they hide. Before they have a chance to savvy up, we block off their favorite hiding place (and so the worst for us), the furnace room in the basement, where their litterbox is. It's got plenty of spaces behind and above things they can squeeze into, safe from being picked up like kittens--the very idea!--and unceremoniously dumped into the back seat of the car. They could really hide for weeks in that room and we'd never find them.

Once they're in the car there is some anxiety at first, but they eventually settle down. Every stop, though, makes them think we're "there," and they start climbing all over, wanting to get out. A traffic jam with lots of stops and starts is the worst. Thank goodness, that seldom happens and the trip is usually pretty smooth. It always amazes me how they know when we're reaching our destination. Even though they've only glimpsed the scenery whizzing by from a car window, they know the lay of the land and get very excited when we arrive. Then, when we get where we're going, they have to be picked up again and taken into the house. They treat this like another indiginity, but of course they have no choice in the matter. (Ivy, the little black and white one, objects to being picked up only in this one circumstance, when we're traveling. Normally he's game for any kind of play we can think of. At twelve, he's as much a kitten as when we got him; none of that old "peel me a grape" attitude for him. Steve, especially, he follows around like a puppy, because Steve is where the fun is, Steve's the treat guy and the one who gives him swing rides back and forth between his legs. He misses Steve when he's on these trips. I give him his treats, but Steve I'm not.)

When next we meet it will be via an aircard connection at the trailer. Here's hoping I have the patience to post!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Book Meme

I was tagged with a meme by Keep the Coffee Coming.

Here are the rules:

1. Pick up the nearest book.
2. Open to page 123
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people and post a comment to
Mickey once you have posted it. (I couldn't find where to post the comment though)

A book that's been sitting in my "to read" pile for a very long time is The Good Times, a memoir by old school journalist Russell Baker about his life in newspapers. Page 123 happens to be the first page of Chapter 11, which deals with his boss at The Baltimore Sun, Neil H. Swanson. Here are sentences 6, 7, and 8.

Among other extraordinary claims to singularity, Swanson boasted that at the age of twenty-two he had served as a World War I army officeron detached duty with a French outfit called the chasseurs à pied.

Swanson's imperial military manner and boyish pleasure in pushing people around to show who was boss contributed to making him villain-in-chief of the Sun. On a paper that esteemed dignity, understatement, and the diffident manner, Swanson's theatrical antics and determination to make life a melodrama in which he was the star were bound to sour the atmosphere.

I tagged
the eclectic pundit, Nan at Jade Page Press, and Cuidado at Cre8tive1.

God Shuffled His Feet: Crash Test Dummies

Just one song today. This is the closing credit music for "God Said, 'Ha!'." A beautiful song that puts everything into perspective--especially us.

Lyrics are here.

MP3 File

Continuing Education

I've been busy today. Thinking hard about what words might flow from my fingertips and coming up completely empty, I finally did what I've found is best when I'm trying very hard to do something: stop trying. I put my so-important writings out of my mind and set about the morning's chores. Got the lawn mowed! Picked up a piece of glass I ordered!

Then, just for curiosity, I came up here to the 'puter and started browsing through the various links on my friends' blogs. Took a flying leap into the deep blogosphere. I quickly discovered what a rarity is our little blog family (let's call Kat the Great Blogmother), in that we are not angry; we are not trying to impress each other with our indignation; we do not seem to be a bunch so full of ourselves as to think our opinions on The Great Issues matter a flying rat's ass. All we're doing is trying to spread a little joy with our music and tell some good stories.

My God, so many commentators! It seems as though the hubris of our leaders has rubbed off onto a large segment of the (somewhat) literate populace and given us all license to bombastically blather and bloviate. And, cave dweller that I guess I am, until today I had thought it was just the wingnuts on the right who specialize in this stuff. Lo and behold, my fellow-traveler lefties are just as rabid. Cable news, what have you wrought? The screaming of opinions has become a way of life.

After that scorching, uncleansing bath, I left the computer for the TV and sat down to watch a show I recorded. I had heard of but never seen "God Said, 'Ha!'," a monologue by the former SNL "Pat," Julia Sweeney. (I know, it's ten years old by now and I'd never seen it--like I said, I live in a cave.) She chronicles the abrupt changes she went through after moving to California, looking forward to starting a new life after a divorce, only to have her brother diagnosed with cancer, her parents move into her little house with her, and then be diagnosed with cancer herself while she is looking after her brother. It's beautifully done; you find yourself laughing at things you never found funny before, and in the end deeply moved. It was the perfect antidote to the unpleasantness of the morning's earlier walk on the wild side.

