Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I Don't Shop Well...Or Do I?

I’ve been told that I shop like a hunted animal.  It’s bad enough online, where I compare prices at various sites and read reviews ad nauseum before I pull the trigger on the purchase days (or weeks, or months) after first starting.  But get me out shopping in person, in an actual store, and it just becomes sad.  I dither, contemplate and generally wander aimlessly around the store for much longer than a normal person ever would.

Typically, I’ll pick up an item that may or may not fit the bill, and proceed to carry it around the store a while as I think about it.  The whole thing is an exercise in rationalization.  Suppose, for example, I pick up a shirt that I think I might like.  I’ll start walking around the store with the shirt in hand, and start talking myself out of it.  There’s the price.  If it is a bargain, I’ll wonder if there is something wrong with it.  Is it low quality and prone to shrinking the first time I wash it?  If it is not a bargain, I’ll wonder if I really want to spend that much on it.  Maybe I can find it cheaper somewhere else.  Even if the price is fine, I might find another reason to talk myself out of it.  “It’s a lot like another shirt I already have,” I might think, or “It’s not really the kind of thing I will wear very often,” or maybe even “How many Rick Springfield tour t-shirts does a guy really need anyhow?”

And so on and so forth.  Nine times out of ten, the item I have taken for a walk around the store ends up back on the shelf from whence it came, I pick up something else, and the whole cycle begins again.  It doesn’t matter if it is a major purchase or a minor one.  It’s always the same.

Needless to say, precious few of my friends and family ever volunteer to go shopping with me.

For that matter, there are not many people at all who want to be caught up in the epic clusterbumble that tends to be my shopping.  I am unfailingly polite and sympathetic to retail salespersons, whose jobs I know can be trying at times.  Nonetheless, I am usually part of the problem for them, though not on purpose.  I have a tendency to pepper them with endless questions when shopping for something specific, typically only to decide I need to sleep on it, and then walk out of the store without making a purchase.  I’m sure they hate people like me.

My dysfunctional shopping habits are especially problematic for me at this time of year, Christmastime.  Not only do I have to do a lot more shopping than usual, but there is a deadline attached to it all.  Granted, I find it easier to shop for other people than for myself, but that is like saying it is easier to swim across the Atlantic Ocean because it is not as wide as the Pacific.

This year, I have cut myself some slack in the Christmas shopping department, though at the possible expense of some sentiment.  I am giving everyone on my list two things: a gift card and a charitable donation in their name.

Gift cards are widely available in almost any amount for almost any place of business.  They always “fit”, meaning that the recipients are guaranteed to get something they want and/or need, because they will be getting it themselves.  No risk of getting someone a gift in a color they don’t want, a size they don’t fit into, or that they already own.

The downside is that a gift card does not show the same degree of thoughtfulness that a specific gift might.  Getting Uncle Louie that one Miles Davis CD that is missing from his collection might be a great gift, but I would argue that getting him a gift card to his local music store so he can get it, or something else, himself still shows a level of thoughtfulness that a gift card to the Fabric Mart for him would not.

Another downside, at least as far as gift cards and young kids are concerned, is that in most cases, it isn’t something they can enjoy as soon as they open it.  Few kids dream of waking up on Christmas morning, running to the tree, and ending up sitting in the midst of a stack of plastic cards after everything has been opened.  Taking that into account for the youngest folks on my list, I do pick them up something else as well.

The charitable gift giving is the part of this whole thing that I like the best.  Most of us have no shortage of “stuff”, and adding unnecessary things to it just doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially given that many people in the world have very little or none of the basics in life.  This year, many of the people on my Christmas list are getting a donation made to Heifer International in their name.

Heifer International, if you haven’t heard of it, is a well-established charity that does work empowering the poor around the globe.  Theirs is essentially a “teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime” philosophy.

Here’s how it works: In their catalogue, you can “buy” gifts that are given to families in need.  The gifts are of the type that allow the family to lift themselves out of poverty.  For example, for $20, Heifer will provide a flock of geese, along with education and training in their care, so the family in poverty can raise them for their eggs, meat and down, which they can use themselves and also sell.  For $30, Heifer International will provide a needy family with a hive of honeybees, along with the education and training to manage the hive and produce honey that they can in turn use, as well as sell locally to provide for themselves.  Gifts such as these are also good in that they are living things that can multiply, and therefore can be passed on to empower other poor families nearby.

Heifer International has gifts that range from as large as a camel to as small as a basket of chicks, all of which can be given to a poor family on behalf of the person in whose name you made the donation.  If you want, Heifer will send a card or e-mail to that person explaining the donation made in their name and the good that it does.  For my young nieces and nephews, I got each a stuffed toy to represent the gift given in their name.  My niece in whose name the gift of a flock of ducks was given is also getting a small toy duckling along with her donation card, to help make it more concrete for her.

A gift donation to Heifer International is easy, fits almost any gift-giving budget, and really fits the spirit of the Christmas season a lot better than a pair of pajama jeans.

Please don’t get me wrong in my intentions in writing about this charitable giving.  I am not trying to give myself a pat on the back by any means.  As a matter of fact, I wasn’t originally going to even include it in this posting.  However, I’ve decided that by making mention of Heifer International, their philosophy and my personal experience with them, it might nudge some others to do the same thing.  I didn’t take the plunge with them myself until someone I knew told me of her positive experience with them.

One thing that may particularly interest you is that Heifer International does not just help families in far away places.  Families in the United States, even right here in Maine, have benefitted from their work.  Poverty is not just a far away thing.  Half the world’s population, nearly 3 billion people, live on less than $2.50 USD a day, and 80% live on under $10 USD daily. (Source)

So here’s to hoping you and your loved ones have a happy and peaceful Christmas season.  And if you see me in a store between now and the 25th, it is probably best if you just steer clear.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tribute to a Teacher

One of my biggest influences as a reader, a writer, and as a person recently died after a long illness.  Sister Mona Hecker was my English teacher in parochial school from grades five through eight, which is a very critical period in one’s life in many regards.  It’s during those years that we decide a lot of things, including if reading and writing are things we do for pleasure, or become merely functions that must be undertaken to get by in day-to-day life.  Sister Mona seemed to make it her mission that her students would choose the former over the latter.  She was passionate about life, her students, and literacy, and it was easy for us as kids to see that.

Sister Mona Hecker, with that same smile I knew 30+ years ago.
Photo from the Lewiston Sun-Journal

The first thing that pops into my head when I think of Sister Mona is that she was the first teacher who read great books aloud to my classmates and I on a daily basis.  And by “great books”, I mean books of high quality yet also appealing to kids the age my classmates and I were.  She introduced us to a boy who adopted a baby raccoon in Sterling North’s Rascal, and to a girl facing many of the same adolescent trials and tribulations as us in Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh.  Every year around Halloween, she read something from Edgar Allen Poe to us, and with great feeling.  “The Tell-Tale Heart” blew our young minds the year she shared it with us.  I still hear it in Sister Mona’s voice when I read the lines where the murderer confesses his horrible deed.

