Wednesday, January 30, 2008

This is something I don't think I have shot or posted before. Even though Abner and I probably walk by the Winery at Biltmore roughly once a week, I don't think I ever shot the weather vane before. It was in the perfect position due to wind and sun so I finally got my shot. If you click on this one and blow it up, I think you will see the beautiful detail including the "V" for Vanderbilt cut into the vane. I don't know the history of this. The winery itself is a comparatively new rehab of the old dairy buildings and a great deal of what you see today is modern construction but I have a feeling this weather vane might be original. I guess I have to ask Ellen Rickman next time our paths cross.
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This is some of the older artillery you can see at Fort Moultrie. You really should see the diagrams they have posted on what it took to move and aim the beast in the upper picture.

These are a couple garden and entry shots of pretty Charleston historic district houses. The pink one below is on the market for something in the $3 million range in case any of you feels the need. It is a deceptively big house with guest house behind but still. . .
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These shots were all taken on our day trip to Fort Moultrie in Charleston Harbor. The photo of Jim simply screamed to be posted. Mea Culpa.

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Abner and Spencer both live for pleasure. They almost always are in the mood to play but cold weather and snow seems to add a special component to their joy.

The photo above is of a small partially frozen pond in the garden of the owner of Blue Spiral 1 Gallery. It was amazing because ice had formed in this beautiful pattern around the edges and on the fountain that feeds the pool but it didn't completely freeze over and in the clear spots, you can see the rocky bottom and the gold fish swimming around. Too cold for me.

Below is my friend Jim posing on Folly Beach with the lighthouse in the background. Believe it or not, the lighthouse used to be on land. That ship has sailed.
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I took these pictures one morning when I went out to get the newspaper and there was more snow on the ground than at any point previously during my three years in Asheville. The above photo is of AB and Kitty's house across the street and the one below is Steve and Karen's new house next door.

Abner really comes to life in the cold. In the above picture he was standing staring at Spencer trying to goad him into a faux attack during a play session at Biltmore, and the shot below is of Abner in hot pursuit after Spencer took off running.
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Abner is just as handsome in photos taken with the new camera as with the old. Below you can see him with Risa at the Bass pond with a light skin of ice proving that it can get cold here in January. All the geese have moved to the lagoon.

Above is the walled garden at Biltmore and the Conservatory in the background. It is still pretty there even with nothing in bloom. The small tips of a few of the tulips are just starting to poke through the mulch in some of the more protected spots in the walled garden.
Matt and Amy and Bear joined Abner and me on a walk one sunny Sunday afternoon and we came upon this pink Cadillac festooned with Mary Kay emblems and personalized plates. I just couldn't resist. I mean it is a pink Cadillac.
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Well, it turns out that my optimism about the cold I had managed to acquire when I posted last month was misplaced. Rather than having made it through the worst, it turns out that I had only experienced the preamble. I am now in the 6th week of whatever it is that I got and still am not symptom free although I am feeling dramatically better than about two weeks ago when I think I pretty much bottomed out.

As a result, even though I have had two visitors since I last posted, I have comparatively little to tell you all about this go round other than a brief description of what the last month has been like, a few pictures, and a little about the two visits.

One thing I should mention up front is that I have discovered that this blog is getting considerably more readers whom I have never met than I had initially anticipated. When I started writing this in March of 06 it was a substitute for an episodic journal I was sending to a large group of friends whom I left behind when I moved here from California 3 years ago. I hadn’t counted on the power of Google and the number of people who actually read blogs. While things may have started off slowly, and while I certainly am no threat to Ariana Huffington in terms of readership, the blog is getting close to 200 hit per month from North America, Europe, Asia and Australia. Seems like I am still unknown in Latin America but who would have thought I would have readers in New Delhi.

As a consequence, when appropriate to maintain some people’s privacy, I will occasionally use only first names or initials. It is amazing what you can find with Google and since I don’t want to filter what I way here but I also don’t want to embarrass or hurt anyone, the names may start to fall by the wayside.

I have gotten some emails from people who have found the blog and they are, in general, very encouraging. I have come to realize that because this is essentially a personal journal, some people who are regular readers may begin to feel like they know Abner and me. Initially these letters were a little unnerving but they all encourage me to continue writing.