If you're in need of a little humility and want to know where your important opinions fit into the larger scheme of things, get this show from Netflix. "God Said, 'Ha'." Julia Sweeney.

Monday, April 7, 2008


It's still raining, and I'm about ready to yell "uncle!" It's the kind of weather you just know would warm up if only the sun could break through the clouds. Alas, a glance at accuweather doesn't give much hope for the rest of the week. I hope it dries up long enough for me to at least mow the lawn before I'm out of here for nearly a week starting Wednesday.

This weather made me think about a time when I actually enjoyed rain. That was in Ghana, during the rainy seasons. In West Africa, the rainy season is the time you can count on a major downpour at least once a day, usually in the late afternoon. There are actually two rainy seasons in the part of Ghana I lived in: April through June, and September through November.

Sometimes storms came earlier than late afternoon. If you were a teacher and they came while you were still in school, your job came to a temporary halt. The picture above is part of the classroom block of the school where I taught, Kumasi High School. (It's since moved.) You can't really tell from the picture, but those roofs are corrugated metal, the roofing material used almost universally in the country, at least at that time, and they were not insulated. When rain came, there was such an enormous racket that teachers literally could not make themselves heard over it. All you could do was go to the door or a window and marvel at the rain. Even the students, who had known this phenomenon all their lives, were in awe of this huge power. It was a wonderful shared experience.

Usually, though, the rains came while I was at home. My house had that same kind of metal roof, and it also had a veranda. I would always take a chair out to the veranda and just sit and enjoy the rain. It was soothing, the ultimate white noise, and the cooling breeze was delicious.

Now that was rain. It came, it did its awesome thing, and then it left. I wish this dreary weather we're having here now would take a hint and do the same thing.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Just Me and the Animals

I'm a bachelor this week. Steve's office sprung for a week-long training seminar for him in Austin, Texas and he left for it this morning. So it's me, the two cats and the old yellow cichlid swimming around in his 5-gallon apothecary jar. I'll head for Delaware on Wednesday--nothing to keep me here (the cats will go with me; the fish can fend for himself for a few days). I'll be getting the place ready for our first overnight guests of the season, who will be arriving on Saturday. It won't take all that time to spruce the place up, but I'd rather be there by the peaceful water than rattling around here all week. Steve will fly into National Saturday and drive himself to Delaware from there.

Growing up, I never imagined I'd get married. I've always been solitary by nature and my vision of the future never included another person. That changed to some degree in my early 30s when I was hit suddenly and unexpectedly with a strong desire to nest. I wanted somebody else in my life and found myself willing to make many compromises to make a relationship work. Steve came along and was ideal in so many ways...not the least of which was his own strong sense of independence. We have fashioned a relationship in which we remain very much our own persons--two single people making up a whole that's bigger than its parts. The relationship itself is our offspring and the thing that is paramount between us. We've had serious trials--all couples do--but the thought of leaving has never felt like an option.

When I was single, I was "serially monogamous." I know I survived the brunt of the AIDS epidemic--"the gay plague"--because I was never a bar-hound, never dealt in promiscuous liaisons; never even did any drugs beyond alcohol and the (very occasional, always supplied by someone else) joint. When I was on my own I was perfectly happy. If I got into a relationship I had to get used to being part of a couple, and then I enjoyed that while it lasted. When the inevitable breakup came, that was hard, and I had to get used to being single again. Which I did. And so went the cycle. I was happy either way once I got used to whatever condition I found myself in. Now, after nearly 30 years of couple-hood, that's changed. I think a bit of time apart is healthy for the relationship and for the people in it, but being alone is no longer so appealing. After all this time, you discover that your life is now designed as a joint venture--everything you do is done with the other in mind, either for him, around him or because of him. I wouldn't even be in this house if it weren't for Steve. He's "supposed" to be here and the place seems empty without him. If, God forbid, something horrible happened and I knew Steve was no longer coming back, it would first be a body-blow of a shock, but once I absorbed it (as we must if we are to continue living) I would find a way to carry on in a different state. But that's not going to happen, so these alone days are just spent in a sort of limbo. I'll eat the foods I like and have the TV all to myself, but I'm grateful these separations don't happen often.

