Smells like pre-teen spirit

[Originally ran in the December 2014 issue of The Village.]

The sense of smell provides the quickest conduit to our memory banks. It’s undeniable. More so than touching, seeing, hearing, or tasting, smelling something provides us with our very own mental time machine. Granted, this applies only to certain – and usually special – smells.

I bought a pink rose a few years ago because one sniff of the perfumed bloom flooded me with nostalgia. I couldn’t remember exactly where or when I had smelled that particular rose before, but the unique scent immediately made me feel like a child in the summer in Maine. I had to have it, for not only was it beautiful, but also it would serve as a tantalizing clue to a mystery I may never solve. On the other hand, sniffing a frosted brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tart will not bring me back to childhood, even though they were a dietary staple of the early 1970’s. And perhaps beyond.

So when I caught a whiff of Laurel Pond the other day while hanging up my wife’s shirt to dry, I was curious. For one thing, I hadn’t thought about Laurel Pond in about a year. For another, why was my wife’s damp shirt a trigger? I doubted she had been swimming in Laurel Pond recently, if only because it’s found in my boyhood home of Longmeadow, Mass., a good 170 miles away. Although…it’s a six-hour round trip, and she’s usually at work ten hours a day, so…it is possible.

Though Longmeadow was the quintessential suburban bedroom community, our house on Farmington Avenue was conveniently tucked up against Laurel Park, roughly 35 acres of woods, hills, ponds, and streams, where a boy could catch frogs, fly kites, dabble in arson, play cowboys, and fish. The frog-catching was done at the smaller and less popular of the two ponds, which, acknowledging its status, had allowed the trees and shrubs to grow close to its banks, making itself shaggy and shutting itself off from less hardy adventurers. The fishing was done – or rather, attempted – at Laurel Pond proper, where my dad and I participated in the annual fishing derby a few times.

The clearest memory dusted off by my wife’s odiferous shirt was of an early birthday, when I received a plastic motorboat I had been eyeing greedily in the hardware store window for weeks. It was a white and orange speedboat. Four-seater, with a cabin. Even though it was a chilly April day, I was not to be deterred in bringing it immediately over to Laurel Pond; it needed to be seen in all its glory. No way was I going to waste that thing in the lousy bathtub. Besides, it had an operational propeller.

So I tied a string to the eyehook on the bow, placed a couple batteries in the hull, and marched over to the pond, where a handful of people were strolling about. I can’t remember if my mom or dad or one of my sisters joined me, but I do remember this: I squatted at the water’s edge, clicked the switch, watched the little white propeller spin to life, gingerly set the boat on the calm pond, and proudly watched the inaugural voyage of my motorboat, which completed one lazy half-circle before taking on water, slipping below the surface, inexplicably freeing itself of my painter (which I kept gripped in my hand, a look of disbelief on my face), and settling to its watery grave. One minute, tops. I believe I named it Titanic II. I wonder if it’s still there. I ought to call Robert Ballard.

Intrigued by this flood of memories, I entered Laurel Pond in YouTube, and found a 57-second clip of an amateur panning that section of the park. It’s smaller than I remember. And there it is: the little set of waterfalls that carried Cooley Brook from Laurel Pond to the frog pond and which, at the height of my Tom Sawyer era, I followed one spring day all the way to the Connecticut River. But it was at Laurel Pond where I buried the last of my seven hamsters. I wrapped Sid in foil on January 29, 1978 and sent him over the falls in some sort of container. I was seriously into The Lord of the Rings.

And now we arrive at the point of this column: I really needed to clean our washing machine. I always figured, hey, it’s a washing machine, can’t it wash itself? Come to find, it can, but a human being has to program it. The owner’s manual (10 years old, yet in pristine condition) tells me to do this every few months. Which I will do. Starting now.

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The basics on how to run a political campaign

[Originally ran in the November 2014 issue of The Village.]

Ahh, November. The month that brings us the conviviality of Thanksgiving, the reflective sobriety of Veterans Day, the inexorable decline toward winter, and the mind-numbing onslaught of political ads and their accompanying campaigns that never fail to excite my inner cynic and make me wistful for the days of car and Cialis commercials.

I used to pay attention to political ads. I used to think they mattered. I used to listen. I used to believe that candidates had something new to say, had something bold and different to offer. Come to find, they don’t.

Let me amend that last statement: For the past ten years or so, candidates have indeed offered something new and different to the voters, in that they – for the most part – steadfastly refuse to identify their political party. The climate has become so toxic that publicly claiming you’re a Democrat or Republican will immediately have 40% of the electorate labeling you a good-for-nothing scumbag. Or worse.