She of course insisted that we be readers ourselves, and showed us that being a real reader and being a student in reading class were two different things.  Up until I was in Sister Mona’s class, “reading” in school was made up entirely of going over short, mind-numbingly dull passages in dusty old textbooks, followed by doing endless and mindless worksheets.  I was a bookworm from a very young age, and read a lot in my spare time, but saw very little connection between my own reading and so-called “reading class”.  Sister Mona changed all that by asking that we read whatever we wanted.  Her classroom library was large and varied, and she made full use of the school library as well.  An occasional book report was required, primarily for grading purposes, but most of the time, she held us accountable by randomly calling us up to her desk while everyone else was reading at their seats and simply asking us one on one to tell her a little about our current book for a few minutes.  It was very low-key, but very effective.

Sister Mona never neglected the skills side of English either.  Diagramming sentences was one of her favorite things, and though such activity could have been deadly in the hands of a lesser instructor, she actually made diagramming somewhat entertaining.  I have no doubt that I learned a lot about parts of speech and sentence structure from it.  She also let us play the game “Password” as a class every Friday, which we absolutely loved.  Little did we know at the time that she was also teaching us to broaden our vocabulary at the same time.

Every quarter for four years, Sister Mona required that everyone in the class present a Minute Talk, as she called them.  As the name implies, it was an original one-minute talk each of us had to give on a general topic that she chose, such as an important person in our lives or a holiday memory.  They were a horrifying prospect for us as young fifth graders, but as the years passed, many of my classmates and I became fairly calm about public speaking.  She was a great speech coach, and really made a difference in the presentation skills a number of us developed.  Always one for a good chuckle, Sister Mona often gave an example of a Minute Talk she never wanted to hear from us, which she said a former student of hers had once given.  It was on the topic of snow.    It went something like: “Snow is white and it is wet.  It is frozen water.  Snow comes in the winter.  You can make snowmen from it.” And so on with brief, random snow observations up until the one minute mark.  She delivered it in exactly the opposite way she would have wanted us to deliver ours: in a deadpan voice with poor posture.  It always cracked us right up.  It was a running gag in our class all four years for at least one of us to tell her our upcoming Minute Talk topic was “Snow” when she asked.  She always laughed when someone said it, even after four years of hearing it, just like we did every time after hearing her snow-themed “what not to do” Minute Talk.

Sister Mona loved to laugh, and as the Christmas season approached in my seventh grade year, she asked me and a small group of others to take on a pretty hefty assignment in lieu of other work in English class.  We were to rewrite Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol into a humorous play that we as a whole class would then put on at the school Christmas program.  She insisted that it be true to the original, but that it also be funny and appropriate to an audience of students and parents.  The final product, in which I portrayed Bob Crachit, turned out pretty well, if I do say so myself.  I think I learned more about writing for a specific audience and writing in collaboration with others from that assignment than any other I ever did in my life.  As for whether the final version was really that funny, I’m not so sure, but it sure made Sister Mona laugh a lot as we prepared to perform it.

We were required to write compositions and other assignments, of course, but much like her approach to reading and speaking, Sister Mona usually gave us some latitude in what we wrote.  She set forth page-length requirements, a time limit and other such necessities, but made sure the topic of the composition was broad enough that almost anyone could make it their own.  Instead of “What I Did Over My Summer Vacation”, she might assign the more generic “Summer” instead, allowing us to take it in any number of directions.

Sister Mona’s influence extended beyond English class for me.  My mother had had a baby just a couple weeks into my fifth grade year.  I had seen my mother and my new baby brother very briefly for a few minutes before school the day he was born, but was apparently visibly pre-occupied by the whole business all day long.  My father had to work until 5:00 that day, so Sister Mona and our principal, Sister Margaret Anne, called my father and offered to take me up to visit my mother and the baby at the hospital after school, not only so they could visit, but also to set me at ease.

In fifth grade, Sister Mona instituted a nursing home visitation program with her "homeroomers", as she called us.  Every Monday afternoon, she and a large percentage of my classmates would walk to a nearby nursing home and visit with the residents, talking and doing activities.  It was a lot of fun, as it gave my classmates and I time to spend with each other while doing some good deeds.  One of the upsides of Sister Mona’s loud laugh was that it often helped us know where she was in the nursing home at any given time.  As kids, one of our favorite things to do was to hang out with some of the nursing home residents in the TV room watching game shows.  Sister Mona would rather we be visiting people in their rooms and interacting with them more directly.  As long as we knew where she was, we could get our Match Game or Family Feud fix along with some of the residents.

After eighth grade, my classmates and I were leaving parochial school for the local high school, and Sister Mona decided that she was going to the Bahamas.  Not for a vacation, by any stretch.  She was going to do a year of mission work with the poor of that nation.  In the final weeks of our eighth grade year, she shared a great deal of material with us about the nature of her work down there.  It had very little to do with the golden beaches we imagined.  It had everything to do with shacks that were barely able to stand on their own, cramped one-room schools with too few teachers and books, and hospitals with too few doctors and supplies.  Sister Mona had to leave our parochial school for the last time that June day in 1984 one hour before my classmates and I did, so she could catch her plane to the Bahamas.  I never saw her in person again.

Sister Mona also had a fiery temper and was not someone you would ever want to cross.  My classmates and I were so fond of her that rarely did it cross our minds to do so.  When one of us did…watch out!  She was no saint, but neither were we, and as adolescents it was valuable for us to see that, especially in a nun.  Nuns at that time were often seen as holy and virtually faultless.  Sister Mona, on the other hand, was very down-to-earth.  Once, someone brought a copy of Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, a semi-novelty record, to school and played it in the classroom during a rainy recess.  Sister Mona, whom we didn't think was listening, thought it was one of the funniest things she had ever heard.  Every Lent, when Catholics are traditionally encouraged to make sacrifices, she gave up the same thing: potato chips.  As kids, we could really get on board with something as relatable as that.  She talked with us about what a challenge it was to stay away from them for that period of time, but also about why she did it and its importance to her.  Her leading by example meant a lot to us, and taught us more than any textbook ever could.

I owe a great deal to Sister Mona, and I regret that I did not get a chance in later life to let her know that.  As often happens, I lost track of her as I got older, and never was able to share my gratitude.  Books and writing are an important part of my life, and she deserves no small part of the credit.  When the day finally comes that I publish my first book, Sister Mona’s name will be right there on the dedication page where it surely belongs.

God bless you Sister Mona, and thank you.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Getting Rattled

I've been a “car guy” ever since I was a little kid.  Not a car guy in the sense that I could tear down and rebuild an engine, but a car guy in the sense that I have always enjoyed driving and admiring them.  When taking a trip in my car, half the fun for me is the journey to and from the destination.  An antique auto or any kind of unique vehicle on the road will almost always turn my head, and I find it impossible to just drive past any kind of car show or display.  One of the highlights of my summer excursions around Maine this year was a day spent at the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum in the town of Owl’s Head, just outside of Rockland.  I could have made it several days, actually.

