— 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.


Getting young kids ready for their school experience is one of the most important things we can do as parents. We want to give them the best chance at having success throughout their entire educational career, so they can become productive and engaged members of society.

One of the best things toward this end is to help them get ready for homework, something they’ll be doing for many years. To do this right we should really aim to prepare them for all aspects of the discipline needed to excel at homework. Let’s call this kind of preparation “Preparation H.”

To begin Preparation H, explain to them that homework is not just a chore or busy work. They need to know that homework is not a pain where the sun don’t shine. Far from it. Homework is a valuable tool to reinforce and expand on the hard work done in the classroom to ensure that the lesson is understood. Preparation H is a great way to get this point across.

A big part of Preparation H is making them aware of homework even before they start school. For example, let’s say you take your little ones camping, a great family activity that we can all enjoy no matter how young or old we are.

Don’t just let them run around turning over rocks looking for worms to go fishing, or cavort for hours in the lake. Give them a chore to do, like picking up sticks for the fire. Then, when they’re toasting marshmallows later, they’ll know they contributed to the good times. You see, Preparation H can be loads of fun, not just a pain in the rear.

Preparation H can make the itchy problem of preparing kids to really focus on homework and learning a smooth, soothing experience. Explain to them that we don’t learn obscure things like math and science just for the sake of learning them, but that we learn these things because they teach us how to think and solve all kinds of problems on our own.

Kids may not care at first when they hear about the Pythagorean theorem, but later on in life, when they go to build a deck, they’ll find it’s the best way to make sure all the corners are square. When you use Preparation H, and use it a lot, you’ll be giving your kids all kinds of life-enhancing skills like this one and much more. How great is that.

Some parents don’t bother with Preparation H, and just send their kids off to school and hope for the best. That is not a good thing to do. You don’t want your kids struggling with homework night after night, dreading the experience. That could cast a shadow on their whole academic career.

School is important — high school graduates earn much more throughout their lifetimes than dropouts, and college graduates way more so. We all know money can’t buy happiness but it can pay for chocolate and good housing so that’s something. Preparation H can definitely help your kids graduate and reach their potential. Be sure to apply it judiciously.

If a little Preparation H is good, is more Preparation H better? I’d say yes, no doubt, because getting them into good study habits at an early age will benefit them throughout their entire academic career and even their whole life.

I meet so many people who tell me they don’t read, and that just makes me so sad because reading is truly one of if not the most enjoyable things in my life. There is no joy like the joy of immersing yourself in great writing. Perhaps if more parents used Preparation H there would be a lot more books read and a lot less TV watched and many fewer video games played.

Studies are coming out now saying that too much “screen time,” be it phone, computer, tablet, or TV, is very bad for developing youngsters. My daughter makes sure the TV is off in any room my new grandson is in, and they’ve already amassed an impressive collection of great children’s books for him to enjoy as he grows.

This is Preparation H in action. It sure feels good. Such a relief. Preparation H can really make a potential problem area a lot smoother.

Pick a random successful person, say President Trump for example. You know he must have done all of his homework to make it from his lowly beginnings in Queens, New York (imagine, his father only started him off with a million-and-a-half dollars, the poor guy) all the way up to the White House.

In fact, I’m so sure about how he was raised, and I can tell so much by his words and character, that whenever I hear or see him, I immediately think of Preparation H. I even thought he’d make a great spokesperson for Preparation H, but with his complexion, he’d be a far better spokesperson for orange juice.

There’s a saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” If that’s true, and I think it is, should we all be using Preparation H so all the kids in the community can benefit? I’d say yes.

Don’t be shy about letting any youngster you meet know how important homework and good study methods are. When they see a successful guy or gal like you touting the benefits of studying and working hard, they can’t not be impressed. Using as much Preparation H as you can (on a daily basis!) benefits us all.

So whether you have kids or not, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to tell the world you use Preparation H. Using Preparation H is one sure way to guarantee the sweet smell of success. The more you use. the better it is for all of us.


I like to watch boxing when I can. Yes, it’s both violent and dangerous, but it’s not called the “sweet science” for nothing. You better be in shape and at your best when get you in that squared circle, because there is just no place to hide.

In fact, my father and I never had much in common other than being related — not books, music, TV, most sports, or really anything. But one thing we both liked was “Friday Night Fights” when that was a regular thing. I really looked forward to spending some quality time with my dad watching something that we both enjoyed immensely. Good times.

So the other night, I’m watching some boxing. The match had just started. Every match is different because each bout pitches two unique individual styles, experiences, and levels of conditioning against each other. You truly never know what’s going to happen in a boxing match.

Then the commentator said this: “It all starts with the left hand.”

