Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Eye on a Hurricane

Like many Americans, especially those who call the Eastern Seaboard of the United States home, I have been following online and social media reports on Hurricane Florence and its steadfast onslaught into the Carolinas.  Those of us here in northern New England never had anything to fear from this storm save some rough surf and riptides in certain areas.  And this morning the outer most bands of the remnants of Florence pressed through southern Maine with nothing more that a few light rain showers.

During the storm’s initial approach toward the southeastern United States there was some very real concerns that, due to the fact that it was predicted to make landfall as a dangerous Category 4 hurricane - one of the largest hurricanes (and a “very wet” one according to President Trump) to strike the Eastern Seaboard in several decades.  The effects of the storm might be felt as far north as Maryland (including Washington, DC), as well as down into central Georgia.  As a result, I was concerned for our home and neighbors in the DC suburbs along with many friends in the eastern regions of the Carolinas, some of whom were under a mandatory evacuation order as the storm approached.  I can only hope they heeded the warning and left.  It makes no sense to ride out a storm of this predicted magnitude.  There is absolutely nothing one can do to keep it off its destructive path as reports have shown over the past few days.
Lucky for some, but not for others, the storm made a slight jog to the southwest and was downgraded to a Category 1 storm before it made landfall in the vicinity of Wilmington, North Carolina and the Cape Fear River.  Unfortunately those in the Carolinas withstood the full brunt of Florence’s fury with destructive winds, heavy rainfall, and massive storm surges along the coastline.  I spoke with friends at home in Maryland and northern Virginia and they reported only dreary skies and light rain as the outer bands of the storm skirted the region. 

Still, eyes remained on the Carolinas where some areas were inundated with 30+ inches of rain breaking a record almost two decades old when Hurricane Floyd drenched the region in 1999.  An additional three to six inches were still possible in some of the hardest hit areas in southeastern North Carolina and adjacent areas of South Carolina while and additional ten inches of rainfall were expected in the higher mountainous terrain of western North Carolina before the storm system finally shifted northward.

The storm’s fury may have abated in the Carolinas which now must contend with record flooding and several storm related deaths.  Interstates 95 and 40 have been closed due to flooding as many rivers in the Eastern Carolinas are cresting at near or above record flood levels further complicating efforts to restore the region’s vital infrastructure including power outages to several hundreds of thousands of customers.  
But no one was out of the woods yet as Florence, now downgraded to a tropical depression, turned northward yesterday with the promise of heavy rains expected in southwestern and western Virginia.   It was also predicted that the DC metro area could receive upwards of three inches.  Its power significantly diminished as it moved inland, Florence still packed a powerful punch, bringing strong thunderstorms and floods east of the Blue Ridge Mountains, as well as spawning tornadoes in and around Richmond, Virginia.  The DC area also experienced strong thunderstorms and upwards of two inches of rain last night and widespread flooding continues.

Last night I watched the sun set over the lake here in Maine as it illuminated the outer bands of the rain that would arrive overnight.  We have lived through some hurricanes up here and so we were not going to take our eyes off this one until it was well past us.   After some light rain showers this morning, the final remnants of Florence began to  succumb to the colder waters of the North Atlantic.   Gone but not soon to be forgotten.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Little Eritrea on Casco Bay

For the past thirty summers I have vacationed on a small lake in rural Maine. From the outset I made peace with the fact that I would have to put my long affinity for traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine on a back burner until I returned home to Washington, DC in the autumn. A panoply of fresh seafood from the coast of Maine, including lobster, clams and oysters, would have to keep my taste buds occupied in the interim.
Then one day just a few summers ago, while walking along a side street in Portland’s Arts District near the Old Port, I was pleasantly surprised when I chanced upon Asmara, an Eritrean restaurant. As it turns out, in recent years Portland and Cumberland County have become home to roughly 5,000 immigrants from East Africa (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Djibouti, Rwanda, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania, and Ethiopia), including a fast growing number of Eritreans fleeing the brutal dictatorship in that country. So it should not be a surprise that restaurants and cafés sprang up catering to those seeking out the traditional cuisine of their homelands.

A meal at Asmara quickly reintroduced me to the basic similarities and differences between Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisine I had learned from frequenting traditional restaurants in and around Washington. (Next month I will be posting more details on the evolution of traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries in our Nation’s Capitol and my ongoing quest for the perfect yebeg tibs.) A popular traditional Eritrean dish is tsebhi, a meat stew which is served with taita, the Eritrean version of injera, a spongy bread made from tef and wheat or sorghum flour, and hilbet, a paste consisting of lentils and faba beans. It tends to be lighter in texture than the Ethiopian equivalent resulting from a sparing use of seasoned clarified butter. Owing to the country’s Italian colonial past, Eritrean dishes reflect the use of Italian and Ottoman Turkish ingredients such as pasta and a greater use of curries and cumin than are found in Ethiopian dishes (despite the fact that much of Ethiopia was briefly occupied by Italy in World War II). On my first visit to the Asmara I naturally chose zegente tibsi, which is quite similar to yebeg tibs (my favorite Ethiopian dish) accompanied with alitcha, a mixture of chopped potatoes, cabbage, and carrots slow cooked in mild spices, and the ubiquitous taita. I have returned to Asmara a few times and sampled some of the other fine traditional dishes is offers.