Because I place such a premium on the car experience, it makes me kind of edgy when something interferes with that pleasure.  You may recall that I addressed this here in this blog a few months ago when my Hyundai Santa Fe developed a mysterious knock which seemed to be coming from the undercarriage that I could not track down no matter how hard I tried.  It turned out to be some manner of rod near one of the wheels, according to my mechanic, who is also likely certified to fly space shuttles.  I think this “rod” was actually part of the flux capacitor or something, and I never would have ferreted it out by myself in a million years.

Because my Santa Fe is nearing seven years old, I know that it, like me, is not getting any younger and is bound to develop more frequent health quirks.  Much as I do with my own health, I sometimes get concerned that the other shoe could drop on my car’s well-being at any time.  Also much like my own health, I am not so much worried about some major crisis as much as a series of irritating little ones. 

Take, for instance, the plastic covering for the fuse panel, on the side of the dashboard.  It has a loose fit nowadays, and occasionally falls out onto the ground when the door opens.  If it ever gets lost, I would probably also lose at least a piece of my mind.  On the other hand, there is no good way to secure it in place short of duct tape, the sight of which would bother me just as much as having to constantly watch to make sure the covering doesn't get lost.

And then there are the various and sundry pieces and parts that are rolling around inside the back door.  When installing a new license plate a few years ago, some washers and little plasticky things fell inside it, and now rattle around in there whenever I lift open the door or take a sharp corner.  Taking the door apart myself to retrieve the errant pieces would just be a recipe for complete and total disaster, and taking it to a mechanic for something so foolish to someone else would likely be both embarrassing and expensive.  So, I just put on my big boy pants and deal with it.  Not happily, mind you.  Not. At. All.

About a year ago, I got a pen wedged inside the ashtray, preventing it from opening.  I don’t smoke unless someone sets me on fire, so it seemed at first like a good place to keep a pen.  I often have need of one while on the road and can rarely locate one quickly.  And a good place for a pen it was, for quite some time actually, until one day I went to open up the ashtray/pen receptacle while at a drive-through ATM with a line of cars behind me.  It was well and truly jammed.  No amount of jiggling, finagling or cajoling could get it to open, and the line behind me was growing longer and more impatient.   I left without completing any of my banking tasks and immediately pulled into a nearby parking spot.  I spent nearly an hour on every strategy short of explosives to get it open.  At long last it did pop free, with no damage to the ashtray/now-former pen receptacle.  It’s a good thing too, because if I had to look at a broken ashtray every time I got in the car, I’d probably have to sell it immediately, probably at a loss, just to get it out of my sight.

My latest potential vehicle crisis emerged a few days ago.  There was a tiny but highly irritating rattling sound coming from somewhere inside the cabin whenever I drove over rough roads, which are not unusual things to encounter in northern Maine. 

Rattles belong in playpens, not in Hyundais.

First, I checked the storage compartments, of which my Santa Fe has more than a herd of kangaroos. I store plenty of stuff in most of them, like CDs, charging units, my GPS, manuals, a small rubber lizard that came with a great drink I had in the Old Port in 1996, as well as the typical flotsam and jetsam that accumulate in a vehicle like paper clips, receipts, gum and the like.  I secured anything and everything that looked like it might be loose and headed back out on a bumpy street.

The rattle was still there!  Drat.

(Yes, I really did say "drat".)

Perhaps some part of the vehicle itself was loose, I thought. Since I could only hear it when I was driving, which is a less-than-ideal time to be crawling around looking, I recruited a friend to drive while I attempted to pinpoint the problem.  The thing was, when I was in the back seat, it sounded like the rattle was coming from the front, and when I was in the front, it sounded like it was coming from the back.  We switched places, and I had my friend try to find the source of the rattle.  Nothing.  After exhausting my friend’s patience as well as half a tank of gas, I concluded that it wasn’t a loose part either.

By this point, I had endured the phantom rattle for three days and seemed no closer to locating the source.  I was within inches of deciding to sell the car for scrap when fate, as it so often does, led me to Dunkin Donuts. Treating my friend to coffee was on my agenda, and as I got to the drive-through window, I went for my wallet in the glove compartment. 

You see, once in a while I keep my wallet in there, along with the vehicle manual and other car-related papers.  Nothing loose though.  It’s a pain to fish anything out of there when driving, so the glove compartment doesn't accumulate nearly the amount of stuff that the other ones do.  I was so sure that there was nothing rattle worthy in there that I hadn't even bothered to check it thoroughly. 

As I shut the glove compartment, I heard it.  The rattle.  Thankfully, no one was in line behind us, so I asked the coffee guy to wait for just a second, as I unbuckled my seat belt and reached over to pull everything out onto my friend’s lap.  Under the manuals and paperwork, I found a quarter, which had likely slipped out of my wallet.  It had to be the culprit!

I gave a fist-pump of victory accompanied by a loud “Yussss!”

The coffee guy looked at me as though I had lost my sanity.  My friend knew that particular train had left the station a long time ago and just rolled her eyes, a reaction I tend to get a lot, especially from women.  Regardless, the latest rattle crisis was resolved.  I have driven in rattle-free bliss ever since.

Winter’s coming, and no doubt new rattles and knocks will be popping up in my car.  Cold weather seems to foster them.  So if you see me pulled over on the side of the road frantically fishing around the vehicle, don’t worry.  Probably something has come loose.  Whether it’s in the vehicle cabin or in my head is a matter of debate, I guess.  

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things That Make You Go "Hmmmm": Veterinary Edition

As you may know, I work in a busy companion animal veterinary office in a small town.  I love what I do and the people with whom I do it.  We have many wonderful patients and most of them have wonderful owners.  There are a few, however, who are, uh… “interesting”.  What follows is an actual interaction that I had recently at work.  Unfortunately, this type of thing is not unique.  

Scene: Our veterinary office during the middle of scheduled office appointments.  I am covering the front desk while the receptionist is in a meeting.  A man with a large dog on a shoelace leash comes in the front door.

ME (indicating the dog): “Hello, who do you have with you there?”

HIM: “Umm, I’m not sure which one this is.”

ME: “Do you have an appointment?”

HIM: “I don’t know.  I don’t think so.”

ME: “Okay, that’s fine.  We normally require an appointment, but can squeeze you in since we just had a cancellation.  What would you like the dog seen for today?”

HIM: “I’m not sure.”

ME: “Well, let me see if I can find your dog in our system.  What is your name?

HIM: “Well, my name is _____, but the dog wouldn't be under my name.”

ME: “Can you tell me the name the account might be under?”

HIM: “It might be under my girlfriend’s name, which is _____.”

  • I look up the name, including various spelling variations, and find nothing in our system.

ME: “Is there another name it might be under?”

HIM: “Try _______.  That was her married name.”

  • Still nothing in the system.

ME: “I’m not seeing anything under that name either.”

HIM (growing agitated): “Look, she said he’s been here before. Try her sister’s name, _____. The dog used to belong to her.”

ME: “Still nothing.”

HIM: “Look under _________.  I think that is her married name.”

  • No such person is in our system.  Clearly, we are getting nowhere and the man is getting a bit flustered, so I try another tack.

ME:  "Why don’t we just establish a new account under your name for now?”

HIM: “Okay.”

  • I hand him a form to fill out, which he hands right back.

