“How much can you bench?” is something that guys who work out ask each other all the time. It refers to the bench-press exercise, the key movement for upper-body strength and size development.

This is where you lay on a flat bench and push a barbell straight up, lock your arms, then slowly lower it until it just touches your chest, and repeat. Hopefully, you’re doing this in some kind of a safety cage, as it’s all too easy to have that heavy barbell come down on your neck with disastrous results.

Exercise is supposed to be good for you, not kill you.

Another way to do the bench press safely is with a “spotter.” This is where a friend carefully stands behind you in case anything goes wrong. Hopefully, he can help keep the barbell off you if you can’t safely “rack” it (put it back on its stand).

Here’s an interesting thing about spotting someone doing a bench press: often the lifter will be struggling with all his might to get just one more “rep” (repetition of the lifting movement), and the bar is just standing there not moving while the guy is straining heartily.

Then, all the spotter has to do is take a finger and gently push, and that little bit of extra oomph will get the bar up one last time. Truly, just a tiny little bit of help is often all it takes to help someone get through something that is very difficult.

What got me thinking about this was the group “In His Presence,” founded by my lovely cancer-survivor wife, Charlotte. This is a group for women who have a cancer diagnosis and want to receive support and grow in their Christian faith.

The main thing they do is meet once a week to pray for and mail cards to people they find out about who have cancer. The cards, often handmade and very beautiful, will have some scripture and other inspirational material in them, but the best is how they are signed: Charlotte, survivor 6 years; Mary, survivor 10 years; Diane, survivor 15 years, etc.

Sounds simple, I know — just a card sent using old-fashioned “snail mail” but like the spotter helping with the bench press, this little bit of effort gets very big results.

Believe it or not, now and then we get a phone call that is not from a telemarketer. Amazing, I know. Sometimes I’ll answer the phone and it’ll be a woman or even a man who has received a card from my wife’s group.

Invariably, before you know it, they are in tears with me on the phone. They are crying because they are literally blown away that A), someone cares that they have cancer and B), took the time to mail them such a wonderful card.

I had a woman tell me that card never leaves her purse and she rereads it all the time. I had a man tell me he keeps his card close by as well, that he never received anything like it, and that words cannot describe how much he appreciates it.

What is so ironic about this is I don’t really care much about store-bought birthday or greeting cards. When I get one, I just glance at it and file it if it’s just a card and a signature. But I’ve never gotten an “In His Presence” card. Knock wood, hopefully I’ll never need one, but it sure is nice to know they exist.

I tried to think of other things that take very little effort to help people so much. One thing I can personally attest to is donating blood.

I’ve been doing it for decades, going every 112 days for a “Power Red” donation. This is where they take your blood and make three blood products from that one donation. Donating blood is a fantastic way to directly help other people in your community.

I’m glad the Red Cross is nearby, making donating so easy to do. Not everyone can donate blood for various reasons, but if you can, it’s a great way to directly help your friends and neighbors.

I wish I could say I did a lot of other great volunteer stuff, but with working full-time and a house and cars and motorcycles and aging parents and now a grandson to deal with I don’t have as much time or energy to do more. When I retire, I hope that will change.

There are lots of organizations in the Capitol District doing super things to help people in need. Giving back to the community by helping out in a hands-on manner like this is the way to go. I, for one, would especially love to do Habitat for Humanity someday if I ever get the time.

Being a good spotter for someone doing the bench press is very helpful. Sending out thoughtful cards to folks with a cancer diagnosis is even better. Asking yourself on a regular basis, “How can I help others who need help?” is best of all.


The other day, I found myself in Grand Central Station in Manhattan on the way to an event. I had some time to kill so I decided to hang around the station for a while.

If you’ve not been there lately, trust me: With the many stores, restaurants, and other attractions you can easily spend an entire day inside Grand Central Station. Soon I found myself in the New York City Transit Museum — located right inside the station — which I had never been to before. It was quite a place.

The transit museum has all kinds of displays, memorabilia, and items for purchase concerning the mass-transit system of the greatest city in the world. For someone like me, who spent many, many years riding subways and buses in the Big Apple, it was like coming home again, with the distinct benefit of not getting mugged.

Here’s how I attended Archbishop Molloy High School back in the ’70s: a five-block walk to the elevated J train, then a 40-minute subway ride from Brooklyn to Queens, then a one-mile uphill walk on Queens Boulevard. Repeat in reverse during the way home.

During this trip, I got mugged twice. If you don’t know what a mugging is, it’s this: Someone way bigger and way rougher than you simply demands money, “or else.”

As if this weren’t disconcerting enough, my best friend in high school, Victor, got killed one afternoon on the subway, a couple of stops after I left him on the J train. I still remember going to his funeral and then seeing myself for the first time on TV that same night, walking in the funeral procession. I’ve never really gotten over that horrific event. So awful.

One time, I was coming home about 8 p.m. on the J train, after having worked all day and gone to evening classes downtown at Pace University. The train was just about ready to pull out.

Then a grubby-looking passenger who was exiting, at the last second before the doors closed, tossed in a lit M-80 firecracker. If you don’t know what an M-80 is, think of it as a mini stick of dynamite with no redeeming social or entertainment values of any kind.

When that thing went off in the subway car, which is essentially a large tin can, it was like my head exploded. I had severe ear pain for three days after that. I’m genuinely surprised that my hearing was not permanently damaged.

Despite all that, I still have fond memories and great respect for mass transit systems in general and New York City’s specifically. Can you imagine what gridlock there would be if people weren’t taking subways and buses into the city every day?

