There is a restaurant in downtown Albany called Justin's that my lovely wife and I try to go to at least once a year.
A little over a year ago, I took time off from work to accompany my wife to a doctor’s appointment.
Here's a great word we don't often hear spoken but that we deal with (at least I do) all the time: conundrum.
According to my faithful dictionary, a conundrum is an intricate or difficult problem. See what I mean? You don't hear the word conundrum a lot but you sure experience it all the time. Let's take a look at some of the conundrums I deal with on a regular basis.
My kids have all turned out to be good drivers; my wife is, too. (She even tells me she was Driver of the Year in high school.) Empirically, I accept this and yet, when any of them are driving and I'm a passenger, the level of fear, even panic, that I feel is palpable and quite disturbing.
My wife's car has a handle over the passenger door and I often squeeze it so hard I wonder if I'll break it. I really don't know why I feel this way — they really are good, safe drivers and I'm glad for that.
But put me in the passenger seat and I'm sweating bullets. Probably it's the simple lack of control you feel as a passenger, which is reasonable in my case since I'm the driver maybe 98 percent of the time I'm in a car. But that 2 percent! Oh boy, now that's a conundrum.
If you've been on the Internet at all, you know that probably 50 percent of it is cat related: photos, videos, Facebook posts, anecdotes, etc. This paradigm plays out in my house as well, as I'm surrounded by cat lovers and not one, not two, but three, count 'em, three indoor cats.
My family gets such intense pleasure and enjoyment from these often quite aloof animals that, if I didn't see it for myself, I wouldn't believe it. Now I don't have anything against outdoor cats; they earn their keep by preying on vermin, though I can't stand when they attack the beautiful birds, nature’s lovely natural singers, that I love so much.
My problem is with indoor cats and specific behaviors of theirs that I just don't like: going up on kitchen counters (and, yes, they do this when you're not there); throwing up all over the house and leaving disgusting hair balls everywhere; hunting and stalking everything that moves; and sniffing the food apprehensively every time they approach it — which is all the time — when it's the exact same food that sits out there 24/7/365.
Suffice it to say I'm not a "cat fancier," yet I'm prevented by the democratic process from getting rid of the furry little pests, er, I mean the lovely wonderful things. Now if that's not a conundrum I don't know what is. Thank God for single-malt scotch.
One time the pastor at church told a story about a cat who left the house and returned six months later. As the congregation oohed and aahed over the almost Biblical return, I'm sitting there going, "What I wouldn't give for six months’ peace and tranquility."
I know, I have issues. Still, to me it was a great sermon. Six months! One can only dream.
One of the cats is on a prescription — probably stress from having so much to do all day — and I was sent to the drugstore to fill it. The druggist calls me over and says, "Palmeri?"
Yes I say.
Then he goes, "First name?"
So, in front of all the other druggists and the customers, he made me say out loud, "Snickers."
How embarrassing is that. Please go away for six months!
Let's say you're changing channels before the game comes on and you happen upon a Seinfeld episode. Despite the fact that you've seen these over and over and know all the jokes, if you let yourself linger, it's all too easy to get sucked in and then you've wasted a half-hour.
You know it's going to happen and you still can't do anything about it. Talk about conundrum city.
Regretting the missed ritual
When my faithful Toyota Sienna died, I had to find another vehicle quickly. I wound up getting another mini-van, and, even though its used, it has a pretty good warrantee, but get this — the warrantee is only in effect if I let the dealer do the oil changes.
You might think this is no big deal, and for some it may not be, but for me it has turned out to be one of the worst decisions I've ever made.
Here's the thing: Today's cars are so complex and full of electronics that there's really not much a dedicated owner like me can do mechanically any more, save for the good old oil change. When I do them, it's like a ritual: a nice warm day, garage door open, with dirty hot oil draining into a pan and "Car Talk" on the radio.
