Making Deals with Mother Nature

When we bought our new home in Atlanta our realtor was surprised that it came with screens on the windows. We were surprised that she was surprised. Coming from Los Angeles, we were used to keeping windows open to let the nearby ocean breeze blow through our house. The breeze was probably saturated with smog, but at least it was blowing. Screens were common in LA, as were window bars in some neighborhoods.

In our area of Atlanta, we didn’t need the window bars, nor, we found out later, did we really need the screens. Our first few months in the home the windows stayed shut anyway, as we were experiencing an unusually cold winter. I had sold Atlanta on Alex by telling her how mild the climate was, but Mother Nature must not have bought what I was selling because it was sub 30 degrees for about 2 months straight.

Alex didn’t own a winter coat, besides a parka, so we had to venture out into the Atlanta arctic to shop: “Where did you move me?” she said through chattering teeth as we walked quickly across the Macy’s parking lot. One soft hooded winter coat later, and at least her teeth stopped chattering.

Coming into spring, I made the bold announcement that springs are the best in Atlanta. I’d lived here as a kid so I was pretty confident. What I forgot was that spring here comes with a yellow dust that pretty much covers everything. It’s like if the smog in LA covered your car and stuck to it like the sugar on a sugar doughnut. Only this sugar in Atlanta makes you cough and sneeze and sometimes makes you feel like you’ve got a cold: So, kinda’ like smog.

Well, that first spring, we opened our windows and reveled at the screens we had been lucky enough to get for free with our new home. The cool Georgia breeze blew through the house, tickling our cheeks and making us feel one with good old Mother Nature again. But the next morning, our white cat jumped down from lounging in an open window sill looking a little less white. “Why’s the cat look yellow?” Alex asked. I ran a hand across a nearby table and looked at my palm which was now the yellowish color of the cat.

The windows remained shut through spring, and the rest of the hot summer. “Just wait ‘til fall,” I assured my wife, “you’ll love it.” Then I quietly asked Mother Nature to make it a good one.

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Parking as a Sport

Finding a good parking spot is like a sport. There’s the jockeying for position, patience, impatience, cursing, the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.

The other day, I was in full game-day mode when I thought I’d scored with the best spot on the lot. It was just past the row of handicap signs. “Today is our lucky day!” I almost sang to my wife as I turned the steering wheel, only to see a strange sign I’d not seen before: It had a picture of a stork on it with a swaddled baby in its beak. “What the…?” I uttered.

The sign said “Reserved for Expectant Mothers.” Now the Oxford Dictionary defines expectant as: Having or showing an excited feeling that something is about to happen, especially something good. So I tried to talk Alex into it. “You’re excited to be here today, right?” “Maybe you’re expecting? I mean, ya’ never know?” But she wasn’t buying my game-day logic. We ended up in the back row near what had to have been employee parking. Unless you’re employee of the month of course, then you’re up front with the expectant mothers.

The rules of the game have changed. Along with the stork and other newcomers, we’ve now got “Hybrid” parking and “Electric Vehicle” parking, for example. Now I own a Hybrid, so I’m always happy to get that spot, but a small part of me feels like I just played a game resulting in a tie. I didn’t really earn that spot through my cat-like reflexes, brilliant hand-eye coordination or freakishly-wide peripheral vision now did I?

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Old Appliances

Our old Cuisinart had finally started to fall apart and I found myself feeling melancholy when I put it out with our garage sale stuff. It was a heavy beast, and only now did I appreciate its weight. The new one we’d bought looked sturdy in its stainless steel skin but was as light as a feather in comparison, and as loud as a jackhammer. It felt like this new one was built to last 2 years to the 20-plus year’s we’d had the old one. I rubbed the old machine’s white porcelain-like exterior and said goodbye.

How many cheese soufflés had this thing helped us make? Cheese pizza toppings? Cheese for French onion soup? Okay so it grated a lot of cheese, among other things.

It also helped us save a cat. One of our cats was throwing up his hard food and losing weight fast. He even turned up his nose at the fancy soft food we tried to give him from the pet store, which was usually a treat.

One night while helping Alex prepare chicken nachos (and grating cheese, of course) Alex and I noticed our now skinny cat looking up at the counter where the rotisserie chicken sat. Even in his state he couldn’t help but be enticed by the smell. I reached for a piece to offer him, but Alex knew better. The chunks of chicken would probably just make him puke again, she told me as she eyed the Cuisinart. She had a better idea.

Even though we had freshly opened Coronas with lime wedges just waiting to drop in, Alex went into immediate care-giver mode. “Take what you want for the nachos, and whatever’s left pull off the chicken,” Alex ordered as she boiled a giant pot of water. “The carcass goes in here,” she said. A flurry of activity followed with some simmering time in between and the whole concoction finally mixed up in the Cuisinart.

