Category Archives: Coffee Corner

There’s a Strange Man in the House

What’s that?

I listen, heart pounding.

Bumps in the house tell me I’m not alone.

It’s midafternoon. I shouldn’t hear these until 5:30.

But the noises morph into big footsteps. He’s walking my direction.

I grab the nearest weapon. A sofa pillow?

Not much help.

But that’s all right.

The “intruder” is my husband.

For the umpteenth time, I forgot that after 40-plus years of family medicine, Dr. Hubby has hung up his stethoscope.

We celebrated this new life chapter the way I expected. A fun retirement party. Kayaking. A steak dinner out. A camping trip he’d dreamed of for a year.

But now, official celebrations are finished. Though Hubby is teaching college part-time, my retiree is basically a homebody.

Friends tease about my handing him a honey-do list, covering the past four decades. But he has compiled his own list, one he tackles each day with the joy of a 10-year-old let out of school.

He is retired.

I am not.

Having worked full-time at home for 20-plus years, I have developed my own schedule — which includes a sacred, after-lunch siesta.

Though he respects my personal space and timetable, just the presence of all this relentless energy disrupts my nap aura.

Meanwhile, Hubby has even washed his truck. Downright unnatural.

Even more unnatural, he suggested a shopping trip.

Shopping?

I would have insisted on a psychiatric evaluation, except that he would have demanded I undergo one, too.

So, my new daytime life floats as if in a world of levitation. The garage door goes up and down, lights flick on and off, and food vanishes into thin air. Broken appliances fix themselves, laundry folds itself, and dishes fly from the dishwasher into the cabinets (Love this!).

However, the calendar misplaces half its dates. “Is this Tuesday or Wednesday?” becomes a subject of serious breakfast debate. With new freedom, actions we thought built into our DNA — such as brushing teeth and putting out the trash — disappear as if the Social Security Administration waved a very odd magic wand over us.

After a week of getting his bearings, Hubby commented, “I really like retirement, but this flexibility thing is hard.”

Strange, but true.

But with a strange man in the house, what would you expect?

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Do you think you’ll like retirement for you and/or your spouse? Why or why not?

The Simple Life?

Life today has become so complicated that we need computers to help us understand our computers. Appliances, cars and GPSes bully us 24/7. Cell phones accompany us everywhere, like chaperones — or personal jailers.

We dream of escaping to The Simple Life.

Decades ago, I lived the dream in Mexico, where my missionary parents ministered in a small village. They never punched a clock or answered a phone.

The townspeople loaned us a four-star hut with a thatched roof. Constructed of random boards, cardboard and dried mud, the walls somehow remained standing.

A restroom visit was simple. There wasn’t one outhouse in the entire village.

We awoke each morning to breakfast fragrances, rising from the communal campfire. Women in dark skirts and shawls rocked back and forth over stone troughs, grinding corn for tortillas. They shaped then flipped flat circles of dough onto a metal sheet over the fire.

They stuffed us with these tender, smoky treats spread with wild honey. But I, a narrow-minded five-year-old, refused the slimy raw eggs they offered.

Thus, I escaped deadly germs. I still might have consumed a few, however, because the villagers regarded washing hands as frivolous.

They kept their lives simple.

My siblings and I didn’t need video games. My six-year-old brother Ned and a neighboring burro supplied sufficient daily entertainment.

Ned and I considered the animal’s owner an atheist because he never attended church meetings. His burro was an atheist, too. Every day, Ned shinnied up the animal so he could ride like Roy Rogers on Trigger — until the pagan burro gleefully dumped him into a colossal cactus.

Each evening, lanterns appeared like wandering stars on the darkening, rugged landscape as people walked to church. Mommy pressed magic buttons on her red-and-white mother-of-pearl accordion, playing lively songs that reminded me of cantina music. She led the singing with her high, sweet voice. Daddy’s bass voice rumbled like friendly thunder. Like Jesus, he didn’t use a microphone; still, they probably could hear him in the next village.

No one owned watches to check how long he preached. We kids often fell asleep and found ourselves in bed the next morning. The hut accom-modated two mattresses on the floor — one for us three preschoolers and one for our parents — with plenty of room for hundreds of fleas that wanted to share in our missionary endeavors.

