Saturday, August 31, 2013

People in my neighborhood, pt. 1

I often internally bemoan the fact that, spending lots of time at home, I don't have access to the great parade of humanity that I used to see when commuting in the New York metro area. While, in a strictly statistical sense, this is true, I think I may have perhaps been underutilizing the natural resource that, after all, our dearly departed Jesse Helms suggested would suffice as the North Carolina Zoo:  the people of Chapel Hill.

And so, a sketch, perhaps the first of many.

Guy on a scooter
There is a pretty new guy in the nabe who rides a little scooter. Not a Vespa, mind you, nothing that fashionable.  Some old thing like you might have seen in the 70s-80s with essentially no body, just a frame. Something like the one below, only with a seat.

The guy is oldish, maybe in his 60s, and he likes to wear a matching blue plaid shirt and short set.  Today when I saw him he was wearing a black shirt and pants with a red tie, with a Trader Joe's bag on the handlebars.

I have seen him ride it as far as Whole Foods, which is not far at all, so hopefully this is not his primary mode of transport.  I gotta talk to this guy and get a bit of his story.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Passing moments

Last night I had the honor to be called to the house of one of my closest friends, whose 15-year old daughter had just returned home from the hospital for the last time, after fighting a long and hard battle against cancer.  Most of you will know who I'm talking about.  For those that don't, it doesn't matter. She lay on her bed in her room, with oxygen and morphine, surrounded by her parents, those who loved her, pictures of her life, her stuffed animals, and an inspirational quote from Harry Potter on the wall next to her.

It was not easy for anyone, but it was particularly hard for me. Not five months ago I sat next to my dad in the hospital as he died, holding his hand in his hospital bed till it got sore from being in a wierd position, and I didn't really know if I was ready to go back to that situation again. I feel like a whiner for saying this, but it's true. I was at an emotional loss, and didn't know what to say to her when I went in to visit with her and her parents. Luckily, others did.  Anna, in particular, spoke to her beautifully.  The principal of her high school, knowing she was sad not to finish, had come by and brought her a printed and embossed diploma.

This has been a 9-month process and has been incredibly hard on her family, though they have come through it with a strength that has really astounded me.  Over the course of it, I had occasion to ponder what would be worse, watching your child die slowly of an insidious disease, or having one taken from you in an instantaneous accident. On the Pacific Coast Highway a month ago, Natalie almost gave me a test case when she stepped out onto the road without (most atypically for her) looking both ways, and almost got mowed down. Praise the lord the driver was paying attention and had decent brakes. It was the scariest thing that I've ever experienced. But my friend tells me the months his daughter has been fighting cancer have been a great gift, that he and his family have witnessed such growth and spirit in their daughter and that she has touched so many, so I now feel certain that, though they have been through hell, it has been the one that should be chosen, and that neither she, nor they, will spend much time there any longer.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Target, 1:45pm

Had the rare pleasure of a trip to Target this afternoon, to pick up various and sundry items. Picked up some laundry detergent, a rotisserie chicken, bananas, some veggie burgers, and a mirror with a suction cup for in the shower. Claims to not fog up, the mirror does.  We'll see about that in due time.

I wish I had some clever insight or something. Fact is, it was just nice to be in a store, not chained to my desk, stressing out about some bullshit.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

My favorite spatula

On weekends I have pretty much the same lunch at least one day:  a salmon burger on a toasted whole wheat english muffin with mayo enhanced by hot sauce from the Thai restaurant down the way, accompanied by baby carrots and sweet potato chips.  There is something intensely comforting about the regularity of it.

And I cook it in the same stainless steel pan each week, which was a wedding present, using the same spatula, a very thin metal one.  Somehow the spatula is very important to the whole experience.  If it is dirty from, for instance, making pancakes or an omelette earlier in the day -- which it almost always is, then I wash it, though there are other spatulas that would probably work. The regularity of it all is part of the pleasure, the sameness of the tactile experience.

Today, I have some leftover slaw from stopping at Bullock's last night, which is a deal-sweetener, to be sure, but it also messes with the regularity of the whole thing.  I may save the slaw.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Leaving Larchmont

Natalie gave Sadie a long, earnest hug, and said how much she'd miss her.  So sweet.  Even though Sadie gets on her nerves sometimes.

