Your leaking thatched hut during the restoration of a pre-Enlightenment state.


Hello, my name is Judas Gutenberg and this is my blaag (pronounced as you would the vomit noise "hyroop-bleuach").


decay & ruin
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Irving housing

got that wrong

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Like my brownhouse:
   in Creekside Manor
Tuesday, January 8 2008

setting: Silver Spring, Montgomery County, Maryland

This morning we drove into the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC for an experience we can't have in our home town. Good Indian food is hard to find in the Hudson Valley, but Ethiopian is impossible, so whenever we're in DC we try to hit Meskerem, Gretchen's favorite Ethiopian restaurant. It's on 18th Street across from the spooneristically-named Madam's Organ and Tryst, a coffee shop whose bathrooms I've recommended highly to those in need of emergency sex. Devastatingly, though, we found Meskerem closed. There was a guy in the window and Gretchen pantomimed a question as to whether the place would be opening soon and got what seemed like a negative. So we had to pick another Ethiopian restaurant. I had the impression that doing so was to place ourselves on the bad side of a bet, but we were hungry, so after walking up and down the length of Adams Morgan, we decided on a place called Awash. The weather was so glorious that we could sit at a table out in front. It was January 8th and we were dining outside in teeshirts.
Unfortunately, though, the food was uninspired. The flavors were wrong in too many ways to mention, although I will say that one of the blobs of overcooked mush on our injera tasted as if it had been vulcanized. We were across the street from the "Marie Reed Learning Center," which we thought was a roundabout name for a primary school. We could tell that an ongoing game of coed basketball wasn't being played by traditional rules because every now and then one of the children would drop-kick the ball. Interestingly, though there were dozens of kids shrieking and running around, not a single one of them was white. Closer to us, a van had pulled up beside a young Hispanic woman and its driver was asking directions in Spanish. I'd been feeling a little exhilarated today by all the evidence that American culture, at least in Northern DC, is becoming increasingly Hispanic. Unlike the nativists, I'm excited by the ongoing reflavoring of the American melting pot. It was great to see that a stranger could stop another on a street in the capital city of the United States and ask for directions without every using a word of English.
After we'd left Awash, we walked back the way we'd come up 18th Street and were horrified to find that now Meskerem was open and full of happy customers eating delicious Ethiopian food. When Gretchen said, "I should make myself vomit so we can go to Meskerem," she was only half joking.
We did manage to redeem the Adams Morgan visit in Idle Time Books, where we ended up spending over $100. It wasn't a large place, but it was full of unexpected treasures, including two lavishly-illustrated books on prehistoric life perfect as gifts for my brother Don.
Next we went to The Brass Knob, one of those architectural salvage places full of antique doorknobs, push plates, hinges, and latch mechanisms. Gretchen had the idea that we should get a cast iron register to use as a vent between our upstairs bedroom and the wall high above the living room (I've proposed carving out such a vent to transfer woodstove-heated air, but haven't done so yet). But the prices at this place seemed high; one could easily spend a couple hundred dollars on a register measuring 24 by 18 inches. We were also interested in maybe getting a set of poking tools for our woodstove, but the price for such sets could be as much as $300. [Later in our trip, the price on these sets would come to be something of a Rosetta Stone for quickly determining the priciness of an antique shop.]

