Archive for July 2009

Too Hot To Trot

July 29, 2009

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I don’t know about where you are, but we’re dying over here.  Fans running full blast, ice cubes in every glass, salty, sticky skin and hair sopped to the roots, I’m wilting by 7:00 in the morning.

At 8:00 I’m out in the garden arguing with the birds and the bees.  I want a bowl of blueberries, but the surrounding trees are full of squawkers, flappers, and flyers attempting to dissuade me from stealing their favorite snack.  Even a hummingbird sits on a branch fanning itself, waiting to see who will win the Blueberry Wars.

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The bees are busy in the lavender that’s planted under the blueberry bushes, which perhaps wasn’t the best move on my part since a bee ankle bracelet is the inevitable result.  But we reach a détente:  I leave some berries for the birds and the bees don’t sting me or even fly up under my skirt, my constant worry.

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By 9:00, when arguably I should be in a cool shower, we’re firing up the smoker.  Fighting fire with fire, I have a chicken and some turkey legs that need smoking.   I tell Shel that the smoker should have no trouble staying up to a good smoking temperature today, and he says “yeah, without even lighting it.”

It’s hard to even contemplate what the rest of the day will be like.  101° is the forecast, but I’m trying not to think about it, being a person who starts wilting at far wimpier temperatures, and living in a place where there’s no air conditioning.

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Short of hopping into the fridge myself, the next best thing would be a cool, cool lunch.  It’s going to be salad for sure, and this is a delicious one.  As a meal you can serve it on a bed of crisp greens, straight from the fridge.  Or if you’re lounging outside in the evening, fanning yourself and lapping at a cool pre-dinner drink like a panting puppy, this is an excellent accompaniment.

1/2   cup  fresh lime juice
1/4    cup  orange marmalade
3         large  garlic cloves,  minced and mashed to a paste with 1 tsp salt
1/2     cup  fresh cilantro, chopped fine
4         tablespoons  olive oil
1         tablespoon  soy sauce
1/2     teaspoon  dried hot red pepper flakes, or Aleppo pepper
1           pound  large shrimp,  shelled, leaving tails on

Soak shrimp in water as salty as the sea for at least 30 minutes before marinating them. Drain and rinse well.

In a measuring cup whisk together lime juice, marmalade, garlic paste, coriander, 3 tablespoons oil, soy sauce, red pepper flakes, and salt and pepper to taste and reserve 1/3 cup mixture in a small bowl. In a large bowl combine shrimp with remaining mixture and marinate, chilled, tossing occasionally to coat shrimp, for about 45 minutes.

Drain shrimp and lightly pat dry between paper towels. In a large non-stick skillet heat remaining oil over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking and sauté shrimp until barely cooked through, about 2 minutes. Remove shrimp from pan with a slotted spoon, and toss in a bowl with the reserved marinade. Serve at room temperature.

Cherry tomatoes make a nice garnish.

* adapted from this recipe.

If you have some other suggestions about how to stay cool, I’d love to hear them.  The temperature is supposed to stay in the 90s for at least the next 5 days, and although I do have a case of excellent rosé chilling, woman cannot live on rosé alone.  Or can she?

My Coming Out Party

July 26, 2009

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When we spring something startling upon an unsuspecting world we call it a coming out party.  A young woman, formerly cloistered in the bosom of a sheltering family is presented to society.  Someone who’s hitherto toiled invisibly behind the scenes, often unappreciated,  assumes a new public role.  Someone who’s gay, unbeknownst to family and friends,  decides to share a fundamental truth with the world.  Each of them deserves a coming out party.  And so do I.

Ten days ago I received news that rocked my world.  My first thought was to hide it.  My second thought was to study it.  My third thought was to reveal it, but how?  To whom?  And when?  So, holding my nose and praying for a soft landing, I’m jumping off the high dive here and now.  See me splash.

My life changed when I sat down with my doctor, who told me that I have become diabetic,  joining the 8% of the US population who are similarly afflicted.  If you’ve had this same conversation with your doc, you may have had the reaction I did, to wit “Oh the horror, oh the shame!” or some version thereof.  I couldn’t help but feel that I’d brought this on myself, even though the unflappable Dr. Kim said “nope, it’s genetic.”