I never spent as much time with my cousins as Natalie and Graham spend with Sadie, so I guess we never got to know one another that well, really, and I guess my mental model of what a cousin relationship is "kin, but not that close."  We were from Chapel Hill, our cousins were not, and somehow that just meant we were from fundamentally different cultural milieux, and I use the French advisedly here. We thought we were special.

But, basically, we didn't see them that much, so it didn't get that deep.

And I suppose I'm jealous of those for whom that isn't the case.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Manor

Those who have never lived in the suburbs of New York City will have a hard time understanding how lovely they can be.  The old ones, with big old fancy houses in dense neighborhoods like what everybody is trying to replicate in neo-urbanist developments.  Intensely manicured, with gaggles of Mexicans seemingly hiding behind pushes to pounce on even half an inches growth in the deep green if small lawns.

And Larchmont, whence Mary hails, is amongst the primest of examples, though her father George always claimed that it was Westchester's answer to Greenwich Village, since there was at least one artist who lives here, and though there was a biker bar around the corner from the family manse when they bought it back in '72.

But there is a certain oppressive perfection to it all, at times. During the day, one sees many a comely female of various ages, with perfect outfits, toned calves, charming children in pricey strollers, if they are of that age. More often just pretending to be of that age.

So this trip I have been delighting in little breakdowns in the social order.  I often take off my shirt when running, because a). it's hot and b). I sense that it might scandalize a little.  But nobody else seems to do it, it is part of the unspoken code that it is not done, just as whites are still worn to play tennis at the Yacht Club.

But, in the evenings, there's been this skinny, tan guy in his 70s, with a beard, jetting around Larchmont Manor shirtless on an old mountain bike.  And yesterday I saw a woman in her 60s at least, "big boned", as we say, running in a jog bra on Larchmont Ave.  And there were some heavy set black women who came down to Manor Park power walking the other night.  I greeted them heartily as "yall."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013


Somewhere on my drive through NC and VA, I saw -- I swear to God -- an Esso station.  How many years after it rebranded as Exxon?  At least 30. I'm not sure it was actually selling gas, but the sign was up there.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Further north on Rte 15

As I drove North, and began to enter the gravitational field of DC, things started becoming less flat-out country, more "picturesque."  At one point in time I found myself sandwiched between a Subaru Outback and a Volvo Wagon, and I knew I was closer to home.  Signs advertised "folk art" and there were beautiful old houses converted into restaurants and inns.  I was glad I had gotten a chicken biscuit earlier.

So it felt less legit in certain ways -- which is to say less foreign and native at once -- and yet it was sadly more sustainable in a sense. Where money flows out from the major metro areas, there's work.  It might not be the best work in the world, but in a place where the cost of living is low, it's easier to piece together a living. The ersatz is the real, however Baudrillardian it may be to admit it.

In Gordonsville, VA, I stopped to -- as they say in Russian -- "go where the Tsar himself goes on foot", and then I went for a little walk.  Gordonsville is real cute, quaint.  There's a restaurant on the main street called "Pomme" and it's got lots of high end antiquery.  I walked along the street to stretch my legs for a bit, and passed a number of cute old historic homes in good condition that said "Perrigo PBM," obviously some corporate offices.  Perrigo PBM is a pharma company, and PBM is a unit that sells infant nutritional formula, not a Pharmaceutical Benefits Manager, as the acronym would suggest.

But it returned my thinking to something I'd pondered earlier, about Oxford, about how it would make sense to relo a whole business unit to a small town if the unit was big enough and the town small enough that moving a bunch of people could shift the culture of the town.  I'll bet something similar had happened in Gordonsville, which is a very small town but pretty close to Charlottesville (closer than I had realized, now that I look at a map, which actually explains a lot, where the money came from for the restaurants and antique stores).

In general, as I went north thru VA, I saw more and more familiar names of genteel educational establishments -- Hampden-Sydney, Woodberry Forest, Fork Union Military Academy -- places where Virginia's landed aristocracy has half-educated itself for centuries.

