Our very own walk in the woods

The view from Maiden Cliff in Camden is considerably more appealing than the view from our regular seats at the Saco Cinemagic.
The view from Maiden Cliff in Camden is considerably more appealing than the view from our regular seats at the Saco Cinemagic.

[Originally ran in the November 2015 issue of The Village.]

I’ve learned three important rules about day-hiking ever since taking it up regularly this summer:

1. Always bring more water than you think you’ll need;

2. Proper footwear is essential to a successful, comfortable outing; and

3. Don’t kill your spouse.

That third one, while seemingly obvious, nevertheless is worth mentioning, especially if you plan on tackling a trail that ends up being far more challenging than some blogger misleadingly posted, much to the chagrin of any and all neophyte hikers who took him at his word and went off thinking, “Man, this is going to be fun,” and ended up conjuring revenge fantasies on the guy who described what came to be known as The Death Hike as being “family-friendly.”

If that sounds really specific, it’s because it is. And it’s because it happened to me. I know, hard to believe. How could someone as intelligent as yours truly be so foolish as to take a blogger at his word? (I’ll just assume that’s what you’re thinking.)

After hiking the Loughrigg Fell from Ambleside to Grasmere this summer, Diane – you know, my wife – and I decided to transfer those long dormant skills (namely, trying to carry on a conversation while walking over uneven terrain) stateside. Our first hike, up Pleasant Mountain in Denmark, which shares the same rise as Shawnee Peak, was mildly taxing and highly rewarding. Had it been highly taxing and mildly rewarding, I’m sure we would have resorted to our SOWP (Standard Operating Weekend Procedure) of Thai and movies. But we enjoyed it, and so began our New Thing.

Our New Thing could have become our Short-Lived Thing, as Hike #5 brought us to Baldface in North Chatham, NH. Baldface is actually two peaks, North and South Baldface, each rising just shy of 4,000 feet, connected by a nearly 10-mile loop trail. Should I have done more research before heading out with my beloved spouse on this hike widely regarded (as I belatedly discovered) as “difficult”? Yes. But then what would I have written about this month?

We had the right hiking shoes and plenty of water and food (caprese sandwiches go down smooth on a summit), but found the exposed alpine rock ledges of South Baldface…well, highly taxing. Until reaching the alpine zone, where the trees mostly disappeared, it had been an enjoyable hike through the gradually ascending woods. But those ledges. Man.

The views were astonishing. The weather was perfect. But soon, as we scrambled up one granite ledge after another, we reached that point where I grasped the potential of tripping and plummeting to our deaths. Putting myself at risk was one thing, but…see Day-Hiking Rule No. 3 above. I had no desire to break unsettling news to Diane’s mother. That’d be the end of oatmeal cookies for me.

But there’s that point of no return, where you figure you could turn around now and retrace your steps to the car, but you’ve already made it through the worst of it, so why not continue? Except, of course, you haven’t come to the worst of it.

The worst of it is when you reach the false summit of South Baldface, a barren, rock-strewn moonscape with killer views of Maine’s and New Hampshire’s mountain ranges, spy the actual summit beyond, hike up to that summit, appreciate how long the ridge trail over to North Baldface is, realize you haven’t quite reached the halfway point of the round trip, acknowledge the likelihood of being in the woods when the sun goes down, swear you’ll be damned if you backtrack down South Baldface’s ledges, ascertain from other hikers that the rest of way past North Baldface and back to the trailhead is longer but easier than turning back, and then learn that different people have different interpretations of the word “easier.” That’s the worst part.

In short, we made it. It took days to recover.

I used to think hiking down would be so much easier than hiking up. That was before I started hiking. In an episode of “Sex and the City,” Carrie’s old high school sweetheart tells her he’s learned that “hiking…is just walking.” It should be noted that he uttered those words while in a mental institution. If any sort of grade is involved, hiking ain’t just walking. Add roots and loose rocks and mossy, wet ledges and you’ve got yourself more than a stroll through the park.

Not that I’m a seasoned veteran or anything. Between mid-August and mid-October, we went on ten hikes (although we count the Lake District hike from July that started this Thing), and plan to keep going, even when the weather turns. We understand that this is upsetting to some people, particularly those who rely on us for movie recommendations. Trust us, we’re adapting, too. This is foreign territory.

But it’s beautiful. On our most recent hike, up Black Snout in Tuftonboro, NH, we were finishing our lunch on a wide ledge with a Panavision view from Dan Hole Pond to Lake Winnipesaukee, the foliage in gorgeous autumnal hues, the pine-scented air warm and breezy, the sky blue, not another soul in sight. All that, just a little over an hour from our home. I brushed aside the nagging regret that perhaps we should have started this pastime decades earlier, and embraced the glorious view as well as the wife I had succeeded in not killing on yet another hike.

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Back in the relatively comfortable saddle again

[Originally ran in the October 2015 issue of The Village.]

