Battling the noise

I remain on the lookout for curmudgeonliness. I think it’s a banana peel next to my grave, and I want to avoid my grave as long as possible, so I try to keep away from the seemingly constant pissing and moaning that affects so many in my age group.

But I don’t always succeed. A big failure point for me involves texting.

I have several friends or groups of friends who use texting as a method of casual conversation. They’re bored or they just want to share an opinion about something, so in comes the text.

And I ignore it. This, for the record, is not a good way to keep up friendships.

But for me, this is part of a larger rule: I am in charge of my technology, not the other way around. This is why I turn off Facebook and Twitter notices that pop up on my phone, along with most of the other alerts that clutter peoples’ devices. It’s why I answer most email on my terms, not yours, unless you’re my boss or further up the food chain. And it’s why I usually don’t use text messaging — especially the horror of group text messaging — for casual chats.

Instead, text messaging from/for me serves a utilitarian purpose — it updates people about where I am, it is a way of checking in when I actually am asking a question or need an answer, and so on. It’s boring, but it’s effective. Anything else…well, I usually just let it pass by.

This position on my communications tech does a remarkable job in keeping all sorts of noise out of my life. And if that makes me a curmudgeon…well, then I am one in this particular arena. I won’t be so busy with my phone, though, that I miss seeing that banana peel.

A roofing adventure

I know a lot more about roofing than I did a few weeks ago. I have debated the merits of GAF Timberline vs. Certainteed shingles, considered whether I wanted matte black or charcoal black shingles on my roof, learned that the boards that go across the rafters of the original deck are called “planking,” and mulled the merits of synthetic underlayment vs. the traditional roofing felt. I also got to meet Edgar the brick mason, Adam the Roof Guy, some shady cold-callers who just showed up at the house, and a couple of other pretty decent guys whose companies I didn’t hire (but seemed perfectly trustworthy — I just had to pick somebody).

All of this started after the freak early March wind storm. During a big wind gust, one of the tall cypresses in my back yard snapped about eight feet up from the base and smashed into my shed and the roof of my house. That involved a good 20 feet or so of tree, but because it was a cypress (a skinny evergreen), there wasn’t nearly the weight that would have hit the house if I’d lost a big hardwood. Nonetheless, it punched a hole into the shed roof and several smaller holes into the house roof.

Well, we were planning to replace the roof this spring anyway. And the chimney, which was untouched by the tree, needed some patching.

Still, we had an immediate problem. This led to frantic calls to our regular tree service, our insurance company and pretty much any roofing company that would answer the phone. We called more than a dozen roofers before we found one who could come out — the combo platter of springtime roofing season and the massive windstorm created more work than the area roofers could handle — and a few days later, a roofer spent half an hour hammering maybe $100 (probably less) worth of roof underlayment over the holes for $600.

I wrote the check because I had to write the check, and insurance reimbursed me anyway, but that pricey visit came into play later when I called back the same company for a replacement bid. They were the high bid. I felt they were total pros. I was not confident they were charging a fair price, though, and that was that.

(Meanwhile, the heater died forever and another three grand floated away from our bank account, but that is another story for another time.)

I lined up a couple of more bid appointments. Meanwhile, my wife talked to a neighbor, who was going to get her roof replaced and just had her chimney worked on (exactly the same work I needed). She had talked to the general contractor down the street, and he recommended a mason and a small company that did a lot of roof work for him.

And thus, I wound up using Edgar the mason and Adam’s Roofing. Edgar stripped down and rebuilt the four feet or so of chimney brick that is exposed at my house, and I thought he did a terrific job. Meanwhile, Adam’s work was visible on houses all around the neighborhood, and it looked really good even years after it was installed. His bid was strong, too. I decided to go with him.

He used subcontractors for the roof and gutters, which gave me pause, but he said he’d been using the same roof sub crew for more than a decade. Let’s not kid ourselves anyway — most roofing work these days is done by subs, whether you like the concept or not, even if you hire a giant roofing company that runs ads all over radio and TV.

The roof crew did terrific work, including replacement of a lot of bad wood (220 feet of planking — I believe the last re-roof was done by the original homeowner, and a lot of the planking looked really rough from the attic). Here’s some of that — and this isn’t the side of the roof that got hit by the tree:

The finished product looked really good, too:


It’s been a couple of weeks now, and we’re about to get two days of rain. I’m pretty confident my new roof will pass that test. If the appearance is any indicator, I have nothing to worry about.

On St. Lucia

St. Lucia is impossibly beautiful. People are friendly. The trade winds are the best I’ve experienced in the Caribbean — they’re constant, but not overwhelming, and they chase away the mosquitoes that can haunt you on other islands.

Yet I had a “meh” time on the island earlier this month, and it’s nobody’s fault but mine.

What I discovered — and would have known if I’d done more homework — is that St. Lucia is an island better suited to people staying in resorts, not independent travelers. Its size and steep, mountainous roads make it difficult to get around; it has a hefty population that plugs up traffic in urban areas; it draws a lot of seriously moneyed tourists and yachtie types who polished a handful of areas beyond where I’d ideally like them. It also had fewer beach options than I ideally would have preferred, although some of the ones there are seriously beautiful and the island’s interior is just stunning.

