Monday, December 27, 2010

An Albemarle Snowfall

The term "snowed in," after having been used so lightly by us for untold years in Washington, D.C., has demonstrated its literal meaning now that we've experienced a major snowstorm here in the so-called sunny south.  Coastal North Carolina received 6.5" of wondrous white in the previous 48 hours, and it wasn't ready for it.

Today was the day to get moving after too many days of that good thing we all dream of:  a fire, good food and drink, and a favorite entertainment, be it a beloved movie on TV or a favorite singer coming through the speakers.  The path between the fireplace and the refrigerator becomes ever deeper as the weight of the snacks consumed is transferred from the fridge to our bodies.   Clothing other than the snuggly, loungey things we've been wearing to complete that homey picture seems foreign.  The sun, dazzling against the uninterrupted blanket of white, beckons us back to life.

The first thing I did was to take a broom and knock the heavy snow off the young pines in the yard, hoping to help them stand upright once again.  Steve replenished all the bird seed, three feeders depleted in a day by our usual chickadee and woodpecker visitors plus an entire flock of red-wing black birds that have just discovered the free feast.  (One or two of these beauties are welcome, but this many will scare everybody else away, so we hope this is temporary, a result of the weather.)  Then we went for a walk on our street. 

Our constitutional completed, we decided to load up the SUV with our ever-accumulating trash--our normal output plus the extra Christmas boxes and paper--and take it to the dump.  The two-mile trip there on Deep Creek Road was the first hint that we are in a place that officially Is Not Accustomed To This Weather.  Deep Creek Road, the only way out of here, has not seen even the glimmer of a plow.  (With all the farmers and their manly toys around here, you'd think otherwise, but maybe a plow is not a plow is not a plow.)  We got out to New Hope Road, an even more vital artery, carrying the entire population of Durant's Neck out to US 17, and saw that it, too, was innocent of a plow blade.  Ditto Woodville Road, which takes that same population north to Elizabeth City.  And the dump was closed.

So here we are, socked back inside.  The car is still full of trash.  Tomorrow we have to take a 60-mile drive to Ahoskie so Steve can visit his pain specialist, all on heavily traveled but "back" roads, State-maintained, not part of the US Highway or Interstate system.  That should be interesting.  And we're looking forward to visitors from DC for the New Years celebration.  They're arriving Thursday and some shopping in Elizabeth City needs to be done.  This is the last day of indolence, voluntary or enforced.  Tomorrow real life resumes, ready or not, slippery roads, closed dump and all.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Reluctant techie

I know I've been away much longer than I'd led either you or myself to expect I'd be, but I do have a string of good excuses.  Between enjoying the company of and cooking for visitors over a long and wonderful Thanksgiving weekend, and just performing the everyday functions that keep this Ship of State afloat, I've been deep in modern technology.  You might even say deeply mired in modern technology.

The first thing that happened was completely unexpected:  I got a Kindle for my birthday.  I had been agnostic on this particular subject and hadn't planned on doing anything to jump off the fence.  I have taken to some of the new media storage opportunities absolutely like a duck to water with no second thoughts:  I was tired of the clutter created by hundreds of CD jewel boxes (not to mention nearly that many vinyl LPs) and had no qualms about digitizing all of them, storing them on my Ipod, and in one way or another divesting myself of the originals.  (Yes, LP jackets were works of art and iconic of certain times of my life.  But the memories sustain me and there is still, protein deposits willing, more storage space in my brain than in this house.)  I am also a huge fan of Google's Picasa and other digital photo storage sites.  I take more photos now than I ever did before, simply because I know I can "develop" them myself electronically, edit and enhance the ones I decide to keep, and print only the ones I choose to.  I will never get rid of the old paper photo albums I have, but I have indeed digitized most of the photos in them.

The last bit of "old" storage I had to deal with was books.  And somehow they were different.

While I am not one to re-read many books, and I never underline passages or make margin notes in any book I read, I like some of them enough to keep for no other reason than to have them around.  They're pretty, they're architecturally friendly to a house's interiors--somehow they just "fit," in ways that plastic CD containers and LPs lined up in rows did not.  I was getting worried about the ever-accumulating pile of books we created as we finished reading them, but was content with giving them away.  And then came the Kindle.

This little gadget is a true Siren.  It works via a wireless computer connection--I merely need to be sitting near my computer to purchase a "book" (I make no claim that it is the real thing) from the Amazon website (for prices much, much lower than the hard-bound versions).  It appears on my Kindle in a matter of seconds and then is simply there, available for me to take it up when the time comes.  I can store hundreds of these "books" on it, or, if I decide they are taking up too much space, I can simply delete them, knowing they are stored permanently in my account at Amazon for retrieval at any time.  And the Kindle even has an embossed leather cover that feels like an actual book.  In short, I became a convert in a matter of minutes--Steve pushed me off the fence with this unexpected gift and I'll be purchasing e-versions of books from now on when I can.  (Some titles have not yet been digitized and I will happily buy them in the traditional form.)  We won't get rid of the real books we already have and love.  But we will be adding to that collection at a much slower pace now.  To my more orthodox book loving friends: my apologies.   To me, the word is the word is the word, regardless of the format.  When the typewriter came into being there were purists who bemoaned the demise of ink and paper.  Modern convenience trumps the old ways, and "tradition" becomes precious, antique.  And it appears I'm OK with that.

That doesn't mean, however, that these new media storage methods don't come with their own special headaches.  Somehow during the Thanksgiving weekend I found the time to travel to  the Apple Store in Norfolk and replace my aging Ipod classic with a new one--still a classic, but with double the storage space.  I had thought that the Apple people would have some way of simply transferring the content of my old Ipod to the new one there at the store, as happens when you by a new computer.  But they didn't.  You have to populate the new Ipod yourself.

In theory, that's not a difficult task.  You simply dock your new Ipod, open the I-tunes app, and let the downloading begin.  But I don't keep my music in the I-tunes app.  I have way too many tracks to store on my hard drive--there would be no room for anything else if all my songs were stored there.  Whenever I get new music, I load it into I-tunes so that it will be in the library and, most importantly, so the Ipod can retrieve it and store it.  After that, I transfer the new MP3 files to an external drive and delete them from my hard drive. 

So putting all my songs on the new Ipod has meant putting the music back on the Itunes app--back on my hard drive--so the Ipod can read it from the app.  The storage problem was immediate--my computer got not even halfway through retrieving the external files before it told me it had to stop for lack of space.  And then there's the Ipod itself--for some reason it doesn't sync properly.  If I load ten new tracks, it may pick up only five of them.  As a result, my Ipod is full of incomplete files, and the only way to fill in the gaps is to find the original album folders on the external drive, compare them with what made it to the Ipod, download the individual missing files, and then re-sync the Ipod, folder by folder.  It is an unbelievably pains-taking and time-consuming process--the worst kind of nerdy detail work that only a retiree with time on his hands would ever put up with.  Return the faulty, poorly-syncing Ipod? What? And go through all this again?  I'm too far down this road to turn back, I'm afraid.  I've been at this project for about a week.  I'm up to Eva Cassidy. (Artists are listed alphabetically by first name.  Yes, I'm only on "E."  I just finished 300+ Edith Piaf files.  That was special.)

So that's my life at the moment.  I'm up to my eyeballs in MP3s.  If you've read this entire mind-numbing account, congratulations--you're as crazy as I am.  Now I'll wade back in.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Always the Peace Corps


Autumn is finally creeping into coastal North Carolina.  Above is the current view from our front porch.  I think the mix of hardwoods and evergreens that grow naturally here and which we were able to keep on the property is beautiful--the hardwoods provide a year-long show as their leaves emerge and mature through a season, while the evergreens, almost all young-ish loblolly pines, so straight and tall, give a permanent splash of green through the worst of winter, and whisper soothingly as a breeze passes through their needles.  It's a constant "sh-h-h-h," a gentle reminder to keep quiet.  I know this is could be a generic description of any forested landscape; the miracle is that we own this little patch of one, or at least have it on extended loan.   We know that if just the right wind storm blew through here, we could lose a sizable chunk of the wood standing out there, so like all other good things in life, it's best to savor and appreciate this beauty while it's there.

I have an interesting afternoon in store today.  The Peace Corps, as part of the observance of its 50th anniversary, is interviewing retired employees for their impressions of the agency and how it has changed (or in many ways remained the same) over the years.  I got wind of this project and presented myself and my unique history with the Peace Corps to their Public Affairs office, and the resulting video interview will take place today, here in my home.  

I became a volunteer in 1969, when the Peace Corps had been in existence a mere 8 years.  Though I never planned to, I ended up with a more-or-less permanent association with the agency (in the 1970s it was off-and-on) until I retired as staff in 2003.  My professional work made me an integral part of almost every facet of volunteers' lives with the Peace Corps, from recruitment, through placement and preparation for overseas training, to the management of the programs in the countries where they served.  And being gay, I witnessed and was instrumental in changes touching the experience of all minorities who seek to participate in the Peace Corps.  In 1970, I nearly left service early because of an emotional crisis brought on by the fact that, for fear of being booted out, I felt I couldn't tell anyone I was gay.  Now, because of initiatives that I and many colleagues helped put in place, diversity of all kinds within the Peace Corps community is sought and celebrated, and specialized training is given to staff in the particular needs and perceptions of various groups.  Gay couples are now being placed together in overseas jobs!  This is a milestone I never thought I would see (and still wonder at how it will work). 