A pre-helmet ride along Kennebunk's Bridle Path.
A pre-helmet ride along Kennebunk’s Bridle Path.

It’s about twenty miles from Longmeadow, Mass. to Vernon, Conn. That was the apex of my cycling adventures as a boy growing up in suburbia. Ray Mentor, Greg Heger and I pedaled our way down to the outskirts of Hartford on our ten-speeds one gorgeous fall day when we were in eighth grade, without telling our parents where we were going. It was the ‘70s; no self-respecting kids told their parents what they were up to. That being said, we didn’t know where we were going until we got there.

Before a brief series of similar treks during middle school and early high school, bicycles played an integral role in my life, as they did in every kid’s life in Longmeadow. Adults had their streets; we had the sidewalks, which in suburbia ran alongside every road. Life without a bike was unimaginable, even if there were occasions when trying to impersonate Evel Knievel (like jumping one’s Sears banana seat bike from one log-propped ramp to another, coming up short like Evel did so many times, and slamming one’s crotch on the crossbar) made one believe bicycles had their downside.

There were intermittent bouts of biking around during high school and college, but after that, I simply stopped. It was sort of like outgrowing Legos and Matchbox cars, in that I didn’t officially quit one day, but rather came to realize, years after the fact, that I had done with them. I had a few bicycles after college, but they mostly kept the other things I had moldering in the cellar company.

A few years ago I adopted an abandoned red mountain bike. I rode it as often as I downhill skied (on average, once per annum). It was an improvement over my other bike, a retro “Leave it to Beaver” number that made five-percent inclines feel like the north face of the Eiger, in that it had twenty more speed settings. It was fun to ride down the Bridle Path in Kennebunk, but again…that would be once a year.

This summer I determined that it might be a good thing to become more aware of my health choices. To that end, I decided to dust off the mountain bike, peel away the cobwebs (literally), pump up its tires, spritz it with WD40, and actually start riding it regularly. And by “regularly,” I mean “considerably more than once a year.”

A couple of my bandmates are avid cyclists; I have no delusions about reaching their level anytime soon (or anytime ever), but within my own cycling paradigm, I have taken a great leap forward. The turning point for me, I suppose, was when I rode over Durrell’s Bridge to the Kennebunkport Bicycle Company ostensibly to replace my bike’s ridiculously old, narrow, and punishing seat, which was less a bicycle part and more a colonoscopy prep. The friendly bearded guy recommended and then installed one of those seats with the open canyon running down the middle (low-tech AC, much appreciated), relieving me of the old one, which he may have donated to the Bicycle Museum of America in New Bremen, Ohio.

Though a child of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, I finally overcame my helmets-are-for-wussies attitude and adopted the wisdom of protecting my cranium from an inattentive driver or poorly placed tree root. As the friendly bearded guy said, my head is worth fifty dollars. I’ve always thought so. And of course I needed a new zippered pouch thingy for the back of the seat, so I could conveniently have tangerines and cab fare on hand.

With those three purchases, I ensured at least one good season of guilt-based cycling. That day, in fact, I rode through Dock Square, down along Gooch’s and Mother’s beaches, up the Bridle Path, over the turnpike, blah blah blah, tallying up twenty-three miles. I was inordinately proud of myself, even though I fell far short of my thirty-seven-year-old cycling record. As long as I keep a safe distance from my crossbar, I ought to be able to meet that goal soon enough.

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What I did on my summer vacation

[Originally ran in the September 2015 issue of The Village.]

In the footsteps of George C. Scott.
In the footsteps of George C. Scott.

Sure, we saw Hadrian’s Wall and the Cavern Club, met the brother of a former Beatle, witnessed gleeful children learning how to fly broomsticks at Alnwick Castle, caught “The Merchant of Venice” at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and visited Ebenezer Scrooge’s grave in Shrewsbury, but what might stick the longest with us after our trip to northern England is a diet.

Sorry, scratch that. Not a diet. A lifestyle choice.

Toward the end of our two-week sojourn we scooted over to Wales to hang with our friends Harry and Heather, and it was during this lively and humorous visit that we learned they were on the FastDiet, a.k.a. the 5:2 Diet, so named because one fasts for two non-consecutive days of the week, and eats whatever one wants the other five.

The diet – that is, lifestyle choice – exploded onto the scene during the 2012 Olympics, when the BBC aired a special in between coverage of the London games. It caught the public’s fancy, and the diet garnered international acclaim. Harry and Heather had the book (which we now have) by Dr. Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer, and – without proselytizing – they told us about it.

Nor am I going to try to convert anyone; that’s the most effective way to turn people off. Seriously, there’s nothing worse than hearing the details of someone’s diet when you’re not on it. Except perhaps a hangnail. All I’ll say is that it’s simple and doable and painless and shows results. If you want to learn about it, you can learn about it.

