Friday, November 09, 2007

What a month. After feeling like I was in a battle with the City for a building permit, when it finally seemed like there was nothing more that could go wrong, I decided to take time off while I could. With an expected start of construction approaching, and the prospect of a business trip to Switzerland before November began, I figured that the beginning of October was my best bet for catching up with family.

So on the morning of October 4th, with little advance planning, I packed up the car with my stuff and Abner’s and headed off for a week of visiting my sisters and my parents.

Driving out of Asheville around lunchtime that day, the weather was mild and pleasant. We headed west on I-40 through the Pigeon River Gorge into Tennessee and it seemed like each mile we traveled the temperature rose. By the time we were on the ring road around Knoxville picking up I-75 to Cincinnati, the temperature was in the low 80s. As we headed north, it kept getting warmer and warmer. In the two years since the last time I had done this drive, I had forgotten how beautiful the Eastern parts of Tennessee and Kentucky are. 75 should be on the maps as a scenic highway. You drive through the western edge of the Appalachian chain for miles and much of the roadway sits up quite high so the views to the east are often spectacular. Much of the freeway is carved through ancient rock strata so you alternate between driving through slots in the stone to being on high plateaus with views for miles. The area around Cumberland Gap is particularly impressive and probably will merit a visit one of these days.

On the 4th though, Abner and I had to make it to Fort Thomas, KY where my newly married sister Jan and her husband live. In case I haven’t said it before, I love my gps. The drive up to the Cincinnati area is an easy one and it is almost impossible to make a mistake. Once you get to the Kentucky suburbs though, all bets are off. The terrain on the south side of the Ohio River is rolling and strewn with rivers and creeks so the roads tend to wind all over the place and the hills prevent you from seeing too far until you are practically in downtown Cincinnati. I had set my Jan’s address in the TomTom when I left home so it took me right to her house. These things are great.

Once there, after having been driving for the better part of the day (6-1/2 hours door to door for those who are interested. . .add time for gas, food and pee breaks), Abner and I were both in the mood for a walk so after letting him get acquainted with Jan’s black Lab Erev, we took the dogs for a short neighborhood stroll. Fort Thomas, at least what I could see of it, seems to look like a lot of residential areas that were part of the boom of the 20s. The houses are generally neo-European styles like Tudor, Norman, and Georgian. Most are not huge but nicely scaled for the smallish lots on which they are built. It reminded me a little of Curtis Park, but hillier (anything is hillier than Curtis Park) and with more brick. Stucco, in the preponderance one sees in Sacramento, is a rarity in this part of the world.

We really didn’t do much while I was there but it was fun anyway. Jan has a new job and had some limits on how much time she could spend with me on Friday. Abner and I just played tourist and checked out Cincinnati in the record-breaking heat wave that hit the first week of October. When we arrived in Fort Thomas it was 91 degrees. The following two days were both in the high 80s and low 90s, which was something of a shock to Abner’s and my systems. Nonetheless we walked around downtown Cincinnati for the better part of the day on Friday and then met Jan mid-afternoon. Friday night Jan, Chuck, and I went to eat Indonesian food at the restaurant where they had had their wedding dinner and then found an art opening that we crashed where there was some amazingly good work. It always is shocking to me the sheer volume of excellent art being created in this country at a time when the school system and our culture itself does so little to encourage the arts in children. I guess creativity is such a fundamental urge that it rises up in people in spite of all the discouragement modern day America throws out.

Saturday the three of us toured the Ascent, the new, almost completed high-rise condo project in Covington KY right across the river from downtown Cincinnati that was designed by Daniel Liebeskind who is currently one of the major architectural darlings in the US. He had two projects going in Sacramento, but I gather neither one will be built. Well the Ascent has been built and is pretty impressive. It is hard to describe but is essentially a helix in plan spiraling up to something like 21 floors at its highest point. At the very top is a 7,500 sq ft condo, as yet unfinished, that is on the market for $5 Million and apparently has some people looking at it pretty seriously. The ceilings reach 36 feet high on the upper two levels (the lowest level of this 3 story unit with its own elevator is all Master suite), and there is a small roof garden. Views are, as you can imagine, pretty amazing from that height. The whole riverfront of Cincinnati including downtown, both the baseball and football stadiums, and the Underground Railroad Museum directly opposite the site of the Ascent are visible without obstruction. At the foot of the building is the 1865 vintage Roebbelin Bridge, which is, in my opinion, a work of art in and of itself.

