Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Don't Know If I Want You To Read This Yet

***I've started to post this fiction piece three times and then changed my mind at the last minute.  It's sort of a short story, though I've mainly written it in an attempt to "get to know" a character I want to use in a later writing project.  I've been at a standstill with it for a while now, and while it's not quite ready for prime time, it's doing me no good sitting in my "unfinished stuff" file either, so here it is.***

It was a gray March Sunday, and the Boston Celtics were warming up to play the New York Knicks on TV.  Adrian McAllister was just settling into his recliner, preparing to crack open a beer and take in the basketball game.  The can was just inches from his lips when his wife Melissa called out from her computer desk in the next room.

“Adrian, don’t forget we’re going to confession over at St. Cecilia’s this afternoon!  There’s a service and everything.”

Adrian had indeed forgotten.  Going to confession was his least favorite part of being Catholic, but he made it a point to go at least once a year.  Actually, Melissa made it a point that he went at least once a year.  Melissa made it a point that Adrian did a lot of things that he would rather not.

Clicking off the television, Adrian bundled up against the late winter winds to make his way with Melissa the few blocks to St. Cecilia’s.  He noted that there were only about twenty cars in the parking lot as he eased his pickup truck into an empty space.

“Looks like we won’t be waiting long to get in,” Melissa observed.

“Yeah, but when the lines are short, the priests tend to be kind of long-winded in the confessional,” Adrian replied.  He hoped to be back in front of the television before the halftime show ended.

As Adrian and Melissa hurried inside the church, they saw that a brief prayer service had already begun under the direction of Father Dave, the senior pastor of St. Cecilia’s, who was accompanied by two other priests.  After the prayers, the priests available to hear confessions were introduced: in addition to Father Dave, there was Father Martin, his assistant pastor at St. Cecilia’s, as well as another priest whom Adrian had never seen before.  The stranger, those assembled were told, was Father Betelgeuse, a southern California native and old college buddy of Father Martin’s, who was visiting after having done several years of missionary work among the Inuits of Nunavut in northern Canada.

Father Betelgeuse was unlike any priest Adrian had ever seen.  Looking near 60, he was at least seven feet tall, with a longish, bleached-blond hair streaked with some gray and a few days’ growth of whiskers on his chin.  His sleepy-looking blue eyes were piercing, and even under his garments it was clear that he had a muscular build.  An easy grin slid across his face frequently.

“He’s a bird of a different feather, isn’t he?” Melissa remarked in a whisper to Adrian, who nodded in agreement.

Adrian, who had always been a bit insecure, found that his discomfort with the idea of baring his sins to another person was lessened somewhat if he went to confession with a priest whom he did not know.  As the priests filed into the various locations around the church to hear confessions, Adrian angled himself in the direction of the big missionary priest fresh in town from Nunavut.  Since few of the people gathered seemed to be in a hurry to see him, Adrian found himself first in line.  Melissa had headed toward Fr. Martin’s area.

Entering the dark confessional booth, Adrian kneeled down, and the small sliding door to his right slid open.  Through the grate, he thought he heard reggae music, ever so faintly.  Chalking it up to his imagination, Adrian began his confession in the traditional way.

“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  Bless me Father, for I have sinned.  It’s been about a year since my last confession.”  He paused, waiting for some kind of acknowledgement from the other side of the grate.  When nothing came but more tinny Bob Marley, Adrian recited another short prayer often made by a person going to confession.  Still nothing.  After about a minute, Adrian gave a gentle rap on the screen.

“You alright, Father?”

“Oh, sorry dude!” Father Betelgeuse finally replied in a SoCal beach bum drawl.  “Having some technical harshness over here.  You know anything about mp3 players?”

 “Umm…no,” Adrian said slowly.  Between the unexpected mp3 question and being called ‘dude’ by a priest in the confessional, he was feeling a bit flummoxed. “Why, uh…why do you have an mp3 player during confessions?”

“Oh, I only keep one earbud in.  Marley chills me out,” Father Betelgeuse said. “Trust me, I still hear every word you say, even with sweet tuneage in one ear.”

“Okay then,” Adrian said, wondering if coming to this rather unconventional priest was a good idea after all.  “I guess that’s fine, if it makes things easier for you.”  For all Adrian knew, priests did that kind of thing on their side of the screen quite often.  It could be worse, he supposed.

“Sweet!  I’m glad you dig my groove, dude,” Father Betelgeuse replied. “Soooo, what’d you do?”
Despite feeling like he was confessing to Jeff Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Adrian went ahead and recited his laundry list of sins.  There was nothing especially outstanding in what he told.  Anyone who spent any time with Adrian would not have been shocked by anything he said.

