Sunday, August 31, 2014

TJ Hooker and the Art of Relaxation



I’m working hard at relaxing.  As I reach the twilight of my youthful ‘40s, I seek those moments where my yesterdays and tomorrows are less important than my todays. Mental exercises, desk yoga, mild sedatives, pirate-type drinking, Frisbee on the quad, silent garage karate and deep naps on quiet Sunday afternoons have given me glimpses of an inner calm, but none lasts very long.  Counting to ten, quaint cups of herbal tea and reruns of TJ Hooker aren’t much help either, although that Bill Shatner is a heck of an actor.

I remain skeptical of the more extreme versions of the pursuit of peaceful self-awareness, like transcendental meditation, sensory deprivation tanks and Crosby, Stills and Nash music, but I need to try something.  A man can wiggle his feet, rearrange his sock drawer and check and recheck his Facebook only so many times before he asks, “What is this ‘relaxation’ you speak of, and how does one find it?”

It’s not easy being the unrelaxable type.  When you see a parade, I see mountains of tickertape that need vacuuming.  Enjoying a nice holiday meal?  The dishes!  Dear God, look at the pile of dishes.  I’m not sure where people actually “live in the moment,” and I’m missing my map to get myself there.

A friend, Margaret, tells me about a technique she’s tried, a relaxation method that helps with insomnia and anxiety, something that’s gained popularity recently.  She doesn’t offer much, other than it works for her.  She sends me a link with the description “ASMR Ear Nose and Throat Examination Role Play.” I click on it, but something’s not right.  I expect a lady in a leotard teaching me how to “breathe earnestly,” but instead, I’m confronted with a young woman’s face filling the entire screen, calling herself “Doctor Feather.”  Before I know what’s happening, she’s whispering and putting on rubber gloves, every sound she makes amplified and crackling in my ears.  This feels wrong, like the deep bass soundtrack’s about to start any moment, and I’ll find myself explaining my browser history to my internet provider.  I close out the window and step away.

I email Margaret back to make sure this is OK to watch.  She responds with, “You have to stop smirking and actually try and ‘get in the room’ with the practitioner. I recommend headphones.   I personally got pretty relaxed and smooth-feeling. That is very good, health-wise, to enjoy some of that every day.” I find headphones, an hour to myself and go back to Dr. Feather’s office for an appointment, suspending my disbelief.  Over the next hour, I listen and watch Dr. Feather check my ears, open Band-Aids, take my blood pressure and whisper things in my ears like, “Fonzie,” “Spock,” and “I’m going to occlude each nostril.”  Her movements are methodical, her words chosen carefully and her voice never above a whisper.
 
ASMR, or “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” is a relaxation therapy based on the idea that certain sounds can produce feelings of calm, reducing stress and anxiety.  The sounds are meant to give the viewer a “tingling” feeling, and as I dig more into what’s out there on the web for ASMR, “getting the tingles” is a steady theme.  Some define ASMR as, “deriving pleasure in your head through stimulus.”  I’m not sure Dr. Feather pretend-examining my hairy Hobbit-like ears is pleasure, but it’s not terrible either.

As I poke around online, I discover a galaxy of ASMR videos – thousands of them.  And these haven’t been watched a few dozen times – Dr. Heather’s ENT exam has almost half a million views, for example.  I look for the most popular ASMR videos and find a woman named Maria GentleWhispering who spends an hour fitting me for a custom suit, petting the fabrics, clicking the shirt buttons and softly clawing at a photo of a man in a suit with her lacquered nails.  Her voice is soothing, but I can’t let go of this lingering feeling that even though I’m not doing anything wrong, I don’t want my family walking in on me.  Good thing I locked the door.  It’s a sign I may never get over this sense that even though over 2 million people have tuned into to hear Maria play with fabric swatches, I’m not relaxing – even if my skull is tingling like mad and I fell asleep somewhere between the shoulder measurement and the button selection.

A day later I see another video from Ms. GentleWhispering that’s been viewed 6.5 million times – a short one intended to induce sleep.  That’s like the entire population of Indiana lulled into the Land of Nod by a blonde lady tapping her fingers on a hairbrush, saying things like, “I’ll help you drift away as long as you trust me.”