If you’ve driven in the five boroughs lately, you know it’s just about gridlocked all the time now. You can thank master city planner Robert Moses’s extreme preference for automobiles over mass transit for much of this mess. See the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “The Power Broker,” by Robert Caro, for all, and I do mean all, of the gory details.

But Moses has been dead a long time now and it’s about time we as a nation get behind infrastructure repair and improvement, including progressive transportation solutions like inner-city lite-rail, electric buses, and dedicated bicycle lanes. Humans need and like to move around for work and for pleasure. Inner-city travel should not be the time-consuming, frustrating, and inconvenient chore that it so often is.

In the transit museum, they have all kinds of displays about the history of mass transit in the city. They even have a huge operating model railroad display. This was great, very detailed and beautiful.

I can’t wait to show it to my grandson someday. In fact, when I get him down there, I want to take him on the subway and have him look out the window in the first car as we’re going down the tracks. I did this with my kids when they were small, and they’d always fight to see who got the best view. I’m sure my grandson will love it as well.

They have all kinds of transit-related things for sale in the museum. I wanted to get my grandson a neat F train shirt, with the round orange F train logo on the front and “Brooklyn to Queens” on the back, but I couldn’t find his size. Instead I got him an F train hat.

Even though I took the J train my whole life, I’m partial to the F train because, at least back then, it was newer, faster, safer, and cleaner. Even to this day, if you need to go into Manhattan, parking somewhere in Queens and taking the F or the E into the city is a great way to go. Just don’t park in front of someone’s driveway.

I couldn’t leave the transit museum without getting a little something for myself. They have many different kinds of very detailed bus and train models and toys. I’d never seen so many in one place before.

I settled on a scale model IRT subway car, which I have reverently placed by my computer at work. Again, despite all the problems with the much-maligned New York City subway system — high fares, late trains, often filthy cars and stations — without subways, New York City and the other major cities like Chicago, Boston, and London that depend on them would come to a grinding halt.

When it comes to subways, you may love them or you may hate them, but you certainly have to respect them.

Stumbling onto the New York City Transit Museum in Grand Central Station was a real treat. If you ever find yourself in Grand Central Station (free tours of the station and the midtown area every Friday of the year, rain or shine, at 12:30 p.m.) be sure to stop in. It’s a great way to learn more about an often frustrating yet vibrant aspect of the greatest city in the world.


— Photo from Frank Palmeri

Frank Palmeri plays his ‘Natick Nelly’ every night.

If you read my last column, you know I'm now playing guitar for the first time in my life. Here’s an update on my new-found musical proclivities.

Turns out I really like playing guitar. Even at this early stage, after only a few group lessons, I know enough to get enjoyment from just strumming a few chords and practicing.

So I decided to give my borrowed guitar back to my wife and buy one for myself. I did some research and found a perfect guitar that would work for me, both in my price range and beautiful to look at.

Yet, when I went to the local guitar store, picked it up and started playing it, the magic just wasn't there. There was nothing wrong with it — it was brand new after all — but I just wasn't “feeling” it. Hard for a computer guy like me to be so subjective about something, but it is what it is. That guitar just didn't “light my fire.”

Then we went to visit my daughter who lives near Boston. Just on a whim, I decided to visit another location of the same guitar store chain that was located there. Sure enough, they had the exact same model guitar on the floor that I had tried in Albany yet, when I picked it up and started playing it, there was an entirely different feel.

This one fit me perfectly, and when I strummed it, the tone was so pure and clear I couldn't believe it was the same model that I hadn’t liked in the other store. Stupidly, I left the store without buying it. That night, I couldn't stop thinking about it, and after trying out a few more guitars I realized that “the one that got away” was without doubt the guitar for me.

I didn’t want to drive all the way back to Boston again so I called the store and they said it would be no problem shipping it for free to the Albany store, and that it would only take a day or two. Great, so I paid on the phone and then waited.

And waited.

And then I waited some more. To make a really long story short, a “computer problem” caused me to have to wait two weeks to get my guitar, but it was worth the wait. Why something simple like shipping a guitar should turn out to be such a big deal is a mystery, but it all worked out in the end, and now I get to play “Natick Nelly” every night so there’s that.

Stranger is why two identical versions of the exact same guitar should be so different. At my price level, we’re talking about mostly machine-made items so there should be a lot of consistency.

Reminds me of the time me and my buddy bought the exact same model of motorcycle. Mine was hard to start but got good gas mileage. His was easy to start but got worse gas mileage.

Maybe my guitar has wood from a tree that aged better, who knows. Guitar players I’ve told this story to all tell me the same thing, though: once you find “your” guitar, you will know it and you should just get it. So there you go.

As far as learning to play, my second group class has just ended, so now I have all different types of guitar instruction going on: YouTube videos, books, a separate web-based instructional class, and friends who play.

Of course, the number-one thing they all agree on is practice, practice, and more practice, but the sheer variety of beginning guitar suggestions and techniques is quite extraordinary. For example, I have a friend who plays in a band, yet his fingers, especially his pinkies, are really crooked. Doesn’t seem to matter at all, as he just gets the job done one way or another.

Other friends do things their own way as well, yet they all play well enough to play with other people on a regular basis. I’m still new enough that going “by the book” is what I'm trying to do, but it’s all good. Just to be playing anything after going my whole life without is fine with me.

Learning guitar, like learning anything — typing, motorcycle riding, dancing, etc. — follows a definite pattern. When you start out, you have to think about everything and progress is slow, slow, slow.

Then, over time, if you stick with it, all of a sudden what you had to think about just happens and then you’re finally doing it without thinking. That’s progress, what we call developing a skill, and it’s a great feeling when it happens.

I like to think of it this way: Every time I practice, I get a tenth of a millimeter better. Someday that will add up to a meter, and then watch out!