I will be 65 years old tomorrow.  In 1969, little did that silly, gangly child of 24 dream that his words about this adventure, which turned out to last so long, would be thought worthy of capturing and keeping --in high-def, yet!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 5

I really didn't mean for this narrative to meander on for so long, but there is now an unexpected wrinkle which throws an entirely new light for me on this music business.

I have a very dear friend from college days who happens to be one of the most sought-after vocal coaches in show business, a behind-the-scenes power who counts some of the biggest names in all of music, from opera to pop to country, among his grateful clients.  Feeling like one of those morons who go on about all their symptoms with their doctor friends but importune anyway, I worked up the courage to ask him for some pointers on how to treat an aging voice that has not been used for music in many years.  I was embarrassed to ask this busy man for free advice, and expected something perfunctory as a nod to our friendship, and nothing more.  Instead I got a whole session with him, over the phone.  And that's where the "but...." comes in.  I am now in a musical identity crisis.

In that coaching session I discovered that the musical part of my character has changed; that much of what feels "right" for me to perform nowadays really doesn't fit at all with the crooning, "pretty" sound by which I have, from my earliest memory, defined myself as a singer.  (And that includes much of my own stuff,)  An unexpected realization was that all that mellow tone can actually get in the way of a lyric and impede honest expression. If I really do want to perform honestly for people in any venue from my living room on up, I have a whole new singing technique to learn and internalize, a whole new identity to take on.

I know this "dilemma" sounds like nothing so much exaggerated self-importance in someone who has yet to take any step forward at all beyond recognizing an old dream.  But it's a core part of how I identify myself to myself.  The question I'm grappling with now is whether or not it might be best just to let fond memories be--at this age I'm quite satisfied with who I've been in the past and who I am now; I really have nothing to prove.  Is all the angst of learning a new trick or two worth the chance to stand up on the stage of the Onely Place?  Do I even care?  The fact that I'm asking the question makes be think perhaps I don't......

If you've read this far, thank you for indulging me.  I'm working this out as the words emerge.  "Music," the issue, is now a work in progress.  If there's anything new to report in the future, I will.

In the meantime, we'll go to the December show at the barn and enjoy it.  And we'll become friends with those guys, whether I sing on their stage or not.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 4

So I told you all the preceding to tell you this:  I've lately been inspired to pick up the guitar and take a few baby steps towards using my voice again for something besides conversation.  The inspiration came from a visit we made a month or so ago to a local performance venue that was unknown to us, The Onley Place.  Of course, there's a story there:

We had always wondered why, down here in the brass buckle of the Bible belt, our elderly cross-the-creek neighbors were so welcoming to us frankly as a gay couple.  They welcomed us warmly from the very beginning and made no bones about the fact that they "got it" regarding Steve's and my relationship, and that they were fine with it.  It turns out that for a good 20 years they were members of a large group of square dancers that met just for the fun of it on Saturday nights. Their caller and his male partner, both raised just a few miles from here, ran that enterprise.  Everyone loved these men and the good times they created with their dance parties.  As time went on, though, the dancing started going into decline.  Dancers aged and fell victim to aches and pains that made movement no longer enjoyable, to the point where now, they get together to socialize but they no longer dance.

One of these two guys, the caller, inherited the family farm, deep in the country a bit to the north of where we live.  For the past several years the two of them have been restoring the buildings on it, and part of the restoration was the conversion of the barn into a performance space, called the Onley Place after the family that worked that land for so long.  Our neighbors took us with them to the most recent show to see if we would like it and also expressly to introduce us to the two entrepreneurs, knowing we had not met any other gay people here and very much wanted to. 

We had a wonderful time.  Every three months, these two men put on a sort of dinner-theater/Prairie Home Companion-style entertainment in which they feature local performers who represent a diverse collection of musical styles, everything from cabaret (a duo who have been regulars on the Raleigh scene for 17 years--who knew???) to jazz, to American standards, to country.  The catered food is plain and pretty much what you get here:  fried chicken, pork barbecue, hush puppies, coleslaw, potato salad--but very good for what it is.  For all of $20 per person, you and a couple hundred other happy people from miles around get to enjoy a nice meal and a good, old-fashioned variety show, complete with corny skits and musical entertainment that is all good, at least, and sometimes really top-notch.  (They featured a local 17-year-old saxophonist when we were there who is on his way to college and then, there's no doubt, to a stellar career in music.)

It was that experience that set my imagination going.  It's exactly the kind of venue and audience that I would be very comfortable working in and for, and I realized that if I was ever going to get back up on a stage, this was the ideal situation.  I decided to start working towards and audition.

My guitar work is, as expected, terribly rusty, having been unpracticed for at least 10 years.  I have no callus on my fingers, so merely pressing the strings to make a musical sound is painful.  The picks and strums I practiced so hard on for years are part of my muscle memory and are still there, but sloppy.  The voice is still there and surprisingly undamaged by lack of use.  I need a lot of work, but could with time get myself back to my previous level.

But.....

Next time:   A surprising discovery--the final installment.

Friday, November 5, 2010

FOOD FRIDAY!



TURKEY MUSHROOM MARSALA GRAVY

Sorry, no picture this time--I mentioned this gravy in a previous post this week and somebody asked for it, so I promised I'd share it today.  Since I won't be making it until Thanksgiving, so have no picture of it (and gravy pretty much looks like gravy--not much to take a picture of, anyway), I going commando with this one.

A note on stock:  I let my turkey stock simmer very slowly almost all day, while preparing the bird and roasting it, just adding a bit of boiling water occasionally as it cooks down.  I use all the giblets and chunks of carrot, celery and onion, one each, straining them out when it's time to use the stock.  The vegetables lend a subtle vegetal sweetness to the finished product, and the Marsala, though sweet itself, adds more of a nutty depth of flavor.  You know something is there but would never guess it was a sweet wine.

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
2 cups fresh mushrooms--white, brown, or shiitake--thinly sliced
2 teaspoons brandy
1/2 cup Marsala
4 cups turkey stock (see comments above about stock)
2 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup cream (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
fresh lemon juice

Heat butter and oil in a large heavy saucepan.  Add mushrooms and brown lightly over medium high heat, about 8 minutes.

Add brandy to the pan if using, raise heat, and cook until brandy is reduced to a syrupy glaze.

Make a paste of the cornstarch and 1/4 cup of the stock.  Deglaze turkey roasting pan with another cup of the stock and separate fat.  Add cornstarch paste and the deglazed turkey drippings to pan with Marsala and remaining stock, stir and simmer until sauce has reached a light, creamy consistency, 10-15 minutes.  This also where, if you want, you can chop up the giblets, shred the meat from the neck, and stir them in. (The liver will have added great body to the stock but will be inedible after boiling all day.)

Just before serving add cream if using and simmer a few minutes longer.  Adjust salt and pepper and add lemon juice to taste (starting with a teaspoon) to brighten flavor.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 3

The Peace Corps became spiritual home for me and remained so until I retired from it in 2003.  It wasn't a complete joy ride at the beginning--I left Boston in 1973 to become  a recruiter, working out of an office on the Chapel Hill campus at the University of North Carolina.  That wasn't a permanent position, however--had to be at headquarters in Washington, D.C., to land one of them.  I moved to DC and discovered I couldn't even attract flies at the Peace Corps, much less a job:  I didn't qualify for anything.  Normally that makes no difference for returned volunteers, as long as they apply for a job within one year of completing their overseas service.  During that window, they are given preferential treatment for staff positions--"non-competitive eligibility"--meaning as long as you have some relevant experience and you're not hanging from chandeliers you can probably get a job.  My problem was that I had waited longer than a year, so I was treated like any civilian walking in off the street.  I got temporary positions and was well-accepted by colleagues and bosses, but couldn't land anything permanent because I didn't have a year of qualifying experience under my belt.  One thing led to another.  Deals were made and broken.  I spent most of the 1970s either doing temp jobs at the Peace Corps or working for the DC office of the AAA--and making music.

I continued to compose, sang at parties and had the occasional club gig.  I really got pretty good--I'm still quite proud of my output from that period.  But the essential pull of my life was still towards stability, and then a new wrinkle appeared--I actually wanted to settle down with somebody.  I was nesting!  This latter development was an utter surprise.  I had never imagined myself "married" in any way; I truly enjoyed single life.

Nineteen-seventy-nine was a signal year in my life.  I was 33 years old.  I was still a green-stained map marker at the AAA, but I had also landed a regular singing gig at the Potter's House, one of the most respected coffee houses in DC.  Then by sheer chance I ran into an old Peace Corps colleague, someone I knew from one of my temp incarnations at the agency a few years before.  He worked in the Peace Corps travel office and told me they had an opening and that I should apply for it.  (Lo and behold, all those years working at the AAA made a difference after all, giving me the year--and then some!--of relevant experience I needed to qualify for something!)  I knew and liked everyone in that office, and they liked me--I was virtually assured I'd be hired; the application was a mere formality.

