The Riches of Culinary Peasantry and Subsequent Pleasantry

thomas-woodruff-the-four-temperaments-landscape-variation-sanguinicAs I sat in the sunroom blowing smoke rings against the frosted panes, the kitchen gods whispered to me. Today would indeed be a perfect Wintry day for a cassoulet. And, yes, like all other such recipes and traditions, mine is borrowed, augmented, and made more appropriate for our odd lifestyle and taste-buds.

What was once a French country peasant staple is now a Marklewood delight, and further one that allows for great freedom of expression. I also find that such a creation allows me the opportunity to “gently” clean out the icebox a bit!

Cassoulets are, by tradition, a crocked meal, at once combining meats, beans, herbs, and sauce, although I usually add rice. Rice is my current starch trend as I prefer its texture … and Henry, who adores “people food”, is awfully fond of the saffron variety! As with all well-intended and pragmatic one-pot meals, I begin with selection of the perfect vessel, in this case a ceramic and lidded cooker. Friends, I urge you to verify any such choice to ascertain whether it is indeed oven-worthy, as I have oft let an assumption lead me astray.

Today, I am using a teal hand-sculpted three-quart work of art that my friend Patricia (a dear and rather Bohemian pottress) created for me years ago. It had a domed cover with a peculiar and thus engaging finial. I begin the layering process (I adore creating levels of taste in such meals) by meticulously placing a vegetable along the bottom of the pot.

Although a cassoulet would by tradition call for white beans, I am using Brussels sprouts, as I have fresh ones on hand and, although Jon doesn’t quite understand them, he WILL tolerate them in certain preparations. I ready them by quartering them and sautéing them with butter and garlic, and then line them up like attentive soldiers (back to back or a similar formation).

I then spoon a melange of similarly sautéed onions and mushrooms and make every attempt to cleverly conceal the waiting sprouts. Upon this layer, I add about four cups of rice. I offer “about” as one perk to this concoction is that exactness of quantities is unimportant, as the flavors compliment in any sensible proportion. Henry prefers saffron rice, as it melds mild flavor, texture, and butter, which is intoxicating to an indoor puss.

The final layer is that of substance, or meat if you must. I prefer sausages as they contribute full flavor. Today I am taking Summer sausages, browning them in a skillet, and then slicing them for ease in placement. Sometimes it is ALL about such ease, lest I forget an unfortunate creation of last year. That incident will safely go unposted and unshared.

Once all of the layering is complete and I am certain that there is absolutely nothing else I can add, I place the cover … ultimately cooking the cassoulet for forty minutes at 375 degrees. Again, with such a preparation, there is no need to be exact so even a half hour longer will not overcook the dish … just allow you more time on Facebook before dinner.

What I adore about this hearty meal is that the flavors essentially trickle down: The mushrooms & onions position themselves between the sprouts, sharing in the garlic, and filling any gaps. The rice fills similar gaps thus created by the mushrooms/onions, absorbing butter. The juices and herbed flavors from the sausage similarly infuse the rice.

As I wait for the dish to complete and the timer to chime, I ponder two other reasons for my fondness. First, I can use the same sauté pan for the Brussels sprout, ‘shrooms, and meat, thereby creating only one such pan to wash. Second, the cook time allows me the opportunity to wash and quickly put away that very pan and any utensils or holding bowls. I so enjoy having only ONE cooker to clean after dinner! Je ne regret rien!

One final note, my friends: when spooning and “plating” your cassoulet use the largest spoon you can find. Gently ease it towards the bottom of the dish and simply scoop. Never try to mix the ingredients. Sometimes it is best to allow the flavors and aromas to gently transition on the plate and avoid offering instead just one big ole complex taste! There IS such an effort as “over-mixing” as I have been accused of this on many a night!

In closing, oh comrades in cookery, Jon and I anticipate a warm and hearty dinner, worthy of an Arctic Sunday evening. Someday, perhaps you will join us. Although there may not always be a cleared chair, there is indeed always plenty of food to nourish and savor.

As they say in the South of France, Bon Appétit, y’all!” And such cassoulets have followed suit and beckoned to be called Cassie. She’s nowhere near as touchy about her casserole roots this days.

(Note: Such a dish goes well with almost any robust wine, although I prefer a Pinot Noir. More importantly, I would put a Karen Akers CD on the carousel and turn the volume a lttle higher than is customary.)

(Image: “The Four Temperaments: Sanguinic, Landscape Variation” by Thomas Woodruff, 2010.)

Lesson in Leather: Penchant for Dolls

On the Edge David Bowers

It was the early 80’s and I had stopped by the DC Eagle for a libation, as was not an uncommon interlude on my route home from work. The bartender knew me by name as I was the only upstart with the chutzpah to order a Robroy at such an earthy, “manly” watering hole. I leaned against the bar, replaying my day, and I am certain listened to either “Mickey” or “Gloria” emanating from the trusty jukebox in the next room. Though not entirely certain, those two tracks did, however, seem to be the ONLY ones ever heard anywhere in those months!

I reached for my cigarettes with every intention of a relaxing smoke, when at once a muscular, rather formidable hand was thrust in my line of vision … offering a light. I smiled coyly, before looking up, as the flirtation seemed too comfortable and overplayed, at least to this slightly-jaded smoker. Inhaling furtively, I glanced up with bad movie scenes racing through my conscious and was taken aback.