But besides that development, political campaigns are the same as they’ve been for decades. Possibly centuries. What do you need to know about a typical advertising campaign in case you plan to run for office? I’m here to help.

First, Photoshop the warts, whiteheads, and shiny foreheads off the best pics you can find of yourself, or, better yet, take new ones in a flattering light, preferably with children, the elderly, veterans, and factory workers. Meanwhile, Photoshop warts, whiteheads, and shiny foreheads onto pics of your opponent. Don’t be shy about digitally altering your opponent beyond mere facial blemishes; a finger lodged firmly into a nostril can mean the difference between a dead heat and a two-point lead, while having him/her appearing to shake hands with either an al-Qaeda operative or a Kardashian may translate into a landslide. And don’t worry about a lawsuit for libel: by the time it’s filed, you’ll be in office, where you’ll be able to influence its outcome. Win-win!

As an addendum to the previous bit of advice: When it comes to video footage, show yourself smiling in color and your opponent grimacing in black and white. And have fun with this – with a couple of clicks you can make your opponent’s footage look muddy, grainy, and scratched, like it was unearthed from the archives of the House Un-American Activities Committee.

If running for national office, be sure to paint any incumbents as Washington insiders who are out of touch with the common working man. At the same time, sidestep any questions from the press about your becoming a Washington insider who is out of touch with the common working man once you’re elected.

Kissing babies is passé. What you want to do is cozy up with veterans. Even though saying you “support our troops” is like saying you “support not killing puppies by smacking them with sledgehammers,” the obvious sentiment goes a long way with voters. Be seen alternately smiling and looking gravely concerned while talking (or skydiving) with veterans, who would do well to be wearing their uniforms.

By all means, mention that your opponent voted against a bill that outwardly sounds like a no-brainer (e.g. A Law to Prevent the Killing of Puppies by Smacking Them with Sledgehammers), without mentioning that the same bill had a rider on it that was also a no-brainer (e.g. A Law to Encourage the Killing of Kittens by Smacking Them with Sledgehammers). In your defense, there’s just so much material you can present to the public without subjecting them to information overload.

If you’re going to stage a scene for a TV commercial with a group of people sitting around a kitchen table extolling your virtues, go the extra mile and hire professional actors, rather than those who didn’t make the cut for the Fort Kent Community Players. People just might equate bad acting with bad politics.

Start with one or two positive ads that simply put your record and qualifications in the right light, but have a truckload of attack ads ready to go the minute your opponent says something you don’t like (“I’m the right man for the job”) that you can repackage to the public as a negative ad (“He says I’m Satan”), thereby justifying your use of the damning material you’ve been saving for this special day (“No one has said my opponent favors killing puppies by smacking them with sledgehammers, and I’m certainly not saying he favors killing puppies by smacking them with sledgehammers, but would anyone really be surprised?”).

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The vicious (and delicious) cycle

...take the cannoli.
…take the cannoli.

[Originally ran in the October 2014 issue of The Village.]

If only for Frank Sinatra and the invention of the piano, we all owe a debt of gratitude to the Italians. But they didn’t stop there. They gave us the thermometer, the violin, Frank Capra, Joe DiMaggio, Francis Ford Coppola, the ice cream cone, and radio. And then they went and built Union Station and the Lincoln Memorial. And they also built Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Monica Bellucci. Could they be more generous?

So yes, life is much richer and fuller thanks to the Italians. All that being said, there’s a special place in my heart – and stomach – for that greatest of Italian contributions to mankind: the cannoli.

For those of you unfamiliar with this confection, where have you been and what is your problem? Seriously. Cannoli are phenomenal. (Note: to be grammatically correct, one would use cannolo for the singular and cannoli for the plural; however, since doing so would be like insisting on using the word datum while describing a single piece of information rather than the commonly accepted data, thereby identifying yourself as a persnickety grammar tool and successfully alienating yourself from society, I will bridge the gap by using cannoli for both singular and plural; after all, only an animal would point out a herd of bucks and does and exclaim, “Look – deers!”)

Where was I?

Oh yes. Cannoli are phenomenal. They’re the desserts made with crunchy tube-shaped shells filled with a ricotta cheese-based sugary concoction (to which one may add candied fruit or chocolate chips) that are so good that even mafiosi know not to leave them behind after a hit. I’ve always enjoyed them, but only recently made them after reading the charming blog “Thirty Cannoli and a Funeral” on cousin Ralph’s (a card-carrying Italian who grew up in Brooklyn) tasty website (

Disclosure: I made the filling, but did not attempt to make the shells; Ralph gave me a pass, so it was OK. The shells I picked up at Micucci, the venerable grocery store in Portland. See, if a cannoli is going to be disappointing, you can always look to the shell, which either started out stale or went mushy for having been filled prematurely. I wasn’t going to have that problem, because I was going to stuff them right before serving them.