Another thing I notice about playing music is that you can’t be in a bad mood when you do it. In fact, if you are in a bad mood or feeling negative, it just makes you feel better.

It’s like a feedback loop develops, where you play and hear sounds (hopefully good sounds) and then that inspires you to play some more. In fact, playing music makes you feel so good I’m thinking a lot more music making in the world would mean a lot fewer problems in the world. You just can’t be angry when you’re making music, it’s as simple as that.

Here’s a funny thing about guitar stores: When you go into one, nine out of 10 times, someone, either a customer trying out a guitar or an employee demonstrating a guitar, will be playing “Smoke on the Water,” the classic rock staple by Deep Purple. Turns out the main “riff” is only four notes, and even I can play it:

da da DAH

da da DAH da

da da DAH

da da

It happens so often, it’s just amazing. I mean, it’s a great song with an ultra-catchy tune, but imagine if you worked there. Listening to that all day must get old quick.

Let me leave you with a true story. I’ve been watching “Saturday Night Live” my entire life. They used to do a sketch called “Wayne’s World,” where Mike Myers and Dana Carvey played these lovable stoner types who hung out in a basement and had all kinds of crazy things going on.

What interested me was how the sketch always started, with Wayne “shredding” a distorted electric guitar at high volume. I always loved that, so one day, maybe 20 years ago at this point, I went into a local music store:

“Hi, I’d like to buy a cheap electric guitar and an amp.”

“Do you know how to play guitar?”

“No, I don’t; I just want to do that Wayne’s World thing and have a little fun.”

“OK, in that case, I’m going to suggest you get an acoustic guitar first. It will be much easier to learn on and you can get an electric on later when you learn how to play.”

“Um, look, I don't even really want to play guitar. I just want a cheap electric guitar and an amp so, you know, after a long stressful day at work I can just go in the basement, yell out ‘Frank's World,’ and make a lot of noise.”

“I understand, but really, you need to start on an acoustic guitar so you can learn to play properly first.”

This went on for about 10 minutes when I finally decided to just leave. The guy would not sell me an electric guitar.

Fundamentally he was right I’m sure — playing an acoustic guitar first, as I am now, is certainly a good idea . But, if he had sold me that damn cheap electric guitar, knowing how I am, I most certainly would have, at a minimum, taken out “Guitar for Dummies” from the library and would have been playing much, much sooner than now.

Whatever happened to “the customer is always right,” anyway? By the way, that store went out of business not long after. I’m not surprised.

Oh well, I’m finally playing a musical instrument after all this time, and that’s just great. Party on, Wayne! Party on, Garth!


— Photo by Umais Bin Sajjad

“Let’s see some clouds,” said our friend on being introduced to the internet. This sunrise scene gives a shine to an altocumulus stratiformis perlucidus cloud.

We had a dear departed friend — let’s call her Ann — who was very sick for a long time. She had so many issues, she was on every disability and supplemental program they have. She lived in a subsidized apartment in downtown Schenectady, which was a long walk, even to a bus stop.

Despite all that, she was an overall happy person who thoroughly enjoyed life, especially her very few close friends and family.

One time, we had her at our house. I think she had a vague idea of what the internet was, but she'd never “seen” it or had any experience with computers or anything like that.

So I sat her down in front of a computer and told her to think of something, anything, that she’d like to know more about. At first she was confused.

“Anything?” she said, not really believing something like this was possible.

“Sure,” I said. “Just think of anything you’d like to see or hear or learn about and I’ll bring it up for you.”

After a while of looking at her scrunched-up face, she finally got a big smile and said, “Clouds. I love clouds. Let’s see some clouds.”

Then, just like that, she sat there in jaw-dropping amazement as screen after screen of clouds of every type, from ethereal images of wispy clouds on clear, sun-soaked days, to big, heavy, cumulus clouds ready to burst.

As we looked at more and more images, she was overjoyed about how it was possible to, in many ways, just have the world at your fingertips like this. I so enjoyed doing this with her that I’ve never forgotten it. Say what you want about the internet — you know it has plenty of problems — but when it can provide an experience like this it’s at its very best for sure.

As we grind through yet another holiday shopping season, with endless ads, flyers, coupons, and such competing for our attention and our money, I’m still amazed at the choice Ann made that day. Here was a woman not in the best of health, with little in the way of resources, including family and friends.

Yet given the chance to learn about anything — anything at all — she didn’t choose make-money schemes or gambling or “lifestyles of the rich and famous.” Instead, she chose something that any human being from time immemorial could gaze up at in joy and wonder to just enjoy God’s creation.

How simple and beautiful Ann’s choice was and is.

You've probably heard of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” which basically says that, once you’ve got your basic physical needs covered — food, clothing, shelter, safety — you move on to a point where you value things like “esteem” and “self-actualization” more and more.

This makes sense when you think about it. How many houses do you need? You only sleep in one at night. How many cars do you need? You can only drive one at a time and all those extra ones still need insurance and maintenance.

Still you know there are those who gobble up everything like there’s no tomorrow. I guess we all have a different definition of the “basics.”

What I find ironic about Ann was that she barely had her basic needs covered at all. She was totally dependent on the government, friends, and relatives. She spent as much time in hospitals as she did at home.

Yet, despite this, when given the chance, she chose clouds as something to learn more about and wonder at. Good for her. Every time I look at the sky and see another gorgeous cloud, I think of her. Maybe she was wiser than we have a right to give her credit for.

Still, you know how it is around the holidays. My family is no different from anyone else’s.

Come Christmas morning, we like to have the kids each have a lot of boxes to open, just so they feel special. What kid doesn't want some presents from Santa?