     There stood a tall, robust man of perhaps thirty … neatly bearded, piercing green eyes, and in full leather regalia. Instantly, this reserved, bookish fellow from North Carolina was sufficiently curious, interest and libido both piqued. We introduced ourselves. Nae was an organ-master with a large Baltimore church, and was headed home after his long commute. He lived in Arlington and spoke with incredible articulation and presence. Of course, if I had been so inclined to write some wanton, lustful paean to porno, I couldn’t have devised a more classic and ironic scenario, nor a more likely protagonist than a 6’4” strapper … with keen skills in organ manipulation! I could only imagine the grandeur of such music.
The two of us must’ve looked odd to anyone who might’ve seen us. Here was this strapping leather man. And there I was, a reserved twenty-five year old with longish hair, round leather spectacles, and wearing my customary fatigues, gauze shirt, and yellow high tops. My friends always described me as a young Bolshevik, in both my appearance and my attitude.
The conversation was stimulating and provocative, and fraught with innuendo. As much as my stirrings might’ve indicated otherwise, I knew to defer any physical assignation. We made plans to go out to dinner that weekend. The quick walk home from that point was consumed with all sorts of lurid imaginings of Nae.
We did indeed have dinner that Saturday night, at Annie’s Paramount Steakhouse, coincidentally a favorite haunt for both of us. Afterwards, we walked over to a piano bar, chatted and discovered more about each other, and said good night shortly after midnight. I was almost overwhelmed by his intellect, charm, and rugged appearance. And he was impressively not timid about singing along with the piano player, well-versed in “Evita” lyrics. This intense flirtation lasted all of several dates and weeks without consummation until one night when, suddenly, it seemed well past due.
Nae was walking me home when I quickly suggested that we go to his house for a nightcap. Of course, nightcap is usually a buzzword for a steamy and libidinous romp and THAT was indeed my intention at that very moment. On the drive to his suburban home, I reflected almost giddily about the varied interests we shared: musical theater, domestic politics, and the exploding genre of “new wave” music.
It seemed that he had just turned the ignition key when we were already entering his front door and greeted by his two large Labradors, Grace & Justice.
For the sake of propriety and gentility, let’s just say that the next hour flew by, no time was frittered, and by eleven PM, we were in his kitchen fixing hot chocolate and butter pecan ice cream. We took our treats into the den when that was when I first saw THEM, through a room’s open door.
Lining the walls was an extensive, meticulously placed and displayed, and “colorful” collection of Madame Alexander dolls. The moment was instantly crushed and stomped into the dull beige carpet! “Those are my pride and joy,” he offered, “I’ve collected them since I was in high school.”
Suddenly any visions of him in his leather regalia had been poetically negated by this predilection for such dolls. I nervously looked around the room, stumbling for conversation … finally and casually suggesting: “are those hooks for hanging baskets? My, but isn’t that an awkward place to hang a vining houseplant?”
“Oh, my dear Mark, those are not for hanging baskets!”
At that point, I was redder than a Johnston County tomato, rather disconcerted, and hellbent on getting home as quickly as he could get me there.
The next few weeks came, went, and I successfully avoided any reason why the two of us should get together again. The man that I had once found so fascinating now just seemed foreign and peculiar. After another month, Nae simply stopped phoning me altogether.
Although that one hour at his house, that sixty minutes before my unfortunate epiphany, was extremely titillating and memorable. I thought about him, every now and then, until a full twenty years later … when we ran into each other quite unexpectedly and in High Point, NC! And my how the coincidences poured forth that evening.
Nae had sold his doll collection and launched a design business in Virginia, ultimately opening a shop specializing in English antiques and formal interiors. I had drifted into the design business after moving to NC in the early 90’s, specializing in English antiques, but with a more eclectic flair.
We brought each other up-to-date “romantically”; we were both involved in successful long-term relationships. Nae then leaned over kissed me on my cheek saying: “oh yes, I gave up the leather. They didn’t much know how to deal with it in Roanoke!” Of course, I had long since given up my fatigues and that “subversive” look. In fact, he and I were similarly clad that night. We might’ve also had similar thoughts at that moment but also both knew to dismiss them.
And that was the last I ever spoke with him. We knew better than to exchange email addresses or phone numbers. The chapter we had shared was indeed closed, although the window of intrigue was perhaps not.
Of course, when I reflect on that first season of meeting Nae, I am now reminded of my folly, narrow-mindedness, and my damning quickness to judge and assess. I had indeed evaluated a man in a way that I had so learned to myself detest.
But I console myself that there is always a brighter side to any morality tale.
Life eventually unfolds in the way that providence so intends and, yes, Virginia, there is life Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, including the Madame Alexander variety.
I wonder if Barbara Parkins ever sipped on a Robroy … But, then again, I doubt that Paul Burke ever wore leather chaps & codpiece, at least not in public!

(Image: “On the Edge” by David M. Bowers.)


Memories of Munchies



Yes, at some point in the 70’s and (generally) ending in the early 80’s, I partook of the occasional reefer. Dope. Pot. Weed. Marijuana by any other name …
I won’t rationalize my behavior by offering that:
I was a young adult, given to experimentation (which IS true!).
It was more acceptable “way back then” (which it WAS!).
Many of the harmful effects had yet to be publicly isolated (and they HADN’T!).
Society as a whole was far less health-aware (uh huh, no DUH!). And …
The 60’s were but a few pages back in the history books and we as a modern civilization were still collectively curious and open to transcendent exploration!

All of that seemed to justify my choices back then but let it suffice to say that I alone made such a decision, wholly without pressure … but assuredly with expectation.As I reminisce about such carefree tokes (and thus embarking on a spiral with a counter-culture), I travel down so many paths … almost simultaneously and in some unseemly unconscious stream. (Pot’ll do that, you know!)

What interests me most tonight is the concept of the munchie. Not the snack that the word today might signify, but rather the hybrid of uncontrollable food craving and the snack that satisfies that urge. Most of you have probably thus felt such an intense hunger that a single item, combination, preparation suddenly seemed so glorious and satisfying. Often, such munchies might include foods that were otherwise disliked, abhorred, or even vilified … if not for being stoned and primed with appetite.

So I ask you, comrades, what unusual munchies were you at such weak moments given to prepare and even serve? Was there anything in particular that whet your hunger when and if you similarly partook of said weed?

Admittedly, during most of that era, I was a struggling young adult. As seniors in college, my roommate and I would often prepare Bermuda onion and grilled cheese sandwiches. Once my cupboard was at its barest, yielding only “Raspberry Figurines”, which ultimately & surprisingly were delicious and somewhat tantalizing. Rula Lenska would’ve been proud of our discriminating taste!

