With my hand on the wheel and my brain in neutral . . .

Archive for the ‘My world’ Category

The Coffee of a Lifetime

This is an old piece of mine, written many years ago. I had it on Hubpages for awhile, where it won an award for Best Hub (article) of the Month!

One of my most memorable coffees has a flavor that gets more distinct and recognizable every year.  When I have this rare brew, it always an autumn day, and my father and I have spent the afternoon working outside, raking and burning leaves, or cleaning out the garden, or winterizing a car and then washing our hands in gasoline that always somehow feels much colder than the weather.  We sit on the concrete steps of the back porch, having that warm, brown coffee and resting before we go inside to clean up and cook dinner.  Relaxed by the day’s exercise, he’ll mumble something, and although in reflex I only glance at him, my eyes are magnetized and quickly return to his face.  He’s almost in profile, looking out into the yard, squinting a little into the setting sun that shines dull red on his skin.  He tilts his head down to sip his coffee, and I notice the gray stubble on his cheek and the thinning white hair that curls out from under the paint-spattered blue knit cap that sits, as it always has, precariously on the back of his head.  A dog barks behind the neighbor’s house, so expectantly my father and I look out into the next yard, not knowing what will come into view.  We sit together on the hard steps of the back porch, breathing deeply the cooling air and soaking in the last of the setting sun.

In my Navy years, the best coffee was on the 4-8 watch, especially when we were at sea in the tropics.  With the crew asleep and the six 12-cylinder diesels snoring steadily like a group of drunken giants, the ship was peaceful, and I’d push open the weatherdeck door to watch the rising sun melt the night sky.  I’d turn my back to all the alarms and gauges and lean against the doorway, listen to the black water sliding along our iron hull, and, waiting for enough light to distinguish the horizon, just look out into the fading darkness.  With each gentle roll of the ship the warm salt air would breathe in and out of my little iron cave, ruffling papers on the desk, and I’d be sipping not the day’s first but its best cup of “joe.”

In the autumn mornings of my junior year in college my girlfriend and I would walk hand in hand to the edge of Penn State’s main campus to The Ye Olde College Diner, open 24 hours a day for something like the past 47 years.  We’d get a cavernous wooden booth with dark Naugohyde seats and have a big blueberry pancake breakfast, and then, in no hurry to go anywhere, we would sit and talk and sip coffee and smoke menthol cigarettes, sometimes holding each other’s hand across the heavy wooden table.  On rainy, cold days The Diner was usually subdued and hushed, even cozy, but on bright, crisp, colorful October Saturdays The Diner serviced hundreds of fad-wearing students and their visiting families, all anticipating a day at the football game and tailgates, all talking at once.  We would catch bits of conversation, just a phrase or name or a laugh, but mostly the voices blended together into a hum above the scrape and scuffle of tables and chairs being moved and adjusted, the clink of heavy ceramic dishes and the tinkle of silverware, and the bangs and shouts and clatter from the kitchen.  And my girlfriend’s soft voice, quiet and pretty, separate from the noise . . . The coffee at The Diner never again tasted as good as it did during that autumn with Lori.

There were three winters that held the best Sunday morning coffee I’ve ever known.  Separately we’d stumble into the kitchen, my girlfriend, her son, her mother, and me, and with the appearance of each new face we’d contest who had the morning’s worst bed-head hair.  We’d have bacon and cheese and tomato on English muffins, eggs scrambled with scallions, and breakfast sweetcakes, and we’d lounge around in sweat pants and wool sweaters and thick socks, reading the Sunday paper and recounting the week’s adventures.  Her sister had taken to driving 45 minutes to be there for coffee, and almost every week her ex-neighbor and long-time friend joined us, once even driving over in her houserobe and slippers.  Occasionally her other son or some of the boys’ friends would show up, and they’d trade young men’s stories of wild Saturday nights, entertaining us all.  On those bleak winter mornings when no one wants to bother going anywhere, still people would come to Suzanne’s kitchen, and Sunday morning coffee often lasted way past noon.

