You read about earthquakes, tsunamis, and tornados and you wonder what it would be like to experience them firsthand. You see footage of extreme weather on TV, and you can't help but empathize with the poor folks who had to suffer through it.

The thing is, until you experience it for yourself, you really have no idea what it's like. My lovely wife, Charlotte, and I just had such an experience, and I sure hope we never have to repeat it.

We were driving my mini-van on I-88 East, about a half-hour east of Binghamton, on a recent rainy summer Sunday. We were towing an enclosed trailer with a couple of motorcycles in it, so our speed was really slow, between 55 and 60 miles per hour at the most.

Soon the rain began coming down in buckets. It was so bad several cars had pulled off to the shoulder to wait it out. I try to always have good tires and good wipers on my cars, so I continued going slowly, dealing with it as best I could. Not a great situation but nothing we haven't seen before. Just being extra careful usually works fine.

Then we noticed some thunder and lightning appear in the distance. It seemed to me like it was far off. I wasn't too worried but my wife was getting nervous.

The next thing you know there was a humongous explosion, and at the same time a bright, blinding light. When I say explosion, I mean there was a very loud KABOOOOM. A split second later, the van shook as all the warning lights on the dash came on and the engine shut off. Holy cow.

This was in the right lane, on a slight uphill, in a blinding downpour. Somehow I kept my wits about me and got the entire rig, including the trailer, completely onto the narrow shoulder before the forward momentum stopped. Whew. I'm surprised my underwear stayed clean after that.

So now we're on the side of I-88 East with a dead mini-van and trailer. In total, we would be there for four hours, and, in that entire time, not even one State Trooper passed in either direction.

Isn't it amazing that when you're speeding they're so plentiful? I mean, four hours is a long time to be stuck on the shoulder. Let me tell you, when a semi-trailer passes right next to you at 70 miles per hour, you really, really feel it; the wind blows and the ground shakes. It's truly frightening.

My wife and I had no choice but to work the cell phones, trying to find any help or assistance. I have a road-towing plan, but get this — they wouldn't come because they only give you a tow if you have a breakdown. Getting hit by lightning is, according to them, an "accident" and therefore not eligible for breakdown service.

Does this sound right to you? It doesn't to me — I mean, when you're stuck your stuck, but that's what we were told. Fortunately, our insurance company came through, and eventually we got towed, thought it wasn't cheap — $150 each for the van and the trailer, ouch.

This is the mini-van I wrote about a while ago. I purchased it used from a well-known local dealer, and it came with a terrific warrantee — as long as I let them do all the oil changes. I've been changing my own oil since I was 16 and I enjoy doing it, but I had to give this up due to the warrantee.

So, from the side of the road, I call them. I tell them what happened, figuring I'll get the van towed to them and use my warrantee coverage, when I hear on the phone that we had just experienced an "act of God" and as such would have no coverage. Hmm

I asked where in the manual it said I couldn't drive in rain storms. They said it didn't say that, but still it's an "act of God" and no warrantee coverage of any kind would be provided.

The guy on the phone must have said “act of God” five times before I hung up in frustration. I mean, at least say something like, “Bring it to us and we'll look at it and see what we can do.” You know, try to be helpful. Try to make it seem like you care about your customer.

This is why I will never shop at that dealer again. I never from day one felt like they were on my side. Quite frankly, I don't know how they stay in business. Even if getting hit by lightning is considered an act of God, at least show some kind of compassion for your very stressed out customers in their time of need.

My lovely wife did some research, and it seems like, when a car gets hit by lightning, the insurance company has no choice but to total it. Amazingly, there were no burn marks or any other visible damage on the car or trailer, so my insurance company wanted to try to have the car fixed. As if I'd want to drive or even be able to sell a car that had been totally disabled by lightning.

Over a two-week period, they had the shop where I'd had the van towed try a new computer, a new alternator, and many other electrical parts. We spoke to the mechanic doing the work — he said it was like trying to plug up a leaky garden hose, where you plug up one hole and another opens up.

They finally had him give up when there were serious problems with the air bags. Good thing I had full comprehensive coverage on this vehicle.

I do some work on cars, and I have the tool to read the on-board diagnostic system. For example, you plug the code reader into a connector under the steering wheel, and it might read something like this: P0301 Cylinder 1 Misfire Detected

Pretty straightforward — check the plug, wire, and coil for number-one cylinder and go from there.

Can you imagine what the code says on a car that was hit by lightning?

ZZZZZ — Are you serious? You're hosed! Better get to the bank and get a new car loan.

All kidding aside, the explosion from the lightning strike was so loud, powerful, violent, and scary, I hope I never have to experience anything like that ever again. I'm told the next time it happens, just pull over and sit with your hands in your lap (don't touch any metal) and wait it out. Extreme weather is better when you read about it or see it on TV, trust me.

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— Photo by Frank L. Palmeri

Four knives: One from the author’s ex-girlfriend, a classic Buck hunting knife, a whittling and carving knife, and a throwing knife.

I had an argument with a girlfriend one time — I can't even remember what it was about — and to patch things up she gave me a nice Buck pocketknife. Well, the girlfriend is long gone but that knife is still one of my favorites. The knife was easily the best part of that relationship.

I'm a big fan of knives. A knife can be so primal, pure, and simple in design and execution. Think of our primitive ancestors honing a flat piece of stone on a big rock to make a sharp edge — the first real manmade tool.

A simple knife is not much more in concept than that. Knives may be the best all-around tools ever designed by humanity.

I know hunters and outdoorsmen need knives to field dress game. Same with fisherman, chefs, and many more — knives serve a specific purpose for them. I camp a little but I don't ever need to cut back brush or dress an animal. Still, I love my cheap machete. Every time I hold it, I feel like I'm ready to tackle the wild.

There are many ways to enjoy a knife. Pride of ownership is one but there are so many more.