While Micucci provided me with the shells, Ralph provided me with a bag of candied orange and citron. Straight from Brooklyn. Primo stuff. The cannoli were a success. But there was a problem. If you could call it a problem.

There was too much filling; we ran out of shells. Only a chimp would freeze dairy, so I went back to Micucci to stave off the horrendous prospect of throwing out the extra filling, which, as everyone knows, can only be consumed while surrounded by a crunchy shell. We ate more cannoli. But then we had a few extra shells. I had to make another batch of filling (this time with mini chocolate chips instead of fruit). I tried to adjust the recipe so that the shells and filling would come to a simultaneous end, but failed. Naturally, more shells were soon required. The cycle was broken when the next few extra shells were eaten with ice cream.

This same cycle of excess is happening right now in my house, but not with cannoli. In fact, it’s not even a product of the Italians, but of Polish Jews. For years, we thought bagels were good for us, if only because they weren’t called doughnuts. When yet another dietary fact was made public, something about bagels being as fattening as doughnuts and muffins, we tried to ignore the news, if only because bagels are so good. But we finally wised up, and put bagels on the list of things we seldom eat.

The problem – if you can call it a problem – is that, as was the case with cannoli, once we invite bagels into our house, it takes a long time to get them out. You buy a tub of cream cheese and a few bagels. You finish the bagels. There’s extra cream cheese. You buy a few more bagels. You run out of cream cheese with two bagels still sitting atop the fridge. You buy more cream cheese, and pretty soon you’re avoiding the scale.

I wonder if Meyer Lansky ever said, “Leave the gun…take the bagels.”

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Feeling the ghosts of the Western Front

[Originally ran in the September 2014 issue of The Village.]

People come from all over the world to see the Kennebunks in their glory, especially during the summer, when the beaches are lined with sun-worshippers, book-readers, and body-surfers, the restaurants are meeting the needs of seafood aficionados, and pleasure-seekers are enjoying the shops, golf courses, and ice cream stands. Naturally, it’s the time of year when Diane – you know, my wife – and I typically decide to leave.

On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense. Or any sense. But that’s before you learn that when one is married to an educator, one must adjust one’s vacation schedule. When one can get away for a decent length of time only during the month of July, one does so. To clarify, Diane is the educator and I’m the “one.” I suppose I could have switched every “one” with first-person pronouns to make things plainer, but it’s too late now.

At any rate, we decided this past winter (sorry for dropping the w-word in late summer) that we would celebrate our mutual 50th birthdays in 2014 in high style with a European vacation. Most of our trips have been in the nine-day range, the longest stretching to two weeks; we braced ourselves for setting a record by being away from home for three weeks. And for testing the limits of our new credit card.

One cannot properly – sorry, let’s try that again: I cannot properly describe our trip in 750 words. Nor would you want me to try. To that end, I’ll be writing a series of vacation vignettes on my writing website, over the next few weeks. Within the confines of this column, however, I can share with you a story that falls in line with the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which is being commemorated big-time over in France and Belgium, for obvious reasons.

The first shots were fired as the Germans invaded neutral Belgium in August 1914 en route to France, and it was in these two countries that the Western Front shifted a few meters back and forth before stagnating with the digging of trenches in the fall. Once the trenches were built, it was pretty much a series of artillery bombardments and suicidal infantry attacks. In short, millions died for no good reason. Except to provide a great set-up for the nasty sequel.

American involvement was belated and minimal, compared to what the Europeans sacrificed. (Which may help to explain why WWI doesn’t get the sort of coverage in the States as WWII does.) Most WWI memorials and cemeteries in northeast France and western Belgium are for the French, British, and German soldiers. There are surviving bunkers and fractions of battlefields outside Ypres, Belgium, which has the impressive In Flanders Fields Museum, but the most visceral experience I had was at the Newfoundland memorial in Beaumont-Hamel, France.

It was a gloriously hot and sunny summer day when we arrived. Being the largest preserved portion of the enormous Battle of the Somme battlefield, the 74-acre Newfoundland site has been growing in popularity, and no wonder. For amid all the beautiful trees (indigenous to Newfoundland) planted in 1925 are the grassed-over pockmarks of German shelling and, open to the sun, a series of preserved trenches, from which the sole Newfoundland battalion of roughly 780 (mostly) fishermen emerged on that horrible first day of the Battle of the Somme, July 1, 1916 to meet their fate.

In the visitors’ center there is a replica of the typical home these boys left behind. Simple wooden furnishings, a woodstove, fishing artifacts, family photographs, acoustic folk songs playing. And then you go outside into the heat and walk the battle-scarred landscape, fully aware that this is where most of them died. On one day.

