Wednesday, November 30, 2011

There are places I remember (Part I)

You know how in guided meditation the instructor often encourages you to envision a place where you can relax?  Does everyone have at least one of those places?

I do.

It's more complicated than relaxation, but my place is significant; it has contributed to my sense of who and where I am in the world. I think of it often and fondly.

When I was about three years old, my family started spending summer vacations at the now infamous Jersey Shore. Every year from then until I graduated from college, we rented a cottage in the tiny town of Harvey Cedars, on Long Beach Island, which is 18-miles long and a few long blocks wide. LBI has been described as "Six Miles At Sea", but that's really stretching the point. It's a barrier island just north of Atlantic City and east of the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which are 1.1 million acres of preserved land in a State more commonly (and incorrectly) known for industry, pollution and urban decay. Surprised? Most are.

Long Beach Island is an anachronism, a throw-back to the 1950s where summers are filled with sunshine and boogie boards (unless a wet and windy nor'easter settles in for the long haul) and smell like tropical sunscreen, and chain restaurants are outlawed. One of the best parts about LBI in the summer is that people go there to play. Parents, children, grandparents, lovers - put any on them on a beach with a bucket and a shovel, or maybe a kite or a Frisbee, and watch what happens. Pure unadulterated joy.

I live in Florida now, and let me tell you, the Gulf can't compete with crashing Atlantic waves, breezes redolent with salt and seaweed, and water so cold it can make your ankles ache. Mostly it's about the waves: in my mind a beach doesn't really count if the waves dribble in like afterthoughts.

LBI inextricably links me with memories of family and friends and life's little turning points.

My father was an avid fisherman. He'd be up at dawn to go surf casting, and often came home with a bucket of dinner. I can hardly pass a sand-spiked fishing pole without thinking of him.

He got us all to enjoy fishing with him, and every summer we looked forward to renting a shallow water, flat bottomed boat called a Barnegat Bay garvey, for the day. We were fishing for fluke, but often hauled up nasty squawking sea robins or (eek!) sting rays.  It was always an adventure, punctuated by faulty engines, sudden rainstorms and yacht-sized wakes which would invariably make my mother shout at us all to "sit down and hang on tight!"  Great fun.

In the early spring, when I was 15 or 16, my sister, Linda, and I combined our babysitting earnings and drove from our home in central Jersey to Ron Jon's Surf Shop (the original, I might add. Not some Florida wannabe) to buy a surfboard. Here's Ron Jon's back then:
Over the next few years the surfboard, a Duke Kohanamoku affectionately referred to by all as The Duke, provided hours of excitement and fun (and not incidentally, a great way to meet boys). It was very long and heavy by today's standards, blue with a single skeg and no sissy ankle strap.

On that day, though, we were very board-proud, driving north on the Garden State Parkway with The Duke strapped to the roof of the car. Cool doesn't begin to describe how we felt.

Fortunately, I don't have to dig too far back in my memory to conjure up The Duke. He has taken up permanent residence in the crawl space under my mother's house on LBI, and gets hauled out about once a year for grandchildren to paddle around on. He's covered with sand-gritted caked-on wax that's probably 40 years old.

Speaking of 40, when I turned that age and The Duke was around 25, we were vacationing on LBI. The kids were young - 5 and 7 - and I told Bill the only thing I wanted for my birthday was to ride a wave with The Duke. Bill, God bless him, carried that hunk of a board the 2 excruciatingly long blocks to the ocean and - I paddled out. The waves sucked, and so did I, but it was worth every moment. (although Bill may have another opinion).

Life's a Beach, and tomorrow I'm flying to LBI for a twixt-holiday visit with my mother and brother. Stay tuned for Part II.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

What does the rest of your life look like?

Almost two years ago, when Bill and I first considered life after 9-5, we engaged the magical power of The Google in a search for 'how to' resources. We stumbled upon the  North Carolina Center for Creative Retirement (NCCCR) at UNC in Asheville and signed up for a weekend seminar.
Do you see an oddly coincidental theme here? Isn't it uncanny how all our roads seem to lead to Asheville? Sometimes you just have to accept what's right in front of your face.
The seminar is called Paths to Creative Retirement and is available twice a year. We attended in the spring of 2010.