And then I drove into the outer tentacles of DC, and all was traffic, and I was more than ready to launch myself into the not-so-hyperloop of the 95s and get my white ass on up the road.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Driving north, Rte 15 through Virginia

Having a rare opportunity to drive north without the kids in the car to get bored, and hating the inane traffic between Richmond and DC on 95 with such a passion, I decided to go offroad and take Route 15 through Virginia. It was a big commitment, basically 250 miles on mostly 2 lane country roads, often going straight through small town downtowns, but I went for it.

As soon as I got off 85 in Oxford, NC, I knew I had left the metroplex.  Within a mile I was passing peeling paint and closed businesses.  But Oxford is a nice little town, and I found myself wondering where it was that my grandfather had owned an auto parts store, where it was that we had owned a commercial building until not too long ago.  I'll have to have mom roll up there with me some time and point it out.

15 hangs a left off of main street and passes along a row of stately residences, many of them in need of attention, like many small towns in NC have.  And then, on the right, Oxford Orphanage.  I hadn't forgotten all about that place. We used to play them in soccer and destroy them.  I can't remember if we ever came and played at their place, but I do remember that it was always a little sad, they sucked so bad, and deep in the back of our minds I think we sensed a slight if unjustified moral superiority because we lived with our parents, or at least one of them, and we weren't poor.  But the school looks pretty durned nice today, I hope it's nice inside too.

On up to Clarksville, VA, which I knew in name only from the Clarksville Station steakhouse in Roxboro, across Kerr Lake. As 15 winds along the north side of Kerr Lake, on the left I passed, as if an apparition, the Wylliesburg Public Library, which appears to be a converted old country store, a one-room library, maybe 5,000 volumes, plate glass, lit warmly inside on a rainy day. In the middle of nowhere.  Beautiful.  I needed to go to the bathroom and considered stopping in, because I didn't need gas or a soda or anything, and would rather make a contribution to a library then make a purchase to be polite, but it had come up too quickly on my left.

So I kept on, and shortly after 15 merges with 360 and become's King's Highway I stopped at a country store.  Outside a couple of black guys were stopped to talk.  One looked like maybe a preacher, or at least a deacon, wearing some slacks and a short-sleeved shirt with a tie, the other in jeans and t-shirt, but both pretty country. They were pointing at a picture on a flyer that said "Missing", and it depicted a middle-aged black woman.  And they both knew her.  "I can't believe she's missing....."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Blogging about work

is something one needs to be careful about...

What I can tell you is that I am coming to the end of a couple (few?) weeks of grindingly producing minor variants on a single document, tailored to the specific situations of clients. There have been some benefits to this.  First and foremost, in the process, I have pulled back from the precipice with my boss, who wasn't real happy with me somewhere in there, because I had been a little sloppy at first.  For two, I have gotten to know the client portfolios and the funds we use much better.  Hooray!

What I am not going to tell you is that it has been a ton of fun the whole time.  It has, in fact, been, well, work.  Which, I guess, is why they call it work.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013


On the way to work I was stuck behind someone in a silver Prius (looking suspiciously like my own), who was going between 30 and 35.  I was not alone.  There were about 10 of us backed up, and I began musing on the irony of conservative Prius drivers going slowly because they think they're getting better mileage, but actually making lots of people behind them go more slowly and burn more gas.  (See also my earlier entry on Prii and road rage).  When I finally passed her on 751 a little later, I could see that she was, as I suspected, a woman of a certain age, wearing those square wraparound black shades that look like they are for true vampires.

And then I got on the Durham highway and some dude in a big-assed truck was tickling my rear end trying to get past me when I was going a respectable 63 in the passing lane.  I was over there because there are always people entering the highway from the right around there.  And I imagined what he might think of me and my silver Prius.

The moral to this story is, I think, that everybody else is always driving the wrong speed, and that is why each of us should really just have our own personal roads.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The side of the road

Few programs have been so successful over the last couple of decades then the planting of wildflowers next to interstates.  Who doesn't like that?  It's freaking awesome.

Similarly, planting more trees in the middle of separated multilane highways is just a straight up good thing. The flowers and trees in the median on 15-501 headed around the south side of Chapel Hill really changes the road immeasurably for the better.