The next stop on our book tour would be my childhood hometown of Staunton, Virginia. My mother had arranged a reading for Gretchen at a new Staunton art gallery called Kronos Gallery.
After the customary three hour drive, we burst in through the front door of the old home place: Gretchen, me, Eleanor, and Sally. It was the same as always, though the stalagmites of accumulated junk mail had definitely made further progress in their inexorable rise towards the ceiling. The childhood home is like a black hole in that any object that falls into it has no hope of escaping. There was my father, passively watching the one channel the teevee receives, an ABC affiliate distributing an opiate far more numbing than even the organized religion that so troubled Karl Marx.
Soon thereafter we were up at the Shaque, which has finally arrived at entropy equilibrium with the house. Sally and Eleanor met my mother's dog Chaps, and everyone seemed to get along from the outset.
In the past Gretchen and I would have stayed in the Shaque (and my mother would have taken measures to tidy the place up a little). But this would no longer would be necessary, for now my parents have a guest house that is twice the size of their own humble digs. This past spring the house across the street, a double-wide trailer actually, came on the market, and after much haggling, my mother bought it with cash money. She won't tell me how much it cost, insisting that this information is somehow "private" (actually, it's public knowledge, but unfortunately Augusta County, Virginia, evidently doesn't make its real estate transactions available to web databases). My mother is always going on about her need for "privacy," though most of her monologues consist of constantly-retold accounts of how she saved or obtained trivial amounts of money: six dollars here, two dollars there, free medicine from the visiting veterinarian (who probably thinks her desperately poor), a free meal at some event, or the time she got her long-suffering plumber to pay for a $4 plastic chair he accidentally backed over (its remains can still be found in the yard). On this trip I began to wonder if perhaps my decision to post details of my life on the web is a reaction against my mother's pathological demand for privacy, a demand that exposes only the dull, uncontroversial aspects of her existence while concealing the color, intrigue, drama, and struggles, or "sore points" as she calls them. But I digress.

The newly-purchased double-wide trailer and its accompanying 2.3 acres of land have long been a stick in the craw of my family. Back in 1976 when my family moved from the Maryland suburbs to the Staunton area, the trailer across Stingy Hollow Road had been occupied by a Mr. Bobby Shipe and his second wife Louise. Bobby was something of a manly-man who loved to spin elaborate yarns, but was incapable of telling one that didn't include contradictory facts and obvious exaggerations. At some point (and with some difficulty) Bobby and Louise managed to have a kid named Charlie, though it was known that Bobby had disowned his first son from his previous marriage, a deaf lad who would die of AIDS during the 1990s.
Though initially we'd been good neighbors, from the start there had been a palpable culture clash with the Shipes. Though we didn't yet use the word, they were (for lack of a better term) a bunch of uneducated rednecks. They liked guns, NASCAR, demolition derbies, and country music. My parents were educated Yankees. They'd grown up on farms but had also lived in cities. They liked public radio and classical music. While Bobby Shipe religiously mowed his grass and repainted the rocks that protruded from the ground, we let our grass grow long and ran a herd of goats.
Within two years of our life in Virginia, Bobby Shipe began building what he initially referred to as a "pig barn" behind his trailer on the floodplain across the stream. I remember my father thinking something was amiss when Bobby proudly showed off an outhouse he'd built into the side of the "barn." Later the barn turned out to be a garage for a nascent auto body repair business (in violation of the agricultural zoning of the property). The noise and the fumes eventually led my parents to complain to county officials, first anonymously, and then (when that did no good) overtly. I remember the shock I felt when my parents finally revealed that we would no longer be friends with the Shipes.
Since we were the outsiders, the people who had moved in and complained, and since Bobby Shipe was the good ole boy, the neighbors quickly took the Shipes' side in the resulting contest. Things went far beyond the court proceeding in which Bobby Shipe won a conditional exception for his business. There were the threatening calls, the late night gunfire, petty vandalism, and two occasions when different neighbors fired guns at my parents from concealed locations on their property. Criminal complaints were filed, and Bobby Shipe even took my parents to civil court in hopes of collecting damages for "interfering with a business."
In 1979 a 35 acre tract of property behind Bobby Shipe's garage came on the market and he boldly put a down payment on it in hopes of controlling the high ground, regaining land that had long ago been sold off by his mother. He was then still in the habit of hunting, logging, dumping trash upon, and target practicing into that property, but we knew it would be a disaster if he actually owned it. We sweated out a few miserable weeks as he executed a hamfisted series of victory dances on the property, but in the end he couldn't secure the necessary mortgage and he lost his deposit. Soon thereafter my parents bought twenty acres that nearly surrounded Bob's property ("Pileated Peak"), and in 1985 we added seven more acres ("Horizon Field").
Eventually the conflict cooled down a bit. Bobby Shipe continued to violate the terms of his zoning exception. For example, he hired a series of employees to help with the autobody work. (We referred to these employees with the generic title "Meatball.") But Bobby was also forced by the tepid scrutiny of the County to undertake a few expensive improvements. For example, he had to discontinue the piping of his raw sewage into the stream. And since he had no suitable land for a septic field, he was forced to buy an additional half acre of land north of the one short stretch of frontier he didn't share with us.
In 1990 we had our last major fight with the Shipes over the State's plan to pave and widen Stingy Hollow Road. We were against it and he was for it. The road ended up being situated mostly on the Shipes' property, and the poorly-considered causeway across the floodplain greatly magnified the damage caused by Hurricane Fran when it came through in 1996.
Hurricane Fran was a turning point in the neighborhood conflict. It destroyed the Shipes' trailer (which had been foolishly situated low on the floodplain). Eventually the wreckage was replaced with the existing double wide trailer and the Shipes, now older and less bitter about the past, gradually reached a state of detente with my parents. Towards the end there my parents were in the habit of exchanging cases of beer for successful kills from Bob's deer hunts. Having lived an unhealthy life full of chain smoking and auto painting, Bobby Shipe was only in his 60s when died April 18th, 2002. The Shipes eventually moved away, subdividing their property into two parcels and selling their double wide and garage to a family of Shiffletts (a name with a proud redneck heritage in the Shenandoah Valley).
The other parcel is home now to a small double wide and a chronically-single gentleman in his 30s who works for the county rescue squad. My parents occasionally hire Mr. Chronically Single to do odd jobs, and at one point he felt the need to conceal his truck in the old auto body garage for fear it would be vandalized by a former girlfriend.