NCCCR at UNC Asheville

What we hoped to find was a template for retirement, a step-by-step guide that would help us avoid the pitfalls. Face it, we're over-achieving baby boomers, and we wanted to do this thing right.

That's not exactly what we got.

We were looking at retirement as a cut-and-dried process, something you might plug into project planning software (that would be my influence) and come out with a plan, complete with dependencies, gateways and milestones.

The seminar was more introspective, and helped us understand how each of us uniquely hope to spend the rest of our lives and what kind of roadblocks we might face. It sounds corny, even self-evident, but after the years many of us devote to career-building, money-making and child-raising, what's important when that's stripped away isn't always obvious.

Here were some take-aways for me:
  • Finances were not discussed in depth. This actually made sense since attendee demographics covered a broad range from those who will (or are) reliant on Social Security for income to some who were without a financial care in the world.
  • Despite the financial disparity, we shared much, and it underscored for me the commonality of the human condition. A sense of security, well-being and life-purpose are universal needs, regardless of career achievements, awards and degrees.
  • Of the couples that attended, many were dragged there unwillingly. They either thought the seminar was a waste of time (and money) or didn't want to deal with the issue of retirement. (Retirement = getting old = dying). By the end of the weekend, most had changed their minds.
  • Retirement isn't the end of anything - it's the beginning of a new adventure, akin to graduating from college, getting married or starting that new job.
  • We began relationships with people who are interesting, curious about life and fun. We look forward to continuing those friendships.
Of note: one seminar attendee, Elizabeth Pope, was a free-lance writer for the New York Times, and she subsequently published an article describing the experience, Boot Camp for the Retired or Soon to Be. It's an accurate article that cites some valuable resources, and profiles one of our new friends, Dorothy Butcher. Read and enjoy.

In an earlier post, I listed things that are important to me and Bill as we plan the location for our next stage. Most of this came from discussions sparked by that weekend in Asheville.

You might say (and I will!) that understanding your passions and incorporating them into your life shouldn't be postponed as some sort of bucket list.  This isn't a luxury or an indulgence. If we spent more time along the way crafting the life we need and want, maybe major changes wouldn't be so stressful.

Given the current financial climate, I know many folks are in survival mode, living from one paycheck to the next and hoping that the next crisis isn't just around the corner.

That's doesn't preclude dreaming, planning and setting goals. I believe if it's important to you, and you can envision it, you can usually make it happen.

What does the rest of your life look like?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reality bites

My Perfect Monday was followed by a dash-of-cold-water Tuesday. If I believed such things, I'd say it was some sort of cosmic score-evening, but I don't so I guess it's just the way things happen.

I went to the dentist to replace a 14-year-old crown (which had been installed by a dentist in Minnesota during summer hiatus when we were living in Hong Kong. I should feel lucky it lasted that long, since his dental practice didn't, having crumbled  under subsequent insurance fraud investigations. Life is funny.). Although the slightly worn, teen-aged crown looked ok, underneath lurked decrepitude and decay. So adolescent! Major dental work is scheduled, and I can't think of a worse time for this. Damn it all, anyway.

So I did the best thing I could think of, which was get down in the kitchen and cook.  I put on some favorite tunes (garage punk and bluegrass work well here) and turned the volume up high (to 11, for that extra push over the cliff  -  bonus points for the reference) and started mincing beef for Bolognese Sauce.  Or should I call it Blogonese??

The recipe is from Alice Waters, and is in preparation for kids arriving at all hours on Wednesday. Julie should get in around 6 and Will closer to midnight, so hunger will be assuaged, regardless of the time.

Here's a link to her book, The Art of Simple Food. The pages are increasingly food-splotched, which means it's one of my favorites. (Note to self: must do a blog about favorite cookbooks. Think about yours - I want to know!)

It calls for mincing the beef to a 1/8" dice, which to some might be considered tedious, but today had definite therapeutic value.