As Father Betelgeuse injected an “um-hmm” and “okay” and “yeah” every once in a while, and intoned the traditional prayers that every priest says in the confessional, Adrian began to relax.  He said his final prayer and thanked Father Betelgeuse as he stood up to leave when the priest spoke up.

“Oh, wait a second, dude!  I forgot to give you your penance,” he said.  Penance is the task that the priest gives to the person whose confession he has just heard.  Typically, it is to pray a given number of prayers. “For your penance today, I would like you to say two Our Fathers and two Hail Marys, and go surfing with me later this afternoon.”

“Okay, Father.”  Adrian said automatically in response.  Then, moments later, the second part of Father Betelgeuse’s penance for him sank in. “Wait…what?!”


Melissa did not believe Adrian at first when he told her why he couldn’t go home with her.  He was trying to explain when a short, timid-looking guy in a plaid sweater vest named Bob walked up to where they were in the church vestibule.  He said he was told to wait here with Adrian until Father Betelgeuse was done with confessions, so he could do his penance.  At this, Melissa saw that Adrian was indeed being serious.  She gave her reluctant-looking husband a kiss on the cheek and wished him luck as she headed for the truck by herself.  Adrian watched her go, longing for the comfort of his home.

He turned to face the chubby, balding little guy who was to be his fellow surfing student, but before Adrian and Bob had any time to get acquainted, Father Betelgeuse came up to them with that lopsided grin. “Oh hey, you dudes ready?” he asked.

“Umm, well…” Adrian began.  But that was as far as he got.

“Great!  I’ve got some spare boards on my van, and I know a guy who owns a sporting goods store down by the bay.  He’ll get us some wetsuits.  This is going to be sweet!  Do you a lot of good too!”

On the 15-minute ride to the beach, Father Betelgeuse chattered in an almost non-stop monologue with more Bob Marley music in the background.  He believed that a penance should be a spiritual cleansing.  It should be something that makes an impact on you and makes you think.  In his mind, surfing did just that, especially to someone who had never done it before.  While he couldn’t issue this penance to everyone, Father Betelgeuse said he would if he could. 

Adrian was at a loss for words, and Bob was too busy puffing on his asthma inhaler to say anything.

A short time later, after having been outfitted with wetsuits courtesy of Father Betelgeuse’s friend with the sporting goods store, Adrian and Bob found themselves seaside, encased head to toe in neoprene, standing next to their borrowed surfboards on an empty, gray, windswept Maine beach.  The waves crashing along the shore looked like small mountains.  Adrian yearned for the warmth of his easy chair and the Celtics game, which by that point must have been nearly over.

“Okay dudes, follow me!” shouted the lanky priest as he waded into the crashing waves.  Adrian and Bob gamely followed.  While the water was very far from warm, it was not as shockingly cold as Adrian anticipated.  The wetsuits were doing their job.  They stopped when they were in up to their waists. 

“First, lie on your board and just float to get the vibe,” Father Betelgeuse said.  Adrian found himself up on his board first.   An occasional splash of frigid water hit his face, the only part of him that was actually exposed to the open.  From his bobbing vantage point, he watched as Father Betelgeuse managed to hoist Bob up onto his board, though just barely.  Bob had dipped underwater at least three times in the process, coming up sputtering and gasping each time. 

It was about that time that Adrian heard the puttering motor of a small skiff coming toward them from the direction of the wharf.  At the tiller was a crusty old fisherman in yellow raingear accompanied by a large, goofy-looking dog with a lolling tongue.  The amused look on the old man’s face indicated that, in spite of his many years, this sight was a new one to him.  He cut the engine and floated about ten yards out.  The huge dog put his paws on the side of the skiff and barked enthusiastically.

“Settle down there, Galen!” the old man said.  He had a thick downeast accent, so “there” sounded more like “thaya”.  Then he called out to the three men in the surf.  “Lose a bet?”

Father Betelgeuse was pounding Bob’s back, trying to help him cough up some of the seawater he had swallowed, so Adrian spoke for the little group.  “We’re, um, learning how to surf.”

“Ayuh,” the old man said.  He paused for a few seconds, letting Adrian’s explanation sink in a little.  “Why’s that now?”  Having spent his whole life on the water to make a living, he couldn’t understand why someone would be out in it for fun in this kind of weather.

“Kind of a long story,” Adrian replied.

“Ayuh.”  The old man settled back in his little boat to watch the unfolding spectacle.  Galen bounced up and down, yipping loudly and wagging his tail.  The lanky dog was rocking the skiff back and forth more than the waves.