I composed the last post in late December when I had been home sick for about two weeks. I think I mentioned that my friend Risa was due to visit early in the month. Even though I was still pretty sick, I don’t get to see Risa very often so I encouraged her to come anyway. She is a manufacturers rep for a furniture line that is headquartered about an hour away from here so she has to visit the mother ship once a year or so anyway and for the last two years she has tacked on a weekend with me when she is scheduled to visit HQ. This year it was the first week of January and as it turned out, her departure day was the same day the worst storm to hit Northern California in about 60 years blew ashore. Poor Risa sat at the San Francisco Airport while her flight was first delayed and ultimately cancelled. Eventually, about 8 or 9 hours after she was supposed to fly to Charlotte, USAir managed to get a flight off the ground but somehow, in their infinite wisdom, had decided to only check her bags as far as Charlotte. Since she was so late anyway, that was the final blow to any chance of her arriving the day she was scheduled. By the time she found her luggage at Charlotte, the last flight to Asheville had left so she spent the night in Charlotte and flew up the next morning.

Abner and I met her flight in the morning and we hit the ground running for her very short visit. Risa hadn’t seen Biltmore House in many many years and asked if I would mind going still another time. I have to admit that, at this point, I have been through the house roughly 50 or 60 times in the last three years and there isn’t much I haven’t seen there. Nonetheless, the place is beautiful and as long as it isn’t going to be an all-day affair, I don’t mind taking my friends through. So, after dropping Abner at home and putting on the appropriate shoes for tromping through the largest house in America, we headed over to the estate. Lunch is pretty much a necessity if you are going to spend two hours walking through the house so we grabbed a bite at the Stable Café before going in. Calling lunch at the Stable Café a bite is probably a little bit of an understatement. The café is actually a large restaurant on two floors occupying the space where the old stables and bachelor servants’ quarters had been when the Vanderbilts occupied the house. The main room, on the ground floor, is a wonderful example of adaptive reuse of a historic structure. Walls, ceilings, floors, stalls, windows and doors are essentially unchanged. The old horse stalls are now booths. All the original tile walls and brick floors are preserved in this new use so the space really is in keeping with the experience of visiting a historic landmark house.

As big as the room is, the portions match it. The menu is large although I tend to get the same 4 or 5 things every time I eat there. Portions are enormous so it is hard to try appetizers or desserts. On top of the ample sandwiches and entrees, shortly after you order, a hot loaf of fresh bread arrives on the table so unless you exercise amazing restraint, you can be full by the time your order arrives. Sodas are refilled rapidly and endlessly and the servers, almost without exception, are friendly and helpful. The food isn’t ambitious but they do a good job of almost everything I have ever tried there. I have a particularly difficult time not ordering the pulled pork sandwich. Comfort food is served here.

Anyway, Risa and I gorged on lunch at the café and then waddled through the house for a little less than two hours. I seem to have developed something of a tour of the place for my guests. A couple fortuitous encounters with Ellen Rickman, the director of Museum Services at Biltmore, has resulted in a certain amount of information not included on the recorded tours, and going through the house as many times as I have has caused me to find certain favorite rooms and objects upon which I tend to focus. I probably ignore all kinds of wonderful details so in a way, I am doing my guests a disservice, but they are usually pretty full of information by the time we are done so maybe there is no harm in my distillation.

Since my house is nearby, and since it was a reasonably pleasant day for the dead of winter, we popped home for a few minutes after the house tour and got Abner. Then we headed back over to Biltmore to do a little walking the grounds so Abner would get out and Risa would see more than just the house. A fun day was had by all. As it turned out, that would be the last decent day of health I would have for a few weeks.
By dinnertime, I was feeling pretty sick. Tupelo Honey Café in downtown Asheville has an item on their menu that I realized was exactly what I needed. They have something called the Cheesy Grill. It is a grilled cheese sandwich with two cheeses of the diner’s selection (I did Havarti and Gorgonzola) and a generous bowl of their homemade tomato soup. If anything would have made me feel better that night, that was it. Biscuits and honey come with all meals there and I topped it off with a house salad so I was full and warm when we went home.

Risa had to leave in the afternoon on Sunday so we had brunch at Sunnypoint where you can eat outdoors if you are in the company of a dog (we were). So there we are sitting minding our own business over brunch when who should walk up but my cousin Raphael (formerly known as Roger). This is my Aunt Harriet’s eldest child whom I would guess is probably 65 or so and is the director of a theater group in Asheville. This was the third time I have seen him in the three years here (second in two days though) so it was something of a surprise. We really don’t know each other having not seen one another in 20 or 30 years before we bumped into each other last year. Since we have never had any kind of relationship nothing comes of these chance meetings but Risa insisted on trying to figure out how he could be my cousin and have a surname that doesn’t match any she has heard. It took half the drive back to my house to explain the circuitous route to Raphael’s name (and I really don’t know it myself). It’ll probably be another year before I see him again. Maybe someday I will ask about the name thing.

