Friday, February 27, 2009



It seems I may as well just turn this Friday feature over to Cook's Illustrated. They've been coming up with some total winners lately that I can't wait to try, and then they turn out to be so good and so easy I have to share them. There could be nothing easier than this recipe--all you need is a big, 12-inch, oven-proof skillet (but you could probably get by with the more standard 9- or 10-inch). For those of you afraid of pie crusts, even that is easy here, with its food processor method. We had this with a friend a few nights ago and it was a major it.

The idea came from Apple Pan Dowdy, the old New England dessert--basically this one, but with a crust made from the harder wheat of the old days that would bake up into rock-hard crusts. The idea was to "dowdy" the crust by breaking it into the pie, either during or after baking, to soften it. Cooks wanted to update the recipe, but discovered that modern flours, with their lower protein content (thus softer) just turned to mush when pushed into the filling. So they just left the crust on top of the filling, and voilĂ ! you have a skillet pie! It's even easier because you don't even have to crimp the crust. It just fits in the skillet, right on top of the filling.

A note: crust dough must rest at least a half-hour in the fridge before rolling out, so time accordingly.

The recipe is virutally word-for-word from the magazine.

1 cup (5 oz) unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting work surface
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons chilled vegetable shorteneing
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces
3-4 tablespoons ice water

1/2 cup apple cider
1/3 cup maple syrup
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons corn starch
1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into small pieces
2 1/2 lbs mixed sweet and tart apples (about 5 medium), such as granny smith and golden delicious, peeled, cored, halved, and cut into 1/2-thick wedges

1 egg white, lightly beaten
2 teaspoons sugar

For crust:

Pulse flour, sugar and salt in food processor until combined. Add vegetable shortening and process until mixture has texture of coarse sand, about 10 1-second pulses. Scatter butter pieces over mixture and process until mixture is pale yellow and resembles coarse crumbs, with butter bits no larger than small peas, about 10 1-second pulses. Transfer mixture to a medium bowl.

Sprinkle 3 tablespoons of the ice water over mixture. With blade of a rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix. Press down on dough with broad side of spatula until dough sticks together, adding remaining tablespoon of ice water if necessary. Turn dough out onto sheet of plastic wrap and press into a 4-inch disk. Wrap dough and refrigerate at least 30 minutes, or up to 2 days, before rolling out. (If dough is refrigerated more than an hour, let stand at room temperature until malleable.)

For filling:

Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position (7-9 inches from heating element) and heat oven to 500 degrees. Whisk cider, maple syrup, lemon juice, cornstarch and cinnamon together in medium bowl until smooth. Heat butter in an oven-proof 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until foaming subsides. Add apples and cook, stirring only 2 or 3 times, until apples begin to carmelize, about 8 to 10 minutes. (Don't completely soften apples.) Remove pan from heat, add cider mixture and gently stir until apples are well coated. Set aside to cool slightly. Dot butter pieces over cooled filling.

Roll out dough on floured work surface into an 11-inch circle. Roll the dough loosely around the rolling pin and unroll it over filling in skillet. Brush dough with egg white and sprinkle evenly with sugar. With a very sharp knife, gently cut dough into six pieces, as pictured. Bake until apples are tender and crust is a deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Let cool 15 minutes and serve.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

That good old can do spirit...

I've been playing around here for about an hour as I try to figure out what to write about. Saw comedy hero Ricky Gervais on The Daily Show the other night and it's Ricky who finally convinced me to do something with my Ipod rather than simply store music. I've subscribed to the Gervais podcast without even hearing it because I've heard him describe it several times and I know it will be funny. That filled up a bit of time.

And of course now I've added Facebook, with the incredible pictures and stories from people you love but haven't seen or talked to in years, to my morning computer ritual.

And we're starting to look at alternative house plans, since it's becoming clear that the one we designed for Delaware is going to be undoable on our budget. Steve and I have been emailing back and forth on that subject.

