Archive » June 2020 » Columns

The Old Men of the Mountain have begun to look like real mountain men (over the past few months) unless they could cut their own hair, or trusted someone who is handy with scissors to cut it for them. (One nephew even used the dog clippers; the dog was not happy about that). Now that the barber shops and salons are open, they are packed with people wanting their hair done.

This scribe, as some may know, is an artist. When doing portraits of guys, he is generally asked for either “more hair” or to “touch it up.” The scribe’s reply is, “I paint what I see,” but, if you readers will keep this a secret, the scribe does help out where he can.

This scribe is having trouble coming up with anything the OMOTM have done because they haven’t done anything. In phone conversations with some of the OFs, they are doing what is recommended and staying home.

The OFs only leave the ole homestead when they have to. Some of the OGs have even used the word “scared.”

One OF said, “Where am I going to go? Everything is closed or so regulated I don’t know what to do, and the dumb masks are a pain in the you-know-what.”

Two OFs said they are saving money; even though gas is cheap, they are not going anywhere anyway — so there is a savings. One commented on not going out to eat, and not getting haircuts (see above comments) — they are all savings.

The other OF said he worries about the people whose jobs were where he spent his money (when he was spending money) and the longer this goes on he is getting used to not doing what he used to do and it is not that bad.

However, and this has been mentioned before, they do miss people, especially family that is quite a distance away and occasionally taking a trip to see them, and vice versa. One of the OFs mentioned that on Father’s Day his family generally had big doings. They held fireworks, cookouts, and got caught up with family chitchat.

This year, because of the OFs’ ages the family does not want to take a chance on having that virus hook a ride on something and somehow pass it along.

Some of the OMOTM say, even though things are “opening up,” they are still going to wait until there is a vaccination, a pill, or a shot that is available for the OF to take advantage of before they venture out on a routine basis; otherwise they will just go out when it is absolutely necessary.

Without the meetings, this scribe is running out of word ammunition supplied by the OFs to generate a column; however, this scribe can tell of the occasional opportunity when he got a chance to go swimming in Fox Creek.

It is interesting how past memories are prompted by current events. Our neighbors took their kids swimming in Fox Creek just a few days ago and one of their ages is close to the scribe’s when he went swimming in the same creek but not at the same spot.

If we got done in the fields early, our father would let us go swimming. We contacted a few others and hopped on the John Deere B and putt-putted to Murphy Road, picking up a few kids on the way.  Across from Murphy’s farm was a nice place to swim.

There was clean water, wide and not too much current. But we could only do this for a little while because most of the kids there had to get home for chores. This little interlude did get rid of the chaff from haying.

This scribe went to Google to see if the creek still had that wide spot and it does. There is one great big question mark to this scribe. Google has the Fox Creek labeled as the Cobleskill Creek, but the Cobleskill Creek enters the Schoharie Creek at Central Bridge. That’s nowhere near the Fox Creek, which enters the Schoharie Creek just before the Old Stone Fort (north of the Fort) in Schoharie. Hmmmm. Who questions Google?

As stated in the beginning of this column, there is hardly anything new or exciting to report from the OMOTM. In fact, this has turned into a column about nothing. Say! Didn’t Jerry Seinfeld start this way?  There is hope for us yet.

In last week’s column, the topic was basically what the OFs ate when they were young. A late note received from another of the OFs mentioned a dish his mother served and that was Hungarian goulash.

This is not an unusual meal; most of the OFs have had that dish, and mothers still make it today. The varieties of goulash are similar to the making of jumbles (cookies) — many ways to make the same thing. This dish is also offered in many restaurants so it is not as unusual as chocolate syrup and sugar on cereal or ground-up leftover popcorn for breakfast

However, some people have a knack for making goulash special and different as this OF says his mother used to make it. To him, it was special. Why? That is the unknown.

This leads into another late report for one OF who claimed his mother couldn’t cook at all. He says she had to get the cookbook out to boil water. Her cooking was awful; if it was close to edible, it was either overcooked, burned, or raw.

This OF, as he grew older (into his thirties), thought he began to understand why his mother’s cooking was so bad. It was because her mind was on other things and not cooking. For some reason, she could cook poached eggs, but when she did it was up to the OF to make his own toast.

Her toast would be either just warm bread, or burned so badly that by the time the OF was done scraping it, the toast would become so thin it was possible to see through it.

When the OF was old enough to communicate with his dad on an almost equal basis, he asked him about her cooking. The OF said his dad told him he married her because he loved her — her looks, her talents, plus she could work like a horse — not for her cooking.

Model-T running again

This scribe also received an email from another OMOTM that said he finally got his Model-T motor car running and he sent a video of himself running it around his backyard. It is amazing to see cars, trucks, planes, and boats 100 years old and still running. Some are running privately, and some in shows, but they are still chugging along.

The Model-T was made for 19 years and, according to the net, when they first came out, the autos sold for around $800. Ford found a way to lower costs and by 1927 was selling the model-T for $300.