I watch a video of a man whispering almost inaudibly as he disassembles a computer mouse; in another, a man takes apart his laptop.  I find a popular ASMR practitioner named Whispers Red, a British woman with auburn hair, who appears to be heavily medicated and standing in front of a wicker basket filled with fake Easter grass.  She’s smiling in an off-putting way as she reaches into the plastic grass and pulls out a series of “tingly things.”  She’s grinning in such a way that I’m terrified at what she might pull out of her basket.

To validate whether my growing doubts are unfounded, I sit my daughter down for a few minutes of “Halo Hair Salon,” a video that almost 3 million people have viewed.  A red-headed young woman with giant white teeth tries to give us both a head massage in our kitchen.  “This makes me uncomfortable,” my daughter says.

“It’s not creepy!  It’s not like she’s nude or anything,” I say in response.

“There are things that aren’t nude that can still make me uncomfortable,” she announces as she sprints off.  Such comments are neither productive nor supportive, but she has a point.  There’s something about these ASMR videos that are having the opposite effect on me.  After six hours of listening, watching and doing my best to live in the moment – just me and strange ladies pretending to brush my hair and shave my face – I’m less relaxed, focused more on why this isn’t working and if I should be doing this than on giving in and letting go.  Watching these videos makes me feel like I’m two clicks away from comparing Greedo mask prices and planning my Brony weekend getaway with Glitter Gallop and Fancy Prance.

I’m no better at relaxing after my ASMR flirtation, but I see the appeal.  One man’s glass of warm milk is another man’s aural-induced mental massage.  I think my moment of bliss is somewhere in the middle.  I just need to keep looking.  TJ Hooker marathon anyone?

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cones, I've Had a Few, or "Come Climb Minty Mountain with Me!"


I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in my life.  Scoops, shakes, flurries, freezes, parfaits and sundaes – I’ve had ‘em all.  From Cherry Garcia to Quarterback Crunch, endless slices of Jubilee Rolls and arsenals of rocket pops, I’ve spent a good portion of my life consuming ice cream and frozen yogurt in all forms, including gelato and iced milk, even eating soy ice cream in a regrettable moment of existential doubt.  But I’ve never felt satisfied.  These bottomless bowls, these countless cones – all filled with flavors of someone else’s choosing.  When would it be my time?  When could I choose what I want?  When can I scream for my ice cream?


My time to scream is now.  Tom Arnold, owner of Arnie’s Place in Concord, has offered to make my ice cream dream come true.  “We’ll let you get your own flavor on the menu,” Tom tells me, “but you’re gonna have to work for it.”
 

I arrive on a humid Friday morning before 7 AM, and Tom meets me at the door, a tray of corn bread in one hand and a bin of potatoes in the other. He hands me a uniform shirt, and we get to work.  “I start the day behind and I go home behind,” Tom says as he pulls out trays of massive pork shoulders from the smoker, “but I love it.  It looks like work but isn’t.”  Based on how much I’m already sweating, this seems a lot like work, but I’ve got ice cream on my mind, so I do whatever Tom tells me.
 

Tom leads me to the counter where seven seasoned pork butts sit cooling.  “Hold on,” he says as he zooms off, returning with two cups.  “You really should do this job with a cold beer – it just seems right,” giving one to me.  Tom shows me how to pick apart the meat and toss the fat into the garbage, handing me piece after piece.  “Eat it!  Pretty amazing, huh?” he asks rhetorically.  The meat is hot, tender and delicious.  “We smoke about sixty pounds every night for the next day.  I like to call this ‘Morning Magic.’”

 I can see why.  Pulling pounds of smoked pork apart, sharing a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon and chatting about the mysteries of women all before 8 AM could become a lifestyle choice – perhaps not one leading to a career in politics or the priesthood, but a worthy one for sure.


