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Mount Vernon April 6, 2010

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Lila really enjoyed Mount Vernon. We were there the Saturday before Easter, a beautiful day, and it was very crowded. We reviewed the map–Lila honed in on the Tomb right away. But first  we waited in a long line to tour the mansion and Lila organized the kids on the lawn and started a game of freeze tag. She was very proud to have eluded a 10 year old.

The line moved at a decent pace and we succeeded in getting her to rejoin us just before we entered the house. To her credit, Lila is not shy about raising her hand and asking questions of the docents. Unfortunately, the Ladies of Mount Vernon see themselves as three-quarters security guard and one quarter information provider–they could easily be replaced with tape recorders. Lila asked an innocuous question on the ground floor which was dutifully answered with a tone clearly meant to suggest that if the little one had just paid better attention to the canned speech she would already know the answer.

On to the second floor, which ended with George and Martha Washington’s bedroom. The docent told us that the bed we see is “the very bed George Washington died in.” Lila’s hand shot up. The docent looked away. The hand wiggled.The docent saw it and asked if she had a question. Lila tried, but just couldn’t get the question out–too much pressure. So we left the house and Mary asked Lila what her question was. “If George Washington died in that bed, how did they wash the sheets?” Luckily the next building we approached was the laundry, and we were able to show her the pots and soap that would have been used.

If I recall correctly, Washington died of “complications” of a relatively minor respiratory infection. I think the complications were that his crack physicians bled him to death trying to get bad humors out of his body. So maybe she was right to be worried about the sheets.


The Christmas Turkey December 29, 2009

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We visited Mary’s Grandmother in Naples, Florida for Thanksgiving, and had Thanksgiving dinner from Boston Market. It was better than we expected, but it wasn’t a home cooked dinner. So, a Christmas turkey assumed greater importance in my mind than in most years.

On the 23rd I selected a fresh, cage free, no hormone lived-a-happy-life turkey from Mollie Stone. On Christmas eve I prepared the brine; salt and sugar boiled in a couple of cups of water with garlic, a fresh bay leaf and mix of herbs from the garden. I diluted the brine with cold water and ice and submerged the turkey in a large stainless steel hotel pan.

Since the night was to be cold, and there was little room in the refrigerator, I decided to leave the turkey on the back deck. As we went to bed, Mary said “won’t the raccoons get it?” I said not to worry about it. Why would raccoons be hanging around our backyard?

Naturally, Lila woke us early Christmas morning. I don’t recall exactly when in the confusion of that first hour I thought to look at the bird, but when I did, it had been half pulled out of the brine, wings spread over the edge of the pan and much of the skin gnawed off of its back. My first insticnt was to turn it over, damage down, and push it back into the brine. There was still plenty of ice, so at least I knew it had not been too warm.

I expected Mary to be freaked out about it but she surprised me by sanguinely accepting my assurance that it would be perfectly fine to eat. Then I started to worry about rabies. I figured the chances that the animal that attacked the turkey was rabid were pretty small, but they existed. I Googled “rabies” and learned that it is spread by saliva and that infected animals generally had little contagion in the saliva before the  disease manifests itself in those final fatal days. I decided to Google “rabid animal meat” to see what I could learn. Naturally, the only direct reference to the safety of eating meat infected with rabies came from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety (who else!). They advised that meat that was fully cooked or dessicated was safe.

Putting the information together, I figured that the real risk of contamination was incalculably small, but that for the modest price of a new turkey I could set aside any worry about it at all. had it been just me eating, I probably would have cooked the bird, but for Lila and Mary, the cost of a new one and the challenge of finding one on Christmas day was a small price to pay. The third Safeway was open, and was surprisingly quite busy, though I doubt anyone else there was replacing a raccoon ravaged Christmas dinner.

Even in the pet store….they find me. November 5, 2009

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Today I bought dog food in Marin. I had to go right by a pet store. As I waited in line, a woman who, I must be honest, had that look who would be described in The South as being “touched.” She was about my age, short and with glasses and was buying a blue fish. She tried to set the fish in its puffed-up plastic bag on a dome-topped ice cream freezer a couple of times. It tried to roll off and she said something about that “being a cold place.” (No, I don’t know why they were selling ice cream sandwiches in the pet store.) As my order was being rung up she began fumbling through her large wallet. I assumed she was pulling money out to buy her fish. Instead she retrieved a business card and handed it to me, announcing that she was a pet sitter. I mentioned that she had given me three cards, but she said “that’s OK, you can pass them out.” She said that even though the card has a picture of a cat on it she is happy to house sit dogs too and she will “love them and spoil them to death.” She explained that she would charge $40 a day and she would live there, not just stop by. She also said we would not need to worry about her having anyone over at the house because she only had two friends, but they had both committed suicide, so now she was alone. I started to say how sorry I was but she interrupted and said “you see you don’t need to worry about me bringing people over.” Then she said that her mother had been a musician. She played the saxophone in a bar called Spike and Pickles and that she was going to name her fish Spike and Pickles in honor of the bar. It confused me a bit that there was only one fish, and she seemed to sense this so she explained that all of her fish were named Spike and Pickles. I have her card and think we should hire her right away…