When 51, my mother smoked pot her one and only time and experienced the miracle that is Pepperidge Farms and devoured the better part of a coconut cake. Folks that knew her back then would’ve been shocked not from the fact that she actually “got high”, but more so in the knowledge that she was so very petite and possibly anorexic. Her senses returned the next day … and the younger man (30) that she had been seeing and his little bag were but a memory. Years later, however, that cake became legendary within intimately family circles as we referred to it as the Great Cake Awakening of 1982.
I am further convinced that it was indeed the creation of many a noble munchie that has led to widely accepted menu items. Take for example deep-fried pickles! Need I say more or offer any explanation thus … whatsoever?

So I beseech you to seize the moment to clear the cookie sheet of any haunting crumbs of memories: share with us your favorite or most unusual munchie. None of us will judge … but will perhaps smile. I am rather certain that a FEW of you will become rather ravenous and filled with such “ideas”!

(Image: “Cupcake Invitational” by Steve Bartlett.)

Our Medals: Precious and Well Hung


When one works on Sunday, as I often do, that very person might seek diversion, daydream, or divine intervention to achieve a modicum of interest. Time’s unfurl on such a day is at an excruciatingly lethargic pace. Today, however, was thoroughly entertaining as two co-workers set the Olympics coverage to stream to a laptop. Misty and Pippa, their Marklewood monikers, provided spontaneous, engaging, and often bawdy commentary to the spectacle that was clearly a joint effort of the Universe, a gracious (albeit excessive) London, NBC, and the opalescent hopes of determined dreamers.

     It would seem appropriate for me to explain the origin of the two nicknames. In my most twisted imagination and with aid from a parallel Universe, I fancied my workplace as some ethereal bordello. With me as “Communication and Itinerary” coordinator, the ever spry and bright-eyed Pippa would appeal to those consumers seeking a pert “girl next door”. Misty might offer more interactive and robust service and, yes, I’ve noticed the Cat O’ Nine Tails in her GM “carriage”. Coco’s niche would be those with an affinity for an Audrey Hepburn type, fulfilling big dreams of”big screen” conjugal hijinks. Trixie, author of “Empowering Your Breasts in a Modern Cosmo”, is team-leader, managing human “resources” and ensuring strict adherence to OSHA regulations. Finally, we have Monica, our community ambassador by day and the exotic Monique at dusk. (It is well known that she has read Trixie’s guidebook several times.)
     But I digress, as is my nature on breezy and unencumbered Sunday evenings.
     The visual is branded into both my memory and reflex: Pippa and Misty provided their own “play by play”. For example, let’s take the women gymnasts. If one young women tripped on the balance beam, there’d be a collective sigh across the showroom. “But doesn’t she have lovely cheekbones?” “Oh, look at her coach hugging and consoling her, while whispering a stern and berating threat.” and “I can’t imagine being that limber and flexible, although that would prove practical and rather handy.” 
     They flavored their already “spicy” repartée with speedy online references, searches on various competitors, and the “lowdown” on downloads. Pippa takes no hostages when attention turns to both historical and empirical data. Misty, however, asks the questions that her peers are always too reserved to ever pose. “When did all the male gymnasts get so hot?” “Oh my. Those speedos are deliciously tight.” “Oh my, my. Look at that boy’s arm span. I wonder if … we’ll have to get back to that one.” and my favorite: “I’m going to need to !@#$%^ my !@#$%^,” Leave it to Miss Misty to de-mystify any latent assumptions or repressed “wives’ tales”.
     And so, the clear, sunny, and still afternoon unfolded in just minutes, although not as long as the Biblical variety. Thoroughly entertained and, of course, completely up to date on any Olympic results or hoopla, our five o’clock drive time came quite quickly. Pippa headed to the coast for relaxation and, perhaps, a remote assignment. Misty went home to test rhythmic gymnastic moves, quite determined to catch a ball with her thighs. And I pondered next Sunday’s scenario. Would my colleagues allow me to digitally catch their antics on my phone for posting posterity?
     As I almost robotically commandeered the Jeep home, for my often endless twenty-two mile commute, I smiled several times and laughed aloud. I kept seeing Pippa’s clever take on both gymnastic dismounts and the mechanical moves of synchronized swimmers. Misty will likely have some back pain from attempting a floor exercise in her living room.
     I, however, returned to reality at precisely 5:26 … as the automatic doors flung open at Target. I fetched a basket and, at once, noticed long lines at the check-out. My own event was imminent as I’d soon race through the grocery section and pharmacy in less than fifteen minutes, a “personal best” and a record that will probably soon be shattered.
     In these complex and struggling times, we indeed “gather our medals where we may” and seize the moments to breath in the bouquet’s intoxicating scent of accomplishment.

(Image: “Perched” by Kelly Louise Judd, 2010.)

Dinner of the Absurd


When I first came across this engraving, I admit that I was amused. It has been many years since I last was invited to an intimate dinner party of a hundred or more guests. And that was back in the days when folks had more energy to shop, prepare a fine menu, and execute the smallest of details as if they were indeed the most essential. Today, with Jon cherishing his privacy and reserve, I’d have to go back many years to determine when I last hosted a grand dinner party.

For my fortieth birthday, sixty friends gathered at our home. Michael had prepared several beef tenderloins along with all of the culinary accoutrements. He hired someone to serve and two others to bartend. The frustration of configuring the dining tables from the dining room into the living room, with a branch that extended to include a sitting room off of the kitchen and the kitchen itself. An hour before guests were to arrive, the weeks of meticulous planning became, if not moot, at least a tertiary priority.

The living room ceiling came crashing to the floor as the first layer of plaster dust filled the air, in a heavy mist not unlike that of pollen showers. Needless to say, we had to immediately redirect the logistics to a plan B. With the spunk of our pioneer ancestry, we all had a grand time and fully worked the two bartenders until the very last pour.

I moved to Raleighwood a few years later, in the summer of ’02. Jon and I have only entertained twice in eleven years, both being Thanksgiving dinners. However, those holidays were casual and relaxed, a far cry from the setting suggested in this image. In fact, such an event almost seems to be a fine example of the “new”, modern, and scaled down events that have evolved from a seemingly Sci-Fi application.

I am still trembling as I ponder the china, crystal, and the silver flatware necessary for a dinner party of epic grandeur. Further, any resulting late night palpitations are most likely not covered by my meager Medicare coverage. Nevertheless, I shall party like it’s “1799” and kick up my heels on the dance floor.

