Friday, November 7, 2008

A Blue State Girl

It's official. North Carolina has gone for Obama. And I have moved from what was, as of yesterday, the only other state still too close to call but leaning red (that's Missouri, for those who haven't been following) to the one that leaned all the way blue for the first time since 1976.

Finally, disbelieving friends, do you believe me when I say I don't live in the Appalacia of Dorothea Lange photographs and moonshine stills defended with shotguns and raw-boned hound dogs?

After a year in Asheville, I was much less surprised by the election results than the Obama organizers sent in from sophisticated climes like Washington, D.C., and New York (home to many of those friends who still say, "You moved to North Carolina?" in a tone that suggests I am a hair's breadth away from committing child abuse for taking my son here). I had suspected all along that these poor souls who saw nothing more of Asheville than the inside of an office located next to Bojangles were under the delusion that the people pouring in to help with phone banks and canvassing and, yes, poll watching were the dedicated few liberals hiding out in our homes sandwiched between gun-toting hunters who might not have seen a moose in these parts but could bond with someone who shoots them from airplanes nonetheless.

Thus, when the news broke yesterday one of the Obama organizers in charge of us poll watchers sent us an email admitting that they had expected far more problems than they had encountered on Election Day. Indeed, during the poll watching training I heard about voting machines "incorrectly calibrated" so that a punch for Obama somehow landed in the McCain box. The New York Times ran a story in which a West Virginia voter recounted hitting the Obama box on the touch screen machine and watching his vote jump to McCain; the poll workers, he said, advised him to keep hitting his choice until, after a sufficient number of times, it stuck where he put it. We were on alert for long lines created by insufficient ballots, workers, or machines and designed to discourage voters in precincts that could be counted on to vote Democrat.

Given these dire possibilities and how hard it would be to snatch North Carolina from McCain, I fully expected to be assigned as a poll watcher to some precinct outside of Asheville, somewhere I have yet to discover that looks more like the place my L.A. friends think I moved to when I told them I was relocating to North Carolina. Instead, I was assigned to a precinct in West Asheville -- a part of town I associate with the most progressive, most hipster, most non-North Carolinian area around.

Hmm, I thought. I guess the Obama people know something I don't know.

And so I showed up at 6:15, already vigilantly looking for signs that the polls wouldn't open on time at 6:30. Workers ready? Check. Plenty of ballots? Check. Lines out the door and down the block? Um, no. Just six or eight people who had heard the same predictions of hours-long waits as I and who were also discovering the power of early voting. Turns out, I stood on line two weeks ago for a lot longer than anyone waited in this precinct on Election Day.

I took my place behind the poll workers, trying not to hover because -- despite the task I was taking on and the law degree that qualified me to do so, I really do hate confrontation -- but striving to be close enough to hear the challenges they might make to people's right to vote. Knowing that at least one of the three precinct judges had to be a Republican, I was on the lookout for that moment when I would step in, liberal legal credentials flying, Obama-issued handbook at the ready, to enforce the law.

Why was that precinct judge having such a hard time with those two students' registration? Why was the chief precinct judge spending so much time on the phone with the County Board of Elections, and what information was she giving the voters having trouble receiving their ballots?

It took me less than an hour to figure out that those students got to vote. And that chief precinct judge? She was on the phone transferring voters into our precinct when she could and encouraging those she couldn't transfer to go to their correct precinct to vote instead of casting a provisional ballot that may well not be counted. She was, in fact, so impressively doing all the right things that I told her more than once how much I admired what great work she was doing.

And what about the poll watcher credentialed by the Republican party whom I had been told to expect? She was, the Obama campaign had discovered, not qualified to challenge voters, and I was ready to pounce on her if she did. Except that she never showed up.

There was, it turned out, little for me to do except chat with the poll workers and accept their invitation to have some of the treats the precinct judges had kindly brought to keep spirits high and stomachs filled throughout the long day. As we popped mini Mint Three Musketeers bars and sipped lots and lots of coffee, I heard plenty of references to the debacle in Florida. I heard excitement about a certain someone's Get Out the Vote effort. (No mentioning of candidates within the polling place, as that would be electioneering.) And I nodded in sincere agreement as one of the precinct judges said, "I don't care what party you're from. Everyone has a right to vote."

The one useful purpose I served was checking names off of a Get Out the Vote list and entering them in a database so that the Obama campaign didn't waste its resources calling people who had already voted. Which perhaps did not require a law degree and a thick handbook of North Carolina election law, but which made me part of an astoundingly well run operation.

When the last of those names had been entered into the database at 4:30, I called one of the organizers and decided that finally -- after over 10 hours at the polls -- I would play the pregnancy card. "This is a model precinct," I informed her. "Is there any reason for me to stick around? Or can I go put my feet up now?"

She told me about the long lines they expected during the last couple of hours of voting, when people got off work, and about the necessity of keeping them from leaving the line without voting. She told me it was more important than ever to have someone there until the bitter end. In other words, she was clear that my work was not done.

So I told the other Obama poll watcher -- who had been there since 12:30 with little more to do than I, except that she had a blackberry and therefore had an easier time entering already-voteds into the database -- to call me if the long lines did indeed materialize. And I ran off to buy milk and juice for my son.

The call never came, but as the time for closing of the polls rolled around, I couldn't resist running back to "my" precinct. I brought The Boy with me so he could get at least a little brush with the historic day.

At 7:35, the place was deserted.

"No long lines?" I asked the other poll watcher.

