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.

Remember when the COVID-19 pandemic first started, and you couldn’t find toilet paper anywhere? We didn’t have a problem because we buy stuff like that in bulk when it goes on sale, but a lot of people were left high and dry, no pun intended.

Well, since then I have serendipitously found out how to reduce or even eliminate the need for toilet paper. Don’t believe me? Read on.

Back in the sixties, three generations of us would gather around the TV on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. to watch “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” This show was great because A, it was about animals, and B, you never knew what was going to happen.

In one famous episode, a huge boa constrictor started to wrap itself around one of the hosts. It took quite a bit of effort to free him. Wow.

After Wild Kingdom came “The Ed Sullivan Show.” At that point, my brothers and I hightailed it out of there. Why did we do that? The thinking was, if it appealed to my parents and, God forbid, my grandparents, it couldn’t be “cool” like Wild Kingdom was with the animals. So we ignored Ed Sullivan at the time.

Fast forward to today and there is a channel on cable called “Decades” where they play all the old shows, including Ed Sullivan. So now, after all these years, indeed, decades, I can see why my parents and grandparents loved Ed Sullivan. Here was a true variety show with the best singers, dancers, actors, and vaudeville acts of the time on every week for your entertainment. There has been nothing like it since. Too bad.

The Ed Sullivan show is where the Beatles made their first United States TV appearance. The screaming of the girls in the audience was deafening. You name the group — the Rolling Stones, the Doors, Santana — they all appeared to wild applause on this show.

In fact, when Elvis Presley made his appearance, his swaying hips were considered so risque he could only be shot from the waist up. What a difference between then and now, eh?

Ed Sullivan also had all the great comedians on — Jack Benny, Richard Pryor, Rich Little, George Carlin, and so many more, including novelty acts like jugging unicyclists, spinning-plate balancers, ventriloquists, and knife-throwers. And who could forget the cute little talking mouse puppet “Topo Gigio?”

But my favorite thing about this show was that he had the best tenors and sopranos from the Metropolitan Opera on frequently. Can you imagine that, live opera on prime-time TV? I don’t know of anyone else but Ed Sullivan who did that.

The other day, I watched a rerun that featured Beverly Sills, one of the greatest sopranos of all time. She did this thing where she was singing tones, not words, and she hit high notes, repeatedly and with ease, that one would otherwise have presumed are not humanly possible. Truly amazing.

So what does the Ed Sullivan show have to do with not needing toilet paper anymore? Well, the second worst part of the pandemic, for me, is that the library is closed (the worst part is not getting to see my grandson). This means I have not been able to get my normal one or two books a week that I usually get.

So I’ve been forced to read my own books over again. I just read five, count ’em, five Kurt Vonnegut novels in a row. More on that in another column. I also glanced at a book of heath tips that I have lying around.

Turns out there is something called psyllium fiber, made from the husks of “plantago ovata,” whatever that is, which is very, very good for your digestive system. The authors went on to say they normally don’t recommend specific brands, but in this case they had no choice because one product of this type stood out above all the others. That product is Metamucil.

Now what do you think of when you hear the word Metamucil? I know what I thought of: old people. I mean, I’d heard of this stuff before but, since I never considered myself old, I never thought much about it.

Heck, I’ve now been on God’s green Earth for six decades and I still don’t consider myself old. I ran three miles this morning, and I’m going to practice guitar after I finish writing this. If that’s old, I wish I’d gotten old sooner.

So just for grins, being that the medical-tips book had otherwise very sound advice, I went and got some Metamucil. I’ve been drinking it once or twice a day for a couple of weeks now. The good news is it tastes orangey, like Tang, if you’re old enough to remember that.

The better news is — wait for it — now, because of Metamucil, I don’t even need to wipe anymore. I mean I still do, but there is nothing there. I kid you not, folks. I don’t know how it does it, but it fixes you up so you basically don’t need to wipe anymore.

Is that a miracle or what? I wish I’d been using this product all my life; it’s that good.

Take a tip from me: Just because your parents or even grandparents like something does not automatically mean it’s not “cool.” And don’t go out now and buy up all the Metamucil like you did with the toilet paper. Please leave some for me! Like the old Monkees’ song goes, when it comes to Metamucil, “I’m a believer.”


— Photo from Frank Palmeri

This ball-peen hammer was saved from the junkyard with citric acid and a vision of its worth.