A good large knife will have a heft to it, a solid feel in your hand. That's a wonderful feeling. Even smaller knives, many jewel-like in their construction, can be very satisfying to hold and admire. Craftsmanship never goes out of style.

Of course, knives are for cutting, whether something mundane like breaking down cardboard boxes for recycling or more fancy like preparing dinner. Knives are very useful in so many ways.

An interesting thing about knives is that sharp ones are much safer than dull ones. That's kind of counterintuitive, I know, but, if you think about it for a while, it makes sense. A dull knife is dangerous because you have to force it so hard to cut something.

Any time you're forcing a knife, there's a chance you might slip and that's where you get into trouble. Conversely, a sharp knife makes cutting smooth, almost effortless, so there's much less chance of an accident.

You have to handle sharp knives with respect. A quality knife will come with a sheath of some sort that protects the edge from harm and you from the edge.

Good kitchen knives come with a wooden block that keeps the knives safe from you and from each other. Despite knowing all this, I still have a drawer in my kitchen with random knives just banging around in there. Surprisingly, they still work for many tasks. Serving butter and opening letters don't require much of an edge.

Speaking about sharpening, there is an entire industry of knife-sharpening gadgets. Many of them work so poorly as to be just about useless. A lot of them are V shaped pull-through things that work for a while, but then wear out right in the spot where you need them most.

To truly sharpen knives well and consistently (assuming a clean, straight knife in good condition) requires you to be aware of the edge angle (and know how to alter if it necessary); to thin the knife (the secondary bevel) if it needs it; to use the appropriate abrasives in a consistent fashion; and to remove the burr with a final stropping step.

 

Ready, aim, throw: Frank L. Palmeri made this knife-throwing target and finds it “surprisingly satisfying to throw some knives around.” — Photo by Frank L. Palmeri

 

When you think about all that, it's easy to see why they sell a lot of cheap knife sharpeners. A lot of folks don't have the time or interest to really learn to sharpen knives the right way.

One thing you can do to prevent dulling kitchen knives is to try to avoid glass cutting boards; glass is very tough on a knife edge. Instead, use boards made of wood or a manmade material (and go easy when cutting that steak). Your knife edges will thank you very much (and don't forget to keep your cutting boards very clean so harmful bacteria doesn't become a problem).
 
  

There is an article on Wikipedia titled "Scary Sharp" that describes a simple and inexpensive method to sharpen things like chisels and planer blades relatively easily (you can use this method for knives in general but you might need a guide of some sort to hold a consistent angle until you get good at doing it freehand).

All you need is a piece of thick glass or another smooth surface and some sandpaper. Attach some coarse sandpaper to the smooth surface. Then place the blade on the sandpaper, bevel side down, and start to move it around. If it's wet-dry paper, you can spray some water on it as you go.

Then you do the same with finer and finer grits of sandpaper. If you flatten the back of the tool first, then hone the bevel using coarse to fine sandpaper, and finally remove the burr on a leather strop or similar, you will indeed get a "scary sharp" edge.

Of course, there are many variations on this — go to YouTube and search and you'll see plenty — but the point (pun intended) is you can do some really good sharpening with not much of an investment in supplies and some very basic techniques.

I collect those ubiquitous 20-percent off Harbor Freight coupons that appear in newspapers and magazines because you never know when you might need one. I'd been using a little penknife to cut them out.

Recently I sharpened the penknife. The next time I cut out a coupon, using the same pressure as I always do, I cut through three extra magazine pages. The difference between a dull knife and a sharp knife is truly amazing.

You know how yo-yos go in and out of style about once ever seven to 10 years? That's how I am with knives. Something just clicks and then all of a sudden I start buying just about every knife I can find.

Again I don't do a lot of outdoor-type activities; I just really appreciate a well designed and manufactured knife. Don't get the idea that I'm a collector, though — that's a game for investors with a lot of money.

I only buy knives that I will actually use: multi-tools, Swiss Army knives, kitchen, carving, everyday carry, etc. There are so many categories of quality knives available these days that this has to be the golden age of knife making.

I'd like to be able to carry some kind of knife on my person at all times but it's not always easy to do. In jacket-wearing weather, you have plenty of pockets to choose from but lose the jacket and things get harder.

There are only so many pants pockets and those are already spoken for by the wallet, phone, hanky, change, comb, and keys (at least I always have my trusty Swiss Army knife on my key ring). Many knives come with belt attachments, but these don't look right with office, dress, or some casual attire.

Sometimes, when I'm working on stuff, I load up my belt with a knife, a tape measure, a flashlight, and my phone, then I start to feel like Batman with his utility belt. Too much to deal with.

One of the more interesting knives I own comes with a strap that goes on your calf right above your ankle. For dinner once, I took my lovely wife to our favorite restaurant, and just for kicks I decided to bring that knife.

It was quite something to be eating a gourmet meal and drinking fine wine while feeling this knife on my leg, with no one having any idea it was there. I've not carried that knife in this manner since — too much to think about when you just want to have a good time. There's a time and a place for everything.

Some of my knives have sentimental value, like that old Buck knife. Then there's the multi-tool I thought was lost for five years until finding it behind a desk; my trusty Swiss Army knife with its tiny super-sharp scissors; and my cool little black mini-machete (I had a neighbor who felt the need to carry a full-sized machete just to visit relatives on Long Island!).   

The other day I did a YouTube search on "knife skills." As you might imagine, I found many chef's demonstrating their skillful manipulation of kitchen knives. Then there's the Japanese sushi and steakhouse chefs, whose deft knife skills are legendary.

I also found a video from an ex-Israeli Defense Forces member, giving tips on hand-to-hand combat using knives. That guy was so intense I had trouble getting to sleep that night. Amazing that the same tool can be used for so many different purposes.

Of course, the dark side of knives is that they can be used for violence. Still, it's the person, not the knife, that causes the problem. I don't like flying in general but the fact that you can't even bring a little key-chain knife on a plane anymore really rubs me the wrong way. It's the same story as always — the few bad apples always ruin it for the rest of us.