At one time, the OFs were discussing faith, not religious faith but faith we have in each other and in things. For example, it takes faith to jump into an airplane that was built in the thirties, zip down the runway and take off.

At the time when the OFs were talking about this topic, they said we put a lot of faith in our vehicles each time we shut the door and turn the key. Our faith that each man (or robot) that built their car did their job (and did it right) is an assumption the OFs make when the door goes thump, the engine whirrs, and off the OFs go.


Using the word “engine” reminds this scribe what his father taught him about engines. This scribe’s father was well educated and an engineer who not only did civil engineering but also aeronautical engineering.

He told this scribe that an engine ran on fuel, and a motor ran on electricity. Calling an outboard engine an outboard motor is a misnomer, although everybody does it. A ⅜-inch electric drill has a motor; a weed whacker (that the OFs pull their hearts out to start) has an engine.

One time long ago, the OFs got on the beleaguered weathermen for the use of a term something like this, “Tomorrow rain or snow will over spread the area.” To “over spread” requires a constant predetermined maximum amount of rain or snow to already be there; otherwise the rain or snow is just going to spread over the area.

Right words, wrong order. To the OFs, the use of “over spread” indicates a deluge but the weather guys just might be indicating there may be a shower or two.

The other thing many of the OFs don’t understand is the term “breezy.” A breeze to the OFs is something that comes along on a hot day and a nice, soft, gentle wind comes up and the OFs go, “Ahhh” and wipe their brows.

But the weather guys say, “Tomorrow, it will be breezy” and the OFs find that tomorrow the wind will blow their hat off. This ain’t no breeze! This is a real blow!

Breeze? My foot. Tell it like it is, guys; say something like, “Tomorrow the winds are going to blow; hold on to your hat.” The OFs look forward to a breeze, not what those guys call a breeze.


Well, Father’s Day is coming up shortly and the OFs have noticed the difference between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day advertisements. Mother’s Day ads: Diamonds on sale for $3,000. Father’s Day ads: Men’s target cargo shorts on sale for $11. 

Happy Father’s Day to all.

— Photo from Jesse Sommer

Lather lesson: Jesse and his dad.

Thirteen months ago, The Enterprise published a column I’d dedicated to my mum on the occasion of Mother’s Day. And when I didn’t follow it up in June with a Father’s Day column, a reader emailed to express disappointment. “I hoped you might share some of your dad’s influence as well,” she wrote. 

It hadn’t even occurred to me to do so. Father’s Day always struck me as the obligatory counterpart to its May-based companion, and that’s how lots of Americans viewed the holiday throughout the first half of the 20th Century’s efforts to formally establish it. The parental roles are just eminently different in the recognition they warrant; motherhood is something to celebrate, while fatherhood is something to expect. Right?

That attitude probably derives from the language itself. After all, the infinitive verb “to mother” means “to nurture” and “care for,” while “to father” means, well, something else entirely. It’s that borderline unprintable definition unsuitable for a family newspaper that for most of recorded history encapsulated a father’s primary role. No wonder that so many, for so long, conceived of fatherhood as a duty to be performed rather than a sacrifice worthy of admiration.

But in observing the influence of my brothers-in-law on the development of my nieces and nephews over the past year, I’ve had occasion to reconsider my own dad’s role in my life. And on this Father’s Day, I’d like to reinterpret what “to father” means to my sisters and me.    

Because it’s probably most accurate to say that “to father” is to make the world’s best sandwiches, and its best soups, from what you’ve grown in its best garden. It means building your kids a tree fort that operates as both a castle and a pirate ship, and then telling tall tales of the heroes who sword fight on its ramparts and rafters.

It’s to inexhaustibly demand that your children turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, and turn the other cheek in the face of schoolyard bullies. But it also means telling your 10-year-old son to toughen up, to “mentally adjust yourself,” and to “put up your dukes” when there are no cheeks left to turn.

“To father” means racing home from work and changing into the team jersey so you can coach your son’s Kiwanis sports teams, even when he isn’t any good on baseball or soccer fields — just as it means taking it in stride when he knocks out your front tooth in a notorious wrestling match because his proper place is on the mats.

It means sitting with your 6-year-old son on the first day of summer camp when he’s shy to the point of terror, telling him it’s OK to cry, and waiting with him while he does. And it means intuiting when it’s time to leave after you drop him off at college 12 years later, as the confidence you’ve instilled in him over the intervening decade fuels him forth into a new social unknown without even a backwards glance.

Recently, I asked my sisters what “to father” meant to them. Ever the narcissist, I was surprised to learn about all the custom-tailored parenting of which I’d been oblivious. For example, it turns out that “to father” means holding your daughter’s hand and squeezing it three times to silently say “I love you” when she’s a sad little 5-year-old. And it means editing her work product 29 years later when, at 34, she still asks for feedback before a big presentation. 

“To father” means helping your daughter calm her debilitating childhood migraines with gentle visualization exercises, and coaxing her through panic attacks by massaging her back and asking her to describe which birds she hears singing until the calm returns. It means teaching your daughters the “Girl Power!” rallying cry, and supporting them in becoming archaeologists, lawyers, doctors, and eventually mothers. Then, when life doesn’t go according to plan, “to father” means reaching out to catch your daughter when her dreams fall apart and life crashes down all around her.  

