The Vanilla Latte

“One medium cappuccino, one medium vanilla latte!” the barista sings, sliding two cups towards me.

I step forward. Martin’s cappuccino has froth towering above the cup’s rim. Grabbing a lid, the barista expertly snaps it onto the cup, and a spray of milky foam squirts out through the drinking slot. The jet shoots into the air, then lands in a bubbly pool on the lid.

The barista grins, mopping up the excess foam with a towel. “I knew that would happen,” he says, gallantly wiping the lid.

I carefully snap the lid onto my vanilla latte without incident. No surprises, no squirting foam. I take a sip. Ah yes, such sweet goodness! I love vanilla lattes.

I carry the two cups to the truck, placing them gingerly into the cup holders between the front seats. I slide into the driver’s seat; Martin appears with thick sandwiches from Togo’s. We are starving after a day of hiking, and still have a long drive home.

Martin unwraps the sandwiches as I merge onto the freeway. Our golden retrievers Jasper and Eddy hear the crinkle of paper, sniff the air and rise from the back seat, watching the proceedings with great interest. Food? Is that food? That looks like food! Both dogs inch forward, jostling each other to place their front paws on the center console. They look back and forth at us, Jasper drooling copiously as we take big bites of thick sandwiches piled high with meat and cheese.

I always give them the last bite. When I am done, I offer a final morsel to each dog. Eddy accepts his politely and delicately, a perfect gentleman; Jasper practically removes a couple of my fingers as he snatches it from me, greedily swallowing it whole. My hand comes away wet with slobber.

I wipe it on my pant leg.

Reaching down, I pick up my vanilla latte and am surprised to see a foamy pool on its lid, like Martin’s in the coffee shop. Huh, that’s odd. Had the cup been jostled? What caused the coffee to be ejected through the drinking slot?

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Making Breadfruit-Cod Meatballs

I stared into the pot with disbelief. I was making meatballs, and it was not going well. Belatedly, I wondered if maybe I should have followed the recipe more precisely. My cavalier attitude towards cooking (read: my utter indifference to details like ingredients and measurements) could sometimes lead to, shall we say, disappointing results.

I really hoped this wasn’t one of those times.

It was Sunday in Samoa, which meant I was preparing for the weekly to’ona’i (toh-oh-NAH-ee), a post-church, potluck-style feast. Extended families and large social groups (which might include Peace Corps Volunteers like me) gathered to share and enjoy phenomenal food. Standard fare always included Samoan classics: breadfruit, a soft, fluffy, white starch, lighter and sweeter than potatoes; taro, a purplish-gray root vegetable, a starch much denser and heavier than potatoes; palusami, a velvety mixture of taro leaves and coconut cream, baked to perfection in a smoldering fire; and coco Samoa, sweet, rich Samoan hot chocolate. Raw fish; sweet and sour pork; fresh bananas, mangoes, papayas.

Everyone brought something; the food was always fantastic.

To avoid public humiliation given my unpredictable success with meals, I usually brought safe and unimaginative items like fresh bread (purchased that morning) or a package of cookies. But on this particular Sunday I was inspired. I would wow everyone! I would cook them real food. I would make breadfruit-cod meatballs!

The photo looked amazing, showing crisp, deep-brown orbs with a soft, moist interior. I was sure I could do it, if I just followed the recipe. My cooking would be talked about for days!

Here we go! Step one: Cook the breadfruit, then mash it into a paste.

Okay, I didn’t have any breadfruit. But that’s okay! I had taro. Way more solid than breadfruit, yes. But did it really matter? I doubted it. Starch is starch, totally interchangeable! So I boiled up the taro.

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In the Kitchen: A Recipe For Disaster

When I cook, I always use a recipe. Always!

The problem is, I rarely follow it.

I view a recipe as a helpful guide, a list of loosely-suggested food combinations accompanied by approximate quantities. Nothing is taken very seriously. I freely (Martin would say recklessly) substitute major ingredients, alter their amounts and cooking times, and change the order in which items are added. Every recipe seems to get modified, somewhere along the line.

Sometimes I do it because my way is just easier and faster. I mean, who wants to spend time boiling pasta, grating cheese, making a red sauce, cooking meat, meticulously layering everything in a dish, and then still have to bake it? That takes way too long! Throw it all into a pot, give the whole thing a stir, and call it done! Time to eat!