If I were going to live in the Cincinnati metro area, this is the building I would be in. There are many smaller condos, all with great views, that are more affordable than the monster on the top, but it was fun to see anyway. Even looking at t place like that makes you feel like a high roller or minimally like you are hobnobbing with one.

After a really great brunch on where Abner was a welcome guest in the outdoor dining area (this and the existence of the Ascent leads me to believe that Covington Kentucky may secretly quarter an inordinate percentage of the cognoscenti) and attracted his usual amount of attention, the two of us hit the road north toward Fort Wayne to see my parents. It was, by then, October 6th and in the low 90s as we drove through western Ohio and across into northeastern Indiana. It was actually an easy drive of about 2 hours and 45 minutes during which time my brother Michael called. We talked for about 45 minutes of the drive (don’t get excited. . .I use a bluetooth earpiece when I am driving) which was, I believe, a record. The following day Michael turned 60 and I don’t think that in the almost 59 years I have known him, we have ever talked for that long at a stretch and certainly not in a phone call. Oh well. Records were made to be broken.

We arrived in Fort Wayne before 4:00 but the drive in was a little strange. I drove through all manner of small towns in northwestern Ohio and northeastern Indiana that I remember hearing about on weather reports, traffic and snow announcements, and tornado warnings and sighting reports while I was growing up but realized that I had never known where they were nor what they looked like. It has dawned on me, as a result of this drive, that in spite of my parents having made significant efforts at making travel a part of life for us as children, when we were at home in Fort Wayne, we must have led rather insular lives. I really saw very little of Indiana growing up.

Over the next three days Abner and I just hung out with my parents and a few of their old friends. We ate at their country club and a couple of their favorite haunts. We had dinner with Bud Latz who is one of my parents’ oldest and best friends from when they first moved to Fort Wayne in the mid-40s. He is now a widower and lives alone but sees my parents often. I have never thought of myself as a particularly nostalgic person, and particularly not about growing up in Fort Wayne where I believe I never really fit in, but seeing Bud is always one of the highlights of a visit. There is something reassuring about seeing people who were the adults I grew up around still plugging away, and in many important ways, unchanged. Bud has the physical signs of aging (and who doesn’t?) but when you are sitting at t dinner table with him talking about life, his wit and the intensity with which he involves himself in every conversation is still there.

The day after our dinner I took Abner over to Bud’s house to meet him. Abner likes meeting new people and Bud likes big dogs.

I also walked three blocks away to visit another close friend of my parents from way back. Helen Fine lives in the same house I always remember her in a short distance from my parents’ house. A couple things were different on this visit. First of all, Helen’s husband Bernie Fine (Charles Bernard Fine to be precise. . .professionally known when I was growing up as Seat Cover Charlie) had died a week or so before and I was a little nervous about visiting since condolence calls have never been my forte. Nonetheless, Mom, Abner and I walked up to her house on Old Mill Road and went for an afternoon visit. The house was pretty much as I had remembered it, as was Helen. She has always defied age both in her physical presence and her style. Being around her was much like a flash back to 40 years ago. Her hair is almost the same color (I suspect that was due to some assistance then as now), her face is still younger looking than it should be, and she has the most infectious smile and laugh I think I have ever known. It was really nice to see that despite being recently widowed, all that remained. What was really surprising though was that her daughter Cindy, whom I had known all through the public school system when I was growing up, was also there. I don’t think we had seen each other in 40 years and Cindy has changed. She still looks great (different, but great) but the real shock is that she not only has three adult children (28-35) the youngest of whom was there with her, but she has grandchildren. I cannot understand how someone who is my contemporary can have grandchildren. I mean I understand it in a clinical sense. . .it just is hard to digest psychologically.

We had a nice visit. Abner sniffed around the baby a little and mostly went around checking out the house as he does at every new place we go to. Pyrenees seem to have this internal demand to determine and patrol the perimeter wherever they are. I guess one always has to make sure that there are now wolves or coyotes lurking in an unused bedroom or closet.

