This week’s newspaper column – Autumn, Coffee and … pumpkin spice

Note: If this seems familiar, it is. I jazzed up last week’s post for the newspaper this weekend.

Autumn is finally in the air.

The crisp mornings mean I can actually sit outside with a hot mug of coffee and watch our neighborhood come to life instead of retreating to the air-conditioned comfort of my home.

Simply put, coffee is much more satisfying when it’s cooler outside.

Fall is my favorite season. The coffee is better, the leaves put on a colorful show, football is back and baseball’s World Series is not far off.

I should be dancing a jig, but autumn arrived last week with little fanfare at my house. My wife didn’t mention it before leaving for work. Neither did our daughter as she got ready for school.

As for me, I didn’t remember the official change of seasons until I returned home from the morning rush to Facebook posts welcoming autumn as a long lost friend. There was even one of those fall-themed “listicles” that are so ubiquitous on the internet. This one promised to answer five questions about the autumnal equinox.

I clicked on it.

Among other things, the post explained why days don’t get noticeably shorter until now, even though we’ve been losing daylight since the summer solstice.

It was interesting.

And scientific.

But the answers weren’t necessarily what I was looking for. All I really wanted to know is when I could trade my cargo shorts and Crocs for jeans and boots.

Turns out, I didn’t have to wait long.

A few days after the official start of autumn, temperatures cooled, and the rain this week seems to have sealed the deal.

Coffee is much better now. And the seasonal clothes switch has begun.

All things remaining equal, my wife and daughter no longer have to live with the threat of being seen with me in public wearing my cargos and Crocs getup. At least, not until next summer.

It’s just as well. I’m tired of them, too. I’m ready for flannel shirts and boots, although I might be willing to continue offending the fashion police and tolerate hot, humid weather for a while longer if it meant one thing – staving off the pumpkin spice juggernaut.

I’m not necessarily opposed to pumpkin spice. After all, I’ve been known to enjoy an extra slice or two of pumpkin pie. However, there is a reason why I don’t live at the beach. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

That hasn’t stopped grocery stores from stocking everything from pumpkin spice cookie, muffin, bread and cupcake mixes to pumpkin spice cheesecakes, pies and bagels.. A search of the internet turns up pumpkin spice potato chips, hummus, ice cream, cream cheese and yogurt.

And then there’s the pumpkin spice lattes and pumpkin spice beer.

The sign at my grocery store says “Try Them All!”

I probably won’t. Nor will I try pumpkin spice pasta sauce.

Some things are just not suitable for any season.

Billy Joel in the rain

In hindsight, my wife and I should have taken a canoe last night. If we had, our field trip to Washington, D.C. probably would have gone smoother.

Instead, we took my car and hydroplaned our way through strong storms to see Billy Joel at Nationals Park.

The storms made for difficult driving. We left our house at around 4pm. It was after 6pm by the time we arrived at the Metro station where we planned to take a train into the city. By the time we got to Nationals Park, it was after 7pm.

We needn’t have worried about being late, though. The rain delayed the concert for nearly an hour-and-a-half. And we needed that time just to make it our seats. The crush of people in the concourse seeking shelter was overwhelming.

It was still raining when I took this picture shortly after Joel finally sat down in front of his piano.

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Can’t see him?

And here I thought I was being helpful by circling Joel’s location on the stage.

Just pretend the rain somehow ruined what would have been an awesome view, rather than judging me for not buying better seats.

The weather had one last inconvenience for us. Since the concert started late, we had to leave early to catch the last Metro train back to our car.

We missed some of Joel’s biggest hits. In fact, my wife and I exchanged a pained looked when he started playing “Piano Man” as we left through the center field gate.

But missing the last portion of the show was just that – an inconvenience.

The rain caused real trouble in the D.C. suburb of Ellicott City, Maryland. Flash floods ripped through the city’s downtown while Joel was on stage.

A state of emergency is in effect there.

We just got a little wet and missed a few songs.

Bearing up under summer humidity

Is it too much to ask that the weather this summer remain bearable?