“When I felt stupid in math, Dad told me it was OK to be smart about other things,” Caitlin told me. “He introduced me to an entire library of philosophy, history, and English, all of which shaped my understanding of the cosmos.”

“He supported my decision to go to law school and encouraged me to stick with it when I questioned why I went,” Robin said. “He’s my biggest champion and best friend. He loves my baby girls and protects them so fiercely.” 

“Mom made the idea of becoming a doctor attainable,” Brenna wrote me, “but Dad was my motivation for being the best at it. He’s proof that, if you dedicate yourself to making the world around you just a teeny bit better, you can find the space to be your weird little self.” Word. 

There are other definitions of “to father” that bespeak phenomena of which my sisters and I were once unaware amidst the illusion of safety and stability that Dad so fervently guarded. He might not even realize that my sisters and I know that “to father” means having always dreamt of opening a little bookstore in Vermont, only to wake up one day to realize that you’re sharing a home with four babies under the age of 6, and thus dutifully trudging through three decades of 60-hour workweeks driven by a frantic desperation to provide for your kids.

He may not be aware that my sisters and I know that “to father” is to lie awake in bed after you’ve lost your job and don’t know how you’ll ever support that family of six, only to take a monumental risk — and ultimately build a thriving business which now, in turn, supports the livelihoods of coworkers he regards as his second family.

But, at its core, “to father” probably most closely means “to teach” — to teach your children how to laugh at themselves and enjoy life’s inexorable nonsense. It’s to teach them how to fire a gun, to chop firewood, and to shake hands like you mean it. “To father” is to teach your son how to ride a bike, and then some years later how to drive a car — twice equipping him with the freedom to set out on his own even when Mom wants to keep her baby right at home.  

An aside: Soon after I learned to drive, I deemed it my duty as a big brother to pass that precious knowledge onto my 12-year-old sister. Taking advantage of our rural backcountry roads and a late afternoon when Mom and Dad were nowhere to be found, I adjusted the driver’s seat so Brenna’s tiny legs could reach the pedals. Her command of the clutch was impressively innate.  But as she piloted us back into the driveway, we realized we’d been caught. There was Dad, at the fence, watching his pre-adolescent daughter shift into neutral. From shotgun, I pulled the emergency brake and prepared to face the music. We took a deep breath and, exiting the car, confronted Dad’s raised eyebrow.

“I’m not sure your mom would approve of that,” he said, clearly unsure of what proper parenting protocol now dictated. Then he walked off, and my sister and I were silent. She turned to me.  “Ever get the sense that Dad’s just winging it?” she asked.

Yup. All the time. You know who else did? Dad. As we were growing up, he would so often proclaim, “I have no idea what I’m doing” that it practically became his battle cry, accompanied as it was by helpless flailing whenever Mom’s out-of-town trips stranded him with the kids. Yet it was in those moments that Dad bequeathed unto us the ancient arts of subversion and stealth, as together we would all seditiously devour illicit sugar cereals and the contraband Nintendo gaming system he rented from Blockbuster. 

Because Dad was skeptical of any authority, even his own. That’s an ethos he wears on his shoulders (literally, as his fiery red shoulder-length mane enters its fifth unabashed decade). And while “mothering” may entail imparting unparalleled literary skills through a robust regime of bedtime stories, “fathering” is to spin your children into a frenzy of giggles by taking extreme artistic license with the children’s books you deem in need of narrator intervention. Where else does a child develop the absurdist sense of humor necessary to endure life’s unrelenting tragedies? 

My father’s politics were the most unique and defining aspect of his parenthood. Seemingly divergent perspectives weren’t contradictory — they were just Dad. For example, he viewed paying taxes as the highest of patriotic privileges, but was leery of a strong central government.  He believed the posted speed limit was sacrosanct, but that the proper scheduling of certain controlled substances was up for debate.

He taught my sisters and me to honor the police, despite a worldview forged by the civil rights movement. He’s been an avowed conscientious objector since his Vietnam-era antiwar activism, but was never prouder of me than when I commissioned in the Army. He staunchly supported Obamacare, but largely out of a principled conservative ethos that everyone should have to pay their fair share (“why should I foot the ER bill for someone too irresponsible to carry health insurance?”). Vegetarianism was his core moral philosophy, and something he made cool before it was cool.  

While it’s true that whatever intellect I possess is likely an inheritance from my mother, it’s the charm, wit, and work ethic I get from Dad that ever gave it any agency. Yet despite his limitless charisma, he’s always been intensely private. Which is why the accompanying photo prominently featuring his nipple likely embarrasses him, as did my school suspensions and adolescent run-ins with law enforcement. Have I mentioned that “to father” is to forgive?

Of the many undeserved societal privileges that Providence afforded me, the most fundamental was that my dad was always around. I never had to question it. He might’ve worked long hours and on weekends, yet somehow, even now, Dad’s always just there.