Speaking of the TV: Yesterday was Bette Davis's 100th birthday and Turner Classic Movies ran a self-produced documentary on her career which I recorded and am anxious to watch, so that's one thing I'll do today. I was never a huge Davis fan--I find her odd-looking and too much of a self-caricture in large doses, but she represents an era, the trappings of which I've always found fascinating, so I know I'll enjoy the show. (It so happens I just finished reading a Davis biography, More Than A Woman. Quite an interesting book. She may have had her talent, but my God, what a miserable human being she was...) I've also rented the Canadian series "Slings and Arrows" from Netflix, and I'll be watching that. Heard of it? (Canadian friends, I know you have!) It follows the lives of the people in a small-town Shakespearean acting company. I've seen two episodes, and so far, so good. It has the same high calibre of writing that's found in the best of the various HBO series, and so far it's that good, if not as expensively produced. I'll report back.

Off I go now into my single life. You're on, Miss Davis!

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Photograph: Ringo Starr

Ringo wasn't blessed with the composing talents of his former bandmates, but his simplicity has always had its own appeal.

MP3 File


Today's weather is what what those weather personalitites on TV call "seasonable." (I always thought a person just learning English would be confused by that expression. The weather is seasonable? You can flavor it, like, with salt and pepper? How would I have explained that in my TEFL teacher days? It would have been fun to get the question.)

There's the slightest chill in the air, but if you're in the sun you can easily go with just shirtsleeves and not feel cold. The sky is a hazy but blue, a sign of the rain that's nearby but has not yet reached us and may not as the day progresses. It's the kind of day that beckons you outside, as if the burgeoning weed population, regaining strength after its decimation just a few weeks ago, were not enough. This morning I weeded the front garden next to the driveway and then went to the back to survey what's happening there. The weeds have not made a comeback yet, so far. The clematis is budding out and starting to climb its trellis; the daylilies are all coming up along the border; the peonies are poking their spring-red shoots toward the sun. There is at least one disappointment this year: my rhubarb seems not to have survived last year's exceptional heat and drought. That's a shame. I've grown rhubarb since we've been in this house and, with two plants, always had enough for at least three pies per year. Assuming we will be leaving sometime next year or the next, I see little reason to start new plants--they take at least one growing season to be harvestable, anyway. Guess I'll be buying rhubarb for pies this year. A new experience for me.

The picture at top is of the big maple tree in the back yard. As you can see, it creates the character of the immediate back of the house, shading the deck with its broad embrace. The tree was poorly managed as a sapling, allowed to grow into all those trunks. It would be much more stable with only one central trunk, but the tree was too big to alter even 27 years ago, when we moved here, so we've managed it as best we could. It could easily be 35 to 40 years old now, which is old for a silver maple. We pray it will last and do its summer magic long enough to sell the house. (And not fall on it!)

That tree is a blessing, but it's also a mess that keeps on messing. It's as if silver maples anticipate constant bad times and produce everything with extreme redundancy, like rocket ships with all their backup systems. The stage before the one you see now was the flowering phase, when little red buds in their thousands grew on the bare branches and then fell off, to be tracked into the house. The flowers that stayed on the tree matured into the baby seeds you see in the picture. Soon those seeds will be fully formed single-rotor helicopters that will eventually dry, and then flutter down like a snowstorm in the first big wind. They will land in rain gutters, on the lawn and in the garden, and sprout in profusion. We could have a veritable maple forest here if we were to let all those sprouts grow. Finally, the luxurious leaf canopy will come; this is the reward we humans get for putting up with the mess needed to create it. But after all its shade, the tree will demand attention one more time, when all those leaves dry and fall and need to be raked. I wish I could say the autumn foliage on a silver maple was a beautiful prelude to the raking, but that would be more than a stretch. The leaves just turn a dull yellow, full of brown spots, and then die. Not much in the way of splendor.

A wonderful service of Arlington County is the vacuuming of leaves from the street in late fall. Homeowners are given a schedule and asked to have their leaves in piles next to the curb around the time the big vacuum truck is due to make a pass on their street. This is done three times per season. The leaves are taken to the county mulch pile, where they are chopped and composted, and then sold, at the cost of labor and equipment only, back to homeowners as mulch the following spring. This is one of the many things we will miss about The Peoples' Republic of Arlington when and if we ever leave here.

Outdoors calls once again. I hope your Saturday is unfolding as pleasantly as mine.