Friday, November 28, 2008

Get ready for an old-age, I mean new age revolution...

We spoke to a family member today who could be the poster child for this economy's woes. He owns a house in a area of the country that experienced greatly inflated real estate values over the past several years. It is also seeing incredible drops now, as well as an almost totally dead market. 

He's a working class guy, raised a couple of kids in a nice three bedroom ranch with pool. Nothing too fancy. He went through a divorce a couple of years ago and refinanced quite easily. Working overtime paid the bills and helped put one son through college. 

Then the terms of the mortgage adjusted just as his hours were cut back at work. With both sons almost grown, he thought he could sell. Nope. He's lost almost $100,000 in value. His house is worth less than he owes. Right now he's hoping a short sale will go through. Of course, he'll have to pay taxes on the forgiven part of the loan. And his credit is likely shot. 
Good thing he has friends to stay with. 

Another family member is hitting the big 5-0, and her pension plan just lost 40% of its value. Again, she did nothing wrong. No, she did what "they" tell you to do, put your money in a 401K. Don't worry about ups and downs in the market, it will all work out wonderfully when you are ready to retire. She'd have been better off to stuff the money under her mattress or put it in a money market account. 

These are only two examples of average, middle-class, hard-working people whose security has just been ripped away. If you play by the rules, you are supposed to end up with a mortgage-free home and a nice pension plan when you retire. 

They can do all the bail-outs they want, but that money went somewhere. I believe it's all part of the systematic sucking dry of the American middle-class that has been going for at least twenty years. One small example: a manufacturing firm sends production jobs to Mexico or China. The goods still cost almost as much but the profit has increased incredibly. The now unemployed or underemployed American public buys the item, thereby enriching the company. Yeah, it's a free market economy--businesses are supposed to make a profit and cutting costs is a smart move. But somehow we've ended up with an unbalanced economy. No longer are we buying goods that our neighbors make.  We all probably buy too much stuff, too. But if we don't, then the economy suffers and we lose more jobs--it's a bad cycle. 

Booms and busts in tech stocks and real estate exacerbate the problem as large chunks of capital move from pocket to pocket via speculation. Ordinary people doing ordinary transactions get caught in the cycle. Some do OK--like the ones who sold their houses 18 months ago. I blame the banks, too. They made a lot of loans that weren't prudent. My understanding is when the rates adjusted, people's payments went up too much. Why wasn't the effect of those new rates calculated on their present income?

So now what? I predict that we are going to see the emergence of an underground economy, increased communal living and a general disenchantment with the "system" and its supposed benefits.  Many of us "baby-boomers" did the gig. Now our kids are grown and who cares about "stuff" anyway? As long as I have my laptop, internet access and plenty of coffee, I'm good...

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Writing Process... A Mystery

I was recently asked how Dan and I write screenplays together. "Do you just sit down and write?" she asked. Well, yes and no.

Yesterday we started working on yet another zany comedy. I know, we just finished a screenplay last week but we enjoy having a project in process. It's fun for us, not merely "work." We write-a-holics feel empty without a project going; two or three is even better. 

We'd had the concept for the new one sometime last year. Brief notes were tucked in a file called "script ideas." Lots of things trigger ideas. Often life itself with its challenges, quirks and craziness. Airspac'd, about the trials and tribulations of today's air travel was sparked by, yes, flights from hell. 

So we went down to AJ's, our favorite pub, with folder and notebook in hand. AJ's was quiet on a Sunday afternoon. We took a wooden booth, ordered beers and cups of homemade chili and got to work. 

I read over our old notes. Hmmm. Some of it it didn't resonate any more. What were we thinking? The main arc of the story was OK. We just needed all the details. We sat there for a few minutes staring at each other. Inspiration had left the building. 

We decided to focus on identifying our main characters. Who are they? What happens to them? How do they intersect? After a couple of hours brainstorming we had them nailed down, names and life situations included. Along the way we also created tangental characters, decided how to open the movie and we had several ideas for plot complications. All scrawled in cryptic handwritten notes. 

All our works start the same way. A pile of notes and half-formed ideas swirling in our heads. We'll probably draft up the first few scenes on the computer, then go back to brainstorming. Sometimes the process of actually writing description, action and dialogue sparks ideas for the next scenes. The characters come alive and start to "speak." 