With Monday marking the official start of the season, all we can do is ask the question, then wait and see.

Thursday’s strong storms and tornado scare notwithstanding, the weather lately has been fabulous. And yes, I’ve actually stayed awake long enough to notice the blue skies and pleasant temperatures of the past few weeks.

The weather has been so nice, I’ve even considered completely abandoning my usual afternoon nap in favor of venturing outside to get some work done around the house. My wife, however, remains disappointed. I’m still in the planning stages.

Even so, from the vantage point of my favorite chair (where I do all my best planning), this spring has been a gloriously long one.

It has spoiled me.

I’m grateful for it, but it can’t last.

Spring is about to turn the baton over to summer and with it any hope that conditions will remain within my comfort zone, that we’ll somehow be spared the heat and humidity of a typical West Virginia summer.

Between the two, humidity is the deal-breaker for me.

Not long ago, I would have said that I “hate” humidity and not thought much about it. But I’m making an effort not to use that word anymore. It’s often tossed around too casually without any thought to what it really means to hate something.

So I’d rather say that humidity “irritates” me in the same way that our big dog Rodney’s incessant barking “irritates” me when he thinks he’s about to be taken for a walk.

“Annoyed” would be another good word to describe the dim view I take of humidity. It also  “peeves” and “rankles” me.

And while humidity might make me “short-tempered,” it also “drains” what little energy I have in reserve and makes me “wilt,” “sag” and “droop.”

You get the picture. I’m not so much dreading the summertime heat as I am the HUMIDITY.

But it’s not just the distressing prospect of losing good nap weather that concerns me, it’s also the fashion choices that some men make to stay comfortable in the face of the sweaty season.

First, there are shorts. I’m not necessarily opposed to shorts. You’ll find plenty of them in my closet, including cargo shorts and simple cotton shorts with elastic waistbands that expand as I do.

I even still have an infamous pair of colorful madras plaid shorts that I bought years ago. I prefer to think of them as statement shorts, but my wife would delight in simply burning them.

My madras shorts prove I’m not above being a little ridiculous in my fashion choices, but I draw the line at pairing them with black socks and penny loafers.

While I’m on the subject of shoes, my personal preference is to keep my gnarly toes covered out of respect for delicate sensibilities.

Flip-flops and open-toe sandals leave nothing to the imagination, and so I reject them as proper men’s footwear despite their utility in hot, humid weather.

Rest assured that my toes will remain hidden from public view no matter how oppressive it gets this summer.

Think of it as my way of helping to make the season more bearable.

“Hamilton” may be inspiring our daughter, but it’s not necessarily enough to motivate me

All the rain that fell this week gave me the perfect excuse to indulge in my usual lackadaisical pursuits.

But believe it or not, I’ve been trying to take a break from my busy nap schedule and follow my wife’s admonition to be more productive.

The thing is, I haven’t been very successful.

For instance, my wife wants me to be more mindful of the yard. The rain made what I charitably call grass grow faster than our daughter can break into a song from the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton.”

In fact, I sometimes think there is a direct correlation between how loud she sings and how unruly the yard gets. It’s as if she’s serenading it like some sort of snake charmer.

And the really alarming thing?

At our house, the potential for a “Hamilton” sing-along is an all day, every day hazard.

Of course, our daughter isn’t really responsible for the enthusiasm our yard is showing this spring any more than she is responsible for mowing it.

That’s my job. And while I don’t have to like it, I do take some satisfaction that when the yard is freshly cut the weeds don’t seem quite as prominent.

Lately, though, dragging my broken-down old lawn mower from the dark recesses of our garage seems like an exercise in frustration.

It’s been so wet lately, I’m afraid if I fired up my mower I would only succeed in clogging it with clippings. It sputters enough without wet grass sticking to the underside of its deck and making it stall.

Waiting for the sun to come back out seems like a better plan. A drier yard would make for a happier mower.

With rain serving as a handy excuse to rule out yard work this week, I could have used the extra time to pursue other household chores. Living with two teenagers, our big dog Rodney and a couple of cats means the carpets need to be vacuumed regularly. Also, the kitchen floor could have used a spit shine and it wouldn’t have hurt the tub to be scrubbed clean.