Our cat lapped it up like it was gourmet food, and our old Cuisinart was the key in creating this life-saving baby-food-like concoction we called Chicken Slop.

Our new appliance has a lot to live up to.

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The Snake and the Stick

Along with the requisite broom, rake, or tool-kit, every house should have a hockey stick. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; the new carbon models are definitely lighter, but an old Sherwood will do just as well.

I play hockey, so I have my hockey sticks and I have my house stick. My house stick sits in the corner of the garage and gets the occasional look from my wife like “and why are we keeping one of your beat-up old sticks around again?” Until the moment it’s needed.

“There’s a snake on our deck!” Alex screamed in astonished fear. Astonished because the snake was on a second floor deck connected to the ground below by only 4 steel poles, fear because it was a 4-foot snake and she’d be afraid of a 4-inch snake. I instantly ran out of the room. “Where are you going?” yelped Alex, not sure why I’d left her in her moment of crisis. But I wasn’t leaving her, I was just getting my trusty hockey stick. Not to kill the poor thing, just to wrangle it and fling it off my deck.

I used the length of the stick as a barrier between me and the big mottled brown snake, and I used the stick blade as a kind of spatula, but the thing was fast. It quickly slithered back to the edge of the deck and used its body in a repeated ‘S’ shape to steady itself between the brick house and the deck post below. It sat there and taunted me for a minute before I got my blade under it again and dangled it around the end of my stick. I lifted the thing up, but it slid down the stick’s shaft. It was about to slide right into my face when I quickly flung it into the grass below where it sat stunned for a minute, then slinked off into the woods.

Now, this was an extreme case and probably not the preferred tool, but it worked. So the old stick still sits in the corner waiting for its next mission.

Need a mop in a pinch? Wrap a soapy rag around the blade of a hockey stick and act like it’s game 7 of the Stanley Cup.

Need to reach that last Christmas light hooked at the end of your gutter that you’re not even sure how you got hooked up there in the first place? Hello hockey stick.

Cobweb in the top corner of your room? Use a dry rag wrapped around the blade of your stick.

Fire alarm blaring when you forgot to open the flu while starting a fire? Use the butt end of the stick and knock the thing down.

The hockey stick: Not just for hockey anymore.

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Naming a Room

Some rooms in a home are just better suited for specific seasons. Our library has become our go-to winter spot. Though, I’m still not sure if it should be called a library, study, den, or drawing room?

Drawing room is definitely too snooty. Its reclaimed cherry wood has an inherent warmth… and mystery: we’re not sure where it was reclaimed from. The books add their own density and warmth of stories told. And Alex centered the room with a furry white rug that you just want to put your toes in, or knead if you’re a cat (which Alex calls “making muffins”).

When we bought the house, I thought it was a nice room but I didn’t see us spending much time in there. Of course, I don’t have the vision my wife does, nor the decorating touch.

Being just off the main entrance, we didn’t want to make it an office with a desk and all the mess that entails. Back in the day, I suppose a room like this may have been used as a smoking room, but we don’t smoke. And a TV didn’t seem appropriate.

So on cold afternoons, we grab the book or magazine we’d been meaning to read, close the glass doors with just enough space to let the cats in, turn on the gas fireplace and kick up our feet. The room gets toasty like an oven, and the cats inevitably end up on the rug making muffins.

Maybe it’s the muffin room?

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Our Secret Language

My wife and I have our own way of communicating. There are words I use with her that only she would understand. We’ve been together so long that grunts have become part of our vocabulary. A quick “grrr,” means “I’m so frustrated I’m over this.”

Mornings start with “bubbly”, and no it’s not what you’re thinking. Bubbly is what I call Alex’s carbonated and flavored water. It’s just easier to say bubbly. Random people we see or run into doing our daily routines have secret nicknames:  there’s Slowpoke, Bubba, Crazy-Flower-Lady, Jackass, Wife-of Jackass, etc.

There’s a certain non-verbal dance we do when we approach a grocery checkout line. We both do a quick scan of the amount of items in each cart, age of customer (which usually determines payment type, ergo speed of transaction), and who’s working the register. If it’s Slowpoke at the register, I’ll immediately jump into the line next to us. Alex will notice my move, rescan the situation and either join me, or not, depending on her specific criteria. She’s got the extra burden of coupons, which sometimes supersedes my need for speed.

At home, we have a splash, meaning a glass of wine; the clicky instead of remote for the TV; and the cats are often called babies.

The cats have a whole subset of terms related to them. We have a screened-in porch that let’s our indoor cats be “outside”, which Alex calls the kitten-porch. Another cat-themed term we have is water-cave, which is not somewhere we put them when they’ve been bad. They used to drink our water from the glasses on our nightstand at night, so I found a little wooden box just big enough for a glass of water, turned it on its side, and voila: cat-proofed. I guess it would be better named as a “water-box”, but somehow water-cave stuck, and it is really hard to unstick such a thing.

