Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cup o' Joe

I'm pretty sure we were heading up to New York for cousin Betsy's wedding when the coffee drama unfolded.

I don't drink coffee. Having never acquired a taste for brown water that tastes like bitter, burnt beans, the whole coffee craze that overtakes most people when they graduate from adolescence to adulthood passed me by without a second glance.

And then there's the problem with it being hot. I'm already finagling with the thermostat to maintain a domestic climate as cold as humanly tolerable, so the last thing I need is to gulp down a mug of 110-degree toilet water that'll raise my core temperature and make me break out in a full-body flop sweat. Iced vanilla lattes are the closest I'll ever get, and that's only because they're 70 degrees colder than coffee and taste like super-sweetened vanilla. When I need a jolt of caffeine, I reach for a Diet Coke.

But on that day when we started our 10-hour drive to New York, I thought it would be a great idea to try and behave like other adults and carry along a mug of strong coffee. I had stopped at Breugger's Bagels a few days earlier and purchased their refillable travel mug, which seemed like a great deal at the time. As we passed through Raleigh, I declared it necessary to stop at Breugger's to pick up bagels to nosh and top off my fancy new Breugger's travel mug.

Breugger's idea of
a travel mug.
Two problems: (1) Regardless of how much I try to convince myself it is the drink of choice for discerning adults, and no matter how many packets of Equal and spoonfuls of flavored creamer I mix into it, I don't like coffee; and (2) Breugger's Bagels' idea of a travel mug was something only slightly smaller than a whiskey barrel with a handle. I knew the mug would pose a problem from the moment I bought it, but I had already paid for it and was stuck with the prospect of making it work, whether or not I believed it could.

With a full barrel of coffee and a couple bagels to go, we walked back to the car to head off on our trip. My Lovely Wife, for whatever reason, was holding the travel mug when she dropped herself into the front passenger seat. As she landed, coffee sloshed and splattered out of the small hole in the lid and sprayed all over her white jeans shorts. Vociferous disgruntlement ensued in the form of clearly stated declarations decrying the poor design of the travel mug and the nonsensical behavior of a coffee-hating person suddenly requiring a vat of hot coffee.

A good half hour was lost trying to figure out whether or not the shorts could be saved before we finally found ourselves toodling north along US1 in a very quiet -- some might say seething -- state. Because the gargantuan Breugger's travel mug did not fit in any of the cup holders, I decided to hide it out of site of My Lovely Wife on the floor between my feet, which was a great place for it when the car was not in a state of motion, but wasn't so great once my right foot had to wander off to work the pedals.

Less than a mile up the road, at one of the first stoplights to which we came, the stupidity of the situation hit me full force as the mug tipped over, leaned like a fallen tree against my left leg, and swiftly poured a torrent of hot coffee into my shoe. I quickly pulled into the nearest gas station, threw the car into park, bolted out of my seat, and unceremoniously chucked the mug in the nearest trash can.

Ever since then, I've stuck to Diet Coke. Not only doesn't it splatter willy nilly on white shorts, or turn my socks brown, or make My Lovely Wife cranky, I actually like it.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Memory Lane

Certain experiences call up distinct memories, transporting you instantly to a time and place long forgotten. Oddly enough, the doxology did that to me the other day.

For those of you unfamiliar with the doxology -- in this case the Gloria Patri, or lesser doxology -- it is a brief expression of praise to the Holy Trinity used in many traditional Protestant and Catholic services. Let loose with a hearty doxology around any random group of worshipping Christians and chances are they'll be able to hum the tune and possibly catch some of the words before you finish. You could even call it a drinking song if communion is being served.

Having grown up in a family of Methodists (we drank grape juice instead of wine), I sang the doxology every Sunday when I was a kid. So, it came as no surprise I didn't need to read the lyrics from the program the other morning when the doxology popped up in the Presbyterian service we were attending. Twenty-plus years of Methodist training took over and I bellowed the Gloria Patri to the best of my ability. Unlike the Lord's Prayer that changes slightly from church to church -- seriously, why can't everyone just use the word "trespasses?" -- the doxology was played exactly as I remembered it.

Instantly, I was taken back to the church of my youth. I could have been sitting next to my Mother, fighting for pew space with my brothers, our Dad leading the ushers in their weekly collection duties. Even the familiar aromas of the old church seemed to surround me.

The United Methodist Church of Hempstead, located on the corners of Washington Street and Front Street on Long Island, is a modestly majestic structure built in the 1800s and expanded over time. It has that old-timey feel to it that keeps you mindful of why you're there. My brothers and I whiled away many hours at the church as our parents attended meetings and served in various leadership roles. Once we were old enough we got involved, too, helping run flea markets, painting Sunday school rooms, and serving as waitstaff for fundraisers. We knew every nook and cranny of the old and new buildings and the various passages between them by the time we left for college.

It was easy to get lost in the beauty of the historic sanctuary. With seating for several hundred people in classic wood pews, it opens tall and wide when you enter through the swinging doors from the narthex. Towering stainglass windows line each of the side walls, my favorite of which depicts an angel speaking to the two Mary's outside Jesus' tomb. The muddled darkness of a grainy cellphone snapshot does no justice to the artistic rendering best viewed at sunrise service on Easter morning as the light pours through and illuminates every last detail of the story. The other seven windows also are lovely to behold, but they pale in comparison.