 “At a dinner party, one should eat wisely but not too well, and talk well but not too wisely.” (Somerset Maugham)

Moist Again: An Umbel for Saint Agobard


As Beryl’s rains moisten these last of June’s “nuptial days”, Jon and I look to July as another new beginning. Yes, we have escaped yet another month: trumping bill collectors and carefully doling antes from the pot, while clutching the most precious of chips to our hearts. 

If I were indeed a betting man, I’d now bet on the future … for to do so now is no longer a foolhardy risk or premature gamble. The humble House of Marklewood still stands proudly, cocked with neither bluff nor slam, although now well-concealed by Spring’s quick and magic deal. True, we may often play our hand thus, “seeing the other’s denial and raising our justification!”

As months go, July has always been a favorite here in the hinterlands. The hydrangeas, gardenias, and the carefully selected potted annuals are in full splendor. The evenings are still breezy-cool, at once ideal for Jon to sway in his swing while chatting with his parents, the ever practical Jean and the cranky Reverend Bill. And the sun has yet to evoke such words as “heinous” and “swelter”; and the “lazy” dog days are still but “playful pups” with a gumption to frolic.

Of course, July holds dear many days … those of prideful boasts, paternal roasts, and the ever so academic vexillologist’s toasts. While many friends celebrate birthdays in this looming sixth month, it is a safe bet that many saints, or the de-canonized and thereby demoted and denoted “blessed”, call these days as their own as well.

Saints Jarlath, Branwallader, Ceratius, Amantius, Rutilius, Cocca, Agobard, and Theodichildis are but a few of the Catholic holy persons who’d soon be honored with feasts and fêtes, were they indeed remembered. As a survivor of parochial school, I question the judgment of Sr Mary Joseph who steered me into opting for St Christopher who is now simply”Christopher the Blessed” (and the subject of millions of now obsolete medallions).

Quirky lad that I was in fifth grade, I would have likely preferred Agobard as my confirmation name. Egads! I swear that I came by my issues honestly and without coaxing.

So another month has packed its triumphs and defeats and is soon headed to life’s “Green Room”. I can now slowly breathe in the sweet pollen-free air and sigh that familiar sigh. There will be no fanfare. I shall offer my beloved a tiny crimson rose, plucked from the garden out front.

As he ponders the shrub’s metamorphosis from bearing antique pink to deep red blooms, I shall smile. We are bolstered for the days ahead no matter what tricks the Universe has slipped into its vest breast pocket, wrapped in a Cornflower pocket square.

(Perhaps, just as I did in fifth grade, I selected a confirmation name a little too hastily. St Agobard was, perhaps, a little too ecclesiastical for my tastes, although I sense a kindred affinity for odd sentence structure:

“Further, they believe the letters of their alphabet to have existed from everlasting, and before the beginning of the world to have received diverse offices, in virtue of which they should preside over created things.”)

(Image: “Mr. Charming” by Catrin Welz-Stein.)

A Holiday Chapter of Pubescent Hell



     It was that indefinable week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, and my parents were worried that my obsessions would continue to keep me in my room … at least until school resumed in early January. I had already spent a week, in solitary “definement”, reading voraciously and cataloguing my music. In fact, the only time I had left the house was on the afternoon I caught the bus downtown to do my obligatory holiday shopping. On that day, I “be-bopped away” over four transcendental hours at the Greensboro Record Center listening to ’45’s, in quest of discoveries, reserving only 45 meager minutes shopping for gifts for my family.
Christmas had finally dissipated and I was left with a week of nothingness, which I could finally make into the “something” of my choice. I chose to stay in my room.
Hal and Margy (yes, my parents) had an entirely different plan for me, motivated by different intent, purpose, and aesthetics. They had arranged for me to go (with three other boys my age) to the deserted and possibly alluring beach for the rest of my holiday. Surely, I had died in my daydreaming and awakened in some teenage pubescent HELL!
The next morning, I joined my fellow travelers in that 70’s carriage, a station wagon with wood paneled insets. I was rather certain I would not once be engaged by either our chaperone (a friend of my parents who was a kindly Lutheran minister, but a relatively saintly and “unhip” parent nonetheless), his son, or his two companions/schoolmates. The boys all attended my school’s “arch”cross-town rival middle school, so I was assured of definitely having the most dreadful week of my thirteen years! At least, I had the foresight to pack my record player and fill my suitcase with ’45’s and sufficient reading material.
The next three or four days transpired just as I would have predicted if anyone had allowed me a voice or a moment. I walked along the beach for hours each day, daydreaming (at the very least) that I was at a different beach … perhaps Rehobeth, the Outer Banks, or even Wrightsville. I just wanted to be anywhere other than Long Beach, N.C., where there was very little to spark my imagination, save my imagination itself!
The others played ball (which with three players is rather challenging), raced on the sand, and attempted to fish from the freezing and vacant pier. I would, at that point, retreat to my room and become absorbed and thus lost in my favorite pastimes: disc-spinning and page-turning! Usually by dinnertime, we all became bored and restless; however, I at least had made provisions for such! My week was just as heinous, windy, and desolate as I could have warned Hal & Margy, had they bothered to inquire.
But the next morning, we all awoke to an un-forecasted and rather miraculous shock, and turn of events. While we were all surely sleeping (and dreaming of alternate locations, if Scotty could only beam us thus!): a glorious white snowfall had blanketed everything in sight. The car, porch, the dunes … the panorama glistened in whiteness, except for the steel blue ocean just beyond.
Without a moment of hesitation, discussion, or planning, all five of us dressed, grabbed a doughnut, and stormed out the door to explore these unexpected drifts. Of course, our beach activities were now changed: filled with purpose, fancy, and incredibly layered visuals. The others scurried down the shoreline, at once kicking both snow and sand. I stayed behind overwhelmed with thoughts and visions and, without so much as a glimpse of realization, soon found myself creating a sand castle. And it was not to be any mundane or traditional structure! The spires would be snow-capped and the moat would have walls of ice. My frustration and isolation of the previous days had made way for a holiday-worthy project and diversion … at last.
When everyone finally returned a few hours later, they marveled at my creation and begged to join in, which (being a polite and kindly sort) I allowed. Before long, we were laughing in tandem, telling stories, and finally bonding. I naturally directed our efforts as it was indeed MY vision that had procured, invited, and welcomed them. Have no doubt, my friends, despite my independent leanings, my type A persona (yes, even at age 13!) led me to emerge as the group leader, as if this were a middle school social studies effort. In retrospect, it clearly WAS … but on an unexpected level.
Before long, darkness had prodded us inside the cottage and we were reminded that we were returning to Greensboro the next morning. We four boys sighed (not least of all surprisingly was yours truly) and vacillated between pouted silence and rambling protests. So I just blurted it out: “can’t we stay just one more day?”
At that point, the good reverend was startled that it was I who had asked … for I was the one that spent the bulk of the trip with my books and records, and entirely on my own. And, in his wisdom and infinite kindness, he made all the necessary arrangements. We stayed one more day at Long Beach, attempting all the customary “snow” activities usually reserved for much further inland!
Two days later, when I finally did get home to my family, my parents anxiously greeted me at the door, full of inquiries and expectations. When I informed them that I had a spectacular time, my mother just looked at me and remarked confidently: “we knew you would, lambchop!” (Yes, that’s what she called me; there is neither escape nor pretense!)
I just looked at her and smiled. Even at thirteen, I was well aware that sometimes it isn’t the agony of the process. Rather, it is the glee of result that matters.