Decades later, I learned that one day, having braved fleas, germs, dirt and nausea (she was pregnant again), Mom dampened Dad’s enthusiasm for village life with a potent line: “I said I’d live anywhere with you, but this is ridiculous.”

And I realized my complicated life is pretty simple, after all.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever tried to escape to The Simple Life?

Queen Anne’s Lace: A Cure for Summer Fever

Many people suffer from cabin fever during winter, when slippery sidewalks keep them inside. Instead, I suffer from summer fever. When sizzling sidewalks threaten to fry me, I hibernate inside.

Soon, though, the six-year-old in me has to play outdoors. One evening, when sidewalks and temperatures had cooled to bearable, I considered two summer fever cures: a Moose Tracks sundae or a wildflower bouquet.

Because stern bathroom scales had issued a nasty final warning, the noncaloric remedy won. Too early for fireflies, but also too early for a mosquito assault — I hoped, since I’d neglected using stinky repellent — I headed for a nearby field.

Reaching the pasture, I forgot about insects. A blizzard had arrived in summer! Drifts of Queen Anne’s lace, like thousands of giant snowflakes, covered the meadow.

I felt cooler already.

A poem by Mary Leslie Newton lilted through my mind: “Queen Anne, Queen Anne, has washed her lace/ (She chose a summer’s day) …”

No teacher had assigned the poem. I’d memorized it as a fourth grader simply because I loved it.

A skinny little girl in baggy shorts, I explored sweltering, but magical, Indiana meadows with an enchanting lady wearing a crown. Queen Anne didn’t sweat as she gathered her exquisite laces dried in pasture grasses, laces that, according to legend, had won the tatting competition she’d initiated with her ladies-in-waiting.

As a grown-up, though, I made the mistake of researching Queen Anne’s lace online. Gasp! Some states included it on “noxious weed” lists.

Insult Queen Anne? How dare they!

Instead of the aristocratic name, they called it “wild carrot” and “bird’s nest” — even “chigger weed”!

Now, I not only sweated, I itched.

Queen Anne’s lace also resembled young hogweed, a plant that made poison ivy seem like a botanical best buddy. My favorite wildflower also resembled hemlock, the poison that killed Socrates.

Not the kind of magic I liked.

Not a cure for summer fever.

Too late, I examined my “snowflake’” stems.

Whew! No purple dots that identify both hemlock and hogweed.

The hairy stems of genuine Queen Anne’s lace didn’t reflect her elegance, but they reassured me. I could return to my fairy-tale world without a qualm — occasionally good for a grown-up. Back to the magic of Queen Anne, who never sweat or itched. Back to picking snowflakes that wouldn’t melt when I arranged them in a crystal vase, admiring the wintry effect against a blue wall.

Returning with my bouquet, I mused that Queen Anne’s cure for summer fever — imagination — had worked well.

Did the noncaloric remedy top the ice cream cure?

Um … kid or adult, I’d have to plead the Fifth.

Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your cure for summer fever?

Hands Speak Louder than Words?

“Don’t point at people!” my mother covered my little hand with hers. “It’s rude.”

“What’s that mean?” I asked.

“It means you make them feel bad. So, don’t do it.”

Really? My small, chubby appendage possessed that much power?

So impressed was I with my finger’s clout that I exercised it whenever Mom wasn’t looking. I pointed my powerful finger at unsmiling adults on the street. I pointed at sour waitresses who disliked kids and salespeople who warned me not to touch their displays. I even forgot and pointed at Mom.

Strangely, my powerful finger didn’t work so well then.

The authority exercised by my finger, though, couldn’t begin to compare to that possessed by basketball referees. When they raised fingers at a ballgame, the numbers on a giant scoreboard changed. I attempted their gestures, but the numbers wouldn’t budge.

I needed to practice pointing a lot more.

During grade school, though, my friend grabbed me mid-gesture, saying a person should be careful to point the correct finger. Fortunately, my flawed gesture had been directed toward mean boys, not at the principal.

Travelers abroad also discover that hand signals can mean the difference between friendly international relations and banishment to a dungeon inhabited by undiplomatic snakes and crocodiles.

For example, consider the “V for Victory” sign Winston Churchill popularized during World War II. The prime minister made sure that his palm faced outward, as the exact same sign portrayed with palm inward would have inspired his fellow countrymen to fight against, rather than for him.