Morbid though it may be, I often contemplate life when he’s gone. Like, even as a child, I knew that Dad just didn’t have a sufficiently refined taste for macaroni art; only Mom could properly appreciate the nuanced subtlety of finger-paintings worthy of the fridge. But nowadays, I can’t help but wonder: If Dad isn’t around to witness all that he’s set me up to accomplish, what’s the point? 

I guess the answer can be divined from yet another definition: “To father” is to instill in your kids a robust ethical framework that guides them long after you’re gone. And though Dad has never cared much about legacy, being a legacy of which he’d be proud is one way to ensure he remains forever present in my life.   

In the last half-decade, the phrase “to father” has taken on a new connotation — expanding to encompass what it means “to grandfather.” Yet notwithstanding that evolution, there’s one meaning that remains the same as it ever was: “To father” is to be my single biggest inspiration for who and what I am. 

Despite my dad’s nearly infinite supply of daily mistakes, perhaps one reason I’ve shied away from having kids myself is the fact that I couldn’t possibly be half the father my father was. No child deserves anything less. So Happy Father’s Day, Deano. Thanks for literally everything.

Captain Jesse Sommer is a lifelong resident of Albany County, currently deployed to Afghanistan with the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He welcomes your thoughts at .


Years ago, when I was with students nearly every day of the week, I often enough encountered a soul who said he wanted to be a writer, and I was thrilled.

For each of these tyros, I had a set of questions, made a recommendation, and then gave a small assignment to test their resolve.

The first thing I asked was: Did you write today? And (almost) always the answer came back no.

Then I’d ask: Well, did you write this week? Again (almost) always a no.

And finally I’d say: Is there something you’re deeply passionate about that you’d like to explore and share your findings with the rest of the world via pen and pad?

The response was, as some stand-up comics say, crickets.

The recommendation I made — and still do when the occasion arises — was that the aspirant read the first three sentences of James Joyce’s “Araby,” one of 15 stories in his beloved “Dubliners” collection.

“Araby” starts: “North Richmond Street, being blind, was a quiet street except at the hour when the Christian Brothers’ School set the boys free. An uninhabited house of two storeys stood at the blind end, detached from its neighbours in a square ground. The other houses of the street, conscious of decent lives within them, gazed at one another with brown imperturbable faces.”

In 61 words, Joyce paints the backdrop for a movie set. In three sentences he presents an endless flood of questions. Why was the street quiet? Did the boys from the Christian Brothers’ school live on the street or were they passing through? Were they loud and noisy and disturbing of the “decent lives?” Why was a house empty and what were the personalities of those living in “brown imperturbable faces?”

The assignment I gave to my tyro was to survey the space that extends from the period of each sentence to the first word of the next, and then to wade into that space the way he might wade into a pool. And once there, to listen.

When the tyros heard that, their faces twisted as if they had just taken a shot of vinegar.

But I’m here today not to praise Joyce — he has his legions — but to call attention to Joseph Mitchell, an American writer, a New York writer, an ethnographer, and lover of Joyce, whose stories, though different from his, are quite their equal. And Joyce is considered tops.

Early on Mitchell wrote for The New York Herald Tribune and then The New York World-Telegram. A collection of the stories that appeared in those papers comprise “My Ears are Bent,” which Sheridan House came out with in 1938. Mitchell’s ears were always bent to listen.

Readers know Mitchell of course, and collectors keep their eyes peeled for special editions of his work. A first edition cloth copy with dust jacket in near fine condition of “My Ears are Bent” is listed on AbeBooks for $4,500 ($10 first class shipping), The publication price was $2.50.

But the biggest change in Mitchell’s life came when Harold Ross, the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The New Yorker took him on in 1938 to produce art with pen and pad. Though the magazine’s prospectus said it would not cater to “the old lady in Dubuque,” Ross wanted people who wrote chatty, informal, contemporary (hip) pieces.

When Mitchell’s work started appearing, people in every quarter of the country took to him — his picture was on the side of delivery trucks — they loved the way he told stories. And he had such a penchant for the lost and lonely of the world, those whose soul you have to look deep down into to find out who they are.

Some writers referred to them as “little people,” which set Mitchell on fire. In the intro to his 1943 “McSorley’s Wonderful Saloon” collection, he says: “Many writers have recently got in the habit of referring to [those people] as the ‘little people.’ I regard this phrase as patronizing and repulsive. There are no little people in this book. They are as big as you are, whoever you are.”

And he lived that way, a radical who became the voice of the voiceless — which people say contributed to his persistent sadness.

They also say “Mr. Hunter’s Grave,” which appeared in September 1956, is his best work. Mitchell tells how, while visiting a cemetery on the south shore of Staten Island, he met a Mr. George Hunter, an 87-year-old trustee of an African-American church on the island’s Sandy Ground community. Hunter was the last of a breed of black oystermen who worked the island’s shoals at the end of the 19th Century.

As the pair walked past the cemetery’s stones, they came upon the graves of Mr. Hunter’s two wives, and then Mr. Hunter pointed to where he would rest. Mitchell paints him with such immediacy and fine strokes that we’re led to another world.