Turns out, about 100 people had voted in the three hours since I had taken my I'm-pregnant-and-need-to-put-my-feet-up break. No long lines, no Obama workers frenziedly trying to entertain people as they waited, no fights to keep the polls open until every last person in line at 7:30 got to vote.

Still, we got to see the intial machine count for the precinct -- 261 for Obama, 157 for McCain -- and to think about how many of those people were first-time voters or voters whom I had seen enter the polls with a certain amount of well-earned suspicion in their eyes or voters who hadn't shown up on the rolls but whose vote the chief judge secured with phone call after phone call to the County Board of Elections.

It took almost two more days for the North Carolina vote to become official. In the meantime, I heard about Kay Hagen's victory over Elizabeth Dole on the drive back home and learned the next morning that my son will grow up in a state that has just elected its first woman Governor.

And then, yesterday, that email from one of the poll-watching organizers. There had been, he wrote, far fewer problems than they had anticipated. He invoked a North Carolina of his grandparents in a town I haven't heard of.

And I just smiled and savored the victory and thought yet again that those people expecting disenfranchised voters and intimidation and scenes out of a pre-civil-rights South just don't get what Asheville is all about.

Monday, October 6, 2008


Barack Obama is in Asheville. This very minute. Right now. Kinda makes me want to squeal a little bit.

This is, somehow, different from, say, the time I was out running after work on the Mall in Washington, D.C., and stopped to find out why there were crowds of people standing on the hill by the Washington Monument. They pointed toward Airforce One, just landed across the street, as President Clinton emerged, waving and smiling just like in all the pictures. It was, I'll admit, pretty thrilling.

And I have that picture of me also in my D.C. days standing awkwardly by Tipper Gore, whom I didn't even like at the time, squeezing in my one Kodak moment before some other gawking onlooker grabbed her for their photo op. I was, frankly, kind of embarrassed about the whole thing, but my friend's sister, who had invited me to the event, insisted.

That doesn't even count all the lesser politicos my friends would point out as we had dinner in Dupont Circle or drinks at a bar on the Hill. It was Washington. Politicians were pretty much expected scenery.

But in Asheville about the only scenery you expect this time of year is a lot of foliage. It's pretty stunning and all. But it's somehow even more stunning when Barack Obama comments on how beautiful it is.

I thought my celebrity-laden days were over when Hubby pulled me away from the golden folks on the West Coast. In Asheville, I've been content with taking the occasional yoga class with Andie McDowell. Which is not, by the way, worth calling my nieces about, the way I used to call them with news of having coffee next to Brad Pitt at the Starbucks on Beverly Boulevard or practicing yoga next to Katie Holmes or spotting Tom Hanks while out shopping at The Grove.

Now, detoxed from those heady days, I get excited when I hear that Barack is staying with Gladys Knight.

"Gladys Knight lives here?!" I ask excitedly. "I didn't know that!"

As if my real estate values have suddenly doubled. As if this isn't little Asheville, but a city of greater flash and prurient interest.

And maybe that's what makes Barack's visit so exciting. You don't expect it here.

I should point out -- she says with outward pride and inward astonishment -- that Barack is in fact the last of the current Dem celebs to visit this year. Michelle gave a rally on Primary day. No fewer than ALL THREE Clintons have made appearances -- Chelsea showed up first, in a modest little talk and appearance at a local church; then, when the race was getting tight, Bill swept into town to speak at Asheville High; and finally, just to show how concerned they were, Hillary made an appearance in one of Asheville's more suburban spots.

So, really, I shouldn't be so surprised or excited or giddy over Obama. But I am.

It began Wednesday, when the Obama campaign announced that he would be staying here to prep for his debate on Tuesday in Nashville.

Nashville, for those who don't know their Appalacian geography, is not very close to Asheville. But it is also not in a big battleground state.

Still, there was no announcement of a speaking engagement, nor, naturally, a location within Asheville. Just that he would be here. Which was exciting. Even though I really didn't see why he wouldn't do just as well prepping at home, which I would think is a little more comfortable, even if the foliage isn't as pretty.

By Thursday, the rumors were flying. A Saturday night fundraising dinner for him was supposed to have a "special, surprise guest." Secret Service had been spotted sweeping the Governor's Western Residence.

And then Thursday night the news broke. Obama would be speaking at a free rally at Asheville High on Sunday. The crowd went wild -- well before Sunday. Fliers appeared, the Sheriff of Buncombe County left me a pre-recorded phone message, and the Obama campaign emailed me to ask for my RSVP, even though they wouldn't guarantee me a spot on the grounds.

By Saturday, I was jumping up and down as friends told of being stopped on the highway by Obama's motorcade -- as if I hadn't been stopped (and annoyed) by motorcades a million times in D.C. Where was my been-there, done-that attitude? Stipped away by hillbilly air, I suppose.

I gave a "way to go" wave to my neighbor as she headed out for the fundraising dinner where, yes, he did appear. I even dreamed I was there.

And on Sunday, after failing to brave the crowds and instead letting my toddler nap in comfort as I watched the rally on the local ABC affiliate (yes, I know, one day he will blame me for not making it possible for him to say he once saw Barack Obama), I gathered around the cell phone of the Asheville High band member who lives across the street to see his picture of Obama and to hear about how OBAMA SHOOK HIS HAND!

I suppose we're entitled to a little bit of enthusiasm, living as we do in a town that doesn't expect much in the way of national attention. I'm sure every one of us knew that Obama tells every crowd to whom he speaks that they live in "God's country" and that he sure plans on returning to visit because it's just so nice here. But every one of us cheered and bounced in our seats when he said it all the same.