During our lunch at the country club one day, we were talking about longevity in Dad’s family. I realized that I didn’t know many of my paternal grandfather’s siblings so Mom and Dad started going through the list about who they all were and how long they had lived. Dad got to my uncle Al, whom I actually do remember, who apparently died about a year ago at the age of 98. My mother then remembered a sister who was as yet unmentioned. “What about Beverly?” she asked. Dad’s reply was one of those priceless comments that you need to write down to tell. “Oh god” he said “she’s about 103” but then he continued barely skipping a beat “but she’s dead”. Mom and I looked at each other for about a quarter of a second and burst out laughing. It took Dad about another quarter second before he erupted as well. . .pretty funny stuff.

Hanging out with my parents is in many ways very encouraging. Dad is now 87 and Mom 82. They are both astoundingly active and sharp. Mom went walking with Abner and me a couple times and looking at her, it is hard for me to believe that she is 82 years old. I have friends who are my contemporaries who don’t get around as well as she does. She works 5 days a week as a social worker at a clinic in downtown Fort Wayne and is still very active in community issues. Dad still also goes to his office every day, manages a complex investment portfolio, sits on numerous boards, writes guest editorials for one of the local newspapers, plays golf, and has a weekly lunch with a group of his cronies. He is very ambitious about his computer skills at an age when the most technologically advanced thing most people do is change the channel. Actually, at 87, most people are turning to dust. I am enormously proud of who my parents continue to be.

The three days in Fort Wayne were all very warm, but we managed to walk extensively around the old neighborhood and Foster Park into which my parent’s house backs. We didn’t do anything dramatic while we were there but it was really a comforting visit. I will be missing seeing my parents this year on the family trip due to some travel conflicts I have so this week helped make up for that.

Tuesday morning I packed up the car and we headed off on the relatively short drive to Lisa and Dave’s house in Carmel, IN. Carmel is a very large suburb on the north side of Indianapolis where they have lived for the last 8 years so with the aid of my GPS and a special suggestion of a newly opened route that Lisa had told me about, we made good time getting there. Mostly what I did in Indianapolis was hang out. The first day Lisa and I ran errands, had an outdoor lunch in the recently cool weather (dramatic change the day I drove down to Indy) picked up and dropped off various children, most of whom were Lisa’s and in general, had a Lisa-and-Dave standard two-day experience. Since my nieces and nephews are getting older (all in their teens now) the conversations are a little different. We attended a football game (7th grade) that Zachary played in and in which he caught a pass to score a two-point conversion. Pretty exciting stuff. It had been about 16 months since the last time I had seen Lisa’s kids and there were some dramatic changes. Cort’s voice has changed and he has gotten tall and a lot older looking. Zack and Kailee both are much taller and older looking as well. . .particularly Kailee who still has this sly smile that I think will take her places. The only one who seems just to keep going along on her own schedule is Arlee. She has always bee something of a free spirit, living in exactly the world she has chosen, and that seems not to have changed. She is more mature looking than the last time I saw here, but the change is less significant than in the other three. With two sets of boy/girl twins, it is very interesting to watch how different their development is.

Finally on Thursday morning, Abner and I hit the road for home. We headed south on I-65 to Louisville, east from there to Lexington, and then retraced our path back to Knoxville and Asheville. We were back in my driveway before 5:00 on the 13th having had a very full week.

All this travel has really been getting to me. In August I spent a week in California for Jason and Maren’s wedding. In September I was back there for Winesong for another week. Now October featured a week in Kentucky and Indiana. I was supposed to go to Switzerland for a week in late October or early November to consult on a remodeling project for one of Sue Boeger’s nieces but that, thank God, has been pushed back to January or February. In December I am scheduled for 8 days in Puerto Vallarta as well. It’s a good thing I am home enough to do laundry.

In Asheville things have pretty much settled into the fall scene. On the weekends the streets are clogged with the fall tourists who come to see the leaves and who this year are probably pretty disappointed. Between the late freeze last April, the drought of the summer, and the very mild fall weather we have had, there isn’t nearly as much color this year as last. The town is still fun for people to visit and there are lots of mini-events going on, but it just isn’t the same as the spectacle of color to which we were treated last year.

