Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Eggnog Coffee Cake

This is in response to a 'special request for Amy Bouchard's Eggnog Coffee Cake recipe. It's good, as are all things Amy. For a video to accompany the recipe you can click here 'Coffee Cake'. I'm sure it's healthy or they wouldn't give out the recipe.(hehehehe) Happy munching!

Amy's EggNog Coffee Cake

1 ½ stick unsalted butter (room temperature)
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup egg nog
2 ½ cups cake flour (not self-rising)
2 teaspoons nutmeg
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt

The streusel:

½ cup light brown sugar (packed)
½ cup all purpose flour
5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 teaspoons nutmeg

The glaze:

½ cup confectioners sugar
2 tablespoons hot water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
Cream the butter and sugar together for 2-3 minutes until light and fluffy. Slowly addd eggs, then vanilla and egg nog. In a separate bowl, add all the dry ingredients: cake flour, nutmeg, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt (sift together).
Slowly add flour mixture to the batter on low speed until it is completely combined (set aside).

Mix streusel: mix brown sugar, flour, cinnamon, nutmeg and butter together in a separate bowl with your hands until it forms a crumble. You can mix in some walnuts if you wish.
In a greased and floured 10? tube pan, sprinkle ½ the streusel then pour ½ the batter. Add the rest of the streusel then the rest of the batter. Bake for 50-60 minutes until the toothpick comes out clean.

If you make individual small cakes in a muffin tin or pre-formed shapes, you will bake for 15-20 min depending on the size.

Let cool for 20-30 minutes.
Beat confectioners sugar and hot water together to make the glaze. Drizzle with a spoon over the cake.

Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

My Favorite Snack

It is amazing the little things I missed most about Maine all the years I was away. Simple things such as red hot dogs, or Oxford relish, which became Cains, and is now made to the old relish specifications by a new third company, but marketed still as Cains. And, as you can see by the 'dog' ad above, I wasn't alone. They actually charge something like $80 for two packs of them shipped to you! A hot dog bun fairly unique to New England is another. Top sliced with flat sides begging to be buttered and grilled, that holds the dog firmly so it doesn't fall apart like some side cut buns. This same style of bun is also served steamed lightly in Maine, which results in a soft, warm, feels great in your mouth sensation. The buns, grilled or steamed, get relish and onions that are grilled, steamed, or even fine chopped and raw on bottom and mustard on top, making for an easily held and almost spill proof treat. Some add a light amount of celery salt as well.
The most popular variety of hot dog in Maine is one made with a natural casing. The casing is colored red, and they're commonly referred to as 'red dogs'. Red hot dogs, also called "red snappers," get their red color from a natural food coloring in the form of FD&C reds that don't sound too natural to me, but I eat a ton of'em yearly and I'm still here, and old to boot. And why are they called red snappers? Because the casing has a firmness to it that makes the dog snap when you bite it. They're not to be confused with 'red hots', which is a spicy sausage also popular in places here. They're brighter red than the photos. You have to have red hot dogs when you are in Maine! It's part of the experience. Might even be a law here, although I've never met anyone who hasn't tried them and few who don't want more. They claim you should never order 'one' dog at a stand here as it'll mark you automatically as 'from away' and likely a tourist who'll just have to order a second time in a minute. It happens time after time at every 'dog stand' every summer.
Although many purists, myself not among them, will swear that unless the dogs are steamed they're not properly prepared. I myself like them either steamed or with a nice grill mark adorning two opposite sides. They should NEVER be cooked until they split open and it's sacrilege to boil or 'nuke' a 'snap dog'. Ketchup is pretty much sure to get you amazed looks accompanied by rolling eyes and shaking heads. They're actually a bit closer to an old-fashioned hot dog in that they have a consistency closer to a sausage than to the mass-produced cereal and chicken bit filled dogs available anywhere. Having 'red dogs' in your refrigerator is better than having money in the bank and clean socks in the drawer. You get to decide whether to share them, or keep them secret and just sneak down in the middle of the night to steam one up, load it with your favorite 'gahnishes', and savor every crispy-skinned bite. This, if you're from Maine, will revive memories of years past and GREAT lunches of two Jordan's red dye hot-dogs, a bag of Humpty Dumpty potato chips, and a can of Moxie soda with a whoopie pie for desert. It doesn't get much better than that!
Until next we meet, happy snacking and take care. Thanks for letting me share my mixed up recollections with you.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Another 'Mike' Year Is Over

Well, as the title of this post suggests, I measure my years a bit differently than others. On the day before Thanksgiving Day it's been my habit of long standing to take a sort of personal inventory of the year just gone by. I do this at this time for several reasons, not the least of which is that there's no 'resolutions' involved. This is good for people like me who seldom meet the lofty goals we set for ourselves at the beginning of the new year. Also, since this is officially 'Thanksgiving' time in the USA, what better time is there to take personal stock of our lives? In that frame of mind, here are my observations of things that I remember from the past twelve months, in no set lists or order, just my normal rambling thoughts consigned to this post.
I seem to remember the year starting off well, which means there were no looming disasters facing me. The time passed with a few hiccups and too many high points to count. Some of the hiccups were temporarily being bereft of most of my vision in the spring. This caused a great slow-down in my posting and an end to my book reading. Thankfully, this was cured in the most part via a series of procedures performed by the eye and general surgeons at the local Veteran's Administration Hospital. Even though I'm old, my disabilities and injuries are related to either my military or government service, which allows me to avail myself of the VA's services. There were a few other medical snags, some attended to by my personal doctor and the local hospital staff, and some addressed by the VA staff. My personal doctor, who amazingly makes house calls if necessary, keeps on top of our health issues with extreme competence. I nicknamed her the 'Little Italian Lady Doctor' and she fits that description to a 'T'. At any rate, I'd have to rate health issues in the plus column for the year, as I think I'm in better shape overall than at this time last year. So health is a blessing.
The year saw the loss of a great many close friends, many in one short period. Although there were a few exceptions caused by accidents and sudden illnesses, most lived long and productive lives and passed on peacefully in their homes with their loved ones. It also saw the birth of a number of babies to family and friends. The little girl who lives in my first floor apartment has had a remarkable degree of progress since her birth as a 'preemie' with multiple serious health issues. Today she's a normal, healthy, and extremely active two-year-old. A few family members and friends survived major medical problems with minimal lasting effects. Through the magic of the Internet I was introduced to new friends from around the globe, all of whom have added to my enjoyment of life. So overall not a bad year at all as far as those I care about are concerned.
The subject of personal wealth is always an issue in folks' lives, and in this respect, I imagine our lives are little different than the lives of most people. I'd have to say financially we have a good deal less than at this time last year. This is mostly a good thing though, as the reason for most of the missing wealth is giving to family, friends, and worthy causes. My take on money and material goods is that we appreciate and use what we have, allow ourselves a bit of luxury, and any beyond that is wasted unless it's used to do good works and better the lives of others and the world in general. My wife feels the same, and we both attribute it to the way we were raised, having what we needed and sharing any bounty with others less fortunate. As for the true wealth we enjoy, the company of friends and family, the respect of our neighbors, the ability to live in the midst of one of Nature's most beautiful spots on earth, and the overall enjoyment of life, I'd say it's been a truly wonderful year.
As I look ahead I foresee the coming twelve months as being much the same. You could say we're in a rut I guess, but what a wondrous road that rut is guiding us along. Every time I feel a bit melancholy I just have to look around, listen to the life around me, smell the perfume of Nature that changes with the seasons, and ask myself that well-worn question, 'can it get any better than this?' It may be possible, but when I see the blessing column full to overflowing and the 'less good things' column near empty, I don't see how.
So, as the photos above of the area in which we're blessed to reside show, we've got temperatures in the 24F\-4C range and the first snow that's stayed on the ground. That means that one of my four favorite seasons is almost upon us with its dazzling white landscapes, ice decorated trees, the tracks of the local critters in the snow, and a host of other nice things to add enjoyment to our already blessed lives. So I'm off to enjoy the early sunset over the snowy hill opposite us and breathe in the crisp autumn air. Until next time, take care.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Favorite Food, No Exceptions: CLAMS!!