In the afternoon we met up with some of Risa’s business buddies who live here and the friend she was driving to Lenoir with. We had some coffee, chatted briefly, and mid-afternoon, split. This was a very brief visit but since I have known Risa for about 30 years, we seem to be quite accomplished at cramming in a huge amount of conversation and catch-up in a very short time.

I played cards with the card group that afternoon and then headed home to hunker down and try to deal with my crud. I still cannot believe how, for 6 weeks now, I have been hit by wave after wave of symptoms from this virus but that night the cough got really bad. I had seen a PA at my doc’s office the Friday before and they had prescribed some meds to deal with this but I suddenly took a turn for the worse Sunday night. The cough got so bad I was up all night. I couldn’t stop coughing. What I discovered was the only way I could cope was to sit completely upright, propped up on a huge pile of pillows, and sip very cold water about every 30 to 90 seconds. Doing this for most of the night (actually starting at 1:30 in the morning) I consumed about 120 ounces of water in the next 6 or so hours. What a night. After a while, when it was abundantly clear that I would not be sleeping at all, I turned on a light and read a little and watched some late late night television.

By the time I was able to talk to my doc later that morning I had already told John Ballenger about the situation and gotten some advice from him. The plan hatched by John and my doc here was to bombard me with high doses of prednisone, a broad spectrum antibiotic called Levaquin, a hydrocodone based cough medicine called Tussionex, Albuterol inhaler, and probiotics to keep my digestive system functioning while under the onslaught of all the rest of this crap. Let me tell you, when you are on that level of medication, you don’t do much. It felt like I saw more of my bedroom in the next 5 days than in the previous 5 months. I also learned to sleep sitting up. Funny how if you are tired enough, even that position will work.

For awhile, I considered canceling Jim S’s visit, but I was starting to feel human when his arrival date was approaching and he said that even if we didn’t do anything but order pizza and watch TV he would enjoy coming so we kept it as planned. As it turned out, it was great having him come. I was feeling enough better by the time he arrived (3 hours late courtesy of USAir and with no luggage) that it was great to get out of the house and have things to do.

Since Jim had been here before, a lot of the standard 1st-time-in-Asheville stuff wasn’t on the agenda so we had a couple pretty calm days initially. We hit galleries and walked a little with Abner, and I took Jim up to see and walk on my lot but mostly we planned where to have dinner each night. It was really nice. We even did watch a DVD one night. By Tuesday, I was feeling good enough to proceed with our long-planned trip to Charleston. Since Jim hadn’t been there before I had booked us a room at the Best Western King Charles Inn on Meeting Street smack dab in the middle of the historic district. The hotel was very inexpensive and the room was fine (although we both agreed that it suffered from pretty much the ugliest wall paper either of us had seen in a long time). It is so well located that the only time we took the car out of the parking garage was to drive to Folly Beach and Sullivan’s Island on our second day in town.

Pigging out at Aaron’s Deli (a Jewish deli that has commingled with Hyman’s Seafood just down the block from the hotel) for lunch left both of us comparatively uninterested in dinner. I grabbed a carry out salad from a place around the corner called Yo Burrito (everyone who knows my affection for Mexican food may now laugh hysterically but the salad was perfect) and went back to the room. We had walked all over Meeting, King, East Bay and the Battery that first afternoon, so it was not destined to be a late night. I still had to medicate to keep from coughing but by then the meds were much lighter so we had a decent first night and had big plans for the second day.

When we got up, we grabbed some coffee at the hotel breakfast room and chatted for a while as well as checking emails and other standard morning duties. By about 10:30 or 10:45 we finally managed to head out and jumped into the car to drive out to Folly. Now those of you who have followed this blog know that I enjoy Folly for the very reasons a lot of people don’t. It is only 15 minutes by car from downtown Charleston but still is kind of a funky old beach town. While there are some mega-beach houses that have been built in the last 10 years, much of the island is still covered with early to mid-20th-Century ramshackle houses that give it the feel of an old beach town that hasn’t become too precious.

We drove the entire length of the island and ended up at the North East end where we walked almost to the point so Jim could see the famous lighthouse that is no longer on land. It is kind of amazing to see how much the sand that forms all the barrier islands in this part of the world migrates so much. I don’t know the exact date of the building of the lighthouse but I doubt that it is older than 100-150 years. Nonetheless it is now standing a pretty significant distance out in the water near the mouth of Charleston Harbor. I will post a picture of Jim with the lighthouse in the background and you can see for yourself.