But there are two things you need to know about Mitchell. The first is that some of the people he wrote about were creations or composites of people he met, which his editor knew about and even allowed with other writers on the staff — but Mitchell still catches the brunt of critical scorn.

The other thing you need to know about Mitchell is that, once he finished his famed “Joe Gould’s Secret” in 1964, he produced nothing else for the magazine. For 31 years and six months, he showed up at work every day, closed the door to his office until lunchtime; back from lunch, he closed the door until it was time to go home — nada. He died in 1996.

He told a reporter, “I can't seem to get anything finished anymore. The hideous state the world is in just defeats the kind of writing I used to do.”

“The Rivermen,” which appeared in March 1959, is one of Mitchell’s meditations on the gift of life.

It begins, “I often feel drawn to the Hudson River, and I have spent a lot of time through the years poking around the part of it that flows past the city. I never get tired of looking at it; it hypnotizes me. I like to look at it in midsummer, when it is warm and dirty and drowsy, and I like to look at it in January, when it is carrying ice.

“I like to look at it when it is stirred up, when a northeast wind is blowing and a strong tide is running — a new-moon tide or a full-moon tide — and I like to look at it when it is slack. It is exciting to me on weekdays, when it is crowded with ocean craft, harbor craft, and river craft, but it is the river itself that draws me, and not the shipping, and I guess I like it best on Sundays, when there are lulls as long as a half an hour, during which ... nothing moves upon it, not even a ferry, not even a tug, and it becomes as hushed and dark and secret and remote and unreal as a river in a dream.”

All the stories that appeared in The New Yorker can be found in “Up in the Old Hotel,” a 718-page omnibus of endless treasure that’s still in print and affordable.

His colleague at the magazine, Roger Angell, used to say Mitchell’s stories stand “firmly and cleanly in your mind, like Shaker furniture.”

That’s because he was a Shaker, he was a man who heard the voice of God in everyone he met.

Whenever I get to Manhattan, I try to make time to visit the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street. It’s a large, grand, multi-story (there’s a pun) stone building right on the corner with “Four Miles of Used Books” proudly proclaimed on a big sign. The Strand sells new and used books, but it specializes in buying out entire collections from estates. If you love books, there’s no better place to be.

You would think the Strand would have all kinds of books, and you’d be right. Name the genre and the Strand has it. There is even one whole floor dedicated to glossy picture books with archival-type photographs on every subject imaginable. The skilled use of a camera can of course be artistic. I’ve never seen so many of these truly beautiful “coffee table” kinds of books in one place before. The Strand really does have everything.

Here’s the thing, though: As many times as I’ve been to the Strand, I’ve never — not even once — found a book by Kurt Vonnegut there. Isn’t that curious? He had a long and noteworthy career, and he sold a ton of books. How could it be that his books are never available in one of the largest bookstores in the country?

Based on my own experience, it’s this: Those of us who are Kurt Vonnegut fans are so devoted to him we could never give up our copies. To true Vonnegut fans like me his books are sacred. I’ll bet when an estate comes in that contains Vonnegut books at the Strand, they are greedily snapped up by his many rabid fans. So that must be why I’ve never seen his books there.

Kurt Vonnegut has many local connections. Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, he attended Cornell University, served in the Army, studied engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and worked at General Electric in Schenectady (a lot of “Player Piano,” his first novel, is based on his experience at GE), and lived for a long time in both Cape Cod and Manhattan.

The defining event of his life came when, as a prisoner of war in Dresden, Germany during World War II, he survived the firebombing of the city by the allies. This seminal event, along with the negative effects of technology and the loss of jobs it creates, would affect his worldview and influence his writing for his entire career.

Many people classify Vonnegut’s writing style as “gallows humor.” I never had that opinion myself. However, the Guilderland Public Library has been closed for months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This forced me to re-read many of my own books.

At one point, I read five Kurt Vonnegut books in a row — “Jailbird,” “Deadeye Dick,” “Galapagos,” “Bluebeard,” and “Hocus Pocus.” After doing that, I have to say, I had to stop reading his books and switch to something else.

Between these five books and the pandemic and the protests over the horrific George Floyd killing by the police in Minneapolis, it was just too much, let’s put it this way, pessimism. Even though Vonnegut is my favorite author, there’s only so much stark reality — even when it’s framed in brilliant social commentary — one can take.

You’ve never read Vonnegut? His writing can be described as a sardonically witty critique of the human condition. So much of the “phoniness,” (to borrow from Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger’s seminal “Catcher in the Rye”) of modern society: doublespeak in politics and advertising, materialistic behavior, the military-industrial complex, racism, wealth inequality, and more are all fair game for Vonnegut’s caustic wit.

To put it bluntly, he just nails all the hypocrisy of Western civilization over and over. That’s why he’s so great. His work still stands up so well because people never change.

It’s interesting to note that many have tried to bring Vonnegut to the big and small screens, but for some reason it never works. There were a few TV specials with some adaptations of his short stories that were so-so.