Why is it you can be punished for being prepared? We had our ducks in a row, which simply made it easier for them to be shot down by circumstances we never anticipated. Here's a corollary to what I said yesterday about having everything arranged and set: just when you think things are in order, something comes along to show you they really aren't. Life is a constant struggle against entropy. You'd think I'd learn something from that long-held realization, but I'm constitutionally unable to simply let nature take its course with no intervention whatsoever. What if I don't like what nature has in mind? I say give her her way because in the end you have to, but try to reason with her, too, and come to some accommodation, a compromise. Life may be what happens when you're making other plans, but I have to at least pretend that I have some control over the tide of the unexpected that comes my way.

There is an expression ubiquitous in the Arab world: "N'shah Allah," by the will of God. It seems to give people patience and a certain peaceful resignation to whatever fate has in store. I try to keep that equanimity in the face of what I don't want, but I am too well trained to go after what I do want to let fate simply have its way. I guess there's something to be said for having no expectations of life--you're never disappointed, anyway. But it would seem that you'd also never be excited about the future, never have any reason for optimism. Doesn't sound like much fun to me.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


Here we are mid-week and I'm getting antsy for resolution of the various issues we have pending: the loan application, the home-building estimates. I'm doing what I can to push things along with the loan, letting decision-makers know that I intend to pay off my mortgage with part of the funds, that the payment is due the first of the month and that I would appreciate word by then.

Actually, responses are trickling in about North Carolina construction costs. They appear to be shockingly higher than they were in Delaware, at least at first blush, and that could be discouraging. But there may still be room for maneuvering--there are things we can eliminate from the design either because they are items--like skylights and a custom made TV cabinet--that would be nice to have but aren't really necessary, or things--like a huge deck--that we could easily do ourselves if the construction crew would just sink the footers for us. So we still have something of a row to hoe. My problem is that I just hate limbo-land. I like it when everything is put away and neat, can't stand living with loose ends. And so that's why I...must...exercise...restraint and remind myself that things resolves themselves as they will.

I wonder if this need for resolution means I'm a control freak? I guess I'll cop to it in certain situations. If I am personally invested in something that has direct bearing on my comfort level, then yes, I want as much control as possible over its outcome. But in group activities like games, I tend not to be much of a competitor. I see a game as more as a social pastime than as a medium by which to prove myself "better" than someone else. (That doesn't mean I don't play to win. I just don't get bent out of shape if someone else does. I've had occasion to be amazed when people I thought I knew well got terribly upset when they didn't win some silly game we were playing. If you're a social player like me, that can sure put a damper on the vibe.)

OK, enough rambling for the day. Have a good one.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Another weekend off

OK, we've been off-task for three weekends in a row now because of various outside obligations. But all of these "have-tos" have been fun, and they've all been necessary. This weekend we had Steve's sister and her husband here as they passed through town. They are always game for just about anything we dream up to do with them and they love good food, so who's complaining? We got a rare game of Shanghai Rummy in (we usually only play it with the group at Nags Head, so this was a treat) and we took them sightseeing to places we've either never been or hadn't visited in years. Out-of-town visitors are great for a couple of things. They make me clean the house and then they get us out of it!

The place we've never been is literally less than a mile away from our house: the memorial at the Pentagon to those who died in the crash of American flight 77 on September 11, 2001. Built on the field facing the West Front of the building where the plane came to a stop, it is an extremely effective piece, its design bringing home the unparalleled sadness of the day. It's a bit austere now, while the trees meant to soften its lines are still young and indeed while there are no leaves on them in their bare winter mode, but it does its job beautifully.

At first the meaning of those objects, arranged in their neat rows, confused me, until I saw a visitor sit on one. It then struck deep that each victim was seated, either on the airplane or at a desk in the Pentagon. When I tried to explain that realization to my companions, the words caught in my throat. That's how moving the place is in its simplicity. Each individual who died is represented by a seat with his or her name engraved on an otherwise unadorned plaque. The seats are arranged chronologically according to the birth year of the person represented, and they face in opposing directions, depending on whether the person was on the plane or in the building.

With its own subway stop, the Pentagon is easy to get to for anyone visiting the DC area. If you're planning a trip here, this memorial should be added to your itinerary. Here are some pictures from our visit.

The other place we went is a very different destination, a gorgeous place that is off the usual tourist track: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. It is a companion piece to the better-known National Cathedral (though nowhere near it), calling itself "America's Catholic Church," and it is an architectural marvel in the Romanesque-Byzantine style. The inside can only be described as opulent, with inlaid marble floors and beautiful mosaics. It's a bit dark inside to take pictures, but Picasa does wonders with highlights, so here are some pictures to whet your appetite for a visit there.