Recently, I've been getting into whittling and knife throwing. Whittling is fun because you can do it almost anywhere. Skilled whittlers and carvers can produce amazing works of art. I'm nowhere near that (if I can just carve a little without cutting myself I'm happy).

Knife throwing is simple in concept but full of subtleties in technique and execution (another pun, sorry). I built a target and it's surprisingly satisfying to throw some knives around. When you "stick" a well thrown knife solidly, it's a really good feeling.

Knives are great to own, admire, and use, and learning to sharpen knives well is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who appreciates a precision tool. It's terrific that such simple things like knives and such basic skills as sharpening are still so useful in this modern day and age. Now that I think about it, I’ve always wanted a Samurai sword . . . .

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I need a hug. I don't need a drink, or a doughnut, or a Cadillac CTS sales brochure. I just need a hug.
The kind of hug I need is the kind that comes out of nowhere. An unexpected hug, if you will. A hug that comes with no strings attached, like a sun shower that comes in and out before you know it. That's the kind of hug I need.

 In return for this hug, I promise absolutely nothing in return. I'm not going to install your room air-conditioner, or move your yard-sale dresser purchase, or babysit your parrot. The hug you give me has to come with absolutely no strings attached. That's the kind of hug I'm looking for. A free as in beer hug.

The hug you give me can be a smothering, bosomy Aunt Lena type hug. Those are always nice. But let me state for the record that you don't need to have a big bosom to give me a hug.

In fact, it's perfectly all right if you have a small bosom, or even no bosom. That's right, even if you are a man, you can give me a hug. I'm open to hugs from one and all, with no regard to age, gender, national origin, etc. It's all good, as they say.

When you give me the hug, please make sure it's on a day when you have no or very little perfume or cologne on. A little of that stuff goes a long way. Sometimes I'll get on an empty elevator and the lingering perfume is so strong, you can still smell it.

Speaking of perfume in elevators: The other day, four young girls got on an elevator and one had the most intoxicating perfume I've ever encountered, a deliciously fragrant combination of flowers, fruit, and candy, if you can believe that. I tried to think of some non-creepy way to ask her what it was but then the door opened and she was gone. Never before or since have I encountered anyone who smelled that good.

If you are wearing that perfume, please hug me as soon as possible. Also please let my lovely wife know what brand it is. I need more of that perfume in my life.

While administering the hug to me, you are allowed to squeeze as hard as you like, within reason. Please do not squeeze so hard or so long that I begin to have difficulty breathing.

While I like hugs very much, I like unobstructed breathing even more, thank you very much. If you insist on hugging me too long or too hard, I'll pull out my CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine and mask. Trust me, you don't want to see that.

If you give me the hug between normal business hours — from 9 to 5 between Monday and Friday — you will earn Double Points in your Permanent Record. Remember in high school when they told you, if you did something bad, it would go in your Permanent Record? Yes it's true and we all have one.

The reason you receive Double Points when you give a hug during normal business hours is because these hugs are so rare. Hugs during normal business hours are inversely proportional to Fucillo commercials. So why not go for it, it'll be HUGE.

I'd prefer it if, during the hug, you spoke very little or not at all. I know it's tempting when we're close like that for you to say something heartfelt to me, like, "I love you" or, "Get off of my foot" or whatever. But truly, let's keep the moment as simple and sweet as possible. "Silence is golden" is more than a cliché.

I understand a hug from you comes with no warranty expressed or implied; however, if you should fail to more your head to the right enough and bump me in the noggin (it happens), requiring me to visit a doctor for my headache, or worse, I feel it's only fair if you at least make my medical co-pay. A tray of brownies would be nice as well (made with applesauce instead of oil so they're low-fat and relatively healthy).

Every now and then, they have master pickpockets on TV. I've seen these guys go in for a hug and remove watches, wallets — heck, I think I saw one guy remove a person’s underwear during a hug. Please don't remove anything from me when you give me the hug. Trust me on this; it's not very nice, and you don't know where I've been. You've been warned.

I haven't been able to exercise much lately, so there's a good chance you'll feel all or part of my belly during the hug. This doesn't give you the right to make snarky comments like, "Have you been eating for two?" or, "Boy, there's a lot of you to love" or anything like that.

Middle-age spread is nothing to laugh about. My stretched-out belts will back me up on this.

There was a guy named Leo Buscaglia who made a whole career on giving and getting hugs. Can you believe that?

I'm still working full-time so, as much as I'd like to, I can't spend that much time on hugging. Still, if you have an idea for a part-time hugging based business venture, I'm all ears.

Think I'm kidding? There are actually very well paid full-time "professional cuddlers" now. I saw it on TV so it must be true. Leo would have loved that I'm sure.

On the day of the hug, if you should buy a lotto ticket and hit the big one, you are surely not required to throw some my way. However, if you want to buy me, say, a drink or a Mazda Miata — in crimson red of course — that would be fine. It's entirely up to you.

After the hug, I may say something like, "Thank you" or, "I like chicken," but, if I don't say anything, please don't be offended. I may have something else besides your hug on my mind so I may just give you a smile or a dumb stare. You know, just looking normal.

You can rest assured that your hug will make me feel better. How could it not; it's a hug after all.

If world leaders hugged more often you know the world would be a better place. We need a World Hugging Summit in some nice place like Oslo. If you want to start one there, let me know (and when you buy my plane ticke,t get me an aisle seat so I can get to the bathroom easily; I'm old after all).

I need a hug.

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Believe it or not, a lot of people tell me they love reading my column. There's no accounting for taste, haha, but today I'm very sad because I just lost my number-one fan. My mother, Gertrude "Trudy" (Colasanti) Palmeri, just died and I have such a heavy heart I can barely breathe. Truly the Earth just lost one of those bright lights that make the world a better place.

When you grow up as the oldest son in an Italian family, you are treated like royalty, for better or worse. For example, I still can't make a bed properly because I never had to. Same thing with washing clothes and other general cleaning and housework.