Apparently there was a movie made of his blockbuster “Slaughterhouse Five,” but I never saw it, and I’m not alone because it was a box-office flop. The movie of his that I did see was based on my favorite Vonnegut book, “Breakfast of Champions.” It was so bad, and so poorly written and acted, that one wonders if the producers even read the original book.

Sad, but it just reinforces the point that Vonnegut is best experienced the old-fashioned way: read alone by a single person. When you do it that way, the many fruits of the experience can be contemplated and enjoyed in perpetuity.

“Breakfast of Champions” is not considered to be one of Vonnegut's better books, and yet it’s my favorite by far. In it, recurring character Kilgore Trout, the failed science-fiction writer, takes a journey to an art convention.

Vonnegut uses the trip and the art convention to skewer just about everything and everyone in modern American society perfectly, which is why I still read this book at least twice a year and literally have to force myself to not read it more often (life is too short to keep reading the same book over and over again, no matter how good it is).

If you’ve ever wondered about why advertising is so bad, and why so much modern art is just, er, nothing, and why achieving material success often leaves you wanting, and how companies can dump toxic waste in our rivers, and how we have one face in public and one face in private, and, and, and — you get the idea. “Breakfast of Champions” has all this and Vonnegut’s own child-like drawings to boot. I just can’t get enough of it.

Though Vonnegut was a noted atheist and humanist, he cites the Bible in many of his stories, demonstrating a complex understanding and interpretation of the holy book. Clearly, like many of us, he struggled with how the simple messages of Jesus Christ — including love your neighbor, and let he without sin first cast a stone — could become so perverted by so many and used as justification for all kinds of atrocities.

It’s not an easy topic, and I admire him for making it a central theme in his writing. Thinking about something is the first step to trying to make it better.

In one of my college English courses, we had to pick out an author and write a 25-page research paper, analyzing his life and one of his books. Even at that time, the mid to late 1980s, I had already voraciously read all of Vonnegut’s books that were published up to then, so naturally that’s who I wanted to write about.

My professor, unfortunately, had other ideas: He claimed Vonnegut hadn’t been around long enough to have lots of literary criticism to draw on for my research. Huh? I didn’t agree then and don’t agree now, but he was the boss.

So I had to switch to Hermann Hesse. “Siddhartha” is a great book, with its symbolic river of life rolling by as you sit under the banyan tree contemplating your navel and all that. But I so, so, so, wanted to immerse myself in Vonnegut for that paper, and I still ache inside that I didn’t get to do so. Oh well, as Mick sings, “You can’t always get what you want.”

In writing this, I got to thinking about why I’m so attracted to “curmudgeonly” writers like Vonnegut, Andy Rooney, Mark Twain, and so many more. I think it relates to my own personal experience.

I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I know that, yet I am able to think coherently about what goes on in the country and the world. It seems obvious to me that we can do great things when we come together — space travel, efficient agriculture, new medicines, and so much more.

Yet we are constantly sidetracked by falling into factions: country vs. country, conservative vs. liberal, black vs. white, men vs. women, and on and on. How can one not get cranky when one thinks of what we could achieve and what we instead devolve into? So frustrating.

Yet I think, by throwing light on thorny social problems, these kinds of authors do us all a great service. Exposing dirt and mold to bright light is the first step in getting rid of it.

I could go on, but I don’t want to spoil it for you. Go to your favorite bookstore (make it the Strand if you happen to be in Manhattan; I promise you’ll love it) or library and pick up some Kurt Vonnegut. Be prepared to be simultaneously elated and saddened, but most of all, amazed that such cogent analyses of the very core of our lifestyle is still so relevant — indeed, so explanatory — today.

And so it goes.

This scribe and his wife were sitting, having breakfast, and started discussing what they had for breakfast when they were kids. This prompted the scribe to email the OFs to find out what they had for breakfast when they were kids and young adults. The replies came and included what they had for breakfast, and some just stated what they had then that they liked but not confined to breakfast.

Most of the OFs are in their eighties, or close to it, but they should be dead based on what they ate back in the thirties and early forties. That is more than eighty years ago.

To start, many mothers saved grease in a can on the back of the stove for cooking; the primary grease was bacon fat. One OF mentioned he can still smell buttermilk pancakes cooked on a grill covered with bacon grease. Then smother the pancakes with real butter and maple syrup, with two or three eggs on the side and bacon to boot.

Many of the OFs drank whole raw milk. One OF mentioned ground-up left-over popcorn for breakfast.

Another OF said they poured chocolate syrup on their cereal, with sugar on top of that. Still another said that quite often their main meal was breakfast and they had potatoes and bacon or ham, or fried Spam, or even fried bologna, eggs, whole milk, and real butter on toast.

The OF added, “Of course we had to load up before going out in the fields for the day, but many OFs loaded up the same way before going to school.”

Hamburger gravy on toast was another meal an OF said they were served, and this was good.

It was surprising how some of the OFs had the same thing for a snack. This snack was bread with butter and sugar on it, and the scribe remembers having black molasses on bread as a snack.