We expect this week will be an important one. We'll get word from the builders in North Carolina on the cost of building a house on the land we're interested in. If their numbers fit our budget, we'll begin the offer/counter-offer process on the land itself. We should also hear from the bank on when we will settle on a new, much smaller loan that will retire what's left of the second mortgage (that was paying for the land in Delaware) and buy the the plot we want in NC.

More to come!

Friday, February 20, 2009



This is a quick and easy one I came up with over the summer but never shared because I had already done something else with shrimp and scallops. Enough time has passed now for it not to seem monotonous. It's what I'll toss together for Steve's sister and her husband for dinner tonight.

The only thing you might find questionable is the fennel. Some people find the anise flavor overpowering and don't like it. To me, it just adds a sweetness that consorts well with the seafood. Since fennel tends to be seasonal, you may not find it if you're up here where it's cold and you run out today to look for it. Leave it out according to taste or what you find in the store. But I hope you'll try it if you can. I thought it was important enough to include in the name of the dish, so.....(A good substitute is cabbage sliced razor-thin. It adds the same sweetness and disappears into the sauce, just adding depth.)

1 lb. fettucini or other flat, ribbon-style pasta

1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb. scallops, preferably bay scallops. If only large sea scallops are available, cut into bite-size chunks
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 medium fennel bulb, stalks removed, bulb sliced thin
1 large shallot, sliced into half-moons
peeled and crushed fresh garlic to taste
½ cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, drained
½ cup pitted kalamata olives, roughly chopped
½ cup coarsely chopped basil
¼ cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste
½ cup dry vermouth

Parmesan cheese

Cook pasta in boiling salted water according to package directions.

Pat shrimp and scallops dry (drain scallops on paper towels for a few minutes if necessary to make them dry as possible. Otherwise they won't brown).

Heat oil in large, deep skillet or wok over highest heat until shimmering and add shrimp, toss until just opaque and set aside. Return pan temperature to highest heat and add scallops in a single layer, do not move for 2 minutes, or until slightly browned. After browning, toss scallops another 2 minutes, or until just done, then set aside with shrimp.

Add more oil to pan if necessary and heat until shimmering. Add fennel and cook until carmelization begins, about 3 minutes. Add shallot and cook one minute, then add garlic and heat until fragrant. Add olives, sun-dried tomatoes, basil and parsley and cook for two or three minutes just to take rawness off the herbs. Add reserved shrimp and scallops and adjust salt and pepper.

Add vermouth and cook over high heat until vermouth is completely evaporated. Toss with cooked pasta. Serve, pass Parmesan.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


At what other time of my life could I possibly indulge myself so thoroughly? Once again I've been wading through Facebook this morning, answering invites from long lost friends, catching up with them, and looking for others. And once again, the doomsayers' assertion that computers alienate us is given the lie. Sitting at a computer and composing sentences is a solitary activity, yes. But in this case it leads to rich, human connection. And in all cases, the very process of putting words together into sentences is an act of communication. I suppose it can be done in a vacuum, as in keeping a journal for no one else's consumption, but I am constitutionally incapable of doing that, and I'd wager that the most dedicated diarist deep down "knows" that her words will one day be found and read. Why else did Martha Washington burn all of the letters between her and George? What a loss to history! A supremely selfish act, in my opinion, modesty taken to a fault.

One of the people I've made contact with is a cousin who happens to live fairly close-by, but from whom, as is the wont in our clan, distance has been kept. The distance-keeping seems to be a mutual understanding with no malice intended--it may be that we acknowledge the old days and honor those memories while also recognizing differences between us now--at any rate, seeing his face I was struck by how much he looks like our Grandma Mac, the sweet, loving, wacky, mother of our respective mothers. A cook she was not (though she was famous for her lunchtime smorgasboard of cold cuts and cheeses with all the trimmings, washed down by beer and sugary soft drinks) and a homemaker she was not. Others remember the scents of apple pie and lilac when they think of their grandmothers. We remember a greasy kitchen and the odor of someone who was probably just a couple of days too long away from a bathtub. But we also remember a darling child-woman who loved to laugh and had the generosity of one who never knew, much less worried about, where money came from. When her husband died and Grandma became responsible for her own finances, my mother had to take over. Grandma was well into her 60s and had never written a check.

