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.
Back in the day — and I mean way, way back — men wore loincloths, painted their faces, and went out with spears to hunt down a beast so the family could eat. Back then, manly tasks like hunting and building made it clear what men did and what they stood for.
But now, with smart phones, Netflix, and 0-percent down, 36-month leases, there's not as many manly things for us guys to do. This is a problem — men still want and need to be men, after all.
So I thought I'd list a few manly things I do, since I'm first and foremost a manly man (my cell phone isn't even a smart phone, so there).
One manly thing I do is use government-issued toilet paper. That's no big deal, you say? Well let me ask you this: Would you like to wipe with paper that was purchased from the lowest bidder? I didn't think so. Manly men with government jobs do this all the time, and we hardly ever complain about it.
I like to get these big jars of pretzels at the buyers’ club. They're great but they must have a gorilla putting the lids on, because opening them is surely a manly task.
What works for me is sitting in a chair with the big jar wedged between my vice-like legs, and then clutching and twisting the lid with both hands until the lid breaks free. This is actually quite a good upper-body exercise, and the accompanying grunting noises are sure to entertain all nearby. You didn't think opening pretzels could be a manly activity, but it is.
The electric drill is probably the most useful tool ever invented, and these days just about everyone has switched to battery power for the convenience and freedom. But real men take on the big jobs, and that means corded tools.
I still have corded versions of drills and saws, and trying to do good work while not tripping over the cord is very manly indeed. I always lay sheets of plywood on top of boards and cut them flat with a corded circular saw, and half the battle there — besides keeping the chips out of your eyes — is watching where the cord goes. Manly men know how to do this instinctively.
You ever pull into a gas station and see cars lined up because they're waiting for a pump on the "right side?" You know, if the gas cap is on the left, they want a pump on the left, etc.
Well, as a Manly Man, I'm proud to say I can pump from either side, thank you. Yes, I sometimes have to drag the hose over the car but what the hey, it makes the whole process a little more interesting so that's a plus. Manly men would rather struggle with the dang hose than wait.
I also do my own oil changes. On a nice day with the garage door open and the music blasting, it's not half bad, but doing them in the winter is not so much fun I'll admit. Oil changes involve lying on my back under the car with hot oil dripping down my arm right past my face.
I do save money, of course, but there's extra laundry to do I know, and the spills can be messy. Ironically, I just bought a car where the only way to keep the warrantee valid is by letting them do the oil changes, so I may not be doing so many from now on.
But check this out: If you have front-wheel drive, you have CV joints protected by rubber bellows knows as boots. When I do my oil changes, while I'm under there, I always apply rubber protectant to my boots, so my expensive CV joints will stay protected.
Meanwhile, the boots I wear on my feet are all worn out and dirty. Isn't it something that the boots I own that you can't see are beautiful, while the boots I own that you can see are a mess? That's how my life always works out.
I also do the following manly things at various times:
— Eat broccoli without oil and garlic;
— Listen to LP records;
— Drink unfancy black coffee;
— Get dressed in the dark so as not to wake the wife (that's why I often have two different socks on);
— Drink out of water fountains; and
— Eat raw clams (don't laugh — a local restaurant wanted me to sign a statement before serving me raw clams).
As you can imagine, there are some things a manly man like me will never do, I never:
— Run with scissors (Mom was right);
— Answer the phone (it's always for my wife or a telemarketer so why bother);
— Watch any movies or TV shows about doctors or hospitals;
— Order anything "small";
— Wear sandals with that strap between the toes (ouch!);
— Use any product that is "scented"; or
— Throw anything out of a moving car window.
Back in the day, it was easy to tell who the manly men were; today not so much. But, as long as there are oil changes to do and things to put together and stuff to be moved and strong black coffee, we'll be OK.
You've heard the saying: "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Well, that may be true, but I can tell you for a fact that there is such a thing as a free dinner.