I'm bad at these things not because I'm lazy or don't want to do them; I simply don't know how. I'm trying to learn — I really like clean things — but, with Mom around, I never had to worry.

Mom and Dad moved to Guilderland from Brooklyn a couple of years ago, but her health had degraded so much that we could never do the many fun things I had been hoping we'd do when my parents finally moved up here. You know, the free concerts, the nature trails, the museums, etc. — the many rich and varied activities that make the Capital District such an appealing place to live.

Mom hadn't felt good for a long time, and, when you don't feel good, you don't have any enthusiasm to do anything. I can sympathize because I'm the same way.

The irony is that Mom was always such a strong person. She never needed to see a doctor her whole life until the last few years, but, when she finally needed a doctor, she needed several.

She had Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease or COPD (breathing problems), heart issues (including a stent), and non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Combine all that with being almost 80 years old and I know it shouldn't be a surprise that she's gone, but it still hurts so much.

I don't know if all Italian mothers have anxiety issues, but my mom had them all her life. A good example is when I moved upstate from Brooklyn. I had some clothes, some record albums, and not much else, yet she insisted I rent a large U-Haul truck for the move. When my friends came to help me unload, they said they'd never seen such a large truck for so little stuff. Yet that's what she wanted to make sure I'd be safe.

The other day, we put Mom on hospice care. In case you don't know, hospice is a great program — my lovely wife Charlotte volunteers for them — and we felt really good that Mom was going to get some great care, but it was not to be. That very same night, we had to decide whether to let her die at home or bring her to a hospital.

Since it happened so fast, we chose the hospital, and that's where my mother gave me her last lesson. I know now I'm going to fill out a health-care proxy with the orders “Do not resuscitate.” Trust me, you don't want to be connected to machines at the end; it's much better to go peacefully. I can thank my mom for making that abundantly clear to me and the rest of my family who were at her bedside.

My mom loved her family — including her husband of 60 years, Frank, and her three boys — more than anything. I could share a zillion stories about Mom but I'll limit it to just one.

When I was around 8, I was in a department store, wheeling a shopping cart, with my little brother in the child’s seat. I was heading for the checkout line when I accidentally bumped the lady in front of me with the cart.

This lady then yelled at me in a very loud and mean fashion. At that point, I saw a side of my normally calm and docile mother that I'd never seen before, as she let that lady have it up and down and every way from Sunday for yelling at her young child.

That's when I knew she would always "have my back," as we say in Brooklyn. How lucky I and my brothers are to have had such a great mom.

Life is nothing more than one decision after another. It occurs to me that, when I asked myself, "What would mom think of this?" before making a decision, I invariably made the best choices. Too bad I didn't do that much more often.

Still, she was so, so proud of me. If you'd seen her lately, you may have noticed how fat her purse was. That's because she'd cut out all my columns and stick them in there to read and show off to friends. When I say I lost my biggest fan, I'm not kidding at all.

Let me take this moment to thank everyone reading this and the rest of the Capital District for being so nice to my parents from the moment they moved to Guilderland. I warned them that, as true Brooklynites, they would find it very different living up here rather than in the big city. They used to complain that it was too quiet up here, but, after a while, they admitted that they should have moved here much sooner.

The best was when they'd tell so many stories of random acts of kindness that all of you did for them, from little things like giving directions to helping inflate their tires. Little acts of kindness that we upstaters take for granted but that get lost in the hustle and bustle of the big city.

It made me so proud to be a Capital District resident every time they'd tell me one of these stories. Again, thank you for your kindness. It is so much appreciated.

Now we have to make sure Dad can find a way to move on without the love of his life. It won't be easy, certainly, but maybe, like Ringo, he'll get by with a little help from his friends.

Dealing with apnea: “Sleeping with what looks like a small dryer vent hose on your face is not something that you get used to easily,” says Frank L. Palmeri. At left is the nasal-pillows CPAP  (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) mask, and at right is the standard nasal CPAP mask.

One time, I took my son to a Boy Scouts camping weekend aboard the USS Massachusetts, a retired battleship docked in Fall River, Massachusetts. There were about 40 boys with their fathers, including one boy who had his mother with him.

At night, we slept in hammocks hanging four high on top of each other. What is most memorable about that night was I have never heard more snoring and gas passing. The next morning, the lone woman parent said to us, "I don't know how your wives sleep with you guys."

Back then, I just figured that's what guys do when they sleep. I even thought I was "above" all of that. But over the years my lovely wife let me know that I did indeed snore.

For a long time, I didn't believe her; I mean, you can't hear yourself snoring. So I just blew her off about this, until she started throwing the term "sleep apnea" around. Then my doctor confirmed that sleep apnea — stopping breathing while sleeping, associated with loud snoring — is a real condition that can be very unhealthy if not outright dangerous.

For a long time, I'd been getting tired throughout the day. I just wrote this off to getting older, but it turns out it's one of the main symptoms of sleep apnea. What happens is your airway gets blocked while sleeping, then you stop breathing for a while until you snort or snore and then wake up.

This constant sleep and wake-up cycle ruins your deep sleep and you get tired throughout the day. There's more to sleep apnea than this, but this is the gist of it.

I resisted this diagnosis for a long time. I've got enough to worry about without adding what you'd think would be the most simple and natural thing like sleeping to the mix. But I finally realized my wife was right (she almost always is) so I agreed to go to a sleep study. Yes, they really do study you while you sleep.

You get to the sleep study center around 8 p.m., and they walk you through the process. Basically, they wire you up with sensors all over your body and then watch you all night as you sleep.

If it sounds odd, it's because it is. The sensors truly go all over your body — on your head, your chest and back, and then down your pants to get to your legs. I move around a lot when I sleep, and, at one point, I yanked the sleep monitor machine right off the night table. If there's ever an application that should use Bluetooth (short-range wireless communications), this is it.