So why am I saying this? Well, as it says in the book, “Do tell friends and family that you’re starting the FastDiet; once you make a public commitment, you are much more likely to stick with it.”

We’re all friends here, right?

My intention was to disclose my weight and waistline and other stats of that nature, so that in a few months I could share my progress. Instead, let’s all just stipulate that shirts are great. That, and I could stand to lose four inches around my belly.

And to be clear here, I don’t consider myself to be dangerously overweight. Anyone who’s seen my arms and legs could attest to that. I’m one of those people who’s been carrying around an extra fifteen pounds amidships for decades and has done pretty much nothing about it for just as long. I’ll be good for a while, lose a few pounds, and then there I am again, sucking down a bag of mint Milanos as my eyes roll back in my head like a feeding shark.

That’s why I believe this diet – sorry, lifestyle choice – will work. Because I can still satiate my sweet tooth, as long as I practice self-discipline two days week. Of course, having seen favorable results on fast days, I don’t pig out on the non-fast days – why flush all that effort down the toilet? Besides, I actually don’t feel the urge to make up for lost eating time. Sometimes I surprise myself.

I dreaded my first fast day (which isn’t a complete fast, as it allows men to consume 600 calories), but it was a breeze. A few tummy rumbles and perhaps the desire to drive up to Rapid Ray’s and trample anyone foolish enough to stand between me and the counter. But otherwise, fine.

I’ve always hated the word “diet.” To me, it’s always meant “deprivation.” And there have been hundreds of them, each one proclaiming to be the one that’ll finally work. My mother did Weight Watchers during the Nixon Administration when I was an impressionable little boy, which is why – to this day – I enjoy cottage cheese and Melba toast. I’m not kidding. There’s a tub of Oakhurst cottage cheese in my fridge right now. I understand that just the thought of its texture makes the majority of adults gag, but there it is. Thanks, Mom.

This isn’t simply about losing weight, even though I admit to harboring a desire to wear that ‘70s-era double-ring leather belt that’s been hanging forlornly on my closet door ever since I outgrew it in 1987. More importantly, it’ll help in my lifelong quest to achieve immortality. I have long held to William Saroyan’s famous quote: “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” His only error was that the exception would be made in my case, not his.

At any rate, there’s evidence that occasional fasting improves cholesterol numbers (the bane of my existence, along with people insisting on driving in the middle lane of the turnpike when the right lane is wide open) and decreases blood sugar levels as well as the likelihood of heart attack, stroke, and cancer.

I figure it’s worth a try. Even if it means two days a week without mint Milanos.

Oh, and about Scrooge’s grave. It’s real. The 1984 George C. Scott version – my favorite – was shot there, and the prop remains in the graveyard at St. Chad’s Church. And yes, that’s why we went to Shrewsbury, even though I’m sure plenty of interesting non-fictional events happened there.

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On the use of mercury by the ancient poets

[Originally ran in the August 2015 issue of The Village.]

On a narrow side street not far from the Duomo in Florence (it’s bad enough I’m name-dropping the Duomo; I won’t be so obnoxious to say it’s in Firenze), there’s this gift shop called Il Papiro, and it was in that shop in April of 1998 that I bought a book.

It was our first time overseas and our sense of wonder and appreciation was palpable. We soaked in everything, including a bottle of wine with every meal. Mostly roaming the Tuscan hills for about a week, we spent one day in Florence, hitting the major sites, enjoying a sidewalk café for lunch, and perambulating. Nothing like a good perambulation.

At any rate, the display window of Il Papiro was compelling enough to draw us through the front door. Here at home, I can happily browse a hardware store or stationery shop for a good hour. While I can’t vouch for the quality of an Italian hardware store, I can say they do stationery stores in style. The place was amazing, stocked with pens and notecards and writing paper never spied in the aisles of Staples.

I know...it's beautiful.
I know…it’s beautiful.

There, the creation of paper is an ancient art. The stuff was beautiful. And when I saw the hand-sewn, leather-bound books with marbled covers and rough-weave handmade blank paper, I was stunned into indecision. Mostly, I couldn’t decide between the one with the pasta-colored pages and the one with pages that looked as though a nice Brunello had been spilled on them (I’m trying to stick with an Italian theme here).

I went with the red.

My mind reeled with possibilities. Such a work of art demanded a similar outpouring of talent onto its pages. A heartbreaking novel. Timeless lyrics. An incisive play. Perhaps poetry. And it was that line of irresponsible thinking that stymied me. It was that sort of unrealistic bar-raising that turned what could have been a repository of original ideas into a stylish tchotchke for seventeen years.

That gorgeous thing sat uselessly on one of my shelves like one of those fake books Dickens had made up for his library at Tavistock House, although – come to think of it – at least those things had a purpose in that they made people smile or laugh, with titles like “Five Minutes in China” and “On the Use of Mercury by the Ancient Poets.”