Hello again, welcome to Mike's fascination with all things food, continued. Today's topic will take a bit of time, as there are so many ways to cook and eat clams, as the photos show. There's various styles of fried clams as shown above, the best of the best food in my opinion. Then steamed clams, baked in a clambake outing, clam chowder(pronounced 'chowda' here), and others not shown, such as clam cakes, clam fritters, clam dip, etc. Hard to believe that all this yummy goodness comes from a shellfish harvested from tidal mud-flats in the manner depicted in the photo at top. You likely can determine which dish is which, and there ARE more photos of various ways to serve fried clams depicted, wonder why I did that? Another of life's mysteries I guess.
So, on to a brief bit about some of this food. Clambakes are a traditional way of cooking in the summer for family reunions or other special occasions, like tourists wanting to attend one. It basically involves making a pit on the beach and following one of several ways of cooking the ingredients, along with whichever other foods you want to add. It's very doubtful anyone will attempt this at home, so we'll move along to other, more practical methods.
Up first, my favorite, deep fried WHOLE BELLY clams. NOT the little tough clam necks served elsewhere, WHOLE BELLY clams. It’s interesting how each place prepares their clams differently. From clam shacks to fine restaurants, the manner in which these are done are often poles apart. What I feel qualifies as a measure of goodness, is the fresh flavors and juiciness of the clams after they emerge from the deep-fryer. The preference for either a batter, breadcrumb, or crushed corn flake coating is matter of personal preference too. I prefer the corn flake coating because it's lighter. Batter dipped or bread crumbs are also excellent alternatives.
Clams that have had their bellies removed are, to me anyway, unacceptable, other than for a TV watching snack with some ale. With clams and flavor, bellies are everything, plus, fresh whole clams don't usually have that terrible chewy toughness some associate with fried clams. I love biting into one and letting the juicy, tender ecstasy explode in my mouth. The practice of removing bellies is not often seen in Maine. The best clams come sizzling from the fryer, by the half-pint ($3.15) or pint ($6.25), about 16 clams to the pint, so hot you can hardly bear to touch them. Clams served in restaurants are served hot, but not sizzlingly so. They're still a great meal. Folks here generally eat them lightly salted and plain(my way) or gently sprinkled with vinegar or lemon juice. Wonderful road trip finger food.
For the next two ways of preparing and serving clams I'm simply going to provide some easy instructions for steamed clams and one variety of Maine traditional clam chowder. The chowder recipe calls for 'Oyster Crackers', but as these can't even be found in some Maine locales, saltines will do fine if you desire crackers. My own preference is light salt and fresh ground black pepper only. I hope some of you try this super food, although I'm sure that some areas are slightly 'clam poor'. However, with today's air transportation systems and rapid rail, they probably do appear in some unlikely places.
Up here, one of the biggest festivals of the year is the 'Yarmouth Clam Festival' which celebrates all things clam, from shucking competitions to free samples and everything in between. It generally draws crowds of fifty-thousand plus from all over. Some people even plan their Maine vacation trips around it.Until next time, take care and happy eating.

Steamed Clams

The best part is they are so easy to cook. As the name implies, you are going to steam the clams. Start with a pot that looks too big. You'll be happy to have the extra space. Start with about 1" of water in the bottom and add your clams. Put on high heat and stand by. Steamers contain a lot of natural juice, so you can expect plenty of bouillon when they are done. When they start to steam, be on your toes. If your pot isn't big enough they will often boil over. It takes about 10-12 minutes of hard steaming for them to cook. The shells will gap wide open and the meats should slide out of the shell without sticking. Don't forget to remove the black membrane that covers the neck (siphon) before eating. Serve with the bouillon from cooking and drawn butter. When purchasing, figure on 2 ½ - 3 lbs. per person for a main course, much less for a side dish.

Maine Clam Chowder Recipe

5 cups bottled clam juice
1 cup of flour
1 cup onion, finely diced
10 slices of cooked bacon, chopped
2 tablespoons of margarine
8 oz of cooked clams, chopped
4 medium potatoes, cooked and cut in bite sized chunks
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup light cream
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper

Heat the clam juice in a large saucepan on medium heat. In a separate pan, melt margarine and saute the diced onions until they appear translucent. Add bacon and flour to the melted margarine and stir continuously for 5 minutes. Increase heat on clam juice to medium-high, and with a wire whisk, add flour, margarine and onion mixture to the liquid. Stir constantly, breaking up any lumps that form. Add clams and stir. Add potato chunks, milk, cream, and salt and continue stirring. Decrease heat to medium-low, and allow to simmer for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning or sticking.

Serve hot with oyster crackers (or saltines), adding freshly ground black pepper to taste.

If fresh clams are not available, substitute six ounces of canned clams, including the juice.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Little Taste of Maine #1

This is the first of a planned series of short posts about my favorite 'regional' foods, most of which contributed greatly to my decision to return here for retirement. The series is a result of suggestions from SWMBO and a very close friend, seems both of them are of the opinion that I can insert thoughts of food into every conversation. Of course, after thinking about it for a couple minutes before my thoughts drifted off toward what we were having for supper, I was forced to concede that they were right. I LOVE to cook, and eating is like a passion with me. I can get lost in cooking a delicious meal and even enjoy my own meals more than most I partake of. Cooking has always come rather naturally to me, as has eating. It seems I've always got something yummy on the brain.
I'm going to start off with one of Maine's best known and most loved comfort foods. Mainers sometimes say that they grew up eating whoopie pies from birth. In Maine, the whoopie pie is more like a cake than a pie or a cookie. About the size of a large hamburger, they're so big that some folks have to eat them in more than one sitting. A big glass of milk or bottle of Moxie is my normal beverage when consuming this calorie laden treat. A whoopie pie is like a sandwich, but made with two soft, hubcap shaped, cake-like outer halves with a fluffy white filling.
Traditional whoopies pies are made with vegetable shortening, not butter. The original and most commonly made whoopie pie is chocolate, but I prefer pumpkin flavored pies to any other. Every Mom and Pop store, grocery store, and many dining establishments have these wonderful items on offer. Most are made by the stores, restaurant chefs, or small local bakeries. These, and homemade, are the only really acceptable pies to me, and others must be of the same mindset, as most large bakery attempts to horn in on this lucrative market have been abject failures. The lady whose photo above shows her displaying her wares, is an exception to this rule. Although small by most standards, her bakery is large for a Maine business. Her pies are to die for and are often sold out almost as fast as they hit the shelves. When you attempt to eat one at a single snack, you'd better be REALLY ravenous!! They're huge, even by Maine standards.
If you'd like to try her pies, or are just curious about this treat, her web-site can be found at Wicked Whoopies. The site gives a short history of her enterprise as well as instructions for ordering her pies, if so inclined. Her bakery is named for her two kids, Isabella and Maxx and is pronounced 'izzamax'. She's a regular guest on a local talk show called '207' and when on she always makes a new variety and they post the recipe on the show's blog page. If you decide to visit her site, I hope you're as impressed as I am with her products. I avoid commercialism, but these are so good I couldn't resist sharing.
So now you have a 'taste' of what will be a theme for my posts until I can get back to my old self. Until next 'meal', take care.

A little chat with the aforementioned close friend has made me realize that I should have included a recipe with this post. Other flavors are obtained by simply altering the 'pie shell' ingredients to produce the desired flavor. Enjoy!!

Wicked Pumpkin Whoopie Pies


1 15oz can of pumpkin
2 large eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
2 cups brown sugar (firmly packed)
2 tablespoons molasses
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon ginger
3 cups all-purpose flour (heaping)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat pumpkin, eggs, oil, and brown sugar together until fluffy. Combine dry ingredients together.
Then add molasses and dry ingredients to your mix until well blended.

Scoop large rounded spoonfuls of batter onto a greased cookie sheet and space at least 2" apart.
Bake for 10-13 min.