While Adrian was far from being a surfer at that point, he was clearly miles ahead of Bob, whom Fr. Betelgeuse could not even keep on his surfboard for more than a few seconds due to his rather round physique.  He looked a lot like a small orca in his black and white wetsuit, actually.  Bob was going to need a lot more of the surfer-priest’s attention.  After a couple more dunks in the frigid water, Bob was gasping even more and looking blue in the face.

“Adrian, dude, I’m going to help Bob here back to the van to get his inhaler and catch his breath.  You wanna wait here?” Fr. Betelgeuse asked. Adrian nodded that he would.  Adrian grew up near the water and was a decent swimmer.  Since the wetsuit was keeping him pretty comfortable, and he was actually starting to enjoy bobbing up and down on the board, taking in the late-winter seaside scenery.

The old fisherman continued to stoically survey the scene from his skiff nearby, and Galen the dog continued to bark and rock the little boat.  Adrian did his best to strike up a conversation with the man, but the one-word responses he got, usually “ayuh”, indicated that the old salt was a man of few words.  From his vantage point, Adrian could see Bob and the priest leaning against the van, Bob puffing his asthma inhaler every few seconds.

Suddenly from behind him, Adrian heard a splash, and he whipped his head around to see that the old man’s skiff had overturned, dumping him and his dog into the frigid water.  The dog’s exuberance and the choppy waves had proven to be too much for the small craft.  Adrian could see the dog paddling toward more shallow water, but saw no sign of the old fisherman.  Immediately, he pushed himself off the surfboard and into the water, swimming in the direction of the upside-down boat.

Adrian had taken lifeguard training for a time in high school, though that was over twenty years ago.  He never finished the course, and had barely been in the water since then.  He prayed that what he had learned back then would come back to him.  He stopped mid-stroke to see if he could locate the fisherman.  About twenty feet beyond the skiff, he caught sight of a yellow flash on the gray water.  It was the fisherman’s rain slicker.  The current was pulling him out to sea.  Adrian saw the old man’s head bob above the water for a moment, and then go under again.  He wasn’t moving much at all, it seemed.  Adrian feared that he didn’t have much time.

Running on adrenaline, Adrian powered himself further toward the struggling old man, keeping his eyes on him as best he could.  His muscles were beginning to ache, and the freezing water on his face was almost unbearable.  The old fisherman was weakly waving his arms, trying in vain to stay afloat.  It seemed obvious to Adrian that, like many others who worked on the sea, the old man had not learned to swim.  Even if he had, his advanced age and the frigid cold of the sea would have made it nearly impossible for him to stay afloat. Adrian wondered if Father Betelgeuse had noticed the predicament.

With every stroke Adrian took, the old fisherman seemed to be dragged an equal distance away by the current.  His movements had suddenly stopped, and Adrian could no longer hear gasping.  He was beginning to wonder if the old man was even still alive. 

At last, Adrian was able to grab hold of the old man’s yellow rain slicker.  A slight groan escaped the old man’s now-blue lips, and his eyelids fluttered.  He was barely conscious, but still alive.  Though it seemed like hours to Adrian, only a few minutes had passed since the skiff had turned over.  Keeping the fisherman’s face above water, Adrian turned his head toward shore and began to swim with all his might.  He could see Father Betelgeuse racing toward the water now, and Bob on the shore behind him, speaking frantically into a cell phone.  Galen stood in water up to his chest barking madly.

Swimming while supporting another person’s dead weight was exhausting, especially to someone as out of practice as Adrian.  Every muscle in his body was screaming, and he thought his lungs were going to burst as he dragged himself and the old man closer to the shore.  It seemed to be taking an eternity, but they were getting closer.  Adrian was unsure of how much longer he could hold on to the old man and keep himself afloat at the same time.

They were no more than a few feet from the point where Adrian’s feet should have been able to touch the bottom, when a searing pain shot through his exposed face.  In his shock, Adrian let go of the fisherman and grabbed at his nose and cheeks.  He had swum into the path of a jellyfish, and its tentacles had brushed his face, stinging it badly, missing his eyes by mere millimeters.  The pain combined with exhaustion and stress was too much for Adrian, and darkness began to descend upon him.  As his own muscles went limp, Adrian felt the body of the old fisherman bump up against him.  Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, Adrian was dimly aware that this was the end.  He felt heavy and was sinking fast.  He tried with all his might to will himself to move, to make for the surface, but just couldn’t.  Seawater rushed into Adrian’s mouth, and he lost all vision as he sank deeper and deeper.  He felt the pressure of the water building on his eardrums.  The last thing he remembered was the feeling of a vice-like grip on his right arm, and then everything went black.