I ask Tom how he learned how to do this.  He responds with Zen-like pragmatism, “We know how not to do it – we’re still trying to learn how to do it.”  There’s no time to ponder as the morning shift arrives.  What’s clear moments into the team’s arrival is how much its members like working here.  I start seasoning tomorrow’s pork, rubbing Tom’s secret spice into every raw crevice I can find, and MacKenzie Dalrymple explains she’s being working here for seven seasons.  “I started when I was sixteen – just for a little while.  But I kept coming back!” she says, running off to continue prepping.  Lindsey “Lou” Allsop, an EMT in training and a twelve-year veteran of Arnie’s Place, turns up the classic rock while Mark McManus gets his ice cream machine ready for the morning’s production.  Tom never stops moving, explaining the ins and outs of this business to me while reminding his staff about tasks, chiding Mark for his less than punctual arrival.
 

Over the next two hours I mop the dining room floor, pound chicken breasts, hoist umbrellas, fill registers, cut cornbread and make dish after dish of Kahlua Fudge sauce.  This doesn’t feel like work – everyone’s busy, smiling, cracking jokes and getting ready for the day, the first customers expected soon.  MacKenzie lets me pick the day’s special (Pulled Pork and Hot Sausage with onion rings, baked beans and corn bread - $9.75 plus tax) and shows me how to make ice cream cakes.  Missy Tucker arrives.  She’s been working at Arnie’s Place since Clinton’s second term, and although she’s not on the schedule today, she’s come to say hello.  Missy’s one of the three current or former Arnie’s Place employees who’ve been married by Tom, here at the restaurant.  “I submitted the Justice of the Peace paperwork for him before even asking.  I knew he’d do it.”  Pulled pork and marriage?  What can Tom not do?  A few minutes later, as she washes dishes, Lou explains why she’s back after a long hiatus.  “It’s Tom –he’s like a second father to a lot of us.”


Before we start on my ice cream plan, MacKenzie needs potato salad.  She pulls out a huge steel bowl, and I cut up onions and celery stalks, adding in pounds of boiled red potatoes.  I don gloves as I toss cups of heavy duty mayonnaise into the bowl.  Mixing this around feels so good I should probably be doing it in a candle-lit room with Roxy Music playing in the background.  Tom interrupts my interlude.  “Go easy on the celery salt,” he reminds me.  Tom tastes it and approves.
 

It’s 11 AM, and I’ve already had a beer, half a pound of barbeque, fistfuls of Heath Bars, two generous cups of potato salad and about twenty tastes of everything  from Almond Butter Crunch to White Chocolate.  Is this heaven?  Tom appears and leads me to the soft serve machine, showing me how to pull the lever ever so gently, coaxing the swirled treat down onto the cone.   I try it myself and make a mess, the soft serve uncoiling all over the cone and my hands.  This looks like what a potty-training Smurf might leave on the carpet. 


“It’s not what it looks like – it’s what it tastes like!” Tom reminds me as I take a huge bite of my folly.  Ally Chase sees me flailing and demonstrates the right way, her wrist moving casually as she creates a massive vanilla tower.  Tim Rapp, Arnie’s manager, arrives and shows me his technique.  “You have to move with the flow – don’t hesitate,” he says.  A perfect swirls rest atop his cone, and I make a mental note to steer clear of this part of the operation.
 

I’ve spent the better part of a week thinking through ice cream flavor combinations.  If sunscreen tasted as good as it smells, I’d use it, but “SPF 30 Vanilla” sounds mildly toxic, so that won’t work.  Maybe something truly New England, like a “Moxie Crunch?”  As there are only nineteen people in the entire region (fifteen of whom live in Bangor, Maine) who’ve ever finished a can of Moxie, I need to think bigger.  How about “The Elvis,” a peanut butter and banana offering?  Remembering where Elvis died makes me think otherwise.  Or rum raisin and ginger (“Dark and Stormy”) or a coffee, caramel and peanut brittle scoop?  I’m not sure “Decadent Diabetes Coffee Surprise” would meet basic dietary standards of decency.
 

Tom, Mark and I confer and come up with a white base with a chocolate fudge swirl surrounded by heaps of Andes Mint candy pieces.  As Lou cranks the classic rock and laments the fact her Zeppelin IV CD just broke, the idea hits me.  “Let’s call it ‘Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop!’”  Mark, Tom and Lou agree, and a new era in ice cream begins, my dream no longer deferred.


I measure the peppermint and mint flavoring as Mark pours bags of 14% buttermilk liquid into the ice cream machine.  As the liquid churns, Mark hands me the Andes candy, and I pour them in, followed by the fudge ”variegate,” a fancy word that means “sugary goo,” as in, “I think this marshmallow variegate will pair nicely with the butter brickle pieces.  If my dentist calls, tell him you haven’t seen me.”


