Sunday, November 9, 2014

Democracy in Action

Feeling a little cynical these days?  Frustrated with your fellow citizens for choosing that bozo or reelecting such a nincompoop?  In the surge towards this year’s election, I’d been swimming in a sea of cynicism, drenched by negative ads and images that made me wonder if America’s Biggest Idiot was running against the World’s Greatest Liar in every race across the country.   Every two years I note the Facebook posts, watch the ads and read in the papers how my candidate is awesome while yours is not only terrible but also a fool and probably a cheater too.  And it feels like it’s always been this way.  In 1800, Thomas Jefferson accused John Adams of being a hermaphrodite while Adams labeled Jefferson an atheist, which in those days was like referring to someone as the cloven-hoofed Fallen Angel himself.  (“You’ve got man parts and lady parts!”  “Well, you’re the Devil!”  “Let’s be famous Americans!”)  Go figure.

Lately it’s felt like politics and elections are like a big bag of Doritos, promising things they can’t deliver (“real cheezy flavor!”) and ruining my health (disodium guanylate, anyone?).  The initial interaction is great – even inspiring.  That first chip is always a glorious moment when I think this is a new way of snacking – that all the Doritos in the past were nothing like this one special chip, the one I chose from this bag.  But midway through, that familiar, pedestrian taste returns, my belly feels uneasy, and I won’t dare put the bag down for fear that everyone’ll know I made a bad choice.  And of course, if these Doritos were from Connecticut or Louisiana, they’d go to jail for corruption and influence peddling, but that’s a story for another day.

I’ve found a way out of this cycle of self-inflicted misery.  I volunteered to help on Election Day in my local ward, convincing the Moderator, Dennis Thivierge, to let me join the ten or so elected officials and volunteers in Ward 7 for this year’s election.  Dennis invited me to be a Ballot Inspector, to sit at the front table as part of a two-person team checking in voters against the registration rolls, and I accepted immediately.

I arrive at 6 AM, an hour before the polls open, and the place is in full swing.  Sample ballots to post, tables to arrange, pencils to sharpen, rules to explain and re-explain, voter rolls to prep, machines to power on and ballots to stack.  Dennis swears me in with an oath that I may, “Under God, uphold the Constitution of the state of New Hampshire and of the United States.”  This feels kind of cool, like I’m part of something that matters.
A line’s forming outside as we race to get everything ready.  Dennis and Jim Fowler, Ward 7’s Election Clerk, show me the Accu-Vote, a laptop-type scanner that accepts the ballots and counts them as they fall into a huge locked bin beneath.  Dennis reminds us about the need to see a photo ID and what we can and can’t ask for.  As the clock strikes 7 AM, he announces in a loud voice, “The polls at Ward 7 are now officially open for business.”  And from that moment on, save for an odd ten minutes here and there, the line of voters doesn’t stop for twelve straight hours, voter after voter standing in line, waiting for his or her turn to have a say in our democracy.  The tone is friendly but official – John Hattan, Ward 7’s Supervisor of Clerks, reminds me I need to repeat each voter’s name aloud twice while also stating the address.  I follow a strict protocol about what pencils to use, how to mark someone’s name as registered and where to send them if they don’t have an ID or choose not to share one.  Every few minutes or so John or his colleague Margaret Gegas interrupts to add a new Ward 7 voter to the rolls – in red pencil only.

I’m paired with Jemi Broussard, a veteran of this ballot inspecting game, and I follow her lead.  Hour after hour, voter after voter, Jemi and I greet neighbors, strangers, friends and family members, asking them for IDs, confirming addresses and handing them ballots as they breeze past us to the curtained booths.   Jemi chats with people she knows while voters in line connect with each other, little kids goof around under and between their parents’ legs, and people catch up on each other’s lives.  “Did you hear Liz is getting married this summer?”  “Kevin’s at Fort Hood so he won’t be voting today!” “Still teaching piano lessons?”  “Where’d you get your firewood this year?”  A few voters roll their eyes at the request for photo ID, and one irate gentleman slams his license down on the table in disgust.  Moments later a woman waits for me to ask for her ID and proudly produces it, saying, “I’m happy to do it!  I think it’s a great idea.”