6oz. of cream cheese
1/2 stick unsalted butter (softened)
2 cups confectioners sugar
3 heaping tablespoons of fluff
2 teaspoons of water


Add all ingredients in a bowl and beat until fluffy.
When whoopie shells are cooled, place a scoop of filling between two shells.
Wicked good!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Remembering a Friend

Yesterday, the sad news reached me that a friend had passed away. She was one of the regulars on a Guest Book that myself, and a great number of folks from around the world, frequent daily. "Sarah" was a friend to all the Guest Book visitors. She was also a frequent reader and sometimes poster on this Blog as well. The photo above is of a boardwalk at one of her favorite places near her home. She'll be greatly missed and fondly remembered by all who knew her. Rest in peace "Sarah".

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Under Orders

Hi folks. I'll have a new story soon, this is the first time I've had to actually gather background material for a story. Now I've got to trim it down to digestible size so as not to bore anyone to tears. As for the title of this, seems certain parties have determined that I should give up a few of my pass-times as they tire me out to the point that I get 'not as well as I'd like' for a few days. Guess the fact these episodes have become more frequent and last longer has triggered some sort of 'bossy gene' in these certain parties. At any rate, I hope to have at least one post soon dealing with the subject of my favorite 'Maine' foods. Now you can see my dilemma, I love food, and there's just so many good things here that aren't readily available in all the places I've lived. Well, it's zero-dark-thirty now, and suddenly I'm hungry, so adieu for the time being. Now, what we got to munch on???

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A New Day Dawns

Photo: Mosquito Mountain and Moxie Lake in the morning in the fall.

Hi Y'All, I'm easing my way back into the old routines with a new perspective and appreciation for everything and everyone. To paraphrase an old quote, 'an old friend dying concentrates the mind wonderfully', and the recent absence was primarily the result of my trying to absorb the reality of the sudden death of a number of longtime friends and colleagues in a very short span of time. The numbers matter not, but having felt as though I was being, in my own selfish thoughts, subjected to a daily series of body blows, I found myself, for one of the very few times in my life, unable to function properly. It was rather much like a fog had settled in my mind and was growing denser every day. Not a great description, but words are inadequate to describe the empty feeling I allowed to settle within my deepest being. I don't say this for sympathy, just to let you know a bit of the reason I left so abruptly. But, I'm happy to say, I'm pretty much back to being my absentminded, short attention span, and constantly contemplating the next meal, self of old. Although I do have a whole new determination not to waste any more of the time allotted me, and to daily remind all that I love and care for each and every one. Well, maybe some more than others, but I'm trying!!
As I write this at 0625, it's 36.5F\2.5C and the sun just woke up. Another great day of testing my new attitude and my recently regained eyesight. The fall quilt of colors is starting to appear and the pumpkin and apple harvests are in full swing. The place is ready for almost anything that may befall us, short of a major disaster. Other than the car being due for its yearly State Inspection, all is fairly well with the world as I know it. For some reason, even political discussions have taken on a newer, less demanding nature. Just throw the bums out!! All of them, every last elected official, whether deserved or not. A new broom sweeps clean, time to start over. Maybe, since most of us hold our moms in such high regard, we should turn the whole place over to the women. We've had our go and blew it in my view.
Well, enough of that, not going to let a beautiful, sunny day be ruined by anything. Life is too short and precious to waste. A short nap for energy, then off to explore and enjoy nature's gift of autumn. One of my four favorite seasons. Until next we meet here, take care and savor every minute as if it were your last.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Blogging Star/Blogging 'Vacation'

Hi Folks, Chris at Red Hog Diary bestowed an honor on me recently! Thank you Red Hog. Chris has presented me with the Blogging Star Award, which is "for bloggers who shine their light throughout the Blogosphere. Some do it with humor, others with creativity and others with their kind and thoughtful natures." Everyone knows more than a few of them so why not give them some recognition? Here's what to do if you receive this:
1) Proudly display the Blogging Star Award on your site along with a link to who gave it to you.
2) Mention that it originated at Skittle's Place so she can follow it's journey.
3) Pass it on to any 1 or 2 blogger(s) you think should have it.

This was hard for me, as I typically read about 30 personal blogs per day in addition to several political sites. After thinking it over for some time, and reading back posts on many of the sites, I settled on two personal blogs. The first is A Life Uncommon(Desiree) which has some of the best writing it's been my pleasure to read. The second is Salvageable(Ann) which is a very insightful and uplifting place to visit. Both of these folks have personal blogs that make my daily blog check so enjoyable. Desiree blogs less often than Ann, but it's so well composed that it's well worth the wait, and Ann is just a wonderful story teller and extremely caring woman. Thanks for the great posts ladies.

The second subject is a bit difficult to explain, so I'll simply tell you I'm taking a little vacation from the blog to get my mind 'back on track'. It doesn't involve anything serious, and not a health problem. I've just got a few things I need to sort out before I'll be able to conjure up any memories to post. Just too many things ganged up on my poor brain all at once. I'll be back as soon as I'm able to write as I feel I should, with as much thought and quality as possible. Thanks for visiting, and I hope you'll check in occasionally to see if I'm back. Thanks again for taking the time to read my posts, and for the kind comments from all. Until later, take care.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Simple Musings At Summer's End

The day here today is rather cloudy, and a 'coolish' 52F\11C, with our normal 10mph\16kph steady breeze carrying all the magnificent aromas of the woods to our door. I was just outside mulling over how soon the autumn foliage will be enchanting us with its rich tapestry of colors as far as the eye can see in every direction. Our summer season here is famously short, and therefore cherished all the more for its fleeting kiss of warmth and greenery. Some of the trees at this elevation have already started to don their fall finery, and most of the flowers are soon to be only a memory and a few bytes in the digicam. The photos above are some of the simple viewing pleasures to be found on the north side, or backyard, of our home. The house shown is our neighbor to the north, and the trees are part of our own little touch of the local forests. The flowers are those tenderly cared for by my gardener wife, and only a small representation of those she coaxes to life each summer without fail. Some are carefully planted, others the product of the mixed wildflower seeds she strews randomly around the yard perimeter. The last photo is the walkway to my Doctor's office.
This time of year signals the ending of most harvests, the beginning of others, such as apples, and the return to school of the shorter members of our community, with heads ready to be stuffed full of new information. For the older students, it's off to college, high school sports, hunting season, and homework woes. How little they realize that the world after school is much the same, without the summer vacation and the fun, but many of the sorrows, that they find in their lives now. The last of the agricultural fairs are wrapping up soon as well, and the roadside vendors and farmer's markets will soon be gone too. In many ways, it's much like the end of one of life's shorter journeys and the beginning of the next.
One of the many things I missed most, while living in other climates, was this rapid switching from one season to the next. I suppose if you've never had it, or disliked the colder days, you'd not miss it a bit. On the other hand, there are those like myself, who find something joyous in every season, even the blizzards, high snow drifts, and biting winds of our normally harsh winters. What better time to view the world, than after nature has painted everything a clean, sparkling white? Or after an ice storm, when the morning sun twinkles through thousands upon thousands of icicles of all sizes clinging effortlessly to the trees. The smell of a wood fire, the warmth of a meal, and conversation shared with good friends on a cold January night, combine to create a glow within the participants like no other.
As fall gives way soon to the cold of winter, so winter eventually wanes as well, allowing the air to come alive with the smell of maple syrup, more wood smoke, and the smell of new life emerging from the fields and forest floor alike. The ice finally goes out, fishing, swimming, boating, and planting, become the activities of the day, and summer is soon behind. Then, after what seems to many the shortest season of all, if we're among the lucky, we're still able to drink in all the beauty that's giving way to the newer beauty of fall. Usually on a cloudy, somewhat 'coolish' day. Perhaps a day not unlike today. Until next time, take care my friends.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