Those three winters with her have also borne a new tradition: Christmas coffee.  Ethiopian Sidamo, New Guinea Peaberry, Sulawesi . . . Shopping for it, lingering among the bins of fresh gourmet beans, has become my duty and, for me, another sign that the holiday season is at its peak, just like the sight of nearly empty Christmas tree lots.  Christmas morning we’d know that we had special coffee, but still everyone tore off the wrapping to discover the flavors.  Three generations lounging together under the Christmas tree, losing our coffee mugs under discarded wrapping paper, admiring each others’ gifts and playing with ridiculous toys, pushing the overly affectionate and easily distracted dog toward any other family member, lying on the floor near the fireplace and wanting nothing ever to change: now that’s Christmas.

We do lazy mornings in the summertime, too.  There are those easy mornings out on the shaded deck, reading the newspaper and with a bare foot mindlessly rubbing the dog’s belly, glancing up at the blue sky and having just one more cup before going in to the office . . . And there are those mornings when I’m the first to awaken on family vacation at the beach house, especially that first morning there, that first morning I wake up free of my normal work routine: while I wait for everyone else I sit outside with a cup of coffee, just damn glad to be there and not in a hurry to do anything, the sun warm on my cheek, the ocean sparkling in my eyes, the cries of gulls and the smell of sand, all of it sifting memories into my morning’s slow thoughts . . .

You have to drink coffee for a couple of years before it wets that certain part of your tongue and warms that certain part of your belly, and then you start finding many cups that taste especially good.  There’s the coffee had after a truly exhausted and refreshing sleep, and there’s the cup poured for you as you return from driving barefoot and un-showered to fetch donuts on a hot Saturday morning.  There’s the precious mud had with a hangover, when you sit thoughtless and stare into your mug at the shiny reflections from the oil of the coffee beans.  There’s the coffee used to kill time between job interviews, and there are those endless cups in the middle of a day when you just don’t want to go home or do anything but let your life roll around in your head.  There is, of course, that wonderful cup lingered over after a good dinner when you want an excuse not to get up and leave your favorite restaurant.  There’s the roadie cup as you commute to work on a cold and oppressively gray morning, and there are those delicious cups – preciously limited in a lifetime – poured from a Thermos as you drive alone across several states straight through an empty winter night for the sake of young love.

The best coffee ever?  I don’t know . . . it might be the cup I’ll have as I watch the face of a friend as she reads what I’ve written here.  We’ll see; the best coffee can’t be brewed, only poured.

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Little Nudges

H DeeDee and Unckie Monkey

When my niece was about 2 ½ years old she had her first tricycle, a little colorful plastic thing.  Her little legs could push the petals, but she had a hard time getting it started.  To help, we’d position her pointing down any slight grade on the sidewalk or in the quiet parking lot.  On the level or when going up the slight grade, to get her started I’d put my foot on the back of her trike and gently give her just enough of a push to get her going.  It worked a few times, until she noticed what I was doing.  She didn’t like it: she’d reach around to push away at my foot and say, “Me do it!  Me do it!”

Well, you know that saying about how having kids allows you to relive your childhood?  It doesn’t mean that you get to play with toys again.  It means you get an adult perspective on your own childhood years.  Getting caught trying to surreptitiously help my 2 ½ year old niece get her tricycle started made me wonder how many times my parents gave me unseen, loving nudges to help me grow into adulthood . . .

My niece will never remember that one summer evening on the tricycle, but someday, when some child in her life tells her, “Me do it!  Me do it!” she just might suspect that likewise there were many similar moments in her own childhood, many unnoticed moments of love and nurturing that were, at the time, way beyond her understanding.  Maybe this is why when we have children, or when we help raise our loved one’s children, we get closer to our parents.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.  Thanks for everything.

The Last Smoke

(This piece is an old one from years ago, one of several I’ll be resurrecting here.)

01-05-17-cigarette-burning From FDNY new york 600w

My thirtieth birthday was what I call a marker day, a day declared to mark the end of my smoking.  It did, too.  Then, two years later, I thought I’d treat myself to just one hit, or maybe just a couple of drags . . . and before I knew it I was in search of another marker day.