I look at my cousin's face and I see an entire previous lifetime that I have moved beyond but whose legacy I know is inescapable. I am who I am as a direct result of those people I remember but whom I now barely know, of my mother's daily, familial interactions with them, and the home she created for her own family in reaction to those memories. She strove to break away from the turmoil of her large family and with my father create a new and ordered life. They succeeded, but my mother, the oldest sibling, also never turned her back on her past. She was the "responsible one" everyone else turned to for as long as all the brothers and sisters lived.

As for me, I look in the mirror and see the face I compose for it. I look at a candid photo, though, and there's Grandma Mac.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Best Laid Plans

Well, not that I had any plans at all for the day, but I did expect to start here much earlier than now. My email this morning had a message from a friend with whom I'm in fairly regular touch already--and who I know visits this hallowed space but rarely, if it all--asking me to be her "friend" on Facebook. Just to be snarky I decided I'd join for the sole purpose of propositioning her: I'll follow your Facebook page if you'll follow my blog. Well. It took me an hour to get around to it. I was swarmed! My sister's kids and their in-laws all have pages and they all, at once, jumped onto my page. Then came long-lost neighbors. Old work colleagues. Who will be next? My elementary school teachers from the beyond? (Now that would be fun!) I guess I'll play along, at least as far as answering messages. But I figure I'm already public enough here in blogspot. (Kat, I note you have a Facebook page and your picture's there! Not to create a rush of business for you or anything.....)

I'm on my own until Friday, while Steve is on a work trip. A few days like this, as long as they are far-between, are OK, especially when their weather is as gray and unpleasant as today's. I feel no guilt in taking a day completely off and doing not very much. It's kind of nice, actually, after all the frenetic running around we've been doing. (Of course, Steve's still in frenetic mode, but his day will come soon enough.) On Friday, Steve gets back, and his sister and brother-in-law also arrive for a weekend visit as they pass through town. Having weekend visitors means yet another weekend that the kitchen repair and painting are not started--the last indoor project before we can put the house on the market--but it can't be avoided. They're good company and like good food, so we might as well just roll with the flow. We'll get it all done eventually.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

North Carolina

We're back. Note the new masthead photo. No, it doesn't mean we bought something. This beautiful lot is what we have our eye on, though, and once we dot an "i" and cross a "t," we hope we can make an offer. We went to North Carolina hoping that both land and construction costs would be cheaper than what we found in Delaware. Land certainly fulfills that hope. To remind you: we paid $325,000 for the quarter-acre we had in Delaware. This 2.5-acre lot, waterfront, with a dock, and cleared and ready to build on, is priced in the low 100s. We are now in the process of contacting local builders to get a ballpark figure of what it would cost to build the house we designed in Delaware. If the price is low enough, we will bid on the land. (And if it isn't, we could well decide to "transition" right back here to Arlington, bag the idea of moving at all, and create another version of a new life.) So things are in process now and excitement is not yet called for, but the picture above is the fruit of our weekend search. We looked at many properties and nothing else combines price, size, and readiness to build like this one.

The picture places you in about the middle of the lot, between the road and the water. Behind the camera is a perfectly, selectively, cleared screen of tall young pines with no underbrush. It borders the road and would provide a tantalizing view of a house further in. A natural sort of threshold between the two trees in the picture ushers you to the house site itself. The dock is just beyond, a bit to the right. If you'd like to see just a few pictures (only 10) to get a better feel for the place, go here. The weedy trees and underbrush obliterating the waterview, while it is on protected wetland, can be removed as long as nothing is uprooted. If we buy, that will be one of the first things we do.