I Can See Clearly Now

Hi folks, it's GREAT to be back, especially as this is the first time in several years I can actually see things as well as I could in the past. When the other eye is finished the vision should be as good, if not better, than I enjoyed as a youth.
This is just a short account of how it feels to be able to see all the beauty we all take for granted in our busy lives. Yesterday was the first time my brain really figured out the new focus signals to the extent that driving was once again possible, and ENJOYABLE!! As we had cause to be on the road to the University town just to our north, I chose to make the return trip into a "rediscovery" of some of the many sights that had been so diminished for so long. As fate would have it (more habit of neglect really) the camera was left on the computer table at home, an occurrence more and more common as the sight waned. I'll have to retrain myself to always take it as in the past. Fortunately, my wife had taken some photos of some of my favorite local places (within five miles of home),and four are shown above.
The first is the west dam in the river, as viewed from the little island where we often go for easy access to outdoor solitude. The next is a view of the lower part of our hill, which also shows the Town Ski Slope across the river from us. Then a rest area beside one of the numerous local lakes. And lastly, a view of the lake our friends live on, taken from their driveway, looking through the trees where he's cleared away the undergrowth. These places, and many more, are the reason I returned here to such a harsh climate and remote location when I retired.
The little island by the dam is where I decided to stop first, and reintroduce the view to my eyes, and it was nearly like experiencing it for the first time years ago. We live on the eastern slope of the river valley created by one of Maine's largest and longest rivers. Although grossly polluted in years past, and some purist environmentalists would say still polluted, the water is actually now safe to swim in and even drink. This is the result of the 1970s environmental laws pushed through by Senator Ed Muskie, who grew up in Rumford along the river, and was alarmed and saddened by what the river had become as a result of wanton waste disposal by towns and the paper mills along its length. Following the enactment of the Federal Statutes, the State enacted even more stringent laws, and then many mill towns, the one we now call home among them, enacted even stricter laws and created Environmental Monitor positions within the town government.
The island is about one and a half miles downstream from the larger of the town paper mills, and was made into a public park, canoe portage, and picnic area, before opening it up to the people. The dam in the photo is the western part, then the island is about one hundred fifty feet wide before the eastern dam extends across a wider stretch of the river and ends at an old hydro-electric station. The station is inaccessible, and I've always meant to ask how often the thing is online, if ever. If it's working, it's damned quiet! The little island has a small dirt road leading from the mill road and across the bridge below the dam, ending in a postage stamp of a dirt parking lot. Even though there's a sign at the access road, few people other than locals ever wander down it, as it doesn't look especially interesting. There's a nice landing on both the upstream and downstream banks of the island, with a well maintained trail between for the use of the many canoe and kayak enthusiasts, who paddle the river from the source in New Hampshire to the sea.
The joy of the place is in finding it deserted, as we did yesterday, and simply shutting off the car and sitting quietly, listening to the water rushing over the dam. As a couple, we have many things in common, one being the ability and desire to sit quietly for long stretches of time, just enjoying our surroundings. After an hour or so of watching the birds, the fish jumping, the water flowing, and the leaves rustling from the almost constant valley wind, I find it hard to return to the reality that calls us back to the things humans create to vex themselves. Human things done in a seemingly fruitless attempt to make life easier. How much easier can it get than living in the midst of a gift from nature, and marvelling peacefully at all the wonders therein? Until next time, take care.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Road Signs

This is just a very brief tale I was reminded of a bit ago by a little talk on a guest book I visit concerning road construction. This series of events occurred over a period of only one long day during one of my stays in the quaint Asian country known in the west as Japan. It was inevitable that the foreigners working in the country would eventually wind up dating, living with, and often marrying members of the opposite sex they'd meet there. This held true for both genders, and, minus the marriage vows, gay and lesbian folks as well. This often led to discovery of amusing little quirks of their culture by us, and vice versa. One of the biggest sources of amusement to westerners is usually the way the foreign languages are interpreted by the Japanese. They have other little quirks that accompany those of foreign language translation and application. The amusement factor extends into other areas of language as well, which I learned over a period of years. One of the greatest suppliers of the humor came in the form of a very pretty, petite, college educated young lady who lived with my very good friend, co-worker, and fellow motorcyclist during this particular time frame. They would eventually marry and spend part of the year in his home state of Minnesota and the remainder in Japan and travelling around Asia purchasing items for their import/export enterprise. It was often our custom to spend Sundays in the nicer weather months on longish cruises around the countryside. This always provided a bit of history, adventure, fun, and considerable frustration on rare occasions. As no good maps were readily available in English at that time, we generally dispensed with that bit of frivolity and "flew by the seat of our collective pants". Often this required a short conference and subsequent vote as to which particular path of travel would result in our being "the least lost", or somewhat in doubt as to our real location from moment to moment. We always took comfort in the fact that we were on an island, a somewhat large island, but an island nonetheless. That meant that, being surrounded by water, if we'd travel in any one direction long enough we'd find salt water. That being accomplished, it would be just a matter of a few days riding around the perimeter of the place before we'd get home, home being on the seaside for me and nearby for them. A great way to discover new people, sights, and geological features. Unless it was getting late and we were weary. At those times we'd turn to our intrepid "secret weapon", our own Japanese person Yoshiko, who we knew would be of great assistance if asked. At least that was the theory until one day when we actually swallowed our pride and admitted to being "confused" beyond our usual degree of disorientation. When we finally got to the point of informing her we might possibly need directions from the local inhabitants, she cheerfully agreed to approach an officer in the local "Police Box", the peculiar little structures all over Japan from which the neighborhood policemen operated. After observing her and the nice officer discussing our plight accompanied by much gesturing and bowing, we were finally rewarded by seeing her heading toward us with a typical Japanese smile on her face. My friend, knowing her much better than I, immediately shook his head, exhaled loudly, and exclaimed "Oh shit!" softly to his boots. I'd forgotten one peculiar aspect of Japanese society in my joy at seeing the smiles and nods exchanged by Yoshi and the officer. In Japanese society, it is unthinkable to give a negative reply to a question, rather, the question must be phrased in such a way as to allow the answering party to reply in the positive that a negative is the case. For example, if you go into a small shop to purchase mosquito repellent tablets to use in your nifty little Japanese mini hot plate to rid your residence of the pests(don't understand to this day why they don't sell them here in the USA) and ask the proprietor if they have the item, the answer is ALWAYS "Hai, so desu ne!" "Yes, that is true." This is the answer whether they have them or not, as if not, it's understood by the shop owner that they carry them, but they're out at the moment. This isn't a problem to Japanese or long-term foreigners as the phrase comes with two types of smiles. Smile one is the "of course, and I'll happily sell you some". Smile two is the somewhat embarrassed "we should be able to sell you some and would happily do so if we in fact had them in stock". To the practiced foreigner or native Japanese, this difference is readily apparent, and requires a polite nod, and a statement to the effect that "I see, I understand you have no tablets at this time", which always gives the now ecstatic shopkeeper the proper outlet by saying, "Hai, so desu ne!". The notable difference is that now he's agreeing that they have none, he's happy, you can continue to another shop, and all's right with the world again. Another aspect of the positive answer is very familiar to old Japan hands. In this type answer, which unfortunately for us was what had transpired between Yoshi and the officer, person one makes a statement to person number two. Person two smiles, nods, and politely says the familiar phrase of agreement. However, in this case it doesn't mean agreement but acknowledgement of person one's statement. It does NOT mean agreement, only that "yes, I heard you, but I have absolutely zero idea what you actually said". Again, the Japanese person or old hands recognize the accompanying smile type, and promptly begins the necessary ritual of saying commonly understood phrases such as "thank you" (for acknowledging my right to speak), "I'm so very sorry for taking up your valuable time", and other necessary niceties which are always accompanied by much bowing and smiling. After sufficient apologies, hand gestures, and smiles, both parties feel comfortable with each other's politeness and disengage from the conversation amid much further bowing and smiling. Apparently we'd wandered far off the beaten path to a place where poor Yoshi, coming from a southern city, couldn't comprehend a word that the officer spoke, any more than he could understand her. It was the "Okay, I tried, I failed miserably, and now I must apologize to my friends" smile my pal had detected. After much discussion, it was decided that we'd continue on, using the now setting sun for guidance until we reached a major byway. Finally it happened, after about an hour of steady riding through the rolling countryside we came to what was obviously a major thoroughfare. Sadly for us, our hopes of a quick resolution were shattered when, after about ten kilometers, we came to a spot where the road split into three major roads, each heading in the same general direction, but with vastly different destinations. I should point out here that the road was a "high speed" road, which in Japan is about sixty kilometers per hour speed limit, or roughly 37.5 miles per hour. Due to this limit, and the general impossibility of faster travel because of traffic density, a slight deviation could result in a 40-50 mile distance between the road's terminus and our destination. Therefore, it was necessary to get the correct path the first try. For this, our college educated Yoshi would be pressed into service once again. It was then that my friend and I learned a new lesson about Japan and Japanese road signs of that era, actually it was more about the painters of said road signs. Yoshiko got off the bike, walked tentatively toward the signs having directional information, studied the thing a long time, then spun about and ambled slowly back in our direction with that same "I'm so very sorry smile" on her face, which elicited another "Oh shit!" from my buddy. This time, even though neither of us knew the problem yet, we both knew that smile boded no good for us. Sure enough, when she finally spoke, it was in answer to his question "Did you read the sign?", to which she, being Japanese and all, nodded and answered in the affirmative. He then logically, to us, asked which way we should go, to which the only reply was an enigmatic smile and a nervous head nod. "Do you not know the way now?", he asked, eliciting a happy smile and an affirmative answer accompanied by much bowing, to which it was my turn to exclaim, "Oh shit!", as I'd just realized what had transpired. My pal and I looked at each other and shook our heads in final recognition of what had been said: "Yes, I do not know the way now!", the perfect polite answer giving her the face saving way out. The next little bit isn't fit to write for a polite audience, such as the readers of this missive. Suffice it to say the words were very colorful in both their meaning and inflection, and it reflected the frustration of daily dealing with an infuriating custom, maddening to us at any rate. The conversation went along these general lines, "The sign's in Japanese, right?", happy affirmative and nod with smile. "And you're Japanese, right?", same answer. "So you can read Japanese, right?", again with the yeses. "You read the sign, right?", yesiree!! Smile nod, but not a happy smile and nod. Another "Oh shit" from him. "Did you not understand what it said, it being Japanese and all?", BIG smile, BIG affirmative, BIG nod, BIG "Oh for C*****'s sake!!". Much silence, finally broken by my friend's tentative "Why did you not understand the Japanese sign, written in Japanese language, on this Japanese road, since YOU ARE JAPANESE?" No smile, just shock at his insensitivity to her efforts to end the conversation politely. Now, I tried a few simple questions, which FINALLY got to the crux of the difficulty with the sign. It seems that, as with the language problem previously, all rural areas of Japan have their own sign painters, and every one has his own artistic flair which he, or she, incorporates into their signs. This is fine for the locals, who understand what the signs are supposed to say, being familiar with the area and all, but generally of absolutely no help whatever to those persons who pass by that are from other areas of the country. And so, despite having a genuine Japanese person, highly educated at University of Tokyo, as our personal guide and translator, we finally just had Yoshi toss a pebble at the sign and took the route indicated where it hit. This resulted in our being only about 20 miles from our destination when the road ran out, which, I found out later, was excellent luck as the other wrong branch would've taken us over 50 miles from home at its terminal point. Just another lesson in Japanese culture and language, along with a not unpleasant ride. Until next time, take care.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

