Thursday, August 20, 2009

Pineapple Apricot Horseradish

I don’t do the grocery shopping very often; my wife prefers to do it. This is because we do it differently. When I do the shopping, I go to one store, buy everything I need, and then I go home. When my wife does the shopping, she divides the groceries into categories and shops for them on different days and at different stores.

She buys dry goods at a bulk discount club once a month, meat and vegetables at the grocery store a couple of times a week, health and beauty aids at whichever drugstore is offering the best coupons. She waits for some items, such as coffee, to go on a 2-for-1 sale, and then buys several pounds and freezes it. I don’t know about you, but if I’m out of coffee, cost is not the issue.

This is all too much like work for me. Plus, my shopping trips are all pretty much the same. I buy staple foods like meat, bread and cheese, some frozen vegetables and a few paper products and cleaning supplies. That’s it. I’m in and out of there in half an hour.

The problem comes when my wife sends me to the grocery store. This is because I’m no longer shopping, I’m acting as her shopping proxy. I’m given a list of a few items, all familiar. But there’s always one strange, unknown item on the list. Something I’ve never heard of. Something that fits into no known food category. Something that I will be unable to find, and the store clerks will be unable to find, and the store manager will be unable to find. Something that might not even exist.

One time it was yeast. OK, I’ve heard of yeast. I know what it’s used for. But I don’t know how it’s packaged, or where it’s kept. And the high school kids who work at the grocery store have never heard of it, except that they know it’s a kind of infection.

Another time it was clam juice. I can’t remember what she wanted it for. Sometimes I suspect she doesn’t want it, she just wants to sit at home snickering at my frustration trying to find it. Before long, I had three store employees scouring the aisles for it. I was dumbfounded when, forty minutes later, the store manager found the clam juice in the section where they keep canned tuna.

This week, she sent me to the store for hamburger buns and hot sauce. I trotted out of the house, confident and relaxed. Halfway to the store, my cell phone rang.

“I need some Pineapple Apricot Horseradish,” she said, and I felt the air being sucked out of my lungs.

“There is no such thing,” I snarled. “You’re making it up.”

“No, really,” she insisted. “I’ve seen it there.”

I picked up the hamburger buns, and then asked the store manager for horseradish. He sent me to the Deli case. There were four or five different types of horseradish, but not what my wife wanted. Just by chance, I had to pass the Fish counter, and to my shock, I found another display of horseradish. Not the same horseradish from the Deli counter, this was a whole other array of products, but still not even close to my wife’s fantasy horseradish.

Throwing up my hands in defeat, I headed for the Condiments aisle, knowing I’d find the hot sauce easily. Incredibly, I found yet another display of horseradish, none of which matched the products from the Deli case or the Fish counter. And no, there was no Pineapple Apricot Horseradish.

Why does the supermarket keep the same product in three locations? How are people supposed to find what they want? The thing that bothers me the most about this is the distinct possibility that there’s yet another horseradish display somewhere else in the store, and the elusive Pineapple Apricot Horseradish is there. Maybe it’s in the Ice Cream freezer case, or tucked in next to the School Supplies.

The worst part of this entire experience is the certain knowledge that my wife will go to the supermarket next week and find it right away.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Pinkeye

On Friday night, I went to a Scottish pub with a group of coworkers. We sat for a couple of hours, noshing on appetizers and drinking beer. One of the items on the menu was a peculiar delicacy I’ve never seen before, called a “Scotch Egg.” It’s a peeled hard-boiled egg that is surrounded by ground sausage meat into a ball about 4 inches in diameter and then deep fried. It’s served by slicing it into wedges, like a melon.

I don’t know whether it was the Scotch Egg or the thick, bitter beer, but after about an hour, I started picking at my eye, which was producing unusual quantities of what I used to call “eye snot.”

By 11:00 that evening, my eyelid was swollen and inflamed, and my eye was practically drooling mucus. The next morning, it was glued shut. I was able to pry it open in the shower, but I didn’t like what I saw.

pinkeye


I knew right away it was conjunctivitis, also known as “pinkeye.” It’s a fairly common and highly contagious disease, usually infecting little kids who bring it home from day care. I’ve never had it in my life. So why am I getting it now?