Folks, North Carolina is huge. Everything there seems to be bigger, the spaces more wide open, than anything I've known before. The rivers of northeastern North Carolina dwarf my Potomac; they are yawning courses whose opposing shores are barely visible. Suddenly I know why cars are an absolute necessity for so many Americans, and I may end up being one of them. We have lived most of our lives in places of highly concentrated populations: Arlington is simultaneously the smallest county in the U.S. and the most densely populated. (My commute to work in downtown DC was 10 minutes.) The entire state of Delaware is tiny to the point of oblivion, and our world there was concentrated in only one of its three counties. Since it takes me literally 5 minutes to get to the grocery store here in Arlington, I thought it was a big deal that the same trip took 20 minutes in Delaware. Well. This North Carolina lot is 12 miles off the main north-south highway, and the nearest grocery is another 7 or 8 on that road. So no more last-minute jogs to the store for that jar of mayonnaise. Shopping will require much more planning than I've been used to. The development this lot is part of is not yet fully populated, so I think some sense of isolation may be possible for us until we get used to the longer distances and more people move in. The more we did the trip from the main town of Edenton to the lot, the shorter it seemed, but still, it's out there.

The real estate agent we are working with gives a good name to all Realtors. She is incredibly industrious. She covered vast distances in preparation for our visit and collected several places for us to look at. She's made it clear that we are in this search together and understands all of our questions and hesitations, and she is enthusiastic and cheery. We could not have had a better introduction to the area and can see her and her family becoming good friends if we should end up living there.

So all in all it was a good trip and we learned a tremendous amount. There is some disappointment that we didn't resolve our future then and there, but we've been around a few blocks by now in this real estate game and have learned to temper enthusiasm with a dose of hard-won common sense. The market is molasses-slow there. If we bought a plot of land, for no matter how little money, and it turned out we couldn't use it, we would be saddled with the debt for a very long time. Better safe than sorry. We'll see what construction costs are like and take it from there.

Once again, stay tuned.

Friday, February 13, 2009



We'll be getting to warmer days soon enough, when these stick-to-your-ribs casseroles won't seem so appetizing, so try this scrumptious dish while there's still a chill in the air (or turn on the air conditioner if you never have such a chill).

This is an adaptation of another winner from Cooks Illustrated. They research recipes of perennial favorites and, through seemingly endless trial and error, but based on a thorough knowledge of food science, come up with delicious and fool-proof versions. You may have had baked ziti before, but I'll bet it hasn't been this good.

A couple of notes: one of their breakthroughs is using cottage cheese, either full- or low-fat, instead of the traditional ricotta. They say it's creamier. I didn't have cottage cheese on hand, but I did have some low-fat ricotta, so I used that. It was delicious and I can't imagine how much better cottage cheese could be, but I'll probably try it one day. Another breakthrough: boil the pasta for only about 5 minutes, or just until it begins to soften. It will cook completely in the oven; otherwise it will turn to mush. Also, their version uses a plain tomato sauce; I add vegetables and a pound of Italian sausage.

1 lb. ziti or other short, tubular pasta

1 lb. whole milk or 1% cottage cheese or ricotta
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 oz. grated Parmesan cheese (about 1½ cups), divided

2 tbsp. olive oil
1 lb. bulk Italian sausage, or, if links, meat squeezed out of links
1 medium sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 medium green bell pepper, coarsely chopped
1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped
¼ cup fresh parsley, chopped
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and chopped

1 28-oz. can tomato sauce
1 14.5-oz. can diced tomatoes
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tbsp. dried basil
1 tsp. sugar
black pepper

1 tsp. cornstarch
1 cup heavy cream

8 oz. mozzarella cheese, cut into small chunks (about 1 ½ cups)

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a gallon of water to boil in a Dutch oven, add salt to taste and, cook ziti until just beginning to soften, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside in colander. Do not wash Dutch oven.

Mix together cottage cheese or ricotta, eggs, and 1 cup of the Parmesan cheese in a medium bowl and set aside.

Heat oil in 12-inch skillet over medium heat and add sausage, onion, green pepper, celery, parsley and garlic. Sauté until vegetables are softened and meat is no longer pink. Pour off excess fat if necesssary. Stir in tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, oregano and basil; simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes. Off heat, stir in sugar, then taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper in needed.

Stir cornstarch into heavy cream in a small bowl, then transfer mixture to now-empty Dutch oven set over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and cook and stir until thickened, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove Dutch oven from heat and add ricotta mixture, one cup of the meat and tomato sauce, and half the chunked mozzarella, then stir to mix well. Add pasta and stir to combine it thoroughly with the sauce.