(Image: “Christmas” by Salvador Dali, 1946.)

















The Perfect Holiday Bow Job: Excluding Materials



     I worked with a young designer once who, although she was incredibly gifted in matters of both design and detail, was rather innocent, naïve, and occasionally dim. I say that lovingly, matter-of-factly, and without the slightest iota of measurable judgment, I assure you.
     Normally I would disguise her name as to protect her anonymity and honor, as well as shield myself from her scorn and revenge, but her very name is so apt in this situation that I shall no longer take the risk. I shall simply and most-fictionally refer to her as Beauxette. You, dear reader, may wonder most privately as to what proper given name could be so appropriate and quick to incite a blush.
     One day at the office, Beauxette was preparing a holiday flier announcing her availability for home decoration and fluffing, as well her fee schedule to which she would gleefully add her hourly rate:
$75 to create a custom wreath (excluding materials); 
$250 to decorate a Christmas tree, or similar plantlife (again, excluding materials); 
$50 to create holiday flourishes intertwined in a chandelier; 
and $100 to create a seasonal mantle vignette (yep, excluding materials). 
I think you get the picture, my friends. She offered a full-service holiday treatment for the home!
     Needless to say, Beauxette knew her way around French ribbon and could tie an effulgent, gorgeous bow like no one I had ever or since met! Further, she adored Christmas and would certainly treat each assignment as if it were special and her only one … offering the job both uniqueness and full attention.
     After completing her flier, she summoned me to proofread her rough draft, as I was the official grammarian at our firm. While she took a break, I corrected the few spelling errors, reformatted it a bit (perfectionisto that I am!), and started toying with various ideas for a better heading.
     I had the naughtiest of epiphanies, if indeed there is such a mixed moment or sentiment. I typed in my fake title, with every intention of eventually returning to the project and creating a more suitable and tasteful banner! I printed several copies and placed them on my coworkers’ desks, squelched any laughter, and awaited Beauxette’s return. She indeed joined me a few minutes later, read the “final” product, and was delighted: 
”Beauxette’s Bow Jobs”
     She looked at me blankly as I finally let loose in an uproar that only could emanate from one as naughty as I! Oh my God: I was going to have to explain it to her! Reluctantly, I did. She was embarrassed, not because of any vulgarity but instead because it went right over her blonde, well-coiffed head! She had no realization that she had fallen victim to (let’s say) the “aural” version of a trompe l’oeil moment.
     Beauxette corrected the phrasing and we printed one hundred pristine tasteful copies of “Seasonal Stylings by Beauxette”.
     She then hurriedly mailed them out, anticipating a flurry of responses, yet her efforts only yielded one such Christmas project. At least, it was for a full house of decorations, involving myriad rolls of festive ribbon and what must’ve been a mile of juniper garland. Beauxette did, however, share with me her reluctant irony in this matter. When she was finished, and her client was writing her a substantial check, she noticed her flier on the counter. As she approached it, she soon realized it was one of the original “gag” ones I had prepared. Neither she nor the client ever mentioned anything to each other about this most glaring of “errors”. She simply got in her car and came back to the office.
     I, of course, was mortified: filled with mental images of humiliation, embarrassment, and tawdry discourse! Fortunately all was averted.
     It seems as though Beauxette’s client was also innocent, naïve, and dim. (In this case, I remark thus not-so-lovingly and perhaps indeed with a modicum of seasonal judgment!)
     “Beauxette’s Bow Jobs”. We all still smile about it, except for Beauxette of course. Then again, she was never fond of innuendo!
I think of my coworker often. That is especially true whenever I finish preparing a gift, with a particularly spectacular bow, with all its perfect and dramatic flourishes.
     Don’t even go there, my friends! Don’t even look for the key to that filing cabinet!

(Image: “Red Ribbon” by David Stoupakis, 2006.)
