As for me, I guess I'm entitled too. Because I may have lived among celebrities when I was in Los Angeles and Washington, but then I had to act like I lived among celebrities. Excitement was strictly frowned upon and, frankly, not worth it most of the time. I mean, Brad Pitt looks pretty much the same whether he's in the pages of People magazine or sitting at the table behind yours sipping a latte.

Now, however, I've been in Asheville for over a year, and all I expect is to enjoy my life without any shiny trinkets of celebrity-spotting to convince anyone else there's something here to enjoy. So when something unexpected does pop up, I have the pleasure of seeing yet again that Asheville has a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Which, I think, is worth getting excited about.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gas Shortage on the Ground

The gas shortage in my chosen home of North Carolina made the front page of the New York Times yesterday. Which assures me that even if I hadn't managed to notice it ten days or so in by, you know, living in the middle of it, I would have eventually figured it out by reading about it in the New York Times.

It is, I'll agree, hard to miss long lines of cars clogging the streets, idling away the fumes at the bottom of their tanks in the hopes of making it to the front of the line before the supply runs out. Especially when that long line is snaking its way down the street that intersects our sleepy little residential one.

-- so that's why I suddenly noticed speeding strangers making use of the bypass we offer. Sure, the kids playing ball in the street -- as they are accustomed, our little one-block stretch of road leading exactly nowhere and therefore generally offering no real danger from speeding cars -- might slow them down a bit. A speed bump, if you will (luckily not a literal one). Once I saw what was out there, I understood their detour, even if I still sort of resented it. (I resent it when a stranger parks in front of my house, so you can see how the proprietary feelings I have about the public throughway on which I live might pop up in these circumstances.)

Still, hard as it is to miss a severe gas shortage, I did. For a long time.

Sure, I heard people talking about how hard it is to fill up and worrying about making it to work. But I work at home. Besides, under the best of circumstances, standing at a gas pump is an occasional activity for me. I hardly ever have to drive more than two miles at a time. Plus, oh yeah, I'm pregnant, and pumping gas is a no-no for pregnant women.

In fact, I grew so accustomed to having Hubby pump my gas during my first pregnancy that I became convinced it's something I just don't do even long after I gave birth and got over the notion that it was somehow harmful for The Boy to so much as sit in the car at a gas station.

This somewhat pampered feeling that Hubby is the member of the family who mans -- literally -- the gas pump is, I'll admit, troubling to me. I recall one especially memorable feminist-who-pumps-her-own-gas moment from my high school days. This was when there was actually a real choice between self-service and full-service stations. Near my high school was a little independent self-service with the cheapest prices in the area. And a big sign reading WE PUMP GAS FOR LADIES.

I, of course, took this as a challenge.

Being only sixteen, newly driving, and in my father's car, I might have been a tad cautious backing up to the pump. But nothing, I'm sure, to justify the two men making wild gestures as if I needed their guidance to arrive safely at my male-dominated destination.

I don't remember what I said in response to their assistance, but I do remember the worried/amused expression of my friend in the passenger seat.

I shoved the car into Park and lunged for the pump before one of them could get to it.

"We pump for ladies," the older of the ground crew said to me.

"I can pump my own gas," I muttered. I reached for the gas cap and turned. Or tried to. And tried to. And -- really frustrated now -- tried again.

The manly man tried and failed. Finally, the younger of the two gave it a good tug and managed to release it. As I grabbed the pump from him with a surly internal curse of my father, who, after all, owned the car with the tight gas cap, he grinned at me the grin of the vanquished.

"You see?" he said, his face still, twenty-six years later, hovering in memory. "There are some things ladies just can't do."

So, okay, I can pump my own gas. I feel, at times, obligated to. And still it took me days and days to notice that everyone else was having trouble doing just that because, literally, there was no gas to pump.

My first inkling that something was wrong came on a quick run to the grocery store one afternoon. Usually I know just how to navigate the left-turn-lane-less street that takes me to the highway. But this time I found myself caught in a long, not-moving lane. Did it occur to me that I might inadvertently be in line for gas? Nope. My well-tuned brain figured school was back in session and this was just the result of parents lining up to meet their children at the nearby elementary school.

"My son isn't going to that school," I said huffily by way of punishing whomever I could blame for causing my seven-minute ride to the grocery store to balloon to twenty minutes. I considered calling Hubby to share this decision with him but decided against it. Perhaps a good call, as I'm not so sure he would have let me live my astonishing ignorance down any time soon.

It wasn't until later that afternoon that I finally figured it out. This time I wasn't even in a car. I was walking Audrey (she of the chicken-hunting fame) and had to cross the line of cars waiting at the BP a block from our house. Still, the wheels turned slowly. Until my head finally also turned slowly and I took in the rather stunning sight of cars backed up for a mile or more.

This is, I hasten to remind you, Asheville. We don't get mile-long traffic jams. We just don't.

A flash of understanding. This line of cars looked suspiciously like the one I had endured earlier in the day. Only then, at least a week and a half into the crisis, did I start to pay attention.

So what can I tell you about what it's like on the ground of the gas shortage? Kind of self-satisfied if, like Hubby and I, you can congratulate yourself on choosing to live in the city -- close enough for him to bike to work and me to walk The Boy to school -- forsaking the safety of the suburbs. Not that the suburbs hold the slightest appeal for us or ever have. But, still, we take our self-congratulations where we can get them.

Of course, there's no way not to get caught up in the frenzy to grab gas when you see a station with pumps that aren't covered in tell-tale trash-bags. It's hard to resist when everyone's talking about it -- where there was gas this morning, whether it's still there, how long one should drive around wasting gas looking for gas, how long someone they knew waited in line only to pump six cents' worth into their tank before the supply ran out.