I began to read, night and day.  My Google search history was replete with search terms related to diabetes, which I surreptitiously deleted each night, somehow ashamed to even need to be looking for information about a disease where the victim is  often perceived to be the perpetrator. As the whole blogosphere knows, I’m a cook, a former personal chef, a food and wine writer, a person who loves to spend days in the kitchen preparing elaborate meals for my guests, and yes, I’m a person who loves to eat and drink.  Was mine a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword” only with my chef’s knife subbed in as the implement of destruction?

Then I found this article, which is, despite the slightly tabloid-style headlines, a careful exigesis of the origins of diabetes.  I won’t summarize it here,  but I advise you to read it yourself, should you have any doubts.  It might make you treat a diabetic with more sympathy.  It might even save your own life.

But don’t worry.  French Letters isn’t going to become a blog about my diabetes, any more than it’s a blog about Shel’s cancer.  It’s a blog about our life, with all its ups and downs, but mainly about  life in France, and about the foods and wines we all love.  However, I can’t resist sharing a couple of discoveries, because I’m learning all day long, looking at my red, red blood 6-8 times a day.  The bad news is that coffee, of all things, seems to be bad for my blood sugar.  The good news?  Wine and cheese are fine.  France, here I come!

North on Northwest

July 21, 2009

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The pressure is on.

Abra has asked me to guest-blog for this entry of French Letters … an honour to be sure, since I’m a real fan of French Letters and Abra’s view on food and life. She’s been to Vancouver a number of times, but this was our first visit to their home on Bainbridge Island. And since we had already planned on visiting Seattle for the Sounders game against Chelsea FC, the timing was perfect.

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If you’ve never been to Bainbridge Island, I encourage you to visit. It’s a lot like the Gulf Islands in BC, but nowhere near as hilly. I imagine it would be a cyclist’s paradise. The car ride (complete with pork, the Weber Bullet smoker, and a bag of charcoal) from Vancouver, BC will take you through Edmonds, nicely avoiding the parking lot that is the I-5 on a Friday afternoon. From Edmonds you take an easy 30 minute ferry ride (be prepared for a couple sailing wait) and get a chance to slow yourself down to Island time.

This is as much a story about the sausage making party as it is about arriving with ingredients in hand. For the guests who lived in the area, it was no issue. In fact many showed up with their own Kitchen Aid mixers with meat grinder attachments. True, the 30 minute ferry from Seattle meant some car-pooling and cooler consolidation. But there’s no international border to cross on the way to Bainbridge Island.

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Try to bring raw pork into the United States from Canada. Or more to the point try to find the laws regulating such an import. That was no easy feat, and even after some thorough investigations, we found no definitive answer. Our best guess was that as long as we could prove the pork had been purchased in a country the US deemed an acceptable inspector of pork, we were home free. I was able to procure a receipt as proof, and much to my amusement discovered the meat I needed to prove wasn’t going to cause another outbreak of Swine Flu, was in fact from the US.

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The Sausage Fest, it was explained to me, was going to be much like our annual Cookie Exchange. Everyone makes one type of sausage, making enough for dinner and for a small package for each of the other guests to take home. The result? 9 lbs. of a wide assortment of sausage. Strangely enough, Abra and I both decided not to make sausage.

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Abra’s contribution to the afternoon would be a recipe from Michael Ruhlman for Shortrib Pastrami. I was going to repeat the coppa bacon experiment I had done back in May (follow the link at the end for full details of the curing process). I think my favourite part about the coppa bacon process is tying up the meat. This ensures an even shape and even smoking, but what appeals to me is how it makes me feel a bit like a real butcher, adding his own artisan touch. And it looks cool too.

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The morning of the Sausage Fest began with yet another amazing breakfast of coffee-master Shel’s espresso, fresh fruit and coffee cake before it was time to smoke. I have to say, the quality of the fresh fruit we ate this weekend was off the chart. The raspberries and cherries in particular were juicier and sweeter than anything I’ve had in recent memory. If this is a result of terroir I’ll be making regular berry pilgrimages to the area. Unfortunately, border regulations prevent us from bringing it home to Vancouver.