The Misbegotten Woes of Tampon Boy



Like most of the testosterone-driven sector of humanity, I balk and blush at the mere public mention of bodily functions. So it would indeed seem obvious that tampons might have a similar effect. While I have mellowed with both the wear of age and indifference, I still cringe … as i first did when I was in first grade. It was, however, a sweltering Eagle-esque August night when those most intimate of hygiene products tested my naive social reflexes and threatened my very composure.
     I was still uncomfortable with having just turned sixteen (although I was extremely at home in the driver’s seat) when my mother, sister, and I went to visit my grandmother in DC. Surprisingly, Margy wanted me to drive, since this would be the first road trip on which she could sit back and relax, crochet, and chain smoke. My father, who was easily distracted, given to frequent hand gestures, and perfectly content staying ten miles below the speed limit, was never an ideal motorist.
     After a day at my grandmother’s house, she and my mother were neither talking nor feigning any level of civility. That night, just past ten, we were finally comfortable in a Bethesda hotel room. Margy, rather nervous and preoccupied, walked over to me as I was fiddling with the television controls: “Mark, I need you to find a drugstore and purchase some tampons.” (Granted, she didn’t call me “Mark”, but I rarely allow my childhood nickname to be bandied across the internet!) I grabbed the keys and headed to the lobby to consult the concierge as to where I should head.
     Nothing is ever easy, at least when it involves feminine hygiene products, or so I had assumed. The only 24-hour drugstore in the greater metropolitan area (in 1972) was the People’s at Scott Circle, in other words: in downtown DC, a twenty mile drive, and dangerously situated within moments’ proximity of its seedy and most interactive Red Light district.
     After I parked and stepped inside, I realized that, in my polo shirt and round spectacles, I stood out and must’ve appeared lost and “out of my element”, whatever that was. The aisles were filled with street folk, kids shoplifting condoms, stoners, and older and bigger teenaged boys looking for trouble. When I finally reached a cashier, I knew all eyes were on me … by the stares and mumblings. With timing worthy of Mel Brooks, she reached for the intercom and blurted: ” Price check on Tampex. I need a price check on Super Tampons.”
     Could it get any worse? I collected my change and scurried to the car. As I turned the corner, I noticed three women sitting on the hood. As I neared them, I realized that they were indeed hookers. (The gaudy tube tops, the “ever-so-maligned” hotpants, and the exaggerated make-up indeed matched the visuals that “Marcus Welby, MD” and “The Mod Squad” had alerted.) They started teasing me, lampooning my terror, and at times offering me discounts. They were relentless so I turned the key, put the car in “drive”, and proceeded to Massachusetts Avenue. The trio lasted perhaps a very, very excruciating half block … and drew the attention of onlookers and passersby. I just knew what they were all thinking but I dare not admit it then … or now.
     When I finally returned to our hotel room, my mother and sister were both asleep. I placed the tampons on the dresser and tried to relax while quietly watching television. Of course, I couldn’t. The adventure was simply too stirring and oddly arousing. I gazed out the window, chiding myself: “Those damn tampons!”
     Then I remembered one of those nostalgic morsels that teeters on oblivion. That was not my first brush with such terror. Back when I was in Mrs Sawyer’s first grade class, I had been sitting on my parents’ bed when I noticed an odd-shaped royal blue plastic box next to my mother’s handbag. It looked as though it might easily hold my freshly-sharpened no.2 pencils, so I asked if I could have it. Of course, she said yes. Of course, I proudly inserted it into my book satchel, and ultimately later placed it atop my desk. Of course, I was humiliated when Mrs Sawyer inquired about the box and confiscated it.
     No one ever told me why the box was verboten or what use it originally served. Four years later, when I was in Catholic school, a new student quickly identified me: “Oh, I remember you. You’re that kid with the tampon box!” She quickly shared the story. It was from that morning on (well at least for a few months), that I was known as the “tampon boy”. Unfortunately I still had no idea what that meant. Sr Edward Patricia was certainly no help. Neither were my classmates. That night, my parents finally told me as I was yet again overcome with embarrassment and shame. Tampon Boy’s days as a mid-level superhero ended with neither fanfare or memorabilia.
     Fortunately, after that night in DC, I never again had any further adventures in either the pursuit or avoidance of feminine protection products. I remember mumbling to myself when my mother thanked me the next morning. I remember blushing and getting nervous each time I drove past that People’s when I later moved to DC. And I remember praying that I might never experience such again. At least, I thought it was a prayer at the time.
     (Image: “I Wear My Mask for Warmth” by Karin Miller.)

Vlad Basks in a Chartreuse Damask



     I’ve always been one of those zany designers that fights clichés yet feels quite at “home” in them. I’m certain that you know the type. If uninspired by the project, the tools, or (heaven forbid and forgive) the client, I might adopt my reserved persona and, if pressed, slip into indifference. However, if I sense the smallest window from which to crawl out of the “box”, my adrenalin perks, my mind races, and I become “Vlad”. Granted, this somewhat theatrical persona may only emerge when a magical client walks into the showroom, an eclectic point of commonality is mentioned, or when the moon is a cornflower blue.
     I never apologize for such enthusiasm because it is authentic and, if channeled properly, is my best tool for selling a concept or application. If the enthusiasm is returned, the client and I at once acquiesce to the moment. We have likely created a look that is not beige, not similar to those found at large retailers like that “Ceramic Silo” or “Palette and Peck”! My immediate world is a haven of sublime hues that is cloaked in a Universe of, naturally, the truest of earth tones. And that “beige” demographic seems to be encroaching on the unrestrained, imaginative, and color-driven (of what I call the) “Free World”.
     Clearly, if such a topic is twiddling on my foremind, I am indeed at work. Today, I amused myself thinking of the great clients that I have met in the past few months. Images swirl of: a vermillion sectional appointed with a multitude of eclectic throw pillows, the peacock blue velvet arced sofa backed with a modern and lush tapestry and finished with pillows of a French graphic; or the room that includes cork-covered upholstery, copper accent tables, and a huge floor lamp sculpted from a giant burl root. Fabrics can indeed evoke a reel of ecstasy.
     I have often thought of the design process to be not unlike “dating” with its nuances, filtered information, and specific level of flirtation. And the best dates “listen” so I strive to be attentive to dialogue, needs, and cues. Sadly, however, consultations never involve libations, although I once had several pomegranate martinis with a client in her 900 sq.ft. downstairs bar. One day, I shall reveal details of the chartreuse mohair livingroom that we created that evening … complete with Baker chairs dressed in a lavender Belgian toile.
     Already, I have worked myself into a frenzy of Neuro-delic design with an emphasis on the unbridled, overstimulated, perhaps under medicated, and occasionally misbegotten visionaries. Although few in numbers, this karmic brethren makes my job fulfilling and reaffirm my celebration of the individual.
     Vlad is content.

(Image: “Picking Up the Pieces” by Julie Heffernan.)