Transfer pasta to a 13-by-9-inch baking dish, then spread remaining meat and tomato sauce evenly over the pasta. Sprinkle remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses over top. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove foil and continue to bake until cheese is bubbling and beginning to brown, about another 30 minutes. Remove to rack and cool for 20 minutes before serving.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

An Empty Well

Comcast is having big problems these days, at least here in the DC area. They've launched a new email handler named SmartZone, and for those who regularly use the Comcast site to process their email (who does that besides someone who may be traveling and has not loaded Outlook onto their laptop?), it may be the best thing since canned tuna, but for those of us who import email to our own hard drives via Outlook or Outlook Express, it's a disaster. Outlook takes minutes even to connect to Comcast and more minutes to collect email from the site once the connection is made. I sit here for a good quarter-hour just staring at the screen, waiting for something to happen. And it flat refuses to send any email out at all. I took my life in my hands a few minutes ago and called the Comcast "help" desk and was told that the company is actually aware of this situation and is taking down their entire email server to try to address it. Who knows how long this will take? I'll be checking Blogger directly for any comments you may send (you've been staying away in droves lately, by the way, and I can understand why--I've been less than inspired this week to write much of anything....but just in case...) and if you email me directly don't expect my usual quick response.

"SmartZone." Is that anything like "Mission Accomplished"?

Now even Hipcast, normally a trouble-free utility, is having problems. It's been loading a song now for the last 20 minutes. Usually it's a matter of seconds. Oh, what is this wired world coming to????

The wind is blowing absolutely furiously today as colder air displaces the springlike airmass that has been visiting us for the past few days. February is always like this--warm one day and unbearably awful the next. If we ever get snowstorms, the worst come in February.

I apologize for being rather detached lately. I have a case of writer's block which I am trying to fight through on the "use it or lose it" theory, and at times like these you, my dear blog family, visit and don't get much. The truth is there is not much going on here worth writing about except anticipation for this trip to North Carolina, and that is so far to the front of my thoughts that inspiration for good writing in a more general vein isn't coming. Whoever my Muse is, she is apparently vacationing--maybe in North Carolina. The one thing that always fascinates and delights me is my music, and I'm delighted I can still share that, Hipcast problems notwithstanding. Look at it this way: it's one less thing you have to read at the computer!

I promise a yummy Food Friday tomorrow!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Brown and Dana

A rare quiet day

It's cloudy today but we are expecting a high near 70 before the wind picks up and blows winter back in. For the moment I have my window open. I can hear the birds singing as if they were attracting mates and building nests--it's sounding very industrious out there! But the landscape is still winter-drab with nary a trace of green....that's good because I have no ambition to start yard work just yet. This is the first morning in a while that I have been able to be quiet and not think about What I Need To Do.

Things are shaping up for the upcoming drive to North Carolina on Saturday. The agent we've found is working very hard for us and promises quite a tour of available parcels. Against my better judgment I am becoming excited. We've made reservations for dinner at what appears to be the one and only decent restaurant in the town of Edenton. We shall see.

Sorry I have no more inspiration than I appear to have this morning. The most intersting thing I have to share is my music, which I will get to now.

Have a good Wednesday!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Uh-oh--a couple of rants!

It's amazing how busy looking after a little bit of money can make you. Well, that, and life's little necessities like emission inspection, library checkouts and grocery shopping. I deposited the check from the sale of the property this morning. A cashier's check will be held for 10 days! For those 10 days while we can't access those funds, the bank will be making money off of them. One more shiv in the little guy.

And while I'm ranting: I just learned that Ken Starr, that smut peddler of Clinton-Lewinsky fame, will be defending Proposition 8 before the California Supreme Court--that's the attempt to undo the law that allows same-sex marriages in that lovely state and even forcibly divorce the 18,000 couples who are now married. As I've mentioned in this space before, the whole question of marriage for anyone at all is up in the air for me. The controversy surrounding those of good faith who want to marry but can't has caused many of us to re-examine the entire institution and what it really means. But the very people who want "smaller government" and who claim to want to be left alone to make their own decisions are the ones who presume to stick their noses into my private affairs and tell me they're illegal! A more appropriately slimy character than Kenneth Starr to spearhead such an effort could not be found.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Farewell to Delaware

You'll notice the new look of the masthead--that particular purple sunrise will no longer be greeting us, so I have replaced it with a photo of a sample of the land we will be looking at in North Carolina next weekend. I think the trees blocking the view are appropriate, at least for now, until we have a clearer picture, literally, of what the future holds.