No, my treasured tome was a complete bust. I’d take it out every few months to consider its fate, only to ruefully slide it back between my “Elements of Style” and Stephen King’s “On Writing.” A cruel fate, truly.

* * * * *

For most of our twenty-eight years of marriage, Diane and I have barely touched our Lenox wedding china. A subdued, pretty floral pattern of blue and gray. Having been raised in an era when china and silver and crystal were taken out only during the holidays and other special occasions, we did the same.

And then Oprah – was it Oprah? or maybe the Dalai Lama? – anyway, a very wise person suggested we regularly use our china and silver and crystal to make everyday life more special. I’m sure people who keep their living room furniture covered in clear plastic responded with apoplexy, but Diane and I figured sure, why not? It made sense. Why adhere to a pointless tradition? Why have something beautiful locked away in a cabinet for fifty-one weeks of the year?

So for the past couple of years, we’ve been using our good china about once a week. Pancakes look fantastic on them.

* * * * *

 This spring, I finally took a good long look at my Italian book of nothingness. The ridiculousness of not having written anything in it for seventeen years hit me. Belatedly.

I could have started a novel or some other work of fiction, but that would eventually have led to me doing a lot of transcribing onto my laptop. And my handwriting has been known to be difficult to decipher, even by me. Fortunately, my latest journal (man-speak for “diary”) had just seen its final page filled.

Yes, that lovely work of Renaissance-inspired bookbindery may have been robbed of the chance of being the birthplace of potential literary greatness (especially if I had sold it on eBay), but what better place to turn to – years from now – when I want to remember what I had for lunch on July 11, 2015?


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A Heff by any other nickname

[Originally ran in the June 2015 issue of The Village.]

I’ve never gone in for nicknames. Maybe it’s because I’ve never been sports-minded, and it seems the sports world is where most nicknames are forged. (Well, there and nuclear fusion laboratories.) Or maybe because nicknames defeat the purpose of given names, which were given for a reason.

I learned of my aversion to nicknames while in college, where I went out of my way to call classmates by their given names while 99 percent of the student body apparently had no problem addressing a fellow human being as Weege or Tuck or Flounder or Tri-pod. And perhaps it was because I never used a nickname that I never got stuck with one. And for that I am forever grateful.

There was one exception, and that was my friend John, whom I met at Kennebunk High School back when Carter was president and the Knack was the hottest band around. With a last name that begged to be abbreviated – Heffernan – it was no surprise that many called him Heff, especially when he was playing basketball or baseball. There may have been other Johns on those teams, but there was no doubt who was being cheered when “All right, Heff!” was yelled at embarrassing volumes.

I would occasionally call him Heff, maybe 50 percent of the time, but as we grew into adulthood it tapered off. While he often still signs cards and notes with his nickname (perhaps in a bid to get me to stop calling him John), I rarely use it. Though that may change. I may have to bring it out of mothballs. And for a reason I never could have predicted.

John and his wife Heather have two boys, James and Andrew, the latter having reached a level of baseball-mania that can only be described as borderline-obsessive. In a good way. He plays on two teams (not simultaneously, but if he could figure out a way, he no doubt would). My wife and I recently attended one of his games up in Portland, where the 10-year-old lived up to the parental hype: he excelled at bat, on the mound, and at shortstop. I couldn’t help briefly comparing his performance with my own, when I lived in mortal terror of being struck by a ball, whether while at the plate or waiting for it to roll toward me at third base at 40 mph. Andrew was totally committed and fearless.

And while most of his teammates were exhibiting your typical boyish behaviors while off the field – throwing baseballs at each others’ heads, running around, laughing, looking for a snack – Andrew was laser-focused on the game, absorbing every single aspect of what was happening on the field. I’ve never seen a kid act so…professional.

But the most visceral reaction we experienced our first time watching Andrew play baseball happened when he donned his red batting helmet and dutifully marched toward home plate. From teammates and adults alike came cries of “All right, Heff! Let’s go, buddy! C’mon, Heff!”

John and Heather had given birth to another Heff.

Diane and I burst into incredulous laughter, looking at each other in amazement and then at John, who smiled and said something like, “Yeah, I know.”

The John Heffernan Fan Club, Kennebunk High School, 1981
The John Heffernan Fan Club, Kennebunk High School, 1981

I’m sure there are other Heffernans called Heff – it only makes sense – but the last time I heard that nickname called out in a show of support was over 30 years ago, so I’d say our amazement was justified.

John’s small yet loyal cadre of fans at KHS was so dedicated (to spending as much time as possible out of our classrooms during Class Pictures Day in 1981) that we quickly established the John Heffernan Fan Club, found the required faculty adviser in the form of a grumbling yet amused Joe Foster, hastily threw together a banner, and gathered for a photo in the stairwell.

