Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Eyes Have it!

In a weird way, a hurricane is sort of like Christmas. The days leading up to it are spent frantically preparing and ensuring that you have everything you need. The night before its arrival is spent lying awake in bed anxiously wondering what the morning will bring. You wake up early the next day to see what you got, then spend the rest of the day comparing with your friends and checking in on family. Oh, and eating. Lots and lots of eating. Then, 24 hours later, it's all over - save for the mess to clean up and bills to pay.

And just like the holidays, there are people who are grateful for the littlest things and those who complain that it's not enough. I can sort of understand the later attitude when it comes the presents, but storm damage? Really? It doesn't make sense to me that one could be disappointed with a lack of destruction. Yet there were countless people complaining that the severity of the storm did not live up to the hype. They were bemoaning all the extra batteries they bought, and griping about the gallons of milk in their still working fridges.

Granted, I'm as greedy as the next guy, but when it comes the storms, less is always more. I spent the sunny days leading up to the hurricane preparing the house, hoping that all my work would be for nothing. And I'm grateful to say, it was. Other than a small leak that managed to find its way into the bathroom I was remodeling, we suffered zero damage. The storm left us with our power still on, trees still standing, and basement dry.

And I was happy. But as I surveyed our yard looking for something to do, I couldn't deny there was some sort of strange feeling of... anti-climax. Like when you feel a sneeze coming on and it suddenly disappears - part of you is grateful that you don't need a tissue, but there’s a small part of you that feels unsatisfied. A good sneeze relieves all that built-up pressure, but a stifled one just leaves you wondering, what do I do now?

And that's how I felt, as I skimmed our pool of leaves with the sound of generators humming and chainsaws buzzing all around me. I was grateful that that was all I had to do, but felt guilty that that was all I had to do. And to be completely honest, more than a little wimpy. There I was, circling the pool with a glorified butterfly net while my neighbors were wielding power tools.  I suppose some people would have saw such good luck as an opportunity to relax and read or sit inside and watch TV all day, but after all the dire predictions, I needed to get my hands dirty. So I put the skimmer down and walked over to the neighbors to lend a helping hand.

We spent the afternoon chainsawing the tree that nearly took out his house, dragging the branches into the woods and rolling the logs behind the shed. After a celebratory Budweiser, we set our sights on another neighbor’s tree that was blocking the road. Once that was cleared away, we patted ourselves on our aching backs and went to our respective homes for well-deserved dinners.

Later that night, my nephew showed up looking to borrow my generator. Like 50% of our town, he had no power, and with 4 young kids and a Koi pond full of gasping fish, he could really use the energy. So we loaded it into my truck, along with 10 of the 20 gallons of gas I had purchased, and brought it back to his house.

I should have slept well that night, knowing I had assisted a neighbor in need, helped clear our road, and even saved the lives of some ridiculously expensive fish - but I couldn’t help feeling guilty about those less fortunate than I. Granted, like the grasshopper in the fable, my hard work on a sunny day may have had something to do with how little damage we received during the storm, but that didn't make it right to ignore the plight of the ants.

When it comes right down to it, aren't we all just little ants?  We scurry about, building our little towers of sand, trying to pretend like we know what we’re doing, ignoring the fact that Mother Nature can squash us with even the slightest of steps. And whether her acts are willfull or accidental, it doesn’t matter, because it’s our actions afterwards that really count. No matter how much we prepare, we must be ready to repair.  And more importantly, help others to do the same. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

There's a "Place" for Us...and You!

An atypically empty picture of The Place

NOTE: I know Tuesdays are supposed to be NEW post days, but today is my wedding anniversary, so I'm taking it off! Taking it all off baby! But I won't leave you completely hanging. Since we made our annual pilgrimage to The Place last night, I thought it would be a good time to rerun my review of it that originally appeared in the Connecticut Post several years ago.

This is going to be the best summer ever!”  was the prediction/promise I heard every June from the time I was 8 up until I turned 22. Okay, maybe 27, but only because some of my friends matured slower than savings bonds! And every year they had a different reason why that particular summer was going to rock:  First it was because someone got a pool. Then it was that we were finally sixth graders (still not sure what privileges that entailed, but we sure were excited at the time.) Later it was that we had our driver’s licenses (or an older cousin’s driver’s license, which we could use to buy beer, so long as one of us could grow a foot…and a beard.) Our 18th summer was going to be “the best one ever” because we could rent (and trash) a cottage on the beach.