This is what we enjoyed for four years. By the end of this week, the structure will no longer exist; it will be in a landfill.

This is what we did this weekend. All the furniture has been given away; the rest was either stored, thrown away, or brought here.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


It's a busy morning because it will be a short one. We're headed out to Delaware at around noon for what will probably be our last weekend trip there, unless it is to visit friends. Tomorrow we go to settlement on the purchase of our land. We'll also empty out the trailer and look at some properties that an agent there has been scouting for us. We're frankly not optimistic about finding anything we'd like either to live in or build on with the funds we will have. As slow as the real estate market there is at present, the waterfront boom of the last few years in tiny Sussex County, where we would want to locate, pretty much tapped the place out, and nice property, while lower in value, is still too expensive for us, given our lowered expectations on the sale of this house. We're much more excited about the prospects in North Carolina, where we will be going next weekend. More on that later.

Have you heard of The Freecycle Network? I've been busy with it over the last few days. Our garage has been filling up with things we no longer need but are still good and would no doubt be useful to the right person. We hesitated to take the things to Goodwill or Salvation Army because those organizations, worthy as they are, have no guaranteed takers and just send what they can't sell to landfills. (Or they bale up old clothes and send them to Africa, where they're either sold--or sent to landfills.) Freecycle is the answer.

Freecycle is a combination craigslist and neighborhood list-serv that performs only one function: it puts people who need some specific thing in touch with people who have that thing and no longer need it. The service is free, and so is all the merchandise. No selling is allowed. It's a peer-to-peer utility that transforms your junque into someone else's useful commodity. It's run by Yahoo groups.

When you click on the link above, you'll be taken to a page that asks you where you live. Type that in, and you're led to the appropriate Yahoo page. Sign up as you would with any other Yahoo group, and you're on your way. You actually post your merchandise on a Yahoo email page, and then direct responses to your own email server so you don't have to keep visiting the Yahoo site.

The entry is simple. On the subject line, write: "OFFERED: xxxx" (the "xxxx" being what the item is, like "tape deck" or "old magazines," or whatever) and in the body add a few details, and the general area of your neighborhood, such as the nearest intersection. Peoples' responses come to your home email, and you have as many direct back-and-forths with them as you need to seal the deal. They tell you when they can come to your house to pick it up, you put it out on the curb at the appropriate time, and it's done. At the end, you go back to the Yahoo page and create another post, with "TAKEN: xxxx" in the subject line, and that's it.

(Important details: you do all this email management under "edit membership" on your Yahoo groups home page. You have to take care to mark "individual email" when you're actively offering something. When you do that, your inbox will be flooded with all the offers you and all other active offerers are making, and the responses to them. Write back to the responders to your offer to make pickup arrangements, and when the transaction is complete, put up your "TAKEN" message in Yahoo and then shut off the email spigot by marking "web only" on your Yahoo home page.)

So far I've given away 30 cookbooks (all to one person!) and two rugs with their pads. It was fun because the people who took them really wanted them and were overjoyed to be getting them. The cookbooks went in an hour, literally; the rugs in half a day. Next will be old cups and saucers and kitchen doodads I no longer need.

It's fun to browse through the site to see what people are offering--exactly like trolling an antique store. You never know what treasure might appear. And it's free! I urge you to take a look.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Never before and never again: a Kentucky story

I don't know why this story popped into my head this morning, but it's worth sharing. I've always wondered what I was supposed to learn from it. Maybe you can tell me.

In Kentucky, those of us who lived in rented rooms or other off-campus student housing sought and cherished "townie" friends. These lucky people lived in real houses, and those houses had all the comforts of the homes we'd left behind, like dining rooms, bedrooms, and kitchens--in other words, they were more than just the single rooms we students were calling "home."