But, as I get older, and I hope wiser, more and more I feel like we need less physical and more, I don't know, call it what you want — emotional, spiritual, or to use Maslow’s term, “self actualizing” — things and experiences. Hard to wrap those kinds of things in boxes with fancy paper and pretty bows, though!

I wish all my faithful readers and their families happy, healthy holidays packed with many fun times and all the best that life has to offer, including clouds. Enjoy them as I do (and as Ann did). Peace.


Musically, I came of age during the so-called “British Invasion,” when groups like the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and The Who redefined what pop music could be.

I listened to these groups and others like them, often late at night on headphones so as not to disturb anyone else in our tiny Brooklyn apartment, leaving an indelible mark on me.

In fact, it took me decades to even allow myself to finally get to know and love other forms of music, such as classical, reggae, and even opera. Better late than never as the saying goes.

The one thing all the seminal ’60s and ’70s rock-and-roll bands had in common was prolific use of the electric guitar. While it had been around earlier, it was only during the mid- to late-’60s and beyond when it became the defining instrument for a generation of Baby Boomers like myself.

Guitar gods like Jimmy Page, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and many, many others created such a cult of personality around the guitar that other once-common popular band instruments, like the banjo and accordion, got relegated to niche music like bluegrass and polkas. Such is the allure of the electric guitar that you can even bid on “air guitars” on eBay (case not included).

You would think that, loving the electric guitar so much, I would maybe have learned how to play at some point. Sadly, my parents either did not know about or couldn't afford music lessons for any of their three sons.

In addition, the Catholic grade school I went to was severely limited in funding for anything but the basics. I think in the fourth grade I got one week with a plastic toy called a Flutophone, and that was the extent of my musical education. Sad, really, when you think about it, as study and enjoyment of the arts truly helps makes life worth living.

Things changed for the better when I married my lovely wife, Charlotte. I really lucked out, as she’s been a paid musician since she was 14 years old.

I actually studied piano with her for about four months one winter but, when spring came and all the yard and other outside work needed to be done, I dropped it and never continued. Still, it was an enjoyable experience, at least for me.

I say “for me” because that very hard piano bench, believe it or not, gave me gas. Don’t ask me why but it did. Curiously, my wife says none of the hundreds of other piano and organ students she has taught has ever had this problem but me. I guess I was just (un)lucky, haha.

So, when I got the Guilderland Continuing Education flier in the mail and saw a Beginning Guitar course, I thought, what the heck, let me register and see what happens. The price was great and I was free when the four classes would be, so there you go; my first guitar lessons at the age of 60!

The classes would be taught at Guilderland High School by Don Warren, a professional guitar player, technician, and teacher, and also quite a character in general (just mention any guitar player to him and he either taught him, knows him, or knows someone who knows him and has a story about every one of them).

For the first session, Don had all nine of us sit around him in a semicircle. We were so close that the neck of my borrowed guitar (my wife lent it to me) was hitting the guy to the left of me in the shoulder.

But right away we got introduced to two chords and then had a week to practice them. You know when you seen a right-handed guitarist pressing strings all up and down the neck of the guitar with his or her left hand? Those are chords, and the G and E-minor I made that night and in the following week were the first guitar chords I've ever made in my life (hint: the G with four fingers is tough, E-minor with only two fingers is much easier).

The second lesson introduced us to two more chords, but it wasn’t until the third lesson that the real magic happened. Don had half of us played one chord on the “one and three” beat, and the other half of us play another chord on the “two and four” beat.

This doesn't sound like much, I know, but for me, to actually be playing music in any form with other people was simply amazing. It was transcendental in a way, almost like another level of consciousness.

I’m not kidding here: If you’re a musician, I’m sure you know what I mean. My wife says singing together in the choir is like that as well.

We had so much fun that Don apologized for not being able to provide a drummer and bassist for us to “jam” with. Holy cow, I can’t even imagine what that must be like.

When we started the course, Don said he would bet each of us $100 to a cup of coffee that, after the last lesson, we’d each be playing a dozen songs. So now we’re half-way through the last lesson and all we’ve done for four weeks was play the same four chords over and over.

All of a sudden, Don pulls out a sheet with the names of classic songs on them like “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Fun. Fun. Fun,” and “Old-Time Rock and Roll.” Then he had us play those same four chords in succession while he played melody and, just like that, we’re actually playing all these songs.

Again, for a lifelong music lover yet non-musician like me, the whole experience was just incredible.

Now, just to be clear, I can’t play all those songs on my own. Heck, if after four lessons I could play the classic tunes by myself I’d be headlining at Caffe Lena in Saratoga.

But the point is, with only four chords, there are hundreds if not thousands of songs that can be played. All it takes is desire, practice — and a good teacher like Don Warren.

I was so enamored of the whole beginning-guitar experience that I’ve signed up for another class with Don. I hope my fat fingers will loosen up and I’ll me able to make my chords sound clear and crisp like they should.

Here’s one thing that gives me hope: My son-in-law plays violin in a professional orchestra, and he also plays piano, guitar, and drums. When he heard me practicing, he said I was way better than he was when he first started. Now a compliment like that, coming from such an experienced and versatile musician, really makes my day.

Who would have guessed, at this late point in my life, music would finally come to me. Miracles really do happen, if only you let them.


The other day, my lovely wife and I were walking through a big-box store and I spotted a large box of mandarin oranges in individually wrapped serving cups. Great, I thought — a healthy snack I could easily take to work.

Eating something like that as opposed to junk food like doughnuts or cookies would be super, a sign that I was finally starting to take care of myself.

As I happily placed the box in the cart, my wife, who is not only beautiful but excellent in math (talk about winning the gene pool) said: “You know, you could just buy a big can of mandarin oranges and take some to work in a Tupperware container and it would be a lot less per serving than this.” Foiled again!

