Sunday, May 17, 2009

In the couple months since I last posted, my life has changed little and a lot.

Jim Sundquist came for a visit and, since last year’s trip included a few days in Charleston, we decided this time to go further south and headed to Fripp Island. Fripp is, for those who are unfamiliar with the coast of the Carolinas, one of the southernmost of the barrier islands that form a continuous chain from the Keys in Florida to Long Island and Nantucket in the Northeast. It lies two islands northeast of Hilton Head and is reached by driving through Beaufort, SC. Those of you who have followed my travels since I moved here know that I discovered Beaufort on one of my early trips to Folly Beach. On that trip I just did a short day trip to check out Savannah and decided to drive through Beaufort on the way back to Folly. That time I was completely charmed by Beaufort (and decidedly uncharmed by Savannah) and I would have to say that little happened this time to change my mind on either count.

Jim and I had spent a few days together in Asheville hobnobbing with some of the folks I know here in the art scene and then, on the Saturday after his arrival, we loaded up the car, put Abner in the back on his giant round bed, and drove the 5 hours down to Fripp. Most of the drive is on freeways from Asheville South (or East if you believe the government’s method of numbering the Interstate System) on I-26 through most of South Carolina until connecting with I-95. 95 seems, at least by repute, to be the most heavily traveled of the North-South Interstates on the Eastern Seaboard and that Saturday was no exception, but we made it to the beach house we had rented before it got dark.

Getting to Fripp from the Interstate consists of driving across the Lowcountry on local highways until you get to Beaufort, a surprisingly metropolitan little burg that occupies a wonderfully picturesque harbor protected by several low-lying barrier islands. Old Beaufort is almost painfully pretty but more on that later. When you cross the bridge leaving downtown and pass through what amounts to Beaufort’s suburbs, within about 10 minutes you are on country roads traveling through densely forested swampy island that dot the lowcountry on the way to the sea. Eventually you arrive on Hunting Island, which is now completely devoted to a State Park. At the end of the highway there is a narrow bridge to Fripp. Once you arrive on Fripp there is a guard gate you have to pass where you either show your owner’s identification or request a pass that the owner renting to you has pre-arranged. This is way beyond just being a gated community. . .the whole island is gated. We got on without a hitch although it did occur to me that if we had wanted to entertain visitors during our week there it could have been challenging.

One of the first things you notice is the tiny deer that graze all over the place and seem utterly unperturbed by cars or pedestrians. They look like regular deer only of the dwarf variety. Some were about the same height as Abner.

Eventually we arrived at the house I had arranged to rent. The owner had, as promised, arranged for the cleaning crew to leave the front door open for us, although the first problem was that the keys hanging inside that were supposed to serve us for the rest of the week didn’t work on any of the doors in the house. . .not an auspicious start. There were also some issues in getting the phones to work to call the owner, who lives in Missouri, to find out what to do. Eventually we connected and she explained that she had had the locks changed recently and apparently left the wrong keys. There apparently was one on a lock box near the garage that she was able to talk us through locating, and she arranged for one of the housekeepers to pop by the following day with another.

The house itself was what I am learning to expect of beach rentals that are pet friendly. Although the photos posted on the Internet ad looked pretty attractive, this house was tired. There were 5 bedrooms, which amounted to 3 more than we needed and this ended up being a good thing. When something didn’t work in one bedroom or bathroom, we simply went to another for parts of to use it. In the end though, it was clean and reasonably comfortable. There were some oddities like 5 coffee makers and no broom or dustpan, but it was reasonably priced and right on the beach, so it turned out just fine.

We spent most of the week being lazy bums. I walked Abner a couple times each day along the beach and then back on the road. One day, when we had gone a couple miles and were in front of a large condo development, there was a group of about 10 or 12 college-age guys playing on the beach. One was kind of off by himself and when we walked by he stopped me to ask the standard questions about Abner. We ended up chatting for a few minutes during which time I discovered that they were all Virginia Tech students on spring break. The fellow I talked to introduced himself as “Matt Beerwagon”. I guess it could have been “Bierwagen” but somehow it sounded a little too perfect for a college guy on spring break. I never saw him or his group again but I suspect the name will stick with me.

Weather was amazing for early March. It was in the 80s for the first 5 days and finally cooled down to 70ish for the day we went to Savannah and 60 something for our last day. We cooked at home most nights, having discovered a beautiful new Publix market on the main road out of Beaufort. We did have three dinners at local restaurants and one was truly memorable.