After a visit to the doctor, I was given a prescription for antibiotic eye drops, which I have to put in my eye every 3 hours, when I’m awake. As it turns out I wasn’t awake very much on Saturday and Sunday, because the infections sucked the life out of me.

Apparently, it’s going to look like this for 2 weeks. The good news is that I can drink all the beer I want, because nobody will be able to tell by looking at my eyes.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Proof Proof

In the course of my many years embedded within corporate environments, I have had the opportunity to see a lot of clueless morons posing as professionals. Some professions are fairly immune to such problems, such as Engineering. Engineers all know within a few days who among them is pretending to be an engineer, because that person simply can’t do the work.

Other professions are more tolerant of this problem, because it takes a long time for the fakery to reveal itself to those who can do something about it. For example, middle management is an area where an idiot can survive for years, because all they have to do is contain costs. Run the department poorly but cheaply, and senior management will leave you alone. Eventually, the ineffective managers will be found out through employee attrition or customer complaints, and they’ll be promoted to get rid of them.

But as I’ve stated before, Marketing is where the phonies work. This is because you don’t have to actually prove that a course of action is the best course of action, you just have to claim that it is. You may need a pie chart or two to convince your senior management team, but that’s what interns are for. There may be good, professional people in Marketing, but there’s no way to know who they are. Marketing is to bullshit artists what the Catholic priesthood is to a pedophile.

I call this situation “proof proof.” In other words, the actions or policies of the individual can’t be proven false, invalid or inferior. Over time, they may be proven ineffective, but by that time, they will have been replaced by other “proof proof” actions or policies.

Lately, I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that another corporate department is being taken over by phonies, but it’s different kind of phony. A much scarier phony. The department is Human Resources, and it’s being taken over by Evangelical Phonies. They don’t want senior management to believe what they say, they want everybody to believe it.

The problem is that Human Resources has always been treated as the retarded stepchild by senior management. Human Resources doesn’t make money, they’re a cost center. Management needs Human Resources to handle things like sexual harassment complaints and employee benefits, but they don’t have to like it. And there's no way they're going to invite them to the offsite management meetings in Maui.

So they give them a budget and tell them not to call unless it’s an emergency. Giving them a budget was a huge mistake. They buy books on “management theory” or “self-actualization,” and they read them in between exit interviews. Worse, they believe what they read. These are books written by former Marketing phonies, intended to exploit the fact that many businesses are floundering and are grasping at straws. They are philosophical in nature, full of homilies and quotable truisms, designed to penetrate thick skulls and convince senior managers to invite the author to speak for $25,000.

This week, the Human Resources department at my company hosted Corporate Culture Training. I’m not quite willing to agree that culture can be taught, but the training wasn’t optional. Worse, we were required to read a horrible little book called “QBQ! The Question Behind the Question” by John G. Miller. The book is a quarter-inch thick, which barely qualifies as a book. The margins are broad, and the book is set in enormous type. Some of the chapters are only one paragraph long. I read it in 40 minutes. The theme is “Personal Responsibility” and the message is, “You can’t change anyone but yourself.”

So naturally, Human Resources tried to change us.

The head of Human Resources, a freakishly enthusiastic woman, hosted two sessions on consecutive days in a meeting room at a local hotel. She introduced the topic by telling us how she was going to show us five “magical” tools for managing our relationships “at work and at home.” This set my teeth on edge, because my relationships at home are none of her business.

There was the usual nonsense where we all had to introduce ourselves, even though we all know each other quite well. Then she presented the Human Resources Vision Statement, turning to make eye contact with everyone. Then she exclaimed how “wonderful and empowering” it was. This is it:

    “Create a solutions-oriented environment where people can be at their best.”
They must have worked on that for weeks.

Once she got rolling, she was cueing for approval and laughing at her own statements, engaged in a performance for which she expected applause. She used incredibly simplistic diagrams and lame concepts like “The Energy Circle” and “The Path of Life,” insisting that we write it all down, even though she gave us a folder with printouts of everything in it.