I can just see one of us years from now, old but totally with it, trying to communicate with someone who thinks we’re going senile, using words that only the two of us would recognize as normal. “Take the bubbly out of the water-cave and find my clicky on the kitten-porch.” “Uh, we’re going to have to up your dose of meds sir.” “Grrrrr.” “Are you growling at me sir?”

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Hollywood Purgatory

Waiting for a Hollywood callback is a kind of purgatory. It’s like that trip you’ve saved so long and worked so hard for, but you’ve got that stopover in Atlanta, and a thunderstorm rolls through just as you’re walking down the interminably long terminal to your departure gate, and a God-like voice comes over the speakers and announces that your flight has been canceled.

Well at least in that scenario you get the courtesy of a cancellation call. With Hollywood callbacks, you will not even get that courtesy.

Our house was being considered for a movie. It started with a vague message from someone at the Georgia Film Bureau who asked if we would consider letting a director and a few others into our home to have a look. He said it was for a Robert Redford movie called Come Sunday.

A few days later we greeted four people at our door. They came in and said hello, but you could tell they were only half-listening after the initial niceties. They were eyeing our house like they were already shooting there. Taking pictures, discussing scenes from the script, trying to imagine the world on the page taking life in our home.

The problem was that the story took place in 1990’s Oklahoma and we live in today’s Atlanta. This caused much discussion on how to make this visual trick work. They talked about covering our granite counters with tile, covering the stainless appliances, hiding the 30-foot Tennessee stacked stone fireplace behind a façade of drywall… We weren’t quite sure why they would go to all this trouble, but hey, we’d lived in LA and worked in Hollywood before, and if someone had the funds- and Robert Redford attached- any harebrained idea was feasible.

We had three more visits, and each one got more serious. People from New York, people from LA, a European-accented director of photography, the production designer from the Twilight movies who asked if he could move all of our furniture into our garage for the shoot. We knew they were looking at another home, one that probably fit the time and place better, but we still thought we had it. Then the set designer asked if we had blueprints to our house and we figured it was a done deal, champagne time!

We didn’t want to jinx it at first so we didn’t tell anyone about it, but this was hard to hold in, especially when one of our friends was the biggest Redford fan out there. We told her not to get too excited since we were still waiting, but all she heard was “Robert Redford.” She couldn’t believe it. She even had an old copy of Playgirl magazine- of all things- that he was in: “I’m getting him to sign my magazine!” she proclaimed. A few days later, Redford, announced he would be retiring from acting after one last project: “He could be filming his last role in your house!” she squealed, “I’m going to need those blueprints too, so I can find a hidden spot to live in while they shoot!”

As you can imagine, these things pay bigtime, especially when they take over your whole house for weeks. We started to get ahead of ourselves a bit. We had our bills paid off in our heads and an exotic vacation already planned.

Then we waited, and waited, and waited some more… but alas, the final phone call never came. They were supposed to start shooting in early January. We held out hope until mid-month, but didn’t even get a “thanks, no thanks.”

Welcome to Hollywood purgatory.

And the irony of it all, the main character in the movie was a preacher who was controversial because he didn’t believe in hell. He felt that everyone had the ability to leave purgatory… Like when the storm clears the Atlanta airport and all flights are back on schedule.

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Songs of a City

Cities have songs and musical genres that match each place: sometimes seasonally, sometimes geographically.

When I lived in LA, a friend of mine asked me to write for a documentary he was doing about famed Brazilian musician Laurindo Almeida. We interviewed him weeks before he died and the documentary turned into a tribute concert. The man was a poet and reminisced about how diving with sea turtles in his native Rio painted his dreams and influenced his musical style. He then moved to LA where he had lived for many years, composing for films like the Godfather.

He told me just before his death, what painted his recent dreams in LA was the freeways, and he wanted to do some kind of musical piece that spoke to that. I guessed he was referring to the cars constantly moving in every direction, reflecting light during the day, and giving off light at night. Maybe the ocean-like sound it all created.

LA does have a vibe that you can feel from the road. If LA were a song, it could be a cool jazz samba, like Laurindo Almeida was known for, or it could be a folky tale about driving 500 miles today and never leaving LA, like in the Michelle Shocked song “Come a Long Way.” I’d say depending on where you are in LA, a different song could relate: maybe the Go Go’s “We Got the Beat” for Santa Monica on a clear sunny day; some Jimmy Buffet for Marina del Rey; Joni Mitchell, CSN or Counting Crows for Laurel Canyon…

If Atlanta, where I now live, were a song it might be a rap or hip hop number by Ludacris or Usher. It could be any number of R.E.M. songs, or maybe an older southern rock number like “Champagne Jam” by the appropriately named Atlanta Rhythm Section. This song talks about partying with some “high class booze” and makes me think of the scrappy upbringing of this always growing metropolis with a chip on its shoulder.