Success is, admittedly, varied. Not every recipe survives my careless measurements and sheer bravado.

Take cream puffs, for instance.

I was baffled when mine ended up the size, consistency, and flavor of hockey pucks. Throw one of my cream puffs, and you could reasonably be charged with assault with a deadly weapon. Rock hard and virtually indestructible, they would have made excellent patio pavers, had I made enough.

I couldn’t fathom my complete lack of success. I had followed the recipe exactly! Then I learned that apparently you can’t just eyeball the required amount of flour by shaking it straight out of the bag. You have to actually measure it. Who knew? Likewise, you can’t slash the number of eggs by over half in a misguided attempt at being “healthy,” a questionable endeavor in itself, given that I was making cream puffs.

Live and learn.

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Nurses Are Difficult Patients

I had a battle appointment with my doctor recently. His heart must sink when he realizes that I’m in his exam room. I don’t mean to be a problem, but … nurses are notoriously bad patients.

I’d had a cough for about a week, which had recently developed into a sore throat. It hurt way down in the front of my throat, at the larynx. And because I’ve had, in the past, a two-year battle with C. diff, I am extremely reluctant to take antibiotics. In fact, I’m generally reluctant to take any medications at all.

My head has to be splitting open before I swallow a Tylenol. It’s just how I am.

So I showed up in his office on a Thursday morning, complaining of a deep, persistent cough and raw sore throat. I fervently hoped he had his magic wand with him, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t like any of his suggestions.

Predictably, the conversation went like this:

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Dad’s Pristine Car

It was 3 AM when I heard it. The sound of screeching metal.

Screeching metal is not what you want to hear while camping. Especially when you’re borrowing your father’s pristine car.

I was nervous about using it at all. Martin and I were visiting California from North Carolina, and had intended to rent a car for our camping trip to the Eastern Sierra. But my dad, being wonderful, insisted we use his.

“Save your money!”  he had urged us. “Take mine!”

Martin was in graduate school; I was a secretary. Save money? That sounded good.

And yet… my dad’s car was always immaculate. He hand-washed and vacuumed it every Saturday morning. He waxed it twice a year, lovingly rubbing in the wax, polishing it to a high shine, and buffing every inch until it gleamed. The windows sparkled. The upholstery was spotless. Even the wheel wells were unsullied with oil or grit.

One did not eat or drink in the car. One did not leave trash in the car. One did not smudge its windows or bump the curb.

He understood we were going camping, right?

I was anxious. There would undoubtedly be dirt and pine needles inside by the end of the trip; of course we would wash and vacuum the car, but what if sap got onto the floor mats? What if the fuel bottle leaked in the trunk?

What if – God forbid! – the paint got scratched? Or the windshield chipped?

I would absolutely die, if my dad didn’t kill me first.

No, nothing even remotely approaching “screeching metal” had ever – in my wildest imagination, in my wildest fears – been considered. It was unthinkable.

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The Polling Site: My First Day

It was my first election as a poll worker and there I was, sitting next to this little old lady who had been a poll worker for years. Her job was to find the voter’s name and have them sign the roster. My job was to cross the person’s name off the secondary street index, and hand them their ballot.

So here comes a voter:

“May I have your name?” the old lady asks sweetly.

“Katherine Stanton,” the voter says.

“Huh?” the old lady says, cocking her head. “What was that? Sampson?” Her hands hover uncertainly over the roster.

Stanton,” the voter repeats, more loudly.

“Phantom?” the old lady asks incredulously. “Your last name is Phantom?”

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Poncho Likes the Good Stuff

Poncho had done it again.

My friend Carol had taken her two chocolate labs, Poncho and Lefty, on their daily river walk, and Poncho had pulled one of his classic disappearing acts near a campsite full of trash. He was slow to return when Carol called him; when he finally trotted up, he looked very smug.

Very pleased with himself.

Carol glared at him. Poncho had likely stolen some food from the campsite, which wasn’t polite. On the other hand, the guy was camping illegally and trashing up the place, so maybe it served him right to have his food eaten by a dog. Clean up your campsite!

Carol, Poncho and Lefty all happily swam in the river, chased tennis balls, romped around the beach, and returned home, tired and satisfied with their summer day.

But that night, Poncho became very subdued.