The room was nicely decorated, the temperature was comfortable, and it was very quiet. When I finished reading my book, I shouted out that I was ready for bed (yes, they really are watching and listening in an almost Orwellian fashion) and then it was off to sleep.

I don't remember sleeping all that well that night — I know I had to call out once to have them unhook me so I could use the bathroom — but, when the results came back a week later, it turned out I did have mild sleep apnea. As my wife suspected, it was indeed more than just snoring. I really hate it when she's always right.

So now I had to go to a second sleep study, where I would be fitted with a CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) machine on a trial basis. To me, this is like something out of science fiction.

It involves having to sleep with a mask on your face. The mask has a flexible hose attached to it, connected to a machine that forces air up your nose while you sleep. The theory is this constant forced air keeps your airway open so you don't snore or snort and then stop breathing and wake up; therefore, you get a good nights sleep.

Good theory but sleeping with what looks like a small dryer vent hose on your face is not something that you get used to easily, I can guarantee you that.

The night of the second sleep study with the CPAP machine was notable because I'd never had to sleep with a long hose connected to my face before. After getting hooked up and telling them I was ready to turn in (remember they're always watching and listening), I recall thinking to myself there is no way I can do this — sleeping with a miniature dryer vent hose hooked up to your nose is just too weird.

But the attendant they had on staff that night was very nice. She reminded me so much of my daughter, also a young and pretty nursing student, so I guess I was predisposed to like her. Anyway, the next thing you know it was 5 a.m., my normal waking time, and, believe it or not, I'd gotten a really refreshing sleep — the first good night’s sleep in a long time, actually. I really couldn't believe it but it is what it is.

Of course, we are always our own worst enemies, so I fought and resisted using a CPAP machine for a long, long time, despite my wife begging me to try it. What finally got me over the hump was hearing that some of my fellow Iron Butt Association motorcycle riding friends (very tough, long-distance motorcycle riders) actually swear by their CPAP machines and won't go a night without using one, even when they're on the road.

Now these guys and gals often ride mile after mile, hour after hour, for day after day after day. If CPAP is good enough for them, then it's surely good enough for me.

When I first got the CPAP machine, the mask I had was the kind that fits tightly over your nose. With this type of mask, it's very easy to break the seal if you sleep on your stomach or side like I prefer to do.

For the first week or two, it was hit or miss if I could even get through the night while wearing the darn thing. Then I found out about a different kind of mask called a "nasal pillow." This kind of mask consists of two outlets that fit tightly to your nostrils.

I know it sounds awful and looks quite painful, but it's kind of like those ugly Croc rubber shoes. They look ugly but feel great. That's how it was with the nasal pillow mask for me.

With this one, I can sleep almost any way I want, and I rarely have to adjust it. There is also a full face mask that covers your nose and mouth, for those who can't keep their mouth closed while sleeping.

With this one on, you look like a psycho-maniac killer from one of those slasher movies. Who would have ever thought there'd ever be something that would make an ice hockey goalie mask look stylish.   

Don't get the idea that it's all peaches and cream, however, even with the much better fitting mask. I still have to make sure I sleep in such a way that my nose is not touching the pillow, and I constantly have to watch out lest I pinch or wrap the hose around me.

Then there is the dry mouth you get if you let your mouth open even a little while sleeping. You may think you know what dry mouth is, but there is nothing, trust me, nothing like CPAP dry mouth. Imagine your entire mouth and tongue covered with 60-grit silicon-oxide sandpaper — the kind of sandpaper they use to do rough bodywork on cars. That's what CPAP dry mouth is like.

The sleep machine I have silently connects to the doctor’s office using wireless phone technology. It lets them know how many nights and for how long I use the machine, and whether or not I suffer any mask air leaks or even wake up during the night.

The fact that I'm being monitored this way during a very private act like sleeping in my own bed really creeps me out. Yet the results have been nothing short of positive.

They even send regular congratulatory emails to keep me motivated since, statistically, about half the folks who try CPAP give it up for whatever reason. They tell you if you can stick it out for three months you'll eventually get used to it. It's been three months for me and I must admit I'm less tired throughout the day, but having what looks like an elephant’s trunk on my face all night is quite a price to pay for sleep, I think.

A kind of side benefit of CPAP — at least some might consider it a benefit — is that you can't really talk once you turn the machine on. The air pushing up your nose and out your mouth simply doesn't allow it. So no more late night arguments for me! There's always a silver lining in the darkest cloud, you just have to look for it.

All kidding aside, my wife is of course happy that I'm sleeping better, but her biggest benefit is she doesn't have to listen to me snoring anymore. As I said, I've never been able to hear myself snore so I don't know what she's missing, but one time I was camping in a rustic cabin with a buddy. He snored so loudly the glass panes in the windows were rattling.

It was like a heavy freight train was passing through — all night long. If my snoring is even half as bad as this I can see why my wife is elated.

Still, despite its many benefits, I really don't like sleeping with a dryer vent hose stuck on my face, so I did research some other options. One thing you can get is a mouth fixture to hold your lower jaw forward.

This is custom-made by a dentist, and, while not as effective as CPAP, it can work for some people. It's rather pricey (what medical thing is not pricey) so I've not delved into it. I hope I'll just get used to the CPAP machine and then that will be it. We'll have to see how it goes.

You'd like to think that something simple like sleeping could be done the way it always has but not anymore, especially if, like me, you snore or have sleep apnea. The good thing about having a CPAP mask is you won't have to look for something odd to wear on Halloween anymore.

On the plus side, it is really good to not be tired throughout the day. A lot of car accidents are caused by drivers’ nodding off, so, if you suspect you might have sleep apnea, be sure to tell your doctor.

Wearing a mask that makes you look like an elephant when you go to bed is uncomfortable no matter how you slice it, but it's still way better than a potentially devastating car accident caused by nodding off while driving. Plus, elephants are kind of cute, aren't they?

There are certain places where men fear to tread, places where the very fiber of our being is threatened. Even otherwise tough men go to these places haltingly, fearfully, knowing that they may face unspeakable terror — knowing that, at the very least, a life-changing and significant event is about to happen.