Then in July, 1979, I met Steve.  Here at last was someone I could take home to Mom.  Steve and I were perfect complements in virtually every way.  He could do things I couldn't and vice versa.  He was a loner by nature and so was I, though I was and am still a bit more "social" than he--another complementing attribute.  I moved from the
DC rooming house I'd been living in to the little Virginia garden apartment complex where Steve was--we didn't move in together right away, but we were near each other.  I literally forgot about the coveted Potter's House gig--I stood them up one too many Friday nights and they fired me.  It was a relief.  My starving artist days were over.  I started the Peace Corps job at about the same time Steve and I rented a house together in 1980, and in 1981 we bought the house in Arlington, where we stayed until we left for this new North Carolina adventure in 2009.

I stayed with music performance for several more years.  I still sang at parties, and I joined the Paul Hill Chorale, a prestigious choral group in DC which did several engagements a year at the Kennedy Center.  Composing, however, which requires a great amount of solitude, came to an end.  I didn't miss it because I no longer needed the singing as a crutch to make myself special.  I was now living many of the things I had imagined in my songs, and the real thing was better. 

Music performance receded in importance, as well--I quit the Chorale after 10 seasons.  We still had my piano, taking up a huge space in the living room, and from time to time I'd plunk on it, but eventually I stopped that, too. (It was a big deal to give that old baby grand away, but I found a family whose young daughter was just starting lessons, and I knew the piano would get more loving use in a week than I'd given it in years.)  Though music no longer plays the big role in my life it once did, I still identify completely with performers when I see them at the top of their game, and occasionally I fantasize about being back on the stage, performing.  But other things became important and I have no regrets. 

Next time:  I said all that to say this.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Music, music, music pt. 2

I was 27 years old when I got home from the Peace Corps.  If I had any doubts about what I would do next, the stultifying, nothing-ever-changed atmosphere of hearth and home convinced me:  singing was a way back into my own life as much as anything else, an escape from the conventional everyday-ness of living in suburbia and looking for a career in some office.  (I admit I was in for a pleasant surprise from my parents when I sat down with them to tell them of my plans.  They were entirely supportive of the singing idea--perhaps out of relief that I had settled on something as I marched toward the big 3-0; perhaps because they identified somewhat with the performer in me and wished they'd had a chance to do something like it themselves.)

A friend from my time in Ghana had settled with another friend of hers in Boston and had already told me I'd be welcome to join them.  Boston, with its abundance of university students, and all those coffee houses with all those open mikes, was the ideal venue for a budding singer.  So off I went, seeking my fortune.  But I wasn't all starry-eyed, oh no...I knew it would be a good month or so--maybe even 6 weeks--before that music-fueled fortune started accumulating, and that some sort of job would be necessary to tide me over during the interim.  A solution arose out of necessity:  I had to get some maps of the city, so I went to the downtown office of the auto club--the AAA.  The people who worked there were mostly young and cool looking, and I figured the work couldn't be too bad, talking to the public all day and interacting with copasetic co-workers, so on the spur of the moment I asked if they were hiring.  They were, and they took me on, practically on the spot.  Thus began my first life lesson, Reality 101.

It turned out that what I saw in the walk-in part of the AAA office was the mere tip of an enormous iceberg.  Walk-ins were served in the lobby of a building in which the AAA occupied another floor, and the folks working in the lobby rotated in and out of it, probably as a tacit admission on the AAA's part that being able to see outside every now and then is a necessity for the maintenance of sanity.  Most of the employees were working in what can only be called a public-service sweatshop.  Upstairs, there were row upon row of tables in a windowless room where people did nothing but put green lines on maps, fulfilling orders for Trip-Tiks that AAA members had called in.  There was a bank of 6 phone cubicles, staffed by other employees who answered phones all day, taking orders for routings or giving advice about tourist sites.  (We kept a list of the crazy requests we got:  a driving route to Bermuda--we told the member the bridge hadn't been finished yet; a "drive along the coast" from Boston to Los Angeles; a route that could get you from Boston to California in 3 days, hitting the Grand Canyon along the way; a tour of the "Fingering Lakes of New York....").

No matter where you worked in this tourism factory, there was a strict and universal dress code.  Even if the public never laid eyes on you, men had to wear a tie, and, in 1972, pant-suits for women were forbidden. 

The scariest part of the AAA experience was the lifers there--the middle-aged people who had never done anything in their lives but work at the AAA, and who were dead serious about the organization and the concerns of its members.  It was quite an eye-opener after having spent two years on a life-changing adventure. I looked at these pale people whose imaginations carried them no further than the next order of Carlsbad Cavern brochures, and whose eyes were weakened from gazing at too much small print, and felt dread.  Could I ever be one of them???  There's nothing like a scary alternative future to spur your ambition in another direction.

But I was in for another shock.  I discovered I was emotionally exhausted after playing the good, buttoned-down AAA employee by day and didn't really feel like pounding the open-mike pavement at night.  I did hit one or two, and I succeeded at least in being invited back, but in the process of "succeeding," I quickly saw that singing wasn't something you did for a mere 40 minutes once a week or so.  Singing--show business--is a way of life.  It requires faith, utter determination, overpowering ambition and the willingness to see yourself as a commodity in a competitive market place.  

And you need to be young.  The people I met singing were kids who did nothing but sing.  They hung around with peers who had the same burning need for recognition.  They compared notes on which venues were best, and they sang for and to each other.  They were either fresh out of college or had never even attended, having committed to this life as teenagers.  They were willing to live on the edge of poverty in their late adolescence on the chance that they would strike gold before they were 30.  But I was already on the warm side of 30 and facing the fact that I was tired of being poor.  I wanted nothing so much as a stable roof over my head and the predictability of an ordered life.

So there I was.  The one "career" idea that had fed my imagination for years had come a cropper.  I was stuck in a soul-deadening job that didn't even afford me the ability to drive to the places I was describing every day, digesting the discovery that I may be a singer but I lacked an important corollary attribute to make a living at it:  complete, all-consuming ambition.  I was clear about what I didn't want--the AAA was a great teacher.  But what did I want?  Whatever it was, it wouldn't be conventional.  (Order I needed.  Convention was still anathema, as it remains.)  Returned Peace Corps Volunteers often jokingly ask, "is there life after the Peace Corps?"  In my case, it turned out there was.  And it was back at the Peace Corps.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Music, music, music

I've mentioned here many times that I "used to" sing.  Music is to my life as is my skin or my hair--I was born with it, and it's just there, whether or not I'm actually listening to music or not.  (There is always a melody in my head.)  When I was in the womb, my mother's voice singing "I'll be loving you, always," and "Five-foot-two, eyes of blue" was accompanied by her heartbeat.  My sister, nine years older, was deep into the classics in her piano studies by the time I was born.  Chopin, Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Schumann, Schubert, even the Czerny exercises...all of these, plus the popular music of the day, were my aural mother's milk.

We were not an especially cultured family, nor was formal education a factor.  Neither of my parents finished high school.  It's simply that as ubiquitous as music was in the 1940s and 50s on the radio, just as is today, it was also more personal.  People made more of their own music then than we do now.  Pianos were not unexpected pieces of furniture in living rooms.  People played banjos and guitars, and house parties often ended with everybody singing songs, or indeed were held for the sole purpose of getting together to sing.  Parties at our house always ended with everybody standing around the piano, highballs in hand, singing--harmonizing--while my sister played. 

I was a kid who never gave much thought to what I would do in life.  The only overriding ambition I ever had was to get into the Peace Corps.  I did, and then it was done. At the advanced age of 27 I hadn't a real clue what was coming next, but the idea of singing for a living was always somewhere in the back of my mind. 

I had a the kind of voice that in the 1940s would have consorted well with one of the big bands--I could have been a crooner.  But my consciousness as a performer was awakened during the 60s folk era, so that was what I did.  When Joan Baez hit the scene, the die was cast.  I was completely bowled over, blown away, thunderstruck, by her entire presence. Her singing voice was indescribably beautiful, her guitar arrangements were simple but interesting (and always musical to the core), and her understated performance style allowed her songs to shine in all their ancient beauty, and the characters in them to come to life.  Her first record came out when I was a senior in high school, and I made it my business to get all her subsequent releases as soon as I possibly could after they hit the stores. I shut myself in my room with those records and my guitar until I learned all of her picks and strums.  By the time I got into the Peace Corps, I was the guy with the guitar.  I led singalongs and sang some solos, mostly Baez material.  Finally, towards the end of my time overseas, I began writing my own songs in preparation for what I had decided would be the next step, a singing career.  (Cat Stevens helped me in that decision. I had begun to see that the Baez guitar style didn't really fit with the kind of songs that were coming out of me.  Stevens's unique rhythmic strumming was the key that allowed me to compose.)

More next time.

Monday, November 1, 2010

One thing leads to the next....

I've wanted to do a big Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd for a very long time.  For the past 30-odd years, though, I lived in the area grew up in (and where the rest of my family was), so I never got the chance. My sister had the big house, she had all the kids and grandkids--even our parents, when they were still living, ended up near her.  Perforce, holiday family get-togethers gravitated to her place.