We make five huge tubs of Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop and put them in the deep freeze, where they’ll harden for a day or two.  After an afternoon break, I return, ready for the evening ice cream rush with Delaney Poirier as my guide.  “This is a kiddie cup, that’s a regular and this one’s a large,” she says, pointing and rushing off to take an order.  The pace behind the counter is frenetic – Delaney takes orders at one window while Tim tells Lindsey Stevenson to get more Cake Batter from the ice cream walk-in; meanwhile Paul Lovely takes more orders as I try to blend in and pretend to have a clue.  I help Delaney, scooping mounds of Peanut Butter Chip, Mint Oreo and Walnut Fudge into cups and cones, adding sprinkles as instructed.  I avoid eye contact with the soft serve machine, its silent gaze mocking me with its stainless steel soul of frozen semi-dairy goodness.
 

“Tim, can you take care of the vanilla soft serve, kiddie size, on a cone?” Delaney says, less of a question than an order.  She chuckles a little bit, knowing this won’t end well.


In the quiet woods of Japan, hours outside Tokyo, there live six-inch long venomous hornets that smell fear just before they attack.  This soft serve machine is the Giant Japanese Hornet of Arnie’s Place – it senses my fear as I venture forth, cone in hand. Delaney and Paul give patient instruction over my shoulder, but I’m too quick on the lever and the contents pour out with abandon.  I try again, my shoulders and elbow tense and stiff.  Again, more modern art than kiddie cone.  I try one last time and achieve relative success, my cone looking like one in the parking lot of a Driver’s Ed extra help class.  After I apply a generous coating of rainbow sprinkles, the child at the window only has hope in her eyes as I hand her the cone.  If she only knew.


The lines grow outside for ice cream and food, and as Tim directs traffic, the team hustling back and forth, I give up on the soft serve and stick to the hard stuff, getting scoop after scoop of one of the fifty or so flavors Arnie’s Place offers.  Meanwhile my Minty Mountain Hop continues to turn into real ice cream, soon to join the ranks of Arnie’s homemade ice cream, at least for a little while.  Earlier Tom told me, “I’m the luckiest guy in the world.”  As I finally call it a day, the parking lot full, Tom’s loyal employees racing around serving customers as oldies music blares on the speakers, I agree.  But I’d gladly take second place.  I’ve got Tim’s Minty Mountain Hop to prove it.  Dreams do come true, but they just take a little bit of hard work, and maybe a little screaming.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

College Bound


I’d like to share some advice with you about that annual rite for all college-bound high school seniors - the College Readiness Application Process, or “CRAP.”  As a proud father of a high school senior, I’ve just spent twelve months in this process, and I hope you’ll learn from my journey as you contemplate your child’s life after high school.  My four-point plan is filled with nuggets of insight sure to make your experience as rewarding as mine.

Step 1: The List
You’ll quickly learn this quest starts with a solid list - everyone loves a good list.  Friends, strangers and family members will stop at nothing to find out about your list of schools, share theirs and ponder other people’s.  “What’s his list like? All private, I bet.”  “How many schools are on your list because eleven’s not enough.”  “Did she really add that to her list?  With those grades?”  Accept the fact that everyone else’s list is more balanced (“She has nine below the Mason-Dixon and nine above!”), more realistic (“Commuter Clown College of Topeka is his second choice, just after the Sorbonne”), and more enlightened (“Their STEM-infused curriculum will encourage my child’s love of nano-technology and hands-on research with a great weight room and a Smoothie Bar!”).  List Envy becomes a very real thing when you’re immersed in CRAP.