Then I'll go mow the lawn while every last bit of nasty old oil gets drained. Finally, I'll put in a new filter, inspect everything under the car, and then pour in the best oil I can find so I know I'm good to go for many thousands of miles. Now, all of a sudden, because of this stupid warrantee situation, I can't even have the simple time-honored pleasure of doing an oil change on my own vehicle.
What a colossal mistake I made. Unlike many obvious conundrums, I didn't even realize that not being able to change my own oil would be a conundrum until it was too late. Live and learn, ain't it the truth.
To add insult to injury, the one oil change the dealer did do, it royally screwed up. Sometimes it really does go from bad to worse, but at least I learn from my mistakes — I will never buy a vehicle from a dealer that insists it has to do the oil changes again.
Deciding when to call the doctor is always a conundrum for me. In my experience, most things get better over time, but the self-diagnosis game is not always easy to play (especially when you're married).
The one that always gets me is when you go to bed feeling fine and then wake up with a cold or a headache or a sore back. I thought sleep was supposed to be restful?
For me to have to agree to see a doctor, it has to be something obvious, like an open wound or worse. True, I like reading magazines but I prefer to do it on my own time rather than in a waiting room if at all possible, and, while I do like my doctor very much, seeing her once a year is just fine, thank you very much.
Maxing the motorcycle
My motorcycle is precision-made in Germany and is easily capable of keeping up triple-digit speeds all day on the Autobahn. The conundrum is, we don't have an Autobahn on this side of the pond, so there are not many legal ways to take advantage of this awesome performance.
Every now and then, discretion goes out the window and I wind up with what I euphemistically call a "performance award," that is, a speeding ticket. Lest you surmise that this is simply flippant behavior on my part, be aware that, when your are dealing with a modern, high performance car or motorcycle, it is so easy, because of the smooth and effortless performance, to be on your merry way and not even realize you're over the speed limit, it happens so fast.
I think someday I'll add a sidecar to my bike for the grandkids to ride in; that will slow me down for sure. Until then, for the sake of my license and my insurance rates, I better figure this conundrum out post-haste.
In addition, there are all kinds of mini-conundrums to deal with throughout the day: boxers or briefs (or nothing?); Coke or Pepsi (there is a difference); the highway or the back road (speed or scenery); and many more. It all comes down to making decisions. When you make more right decisions than bad ones you're having a good day. It's as simple as that.
Conundrums can be trivial or complex, harmless or painful, plentiful or sparse, but they are always there and waiting for you to decide what to do. Good luck with your conundrums
It was Mother’s Day at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church in Guilderland. The service, featuring heavenly sounds from the very musical choir and organist (my lovely wife, who I love to hear play) had just ended.
Normally, I’d leave at this point but we had a friend visiting so I went for coffee time, trying hard not to spoil my diet with all the cakes and cookies just begging to be eaten — a very nice way to start Mother’s Day.
As I’m standing there, two lovely ladies, dressed in their Sunday finest and obviously a mother-daughter pair, approach me.
“Aren’t you the one that writes for The Enterprise?” the mom asked me.
While I don’t get to church that often, or even around town that much, I get this all the time. The power of the written word!
“Yep, that’s me,” I replied, and we had a wonderful conversation about my columns, which they love.
Imagine that. Made my day for sure.
The big thing they wanted to know was how I decide what to write about, since it’s always something different. I told them I just write about whatever I’m thinking about at the time — “Thinking about Things” is the column’s name after all.
For example, I said, you know how, when you drink soda from a can, when you’re almost done, no matter how much you tilt your head, you can never get that last little drop that hides behind that little bit of lid under the hole?
This was something I’d been thinking about writing about for a while. It bothers me because you paid for the soda but can’t get it all.
At this point, the mom, wearing her pretty Sunday hat, looks up at me and belts out, “Who cares!”
I thought that was just great. Moms rock.
I remember one of the first pieces I saw Andy Rooney do on 60 Minutes. It was about paper clips. You wouldn’t think there’s much to say about paper clips, but that was the genius of Andy Rooney — he could take something we all take for granted, like paper clips, and make you think about them in new ways. Great stuff.