In many families where all the kids are grown and on their own, mothers and dads, who by now are grandparents, are the glue that still holds family holidays together. That's how it was for us.  Things have changed, though, in the decade since our parents passed on.  My sister hasn't cooked Thanksgiving dinner in a few years, lately going to her daughter's house near her instead.  One other daughter lives two-thirds of the way across the country; another lives nearby but does her own thing, and the fourth lives with my sister but does not cook.

So this year I'm getting what I wished for--my sister decided to get away from the DC area and come down here for Thanksgiving.  (It will be her first visit to this new house.) We decided to invite a few more friends; finally, I'm getting my crowd to cook for.

I woke up this morning fiddling mentally with the menu.  Soon enough my mind landed on the Marsala gravy I love to make with the turkey drippings.  I remembered the recipe was in a pile of about a hundred others that I've collected over a relatively short time--maybe the past year and a half (if I have any hoarding tendencies at all, it is in the area of recipes, I fear)-- that have been lying about in messy piles.  I couldn't put them away because the three-inch loose-leaf notebook I mount my recipes in is already filled to bursting.  I needed a new one but had never gotten around to getting one.  The Marsala gravy problem put the dynamite where it was needed to get me moving.

So instead of writing this morning, we decided to go to the office supply store to get a new notebook.  And more three-hole plastic sleeves to protect the recipes.  And some tabs for them.  Oh, and we need groceries.  And batteries from Wal-mart.

Two hours later we were back home.  Had to eat lunch.  Had to start catching up on the TV shows we DVR'd last week but never had a chance to watch because we had company all week who did not share our taste in TV shows.  ("Who's Jon Stewart?  What rally?")

Finished watching some of the shows, then finally got around to separating the recipes into piles by type (beef, pork, breads, salads...).   All that's left to do now is to slip the recipes into their plastic sleeves, put the sleeves in the new notebook, and write the tabs.  There'll be room in this new notebook for another hundred or so recipes, at least, so I'm good for another year!

And that's why I'm late today.

Monday, October 25, 2010

House guests all week.....

No, I'm not crapping out on you already.  We are entertaining guests this entire week and I probably won't have much time for navel-gazing.  I might be able to squeeze one good post in, but if not, see you next week.

Friday, October 22, 2010

FOOD FRIDAY!

PILAF

I don't have anything really new in the way of food, at least to me, to tell you about, but I did have this recipe, and the photo, in the files, waiting to be shared.  Glad to have the chance today.

Despite its Middle-Eastern origins, it seems that "pilaf," at least in today's American cooking vernacular, is just about whatever the cook wants it to be.  This is a version given to me 20-or-so years ago by a friend who lives in Baltimore, and it's come in handy over the years.  It's a very simple yet delicious side dish that harmonizes well with more showcase entrées.  As with all things that appear to be simple, the key to success is in the technique. 

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium shallots, minced
2 cups rice
1 cup raisins, light or dark
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1 cup cashew pieces (salted is OK)

Preheat oven to 350 F.

Heat oil in a Dutch oven.  Add shallots and sauté until soft.  Add rice and cook, stirring, until rice is thoroughly coated with the flavored oil and just begins to color.  Add raisins and stir to mix, then add broth, salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer, cover tightly, and place in oven to bake for 1 hour.

Meanwhile, pan-roast cashews in a dry pan over high heat until they take on a good deep brown, taking care that they don't burn.  As soon as the desired color is reached, remove pan from heat, place cashews in a bowl and set aside.

Remove rice from oven and let rest, covered, for 5 minutes.  Remove cover, sprinkle cashews over evenly.  Fluff rice, distributing cashews throughout.  Adjust seasoning and serve.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Update

The best way for me to describe the gorgeousness of this day is to tell you I cut the grass just for an excuse to spend some time outside.  It's in the 70s (mid 20s C) and there is a steady, strong breeze that makes all the pines whisper.

We are in the land of Bermuda grass.  Bermuda grows easily from seed down here; it thrives in ungodly heat, can withstand drought and grows well even in poor soil.  The major drawback is that it browns out over the winter, much like zoysia.  The accepted solution to that, we have learned, is to throw down some winter rye seed.  At first we thought this practice, very popular here, was for cosmetic purposes only--no matter what time of year, you can always have a carpet of green.  Lame.  Who wants to be mowing the lawn in the middle of winter?  But when we learned that rye grass also nourishes the soil, we were sold.  The dirt we have here is "soil" only by the most liberal definition of the word. It's half pure clay and half fill sand.  The clay may have some micronutrients for plants blessed with the wherewithal to root in it, but there is little to no organic material.  So we planted the rye, and now it is beginning to grow, verdant and thick.  As long as we have days like this, I'll love mowing it.

I realized I never brought many of you up to date on the hamstring injury I had last May.  I'm happy to report that the leg is entirely normal now, to the point where I've been able to resume my walking routine, which I had neglected since we left Arlington a year and a half ago.  The worst part of that experience was really the wait to see a specialist who could teach me what to do--almost a whole week, during which I navigated on flat floors only via a face-up crawl I'd seen disabled people in Africa use.  (Yes, they really were my inspiration for mobility.  The Peace Corps pays you back in uncountable and unexpected ways.)  That was something of a fun adventure for about a day, and then callus set in in places I'd never dreamed it could be.  A week was more than enough.

The results of the orthopedist visit were dramatic, if a bit anticlimactic, because after all that pain and all that crawling, the solution was so simple.  The doctor asked me if I had crutches.  I said I did, but I couldn't use them because it hurt too much to hold my leg up.  He had me stand facing a table, with my hands on the table.  This I did, with my leg in a position that kept my foot off the floor.  "Straighten your leg and put your foot on the ground," he said.  I did.  And just like that the pain disappeared.  I was on two feet for the first time in a week.

When I got back home I started practicing movement on the crutches.  In less than a minute I saw the that crutches were in the way.  I called the doctor to ask if I had to use them, and he said I did not.  So I put the crutches down, stood up, and voilà, I was walking.

Turned out that having the leg bent actually works the hamstring, flexes it.  The muscle is relaxed with the leg extended.  Who knew????

It was a few weeks before my leg felt entirely normal, and I had to be careful about some positions that caused a burn where the tear had occurred.  But I was very glad to see that my body can still heal fairly quickly from such a nasty injury.

And how else could I push a mower around, anyway?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A rite of passage and other fun stuff

Guess what?  I go on Medicare next month!  On November 14 I will hit the magic age of 65, when Uncle Sam takes over the bulk of my health care costs.  (Sixty-five????  I am in shock, this is not possible!  Remember when you couldn't wait to get older?  I was so happy to turn 30, thinking I'd finally "arrived" as an untrustworthy adult!  Somehow the current milestone lacks cachet.  I'm no longer looking to "arrive" anywhere any time soon, that's for sure.

It's almost scary, the way Medicare just appears in your life.  A big envelope from the Social Security Administration shows up in your mailbox about 3 months prior to the magic day.  In it are a few boilerplate brochures that purport to explain how it all works, and a flimsy paper thing bigger than any other card you carry, but which happens to be your Medicare card.  The idea momentarily flits through that this is just a sample, that a "real" card, made of plastic with a magnetic strip and that will fit with all your other cards, will be arriving, but no.  This is the actual card which by necessity must be on your person at all times, or at least close by.  If you don't get it laminated or in some other way protect it, it will never last the thirty or so years you intend to use it (if you're lucky). 

The Medicare premium for 2010 is $110 a month.  It will automatically come out of my monthly Social Security payment.  I only net $116 a month from Social Security as it is, since as a career Federal employee the only Social Security-eligible quarters I have come from summer jobs I had when I was a teenager and a few other short-term private-sector occupations I had over the years.  I called to ask if my premium could come out of Federal retirement pension instead, but was told that I had no choice in the matter.  If you get enough in Social Security payments, your premium comes from them.  So, what was once pin money will become--what?  Dust money?  In practical terms, I will not be aware that my bank account is being enriched by a whopping $6 every month.

As the saying goes, they get you coming and going. Under normal economic conditions, Social Security makes a yearly Cost Of Living Adjustment (COLA) to your monthly stipend.  However, the COLA is pegged to inflation, and since OMB has ordained that there has been no inflation for the past two years, there have been no COLAs.  There was none for 2010 and there will be none for 2011.  But that doesn't stop Medicare from upping its premiums.  If I had started with it in 2009, my premium would have been $96 a month and, since there was no COLA for 2010, it would have remained that amount for this year.  But somehow, even though there was no COLA, the premium for 2010 is $110 a month. (If I had any sense at all I'd be sorry I'm not a year older, just so I could have saved $9 a month!)  As long as there is no COLA, my premium will not go over $110, but that is small comfort.