In the trenches at the Newfoundland memorial in France.
In the trenches at the Newfoundland memorial in France.

One of 19 massive mines signaled the start of battle that day along the Somme (six of the 25 planned explosives were duds). Characteristic of the Great War, communications were fouled up and men were sent out over the top when they shouldn’t have. Down the slope a bit from the trenches is a replica of the Danger Tree, where the soldiers were told to assemble – if they actually made it that far, which many did not. The Tree made for an easy target for German gunners, who blasted those who followed orders and gathered there. It took me one minute to stroll down to the Tree and look back up at the trenches.

So, 780 soldiers and officers charged the Germans (who had the sense to mostly be on the defensive throughout the war). Most of the slaughter occurred in about half an hour. The next day, 68 made it to roll call.


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August was the month

[Originally ran in the August 2014 issue of The Village.]

For some reason, it’s been important for me to try to remember all the lasts.

The last time we walked the Cove, talking about anything and everything, all the while gathering sea glass. The last shared meal, which to the best of my feeble memory was a couple of cheeseburgers picked up at Hot Digity Dog and brought over to one of those picnic tables in Rotary Park overlooking the river. The last time I heard him play guitar – perhaps a recording session at Monica’s studio, perhaps playing acoustics at my house afterward. The last time I heard his distinctive laugh, a close-mouthed, mirthful chortle. The last time he greeted me with, “Hey, old friend.”

From an utterly selfish perspective, one of the most devastating aftereffects of Taylor Sinclair’s death is that the only person capable of reminiscing about our shared childhood experiences is gone. We were supposed to be a couple of old guys laughing about the time we did this and the time we did that.

Nostalgia, as a solitary endeavor, is a melancholy mourning of the past. I usually avoid it. That being said, while the sensation while experienced alone – all-consuming, warm, narcotic – can be oddly comforting, shared nostalgia can be sweet and uplifting. Whenever Taylor returned to Maine for one of his visits (which, though my ego would vehemently deny it, was invariably anchored around a lobster-frenzy at Nunan’s over in Cape Porpoise), our conversations on politics, spirituality, music, movies, and family would be peppered with joyful reflections on Augusts past.

Which is why I waited until the August edition of The Village to write this piece on my late friend.

July is fine. It always has been. But August was the month. August was the month I looked forward to all year-round. August was the month we shared at Kennebunk Beach for ten years, from the time we were around five to the time in high school when his family stopped coming out from Pittsburgh to summer on Great Hill Road. We were inseparable.

Nowadays, a month flies by. But in kid-time, it stretched forever. Taylor and I didn’t know each other as elementary and middle school students; we were summer friends, which meant that all our time together was stripped of responsibilities (save getting home by dark, which was mostly adhered to until around 1976, when staying out late became worth the risk of being grounded). Our mission was to have fun for four straight weeks every year, during that precious month when summer started feeling those unmistakable hints of autumn. Every day had to count.

Clambering on the rocks up one side of Lord’s Point and down the other – preferably at high tide, to make our adventure appear more like trespassing – was a favorite pastime for a couple of Augusts. So was exploring the woods behind Great Hill Road, which brought us to the meadows behind the Wentworth Hotel, the Mousam River, and – a serious discovery – the Bridle Path, which may as well have been the Oregon Trail. We rarely ventured beyond the border of Kennebunk Beach in those days, so to walk through the woods all the way to Main Street in Kennebunk was an accomplishment worthy of Lewis and Clark, particularly since the Bridle Path in the mid-‘70s passed three or four houses.

But, like I said, the only other person who really cared about all the things we did is gone. Further examples would be pointless and far from entertaining. They’ll be fine remaining in my head, occasionally referenced during solitary nostalgia.

At the memorial gathering held out in St. Paul in late May, I learned that Taylor had the same effect on others that he had on me, that being the uncanny ability to make you feel as though he’d rather be nowhere else than in your company. He was present. He was engaged. And because he enjoyed being with you, you enjoyed being with him.

As he neared teenagerdom, Taylor started sleeping in. It became an August ritual: I would wake up, have breakfast, go skim stones, mentally gauge the time that had passed, cross Great Hill Road to the Sinclairs’ house, knock on the door, and be greeted by Mrs. Sinclair, who would kindly inform me that her son was still in bed. It drove me mental. Here was another beautiful summer day (even if it was raining), and he was wasting it by sleeping late? We had boats to row, candy to devour, rocks to throw, comics to draw. We had important things to do.

August just wasn’t August unless I was playing with Taylor.