In fact, a few days ago I was driving by a station that -- look! -- had gas! I nearly pulled a U-turn right there, but resolved instead to stop on the way back from my errand. Never mind that I had a full half a tank that under normal circumstances should last me two more weeks. In Asheville these days you just never know when you'll be presented with another opportunity to buy gas without waiting in line.

So, half an hour later (having, in fact, wasted gas driving to a store that was -- wouldn't you know it -- closed) I headed back to the station.

What slowed me down was the discovery that there was in fact a line. Not the more obvious reason to skip it. Namely that I am -- as I may have mentioned -- pregnant and therefore not supposed to pump gas, no matter how lucky I am to find it.

I'd blame my forgetfulness on the Second Pregnancy Syndrome -- whereby you don't pay the least bit of attention to what you eat, what air you breathe, how much you exercise, or all the other things that were so vitally important during your first pregnancy and that does not bode well for the level of attention the second born will garner. (I am, in case you hadn't figured it out, a second born and therefore absolutely determined that this child will get just as much attention and will seem just as much a genius as The Boy. But I'm apparently not off to a good start.)

But, the truth is, neglect of my second pregnancy has nothing to do with it. Because even the least gasoline-addicted of us can't help but get caught up in the fever of a real live local gas shortage.

Monday, September 15, 2008

My Ancestors Come to Asheville

A year ago, we bought our lovely Asheville home from a couple who lives across the street from us.

At the time, coming from Southern California, as Hubby and I were, and from a law degree, as I was, this fact lay somewhere between discomfiting and horrifying.

To Californians, real estate transactions are brutal affairs, gladiator-like battles in which the putative purchaser balances her desire for a home -- any home she can afford -- against her equally strong wish to prove her superior negotiating skills. Offers are made and countered; inspections are performed and righteous demands for repairs are made; suspicious and often nasty opinions are formed about the party on the other end. Only when closings have closed and pictures have been hung does the animosity begin to drift out the gorgeous original windows as the new homeowner settles into a sense of ownership that owes nothing at all to previous inhabitants, except when they occasionally pop up to haunt her in poorly-installed ceiling fans and Code-violating plumbing.

Living -- as I have for a year now -- in Asheville, however, the fact that the former owners of my home live across the street from me does not seem terribly startling. This couple who lived in our house for six years, meticulously and flawlessly fixed the place up, and entered into a major financial transaction with us, now shares photo albums chronicling the restoration of our ninety-year-old home as we sit on their porch sipping wine. They give us advice on how to winter-proof our windows, tour the house with us to point out oddities that would otherwise have us cursing and freezing as, for example, winter approaches and we are unable to figure out how to get the heat to rise to the second floor, and kindly refrain from tearing up every time they see what our neglect has done to their garden.

The only time I have regretted the proximity and neighborliness of the former owners of our home is when I invite them inside it.

Invariably on these occasions I have dumped a basket of clean laundry on the living room floor with plans of folding it some time hours (or sometimes days) hence. I have failed to pick up the detritus of a small boy's previous evening of play: wooden farm animals strewn across the rug; the dog-hair-ridden pillow we leave on the floor to hide the big hole Audrey dug in our carpet thrown to the side so it can both look ugly and fail to do its job of concealment; Dr. Seuss books distributed over every available surface; and a half-empty sippy cup of curdling milk resting on the back of the couch.

"I'm sorry it's such a mess," I say apologetically. "It really isn't always this bad."

"Don't worry," our neighbor always says with great care. "It took us years to decorate."

Notice she never says, "We were this messy too," or, "Mess? What mess? I'd never know a toddler lives here." And who can blame her?

But today, for the very first time, I wish I had an excuse to invite her in.

It's not that the place is spotless -- far from it. In fact, there's a dresser sans drawers sitting in the middle of our foyer. But it's antique. And its resting place is well earned, as Hubby managed to carry it on his own from the minivan he drove last night from Louisville, Kentucky, to our front door.

(No, I'm not afraid to move a little furniture with my husband. It's just that you're not supposed to do it when you're pregnant. So, you know, I carried table linens instead.)

Rather than bemoan the fact that a dresser is sitting in our foyer, every time I come downstairs or walk from living room to kitchen I stare at it as I pass, marveling at its -- its -- what?

We have other antiques in our home, mixed in with the jumble of Ikea couch, various pieces of artwork chronicling the development of my brother-in-law's career as an artist, and the water-stained coffee table my parents received as a wedding present. Antiques alone don't mean much to me, other than a musty-scented image of someone else's grandmother crocheting doilies and generations of strangers doing things I can't even imagine on the green armchair in our living room.

This dresser, however, is an antique from my family. So is the inlaid set of drawers now temporarily resting next to Hubby's desk (incidentally made by my maternal grandmother right around her 70th birthday). So are the slightly faded, posed portraits of past generations of my paternal ancestors that I spent this morning scattering about the house, and the framed postcard written by my great-great grandmother, newly arrived in the United States, to her family back in Germany. Even the far newer wall hangings that had never particularly wowed me when they adorned the walls at my grandfather's apartment -- I took them because, frankly, we have a lot of blank walls and never bothered to remove all the empty picture hooks left by the former owners -- look lovely and sophisticated and at home on our walls.