I went to one of these places recently, and I survived, but just barely. That place is called David's Bridal.

What happened was I had to accompany my wife for a fitting of her mother-of-the-bride's dress for our daughter's upcoming wedding. I was there to take pictures with the phone and send them to the daughters for instantaneous commentary and approval (what a Jetsons world we live in now). This was to be my first full-on David's Bridal experience. It was quite the adventure.

In case you don't know, David's Bridal is a warehouse-sized wedding and women’s formalwear store. I'd never been there before but I've been to men’s formalwear stores for suits several times.

When you go to the men’s stores, it's very low key. You work with a knowledgeable salesman, try on a few suits, and come back a few weeks later when the alterations are done. In a men’s store, it's so calm and refined ,you feel like sitting down with a newspaper, or maybe even a scotch and a cigar. That's how relaxed the atmosphere is in a men’s formalwear store.

Not so in David's Bridal. I've never been inside a beehive, but I imagine it's very similar in there to the atmosphere inside David's Bridal. That's right, it's full of all these women literally buzzing around.

I could not believe how busy this place was on an otherwise cold and quiet winter Sunday afternoon. I don't know if David's Bridal is publicly traded but, if it is, that's the next stock I'm getting.

When you walk in, there's a receptionist; yes, they are so busy, they actually have a receptionist, like in a doctor's office. As you're waiting to talk to her, you look around and it's just unreal.

You may have seen or at least heard of the TV show, "Say Yes to the Dress." My wife and daughters watch this all the time. It's brides trying on wedding dresses with family members nodding approval or disapproval.

Believe it or not, what should be this special but still kind of ordinary event is actually a TV show. Well, David's Bridal is like 20 episodes of this show running at the same time.

As you wait for the receptionist, you look around and there are future brides all over the place on display in all their shiny white finery. Whoever said marriage was on the way out had it all wrong, based on the amount of dress shopping that is going on.

We finally got the receptionist, and the dress my wife ordered was brought out. Then we were directed to a tiny fitting room way in the back of the humongous space.

Unlike other women’s stores I've been to with my wife, they had no problem with me joining her in the fitting room, which was really helpful. I was able to help her hang up her clothes properly, and then zip her up when she got the new dress on.

I still needed assistance, though; there is a snap above the zipper that my fat fingers could not handle at all. A saleswoman — they're all over the place, you just have to flag one down — kindly showed me the trick: Pull the zipper part-way down, do the clip, then zip up. Any day you learn a new trick, even if it's just a fancy dress-zipper trick, is a good day.

Then we stepped outside the fitting room and I took some pictures with the phone and sent them to my daughters. The funny thing is, I have a hard time relating to all this since it's so easy for me to get dressed.

On a normal day, it's a shower, pants, a shirt, and I'm done. My hair is so short, it needs virtually no care at all. Even putting on a suit and tie is relatively quick and easy.

Compared to that, what these women go through is kind of a nightmare. Just finding the dress — once you eventually do — is only the first step. Now comes the search for the shoes and the bag and the accessories, to say nothing of the hair and nails and all that. What a conundrum.

Honestly, I'm so glad as a man I have it so much easier. I wouldn't have the fashion sense, patience, and endurance for shopping to deal with the "Say Yes to the Dress" crowd.

Here's another trick I learned at David's Bridal. When a dress is close but not quite right, they make a thing called Dress Tape that lets you stick things where they need to be. I'm getting a roll of it for myself, yes I am.

I ride old British motorcycles that vibrate a lot, and this clear, sticky stuff will be perfect for taping up a loose horn or taillight that's about to fall off. Wish I'd found out about it sooner.

When you're a guy in a place like David's Bridal, you can't help checking out the ladies. What's amazing to me is that all these gals are there, walking around in fancy wedding dresses, in a very public space, like it was nothing.

To me, that should be kind of a private thing, but maybe I'm just old-fashioned (or just plain old). I guess, now that I think about it, I've only ever seen one live bride at a time. To see so many in one spot — literally dozens — is like bride overload. All those sequins, veils, trains, and bust-lines in one place at one time. Holy cannoli.

I know the girls go there to try on dress after dress and it's a lot of work, but maybe I can give them a little advice. As I stood there taking it all in, one thing became apparent to me: The "best looking" brides weren't the ones with the most fancy or elaborate dresses. Not at all.

The best looking brides, to me, were the ones who looked happiest. The ones who had big smiles on their faces, no matter what dress they happened to be in. The ones who looked like they had the feeling that they were getting ready for the biggest day in their lives and this was just another small step to getting there.

I'm not kidding, you can see it in their faces. Call it confidence or happiness or whatever; the ones that looked like it really didn't matter what dress they got, these were the ones who looked the best. You could just see it.

I'm really glad I'm not a woman, because you'd not be impressed with my fashion choices, I can guarantee you that. Life is too short. I'd much rather say yes to the couch than say yes to the dress.

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A couple of winters ago, we had so little snow that I never once started my snowblower. This year was obviously Mother Nature's payback. Since we had so much snow this winter, I thought I'd go over my snow-removal procedures.

What I do depends on when we get the snow and how much snow we get. Like anything in life, snow removal is all about attitude. If I tell myself it's going to be my exercise for the day, it doesn't seem quite as bad.

When I was younger, we lived in a house with a normal-sized driveway. Back then, my only snow-removal tool was a shovel. I can remember a few times when the snow was so deep I had to take a cut or two of snow off the top before I could shovel to the ground. That was a lot of snow.

Occasionally, a nice neighbor with a snowblower would help out. When you're out there with that much snow, armed only with a shovel, there is nothing better than a helpful neighbor, let me tell you.

Then we moved to a house with a very large U-shaped driveway; in effect, we now have two driveways. That's when I finally had to get a snowblower. Advancing age and so much more snow to clear demanded it.