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Youth is wasted on those who are in it

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

The first sign (that I can recall) came to me four or five years ago up at Bean’s, when I was checking out a kayak. The twentysomething sales kid, lanky and long-haired, was pointing out that particular model’s features, determined what I had in mind, then pronounced, “Yeah, this’d be perfect for you – it’s the same model my dad has.”

My brain is well aware of my age, but my spirit keeps skewing the number lower. I understand most people experience this optimistic sensation as they grow older; it’s got to be a defense mechanism, or perhaps mass self-delusion, like political conventions. Whatever the case, all I know is that the best way to snap me out of hey-I’m-still-young-and-hip-and-can-relate-to-this-person-who-was-a-toddler-when-Kurt-Cobain-died is a well-timed “sir.”

Michael York in "Logan's Run," which may have come true.
Michael York in “Logan’s Run,” which may have come true.

The most recent sobering example of TAA (True Age Acknowledgment) happened a few weeks ago when old pal Chuck McLaughlin, Diane – you know, my wife – and I entered Federal Jack’s for a beer and a game of pool. I hadn’t been to the brew pub in a long time. It had to have been a long time. How else to explain the newly hatched clientele? Between my last visit and this one, everyone in my age bracket either had been banned from Federal Jack’s, or had decided to stay home and replace their bunion pads. Seriously, within two minutes of entering the joint, I felt like a chaperone at a high school dance. What the hell had happened? Had “Logan’s Run” come true?

Many of the kids appeared to be part of a larger contingent – perhaps a wedding party or a college graduation celebration or a Boy Scout jamboree. But I did not see another person there in danger of receiving a welcome packet from AARP anytime soon. These were young men experimenting with their first five-o’clock shadows and Axe Body Spray, and women young enough to find such young men appealing. My first impulse, which I wisely resisted, was to call up a headshot of Mila Kunis on my smartphone, flash it to the crowds, and ask if they’d seen my daughter.

Instead, we ordered beer and waited for a pool table, the users of which appeared to be awaiting a photographer for their Abercrombie & Fitch shoot. Of all the advantages of middle age (this optimistic phrase used by those of us fully expecting to hit 100), the coolest has to be the real-life equivalent of Harry Potter’s Invisibility Cloak, which, when employed, renders the user transparent to those around him, but only if those around him have been able to vote in no more than two presidential elections. It’s really quite amazing. Only when the invisible 50-year-old man verbally addresses a twentysomething kid will the cloak’s power temporarily subside. The effect on the twentysomething kid is often jarring; therefore, one should disable the cloak sparingly. After all, the children are our future.

Eventually, a table opened up when the guys playing decided to continue their young and vibrant lives elsewhere. Diane watched as Chuck and I played a wildly drawn-out game of pool (reflecting not our skills but rather our desire to make those four well-earned quarters last). My cloak’s powers extended to my cue. While I was lining up a shot, the butt of it was set to strike an oblivious young woman in the belly. When I informed her of the likelihood, she maintained a lack of eye contact, took another swig of her beer, and said, “That’s OK.” Rather than telling her it was not OK that she interrupt my shot, I went ahead and narrowly missed both her exposed abdomen and the side pocket.

As the burly old guy on the porch said in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Ahh, youth is wasted on the wrong people.” Of course, he was paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, who said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In turn, Shaw was paraphrasing Albert Kolkwitz, who said, “It’s too bad young people don’t fully appreciate what it is to be young, and will have to wait years before they look back and rue the days they squandered their vitality. I sure hope nobody more famous than me paraphrases that and takes all the credit. That would suck.”

They’re all right on target. Especially Shaw and the guy on the porch. One doesn’t think about age – or invisibility cloaks – until later in life, when one has achieved a certain perspective. And a welcome packet from AARP.

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Suffering from the phantom cloth bag syndrome

[Originally ran in the April 2014 issue of The Village.]

Several weeks ago, February 15, 2014 – a date which will live in infamy – my shopping cart was suddenly and deliberately attacked by unknown forces. The intention of those unknown forces was made plain by the aftermath, in which it was apparent that the contents of my shopping cart had been removed – a malicious act that, in light of the absence of an IOU, can only be described as thievery.

It was the birthday of Diane – you know, my wife – and I was off to the market to – pardon me, I must digress here, although it’s more of a detour that bears relevance to this case. You see, we live in Kennebunk, and having been longtime devotees of Garden Street Market, it took several months for us to start calling its heir “the market,” as in, “Honey, I’m going to the market to pick up some things and where I hope not to have anything pilfered from my shopping cart.” There was a period of adjustment in which we had to call it “the Hannaford.”

That period was made smoother by the presence of many Garden Street Market veterans working the registers, the meat counter, the produce section, etc. And, being in Kennebunk, there were still numerous familiar faces to see in the aisles. Fortunately, the resentment of having a beloved community market replaced by a supermarket chain faded.