My lovely wife, Charlotte, and I know about free dinners all too well, as we're both at the age where investment and retirement planning companies want our business so badly that they're willing to feed us — often quite nicely, thank you very much — in the hope that we'll hire them in some sort of financial management capacity.
Sounds like a cushy gig, getting free dinners just to listen to well-dressed and smooth-talking money managers for an hour, but (remember my nickname is "Cranky Frankie" after all) it's not all wine and roses. One event in particular stands out.
This dinner was to take place in a town a quite a way from home at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. I work full-time and my wife works part-time, so weeknights are busy as you can imagine. That night, we got it together enough that we were seated at the restaurant about five minutes before the dinner was to start.
I should tell you right up front that I'm a punctual guy. If you tell me the party is at five, I'm there at five. Being "fashionably late" has no appeal to me at all; in fact, it annoys me very much, but I must be in the minority since everyone seems to do it.
Considering that this event was being put on by a financial-management company, a company that would like nothing more than the very serious and important job of managing my family's retirement savings and investments (what little we have), you'd think they'd be punctual as well. So now we're sitting at an elegantly decorated table in a fancy restaurant.
I had just put my napkin on my lap when a nicely-dressed company rep gets up and says, "Since we're still waiting on a few folks, let's wait about 10 minutes before beginning." Huh?
Let me get this straight. You agree to buy my wife and I dinner at a fancy restaurant, just to have us sit there and listen to you try and convince us to let you manage our investments. We hustle and race, both of us working people, on a very busy weeknight to get to a restaurant in another town by 6 p.m. and then, just because a few others haven't yet arrived, we are supposed to sit and twiddle our thumbs for 10 minutes?
To me, it's all about first impressions; if you truly want to be my financial manager, you should have started the program on time. Then, when the stragglers show up, you can offer to stay later if they want to question you on anything they may have missed (and since the beginning of these things is all schmoozing anyway, they wouldn't have missed much).
I really, really think it sends a bad message to the many folks who went out of their way to do as we were told and show up on time to make us then sit there and wait, effectively penalizing us for being punctual.
Am I wrong about this? I really don't think so. I have always favored those who are on time, dependable, and honest, and I always will.
So the event starts with schmoozing and small talk while we eat; then, when the meal is done, the PowerPoint part of the presentation starts. This is where they pull out all the stops and try to prove to you that they can manage your money better than any other firm can or even you yourself can.
All kinds of charts and graphs are displayed in the hope of convincing you that this is complicated and important stuff and you better let them handle it. Over and over, they use examples to try to make their point, examining things like inflation, the consumer-price index, etc., in the hope of making things clearer.
This is fine, but here is how this particular presenter prefixed all of his examples: "Let's say you have a million dollars...."
Now here I am, sitting at an admittedly nice restaurant in Schenectady on a Tuesday night, with a group of people who look very much like my wife and I — ordinary working-class folks who may or may not be close to retirement at a free dinner put on by an investment company seeking our business.
As this guy keeps saying, over and over, "Let's say you have a million dollars," I'm sitting there thinking, “Jeez, I know I don't have a million dollars, and everyone here looks about like me and my wife, so they probably don't have a million dollars, either. In fact, if any of us did have a million dollars, we'd probably be on a beach or a cruise or getting our nails done or something!”
I started to feel very bad for myself and the others the more I sat there and he kept repeating it ad nauseum.
Here's the thing: He needed a nice and easy number as an example in the many calculations he was using to illustrate various retirement scenarios and projections. It's also true that, if you add up your house and your cars and your savings and the money hidden under the mattress, it's probably more than you think.
But when he kept saying "Let's say you have a million dollars," and I know I don't, it made me feel like some kind of a failure or loser. I mean, if he kept saying this over and over so cavalierly, maybe it's not uncommon for regular working folks in Schenectady to have a million dollars?
If that's true then I must be reading the wrong newspapers and watching and listening to the wrong news shows. All I hear about is the terrible economic recovery, the lack of good-quality jobs, the many taxes that are killing us, the struggle to pay for basics like food and rent, affordable heath care and prescription drugs, and trying to find a way to send children to college without going broke.