I believe that banner is in a steamer trunk in my attic. I’m thinking with a little bit of editing, it could be recycled.

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Living room as Rubik’s Cube

[Originally ran in the May 2015 issue of The Village.]

I blame production designers. You know, the people who create movie sets. Specifically the sets that are so fabulously gorgeous you just want to jump into the movie screen and live there. Like Diane Keaton’s Hamptons house in Something’s Gotta Give. The production designer there was Jon Hutman. Or Meryl Streep’s house in It’s Complicated. That would be…umm, Jon Hutman. Or that perfect English cottage in the dreadful The Holiday. Dear Lord, Jon Hutman again.

OK, looks like I’ve narrowed it down. I blame Jon Hutman.

For what exactly? We’ll get to that.

While spring cleaning in our house involves plenty of Windex, Formula 409, Brasso, and Old English (which I suppose it should on a more regular basis, but we needn’t get into that now), it isn’t all about getting the place spic and span. It often involves one of my favorite activities – rearranging.

That’s when I decide that the wicker-seated chair we had refinished 15 years ago isn’t fulfilling its potential in the corner of the sunroom and needs to be moved to the bit of wall space by the piano in the dining room. (Speaking of which, if anyone’s interested in a circa-1920 Mendelssohn upright piano, give me a call.)

Or it’s when I’m tired of facing the wall in my study and decide it’s for the best if I rotate my desk out so it’s facing the door, precipitating the domino effect whereby the new blank space needs to be filled by the gold chair, meaning the spot where the gold chair used to be has to be filled with…and there goes the afternoon.

Or when the arrival of a new chair and ottoman gives rise to a feng shui crisis in the living room. That’s the latest. That’s one we’ve been dealing with while awaiting the advent of spring (which at the time of writing – April 7 – has yet to come).

My friend Taylor died a year ago. I knew his mom Celia most of my life. I’d visit her occasionally at her Kennebunkport condo. When she passed 10 years ago, Taylor and his sister Amy inherited the place. I thought this was supposed to be a humor column. Man.

At any rate, the first time my wife and I visited Celia at her condo, I sat down in this green cloth armchair, and I’m pretty sure the first words out of my mouth were, “I want this chair.” So in love was I with that chair that we bought a leather version of it. Hearing this story recently, Amy said when the time came to sell the condo, I could have the green chair.

And now the condo’s on the market. And we have a new chair. Which throws everything off. Or does it?

Of all the rooms in our house, it’s the living room that has always presented the biggest challenge. We were never able to go out and buy an entire set of matching furniture, so the accumulation of chairs, tables, window dressings, bookcases, and sofa has been a decades-long series of educated guesses. Like an average kid with a Rubik’s Cube, we’ve been waiting for the pieces to fall into place. All we’ve ever wanted is to have our house cease resembling a college dorm room and start looking like a movie set. A movie set designed by…yes, that’s right…Jon Hutman.

The funny thing about the latest reconfiguration, which involved the rotation of most pieces of furniture (save my leather chair, which will forever be nailed to the floor by the hearth), is that I found it revelatory, while Diane – you know, my wife – found it disconcerting. Actually, the word she used was wrong. She’s so cute when she’s being contrary. Love her to pieces.

My recycling of the word wrong to describe her stinging assessment of the new living room set-up led to a spirited debate on our respective interior design skills and judgment. When it comes to household decisions, we usually share a brain; this was a notable exception. Notable in that each of us thought the other had lost his/her portion of the brain and was operating on methane.

The linchpin is Celia’s chair. See, I have its back against a wall, whereas Diane thinks it should be at an angle. I model the set-up on my grandparents’ living room – the placement of the two armchairs and the fireplace is nearly identical. If I remember correctly, Celia had the chair at an angle, which helps Diane’s case; however, it was in the middle of her living room, not against a wall.

For the moment, we’re in a holding pattern. The new arrangement is in place, after I requested it be given a chance. Two things can happen now: either Diane exercises her wife-item-veto power, or absolutely nothing. In the meantime, I’ve got some cleaning to do.

[Note: Diane was right; Celia’s chair, as of November 2016, is at an angle.]

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An open letter to the Maine House of Representatives

Guest columnist Marty is a Shih Tzu living in Kennebunk. Correction: a miniature Shih Tzu.
Guest columnist Marty is a Shih Tzu living in Kennebunk. Correction: a miniature Shih Tzu.

[Originally ran in the April 2015 issue of The Village.]

I usually don’t write letters to politicians. I usually don’t write letters, period. Fact is, I can’t write; lacking the motor skills and fingers required to write longhand or type, I must dictate. But dictate I must, for I could not live with myself if I failed to weigh in on a matter of utmost importance now facing the legislative body in Augusta that shapes the lives of all Mainers.