So it was Diane’s birthday, and I was off to the market for groceries and flowers. (The flowers were to be a gift from my parents.) After I parked the truck, I grabbed a cloth bag emblazoned with the Monterey Bay Aquarium logo and a sea otter, and was about to get out when I exchanged that one with our prized Garden Street Market bag. (As the store neared its end four years ago, it issued a limited run of those heavy duty cloth bags.)

I grabbed a small cart, tossed the bag in the upper compartment, and wheeled it inside, where I parked it in front of the display of bulk seeds, grains, granolas, and nuts. I walked around the display to where the flowers are kept, and spent no more than two minutes selecting yellow and pink tulips for my adorable wife. When I returned to the cart, the bag was gone.

Now, this is where my audience is going to be separated into two distinct and irreconcilable camps (both of which I love dearly).

First, there’s Group A, which used to shop at Garden Street Market. Their initial reaction to the theft of the GSM bag will be identical to mine.

Then there’s Group B, which never shopped at Garden Street Market. Their reaction will be: “Uh huh. OK. Your bag was stolen. Big deal. Use the one with the sea otter on it.”

Group A will understand why I spent the next ten minutes racing up and down the aisles and checkout counters spying into people’s carts seeking my bag. One woman looked slightly disturbed (as she should have) when I pointed to her GSM bag and asked if she had found it in a cart a few minutes ago. As I was asking, I noticed that her bag lacked the telltale spots that were on mine, and apologized. When she learned what had happened, she kindly expressed sympathy and said she’d keep hers in sight from now on. At the very least, I may have prevented another tragedy.

I checked at the customer service counter, but it wasn’t there. I asked the cashiers if they’d seen it, and – after displaying the proper amount of shock and grief – they said they hadn’t noticed it. One of them suggested that since the incident was likely caught on security camera, perhaps I could see the footage sometime – a brilliant suggestion that, as a longtime “Law & Order” fan, I should have thought of myself.

Nonetheless, I struggled with that one, because, as Group B would say, “Reality check, Pearson: it’s a bag.” But it was an irreplaceable memento, a treasured keepsake, and some SOB (not to be a sexist, it could have been a DOB) stole it from me. So I asked the manager if we could look at the tapes. He said he’d need clearance from corporate headquarters. And that’s when I decided to let it go.

To her credit, Diane did not let it go. She was just as angry as I had been, and the next day went to the market, told the manager she’d like to pursue the matter, and gave him our phone numbers.

We haven’t heard back. Obviously, someone in the chain of command belongs in Group B.

Our only hope is that whoever took our lovely Garden Street Market bag from my cart at 12:10 p.m. on Saturday, February 15, 2014 will be forever haunted by his/her misdeed. Either that, or they return it to the customer service counter at the Hannaford and tell them it belongs to me.

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Who will be the last plant standing?

Lily Langtry, pictured with John and George, is doing well, thank you very much.
Lily Langtry, pictured with John and George, is doing well, thank you very much.

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

When a houseplant hears that it’s being presented as a gift to me and/or my wife, typically its leaves begin to molt. It’s a pre-emptive strike, much as Russian peasants burned their farms to the ground in advance of Napoleon’s invading army. For years, in my house we called it the Scorched Potting Soil Policy. The plants know things will not go well for them, and decide to provide fewer spoils to the victors. It’s harsh yet rational.

Ironically, I do quite well outside, having created and nurtured several decent sized gardens with hundreds of flowers and shrubs. But that’s outside, where Mother Nature lends a helping hand. It’s another story inside our home, which nurseries and florists have called The House Where Plants Go to Die.

It’s an odd sensation to regard a gift as doomed. To consider its beauty and think, “I am so sorry.” To know that it was given with love and consideration, but also to know that the gift-giver was unwittingly playing the role of executioner. To find a suitable location for it in your house, fully aware that the site may as well be the gallows.

Scores of plants came and went, unnamed victims in a horrific, slow-motion killing spree that went largely unpunished (the punishment limited to not having African violets and azaleas on display, and feeling somewhat responsible about it). I suppose I should mention here that Diane is absolved of all plant-related sin, as she has made it clear from the beginning of our marriage that she wanted nothing to do with plant maintenance, unless one’s definition of “plant maintenance” includes setting up a lawn chair, sitting down with a Stephen King novel, and admiring the view, scent, and sounds of a garden maintained by one’s husband.

I’d water and fertilize the plants, and they’d look good for a few weeks or, if they were particularly hardy, several months. But then they’d die. Oh, they would die. All of a sudden, their leaves would wilt, turn yellow, and give up with resigned little sighs and drop onto the tabletop. By the way, my interpretation of the phrase “all of a sudden” involves a length of time up to an entire week.