Step 2:  The Mailings
Based on a few checked boxes and preliminary test scores, your child will receive endless amounts of information.  For the next six months, you’ll see handfuls of pamphlets, packages, brochures and postcards arrive week, all with enthusiastic messages, like “Join Us!”  “Your Future Awaits!”  and, “Worcester’s Not That Bad!”  One college in Miami asserted, “Every day feels like summer on our campus,” with photos of students everywhere but the classroom, while a religious university in Langhorne, PA provided just four adjectives – “Authentic.  Wise.  Godly.  Professional,” with an action shot of what appeared to be a young woman getting a failing grade on her Deacon Duties quiz.  We learned abolitionists founded Bates College and that Skidmore College has an unlimited postal budget.  Its 30-page booklet extolled the virtues of Skidmore’s program in Samoa and Ho Chi Minh City with images of oddly handsome professors, lithe performers and sprightly athletes, and I wondered if we should skip college and just reserve a family vacation in Saratoga Springs now. 
 
We piled all the collateral in one big mound, and the mail continued.  SIU Carbondale admonished our son to apply early, Ave Maria University bragged about its “300 days of sunshine,” and St. Thomas Aquinas College shared just three simple words - “Best.  You.  Ever.” “This. Is. CRAP.” is the ideal internal response to such clever sales pitches.

Step 3:  The Visits           
Lists and mailings in hand, it’s time to head out for campus visits, those mid-week pilgrimages to schools too close for a flight and too far away to avoid the shouting match on the New York Thruway when the Andy Capp Hot Fries and Mountain Dew lead to air quality issues in the rented Altima’s back seat.  We chose the hottest days of the summer for Step 3 so we could experience this CRAP for all it was worth.  We saw school after school in the searing mid-Atlantic heat, each campus tour guide melding into a single sweaty, smiling, toothy, over-confident amalgam, answering such lofty questions as “Do you have WiFi on campus?,” “The laundry machines take quarters, right?” and “Where’s the library?” If you’re really smart, you’ll throw caution to the wind and visit schools whose offering are a mystery to you and your child.  On one visit, we joined scores of families for an overview from the Admissions office.  At the conclusion of the presentation, the speaker announced, “Anyone who wants to see the Engineering school, stand up and head this way!”  Everyone rose and ambled out, leaving only us and two other families to wonder when the Humanities golf cart would take us to the Grammar Lab. Oh CRAP indeed!

Step 4: The Payment Plan           
This process doesn’t end until you prepare to pay for college, the best part of the entire experience.  Your child will get in somewhere, and you’ll grasp that between the Best Yous Ever and the smiling religious flunkies in Langhorne, you never asked about cost.  Take my advice and start looking at the many scholarship opportunities that await you by the hundreds.  How about Italians with low incomes?  Or golf caddies with good grades in the greater Nashua area?  Kids with digestive impairments or ham radios?  Adopted children, future farmers, feminists or vegans, apply now!  Having the right profession increases your child’s chances for found money immensely.  If you work at the KFC drive-thru, at an A&W Burger stand, as a prison guard, for a US airline, a table grape field worker or an illegal alien in the greater Seattle-Tacoma area, your child can apply for and earn anywhere from $1000 to $5000 towards college.   

Arizona blacksmiths, sheep shearers, soldiers in the 4th Infantry Division or sufferers of Black Lung rejoice!  Wake your college-bound children from their mid-morning slumber and start applying!  Well-intentioned committees await your child’s application and essay – and in some cases, proof you’re not allergic to wool. 
 
Left-handed students and kids who love animals, duck calling, sober driving or Amish Furniture or who can write 500 words about the wonder of medical devices (“An Ode to My Uncle Ezra’s Corrective Sandals”), safe driving, intellectual property, gun ownership or the joy of The Bill of Rights can win cash money for their education.  There are even scholarships for a slavish devotion to Ayn Rand, duct tape, Jane Austin or Bruce Lee, which sounds like a set-up for a really filthy joke (“So Bruce Lee walks into Mansfield Park with a copy of The Fountainhead in one hand and a roll of electrical tape in the other . . . “).