Oh.  And Medicare doesn't cover all of your medical costs.  There are still co-pays and some conditions that are not fully covered, and for those costs, you must have a "supplemental" policy.  The supplemental payment to a provider combined with whatever Medicare pays should make for no out-of-pocket medical expenses on your part.  But the supplemental policies are the same policies that were available to me as a non-Medicare participant, the same array of plans offered under the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan (FEHBP).  And even though I will be using a plan only to supplement Medicare, thereby reducing my cost to it by a great deal, I get no break on my premiums.  To put it in a nutshell, when you're on Medicare you end up paying at least two premiums--one to Medicare and one to the supplemental plan.  Add to that optional plans, such as "Part D" for prescriptions and separate policies for vision and dental, and you're shelling out more than twice what you were paying just the previous year to keep yourself healthy.  And of course, these private supplemental plans are under no constraint to freeze their premiums because there is no COLA.  Those payments, which like clockwork rise every year, do come out of my retirement pension, which has also not increased in two years for the same "no inflation" reason.  In 2011, therefore, I will realize a net loss in income because of all these new medical costs. If this is progress, give me the Dark Ages.

Don't even get me started about Steve's medical situation, the fact that he is now paying for an individual policy, and I can't get him on my plan because Congress refuses to recognize us legally coupled...

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

In defense of Facebook

Speaking of habits, I've developed one new one that I count as good, but I know not everyone would agree with that assessment.  It's Facebook.   It has given me contact with wonderful friends I thought I had lost forever; it provides portals to fascinating news stories and new music; it has a couple of Scrabble-type games that I'm addicted to and which don't require you to give up any information about yourself in order to play.  (Yes, all this wonderfulness does have the potential to get out of hand, but it can be controlled.  More on that later.)

In the "BF era" (Before Facebook), my morning routine was to take a walk, shower, have breakfast, finish the two hours of Morning Edition on NPR (the first having been heard on my walk) and then head to the computer to write something here.  Now when I head to the computer I first go to Facebook.  I catch up on personal news of friends and interesting tidbits from all manner of media that those friends may share. Of course, I must also check the word games.  All that can take long enough.  On this particular morning, though, NPR music featured a new album by Bryan Ferry--a rare event by a unique performer whom I like very much. I ended up listening to the whole album.  By the time I even started here, then, I'd already been at the computer for well over an hour. That's excessive, I agree, but, it's also rare.   Facebook as a part of my morning routine is here to stay.

Facebook naysayers don't like the site because they think it's intrusive.  Agreed, it can be, but it doesn't have to be.  Just as plain old common sense comes in handy in all other of life's endeavors, its use need not stop at the Facebook door.  Example:  the site is full of fun questionnaires whose purported intent is to analyze certain of your personality traits and how those traits of yours compare with those of others.  Don't fall for them.  They're likely surveillance tools that transmit what you say about yourself to marketers who will then add targeted spam to your inbox.  As to privacy settings:  they're what you make them.  You don't have to post a profile picture; indeed you don't have to divulge anything at all about yourself except an email address.  Once you join, the "friend" database is easily searchable, making it possible for you to reach out only to people with whom you'd like to be in contact--others don't even have to know you're there.   It's actually possible to join Facebook and then hide from unwanted attention.

As I mentioned above, Facebook is more than a mere social network; it's a matchless source for information that is either fascinating or important, often both. The Internet already allows us to sample literally any media source in the world.  If you come upon a compelling article, you can instantly share it with your friends on Facebook via the link in the article, which these days is provided by all major media outlets.  I get important information from publications to which I'd don't subscribe myself--indeed sometimes have never even heard of--and likewise I share articles that I know others would have no chance of seeing in any other way.  I find this one of the most valuable aspects of the entire Facebook phenomenon.

Well.  I had no idea I'd be going in this direction when I sat down at the keyboard.  As some kind friend once told me, "it's your blog, you can write what you damn well please."  All this verbiage demonstrates to me just how big a thing Facebook has become in my life.  If you haven't tried it, do!  We can play a game of Wordscraper!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Here I Am

So I just got an email from an old work friend from whom I hadn't heard in almost two years.  The last time I saw him was when I went to his house to collect a good 50 pounds of green tomatoes (he's what you'd call a suburban backyard farmer, and a good one) so Steve could make his mother's green tomato mincemeat pie filling.  After that fun visit, there was utter silence.  Couldn't imagine what had happened.  Lo and behold here's this note today asking me what happened to Days of Transition and telling me he's worried!  Who knew he was even reading it???  If I needed a reminder that there are lurkers out there care about me (why, I can't imagine) and were using this blog to keep up, that was it.  (You know who you are.  An occasional shout-out, even anonymously, would be most welcome, just so I can know you're there.  I'm not at all averse to a private email, either, if you care that much about visibility.)

I've been working up to starting again, anyway.  Most of the heavy move-in projects are done now; Steve's actually dreaming up make-work things to do just to keep his sanity.  Can some sort of actual job be on the horizon?

And I've been writing all over people who never asked me to.  Long comments on friends' statuses on Facebook.  Longer replies to simple emailed greetings.  I've been away from this daily exercise for too long and it's showing.  I need to write.

I see no need to make any changes here.  I'm still transitioning, even though that original, literal transition is now history.  I'm still learning about living here in the country, meeting new people, getting new perspectives.  Most are good; some are less so.   There are plenty of impressions to tell about.

So I hereby promise to make an effort to get back into the daily habit, or at least as close to daily as I can make it.  If habits there must be, this one is one worth keeping.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Crabby

Yes, it's Friday.  I know there's supposed to be a recipe here today.  Alas, I am not prepared, but I am moved to put finger to keyboard.  This is about crabs--so at least we're on the subject of food.

I had thought surely by this time I'd have been able to post a picture of some great crab catch of mine, either a harvest of live blue crabs in their steamer pot staring back at you, or that same harvest freshly steamed, spread out on layers of newspaper, all red and covered with Old Bay, just waiting to be devoured.  Alas that hasn't happened.

The waterways around here are a virtual obstacle course of crab traps and gill nets.  Local professional watermen know there is bounty in these waters and they actively exploit it.  One professional crabber can put out hundreds of crab traps and make a decent seasonal living from what he (they're all "he's" down here) catches.  But "professional" is the operative word.  There is no acknowledgement whatsoever of the sports fisherman in these parts.  From Edenton in the the south to Elizabeth City 30 miles north, there are any number of marinas that will sell you water craft and everything to do with them from cleats to charts, but there is not a single bait and tackle shop.  You can't buy a crab trap anywhere, and the only sellers of menhaden, the bony, oily fish caught in the millions off the Delmarva Peninsula and known as ambrosia to crabs, are those who cater to the pros and sell only in 50-lb. lots.  If you'd like to try catching a fish for dinner and need a pole and some hooks, Wal-Mart is your only choice.  Need bait?  Dig your own.

When you come here for the first time, you are struck by the preponderance of water.  (It is, of course, what brought us here in the first place.)  Five huge rivers that dwarf the Mississippi, in width if not length, run north-to-south along a stretch of about 70 miles of northeastern North Carolina, all feeding Albemarle Sound.  The recreational and touristic possibilities would seem to be endless, but there is virtually no nod by the state or any of the local governments in that direction.  I've spoken often of the various wonderful surprises we've had down here; this is one of the few disappointing ones.  We were so accustomed to hopping in our boat in Delaware and running up to Lewes or down to Oak Orchard for lunch, or setting our crab traps out for two or three days in Herring Creek and getting enough "keepers" to make a few crab cakes.  Here, the water distances from point to point are enormous, and if you should actually navigate to a town on the water, and should it even have thought to put up a public dock, there's not much to do once you tie up there.  And the crabs?  I buy my "bait" at the local grocery store--farm raised croaker meant for human consumption but which I wouldn't put near my mouth, and as cheap as the menhaden were in Delaware.  With them I have caught many, many crabs, none of which have been legal keeping size.  (We're using the traps we brought with us from Delaware.)  Guess all the pros are beating me to the good ones.

A Friday the 13th story:  today we decided to try one more time to catch a few crabs.  A storm is brewing someplace in the vicinity, causing clouds, a stiff breeze and choppy water.  It was to be a quick trip, just long enough to drop our two traps and come back. 

The first trap went in just fine.  The second one seemed to have got caught on something--turned out it was the engine's propeller. The wind and choppy water sent us right over the trap's rope, which tangled itself into the works of the engine, which in turn ceased running.  (First thought:  Oh great.  A storm is coming and here we sit on the water with a dead engine.)  The motor is old--the hydraulic mechanism that tilts the prop up out of the water stopped working a couple of months ago and we decided not to get it fixed, since a new engine is probably in our future next year.  Nothing to do, then, but climb into the water to untangle the rope, which Steve, bless him, did.  He had to cut the rope. I pulled the trap back into the boat, only to discover that the bait had fallen out of it.  We turned around and came back home, then, with one empty, baitless crab trap--luckily it was just the tangled rope that was keeping the motor from running.  Steve was able to dry off almost completely in the breeze.  We now have one crab trap out there in the Little River, luring crabs with Food Lion croaker.  We probably won't catch anything.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

A Good Time Was Had By All

You will allow me a bit of a smug, good feeling today.  These higher-than-normal highs are always interrupted by life's normal bumps and bruises, so I promise this one won't go to my head.  But our inaugural North Carolina party last night was damn good!

Not that some major adjustments didn't become necessary as the hours leading to the event wore on.  Early in the morning there was a true disaster:  one of the cakes I had made a week or so before and frozen--the chocolate one--slipped out of my hand as I picked it up off the counter and landed, splat, face down, on the floor.  Unfortunately, it had thawed out, in all its moist, oil-and-buttermilk richness.  Not only did I have a hideous brown-black mess to clean up, but I had to whip up a duplicate and fast--it had been promised as a surprise to mark the birthday of one of the guests.  Thank God the day was still young.

