There's a Plunger in My Tree

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


There’s a Plunger in My Tree is a compilation of humor columns that I wrote for the Stowe Reporter, the weekly newspaper of my hometown of Stowe, Vermont. Many of these pieces are set in Stowe, and aim for that “down home” feeling that comes with writing about life at it is lived in the slow lane.

Many have nothing to do with things Vermont, other than the fact that they were written there. Rather, they comprise a loosely structured, decidedly episodic story of my life, starting with my profligate early adulthood and continuing on to the present moment.

So, the reader will find me jailed in France one moment and having inappropriate liaisons the next. Eventually, my wild oats get sown and I move on. Here I meet “the salad girl in my life”, she who is destined to stay by my side through all of the ventures and misadventures that follow, and to become both foil and straight man in many of my accounts.

I write at length about money, most notably of my disdain for the stuff and how it seems to become the be-all and end-all for so many people.

And I write some about food and about restaurants, two topics on which I am particularly passionate.

Five of these pieces (there are about fifty in all) seek to find the humor in a brush with death, a life-changing event that left me unconscious for several weeks, hospitalized for several months and recovering in a physical rehabilitation unit for several more.

I take a stab at travel writing too, specifically my unsuccessful attempt to become a Southerner.

It is only after fleeing the South that the “action” moves back to Vermont, where I feel that I have earned the right to expound on all manner of trivia, from reminiscences about child and pet rearing, to scenes from a marriage, to village life. You’ll even find the occasional recipe and flight of fancy.

Had the people of Stowe - my bi-weekly readers and a pretty eclectic bunch - not responded as favorably as they have to my columns, I would not have assembled this collection. But because they have led me to believe that these autobiographical anecdotes strike a common chord, I’ve decided to put them out there with the hope that the rest of the world will agree.

(Now: How to find the rest of the world?)

The Night No One Talked About Real Estate

The Night No One Talked About Real Estate

It seems that as you get older, you tend not to form many new friendships. Maybe its because your dance card is fairly full just keeping up with the friends and family you already have. And I suppose this would change if you were to move somewhere where you didn’t know many people.

Anyway, Lorrie and I went out for a drink with the Palmers, a couple we hardly knew, last night. The four of us had been promising to do this for quite some time.

There’s no denying that the experience is much like that of going on a first date – except that you’re playing doubles. There’s a certain nervousness involved, a modicum of shyness and self-consciousness that needs to be overcome, maybe a bit of pressing, born of the desire to be liked.

But all in all, I’d have to say that we had a really good time. I know for a fact that I did. And because I subscribe pretty completely to the notion that the unexamined life is not worth living, I’ve decided to try to figure out why…

The conversation. It had everything to do with our conversation. What, then, did we discuss that found me leaving the table at the end of the evening with profound feelings of bonhomie and well-being? Well, let’s see.

We talked about British army officers having sex with camels; and about how our parents met. Hemingway’s house in Key West came up, as did African birthing chairs and the fact that Raold Dahl had named one of his characters the name of a medication for warts that he’d found in his medicine cabinet.

I contributed Thomas Keller’s preferred method for cooking lobster, in exchange for which I learned from Sally Palmer that Dave had interviewed every presidential candidate since 1968.

We talked at length about our children, and here’s something worth noting: those of our kids who are having some difficulties in life got far more air time than did those whose lives are going swimmingly well.

Our favored modes of communication came up, Lorrie and Sally emerging as IM devotees, while Tom and I prefer the phone or, in a perfect world, to be men of letters.

There was a certain amount of toilet talk, which started when I decided to flaunt my knowledge – gained that very morning – of why indoor plumbing had disappeared for over 1500 years after having been a fixture in ancient Rome.

A debate as to whether Jewish or Catholic mothers reigned supreme as the queens of guilt ended in a draw, though it was admitted by the Catholics at the table that the Jews probably had the edge when it came to mothers who suffered from pre-traumatic stress disorder.

I’d say that half the time the girls talked to each other while the guys did the same; and the other half found the four of us on the same topic. Never did I find myself playing singles with Sally, nor did Dave engage Lorrie one on one. I suspect that this would change in the course of time.