There’s a saying that goes, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

With COVID-19 and all the changes that has entailed — social distancing, trying hard just to score toilet paper, and now wearing masks any time you go out — we all could use some lemonade. Well, I got a little the other day.

I was using some of my found time from not commuting to work to clean up part of my basement. There in a dusty corner I found an old ball-peen hammer that I don’t recall ever seeing before. It was in really bad shape.

It most likely came with a wood handle originally, but that was long gone. Instead someone crudely welded a steel rod to the head. But that wasn’t the worst of  it.

The entire thing was covered in rust so dense and deep I imagined it had been in the maintenance room of the Titanic, soaking in saltwater for the past century. That’s how mangled and cruddy this old hammer looked.

I keep a pail around to toss in scrap metal. When it fills, I take it to the scrapyard. I get a few bucks for the metal and keep it out of the landfill. Hopefully, it gets recycled, which is a good deal.

So I was just about to toss the hammer into the bucket when at the last second I had a thought. It’s a trick I learned a long time ago from fooling around with old motorcycles.

I got out an old coffee can, filled it with water, and mixed in about a half-cup of citric acid. Then I dumped the hammer in there and just waited. For the first couple of days, it looked like nothing was happening.

Then, on the third day, the water started to turn black. Soon after, I pulled out the hammer and like a miracle the worst of the rust was gone. I then cleaned it up, using a wire wheel in a drill and, don’t you know, that sucker looked great.

I wound up adding a handle made from a broken shovel, and I painted the shaft. Now that ball-peen hammer, instead of rotting in a landfill or being recycled, will be used by me and probably others when I’m gone. Now that’s what I call making lemonade from lemons.

You can get citric acid at any health-food store. It’s cheap, environmentally friendly, and gently removes even the worst rust in a safe way. It’s also great to run in your dishwasher every now and then. It makes it really sparkle inside. Gotta love it.

The initials for citric acid are CA. These are also the initials for the words Change Agent. The citric acid really was a change agent for this hammer.

That got me thinking about how you and I can be change agents for someone who needs it. I keep reading about so many people who have no friends and no one to talk to. I even saw how in New York City they were forced to bury many, many “unclaimed” coronavirus victims in common mass graves. How heartbreaking.

Sometimes folks just need someone to talk to. That’s all. Someone who will just listen and not judge. That’s what a change agent is. Maybe it can come from a friend, a relative, or you or I.

If doing something simple like listening can get someone back on track, wouldn’t it be great? Who wouldn’t like that? That ball-peen hammer was close to being tossed out. It got a new life. Maybe, in these so, so tough times, we can help bring someone else back to life.

The City Mission in Schenectady is a huge change agent. That’s why I support the mission, which takes in folks who are really down on their luck and often have nowhere else to turn. The mission gives them four things — shelter; food; a Bible; and, perhaps most important of all, someone to listen.

In many cases, and I’ve seen it over and over, the mission gets people back on their feet to where they become productive and engaged members of society. If that’s not God working directly through people I don’t know what is.

Citric acid is a change agent. The City Mission is a change agent. We can be change agents as well. It starts by just listening.


One of my long-time favorite hobbies has been collecting quotations from wherever I can find them. The other day, I picked up an old woodworking book and found this gem that I must share:

“Your skill in carpentry is limited by two things: aptitude and attitude. You may think you don’t have an aptitude for carpentry when, in fact, it is your attitude that is holding you back.” David and Jeanie Stiles wrote that in “Woodworking Simplified.”

Can you guess why this quote is so great? Because you can use it for anything you are trying to do or want to learn. Substitute any of the following for carpentry and it’s just as good:

— Guitar playing;

— Ballroom dancing;

— Swimming; or

— Learning Mandarin

I’ve always said that, no matter how bad things get, there is one thing that you and you alone can control, and that is your attitude. Truly, learning how to do that is really the key to being productive; engaged; and, if not outright happy, at least satisfied or content.

All of us have had our worlds changed due to coronavirus and its many ramifications. I’ve not been able to see my grandson in months.

Worse than that, the Guilderland Public Library is closed. Not having access to my library is probably the worst part of the virus for me and I know many, many others. So many services are just on hold.

If you don’t believe me, sign up for your library’s RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication, a type of daily web update that you can receive in many ways) and watch all the canceled activities come through. It’s so sad.

Still, because I can’t get my book fix, I dug out this old woodworking book and came upon this quote. So there.