He of course was referring to what’s known as the “jab,” which for a right-handed boxer is when you use your left hand to set up your right, your power punch, if you have one (and hopefully you do or it might not be a good night). But I got that phrase “it all starts with the left hand” stuck in my head and then it occurred to me that commentator might be on to something.

I’m right handed, and when I went to grade school we spent a lot of time on cursive writing and penmanship. That’s why it kills me to think that this skill is no longer being taught in some schools. You’ve got to be kidding me. It’s fundamental!

But anyway, when I was taught penmanship it was my left hand that held the paper so my right hand could make decent, legible cursive script (not now unfortunately that doesn’t happen unless I go very slowly). In fact, without the left hand, I couldn’t have written a thing.

One of the Jack Reacher books features a beautiful female agent practicing at the shooting range. In one of the classic man-teaching-a-sexy-woman-something moves, he slides up behind her and shows her how to take all the weight of the gun in her left hand, using her right only to pull the trigger. Of course, it works great. I haven’t shot in a long time, but it totally makes sense to me to do it that way.

If you work with tools, you know the left hand, for righties like me, is very important. How could you saw or drill if you didn’t hold the work piece in your left hand? Even with clamps, it’s still good to use the left hand for added support. It just makes you feel that much more in control, which is always a good thing when working with tools, especially power tools, which can be very dangerous.

I spend a good part of my day at a keyboard, for better or worse. While many people think desk jobs are cushy, it turns out sedentary work is terrible for your body in many ways (loss of flexibility, muscle tone, and aerobic conditioning for starters).

Often at the keyboard I have to use my right hand to click the mouse for something or other, but many times I can use my left hand for a quick keyboard shortcut that saves a lot of time. These really do work, and keep your hands by the keyboard where they can stay busy. In fact, many computer pros rarely use the mouse at all because they get so good with the keyboard shortcuts.

Of course, if you’ve ever made good Italian sauce from scratch, you know you taste with the small spoon in your right hand while stirring with the big spoon in your left hand. Keep stirring and tasting, stirring and tasting. It’s a tough job but somebodys gotta do it.

If you ride a motorcycle, you know the throttle is controlled by the right hand. Vroom-vroom; it’s the right hand that makes you go. But if you ride, you most certainly know that twisting the throttle is the easy part. The left hand controls the clutch, and it’s the smooth operation of the gears and the clutch that separates the good riders from the great riders.

There are some riders who can shift gears so well it’s almost like they have an automatic transmission. That’s how skilled they are, and efficient clutch control with the left hand is a huge part of that.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a car making out with someone, but that left hand comes in really important during those intimate moments, let me tell you. In fact, I think they hire special testers to make bra clasps very hard to unhook with one hand

Been like that forever and I doubt it will ever change. If there was ever a rite of passage for a man’s left hand, that was it for sure. Only Fonzie from TV’s “Happy Days” could do it perfectly every time, and that’s why they call it fiction.

If you should ever be so fortunate to do extensive travel and find yourself in an Arab country or around Arab people, be especially careful with your left hand. In those societies. the left hand is considered unclean and should never touch food, shake hands, or even wave.

This is a very big taboo within this culture — the left hand is used for personal functions only. Being that we have so many ethnic restaurants now, even in the Capital District, this is a really good tip to know. Just remember: Your left hand remains in your lap while dining.

Maybe that boxing announcer, when he said, “It all starts with the left hand,” was truly on to something. Of course, if you want to give me a “left-handed compliment” for this column I totally understand.


Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church in Guilderland has blue hymnals in all the pews. If you open one of these and turn to Number 372 you’ll find one entitled “Lord, I want to be a Christian.”

Look closer, right under the title, and you’ll see “I want to be a Christian” is printed again, with the word “irregular” next to it. My lovely church-organist, choir-director, piano-teacher wife, Charlotte, tells me irregular in this context means the “time signature” is different in different parts of the hymn.

That’s all fine and dandy, especially if you’re a musician and even know what she’s talking about. What I did instead was string all the words together, which makes it “I want to be a Christian irregular.” As it turns out that just about describes me perfectly.

You see, there is something called the “religious right” and “evangelicals” and all that. They believe in Jesus Christ, of course, but some of the other things they espouse are just anathema to me.

For example, take the concept of “biblical inerrancy.” This is where you get “creationists” who believe in “intelligent design,” with the Earth being only about 5,000 years old and our ancestors riding around on dinosaurs like horses.

Then you have so-called evangelists who traipse into some jungle somewhere and find people who have never even seen a white person not to mention electricity, plumbing, etc., and try to “convert” them. Things like that keep me out of the religious right.