A parade of people comes to vote – teachers, tutors, cops, doctors, lawyers, and politicians waiting to choose their own names, presumably.  We see moms and dads, grandparents and grandkids, heavyset voters, skinny voters, voters with pierced ears, noses and lips, voters in their teens, 80’s and 90’s, voters who can’t see, can’t hear and can’t walk, followed by sweaty voters who stop mid-training run to cast their opinions – even voters who talk so much that we politely ask them to take their ballots and move along.  I see my wife’s brother-in-law, the local rabbi, the woman who walks her tiny dog past my house, my son’s Little League coach, and the guy who makes the best egg and cheese sandwich in town.  I see men and women who’ve served in the wars we’ve fought since 1940, including one man in a USS Midway cap who’s been voting here since 1961, his daughter helping him to the voting booth.  Every time a young adult casts a ballot, Jim shouts out, “We have a first time voter!” and invariably the entire place erupts in applause, smiles creasing everyone’s faces.  I even see and shake the hand of the son of one of the soldiers who raised the American flag on Iwo Jima.  What a way to spend a day!
The polls close at 7 PM as Dennis closes and locks the door, and we take a few hours or so checking our rolls and providing counts of party affiliation as Dennis and Jim run and re-run the Accu-Vote machine for the final Ward 7 tally.  At the back table, the others pour over the write-in ballots.  Although David Bowie, Megatron and Santa Claus seem like reasonable write-in choices for County Sheriff, such suggestions are neither practical nor particularly helpful.

On the short drive home it hits me – this is what makes democracy so special.  Not the wasted money on negative ads, not the tedious speeches filled with hollow hopes, not the vitriol, or the winner-take-all attitude.  Our democracy is about community, about taking one day out of the year to spend a few minutes with our neighbors to choose something, whether it’s hope, or the promise of a better tomorrow or a distant future, or out of fear, faith, speculation or security.  I spent fifteen hours surrounded by engaged people who suspended their cynicism for a little while and contributed to the democratic process.  So the least I can do is hold on to this optimism for a while.  I may never think of Doritos the same way again.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

All by Myself, or Empty Nesting Rules!

My children left home for school a few months ago.  My wife and I dropped our son off first, followed by our daughter a week later.  We hugged them both, reminded them to stay in touch and told them we loved them.  The confusion and sadness that overtook us on that second ride home was palpable and painful until about two minutes after we arrived at the house.  We walked in, looked around, high-fived each other and rejoiced in the words, “Empty Nest!”  You might view that jubilation as bad parenting or the height of selfishness, but I encourage you to climb back into your helicopter and finish your kid’s homework because we’re Empty Nesters and loving every minute of it!

Days into this new arrangement I realized every conversation I’ve had with an adult since can be described in one of two ways.  Either you’re the Sad Comforter or the Giggler.  Most are of the first stripe – they feel really bad about your sad, lonely house and assume you’re miserable, offering comments like, “Will you ever stop crying?” and “So how ARE you?  No really – how are you DOING with this?  Big changes . . .” as they stare off into a future landscape where their ungrateful offspring forget to call home on major birthdays and holy days of obligation.  The Gigglers, on the other hand, express interest in your new-found freedoms by adopting the persona of that kid you knew in middle school who was the only one who actually saw Porky’s.  “Wow!  I can’t even imagine that!” and, “What’s THAT like?” as they snort, chortle or let loose an outright guffaw.  “I mean, pretty awesome, right?  Har har har!”  When they stare off into the distance, I’m pretty sure skipped phone calls on Assumption Thursday are not what they’re thinking about.

When I reminded my younger brother he was talking to an Empty Nester, he asked, “Do you guys walk around in the nude drinking red wine all day?  And other stuff?”  Considering I only recently stopped wearing bathing trunks in the shower, I can confirm that no, we don’t saunter about our poorly heated home in our birthday suits; and I don’t know what he meant by “other stuff.”  Scrapbooking?  Malaysian Shadow Puppet lessons?  As for inquires about increased wine consumption, an Empty Nester needs his secrets, and such queries shall go unaddressed.
It’s true empty nesting comes with a twinge of melancholy.  On the first school day of September, as I sipped my coffee in the kitchen, I figured this was the first morning in almost eighteen years I hadn’t packed a lunch or snack of some sort.  That sadness dissipated by the time I had my second cup, recalling how each fall I’d start with the best nutritional intentions, packing a balanced mix of grains, dairy, protein, vegetables and sugar-free fluids for my cherubs.  By mid-November, it was a different story as I tried to pass off a can of 7UP, a slightly expired strawberry Go-Gurt, five loose Triscuits and the Special Dark candy bars left in the bottom of the Halloween bowl as not only a fun lunch but also a pragmatically creative and spontaneous one as well.