Beaufort has become fairly fashionable in recent years and is getting the amenities that go with that gentrification. The grand old houses in town are frequently priced in the millions although we stumbled on one that was priced below $600K and looked spectacular. It wasn’t on the water but had a gorgeous garden surrounding a very grand antebellum structure.

There is a slick contemporary remodel of an old motel downtown that is nearing completion. On the ground floor is a wonderful little coffee shop/bakery/newsstand run by a positively gorgeous young woman from Charleston and her husband. We chatted quite a bit with her and learned a lot about the people who have come to Beaufort. For those of you unfamiliar with the South, Beaufort was the town where The Big Chill, and The Great Santini were shot.

There is, however, a new restaurant called Wren, which is worth a drive to Beaufort all by itself even if there were nothing else there. It apparently opened around Christmas of 2008 and was packed when we were there as it should be. The food was spectacular. . .interesting well-prepared dishes beautifully presented in a room that is so wonderfully idiosyncratic that you just find yourself wanting to sit there and look at it. Among other things I loved was a huge chalkboard on one wall that has a gigantic drawing of wrens sitting on a perch, done in chalk. The whole idea of having permanent temporary art covering one whole wall of slate was really original in my experience.

They have put a lot of effort into having both an interesting wine list and some pretty remarkable liquors as well. I was in the mood for whiskey the night Jim and I ate there and had a wonderful obscure Tennessee Sour Mash whiskey that is available practically nowhere and was particularly yummy. If you are anywhere near Charleston or Savannah, or better still, if you can bring yourself to go spend a few days in Beaufort, do not miss a dinner or two at Wren.

Besides the other beachy activities, and a few hours exploring the State Park on Hunting Island, we also visited the Parris Island Marine Training Center. I didn’t know a whole lot about it other than that it was one of the biggest places where Marines get basic training and that it was somewhere in the lowcountry of South Carolina. Well, as it turns out, it is one of only two locations in the US where Marines go through basic training and they are only there for 12 weeks before they are graduated, so to speak, and posted somewhere as full-fledged Marines.

Parris Island is, in fact, a rather large and very pretty lowcountry island. It has forests and swamps like all the other islands in the area but it is occupied entirely by the Marines and is a pretty large facility, much of which isn’t open to the public. We drove around the part that you can visit and checked out the Marine Museum. The most interesting thing I noticed was that the buildings that constitute the main core of the base are apparently centrally heated and the steam pipes are all elevated. It is kind of bizarre to see these large pipes, many leaking steam, 12 or more feet in the air snaking from building to building and across fields.

There were a couple other things that really struck me on our short visit. One was that Marines in training are really really young. I will probably be struck by the same feeling if I go back to Cornell one of these years and see how things are on campus there, but these kids really look young. They all had the very short Marine buzz cut that has become pretty fashionable in the US of late. Many of them looked like they probably don’t have to shave too often yet. It was a reminder that when you read the statistics about deaths and grievous injuries going on in the wars in which we find ourselves entrenched, the victims are barely past childhood.

The other conspicuous thing about these young people was how almost shockingly polite they all were. It made me aware of how rude and bereft of civility most of the young people I encounter on the streets of Asheville really are. Of course, that really isn’t’ an indictment of a generation as much as of the rootless street people who lead the ultimate slack lives sitting in doorways hassling passersby for money for food.

Our trip ended with an almost uneventful drive home. The only problem occurred at the end. Jim’s flight was scheduled to leave roughly two hours after our return to town and he suggested that I take him to the airport instead of driving back downtown to my place and turning around 45 minutes later to take him to the airport. This seemed to make sense so we got off the freeway at the airport exit. Jim, always the gracious guest, suggested that we fill the tank one last time so he could contribute his share of the gas, so I pulled into the BP station across the street from the entrance to the airport. Jim filled the tank while I partook of the restroom. When I returned to the car Jim was finishing up filling it but said that I should talk to an old man who was leaning against a large white Mercedes nearby. I asked why I would want to talk to him and Jim pointed to the front right fender of my car that was dented and scraped and had pieces of the guy’s taillight lens embedded in it.

Perfect end of a vacation. I obtained the necessary info including that he didn’t live in town (Cincinnati was home) and that he was on his way to Florida for a month or two. This just made it better. Fortunately, his insurance company was very cooperative and the repair and rental car issues went comparatively smoothly.