This scribe also remembers eating “from the land” as his mother used dandelion greens in salads. There were wild strawberries from the fields; raspberries grew rampant in the manure pile; currants behind the hop house, and blackcaps down by the little creek.

When strawberries were in season, there was just strawberry shortcake for supper. That was it! Strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. The scribe thought he was alone in this, but he found out other OFs ate the same thing.

Then there are the Schoharie County Jumbles. There are two legends of how this cookie came about. One story is that it is an old recipe that dates back to the 1700s; the other is that the recipe was developed during the Great Depression because it used so few ingredients and is so darn good.

It is hard to find the jumbles outside of Schoharie County. Outside the county, no one seems to know what the OFs are talking about when talking cookies and the OFs mention jumbles.

Because three OFs mentioned these cookies, this scribe checked into the matter. This scribe’s mother did the same thing — made jumbles. Jumbles with milk! How good is that?

The scribe decided to check it out and in a recipe book, from Esperance (reprinted recipes for the village’s bicentennial in 2018) titled “Recipes and Remembrances.” A section called “Jumbles” was, in fact, just facts about Jumbles. Briefly, the cookie was brought over by the Europeans over 200 years ago, and since then there have many variations of the same cookie. So there.

All this talk about food brings to mind that the scribe’s wife grumbled about having to cook another meal without a restaurant break. The scribe told her that he would make dinner that evening.

The box of mac and cheese with frozen chicken nuggets was made for her and she was happy since she didn’t have to think about doing any cooking that night. She did complain the nuggets were a little hard, but I don't know why the scribe said. The bag said, “fully cooked, keep frozen.”


Flying Eagle

Well it is nice weather, which brings an OF major event — the launching of the Flying Eagle. This eagle has landed in the water. The ship has been taken out of dry dock and is now berthed at its summer dock on Thompson Lake Road.

The crew did not fare so well; they seem to be much thinner. Even the crow (he was the mascot) who is now the captain of the ship, had slim pickings.

Over the winter, the crew gathered and laid out its plans for pilfering and plundering for the summer campaign of 2020. Due to circumstances beyond the control of this raucous crew, and their new fearless leader, the pickings have become even more drastically slim.

Nobody seems to be out and about, and the crew can’t tell who is rich or poor because they all look alike. Everybody is wearing masks, and it would take all day to make a good plunder of a group because “plunderable groups” are standing so far apart to plunder them ain’t worth the time.

The captain bellowed, “The heck with this. Let’s go and pick on Jack Sparrow and call it a day.” This crow has been on too many campaigns with the OFs.


In the long-ago year of 2012, I wrote a column called The Altamont Wave. In it, I noted that, here in Altamont, we tend to wave to one another because we’re a real community and it’s good to acknowledge one another.

I further added that, if more people out in the world waved and recognized one another as people, it would make for a better world. Well, here we are in the year 2020 and things have changed quite a bit.

We’re in the midst of a global pandemic. The country is being led by a mentally ill criminal. Our allies are laughing at our government’s failing efforts and people are literally dying every day of the week.

So, what does this have to do with waving? More than you think.

When lockdowns and quarantines began in other parts of the world, people quickly realized how much they missed and needed their neighbors, friends, and families. In Italy, folks began to play instruments, sing, and talk every day from their balconies.

In New York City, folks gather every day at a certain hour to applaud and cheer for first responders and front-line folks still working to keep us safe and keep the country functioning. And here in Altamont, we still wave but now, it’s progressed to a check-in.

On certain streets, folks come out at 5 p.m. every day, beat drums, sound gongs, and connect with neighbors. They talk, laugh, share news, and just let each other know that life, despite the insanity of our situation, does go on, all from six feet away, of course.

One of the things I’ve noticed most is that we’re all getting to know one another better. We’re asking one another how it’s going and actually listening to the answer.

People are taking being neighbors to a new level and actually exchanging names, email, and phone numbers, just in case. People are helping each other through this and that’s what, ultimately, being part of a community is really about.

We’ve gone from waving and acknowledging one another to actually having conversations and checking to see how we’re all doing. I’ve seen folks giving things out, sharing recipes, making and giving away masks, and offering tips on where to find things.

We’re very lucky as we live in a quiet little corner of the state with a low population density and a relatively low incidence of cases. We’re not immune, by any means, but our chances are far better than those who live in cities.

We’re also, largely, a community of reasonably intelligent, educated people who take the news in and try and act in a responsible manner. One of the things our governor keeps trying to get across is that human life is the sacred thing, not profit and business.

We live in a blue state and, except for red patches, New York is a pretty forward-thinking place. We wear our masks and keep our distance to help one another, not due to a government conspiracy. We listen to Dr. Fauci and the CDC, not Trump and McConnell who are far more interested in killing people to stay in power.

Here in little old Altamont, there has always been a sense of community and a fair bit of involvement. The current situation has, for the most part, brought that out in a wonderful way.