Below you will see the veggies and herbs, artfully arranged and photo-ready:

Thyme, carrot, bay leaves, celery, sage, onion, garlic
And here are the meat contributions, including minced bacon (which I substituted for pancetta), beef and pork:

Pseudo-pancetta, minced beef, pork

The glass of wine was the first of several, since the Novocaine had worn off and I was no longer in danger of chin dribble. (Novocaine always makes me crack up thinking of Dudley Moore in the goofy coffee shop scene in "10")

Important note: Alice (we're on a first name basis now) says to saute the meat until "a nice chestnut color", which sounds and feels close to burnt to me. Do it anyway!  It brings richness and depth to the sauce.

I tried to capture the color here, but it looks more like corned beef hash. You'll have to trust me on this.

While the veggie, herbs and meat simmered and infused the house with comfort food aromas I sipped more wine and let Bill convince me that it's better to fix the bad tooth than face the alternative.

Bed time came early.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A perfect day

Monday was awesome. At 7:15 am I got on my

and went to the gym where I had a kick-ass session with my trainer. Today was lower body: quads and hamstrings. Lots of dead lifts and presses.  We wrapped it up with 125 jackknife abs. It was killer but really got the endorphins racing around.

Breakfast was a protein shake with fresh mango. Scrumdiddly-umptious! Before I showered Bill and I spread Suwanee River pine bark mulch in the back garden. I was not a pretty sight, but the garden is.

Just because it was such a beautiful morning, I took a few more garden pictures. Enjoy.

And here's a cute little lizard friend peeking out at me. (He must have thought he was invisible)

I was a little tired after lunch (I did get up at 3:30 am because, well, for no reason at all) so I took a catnap and awoke to hear a story on NPR about a family-owned furniture manufacturer in Lincolnton, NC  that is reopening before Christmas. They had sold out to a larger company when competition with Chinese manufacturers became too fierce and the new owner shut down the factory. My big takeaway from the story was a quote from the re-hired HR manager. She remembered the former owner saying that when you treat people well, everything eventually ends up OK. (I may have horribly misquoted her - Go have a listen yourself. It's wonderful)   It's a concept that all companies, particularly one with which I'm very familiar, would do well to incorporate.

After my brief rest, I got started on Thanksgiving meal prep because for the first time in over 10 years, I actually have the luxury of doing this.  

Pumpkin Pie

OK, I am physically incapable of making a decent pie crust (but my friend Andrea says she has a foolproof recipe from her grandmother, and I'm going to give that a try.) For today, I proudly declare my crust is courtesy of Marie Callender. I promise my next crust will be from scratch. But the pumpkin custard filling recipe was quite good, thanks to, and I think I made it even better by adding freshly grated nutmeg. If you don't have a nutmeg grater, by all means consider one. The difference in quality and intensity of flavor is huge. Mine, pictured below, wasa gift from a friend 25 years ago in Minnesota, and it's still doing it's grindy-gratey thing.

It's called Nut Twister which I really appreciate.
(Great stocking stuffer!)

Pumpkin pie before baking (Thank you, Marie)

Cranberry Fruit Compote

This was so easy but the ingredients are all wonderful (except for the mountains of sugar, but I'm not sure how you can serve cranberries otherwise)

I love cranberries in their raw crimson beauty:

Here's a link to the recipe, from the November Good Housekeeping.  It combines cranberries, sugar, apple, walnuts, raisins and lemon and orange zest (plus the juice).

Orange and Lemon Zest

When it was all done, it looked like this.

I had to taste it (several times), and it's a lovely amalgam of sweet and tart, with the walnuts for crunch. The citrus adds a nice zing.

Monday ended when I met my friend Andrea (of pastry recipe fame) for drinks and nibbles at Rumba Island Bar & Grill. I had a margarita or two and the oysters bienville, which were pretty good, for being so far from New Orleans. I left my phone at home, so unfortunately, no enticing food pics.

All in all, a perfect day.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bill's Reconnaissance Mission

In the summer of 2009, Bill flew to Asheville. We had done some homework, and felt that, on most counts, the area fit the criteria described in "If you could live anywhere at all...."  More on that later. He rented a behemoth of a car and set off to get the lay of the land. He had scheduled appointments with a few realtors to see some properties he had found on the Internet, but mostly he wanted to get a feel for the place.