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An Unexpected Discovery

I was replacing the telephone after a conversation and inadvertently knocked the cradle off my nightstand, sending my cat scurrying away in alarm. The cradle landed behind the nightstand, in that awkward space where the A-frame roof comes down to meet the floor.

I peered behind the nightstand and saw a dark cylindrical piece lying next to the cradle. I scowled. Evidently I’d broken the thing, too. Damn.

I hauled up the telephone cradle using the cord, then peered again at that broken piece. I leaned over the nightstand, reaching. I could barely brush it with my fingertips. I leaned further, scrabbling at it. It rolled away. Weird, to have a round log-like piece like that… I wonder where it fit on the phone cradle?

I fumbled around, grabbing at it, knocking it this way and that. Finally, with an oomph, I really seized it. Got a nice firm grip, squeezed it tight. Gotcha! No more rolling away from me!

Huh, it didn’t feel like hard plastic. It felt more… soft. Sort of squishy, actually. And warm. Odd that it would be so warm behind the nightstand.

I withdrew the piece into the light and looked at it, whereupon I made an unexpected discovery.

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Whale Watching in Monterey

I was chaperoning a group of high school biology students on a four-day field trip to Monterey, California, with biology teacher extraordinaire, Mike Sherron.

We visited the incomparable Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the students conducted informational treasure hunts among multiple amazing exhibits. We learned about penguins, sharks, jellies, kelp forests, and more.

We hiked through Point Lobos State Reserve, viewing sea otters exuberantly pounding clams on their chests with rocks, then twisting and rolling in the water, grooming their luxurious fur. Seals and sea lions basked on rocks in the sun, the sea lions giving an occasional bark.

We stood in awe before enormous groves of eucalyptus trees, marveling at literally thousands of Monarch butterflies clinging to branches in thick orange fluttery clumps.

We picked our way among the rich tide-pools, discovering scurrying hermit crabs, flowerlike sea anemones, spiky sea urchins, and orange and purple sea stars.

And we spent one memorable morning whale-watching.

Which was how I found myself leaning against the boat’s railing, surveying the blue Pacific Ocean with binoculars, and continually being elbowed in the ribs.

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Puppy Antics

It was mid-morning. Martin was changing into his work clothes when he glimpsed our puppy Eddy emerging furtively from the room that contained the cat’s litter box.

Eddy froze near the top of the stairs. His guilty expression, firmly clamped mouth, and bulging cheeks said it all.

Bonanza! He’d scored a mouthful of cat poop.

We yell at him every time. He knows he’s not supposed to eat cat poop. But apparently it’s just too yummy to resist.

Martin and Eddy stared at each other for a long moment, motionless, sizing up the situation and their relative positions. Then they both sprang into action.

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I was in my backyard the other day, and the neighbor’s dog, a big blockheaded yellow lab, starting barking at me.

He learned to bark from my dogs. Before the neighbors had a dog, my dogs would bark at them as they collected blackberries along the back fence. I’d hear the wife hiss, “Shush! Quiet! Go away! Git!”

Not particularly friendly, but then again, my dogs were barking at her.

Then one day they came home with a puppy. We’d hear them: “Bubba, no! Bubba, stop! Bubba, sit! Bubba, come!”

Bubba? Seriously, they named their dog Bubba?

My apologies to all you Bubbas out there – you  are all undoubtedly great, smart people – but why would anyone name their dog Bubba?

It just seems…  disrespectful to the dog, somehow.

No offense intended, of course.

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Canine Vestibular Disease

There was something terribly wrong with my almost-13-year-old golden retriever, Holly. It happened suddenly, out of the blue:

Her symptoms were:

  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Nystagmus (eyes flickering back and forth) and rhythmic eyebrow twitching
  • Severe head tilt: One ear was pointing to the floor, the other ear was pointing to the ceiling
  • Apparent confusion/disorientation: She was looking around the room in an unfocused fashion, as if she didn’t know where she was or what was happening
  • Inability to walk or stand: She scrabbled around helplessly on the floor. When we lifted her, she lurched sideways, staggered, and fell against the wall. She had a no balance. Some dogs walk in circles.

It was very alarming.

Was this a stroke? An ominous neurological affliction?

No, these are classic signs of Canine Vestibular Disease, also down as Old Dog Vestibular Disease. It is a problem with the inner ear, causing dizziness, loss of balance, and nausea.

Basically, the dog feels seasick.

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My Mom: Best Mom Ever.