Halloween Hangover November 2, 2009

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We put Lila to bed on Halloween and went downstairs to have a glass of wine and watch a TV show. After a few minutes I heard quiet sobbing and went upstairs to check on her. She hasn’t cried like that in bed for at least a year, you know the way little kids sometimes do, when they’re scarred or over stimulated. I asked her what the matter was and she said, “I just don’t want it to be over…”. She stopped crying when we agreed not to take the decorations down for a few days and I told her she could share the necklace from my Dracula costume. Then in the morning she snuck into our room and put the necklace on my bedside table. I guess she felt better by then.

President Bush’s Library February 5, 2009

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President Bush’s Library

The election and the inauguration are now past. Whether you were a supporter of President George W. Bush or not, now is the time to put that era behind us and reconcile the country to deal with the challenges we now face. What better way for the country to come together than around a civic project? My suggestion is that we all work together to provide books for President Bush’s Presidential Library.

Having spent eight years following the Bush Administration and completed extensive research I discovered the two books uniquely connected with the Bush legacy. My suggestion is to fill the library with them.
Unfortunately, the most famous of the two Bush books is “The Pet Goat” is part of a learn-to-read series and is not generally available individually. Amazon does list just over 1800 of them available used.

The Pet Goat

I think it appropriate to extend Mr. Bush’s Library to include other goat publications. A few suggestions follow:
The Pygmy Goat Pet Owners’ Manual

My Pet Goat (CD)

Goats Don’t Brush Their Teeth

Of course the other book closely associated with the Bush administration is Albert Camus’ The Stranger. Thankfully, this book is readily available. Here is another source.

In keeping with the Bush legacy you might prefer to send the Cliff Notes. This might be a good option if you think President Bush might ever visit his library, because as we know he does not like to read the newspaper and other written works. I make the conceptual leap to Cliff Notes which will represent all of the important themes of the actual book in a truncated easy-to-read format.

You can send your books to:
George W. Bush Presidential Library
C/O President George W. Bush
10141 Daria Pl
Dallas, TX 75229

Alternatively, you might prefer to send your contribution to the future home of the George W. Bush Presidential Library,
Southern Methodist University
Office of Development
PO Box 750402
Dallas, TX 75275-0402

Grandma Devlin in the Sky January 20, 2009

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We walked Sugar tonight with Lila in her new ski jacket. The balance of her outfit was a wife beater t-shirt, leopard print skirt and running shoes–no socks. Also, Lila insisted on wrapping her feet in baby wipes for the walk because she was “so injured” and otherwise she would limp. So she had wet baby wipes inside her shoes. There is nothing wrong with her feet by the way.
In a contemplative mood, as we walked, Lila said “see that star up there? That’s Grandma Devlin. She watches me and claps when I laugh and when I sing. And next to her is her sister and her mom and dad. And she is up there watching me all the time and she is dead and she is waiting for me to be dead and be up there with her. Thank you for calling me ‘Devlin’ because I love her.”
What do you say to that?

Too Young for Nostalgia January 12, 2009

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On Saturday we went to the bookstore to buy a new calendar. Then on our bike ride today Lila and I talked about recent events and the change of year. She’s been very interested in it. She thought it was the absolute height if wit when on New Year’s Eve we put her to bed and said we would see her next year. She had a puzzled look on her face for an instant then laughed and repeated the joke a couple of times (and then muffed it the next day, when of course, it no longer worked).
Today as we rolled down Grand Avenue between Burlingame and San Mateo, just tooling around, she adopted a wistful tone and said, “I miss 2008,” then paused, and sounding resolute added, “but we’ve got to move on.”

Pizza Party January 12, 2009

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My life long love of pizza continues—enhanced in the near term by Mary’s gift of a pizza stone and peel for Christmas.

This is my current pizza crust—it is an amalgam of the recipe from Nate Appleman’s A16 cookbook and the excellent King Arthur Flour cookbook. Make it today for tomorrow:
24 ounces water; 100 degrees
1 tablespoon active dried yeast
pinch sugar
17 ounces bread flour
17 ounces all-purpose flour
2 ounces olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
4 plastic bags (bread/food storage type)
Approximately ¼ ounce additional olive oil

Put water in mixing bowl of a stand mixer with dough hook, add the yeast, pinch of sugar and a pinch of the flour. Allow the yeast 10 minutes to rehydrate; it should be fully dissolved and beginning to foam around the edges. Add the flour and mix one minute on low. Add olive oil and salt, mix until well combined, but not yet a smooth dough. Turn off mixer and let dough rest 10 minutes. After the rest, knead dough 10 minutes on low speed. Dough should now be smooth. Allow dough to rise until doubled in the mixing bowl, 45-60 minutes. Punch down, turn out to a lightly floured surface and divide into four equal pieces. Put a few drops of olive oil in each bag and spread around. Place one piece of dough in each bag. Twist the neck of the bag to close it. The dough will rise in the bag—do not seal it as the bag might explode. Allow the bags of dough a slow second rise in the refrigerator for approximately 24 hours. The dough will keep for several days and is better after 48 hours.