Interestingly, the Germans would have considered that British obscene version their “V for Victory” sign.

No wonder Churchill was careful about that one.

Unfortunately, former President George H. W. Bush was not aware of this British distinction. In 1992, he signaled the “V for Victory” sign, palm inward, to Australians lining the street.

Someone should have briefed the President, don’t you think?

His son, George W., and his family — Texas Longhorn football supporters — have been known to use index and pinky fingers to make the “horns” sign familiar to American sports fans. When, during a Washington, D.C. parade, they greeted the University of Texas marching band with the “Hook ’Em, Horns” gesture, no one in the U.S. blinked an eye.

Unfortunately, Norway had a slow news day, and their papers published angry headlines and pictures of the American First Family brazenly flashing what Norwegians consider the sign of the devil. With a few diplomatic explanations, the furor faded.

Other Longhorn devotees traveling in Rome in 1985 were not so lucky. Celebrating their team’s victory, they made this sign as they danced for joy outside the Vatican. Italians, however, regard it not only as a sign of the devil, but also of impotence and adultery. The happy Texas football fans were promptly arrested.

Perhaps we Americans, before traveling overseas, should consult the local Emily Post manuals regarding correct body language?

And all you sports fans — and referees who work games abroad — watch it.

As for me, I’ve taken my mother’s advice to heart and don’t point at people anymore. Anywhere.

When I dust off my passport again, I’ll take the other advice Mom gave me: I’ll keep my hands to myself.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have innocent intentions ever gotten you into big trouble?

Still Truckin’ to Truck Stops

Some travelers find truck-stop culture so foreign that upon entering, they reach for their passports.

I, on the other hand, grew up regarding a nearby truck stop as a highlight of my week. Neither of my pastor-parents felt like feeding five children after Sunday morning services, so — during that pre-McDonald’s era — they took us there for lunch.

We older siblings sat at the counter on fabulous red stools that twirled if our parents weren’t watching.

Seated nearby with toddlers, Mom and Dad occasionally missed a few tricks. However, misbehavior resulted in banishment to the station wagon, so we children didn’t try many.

We also would forfeit exploring a tabletop jukebox. We hoped other diners would spend their nickels and play our favorites. Occasionally, we approached the big jukebox, awestruck as it plopped, played and removed 45 rpm records as if by magic.

Truck stops have changed. Iowa 80, touted as the largest in the world, includes not only stores and eight restaurants, but a laundromat, library, business center and movie theater. Individual showers and a “dogomat,” where Fido also can get a bath, are available too. The kicker: Iowa 80 also boasts its own chiropractor and dentist.

If my childhood truck stop had featured a dentist, I might have stayed in the station wagon.

I also might have clung to the back seat if my parents had visited South of the Border in, of all places, South Carolina. Not that I wouldn’t have celebrated yummy Mexican food, piñatas, and other Hispanic delights. However, that truck stop also features a lagoon full of snakes, alligators and crocodiles. After riding with five kids hundreds of miles, Mom and Dad might have found the urge to unload us a little too tempting.

I gladly would have unbuckled to visit one truck stop in West Virginia, featuring art exhibits and theater. I’d gladly go there now. A plate-sized tenderloin sandwich and Shakespeare? Doesn’t get any better than that.

For some truck stop enthusiasts, abundant merchandise trumps even tenderloins. Where else can you find leopard-skin Bible covers or pink Harley-Davidson, metal-studded dog collars? Enough crossbows and knives to fight off an orc army from The Lord of the Rings should it invade the truck stop?

No other establishment boasts plaques with an animated, skeletal Big Mouth Billy Bass belting “Bad to the Bone.”

Even the most ardent devotees, however, admit many truck stop stores feature items they’d rather not explain to children and grandchildren.

Days ago, I reached for lip balm, only to discover it was labeled “Free-range Chicken Poop,” touted as Grandpa’s intensely organic cure for chapped lips.

At truck stops like that, I reach for my passport.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite find at a truck stop?

No Garden of Eden

After writing a novel, I emerged from my cave, craving ice cream, conversation and sunlight. A Moose Tracks sundae equaled ice cream therapy. Hubby, waiting for a coherent word from me, took grunts as a portent of better things.