When Adrian opened his eyes, he found himself still clad in the neoprene wetsuit, lying on a gurney in the emergency room, as near as he could tell.  He had never felt so exhausted in his life, and his face was burning from the stings of the jellyfish.  His right arm felt sore and bruised.  A nurse taking his blood pressure looked up and smiled when she saw he was awake.

“How are you feeling, Mr. McAllister?”

“I’ve been better, “he said.  Then he remembered the old salt he had been trying to save.  “Is the other man okay?”

“They’re looking him over now, but most likely it’s just a case of hypothermia and exhaustion,” she  told him. “The other people you were with are fine too.  They’re out in the waiting room.” 

“That’s good.”  Adrian closed his eyes again and let his mind wrap around everything that had happened. “How did I get out of the water anyway?  Do you know?  The last thing I remember before blacking out is someone grabbing my arm.”

“Just rest, Mr. McAllister.  Your friends will fill you in on the details later.”

That sounded like a good idea to Adrian. Before falling back to sleep, he reached over to his sore right arm with his left hand.  He felt what he could have sworn were tooth marks in the neoprene.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

A Road Trip to the Maine Coast: By The Numbers

As is sometimes my custom during the warm weather months, I made a trip to the coast this weekend.  And no, not all of Maine is on the coast!  Some of us have to drive to get there.  Despite the trek involved, it was absolutely beautiful, and just what the doctor ordered after a long, cold winter.  Instead of boring you with a blow-by-blow account of the trip, I thought that, with all due respect to Harper’s Index , it would be fun to throw out some statistics associated with it.

The pretty little inlet beside which I spent my day with a good book and a semi-comfy lawn chair.

·        Number of sunburned arms on my person: 1.
This is the consequence of driving with your arm out the window the whole way down, without first applying sunscreen.

·        Number of lighthouses seen: 2.
Neither was an actual working lighthouse, mind you.  They were both very large yard decorations.

·        Number of miles between the ocean and the closest lighthouse I saw to it: 84.4.
Evidently, the allure of the ocean grows stronger in the yard decorators the further they are from the ocean itself.  There’s probably one in every yard in places like Kansas.

·        Number of cents difference in price per gallon of gas between the stations in my town and those on the coast: 25.
The further south in Maine you go, the cheaper the gasoline.  I figure by the time you get down to Kittery, it must be free.

·        Number of fake corpses hanging from old satellite dishes: 1.
At least I hope it was a fake.  Halloween was a long time ago after all.

·        Number of 1982 Chevy Citations seen pulling out of a driveway: 1.
Those clunkers were lucky to survive the drive off the dealer's lot.  To see a working one 30 years later is a miracle.

·        Number of guys seen leaning over engines of vehicles with their hoods up: 4.
The number of nasty butt cracks seen (and that cannot be unseen) was also four, by the way.

·        Number of antique Esso gas station signs seen: 2.
Esso became Exxon in the United States some years ago.  One of these babies would probably fetch a ton of cash on one of those pawn store reality shows.

·        Number of dead animals seen along the road: 5.
A squirrel, a cat, a raccoon, and two birds.  The body count rises this time of year.

·        Number of squished bugs on my just-cleaned windshield: a billion jillion.
Probably more, actually.

·        Number of Memorial Day flower arrangement stands which were also selling seed “taters” (according to the signs): 2.
Remember to honor your dead and plant your Yukon golds, people!  Tis the season.

·        Number of towns named “Meddybemps” passed through: 1.
You just have to say that name over and over and over.  Well, I do at least.

·        Number of triple-murder scenes passed: 1.
Yes, it was nearly two years ago and yes, they caught the killer, but it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.

·        Number of speed traps successfully avoided: 3.
Words to the wise: keep it under the speed limit in the towns of Princeton and Baileyville.  Speeders are their primary municipal revenue source.

·        Number of topless women mowing the lawn seen: 1.
It was not nearly as exciting as you might think.  At all.  Trust me on this. *shudder*

·        Number of giant, electricity generating windmills spotted: about 8.
Maybe more.  I was driving, drinking soda and flipping between radio stations to find a clear signal for the Red Sox game at the time, so counting them all at that time was not a really safe option.

           Number of big bugs found crawling on my leg while driving: 1.
Number of big bugs I THOUGHT I felt crawling on my leg after that: 13.

·        Number of goats eating out of flower pots in someone’s yard: 2.
The number of batches of goats-head cheese being whipped up tomorrow at that residence is also likely going to be two.