This morning, when I came home from dropping The Boy off at school, the jumble of items we acquired while cleaning out my recently deceased grandfather's apartment this weekend was frightening, anxiety-producing. Clutter makes me anxious; clean, neat spaces leave me calm. Unless, of course, the clutter has been there so long I don't notice it. But even then my eye is far too likely to alight on it without warning one day, making me jittery and depressed and certain I'll never live in a house that looks like the ones featured in Vanity Fair articles about beautiful homes that I never read because I find them boring.

Today, however, I moved with a purpose. I separated things into piles, swept from room to room putting them in places -- actual places they belong. I put the framed photograph of my great-great grandmother on top of the inlaid set of drawers, alongside a picture of my grandfather in his Army uniform looking jaunty (if, he used to say with a touch more pride than humor, the oldest Lieutenant the U.S. Army ever saw). I rested the hand-painted picture of my great-grandmother cradling the one-day-to-be-army-lieutenant as an infant on the built-in railing next to the built-in china cabinet (in which we have -- thanks to my ancestors again -- real china).

And as I wandered through my home -- past the bureau in the foyer and the box-upon-box of vacation slides Hubby rescued from the trash pile and the table linens monogrammed with my great-grandmother's initials -- I felt more at home, among these things from my grandfather's home, than I ever have.

These items that meant so little to me resting in their familiar spots in my grandfather's apartment have taken on a new life. They are here for my son and his soon-to-be-sibling, certainly. But they are also here for me, a reminder of where I have come from, and a welcome piece of myself that I never quite cared about before.

And so, last night, as we cruised down I-40 in our rented Nissan Quest with the Elmo DVD playing in the back seat, I brought my ancestors to Asheville. Home with me.

If you'd like to read more about my trip to Louisville with an active toddler, and what it taught me about being flexible in life, go to YogaMamaMe's story "Travels with Toddler."

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Asheville Anniversary

So a friend emailed me the other day asking me for a link to my blog that she hadn't read in some time. Having not read it myself in probably longer, I headed over here and discovered that, to my shame, the last time I wrote about my new life in Asheville was, um, Memorial Day. To put this in perspective, we are now on the cusp of Labor Day. Nothing like a good, long summer vacation.

I have, I hasten to plug -- um, mention -- been writing plenty of a slightly different sort at YogaMamaMe. I didn't mean to abandon A Hill-ish Life. I just figured if ever I had a good story that couldn't be tied to motherhood and aging and yoga and my wavering sense of self I'd traipse back over here to tell it.

It seems, however, that if you try hard enough, just about anything in life can be tied to motherhood and aging and yoga and my wavering sense of self. Especially if you have a toddler, have just turned 42, and are struggling to keep up with your yoga practice when you have limited time, your favorite new yoga teacher is about to leave town, and your energy level hovers -- for obvious reasons -- around that of a 42-year-old pregnant woman. In other words, I suddenly and unintentionally was no longer writing pieces for A Hill-ish Life.

But a story did come up a couple of weeks ago, one that exemplified yet again the lovely mingling of small town and home of urban transplants, hills living and tourist center, place that's still new to me and, yes, home, that Asheville has come to mean. Best yet, the story takes place on my and Hubby's wedding anniversary. Which itself took place just a couple of weeks before the anniversary of our first year in Asheville. Which, come to think of it, is right about, oh, today.

So now, it seems, it is time to give some attention to A Hill-ish Life, if only as practice for remembering to give The Boy an occasional pat on the head after his sibling arrives in March. (It is very difficult for me to even joke about this, so please know that I am joking.)

Being the type of person who gets grumpy when you ask me to plan something special for myself but who secretly expects the person doing the asking to make the day special despite my protests that it doesn't matter, I didn't really get on the ball in terms of planning a special wedding anniversary. We had just ended a long run of visitors, with my dearest friend flying back to L.A. two days before our anniversary. I had work to do, a toddler to run after, and did I mention the pregnant thing? We weren't public yet, which meant I had to pretend not to be tired and sick and not unlike Tony Soprano wandering through one of his dreams that none of the viewers ever really understood -- kind of disconnected and confused and only pretending to get what was going on.

But, busy as we both were, Hubby rightly insisted we mark the occasion with a nice lunch. And I found myself waiting for him in the sunshine on the steps leading to the street near the restaurant in a cute red silk top and high heels. Neither high heels nor silk is a favorite of mothers of toddlers: High heels for obvious reasons -- you try kneeling down to pick up a 25-pound sack of child in three-inch strappy sandals. Silk because it can not be worn anywhere in the vicinity of a 20-month-old when food, dirt, or grape juice are to be found nearby. Which, where a toddler is concerned, is always. So you know I had finally managed to mark this as a special occasion. I had also cleverly hiked up a too-long black skirt into a sexy little number that worked as long as you didn't get close enough to spot the spider veins that have been stealthily creeping across my legs since I last wore shorts in 2005 -- and no one was going to get that close besides my husband, who probably knows about them already and has so far managed to avoid mentioning them to me and probably could be counted on to ignore them on our wedding anniversary.

We were meeting at a lovely restaurant we had discovered a couple weeks before, during my mother-in-law's visit (second in the string of three out-of-town groups who ranged through our home in July and August). Cucina 24 is everything the hills of Western Carolina are not to those who have never been here. They cook Italian, not possum. They have a professional pizza oven, not a wood-burning stove, which would be far easier to find in this town. Everything we have ever eaten there has been impeccable, so much so that I am not joking when I say I am looking forward to bringing my parents there on their next trip to Asheville. I am not joking about this because my mother does not joke about the places she is expected to sleep and eat when on vacation. Generally, this list should not include anyplace in Asheville, but as she has been forced here by my relocation of her grandson, she has discovered both a hotel and a restaurant or two up to her standards, and I felt certain she would welcome Cucina 24 into the fold as well.