All of the material was presented in black-or-white scenarios, but as soon as someone pointed out circumstances where the lesson was counterproductive, she would backpedal and use words like “sometimes” or “on occasion,” grudgingly admitting to gray areas.

On the second day, she wanted to illustrate the concept of “dropping the ball,” a metaphor for failure, through the use of a metaphor – having us toss balls back and forth to one another.

Then, she assigned groups of five a topic, and gave us 10 minutes to prepare a skit to illustrate the topic. In other words, we were given a task for which we were unskilled, insufficient time to prepare, and guaranteed to fail. It was like watching prison theater - glum, confused, unwilling participants facing a glum, confused, unwilling audience.

Anyway, I left the training session with the following message: “Don’t blame others for failure, take action. If you fail, they’ll blame you.”

Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Berry So Nice, You Pick It Twice

Right about now, the state of Maine is groaning under the combined weight of the annual wild blueberry and raspberry crop, and of course, the trillions and trillions of mosquitoes. At least mosquitoes can fly, relieving some of the burden. But it’s up to us to pick those blueberries and raspberries to ensure that the state doesn’t snap off the continent and slide into the sea.

Unfortunately for us, evolution has gifted the lowly mosquito with one brilliant survival instinct. Instead of flying around randomly wasting precious energy looking for a source of warm blood, they wait patiently in blueberry and raspberry bushes, knowing full well that the blood will come to them.

To pick blueberries and raspberries, you have to get up very early in the morning. This is because it’s the coolest time of the day, when the mosquitoes are the most sluggish. This doesn’t mean that it’s actually cool, because even though it’s Maine, it’s still August. Maybe the temperature will be down around 65 – 70. So the mosquitoes are impaired, but not disabled.

Then, you must dress appropriately: long pants, closed shoes, high socks, and a hooded sweatshirt. Even in the cool of the morning, you sweat rivers in that getup from all the bending and stooping.

Finally, you have to cover the backs of your hands and your face in powerful insect repellant. Despite these precautions, black clouds of mosquitoes swarm around you, desperate for a taste of your precious bodily fluids.

There are two kinds of blueberry bushes: High Bush blueberries, and Low Bush blueberries. High Bush blueberry bushes produce a larger berry, and are easier to pick, so they’re grown in commercial blueberry operations. Maine is blessed with the other kind - the kind that grows about a foot off the ground, so you have to bend over for every damn berry. But it’s worth it. The Low Bush blueberries are much tastier.

blueberries


Unfortunately, there’s only one kind of raspberry bush – the kind with thorns. When you pick raspberries in Maine, you lose a lot of blood to the mosquitoes and the thorns.

raspberry_picking


We brought our freshly-picked berries back to the camp, where they had to be “picked.” It seems that sweaty, blood-deprived berry-pickers are careless, and the berry buckets wind up with lots of junk in them besides berries. So someone has to pick through the berries to remove leaves, twigs, unripe berries, mosquito corpses and wood ticks. Coincidentally, the person who volunteered for this task is a woman whose maiden name is Berry.

raspberries_blueberries


J* made a batch of fresh nutmeg scones the next day and everyone enjoyed them with a fresh berry topping.

scones


One evening, we decided to have a lobster dinner. Because lobsters are considered a luxury food item, the current economic situation has slashed demand. But the lobster fishermen are still bringing in lobsters, which means the supply hasn’t diminished at all. So the price of lobsters in Maine has dropped to $2.99 a pound, which means that they’re cheaper than hot dogs.