When I first got into IT (Information Technology), one of the attractions was that someday I’d be able to work from home. Back in those days, I was living in Brooklyn and working in Manhattan, so anything that could keep me out of subways, buses, bridges, and tunnels was something I wanted.

Then, when I finally got an IT job, my life became enmeshed with four-inch thick IBM manuals and the other tools of the trade that could only be found in the office. Plus, no matter how good the technology became, you can do more in a five minute, face-to-face conversation with a co-worker than in hundreds of emails, texts, or face-times.

So I never wound up becoming a telecommuter, but with the coronavirus I was directed, for the first time in my career, to work from home if possible.

Mind you, just because you have the ability to work from home doesn’t mean it’s provided for you. In my case, I’m using a second-hand desk in a spare room with a cheap Windows laptop computer I bought a few years ago.

The chair I have cost $5 at an office-surplus store. The keyboard is from some older computer that I long ago binned, and the monitor is one my son tossed out a long time ago. Using this patchwork mix of equipment has changed my normal 20-minute, 10-mile commute to a simple walk downstairs.

No doubt there are some advantages to telecommuting. I can be in my pajamas all day; see beautiful birds outside my window; stretch or run in place between tasks; and use my own bathroom.

But I still miss my Dilbert-like cubicle and being in close proximity to my co-workers. It’s just not the same having us all be separated like this.

We are all forcing ourselves to change our attitude about this because we have to, of course; “social distancing” is a necessity in these dire times. But, like retired athletes always tell you, they miss the camaraderie of the locker room most of all. Believe it or not, cubicle dwellers like me miss the water cooler and its social aspects just as much.

So here is where it’s all about attitude. We need to learn to use this forced time at home to our advantage. That saved commuting time is found time.

In my case, I can use it to practice guitar, exercise, or clean up my messy garage and workbenches. Those are all great things that I need to do more of. You have things you can do with this found time as well. Take advantage of it now as it won’t last forever (at least we hope it won’t last forever).

Let’s not forget our friends and neighbors during these tough times. The restaurants are closed but are open for take-out, so put in an order. And be sure to thank the clerks in the stores that are open — supermarkets, hardware stores, etc. They are making it possible to have some semblance of normalcy. That is so great. Let’s make sure we support them as much as we can.

Truly, attitude is the one thing we can all control, and we need to control it now more than ever. Good luck and stay positive!


Jeffrey Allen Herchenroder, a longtime stringed-instrument and orchestra teacher for the Guilderland schools and a bassist for the Albany Symphony Orchestra, died on Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Jeff Herchenroder, who passed away unexpectedly, was a mainstay in the Guilderland school music education program for a long time. I first met him when he taught my daughter Heather the viola when she was in high school.

The thing I always liked about him was he had that special gleam in his eye. The gleam of someone who is very smart and talented but doesn’t take himself too seriously. Those are far and away my favorite kind of people, and Jeff will be missed by all who knew him.

As a sendoff to this fine musician and dedicated husband, father, and friend, a memorial service was held on Friday, Feb. 28, at the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. My daughter so loved her former teacher that she drove all the way in from Boston to join many of her classmates, along with plenty of friends, family, and what looked like the entire Guilderland music faculty (along with many from the Niskayuna school music program where Jeff worked as well).

Jeff taught music, the love of his life, with passion and enthusiasm for a long time, and was loved and admired by many for the sheer joy and competence he exuded. The turnout he got on a frigid winter night showed just that. The large, ornate church was packed full.

Lately, there have been more of these memorial services as opposed to the more traditional funeral services. While funerals have their place — a quiet time to reflect on a loved one’s passing in the company of friends and family — the memorial service is so much more. It truly is a Celebration of Life.

Jeff Herchenroder’s memorial service was such an event. If you were there, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve never seen and heard such touching, heartfelt musical performances at a celebration of this type before. Jeff would so, so have loved it.

After a few kind words from Rev. Daniel Carlson, the program started with a recording of “Evensong” by Scottish fiddler Alasdair Fraser. Jeff had specifically asked for this to be played at his service.

I’d never heard it before but I was taken aback by it’s serene, haunting beauty. It features a lilting melody played on a fiddle and perfectly set the tone for the evening. Amazing that Jeff would pick out such a singular piece of music as this.

Next, Jeff’s nephew Ian Herchenroder played a Grateful Dead tune called “Bird Song.” Ian sang while playing an electric guitar. Let me tell you this about Ian’s performance — as far as I’m concerned, he could be playing at Caffe Lena or anyplace accomplished musicians play.