Perhaps the thing that impressed me most about this first social go-round had more to do with what wasn’t brought up than with what was. For never once, in the hour and a half or so that we sat there together, did the subject of real estate values get dragged onto the table. Not once.

I hate talking about real estate; hate it with a passion. Yet it seems like it’s all that people have on their minds these days. They come here to Vermont, ostensibly to immerse themselves in this enchanted land where the hills are alive with the sound of music, and the first thing they ask when they arrive: ‘How’s the real estate market around here?’

Even in my restaurant, where I have occasion to meet and feed tourists from all over the world, people seem less interested in my food than in my property taxes. Why? Why, why, why?

But Dave and Sally Palmer were different, I decided as Lorrie and I strolled the two blocks home. Here were people who enjoyed a good chat about bestiality, crustacean cookery and how hot and cold running water might have staved off the Black Death.

“Let’s have them over for dinner some time soon,” I suggested as we walked along. “I’d really like to get to know them better.”

“O.K. That would be fun.”


But that was before the dream …

(A cheerful knock at the front door. Enter Sally and Dave. They have brought wine. I come down the hall to greet them.)

DAVE (shaking my hand, and surveying the room): Nice place. What’d you pay for it?

SALLY: No, stop. Let me guess. Three hundred … no, three-fifty.

DAVE: You’re nuts, Sal. Look at the moldings. It had to be closer to four.

SALLY (to us): How much are the taxes?

DAVE: What’s that going to tell you if you don’t know the assessed value?

SALLY and DAVE (in unison): Come on, you two – tell.


“Have a look at this recipe for striped bass,” Lorrie said to me that morning. “I think I’ll do it for the Palmers. When do you want to have them over?”


Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Heart of a Chef

The Heart of a Chef

Let’s buy another restaurant,” I said one evening at dinner to my unsuspecting wife – the very same wife who had made me promise, on the day that we had sold our last restaurant, that the next time I got the urge to own a restaurant, I would lie down on the floor until it passed.

“No,” Lorrie responded. There was really nothing to discuss.

So be it.

Six weeks later we passed papers on a small Italian restaurant that was on its last legs.


“I wanna more money,” said Stephano, the none-too-talented chef we had inherited with the restaurant.

“Sorry, Stephano,” I said. “I’m not in a position to give you any more money.”

With that Stephano stormed out of my office and started hurling sauté pans against the walls of the kitchen. What Stephano lacked in talent, he sought to make up for in temperament. “Then I leave,” he screamed from the kitchen. “I leava right now, and you be screwed for Christmas.”

Hmmm. I suppose he had a point. But I’d be dammed if I was going to let the little prima donna push me around. “What did you say?” I asked, hunting him down in the kitchen.

“You hear me. I say you screwed.”

“Get out,” I said, herding Stephano out the kitchen door. “Just get out.”

And that was that. Eighty-six Stephano.

“Where’s Stephano?” Lorrie asked when she got to the restaurant and found me prepping for dinner.

“I threw him out.”


What else could she have said? It was three days until Christmas, Christmas week being one of the busiest weeks of the year. And while Stephano was not Emeril Legasse, he was capable of putting out a lot of mediocre food in a short space of time.

“He wanted more money,” I explained.

“Oh.” She seemed stuck. “So who’s going to cook on the line?”

Stephano’s support cast had included two young kids who didn’t know a cucumber from a zucchini, and whose line cooking abilities were limited to loading and unloading the oven on command. “I guess I will.”

It’s hard to say if the look on Lorrie’s face was a smile, a smirk or a grimace. It wasn’t quite a pained expression, though it would be by the end of Christmas week.

The plan had been to get through the holidays before getting involved in the kitchen. We would take this time to get familiar with the front of the house; to see what the customers liked or didn’t like. The best laid plans …

I had always been a good home cook, but I had never cooked on the line in a busy restaurant kitchen. How hard could it be? Clad only in my chef’s whites and my native arrogance, I stepped behind the cooking line.


We fed only sixty-four people that first night. It would have been ninety had the other twenty-six decided to stay. I am told that some of those who stayed actually made it home in time to hear Letterman sign off.

“People said they loved the food,” said Katie, the bartender, when we all sat down at the end of service to have a staff drink. The wait staff looked as though they’d been horsewhipped.

“How bad was it out here?” I half wanted to know.