Still, I was so happy I’d even had the thought of getting some healthy snacks that I bought them anyway. When you’re in the mood to do something good for yourself, you have to strike while the iron is hot, lest the thought comes and goes, never to appear again (those doughnuts that are always on the table at work do look appealing, I have to admit).

So now I’m at work and I decide to partake of some mandarin oranges to see what healthy snacking is like. I place the little plastic cup on my desk and, while holding it with my left hand, use my right hand to peel back the plastic cover.

As I do that, in a split second, fruit juice spews out, I’m not kidding, two feet from that cup, all over my dress shirt, pants, desk, and chair. I literally sat there with my jaw dropped — I mean, this was not a can of Pepsi that had been shaken.

This was a small cup of mandarin oranges in fruit juice. Who would have had any idea that these were under some kind of pressure?

My hands became all sticky as I used a wad of tissues in a clumsy attempt to clean myself up. What made it even worse was I had to speak in front of a large group that day, and now my nice blue dress shirt was spotted with fruit juice. Unbelievable.

I had glanced at the box before I opened this cup. Nowhere on the box or on the cup itself is there any warning that something like this might happen, which I find appalling.

Think about it — I was only sitting at a desk when I opened the stupid cup and got blasted with fruit juice. Some folks, however, are so busy in life that they are forced to eat while driving. Can you imagine going down the road at 65 miles per hour, opening one of these fruit cups, and then getting sprayed in the face with juice? I don’t even want to contemplate that because it’s potentially so bad.

Here’s another thing: On the box, they show the cup filled with delicious looking, peeled orange slices, overflowing out of a cup. How good that picture looked is why I bought the oranges in the first place.

But guess what? In reality, there is a lot of juice in the cup, and the slices that are there are very small. What a joke.

That’s like when you buy a low-calorie or diet ice cream snack. On the box, it looks mouth-wateringly good. Then you open the package and you realize the only reason it’s diet or low calorie is because it’s super tiny. Heck, if I wanted that, I’d just buy Ben & Jerry’s and only eat two bites (more like try to eat only two bites; good luck with that).

So I called the company and they apologized and agreed to send me a refund. Then I suppose I could take the rest of them back to the warehouse store and get a double refund, buy why bother.

Nothing is going to make up for the fact that I had to stand in front of a large group of people and speak while wearing a shirt spotted with fruit juice. Oh man, that was rough. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about style or fashion in any way, but I at least try to be clean and neat.

When I told this story to a friend, she told me she was familiar with this product. She said the “trick” is to position the cup such that the air pocket is pointing up at the place where you pull the seal before opening the cup.

The thought is that these are vacuum sealed, and by placing the air pocket up you can negate any back pressure. That may or may not be true, but why should you even need a tip to open a cup of oranges?

And even if the tip works, which it didn’t — I tried it over a sink and juice still spilled out onto my hand — anything like specific opening instructions or warnings most certainly should be printed on the box or on each individual cup.

If you want to, you can go crazy and spend your entire day complaining about things like this, calling companies to vent and getting coupons and refunds in return. I’ve had large plastic jugs of pretzels with the lid screwed on so tight I needed pliers to open it; bags of chips half empty and with many of them crushed already; yogurt with that liquid on top and very little fruit on the bottom; and on and on and on like that.

The good thing about when you call is then they get feedback and possibly change the product or packaging so hopefully the problem is corrected. But, if you have any kind of a life, and I sincerely hope you do, there has to be a better way to spend your time.

If I had just listened to my wife, I would have bought a large can of mandarin oranges like she said, opened it with no drama, drained it, and then doled out little portions every day in small reusable containers and been done with it.

Better for the environment — no single-use plastic to toss out every day — and cheaper, too. I just wanted, for once, to do something on my own that was really good for me.

Oh well, I’ve known for a long time that she’s always right anyway, and this just proves it yet again. Now I just need to learn to listen to her when she tells me something. We’ll have to wait and see how that goes.


What if I told you there was a free rock concert you could attend every weekend, featuring deep, thumping bass, driving drum rhythms, attractive lead and backup singers, amplified violins, and even a light show?

That would be pretty great, don’t you think?

Well, you can hear shows like that every weekend if you want at, of all places, church. Yes, they are rocking His house all over the Capital District. You can now — if you choose to — literally “get down” with the Lord.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit several different area churches and, let me tell you, I was amazed at what some of these so-called “mega-churches” have going on. At one 8:30 a.m. Sunday service, the light show, I kid you not, reminded me of arena rock shows I saw back in the day by bands like ZZ Top and Blue Oyster Cult.

At another church, again very early on a Sunday morning, they actually offered you ear plugs on the way in. It’s a good thing they did, because the music was so loud, the floor was shaking. You could feel the bass throughout your entire body. What a way to help digest your corn flakes.

Let me state right now that I would never, ever go to a church like this on a regular basis. At the Catholic church where I grew up in Brooklyn, they were considered cutting edge because they held Mass in English, not Latin.

As if that weren’t wild enough, every now and then one of the nuns came out dressed in her full habit to play on the acoustic guitar. Believe it or not, that was considered extremely progressive back “Kum ba yah” then.

I never even went to the bathroom in a church — I didn’t believe it was possible — until I met my lovely wife and started going to the Protestant churches. We Catholics trained our bladders to gut it out. That’s just how it was.

So you can see how, for someone raised like I was, hearing a full, amplified rock-and-roll church service is just so jarring to me. At all of these places where they blast it, there are huge video screens where they run PowerPoint presentations with the lyrics to the songs so you can sing along.