Early survivors (for a while) were the mistletoe fig and the Joshua tree. They were the holdouts, the houseplants determined to break the curse that had claimed the lives of so many of their predecessors (“predecessors” in the literal sense of having died before them). Those tenacious and highly attractive plants – which we never named, just as farmer’s children are advised never to name their pet turkeys and pigs – lasted a few years, but then, all of a sudden…

We tried to keep our house plant-free, but every now and then someone would present one as a gift. Most died. Recent survivors include a peace lily and a schleffera, which were transferred to Diane’s place of work (to increase their odds of survival), and a stubborn palm that’s trying to set some sort of record. It might be plastic.

You can imagine our dismay when, not too long ago, Diane was given a cluster of houseplants sharing a large plastic container. Again, a well-intentioned and lovely gift, but really? Setting us up to murder six innocent plants? Well…five, really, if we were to jump ahead a couple of weeks.

So there we were with five plants to kill. It being close to the New Year, I made a resolution to keep our new charges happy and healthy. I divided them into separate pots, placed them in the best possible locations throughout the house, bought some Miracle-Gro and actually used it (as directed, no less), and watered them regularly. Shortly afterward, my sisters and a friend boosted the total to eight.

Eight plants which, six months later, I’m pleased and astonished to report, are still alive. Arnold Palm has shown remarkable growth. I’ve just transplanted Vincent Gardenia to a lovely pot outside our kitchen door, and his leaves are still shiny and grateful. Art Fern enjoys the humidity and sunshine in the bathroom. Lily Langtry is flourishing by the living room window, alongside Rubber Redford, whose variegated leaves are stunning. Herr Dieffenbachia seems to be getting adequate sunlight in the bedroom, while Roy Campanula prefers the kitchen. And here, in my study, Janet Craig hasn’t grown much, but her leaves are picture-perfect.

Yes, I’ve named our houseplants. But just as Rubber Redford has inspired me, I have high hopes.



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The final day of 49

[Originally ran in the May 2014 issue of The Village.]

Why would anyone schedule a dentist appointment to coincide with his 50th birthday? To guarantee minty fresh breath for the rest of the day? Because it’s a surefire plan to receive some birthday gifts, even if those gifts are limited to waxed floss and a soft bristle toothbrush?

Good guesses, but no. Six months ago, I had figured that it wouldn’t matter how I spent the morning, because my birthday was going to fall on a Wednesday, and Diane – you know, my wife – would be at work. Besides – and this had some bearing on my decision – my hygienist, upon learning April 9 was my birthday, had promised me cupcakes. So much better than a lollipop.

Because Diane also goes to the Kennebunk Center for Dentistry, and because she has the same hygienist, and because she had just been in for a cleaning, she was in a position to share some truly awful news: our hygienist would not be there on my birthday. Now, the patient-hygienist bond is a sacred one, and this one had been tightening for many years, so I was crushed to hear this. Plus, there was no news about the cupcakes.

In the grand scheme of things – no, I’m not about to say that cupcakes aren’t important – the lack of hygienist-supplied cupcakes was not as devastating a blow as you’d imagine, since my friend Renée had brought a tray of the most incredible cupcakes to my surprise birthday party the previous weekend. They were the same sort she had made for Diane’s birthday in February. Of course Diane, being a generous and thoughtful and selfless person, had distributed them to friends and strangers alike at the Kennebunkport Inn, where The Wetsuits were playing (awesome band, you really ought to check them out on Facebook or at It could be that someone bitched and moaned about Diane’s unseemly generosity, which resulted in only two cupcakes coming home with us that night. But who can say?

But enough about cupcakes. A man turning 50 ought to focus on more important matters. Like lunch.

My sister Suzanne wanted to treat me to lunch at Roost down in Ogunquit. But the joint was closed, as were most other eateries down yonder (including the ones so gauche as to put a “The” before their names), so we ended up at Bessie’s, a diner I had been to a couple of times with friend and playwright Mike Kimball. Oddly enough, Mike pulled a Hitchcock cameo by strolling by the window. I rapped on the pane, we mimed greetings, and off he went. And although Suzanne had been at the party a few days earlier, it was good to sit down and have a long conversation over a couple of grilled cheese sandwiches and Old Thumper. I left with a gardenia and a pair of utensils shaped like gardening tools.

Upon returning home, I found a package from my parents on the stoop. I called them at their Massachusetts home a few minutes later with thanks for the gifts, which included an impressive hunk of South Carolina fudge (one bite sustained me through the afternoon). After that half-hour chat, the phone rang, and what followed was a half-hour talk with my sister Jennifer. Her tales of dying appliances made me say kind words to my sump pump, which had begun its annual exercises the day before.

