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."

Huh?

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.

There was an article in a local newspaper about learning how to do remodeling and home-improvement projects. It told about the many benefits of doing such work; including learning new skills; the pride gained from doing it yourself, and, of course, saving money.

It also noted that doing these kinds of projects, especially for first-timers, would naturally take longer than having a pro do it, or even an experienced amateur. One way to find this extra time, it said, was to drop any exercise program from your schedule, and use that time to work on the project.

Now, I've read hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles on getting in shape over the years. These articles always explain the importance of getting enough exercise and offer plenty of tips on how to squeeze exercise into our busy lives.

That's why I was so blown away when I read something telling me not to exercise. It was like my conception of reality was turned upside down.

I thought about this recently as I undertook refurbishment of a bedroom, hallways, and stairway in my home. This was a large-scale project — a lot of Sheetrock repair; a new door; new flooring; and, of course, fresh paint.

Like the newspaper article said, I took time that I'd normally use to exercise to do this work, but it wasn't by choice; I had arthroscopic shoulder surgery a couple of months ago, and I'm still waiting to get my full strength back so I can start exercising again. The funny thing is, even though I wasn't exercising in the normal sense, I sure got plenty of workouts.

When you're working on the second floor and your tools are in the basement, you face a dilemma — how many tools to bring up? You don't want to bring up so many that you'll have a ton to put away, but not so few that you need to make a lot of up and down trips either. No matter how you do it, the exercise you get from traversing two sets of stairs over and over adds up, let me tell you.

I had to remove lamps from the ceilings and patch and paint up there. Just working overhead is quite taxing, not only for the strength required, but also for craning your neck to see what you're doing.

Ouch.

It's also nice when the paint splatters on your hair and face; that way, when you look in the mirror later, it really looks like you accomplished something. Hey, some people pay big bucks to get their hair colored. I got mine colored for free.

I truly admire guys who do this work every day. I have a feeling that their own houses need work, because I'll bet the last thing they want to do at the end of the day is more of the same.

Think about that for a minute. You're a painter yet your house needs painting; you're a carpenter yet your house needs repair. No wonder why so many people play the lottery.

Do it your way

Aside from the workout you get (whether you want it or not), the really good thing about doing your own remodeling is you get the final say in every aspect.

For example, a lot of places sell painting supplies, but I only buy one very well regarded brand along with the best brushes when I paint. Painting is so involved that I only want to do it once.

The only time I've ever heard any valid reason to use less than the best was a landlord telling me he cuts his paint 50 percent when the tenants change because he's really just painting to clean.

If you can wait for the sales — and you can if you're doing it yourself — you can get the best at a good price, so that's what I do. Painting is just too much work to have to deal with inferior materials.

Don't forget, of course, when you work on a room, you have to get the stuff out of the room first. It's times like these when you realize just how dusty and dirty things can get when you don't deal with them for a long time.

Sometimes you'll even find something you'd thought you'd lost forever; I once found a much-loved belt-carried multi-tool, which had been missing for years, when I moved a desk. No such luck this time, but rooms look so much better when they're less cluttered that it's worth a painting job just as an excuse to clean things out. Less truly is more

With any kind of painting, the trick is in the preparation. If you can feel any kind of bump or ridge with your fingers, you'll see it when it's painted. So now you're into endless spackling, sanding, and priming; the problem is in knowing when to stop.

I always tell myself I'm not going for House Beautiful or whatever other magazines there are that celebrate such stuff, and the truth is you tend to focus on the flaws because you know where they are, but others may not even notice.

Others in this case does not include my lovely wife, because she has the impressive talent of being able to spot any drips, runs, or unspackled holes the instant she walks into the room, no matter where they are, in about two seconds. They say that all men make mistakes, but married men find out about them sooner; how true, how true.

Once all your prep work is done, the interior design aspect of the job begins; you have to chose colors and styles. Here is where I lose it totally.

I have absolutely no sense of style or what matches what. Believe it or not, I go by the names of colors more than anything else. For example, the color I used for the bedroom, a cool and calm light blue, is called Niagara Falls.

Doesn't that have a nice ring to it? I know, it makes no sense, but I have a wife to deal with color schemes and all that. She picks by look, I pick by name, and somehow or another it just works out, how about that.