I was going to say there are no hymnals in the pews, but then I remembered that there are no pews, just chairs. Some folks seem to really get into it, raising their arms, jumping up and down.

At one service I went to that started at 10:30 a.m., the music, for which you are standing the entire time, didn’t end until 11:05 a.m. Only then did the actual worship service start. Wow. You better be in shape if you want to worship there.

At another one of these services, the main pastor wasn’t even there. They had him up on the big screen from somewhere in the midwest.

He was good, and there were local associate pastors there as well, but somehow it left me a little bit cold. It’s kind of like when you go see the Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD” in the theater. The good news is that you are seeing the best opera company in the world without having to drive to Manhattan and pay tons to park and buy tickets.

But after a beautiful aria, when everyone who’s there live is cheering their heads off, everyone in the theater just sits quietly. I mean, how do you applaud for a screen?

It’s the same thing with this church. The message may be good, but if you’re not there in person, it somehow loses its lustre, at least for me.

You could argue that these kinds of high-energy services draw in young people, and indeed there were plenty of youth at all the services of this type that I attended. But I would counter that a good organist, like my wife, Charlotte, can also create an energy when she plays some of the classic hymns while accompanying her excellent choir.

We all have different tastes in music, I get that, but at least when I hear the dulcet tones of a lovely organ, with or without a well-honed choir, I don’t have to feel like I’m in a mosh pit to enjoy it.

Believe me, a good organist can take you away to places you never even knew existed, and when she hits a low note, you can really feel it throbbing through your body, but in a good way — like it becomes a part of you.

After all, the organ, “the king of instruments,” be it the venerable pipe or the modern electronic, is really a part of the building. Nothing can match a well-tuned organ for sheer variety and power.

I guess you can say it all comes down to what kind of church experience you want, or don’t want. I mean, you don’t have to go to church at all; heck, you don’t even have to get out of bed if you don’t want to

But assuming you feel that a church service is something good for you, for whatever reason — worship, community, obligation, or a genuine need to learn more about God — then it’s up to you to decide what kind of service you want to attend. If you want to feel like you’re at a rave at 2 a.m., bathed in sound you can feel throughout your body, along with a concert-like light show, you can get that in many places around here.

Or if you prefer the more traditional organ and choir service, I know for a fact that there are world-class organists in the Capital District who are amazing to listen to as well. Your decision, but let me leave you with this:

One bright beautiful Saturday morning a long time ago, I had to go to a funeral in Mechanicville. I’d been through there plenty of times but never “in there,” and this was before GPS so I had only a vague idea of where the church was.

Finally, I found the street and there was a huge stone church on the corner, so I parked and went in. As I opened the thick, heavy doors hung on large, black wrought-iron hinges, it was like stepping back in time to another world.

Outside were cafés, stores, and traffic lights — the typical hustle and bustle of a busy Saturday morning in downtown anywhere. Inside, I had to adjust my eyes, as candles burned gently in the back of the dimly lit yet ornate sanctuary.

There were about a dozen people there, spread out in the pews. As I sat down in the back, I noticed that the robed priest had his head down and was praying, or more accurately, chanting, if you can believe that.

The people who were there were kneeling, some intensely, with hands folded and heads bent, praying like their lives depended on it. At that moment, you cannot tell me that God was not there, in that place, for those people.

In all my life, the only other time I’ve felt “His” presence at hand that closely was at the birth of my children. That is how spiritually moving this praying was, in that holy place, amidst all the gold, wood, and marble (you know how Catholic churches are). It was like being back in the 14th Century, when church truly was the center of all life.

Eventually, I realized I was at the wrong place, so I left and, sure enough, three blocks up the road was the funeral. Still, I’ve never forgotten that prayer service early on a Saturday morning in Mechanicville. That was something special for sure.

What makes this country great is that you have the right to attend a thumping rock-concert-style service, or a traditional organ-and-choir service, or a simple Saturday-morning prayer service, or no service at all.

Many fine men and women died to give us this freedom. Never forget that. And don’t forget to bring ear plugs if you’re going to a church you’ve never been to before.


I always have a bunch of random thoughts just bouncing around in my head, so today I thought I’d share some of them with you, in no particular order:

— Renewable and nuclear energy are the way forward. Fossil fuels have had a good run but their time has passed. The sooner we get behind this the better it will be for us and our planet;

— Inner city light rail — trolleys that bring you safely and efficiently from perimeter lots to the places where all the action is — is long overdue;

— Hugs really are better than drugs, except when you need a root canal. Then you need drugs. Trust me as I’ve had eight, count ’em, eight, root canals;

— Poaching of endangered species and deforestation of the rain forest don’t make the collective consciousness in this country, but they should. Every time we lose more of either of them, our whole world suffers;

— High-speed rail, like the “bullet trains” in Japan that have no grade crossings, are expensive but are what we need to reduce vehicle congestion and excessive air travel. We need forward-thinking politicians who are willing to push for this;

— Being polite to one another, sometimes that’s all it takes;

— I love that you have principles, but after the 20th bumper sticker, you lose me;

— I don’t watch a lot of TV, but when I do, I watch reruns — “Abbott and Costello,” “Dark Shadows,” “Ed Sullivan,” “Laugh In,” etc. Nothing made today even comes close;

— There is no reason religion and science can’t coexist;

— Some of these hot sauces are just ridiculous. Might as well just stick your tongue under a propane torch;

— Looking at beautiful women never gets old;

— The book is always better than the movie. I say this all the time because it’s true;

— You don’t need to eat a pound of steak at one sitting;

— Try not to think about all the bacteria and germs on the gas pump, door knob, hand rail, etc., or you’ll never be able to go anywhere.