Asheville, NC
At first, he had some trouble getting his bearings, but eventually sorted out the different outlying communities and looping highways. (Mental note: Don't leave home without a GPS)

He looked at gated communities (no thank you) and lots with incredible views and price tags to match. He found some affordable houses at the top of steep winding roads and others in the middle of nowhere. There were new subdivisions with flashy 'welcome centers' and fixer-uppers in Asheville proper. None of that clicked.

Then he met with Heidi King of Greybeard Realty in Black Mountain, a few miles east of Asheville. He had contacted her about a house listed with Greybeard, but eventually they talked about building from scratch.  She took him to a small subdivision just outside Black Mountain being developed by (surprise!) her husband, Richard.  The 18-acre subdivision, StoneCrest, has around 15 lots, and all were still vacant. A few had been sold.

Here's something funny we've learned about building/buying a home in North Carolina. It's all about the view, but the locals say they like to look up at the mountains. Out-of-staters tend to buy places where they look out or down at surrounding mountains. This is very beautiful but impractical for getting in and out, especially when winter does its icy, snowy thing or if there's an emergency. Or both. It also adds to the challenge of construction (read $$$). So, Bill was very happy to see that StoneCrest is situated at the foot of Allen Mountain, with lovely views, looking up at surrounding mountains.

Here are a couple of photos of StoneCrest:

Sidebar story, which Bill won't appreciate: He arranged to meet Richard King at the development the next day to discuss lot availability. Bill arrived early and found himself backing down a steep hill in his giant rental car ... and subsequently into a ditch. A very deep ditch. The meeting with Richard did not begin well, but it did have a happy ending because the car was hauled out of the ditch and Bill returned to Tampa with a lot of ideas (Follow the link. You'll be glad you did), most of them about building a house in StoneCrest.

We returned to NC together and Bill planned a day where we retraced his steps (without any of the getting lost parts), ended up at StoneCrest (but not in the ditch), bought the lot and answered the question "Where?".

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Best Kitchen Gadget Ever

A couple of months ago, before I knew I was on Imapp's hit list, we had an office potluck lunch. Julie, the office organizer extraordinaire, rounds everyone up for these things a few times a year. This year she also provided one of the best contributions to the feast: a couple of chickens cooked onsite in her counter-top rotisserie. The aroma of roasting chicken wafting through the office that morning was fabulous. Every one of us was a Pavlovian case study.

And Julie was a living infomercial. The chicken as delicious to eat as we all hoped, and a few of us went right out and ordered tabletop rotisseries.

I am no newcomer to kitchen stuff.  Here are a few:

The slow-cooker and I have had a rocky relationship. The convenience is the best part - throw all the stuff in the pot, turn it on, go off for the day, and come home to a lovely simmering stew.  There are a few snags. I have several slow-cooker cookbooks, but after cooking any assortment of ingredients for 6 hours or more, every meal tastes very similar.  Do you agree there's kind of a re-heated leftover taste to crock pot meals?  Which then makes eating the leftovers really undesirable.  Then, and I feel really bad about this, I thought things might change if I replaced my perfectly functional but stylistically-stuck-in-the-80's crock pot

with a brand spanking new cooker,one that looked more comfortable in my stainless steel and faux granite countertop kitchen.

I had trophy-wifed my crockpot!  Not only that, but I soon realized that the functional drawbacks of the original cooker (everything tastes like leftovers) were not resolved by my shiny new appliance. There's a lesson here,  and I'll leave that up to you.

I have an Acme juicer, which gets pulled out every couple of years when I go on a juicing binge. It's neither the most nor the least expensive, but it does the job.
It makes an annoying high-pitched racket while doing its thing, but does manage to suck out every bit of liquid from carrots, beets, apples, etc. (In fact, that's my favorite juice combo, enhanced only by some fresh ginger root. Yum!)

My Cuisinart food processor is a workhorse. I use it often, but hate cleaning the parts, and am fearful of that really sharp blade.

And there's my bread machine; which mostly rests peacefully in the pantry, but doesn't hold a grudge for being ignored. It still produces darn good bread on command.

But, oh, the rotisserie.

It's a Ronco, and a small one. If I were to do it over, I'd get the bigger one, which they say will roast a turkey up to 12 lbs.  Imagine that! I'll probably upgrade one of these days.