What would your city songs be?

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Yorkshire Pudding is not pudding

I’ve got to admit, I didn’t know what Yorkshire pudding was either until my wife made some for a fancy meal years ago. We were entertaining a real food snob and Alex wanted to impress. Well, impress she did, as this guy had never had Yorkshire pudding outside of a restaurant.

So yesterday we were shopping for our Christmas meal and we got a standing rib roast. Just watching the butcher carve this beautiful meat, we decided to have him set aside a small portion for us to cook that very evening.

My wife is the chef and I am almost her sous chef. I prep stuff and clean dishes like no one’s business, but apparently that doesn’t get me the title of sous chef. According to Alex, I have to learn to actually put something together without her guidance, but exactly the way she would do it, before I can claim any such title.

I know my way around a kitchen, waited tables in some fine restaurants, and can even order in French when I have to, but I do not have the cooking finesse of my wife. The first thing I ever cooked her was a hastily broiled pork chop (yes I said broiled– I didn’t have a grill at the time). My second attempt was a pan-fried salmon, to only find out afterward she doesn’t like salmon. Third time was not a charm, as I did chicken and onions and zucchini with a Dijon-mayo sauce wrapped in tinfoil to cook. Maybe it was the presentation on that one, as the chicken came out pretty moist.

But I have yet to master Alex’s nuances. And trying to help someone like that is like trying to help Van Gogh paint. I’ll just clean those brushes for you, okay Vince?

I watched as Alex whipped up a couple eggs in a bowl, added some flour, and some milk. Then she turned to her magical spice drawers and grabbed a pinch of this and a pinch of that to add to the bowl before putting it in the fridge. Later, she pulled out the roast and told me to place the empty cupcake-looking pan in the still hot oven. “It’s empty,” I said. “I know,” she answered, as she does when I say something stupid. A few minutes later she had taken the drippings from the roast and had me remove the empty cupcake-like vessel so she could add a little pan dripping to the bottom of each cup. She then grabbed the cold egg, milk, flour and magic spice mix from the fridge and filled each cup with this concoction.

I saw all of that happen right in front of me, and I still don’t know if I could execute it. I did, however, help eat those perfectly puffed “puddings.” All of them. They don’t save, I swear.

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Going Grinch

In LA, we lived one neighborhood over from a place seasonally dubbed “Candy Cane Lane.” Come December, it’s a Christmas wonderland. Cars line up for miles to drive through. I couldn’t imagine buying a house there say in July with no clue, then December 1’st you open your front door to find yourself in Whoville.

Any other time of year, it looked like any other Valley neighborhood with ranch homes, two-story Spanish redos, and garage conversions… which is what always got me: Without garages (or basements for that matter- LA doesn’t do basements) where did they store all the Christmas stuff? There were thirty-foot Santa’s, autonomatronic elf shops, working trains, and lots of smoke and mirrors. And the amazing thing was that these people did the work mostly themselves. Granted, many of them either worked in the entertainment industry, or knew people who did, so getting all the smoke and mirrors was not that difficult.

Now that we are out here in the Atlanta suburbs, it looks beautiful this time of year. There are classy white bulbs following impossible-to-reach roof peaks, giant snowflakes lit up in giant maple trees, and icicle-lights dripping down many a house. But this stuff is done by professional lighting companies, not homeowners.

Our first year here, Alex said she wanted lights out front, so I put a horizontal strand above our front porch. “Can’t you get them to follow the shape of the house?” she asked after not being too impressed with my first offering. “Well, yeah, if I had a thirty-foot ladder, a helmet, and some climbing gear,” I only half-joked while looking up at our high-peaked roof. So, I did what I thought was the next best thing and wrapped our front trees with lights as high as I could (fortunately they were still young and relatively short trees). A few hours later I proudly showed off my work. “Nice,” Alex said, but I got a whiff of patronization. “Hey, we can’t all afford a lighting crew,” I said.

We used to make fun of Candy Cane Lane. It was tacky, but I kind of miss that “do-it-yourself” spirit. In fact, after realizing I’d never be able to keep up with the Jones’ out here, I asked Alex if we could go the opposite direction and steal a page from the Candy Cane Lane playbook. There was a family there who was either really fed up, or possibly Jewish and didn’t celebrate the holiday, who simply put a Grinch in their front window and lit it up with a spotlight so it was the only thing you saw at that house, sitting amongst all the crazy colored lights and moving giant objects of a Candy Cane Lane Christmas.

We bought a Grinch and everything, but Alex said no, not going to happen. I’m keeping the Grinch just in case she changes her mind though. Better shop for a good spotlight too.

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