Hubby hurried down the steps to meet me carrying a bundle of roses -- four red ones for each year of our marriage, and one white one for The Boy. It was an utterly unironic romantic gesture, the kind men get to make on wedding anniversaries without fear of appearing sentimental and like they are expected to mark other occasions -- like our first cup of coffee together or the first time my basset hound Roxanne presented her belly to him for rubbing -- with equally romantic gestures.

We settled down for a lovely extended meal. We shared a salad. We ordered entrees. We chatted with the waiter. We forgot that Thursdays are pretty much always hellish for him at work and I hadn't made any money in weeks.

As we nibbled at our gelato, my rings sparkling wittily under the recessed lights, feeling every bit the couple on their four-year-wedding-anniversary date, the waiter brought us the check.

"You'll see," he said somewhat apologetically, "that only the dessert is on there. Table Restaurant is picking up the rest."

It was one of those moments when -- again, I'm going back to a Tony Soprano dream even though that show is way past its cultural currency, but I can't think of any better analogy -- you know the person speaking is indeed speaking English, but you can't for the life of you understand what he's saying.

"What?" Hubby said, a reasonable and impressive response.

"Table is picking it up," the waiter explained again. "That's all I know." He reminded us that he was new at the job, as we'd discussed during the course of our leisurely and -- did I mention? -- not inexpensive lunch.

Table is another restaurant in town that proves yet again how Asheville really isn't located anywhere near Appalachia but rather on a tesseract that sweeps you to a hidden spot in Oregon where everyone has North Carolina plates and pays North Carolina taxes and doesn't vote for John Edwards but doesn't really live in North Carolina. We're not quite in California, but we are most definitely located on the west coast, no matter what any map or airplane pilot might tell you.

The waiter retreated and Hubby and I began spinning our conspiracy theories.

"Do you think someone mistook us for someone else?" I asked uneasily.

Hubby shook his head. He is a man and does not like other people to pay for his meals. Something about the mysterious connection between a wallet, a stomach, and a penis that I've never been able to figure out. Not that I've really tried. If someone else wants to pay for my meal badly enough to fight me about it, the pacifist in me graciously gives way every time.

Then I had a thought. "I saw a guy sitting alone at the counter," I said, my mind tripping spy-like around the clues. "The manager was pouring him glasses of wine out of a bottle and seemed to know him. You think it was the owner of Table?"

"Even if that was the owner of Table, why would he buy us lunch?" Hubby asked. He squirmed the squirm of a man who has had someone else beat him to the check -- only he didn't even know who this someone was or that there had been a race.

We stared at each other. We had switched genres mid-story, a romance novel suddenly taking a turn into a mystery thriller.

"I hope he didn't hear me say this place is as good as Table," Hubby finally ventured, squirming even more. I had to agree that it's one thing to have a stranger buy you lunch and quite another thing for him to do it because you have just maligned his livelihood.

"He couldn't have," I said, sounding about as sure as I felt.

"Do you think it's the faculty adviser thing?" Hubby asked uncertainly. He had just begun a new part-time job as the faculty adviser to the student newspaper at a small college just outside of town. The owners of Table, he had informed me over lunch, were graduates of that school.

"Maybe," I said dubiously. "But it seems strange for them to buy you lunch just because you're advising the newspaper."

Hubby agreed. But what other reason could there be?

"Do you think it was the wine?" I finally asked. I barely remembered the wine, since it had been spilled on me -- more appropriately, all over me -- over two months before, when my sister and her boyfriend were in town. We'd taken them to dinner at Table -- then, in our pre-Cucina 24 days, our favorite restaurant in Asheville (and it's still our second, in case the owner is reading this). Unbeknownst to me, the people at the next table ordered red wine from a waiter who was wearing tight new shoes or had had one too many the night before or otherwise was having one of those nights when you should not be balancing trays containing glasses of red wine. It tumbled and got me. Pretty well.

Apologies were sincere and many, the wine didn't seem about to do anything permanent to my outfit, and I frankly didn't think it was a huge deal. Apologies accepted, we headed into dessert.

But Asheville isn't a hillbilly town, and Table is the sort of restaurant that could easily make it in L.A. or San Francisco (maybe not Manhattan because it is, after all, Asheville, and a little laid back for Manhattanites). So when the check arrived I expressed some surprise that they hadn't, say, comped us a dessert, just as a formal apology for the wine.

Can I explain here that I am not cheap and I am not a freeloader -- my expectations of free desserts and receipt of free lunches notwithstanding? It wasn't the six dollars for a dessert, just the expectation that in a nice restaurant that's what you do to apologize for spilling wine on a customer.

While I intended my comment as nothing more than an end-of-meal conversation piece, Hubby took it a bit more seriously. Maybe it's that he had taken out his wallet and therefore involved his penis in the conversation. On our way out, he noted to the manager -- not angrily or rudely, but forcefully -- that in the future if they spilled wine on a customer they might consider comping the dessert.

The manager was most gracious and promised to do just that the next time we were in.

Only he wasn't there the next few times we were. And he wasn't the manager, apparently. He was the owner. Who happened to be having lunch at Cucina 24 on our wedding anniversary. And who happened to recognize us -- well, probably not me because I'm not 6'5" like Hubby -- and ended up comping us everything but dessert.

Figuring out the mystery brought on an odd mixture of responses. I mostly felt pleased with myself for figuring it out, which just shows how self-centered I can be sometimes. But I also was genuinely touched by the gesture, and impressed by his ability to recall us, recall the two-month-old minor incident, and respond so graciously.