— If you’ve ever worked in a restaurant, you know that eating out is an act of faith.

— Please don’t hand me another rewards card. Just lower the prices.

— Every time another huge housing development goes in, a little more of the soul of the planet goes away.

— Don’t even get me started about mile high condos in resort areas. Just don’t.

— I cannot believe how much I enjoy my new grandson. They’re so much more fun when you’re not the one walking them in the middle of the night and changing their diapers.

— If canned soup is so good, and it must be because we all keep buying it, how come no one ever serves it to company?

— Empathy appears to be the hardest thing far too many of us are capable of;

— What Ralph Nader did for vehicle safety by starting the impetus for air-bags, someone else must now do for having some kind of an alarm to sound when kids are left in hot cars. Way too many precious little ones are dying from this;

— Conventional wisdom is that MSNBC is left, Fox is right, and CNN is in the middle, but in reality it’s all corporate media. Seek out “Democracy Now!” with Amy Goodman to get the truth;

— I’m a sports fan, yet even I realize the attention and resources devoted to sports is way out of proportion. We need to get our priorities straight;

— Put the phone down and look around you. There is actually a world out there. It’s called reality. Be a part of it;

— Even if your car didn't come with an ashtray, throwing your butts out of the window is still wrong;

— How is it possible that everyone’s macaroni and cheese is so different?;

— I know they are considered the most desirable properties, but you could not pay me to live on the shore. Mother Nature has her own rules;

— As a guy who grew up with flooded carburetors and fouled spark plugs, I simply cannot believe how reliable modern cars are. Kudos to all the engineers whose hard work has made this possible;

— Growing up, I paid $5 for a double-header at Shea stadium. There is no way now I’m going to pay hundreds and hundreds of dollars to watch a ball game. At these prices, they can keep it;

— Walking, running, swimming, skiing — whatever you have to do to get your blood pumping, do;

— The secret to success? Try, fail, and try again. That is all there is to it;

— A good teacher will affect your entire life. If you have one, let him or her know how much you appreciate them;

— Probably forcing your wife to watch all three “Godfather” movies one after the other is not a good idea (don’t ask me how I know this);

— Don’t you hate it when every size but yours is on the clearance rack?;

— There should be a gas tax of at least a quarter a gallon to be used solely for roads and bridges. Those of us who drive should be willing to help pay to improve the infrastructure that supports it;

— Is it possible to love and hate at the same time? One word: squirrels;

— There should be a law for how many pets one person can own; 

— Though she’s not been gone all that long, I sorely miss the lovely and talented Elisa Streeter. Enjoy your retirement;

— For something that is so conceptually simple, meditation is very hard to do;

— There’s nothing so great as hooking up with a good DJ on a long road trip, then nothing so frustrating as having him fade out as you drive out of range;

— They should all be Mother of the Year;

— The fact that less than 50 percent of us vote in presidential elections explains a lot about the state of this country;

— Make a good Caesar salad and you’ll have me as a customer for life;

— Even though I average reading about a book a week, there will still be so many great books left unread when I die. This saddens me to no end;

— There has to be a way to serve a fast-food meal without so much single-use environmental waste;

— When it comes to ice-cream places, the ambiance is as important, if not more so, than the ice cream;

— And finally: Do not take local independent print journalism for granted. We are very privileged to have The Enterprise. Buy some gift subscriptions for Christmas this year. We need — we must — keep this lifeline going.


When you think about it, a computer is a pretty dumb machine. As any programmer will tell you, it does exactly what you tell it to do — no more, no less — for better or worse.

Literally, a missed period can cause a program to fail or to mail out checks for $1,000 that were supposed to be $100. Heck, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration lost a $125,000,000 (that’s million, folks) Mars orbiter because one programming team used decimal measurements and the other used metric. Yes, this kind of thing really does happen.

So, because I’ve been working with computers nearly my whole life, I’ve become very pragmatic, to say the least. Any ambiguity in anything leaves me scratching my head, or worse. Let me give you a couple of examples.

A lady I know once told me she built a bed for her son. Now that’s impressive: Here’s an ordinary woman doing quality woodworking to build something useful and practical for her family. Great story. Of course, “inquiring minds want to know” more, so I had to ask her one specific question.

Building a bed is not especially complicated. All it is is an elevated platform with slats to hold a box spring and mattress. You can make the headboard and footboard all fancy, add in storage, etc, but it’s really just a raised platform.

The complexity comes in how you attach the long side board to the headboard and footboard. You can cut a hole in them (a mortise) and then stick the long sideboard right through them (a tenon). Or you can install some corner braces and lag bolt everything together.

They also make specialized hardware just for this application because it’s so common, consisting of metal fingers that go into a mating slot. I’m sure someone can dream up more ways to do it, but these are the most common.

So I asked my friend, the woman who built the bed for her son, how she handled that joint. Her response was this: “I don't know how I did it — I just did it!”

Er, um, what the blank are you talking about? I mean, I’m pretty sure she wasn’t lying about building the bed. Assuming that’s true, how can you not know what kind of joint you, yourself used when you made it?

Being a computer person, where I’ve been declaring everything down to the most miniscule command-line option painstakingly for decades, this kind of thing just drives me crazy.

Here’s another one. I have a friend who plays the guitar and sings. He’s also gotten pretty good on the harmonica, so much so that, when he goes to certain bars, the band will ask him to come on stage and join them with his harmonica. This happens so often now that he brings a bunch of “harps” with him, all in different keys, so he’ll have the right one to use depending on what tuning their music is in.

I’ve been trying to teach myself to play the harmonica for a long time. I hope to spend a lot of time practicing if and when I finally retire.