The purpose of the party was to show off the new deck, so we were all set up for outside.  Zero hour was 4 PM.  At 3:30, the heavens opened and a downpour ensued that lasted most of the rest of the evening.  As the first drops fell, we switched gears and set up inside, moving the dining room table up against a wall to create buffet space, clearing coffee and end tables of their knick-knacks to make room for plates and cups, and moving chairs to unaccustomed places so lots of people could sit more-or-less convivially.

We learned several useful lessons.  One: we will never, ever, plan another outdoor party here for the middle of summer.  It's too hot and the weather is too iffy.  It's enough like the tropics to expect a thunderstorm in the afternoon, as if it were a "rainy season," but it's still temperate enough not to guarantee such a storm, so you're never really sure what it's going to do before it's done.  Two: the house has room for 30+ people to mill about and feel comfortable.  As hosts we sometimes had to break up groups who gathered in crucial spots next to the oven, say, or who blocked a thoroughfare, but that was the worst of it.  Any more than the number we had would be a bit on the sardine side, but we'll probably never encounter that problem.  (And besides, we want to graduate from these cattle-call get-togethers to smaller, more intimate dinners.  I take it that isn't done here very much, but I think it's because people have been intimidated by one guy in particular who fancies himself a "gourmet" and apparently has dinner gatherings that include all the starch of a nun's habit.  Not fun.  I cook good food--sometimes even fancy--but I'm more in the Julia Child tradition.  If the soufflé falls I'll serve it, call it a savory pudding, and pass the wine.)

And three, not least:  we have some pretty great neighbors.  I don't know the religious or political beliefs of a single one of them and I hope it stays that way.  Though none of these people are native to the area, they seem to have been infected with the wonderful local habit of smiling and waving first, inviting friendship rather than argument.  You quickly grow accustomed to greeting a group of strangers in a waiting room, say, as they look up and smile as you enter.  That really is the biggest and most pleasant surprise we've had here--how everyone is just plain nice.  It's a quality that makes for a really fun party.

Oh. And the food, especially the pork, was a hit.  And that chocolate cake? To quote one guest: "The best chocolate cake I've ever had!"  I saw no reason to mention that I'd had extra practice.

Friday, July 16, 2010

FOOD FRIDAY!



SUMMER SQUASH WITH ONION AND BACON

I mentioned last week that I've been learning new things to do with the bounty of produce we find here in this agricultural area, both at the myriad farm stands and, it turns out for us, from our neighbors.  A few days ago a neighbor showed up out of the blue with 6 pounds of cucumbers, along with a welcome to whatever else we may want from his garden.  And our cross-the-creek neighbors have blessed us with more yellow squash than I ever thought I'd want to see in one place--and a recipe for them that makes all that squash much more welcome. 

I've always thought those backyard garden old reliables, yellow squash and zucchini, were fine, in their place.  Good sources of fiber and good vehicles for other things, such as a version of moussaka I know, or in vegetable soups and stews.  After my first year with a garden, I resolved never to grow them again because they take up enormous space and you get enough of them to feed the surrounding county, and face it, they don't have much flavor on their own, even when consumed as mere infants straight from the vine.   But this way of presenting yellow squash is a real winner.  You may have heard of it, but it was a revelation to me.  Thanks to Paul from across the creek.

(Note: I chop these squash instead of cutting them into the traditional discs.  Much easier to get a good mouthful on your fork.)

4 strips bacon
3-4 cups yellow squash, cut into bite-size chunks
2 medium onions, coarsely chopped
Salt and pepper

In a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet or a large non-stick pan, fry bacon until crisp over medium heat.  Remove bacon to paper towels to drain; retain rendered fat.

Add squash and onions to hot fat, sprinkle with about a teaspoon of salt and pepper.  Fry 4 to 5 minutes without stirring, or until vegetable pieces have begun to brown.  Stir well to redistribute vegetables and expose the other sides of the squash to the heat and fry another 5 minutes, again without stirring.  Keep this up until veggies are tender (but not squishy) and caramelized to your liking.  Remove from heat, check seasoning, crumble bacon over all and serve.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

31 Years

I'm supposed to be pulling weeds today, but it's pouring rain.  The new grass and the seed still germinating love it.  So does our water bill.  (And me, I'm not complaining!)

Today is July 14.  Yes, Bastille Day.  And Steve's and my anniversary.

We met on a weekend getaway to the Maryland mountains hosted by a mutual friend whose parents opened their doors to us.  Of the crowd of people there, we each knew about two, and that did not include each other.  I was in one of my starving artist periods, singing all over everybody.  Steve liked what he saw.  We were both in deep nesting phases.  We started dating.  A short time later, Steve put it this way:  "My lease is about to run out. I have to move and I want you to move with me. If you don't want to, OK.  It's been nice."  How's that for romantic?

The adventure continues 31 years later.  The gifts I have received from Steve are immeasurable and innumerable; I pinch myself at least once a week.  Oh, nothing in this world is perfect, least of all human beings.  Our relationship has taught us both important lessons in the meaning of true adulthood.  If you ask me the secret to a long relationship, that's what I'll tell you: you must be grownups. The relationship itself takes on a life of its own, it's a living creature you both make, and as adults, you both choose to give it paramount importance.  Your own childish interests never go away; the trick is in acknowledging that inner baby and even humoring him when you can, but never at the expense of the relationship, the precious thing you have created together. 

Is this marriage thing for everybody?  Apparently not.  But for us it's worked beyond our wildest dreams.

Here's to 31 more.

P.S.  Take a look a the new masthead photo.  We're almost there.

Friday, July 9, 2010

FOOD FRIDAY!



BLUEBERRY SOUR CREAM ICE CREAM

This is one of several dishes I've learned to make here in this agricultural area that uses the local produce to its most beautiful potential.  I bought the berries at "Bright's Delights," a farm stand on US 17, just within the limits of Elizabeth City.  These days it is bursting with gorgeous stuff:  huge, sweet beefsteak tomatoes, just the right size to cover a slice of bread, at least 10 varieties of sweet corn (I bought bi-color this time, and next will be Silver King), blackberries the size of golf balls, blueberries, just-shelled baby limas for succotash with some of that corn...I could go on.  We are in vegetable heaven here.

First things first:  thank you to a former work colleague, Sharon Forrence, for giving me the idea for this decadent concoction via her Facebook newsfeed.  What she made was blueberry crème fraiche ice cream, and the very idea set my mouth watering.  I was determined to make it for myself.

I figured it would be a pretty tall order to find crème fraiche in these country-and-proud-of-it parts, and a survey of the grocery chains at my disposal--all two of them--proved my suspicion right.  So I figured I'd just make my own--there are recipes galore for crème fraiche on the internet, and they're all the same: inoculate warmed heavy cream with some buttermilk and let it ripen.  Couldn't be simpler.  The catch is that the cream should ideally be fresh from the cow (as it is in less squeamish countries such as France), or, if you don't have a willing cow nearby, the cream can be pasteurized, but not ultra-pasteurized, because that process just doesn't leave enough bacteria for the buttermilk culture to do its magic.  Wouldn't you know that the stores here sell only ultra-pasteurized dairy products.  What I found interesting, once I was made aware of this pasteurized/ultra-pasteurized distinction, is that the food manufacturers seem quite proud of the ultra-pasteurized state of their milks and creams.  It's written in huge print on the packages, obviously a major selling point.  The great, lowest-common-denominator American marketplace, with heavy influence from the paranoid FDA, rules.  So much for crème fraiche; ergo the sour cream.  Having said all that, I can't imagine how the end product could be any richer or more pleasingly tart than this, sour cream, crème fraiche, or whatever.

You'll note that this recipe is heavy on the cholesterol, with all its dairy fat and egg yolks.  And it involves a double boiler, the best thing to use if you don't want a scrambled-egg custard.  If it all seems like too much work, search out simpler basic vanilla ice cream recipes on your own.  They're certainly out there.  I just prefer this French custard style for its extreme richness, and figure we have it so seldom it qualifies as an occasional guilty pleasure.  

For the berries:

1 pint (2 cups) fresh blueberries
1 tablespoon water
2 tablespoons sugar

Combine ingredients in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When simmering starts, cover and let cook about 10 minutes, until berries soften and begin to burst.  Remove from heat, mash berries with a potato masher so that some whole berries remain but the rest is a slurry.  Set aside to cool.

For the ice cream:

2 cups half-and-half
1 cup granulated sugar (divided)
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt
8 large egg yolks
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon ground cinammon
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups sour cream

In a heavy saucepan combine half-and-half and 3/4 cup of the sugar.  Cook to scalding (just when bubbles begin to appear around the edges of the milk in the pan) stirring to dissolve sugar.  Remove pan from heat.  In a large heat-proof bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and remaining sugar, then whisk in the hot half-and-half in a steady stream.  Place bowl over boiling water (so it does not touch the water) and stir yolk-cream mixture until it coats the back of the spoon and it reaches 170º F on an instant thermometer.  This will take 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove bowl from double boiler and whisk in the vanilla, the cinnamon, and the salt.  Mix in the sour cream and reserved blueberry slurry and stir all to combine.