Hubby was touched too, but, much more, sort of embarrassed. Like I said, it's hard for men to let someone else buy them a meal, especially when that person doesn't even know them, wasn't eating with them, and certainly wasn't party to the anniversary being celebrated.

But the anniversary was, in a way, the whole point. Not just the wedding anniversary part, but its proximity to the anniversary of our first year in Asheville.

After all, here we were, celebrating our life together as that life settled into the rhythms of a new home, where the food is as good as anything we could have found in L.A. but the people are, at times like this, in the best way of a small town, often better.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Memorial Day Hillbilly Style

In my experience, geography plays a large part in what Memorial Day means (beyond the honor-the-troops part that the newspapers remind us of annually, making me feel chastened for about the amount of time it takes me to finish reading the paper before heading off to one party or another).

Growing up in Los Angeles, it was the last day you could count on having an outdoor barbecue before July, since June is the only month in Southern California that can reliably be counted on to bring cold and rain. In the cities of New England and New York, Memorial Day represented a whispering hope of summer rarely fulfilled, when we found ourselves standing around at some optimistic outdoor venue shivering and hoping we wouldn't have to retrieve the umbrella from the car. Memorial Day was generally pretty warm in the DC environs, but also the bearer of summer thunderstorms and the feel of living in a dishwasher on the dry cycle that comes with endless days of 90 percent humidity. And the Memorial Day parties I recall from my days in St. Louis evoke memories of the scent of Off and citronella candles and of warm-ish cans of Budweiser sucked down in a desperate effort to stay ahead of the heat and bugs.

So how do we do the onset of summer in the WNC Hills?

Here in Asheville, The Boy and I celebrated by going to the pool at the JCC.

This is not, I suspect, what one might expect to hear when being told of a traditional Hillbilly Memorial Day. Jews and corncob pipes don't generally mix in the collective imagination. Nor does a place to swim that does not involve inner tubes, cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and cut-off shorts.

We did, I hasten to point out, spend Saturday at the White Squirrel Festival in Brevard, forty minutes south of town. Turns out the festival wasn't about eating white squirrels, but we saw plenty of amateur replicas, lots of Boy Scouts and Chamber of Commerce types, and some really good live music. (In addition to retaining more of the hill culture than Asheville, Brevard is home to a highly regarded music school.) What we did not find, to Hubby's great disappointment, was a beer tent. But The Boy enjoyed the roasted corn on the cob that was available so much that Hubby forgave the Festival this major shortcoming.

Asheville, however, despite my best efforts to color it otherwise, is not exclusively hillbilly territory. Hence, the JCC pool is a gathering place, not only of Jews, but of other young, upscale transplants from California, New Jersey, and the Midwest. They grill brautwurst and drink microbrew IPA's. Their children rest between bouts in the pool with library books and colored pencils. True, the lifeguard to whom I spoke about possible swimming lessons for The Boy sported a shiny gold nipple ring and a thick hills accent, but Hubby assures me The Boy will speak like us, not like the other adults in his life, so I feel it will be safe for him to learn to swim from this man.

I was thrilled to discover this lovely summer ritual just a half mile from our home -- close enough to load up the stroller with snacks and baby sunblock and towels and hoof it over -- where neighbors greeted me warmly and mothers of The Boy's preschool friends chatted with me around the baby pool.

The Boy, however, was less enamored than I of the social possibilities offered by our JCC membership.

While he adored swimming in my parents' pool last summer, he was determined not to join the splashing, yelling mass of kids in this overwhelming, noisy, hot place. Clutching Buddy, his blankie, he allowed me to take him over to the baby pool to see his friend from school. He even consented to putting Buddy out of harm's way and to sit in my lap while I dangled my feet in the cool of the pool (as Horton the elephant would say).

He showed enough interest in a bucket of toys at water's edge to eventually wander from my lap, and to gaze with round, serious eyes upon the efforts of a teenage girl who volunteers at his school to engage him and his friend in play. His friend was happy to have water squeezed on his head and to race toy cars. But the Boy made it quite clear, for his part, that his head was a water-free zone, although he did shyly demonstrate his knowledge of how toy cars work with the ones he clutched in his round little hands.

What The Boy would not do, under any circumstances, was get in the water. I asked him several times as he sat at the edge of the baby pool but he declined. I decided he could go in the big pool in my arms and thereby get over his fear. While he had no choice in the first half of this proposition, I was dead wrong about the second. As I made my way down the steps, he wrapped his legs around me extra-tightly so as to have leverage to pull them well out of the range of the water. When I dipped one of his feet into the water he whined his disapproval. When playing children inadvertently splashed him, he cried. And I gave up.

We spent the remainder of our short time at the JCC pool sitting on a towel eating grapes and playing with the stacking magnetic bugs he received as a gift when he was ten months old and has recently rediscovered. I managed a few words with other adults, but they were brief and not promising of longterm friendship, anchored as I was to a hot little boy who wanted nothing more than to go home.

We arrived home to a peaceful front yard shaded by maple trees and decorated by lounging hound dogs. I had to concede that a glass of cool water and the breeze playing softly through the trees was just as nice as friendly neighbors and the smell of chlorine, and a lot more sane.

Besides, according to The Boy, blowing bubbles on the steps of his own front porch is the ideal way to welcome summer to Asheville.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Asheville Al Fresco

Summer is on its way to Asheville.