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This flamethrower is how one lights charcoal on Bainbridge Island. Personally, I just think that Shel likes to play with fire. And if I’m completely honest with you, I’ll be buying one myself as soon as I track one down in Vancouver. I typically allow 30-40 minutes for a chimney to become fully lit. With this bad boy you’re looking at half that time. And it’s a total RUSH to boot. Once the smokers were lit, Abra’s pastramis and our coppas were under way.

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Guests began arriving just after noon with various assortments of meat, fatback, spices and sausage casings. Before I continue, let’s just get this out of the way … yes, casings resemble a really long condom, and the image of stuffing sausage meat into the casings is wrought with sexual overtones. Now, if we can stop the snickering …

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I love cooking with a group, provided everyone knows what they’re doing and arrives prepared. This group was one of the best examples of this I have ever seen. Abra was a bit concerned before everyone arrived that all these people in her small kitchen would result in any number of minor catastrophes. This was not to pass. Each guest knew his/her job and did it with speed and efficiency. To add a Canadian touch to it, it was like watching a hockey team working a well-practiced power play.

Here’s the list of what was produced. Keep in mind it was made from wine-blurred memory, so please leave any corrections or additions in the comments section:

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Margaret (and Jan) – Knackwurst

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Della and Greg – Cognac sausage, buttermilk dip and veggies, grilled asparagus

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Steve – Bratwurst, Caesar salad

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Eden and Bill – lamb and lavender sausage and some kick-ass sorbets!

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Tamara and Rick – pork and apple breakfast sausage, hot Italian sausage

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Lauren – Kielbasa, sauerkraut

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Abra, Shel, and Maryse – short rib pastrami, Walla Walla Onion Salad, Texas chocolate sheetcake.

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Arne & J – coppa bacon. (Abra made me use this picture, and no, that’s not J!) (Abra’s note: and just in the interest of protecting the innocent, I feel compelled to add that it’s not me or Maryse either!)

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By the time 6pm rolled around, the sun had started to dip behind the trees making patio dining a pleasure. 3 tables were pushed together, bottles were uncorked and the days efforts were brought forth.

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The wonderful thing about food is that its flavour is improved in direct proportions to a) the amount of fun you had preparing it, and b) the quality of the company enjoying it. This has been proven to be true at the Luau and Cookie Exchanges J & I host at home, and the Sausage Fest was no different. Through the evening we shared recipes with the same enthusiasm others share gossip and fed our stomachs and souls with food and friendship.

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(Abra made me use this picture of myself too.)

I am grateful to have had this opportunity to share this day with you. My thanks to all involved, but especially to Abra and Shel who I am proud to call friends. Be on the look-out for me to return to French Letters, next summer in France, and for Abra’s appearance as a guest on my blog I Could Eat.

Walla Walla Whoop

July 16, 2009

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Where do you go when you’re in the mood for a great getaway with food to match?  I’m guessing that Walla Walla, Washington isn’t currently at the top of your list, but you might want to rethink that.  We’ve just come back from several days of whooping it up in Walla Walla and environs, where we relaxed in the charming Stone Compass guest house, ate super-duper well and did a respectable amount of wine tasting into the bargain. 

One of our favorites was the WhoopemUp Hollow Cafe, in nearby Waitsburg.  Personally, I’d go there just to have an excuse to say the restaurant’s name, but really, that would be missing the point.  The food at the WhoopemUp, in a beautifully restored but tiny town in what might be charitably described as the deepest middle of nowhere, is screamingly good.  With a chef and pastry chef from renowned restaurants in Seattle,

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and the inimitable front of house services of  Ross, who dispensed hugs as readily as tips about the food and wine pairings, the place is a knockout. 

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Since we wanted everything they offered and didn’t want to choose, we asked them to compose a tasting menu with mini-pour wine pairings, and we were thrilled with the results.  This starter plate of velvety smoked duck breast, crispy frog legs, a black-eyed peas hummus with corn pita, and two sassy salads, was followed by the best gumbo I’ve ever eaten, a basket of corn sticks and jalapeno corn bread, some killer ribs, ravioli made with local goat cheese, and a combination plate of cakes and sorbets that was truly inspired.  The sharing portions were restrained enough that we could eat every bite, and we left so happy that we actually thought about going back again the next night.