A couple months ago I drove my wife down to the Portland airport to catch a flight to Florida and I took the opportunity to visit the Red Sea (a popular name among traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean eateries), another popular Eritrean café situated in the Munjoy Hill neighborhood in the city’s East End which is now the epicenter of the local Eritrean population. I have been driving past it for several years and so I was happy to have a chance to finally try it out.

The Red Sea is almost a hole-in-the-wall operation. The
dining room is only large enough for six four-top tables and the kitchen measures approximately ten feet by ten feet. The owner waits tables while his wife cooks. The menu is in many ways quite similar to that of Asmara which I found rather impressive considering the size of the kitchen. I was curious to try its version of zegente tibsi but chose instead to go with an interesting variation - zegente fitfit tibsi – a dish made from minced lamb sautéed with berbere spice and finished up with breaking up and mixing in small pieces of taita; all of this served over a whole piece of taita along with an outstanding alitcha side dish.

I look forward to returning to the Red Sea before we head home at the beginning of October so that I might sample its version of zigni, one of the first of these wonderful traditional Eritrean dishes I first discovered at the old Red Sea restaurant in Adams Morgan neighborhood in Washington. It is not all that common at Ethiopian eateries at home in Washington. More on that later.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Martinis With My Mom

My Mom - September 2018 - Freeport, Maine
For the past several summers my now 93 year old mother has visited us here at the lake cottage in Maine. She flies from her home outside Columbus, Ohio (with a change of planes in Baltimore) and we pick her up at the airport in Manchester, New Hampshire. She returned again this summer for another week of late summer New England weather when one can expect just about anything. Autumn is already arriving with fall colors, cold nights, and a morning fire in the woodstove to fend off the chill. 

Her visits always include some day trips through the Maine countryside and over to the coast for some lobsters and steamers. And there is always a trip to a favorite eatery and their amazing lobster rolls. Otherwise, there are quiet days at the cottage reading, working on jigsaw puzzles, and catching up on family news and other idle gossip.

At the end of the day . . . usually around 10pm . . . it is time to share a nightcap . . . a killer martini on the rocks with an olive troika (and I like mine slightly "dirty"). There is something to be said about a proper martini keeping one young, lively, and in good health. Mom is ample proof of that.

She heads back to Ohio tomorrow after another lovely visit. We are already planning her return next summer. There are still lobsters to eat and martini nightcaps to enjoy!

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Who Can Ever Forget? September 11, 2001

Those still alive from my parents’ generation will remember where they were when they first learned that the Japanese had attacked the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941.

Those old enough of my generation remember where we were when we were told that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas on Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963. I was in 7th grade and the principal came on the squawk box and summoned the faculty to his office. A short time later our math instructor returned to tell us the sad news. School was dismissed and we were sent home to be with our families. I still recall like yesterday the spectacle of mourning in Washington, DC and the burial ceremony and the lighting of the Eternal Flame at Arlington Cemetery. I would visit his grave for the first time eight months later.

My son’s generation joins my own and survivors of his grandparents’ generation in remembering where he was when we all learned of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City, Washington, DC, and the ill-fated attempt of a second attack on Washington which ended in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania as the result of the actions of brave passengers who thwarted the terrorists’ plans at the cost of their own lives. It has been almost another generation . . . 17 years . . . since that tragic morning when we watched the attacks on our country being carried out live on television.

Who can ever forget what happened that day? Since then I have visited the memorials at each of the sites where almost 3000 lives were snuffed out in a few brief moments of insanity. Each one is sobering in the extreme and is difficult to find words that adequately express the impression they leave on one who remembers this fateful date so well. I was in central Washington, DC that morning, but strangely it is the monument in Shanksville – some think of it as the "forgotten part of 9/11" that touched me the deepest, and on a very personal level. I did not know any of the forty passengers and crew on United Airlines Flight 93 from Newark to San Francisco. Since the attacks there has been speculation and debate surrounding the intended target of the hijacked jet although surviving planners of the attack have suggested that the White House was the primary target, the secondary target being the US Capitol. On the morning of September 11, 2001, when the attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon occurred, I was working in my Department of Justice office just three short blocks from the White House. How would my life have changed . . . would it have also been snuffed out had Flight 93 made it to its intended target?

I arrived at my office just about the time the first jet hit the World Trade Center. Those of us in the office quickly gathered around the television in our conference room where we followed the reports out of New York. And we were watching when the second jet struck the second tower. It was then we knew this was not an accident but a concerted attack on the United States. As we discussed how we should react or respond to this national security crisis there came the report that a third hijacked aircraft had struck the Pentagon just across the Potomac River. Soon sirens were wailing across downtown Washington as rumors of other attacks began to come in. All were, in fact, only rumors . . . except for one . . . that of a hijacked jet approaching Washington from the northwest; its intended target unknown. In the meantime we continued to follow as the events in New York unfolded and watched with horror as the two towers collapsed.