Here I am, sending one poor, undervalued crustacean to a horrible, unnatural fate.

cauldron


Soon, we had hot steamed lobsters, and we prepared to sit down for a delicious meal.

lobstah


D* and J* eat lobster pretty regularly, so J* has a lot of lobster-themed tableware, as you can see in this picture. I’d like you to pay particular attention to the butter-warmers at each table setting:

candle


Soon, we were all tearing lobsters limb-from-limb and having a wonderful time, although I’m sure the lobsters would disagree. The discard plate looked like some kind of lobster holocaust:

holocaust


We started clearing plates, and someone tossed their napkin onto the table carelessly. Within moments, one of the butter-warmers had set it ablaze. D* picked it up with a fork and doused it in the sink, where J* lamented its loss.

flaming_napkin


I love lobster, but blueberries don’t catch fire.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

No Pictures of Petroglyphs

After the incident with the bees, we drove to a location on the river just below the Williams Dam on the Kennebec River. The dam is quite a sight, with a small hydroelectric plant on the left side (as seen from downriver) and sluice gates on the right, with an old unused railroad trestle over the top.

dam


The river is especially high this year, so the sluices were dumping huge quantities of water into the rocky gorge below the dam. We walked up there at one point and watched, awestruck, at the millions of gallons of water tearing through the gorge. In this picture, we’re standing three feet from certain death. Those smiles are fake.

torrent1


At the put-in site, there’s a lot of old equipment lying along the banks, washed downriver, or left there by logging companies. This thing appears to be the front of an old boiler, but it reminded me of the entrance to some mysterious military installation.

lost


We had three canoes and two kayaks. Everybody had to cross the raging torrent to get to the other side, where there was a nice, calm passage behind an island. Normally this time of year, the passage is dry. I know this doesn’t look like much of a torrent, but to a bunch of weekend softies like us, the two-foot standing waves were intimidating. I should mention that it wasn’t intimidating to everyone, but I’ll talk about that shortly.

canoe_dam


Everyone made it across, and we enjoyed the thrust of the rushing current for the rest of the day, barely needing to paddle. Even better, there were no mosquitoes over the water.

canoe_downriver


canoe_relaxing


kayak


Even in calm water, canoes can be unstable, so I was uncomfortable when I saw people engaging in risky behavior, such as this moment when my wife and J* applied suntan lotion to one another while slipping downriver at a good clip.

lotion


It came as no surprise to me that someone got dumped into the river. But I was surprised when it turned out to be me.

D* pulled over to the bank to show us a large rock that was covered in petroglyphs. I’d like to show you pictures of the petroglyphs, but I can’t. As we maneuvered to the bank, we got caught in a sudden current and the canoe started to go over. I realized in an instant that I could bail out and keep the canoe upright, or we could both go in the water. So I bailed.

As I came up sputtering, I felt my face to see if I had lost my glasses. Thank God they were still there, because I hadn’t brought a spare pair. My wife said, “Maybe you should put your camera in the canoe.” And I realized I still had it around my neck. That’s why I don’t have any pictures of the petroglyphs.

The next day, D* and my wife decided to take the kayaks to the base of the dam and shoot the current. D* nosed out into the rushing water and immediately went upside-down. My wife paddled over to him and helped him to shore, so nobody was hurt. But D* lost his glasses in the adventure, and didn’t have a spare pair at the camp.

Because he’s nearly as blind as I am, one of our other friends and I drove him home that night, which cost me another day in Maine. But I got to have lunch with an old friend in Boston. That was nice, but it cost me $22 to park for an hour and a half. Lunch in Maine is a lot cheaper and parking is free.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Bees and the Keys

The primary objective of our trip to Maine was D* and J*’s annual canoe trip down the Kennebec river. So on Saturday morning, D* went outside and hooked up his vehicle to the canoe trailer, which was loaded with three inverted canoes. He took out a ring of keys and locked the hitch. Then he pulled the trailer out of the weedy undergrowth where it had been sitting since last year’s canoe trip.

canoe_hitch


He got out of the car to strap the canoes down for the trip upriver. Moments later, he came dashing into the house, breathless. “Bees!” he declared. There’s a beehive in the canoe!”

Sure enough, I was able to get close enough to take this picture of a perfect beehive, sitting snug and protected from the elements on the floor of one inverted canoe. A cloud of angry and confused bees swarmed around the area, unsure of the threat, but perfectly ready to sting anything that moved.

beehive


Thankfully, D* and I were dressed in hooded sweatshirts and long pants as mosquito protection, so the bees weren’t able to find any skin. We got away without being stung.