On a really bad day, it takes me about 90 minutes to get the whole driveway cleared. That's a workout, even with the snowblower.

Lets say it’s a workday. Since I leave for work so early in the morning, I try to just blast my car out of the snow-covered driveway and into the street, which I hope will be plowed, figuring I can deal with the driveway later in the day.

The prospect of running the snowblower in the frigid cold and dark pre-sunrise morning is too depressing to contemplate, unless someone in the house has to get her car out before I get home from work.

On the weekend, I don't have to worry about timing so much, which is great. Even if my church organist wife has to get out for Mass, the sun is at least out by then, which makes it so much better.

If the snow accumulation is no more than a couple of inches, I won't bother with the loud, heavy machine; instead, the pusher shovel works just fine. I treat it like a workout and it's not so bad.

If we get up to, say, four inches, then I'll go with the regular shovel. It just seems wasteful to use a gas-powered machine for so little snow. As long as I'm still strong enough to do it by shovel, I always try that first.

If we get six inches or more, the snowblower and the ear protectors come out. No way around it. There's just too much driveway; I don't need or want that much exercise.

By the way, if you're thinking of getting a snowblower, I'd recommend a 10-horsepower, two-stage unit as a minimum. In this part of the great Northeast, you need that much, trust me. Anything smaller and you won't be able to handle the nor’easters that seem to be coming so much more frequently these days. Sometimes bigger really is better.

OK, so now I'm ready to snowblow the driveway. It's taken me many years to perfect my routine. When you have a big driveway like I do, you have to think about the pattern, because you want to minimize the amount of snow you have to move twice; a snowblower can throw snow only so far.

First, I'll make a cut right in front of the garage door that is twice as deep as the length of the snowblower itself. This becomes my turn-around area for my return trip back up the driveway. You really need to have this.

It also helps to have all cars out of the driveway if possible. Blowing show onto the car is just more snow that has to be removed later.

When you make that first pass to the end of the driveway, it gets interesting. You need to turn around, but you might have a foot or more of snow on each side, wedging you in tighter than a belt line at a Weight Watchers’ meeting.

You hope your snowblower is powerful enough to get you through that dense, packed-in snow left in the depression at the bottom of the driveway by the town plow. If you break through that, then you can pivot 90 degrees and make a couple of turnaround cuts parallel to the house, same as you did at the top of the driveway.

This insures that, on the remaining trips to the bottom of the driveway, you won't have to go out into the street again, which is always dangerous. If you can't break though the packed-in mass at the bottom of the driveway, leave it for later and attack it in small chunks from a different angle (this is why you need a big, powerful snow-blower). If that doesn't work, God forbid, you have to shovel it by hand. Ouch. Pray for your lower back.

After the first lane is finished, it's time to get into a rhythm, making passes up and down the driveway until all the snow is cleared. At each turn-around, you have to pivot the heavy machine up on its rear wheels and turn it a full 180 degrees and then turn the snow exhaust chute the other way.

Sometimes you need to back up. The snowblower has two reverse speeds, but both are so slow that I usually just grunt and yank the thing back. As I said, snowblowing is my workout for the day; during a full session, I can easily sweat through all my clothes, no matter how cold it is.

I ordered an accessory hood for my machine that clamps onto the handles and protects me from snow blowback. On a windy day, you would not believe how much thrown snow can blow right back in your face.

The hood works great but often it can get covered with snow, making seeing where you're going tough. Still, I've experienced so much awful snow blowback that I can't imagine going without the hood.

When you get a lot of snow or a couple of snowstorms in a row, the piles around the driveway can get quite high, so high that you have trouble seeing when you pull out into the street. There's really nothing you can do about this — the snow has to go somewhere.

I've had my mailbox almost completely buried several times, to say nothing of the poor shrubs. At least the mountains of clean, white snow are pretty to look at.

Once I finish my first driveway — remember, mine is U-shaped — then I still have another one to do. The second is more difficult because I don't want to blast snow onto the neighbor’s driveway, meaning I have to constantly adjust the blower chute.

When all that’s completed, there is still the mailbox to plow out, then the steps and walkways, and finally I'm finished. Unfortunately, the snowblower doesn't clear right to the asphalt, meaning there is always a little bit left to clean up manually.

Sometimes I do it with the pusher shovel, but most times I just let it go because I'm too tired to deal with it. Then, of course, it ices over and I have a skating rink in the driveway. An ice pick and rock salt are always on hand to deal with that.

I always clean off the snowblower before putting it away, using an old car windshield snow-scraper for the job. Never put your hands anywhere near the augers (the spinning parts that blow the snow) on a jammed snowblower if the engine is running; even when it's off, you need to be extra careful around the augers.

You'd think this would be obvious, but talk to anyone who works in a hospital emergency room, and they'll tell you snowblower injuries do happen. That's the main reason I never pushed my kids to use power equipment when they were young; I'd rather just get the workout and not have to worry about them.

My snowblower is over 15 years old and still starts on one or two pulls. Here's the secret: Every year before you put it away, drain all the gas out of it, change the oil, clean it thoroughly, spray it all down with WD-40, and put it in a safe place.

Every other year, do the same thing but also take off the bottom plate, grease all the shafts and gears, and oil the cables. Follow this simple routine and you'll think you have a new snowblower every year. I still like mine a lot but new ones have heated handgrips so, if you see mine for sale, that's why.

This was surely one of those winters where you don't miss having a gym membership.

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— Photo by Frank Palmeri

Heritage on display along with pride: Frank Palmeri showcases his grandfather’s saw in his family room.

A long time ago, I went to a tool show at the New Scotland Armory. At the time, I didn't have much of a workshop but I always liked tools so I went to just look around.

At one table, there was an English-made backsaw for sale. This is a short, stiff hand saw used for fine cuts in wood. The top brace of the saw was plated gold, and the handle was exquisitely made of hardwood with matching gold rivets.