Once word had arrived that all of the hijacked aircraft were accounted for (Flight 93 had in the meantime crashed near Shanksville), we were instructed to evacuate our building and central Washington as quickly as possible. I joined a sea of people as we walked through the streets of the city as all public transportation had been suspended. We returned to our families and friends as all quickly realized that America and our lives in it would never be the same again. It seems we are reminded of that fact every day over the past 17 years. Who can ever forget?

In putting our best face before the world in the days and weeks following the attacks, the world watched and respected our courage in confronting naked terrorism. We showed the world what has always made America great; our ability to stand together when the chips are down; to put petty differences aside and work together for the common good. Yet somewhere along the way we also lost ourselves in our attempts to seek revenge rather than justice, to point our finger indiscriminately at any country or person who did not agree with us. And soon that came to include other Americans just because they look different, or speak a different language, or pray to a different god. In many ways it seems we have forgotten what happened that morning and how Americans responded to it. Consensus through diversity is what has made this country great.

Who can ever forget? September 11, 2001 was a day when everything changed. It is up to us how we make that change work to our common advantage and for the fate of our great nation. Seventeen years later it is time we finally put our best face forward again.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Going Off-the-Grid in Maine

Every once in a great while I find it immensely rewarding, even comforting, to go "off-the-grid" for a few days. Life at home in the Metro DC area is just too complicated and schedule oriented to attempt this with any regular success. I do find the ritual of morning and evening meditation a welcomed opportunity to focus my attention wherever it needs to be by means of mental and spiritual tranquility to reduce stress and anxiety and to induce relaxation. Yet this is more often than not only a temporary reparation of too many visual, auditory . . . even olfactory and tactile . . . intrusions into daily life. I appreciate whatever comes to me during these brief respites.

Going off-the-grid for longer periods of time does not require one to disappear deep into a primeval forest, or to wander far out beyond distant desert dunes to avoid constraints posed on one by work, family, or just the routine nature of daily existence. One need not avoid all human contact to be alone with one’s thoughts and inclinations. Most of the time it is as easy as turning off or avoiding the unnecessary interruptions and noises we allow into our lives.

I have found that genuine opportunities to go off-the-grid occur more frequently when we are here at the lake cottage in Maine where there is neither a land line phone nor television although there is Internet service when the local network and router are behaving themselves. Who needs them? There is the constant beauty of the lake outside our windows, and the forest beyond. More evenings than not we are also treated to a stunning sunset. No two of them are alike. But even if the Internet is cooperating and we are able to check our e-mails and stay in touch with family and friends through various social media options, it is nice to just chuck it all for a day or two (or longer, if possible) and, as they say, stop and smell the roses. Turn off the mobile phones and the laptops and listen to the loons’ mournful cries somewhere in the distance. Or just enjoy the fresh breezes off the lake, or the crackle of a fire in the woodstove on a chilly evening. I often sit out the deck and wonder about the strange sensation I am experiencing and I realize it’s nothing more than the silence. The complete absence of any sound. This does not happen very often so I like to soak it in, when it does.

Being off-the-grid does not mean to tune or zone out. Just like the ritual of meditation it is a time to refocus one’s attention on one’s place in the world with greater awareness and presence of mind . . . not just for one’s self but for other individuals and their particular conditions and circumstances. It can be a time to catch up on reading and writing projects free of interruptions which might otherwise compromise one’s goals and their benefits.

There is nothing wrong with being engaged with the world we live in, if for no other reason than to insure others do not infringe on our rights and protections that civilization as we wish it guarantee. Still, there should be time for occasional retreats from such involvements so that we might take stock of who and where we are and cultivate who and where we hope and want to be.

Nameste . . . .

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

From the Earth to the Moon (or Ten Times Around the World)

Our 2005 Subaru Legacy wagon crossed the quarter million mile mark over this past weekend as we drove from our Sabbathday Lake cottage to Pemaquid Point on Maine’s Midcoast. It is the most miles I have ever put on a car. That averages out to 20,000 mile a year. Our car is a war horse if ever there was one having now covered the distance from earth to the moon with about ten thousand miles to spare . . . or ten times around the world at the equator).
Purchased in early January 2005 when we drove it off the dealership lot in suburban northern Virginia, it is our fourth consecutive Subaru since we bought the first one - our first new car - in 1978. Now, over thirteen years later, it is still a smooth, enjoyable and dependable drive after numerous fully loaded trips to and from Florida and Maine, as well as the shorter road trips to hither and yon. And the old girl still gets incredibly good mileage.

Most of the miles are the routine daily local trips. Driving in and around the Washington, DC metropolitan area takes a heavy toll on any car. The streets are rough and full of potholes. Add to these conditions the cold and damp winters and the hot and steamy humid summers which also exact their heavy toll. The war horse goes where we point her and brings us back again. We take good care of her and she treats us well in return as we continue to explore the edges of America. I’ll never tire of the old gal.

I wonder where we will be when we reach 300,000?