I drank in sunlight. Summer morning air. Green, living things.

Unfortunately, most were weeds. Thousands of Klingon sticker weeds had conquered garden and flower beds.

A flabby author’s perfect therapy: a down-and-dirty battle to rescue oppressed plants. To arms, garden warrior!

I donned grubby jeans, T-shirt, baseball cap and tennis shoes, all of which remembered the turn of the millennium.

Hubby: “No PJs? You’re wearing real clothes?”

For him, it was a long novel.

We bathed in sunscreen as if with war paint, then took up weapons: hoe, rake, hand spade — and cushy kneeling pad.

The sticker weeds jeered at my weak knees. Their lackeys — purslane, marestail, purple deadnettle and, of course, dandelions — joined in. (I researched weed names on a Purdue website. Battle Rule #1: know your enemies.) But I didn’t look up Klingon sticker weeds. I knew dangerous aliens when I saw them.

Weed phasers would have been nice additions to our weaponry cache. But Hubby struck vicious blows, hoeing squash and cucumbers. I attacked beleaguered tomato plants’ foes.

Tanned cyclists zoomed past. Hubby eyed them longingly, but continued valiant efforts. Ponytailed runners wearing designer attire and perfect makeup stared as if they hoped what I had wasn’t catching.

Whew! After a morning-long battle, we showered, wolfed sandwiches and Hubby went to work.

I peered out the back door, wanting to savor the view of our perfect garden again.

My jaw dropped.

An overloaded mulberry tree branch had dropped like a bomb, bending tomato plant cages. Smaller branches, leaves and mashed berries smothered veggie rows.

The mulberry tree was in cahoots with Klingon sticker weeds!

Such perfect timing. The moment Hubby left the driveway, the tree had unleashed its barrage.

I yanked at the big branch. It barely budged.

“You think you’ve won, Klingon-sticker-weed lover? Well, you’ve got another thing coming.”

A giant swoosh of anger can fuel a woman. Armed with hedge trimmers, saws and my husband’s old Boy Scout hatchet, I reduced my enemy to sawdust. Well, not exactly. But by afternoon’s end, I’d removed most of the mess.

Superwoman still couldn’t move the big branch. When Hubby returned, he sawed it into sections and hauled them out.

Once again, I savored the sight of tidy rows of vegetables.

Ah, the sunset. The fragrant summer evening. Green things that were legal.

A tired writer’s perfect therapy.

Exactly what she needed to send her back to her laptop forever!

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Does gardening relax you or wipe you out?

Kayaker vs. Landlubber

My husband zeroes in on kayaks the way my radar finds ice cream parlors.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he drools. “Long, slim — probably has great moves.”

I suppose I should be grateful that he’s not observing a Jennifer Aniston look-alike. For years, though, I resisted his enthusiasm in favor of practical considerations, such as bills, college savings and investments in ice cream.

Unfortunately, I asked what he wanted for Christmas.

Armed and dangerous with Internet facts and figures, he proclaimed an inflatable kayak as the bargain gift. “Costs less, yet withstands white-water conditions.”

White water?

He nearly lost his case.

Even writing about big waves shifts my stomach into N for nausea. Yet, this boat represented the boy’s special Christmas wish. …

We bought the kayak.

Hubby pumped it up in the living room to “test inflation pressures.” Later, in his office to “calculate seat placement.” Then to “practice paddling.”

“You’ve paddled canoes all your life,” I said.

“Entirely different technique,” he retorted.

Having braved his office carpet, he foamed at the mouth, waiting for spring. However, tornadoes sabotaged every plan for the kayak’s maiden voyage.

Then, days before a promising campout date, I fell, bruising every muscle I owned. Some landlubbers will do anything to avoid paddling a kayak.

My husband never once insinuated that I’d ruined our kayaking adventure. Because he said he’d paddle solo.

Hubby salivated as he hand-pumped the kayak.

Me? Not salivating. Donning a life jacket (Ouch!) seemed a sufficient challenge. As did entering this inflatable kayak. It threatened to drown me before we left shore.

Somehow, we managed, and Hubby expertly steered us through glass-like water reflecting blue sky draped with tulle clouds. Wild rose thickets wafted exquisite scents across the water.