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Walla Walla itself is home to the Colville Street Patisserie, and if a beautiful box like this ever comes your way, grab a cup of dark French roast,  set aside your newspaper, and prepare for one of the best breakfasts of your life.

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It’s hard to imagine how such a thing is possible, but here they make croissants and cannelés better than any I’ve ever eaten in France.  No kidding.  The kouign aman, the pain au chocolat, every bite was moan-inducing, and indeed, sounds of pleasure were all that punctuated the otherwise reverent silence around our breakfast table.  They are closed on Monday and Tuesday, so we only got to have one breakfast from them, but we’re resolved never again to visit Walla Walla on their well-deserved days off.  Their stuff is that good.

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Another highlight for us was a visit with the charming Virginie Bourgue, winemaker for Cadaretta and Lullaby wineries.  Her wines are elegant, expressive, and impeccably made, and are quite different from many other Walla Walla wines we tasted.  Look for her wines if you’re in Walla Walla, and discover the delicious results she produces with her own special blend of a French oenology education and ripe American fruit. 

We followed up our visit to Virginie with dinner at Saffron, Walla Walla’s eclectic and startling newish hot spot.  It’s housed in a lovely room, and offers a sophisticated menu of spicy and unusual Mediterranean dishes.  One visit wasn’t enough to taste our way through all they offer, and I know we’ll go back again when next we’re in town.

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It’s a long way to Walla Walla, and no road trip is complete without road food, of course.  Here in Pasco we had an amazing lunch inside this Mexican grocery store and butcher shop.  Posole, caldo de res, barbacoa, tamales, menudo, chicharrones, you name it and it was on our table and uniformly good.  When it came time to pay we had to keep reminding them to add the cost of this and that, but no matter how much we cajoled, the tab for the four of us came to only $30, and that was with a big heap of leftovers to bring home.   If you’re headed through Pasco, this is the lunch you’re looking for.

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Or if you’re going the other way, through Cle Elum, don’t forget to have a milkshake at the Homestead, which you might want to accompany, as we did, with a plate of ribs that was so huge that three of us shared it.  All four of us started out sharing this milkshake too, but eventually the straws got mixed up, and those with the last straw standing earned the right to the final chocolatey drops.

We came home tired and happy, with a 10 pound bag of Walla Walla sweet onions and a few bottles of Amavi’s lovely 2007 Syrah, safe in the knowledge that whenever we next feel the need to really whoop ’em up, Walla Walla will be there waiting for us.

America The Quirky

July 9, 2009

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Lately I’ve been focusing on the differences between France and America through the microscope of vocabulary.  For example, there’s no word in French that exactly means messy, as in “eating with your fingers is messy.”  There’s a word for mess, of course, but not for messiness as a natural state of affairs.  And there’s no word for fun, which is not to say that the French don’t have fun, but they have to use the English word because there’s not one French word that exactly conveys the “fun for its own sake” idea of things.  And there’s no word that exactly means quirky.  Which is to say, I guess, that the French are much more formal, neat, and serious than we are.  When we’re in France and we seem a bit peculiar, it’s because we’re Amercans.  But here, it’s because we’re quirky.

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Take this Pigmobile, for example.  It’s SOMEPIG, which I think of as an only-in-America sort of vehicle.  It dispenses pulled pork, and it looks like it means business, unlike those two lounging in front of it.  When I asked them to make pig faces Shel readily, and successfully, complied, while Steve insisted on looking debonnaire.  From these examples, not being a statistician, I conclude that 50% of Americans are willing to make silly faces on demand while 100% are happy to don silly glasses, which I’m pretty sure is a much higher percentage than one would find in France.

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And while it’s always aggravating, whether here or in France, when people insist on blathering  away to someone else while they’re standing right in front of you, I think of this sign as being extremely American.  It’s utterly polite and utterly snarky at the same time, which is an art we probably learned from the French, but it has its own delicious American quirkyness.  Come to think of it, I don’t think there’s a French word for snarky either.

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And how about this?  It’s a simple, straightforward, tongue in cheek commentary.  Except you know what?  There is no side door.  Now how quirkily American is that?

By the way, I don’t really have a French Letters tattoo.  Silly glasses, pig faces, lunch with hippies?  Sure.  Putting my heart into my blog?  You bet.  Wearing my URL on my sleeve, as it were?  Way too quirky for me.