I spent the next hour or so working on my old Radio Flyer. Yes, I still have it. Vintage late ‘60s model. The classic red wagon. With help from John Oddy over at Ace Hardware, I had picked up what I needed to bring it back to life, perhaps for use in my garden. I can remember sitting in that thing and working the handle like a railroad pump car. I could not pull that off today, and not just because of the weight limit.

I received numerous birthday wishes throughout the day, which ended on three high notes. One was going out to dinner with Diane at the Village Tavern, where Rich and Tina generously comped a round of drinks and a killer baked Alaska. One was continuing our binge-watching of Breaking Bad. And one was receiving a message from Dan Bowen, the former owner of Garden Street Market, who had read my last column and who offered to send me a cloth GSM bag to replace the one that had been stolen at the Hannaford in February. The man didn’t even know it was my birthday.

What’s not to love about turning 50?

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When story ideas go up in smoke

[Originally ran in the March 2014 issue of The Village.]

The deadliest by-product of the legalization of marijuana in Colorado is nothing to laugh about. Literally. Because I’m talking about the media’s desperate and infantile need to insert as many puns as they can into every broadcast and article submitted to the masses. Funny thing is, the only way that phrases like Rocky Mountain high and going to pot can be found amusing in this context is if the viewer or reader is stoned. Even then, I wager the typeface of the article or the hairstyle of the TV correspondent would garner more laughs.

Stoner humor of the ‘70s (Cheech & Chong, George Carlin, Richard Nixon) laid the foundation for America’s comic take on marijuana. People have labeled it a gateway drug, but more often than not it’s seen as silly and benign, with users portrayed as glassy-eyed couch-dwellers gleefully munching Doritos. Despite opponents’ claims, pot smokers simply don’t do dangerous things, unless you deem driving 20 mph below the posted speed limit dangerous.

On the other hand, the nation’s drug of choice, glorified by Madison Ave and deemed socially acceptable, is a key ingredient in domestic abuse, traffic fatalities, murder, and unsafe sex. Since the end of Prohibition (the 1920s version of the equally impotent War on Drugs), we have – for the most part – turned a blind eye to the downside of alcohol, mindful that outlawing it had only profited bootleggers, gangsters, and corrupt officials. (Notable and noble exceptions would include advocacy groups like MADD.)

Circling back to the pot-as-gateway-drug theory, I’m confident that’s crap. People who end up using heroin are going to get there no matter what lesser drug is in the way. Most people who smoke pot are happy to keep smoking pot; it’s not a gateway, it’s the park itself. (Interestingly, alcohol is never called a gateway drug, although PBR has been known to serve as a gateway to real beer.)

In my college days, I experimented with pot, and by experimented, I mean smoked it as often as there was a full moon. Except my freshman year. That was the year I started to acquire a taste for beer. That took a while. At first it tasted disgusting (although, not knowing what was coming out of that keg, it may very well have been disgusting). Gradually, I came to enjoy it, and was lucky – what with the proximity and availability of the stuff – not to have an addictive personality (at least when it came to cheap beer). If ever I were to develop into an alcoholic, that was the place and that was the time.

With cannabis, however, the learning curve was minimal. After the guys spent one minute instructing me how to operate the bong (those things don’t come with an owner’s manual), I was on my way. I never experienced any negative side-effects, like paranoia or an intense desire to wallpaper the ceiling. I enjoyed it, as much as I enjoyed (and enjoy) getting a beer or wine buzz with friends. But while alcohol lowers inhibitions and makes you do stupid and potentially dangerous things – typically at a fast and unsettling speed – a joint (which I never really learned to roll, as most of them simply materialized and were passed around the circle) makes you relax and laugh and wonder. In many it creates surges of unfettered creativity; the Beatles publicly acknowledged marijuana’s contribution to their mind-boggling mid-‘60s output, which exhibited lyrical and musical ingenuity unsurpassed to this day. Just sayin’.

That being said, I passed on a recent opportunity to partake at a party. This, despite years of saying how interesting it would be to revisit the stuff after decades of abstinence. My refusal was based partly on marijuana’s illegality, but mostly it was because the guy offering the joint looked like he stepped out of Up in Smoke. I didn’t want to look like that, so I politely declined.

If and when Maine legalizes recreational marijuana, would I recommend people try it? No. Would I try it? Maybe. Although, even then, I’d be concerned about getting that sweet stench out of the upholstery. I’m not joking. The last thing I’d want is my house to smell like that room in the frat where I spent many smoky hours. And you know where that leaves me: sneaking it into my parents’ house.

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