We spotted ducks, geese leading mini-parades of fuzzy goslings, sunbathing turtles, and minnows playing in the shallows. Orange and black orioles, the first I’d seen in Indiana, darted past. A heron eyed us, unperturbed.

Meanwhile, my husband paddled and paddled. And paddled.

I could handle that. Why hadn’t he told me kayaking was so wonderful?

However, the troublemaker wind kicked up bigger waves.

This might prove a little more challenging than your office carpet.

Waves morphed into whitecaps. Whitecaps on a central Indiana lake?

My stomach plummeted. Waves slapped us ever closer to an island’s rough shoreline.

Hubby dug in, and we edged toward our bay, where the wind couldn’t bully our boat. Finally, we reached it.

Will I ever kayak on the sea?

Only if anesthetized.

More kayak trips on Indiana lakes and rivers? My stomach votes no.

But this landlubber votes yes … even when she’ll have to paddle.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: Have you ever changed your mind about your husband’s favorite pastime?

Little League Love

Fierce soprano voices yell, “Batter! Batter!” Super-sized helmets top skinny little necks. Pint-sized players wield mitts big as sofa pillows (and about as effective).

A hometown crowd cheers and munches hot dogs and popcorn.

It’s the season for Little League Love.

Unlike most onlookers, my husband and I are comfortable spectators. Our children are too old for Little League, and our grandchildren have taken different directions.

During our son’s baseball career, I spent years at ball parks with my eyes tightly shut — often double-covered with hands — only venturing out of hiding to visit the concession stand.

Now, I actually watch. These players’ ages range from nine to 12. Some kids probably do Gillette shaving commercials to supplement their allowances. Others might be mistaken for bats — except for hats, mitts and spit. For not only do they imitate favorite major league players with elaborate windups and batting rituals, they have mastered expectoration at near professional levels.

Moms don’t applaud this aspect of their game. But they cheer every catch, throw and at bat. Family members try to behave so their kids will. But when offspring are involved, the gentlest mom — and grandma — grows fangs when the umpire dares call their boy out.

I never acted like that. Though … I do admit going a little overboard in motivating my child, egged on by another mom.

Still, we helped our sluggish team morph into a slugging team. My friend jumped up and informed her 12-year-old that if he fanned again, she would dance for the crowd’s entertainment. I informed my son that I would sing. Very loud.

Not only did our boys smack the ball, we inspired the entire team. Yet nobody put our names on their trophy. Where’s the Mom Love in that?

A roar from the present crowd brings me back to the end of a last-inning 0-0 tie. On a wild pitch, a youngster steals home! After the good-sport slapping of hands, they adjourn to the concession stand, where winners celebrate and losers drown their sorrows in sno-cones — and all look forward to the next game.

It’s easy for me to laud the joys of Little League from my maybe-I’ll-go-to-the-game-maybe-not stance. For parents who spend enough time watching, waiting and transporting to earn a degree, Little League Love wears a little thin.

But one dad near us sees his sons’ games as win-win situations. If their teams win, he’ll return for championship competition. If they lose, he’ll stay home and run a combine over his neglected lawn.

This dad cares about his kids, but not too much about their games’ outcome. That’s the very best kind of Little League Love.

In Grandma’s eyes, no professional MLB player can compare with this little batter!

Your Extraordinary Ordinary:  What do you like best/least about Little League?

Drinking It All In

We Americans treasure our beverages. We are born yelling for something to drink, and we spend our lives attached to Mommy, baby bottle, sippy cup, glass, coffee mug, teacup, wine goblet, and milk carton. During toddler years, we dump beverages rather than drink them. Still, we establish lifelong consumption patterns.

Case in point: upon marriage, I, whose family considered orange juice a semi-luxury, discovered my husband considered it nonnegotiable. This, despite a weekly grocery budget of $15. No apple, cranberry, grape, or — God forbid — grapefruit juice. No insidious combinations like orange-papaya. Hubby preferred freshly squeezed orange juice, but graciously agreed to drink bottled until conditions permitted the proper beverage. (He’s still waiting.)

I, on the other hand, absorbed Mom and Dad’s edict that chili demanded Pepsi. Sadly, I have strayed. I now drink diet Pepsi, or even diet Coke. But never, with chili, pizza or Mexican food, will I ascribe to my spouse’s unswerving devotion to milk.