Marklewood’s Snug Harbor for Feline Retirees



     Every once in an indigo sunset, I find myself lost in that sublime labyrinth, my errant daydreams. Often, especially if I have been thinking about all the nasty and frustrating signs of aging, I visualize my interpretation of what the perfect retirement community might be like. Since I can be as petty and vulnerable as the next person, I also imagine who might be ideal residents and who would not. It matters not how grand and indulgent such a facility might be. Moments later, my cell phone will ring, reality will stare me up, and the caller will have snatched the blueprints from my very clutch.
     Of course, such a facility would have several bistros and watering holes to satisfy various occasions or moods (or as we’d likely say in Raleighwood: “hankerings”). I’m thinking the mix would include: a rowdy Irish pub with a fireplace, a well-appointed and sleek Martini bar, and an intimate dance club. Practical man that I am, although I would love an intimate piano bar, I realize that one of the restaurants could have such an adjacent area. It would, however, need to be large enough to accommodate a grand piano and any of my chums who are “showtune enthusiasts”. (The latter is undeniably not a coded buzz phrase for, as one sassy Richmond friend would always offer, a “homoszechuan”!)
     As for eateries, there are at least three givens. Since none of us would have even the slightest hint of cholesterol issues, a tony French cafe where one might dine on sautéed frog legs or sweetbreads would certainement be de rigeur. Similarly, I’d want, if not actually need,  the oft-mentioned Lily’s Pizza to open a second location, albeit with the wear and ambience of the original. It would give me great joy to live within such proximity to my greatest craving: an artisan delight topped with an artichoke sauce (in lieu of the tomato standard), summer sausage, fresh fennel, large fresh shrimp, and finished with an excessive layer of molten, gooey, and aromatic Gruyère.
     Thirdly, since most of us would be in the obligatory age bracket of senior dotage, a cafeteria would be a necessity. Those of you from the Southeast might be familiar with K & W, but every region seems to have at least one such version. My take, however, would include full concierge service to carry trays, make certain that the selections are attractively plated, and fetch desserts, beverage refills, and second helpings of creamed spinach. And, yes. There would be an extensive wine list, as well as a gourmet coffee bar operated by Caribou or Java Jive.
     Since my friends all have quite different needs, pets, and affinities for collecting, the residences would probably start with large studios with fireplaces, loft space, and 400 sq. ft. “über kitchens”. On the larger side, I suspect there ought to be units large enough to adequately house (say) two adults, a dozen “Noble and Apostolic” pusses, and obsessive assortments of Majolica, Roseville, and Frankoma pottery. And a library with floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases to house the many thousand volumes that such an anonymous tenant might currently have either “double-shelved” or arranged in maze-like stacks.
     This grand venture would also offer complimentary limousine, dry-cleaning, and maid services. There might also be a trained professional who daily maintains all litter boxes on the premises and grooms dogs. I’ve heard tell that there are crazed pet owners who disregard local ordinances and just keep adding to their brood which, mind you, is all neutered and spayed.
     Yes, I could go on with such dreamy recounts of plans, ideas, and advantages for the better part of September. A decade ago they replaced the “desert island” scenario of my stream of random daydreams, in part because of my growing disdain for heat and similarly growing concern over both convenient healthcare and shopping. Since then, I find myself often thinking: “now she is someone near whom I’d like to retire!” Or “I bet he and his partner would be challenging and engaging bridge, Trivial Pursuit, or Scrabble opponents … when Jon and I reach those increasingly twilight years.”
     You may assume that I am pixillated, foolish, or swimming in one big pool of denial, surrounded by a canopy of folly. Never underestimate, however, the determination of a lifelong dreamer. Never discount the importance of enthusiasm in breathing life into a notion. And please don’t “second guess” us starry-eyed types as we look ahead to changing addresses in Fantasyland. It is our way of indeed planning for the future.

(Image: “All on the Line” by Daniel Merriam, 2012.)

Slow to Mend, Slow to Admit



     My most recent brush with life’s “fell” strokes has left my body somewhat bruised and my optimism, all a-flutter. No matter what cardiopulmonary image consultants suggest, I shall never know such an ambulance jaunt as an “event”. This time around, the recuperation has been slow, somewhat forced, and not without further obstacles. I am weary, restless, frightened, disillusioned, and excruciatingly aware of my mortality.
     On August 7, I suffered my eighth heart attack, although the last two were indeed the most life threatening, the previous one being February 24 of last year. I now have eleven stents, a stubborn blood clot, and a heart that pumps at only 25% capacity. Nevertheless, at age 56, I am in much better health than my father was (or his father who died when I was three and he, in his forties). The next New Year’s slate of “resolve and inevitability” will make mention of a pacemaker. At that time, I anticipate feeling stronger, more vital, and if anything sassier.
     Obviously, the future is hopeful, although “cheerful”, “sunny”, and “perky” have quickly become adjectives of disdain here at Marklewood. I have quit smoking (“Huzzah. Huzzah.”) and, along with my beloved, follow much healthier dietary and prescriptive regimens. This month’s irony is that I must avoid leafy green vegetables (which are laden with vitamin K) until that nasty blood clot dissolves. My most pervasive of culinary cravings naturally vacillate between the “verboten” creamed fresh spinach and local kale sautéed with garlic.
     Please do not misinterpret my intent. I am not complaining, well not as much as I could. Rather, I am coming clean, emerging “wide-eyed” from the “closet” of avoided, denied, or unmentioned health concerns. On this clear and sunny afternoon, I admit that I am grateful to be among the breathing. I promise to respect my limitations. And I shall allow Jon the duty of managing my health and happiness just as I manage his!
     I have retired my lighter, voodoo dolls, and collection of Victorian tobacciana and relative ephemera. Perhaps, when Jon is eighty-five and I am seventy-five, we will sit in the upstairs sunroom, reminiscing about our misspent youth. We’ll trade tales of billowing cigarette smoke, the aroma of a single malt Scotch, and the guilt of anonymous trysts.
     Until that very day, however, I vow to be a proper patient. That little voice that often motivates my fading and wrinkled body is, thus, empowered.


(Image: “Self Portrait in a Fresco” by Akseli Gallen Kallela, 1884.)