To use:
Remove dough from refrigerator. Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Drop dough out of bag onto a floured work surface. Divide in two for small 10” pizzas. Top with your favorite stuff. Bake on a pizza stone or the backside of the heaviest cookie sheet you have (if you could stack two together that’s even better—the idea is to get some thermal mass in the oven so that when the pizza hits it doesn’t cool too much).

Notes: Good fresh yeast is important. I buy commercial active dry yeast from the restaurant in 1 pound vacuum sealed bricks. I store it in a Lexan container in the freezer. I cannot use it fast enough and generally throw out about the second half of the brick when it is a year old. Maybe I’ll bake more this year. It costs $3 a pound and is more convenient, better quality and a hell of a lot cheaper than the little packets from the store. Date the yeast when you put it in the freezer—a year is all you get (date your baking powder and baking soda too—a year is good for them too. I baked a birthday cake for Mary a couple of years ago that didn’t rise, at all, and I think it was the baking powder).
You can change the flour to all all-purpose or all bread flour if you don’t have the other one.
Weighing baking ingredients is much faster, easier and more accurate than volume measures. A cup of flour weighs about 4.25 ounces (so this recipe uses 8 cups). A decent scale isn’t super cheap, but you can get one for $50. Make sure it is easy to adjust the tare weight (to zero the scale when you put a bowl on it to hold the flour). Spring scales allow you to turn the dial to reset to zero, it is fast and intuitive. You have to figure out digital scales…

Harbor Lights January 9, 2009

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One of the most anxious and exciting moments a sailor faces is coming into a harbor at night. Even if you know it pretty well, it looks different. Distances seem new, darkness foreshortens space and makes everything seem both closer together and oddly disjointed. When I learned to fly one of the most memorable exercises was the night cross country flight, largely for the same reasons. Visually, flying at night is simpler than during the day because the visual field is significantly reduced. If you trust that no one is flying around with out lights and that there isn’t a misplaced mountain nearby, lights distill what you need to pay attention to. It changes a little bit when you descend for a landing. Without real sight of land, you rely on instruments to tell you rate of descent and altitude. Let’s just say that my landing at Harris Ranch (for a steak dinner, no wine) was harder and a few seconds earlier than I expected.
I thought of harbors and night-lit airports the other night after adding a NAS (Network Attached Storage) to our home network. It’s bright blue LED (it would be a first magnitude star) was the one that made the bedroom just too twinkly–there must be 35 LEDs among the computer and peripherals. It was a bit much for a bedroom, so I got out the tape and hung paper covers on most of the lights, turning the bestarred harbor back into a refuge fit for sleep.

New Year Running Shoes January 9, 2009

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I can remember when it took months to get used to writing a new year on a check or a letter (and yes, I remember writing those). But now I’ve been through enough iterations of the drill to have become pretty quick at the adjustment. But after all of these years I am still conditioned to look at the new year as a fresh opportunity to reassess my condition and seek improvement.
Improvement falls in a pretty narrow range. Drink less, eat less, get in shape. Usually my new physical fitness attempt centers around the pool. I have a visceral understanding of how swimming works to get me in shape. I understand how hard I can push myself, when I need to back off. But this new year I had to admit that there were just too may obstacles preventing me from making it to the pool often enough. I need something simpler.
I decided to try running. We have a lonely treadmill that I could use and there are far fewer excuses between me and the backyard treadmill than the pool. First time out, I strapped on my Nike “cross training” shoes and went for a walk/jog. I didn’t realize for the first few minutes that “cross” referred to “angry” which comes straight from the shoes, which seem to have a solid hardwood arch support or something like that. Hard to imagine what they might have been good for and easy to appreciate why they still look new and have sulked in the closet for years.
So, I went to Road Runner Sports . Armed with advice from Mary not to get cheap shoes (and full agreement from my feet on that) I entered the store, not knowing what to expect other than that I was ignorant about running shoes and prepared to be taken. I am old enough to remember when choice in “tennis shoes” meant high-tops or low-tops. This store was bewildering. Like the cold medicine selection at a big drug store, they all promised great things, but how do you tell one from another? A 19-year-old marathoner offered help. In short order he had asked a few questions, had me barefoot and standing on a pad that showed where I placed weight on my feet and then filmed me jogging. He recommended 3 pairs of shoes and had me try them on. 2 felt good and I chose one. Quite a bit different than choosing between high-top and low-top Chuck Taylors at the Army-Navy store when I was a kid.