Which raises the question:  why does it take so long for some places to do it?  On the downslope of 15-501 headed up to where Darryl's used to be back in the day, there are some scrawny saplings that were recently put there.  In time, they too should be awesome.  Who knows, maybe the form an itsy-bitsy carbon sink and will actually do some air cleaning good.

But why did it take until 2013 for somebody to get the idea to put them there?

Now, I am sure it's not so simple as just planting them. I'm sure there are drainage and run-off concerns, etc.  And maybe the root systems could be a cause for concern over time. Maybe. But I doubt it's a big deal.

There are lots of roads that could use trees like that.  Somebody's just got to pull the trigger and plant the little guys. I think that it is literally all good.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Race, class, sex, and me

The Trayvon Martin decision has made anyone with a brain think, at the very least.  Last weekend I was at a going away party for a friend and the topic came up, and there were those at the table who made the point that, under Florida law, the decision was correct because -- however much of an ass Zimmerman was in provoking Martin, by the time Martin came at him (if indeed that's what happened), Florida law gave Zimmerman the right to stand his ground and shoot him.

I hadn't been paying that much attention to the fine points of law. Fact is, it's ridiculous for the whole thing to have happened at all, and if the law protects Zimmerman, then the law is wrong, and hopefully will be challenged and struck down.

But, beyond that, it took me back to the basic issue of race and how we live. The vast majority of my friends are white. There are some outliers, people I love deeply because I have known them for many years, but they are outliers.  And my kids are growing up pretty much amongst white people. There's a family moving in two houses down where the dad at least has more recent African blood than most of us (I still buy that we all go back to Olduvai Gorge), and I'm psyched for that.  I met him out on the lake on one of the floats a few weeks back with his kids, and I told him the house was available.  Good guy.

And then there's sex.  I was thinking about it this morning during an AA meeting.  The only women of color I've ever even made out with were Ivy League women, and one of them was the daughter of a literary celebrity.  My point is that I'm an utter snob, that I only would cross lines when it was really safe, that, really, I'm extremely narrowminded and narrowcasted.

There was a time in 8th or 9th grade when I was squished into the aisle of a bus coming back from a track meet, body pressed against this African American girl, faces inches apart.  We just lay there, pretended like it had happened somehow.  I didn't kiss her, because I didn't think she was "pretty" enough, though her body was plenty nice, and I may well have had another girlfriend at the time, meaning it could have been trouble. But at some level I also knew that I wasn't ready to have a black girlfriend. I was insecure as hell, I wasn't ready to break out like that. I needed a girlfriend who was validated by the social circles I was in/aspired to.

And, in the end, my big girlfriends in life were all white, one of them Scandinavian, but my wife and my other longest running girlfriend are both Episcopalians, members of the same tribe as me. In some ways, not a good role model for my children. But I ain't changin the basic facts now.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Catching up

All too often, I come upstairs with the firm intention of writing something but without a clear plan of what I'm gonna write about, then get sidetracked reading stuff off of Facebook.  And, honestly, who can blame me?  Just spent 10 minutes nosing through Alvis Dunn's album of pix of almost 3 decades of trips to Guatemala, and still haven't finished reading an interview with my friend Katya Petrovskaya, who, when I saw her last in 1998 in Moscow, didn't speak a word of German, but was recently awarded the Ingeborg Bachmann Award, which is a very prestigious big deal over there.

As for me, I narrowly escaped going to the gym today and went running around the lake instead, where I was able to keep track of construction projects going on.  The people who are essentially rebuilding the Seniors old house just like it used to be, except brand new and swanky, are making good progress. Don't ask me why they would do that.

I am pleased that they are leaving the old gazebo jutting out over the lake in the back yard, because that was the scene of some very early and memorable pieces of my progress up the hierarchy of pleasurable acts with a young lady. And because it looks nice.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

War footing

For some time, many years, I would say, I have felt myself to be essentially on war footing with Being. Fighting trench to trench, trying to get a longer view into the distance.

And then, for a time, I felt an easing, as if I were approaching cruising altitude.

But in the last couple weeks I have been under attack, and had to hunker down and keep my head low and my eyes focused resolutely ahead of me. The worst may be past, or maybe not. Time will tell.