·        Number of roads passed named “Suckertown Road”: 1.
I wonder if it leads to Las Vegas or Atlantic City?

·        Number of extra large sodas consumed by yours truly: 2.
·        Number of extra large pee breaks taken by yours truly: 3.
You’d think the above two statistics would have matched up better.

·        Number of Pearl Jam albums listened to on the way down to the coast: 2.5.
Vitalogy, Ten, and part of No Code, if you were wondering.

·        Number of innings of the Red Sox-Phillies game listened to on the way home: 5.
Sox win!  Sox win!

·        Number of turkey vultures seen eating carrion: 2.
Nasty, icky birds eating nasty, icky things.

·        Number of American bald eagles seen in flight: 2.
I don’t care where you come from, it’s a very impressive sight.  As far as my day was concerned, the eagles cancelled out the turkey vultures, even though they all eat the same kind of stuff.

·        Number of blog posts I milked out of this one trip: 1.
      For now, at least.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Gone Fiddleheadin'

Here in northern Maine, we are currently in the midst of a brief period called “fiddlehead season”.  It’s a period of about two weeks in early May when people can go fiddleheading, of course.

Seems clear enough.

In the unlikely event that I am not making sense to you, let me back up a bit.  Fiddleheads are the furled up juvenile stage of the fern Matteuccia struthiopteris, commonly known as the ostrich fern or fiddlehead fern. They typically proliferate in northern regions of central and eastern North America at this time of year.  Fiddleheads tend to grow best on flat, sandy pieces of land alongside running water.  We’ve got a lot of that.

Fiddleheads are actually a delicious treat that I enjoy a whole lot.  That is really saying something coming from the likes of me, someone known as the most finicky eater this side of Morris the Cat.  Whenever I talk about fiddleheads with people from other parts of the country or the world, I get strange looks, as though they think I am eating actual parts of musical instruments. They are actually in the vegetable category, and when steamed or boiled have the consistency of a cross between spinach and broccoli.  Not the seedy, treetop part of broccoli, but the soft tree trunk part. Some melted butter and a splash of cider vinegar, and there is nothing finer than a serving a fiddleheads.

You’ve got to use some caution when preparing those babies though.  Growing as they do along bodies of water, they may harbor microcooties, also known as bacteria, which can make you pretty sick if you don’t cook them thoroughly before eating.  Nothing can spoil one’s first fiddlehead experience quite like repeated trips to the john to evacuate one end or the other of one’s digestive system.

That’s not to say fiddleheads are up on the dangerous scale with fugu, the Japanese blowfish that can kill you if it is not prepared just so.  Why on earth anyone would want to take a chance on eating something like that is beyond me, and a possible topic for a future blog post.  Suffice it to say, fiddleheads are more akin to raw meat in terms of preparation. As long as you clean and cook them thoroughly, you’ll be fine.

Collecting fiddleheads, or “fiddleheading” is not for the weak of back or dry of foot.  When I was just a little kid, my late, Bing Crosby-loving grandmother used to take me out fiddleheading.  (Mind you, she wasn’t “late” at the time.  That would have taken a lot of the fun out of it.) 

My grandfather would drive us way the heck out on some back road near adjacent farmsteads where they both grew up many years before, and then Gram and I would tramp way the heck further out into the woods until we got to a stream.  The ground was nothing but mud, and in spite of our boots, our feet were cold and soaked before we even got started.  For the next hour or so, my grandmother and I bent over and picked up literally hundreds of the curly little green fronds from the muddy ground and put them into a bag.  It wasn’t so bad for me, given that I was both six years old and relatively close to the ground anyway.  But how my grandmother, in her sixties, with diabetes and more than a few extra pounds on her frame, was able to vastly outpick me and never once let on that she was tired or sore, I’ll never know.   She was a pretty amazing woman in lots of ways.

Afterwards, back at my grandfather’s car, I remember wringing my socks out the backseat window, sitting alongside no less than a half-dozen grocery bags full of fiddleheads.  I had picked two, while my grandmother had picked the other four.  The only reason she had stopped picking for the afternoon was because she was worried about my grandfather growing impatient while waiting back in the car. He was older than she, and not quite as spunky for his age, so needless to say he was not at all game for several hours of back-breaking labor.  He preferred the role of chauffeur and chief reader of the newspaper.