Looking back, I can’t remember which summer truly was the best (probably because our last few were spent following the Grateful Dead) but even if I could recall, I probably couldn’t come up with an answer. For one thing,  I still have summers left to live. Plus, unlike my friends, I don’t like putting such labels on my experiences because I don’t go into them with such high expectations. In fact, I’ve found that the “best” times happen when I’ve least expected them.  

It seems like the bigger, more elaborate, or highly anticipated the event, the less likely I am to have a good time. Invite me to a luau that you spent a year planning (and paying) for, complete with pig roast and hula girls, and I’m the dud leaving before getting lei’d.  But throw an impromptu picnic and I’m the life of the party. I’ve had more fun tubing down the Housatonic than cruising the Caribbean. It’s like the more pressure I feel to have a good time, the less capable I am of doing so.  And no, I don’t have social anxiety, so don’t send me any Paxil. Nor do I want any Viagra-like pills designed to help get my expectations up – I like them just where they are…low.

Like the old Wall Street wisdom of buying low and selling high, having low expectations has helped enrich my life.  It sounds silly, but by not expecting much, I almost always get what I want. Plus, I’m rarely disappointed, and am often pleasantly surprised. Who could ask for more? Note: this isn’t some sort of slacker mentality - I still do a lot of hard work…I just don’t expect it to pay off!

So, when my low expectations and I (along with my wife and a few friends from work) went for dinner at The Place in Guilford, I wasn’t counting on being overly impressed.  From what I had already heard about The Place, I was picturing something along the lines of glorified tailgating, minus the tickets to the game. Not much to write home (or a column) about. But, as usual, I got what I expected, and then some.

The first thing you’ll notice about The Place is that it really isn’t an actual place so much as a space, with very little differentiating the parking lot from the eating area, save for the tree stumps, which will be the second thing you’ll notice. The eating area is stocked with tree stumps of various shapes and sizes which serve as seats, as well as foundations for the plywood table tops, so find a stump that suits your rump and have a seat.  You might want to bring your own cushion, or even a chair, to make things more comfortable.

Speaking of bringing things, The Place has a BYOB policy – actually more of a BYO A-Z policy, since you can bring in basically anything within reason to supplement your dining experience, from alcoholic beverages to side dishes to zabaglione (or any other obscure Italian dessert.) Some people even bring table cloths, candelabras, etc. to dress up their table, but The Place really isn’t a place for pretensions, or dressing up, as you will get messy. Which brings us to the food.

            While sitting on a stump in a parking lot across from a Wal-Mart does have its charms, it is the food that brings the people in, and keeps them coming back. Clams get top-billing on The Place’s billboard of a menu, and seem to be the biggest draw. Rated “best non-fried clams on earth” by U.C.L.A. (United Clam Lovers of America) they are served hot off the rack with a splash of secret sauce, and they are delicious. Even my wife, who has never had a clam in her life, was tempted to try one. She didn’t like it, but she loved the corn, served fire roasted and still in the husk. Other offerings include fresh lobsters, fish, chicken, and steak, all cooked over open flame and served with minimal flare.
             We left The Place happy, full, and slightly grimy – and truly impressed with how they managed to do so much with so little.  The Place turned out to be my kind of place. I didn’t expect much, but that’s exactly what I got!

The Place
891 Boston Post Road
Guilford, Connecticut

Monday, August 15, 2011

Destress Signals

This was supposed to be a sweet little story about a life lesson learned in a grocery store parking lot – but it somehow turned a little darker and deeper.  And never one to shy away from exposing myself and my faults, I decided to just stick with it and see where it took me. But if you want to bail out now, I understand. In fact, if you read on, you’ll see that I would actually recommend not reading stuff like this. Talk about a Catch-22!

Anyway, for those still here, let me start by saying that I’m a pretty laid-back sort of guy.  But as strange as it sounds, it takes a lot of work to be as easy-going as I am. The secret to a stress-less existence (meaning less stress, not no stress) is to be proactive. You have to take steps to avoid putting yourself into stressful situations.