But I decided to remain reclined in my favorite chair and focus on something else I’ve avoided  over the past few weeks – writing a column.

I’ve been having trouble finding the same sort of inspiration our daughter gets from “Hamilton.”

I may make kicking back look easy, but staring at a blank computer screen with your feet up is hard work. It’s not as if I can simply download a column as if it were the “Hamilton” cast album and then sing it at the top of my lungs in front of the bathroom mirror.

But I’m going to have to find inspiration somewhere, even if it means clearing my head by getting out from under my laptop and getting behind a rickety old lawn mower that’s struggling to make the cut.

Donuts are awesome, but they don’t always make things better

The strong storms that spawned tornadoes in the Deep South then swept up the East Coast this week damaged homes and other buildings and caused widespread power outages.

They wreaked havoc, notably in Virginia, Florida and Louisiana.

They also brought winds that howled through our neighborhood, especially Wednesday night. But they weren’t strong enough to disturb me.

I slept through them.

Remember.

I’m a professional.

That’s not to say the storms caught me completely off guard. I was at work Tuesday night when a tornado tore through the Florida Panhandle. And I was awake enough Wednesday afternoon to take notice of the wind and rain pelting our neighborhood. I even cautioned our son to wait for the weather to calm down before driving home from school.

But if one of our bleary eyed dog-walking neighbors had been out on the street in front of our house when I emerged before sunrise Thursday, it would not have occurred to me to ask something like “storm keep ya up last night?” I would have merely greeted them with the usual “Good morning.”

The wind was still blowing strong when I left our house earlier than normal Thursday. But I didn’t find the weather unusual. It’s supposed to be blustery in February.

Besides, I was preoccupied. It was my wife’s birthday. And one of the birthday traditions at our house involves, wait for it … fresh donuts!

I came home with an assortment that included the standard glazed and my favorite chocolate cake, but also a few topped with birthday appropriate pink icing and celebratory sprinkles. A couple were spiked with a brownie filling, others with Boston Cream Pie custard.

All were crowd pleasers.

However, they weren’t enough to totally distract me once I learned just how strong the storms had been.

I had a mouth full of glazed chocolate cake goodness when my wife said the storms woke her several times and that she had been worried their fury would topple neighborhood trees.

I had no such worries because up until then, I was oblivious.

Later that morning, I was back outside. The winds were still kicking up when I took our daughter and her BFF to school.

When I got back, I took a quick spin around our neighborhood. I didn’t really think I’d find any damage, but I was curious, especially since the National Weather Service confirmed a tornado just four hours drive time from the Eastern Panhandle, in the small town of Waverly, Virginia. Three people were killed there Wednesday afternoon.

Aside from the lingering wind, everything seemed normal around our house, if unnaturally gray.

As I write this, I’m alone with the remaining donuts left in their box on our kitchen counter.

I could ignore them or scarf them down and worry about fitting into my jeans this weekend.

I have a trivial decision to make.

And I am grateful for that.

Those who have lost their homes have much more important things on their mind than a stupid box of donuts.

A little shovel diplomacy between neighbors

Although temperatures are expected to be more springlike this weekend, I’m not ready to put up the snow shovel just yet.

There are still too many reminders of winter around my neighborhood, the biggest being the piles of snow that have yet to melt from last month’s massive storm.

To be sure, the snow from that storm is steadily disappearing, but the dregs are being stubborn, especially where the snow was piled up along driveways and sidewalks.

And even though the mountains the plows created at street corners are greatly diminished, they are being even more stubborn.

They were once piled as high as the stop sign across the street from my house and had slopes the neighborhood kids would have skied down if we had allowed them. Now that they are more like mounds instead of mountains, they are much less tempting to the budding winter sports enthusiasts among us.

One of those plow-created mounds is in our yard, near one of our Bradford Pear trees. The snow around it has melted, making it look like an iceberg floating in the green sea of what passes for grass at our house.