 HIM: “I can’t do this.  I didn't bring my reading glasses.”

  • At this point, I offer to fill it out for him.  I proceed to ask him about his contact information, which he has, and information about the dog, which he does not.  All I can discern about it is the breed, gender, and approximate age, and that only from looking at the dog.  The dog’s name, vaccine history, health history, neutered or spayed…it’s all a mystery.  I put what little information I have into the computer and several minutes later go with him into the exam room to see if I can figure out what it is the dog is being seen for.

ME: “Have you noticed anything unusual about him?”

HIM: “I think he itches a lot.”

  • I check the dog’s coat and it is infested with fleas.  When I mention this to the man, he asks if I will apply a flea treatment, which I do.  He also asks if I will trim the dog’s toenails, which I also do with no small amount of difficulty as he cannot control the dog and it is not fond of having his nails cut.  Finally, the veterinarian and an assistant come into the room, and I return to the front desk.
  •  About ten minutes later, the man and dog come back to the front desk.  My computer says that in addition to the nail trim and flea treatment, the dog received a full suite of vaccinations, as well as an ear examination and a prescription for an ear infection.  Before I can tell him the total for his bill, which is well over $100 at this point, his cell phone rings.  He steps to the other side of the room to answer it, while I answer our office phone, which is ringing.  A few minutes later, he steps back up to the desk.

 HIM: “This isn't the right vet’s office. She said she takes him to Dr. ________ (the other veterinarian in our town).”

  • Despite my urge to strangle someone, preferably him, I laugh it off and tell the man the amount of his bill for the day.

 HIM:  “Oh, I don’t have any money.”

Yeah…good times.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What A Drag It Is Getting Old

According to legend, I was born in 1970, so a little arithmetic will tell you that I am 43 years old.  And lately, the “old” part of being 43 years old has been particularly evident.  As I write this, I am propped up in bed with an ice pack strapped to my swollen right knee, dealing with a bad case of bursitis.  Yes, bursitis!  Bursitis, if you don't know, is a painful inflammation of the cushion between one’s joints, and something up to now I always considered as a condition for people who are, for lack of a better word, OLD.  I've never had it before, don’t know why I have it now, and hope to high heavens that I don’t have it again anytime soon. 

I am only 43, I tell myself.  I am not supposed to have things like bursitis.  My grandmother is.  She’s 88.  That makes more sense.  Not that I am wishing ill upon her by any means.  It's just that I am too young for this!  After all, I know who Imagine Dragons are and wear cargo shorts on a regular basis!  I’m not old!

And a booming voice comes out of the clouds above: “Wrong, Grandpa!”

Okay, I am pretty young at heart, but my body...well, maybe not so much anymore.

I've always joked about aging and the passage of time at milestone birthdays, like my 18th, 21st, and 30th, but truth be told, those came and went and not much really changed.  My 40th, on the other hand, was like passing through some kind of gate into a new land.  That was when I really started to notice that, physically at least, I wasn't as young as I used to be. 

First, there is the noticeable change in stamina.  My health has been pretty consistent over the years.  I am overweight for my height by about 20 pounds, but otherwise suffer from no chronic problems like high blood pressure or diabetes.  In my forties, however, I've found that things are different.  I've been placed into the body of an old guy.  

A case in point was when I climbed Mt. Megunticook on the coast of Maine recently.  It was the sole physical activity of the day for me.  It took me the better part of the afternoon and several bottles of water to hike up the 1,385 foot elevation and then down again.  When I reached my camp at the bottom, I had to take some aspirin and a long nap, and was terribly sore for three days.  And don’t even get me going on the blistered feet.  The climb took all the wind out of my sails, and then some.  I actually checked my cell phone’s reception to make sure I’d be able to dial 911 if necessary.

Back in my mid-20s, several other teachers and I climbed that very same mountain with a group of nearly 80 third and fourth grade students.  The weather was iffy, so I didn’t even dress for the trip, thinking it would be cancelled.  Nonetheless, I climbed that same mountain in a shirt and tie, in half the time, with no blisters, barely breaking a sweat, and without any water.  I then went back to school with the students, taught all afternoon, attended a long committee meeting after school, ran some errands in town and then mowed my lawn after dinner that evening.  If I had aches and soreness afterward, I don’t remember them.

Next, I've found that piddly little things are causing me pain.  All of a sudden, the motion of raking the lawn for an hour or so causes my shoulder to ache for the next day or two.  Getting down on the floor with a sick animal at work can easily tweak my back if I am not careful about how I do it, and once about two years ago, I literally threw out my back while bending over the bathroom sink to spit out toothpaste.  Seriously.  If I was in an old-time covered wagon heading out west, my companions would be completely justified in leaving me alongside the trail for the coyotes.  And if that same party became stranded and had to resort to cannibalism, there is no doubt who they'd eat first, despite the fact that I would probably be quite stringy and gristly.

Of course its not a discussion of male aging without a mention of hair.  I am fortunate to still have lots of it, on my head and elsewhere, just as I always have, and the vast majority of it is still the original color (brown).  Based on the photos I saw of my 25th high school class reunion, many of my male peers are not so lucky.  It still blows my mind when someone my age or younger has male pattern baldness.  Luckily, that is one thing I don't have to get uptight about.  It's nowhere to be found in my family tree.  Gray hair is a different story.  I found my first gray hair when I was 24, just after I closed on the mortgage for my first house.  I figured I earned that one.  Since then, the gray has been oddly slow in coming.  Very, very gradually it is becoming noticeable in my temples, especially just after I get it cut, but I am still below average in the gray hair department compared to most men my age.  Thankfully, the same lack of grayness applies to the hair that is not on my head, of which I have more than my fair share.  I truly think that having the hair on my chest or arms go gray will bother me much more than the gray on my head.  Once in a blue moon a stray gray will make an appearance there, but I swiftly vanquish the interloper.

Interesting side note: people sometimes ask why I do not grow facial hair or allow more than a day’s growth of stubble.  The fact of the matter is, all the gray hairs I have seem to have come in on my face.  If I go more than two days without shaving, it becomes very clear that my mustache and beard would be heavily streaked with gray.  That’s not a look I could pull off gracefully especially with a shock of thick brown hair upstairs.  Maybe someday I’ll grow some facial hair when what I have on my head matches, but until then, no thanks.

For me though, the worst parts of getting physically older are the surprises.  You know, like the food or drink you've enjoyed regularly over the course of your entire life that suddenly gives you screaming heartburn.  (I’m talking to you, hot tea!)  Or the sudden back spasms that literally knock you off your feet at work and cause your coworkers to think for a moment that you've been struck from behind by a pygmy dart.  Or the nights when you may as well sleep in the bathroom, because you are making so many trips there to empty your apparently pea-sized bladder.  Oh, and waking up one morning with painful bursitis in the right knee, for no known reason. Those are the kinds of surprises I mean.

It bothered me when Red Sox pitcher Tim Wakefield retired from baseball in 2011, because he was the last player on my favorite team that was my age.  As of last season, there were no major league baseball players my age or older.  That was a milestone I didn't care for at all.  It still bothers me when I read an obituary in the paper of someone my age or younger dying of some health malady.  And I don’t think I will ever get used to the idea of people I went to school with being grandparents now, but a couple of them are.