You don't normally think of painting as exciting work but have you tried painting a stairway ceiling lately? You can use a roller on an extension for the main part, but that won't work for cutting in the sides.

Here — there's just no way around it — you need a ladder. I have a fancy new one where the legs can be adjusted separately, so I set it up on the stairs. Looking at it was weird; it just doesn't seem natural for a stepladder to have two unequal length legs.

Since I've had a ladder collapse under me, I'm very careful around them now. I gingerly got on it and, yes, it held and I was able to cut in the sides and corners, but I never felt real comfortable on it. Once bitten, twice shy and all that. It's going to take me quite a while before my faith in ladders is restored.

The finale

 When you're done and showing off your handiwork, People will admire it unless they're married to you or using a microscope; as long as you get things mostly smooth, you should be OK. If you want absolute perfection — true glass-like smoothness on all visible surfaces — be prepared to pay for it with lots of time or money. There is no other way.

I truly think most of the value from a painting project comes from the cleaning and overall freshening up that goes along with it. My new rules are: No shoes on the new carpets and less stuff in the rooms, including only the bare minimum of stuff hanging on the walls. I hope that following these rules along with the normal vacuuming and dusting  will mean I won't be doing this work again any time soon.

The good news is the project got done and the one bedroom along with the hallways and stairway now look terrific. The bad news is the rest of the house now looks way overdue for the same treatment, sigh. Once my shoulder gets better I hope to get back to exercising, so I guess now is the time to buy more paint while I still have some free time. I wonder if they have a color called Serenity Now?

Novel way to read a classic novel: Charles Dickens’s 1859 A Tale of Two Cities, can be read in electronic form now. Frank Palmeri sees both good things and bad — the best of reading and the worst of reading — in this.

An e-book is an electronic version of a traditional book that can be read on a computer or on an e-book reader like a Kindle from Amazon.com or a Nook from Barnes and Noble. About two years ago, I purchased a Kindle.

I liked it, but, around the same time, I seemingly became a magnet for regular books; I started picking up cheap or free books from the library, all kinds of charity events, and even my old books from my parents' basement when they moved.

For a book lover like me, this was just terrific, so I rarely used the Kindle. Lately, though, I decided to immerse myself in the Kindle, just to see, once and for all, what the e-book experience is really like. When it comes to real books versus e-books, I think one phrase the kids like to use is appropriate: It's all good.

My Kindle is called the Kindle Touch. There is only one main button on the thing — when reading, you simply tap the screen to turn pages.

If you're thinking of giving a Kindle as a gift to a book lover, the one caveat I'd say is that the person has to be at least semi-literate with a computer to take full advantage of it.

For example, I could take a Kindle, load it up with a hundred books, and give it to my mother, who does not use computers at all. I'm sure I could get her reading on it pretty quickly, but many of its functions and features would be so unfamiliar or unavailable to a non-computer user like her as to make the experience more frustrating than fun.

The last thing you want, when you give someone a gift, is to see it used once and then tossed in a drawer.

E-reader pros

Here are the pros of an e-book reader like a Kindle:

— Anything that gets more people reading is a good thing;

— You can literally carry thousands of books around with you;

— Besides books, there are newspapers, magazines, shopping, all kinds of games, and more;

— You get access to thousands of titles, many free or dirt cheap, at the click of a button;

— Font size can be changed on the fly. This alone is one terrific reason to read on something like a Kindle;

— E-ink (electronic ink) technology is really great. Though currently limited to black and white only, the stark black text on a plain white background looks just like a page in a real book. Unlike a computer monitor or a tablet screen, e-ink is very easy on the eyes, even for long periods;

— E-ink e-book readers have really long battery life (e-ink uses no power when just displaying a page). You can go a month without recharging;

— Just tap on a word to get its definition;

— Think about how much less shelf space you'd need if all your books were e-books;

— E-books are very environmentally friendly since there's no paper required;

— You can take out e-books from the library from the comfort of your home;

— You can lend and borrow e-books from friends with e-book readers;

— A specific word or phrase can be "x-rayed" to show all places where it occurs;

— Passages can be highlighted, and you can share your highlighting and view other's highlighting;

— There is a text-to-speech mode, where the Kindle will read out loud to you. You can choose male or female voices and the rate of speech, but it's so robot-like as to be almost comical; and

  • You can share what you're reading with social media like Facebook if you want.