For an example, let’s look at the aforementioned parking lot story.  I have a two-year old son, and ever since he was a few weeks old, we’ve been taking him grocery shopping. And he has always sat in front “seat” of the cart, buckled in with his little legs dangling below the handle. As he got older, he became aware of the cute little car-shaped carts that they have, complete with steering wheel and horn. But knowing that the store we frequent only had two of those cars, I decided it best to never let him go in one, knowing then he would always want to go in one, and on the off chance that there wasn’t one available, I didn’t want to deal with the tears and disappointment.  It seemed like a logical way to prevent potential tantrums - plus he was happy enough in the regular carriage, so why mess with success?

Well, I messed with success a few weeks ago at Home Depot, when I let him go in one of their really cool truck carts, figuring we didn’t go there nearly as often as the supermarket, so what was the big deal? Plus, he had so much fun “steering” it, it made my shopping easier and more enjoyable.

Of course, since then, he only wants the car carts, no matter where we go, and I’ve decided to just let him. This sucks for my wife, who has a hard time pushing the much larger carriage, but I realized it was foolish to avoid something fun simply because that fun opportunity might not be available in the future. That’s what they mean by carpe diem, right? Roughly translated as ‘seize the cart!’

Anyway, this is about the point in the story where I would have stopped and wrapped things up with a silly little sentiment about not putting the shopping cart before the horse, or something like that. But my first draft started with what follows, where I began by discussing my decision making process and attitude in general. And while I didn't like how selfish and shallow I sounded, it made me realize that those are the very traits that help me handle pressure so well and avoid unnecessary stress. Pressure is good. It makes things happen. Put enough of it on some carbon, and you get diamonds. But if you stress the stuff, you're lucky to get pencil lead. I thrive under pressure and wilt under stress. Which is why I take so many steps to avoid it. Marathons worth.

Some of those steps are literal, as in stepping away from any argument or discussion that does not directly involve me. Which is pretty much every argument, as I have no tolerance for complainers. Most people like to argue about what’s right, and more commonly, what’s wrong, but few are willing to actually do anything about it. And I don’t see the point in getting all riled up if it’s not going to change anything, so I step away.

Along those lines, I also step back from watching TV news and reading the more sordid articles in the paper. Hearing about all the terrible things going on in the world just freaks me out and makes me feel awful, unsafe, and uncomfortable – and since I don’t have a cape, or millions of dollars at my disposal, what can I REALLY do about it? Yes, it is absolutely horrible what is happening in Somalia, and Afghanistan, and right down my very street. But what can I do in response to these events? Other than stress about them and send a couple bucks to make me feel better about it? So I step back.

But lest you think I’m a complete slacker, I do step up when the need arises. I just don’t get personally involved. I choose to keep my blinders on when it comes to problems like starving children and tsunami victims, but I take my wallet out to support charities like the Red Cross and United Way, and trust that they will take care of them for me.

As for caring for myself, I try to step forward whenever there is something with potential to cause me stress and deal with it before it becomes a problem. Sure, leaf-filled gutters aren’t a problem unless it rains, but they’re a lot easier to clean when the sun is shining. And if it’s something that is currently causing me stress, I fix it as soon as possible, rather than let it persist and hope it goes away on its own. Trust me, it won’t. It might feel like it does, but that’s really just you getting used to it, and personally, that’s the worst sort of stress, as you don’t even recognize it as the cause of whatever anxiety or discomfort you are (not) feeling. It’s like a Novocaine injection to your entire system - you may not immediately feel the effects, but the damage is being done. 

And lastly, I’m always willing to step down. I have no problem volunteering or taking on a leadership role in order to get things done, and often do – but once things are running smoothly, or someone else is willing to step in and do it for me, I have no problem relinquishing control.  I’ll make the hard decisions if I have to, but if someone else wants to? More power to them!

Stress can’t be avoided, but it can be minimized. What you have to recognize is it’s not the actual cause that’s the problem, it’s the effect. Think of cows, they seem pretty mellow, right? But when a wolf approaches, they all form a circle, with the weaker ones “safely” in the middle. But who is more stressed out? The cows in the middle, nervously waiting for the unseen attacker, feeling helpless and useless?  Or the ones on the outside who are dealing with the problem head on? And is the wolf the cause of their stress, or is it their reaction to him? To put it in human terms, what’s more stressful? Having the biopsy, or awaiting the results?

Or a more minor example: Say you’re on your way to work and find yourself in a traffic jam. You look at the clock and see that it’s 8:30, and at the rate you’re going, will make you at least half an hour late. Most people would start fussing and fuming at that point, and spend the entire time stressing about how the delay is going to impact their day. But in my mind, I’m not late until 9:01, so why worry about it until then? And even then, what’s worrying about it going to do? Or honking the horn, swearing at the driver in front of you, or driving dangerously through the breakdown lane? It just adds stress to the equation and makes it more difficult to solve.