It's taking its time, mind you. As soon as I get excited by a warm, sunny day a big, dark storm cloud dumps buckets of cold water on my happiness. Or an arctic wind blows a chilly blanket over a tauntingly sun-speckled afternoon. I've despaired of ever putting the space heater next to my desk into deep storage and truly believe the teacher at The Boy's school who sent his stand-by long-sleeved shirt home for the season is crazy.

But we have had the pleasure of more than one warmth-kissed evening. There is a certain besotted-ness never to be recaptured in sitting on your own front porch, waving at the neighbors and watching your child tumble through the fauna of the front yard. Or in eating dinner downtown in a restaurant open to the street, where we take turns walking down the sidewalk with The Boy as he gazes upon the lights in the trees and chases after dogs out with their owners. If ever he had a chance of adjusting his sleep schedule to daylight savings time, we have destroyed it with our own woozy happiness at spending evenings outdoors with our child.

Last Saturday, the start of summery evenings brought us an even greater opportunity than giving our child a lifetime of sleeping disorders (at least according to the articles I occasionally come across in the New York Times with the latest studies about how we're doing everything wrong when it comes to sleep training). Hubby was invited to a block party by someone at work. A real, live, outdoor social event.

We were excited but cautious. Would we fit in? Would be meet new friends? Or would we stand on (rather than in) a corner, awkwardly shifting from foot to foot like a thirteen-year-old at a dance when "Stairway to Heaven" is playing -- not entirely sure we want to be dancing but disappointed that no one has asked us to?

I was leaning toward the less hopeful side of things when Saturday came. Work took precedence over yoga practice since I had spent most of the week watching a too-sick-for-school boy. This meant that I was already five or ten pounds heavier than I wanted to be for meeting all those . . . who? Who was I meeting who really cared how I looked?

"Not the point," I muttered to myself as I struggled to find an outfit with just the right sense of carefree summer-ness but enough warmth to guarantee I wouldn't end up feeling cold and stupid and willing to wear just about anything with long sleeves someone offered me, no matter how bad it made me look. Crisis number two: the weather was not exactly summer-like, though it teased the edges of warm enough to hang out outdoors in something less than North Face fleece-lined windbreakers.

One thing we did have going for us. The Boy had taken an astounding three and a half hour nap. Which meant that we were going to be up entertaining him well past our bedtime anyhow. Might as well do it outside the boring confines of home.

We made our way to a little street no more than a mile from our home and parked the car. As we walked down the block toward the festivities a warm breath of sunbaked air wrapped around me. I don't know how it's possible, but I swear it was a good ten degrees warmer on that street than it was in our own shaded front yard.

Looking back, I believe I turned a corner when I removed my cardigan with only a moment's hesitation about the chocolate brown bra straps peeking out from under my spaghetti-strap top. An hour before, the very thought of looking so sloppy would have sent me diving back into my closet. But get me away from mirrors, show me how absolutely ordinary all the other folks at the party are, introduce me to the new phenomenon of going to social events with my child instead of my martini-swilling best girlfriend, and I melt into that realm where you look great precisely because you don't care how you look.

For a time, we meandered, taking stock, petting dogs to make it look like we weren't shyly standing around not knowing anyone, and spending more time than necessary rearranging the food table to accommodate the rice salad Hubby made. If we had been at an indoor party we would have been forced to make our way uncomfortably from room to room until we ran out of options for trying to appear as if we were actually going somewhere with a purpose. But the outdoors lessened the pressure. We were a mere step away from strolling amongst a bunch of strangers downtown, only here there was a tantalizing possibility of extended conversation.

Hubby took over the first follow-The-Boy shift, and I did what anyone who doesn't really know the other people at a party does. I ate.

We all three ended up by the bands -- a rotation of neighbors with surprising talent, none so much as the nine-year-old girl who belted out a tune sounding almost like Michelle Shocked, only too young to have ever engaged in a good protest march. I ended up talking to a really interesting woman, a college friend of the host. We chatted about motherhood and career and college days. Of course, she lives in Atlanta.

But at least I can rest assured I still know how to strike up a friendship and may even one day do it with someone who lives close enough to, say, go with to the Sex and the City movie premiere. (For the record, I am planning on going by myself while The Boy is at school. I am not the least bit shamed by the article I just read about how everyone is going to see it in groups. I did, after all, once sit through a midnight showing of Beaches all alone.)

After a while I found myself in charge of The Boy, and then the party really took off. We explored the hill behind where Daddy stood watching the bands and engaging in the we're-all-friends-here-even-though-I-
don't-know-you talk. We went racing down the hill after the sticky whiffle ball The Boy found half buried in the ivy behind the swing set. And, best of all, we danced.

There is no one, I feel certain, who can manage not to smile at a sixteen-month-old dancing to "Psycho Killer." At least not when you're at a block party in a neighborhood and a town where people have kids. After all, the band playing the song just as surely listened to it in college as I did. A long, long time ago.

So these parents could be in a band playing music that made them feel like you don't shed some of your hipness when you become a parent as surely as you shed beer-weight and bad haircuts when you leave college. And I could pretend that having a toddler makes me as young as a woman you would expect to have a toddler. I don't know how old that is, but I suspect it's a good deal younger than forty-one.

Thankfully, not many people think you're forty-one when you're crouching, in true yoga-lubricated-knees fashion, next to your toddler in a spaghetti-strapped Gap top and Keds that I once spotted on Rory in an episode of Gilmore Girls.

Even more thankfully, you don't much care if they do when you're busy grinning as your child claps his hands and gives out a "Yaaaaaay!" with the rest of the music-loving crowd.