It continues to amaze me that out of such meager beginnings, a full-fledged, 120 page plus screenplay will eventually emerge. It can't be forced yet you have to be disciplined. Once underway, it simmers in the back of your mind constantly. Often we wake up with ideas. 

It's not all pleasure. Sometimes we're stuck. Sometimes we argue. We have different visions for how things should go. We hammer them out and often the result is better for it. 

Check in with us in two or three months. With any luck, we'll have another funny, entertaining work ready to shop around.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Adventures in Mexican Food

One of the most surprising things about our new city is that 33% of the population is Hispanic, compared to a statewide stat of  7.4%. We have a rich diversity of cultures, including an entire Hispanic section of town.  The main commercial district is along Atlanta Highway: car dealers, garages, services, retail shops and "supermercardos" - supermarkets. 

Sure, every big grocery store nowadays has "Mexican" food, mainly Americanized tortillas, refried beans and salsa. Down here, a mainstream store might have a few imported brands. At Publix, I bought some Cuban coffee that was kick-ass. 

In search of the authentic, we took a ride down the Atlanta Highway and found a small but charming supermercardo. On offer were fresh, dried and canned chili peppers, cactus paddles, cassava root, dried beans and rice and other mysterious fruits and vegetables I haven't yet identified. All the signs are in Spanish. (duh!) The meat counter is great. We bought chorizo sausage for $2 a pound. Fresh, whole fish cost just over $2 a pound, too. One section is devoted entirely to a chopped up barbecued pig, including a billowing pile of crispy pork rinds. 

We've been there twice, once to buy fixings for a burrito meal of tortillas, refrieds, hamburger, salsa and fresh chilies. The second time we bought a flat fish (mojarra) a cassava root and a pound of chorizo. 

I had a little trouble preparing the cassava. It's a long, thin brown-skinned tuber coated in wax. It's also as hard as those giant turnips you need a meat cleaver to chop. I managed to skin it in little flakes with a paring knife and then I nuked it for a minute to soften it enough to chop. Then I boiled and mashed. Note: remove the fibrous middle before cooking. It was reminiscent of the middle of a pineapple and about as much fun to eat. The fluffy part tasted great, though--kind of like mashed potato-turnip. 

The fish we fried in bread crumbs after cutting off the head. It was tasty but a bit bony. We'll probably stick to fillets next time. The chorizo will make several meals. Tomorrow morning I'm going to include it in a scrambled egg dish with raisins. 

I'm also going to buy a Spanish dictionary. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

Boiled Peanuts and Beer

Every region has its delicacies that may be considered odd by outsiders. In New England, we have moose meat. Fiddlehead ferns. Whoopie pies. 

In Georgia, one favorite is boiled peanuts. Yes, I mean peanuts in their shells bobbing in liquid. I'll bet you're thinking, "yuck." Convenience stores sell them next to the coffee and the steamed hot dogs.  Today I found a roadside stand in Rabbittown. The gentleman running the stand kindly posed for me before dispensing a sample.

The shells are soft, but the peanuts inside are firm and chewy, not crunchy. Tasty.  A little salty due to the ham hocks he throws into the water. He starts the twelve hour process inside on a range then brings them out to steep over a wood fire for the final three or four hours. 

According to, a great regional food site, green peanuts, i.e. not roasted, are used. They are only available from May through November, the peanut season. The first recorded instance of boiling peanuts was during the Civil War, when food supplies ran short. The soldiers found that peanuts boiled in salt lasted up to seven days and make a protein-rich ration. They even wrote a song, "Goober Peas."

In the winter, the boiled peanut man deep fries peanuts, too. Those should be interesting.

Now to another interesting topic, beer. Like the great state of New Hampshire, which makes money on alcohol sales while spending many resources on finding drunk drivers, Georgia has a convoluted relationship with booze. This state still has happy hour and from five to seven at night, you can get 1/2 price drinks. But only the 12 oz. draft beer is half price, not the 32 oz.   (32 oz.--it's almost too big to pick up)  New Hampshire does allows happy hour but until recently bars weren't allowed to advertise them. Very strange.