Sadly, as I dove headlong into the scholarship hunt, I learned this piece of the process would go nowhere.  Suggest to my son he make a three-minute video about a love of math?  Explain he can win $250 to conduct “extensive primary and secondary research on a topic related to legislative reform”?  Earn $100 for the Cumberland Farms Believe and Achieve Scholarship by writing an essay?  Do they pay out in scratch-offs?  Blowing a hundred bucks on lottery tickets seems a more prudent strategy than begging him to wax poetic on the importance of a vibrant domestic transportation industry (“Sitting in traffic on 93 North was when I knew I wanted to go to college to major in hovercraft design . . . “)                  

My hopes for a hidden scholarship were flushed away with the reality of my son’s apparently generic attributes, but this four-step process really did work.  He’s into a great school, the mailings have tailed off and although we can’t afford college tuition, we can pay for it.  And if this CRAP taught me anything, it’s that college is worth every penny, even in Worcester –at least that’s what the brochures said.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goodbye to Big Words



Say goodbye to big words.  I just learned the puppet masters at the College Board (“Ruining Teen Dreams since 1901!”) determined the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test is just too hard for today’s youth.  Starting in 2016, high school juniors and seniors with designs on post-secondary education will take a simpler test that emphasizes words they’re more likely to see in real life.  Out are words like “dragoon,” “piebald” and “occlusion,” and in are more basic words like “friend,” “bunny” and “hug.”  No more will college-bound kids memorize words like, “peccadillo” and “parsimonious,” instead dedicating their time to more apt expressions like “Peanut M&M” and “Pringle.”

With this change, feel free to expunge memories of your favorite analogies.  “Obfuscation is to Eclipse as Perspicacity is to Acumen” is now replaced by more prudent word comparisons, such as, “Participation is to Trophy as Helicopter is to Parent.”

So much for the millions of us who’ve sweated out the vocab for decades – we believed them when they told us “palliate” and “adumbrate” would serve us well in life.  We listened, memorized and prayed for those words to show up one dismal Saturday morning in a gym where we’d slow-danced to “Freebird” the week before, wondering if our girlfriends knew we were as adumbrate as they come. 

I took an SAT prep course in the basement of the Roosevelt Field Mall on Long Island in the fall of 1984 with a man named Mr. Leverage.  He was partial to the math section, using catchy mnemonic tricks like, “Boo, boo, radical two.”  I still have no idea what he meant but deserve points for using the word “mnemonic.” 
 
I’ve made vocabulary an important part of my life and try working big words into everyday conversation, much to the chagrin of my less-erudite consorts.  For example, a friend tells a joke, and I’ll exclaim, “What a pithy maxim!” passing along the encomium with brio and delectation, relishing in our sagacious repartee. 

But no more - the era of big words is over, cast aside like mental detritus, and I’m not happy.  I wouldn’t mind creating an occlusion with a dragooned piebald bunny in the College Board’s executive washroom to manifest my disinclination at this calamitous development, but I won’t.  Instead, I propose we celebrate our big words on one final day, using as many as we can before setting them aside for posterity.  I proclaim this Wednesday to be “Big Words Wednesday,” a day to revel in the sublimity that is a robust and expansive vocabulary.
 
All you knackers, join hands with the coopers, fletchers, tanners and apiarists and shout your m├ętier to the welkin above on Wednesday, because come Thursday, you’ll all be known as “people who work with their hands.”  You fakirs, mendicants and supplicators, smile and plead for succor - by the end of the week, you’ll just be straight-up bums hassling drivers for loose change.  Take not umbrage with such assertions – surcease your harangue of my temerity as Big Word Wednesday approaches with precipitancy, for we have work to do.

Perhaps you should call in sick, instead why not gambol across a nearby heath in the tarn’s direction so that you might witness a glorious coruscation in the eventide firmament!  Do it soon - if you try it next weekend, you’ll be that dummy who skipped into the woods towards a big cold puddle and almost got hit by lightning.  Spend Wednesday sounding the tocsin for a surfeited lexicon,  for such vaingloriousness will end in a fat lip given by a freshman in high school thrilled that his SAT test will be as challenging as reading a Friendly’s menu.

I plan on spending Wednesday fighting the ennui of what the future brings, eschewing the more saturnine aspects of the world we’ll inhabit, refusing to wallow in mawkish desolation for long, instead accepting the reality that future family escutcheons  will be festooned with tiny images of TV remotes and Skittle colors instead of leather-bound books and woodland sprites.
 
Join me in waving the gonfalon for big words one last time, exclaiming their virtue from pinnacles far and near.  I, the cockalorum of Concord, will do my best to use as many big words as I can on Wednesday.  After that, I’ll instead just be that self-important little man who once knew a lot of fancy words that were a total waste of time.