So as you can see, I’m a very mellow guy. I don’t get all Zen or mystical. I don’t need yoga or tai chi (or chai tea for that matter) – I just need my immediate needs to be met.  And by keeping those needs simple, they usually are. Of course, everything comes at a cost, and the price for my peace of mind is that I have to miss out on experiencing certain interactions and emotions. It takes a selfish person to live a stressless life, as most stress comes from worrying about others.  And the reason more people don’t opt for such a carefree lifestyle is that most people do care – too much, in my opinion, but there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s the caring people out there who make it possible for people like me to care less.  It’s a lot easier for me to advocate “taking care of your own” knowing there are many who will disregard such advice and worry about the world around them. Which is fine with me, since that way I can concern myself with real problems, like not having a car-shaped shopping cart when I need one!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

There's Water Over You (Dedicated to Joe Gorman)

First, I’d like to try a little experiment (of sorts) – it doesn’t require much, other than the ability to follow two simple instructions and the courage to post your honest reaction.  Sounds easy enough, right?


Step 1: listen to the Youtube clip below, while reading the lyrics to the song, "There's Water Over You" by the remarkable Colin Hay

Step 2: scroll down and go straight to the comments. DO NOT READ THE EXPLANATION (or other’s posts!) until you have posted your own response to the song.  Nothing formal or elaborate, just a few sentences sharing your interpretation of the title and the meaning of the song. Only then, after clicking submit, can you go back and read the explanation that gives the “real” story behind the artist's inspiration for the song. Make sense? Good, then let's do it!

Be yourself, be brave, and be honest!

I can feel your love come shining
Over and across the sea
There never was a light more blinding
Ever watching over me

I walk into the swirling wind
It carries me away
Back to where my life begins
Can you hear me say?

I can see you where you're hiding
And there's water over you
I know that you are pretending
And there's water over you

I walk beside you on the wall
Oh, so far away
You will catch me if I fall
Can you hear me say?

Love and all security
These are things you give to me

I can touch you when I'm dreaming
Long into the lonely night
You hold me when I wake up screaming
 Everything will be alright

And if I had to choose
between meeting God or you
I would wake my king and queen
There's water over you

Love for all eternity
This and more you give to me

Now, skip the explanation and post your reaction/interpretation in the comments BEFORE reading on!

EXPLANATION: (Note, this is not a verbatim quote, just my recollection of the story Colin told prior to performing the song)

As a kid, Colin was a big fan of cowboy movies, especially ones with John Wayne, which he would watch repeatedly with his dad. They both found it amusing how when someone was knocked out by a punch, or passed out drunk, they could be instantly revived by a bucket of water getting dumped on them.

The act of throwing water became an inside joke between father and son. Often they would play hide and seek, and the dad would seek out hiding spots that would allow him to catch a quick nap while his son looked for him. When found, the dad would continue to pretend to be asleep, and Colin would be like, “Wake up Da’, c’mon. There’s water over you…” at which point the dad would pop up like one of the drenched cowboys in the movies.

As Colin got older, his dad would use the phrase to get his sleepy teenager out of bed. “Get up, Son, let’s go – there’s water over you.”

Of course, the dad gets older too, and Colin ends his story with a sad account of being at his dad’s wake, looking wistfully at the coffin and tearfully thinking, “C’mon Da’, it’s time to wake up. There’s water over you…”


I should close this by explaining that I just returned from a wake for the father of a good friend, and as such things go, you start to think about your own parents, etc. And on the way home,  this song started playing on the CD player, and having seen him perform it live, and hearing the backstory above, I found it to be a wonderfully apt and poignant song to be playing at that moment – but it got me wondering what others would think of the song who were not privy to the artist’s explanation.

And that’s my experiment. I told you it would be easy. The hard part comes next...

Go back and relisten to the song, knowing what you know now, and try not to get choked up.