For Eddie, Who Taught Me So Much

This week I learned of the passing of a dear and wonderful man who took me under his wing at a time when I sorely needed direction in my life. It was the beginning of the summer that I left the farm to strike off on my own as an emancipated youth. This was the actual title assigned to my status as a youth of at least sixteen years of age, but not yet eighteen. This allowed me to live on my own freely as if I were an adult. I sought this mainly so as to sample a bit of life beyond working long hours at the farm and before joining the military, which was my post-school goal. I lived with a friend who had recently been honorably discharged from the US Navy after four years as a UDT Diver. He had always been sort of an older brother to me as we lived on farms rather close to each other and often were "drafted" to help out on both his place and ours. I continued to attend high school, worked evenings in a garage and at a lumber mill on the graveyard shift. My spare time, what little there was, was spent doing odd jobs or working for Eddie to get extra cash. If I had an opportunity to go with Eddie for a big trip, both my bosses were nice enough to allow me the time off to go. Seems they both thought it was worth it in the long run, as I worked hard and wherever they asked doing anything they asked.
This was a terrific opportunity for me, as Eddie was a Master Maine Guide for fishing and hunting. He was one of the "Old-Timers" who was a guide prior to WWII, and during the war he taught survival skills to military and civilian personnel for the US Federal Government. For those who are unfamiliar with the term Maine Guide, this is an excerpt from a National outdoor sporting magazine: "To become a Master Maine Guide, a guide must have been working as a guide for ten years, and have had at least five years professional experience in their specialized classification. It should be noted that the process of obtaining a License as a Registered Maine Guide is the most difficult in the country, which is why Maine Guides are held in such high regard." Eddie definitely fit the description to perfection.
Eddie was a close friend of my Uncle "R" and "F" from their younger days, having gone to school with them until they left school to work on farms and he left to work with his father, who ran an "up-lake" hunting and fishing camp. The camp was only accessible by foot or water, and catered mainly to wealthy "out of state" men and women looking for an adventure, fishing, or just plain relaxing. Whatever they came to do, they came loaded with money and very few outdoor skills and always employed guides retained by the camp for that purpose. The guides were independent of the camps, but would pay an "engagement fee" to the camp for arranging guide work for them. This occupation was so lucrative that a boy such as Eddie was easily swayed by the possible monetary gains, and many of the "Old Timers" left school and started out this way, learning at the feet of the Original Maine Guides, a group formed and licensed by the state starting in 1897. For Eddie, it was a natural choice, as he despised being trapped in a school house all day and he had an easy foot in the door with his father owning one of the premier camps in the state.
Eddie started taking me on trips while I was still young and living on the farm. He had no children of his own and took quickly to me for some unfathomable reason. By the time I left the farm, I was already well versed in the ways of the great outdoor and possessed a "mental map" of the huge areas of the state which we'd visited on our trips. My going on the first "money" trip for Eddie came about quite accidently. His regular partner had gotten married and left the business without notice, after the new bride raised a fuss about him continuing in what her "city family" termed irregular and unreliable employment. The next pieces to fall into place were the lumber mill closing for a week for yearly vacations, and the garage business being a bit slow at the same time. Added to the string of lucky, for me anyway, events was the fact that Eddie had earlier that year committed to guiding a party of ten novice "city folks".
Anyway, Eddie asked me to help and offered to pay me 3/4 of the going daily rate, a considerable sum at that time, plus all tips given specifically to me and a portion of joint tips. This was just too good to pass up, especially since I knew from Eddie himself that successful fishermen were often inspired to tip up to $100 for a really good catch. If several had really good days, the $100 multiplied by the number of lucky anglers. This also worked the same with hunters in the fall and winter months. This was like taking candy from babies, as Eddie knew where the best fishing and hunting were to be found. Something he'd shown me as well. My duties generally comprised helping paddle canoes, carry gear, pitch camp, and assisting them in their pursuit of fish or game.
This continued until I left the area thirteen days after graduating from high school, but the lessons learned served me well in my chosen career field and remain with me to this day. The entire time I was "away" from the state, Eddie kept in touch more regularly than any relative ever did, and he was one of the first I visited upon my return. The day I got "home", after retiring to another part of the state, I had called him, and two days later we were up-lake in his ancient Grand Laker Canoe for three peaceful days of camp life and fishing. It was doing that very thing several days ago that saw Eddie pass on peacefully in his sleep after a successful day fishing. I was told that when they found him the next morning he looked like he was simply sleeping and had a big grin on his face. I hope he'd just caught "the big one" he was always talking about. Eddie was one month shy of his ninety-seventh birthday. To a life well lived Eddie. Until next time, take care.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Eight Things About Me

Lori of Hahn at Home has tagged me, something I've somehow avoided for a long time. I'm not even sure I know eight folks who haven't been tagged already. Since RC is getting antsy, I'll give this a try and count it as a contemporary post, something which will be more common in future as I attempt to blend my long ago memories with more contemporary recollections. The rules: Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules. At the end of your blog post, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names. Don't forget to leave them a comment telling them they're tagged, and to read your blog. 1) I'll eat (taste) almost anything at least once, it may actually taste far better than it looks. The Asian folks wonder why we generally refuse to eat brains and eyes, as they the cleanest part of most animals. Instead, we stuff ourselves with "treats" such as goose liver (pate) and intestine linings that are cleaned and then stuffed with all the ground up organs of the animal. It does seem a bit weird when you think about it. 2) I LOVE storms of any type. Preferring to be at sea during gales and other nasty conditions. I've been known to remain on a 'weather deck' during an entire storm, just watching the power of the sea. Standing at the coast out of reach of the water crashing on the rocky coast is a great treat to me as well. And snow means I'll get to watch the cute little 'skid-steer' plows moving the snow around.