My name is Marty, and I am a Shih Tzu living in Kennebunk. Full disclosure: I am a miniature Shih Tzu (a designation akin to “miniature hamster”), weighing in at five pounds (after mealtime). Nonetheless, I am technically still a dog – check out my subspecies if you have any doubts – and am therefore entitled to publically comment on LD107, the bill asking that the Labrador retriever be named Maine’s state dog.

First, my heartiest congratulations to the State and Local Government Committee for advising against the bill last month, 9-2, and to the Maine State Senate for shooting it down early in March by a vote of 24-10. If the Maine House of Representatives possesses the wisdom and sense of justice to likewise defeat this questionable bill by the time this letter is printed, they have my deepest gratitude. That being said, even if this letter addresses a moot point, the feelings of this humble little dog – and those of many of my fellow canines – ought to be recorded so that if and when a similar bill is presented to the legislature, people will know where I stand on my tiny little legs.

The depth of my opposition to the bill presented by Sen. David Dutremble (D-Biddeford) is a million times deeper than my water bowl. The Labrador retriever? The Lab? Seriously? That’d be up there with those $80,000 gift bags handed out to Oscar nominees or $10 million bonuses given to Wall Street executives already pulling down that much every month. I mean, why don’t we all take the next logical step and crown George Clooney the king of the United States, or, better yet, put the Beatles on the 10-pound note and Beyoncé on the 20-dollar bill, because I’m thinking they haven’t been praised and lauded and deified enough!

Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional here. That’s the problem with dictating.

The point I’m trying to make is that the Labrador retriever has received enough press and accolades. The American Kennel Club annually ranks dog breeds (such an ugly ritual, especially for those not in the Top Ten), the results being that the Lab has come out #1 every year for the past twenty-four years. (Who did they have to sniff to get such a good rating?)

Shouldn’t that be enough? Can’t they be happy with that? How much love do they need? What is their problem? I mean, geez, we Shih Tzus are #17 (full-size ones, that is, meaning I don’t count – thanks for the ego-crushing criteria, AKC!) and we don’t go running around like media whores, which we could, because at least we’re not Norwegian lundehunds, the poor creatures who came in dead last at #178.

And let’s admit it: a casual flip-through of any LL Bean catalog makes it pretty damn clear that the Labrador retriever is the de facto Maine state dog anyway. They’re in. They’re the kings. We get it. We accept it. But an official designation by the Maine legislature? Absolutely not. That’d be overkill. That’s where we must put our paws down and demand justice. Because if we don’t, Labs will start popping up on license plates. Or maybe they’ll replace the moose on the state flag.

Granted, Labrador retrievers originated in our neck of the woods, while we Shih Tzus were probably outsourced, but that doesn’t mean Labs are due any special treatment – particularly since they are afforded special treatment every minute of their waking lives. I mean, those things are spoiled. OK, maybe they’re not carried around in pocketbooks, but still…

The selling point for Labradors in becoming the state dog is that they reputedly share three characteristics with human Mainers: they’re friendly, hard-working, and love the outdoors. Now, I’m not lobbying for the Shih Tzu to become the Maine state dog (we’ll settle for Maine assistant state dog), but we too are friendly and love the outdoors, unless the ground is covered with snow and ice, which wreaks havoc on our little pads.

What was that third thing?

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It’s snow laughing matter

[Originally ran in the March 2015 issue of The Village.]

While composing columns for a monthly publication, one is always aware of the time lapse between the writing of them and their appearance in print, and the possibility of the subject matter becoming irrelevant, even though the subject matter is often irrelevant the moment the words appear one after another on one’s laptop monitor, but that’s an entirely different concern, and one that we mustn’t dwell upon.

The point is, I’m confident that the subject matter of this month’s offering – the obscene amount of wintry precipitation we’ve been pummeled by – will not be a faded memory by the time it arrives at your doorstep, or, shall I say, the seven-foot-tall ice-encrusted snowy mound that used to be your doorstep.

As I write this piece (February 9), it is snowing outside my window, the only comfort being that it is not snowing inside my window, which, at this point, wouldn’t be a surprise. In fact, that might be convenient, in that I would no longer be troubled to put on my coat and boots and hat and gloves every few hours to go outside and shovel the devil’s dandruff; I could simply wear that get-up continually until April. Mid- to late-April, no doubt.

Aww, ain't snow purty?
Aww, ain’t snow purty?

Snow is delightfully atmospheric in December, as many – including myself – have become programmed to dream of a white Christmas. Many are the songs and poems that laud snow’s nearly magical powers, including John Greenleaf Whittier’s beautiful and melancholy Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl, from 1866:

And, when the second morning shone,

We looked upon a world unknown,

On nothing we could call our own.

Around the glistening wonder bent

The blue walls of the firmament,

No cloud above, no earth below,

A universe of sky and snow!