Place blueberry cream in refrigerator for several hours until thoroughly chilled.  Process in ice cream maker until thickened, according to manufacturer's directions.  (I use a Cuisinart with a removable freezing tub kept in the freezer between uses.  It takes about 30 minutes.)  

At this stage the ice cream will still be runny, like very soft frozen custard.  If you can wait, remove ice cream to a container and freeze until it hardens.  (Or if you can't wait, eat it right out of the ice cream maker!)






Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Water, water everywhere

We seem to be settling into something of a routine that gives me some time to sit here and write.  As a matter of principle, I try not to make promises about the future, but I can say that maybe, just maybe, I'll have time to do a little bit more of this now.  I actually fulfilled an ambition of over a year this morning and went out for a good walk.  I am shamefully out of shape--my legs feel like lead weights now and my heart rate was elevated to true exercise mode in a matter of mere minutes once I set out, but I know these signs of rust will polish away with a little practice.

One year ago today we were in the midst of clearing the property.  We'd get here in the cool of the early morning and suit up against chiggers:  long pants tucked into our socks, long sleeved shirts, a do-rag for me to keep the sweat pouring off my head out of my eyes, and clouds of Deep Woods Off.  It was sheer, unadulterated drudgery, but it didn't last long--we could only work until about noon every day before it got too hot, and our progress in those few hours a day was dramatically visible. 

Now, the land is still cleared and my job is to water it.  We finally had what we now call our mud flats--the 2 acres or so of land that was cleared to make the septic field in the front, as well as the two side yards and the back--seeded for grass.  It's Bermuda grass, the kind that wants to grow here because it loves the heat (the soil temperature must be at least 80F--26C--before Bermuda seed will germinate) and it needs to be wet.  So my job these days, while Steve makes sense of his sanctum sanctorum, the garage, is to water. 

When the house was built, Gary, the builder, made sure the plumber put standpipe hydrants at various strategic locations around the yard.  Now we know why.  I water area by area from 6 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, an hour at a time, using three 100-foot hoses stretched to various spots in the yard.  The seed really needs to be saturated, and, in case you haven't heard, we're in the midst of a prolonged heat wave.  It's a dry heat, which means the water that lands on places unprotected by any shade, including the vast expanse of septic field where there can be no trees, evaporates quickly.  We had a couple of days last week of heavy rain, and that gave everything a jump start.  So far, I've been able to keep the ground moist enough to actually look wet, and the work is beginning to pay off.  Our yard looks like the beard of a 13-year-old boy.  That is to say, spotty. Here is what the back looks like as of today:


It's actually a little better than the front, which has long, narrow stripes of green surrounded by dirt containing various amounts of moisture.  This is the three-week point.  There are times when we despair of ever getting rid of the dirt and mud, but I strive for faith that these doubts, too, will pass, just as all the others have.  A few months ago, when we first moved in and a lawn was still imaginary, a neighbor told us we should just get some sod.  They had put down seed, and they'd never do it again.  "It was so much work!"  she said, and I simply couldn't understand what she was talking about.  How much work can there be to turning on a hose and letting it run for an hour? Now I get it.  You become obsessed with maintaining an even level of moisture all around.  You're governed by the clock, going out to re-position sprinklers every hour.  Sometimes the sprinklers get clogged with mud, and a simple operation that should take a few minutes stretches to half an hour or more, as you turn on the hydrant, maybe 100 feet away from the sprinkler, and discover that the sprinkler has become clogged.  You turn off the water, walk the hundred feet to the sprinkler, unscrew it from the hose, walk back to the hydrant, turn the water on to clean off the sprinkler and force the clog out, screw the sprinkler back on the hose, put it back in the place you want it 100 feet distant, walk back to the hydrant, turn it on, and hope for the best.  You've spent at least a good 20 minutes at this.  And then there are the times the only way to move the sprinkler to the next area is to walk over the dirt you've just watered, which has become shoe-sucking mud.  Perhaps reading all that is as monotonous as actually doing the work?  Good, I've shown you what it feels like!  But the photo above makes it all worthwhile.  Pretty soon we'll have a lawn.

There are those who would probably love to point out that all this effort to create a "lawn," an artificial meadow, is unnatural, a colossal waste of a precious natural resource--water--and that we are polluting the very creek whose vista we so enjoy with the fertilizer needed to make this artificial meadow green.  Carry the argument far enough and you'll have stopped us even from building the house:  we should never have had those trees cut down, nor removed that natural thicket of green just to create a view.  All I can say in response is, "I know, I know, your arguments are unassailable, and I don't care."  I invite the environmentally sensitive among you to pitch a tent in the woods somewhere and be one with nature.  Me, I'll take my greensward, my lovely, flat, green meadow, shimmering in the Carolina sun.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

One Year On

Was it really a whole year ago?  It still doesn't seem possible.

On June 19, 2009, after nearly two years of preparation and seemingly unending months of anxiety brought on by an unfriendly national economy, Steve and I closed on the sale of our signature house in hyper-urban Arlington, Va., the one we'd spent 27 years re-creating into something that was ours alone.  We picked up the cats, the fish, and the plants, and drove six hours straight south into a completely new life in deeply rural North Carolina.  All we knew was that we were headed for a rental house and that our landlord would be the builder in whose hands we'd decided to trust the plans for our dream home by the water.  Would we feel dislocated?  Would we be accepted?  Would the Klan burn a cross on our lawn?  All of those questions crossed our minds.  But we had each other, and we had the knowledge that up to then we'd been able to fit in anywhere.  Heck, I'd spent two years of my life in Ghana, West Africa, the equivalent of another planet.  If that dislocation didn't do me in, a move to the sticks would be more like re-locating to another house in the same neighborhood.  Never did we feel we were making an unwise move.  And a year later, we are all the more confident in the wisdom of our decision, and happy about it.

Oh, there have been changes in attitude.  In my urban life you wouldn't have caught me dead or alive in a Wal-Mart, unless there was some bargain that simply couldn't go unheeded.  Here, the Wal-Mart is the only big-box store for 60 miles in any direction.  (There is a Lowe's nearby, thank goodness!)  It stands in lonely grandeur on the outskirts of Elizabeth City, awaiting the mixed-use housing planned for its surrounds.  It stands shining in the distance along with the strip mall that came with it, which includes a good pet store.  Since this is the only such store for miles around, it must be many things to many types of people.  It succeeds more than it fails.

Also in my previous life, I used to shop for food à l'européenne, making a daily trip to my beloved Harris-Teeter to be inspired by its gorgeous produce and wonderful meat selection for the day's dinner.  Here, you can't go around any corner without running into a Food Lion--truly the Starbucks of the rural North Carolina, making up in utter ubiquity for it's complete lack of corporate style.  I admit to an irrational prejudice against the chain, probably because of its name, which I find just stupid, thinking of it as an overgrown country store.  (Capers are in the foreign food section, when you can get them.  Fresh thyme was an unknown in the produce aisle until I asked for it.)  But I shop there because the prices of this most base of basic selection can't be beat. There's a very nice store, a Harris-Teeter ripoff, called Farm Fresh in E. City.  I go there for things like copper polish, Swiss chard or fennel bulbs, great cheeses, and my beloved Batampte pickles.   I can even pick up kimchee there when my tastebuds so dictate.  (And when it comes to produce, in the summer we are abundantly blessed with several farm stands to choose from.)

We do sorely miss a few things about the big city.  Bed, Bath and Beyond is a marvelous place that seems downright miraculous upon entering one after a long absence.  The occasional foray into Target.  A Thai restaurant.  (Mexican and Chinese are well represented, and there's even a Caribbean chop bar in Elizabeth City.)  A selection of first-run movie theaters--we have to go all the way to the Outer Banks for a multiplex.  Netflix has never been so welcome or necessary.

And we miss the proximity of our friends in Washington, but we don't miss the city itself.  (Our best friends tend to be scattered all over the country, anyway, so being here doesn't make such big difference.)  We miss the funky diversity of our Arlington neighborhood, but little by little we are learning where the weird people are down here--which is most certainly not among our lovely, well-meaning but totally homogeneous neighbors--we are the diversity in this little enclave, and they actually seem grateful for our presence.  We are on a search for fellow-travelers and know they are out there.  Meanwhile, our pink flamingos and the rainbow flag speak for themselves.  What they may say to the literal-minded, camp-challenged locals is another story entirely--("all those flamingos...you guys really like the tropics, huh?")  but we are making our statement.

We love looking at "our" creek every day, through the forest of cattails and bog flowers whose lives we made possible through the sweat of our backs.  We love the starry nights, where the spilled-milk inspiration for the name of our galaxy is still visible.  We love that through the good offices of a couple of very modest but pivotal people in our life here--our real estate agent and our builder--we have access to a network of first-rate craftspeople whose word is so good they don't even require contracts.  When they say they will do something, they do it.  It's a very high moral standard to live up to, and one reason the recent troubles with the home equity loan (finally resolved) were so distressing--it's not fair to make these good people wait so long for their due, since they have shown you such good faith.  Where else could we be honored with such a tender obligation?