My favorite thing about empty nesting – after the deep, abiding love I feel for my children, the two greatest things in my life etc. etc. – is having the freedom to listen to my own music.  Now I choose the radio station in the car, and if I want to play my records, I’ll go right ahead and do it to my tuition check-writing heart’s content.   Side A of Rubber Soul and then flip to side 3 of London Calling?  Done.  Bob Dylan and Joe Jackson back to back?  Perfect.   Lately, I’ve had The Who’s double album, The Kids are Alright, on heavy rotation.  There are few moments more liberating as an empty nester than air guitar with Pete Townsend followed by an explosive air drum solo tribute to Keith Moon in all his white jump-suited hedonistic glory.  I wonder if I had children and then sent them away just to better appreciate my vinyl record collection.

A few Sundays ago, we visited a local orchard for cider and donuts, arriving as it opened.   Just then a minivan pulled in next to us, and parents emerged with toddlers in tow.  The adults didn’t say much but didn’t need to – their faces told their stories.  The dad wore a look of, “I’ve been up since 4, read nine picture books, changed three diapers, watched enough Doc McStuffins to scar me permanently, and I’m gonna hire that apple picker over there to babysit while I get some rest.”  His wife’s body language told a different story.  “Are you seriously talking about lattes versus cafĂ© au laits and how long your bike ride will be later today?  Take me with you.  Please, I beg you.”  We chose lattes, and our bike ride lasted over two hours, if you must know.  And we didn’t invite her to join us.

Keep in mind this Empty Nest thing isn’t all sleep-ins, espresso drinks and rock and roll.  If only there were an adage I could find in needlepoint, suitable for framing with the words, “Empty Nest, Full Pockets.”  Alas, no such maxim exists because the opposite is true.  Maybe I could instead coin the phrase, “Empty Nest, Full Glass!” but I’m sure there’d be objections.
For those of you out there dreading your time in the Empty Nest, fret not the loneliness but embrace it.  Your kids will relish the freedom, they’ll text you enough to make you feel loved (or at least noticed), and you’ll enjoy the fewer loads of laundry, the naps with impunity, the end to mandatory vegetables at dinner and the bag lunch-free mornings.  Take it from a recent convert - the kids really are alright, and so are the parents.  Now, about that red wine . . .

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Shaman of the Stick Shift

When I was little, I loved race cars.  I never missed a Memorial Day broadcast of the Indianapolis 500, heard Chris Economaki in my sleep and thought of Watkins Glen as a dream world where everyone drove Formula 1 cars to work, weaving their way through the streets at unsafe speeds.  I imagined a day I’d drive like Jackie Stewart, shifting gears, revving my engine and blasting down the road.  This dream died slowly, year after year, as the steady parade of family cars in our driveway mocked my hopes for something better.  There is no faster way to neuter a young man’s primal urge to go fast than teaching him to drive in an ‘82 Chevy Malibu wagon; I wanted to be Bo or Luke Duke and ended up more like Driving Miss Daisy.

Since earning my license, I’ve opted for safe cars with tame engines and great gas mileage, rejecting the idea that driving could be more than getting from A to B.  I’ve never learned to operate anything other than an automatic, owning cars where turning the key, pressing the gas and choosing either the Jefferson Starship or the Wang Chung CD were my only concerns.  This fact raises hackles in those who swear by the manual transmission.  “Any guy who can’t drive a stick shift is instantly unattractive to me,” a freckled female friend said to me in college.  Upon learning I couldn’t drive a standard, my sister exclaimed, “You don’t know how to drive a manual transmission?” uttered with the inflection of someone saying, “You don’t brush your teeth?”

But a man can change, and I found just the person to help me.  Like a prophet emerging from the smoke of a thousand screeching custom tires, a savior has arisen.  Carmine Tomas, a man who bleeds motor oil, a man who once burst into tears at the New York City Auto Show’s Ferrari booth, a man who drives fast, fancy cars with passion unmatched, offers to teach me the lost art of the manual transmission.
We agree to meet in an abandoned parking lot on the outskirts of town.  Carmine advises me to, “Wear thin-soled shoes to maximize your sense of the pedals.  No man clogs.”  His advice is unnecessary – if I know anything, it’s not to show up for male-type stuff in clogs.  But then again, the first car I bought was a Subaru station wagon, so he has a point.