It was the night before flying to Samoa for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, and I was freaking out.

Freaking. Out.

I had started this ball rolling eight months earlier. I was a biology major in college, a senior, and wondering what I would do upon graduation. I wanted to travel, but didn’t have the money. I needed a job, but wanted to do something worthwhile. And all my likely career choices– teacher, vet, doctor, nurse– required more schooling, but I needed a break.

What job was available for a new graduate which was meaningful and worthwhile, yet included travel and adventure?

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Poncho: That Kind of Dog

The chocolate labs, Poncho and Lefty, frisked about, splashing through puddles and skidding through mud. My friend Carol was walking her dogs along the river’s upper trail in the pouring rain.

That’s right. I said pouring rain.

She’s that kind of dog owner. Totally wacko committed. What other kind of friend would I have?

Both dogs are both more than a little ball-crazy (I’m looking at you, Lefty!), lightning-fast brown blurs when they run, and unreservedly sweet. But Poncho, handsome doe-eyed Poncho, is the trouble-maker of the two. At home, Poncho is the one to get into the trash, chew a shoe, steal a sandwich. At the river, Poncho is the one to eat the horse poop, roll in the fish guts, stumble over a rattlesnake.

He’s just that kind of dog.

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I’m Always Hot, Baby. (Or: Oh No, More Hot Flashes.)

I was trying to listen, I really was. But it’s nearly impossible when you’re on fire.

On. Fire.

I was in an important meeting to discuss my little sister Becky, who has Down Syndrome, and her future welfare. I’d been anticipating this meeting for months. The social worker was talking about finances and trusts and legalities.

But my attention was dragged away when I felt the sudden spreading heat. “Oh no,” I thought. I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. The heat started, as usual, at my neck and spread like wildfire across my back and chest, through my core, over my whole body, radiating fire from my skin.


Women: You know what I’m talking about.

Men: Hello! Keep up. We’re talking about hot flashes.

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Defective Dangling Dongles

I am sitting in a charge nurse meeting at work, listening to the Information Technology (I.T.) guy explain why our computers are so slow.

“It turns out,” he says, “the trouble is with their dongles, so  – ”

My eyes pop open.

Dongles?”  I burst out involuntarily, incredulous. “Did you say dongles?

The I.T. guy misunderstands my reaction. “Yes,” he says earnestly. “Little antennas that plug into – ”

I’m not listening anymore. A whole new continent has just been discovered, a brand new world has opened up before me, ripe for exploring.

Computers have dongles!

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Avoid Bad Bounces

“Maybe this isn’t a very good idea,” I thought as I lowered myself slowly into the poison oak.

I must hasten to say that I did not jump out of bed that morning, thinking, “Woo hoo! Today’s the day I get to immerse myself in poison oak! Finally!

I’m not stupid.

Although…. That first sentence worries me, as it possibly argues  otherwise.

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Ding! Floral Department… 201…

I went to a mandatory fire training class at the hospital today.

At the beginning, the helper-lady-whoever-she-was was trying to turn down the lights, to dim the conference room enough to easily see the PowerPoint presentation, but not so much that we’d all fall asleep. She was trying to get it just right, and was jabbing at a bank of light-switches. So:

Down go the lights… too far.
Up come the lights… then…
Half the lights go off.
Up come the lights again, slowly, slowly…
And all the lights go off.

And I went from  mildly amused, to decidedly annoyed, to completely enraged in about 10 seconds.

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Three For the Price of One!

I’ve never been very good at clothes shopping.

I just don’t seem to have a sense as to which clothes are cute or stylish. I invariably find myself browsing happily through racks of coordinating polyester outfits, thinking, “These are cute!” – and then look up to find that I’m surrounded by blue-haired ladies, who think those coordinating polyester outfits look very fashionable, too.

It’s a little disturbing.

Martin tells me over and over: “When you enter a particular department, look around! If it’s full of blue-haired ladies, get out!” But I never seem to learn.

This isn’t even a recent problem, induced by hormone imbalance. It’s not that I’m nearing a certain age and my wacky hormones are urging me to go check out the Old Lady section. No, even when I was 20 years old, I was rushing to snatch the last pair of checkered pants with the elastic waistband away from the old lady with a cane.

She was hobbling as fast as she could, but I was young, and beat her to it.

I mean, come on. What’s wrong with me?

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