I really like taking the grandbabies for a walk nowadays. People wave, smile at the little drool monsters, and ask how they’re doing. You know how seeing a cute puppy makes a lot of people kind of go gooey? Well, seeing the twins has the same effect on many folks and our other little ones, who are a bit older, are equally pleasant company.

This is what being part of a village is all about. You come here, have kids, raise them, and then they have kids and we all help raise them. It does, indeed, take a village.

Now, during a global pandemic, the life we create in our village means far more day-to-day, than what some nutjob in Washington says. I can rely on my neighbors to be there if something goes wrong. And they can count on me to help as best I can. You can’t say that about politicians, bureaucrats, and cronies who care only about holding onto power and lying to do it.

Altamont will survive as will, hopefully, most of us. I think it will always be a good place to live because people who live here want to be part of a community. And that spirit is what we are now seeing, perhaps more than we have in a long time. It’s what will keep us sane and healthy until things get better.

Editor’s note: Michael Seinberg has lived in Altamont for about 28 years, his wife, for 60 years. They’re not moving.


Well, another week of the COVID-19 virus running the country, and the Old Men of the Mountain are still holed up. The OMOTM are planning on holding a get-together where there is lots of space. This is about a month away.

Some of the OGs will attend but not a whole lot. This scribe has gotten some phone calls from those that will not go. They are not going based on almost the same reason — they are too old and that puts them in the category of “watch out for the virus.” So large gatherings are out for them.

Even for those who will be in attendance, it will be chancy. Social distancing can be attained — not a problem, but how do you eat a hamburger with a mask on?

Most of the OFs do realize the mask is to keep the wearer from blowing his germs (should they cough or sneeze) all over whoever is close by; basically, it is not there to keep someone else from spraying you — you need a full face shield for that.

This scribe noticed in the paper a group similar to the OMOTM, only not as large, who managed to do the same thing sans the food bit. They still get together at the home of one of the group’s members who has a large tarmac in front of his garage that was built for playing basketball when the kids were younger.

They space their lawn chairs about six to eight feet apart and all sit around and talk. About what, there is no clue. At least they were out, had on masks, and practiced social distancing — a good model for the OFs to practice.

No one wants to be responsible for passing this virus along, but neither do many of the OFs want to go nuts staring at the walls.

Mining notes inthe little black book

Now for checking the little black book for topics from the past not submitted to the paper. Ah, found one.

People who have read previous OMOTM reports know the major topics of discussion at the breakfast are old tractors, trucks, cars, and basically any old equipment. The banter for this note was based on an old Buick, not that particular vehicle, but its age.

What prompted this discussion was, as the OFs were leaving the Duanesburg Diner, a 1933 Buick went whizzing by on Route 20, heading west with regular license plates, not even historical plates. This car is 87 years old, and did not look brand new; it looked like someone’s regular car that they used every day.

The OFs started talking about the vehicles the OFs were brought up on. At that point in time, it was possible to fix these cars in your own garage. Parts came in parts.

For instance, if a wheel bearing broke, it was possible to purchase just the wheel bearing in order to fix the bearing. Now it requires getting a whole assembly.

This also holds true, in some cases, for changing a light bulb. Instead of just getting a new light bulb now it is necessary to get the whole assembly.

One OF brought up that on his new truck everything is computerized. If he didn’t have a computer, the OF said he couldn’t even start this truck even if he knew how.

However, the OFs love their new cars. One OF said can you vision a 2018 Honda CRV as a hot rod in 2058, like a 1929 or 1930 Model A coupe.

The OFs would like to be around in another 80 years to see if 2018 (at that time) Kias, or Hondas, or even Chevrolets are still in running condition, like Model T’s, and Model A’s are today.

This scribe has a note on the same page “Fishing, Fishermen” then underneath that is the comment, “Fish are smarter than the fishermen.” This scribe wishes he could remember that conversation from two years ago.

There is another note in the book that says “Pickers”; this one refers to the TV show of the same name — “American Pickers.” The OFs thought, if they could use an OF’s barn and bring all their junk to that barn then try to get on that show it would be a great way to get rid of all their junk, er —collections.

The OFs tried to figure out how that show operates. There has to be some communication with the people that run the show, with photographs and letters with items of interest. One OF said we would have to include a motorcycle or two, a few bicycles, a couple of old cars, and a bunch of signs, or this OF thought they wouldn’t show up.

“Yeah,” one OF said, “then they only buy a few things, and will leave us with a barn full of stuff.  Actually, we don’t care because now we will have the exposure and have one heck of a barn sale. Just from the interest developed by being on the show, I bet we could get rid of all our collected artifacts.” (Snicker.)

“Sounds good to me,” a couple of the OFs said, “but it is too much work. We are too old for a project like that, and who has an old car, or motorcycle for bait?”

Well, hopefully this quarantine business will come to an end pretty soon and the OMOTM will be able to get together once again and give us some more of their trials, tribulations and experiences, and outright fibs.

In the meantime, this scribe checked with a younger member of the family concerning home-schooling.  She said, “Home-schooling is not going well. Today, two students were suspended for fighting and one teacher was fired for drinking on the job.”