Stinky comets and impatient cashiers


After 23 years of wind and ants brazenly entering our home, Joe and I decide to replace the back door. We make the long-awaited decision over breakfast and map out the route we will take around Frederick County to scope out stores.

In between, we discuss energy efficiency, which leads to a discussion of UV light. (I’ve just purchased a light box, which is to ward off winter malaise, or so the box promises.) This, in turn, leads to a discussion of sunrays, which in turn leads to a discussion of the Rosetta satellite, aka the Rosetta Orbiter Spectrometer for Ion and Neutral Analysis. (Say that five times fast, Einstein!)

The Rosetta has been chasing the comet Churmyumov-Gerasimenko which itself is racing toward the sun. (Say that name five times fast — anyone!) Apparently, the satellite’s been on the comet’s tail for about 10 years, trying to determine what happens to the tail when it starts to sizzle. (Shouldn’t we care more about unattended steaks sizzling on a grill than a comet sizzling some 400 million kilometers from the sun?)

Churmyumov-Gerasimenko comet and the Rosetta satellite is one of the subjects in Beth Mende Conny's weekly essay for Lifenicity. Beth is also the founder and president of Write Directions.

Churmyumov-Gerasimenko comet. Photo from NASA.

Turns out, it’s a good thing that the comet is far, far away; way past Mars, in fact. Through its sophisticated instruments, Rosetta has discovered that Churmyumov-Gerasimenko has a stench no cosmic deodorant could mask. Imagine a mix of rotten eggs, urine and vinegar, seasoned with formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide and methanol. No wonder there is no life on Mars!

Churmyumov-Gerasimenko comet and the Rosetta satellite is one of the subjects in Beth Mende Conny's weekly essay for Lifenicity. Beth is also the founder and president of Write Directions.

First map of the Churmyumov-Gerasimenko comet. Photo from NASA.

For reasons as baffling as sizzling tails, this part of our celestial discussion leads Joe and I back to door replacement. It is getting late. Off we go.

Many miles and hours later, we have purchased not even a door knob. And so we decide to drown our sorrows in cups of coffee and tea, perhaps an early dinner. There! A café.

We study the menu board hanging above the young and genetically impatient cashier. From hereon in I shall refer to her as Miss Snarky). But we will not be rushed. There is much to ponder. Soup? Salad? Sandwich? Salt and fat content, calories. And of course price.

Joe settles on salad and coffee. I choose tea and lemon pound cake, with a side of guilt. We guesstimate the tab will be about $16. Joe hands Miss Snarky a $20. She hands back $7 and change, which means she’s undercharged us by about $3.

Joe and I are nice people, honest folk. “I think you’ve undercharged us,” he notes.

“No, I didn’t,” says she defensively, as if we are accusing her of overcharging us. Joe and I look at each other. Screw this. We are tired. After a long day of shopping, all we want is food and a doorknob. We sit and begin to eat.

Joe chews thoughtfully. I can see his scientist mind at work. There is a mystery to be solved. He wants to know why Miss Snarky undercharged us.

“I wonder if she gave us a senior discount?” he says as he studies our receipt. “She did.”

I grab the receipt and there, at the bottom, in black and white, is proof: Senior discount. I am incredulous. “She didn’t even ask us!”

Joe and I look at each other. This has never happened before. Have we crossed over to the dark side or, more accurately, the gray side? Or have we been pushed?

I can see Miss Snarky from our table. She is giving change to other people. How many will be shocked to find themselves undercharged? Will they be grateful, appalled? Or will they laugh it off? As perhaps I should.

But I really am tired of the not-so-subtle messages that begin to be communicated when you turn 40, when friends (ha!) send you over-the-hill birthday cards and black balloons. What will these same friends send you when you turn 70? A pine box?

I’m tired of being addressed as “ma’am” or “dear,” which I don’t find particularly endearing. To me they separate not just the young from the old(er), but people from people. And this goes against all I’ve come to believe over the course of all these years: That our years and lives must flow into the other so we might become one, and life might be valued.

I, of course, cannot tell this to Miss Snarky. She will look at me as if I had escaped Dementiaville. So I do what I can, which is to complain to Joe about the awful lemon pound cake and weak tea. And to envision a smelly comet smashing through the café’s roof and smashing Miss Snarky’s cash register — and tip jar — to smithereens.

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