I’ve had a number of them over the past 15 years, but before, they’ve always worked like magic.  At will, I could quit for years at a time.  This year, though, I ran through my marker days like . . . well, like cigarettes outside a courtroom.

A summer’s night, a grilled steak and red, red wine, and loving company quietly sharing easy conversation and slow cigarettes: no doubt about it, a smoke can taste good and feel satisfying.  Yes indeed, a good smoke is one of the pleasures of this world.  Tobacco, however, is one of those funny little things we call a luxury, a treat, a reward for a tough day or tough times, when in reality it is a way of insulting, punishing, and destroying ourselves.

So, after a year of smoking more than I ever had before, I declared my thirty-third birthday to be my final marking day, forever.  For weeks I kept building it up in my mind, probably so I would embarrass the man in the mirror if I didn’t adhere to my declaration.  More than once during that month, as I lit up I would hear myself thinking, “I can’t wait until I don’t have to do this anymore.”

My birthday arrived, and at bedtime I turned to that single cigarette I had saved especially for the occasion.  The Last Smoke, The Lone Smoke.  I turned off the TV, turned off all the lights except the lamp above the stove.  I sat at the breakfast counter, just me and my enemy.  I breathed in and breathed out, blowing smoke rings inside smoke rings, and I carefully tapped the ashes.  As a farewell, I tried to reflect on all the good memories I associate with smoking, and I tried to remember all the reasons why I wanted to quit.  At the end, I took two deep breaths and then one long, final drag.  For the last time ever, I sent the smoke up and away in a stream that pushed through itself and unfurled and hung in the air until it ghosted away into the shadows.  Then, I went to bed.  It was over.

It is never over.  After just a week, I decided that since I was doing so well I’d treat myself to just one more cig.  After a few days of no nicotine, those “one, last smoke’s” never, ever taste as good as you imagine they will.  Never, ever.  Write that down.  If you have one, though, you will have another, and damn if that second or maybe third smoke doesn’t taste better than any cigarette you’ve ever had in your life!

So, I spent October, November, and December claiming and disclaiming marker days.  The Hempfield Service Plaza on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, the last stop before my hometown, developed sentimental value: I was “quitting” there with almost every trip home, which during those days was nearly every weekend.  There were some good starts, though, like Thanksgiving.  I didn’t smoke for four days, which is over the hump, but I returned to my condo and spotted the two “last cigarettes” I had left in the crystal candy dish.  New Year’s Day was more than adequately symbolic, but January 2nd was just another day to smoke away.  My favorite attempt was the time my girlfriend and I were returning from visiting my mother.  Maybe an hour into the five-hour trip, she decided she also would quit, and she would do it right then, at that moment.  As I listened to her familiar speeches, I lit two cigarettes, and with a delayed smile to match hers, handed one to her.  The rest of the trip we held a laugh-filled smoke-a-thon, trying to make ourselves literally sick of nicotine.  All we succeeded in doing was recreating the special effects of Cheech and Chong crawling out of a car pressurized with smoke.

One night, talking on the phone with my bed-ridden mother and noticing my overflowing ashtray, I realized I would not be able to quit smoking until I got bored with it all, until it was not enough fun for all the trouble it caused.  I had to outgrow it.  Although powerful, the biochemical addiction wasn’t the hard half to overcome; the psychological component was the tenacious part.  It was near then that I quit assigning myself the flimsy marker days.  Like nicknames, they can’t be forced to last, only recognized when occurred.

I think I’ve made it, too.  I’ve heard a habit isn’t a habit until you’ve had it for a month, so I’m over the line now.  Occasionally I think of smoking, but I remind myself of how I felt with my last smoke on a day that begged to be considered the ultimate and final marking day in my life.  That morning my mother died of cancer, and that night, outside in the January cold and dark, standing alone and trying to enjoy a smoke, I felt kind of stupid.  It didn’t particularly feel like a last smoke, but I suspected it would be.  A last smoke is usually like most broken couples’ last truly tender kiss: it’s in the past long before it is recognized for what it was.