3) I'm somewhat claustrophobic, although I can work in tight spaces without panicking, as long as I'm familiar with the space and know where the exit is. If in a building, I feel very uncomfortable if I can't see the outside. I also refuse to sit in a restaurant or other establishment unless my back is against the wall, affording me a view of as much of the place as possible.

4) I'll taste almost anything as I said above, but I absolutely detest egg salad, macaroni salad, and potato salad. Yuck!! Especially yuck to egg salad. There's not enough hot sauce in the world to make it palatable. I don't like my eggs in a sandwich either. I love eggs and sausage, easy-over eggs on toast, but no egg in a McMuffin style deal thank you. Strange, to say the least.

5) I love ALL critters, from the most disgusting insects imaginable to cute puppies and kitties. Even though I was raised on a farm where it was necessary to slaughter animals for food, I always consider that acceptable. I hate those who kill any living thing just for the pleasure or thrill they get from killing. If you kill a critter, be prepared to eat it, all life is sacred.

6) I'm extremely quiet and dislike social gatherings. Not really sure why this is, as I've always had to go to meetings, parties, dinners, etc as part of my job over the years. Even now I go to town meetings and committee meetings and say my piece if I feel that things aren't going the way I perceive as the best way for all. But if you give me a keyboard it seems I'm unstoppable .

7) Even though I've always given the impression of being firm in my decisions, I quite often have doubts as to whether I did the correct thing or not. I must be doing okay though, as for 60+ years things seem to have turned out the best for all concerned, at least most of the time.

8) I'm a sucker for kids, critters, and even 'chick flicks' if they're well filmed. I also love opera, jazz, heavy metal, and hard rock. Country music I can tolerate for a time, but a steady diet of it depresses me. Dancing was a favorite activity, especially ballroom, but I can no longer do it. I hate watching "artistic" dance though. I love paintings, photos, and any sort of well done visual art. To me, a urinal is NOT art, nor is wrapping islands in fabric, etc. Cristo sucks in my book.

That wasn't as hard as I thought, boring, but easy. Don't be surprised if I tag YOU, if I can think of anyone whose "tag" thoughts I've not read. Until next time, be well and take care.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

One Last Shower Entry

Welcome back to a few somewhat shorter showery tales. The first is another shipboard saga on yet another aircraft carrier. This time I was aboard for sixty-odd days for the purpose of training some folks for an up-coming operation that was a little out of the ordinary for them. That, however, is not what the story is about. As happens normally, I was assigned a berth in the "Technical Representative Berthing" area. This is the term used for the several areas on a carrier where they group all the civilians together. On this particular trip we were in the relatively calm waters of the Indian Ocean just south of Saudi Arabia and going in circles for weeks on end while conducting flight operations in an exercise designed to "show the flag" and advertise the US presence to surrounding countries.
The berthing area was what they termed "overflow tech-rep berthing", which is a nice way of saying we were stuck in the only available berthing spaces left on a very crowded ship. This area was on the fourth deck, just below the waterline of the ship, and consisted of two sleeping areas which shared a common small lounge between the areas. Each side had its own head with showers, sinks, toilets, etc. The side I was on had only myself and two other guys in an area with twelve bunks, while the other side had fifteen bunks that were all in use. The side I was on was to starboard(R) of the ship center line, the lounge on the center line, and the other space to the port(L) of center line. My side was kept continually dark by agreement of the three of us as the other two fellows were "tech-reps" for the A-7 aircraft and often had odd working hours. I didn't care as I spent little time in the bunk area anyway.
The first day after we pulled out was very quiet with everyone getting used to the routine after the crew had spent several days in a "liberty port". The first night was fairly uneventful and I had the entire sleeping area to myself as the other two were at work. After lounging around watching TV I headed for the showers. All normal and all three shower stalls seemed in good order, although the drain was a bit slow. How little I knew! The evening of the second day brought the first signs of possible shower trouble. I first noticed something different while in the lounge relaxing after having spent the day delivering a series of introductory lectures on a subject so familiar to me as to be extremely tedious to spend a full day discussing it. As I tried to watch TV it was near impossible to concentrate on the show as there was a near constant stream of people going from the other berthing space, through the lounge, and into the space the three of us were sharing. I assumed their showers were out of order as they were all using our side's facilities rather than the one close to their bunks.
Finally getting bored with TV and a bit worn out, I decided to grab a shower and retire for the night. On entering the head, all seemed normal as I brushed my teeth and trimmed my beard, although people were still using the showers which were full, with a couple guys awaiting their turns. I sat on one of the plastic cafeteria style chairs someone had lined up against the wall in every available space. This had struck me as odd the first day, but then I forgot about it until now. Even then it was easy to understand why this was necessary, as so many were using the showers on that side. When the crowd was gone and the stalls empty, I put the magazine I'd been reading back on the pile and headed into the shower area, where I was met by a deck covered with about three inches of water and shower stalls with the bottoms full to overflowing with about 5 inches of the same soap laced water. This was not acceptable to me, so I ventured to the lounge and inquired as to what was wrong with the showers on the other side. "Nothing, really," was the only thing I was told, so off I went to see if they were flooded as well.
On entering and seeing the dry deck, I made the decision to shower there, figuring the water must be too cold or something of the like. Popping into the stall, I flipped on the water and immediately set to shampooing my hair and beard. As the stall filled with steam, I noticed for the first time that the hot water smelled "funny". Rinsing the soap from my hair and face my eyes came open and I noticed a large red plastic plaque with white letters advising "No Smoking IN Shower". That WAS strange, never seen that before. Then it struck me, the odor, having grown progressively stronger, was "fuel oil" and coming from the hot water. Now it was clear why they all avoided this place. Hastily retreating, still soaked, I made my way back to our still flooded stalls, endured the chuckling as I passed through the lounge area, gritted my teeth, and spent ages soaking the foul fuel smell off.
It seems that the water feed on the other side came from an old jet fuel tank that had been cleaned of all traces of fuel except the odor, which was overpowering when mixed with hot water. From that time on, I waited until the hours when all the others were at work or asleep and the stalls had drained before attempting any cleaning related activities. Lesson learned.
The next two short episodes involve bathing using facilities as seen above. The first event, in which a shower consisting of a huge wooden tank suspended under a tree and filled with rain water, similar to the rig the girl in the photo is using, took place in South East Asia when a friend invited me along to his rural family's home for a visit. Arriving in late afternoon after a long, dusty, hot ride in an open window mini-bus I was all set to clean up prior to the planned evening events. My pal showed me to an outdoor shower as described and told me to try to conserve water for others. Not a problem, I stepped behind the cloth curtain separating the shower area from the yard, stripped, and got wet down. Then I did my usual hair and beard shampoo and was about to pull the lever to rinse the soap off when I heard the unmistakable sound of giggling. Quickly washing the soap from my eyes I was mortified to turn toward the cloth curtain, only to find that the family dog was playing with it and had pulled it all to one side. This left me completely exposed to the yard, in which stood my friend's teenage sisters and at least several hundred of their girlfriends (or so it seemed), every one of them a-twitter at the sight of the bearded American naked in the shower. I quickly pulled the curtain back, finished my cleansing, dried, dressed, and sheepishly returned to the house, only to find that all the girls were gone, much to my relief. As the family gathered to eat and spend the evening socializing, nothing was said about the incident. My friend and his older relatives did chastise the teen girls for being "silly and rude", as every time they caught my eye, they burst out in uncontrollable giggles, which quickly spread to all four of them. When I met these gals at his house a few years later, the first thing that occurred after the oldest opened the door to my knock, was another contagious fit of giggles from all four twenty-something ladies, much to my embarrassment. Thankfully, to this day my pal doesn't know of the incident as he'd never let it go and we talk often. The rest of my stay I used the rock that had been placed by the curtain to hold it in place.
The last episode, was not quite as embarrassing, though almost. This time it was a Japanese friend who had invited me to visit his family farm in a remote area of the mountain country. I'd stayed in Japanese houses before, and was fairly certain I knew the rules of acceptable behavior. The evening visit and meal went fine. Then his mother informed me that "bath time" was nine o'clock and I'd better get ready as the water was almost hot enough. Now there's a noticeable difference in bathing procedures in Japan. First of all, you wash thoroughly, including shampoo, before entering the tub. For this you sit on a very short stool in front of a spigot and use a pail and scrub pad/sponge to do the washing and rinsing. Then, once thoroughly clean and rinsed you enter the tub, which is like the ones in the photos, and relax in the hot water for a few minutes. Then, after you exit the room, the next person follows the same procedure until everyone is clean, relaxed, and wrapped in a traditional white house-robe. And yes, everyone uses the same water to soak in, thus the pre-soak washing and rinsing. The normal order is guests first when the water is hottest, then down the line from the oldest male to the youngest female in the family, who gets tepid water at best.
Having done this many times at Bed & Breakfast style Inns, I felt sure of myself, even though this time the water was in a large, ancient, wooden tub and had been heated using firewood under a large cauldron. The other difference this time was that I'd consumed a good amount of sake (rice wine) during the evening, as had all the males over fifteen or so. This normally wouldn't be a problem, this time was different though. As I neared the bath, grandmother handed me a sponge and towel and ushered me into the room and closed the door. I washed, rinsed, and then proceeded to enter the tub, much too quickly it turned out. Being the first in a long line of bathers, I had the hottest water, and once committed, had to continue into the bath. This resulted in my feeling as though I were being boiled alive. The water was well over 100F and apparently normal for them, but NOT for a soft American. After about a minute of getting what I was sure were second degree burns all over, I decided to exit gracefully. Wrong!! I now learned the second important lesson of the night, sake and hot baths do not mix well. I was so relaxed by the heat that my legs had become rubbery and refused to lift me from the tub. After several attempts to arise ended in failure, I swallowed my pride and called out to my friend to rescue me from being overcooked.
You can imagine my horror when, not my friend, but his lovely wife and sister-in-law entered giggling and proceeded to not only rescue me, but sat me on the stool and towelled me dry. They then wrapped me in my robe and helped me get to the living room on my still wobbly legs. Then, still trying to suppress their laughter, and failing miserably, they motioned for my pal to go take his bath. After they all had left the room, leaving myself and his mother, she turned to me and said in her best "school" English, "don't be troubled, all the men who drank with you will also need us to remove them from the bath". At a loss for words and secretly relieved, I simply smiled at her and said, "arrigato go-zaimusu" (thank you very much) and continued to sip my sake while watching an evening Japanese soap opera on TV. Until next time, take care.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Another Soggy Saga Installment