Last night, we went out to a great little place, A.J.s. You can build your own hot dog (they're huge) with a dozen condiments, and at happy hour, the wings are $.40 each. We arrived at quarter to five. Only about eight people were there. But at five on the dot, the start of happy hour, the place was swamped. For our $12 we had four-five beers (in all) and a serving of wings big enough for two. Not bad.

Georgia doesn't allow liquor, beer or wine sales on Sundays. But the bars are open. Over the past two years, the issue has been hotly debated in the Georgia House and Senate, with many opposing it on religious grounds. One senator questioned the sponsor's religious faith. You'd never see that particular argument in New Hampshire, I believe. Opponents feel passage would "encroach" on the Lord's day, while proponents point to lost tax revenues for the state, pointing to those who cross the Alabama line on Sundays for booze. Right now there is an online petition to garner support for the measure. It looks like a state-wide referendum may be used as a politically expedient way to settle the issue. 

Speaking of blue laws, some counties in Tennessee are "dry." This means no sales of alcohol at all, any time. Last year we visited the Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee. We like Jack Daniels and were fascinated by the fact that a thirteen-year-old started the business--after he learned the distilling technique from a preacher. In the museum, we saw exhibits explaining the multi-step process and naturally, after all that, we were longing to try a fresh shot. 

We wandered down to town, just a couple of blocks away, and scanned the square for a tavern or even a restaurant. Nope. Nothing but cafes and diner-type places, and not many of those. It was a hot and beautiful day--about 80 degrees--and there were dozens of motorcycles parked around the square. We asked one gentleman where we could get a cold beer and a shot of Jack and he replied, "Not here. This is a dry county. They make it down in the holler over yonder, but you can't buy it here." What a missed opportunity. How well would a Jack Daniels steakhouse do? And they'd sell it by the barrel in the gift shops. 

The county line was ten miles away so we headed out. But we still get a chuckle when we remember him saying, "dry county" in his deep Southern drawl. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Adventures in Southern eating...the classics

One of the best things about travel is experiencing new food. The more exotic the better, as far as I am concerned. I find interest in how it is grown, harvested, sold and prepared. Not to mention the pleasure (most of the time) in actually eating it. 

Even region to region in the United States there are significant differences in eating choices. I've long enjoyed classic New England fare: clam chowder, lobster, Boston baked beans, and Maine blueberry pie. 

Here in the south, regional food is often offered as meat and two or three sides. Meat may be chicken fried steak, fried chicken, catfish, or barbecue (shredded pork). Sides are where the comfort food gets down and dirty: mashed potatoes, mac and cheese, butter beans, greens, cream corn, yams and cole slaw. Don't forget the bread: biscuits, skillet bread (cornbread baked in a frying pan) or hush puppies (deep fried cornbread nuggets). I haven't figured out how or why people eat such heavy meals in a hot climate but I sure have enjoyed eating at Loretta's in Oakwood, GA, or Stan's in Columbia, TN. At Stan's, when you order a side of greens, they come in a huge family-style bowl. I love greens!

You can create the Southern experience at home, too. I've enjoyed browsing through the supermarket looking at goods I've never seen in New England. Canned turnip and collard greens, rutabaga and succotash (corn, butter beans and tomatoes). Hominy. Grits. 

Grits, by the way, resemble Cream of Wheat in consistency but are made from corn. They are good with hot sauce or butter, even a little milk. Anyway you want them. They are commonly served at breakfast with eggs. No home fries here, but you can get hash browns, which are fabulous if fried up golden brown. Muffins and english muffins are rarely served here. We've had a hard time finding english muffins in the stores. Usually only one commercial brand is offered (one we don't like). 

And speaking of breakfast, there is a Waffle House on every corner. These are funky little 50s-style restaurants with high calorie-high carb food that is surprisingly cheap and good. A pecan waffle with syrup and a side of hash browns is quite tasty when you're bulk-loading. The coffee's not bad either.

Next installments: Mexican food and Boiled Peanuts & Beer

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Ghosts of resorts past...


                                                                                           Old summer resorts fascinate me. Their shabby remnants speak of a more innocent, romantic, whimsical time.  A time when vacationers spent week after luxurious week enjoying leisure activities, robust meals and a giddy social scene.  Often set in spectacular but primitive and rugged landscapes, grand hotels provided surprisingly sophisticated and up to date accommodations. 