I know what they say: “You are only as old as you feel, ” and I have no doubt that age is relative.  To my nieces and nephews, I probably am seen as old.  To my parents and their generation, I am seen as pretty young.  To my grandmother’s generation, I am still practically a kid.  There are people old enough to be my parents running marathons and swimming from Cuba to Florida (not on the same day, mind you), so I guess I just need to keep setting my sights high.

I could go on and on about this topic of getting old, but I had better stop here.  It’s 4:00 in the afternoon, and the early-bird dinner special is starting at the diner downtown.  Plus, I need to restock my bowl of hard ribbon candy.

A video for Mother's Little Helper by the Rolling Stones, from YouTube.

Post-script: There’s no small amount of irony that the title of this post is borrowed from the first line of an early Rolling Stones song, “Mother’s Little Helper”.  The Rolling Stones are now quite old, no matter how you slice it, and yet their most recent songs and footage from their live concerts this past summer prove that they have still got it going on.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Maine Summer Roadtrip 2013 Wrap Up

The leaves are starting to turn and my ever-sensitive feet are starting to get cold again, both of which are tell-tale signs that summer is well and truly over here in the Pine Tree State.  The summer of 2013 has not been the greatest one weatherwise, with the state having received more than its fair share of rain.  In spite of it all, I’ve dodged the raindrops and made roadtrips around Maine every two to three weekends.  Having taken up tent camping a year ago, I decided that this year I would make an effort to explore some corners of the state that I hadn’t seen much of before.   Maine’s state parks offer numerous high-quality camping options at very affordable prices, and they can be found in all corners of the state, so I used them as home-base for my trips. If you include day trips from home, I traveled from Madawaska in the north to Kittery in the south this summer.  I had some terrific experiences, and what follows are a just few of my personal superlatives from my recent travels in Maine.

Favorite campground: Hands down, my favorite camping spot in Maine is Cobscook Bay State Park in Edmunds Township, located about halfway between Calais and Machias.  I’ve yet to find another state park that lives up to the standard Cobscook has set for me.  This sprawling park of 888 acres offers a wide variety of well-spaced sites, almost all of which have a view of the bay and its hugely fluctuating tides.  The tidal range in Cobscook Bay can be up to 28 feet in some spots.  The campsites are mostly wooded and private, the staff is extremely helpful and professional, and I’ve never seen or heard of other campers being inconsiderate or noisy.  The birds, on the other hand, can give you quite an earful, especially early in the morning.  Birds of every shape and description make a home there in the summer, including bald eagles, of which I will never tire of watching.  There are hiking trails for all abilities at Cobscook, including one to an old firetower and another to the top of a small mountain, as well as a nature trail.  You are even allowed to rake for your own clams at low tide in the mudflats there when conditions are right.  Granted, Cobscook Bay is quite a ways off almost anyone’s beaten path, but it is totally worth the trip.  It also makes for a great home base for day trips to the nearby town of Lubec, about which I wrote a few weeks ago.

A very typical view from a campsite at Cobscook Bay State Park (My own photo)

I found this gravesite along a trail while hiking at Cobscook.  I'd love to know the story behind it. (My own photo)

Favorite day trip:  The town of Lubec is still my very favorite day trip , but since I first visited there in 2011, I’ll pick Peaks Island as my favorite Maine day trip discovery of this year.  Peak’s Island is technically part of the city of Portland, but it is a 17 minute ride on a Casco Bay Lines ferry out in the bay.  Part of the appeal of Peaks is getting there on the ferry, which affords spectacular views of the city of Portland, as well as three lighthouses and several forts which date back to the Revolutionary War era.  The island is not overly large, and is a beautiful place to explore on foot.  Golf carts and bicycles are available for rent during the summer months.  You can bring your car over on the ferry, but why would you want to do that?  Speaking of cars, it is especially interesting to see “island-only” vehicles on Peaks, many of which are old beaters held together by waferboard and duct tape, and cannot be used anywhere but there on the island.  There are some places to eat and get a souvenir as well as some bed & breakfast places, but most of the structures on Peaks Island are residential.  You can walk the village streets or take some trails into the less developed parts of the island if you like.

A shoreline view on Peaks with the city of Portland in the distance. (My own photo)

A view of Peaks from the ferry just before docking. (My own photo)

Waiting for my ship to come in, literally (My own photo)

Favorite places to eat: Maine offers no shortage of excellent places to grab a bite to eat.  Admittedly, I am no “foodie”, but in my opinion, if you really want the taste of Maine, go to the Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound, which is just on your right on Route 3 before you cross the bridge onto Mount Desert Island.  It’s not fancy, but the food is terrific.  As you can imagine, lobster is their specialty, but they also have steamed clams, mussels, scallops and crabmeat.  The eat-in facility is seasonal, but they ship around the world year-round.  For me, it’s just not a trip to MDI in the summer if you don’t roll down your windows to smell the wood smoke from the fires at Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound before and after crossing the bridge.

Special mention also goes to the Clambake Restaurant in Scarborough, on the road to Pine Point and Old Orchard Beach.  When I was a kid, my family used to eat there every summer on our annual vacations to southern Maine.  Large, comfortable, and clean with a huge seafood menu, the Clambake is located on a saltwater marsh where you can see all manner of wildlife through the large windows.  Again, the Clambake is not a place for food snobs, but I am terribly fond of it anyway, especially the batter-dipped fried clams.

Favorite “tourist attraction”: The Owl’s Head Transportation Museum, appropriately located in the little town of Owl’s Head near Rockland, could be a full day’s visit if you wanted it to be.  There are more than 100 historic aircraft, automobiles, bicycles, motorcycles, carriages and engines on display, in addition to workshop classes, vehicle auctions and special displays.  You can see a life-sized replica of the Wright Brothers’ first plane, a fully restored antique fire engine, and every kind of early automobile you could possibly imagine.  They also host special collections and shows on their grounds, such as an “Earth Movers and Shakers” event later this month.  I made the mistake of visiting the Owl’s Head Transportation Museum on a getaway day when I had to head back home, and was forced to cut my visit much shorter than I wanted to get home at a reasonable hour.  The next time I am in the area, I am going to see aside an entire day to explore the entire place.

1935 Stout Scarab

1929 Springfield Rolls-Royce Phantom I Derby Tourer

Replica of the Wright Brothers' 1903 Flyer

Some favorites of mine from the Owls Head Transportation Museum (My own photos)

Favorite “secret spot”: I don’t think I have ever been quite as back to nature as I was during my visits to Baxter State Park.  Baxter isn’t so much the home-base for a trip as it is the actual trip itself.  On a rather hot day, I went hiking along a road from my campsite (it was too hot for me to do any mountain trails that day) and I happened upon a side trail that led down to the quintessential cool mountain stream.  It looked just like something out of a nature calendar or a National Geographic magazine.  I hoofed it back to my site, changed into my swimsuit, grabbed a towel, and drove back to the spot in my car, where I spent a highly relaxing afternoon floating in the cool, shallow water, watching eagles soar overhead, listening to any number of their smaller cousins chirping in the trees, getting nudged on the leg by curious fish, and even spotting a moose from a distance who poked her head out of the woods to take a drink from the stream.  When the snow is flying and the temperature is dropping this winter, it will be the memory of this spot that will keep me warm.  Speaking to other people who have also been to Baxter, it seems that many of them also have their own favorite secret spot that they have found by accident in the park.