We hatched a plan to remove the nest. Near his camp was a long logging road that had been cut through the woods. It’s currently being used as part of the Maine trail system. We jumped into the car and took off, bouncing down the muddy unpaved trail, attempting to shake off the beehive.

At the end of the trail, D* got nervously down on his knees and discovered that the beehive was gone.

nervous


We drove back slowly, looking for the beehive, and found it about half a mile away. Not a bee in sight.

beehive3


Flush with our success, we returned in triumph to the camp. D* returned to his task of strapping the canoes down. When he was finished, he reached into his pocket and discovered that he couldn’t find the ring of keys that would unlock the hitch. They were gone, which meant he couldn’t remove the trailer from the hitch.

“Oh well, no problem,” he told me. “I can just remove the ball from the hitch mount, which will accomplish the same thing.” But his face darkened as he struggled to remember what he had done with the key ring in the excitement of the bee incident.

We loaded into the cars for the canoe trip, which was fun and exciting (more on that later), and returned to the camp for cold beer.

D* is one of those guys who can’t stop chewing on the edges of a problem. For a couple of hours, while everyone else was enjoying themselves, he wandered around aimlessly, checking the pockets of clothing, moving things from shelves, and returning again and again to the car. Even beer wouldn’t settle him down.

Finally, he approached me. “I think I know what happened,” he said. “I think I left the keys in the hitch lock and they fell out while we were trying to lose the beehive.”

“Uhh, we must have driven three miles trying to bounce that beehive loose. Do you really expect us to walk that distance – and back - through those mosquitoes?” I asked.

“Just to the end of the driveway,” he begged.

So we went outside into the swarm of hungry mosquitoes and started off on a brisk walk down his long, unpaved driveway. We agreed to scout the weedy edges first, and then the middle of the driveway on the return trip.

We found nothing on the way out. But on the way back, D* spotted the key ring, which had been broken (probably by being run over) and had only one key on it.

“This solves my problem!” he exclaimed. “The other keys aren’t important. But…”

“But what?” I asked, brushing mosquitoes off my eyelids. “The problem is solved, right? Let’s get back to the camp!”

“There was a bottle opener…” he mumbled.

“I’ll buy you another bottle opener! A really nice one!” I sputtered, anxious to sprint home.

“I mean, we should be able to find the rest of the keys if we can spot the bottle opener. Let’s just keep looking.”

With a sigh, I followed him a little further, which cost each of us another fluid ounce of blood, and then D* spotted the bottle opener – but no keys.

Ten feet farther along, I found the remaining keys. As it turns out, those were the keys he needed; he had misidentified the first key.

So it all turned out well, and we backed the canoe trailer into the weedy patch so a new generation of bees can enjoy a year of undisturbed honey production.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Problem With Hammocks

My friend D* bought a 200-year old post-and-beam barn, had it dismantled and shipped to his property, and rebuilt it. But he had a modern concrete foundation poured with an elaborate radiant heating system, and clad the exterior and roof in high-tech insulated panels. The place is tight as a drum, warm and cozy in the winter, cool and dry in the summer.

The interior was only partly finished on our last visit in 2007. They’ve made a lot of progress since then, but it’s still considered “rustic.” The neighborhood consists of sights like these:

ruined_barn


b_store


It’s very secluded and surrounded by thick woods. The back side of the barn overlooks this flower-strewn meadow. At the far end is a patch of wild blueberry bushes, which is in a life-and-death struggle with an equally wild patch of raspberry bushes.

meadow


The small cabin on the property has been turned into a sports equipment storage area, but still has room to sleep at least 5 people.

kayaks


Inside the barn, the views from the twin lofts are petty spectacular, although you still have to climb an aluminum ladder to get there:

loft_view2


loft_view3


J* spends a lot of time on the finishing details. They find furniture at yard sales or people give them things, so they don't spend a lot of money. Here’s J* painting a bookcase:

jody painting


She and D* have done a lot of work in the kitchen, which didn’t exist on our last visit. Here’s the gas oven and butcher block:

kitchen1


On the other side is what J* calls a “Hoosier Cupboard.”