Welcome back, thought I'd dwell on the shower foibles a bit longer. In my former life, when I was working to be precise, I had many occasions to hitch rides on seagoing vessels of just about every imaginable sort. They ranged from aircraft carriers and their smaller brothers-in-arms to merchant vessels, mostly those under contract to the US Government for one purpose or another. Each of these ships and boats (includes occasional submarine rides) came with its own special form of adventure. The subs were far and away the best for food, okay for accommodations, but woefully short of sunlight. I doubt I'd last but a few days on one, although their crews have the unique status of ALL members being very congenial. Guess you'd have to be if you're stuck in a sausage-shaped tin container for months at a time. (did I say that?) All the crews, military and civilian, were overall extremely welcoming and anxious to make you as comfortable as possible. The best surface ships would be the merchant ships and the ocean going tugboats operated by the Navy, although the ride on the tugs would be off-putting to those sane folks who, unlike myself, don't care for roller coaster rides in heavier seas. The food on the tugs and the berthing were generally the best, and the crews small and tight-knit. The most exciting were undeniably the aircraft carriers, although their available quarters were often less than ideal because of the sheer number of folks (usually 5,000+) aboard. The food was okay most of the time, although the preferred dining was at the CPO Mess as they choose their own menus and usually run their own little diners tucked away from the bustle above. The ingenious and varied places they find to tuck sleeping quarters away, along with the plumbing required, can make for interesting stays. As the various components in Combat Control Centers and several other areas need cooling to operate properly, the ships have what's known as "chill water". This is pretty much self-descriptive, i.e. CHILLY water. I'd probably never have known this but for the stay I made on one ship where the showers and head (bathroom) where I was bunking was directly below one of these computerized spaces. It seems that the plumbing to the shiny new bathing facilities was added in the last days of a recent re-fit, and apparently done with all due haste in order to meet the sailing date. This resulted in the hot water not being operative and scheduled for repair next port they visited. The cold water did work though, and being in warm climate, normal water temperature would be bearable for a short transit to the next port. Great plan, and it would seem, the reason the stateroom I was given was so lonely. This room was in "Junior Officer Country" where they put the officers of lower rank and civilians who happen by. This particular stateroom, my home for the 6 day trip, had six racks. but only myself and one other civilian staying there on a very crowded vessel. The reason became painfully clear when I ventured down the passageway to the communal head on the first night out. There I was, all settled in for a short jaunt with nothing to do but to get underfoot while watching the planes and sailors perform for an audience of one, and off for my nightly shower. As I brushed my teeth and trimmed my beard a bit, everything was seemingly great. It wasn't until I ventured into the "rain-locker" that I discovered the true reason the head facilities were mine alone. Not only did the hot water faucets not work, but the cold water, far from being tolerable, was in fact hooked up to the chill water being piped into the computer center on the next deck up! This meant the water temperature was in the 55F-60F range in that particular shower facility! It also meant the choice of an exceptionally short shower or trudging down one deck and along a long passageway to take a comfortable shower in the next nearest communal officer's head. Being a brave soul, and rather unambitious when it comes to traversing a ship in flip-flops and minimal clothing just for a bit of comfort, I opted for taking showers using a series of VERY short bursts of water. This was much like having self-imposed "water hours" like on older vessels, when water would run short at times, and showers were limited to 2-3 minutes duration. Looking back, I believe I'd have opted for 2-3 minutes of comfortable showers vice the freezing cold and extremely short variety. When I arrived at my destination and checked into my hotel, the first thing I did was take a very hot, very long shower. As one who prefers moderately warm showers, this was rather unusual, but I just felt I DESERVED it that one time just to warm back up. Until next time, take care.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Change of Pace