It was a bit sad packing away my camping equipment for the season, but it was way too cold at night on my last trip the weekend after Labor Day, so it’s time to call it a season.  I’ll still be making occasional trips around the state in the off season, but not nearly as often, and certainly not to camp.  Next year however, I plan to start up my series of camping roadtrips again, and see what other sides of Maine I can discover.  I am open to any suggestions for my 2014 sojourns, which you can put in the comment section below, or you can e-mail them to me.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Heading Back to Campus? Don't Screw It Up!

“Youth is wasted on the young,” George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, and never is that more clear to me than at this time of year when young people are headed back to college.  People told me that whole “best years of your life” thing all the time when I was starting college back in the late 1980s, but I just couldn't see it at the time.  To me, I was spending a lot of money I didn't have, to do a megaton of studying in a field that I wasn't even sure of at first.  I was torn between education, political science and journalism when I first started at the University of Maine in Orono in the fall of 1988, and while I was registered as an education major, the other two constantly sang their siren songs. 

College Life

On top of it all, I was 18 idealistic years old, and wanted to be free.  High school was over, and it was time to find out who I was and what I believed.  Yet each morning, I woke up in a UMaine dormitory, more often than not put on a UMaine t-shirt or sweatshirt, and headed off for breakfast in a UMaine cafeteria, which I ate off a tray with the UMaine logo.  Then it was off to full days of UMaine classes, punctuated by study sessions at the UMaine library and other meals at a UMaine cafeteria.  To my young mind, this was vaguely cult-like, nothing like the freedom for which I yearned.

It’s not that I didn't like UMaine.  I really did.  I don’t think I would have felt differently if I had gone to school anywhere else.  And I fully understood that I was going to need a college education to get where I wanted to in the world, wherever that was.  The problem was, I wanted to get to that place in the world right now.

My sophomore year, I made some changes, transferring to the University of Maine at Presque Isle, and getting a living situation independent of school.  These things helped me feel a bit more of the freedom I thought I was yearning for, but they also set up a sort of emotional fence between me and school.  I kept my distance from almost all aspects of university life beyond academics.  College became like a drudge job for me: something you had to do and get over with so you could enjoy other things.  That outlook was a huge mistake on my part.

The college world is very different today than when I started back in 1988, but some things hold up no matter how much time passes.  If I could go back and give my freshman self some advice about starting college, I’d tell him/me these five things:

  • Study.  It goes without saying that an education is what you are in college for (and what you are paying those steep tuition bills for), so taking your classwork seriously should be a top priority.  I’d qualify this, however.  I spent a LOT of time studying, but it was not necessarily the best use of my time.  Develop some study strategies, set aside regular times to study, and maybe even find a group with whom to study.  More is not necessarily better when it comes to studying, though.  Quality counts more than quantity.
  • Diversify. College is a great time to broaden your horizons.  Take advantage of opportunities to get to know people who come from different ethnic, religious, and/or socioeconomic backgrounds than you.  Try listening to some different music.  Read different books.  Go to different movies.  Sample some different foods.  It’s a very big world out there.  This is the time to open your mind wide and check it all out. 
  • Do active stuff.  Most likely, you are never going to be in better physical condition than you are in your late teens and early twenties.  Take advantage of that!  Ski, skate, run, hike, swim, dance!  This is the time in your life to climb mountains or ride your bike across the state during summer break.  Trust me, when you get older it will be a lot tougher to do these things.
  • Take concrete steps toward your dreams. Okay, going to college is one example of this, but I am speaking about more specific things.  I recently read about a pair of siblings who spent their summer interning in Texas where they worked directly with wild tigers and bears.  They were over the moon with enthusiasm about their experience.  Keep your eyes open for internships, exchange programs, volunteer opportunities and similar things that give college kids the chance to start living life more fully.
  • Get out there. These are the years when some of the best lifelong memories are made, and college usually provides ample opportunities do make them.  Go to concerts, lectures and sporting events on campus on a regular basis, and bring people with you.  Attend parties (responsibly!) and other social events.  Join groups and organizations that interest you.  Get involved in social causes that mean something to you.

During my own college years, I dreaded Labor Day Weekend and the whole back-to-college thing, due to faulty thinking on my part.  College was just work to me, a means to an end.  Getting a degree was something to get out of the way so life could really start.  Little did I know at the time that life had already started and I was letting some very important parts of it pass me by.

Now in my mid-40s and firmly ensconced in the world of work and middle age, I find myself envious of the young people I see on the roads in early September who have packed their stuff into cars in a physics-defying way, headed off to campus.  I just hope they see that it’s an adventure they’re on.  A really great one if you choose to make it that way.  Take it seriously, but never, ever forget to enjoy it!

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Visiting Lubec, Maine

Okay readers in the 48 contiguous United States, here’s your mission: start walking east.  And keep on walking east until you cannot possibly go any further east without leaving the country.  Now look down at the ground.  You are standing in Lubec, Maine, which is the subject of this latest Maine travel post.

Lubec is the easternmost town in the United States, and West Quoddy Head Light is the easternmost point.  Yes, it is odd that the lighthouse is called West Quoddy Head, but from the point of view of ships at sea, it is to the west.  There is another lighthouse across the way in Canada that is known as East Quoddy Head.

West Quoddy Head Light.  This and all photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise noted.

One of my favorite summer camping spots in the world is located just a quick drive from Lubec, and I make it a point to visit there at least two or three times each year.  With a population of only around 1300, it is far from being a metropolis, even by Maine standards.  There is no Wal-Mart in Lubec, and no MacDonald’s, and I can’t remember seeing even one traffic light.  While tourists and artists are becoming a more common sight on the streets of Lubec these days, it is mainly a fishing village, and has a long history of making a living from the sea.  Shipbuilding, sailmaking as well as fish smoking and packing figure prominently in the town’s economic past, in addition to lumbering, grist mills (powered by the more than 20-foot ocean tides) and a even little bit of smuggling, thanks to the town’s location on a peninsula and close proximity to Canada .

Some views of Water Street, the main drag in Lubec.

You can learn more about Lubec’s history at this site from the Maine Memory Network:

Driving to Lubec on Route 189, you’ll be struck by the refreshing ordinariness of the homes and businesses.  The people of Lubec are primarily working-class, and have been for generations.  Many of the homes have piles of lobster traps in the yard, and some have large fishing boats perched on trailers or up on a mount being painted or repaired.  Over the past few years, I have found the residents of Lubec to be very friendly and welcoming to visitors such as myself.  I suppose if you were a condescending jerk out-of-towner who acts so much more cosmopolitan than they are then that would not be the case.  Manners matter everywhere in Maine, I’ve found.