E-reader cons

Now here are some cons of an e-book reader:

— Even though the battery lasts a long time, you still need to carry a charger around;

— Who really needs to carry a thousand books with them?;

— The user interface is not great: The book title and chapter title should be on each page, and, to read footnotes, you have to tap on the asterisk, leave the page, then use the go-to function to get back to the page or location where you came from;

— With so much storage, you need to spend lots of time sorting books and applications into Collections, or else you wind up with yet one more cluttered mess to deal with;

— It's too easy to use the thing just to play games;

— Any mechanical device can break at any time;

— Be careful how you hold it, because an inadvertent touch can change a page or do something unwanted;

— Like any gizmo, it will become outdated;

— It's not good for technical manuals (diagrams are too small; it’s hard to bounce back and forth between text and diagrams; and it’s not easy to photocopy specific pages);

— E-ink is currently only black and white;

— E-ink is hard to read in the dark (newer models have supplemental lighting);

— Giving or lending a book requires the receiver to have an e-reader as well; and

— It’s harder for older people to use all the features without at least some computer skills.

Book advantages

Of course, there are plenty of plain old books available. The pros of regular books are:

— No battery required;

— Excellent user interface;

— Available everywhere, often free or really cheap;

— Books can be dropped without any problems;

— Easy to copy diagrams or pages from technical manuals; and

— Easy to borrow, lend, or give away.

Book drawbacks

The cons for regular books are:

— You can't change the font on the fly;

— If you lose it, it's gone;

— Highlighting a phrase makes in appear black when you make a copy;

— Some are too expensive, big, heavy, or no longer available; and

— Many don't lay flat, which can be a pain (think recipes or technical articles).

Recently I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair on my Kindle. This is the classic workers’ rights book from 1906 that inspired the cleanup of the meat-packing industry. Reading this book on the Kindle was seamless and wonderful.

Then I wanted to borrow and read the e-book versions of New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell's latest books, Outliers and Blink, from the Guilderland Public Library. (Anything by Malcolm Gladwell, like his earlier The Tipping Point, is well worth your time, trust me).

For both of these, I was put on a waiting list — just like with popular real books, popular e-books are often all "out" at the same time. When they finally became available, reading them was fine. Getting to read two great books for free simply by using my Kindle, without ever having to visit the library, was great. Can't beat that with a baseball bat.

Since using a Kindle means you can take advantage of the library without ever visiting it, I'll include here a little song I wrote that was inspired by trying to make a left turn onto Western Avenue when leaving the Guilderland library.

If you've ever tried to do this, especially during rush hour, you'll get the drift I'm sure. You can sing this to your favorite blues riff or play along on harmonica:

Left Turn at the Library Blues

The Guilderland Library
is a place I like to be for programs, books, magazines,
seminars, movies, and DVDs.

All's just fine 
'til it's time to leave
'cause then you have to wear
your heart on your sleeve.

CHORUS

Look out left, look out right. Don't jump out
before the time is right!

Look out left, look out right.
Maybe someday
we'll get a traffic light.

A traffic light
would make it right;
hope no one gets killed
before they see the light.

Repeat Chorus

The community gathers
at the library
so coming and going
shouldn't be so scary.

Repeat Chorus

Go west, young man,
is what they say
but at the Guilderland library,
better hope it's clear and OK!

Repeat Chorus

E-book readers like the Kindle certainly have many advantages, and I'm glad I'm finally making full use of mine. Still, there's nothing like the tactile feel of devouring a good old-fashioned page-turner by someone like Tom Clancy or Mary Higgins Clark that you got at a used book sale for a quarter. Truly, it's all good. 

Picture this: You're crossing the street downtown in a big city like New York or Chicago. As you approach the curb, you glance down and see, amid the cigarette butts and beer-bottle caps, a single, spindly weed growing in a tiny crack between the hard, weather-beaten curb and the grimy, sticky asphalt.