Thirty-six years later, a lot has changed in my life, but one thing has not: I’m still good for about two grocery bags full until I am ready to call it a day.  But it’s much more crowded along the river and streambanks nowadays.  Fiddleheads have grown in popularity here in Maine in recent years, and with that popularity has come an increase in demand and hence, price.  (Hooray for capitalism.)  Area retailers and restaurants are offering several dollars per pound for something that is basically free for the taking in most spots if you want to put in the time and effort to gather.  One of the main access trails to the river that runs through town is right across the street from my house, and there has been a lot of activity the past few weeks.  I’ve seen people from all strata of society headed down to the river with empty bags and coming back up with full ones and visions of either a fine meal or a full wallet dancing in their heads.  There have been cars with license plates from New York and Delaware parked across the street, and folks ranging in age from preschoolers to octogenarians making their way to the riverside.

One of the more unusual pickers I’ve seen was just this morning.  It was early, and I was sitting in my favorite armchair, drinking coffee and watching the rain come down out the window when I saw a middle-aged woman in what looked like pajamas come trundling down the street toward the river access trail.  Given the frequency with which people wear their jammies out and around, I didn’t think a whole lot of it.  About an hour later though, I saw this very same lady walking back up the street, completely drenched, and carrying a very full plastic bag of fiddleheads.  I began to wonder:  What circumstances would compel a woman to pick a full bag of fiddleheads, in her pajamas, in a steady rain, at dawn on a Sunday?

There’s probably a great American novel in the answer to that question.

Once you’ve picked fiddleheads, then you have to clean them, and that’s an ordeal if you ask me.  Good old Matteuccia struthiopteris comes with a brown, paper-like covering, much like certain magazines did back in the day.  (Or so I’m told.)  This covering is very crumbly and hard to get entirely off the fiddlehead.  But get it off you must, from every single one of those hundreds and hundreds of curly green pains in the neck.  Plus, it’s a good idea to check each individual one for rot, bugs, or other such nastiness.  Their tiny, curly nature lends itself to trapping iffy things in nooks and crannies. 

For every hour I’ve spent picking fiddleheads, I’ve probably spent another two cleaning them.  Since my family and I will be eating them ourselves, I take the job pretty seriously and get rid of all the brown stuff and other nasties.  But that doesn’t mean I like it.  On a scale of one-to-filing taxes, cleaning fiddleheads is around an eight.  I shudder to think about the level of commitment to cleaning, or lack thereof, by people who are merely selling them to retailers or restaurateurs.  I hope the patron saint of health inspectors is watching over us all.

Although the words may ring hollow coming from me, the least-willing person on earth to take chances with new foods, but I’d encourage you to give fiddleheads a try if you ever get the opportunity.  You can learn more about them at this link from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.  Maine lobster  and blueberry pie are great, but if you want a true taste of Maine, some steamed fiddleheads with real butter and vinegar alongside a grilled brook trout is a meal like no other.

I just have to try not to think about the fact that both fiddleheads and trout grew in close proximity to my arch-nemesis, the eel.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A Pretty Pathetic Mother's Day Appeal

Mother’s Day in the United States is this coming Sunday, and I am totally stuck.
A little background: I am terrible at gift-giving. Really, really bad.  It is my instinct to give practical, useful gifts, because that is what I would want. If I get a package of fresh razors for my birthday, I am quite content.  A lot of my guy friends feel the same way, but I’ve learned that many women do not.  At all.  Once, when I was in my mid-20s, I gave my girlfriend a blender for her birthday.  She liked to make mixed drinks for parties, and her blender was on its last legs.  It seemed like a total slam dunk to me.

I still have the scars. From time to time, my friends from that time in my life will still call or write, asking “Hey, remember that time you actually gave *girlfriend* a blender? That was a riot!”

It was not a riot.  Just sayin’.

Consequently, when I find some kind of thing that works well as a gift for a woman in my life, I ride that horse just as far as I can until it drops.  This year, one of the horses dropped.  I have all the ladies I need to buy for taken care of except one. 

Every year for as long as I can remember, I have gotten my grandmother a large hanging fuchsia plant for Mother’s Day.  She loves fuchsias, and they have always looked great hanging from a shepherd’s hook in her yard.  She also loves the tradition of it.  Every Mother’s Day, she gets a fuchsia from me, like clockwork.  Gram acts surprised, makes a big deal out of it, faithfully hangs it outside and prunes the “deadheads” all summer, and generally enjoys her fuchsia until the first frost, when she moves it inside.  Most of the fuchsias don’t make it through the winter in the house, but that’s okay.  She knows another Mother’s Day is coming, and another fuchsia plant is on the way from me.

Trouble is, Gram has moved recently.  She’s 86, and has been having an increasingly hard time living on her own, so she has moved into a very nice but fairly small assisted-living apartment.  It’s on the second floor, so there is no yard.  The apartment is small and the accumulated items of a lifetime from her house are there.  It seems like she’s got everything she needs, and space is at a premium.  