I don't know the story behind this wreck, but it was on the Lubec waterfront for some time. It had been removed the last time I visited in July of 2013. I kind of miss it.

If you are looking for a place to stay, there are several motels, inns, and bed & breakfasts.  Personally, I am a big fan of the Eastland Motel on Route 189.  It’s a family-owned business open year-round.  The Eastland appears to be a classic “motor court” style motel at first, but it is quite modern.  The owners have done a wonderful job renovating the place over the past few years.  Be sure to sample the homemade muffins served each morning.  There is a campground located in Lubec itself and several others within a reasonable driving distance, including Cobscook Bay State Park, which I highly recommend.

This photo is NOT my own.  It comes from the Eastland Motel's website:

The town has become somewhat of an artists’ colony, and there is a surprising number of galleries and specialty shops there.  Their hours of operation tend to vary, so be flexible.  Weekends during the summer are almost guaranteed to find most of them open.  I’m not sure what it is about Lubec, but it does seem to edge on creativity.  I filled several pages of my notebook with ideas during my last visit.

The arts are a constant presence in Lubec.

If you are a history buff, then you ought to know that the streets of Lubec were often trod by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt back in the day.  Their summer home on Campobello Island is just across the bridge from Lubec, and is open to tours.  The historic site is very popular for visitors.  Campobello belongs to New Brunswick, Canada, so be aware that everyone does require proper documentation to cross the border in either direction.  Oddly, Campobello is a Canadian island that can only be reached by car from the United States.  No bridge connects it to the Canadian mainland.

A sign on the Betsy Ross House in downtown Lubec.

The bridge from Lubec to Campobello Island, NB.

The McCurdy Smokehouse Museum, a former sardine smokehouse, is right in the downtown area, and provides a vivid picture of the Maine history, as well as the fish processing history of Lubec.  It is almost mandatory that you visit Quoddy Head State Park while in Lubec, which is the home of the West Quoddy Head Lighthouse.  Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1808, this candy-striped beacon is a Maine icon that you can get up close and personal with.  While you can’t go inside the lighthouse itself, the keeper’s home is open as a museum.  The adjoining state park offers miles of hiking trails, as well as opportunities for picnicking, wildlife watching, and just exploring the rocky ocean edge.

That large rock out there, called "Sail Rock" is TECHNICALLY the very easternmost point of land in the United States.  This photo was taken in Quoddy Head State Park. Grand Manan Island, NB can be seen in the distance.

McCurdy Smokehouse Museum in Lubec.

As far as food and entertainment are concerned, Lubec does it up nicely.  You almost take for granted that the seafood is going to be great in a fishing town such as this, and you’d be correct.  My preference for food and drink while in Lubec is Frank’s Dockside Restaurant, which is a very welcoming place, as the sign in the photo below strongly suggests.  Their seafood, steaks and Italian are excellent, and they have an outstanding view of the water.  You can count on at least a few performances to attend in town almost every weekend in Lubec.  Many of the cafes, restaurants, churches and art galleries host talented musicians during the tourist season, featuring folk, rock, jazz, and classical.  There is also a local community theater group which does some great shows. 

Which one are you?

One of my favorite things to do in Lubec is actually one of the simplest.  Sitting in the park near the dock, you can watch boats coming and going, observe seabirds, and see large numbers of harbor seals bobbing their heads in and out of the water as they catch their meals in the fish-rich waters of Lubec Narrows.

A view from the park near the dock in Lubec.

It's hard to see in the photo, but the little black dots out in the water are the heads of harbor seals.

I’ve made roadtrips to quite a few places in Maine this summer, but Lubec remains one of my all-time favorite places in the state to visit.  As a matter of fact, if I could only make one trip a year in Maine, it would be to Lubec.  Yes, it is out of the way, but that is a big part of the town’s charm.  There are seldom crowds, you can always find a parking place, and the sights, sounds and people are second to none.

The Quoddy Narrows Light, as seen from downtown Lubec.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Mighty Hunter

I step into the guest room in my house to find my cat Don’t Bite Me in a crouch.  He’s fat, lazy, and not terribly bright, so for him to be in an action pose like this, there must be something big brewing.  His pupils are dilated, his tail is twitching, and he’s making that odd chatter that excited cats get.  I follow his stare into the darkness under the bed.

Don't Bite Me in a much more typical pose

My mind runs through a list of possibilities as to what my cat’s quarry may be.  Looking more closely, I can’t see anything at all.  Is it a mouse?  I hadn't seen any signs of one.  Maybe one of those sassy red squirrels that are always chittering at me from the tree when I step onto the back deck had made its way into the house.  That would be a disaster.  He'd better catch it if it's one of those.  Many years ago I found a dead rat in the attic.  Could it be one of those?  Yick, I certainly hope not!  A bat is another possibility.  Whatever is under there, I sure as heck want Don’t Bite Me to catch it, so I just stay stock still and watch.

As the seconds pass, it suddenly strikes me as odd that one of my other cats, whom I call Stop It is in the same room, but paying no attention at all to what is going on.  He’s actually on the bed in question, yawning widely at me, barely awake.  Of my three felines, Stop It is the only one who has ever shown any instincts even remotely like those of a predator, so his lack of interest here is peculiar.  His sister, Get Down saunters into the room from behind me, not even turning her sleek black head in the direction of Don’t Bite Me’s interest.

Don’t Bite Me’s rear end starts to wiggle slightly as he gets more and more wound up to pounce.  At this point, I am beginning to question his sanity.  Maybe he is hallucinating.  I don’t see a blessed thing.  His teeth chatter some more, he backs up on his haunches.  The mighty hunter is going in for the kill of something.  Claws out, he leaps forward with amazing speed for a cat who has the physique of a Dodge Dart.

It’s a small housefly.

And he misses it.  By a mile.

He’s totally mystified, I'm thoroughly disappointed, and the other two cats, if they could, would have been laughing their furry heads off.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Confessions of a Total Coffeehouse Rube

As someone who comes from a rural area, I am rather sensitive to the “country bumpkin” label, especially when I am traveling.  Not all of us from out in the boonies just strolled off the set of the Beverly Hillbillies.  I am perfectly capable of driving in multilane traffic, ordering in a fancy restaurant, and taking buses and/or trains from one end of a city to another by myself, among other things.  I don’t exclusively wear flannel shirts and jeans, nor have I ever once referred to a swimming pool as a “cee-ment pond”.

Overall, I’m pretty comfortable with life in urban areas, with one notable exception: coffeehouses.

How I'd like to come across in a coffeehouse.

How I actually come across in a coffeehouse.

As someone who rarely experiments when it comes to food and drink, I’ve always stuck pretty close to my “usuals”.  In the realm of fare commonly found in a coffeehouse, that would be plain old caffeinated hot coffee with just cream for me.  Sometimes I get all wild and crazy and try a flavored coffee like hazelnut or, if I am feeling especially daring, maybe even an iced coffee.  Someday I might even try a flavored iced coffee, but I will have to work my way up to that.

When I am on the road, I find that most coffeehouses make for comfortable places to meet with friends, get a little writing work done, or tweet a little.  The staff and clientele are usually friendly and considerate, and there is not an expectation that you will simply consume your order forthwith and quickly move on in order to free up a table for the next customer.