He put such heart and soul into this piece it was all I could do to keep from shouting at the top of my lungs. What a way to honor one’s uncle. As an aspiring guitar player myself, I was just blown away. I only hope Jeff got to hear Ian play this piece at some point.

Jeff’s wife, Linda; his brother Keith; and his children Janna and Jesse then spoke, telling wonderfully funny stories about the many quirky aspects of Jeff’s personality. Listening to their tales of him fixing cars, doing house projects, and of course his love of music and the outdoors really made me wish I’d gotten to know him as a friend and not just my daughter’s viola teacher.

He liked the same things I like, and he was just off the wall enough (like me) that I know we would have gotten along swimmingly. Those stories were really great and we all laughed heartily as we heard them.

At that point, a gentleman named Lucas Sconzo performed a piece on solo electric guitar that he had written for Jeff called, appropriately, “Song for Jeff.” Can you imagine being so inspired by someone that you write and then perform a beautiful piece at their memorial service? Such a wonderful expression of love and respect. A truly virtuoso guitar performance as well.

Jeff had been active with a fiddlers’ group, and two of them, Peter Davis and George Wilson, played a piano-and-fiddle duet called “Shetland Fiddle Air.” Not only was the performance amazing, but they spoke about how they so enjoyed working with Jeff, and about how he was not only an excellent musician but had become a true friend as well.

That Jeff touched a lot of lives in such a profound way was obvious to all of us who got to enjoy this service.

Cathy Hackert, representing the Albany Symphony Orchestra, spoke about what an amazing friend and performer Jeff had been for many years with the symphony. As Cathy spoke, I stared at Jeff’s beautiful double bass, which was up on the altar with a flower on it.

I imagined Jeff playing that bass for so many fantastic concerts. I hope it goes to someone who will treasure it and play it as perfectly as he did.

Two of Jeff’s former students, Liz Silver on violin and Erica Pickhardt on cello, played an absolutely beautiful duet for their dear departed teacher and mentor. Sometimes less is more, and to hear these two instruments played with such passion and feeling was heavenly. I hate to repeat myself, but Jeff would have just loved it.

The final musical performance featured many of Jeff’s former students, including my daughter. The piece they played was called “Mairi’s Wedding,” and the entire front of the church was filled with violins, violas, and cellos in a melodious and jubilant final tribute to their dear departed friend and mentor.

It was the perfect way to end a truly wonderful memorial service. After some parting words from Rev. Daniel Carlson, we left there feeling like, though the world is less because of the loss of such a brilliant man, his legacy will live on.

On the back of the memorial service program was this poem, called “Separation,” by W. S. Merwin:

Your absence has gone through me

Like a thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Yeah. What he said.

Folks, it’s not about how much money you make, or how many cars or houses you have. It’s about the mark you leave on this world when you leave it.

Jeff Herchenroder gave the gift of music to so many people his light will live on forever. I know that, from now on, whenever I hear the Grateful Dead or some fiddle piece I’ll think of him. Rest in peace, Mr. Herchenroder. You did very well for yourself, indeed.


Time travel has been a reliable staple of science-fiction books and movies for as long as I can remember. It’s easy to see why.

We can’t help but be intrigued at depictions of possible futures, be they utopian, dystopian, or somewhere in between. Similarly, depictions of the past, with period garb, language, and technology (or lack thereof) are also fascinating in many ways.

Alternate realities as depicted in time travel are just so much fun to contemplate. But is time travel even possible? Maybe it isn’t. But maybe it is.

According to the brilliant Albert Einstein, when you get close to the speed of light, weird things really do start happening. I’ve studied the theory of relativity quite a bit, and if you believe (and you should) that everything is indeed “relative,” there certainly can be periods when time speeds up or slows down, depending on your point of view.

Seek out any good physics course or teacher to expand on this. It truly is mind-blowing in many ways. Einstein really was a genius. While I’m not as smart as he was (not many of us are), I’ve actually discovered how to time travel, both to the past and to the future, and I do both on a fairly regular basis. I really do.

Let’s start with time travel to the past. Many years ago, when my oldest daughter was born, the home-video revolution was just beginning with the advent of VHS [Video Home System] tapes. Remember those?

Portable VHS video-cameras were very expensive at the time, yet I badly wanted to record my daughter’s one-year-old birthday party, so I rented one. Later, when prices came down, I bought my own. Though I’m not a very good videographer or even photographer, looking back at those old movies is indeed like going back in time.