So a fuchsia is out this year.  Dammit.

She used to keep an aquarium at her house, and buying fish and accessories has been a good  plan for me on other holidays.  But the fish didn’t make the move with her to the apartment.  My grandmother likes birds, so I have gotten her bird feeders in the past.  That’s a no-go in a second floor apartment too.  Same with lawn ornaments, garden flags, wind chimes, and every other great gift idea I’ve ever had for her.

Her eyes aren’t what they used to be, so books are not a good choice.  She likes her television and landline telephone, but is not very technological beyond that.  She loves her little dog, but he’s got more “stuff” of his own than any canine I’ve ever met. Gram doesn’t cook much for herself anymore.  She tires easily, so certificates for shopping, dining or events would be kind of a crapshoot.  She’s on a restricted diet, so sweets and treats are not a great idea.  I wouldn't have the slightest idea of what to get her for clothing.  (It's nothing short of a miracle I can buy clothes for myself.)  And frankly, she’s a bit forgetful at times, so something like scented candles would be no good.

I have wandered aimlessly through a plethora of stores over these past few days, looking for all the world like a lost puppy.  Nothing jumped out at me as a good idea for my grandmother’s Mother’s Day gift.  Frequently, female sales clerks would come up to me, place a gentle hand on my arm, give me a sympathetic look, and say things like “Oh darling, you look like you really need some help.”  I would dutifully follow them around, taking in their suggestions, but nothing seemed right.

Gram was like a third parent to me and my siblings growing up, and always spoiled us rotten.  I enjoy trying to do the same with her in her old age, but I am stumped.  Completely baffled.

Help me out here people!  I’ve got 99 hours until Mother’s Day as of this posting. What do I get my 86-year-old grandmother for Mother’s Day?

UPDATE: Thanks for the ideas I got in the comments, and also via e-mail and Twitter.  I went with two suggestions.  First, I got some individual fuchsia plants and transplanted them into a small decorative container that would fit nicely in my grandmother's home.  And secondly, I did take a little extra time to just be with her and enjoy her company, which is something I really ought to do every day if I can.  Again, thanks so much for your help, faithful readers!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Adolescents & Fireworks: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

One has lots of time to think when doing yard work, I’ve found.  I actually don’t mind doing it.  For me, cleaning up after winter is much like straightening up your house after the departure of an intrusive houseguest who attempts to kill you with snow, ice, harsh winds and frigid temperatures at every turn.  Okay, maybe there aren’t a lot of houseguests exactly like that, but you get my point.

The bulk of my yard work has been at my grandmother’s house across town.  I had a lot of fun times there while growing up.  Maybe I should say “as a child”. Some would argue I’ve yet to grow up.  While I was raking and hauling debris, I got to thinking about some of those times, particularly those associated with house next door, which had long been empty.  It was finally torn down just a few months ago, and is now a vacant lot strewn with hay and gravel.

An actual photo of Stace's old house on its last day. The green house in the background was the "Bumpus house".

My good friend Stace lived in that house with his mother in the 70s and early 80s.  Stace was two years older than me, and very adventuresome. We pulled a lot of crazy stunts that would have horrified our elders (and, in some cases, law enforcement) had they known.  I could almost smell sulfur as I recalled the time when I was about 11 years old, and Stace and I nearly blew the neighborhood up.

It was 1981, and Stace was going to be moving soon to another part of the state.  We knew our time to hang out was winding down, so we were making the most of it while his mom and my grandmother were busy packing and labeling.  At around that same time, Stace’s father, who lived out of state, sent him a box of fireworks.

Yes, fireworks.  A 13-year-old boy, his 11-year-old friend, and a box of illegal explosives, marginally supervised.  What could possibly go wrong?

Stace’s mother knew about this box, but did not know much about fireworks themselves.  Stace wisely downplayed the potential danger, and didn’t let her spend a lot of time investigating it.  She assumed, I think, that the fireworks were all in the same category as sparklers, or maybe firecrackers, but not something worth her worry.  As for me, my grandmother and parents knew nothing of this wonderful box of deadly fun, and I aimed to keep it that way.

One thing in our favor was that it was not a quiet neighborhood.  There was a lot of traffic nearby, and numerous houses occupied by unruly folks.  Remember the backwoodsy Bumpuses with all the hounds from A Christmas Story? (“He won it! Says it’s a major award!”)  We’re talking about very similar people here.  Unexpected and unusual noises and smells were the norm.