“It was mostly tourists,” said one of the waiters. “They’re pretty high maintenance anyway.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

It was pretty bad, they all confessed.

The next night was decidedly worse – large parties with special orders and lots of substitutions. This was not fun. I got the food out faster; but the quality wasn’t there. No one complained.

We managed to survive Christmas week, a trial by fire if ever there was one; and I had the burn scars to prove it. We changed both the name of the restaurant and the menu right after the New Year. We toyed with the idea of new identities, but decided that not that many locals would have seen us during Christmas week.

Business slowed after the holidays. And if there was a list of restaurant owners who were disappointed by this turn of events, I was not on it. I used this down time to acclimate myself to the rhythms of what was to become my kitchen; and by the time the busy February vacation period arrived, I was able to execute my menu at a high standard and in a timely manner.

I spent the next five years of my life slicing and dicing, and braising and roasting, and grilling and baking in my kitchen at Olives Bistro. I was one happy cook; and if people in town started referring to me as a chef, I never corrected them. Somehow “chef-owned” on the sign read better than “cook-owned”.

Life, I am learning, is about making choices, even if we don’t necessarily know that we’re making them at the time. When I threw Stephano out of the kitchen that day, I knew where I was headed. And I guess I knew it even before that – when I decided to buy the place and somehow managed to bend Lorrie to my will.

We never earned much money operating Olives. You don’t open a small restaurant in a rural Vermont town as a get-rich-quick scheme. But we ate and drank really well. And we made a ton of friends. And we took great pride in what we did.

Me, I traded a hundred-odd days a year on the road and an apartment in Montreal for a twenty minute stroll to work across a field of corn and on along the bank of a pristine river. I saw my kids so much they stopped calling me Mr. Handwerger.

What price continuity?

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Pursuit of Idleness

The Pursuit of Idleness

Lorrie thinks I’m getting lazier, which I find kind of flattering. I heard her say as much to her mother on the phone the other day; and unless I misread her tone, she finds it to be not only an endearing quality, but also kind of sexy.

“Would you empty the dishwasher, please?” she asked me mid-way through the third quarter of the Instant Mashed Potato Bowl yesterday.

“Sure,” I played along. “As soon as the game’s over.”

Enter Lorrie, causing me, reflexively, to hide the remote in my underpants.

“There’s nobody there,” she said, looking at the near-empty Potato Bowl stands. Lorrie is extremely observant.

“Well they don’t know what they’re missing. These kids are incredible.”

“It’s 63-0,” she now noticed.

“I love a comeback,” I said, settling deeper into the couch.

There is no end to my idleness.

I listened as Lorrie emptied the dishwasher, feigning anger by causing the pots and pans to clang against each other so loudly as to drown out the TV announcer’s game commentary.


I looked on sadly as the college bowl season came to a close. And before you could say: “Hey, could you bring in some more salsa and chips?” the Super Bowl had come and gone. Try as I might, I could not get into the N.B.A., the N.H.L., tennis from Down Under, or college hoops – at least not until “March Madness”, which was still several weeks off.

What to do? I had to think of some suitable activity – or in this case inactivity -- to justify my presence on the couch.

And then the light came on. I would read. Granted, reading does smack a bit of active participation; but if I were to look comfortable enough with it, it might still pass for passivity.
It was while I was positioning a reading lamp on the end table next to the couch that a second light came on – literally. It was this second light that was to launch me into the ionosphere of indolence, and, eventually, off of the couch.

“What’s that?” Lorrie asked when she came in and saw that next to my reading lamp I had placed a second, much shorter lamp.

“That?” I parroted, attempting to hide my pride. “It’s a call button. Like they have on planes.” And in fact I had gotten the idea from the airlines. “I put it there for you,” I said, batting my eyes at her.

She looked genuinely perplexed.

“You know how you hate to be interrupted when you’re doing something? Like when I say ‘Hey, hon, would you get me another cup of coffee?’ Or ‘Lor, is there anything to eat?’ This eliminates the need for me to do that ever again. All you have to do is look over here from time to time. If the light’s on, it means I want something.”

I looked on as she went into the kitchen, pulled a rubber glove onto her hand, came over to the couch where I was sitting, and unscrewed the light bulb from my little lamp.