Abner and I had a brief bonus as a result of our being buddies with the folks at the Garden Shop at Biltmore. A few weeks ago they had an end of the season sale to get rid of as many of their seasonal plants as possible before the cold weather sets in. It is a two-day event that they hold on the West side of the estate at their commercial nursery facility. Passholders are invited to come during those two days to snap up major bargains on various beautiful specimens. If I weren’t anticipating a move, I might have even have made a purchase. We dropped by anyway, partly just to say hi to a number of our friends from the shop who were over there working the sale, and partly to see what a little of the West side looked like. I had never been there before because it is generally accessible only on guided tours operated by the people at the Outdoor Center.

Anyway, while we were there, Jackie Allison who manages the Garden Shop and with whom we have become quite friendly introduced me to Dawn who manages the nursery. Jackie asked Dawn if there was any reason why Abner and I couldn’t hike occasionally on the West side since we have done all the trails on the East side hundreds of times, and Dawn said it would be fine on Wednesdays and Saturdays as long as I checked in with her first.

Well this was great news since it would potentially open up 4,000 additional acres of land to us for exploration so I thanked them both profusely and made plans to go on a Wednesday to check it out.

So a couple of weeks ago on a warm but mild October day, Abner and I drove over to the West side, checked in with Dawn, and headed off on a really great loop that took us up to the vineyards and their small headquarters building, through some woods, down to a trail that parallels the French Broad River, back up through more woods and around the East side of a small lake (although probably 4 times the size of the lagoon on the East side of the estate) and finally back down through the vineyards again. I took pictures some of which will be included in this post. Unfortunately for us, as it turned out, on our way back to the car we met a young man who works for the company police who was quite curious about who I was and what I was doing there. I explained the arrangement to him and assured him that I had permission to do this hiking. He pointed out that I should check with the company police office on days that I intended to hike since during the hunting season, from time to time the Biltmore Company will grant permission for fund-raiser hunts on the property. It wouldn’t be a good idea to be walking around in the woods with Abner if there were hunters on the grounds. I agreed with him and assured him that we would obey the rules and would check in before hiking to make sure it was safe. He acted like everything was fine and even gave me the phone number for the company police office.

Well, the access to the West Side was short lived. When we showed up yesterday and checked in with Dawn, she said that no sooner had I left that Wednesday but this guy came up to her office and informed her that she was to tell me that I couldn’t continue to hike there. I guess he is the resident ranger for that side of the property and is a real stickler for the rules. Pity. It was really beautiful over there.

My housing situation is more unsettled than ever. As those of you who are regulars on this site or who talk to me with some regularity know, there have been a lot of bumps in the road toward getting my house built. In September we found out that the newly-enacted Steep Slope ordinance was going to be applied to my lot and I had to do a whole lot of extra and costly compliance work in order to get a permit. To make a painfully long story short, the process of working through the multiple divisions of City Planning in order to get this permit was frustrating, lengthy and expensive. It took just over 7 weeks to obtain a permit (the City quotes a turnaround when you submit of 5-7 days) and was characterized by countless miscalculations, errors and delays on their part. On more than one occasion, I was forced to recompute a number for personnel because when they had calculated some ratio or other it indicated that I was non-compliant when in fact the opposite was true. The end of the process was an approval of the application on October 23rd. Unfortunately this was about 5 days after the contractor with whom I had been working since last spring on this project told me that he had redone his spreadsheet for our contract and had discovered about another $44,000 in costs that we hadn’t worked in the last time. After having already cut about $60K out of this plan, I really wasn’t in any kind of mood to eviscerate it further so I have put the plans into temporary hibernation. My thinking now is that I will buy a small downtown condo to live in for a couple of years. Meanwhile, I think the construction industry here may find that it’s ten-year boom may soften a bit over the next year or two and there might be a little more competitive pricing of some of the subcontracts. Some of these guys are so used to being busy that they don’t even bother returning phone calls. There is one HVAC contractor who is actually 5 weeks late in returning a phone call (and almost a month since he sent me an email saying he would call that day) who doesn’t know that I have temporarily abandoned the project and apparently is so loaded with work he doesn’t care.