Diving the Tokai Maru

The Tokai Maru

I came across my old diving watch and offered it to my nephew, and when I told him via text I’ve had the watch 120 feet down in the ocean, he texted back, “Tell me more.” So here it is, the story of my first dive on the Tokai Maru, a WWII Japanese freighter sunk in Apra Harbor, Guam.

A lifetime ago, right after high school I was in the Navy and assigned to a stateside ship that soon had its homeport changed to Guam for the next two years. That was fine with me because I’d wanted to spend some time in the tropics: at age 15 reading Robin Lee Graham’s Dove had firmly seeded that desire. A few of my shipmate friends and I learned to scuba dive, and we had our choice of coral reefs and WWII wrecks. There was a relatively shallow dive on a Japanese Zero, an American tanker, and deep dives on the German WWI Cormoran and the Japanese WWII Tokai Maru. The Tokai was lying on her side, one rail at 110 feet and the other at 130.

Here’s the thing about deep water: every 30 feet or so is equivalent pressure to the average pressure of the atmosphere we live in, so when you go down 120 feet, you have four times the usual pressure pushing in on you everywhere. You don’t notice it much – it’s not like swimming in molasses – but your body processes are affected. I’m not going to talk about nitrogen absorption and all that, but I will point out that at 120 feet your lungs must hold four times the air as they usually do or they will be crushed. Luckily, four times the quantity doesn’t mean four times the volume: it’s pressurized. This allows a really neat trick. If you have to, absolutely have to, you can swim to the surface, slowly, with just the air in your lungs, exhaling the whole way. If you hold your breath, the air expands and will explode your lungs. You blow bubbles and let them rise just a little faster than you. The longer you’ve been deep the more likely a fast ascent will give you the bends, but once topside with help you have a chance to survive. Good to know, but don’t do it for fun, because it won’t be.

The plan for the dive was simple. It wasn’t all that smart, but it was simple. A friend of ours from the boat club would give us a ride out with an inflatable Zodiac, drop us off, and come back to get us – if his workload permitted. If not, we’d use our BC vests (buoyancy control) to stay on top and slowly kick our way in. This plan was more to my dive partner’s liking than mine, mainly because he was a former Marine and I was a 142 pound, 5’ 10” skinny shit with a 29” waist. I wasn’t going to let that stop me from having an adventure, though.

Back then, before the advent of GPS, to dive the Tokai first you have to get on top of her, which we did by going out on a boat, lining up distant landmarks to triangulate our position, and then going down to look for her. As we allowed ourselves to sink, to spot our target we’d slowly spin round and round. My timing with this on my first Tokai dive was perfect. I must have come within range of sight while my back was turned, because as I slowly spun around, all at once, ta-da, there she was! Well, not actually all at once, because it was an entire ship and the deep water was dark, but her working masts were jutting upwards, covered in 40 years of marine growth, some of it trailing in wispy strings, all of it looking a little spooky in a Flying Dutchman sort of way. It was great fun to come upon her in this way and not by her form just gradually taking shape out of the darkness. Since I was nearly weightless, suspended in endless dark water almost like an astronaut in space, it was easy to feel that the ship had come to me and not I to it.

Diving the wreck was interesting, of course, but not fascinating. There is the historical element, and the easy-to-imagine real drama of the sinking, but for the most part it is just iron decks and bulkheads, passageways and portals, and empty cargo holds. It is, however, much more fun to explore a ship that’s underwater because you, as a diver, easily move in three dimensions like a fish or a bird, and that sensation of free movement is enhanced when you’re in proximity of a large, stationary object. Underwater, you fly, not like a bird, but like Superman. Much, much slower, but ya, like Superman.

We carried battery lights, of course. They were bright enough only to guide the way but not fully illuminate the black interior compartments. Anything could be in there, from frightened fish hiding from sharks to freaky space aliens setting up a base of operations. The fish were few and no big deal, and the space aliens were only a tiny possibility, but the sharks . . . well, although not frequently encountered in the area, sightings were not altogether uncommon. Once, a friend of mine was about to come up over a bulkwark when from the other direction a large shark came over from the other side, near enough to reach out and touch.