Carmine arrives in a slick white 2012 VW Golf R with fancy tires, and we begin.  “Patience is the key,” he says as he points me to the passenger seat.  Like a shaman of the stick shift, Carmine preaches as he drives.   “I see this as a societal issue.  We live in an age of automation, where everything’s done for us.  Driving a car like this is one of the few ways to interact with something mechanical.  You’re about 15 to 20 years too late for this lesson because the manual transmission is disappearing.  We need to save the manuals!” he shouts, and for a moment I’m not sure he remembers I’m in the car.  I say nothing and watch his feet and hands as we zip through the parking lot.

This mystic of the manual transmission is like my spirit animal, but instead of a hawk or majestic elk, Carmine is my Spirit Dude, a man who drives loud cars, grows a thick mustache overnight and cooks a Chicken Marsala so tasty you’ll curse the mere existence of the Olive Garden as a blight upon humanity.  Brother Carmine continues.  “We’re a few years away from a driverless car,” he says with real contempt, looking genuinely forlorn at the thought of Americans completely disengaged from the road.  “Driving a manual car allows us to transcend the everyday experience.  And it’s really (adjective redacted) fun,” he says as he parks and hands me the key.

I get in the driver’s seat and Carmine instructs, explaining, “You’ll learn to feather the clutch,” and “Feel for those engagement points,” reminding me about the interplay between the pedals, telling me to “listen to the car.”  But feathers and listening skills mean as much as the resale value of a ’74 Pinto if I can’t get this car into first gear.  “You want to be as smooth as possible.  Give it some gas,” he says as we start moving.  Slowly but surely, with my Spirit Dude coaching me, I learn first gear into second, second into third, third into fourth.  The car responds to my movements, and we zoom around the empty spaces.

A bit later, Carmine points me to his secret race track, a quarter-mile straightaway far from any homes, a place where he’s been known to “exercise” his automobiles.  We head to this undisclosed section of an unnamed part of the state, and I drive that VW like I’m Steve McQueen in Le Mans.    First into second then to third and fourth and then, to both our surprises, I slide the gear into fifth, my feet and hands working together as the pistons fire.  I downshift into neutral as we reach the stop sign.  “And you haven’t stalled once!” Carmine exclaims.  Just then, my confidence overflows, and I stall the car.  Ten feet later I stall again, but Carmine mentors me back to success.
We’re off into traffic, taking three long loops through neighborhoods, my shifting getting smoother by the quarter mile.  I stall three more times trying to get the clutch-gas equation down as impatient drivers wait behind me, but on the whole, I nail it.

Minutes later we’re in Carmine’s garage as his sons stand watching.  “Mr. O’Shea did a great job.”  He turns to me and says, “I trust you – you could drive the kids anywhere in my car.”  The boys wince slightly and slowly back away unconvinced as Carmine leads me to a beautiful black car in his barn.  “This is a 1988 BMW M5 with a motorsport-derived, hand-built inline 6, custom wheels, lowered suspension, and tuned exhaust,” he says.  The only words I can conjure are “shiny,” “cool” and “boxy.” Carmine even talks prettier than I do. 
He takes the wheel, and we drive to the secret straightaway where he shows me what controlled powerful driving is really like.  My torso slams flat against the seat as Carmine shifts with deftness, the car’s engine responding, the tires hugging the pavement as we defy local speed ordinances.  He demonstrates something called “throttle blipping” as well as a maneuver where he uses his right foot on both the brake and gas at the same time.  “This is what we call ‘heel-toe’ driving,” he shouts above the engine’s sultry din.  “You blip the throttle so the revs will match where the car wants to be in second gear. You want to get the car to the limit of adhesion, so I do the heel-toe for smoothness.” I think he’s speaking in tongues, but like any decent convert, I sit, listen and nod. 
I’m rewarded with the keys, and I put my lessons into action, driving that car well enough to make Jackie Stewart’s tartan angel wings flutter in approval.  I cruise around the parking lot islands, shifting from gear to gear seamlessly.  For a few minutes I’m one with the car.  I don’t hear Carmine’s encouragement, just the engine and my body in sync, the memory of an ’82 automatic Malibu fading further and further in my memory.  I get it now, and Carmine’s right - we need to save the manuals.  Anyone want to buy an ’06 Volvo wagon?  I’ll throw in a Wang Chung CD for free.

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.