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!