Do all those people, our many hardworking friends and neighbors, "have a million dollars?" I don't think so.
The next evening, I was still stewing about all this when the phone rang. Believe it or not, it was Million Dollar Man asking for feedback about the meeting! Oh boy, was he in for an earful.
First I complained about having to sit there and wait 10 minutes for the stragglers to show up, even though most of us were there on time. Incredulously he had no idea that this would be a big deal to some of us.
Remember the expression "Time is money?" Here's a financial-services guy who apparently has no conception of that time-honored maxim.
Then I told him how uncomfortable it made me feel when he kept prefixing all his examples with "Let's say you have a million dollars." He told me he just wanted a round figure to make the calculations easy.
When I told him it made me feel like a failure in life to be sitting there, knowing I don't have a million dollars, he was genuinely taken aback. We actually discussed this for about 20 minutes.
I truly believe, if you were sitting there and didn't have a million dollars, you wouldn't feel good about yourself when he kept using this (to me) very high number in his many examples. I think I got my point across but I don't know for sure. He (surprise, surprise) hasn't invited me to any more free dinners, so I guess I'll never know if he's cleaned up his act.
Listen, I know some people have a lot of money. I really do. Even some ordinary-looking people may be loaded.
When I was a bank teller in Manhattan, I had a customer who looked like a homeless lady. She came in pushing a handcart filled with random shabby things, she wore ragged clothes, and she was all hunched over.
Guess what, this was back in the '70s, and, when she pulled her bankbook our of her bra, it had a half-a-million dollars in it, I kid you not. So I know some people, even though they may not look like it, might have a lot of money.
I just know that, when you get a bunch of working people together on a Tuesday night in Schenectady, and you keep saying, "Let's say you have a million dollars," not everyone is going to have that much and you take a big risk of alienating them by reminding them of it over and over. Really.
Look, I'm very grateful for the free dinner, but you have to ask yourself, why is it that investment companies and timeshare companies and buyers’ clubs and things like that have to buy you dinner and give you all kinds of freebies just to peddle their products?
If their offerings were so good, would they really need to do that? I don't see my furnace-repair guy or my car mechanic or my doctor buying me dinner, because they don't have to. Something to keep in mind for sure.
There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there are free dinners — if you can stand them.
I was going to write about various hobbies I've tried and would like to try. In preparation, I looked up the word “hobby,” because I wanted to see what a hobby really is — for example, could writing about a hobby be considered a hobby?
When I pulled out my trusty Merriam-Websters's Collegiate Dictionary, my plans for writing about hobbies quickly got dashed, as the first definition for hobby is not what you would expect at all (gardening, model railroading, etc.).
Guess what the first definition of hobby is? It's "a small Old World falcon that is dark blue above and white below with dark streaking on the breast."
I've been in plenty of hobby shops over the years, and I've not once seen a cage with a large, falcon-type bird of prey hanging from the ceiling. Seriously though, I find it amazing that, at my advanced age, I could find a word that has a totally different primary meaning than what I (and probably you) thought it was.
I mean, can you imagine if Atlanta's football team were called The Hobbies instead of The Falcons? Give me a break.
This got me thinking about quirky different usages of words and odd patterns of speech. When I was small, I vividly remember my Uncle Carmine. He liked big cars and often had a Cadillac or some other beautiful large luxury car.
I can remember very well him telling me, if you wanted to take care of your car, you had to "change the Earl" very often. Of course he meant "oil," but for a long time I thought he had some guy named Earl who worked on his cars and who for some reason he had to change for another guy named Earl every now and then. I'm not even kidding about this.
Then I had a friend who liked football. He was always disappointed when the team had to settle for a "field gold" rather than a touchdown (it's really called a field goal, of course).