I think I need to be in the religious left, if there is such a thing. I guess that’s why “I want to be a Christian irregular” works so well for me. It’s perfect.

For one thing, go out on your front lawn and pick up a stone. That sucker is many thousands if not millions of years old. The age of rocks is determined by science, specifically “carbon dating.” Look it up.

For another thing, instead of trying to “convert” anyone, how about helping them with farming, irrigation, and basic medical needs? Once they see you are out to help them — that your intentions are unselfish and true — you will have led them by example, just as Jesus himself did two thousand years ago.

Then there will be no need to convert anyone; when you tell them it’s the love of Jesus Christ that makes it all possible, they’ll get it. Radical concept for many, I know, but love always works.

I actually had a very conservative relative say to me once, with a straight face: “The problem with this country is the separation of church and state.” Hello?

We have a thing called the First Amendment, which clearly states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The whole point of the American Experiment is people fleeing from persecution and being able to follow any faith they want or no faith at all. That’s what makes us great. Don’t ever forget this!

I consider myself a science-based guy. Maybe there really was a Garden of Eden, or maybe the Adam and Eve story is just one of many “creation myths” that so many religions have. The thing is, the theory of evolution works, and to ignore it or trivialize it is just plain foolish.

I’m not saying we’re necessarily descended from apes, but the evidence for evolution is strong and can be tested even more as time goes on. When that deer runs out of the way of your car, he or she reproduces and creates more deer that run away from cars. That’s evolution. Survival of the fittest. It makes sense.

Here’s another touchy one. Who am I to tell a woman who was raped, or been a victim of incest, or is told she may die if she continues a pregnancy, that she has to deliver to term? Are you kidding me?

Within reason — by reason I mean very early — you have to let her have an abortion if she wants one. Anything else is just adding insult to injury.

Of course, if you give women that power, they must use it responsibly. Abortion is not birth control. No one wants to see actual babies with beating hearts killed. Conversely, no one wants to see women in back alleys getting unsafe abortions, either.

I know this is sensitive and causes endless debate and often violence, which is reprehensible. Still, within reason, women have to have the right to control their own bodies. I know if I were a woman, I’d expect nothing less.

Just be glad I’m not a woman because shaving my face on a regular basis is tedious enough so I’d be walking around with hairy legs all the time and you wouldn’t want to see that I’m sure.

You see why “I want to be a Christian irregular” works for me? With those last few paragraphs, I just got myself kicked out of many if not most churches and places of worship. Good thing I have a thick skin. Many say I have a thick skull as well. They’re probably right.

For me, it’s like this: If you believe Jesus Christ is the son of God who died for our sins, you believe he represents universal love and salvation. He loves everyone created in God’s image, and that indeed means everyone, no matter their race, gender, creed, or sexual orientation.

He’s not going to separate children from their parents at the border, because that’s just cruel. He’s not going to say a woman pastor can’t preach to men because that makes no sense.

When they asked Jesus what’s the one rule above all others, he said, “Love your neighbor.” He didn’t qualify what kind of neighbor, either. I’m totally down with that, unless my neighbor is playing drums at 3 a.m. and I have to work the next day, haha.

One big reason why “I want to be a Christian irregular” works so well for me is that I will never pull one line out of the Bible and use it as an excuse to ostracize or alienate anyone or anything. You see this kind of thing in all religions, unfortunately.

Again, it’s all about Jesus Christ. “What would Jesus do?” is kind of a cliché at this point, but it basically says it all. He would always act with love, care, wisdom, and respect — period. Everything else flows from that basic premise.

One time I went to a church that was having a celebration of their brand-new outdoor pavilion. It was a beautiful structure and you could tell the church was going to make great use of it.

As I ambled around just admiring the whole thing, I came across a sign with a bunch of “no”s listed. Most of them were things you’d expect: no smoking, no drinking, no skateboarding — standard things like that.

But the very last one shocked me, because it said “No dancing.” Why no dancing? Dance is one of the crowning achievements of the human condition.

Go to the New York City Ballet next time they’re in Saratoga and see the true joy in motion that these artists/athletes achieve. And when did slow dancing with your spouse at some kind of celebration, like a wedding, become a bad thing? The only reason I don’t dance more is because I’m really bad at it, but someday, with any luck at all, I do hope to learn.

You see why I need to be in the “religious left?” I have the crazy idea there’s nothing wrong with dancing:

Call me a heathen,

I don’t care,

‘cause someday I’ll dance,

like Fred Astaire.

All kidding aside, “I want to be a Christian irregular” is now my personal slogan. If you’ve read this far, you’re welcome to use it as well. Good old Hymn number 372 – gotta love it.