That’s all well and good, but come January, I begin to eye snowstorms with an unpoetic eye. I fully understand that I live in Maine and that snowy winters are typically part of the bargain, but I am also fully aware that just as people who live in the Amazon are entitled to complain about the humidity and people who live in the Mojave Desert are entitled to complain about the heat, we are equally entitled to complain about our own obvious weather. It’s what we do. Here, griping while trudging belt-deep through snow with a roof rake in one’s hand is all part of the joy of the coming of spring. Even my plow guy has said he’s had enough.

Yet while I believe snow (and the subsequent labors involved in removing it) to be grouse-worthy, I fail to find it newsworthy. This winter, it seems that most newscasts – both local and national – have led with weather-related stories, most often dealing with snowfall in the northern states, as though informing the public of snow in winter will somehow enlighten them on a matter they would otherwise be ignorant of. If we’re talking at least a couple feet of snow within 24 hours, sure, go right ahead and tell us, but otherwise, leave it for the weather forecast. I wonder which bona fide stories were shelved the days Buffalo was going to get hit with yet another foot of snow.

But enough about national matters; let’s talk about my driveway, which was last seen in early January. My aforementioned plow guy is very good, but the regularity and volume of precipitation made it inevitable that the asphalt would vanish under a white veneer. It’s OK; we’ll be reunited in the spring.

Usually I begin fantasizing about the spring in March, when it’s reasonable to expect an occasional spring-like day – a day in March when it’s still cold and snow is a possibility, but when the earth coyly gives hints of warmer times to come. Not this year.

This year, I suffered my first flash-forward the last week of January while shoveling the front walkway, or rather, smoothing out the snow-ramp. While bundled against the sub-zero winds, I imagined part of the driveway visible, puddles of melting snow glimmering in the finally-warm sun, robins chirping optimistically from the branches of the oak. I saw my gardens with all the leaves I didn’t quite get around to in the fall, and which I will happily rake once the leading edge of the ice shelf has retreated to Canada. I saw myself hopefully installing a new air filter in my lawn mower. I pictured my wife and myself watching the lead story on the evening news, of a rainstorm threatening coastal Maine with two inches of precipitation.

Oh, isn’t it pretty to think so?

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A love cast in iron

[Originally ran in the February 2015 issue of The Village.]

The Foster house. Round Pond. A nearly hundred-year-old classic Maine shingled cottage perched atop a knoll overlooking Muscongus Sound and Louds Island. One of the best vacations of my life, two weeks in July.

Unlike most other vacations where we’re served at a B&B, at the Foster house we made full use of the kitchen, which was straight out of McCloskey. This meant a serious intake of pancakes and bacon. But adjustments had to be made, for at home we used an electric griddle for pancakes, mostly because its enormous surface can accommodate mass production (followed immediately by mass consumption). There was no Presto griddle at the Foster house. Naturally, there was a cast iron skillet.

Every morning I would wake up to inhale not only the salt air but also the distinctive scent – wafting up through the cast iron floor vents – of butter and pancakes sizzling in a heated and long-seasoned frying pan. I’d stagger downstairs to pour a glass of orange juice, sneak a greasy stick of bacon, and flop down at the kitchen table in anticipation of a stack of the most satisfying pancakes Diane – you know, my wife – had ever made.

Yes, the setting was ideal. Seagulls crying, lobster boats rumbling, the sun sparkling off the sea, the glorious realization that there was nothing to do all day except relax and play. But those pancakes were awesome. Why? That black frying pan.

The way the pan heated the butter which seeped into the batter and cooked the pancakes till they were just oh-so-slightly crispy on the outside and still light and airy on the inside? An electric griddle can’t do that. Nor should it try.

So memorable were those breakfasts that even now, all these years later, whenever Diane eschews the Presto for the frying pan, we call the results “Foster house pancakes.” It’s not every week, mind you. Perhaps once a month. Just to keep them special. One thing you do not want to do is to take a cast iron frying pan for granted.

Which is what I used to do. Ours was most certainly a bridal shower gift, a Wagner Ware 11 ¾-inch skillet manufactured during the General Housewares Corp. years that ended in 1999, when the company shut down its Ohio foundry. (There are no more Wagner pans being made these days, unless you count the Chinese-made versions. Which you shouldn’t.) It’s one of the few items in our house that’s as old as our nearly 28-year marriage, a kitchen warhorse that has weathered our shifting tastes for the simple reason that a frying pan is as timeless as a wooden rolling pin. The terra cotta garlic roaster, hot air popcorn popper, wok, and ebelskivers pan may have been retired, but not the skillet.

Unlike our toaster – or rolling pin, for that matter – our frying pan has grown on me. When I was younger, it was just one of those things to be found in a kitchen. We’d use it in regular rotation with our aluminum skillet, waffle iron, casserole dish, cake pan, cookie sheet, and perforated pizza pan. It didn’t stand out. It wasn’t special.