A while back a close friend mentioned that when stressed, or otherwise needing spiritual renewal, they found peace and comfort in the shower. That got me recalling some of the offbeat events I've experienced over the years that have involved bathing or showering and I thought I'd share the tales over a few short posts. No photos, as I'm pretty sure everyone capable of reading this far is well acquainted with the processes involved. You'll have to bear with me a bit, as this is somewhat of a different type of memory than those recounted to date. I hope they'll still be entertaining and offer a slightly different view of things than that considered "normal". The first events involved showers in a rather around-about way. During the years I travelled in connection with my job, I often found myself staying at hotels in countries that hadn't seen a tourist industry since Hitler topped himself in the bunker in Berlin. These places, as charming as they were, often had "slight" problems in the areas of food, heating, and plumbing. Specific plumbing problems here refer mainly to the scarcity of adequate amounts of hot water when the places were fully booked. When assigned to one of these jobs, I would find myself in the company of a bevy of folks who were supposed to accomplish the task which I was overseeing. This elite bunch generally had all the same players assigned, the work crew, their supervisor, a translator (needed or not), the local plant engineering rep, and the always present "Official Government Compliance Officer". In most cases involving contract work performed in these countries, the government involved would pay these folks, the hotel and transportation charges, and other necessities such as food, laundry, etc. Then my company would pay the government back and present them with a bill for the total expense of the job, for which the involved country would then pay my employers. A very complicated and bureaucratic system fraught with fraud, bribery, and all the other evils encountered when doing business with these folks at that time. I would usually arrive on scene about a week prior to the beginning of the project to ensure everything was ready to go. This generally meant that I would meet with the official translator and my assigned driver, visit the place of work for a brief tour, check the transportation arrangements, permits, and hotel accommodations over the first two days or so. Then, when I was happy, bribe the transportation people, the petrol supply man, and my translator to tour me about the area until the others arrived. This was usually the best part of the trip, as the locals were always eager to show me all the wonderful things about their towns and families. Very enjoyable, and my favorite type of tourism. On my initial foray into this type of job, I was pretty thoroughly briefed by others involved in similar operations as to what to expect, what to demand, and other helpful tips. Two items I learned on my own over the first two trips to these places. The first trip I learned that, not having been updated for decades, the hot water supply was generally inadequate to provide hot showers for the entire work party. Thus, I learned from that trip to run the hot water and time it until it ran cooler. I'd then have to figure how many showers that would allow, adding in the other factors, such as leakage, etc. Then I'd sit with the translator , the "overseer", the engineer, and the supervisor to arrange shifts that would permit all those just off work to get a shower that was at least tolerably warm. Thus, armed with my newly devised plan of action, I embarked on my second such journey, fully anticipating an easy time of it. I did all the aforementioned things and when the crew arrived eager to go, I foresaw none of the "new" problems that would soon be encountered. The meetings went very well, I met an entirely new crew and a rotund, very jovial "overseer" who was well into his sixties. He assured me that he was an old hand at this and had made all the necessary arrangements needed beyond those I'd made. Taking this as an excellent sign, I relaxed and enjoyed the first day of the project and was truly impressed by the professionalism and talent I saw at work. Little did I know that this wasn't to remain the case for long. As this hotel had adequate hot water and dining facilities, we all would work the same hours, meaning a small fleet of mini-buses would ferry the group to the plant and back daily. The meals at the hotel and at the plant cafeteria were all to be taken as a group as well, thus cutting costs and ensuring better quality, as the "overseer" would dine with us as well. All was in readiness, or so I thought, as I went down to see the buses off the next morning. After sitting in a pretty chilly bus for twenty minutes beyond the agreed upon departure time, I decided enough was enough, and went in to the hotel desk to inquire as to whether wake-up calls had been made and was assured all was well. This was the only morning we were to eat breakfast at the plant, so I knew the crew wasn't in the dining room, and so I returned to the bus line. As soon as I saw the buses a feeling of dread came over me. There were all the crew, mostly on the buses, but with a few retching violently outside. Spotting the translator, I hurried to his bus and asked him what was wrong, as I noted that he, the "overseer", the supervisor, and most of the crew were very pallid, except for being a bit "green about the gills". In my naivete, I asked if they had all caught a "bug" from some of the obviously ill plant folks they'd been around the previous day. As soon as he answered me, I realized my problem. Those who weren't still drunk, were extremely hung-over, and none were in any condition to work. I ordered the day free from work and ensured them that they'd still get paid for it. Then they were all directed to go sleep it off and BE READY FOR WORK the following day. After all had settled down, I called my offices in London to speak to one of the other site managers about the problem. As soon as he heard the story, he laughed and asked if "Gregor" was the name of the "overseer" and described him to a 'T'. He then told me to start asking around the hotel staff until I found the "source" of the booze, and offered that these guys couldn't afford to drink like that without help from elsewhere, and that Gregor had a long history of this. So, armed with this new insight, I questioned the hotel staff and got totally stone-walled as nobody knew anything. Then, I overheard a younger worker gossiping with another man about how he wished they'd get some of the benefits of silence beyond keeping their jobs. After getting over the shocking discovery that the American could understand him without a translator, he succumbed to the appeal of two crisp Andrew Jackson portraits, one for each, and told me the basics of the deception. It seems that the bureaucrats never questioned the bills received for these jobs, as they were simply passed along to my company in that complex payment system. Therefore, older hands at it, with enough seniority to dare to do so, would arrange for daily rations of large quantities of vodka, schnapps, or whatever the best local booze happened to be. These rations were doled out to the entire crew, who gladly "disposed" of the contents of the bottles or cans. Thus the terrible drunken state I'd found them in. As I'd been told that I needed to find out how it was being billed and cut off the supply if I ever wanted any work to get done, off to the hotel manager I strode, full of indignant ire. Of course, the manager and all the staff were in on it and denied any knowledge of such a dastardly scheme. Gregor had apparently spread the wealth around to all who might dare to talk, the lower employees fearing for their jobs if implicated in the discovery of the plot. Knowing full well what was happening and seemingly powerless to prove it, and thus stop it, I paced angrily to my room. On entering, I got my second break from hotel workers in the form of a matronly lady who was cleaning my room. As she worked, she and her much younger helper chattered away in the local lingo, secure in not being heard by anyone other the American, and I didn't count. You can imagine her surprise when I, having heard her remark how nice it was to clean my room after dealing with the drunk pigs in our crew, especially the bossy, womanizing, oaf Gregor, asked just what she meant. Of course, she grew nervous and knew nothing, a condition quickly cured by the sudden appearance of even more Andrews for each of them. I got it across to her that I knew about the booze, I just needed to know how they were covering up the cost. Having obviously been down this road before, she told me to wait while she went to her cart. She promptly returned bearing a clipboard with the room cleaning assignments on it. Handing me the list, she indicated that was how it was being done. Not being totally able to converse, we still managed to agree that the list was the key, according to her anyway. Finally, getting flustered, she snatched the board from the obviously dense American, and poked at an entry very solidly with her thick finger. Seeing my look of utter confusion, she poked the board repeatedly, beside every entry on the page, while saying "da" (yes) at each poke. Upon reaching the last line, she suddenly said "nyet" (no). Then she did it over while counting and wrote down the total. Now I knew there was a problem, one guy too many listed. Indicating that I finally got it, I thanked her and started for Gregor's room, when she grasped my arm like a falling man clinging on for dear life. Asking what was wrong, she only said "no room man" in English. Telling her I understood, she again got rather upset and went down the list, stopping partway down and pointing at a name, then she showed me the same name with a different worker number further down saying, "good numba" over and over. Seeing me once again confused, she took me by the hand and led me out into and down the hall. As we got to the end, she indicated that now I could see the problem. Being still at sea, I asked her what she meant. She again said "no no man, no room man" which I took to once again mean no such man in the room. Finally, grabbing the clipboard and clipping me in the head with it very lightly, she went to the nearest door and touched the number. "No no man, no room man" was again delivered, but this time with a big grin, as she had had a thought. Going to the next room, she repeated the performance, then to the last door doing the same. She then stood there and beckoned me over showing me the room number and the clipboard entries. AHA!! Room 231, 232, 233 and the doors stopped at 232!! Then triumphantly she said, "no no man, no room man!" NOW I got it!! The end of this rambling tale, is that I went to Gregor's room and, hearing him snoring harshly, told the woman to open the door. There on the bed in his torn, filthy, boxer shorts, amid several empty vodka bottles, lay Gregor, dead to the world. Wanting to confront him, but unable to wake him, I took the empty glass from the night stand and went to the bathroom sink and ran the water until it was extremely cold. Then I returned ready to dump it on his head, when the old lady stopped me again and took the glass from me with a vicious leer. She then proceeded to soak Gregor's boxer short's frontal area with the frigid liquid and immediately handed me back the glass, kissed my cheek, and scooted from the room before Gregor could see her. Now that I had his attention, we discussed the possibly negative effect on his position as "overseer" if the incident was to be repeated and if the free booze supply wasn't shut off. Negotiations were very successful and the rest of the project went smoothly. Until next time, take care.