My adopted hometown in New Hampshire is one such place. At the beginning of the 1900s, no less than thirty hotels graced its main thoroughfares. The population swelled by thousands in season, when the railroad brought visitors from Boston and New York and beyond. The contrast between isolated mountain village in winter and gala resort, with bootleggers and jazz bands and Presidents and movie stars, in summer, was staggering.  

I've been pining to explore our new home, so when I read about a Georgia resort ghost town, Tallulah Falls, I decided we had to go. Today was perfect: sunny with peak fall foliage. 

In my research, I learned Tallulah Falls has not only lost its resort status, but the natural attraction that was its draw has been permanently changed.  The Tallulah River starts in North Carolina and ends 47 miles later in Habersham County, near South Carolina. Near the end of its run, it cuts through the two-mile Tallulah Gorge, which has 1000- foot walls in places. Six waterfalls drop a total of five hundred feet through the gorge. 

Called the "Niagra of the South," it drew visitors since the early 1800s.  With the advent of a rail line, almost twenty hotels and boarding houses sprang up around the gorge. Visitors could ride or fish by day, dance or play cards at night. 

But progress was soon to put an end to this halcyon period. In 1913, after a battle with environmentalists, the Georgia Railway and Power Company built a huge hydroelectric dam to supply Atlanta's streetcars.  Confederate General Longstreet's widow, Helen Dortch Longstreet, was a leader in this, one of Georgia's first conservation movements. A member of the Progressive Party and a proponent of women's rights, Helen also ran for governor in 1950 as a write-in candidate. 

Another blow was dealt to the resort when a 1921 fire wiped out hotels, stores and homes. Most were never rebuilt. 

The dam diverts most of the water from the falls and they are a mere trickle but for selected "release days" each year. Unfortunately, today wasn't one of them, so we contented ourselves with an aerial view of the gorge from Tallulah Point. This little diversion from the main road hosts two quirky tourist traps, one thriving; the other for sale. Two wild and crazy fools crossed the gorge at this point on tightropes, a Professor Leon in 1883 and Karl Wallenda in 1970. 

The area sees more visitors since the 1993 creation of a state park encompassing the several lakes formed by the dam. Tallulah Falls, population 164, bravely hangs on, proud of its beauty and heritage, hopeful that travelers streaming past to Asheville or Atlanta will stop and experience a sweeter time gone by. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Living near Bunnyville...

We live near a quirky little hamlet, Rabbittown, in East Hall County. Although it's a blink and you'll miss it type of place, the large statue of a rabbit ensures that you don't. We've fondly dubbed it "Bunnyville." 

The one-block business area surprisingly has most of the amenities--gas stations, package store, southern-style cafe, pizza, library and a medical center. The package store says "buy beer, it's cheaper than gas." Although I did get almost five gallons for my $10 today. Wow. Maybe we'll actually drive somewhere.

Today was my first time voting in Georgia, and I was sent to the Bunnyville library for the privilege. Even in this small outpost, Georgia uses a surprisingly high tech system. No curtains and pencil-marked ballots here. 

When I walked in, thankfully during a slow period, I was greeted by a nice gentleman who directed me to two older ladies behind a table. They checked my license and had me fill out a form with name and address. They carefully compared the license and my form. (p.s. I have taken out my driver's license here more times in a week than I did in a year in New Hampshire)

Then I was handed off to Ruby, resplendent in 1920s hair waves and satin blouse, who checked my license and form against a computer screen.  It took Ruby a minute as she looked up my last name wrong. (A constant down here) Then I went on to the next dear soul, wearing her Sunday hat, who took my form and issued me a yellow key card. 

After a few minutes fiddling around and realizing the card stayed in the machine (no swiping), I quickly voted on the touch screen. Some progressive community development and land preservation warrants on the ballot, I was glad to see. Many of the county officials ran unopposed. Maybe they can't get anyone to run. I can understand that after my own brief and painful foray into town government. 

I handed in my yellow card, was given a peach sticker (sweet) and bid a kind farewell by all.

The whole thing was fast, under ten minutes, but a much more intensive process than Bethlehem, NH, where you check in, get your ballot, mark it and check out. 

My next goal is to find out where the name Rabbittown came, catfish and hush puppies at the cafe, anyone?