I took Jim to the airport and then headed home in a pretty bad mood. I was now facing trying to straighten out a mess with the Medical College of Georgia over their having billed me 6 times the correct amount for my dental implant, having to deal with CitiCards who had put a hold on my use of my credit card the day I was in Savannah, and numerous other very annoying issues that were waiting for me at home, to which I was now adding an automobile accident that I wasn’t even there to witness. At that point, all I wanted to do was have a quiet evening at home, go to bed, and start dealing with the crap the next day. Well it was not to be.

In their amazingly consistent fashion, Delta once again left one of my guests stranded in Asheville for an extra day. Shortly after I had begun unloading all the trip crap from my car I got a phone call from Jim saying his flight had been delayed for so long that they wouldn’t be able to get him out until the morning and could I come and get him. So back out to the airport I went and Jim got another unplanned night in Asheville. We decided that neither of us was in the mood to cook, so we went to Bouchon for a lovely early evening dinner, and got to bed at a respectable hour.

Eventually, Jim made it home; I then had to begin a lengthy battle with The Medical College of Georgia about their colossal screw up in billing. The short version of this story is that I had a titanium post for a dental implant placed on December 3rd of last year. Eddie Rogers, the dentist who placed it, had quoted me $745 for the cost of the procedure, which I had tried to pay while I was still in Augusta following the completion of the short and surprisingly painless procedure. Unfortunately, in their infinite wisdom, the College has no method of collecting on the spot, but assured me that I would receive a bill by mail that I could pay by calling in a credit card.

After two months, I was a little disturbed that I hadn’t received a bill, so I contacted the College and spoke to a woman in billings who rather languidly informed me that they would eventually get to it and not to worry.

When I was preparing to leave for the beach with Jim, I pulled the Saturday mail (on March 7th) out of my mailbox only to find the bill for $4,675 from the Medical College. Since I had no intention of ruining my beach vacation with a long-distance argument, I decided just to deal with it upon my return. What I hadn’t counted on was that, postmarked all of 3 days after the original messed up bill, was a dunning notice saying that if I didn’t pay up within 10 days from the date of the letter (March 4th) I would be turned over to collection with irreparable damage done to my credit. This was something of a stunner to receive when I got home, particularly since it was then exactly 10 days after the posting date of the threat.

So Monday, after two days of very annoying phone calls to resolve my dispute with Citicards, I began the process of getting to the bottom of the bill from The Medical College. I spoke to Orris Knight, the signer of the threatening letter, who was initially quite perfunctory in her response. Number one, she insisted that the bill was correct. Number two she said that there was no way their system could have screwed up the bill since procedures have code numbers that the computer translates to billed amounts, and that the code on my bill matched the procedure. Lastly she didn’t think there was anything wrong with threatening collections 3 days after sending the only bill I had ever received from them. According to her I was over 90 days in arrears and therefore their system automatically pursues collection. When I pointed out to her that I hadn’t received a bill until more than 90 days had elapsed, she seemed to think that was immaterial.

I realized that dealing with her would get me nowhere so I asked her to contact Eddie Rogers and straighten it out. She said she would email him and would call me with the results. Needless to say, I didn’t hear from her again.

I called Eddie on his cell phone and when he returned my call I told him what had happened and he said he would contact billings and get it straightened out.

When, a week later, I had heard nothing, I called Ms Knight back and asked if she had settled the dispute by talking to Dr Rogers. Her response was that she hadn’t actually talked to him yet, but when she checked the computer file on the bill she noticed that he had gone in and changed it to the correct amount. . . an amount she willingly accepted via phone credit card without ever apologizing for messing it up in the first place, rudely insisting that they couldn’t have made an error, and never following through on her promise to discuss the dispute with Eddie Rogers and call me back with the results.

This experience causes me to issue a warning to anyone dealing with the Medical College of Georgia. Get your quote in writing, and if you don’t have a bill in hand in a month, bug them until you get a correct one. Also, check the bill carefully when it comes since they obviously don’t. I was very impressed by the thoroughness of my dental care and conversely disgusted by the indifference of the clerical wing of this organization.
Since returning from the beach trip I concentrated, for a time, on what became a frustrating effort at obtaining a loan to build my house. It certainly isn’t news that the lending market is pretty much constipated right now but I hadn’t quite expected to have such a vivid personal experience of it. The protestations from the Federal Government and the banks that there is all this money that has made its way into the economy and that we should all be taking advantage of low interest rates fall on my deaf ears. The facts appear to be that none of the banks want to actually lend their own money for houses. What they want to do is collect the fairly big fees they get for writing and processing these loans and then promptly sell them to Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, thus never really lending any of their own money.