Side note: I'd been on the trail of the perfect roast chicken recipe for years and thought I had found it in Alice Water's "The Art of Simple Food". 

The recipe is so good, you might want to follow this link and give it a try yourself. (Or buy the book. It's one of my go-to cookbooks. She shows true respect for fresh ingredients, with preparations that are elegant in their simplicity.) In addition to the lovely fresh herbs and garlic she recommends tucking under the skin, there's one important step in the roasting. I think it makes all the difference. Half way through, you turn the whole chicken over. This lets the juices seep back through the chicken, keeping it succulently moist and flavorful.  I'll never roast a chicken in the oven another way.


As long as my rotisserie continues to do it's rotational magic, I'll never roast another chicken in the oven. Picture chickens roasting on the spit in the grocery store. Same idea, same redolent aroma, and those chicken juices run through and around the bird. The fat drips off and the skin is crispy-golden. It's a wonderful invention that makes over-done, dried chicken a thing of the past.

But wait! There's more!

I've also used it to roast a boneless leg of lamb (which I had first marinated in red wine, garlic, rosemary and olive oil)  I put tiny potatoes on the bottom so they cooked as the lamb fat dripped on them.  Okay, this is NOT a low-anything meal, but it was darn good. Here's a picture:

Pork tenderloin and kielbasa (on skewers) also works well. I'm beginning to think an old boot with the right marinade wouldn't be half bad. The appliance also comes with a basket, which I haven't used. They say you use it to cook shrimp or fish, stuff you wouldn't put on a spit or skewer. I imagine roasted veggies would work well too - carrots, zucchini, onions, mushrooms.

Hmmm - I think tonight's dinner menu is taking shape.

Bon Appetit!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Let's Go Underground!

I mentioned in an earlier post that my activist mother, Norma, has taken on the cause of replacing unsightly utility poles with underground installations.  She kicked off her effort with a letter to President Obama and will begin work on a local, grassroots level after Thanksgiving.

It is a daunting undertaking, involving the investment of federal funds, and the integration of government, utilities and private industry resources. However, this has been done in  a number of communities (San Diego and Scottsdale, for example) and the paybacks are significant.
  • Safety: If you've lived in a community with ancient, hideous utility poles, and have experienced long-lasting power outages (days into weeks), you know what I'm talking about . But those who don't, may have difficulty understanding how disastrous a situation that can be. My daughter, Julie, went through that experience a few weeks ago, after the freaky snowstorm in the northeast. It's very scary to find that nothing works, stores aren't open, and ATM machines are nothing more than non-responsive metal boxes. People become desperate when a store or gas station finally does open, and without warning an inconvenient situation escalates into a dangerous one.

  • Investment in our infrastructure: Most people understand that investment in our infrastructure is a positive move on so many fronts. 
We know how successful this can be historically, through President Franklin Roosevelt's Works Progress Adminstration (WPA), which provided about 8 million jobs for 8 years and created amazing public works. The investment was about $13.4 billion, which was a whole heck of a lot of money back then. From Wikipedia: "The direct focus of the WPA projects changed with need. 1935 saw projects aimed at infrastructure improvement; roads, bringing electricity to rural areas, water conservation, sanitation and flood control. In 1936, as outlined in that year’s Emergency Relief Appropriations Act, public facilities became a focus; parks, buildings, utilities, airports, and transportation projects were funded. The following year, saw the introduction of agricultural pursuits in projects such as the production of marl fertilizer and the eradication of fungus pests."
It is precisely because of the high likelihood of success that certain factions within Congress oppose infrastructure renewal: they prefer our economy and country to tank, assuring Obama's defeat, rather than upgrade our infrastructure to create a safer, more functional, environment.
  •  Jobs: We need jobs for the unemployed and the underemployed. We need jobs for veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan who are here now, and those who will be returning to our shores. We desperately need jobs in this country and infrastructure upgrades would provide them.Think about what many of those serving overseas have been doing: building roads, bridges, power systems, hospitals. They're coming home with the skills needed for just this sort of project. However, as noted above, there are those who place Party above Country, and it's important to point them out loudly and often.
Are you interested in moving this effort forward? My mother will have a website in a few weeks, but in the meantime, here are some ideas:
  • Feel free to lift verbiage from this posting, or use your own words, to write to the editor of your local paper.
  • Contact (write/call/email) elected representatives to push the general idea of infrastructure upgrade, and the specific need for underground utilities
  • Contact (same as above) utility companies, encouraging their involvement
  • Use the Facebook, Twitter and Email links at the end of this post to spread the word.
  • Talk to people about this. Really, just talk. It's as good a place to start as any.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