It’s an island that you go to if you have a lot of cash, want to have someone peel you a grape at a resort, and are willing to hire guides or drivers to help you get around. If that sounds like you, you’re going to love this place. If you basically want to bum around and hang out on beaches…not so much.

For the next few years while we still hope to afford it, I’d anticipate my wife and I will take a winter vacation to Saint Somewhere. For the last few years, that’s meant hitting up one or more of the Virgin Islands, a place I love dearly. Two Category 5 hurricanes took them out of the picture this year. I was hoping St. Lucia would be a substitute, but it wasn’t — it wasn’t empirically better or worse; it was just different. You might like that flavor of “different.” It just wasn’t for me.

Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy*

I’ve written about biscuits in the past, and I’ve had occasional successes on this front, but the reality is that I’ve never hit them consistently until recently. Over time, though, I’ve stolen various hints — and I realize that these pretty much work with almost any decent recipe. Try these out:

1. Don’t worry so much. I long ago discovered that worrying makes the beer sour and the barbecue tougher. It does the same thing to biscuit dough. The stuff is easier to make than you’ve been taught to think.

2. Sift your dry ingredients. I wish I could say why this makes a difference, because modern flour is presifted, but it always has to me. Certainly, everything in the bowl seems fluffier before I mix it all together.

3. Use cold fats.
Some people go so far as to freeze their butter or shortening and then grate it into their dry mix. I just use very cold butter, cut it into very small pieces, then use my fingertips (not my whole hands) to quickly incorporate it into the dry mix and make those little pea-sized flour that are the beginning point for good biscuits. I tried a pastry cutter and two forks to do the same thing, but found using my fingertips worked better and faster. If you do it quickly, the butter doesn’t get warm before you finish.

4. Make a ‘reservoir’ in the middle of your dry mix and pour in your liquid.
Milk, buttermilk, whatever…and then use a fork to fold the dry mix into the wet until you get a very rough dough.

5. Don’t overwork the dough and keep the rolling pin out of things.
You just want to get the dough together, and then you can work it out with your hands. It’s easy with a little practice.

6. If you can’t get cake flour or southern-style biscuit flour that’s low in gluten, let your dough rest half an hour. It’s a tip I saw in several recipes and it definitely works. Of course, it also means you have to wait half an hour.

7. Use a biscuit cutter (they’re cheap) and never twist it — push it up and down. Almost anything else, including a drink glass that’s used in the same way, can pinch the edges of the biscuit and inhibit rising.

8. Brush the top of the biscuit with something
to help it look golden brown. Some people use buttermilk before baking; I brush them immediately out of the oven with melted butter. It works great.

*Thank you for a great line, Kacey Musgraves.

About those three billboards

My wife is a SAG-AFTRA member, and SAG has one of the big awards shows of the season, so the movie screeners from various nominees have been rolling into my house. That gave me a chance to see “Three Billbords Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” which I wanted to see because it was set in a fictional Missouri town and I’ll watch anything with Frances McDormand in it.

I walked away a little infuriated, but also a little fascinated: These are characters with conflicting values, with angels and devils on their shoulders, like a lot of people I know. You never know which shoulder is going to lead the charge on a given day.

Fictional Missouri is apparently mountainous and really green at Easter season (neither is true, although you might find a tiny sliver of southwest Missouri that has big enough hills to be mildly confused with the North Carolina locale where this was shot). Real Missouri, with its gray and even snowy Marchs and early Aprils, would have been a better locale for this bleak tale. And again, the southern accents that Missourians don’t have often showed up here, as they commonly do in movie and TV portrayals of Missourians. I have accepted that Hollywood will use southern accents to characterize rednecks from North Dakota to Florida, so I let that pass.

McDormand rang mildly true to me, though. I’ve certainly met any number of Missouri women who were capable of getting mad enough to consider setting fire to a police station, but not so many who would actually carry it out. Their Inner Midwesterness puts that kind of rage in a hidden box, designed never to be opened…but if it does get cracked apart, watch out.

Missouri’s become a meaner place over the years than the one I remember as a young man, and the police always seem to show up in the middle of the worst incidents. Still, I cannot recall ever dealing with or meeting a police officer anywhere near the brutally racist range of Sam Rockwell’s character in this film. Now, Zeljko Ivanek‘s officer (Ivanek sure shows up in a lot of good roles) rings much more true. His character strikes me as the real one to avoid, because you know that Rockwell’s character will flame out (which is quite literally what happens here), while Ivanek’s cop will be there for generations, often leading with his devil’s shoulder.

Misery after misery unfolds in this movie, but you can’t look away. You might find yourself rooting at the end for McDormand’s and Rockwell’s characters to be successful in their little quest, which is designed more to cleanse their souls than to rain down any sense of justice. And that might make you wonder what exactly is wrong with you. This movie is nothing if not morally ambiguous, which is how a lot of people live their lives. But I can’t recommend it as a way to learn about, or understand, Missourians.