So there I was in the Shipes' trailer on their old property, which they'd traditionally referred to with the unintentionally-ironic appellation "Creekside Manor." I felt like I was trespassing to be there, or (perhaps more accurately) I felt like a Serb man triumphantly moving into the house of a Bosnian neighbor who had been ethnically cleansed. Though this wasn't the same trailer as the one that had housed the Shipes in the golden years of our feud, it still seemed to harbor some measure of their alien funk. I think it was in the carpet, which had that musty cheap-motel smell that comes from years of stagnant clouds of cigarette smoke. The place is tidy now after a massive cleaning jihad, although my mother ("Hoagie") said that it had been a real disaster after the Shiffletts moved out.
Due partly to donations from friends, the trailer is also well-furnished, with chairs, a couple of futons, small tables, a television, a DVD player, a fax machine (but no phone line) and enough dishes for a couple of visitors like us to fix ourselves some breakfast.
But it was dinner time and we were hungry. After a couple forays across the street for kitchen supplies, Gretchen was able to make us a little pasta with red sauce. Don was hungry too so we gave him some and he devoured it greedily even though it was 100% vegan. At some point I got the television working well enough for us to watch the local NBC affiliate. Returns were coming in from the New Hampshire primary, and I was nonplused to see that Hillary Clinton was narrowly beating Barack Obama and that Edwards was coming in a distant third.
Eventually my father came over for a visit, which was pretty far afield for a guy who almost never leaves the half acre centered on the house's northwest corner. He turned 84 back in November and doesn't have any serious medical problems but has, for whatever reason, become increasingly reclusive.

Gretchen and me in front of Awash, an Ethiopian restaurant in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, DC. The food was bad but the weather was glorious. Imagine being in short sleeves on a January day!

At "Creekside Manor" (38.065274 N, 79.15383 W) south of Staunton, Virginia. From the left: Eleanor with her bandaged leg, my brother Don, and Gretchen.

Talking about an autistic child, Hoagie is interrupted by Sally cavorting with Eleanor.

Talking about an autistic child, Hoagie is interrupted when she notices my Crocs, a type of shoe never before seen in Staunton, Virginia.

Expressing empathy for the brutal dictator who killed 12 million people, my brother Don tells Gretchen all about Hitler's various health problems.

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