It's just a bucket of balls

Bill and I went to the driving range today for the first time in, oh, maybe 5 years. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that the last time we played golf it involved running out of gas on a country road at 7:30 am on a blistering hot Sunday. It took 5 long years to ease the memory.

We decided to give it another shot.

Loaded the car up with clubs, armed myself with a Groupon guaranteed to keep me in range balls for a long, long time, and headed out.

I got to my tee box, arranged my 3 clubs in the order I wanted to use them, placed my folded towel and a bottled water on a handy-dandy shelf, clipped back my hair with a barrette (très chic), picked up my 9-iron and stared at

Suddenly, I sensed what might have been a panic attack. To my right and left were people (ok, men, all men) patiently, happily, properly hitting their range balls with affirmative thwacks. All wore hats. I didn't have a hat. (Was it requisite?) Upon execution, they (the balls, not the men) lofted gracefully in the air and landed, I'm sure, exactly as intended.

I knew, without a doubt, that my attempts to connect club face with ball were going to have strange and embarrassing results. Ricochets off dividing walls, 3 foot dribbles off the tee, vertical pop-ups with posterior landings. I saw it all in my anxiety-ridden mind's eye.  I was also sure everyone was watching. Me.

But I'm gutsy so I inhaled deeply (and exhaled),  took a swig of water, stared at that bucket and thought (maybe even said aloud)

"You're only a goddamn bucket of balls"

I made my way through the bucket and was pretty bad. I topped a few, shanked a few more, didn't hit any farther than 80 yards, was doing something peculiar with my right elbow but damnit, I didn't have any whiffs and nor any of the horrors noted above and heard a few thwacks of my own.  Know what else? I had fun. And I learned something: I should probably take a few lessons.

The best part? As I was leaving, I saw a few hat-wearing men hit some god-awful shots.  It was delightful.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Top Ten Reasons Job-Free Isn't So Bad

10.  No more uncomfortable shoes. 
Today, I'll wear this little number. Tomorrow, I might wear it again!

9.    You can go to the gym whenever you want. Hell, you can go wherever, whenever. Think of the possibilities: visit the library, stroll in the park, geocache, loaf, walk your dog, walk someone else's dog, volunteer at the food bank, participate in your local OWS. The possibilities are infinite.

8.    Pffffbt! to rush hour
Where am I in this picture? NOT.

7.    Cooking is once again a pleasure
Let's whip up a turducken!

6.    No need to defer to someone just because he pays your salary

5.    Don't have to shoehorn the holiday season in between deadlines and deliverable crunches. (Put the "joy" back into Joyeux Noel!)

Forget it Ebeneezer! I'm outta here!

4.    Home time isn't just chore time. The to-do lists don't have to be completed in 2 days. You can vacuum in the morning and go for a bike ride in the afternoon or plan menus after taking the pooch to the doggie park. Go grocery shopping the next day, on your way back from the driving range. So damned civilized.

3.    Don't need to calculate remaining vacation time before planning an out-of-state family visit
Hi Mom! Coming to visit this weekend! (Caution: be sure Mom is a fan of this new-found freedom)

2.    Make-up is not a daily requirement (This is tricky. Could be a slippery slope into a more, um, natural look than is actually becoming)

1.    Every day is Saturday, but without the crowds

Sure, there are downsides. Big ones. Like, for instance, less income.  That is, as Al Gore might say, an Inconvenient Truth. And health care could be a major issue, since some lawmakers in this country believe that's a privilege, not a right. I have a few opinions on that (surprise!)  - We'll deal with that later. Right now, let's just revel in throwing off The Company shackles.