This kind of pronunciation thing drives me crazy (and, no, I don't have that much free time, ha ha). One of these that really drives me up the wall is "acrost" instead of across, as in, "The park entrance is acrost that bridge." This seems to be a regional thing, as I've never heard anyone in the media or outside the Capital District say it. One more thing that makes us so cute and lovable, I guess.
Another one that gets butchered on a regular basis is "relator" when of course it's Realtor. You can forgive a layperson for making this mistake, but I've even heard Realtors mispronounce it. Since you'd think they want to present an air of competence and professionalism, this can't be good.
Perhaps their "ant" (meaning aunt) should tell them. I'm guilty of this one myself — I still lovingly refer to my Ant Lena. I know a lot of us do this, because saying aunt sounds a little fancy and pretentious. I hope all the other lovely ants out there don't mind.
Speaking of Ant Lena, when you went to her house, you could always count on having some "bizza and breadsels," that is pizza and pretzels. Ah, the good old days. You would have liked Ant Lena for sure. She's been gone for a long time now and I still think about her all the time.
How 'bout when you're watching the national news and a story comes on about Al-bany, not All-bany? I can sort of forgive them for this one. If you've never heard a regional pronunciation, how can you know what it is?
If you weren't from around here, how would you know how to pronounce, say, Valatie (val-LAY-shuh)? Still, Albany is the capital of New York, so mispronouncing it is kind of inexcusable when it happens.
If someone has a "couple a three" beers, how many beers did they have? My lovely wife says six but I know it's three. Don't ask me how I know this, I just do.
She did get me on one, though. Say you're listening to a ball game and it's the fifth inning. Guess what, look up “fifth” and you’ll see the pronunciation is listed as "fith" and that's the way she says it. The first time I heard her say fith I honestly didn't know what she was talking about.
I used to watch a lot of Met games and it was always the fifth inning, not the fith(!) inning, fer crying out loud, but it is in the dictionary so she's right as usual. I just know I'll never be able to get used to "fith." Sounds like some kind of a bad sickness to me. ("It's too bad, the poor thing's got the fith.")
Whenever I get a new GPS, the first thing I do is change the speaking voice to British English female. There's nothing like coming up to the end of Route 155 in Voorheesville and having that lovely English lady say in her fancy accent "enter roundabout."
Gotta love it. I get a kick out of it every time. You feel like pulling over for some tea and scones.
Without doubt, the most annoying pronunciation faux pas has to be the phenomenon known as "uptalk." This is where a declarative sentence is spoken as a question. If you've by some miracle avoided this auditory disaster, turn on the NPR radio show "Car Talk" and wait for a young female to call in.
Young women are the most notorious "uptalkers" by far. For example, the hosts might ask her where she's calling from. She's supposed to say "I'm from Philadelphia" but instead she says "I'm from Philadelphia?"
Then they will ask her what kind of car problem she is having. She is supposed to say "The check-engine light is on" but instead she says "The check engine light is on?"
This making every statement into a question, for me, is way worse than the cringe-worthy gold standard of chalk squeaking on a blackboard. It simply makes the speaker sound vapid and annoying.
I'm to the point where I have to change the channel when one of these women come on, or, if I'm at a party and someone starts uptalking, I'll remove myself from that conversation faster than Billy Fuccillo can say, "It's gonna be huge, Capital District, huge-uh."
So where did uptalk come from? One theory traces it to the late great Frank Zappa's only top-40 hit, "Valley Girl," where his daughter Moon Unit rapped and uptalked for three minutes in what was then known as "valspeak,” the language of southern California teenage girls. Back when it first came out in the early ’80s, it was kind of quirky and fun, but then it caught on big time and that of course ruined it.
Incredibly, many young girls and women still goofily talk like that today. I'm sure Frank Zappa is laughing his long dark curly locks off wherever he is, but I, for one, have had enough? Sorry, couldn't resist. Gag me with a spoon, as Moon Unit would say.
Now to get back to thinking about hobbies, and by that I mean leisure-time activities, not birds of prey.