So for the last two weeks I have been scouring the MLS and ads looking for the right downtown space. My thinking is that one of three things will result from this plan. In two years or so, I will decide that I really want to build the house and will put it out to bid again. By then I will be getting very close to being able to collect Social Security which should help put me in a position to more comfortably afford the house even if there is no reduction in costs. Possibility number two is that I will like living downtown and will sell both the lot and the condo and buy a bigger one and stay downtown for the foreseeable future. After all, a downtown condo/loft was what I had wanted to do when I first came looking in Asheville almost 4 years ago. There was just very little available that I could afford. Possibility three is that not only will I like living downtown, but I may even get used to living small (most of what I am looking at is in the 1,200 sq ft range) and will sell the lot and use the proceeds to buy Abner and me a place up north somewhere to spend the summers. Today I made an offer on a space so we will see what happens. No doubt there will be more to report on the next posting.

As you may gather from the above, while I am disappointed about not being able to build the house and have my gorgeous view, the options available aren’t so bad and I don’t have to give up the land to try them out. So life is still good.

The weather has now turned considerably cooler and it is starting to really feel like winter is on the way. Some of the trees are still green and others are almost done shedding their leaves. It is a strange phenomenon of having had such warm weather a month ago I guess. The drought persists here but there was a good drenching a couple weeks ago and then the weather turned cooler so the rate of evaporation is somewhat diminished and people who seem to know about these things feel like the worst may be past us. I guess October is statistically the driest month of the year here so things should get better.

I am going to leave other stories for another post. It has taken me way too long to finish this one. Don’t forget to click on some of the pictures below. When viewed full-sized some of them are pretty impressive.
In the ongoing process of posting shots of all the people who do so much to make Abner (and me) feel so good about living here, I am adding two of the folks who work the entry kiosk at Biltmore. Above is our friend Jennifer who is probably the most enthusiastic Abner spoiler of the front gate crowd. Carlos, below, is lower key in his approach but still never fails to have a smile and friendly word for us.

The vineyards on the West Side are just amazing looking. They are astoundingly well tended and follow the slopes around the lake like contour lines on a survey.
This view is from the top of the vineyard area looking back at the barns by Biltmore's commercial nursery facility.
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This is the French Broad River from the West Side of Biltmore. There has been so little rain lately that not only is the river crystal clear but it is so shallow and so slow that it is more like a pond. We could have waded acoss at this point.
Most of the vineyards on the West Side are arranged on voluptuously rounded slopes that flank a long lake. It is achingly pretty.

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As regular readers of this blog know, I have something of a fascination with mushrooms and other fungi when they appear in the fall here. I don't know a thing about them other than to not eat them, but the variety, size and profuseness of them never ceases to amaze me.
The one day Abner and I got to hike the west side of Biltmore was really a delight. Above is the approach to the lake around which many of the vineyards are planted. The house below is an old ruin that seems to be disappearing back into the woods.
And this is still another of the old Biltmore barns. They all are of largely the same design with the Lioncrest symbol on their gables, but this one appears to have not been restored. It was hard to tell if it is still in use.
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Regie and I don't take the dogs up to the lawn above the house as often as we used to, but this one afternoon they were in a very playful mood and it is a good spot with few people. We turned around near the top and were treated to this view. I have probably posted a version of this shot almost every year, but it still is beautiful.
The picture above is of the Ascent in Covington KY. If you read the text of this post, you will know that it is a Daniel Liebeskind designed condo project nearing completion that Jan, Chuck and I toured when I was visiting there.
The pergola in the Walled Garden this year featured loofahs hanging from the rafters along with the grapes that come back every year. I didn't go as nuts this year on the fall fungi, but this guy was pretty appealing.
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Abner is shown above with Will who is one of the photographers at Biltmore House. Eventually I should post pictures of several of the others because they all tend to lavish affection on Abner.
The walled garden was spectacular with mums this fall. This is pretty much the standard planting for the Fall display but it seemed splashier this year.
It is now clearly fall and although the Bass Pond isn't as dramatic as it was last year, it is still beautiful this year.
There are four wild turkeys who have been hanging out around Biltmore House this fall. There are scads of these birds around the estate but this particular group have been favoring the lawn west of the house. I'm not sure where the 4th one is in this photo. . .perhaps hiding behind the tree.
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