The Best Medicine: A Grand Welcome Home Fête



     Although we may not be dancing or frolicking in the pine woods that surround us, Jon and I are celebrating that I am once again at home. The “event” became over a week in intensive care as I patiently recuperated and slowly contemplated both my growing hair and the psychosocial impact of synchronized swimming. Yesterday I was indeed given my walking papers as Jon, nurse Kirsten, and I walked into the midday swelter and to the Jeep. Naturally, my beloved had an iced coffee waiting for me. With a lad’s enthusiasm and its often cloying repetition, I kept blurting: “I can’t believe I’m going home!”
     The previous Tuesday, I was seated at a wrought iron garden table as I enjoyed that day’s “chilly java” and the recent burst of bloom. The outdoor pusses seemed strategically poised to miss neither view nor advantage. Thomas was on the table surely lobbying for his chance to apply for indoor status. Leopold was on the swing as it slowly swayed in the gentlest of breezes. Eve and her kittens were asleep on the far stoop. And Yorick and DeWilde were boxing under the leafy canopy of the ancient cast iron plants.
     Muffin was nowhere to be found, although rumor has it that she’s run off with one of the Hinterland’s most irresponsible roving toms. She’ll come home someday with some feline version of a vintage Shangri-La tune soundtracking the moment. At least for the first night, Jon and I will likely pretend that she made her way to Raleighwood to secure a spay. But I digress.
     It was a balmy Tuesday here at Marklewood. Jon stepped outside to join me for a few minutes. We chatted briefly. And “mid-sentence” and without warning, I keeled over. An hour later I was in the WakeMed catheterization lab, awake while: one stent was being replaced, a new one was added adjacent to my LAD, and the doctors pondered a blood clot. Once in Intensive Care, my adventure seemed nostalgic … “salted” with sweet ironies, sweet nurses, and an even “sweeter” Jon.
     There is no doubt that I will soon share details of a few misadventures, engaging medical “characters”, and my ever blasphemous thoughts. They had easily become the delicious fodder of a warped mind untethered with morphine or similar pain “killers”.
     Today, I awakened at 9am or so, my head tightly bookended between two pusses staring at me in tandem while a third slept on my back. I prepared my usual iced coffee and went outside. The pusses all sniffed my robe, with all of its anti-septic hospital bouquet. A few minutes later, I could’ve sworn they were dancing around the rambling gardenia tree (yes “Tree” since it stands almost twelve feet across and almost just as wide). They were joined by the garden angels, wood nymphs, spirits of “Pussies Past”, and the hummingbirds that hovered near the top.
     I looked for Jon but never saw him until, a few minutes later, his hearty guffaw echoed from the upstairs sunroom. He had put on a favorite reworking of an opera classic, set the volume on “as loud as we can blow it without attracting the authorities,” and was staring into the ripe and lush garden. I sensed that he also saw the garden angels, wood nymphs, and the visiting spirits, but from an aerial vantage.
     Of course, I was the lucky one: home finally, and seated front-row and center at the celebration. A few hours later, however, I had gone inside to rest and the cats had returned to their resting spots. The revelers had moved on to their next event, certainly another celebration of life.
     I had again found my midweek smile, clinging to the hope that the wood nymphs might water my rather manly and gargantuan rare begonias, “Ruby” and “Ruby Too”.

(Image: “Tree of Life” by Heather Watts, 2011.)

The Dreamseekers Ration Joy and Hope


April has certainly proven that the Universe can be predictably unpredictable: both reversals of fortune and their “kissing” cousins … twists in storylines. Jon’s and my life here at Marklewood is undoubtedly ripe to be taped as a tele-novella. Fate itself can be fiery and unapologetic. Naturally, we are well aware of the inclusive broadness of the phrase “R of W”. One day of one year in the most recent decade past, Jon and I were morphed into a couple that exists but by the grace of God and the monthly sum of several altogether tiny cheques and direct deposits. We learned rather quickly that such a reversal can be nothing more than a quick jaunt to a neighboring village and sometimes neither noticed nor resolved. The key, my friends, and the most constant “ology” is that our current and long-time situation here is static and strapped to a nearby ancient oak.

You might jump ahead of my realizations and justifications and charge us with neglect, irreverence, and the most ballyhooed of modern transgressions: denial. Like Jon’s second cousin Sisyphus, we may dutifully stick to a money-managing strategy when (with the speed of a winter’s sunset) we are thrown off course by some newly recharged obstacle. Regrettably, we then start all over, again pushing that older boulder up the hill, this time, however, with our eyes wide open and periodically looking back to reassure ourselves of any progress. Well, that is at least the course that my beloved avows to pursue. He is patient and steady; deals well with sacrifice and substitution; and somehow manages to still whistle while he adapts to new and yet more convoluted frustrations.

I am more of the Prometheus ilk. Chained to the litany of insurmounting invoices and demands for compromise, I am naked, vulnerable, and staked to a behemoth of granite and lesser minerals. The more I attempt to twist free, the deeper the bruises, the more swollen are my ankles, and the bloodier are my battered hands. I eventually break free albeit for a brief interlude and the short term compassion of my tormentors. CitiBank, Wells-Fargo, and JP Morgan Chase are the aggressors, those that hold close any writ of my pending release or a proclamation of amnesty.  Our situation at Marklewood appears thus neverending and, as I noted earlier, perfect fodder for a creepily melodramatic tele-novella. Perhaps the Universe can justify one that is scripted entirely in Spanish with its only breaks being those of loud, repetitive, and almost evangelical info-mercials.

Perhaps, that last interruption by the banking “community” will finally release me, allowing Jon and me to resume our dreamseeking. Although I cling to the reprieve, I know better than to do so too tightly, implying a resurging challenge or dare. Fate’s finance committee is thrifty (if not stingy) with its pardons. And our Jello, Vienna Sausages, and Spam days can return all too soon and without warning. The boulders are again poised for the Greek agony of defeat.

At least for now, my hands are well moisturized and the Jeep has a full tank of gas. I shall perhaps brood tonight as I can no longer bear to allow the inevitable my voice and compassion.

(Image: “Bunfight Confidential” by Michael Cheval, 2013.)