My townie friend was Martha Beall. Martha was a hanger-on with the music crowd I also hung with--actually, she had more music cred than I did because she had studied music and she taught piano. (That was another thing it was fun to see in her house, the baby grand piano in the living room, just like in my parents' house.) In spite of the fact that we all needed each others' company and were grateful for it, Martha did have her ways. She prided herself on her cooking, though there wasn't much basis for her boasts as far as her friends could see. Still, it was fun to graze through her refrigerator, which she allowed, to see what might be nibble-worthy. Once out of curiosity I picked up a bowl of some brown, sludgy-looking stuff. I smelled it and discerned chocolate. I tasted it and it was odd, but good. I wolfed it down, growing boy that I was. I asked her what it was, and she told me it was leftover pudding. I'd never had or seen pudding like that, though, and it was only later that I figured out it was raw cake batter, or really what was supposed to have turned into a cake in the oven, but didn't.

I don't know how well Martha taught the piano, but I can say that like her cooking, her singing left something to be desired, as well. (This would have been no big deal except that she was running with a group of people whose claims to artistry were mostly based on our voices. Vocally, we knew what was what.) Once, Martha graced us with an a capella version of an interminable folk song called "Mary Ann." She sang it with a beatific smile on her face as if she were edifying a crowd in the Kentucky Colosseum. For all its repetitive verses, you could barely discern the melody; I did notice, however, that with each change of verse she also changed to a higher key. By the time she ended the song she had migrated to such heights that the sound she was emitting with such tender emotion was more a squeak, really, than a musical note. When she was done, I rather snarkily asked her why she did that. "Oh, I just like variety," she said. A good cover. Just like with that cake dough, she could think fast. But at least the cake dough had been edible.

But I digress. This story isn't about Martha. It's about a her housemate, Cindy. To make a little extra money, Martha rented her attic apartment, and during the time I coincided with her life, Cindy was the renter. Cindy fit right in with the crowd of well-meaning misfits that made up our musical klatch--she wasn't a musician, but she was gifted in the use of charcoal, chalk and paint to create haunting studies of faces. Cindy had a history of severe mental problems but at the time was in remission with the help of some wonderful drugs. She was good company when she wanted to be, and we understood when she did not. She just wasn't around. Eventually, there came a time when her absence was longer than usual, and we learned that she had had a crisis and been involuntarily committed to the psych ward at the University of Kentucky Medical Center.

One bright morning no more than a couple of weeks after we learned of Cindy's news, I was in my beloved attic apartment on Maxwell Street when my phone rang. It was Cindy. She needed "a ride home." She was cheery and talkative, the way she'd always been during the fun times at Martha's. I was elated she was feeling better and that she'd be part of the scene again, and was not especially surprised to be the one she called for a ride--I was the only one in our group who had a car and Cindy had no family in Lexington. She told me she was at the Med Center and I could pick her up there. Off I went.

Once I was on the road adjacent to the building, I saw a small figure by the side of the road. As I got closer I saw it was a young woman, clearly in trouble. Everything about her, her clothes, her hair, was completely disheveled. It was indeed a very desperate, wild-eyed Cindy. I stopped. She frantically climbed into the car and said, "I escaped."

To say I was confounded would be a gross understatement. No experience in my 20-odd years of walking the planet had prepared me for something like this. Should I take her back to the Med Center? Should I cross her? Was she dangerous? She asked me to take her to my apartment, and that's what I decided to do. On the ride she calmed down, and when she got inside she first asked to take a bath and then for a cup of tea. After her bath, as she sat with her tea, she explained that she couldn't take the psych ward any more; she knew she couldn't stay with me for long, but needed a few days to figure out her next move. I just nodded and tried to look sympathetic. What do you say? "What's exactly the matter?" "What's it like on the psych ward?"

I had my life to get on with and I knew there was no way I could have an escaped mental patient living with me, now matter how much I liked her and wished I could help her in her plight. Cindy saw me to my door as I left for class, and sweetly kissed me a thank-you. Feeling like a complete heel, once I was outside I found a phone booth, called the Med Center, and told them Cindy was in my apartment. I then stayed away on purpose for the entire day. When I got back that evening I heard from my neighbors there had been a bit of excitement on Maxwell Street that morning, complete with an ambulance and police cars.

When I let myself into my apartment, I saw that it had been cleaned, and the dishes were washed. I never saw Cindy again. I do have a souvenir from her, though. For Christmas she gave me the Wes Montgomery album, "A Day In The Life."