Finally, for Casey and his family, and anyone who has lost their dad (and those still fortunate enough to have theirs around), remember that the world, and every human in it, is made up of 70% water - meaning there's ALWAYS water over you too. So if you're hanging on to resentment, let it be water under the bridge. If you're missing him, let it be tears. If you're angry, let it cool your heels. And if you love him, let it pour right out. I know Casey and I are fortunate to have had great relationships with our dads, so this may be easy for me to say, but if water can ease the effects of John Wayne's best punch, then it can be a wake-up call for you too.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Putting a Lid on It

It is with much regret that I must announce the end of an error. I know some of you have been following this saga on facebook for some months now, but for the rest of you, here’s what preceded yesterday’s events:

We bought a new house last year, and even though everything about it was bigger (and in most regards, better) than the last, one downside was the lack of a place to hide the garbage cans. I prefer storing them in the backyard, somewhere out of sight of the general public and out of reach of the critters, but close enough to the back door so as not to turn the simple chore of emptying the kitchen can into a trial. Plus, they have to be somewhat near the front curb in order to avoid turning weekly trash trips into Hefty treks.

But our new home offered no convenient space to keep them. The back deck ran the length of the house, but was too low to store them under it, and the rest of the yard was so nicely landscaped, it seemed a shame to ruin it with rubbish. The side yards were out, with one already cluttered with pool pumps and filters and the other impassable due to trees and bushes, leaving only the front yard as a viable option. (Note: We do have a semi-attached garage, but for some reason, I can’t stomach the thought of storing garbage in there.)

Resigned to the front of the house, the only logical place for them was a space to the right of the kitchen entry steps. They would be close to the door for (twice) daily household removal and a straight shot to the curb for weekly pick-up - but -  they would also be in plain sight of the neighbors and the first thing people saw when pulling into our driveway. With that in mind, I decided to retire my battle-worn Rubbermaids and class things up a bit with something nice, so I went to the local Sears hardware to check out my options. An hour and $90 later, I returned with a pair of shiny aluminum Oscar the Grouch style cans, figuring their hefty weight and price tag would be offset by their cool retro styling.  And I must admit, they did look pretty sweet sitting out there in front of the house – for about 12 hours.

THE VERY NEXT DAY all was ruined. It was Garbage Day and after transferring the trash from the old cans into the new ones and lugging them to the curb – one at a time, mind you, as their old school wire handles, and impossible to secure lids made it too difficult to take them two at a time like my old ones (plus, being metal I couldn’t drag them down the driveway without scarring the pavement and scaring the baby), I came home from work to find my shiny new cans all dented and dirty from being tossed aside by the garbagemen, and one lid flattened into a tinfoil pancake after getting run over at least several times by passing cars. 
My crushed lid :(

Disheartened, I carried the cans back to their spots (again, one at a time, as they no longer stacked neatly inside each other due to all the dents) and lamented what could have been.

Over the next few months, I stubbornly continued to use them. The one with the serviceable lid was always my first option, but come Monday, that would be full, leaving me no choice but to use the other. By Thursday (trash pick-up day) that can would also be full, its flattened lid uselessly balanced on top like a jaunty beret.  It got so I started to dread Wednesday evenings, when I’d have to carry them to the curb, hugging the heavy cans close to my chest while pressing my chin down on the lids to keep them from falling off. I was practically humping my garbage – and to think this all started because I thought having them in my garage was gross!

But I refuse to admit to defeat, so I carried on in this fashion for nearly 6 more months. And then summer came, bringing with it weekly picnics, hot humid temperatures, and lots and lots of trash. I soon found that leaving steaming bags of half-eaten hamburgers and left over potato salad in unsealed metal cans for a week in 90-degree heat does not lead to pleasant things. Besides the suppurating smell and buzzing of flies that seemingly flew straight in from Amityville, there were millions of maggots to deal with.

And that’s when I threw in the towel – from a safe distance of course.

So yesterday, an hour and $65 later, I returned from Home Depot with a pair of Rubbermaid 45-gallon cans…with wheels and attached lids.  Problem solved, right? Well sort of. Now I just have to figure out what to do with my old garbage cans. Do I just leave them at the curb, empty, and hope the garbagemen realize I’m not senile and just want them thrown away? Or do I fill them and leave a sign that says, “Toss the whole thing.” Or  should I crush them up and try to shove them into one of the new cans? Actually, come to think of it, since they’re aluminum, they probably should be recycled. Sheesh! What a pain in the trash. No wonder Oscar was such a grouch!

PS - Want a signed 8x10 of me in the trash? Just send me an email (mikewood_3@yahoo.com) listing all the garbage related puns you can find above - "winner" will be determined by who finds the most!