A responsible neighbor would mark it with a warning sign. If one of those things can take down the Titanic, just think what it could do to a car if it somehow ran off course and skidded into my yard.

Before the sun came out this week, there were other signs that winter is not ready to relent.

There was last weekend’s cold snap that put Valentine’s Day into the deep freeze. But before you blame me for the frigid holiday, take this into account: I remembered. It must have been some other hapless husband who forgot the flowers and chocolates and made the rest of us shiver through the holiday as if it were giving us all the cold shoulder.

Following the Valentine’s Day freeze, the snow that fell early Monday morning made the commute to my job in Washington, D.C. more interesting than usual. I was more than an hour late, slowed down by snow-covered interstates.

I don’t usually work Monday mornings. I had been scheduled to fill-in for a colleague. Despite the difficult driving, though, I was actually thankful for the change. Otherwise, I would have been driving home after my regular shift through the middle of Tuesday morning’s more dangerous ice storm.

As it was, instead of taking my usual siesta after the kids go to school and my wife leaves for work, I was rested enough to scrape our driveway.

And I know this will be hard to believe, but I was feeling more energetic than usual. Rather than putting my shovel up after finishing our driveway, I went to help a neighbor down the street.

Don’t be impressed. I waited until he was almost done.

My neighbor still thinks I’m a nice guy, though.

If a little extracurricular shoveling is all it takes to score points with neighbors now and again, I think I’ll keep my shovel handy.

Looks like our cat will remain indoors this Valentine’s Day

My neighborhood may be in the middle of a cold snap, but at least it’s made it easier to get our cat to come inside for the evening.

And we haven’t even had to shake her bag of food to trick her into it.

Normally, we have trouble luring our cat Artemis indoors. After all, she began life as an outdoor cat  She was a stray who showed up in our neighborhood more than a year ago and went door-to-door until she found a family of suckers (us) to take care of her.

Artemis, or Arti for short, is usually desperate to be outside. Lately, however, it’s not long before she’s more desperate to come in from the cold. And she doesn’t let any obstacles get in her way.

We don’t even have to call her, much less shake her bag of kitty chow. The sound of a door opening is enough to spark a mad dash. She scrambles from out of nowhere, easily climbs up and over our backyard fence and then quickly scales the lattice that wraps around the base of the back deck and into the inviting warmth of our house.

If cats competed in the Olympics, I’d send her to the games in Rio De Janeiro this summer. She’d be a shoo-in for a medal in the hurdles.

She’s an amusing kitty.

My wife and daughter insist on calling her Artemis. I simply call her Little Cat to distinguish her from our other cat, Skitty. We generally call her Fat Cat. She rarely misses a meal.

Until now, I saw little use in naming Artemis or any cat for that matter. They never come when called. And Arti still wouldn’t if it weren’t for this cold snap.

Artemis isn’t the only one at our house trying to stay warm. My wife has been wearing so many layers for her morning walk with our big dog Rodney I worry that she won’t be able to get back up if she falls down. Even our kids are wearing more than their usual T-shirts to school.

Rodney, however, is the exception. He likes the cold. When he isn’t annoying the neighbor dog who lives on the other side of the backyard fence, he finds a bright spot in the winter sunshine to stretch out and relax. I’d haul my favorite chair outside for him, but I need it. I’ve got a busy nap schedule to keep when I’m not obsessing about my Jedi beard..  

Before this week’s deep freeze, I was considering trimming it. Now, I’m torn about whether I should make it more socially acceptable to non-Star Wars fans, or keep my chin from freezing off.

On one hand, why grow a beard in winter if you’re just going to trim it when the season is as its coldest?

Plus, it’s a good conversation starter. And, I might need that this weekend. My wife and I have been invited to a neighborhood dessert party.

The hospitality of neighbors (but mostly their desserts) should keep us warm.

Then again, a good trim might make a decent Valentine’s Day gesture.

My wife would welcome the change. And there’d be less risk of embarrassing her in front of our neighbors when a little cheesecake gets stuck in it.

This Valentine’s Day weekend doesn’t need to get any colder.