That’s creative nonfiction, and that’s what I try to do. The vagaries of real life, including the nuances of paper clips and that little drop of soda left in the can, endlessly fascinate me.
Another writer in the same vein is Nicholson Baker. Check out his book, A Box of Matches. He uses simple things, in this case a box of matches, to reflect on life. This to me is creative writing at its best, to take the tactile feel of a box of matches and just riff on that.
Drilling down like this, focusing on something rather ordinary to bring out larger truths, that, my friends, is real writing. I may know you, but when I know how you feel about a match, I can’t help but know you better.
Let’s get back to the soda. You paid for it yet you can’t get it all. I have similar experiences all the time.
My favorite mustard has always been Gulden’s Spicy Brown. A few years ago, Gulden’s came out with a squeeze bottle. This bottle works well when it’s full, but, in time, you get to a point where there’s plenty of mustard left but you can’t get it out. Very frustrating.
You can try angling a knife in there but it’s not easy. The other day, I got so fed up I actually cut the bottle in half and used a spatula to transfer the remaining mustard to a little container. Would you believe I got about a quarter cup of mustard out? That’s a lot of mustard!
Same thing with toothpaste. When you can’t squeeze any more out, there is still a lot left in there. I didn’t go to school for packaging science, but I think it’s clear there needs to be some improvement in this area. You paid for the product so you should be able to get all of it.
Microwave popcorn has been around for years. My microwave oven even has a popcorn mode, where it can sense the pops and know when to turn off.
When I pop a bag, I invariably get a whole lot of un-popped kernels. Why is this? Why can we send men to the moon but not figure out how to nuke popcorn?
The other night I got so frustrated with this I crunched up the bag with the un-popped kernels and put it back in the microwave. I admit I was kind of nervous about this — I’d never tried to re-pop popcorn before — but, surprisingly, it worked. The bag expanded without blowing up and most of the un-popped kernels popped. Hooray.
I could go on — try getting the last pickle half out of a jar without resorting to a fork; it’s just about impossible. Or try tasting non-fat, no-sugar-added ice cream — ugh. Or trying to keep track of all your passwords (ridiculous, there has to be a better way). But I think you get the drift.
There are so many little things like this that just bug you because you know they are frustrating and it wouldn’t take much to make them better. Oh well, I must be doing all right if these are the things I have to complain about.
Who cares? I do for one, but you knew that already.
When the first new vehicle my lovely wife and I had ever purchased, a red Plymouth Voyager, got T-boned and totaled, we needed a replacement vehicle right away. Fortunately, a neighbor had a Toyota Sienna minivan for sale.
That Sienna lasted us 11 years before dying at 186,000 miles — how I so wanted to get to 200,000! Though we've since replaced the Sienna, I'm having real problems getting used to being without it. It's like I've lost a dear, departed friend.
Here's the thing: When you spend 11 years with anything, you're going to get somewhat attached to it — think about a comfortable recliner, or a dog, or a neighborhood. I realize now I was really attached to my ugly green minivan.
I honestly thought it would last forever. (I used synthetic oil and everything.) I had that van set up just the way I like it, too: the beaded seat covers like the cab drivers use, a sweet Pioneer stereo, a roof rack for moving the kids’ mattresses around, and a tow hitch for my trailers.
With all the seats in, I could take seven of us to all those special events where it's so much easier to take one car, and, with the seats out, I could stuff full sheets of plywood or even a motorcycle in there. What a great car.
The Car Talk boys on NPR always made fun of minivans, but there is no other vehicle that is so versatile. Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler when he came out with the first min-van; me and all the other handy guys who stuff them full of wood and tools and who-knows-what and the many soccer moms who stuff them full of energetic kids thank him very much and still think minivans are terrific.
So here's what happened: The other day, I was on my way to, of all things, a root canal (my fifth, I'm going for the root canal record it seems) when, all of a sudden, the Sienna started to shake violently and the check-engine light came on.