Now it was me who was perplexed.

Later that day I once more overheard her talking to her mother. Apparently I had been wrong about her finding my laziness sexy back during football season.


So now what? I had gotten used to living in that fool’s paradise where I thought my worst behavior was being smiled on; and she all of a sudden seemed hell-bent on “making a few changes around here.”

Yikes. This was terrible. It had taken twenty-seven years to get to where I’d been just a few short days ago; and now it appeared that I had inadvertently upset the pretzel cart. I had to get back. Back to that happy condition of getting my head rubbed whenever I asked; back to that division of labor that found her embracing the old school of who did what; back, in essence, to my couch. I just wasn’t cut out to do laundry.

Maybe I could defuse the situation. They say the best defense is a good offense. It was worth a try.

“I have to go to England on business,” I said that night at dinner.

“You’re not in business,” she felt compelled to remind me.

“You know, you’re just like the rest of them,” I lashed out.

“The rest of whom?”

“Just because I’m a writer, you all think I’m doing nothing all day. The dentist called today. Said he’d had a last-minute cancellation and figured I could come in because I’d be available.”


“And I wasn’t available. I was working on a story. The same story, incidentally, that I have to go to England about.”

“Really? Would you like to tell me what your story’s about?”

I sensed that I was being mocked; and I didn’t like it. “No. No, I don’t want to tell you what the story’s about.” I now mimicked her. “And you want to know why? ‘Cause I don’t like your attitude.”

“Fine. You don’t like my attitude, and I don’t think there’s any story you have to go to England about. You want to know what I think? I think you’re getting all up in arms and trying to pick a fight so you can storm out of here without doing the dishes.”

Plan B.

“Alright. I’ll tell you what my story’s about. It’s about a guy who needs to go to England to get away from his wife.”

(Pregnant pause.)

“Go on,” she encouraged me, as she might have encouraged Hanzel toward the oven.
I continued. "And while he's there he meets this woman named Amanda. She's a chambermaid at the hotel he's staying at. She's incredibly beautiful, and the only reason she's a chambermaid at a fancy hotel...”

"So he's staying at a fancy hotel. Funny, when he takes his wife along with him he never stays at fancy hotels."

"It's a story. He's staying at the Churchill Hotel in Portman Square. Alright? And that's where he meets Amanda."

"Who's incredibly beautiful.”

"It's nice to see you're listening. Anyway, the only reason Amanda is working at the Churchill, on the executive floor, is because she figures it's the best chance she has to meet a rich guy and have him fall in love with her."

"Right. Now I get it. You want to go to London to find Amanda."

"God, no. Amanda is the last person in the world I'd want to run into. Her plan, once she meets the guy, is to get him to marry her by promising him a life of love and comfort. But all the while she is secretly plotting. And sure enough, twenty-seven years later: Bang! She's going to change all the rules. She's going to use her incredible beauty and her wiles to enslave the poor guy; to get him to do her bidding; to be at her beck and call."

"You sure you don't mean to do his fair share; to pull his own weight?"
"Maybe you should write the story."

It couldn’t be any worse than yours. And you still haven’t told me why you want to go to London.”

"I want to go to London to study what it feels like to live in the lap of luxury. You know: a chocolate on the pillow; a terrycloth robe on the bathroom door...”

"Room service."


"You mean you want your call button back."

She had me there. Might as well confess all. “I do. I really do. I like being waited on hand and foot. I want the old Amanda back.” I was at my pathetic best.

“You’re doing the dishes.”

“I said that she was incredibly beautiful.”

“Flattery will get …”

“If I do the dishes, will you walk the dog?”


“Make the coffee?”


“Get me an after-dinner drink?”


Just when I thought that I was getting nowhere fast, I saw it. You had to be quick to catch it; but it was there. Unmistakably. The corners of her mouth had turned up. Not much; but enough for me to know, even though she turned her back hurriedly, that a smile had formed. Formed and stretched like a rainbow across a clearing sky. The storm had passed. I pursued my advantage.

“Will you rub my head later?”


“Make me bacon and eggs for breakfast?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

My luck. Yeah, I guess, in the end, you’d have to call it luck.

Anyway, the way I figure it, with continued good luck I’ll be back on my couch by the All-Star break.