I can’t remember how many items were in the fireworks box, but it was easily over 100.  They were of a variety I had never seen before nor have I seen since.  Stace was going to be living in an apartment in his new city, so all of the fireworks had to be used prior to his move. We had about a month to detonate them.  Never had a challenge been so gladly accepted.

In spite of what you might assume, Stace and I were actually quite responsible (mostly) and the picture of caution when it came to handling explosives, especially those with which we were not familiar. We thoroughly read all the directions and warnings, and made sure to keep our distance after lighting any fuses.  I got hold of an old pair of leather work gloves which we used faithfully when igniting things, just to be sure we didn’t burn ourselves. Daring and adventure were great, but pain…not so much.  I can’t remember either of us incurring injuries requiring anything more than a Band-Aid.

Stace and I started small, with the sparklers.  Not only were they the only things in our arsenal that were legal in our state, but they were also the least lethal, so we were pretty comfortable using them out in the open.

Next, firecrackers. The main attraction of those babies was noise, and lots of it. They were awesome, but attracted attention that we didn’t want.  Stace always had a good head on his shoulders, and probably would have made an excellent crime boss if he had chosen to take that route in life.  (He didn’t, for the record.) He made sure we only set off a few packs of firecrackers at a time, in different places and at different times, so as to avoid suspicion.  Some of them were pretty high-powered. For fun, we’d take one, sneak into someone’s backyard when we knew they were home, and clandestinely light it off in a safe place, like the middle of a lawn.  After enjoying the tooth-rattling boom, Stace and I would nearby, watching and waiting for the bewildered homeowner to come outside to see if a jetliner had crashed behind their gazebo.

There were quite a few bottle rockets too.  Living in a neighborhood with lots of trees and wooden structures, we had to be careful where we aimed them. During the month-long rocket barrage, we accidentally lit one tree on fire (briefly), accidentally hit one vehicle (a battered old van parked behind a stoner’s garage), accidentally melted one sneaker (one of Stace’s) and managed to ignite zero homes, garages, or businesses.

Some of the other items in Stace’s box were more exotic. Roman candles, launching blinding spheres into the air every few seconds, were my personal favorites. There were also small discs that looked like they were made of charcoal. When lit, they curled around in a ring of ash like a snake. One of the most memorable were small metallic flying saucers that, when lit, would rise up to ten feet in the air, showering sparks in all directions and making a fantastic whirring sound.  They scared the daylights out of us the first time we lit one.  After that one, we couldn’t get enough.

As the day of Stace’s move got closer, a bunch of fireworks remained. We decided to use up what was left all at once.  The trick was going to be not getting caught.

Our attention turned to Stace’s playhouse in his back yard.  It was a decent-sized structure that we had used as headquarters for a number of years.  However, it was starting to get pretty dilapidated.  Moss grew on the roof, the floorboards were crumbling, the glass in the windows had been taken out, and the door no longer hung on its hinges.  Whoever moved into Stace’s house next was probably going to tear it down.  It was the best place to light off what remained of the fireworks with the least amount of risk of being found out.

On a rainy Saturday, the day before Stace and his mother were to move for good, he and I converged on the playhouse with our arsenal and a fire extinguisher that we had found in his garage.

What happened over the next thirty minutes or so can only be described as very loud, very bright, very smoky, and very, very stinky.  Firecrackers, bottle rockets, flying saucers, Roman candles…we lit them all off inside that ten foot by ten foot building that day. (We were not necessarily inside the building when they were going off, mind you.)  Miraculously, the building did not catch fire, nor did we, and we didn’t get caught.  The Bumpuses must have been at a monster truck rally that day.  When the smoke cleared, the interior had an evil, sulfur smell that would linger for ages, and the walls, floor, and ceiling were permanently blackened. Stace and I were not in much better shape.  The smell of smoke and sulfur clung to us, and we were covered in soot and ash.  We looked like chimneysweeps.

A genuine mea culpa here: In hindsight, the stunts Stace and I pulled with that box of fireworks were incredibly dangerous and foolish, and I would never encourage any child (or adult for that matter) to even consider doing such a thing.  If any kids are reading this: We were stupid and ignorant of the danger!  Don’t do it! Stace and I were lucky not to be seriously injured or killed.

Back to 2012.  It’s funny what triggers memories.  Who would have thought that an afternoon of spring cleanup in my grandmother’s yard would take me back in time over thirty years?  A lot has changed in that time, but I am fortunate enough to still have my grandmother around, and to still be in contact with Stace on occasion.  I know he reads this blog from time to time, so I dedicate this post to him and all the good times we had way back when.

How on earth are we still alive and in one piece, Stace?