There is, however, the perfectly reasonable expectation on the part of the coffeehouse staff that you will actually buy something while there.  And that something should be more than a 30 cent cup of ice.  Therein lies the rub.  When confronted with the menu board in a coffeehouse, I freeze like Bambi in the path of a freight train at midnight.  If there are other customers waiting in line behind me, that freight train becomes more like one of those Japanese bullet trains.

At this point, you are probably asking a very simple question: Why not just order what you normally drink, a regular coffee with just cream?  To that, I respond with another question: Who does that in a gourmet coffee house?  It’s akin to going to an award-winning Chinese restaurant and ordering a cheeseburger. I may as well show up at the coffeehouse on a camouflaged ATV wearing a flannel shirt without sleeves and a backwards Mack Truck ball cap if I order “just a plain old coffee”.

Let me backtrack a bit.  I am currently working on a collaborative project with a writer from Connecticut, and we were recently planning on meeting halfway between our locations for a summit on the project, which put us in the Portland, Maine area.  We would need a place to do some work on a hot summer afternoon, and an air-conditioned coffee house near the water fit the bill almost perfectly, as long as I was prepared.

This southern Maine summit was an ideal excuse for me to take a mini-vacation, so I was already in Portland the day prior to the meeting with my co-author. High on my to-do list was some reconnaissance at the coffeehouse where we were planning to work.  It was a hot summer afternoon, and I had spent the first half of it in the sun-drenched bleachers at Hadlock Field watching the Portland Sea Dogs play baseball.  Not wanting to give up the great parking place I had found prior to the game, I decided to walk the five blocks or so to the coffeehouse.  By the time I arrived, I was pretty parched.  The idea of getting something hot to drink was not very appealing, but I wanted to sit for a bit and see how the place was.  So I stepped up to the counter.

First, I had to parse out from the mass of choices on the menu board something that sounded at least somewhat cold and refreshing.  I was looking for terms like “iced”, “frozen”, “arctic” and the like.

Next, I had to figure out what cold thing I was actually going to get.  There were lattes, cafĂ© au laits, chais, cappuccinos, espressos, and all manner of other things, some of which I don’t think were actually real drinks, but just decoys put up there to weed out the weak like me.  I was getting a bit shaky in the knees, but I did not run screaming out the door.  Instead, I continued to stare glassy-eyed at the menu, letting one customer after another behind me in line go on ahead.

In time, I reached the conclusion that I was going to get an iced cappuccino because it sounded appropriate, yet somewhat safe.  Then it was a question of flavor.  There were choices like Mexicali Cream, Jamaican Me Crazy, Jazzy Java, and Streusel, all of which are probably terrific if you know what they actually are.  So I let more customers behind me go by.  Frankly, I cannot recall what flavor I eventually decided upon, though I do remember that it was vaguely chocolate-ish and quite tasty.  I think “Bavaria” was part of the name.  The experience is mostly a blur now.

Feeling good about my selection, I stepped up to the counter, where I was greeted by a very pleasant young person who just exuded coffee house know-how.  Undaunted by the presence of this fountain of java knowledge which would make my own seem like a Dixie cup in comparison, I rattled off my order in what I thought was a confident tone of voice. I was going to ace this.  Then…

Order-taking person: “What size would you like?”

Me: “Huh?”

One would not think this to be a tough question, but for someone like me, in an actual coffee house, it is.  The sizes are not “small”, “medium” , “large” and “extra large”, but “tall”, grande”, “venti”, and “trenta”.  In my world, “small” and “tall” are just not the same thing.  If someone says “Gee, you sure are tall”, they do not mean that you are a small person.  And if something is “grande”, it sounds like “grand”, which is a variation on spectacular in my mind, like a grand finale.  It doesn’t sound like it would be just medium.  I panicked a bit.  For fear that I would say the wrong thing and end up with my drink being served to me in a bucket of some kind, I sheepishly asked for “whatever the middle size is”.

Now in a reputable coffee house, which this most certainly was, one’s order is not just thrown together.  It is constructed like a piece of fine art by a highly trained person known as a “barista”.  I believe that is Italian for “young person who is more hip that you will ever be”.  My barista, who was already busy with some other orders, was given mine on a slip of paper while I dutifully stepped aside and admired the various pithy mugs and bags of what I think was coffee beans for sale.  They were labeled with names like “Cappadocia Supreme”, and could have been magic beanstalk beans for all I know.

After a few minutes, I was handed a small cardboard cup that was very, very hot, and confusion immediately set in.  I had purposely ordered something cold because it was such a warm afternoon.  This drink was lava-like in its temperature.  Such was my confidence, or lack thereof at this point, that I was convinced that I had done something wrong or was missing something here.

I looked around the coffeehouse, hoping to see someplace where I was supposed to pour crushed ice or something into this volcanic liquid in order to create the frozen cappuccino I thought I had ordered.  Aside from a napkin dispenser, there was nothing like that anywhere.  I literally froze in place.  What was I supposed to do?  I considered just walking out with the hot cup and tossing it in the trash, hoping maybe my co-author and I could just do our work on a park bench or picnic table the next day instead of a coffeehouse.

Instead, I manned up and audibly cleared my throat to get the barista’s attention.  Being careful not to affect a “tone”, which I have been known to have and which is perceived as being sarcastic, I meekly said “I’m no expert on coffee-related things, but is this what I am supposed to be getting?”

The barista, probably young enough to be my daughter, looked at me sympathetically, as one might at a lost child in a shopping mall, and asked “What did you order?”   I mumbled something about having ordered a cold drink, and she swiftly swooped the hot little cup from my hand, gave it to the elderly gentleman next to me who had been reading a book of poetry whilst awaiting his order, and handed me a plastic cup of frosty, caffeinated goodness, complete with a yellow straw.

Relieved, I found a seat, fired up my iPad, watched funny cat videos, and sipped my frozen something-or-other, which was actually very good.

The writing summit with my co-author at that same coffeehouse the next day went very well.  He ordered some manner of something that wasn’t even coffee I found out later.  It was some stuff in a cup, but he also got a bottle that he poured into the stuff in the cup.  For fear that learning about this would cause part of my mind to blow a fuse, I chose just to live in ignorance of whatever it was. 

As for me, I chickened out when I made my order the next day.  I went with arctic lemonade, which I figured would not elicit any awkward beverage-related questions, and even mentioned the size I wanted (grande).  I was feeling pretty smug, having not looked like a hillbilly in the coffeehouse in front of my co-author.  That is until the order-taking person asked, “Do you want whipped cream on that?”

Wait…what?  On lemonade? Is that even a thing?

I need to take a class on coffeehouse fare before our next writing summit, I think.  Either that or I’ll just go with a regular old coffee with just cream, like a total rube.

***CREDIT WHERE IT IS DUE: I would like to thank the staff of Coffee By Design on India Street in downtown Portland, Maine for their patience and graciousness as I struggled with the language of coffeehouses, and for their allowing my co-author and I to take up space in their wonderful shop for the better part of a Monday afternoon while we went over our project together.