I Like To Be In America

July 4, 2009

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“I like to be in America…” Our friend Maryse is visiting us from France, and as you can see by her radiant smile, even though she doesn’t know the song, she likes to be in America.

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Ok by me in America…” It seems to her that anything is startlingly possible here, whereas we take it for granted that we live in the land of free to be you and me.  It’s not easy being green?  Just be blue.

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“Everything’s free in America…” including these mini-doughnut samples at the Bainbridge Island 4th of July Fair.

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For a small fee in America” although here, today, the proceeds of whatever was for sale often went to good causes.

It’s an essential part of visiting America in summertime, the 4th of July parties.  A delightfully homey small town celebration with dogs and kids in the parade and funny costumes everywhere you looked? Tant mieux, so much the better.

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Cruising the fair before the parade started, we saw adorable-looking people we’ve never seen before,

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and truly adorable people that we haven’t seen in ages, like local lovelies Jeannie and Anne.

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We saw candidates for Best 4th of July Costume,

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and Best Dressed Overall.  Not that there was really a contest going on, but personally, if I had one costume to choose that exemplified the spirit of this holiday, it would have been this cool tee shirt.

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Overall it was a thoughtful fair, with booths advocating a better world for humans,Sunrise 539

for animals, including Athena the Barred Owl,

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and even collecting a taste of home for those serving overseas.

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It was a hot, hot day and we were all roasting,

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but the parade lifted our wilting spirits with cool music from the decidedly rock end of the Bach to Rock spectrum,

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an unexpected level of diversity,

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and schoolkids performing their hearts out on the burning pavement.  There’s really nothing more one could ask for, but we still have dinner and fireworks to come.  Do we deserve this bounty?

To my way of thinking, we’ve finally got the President we’ve been waiting for and desperately need, the country is getting back on track, and we deserve a huge round of applause for showing the world who we really are.  I don’t know about you, but me, I like to be in America!

The Cat Came Back

July 2, 2009


I find it really hard to live without a cat, and so I’ve been spending far more time than would seem necessary gazing into the little webcam that shows me how Beppo and Zazou are faring during their “vacation” at the cat hotel in the south of France.  But this morning a persistent meowing awakened me to the sight of a cat on the deck outside the bedroom.  It’s a second story deck, so I thought I might still be dreaming, but the rising sun was in my eyes and I felt wide awake and happy to see some cat, any cat.  Five minutes later the meowing came again, this time from the hallway outside the bedroom door.  It was Kofi.


Kofi is a cat that I rescued several years ago from a family with three Jack Russell terriers, whose main purpose in life was evidently to terrorize the household cats.  I brought him home, we installed him in our then-pet family of two cats and one huge and hugely gentle dog, and we were endlessly captivated by his extravagant beauty.  He spent a lot of time relaxing and getting over his past, mulling over his future.


He seemed to be good at making himself at home, but however much we cuddled and snuggled him, he never purred.  We decided that having spent his youth being beset by Jack Russells he had developed his own ideas about the proper life for a cat.  Once freed from the pesky terriers, he apparently got the notion that life as an only pet might be the best thing ever, and so, little by little,  he moved in with our neighbors, who were petless at the time and welcomed him gladly.  End of story, we thought, for a few months a beautiful cat lived with us, and then he didn’t.

We saw him every so often, out in the driveway, up on the hill, and were always glad to see him looking well.  Once or twice he came to be petted.  But today, he apparently got up onto our roof, jumped from there down to the deck, found the open door and walked through the sleeping house, to meow outside our bedroom door.  He wanted to be petted although he still didn’t purr, he wanted to be fed although the spuma di tonno I offered him wasn’t his favorite, he hung out with us for a couple of hours as if he enjoyed our company, and then he walked calmly out the door. 

He’s his own cat, and he’s figured out how to have life on his own terms, which is a special skill that not all of us have.  To know what you want, where to find it and how to get it, to go after it, enjoy it, and leave when you’re ready, now isn’t that the life?  We can only hope that he includes us in his plans for the rest of the summer.  But don’t worry Beppo and Zazou, we’re not cheating on you.  It doesn’t count if the cat doesn’t purr.