I managed to get the van to my mechanic where he informed me that two cylinders were dead. Ouch! I immediately asked him to give me a price on a replacement engine, but get this: He refused to do it.
I'm lucky to have a truly honest mechanic, and he explained to me that, because of the vehicle's age and rust and leaks and dings, it would make absolutely no sense to put a new engine in the thing, and that I should just "walk away."
Believe me, I struggled mightily with this decision, but finally I could see that he was right. Emotion gave way to practicality, but not without a lot of soul-searching and remorse.
When we went to the mechanic’s shop to empty out the glove box and get the rest of my junk before saying goodbye forever, I asked my wife to take a final picture of me and my ugly green minivan, for sentimental reasons.
So she gets out her fancy-schmancy smart phone, one of several that I pay ginourmous dollars for the members of my family to have, and then announces that her camera function is not working. Are you kidding me?
So I got out my half-busted "dumb" phone, with its lousy low-resolution camera, and had her take the picture with that. Later, she told me the camera was fine, but some setting was wrong. Sigh. I sure wish it was the not-so-smart phone that gave up the ghost instead of my beloved ugly green minivan.
Then I almost bought a brand spanking new minivan, but, at the last minute, I decided not to. The thing is, I really use my minivans for hauling and towing lots of stuff, and the pressure of having a sparkling clean one was too much to deal with.
I'd be so concerned with keeping it spotless that I wouldn't be able to enjoy it. So I wound up getting a used Honda Odyssey, a very highly rated minivan, but I haven't bonded with it yet. I mean, how can you come off an 11-year relationship and just start off new? The only relationship I've had longer than that has been with my wife. (I really, really miss my ugly green Sienna.)
I briefly thought about buying a pickup truck instead of another minivan, but I didn't for two main reasons: one, I still have a need to seat seven every now and then, and, two, no one ever wants to borrow your car or your minivan or your motorcycle, but they always want to borrow your truck.
I'm not averse to helping out, I'm really not, but it gets out of hand. Here's just one example: I once agreed to help install a window air-conditioner in the spring. The person I was helping was fastidious, and the installation had to be just perfect.
Of course, then I had to un-install it in the fall. So now I'm making two trips a year just for the air-conditioner, and then other odd jobs started popping up, and all of a sudden it's like I have a part-time job.
Don't get me wrong, I love being helpful, but I work full time and own a house and have kids and there are other people who need my help as well. So that's part of the reason I didn't go for the pickup.
If you're not lending it out, you're getting asked to do something with it, and I really do have enough things of my own to take care of.
You know when you go into a really old lunch place like Mike's Red Hots on Erie Boulevard, and the edges of the counters are rounded over from all the elbows rubbing on them over the years? My Sienna had a feature where you could change the radio station from the steering wheel. When I installed my rocking Pioneer stereo, I lost the steering wheel channel changer, but I'd still fiddle with it in an OCD kind of way all the time.
I played with it so much that I wore through the black outer surface and was down to the white plastic below. Just like that rounded over lunch counter, the worn-through radio switch was a symbol of a long and wonderful relationship.
Here's another analogy that might help: Many years ago, I saw ZZ Top at the Nassau Coliseum. The show was phenomenal — Billy Gibbons is one of the greatest blues guitarists ever.
After the show, I bought a long sleeved ZZ Top concert shirt. This shirt became my favorite shirt by a mile, and I wore and washed it so much that it became, after many years, like a rag that I still somehow tried to wear.
Finally, after I'd cut off so much that there was nothing left, I had to let it go. This is what it was like letting the Sienna go.
Though the seat belts had lost their springiness, the doors didn't open correctly, it made all kinds of strange noises, it leaked, it was rusty, and the paint was truly ugly, that Sienna, like my beloved ZZ Top shirt, was supremely comfortable, like the comfort of a warm blanket on a winter night. I better stop before I start to cry.
If you happen to have an ugly green Toyota Sienna minivan (I still see them around), don't be surprised if there's a guy shedding a tear as you drive on by. That would be me.