As a consequence of Fannie and Freddie’s meltdowns of last summer, their lending practices have swung to an absurdly conservative standard. In the end, people whose incomes are unearned, varied, based upon some capital gains every year, or anything other than a consistent wage are not the target market for these organizations.

Now, I have once again given up on building my house for the next few years. Instead I have been looking for a home to buy to live in for the intervening time. I am glad that I have done this experiment with living downtown, because for years the idea of an urban condo within walking distance to all the central city activities appealed to me in the abstract. It turns out that it only works abstractly.

Asheville is a city with a very lively downtown, particularly on weekends and Friday evenings. This frenetic activity becomes even more intense in the summer months when the tourism that supports Asheville ramps up. I knew all of this before moving downtown, but didn’t ever fully appreciate how all these people would end up invading my life.

Walking Abner in the morning and evening on a number of loop routes that I have concocted around downtown is a pleasant experience during the dead of winter, but with warm weather it has again become a source of a lot of irritation. Abner’s appearance is striking enough that virtually everyone we pass on the street either makes a remark about walking a horse, a similar one about a polar bear, or they stop me and ask some version of 8 questions that seem to occur to pretty much everyone. What I never counted on is my own fatigue with dealing with all this attention. I always thought of myself as a reasonably friendly person, but I am rethinking that as these walks become more frustrating.

Making this matter worse is the deteriorating condition of the sidewalks and streets of downtown Asheville. It would appear that smokers here think that cigarette butts don’t constitute litter. There are places where one can literally count hundreds of butts in the expansion joints of the sidewalks. Outside the rather pricey Haywood Park Hotel’s main entrance one is treated to the spectacle of tree wells that the hotel’s employees use as ashtrays that no one feels compelled to clean. People fling the butts, still lit, into the street or linear sewer grates in the sidewalks. It has gotten to the point that twice I have found a cigarette butt on the floor in my condo brought in wedged between Abner’s toes. I understand the NC Legislature is probably going to pass some kind of State Anti-smoking ordinance in their current session, but it probably won’t include language to prevent those who do smoke from making our streets and sidewalks so disgusting. At this rate we will become known as Ashtray, NC.

As a consequence of all this, I have decided that downtown isn’t working for me, and I am pursuing alternatives in the more residential neighborhood where my property is in North Asheville. If the place I am trying to buy pans out I will be living very close to my land and in a quiet area where I should be able to walk Abner in peace. I will still only be about 8 or 9 minutes drive from downtown, but in a more livable area. This will be a relief.

I began my duties with the Bluebird Monitoring program at Biltmore a few weeks back and in spite of my never having been a birder, I have to admit that this is quite interesting.
I have never known much about birds for, for that matter, been all that interested in them, but when Penny Branch asked me to join this program, I said yes. On the estate, there are more than 100 wood boxes built in a manner to encourage the nesting of bluebirds. There are other species that will, on occasion, nest in these boxes but the bluebirds definitely have embraced these as potential homes.

The monitoring process is fairly simple. Once a week, approximately 7 days apart, I visit the locations of 10 boxes to which I have been assigned, and I open the side to observe what, if anything, is going on. At the beginning, I had only one box with a nest with eggs in it and a box or two with partial or complete nests that could be recent or old. One box had a next so tall that it pretty much blocked the entry to the box so I was instructed to remove the bottom portion of the next, which was probably left over from last year, and to drop the upper part down to the bottom of the box.

As the weeks have progressed, much has happened. Slowly most of my boxes, including the one where I removed half the nest, have shown varying degrees of action. In the one box that already had eggs, I now have two-week old Chickadee babies, a picture of which I will post along with the other pictures here. In all, 4 of my boxes have bluebird eggs in them, one has Chickadee eggs, the one I mentioned has 5 babies who have little feathery black caps and look like Chickadees are supposed to, and one, mysteriously, has 5 white eggs (presumably Chickadees) and 4 speckled eggs (presumably Barn Swallows) in a single deep next with white feathers lining the top. I have asked everyone I can think of who knows anything about birds and every last one is mystified by this situation. Clearly two different mothers are laying eggs in the same nest. The nest cavity is only about 3-1/2 inches across so having 9 eggs in it is a little crowded and 9 baby birds will be positively tenement like.