Imagine popping in an optical disk and seeing yourself over 30 years ago. (I copied all the old VHS tapes to DVDs [Digital Versatile Discs] in the hope that they’ll last longer in that format.) In my case, that means I’m looking at a surprisingly handsome guy with thick, curly black hair and about 30 or more pounds less than I am now.

Seeing this lean, mean, carousing machine “back in the day” truly is mind-boggling. In all of human history, we baby boomers are the first ones who have this ability to go back in time and look at ourselves, our families, and the world like this. It really is amazing on so many levels.

When you are raising kids, you are so busy with the day-to-day business of just surviving with them it’s easy to forget what it was like. Thanks to these videos, my family and I can go back and watch many of our happiest moments, and some plain ordinary ones too.

I remember at the time many family members would give me grief when I pointed the camera at them, some more so than others. But now, when we have family get togethers, those same ones will beg me to put on the videos so we can all have a good laugh. They couldn’t stand it then but love it now. Isn’t that something.

The best part of watching the videos is just to see the changes in all of us over the years. My wife and I get a little older and a little grayer as the time flies by, while the kids grow up right before our eyes.

These videos, of often just normal events like going to the beach or opening Christmas presents, are so important now that, if the house were burning down, I think these are the first things I’d grab as I ran outside. To be able to time travel to the past by watching these videos — how could you ever replace that?

Now let’s talk about time travel to the future which, now that I’m aging, I do more and more of it seems.

As you get older, there are various tests, procedures, and even surgeries that you need from time to time. I consider myself to be in excellent health overall, yet I’ve had three surgeries in the past few years.

That’s when you find yourself in a hospital wearing one of those stupid gowns that opens in the back, constantly trying to not to give everyone a show. Soon you are lying on a gurney, talking to a pretty nurse, with an intravenous feed going into your veins.

As the anesthesiologist tells you what’s going to happen you nod and say yes — what else can you do — and then the nurse and the orderlies start wheeling you into the operating room. At these times, when you’re lying on your back captive like that, just staring at the ceiling, I often wonder how long it will be before they have ads up there like they do almost everywhere else, haha.

By the way, the nurses are always named Jessica, yet when I ask them if they’ve heard the classic rock anthem “Jessica” by the Allman Brothers Band they always look at me like I have two heads. How can you be named Jessica and not know that song? This is usually the last thought I have before it happens, “it” being time travel to the future.

Yes indeed, time travel to the future most certainly occurs in these moments: One minute you’re talking to Jessica the nurse, the next minute — which may be many hours later — you are in the recovery room, just like that.

When this happens, I can never believe it. I always tell myself I’m going to try to notice when I start to fade out, just to see if I can get some kind of control over the process. Good luck with that.

When you wake up in “the future,” you have no memory of anything they did to you. You could have been out for minutes, hours, or days and you would not know the difference. Now that really is time travel, if you ask me.

Imagine being able to buy the drugs that allow time travel like this. Say you know the weather is going to be bad for the next few days, or your relatives are coming to stay, or maybe you just can’t wait for a certain party or holiday. Pop a pill and, boom, you wake up in the future just like that.

Of course, it doesn’t work that way, and anesthesiologists go through plenty of schooling and certification to make sure each person gets just the right amount of the drug to keep you out for the right amount of time. What a fascinating thing, that they can do this as well as they can. I’ve had it done to me several times now and it never gets old.

There are a couple of other ways to time travel. Married men especially will know about this one. Most wives have the superpower of being able to recall, in excruciatingly vivid detail, every misstatement, faux pas, mistake, and stupid thing you’ve ever said or done, even when these things happened decades and decades ago.

These incidents are recalled in such detail and with such regularity that it may as well be considered time travel. They say an elephant never forgets. I wonder if it’s all elephants or just the lady ones?

Another way to time travel is by writing something that will be read by others later. When I read books, especially the classics, it’s like going back in time in many ways.

A good writer — Shakespeare, Hemmingway, Joyce, Tolstoy, et. al. — can so thoroughly immerse you in the past it’s like time travel. That’s how powerful good writing is. In fact, if it’s 100 years from now and you’re reading this in your flying car, please keep your eyes on the sky ahead of you. You never know what’s behind that next cloud.

Time travel is a wonderful concept to contemplate and enjoy. The fact that we can do it ourselves in many ways makes it all the better.


“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.