Not that I dislike milk. During family visits, I purchase five kinds (whole milk, 2%, 1%, skim, and rice milk, depending on who’s allergic, growing, dieting, or protesting). Milk is a basic value Hubby and I share.

However, despite noble coffee-consuming roots, he drinks only tea. I, though a coffee aficionado since serving at a Denny’s overnight during college, occasionally drink tea to preserve our marriage.

That Denny’s experience at age 18 in Oregon, impacted my beverage history in other ways. Having smelled the aggregate breath of cowboys who donned menus and made marriage (and other) proposals, I nixed beer as an option. Ditto, when working as a janitor. I sniffed open whiskey bottles in a law firm’s board room. Whew — smelled like turpentine!

Later, when legal, Hubby and I surmised that wine recommended by a cork-sniffing steward really should taste better than that. And cost a lot less.

So, we’ve mostly stuck to orange juice-Pepsi-milk-coffee-tea dependence.

And water. However, I note the wordy truth observed by the late journalist Ambrose Bierce: “Upon nothing has so great and diligent an ingenuity been brought to bear in all ages, except for the most uncivilized, as upon the invention of substitutes for water.”

Many would rather die of thirst than drink H2O — unless poured from a plastic bottle. Recently, the FDA stated each American averaged 26 gallons of bottled water per year. We hadn’t sucked so many plastic bottles since infancy.

Not my thing, nor Hubby’s. But he remains hopelessly devoted to morning orange juice and tea. I don’t object because I want my coffee.

And because his ancestors came from Boston. In 1773, when England messed with their favorite beverage, those people got a little testy. …

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite beverage? Your least favorite?

Firefly Romance

As a child, did you run barefoot through the summer dusk, catching fireflies? Like me, you probably incarcerated them in mayonnaise jars with holey lids.

My parents tried to persuade me to release them.

This made no sense. My folks constantly looked for ways to save money. What wasn’t to love about a cool invention that lowered the electric bill? Still, when they insisted the fireflies were crying for their mommies, I freed them, trusting they were flitting home to hugs, baths and clean jammies, too.

Growing older, I wondered if something less Disney was going on. Sure enough, research revealed those Snow White scenes were actually firefly date nights. Since their adult lives last only a few weeks, love strikes these bugs like lightning; they do some serious speed dating.

Like me, Sara Lewis, a Tufts University scientist, loves to watch fireflies. Unlike me, she gets paid. For the past 25 years, Sara has noticed different species use specific flashes and delays to communicate. Opposites often attract, as seen in the following Photinus marginellus exchange:

P. marginellus Guy: Flash! (Two-second pause.) Flash! (Two seconds.) Flash! (The P. marginellus guys are the faithful, consistent types, but a little boring.)

P. marginellus Girl: Flash! (Zero delay. The P. marginellus girls are a little easy.)

A reversed pattern characterizes Photinus carolinus fireflies; with six flashes in three seconds, guys define the word “flashy.” P. carolinus women, however, wait 10 whole seconds before emitting short, coy responses that declare these dudes better show up with candy and roses.

Which some do. According to Lewis, males often bring “nuptial gifts” — food to sustain females as they lay eggs. Even in the insect kingdom, women love their Fannie May’s. Tied with red satin ribbons, thank you very much.

Because the girls are so picky, P. carolinus guys often gather in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the North Carolina-Tennessee border. There, they synchronize flashes to attract their ladies’ notice, creating spectacular light shows.

Unfortunately, there is a dark side to all this love and light. The female of one species fakes the signals of others to lure unsuspecting males to her place for dinner — with him as the main course!

Eww. I’m tempted to go inside and refresh my psyche with a pure-minded sitcom.

But strains of the Mills Brothers’ old song, “The Glow-Worm,” float through my mind. Hundreds of fireflies appear, tiny lights glimmering like shiny gold confetti. My husband joins me, and we hold hands, glad that children won’t lack fireflies for their mayonnaise jars.

And that these sparks light up summer evenings for all young — and old — lovers snuggling on a porch in the summer twilight.

Your Extraordinary Ordinary: What’s your favorite firefly memory?