hoosier_cubboard


D* bought a bunch of rock maple from a bowling alley and made this cool bowling alley countertop with a deep double soapstone sink. The bowling pin is a nice touch:

counter2


J* has peppered the place with little touches of “Down East” country d├ęcor, but I think this is my favorite.

weasel


They still have a lot of work to do, mostly finishing touches. D* has building materials scattered all over the place, like this old whitewashed barnboard.

barnboard


The whole time we were there, D* only asked me to help him with one thing – to move some skids he uses when launching his fishing boat.

fishing_boat


Due to the rainy summer, the Kennebec River is nearly overflowing its banks, and the skids were in danger of washing away. It was a sweaty outdoor task, and the mosquitoes gorged themselves on our blood. We returned to the house, soaked and exhausted.

Unfortunately, they hung this “anti-productivity” device in a corner, which was my undoing. After a couple of drinks, I flopped into it around 8:00 p.m. and at 1:00 a.m. everybody turned off the lights and went to bed. They just left me there, unconscious and oblivious.

hammock


The problem with hammocks is that they’re delightfully comfortable until they stop being comfortable. Then they become downright dangerous as you attempt to roll yourself onto your side.

I awoke in the pitch darkness, realizing instantly that I was on an unstable sleeping surface, but at the same time confused as to my exact whereabouts. I managed to get out of the hammock, but on the wrong side, where I spent a disorienting 5 minutes or so banging into furniture and door jambs until I smacked my face into the aluminum ladder leading to the loft. This noisy, painful moment had a side benefit: I now knew exactly where I was. Within a minute I found my way downstairs to the comfy, stable bed and my comfy, stable wife.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Maine Lining

In December of 2007, we were invited by our friends D* and J* to their camp in the woods of northern Maine. It was snowy and beautiful, and we had a great time. This year, they invited us for their annual canoe trip down the Kennebec River, which their property adjoins.

We flew up to Boston, stayed overnight, and then drove up to Maine. It’s very different in the summertime. We always stop at L.L. Bean in Freeport, to stretch our legs and marvel at the retail operation they run in that small New England town. L.L. Bean never closes, and their merchandise is extremely high quality. They sell everything for the outdoorsman, from boots and mittens to chocolate-covered cranberries.

In one section, there’s a tank full of trout with a bubble that kids can crawl into for an inverted fishbowl experience:

fishbowl


We took yet another photo at the big replica of the L.L. Bean signature gum boot. Here’s the photo from 2007 with me, my wife and my daughter.

bean_boot_07


And the one we took this year, with my wife, her friend S* and our friend D* who owns the camp:

bean_boot


Inside the store, the decoration seems a bit more macabre:

moose_skull


The good people of Freeport have taken great pains to ensure that the character of their quaint New England town isn’t spoiled by development. They’ve allowed McDonald’s to open a restaurant, but it doesn’t look like a McDonald’s:

mcds


The drive-through area has an intercom into which you may speak to give them your order, but they’re forbidden by ordinance from speaking back, to keep the noise down.

At the end of the four-hour drive from Boston, we arrived at the camp, which is located at the end of a thousand-foot driveway cut through the woods:

driveway


When D* and J* built the camp, they erected a small cabin to live in during the construction of the cavernous barn. Since our last visit, they’ve built this nice breezeway to connect the two buildings.

breezeway


D* is considering putting up screen panels around the breezeway. I strongly encourage him to do so, because summertime in Maine is very different from wintertime in Maine. Here’s why:

mosquito


It's been a rainy summer so far in New England, and the mosquito population in Maine has exploded. They were everywhere, clouds of them. I must have given three pints of blood during my stay.

The mosquitoes were relentless and creative. I had mosquito bites on my lips and eyebrows. When I blew my nose, I found a mosquito in the tissue. I learned to keep my mouth shut when I was outside. I wonder how they would taste if you covered them in chocolate?