We typically sat near the back of the church, preferrably the back row, center section, on the left. From that vantage point you could watch the entire ceremony unfold and people-watch all of the other parishioners. You could easily spot which of the old ladies had a new hat, which couple had the prettiest daughter, and which family was kind enough to bring a baby at which to make faces during the service.

The front wall of the sanctuary held two massive banks of pipes our organist would employ to rumble the foundations of the building with the thundering voice of God, or maybe just Bach. Whichever you prefer, the effect was impressive. He literally would pull out all the stops, his hands and feet flying from key to key and pedal to pedal during the postlude. Many times I would remain in my pew and wait for the end of the mini concert. I suppose that organ is one of the reasons I prefer a traditional service to this day. Church simply doesn't feel like church without the dynamic range of a pipe organ rattling my dry bones.

I had the pleasure of revisiting the old church a couple months back when I traveled to New York on business. Rather than waste the lunch hour sitting in some fast food chain, I drove to Hempstead and wandered in through the main doors of the newer building near the small office. Immediately, I was eleven years old, fully expecting to see my Grandfather rounding the corner from the old social hall, his full head of hair slicked back and a broad smile stretching under his bulbous nose.

I'd like to say the old place hasn't changed, and in many ways it hasn't, but as I moved through the familiar spaces I could feel the age of the structure weighing it down. Cracking paint, water-damaged ceilings, worn out carpets, and a general lack of capital improvement could be spotted at almost every turn. And the building stands now like a box in the open, all of the beautiful shrubs and bushes that lined the outside walls long since torn out. I wouldn't say the building was being neglected, but it was easy to see the money wasn't there to sustain its former glory.

Even so, the nitpicker in me fell away the moment I entered the sanctuary. Yes, the carpet inside the main door is threadbare and paint is cracking off the walls, but you simply cannot deny the grand effect of the design of the worship hall. Just entering the room causes you to speak more quietly, tread more lightly, and approach with respect.

I found it difficult to keep a dry eye as I meandered up and down the aisles, recalling who regularly sat where, envisioning my Father putting up the hymn numbers for the next service, watching the little kids leave for Sunday school after having their moment with the minister before the sermon, standing near the altar railing for my brother's wedding, kneeling at the railing for countless communions, sitting at the front of the church with my Grandfather's casket on display in front of the altar as the minister's voice faltered during the funeral service... If not for work, I could have lingered for hours.

Perhaps some day the old church will be properly restored. Maybe an anonymous donation will fund improvements, or it will be declared an historical treasure and restored for future generations to enjoy as a living museum of religious art and architecture. Who knows? I'm just happy to see it's still there and know I can return to wander down memory lane if I'm ever feeling so inclined.

In the meantime, there's always the doxology.

© 2011 Mark Feggeler

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Storm Chasing

So, brother Tom is out storm chasing again, this time starting at Devil's Tower in Wyoming, just slightly northwest of prime Tornado Alley real estate.

Courtesy of Brother Tom.
My parents took us there some thirty-plus years ago when we drove cross country for a couple weeks. There were my parents, me, brother Tom, brother Steve, and sweet cousin Betsy hopping from one KOA campground to another in our Dodge Sportsman van and sleeping in our luxury Cox pop-up camper. Don't laugh. The thing had a sink and a stove and a table that converted into a bed. By 1970s standards, we were seeing the country in style! Parked in the shade under some tall pines it made the perfect safe haven from heat and bugs. Just don't touch the canvas when it's raining...

Although we didn't quite make it coast to coast, we sure hit enough of the major attractions along the way, Devil's Tower the least among them.

Actually, Devil's Tower was a bit of a disappointment. We were there not long after "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" showed us the happy side of extraterrestrial musical grooviness, and while I wasn't naive enough to think we'd see aliens, I was hoping for a light show or a themed gift stand. Maybe just a trained seal honking out those five memorabe notes on a rack of horns. After all, if it weren't for the movie, most of the country never would have heard of the place.

The entire trip was perfectly planned, and we spent just the right amount of time at each location to leave an indelible mark. I recall with great clarity the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone Park, riding on muleback along narrow ledges halfway down the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, admiring the reflected vista of the Grand Tetons in Jackson Lake, watching with excitement as a dark funnel cloud came rolling over us in Iowa, taking in the man made wonder of Mount Rushmore, and slicing my finger open with a pocket knife I begged my parents to let me buy.

Okay, that last one isn't the best memory, but it remains very clear in my mind. Just like the stop we made at Wisconsin Dells. You'd think we were there to admire the scenic beauty of the glacial gorge, but we really were there for the amusement parks and gocart tracks. The rides were simple, probably little better than your average county fair equipment, and I wanted to try every one.

One night at the campground in Wisconsin Dells, a bombastic lightning storm ripped through the area, rocking our Cox pop-up camper with slashing winds and scaring the bejeezus out of us all with every thundering boom, especially cousin Betsy. I suppose that's one difference between boys and girls. It's difficult for us to fully enjoy being in the middle of an electrical storm of biblical proportions when someone is screaming at the top of her lungs from fright during the entire show. Most boys are internally wired to run to the windows for a better view.

Maybe that's why brother Tom continues to return to Tornado Alley year after year. It isn't about tornadoes at all. He's searching for that perfect storm -- the lightning, the winds, the horizontal rains, the crashing thunder -- just like the one in Wisconsin Dells all those years ago so he can stand in the middle and take it all in without the distraction of a screaming girl.

© 2012 Mark Feggeler