Anyway, it was a beautiful mild day and a lovely time to be at the beach. After the walk to the point we headed back to the car and drove to the single main street of the town of Folly Beach where the few open restaurants and surf shops are located and had a nice beachy lunch at a local seafood place. . . very funky but food is good. I had a fish sandwich. Yum yum.

By the time we finished lunch it was probably 1:00ish and Jim was interested in seeing Fort Moultrie, located on the other side of Charleston on Southwest end of Sullivan’s Island. Moultrie was used continuously for more than a century and a half. It was significant in the Revolutionary and Civil wars and in fact was used until the end of WWII. Now it is operated by the National Park Service. I had been there before on a previous Charleston visit but Abner was with me that time which limited how much I had gotten to see. This time with Jim’s interest in military history spurring us on, we saw the whole place and I have to say, it was fascinating. We started in the NPS’s building across the street from the fort and took in all the displays and even sat through the corny but interesting film that cycles through every 20 minutes or so. I certainly don’t know how long we stayed, but we managed to walk through every open room and battlement of the fort and both of us just ate it up.

One of the things that was so interesting was to see the progression from simple bulky imprecise cannons that required all kinds of pulleys and hoists to move and aim, all the way through some WWII vintage artillery batteries that fired huge shells long distances with remarkable precision. Some photos of these will also appear with this month’s visual aids. We ended up blowing most of the afternoon there but made it back into Charleston with enough time to explore some of the little side streets and alleys of the historic district that we had missed the previous day. I never tire of peering into the beautiful tailored gardens that are behind or beside virtually every house, large or small in this area. There is a very appealing intimacy to the small scale of urban Charleston that I think planners in other cities should revisit.

Finally, later afternoon, we stopped for cocktails at a bar on East Bay. It had probably been pretty close to a month since I had consumed alcohol since it generally doesn’t feel too good if I am sick; so two bloody marys went down awfully easily. This, as it turned out, probably wasn’t all that wise. By the time Jim and I made it to dinner at Slightly North of Broad (aka S.N.O.B) the cocktails were a distant memory. I had decided to use Jim’s visit as an excuse to drink one of my treasured old Bordeaux and took it with us to the restaurant for dinner. Let me tell you, a 1985 Lynch Bages is pretty close to heaven right now. Over the course of the truly sensational dinner, we polished off the wine so my poor bod, which hadn’t been taking in alcohol or even that much food for that matter, was simply overwhelmed. It tasted great going down but I didn’t have a good night. The short version of this story is that I never was far from the bathroom that night, and didn’t sleep all that well.

Thursday morning we packed up all our stuff and headed back to Asheville. We went through about three or four weather changes on the trip home. Passing the airport in bright sunshine, it was needless to say, quite the surprise to drive 10 minutes further and find ourselves in significant snow flurries. They didn’t last long and nothing stayed on the ground but it was kind of strange having left Charleston in the high 50s or low 60s.

Thursday was a quiet night at home with Abner back from his two-night sleepover at Spencer’s and neither of us much in the mood to eat after the orgy of consumption that had highlighted the previous night. Mostly we sat in the living room by the fire and chatted about old friends and how the world is going to hell in a handbag (Jim and I seem to see eye to eye on socio-political issues).

Friday was beautiful if a little cool so after a leisurely morning we headed over to Biltmore with Abner and did an unchallenging walk. Afterwards we drove up to check in with Brian and Holly who were both at work and bored to distraction given that the condo market isn’t exactly on fire in late January in Asheville. Dinner followed at Sunnypoint (a must if you find yourself here) where we once again gorged ourselves on really great food. This time I paced myself though. One glass of wine sufficed and I didn’t consume a pound of mussels before my entrée arrived. Felt a lot better Friday night than I had on Wednesday.

Jim had to head home of Saturday afternoon but we managed to fit in a visit to Hoss Haley’s studio before Jim had to head to the airport. You should all check out Hoss’ work online. He is represented at Blue Spiral 1 gallery in Asheville and another gallery in Charlotte as well the name of which eludes me. I have a painting from him but lately most of his work is sculptural. He is doing a lot of commissioned work for municipalities and corporate HQs and is, in my opinion, one of the top 5 artists in this area. Check him out if you are interested.

Anyway, I am still a little sick but am getting back into functioning. Abner and I manage to walk almost every day, although they are shorter less challenging ones than what I was managing before I got sick. I have come to realize that if I were old and infirm, this virus could have easily done me in. Never, in my 59 years, have I been sick for this long and I have to say it is no fun. Hopefully by the time I write my next post I can report being completely symptom free.

I trust you are all surviving the doldrums of winter and will emerge into spring renewed, as we all seem to manage to do annually. Drop a line when you can.

Steven and Abner