Most of all, even though we have not said it in so many words, Steve and I love that we have each other.  Each of us made this life-changing adventure possible for the other.  Without me, Steve would still be sitting in Arlington, stressing impotently over lost property values.  Without Steve, his genius for design and his hands-on skills, my life would be far poorer and less filled with beauty.  When it comes right down to it, that might be the best thing of all about this new life.  With each other, we've seen without any doubt that we can do just about anything we set our minds to.  We're coming up to 31 years next month.  May the next 31 be half as good.

A very special song

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MP3 File

Friday, May 21, 2010

Meanwhile

The rain that seemed to go on endlessly just a few days ago has indeed ended and given way to bright sunshine, cool morning breezes and a clear blue sky.  And that cozy feeling you get when you can sit inside and do not very much because weather won't allow it gives way, in my present circumstances, to feelings of jealousy that Steve can be outside, carrying lumber around as he prepares to make railings for the deck, while I'm still inside relatively immobile.  But I can marvel at what Steve has shown me from the outside, and told me about.  And yesterday afternoon after the sun had gone behind the house I actually maneuvered myself out to the deck and enjoyed the fragrant air and the evening views up the creek.

We are in the middle of a natural wonderland.  Henry the blue heron makes daily, swooping forays up and down he creek, often landing right at the end of our dock to stalk some delicacy he sees in the water.  If Henry happens not to show up for a couple of days running, we ask each other where he is.  "Where's Henry?" has become one of those comfortable private catch phrases that mean more than they actually say.  (We had a "Henry" in Delaware, too.  We imagine that he found out where we went and followed us here.) 

Yesterday Steve saw two enormous turtles on the wetland fringes of the back yard. One of them left some scratch marks behind--is this egg-laying season for these turtles?  What kind are they?  We need to find out.  A hummingbird hovered over us as we sat on the deck, attracted to the extravagant salmon pink of the kalanchoe I bought to brighten Steve's office over a year ago.  The plant has thrived here, as if celebrating Steve's freedom, and the hummingbird's reaction to it suggested the sort of company we may have if we were to plant something with actual nectar, like a trumpet vine.  A trumpet vine requires strict, brutal discipline or it will become invasive, but the potential for crowds of hummingbirds may convince us it would be worth the trouble.....

Busy little Carolina chickadees and bluebirds flit and fuss incessantly from tree to tree along the water, and a tiny Carolina wren perches on the railing of our front porch at 4 o'clock every afternoon, like clockwork.  He "serenades" us with a teasing, single-note call that is way too big to emit from that afterthought of a body.  (The tiniest creatures seem to have been given voices that compensate for their lack of physical stature.)  On the other end of the size scale, there are at least a dozen osprey pairs nesting in the tallest of the cypress trees that grace the banks of the Little River, just beyond our creek. At least one of them does graceful reconnaisance over us every afternoon.  And then there are the crows, their raucous conversation announcing their arrival like so many ladies who have over-enjoyed a liquid lunch.

There are more wildflowers growing in the wetland than we ever dared hope.  I've shown you a picture of the wild iris.  They have now been joined by spiky little water hyacinths and a buttercup yellow ground cover whose name we don't yet know.  A wetland rose of sharon is growing almost within reach of the dock--we hope it is the scion of a plant whose seeds we collected along the river last fall.  It's still sprouting leaves and growing towards its full-season height, too early for blossoms, but the leaves and growth habit are unmistakable.

When I am once again ambulatory I promise to take some pictures of all these wonders and show them to you.  Until then, daydream a little....

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Laid Up

I was walking yesterday morning, minding my own business, when I tripped on a wire and inflicted more long-term pain upon myself than I have experienced in my life.  There are some times when you know you've done something that is potentially serious and will require more intervention than mere first aid.  The burning pain at the base of my pelvis was my clue.  I had torn the hamstring in my left leg.  I "knew" it before I knew it.  I just lay there in the dirt for a good half-hour while I tried to figure out some way to drag myself into a chair, using my arms and one leg.  I knew I had to get to a hospital, but had no idea how I'd propel myself into the car, much less survive the ride, sitting, due to the nature and location of the nature of the injury, on the tear itself.  I felt like a big baby but had to face the fact I needed an ambulance.  I called 911, grateful for the system but apologetic at having to bother them with my ridiculous problem.

"Life is what happens when you're making other plans."  A rare day off when we were planning to take the boat out and set the first crab pots of the year, and when I had intended to buy a big pork shoulder to try out my never-used smoker, was instead taken up by an ambulance ride to the hospital in Elizabeth City (two firsts: the ambulance and the hospital visit for myself) and then seemingly endless waiting on a bed in the emergency room.  At the end of it all I was given confirmation that it was indeed a tear, some pain meds (motrin and percocet, both of which, despite their splendid reputations, are taking their sweet time to kick in), a pair of crutches, and instructions to contact an orthopedist first thing Monday, there being none on duty at the time in the hospital.

Straightening my left leg from anything but a completely prone position is still excruciating, though slightly improved (maybe a 9 instead of a 10 on a 1 to 10 pain scale) over yesterday.  The crutches are useless to me because they require me to keep my leg in the only relatively pain-free position I can find, bent at the knee. In a standing position, the remaining muscles in my thigh can't help with that under their own steam--they end up cramping from the strange position, adding to the pain.  For locomotion, then, I've taken to crawling around the house like a crab, face up, pulling myself along with my legs, then pushing the rest of my body forward with my arms, dragging my butt on the floor.  (The bamboo needed a good scrub anyway!)  In this manner I managed to push myself into the shower this morning and cleanse myself for the first time in two hot and dirty days, sitting on the shower floor.

Dear Steve, meanwhile, has been living out the "in sickness and in health" part of the traditional marriage vows.  It goes without saying this ordeal would have even more difficult without his patient assistance, waiting on me hand and foot.  He's also getting a little insight into the myriad small but vital maintenance chores I carry out in our life together every day, making the engine run smoothly.  Not that I needed reminding, but this experience drives home once again how grateful I am to have him in mt life.

Other news:  the lien situation drags on.  There was indeed a debt against this property, and it was our purchase of the property that erased it.  Unfortunately, it's that debt satisfaction that was never recorded.  Dealing with bank bureaucracies to get that done is taking forever.  There is still light somewhere at the end of the tunnel, progress is being made.  But it's glacial.

And now for a crawl to the great room, or maybe to the deck.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Night Sounds

We recorded this last night on our deck. You don't know whether to laugh at the comical sounds, be amazed at their volume and variety, or curse the fact that they are keeping you awake. The creatures making these sounds are not 30 feet away from the recorder, and we have no idea what any of them look like, especially those making those "bubbling" noises.

Welcome to the woods!

MP3 File

Saturday, April 24, 2010

There But For Fortune

It's a cool, gray morning that promises to evolve into more of the same in the afternoon and evening.  We find ourselves with the first day of "nothing to do" in the new house, between projects, or waiting for various stars to align to start some.  A very dear friend, an old Peace Corps colleague now living with her partner in Australia, has offered to make us a quilt for the house and deliver it--in person--sometime in 2011.  So one thing that has kept me busy this morning is this website which has dazzled me and taught me in one session more about quilts than I ever imagined existed.  Steve and I have been tasked with choosing a pattern.  Once our choice passes muster with our quilting friend, we will delve into details of color.  This promises to be fascinating, an experience topped off with a visit from Roz and Lib, whom we have not seen since our once-in-a-lifetime visit to Australia and New Zealand in 2005.  It's one more lovely thing to be grateful for.

I also read the online version of the Washington Post, something I try to do fairly regularly, if I can stand yet more reports of the ever deepening chasm between viewpoints in this country, and the lunatics who really do threaten to take over the asylum.  I saw that the IMF has prescribed a remedy for our current international economic ills:  somehow getting the "developed world" to scale back its consumption and, concomitantly, its relatively luxe way of life.  The dollar must lower in value or the Chinese must raise the value of their currency.  Either way, it would mean that Steve and I may no longer be able to go to Ollie's overstock outlet and pay cents on the dollar for a dining room rug, say, or buy cheap nuts and bolts for our new deck.  Such prospects bring home for me one more time how incredibly lucky we have been in so many ways, for so many years.  When I say "we" I speak specifically of Steve and me, but the good luck has applied to countless of our contemporaries who happened to find themselves making their lives in Washington, DC, and other big cities, during the past few decades, riding the gravy train of good salaries that higher education could command, and not really too long ago.  In Steve's and my immediate case, we decided what had to come next, got out while the getting was good, and had the means to build, literally, our future.  Yes, we were smart enough to make plans.  But we were just plain lucky to be able to realize them.

There is one gift from my time on the planet that just keeps on giving, and that is my time spent in a poor country with the Peace Corps.  It continues to remind me to take none of the good life I have for granted.  I know that there are people elsewhere who are exactly like me except for the opportunities that are my birthright, and from that difference flow so many others.  "There but for fortune go I" is an old saying I became familiar with when Phil Ochs worked it into a song in the 1960s.  Never a day goes by that I don't remember it, especially now, during such personal good times.  Steve and I may have been smart.  But we had a huge, undeserved and completely accidental leg up along the way.