The crack is maybe a millimeter wide, yet this weed has the audacity and tenacity to boldly poke itself up into the blustering, windy city, only one misplaced footstep or bad parking attempt away from destruction. Even putrid runoff from dogs relieving themselves at the nearby hydrant and toxic car and bus exhaust fumes can't keep this weed down.

This sucker is more than just a weed; it's a survivor, an underdog, and that's why you have to like it.

Now I live in suburbia, where the landscape consists of widely spaced houses separated by lawns that would love nothing more than to be like the manicured fairways of the world's greatest golf courses. The fact that many are not is only because of the immense expenditure of time (endless mowing, weeding, feeding, and watering) and money (mowers, fertilizers, pesticides, automated sprinklers) that it costs to have such a lawn.

I don't really care that much about landscaping, and I'm not very good at it, but I'm so trained that carpet-like grass and bountiful shrubs are the things to have that often I'll be walking along somewhere and have to stop myself from bending down to pick up a stray stick or pull out a choking vine. Living in landscape-obsessed suburbia does that to you.

That's why you have to love that single, solitary, growing-in-a-tiny-crack weed. It doesn't care about pristine suburbia or lush golf courses. It just is.

When there's a sport I don't know much about, I'll always find out which is the worst team and root for them. It's fun to root for the underdog.

No one wants to lose, so you know the underdogs are going to try hard, plus they may not even be that bad; sometimes, the ball just doesn't bounce your way. There is even camaraderie in rooting for a bad team.

The fans in New Orleans spent many years sitting next to each other in the Superdome with paper bags over their heads. You may not know the person sitting next to you, but, when you're both wearing paper bags with eye, nose, and mouth cutouts, there's a bond there for sure.

It's fun to root for an underdog. With no expectations, there's no place to go but up. Yes, it may take a long time to get there — look at the Red Sox — but, when you do, it's phenomenal. I just hope my favorite team, the Minnesota Vikings, can win before I get too old and senile to actually enjoy it. Come on, guys, I'm not getting any younger here.

Let's get back to the dichotomy of that pesky weed. On the one hand, it's a true underdog, living in such a volatile environment, so you have to love it; yet, on the other hand, it's a weed, something random and not at all attractive or wanted, so (especially if you live in suburbia like me) you have to hate it.

This is rather painful, when you think about it, and I have thought about it quite a bit. It's a classic example of cognitive dissonance — a psychological conflict resulting from incompatible beliefs held simultaneously.

Is it any wonder I don't have a good time at parties? I'm sitting there feigning interest in small talk while mentally contemplating how weeds can thrive in cracks in city sidewalks. Yes, I really do this. Ah, the conundrum of the thinking man.

I've purchased plenty of supposedly squirrel-proof birdfeeders over the years. All of these have some special feature or design that theoretically should prevent squirrels from getting to the birdseed.

Too bad nobody contacted the squirrels first, because, for every one of these I've put up, the squirrels have had zero problems getting seed from it. They do it so cleverly it's hard not to root for them as well.

Talk about underdogs — these fancy feeders are designed specifically to thwart pests, and the pests just find a way to gorge themselves anyway. The crafty squirrels are truly amazing at it; I've seen them eat heartily while hanging upside down, using their little fingers to paw at the seed, while the chipmunks scoop up the spills. If these little *)%!@s didn't make holes all over the lawn and scare the beautiful birds away, you'd have to admire them.

There's one other thing that reminds me of hearty weeds and persistent pests — things you love and hate at the same time — and that's mob movies and TV shows. As an Italian-American, I am saddened that this genre reinforces the stereotype of Italians as mobsters.

There are some people I'm sure who don't know how warm, loving, funny, and family-oriented Italian people are. When they see these productions, they are sure to get the wrong idea about Italian people.

Yet I can't deny that these movies and TV shows make for compelling entertainment; there's not one bad scene in any of the Godfather movies, and many say The Sopranos is the best TV show of all time.

Instead of pulling that weed from the crack in the curb, I admire it; instead of scaring off the squirrel at the bird feeder, I'm amazed by it; instead of scorning the despicable characters mob shows celebrate, I'm endlessly fascinated by them.

It's this conflicting set of emotions that make many aspects of life so wonderful and frustrating at the same time. Oh well, guess it's time to go down to Robinson's Hardware and try to find a better squirrel-proof birdfeeder.

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