The good thing about a harmonica is anyone can just pick one up and blow into it and get sound out. When you do that, you’re going be blowing into more than one hole, which is usually not what you want. The hard thing is getting good enough so that you can get single notes consistently.

From my study of the harmonica (yes, I really do read everything), there are three ways to get single notes: 1) puckering your lips, 2) blocking extra holes with your tongue, and 3) making a u-shape out of your tongue.

Knowing this from my reading, I asked my buddy how he got single notes when he played the harmonica. Here’s what he said, and I’m not making this up: “I don’t know; I just do it.” Sigh.

Here I am with two friends who have done something extraordinary — building a bed from scratch and playing a harmonica on stage with a band — and they can’t even tell me how they did or do it. Can you believe that?

Let’s put it this way — I wrote a computer program to solve the daily Jumble puzzle that’s in the newspaper. I use it when I don’t have time to figure it out by hand or when it’s especially difficult.

If my friends asked me how I did it, I could simply give them the code and show it to them in black and white. No ambiguity at all. Why can’t the rest of life be like this?

The bed my lady friend made exists (I think); she must know how it’s built. My buddy is playing single notes on the harmonica; clearly he should know how he’s doing it. Yet good luck getting a straight answer from either of them.

I know, I know, everyone is different. Not everyone is as detail-oriented as it takes to program a computer, or to do open-heart surgery, or any one of another really technical things like that. Some people are more free-spirited, which is great, because we need all types of people in the world to keep things vibrant and interesting.

Still, as a detail-oriented person, I am frustrated by some things because they just can’t be learned or taught in sequence like the computer programs I’m used to.

Like learning how to swim: I’ve taken the Red Cross adult learn-to-swim program twice, and I’m still not good at it. I even suggested to them: Why don’t you teach treading water first? Treading water is a way to keep yourself from drowning.

If they taught me that first, I’d totally lose my fear of water, and that would make me much more confident. But it doesn't work that way — first you have to learn to put your head under water, then the front float, then the back float, etc.

That’s great for a lot of people I suppose, because they keep teaching it that way, but I just know that, for me, if they taught me how not to drown first, I’d feel much more comfortable in the water.

Let me finish with this: My father is famous far and wide for his delicious homemade real Italian meatballs. In fact, I’m telling my brothers that when he dies we should put “Here lies the Meatball Man” on his tombstone.

In the past, I’ve tried to get his meatball recipe, and it’s always like this: “Just put some ground beef and ground pork, some breadcrumbs, an egg …” and it goes on from there. No amounts, no measuring, no times, nothing.

I’m a professional programmer looking for step-by-step instructions so you can imagine how much this helps me (not at all). I suppose I should just go and watch him do it in person. Maybe some things are just better done that way. I'll let you know when I try that how it comes out.

Consider this quote by Thomas Reid, a religiously trained Scottish philosopher: “There is no greater impediment to the advancement of knowledge than the ambiguity of words.”

Maybe everything is not black and white the way that we detail-oriented programmers like it. If that’s the case, I better get over to my father’s house right now and watch him make some meatballs while he’s still around to do it.


I’ve had more than one parent tell me their child has no friends. I even had a guy at work tell me, “You don’t need friends.”

When I hear things like this, it really makes me sad. We are all social animals not meant to live in isolation. Believe me, I’m not “Miss Congeniality” by a longshot, but even I have plenty of friends. With this in mind, let me offer some tips in the hope of alleviating this terrible problem.

First, you have to love yourself. Sounds vain but it isn’t. If you don’t think you’re “worthy” yourself, you’ll have trouble being worthy to anyone else. Revel in the unique creation that you are, knowing that you have something to offer (you do).

Do this: when you shave or put on your makeup in the morning, look into that mirror and say to yourself, “I look good, I feel good, and today is going to be a wonderful day.”

This is called visualization. Athletes do it all the time. We should all do it. Giving yourself positive reinforcement like this is a great way to start the day.

Second, you must learn to listen. People love to talk about themselves. If you become a good listener, you will tap into this truism and have a lot of interesting interactions if nothing else.

If you really want to learn how to listen or just learn to communicate better, try Toastmasters. Learning how to listen — how to really clear your mind and focus on what the other person is saying — will make you very popular and you’ll be well on your way to many lasting friendships.

Third, get out there and talk to people. I suggest visiting a nursing home or retirement facility as your first step. The people there would love to tell you their life stories, and in many, if not most, cases you’ll be fascinated by what you hear.

This is what’s known as a win-win: You get better at listening and communicating while making an otherwise lonely person’s day. Hey, you might even meet a pretty nurse or handsome doctor in there, who knows, so what are you waiting for?

Fourth, get involved with something new, like hiking, motorcycling, dancing, or whatever. If you’re in school, join a club — drama, chess, or anything else you find interesting. If you’re an adult, try a book group, or volunteering.

Pick something interesting and then just start out as a beginner and learn as you go. This is a great way to meet new people and have a lot of fun at the same time. In other words, don’t just sit at home playing video games, or staring out the window or, worst of all, watching TV. Get out there and do something!

Fifth, get some exercise — the kind where you work up a good sweat — like running, tennis, or even martial arts. Getting your blood flowing makes your brain come alive. I’m serious here.

Eighty percent of the ideas for the columns I write come when I’m out running. That’s how productive good, sweat-producing exercise is.

At a minimum, get out and walk if nothing else. Just breathing in the fresh air and using your body as it was meant to be used is a great start.

So there you have it. Five easy steps to make some friends. I’m keeping this very short because I want you to put it in your wallet or purse if you need to have a reminder to get started. Sharing fun times with friends is the best part of life.

Remember this quote from Aristotle: “Without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods.” Start making some friends and enjoying life today.