When I started working out of the house and assuming cooking duties several years ago, however, I came to appreciate the differences in our cookware. There are dishes I’ll make only using our Le Creuset Dutch oven, others that require a Revere Ware pan, and some that come out best on the Weber grill.

You know you can smell it.
You know you can smell it.

Mushrooms. Washed, sliced, then placed separately on the heated and buttered surface of the Wagner, where they are allowed to brown to perfection. Sometimes I’ll go crazy and use extra virgin olive oil instead (or even a butter/olive oil blend), but it’s got to be the frying pan. That’s how I get heavenly sautéed mushrooms. And when I want to caramelize onions, they go right into the skillet for a good long spell.

I’ve come to prefer pan-grilled chicken over its Weber-grilled brethren, which sometimes runs the risk of possessing rubber-like qualities; that doomsday scenario doesn’t happen in the skillet, which produces tender chicken time after time.

It seems like I’m always washing out my frying pan, drying it, rubbing a teaspoon of vegetable oil into it with a paper towel, and returning it to its rightful place in the lower right cabinet. I know I can stack other pans into it without chipping it, but I don’t. Not only do I not want to risk it, I also like looking at it.

It’s a thing of beauty, really. Simple beauty, but beauty nonetheless. Its design hasn’t changed in ages. And why should it? A circle is perfection defined, and black never goes out of style. Plus, they’re ideal for smacking coyotes on the head.

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Rolling (to a stop) with the changes

[Originally ran in the January 2015 issue of The Village.]

Let there be lights.
Let there be lights.

On Friday, October 3rd, at exactly 4:30 p.m., I did something which I had never done before – something that made me uncomfortable, something that was foreign to my psyche, something that instilled in me a sense of unease which took months to shake. And no, it wasn’t watching back-to-back episodes of Three’s Company on TV Land. It was worse. Yes, there are things worse than watching back-to-back episodes of Three’s Company on TV Land. And I’m not talking about ordering a glass of water without lemon and then the waitress returns to the table looking all innocent and there, floating in your glass of water, is a wedge of lemon, which is a close second.

No, what happened is this: I had to stop at a traffic light at the mouth of High Street in Kennebunk. I was driving south on Route 1, having crossed the Mousam River bridge, and was preparing to turn right onto High Street – a fairly common practice of mine ever since moving into a house on High Street 21 years earlier – when my forward motion was impeded by a glaring red light that had not existed when I was heading north on Route 1 a few hours earlier.

The workmen had finished their job. The traffic lights had been installed. It was all part of the readjustment of the mouth of High Street, which used to be a wide and unruly junction that begged for accidents to happen there. The road joined Route 1 at such a tight angle that, more often than not, people heading into High Street failed to use their directionals, and those heading out of High Street did so at such a ridiculously casual diagonal that it’d take them ten times as long to join the traffic lane of Route 1 than if they had driven across the street perpendicularly. Either practice was potentially dangerous, so I understood when the mouth of the road was reconfigured and narrowed with berms and sidewalks and plantings. And traffic lights.

But one cannot ignore the deep-seated, instinctual, inexorable power of OFB, which, for the purposes of this family paper, we’ll call Old Fogey Behavior. OFB is not reserved solely for people qualifying for the plentiful array of services provided by the good people at AARP, which could really save on postage by mailing out fewer solicitations for life insurance (Yeah, OK, I get it already, I’m rapidly approaching my grave – or rather, my urn).

OFB, in its simplest definition, is a form of conservatism which bemoans change, coloring the past in rosy tones while conveniently whitewashing its sins and shortcomings. For example, one might hear a senior pine for the good old days of the 1940s and ‘50s, to which one could reasonably respond, “You mean when everyone who wasn’t a white Christian male heterosexual property-owner either got a raw deal or feared for their lives? Yeah, that must’ve been great.”

Societal shifts aside, though, I get it. The makes of cars were easily identifiable and people looked better when dressed by Edith Head. We all think things were better when we were kids, because that’s when we learned about the world around us. Why should it change? Why would it want to?

The intersection of Route 1 and High Street never had a traffic light. And then BAM, it had one. OFB dictated that I should hate it, and grumble “Ahh, it never needed one, and still doesn’t.” Or, “It ruins the landscape.” Or, “What’s next, a pedestrian footbridge?” Or, “Is Twitter the same thing as Pinterest?”

Instead, I determined to take the high road (which, I should point out, does not have a traffic light at either end). I vowed to take this axis-tilting change in stride, to trust that the authorities had pored over traffic studies and had done the right thing, and to not spout profanities at the inside of my windshield when forced to wait twelve seconds before being able to turn onto High Street from Route 1. My success rate in this endeavor grew steadily from October through December, at which point I had come to accept a new reality that could have crushed a weaker soul.

After all, we can’t expect the world to freeze when we’re sixteen. Which is just as well. 1980 had its cherished moments, but “Do That to Me One More Time” wasn’t one of them.

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