I remembered my friend’s episode after realizing that I had been repeatedly clearing my mask not of snot but of blood from my nose. Apparently the four atmospheres of pressure on my sinuses popped a little leak. Natural light is filtered by the deep seawater, so with depth color disappears, but I could see that whatever I was leaking through my nose was dark, and snot is not dark. I motioned to my dive buddy that I was going up, he checked his watch and air guage, motioned a few minutes more, and waved me on my way. He was a more efficient swimmer and breather, so he almost always had more time under than the rest of our usual group. Diving alone is not recommended, but it is done.

I went up and waited awhile at the prescribed depth for decompression. And yes, once you start thinking about sharks hurtling at you from the vague veil of grey and black seawater, it’s hard to stop. I was probably in no real danger, and no, I was not panicking, but hell yes, I was ready to get out of the water. I continued to the surface.

The problem was, once topside, there was no boat. Our boatyard buddy wasn’t there. Well, I wanted out of the water. I spied a boat not too far off, and when I got close to it, discovered it was empty and tied with a long lead to a nav buoy (which is a no-no). Hmm. I climbed in. It probably belonged to another group of divers.

In a few minutes, my friend came up, and he joined me since our pick-up ride was so far a no-show. Eventually the other divers surfaced, and although they were surprised to find us in their boat, they gave us not only a ride in but also a cold beer. That, by the way, is the rule for all adventures: it is never, ever completely what you expect.

Here are some of my topside pics from 1979 and 80; the featured underwater pic up top is from the web.



A Book is Like a Boat and a Baby

Jack Poww and GO-Girl

While I was writing my second book (Jack Poww and GO-Girl), I sincerely believed I was doing it mainly for the project itself. I can write, I want to write because I enjoy writing, so I did write a book, regardless of what would become of it. I would create a book, release it into the world, and see what happens.

I was able to have this attitude because of the success of my first book, Napism (for people who take their naps “religiously”.) It sold and continues to sell, but, frankly, not nearly as much as I thought it would. Do a quick Google / Instagram / Facebook search on #nap, napping, etc., and you will find many thousands of nap-related memes, jokes, serious biomedical research, and so on, so I figured if I could get a sale for every one-hundredth or even one-thousandth of one percent of all those nap mentions, I’d do quite well. Despite good (international!) reviews of my book, the sales have not been the torrent I thought they might be. The reasons for this are, for the point I’m making here, irrelevant. What my experience with my first book did for me was to make real the idea that writing a book is one thing and its commercial success is quite another. For me, it is no longer a concept or theory: it is an internalized fact.

So, as I wrote Jack Poww and GO-Girl’s first adventure, although I certainly kept in mind to make it readable for others, I truly did write it for me. I had fun with it. I took it through several drafts and beta reads, and finally I pronounced it finished. I knew that if I let it sit for a few months and looked at it again, I would surely change a few words or scenes, but I pronounced it finished. I didn’t do this because I was tired of it: I did it because I happen to be a sailor, and I thoroughly know that if you don’t take your boat out until absolutely everything on it is in perfect condition, you will never get out on the water. So, just like my “good ol’ boat”, I felt the book was ready to be enjoyable out there flying in the wind.

Very soon after I clicked the final release button, I switched from thinking of the book as a boat to thinking of it as a baby. Why? Because when men and women are expecting a baby, mostly they’re thinking some version of “I just hope the baby’s okay. I just hope the baby’s generally healthy. I just hope the child will be reasonably happy.” But then, very soon after the baby’s born, the parents start wishing things like “I can’t wait until she laughs. I want to see her walk, and run, and dance. I want her to have lots of friends! I want her to have a great life!”

It’s the same with giving birth to a book. It goes quickly from “I’m creating this just because I can and it is what I want for me” to “Great God Almighty! I want a ba-zillion people to read it and like it!” Of course it would be a very good thing if the book earns even half a ba-zillion pennies, but that truly is totally separate from having strangers (with no reason to try to make you feel good about your work) let you know that your book is enjoyable. It is very much like when you have a child: for his own sake, you want him to do well and have many friends.

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