I have been advised to just leave them alone and observe what will happen. This is kind of a heartbreaker because some of the bird people have said that many or all of these birds will probably die before they can reach maturity and fledge (leave the nest in birdspeak). It will be interesting to see who incubates these eggs and what she will do if both species produce some live births. I will report on this situation as it progresses.
Summer is shaping up to be pretty quiet for me unless I end up succeeding in buying a new place. I am not expecting any visitors (although a few have said it is a possibility but have made no time commitment) and currently have no plans to travel. I will probably take a short trip to escape downtown Asheville during Bel Chere but aside from that I expect to stay pretty close to home. It looks like I won’t be going to California this summer because the very day of Winesong, about which I have always scheduled my previous visits, is the day my nephew John is getting married in Fort Wayne. I am hoping some of my CA friends will take it upon themselves to come here this year since, for the first time in the last three years, I cannot go there.

I had a short trip to Atlanta this week to look for a living room rug and my friends Sandra Stambaugh and her husband Peter Alberice baby-sat for Abner. Sandra took him for three walks while she had him and now understands how irritating it is to have to answer the same questions about Abner over and over. The corny cracks about how he looks like a polar bear or horse almost drove her nuts and she repeated the information about his breed, weight, age, breed purpose, etc etc dozens of times in three walks. Welcome to my world. This is a big reason for moving to North Asheville when I can.

I think it is time to button up this post. It has taken me a long time to get it together to draft this installment and I have started getting emails from some of the regular readers wanting to know if I have quit blogging or if something is wrong. The truth is, I have had a lot on my plate and didn’t have a burning desire to sit down and write for hours. I never did make a specific commitment as to frequency or volume of posting when I started this blog three years ago. It was always intended to be an episodic journal of life here. I will still post when I feel moved to do so. I appreciate anyone who reads and enjoys these stories and pictures, but in the end, this is a very solitary business.

Best to you all.

Above is a pair of Canada geese and this years offspring.



One day recently Abner and I found ourselves walking in a very light mist and I noticed the droplets on the garden leaves and tried out some macro photography of the delicate drops.

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The photo below is of Abner observing the old stone bridge and Bent Creek. Below is a photo of an early blooming Lady's Slipper orchid in the Arboretum, and a shot of the azaleas in full bloom at Biltmore.


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The azalea garden is simply spectacular when it is in bloom.


The pergola and lawn below the bowling green become quite lush at this time of year.


This lovely old stone bridge spans a stretch of Bent Creek in the Arboretum. I have always loved this spot but never shot it before

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Flowers were spectacular this spring at Biltmore. The wysteria on the pergola below the bowling green at Biltmore House were particularly beautiful. I think I have posted pictures of Abner enjoying the pachysandra before, but he continues to love to lie down in it to relax on warm spring days.



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Spring burst into bloom all over Biltmore. The tulips, then azaleas, and finally rhododendrons were spectacular this year in spite of the surprise freeze in April. Actually, it really is getting to be less of a surprise since it seems to happen every year. The butterfly below was one of the early arrivals at the NC Arboretum.



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The photo above shows some of the dozens of families of Canada Geese that are swimming and walking around the estate with their newly developed young. Eating and pooping voluminous amounts of bluish crap seem to be their primary interests.


These two photos are of a bird that decided to perch on my balcony rail for awhile. I am curious about his species so if any of you knows what this little bird is, please drop me a note.


Below is a shot of three of the five baby Chickadees currently developing in one of the boxes I monitor at Biltmore.

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In keeping with my history of posting photos of Abner being spoiled by his adoring fans, still another of the young people from the Outdoor Center, Lisa at the dog friendly Mobilia Interiors store on Haywood Street, and Pam at the Three Dog Bakery.


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Above is a shot of the dying forest in the beach on Hunting Island. The photos below are of a handsome adminitrative building in central Savannah, and one of the hundreds of historic houses that surround its widely loved squares.


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These photos were all taken at Hunting Island State Park near Fripp Island and Beaufort, SC. The beach in this area is fascinating because it is a spot with a uniquely high rate of beach erosion. Consequently, as you can see, the sea is killing off and devouring the forest that comes right to the water's edge. Jim Sundquist, who visited again this March, gamely posed with Abner on the beach.


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The top pictures were taken in the Westover Trail woods, and the bottom two were taken from the hill at Biltmore on which the Inn is sited. This was a beautiful spring day after a freak snowstorm.


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Above is an old ferry barge that used to traverse the French Broad River from the East to West side of Biltmore Estate. The photo below shows a section of Bent Creek on a day when we had had a surprisingly cold spring night.



Peter Alberice and Sandra Stambaugh have begun hiking with Abner and me from time to time at Biltmore. Sandra is one of the principal photographers for the estate.

Below is one of the trails in the Westover area on a cold spring morning after a surprise snowfall.

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