When I picked it up and held it, I gasped at first — this tool fit my hand like a fine glove, like it was made just for my hand. Before or since, I've never picked up any tool with that kind of feeling, a feel that, with this tool, which was basically an extension of my hand, I could work with total confidence and precision.

The saw cost, if I remember correctly, $45, which was a lot back then. I didn't buy it and I've been kicking myself ever since. A tool of that quality will easily last a lifetime and then some.

What brought this to mind was something that happened with my father the other day. He'd been cleaning out the trunk of his car, which was still full of stuff from a recent move.

One of the things he pulled out and gave to me was his father's wood saw. This saw is strong and stout, maybe 100 years old. There's a little rust on it but overall it's in fine condition.

When I first gripped it, I got the same feeling like I did when I picked up that backsaw at the tool show. It didn't fit my hand perfectly like that saw, "the one that got away," but it was close. It's clearly a quality product built for serious work by a craftsman. Amazing that this classic tool was just bumping around in my father's trunk for the last few years.

My grandfather was retired by the time I knew him, so I never saw him do any real work, but he would always putter around the apartment where he lived. The interesting thing about him was he'd fix everything — including his false teeth — with a file.

Sounds odd, I know, but talk to any craftsman and he will tell you a good man (or woman) with a file can fix anything. To think I now have his saw in my own personal possession is quite an honor.

When my parents moved, I did pick up a few of his other tools, most notably a really nice Stanley hand drill, but this saw is much larger and makes a wonderful visual impression. It still looks like it's ready for anything.

My lovely wife and I used to go to a lot of garage and estate sales where we'd often find vintage tools like this, but we had to stop going. The problem , for every nice thing we'd find we'd bring home 10 other things that we really didn't need, which leads to clutter.

There are reality TV shows about out-of-control hoarders that get good ratings. We're not that bad but I've decided that, until we clear most of it out, we're not "sale-ing" (hitting the yard and estate sales) anymore.

I have a buddy, a tool guy like me, who made a rule for his family — nothing goes in unless something goes out. So, if you want a new TV, the old one goes. Same with furniture, housewares, etc.

I wish I'd done that years ago, believe me. You don't own stuff; it owns you. Everything needs to be stored properly, cared for, dusted, and maintained. The less you own, the less work you have to do.

I like motorcycles but I only want to own a few that I can really ride. I know several guys who have around 50 bikes, and I know one guy with over 100. No way I would ever want to own that many bikes, unless I were opening a museum.

There is a TV show called New Yankee Workshop where master carpenter Norm Abram builds various projects. He does a great job but the thing is, he has a large, heated shop and every power tool ever made.

For regular guys like me, it loses a lot of relevance because of this. I'd like to see him build a cabinet with just two sawhorses, simple hand-held power tools, and old-style hand tools like my grandfather's saw and drill, in his driveway, garage, or basement, the way most normal guys work.

He virtually never uses any hand tools, yet I still do many times. For example, when I want really fine control, or to clean up the end of the cut where the curved circular saw blade can't reach, I still use a handsaw. Works great.

As well built as it is, I couldn't see using my grandfather's handsaw for any real work. Instead, I removed the rust and polished it up real nice.

Here's a tip: To remove rust from an old tool, go to the supermarket or health-food store and pick up some powdered citric acid — about one cup to a gallon of warm water will do. Let the tool soak in there for a few days and the rust will magically disappear.

After the saw was cleaned up, I made a display case for it and it now sits proudly on the wall in my family room. I thought about mounting it behind glass but instead I left it open, attached by magnets. This way, if I ever have an intruder I can quickly pull the saw out to defend myself. I'll bet Grandpa would have loved that!

Displaying Grandpa's saw like this just seems appropriate for such a well-preserved relic from a prior generation. Truly they don't make 'em like this anymore.

I have other hand-saws that are not as nice; I'll use them to do real work. For a special tool with sentimental value like this, celebrating its heritage in this way is the right thing to do. There's nothing like passing down an old tool from generation to generation.

Isn't it funny how things work out: I let the one saw I really liked get away, but the one I really needed found me anyway.

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Not long ago, we had a playoff of horrible things, with automated telephone answering systems beating out graffiti by a hair. With vestiges of the holidays and good cheer still hanging in the crisp, cold air, it's time to be positive and look at the bright side for a change.

In that spirit, let's have a playoff of good things. Same rules as before, two divisions of 12 going head to head. Again, we have no idea how this will turn out, so lets get started.

Good Things Division I:

1. Mangos

2. Sex

3. Art

4. Music

5. Vacation

6. Railroads

7. The bveach

8. Books

9. Electronics

10. Solitude

11. Motorcycle riding

12. Walking

1 vs. 12, Mangos vs. Walking — Mangos are the most popular fruit in the world. There's nothing like a fresh one that's not too ripe and not too hard. Makes you glad to be alive. Walking is the most basic exercise, a fundamental human activity that we take for granted but is so key to our personal freedom and ability to do things. As good as mangos are, walking wins.

2 vs. 11, Sex vs. Motorcycle riding — When sex is good, it's very good, and when sex is bad, it's still pretty good. The problem with sex is that you can't get away from it. Even when you're buying a bag of onions at the market, there are the women’s magazine covers shoving it in your face. Motorcycle riding is wonderful on so many levels I can't imagine my life without it. Maybe when I was younger I would have gone the other way, but too much of anything is never good, so motorcycle riding wins (that's one good thing about getting older — I used to think of sex all the time; now I can sometimes go almost 10 minutes).

3 vs. 10, Art vs. Solitude — I've never studied art but I do get great satisfaction from classic Norman Rockwell paintings and wild Salvador Dali paitnings, along with our local masters like thought-provoking Thom Breitenbach and moody Dave Arsenault. I also enjoy contemporary art, classics, sculpture, etc. — just set me loose in a museum and I'm happy. Solitude is hard to come by, but it's a delicious joy when you can find it. I don't mean like in prison; rather, just time to contemplate in total peace and quite so you can reflect and recharge. Art wins but solitude rocks.

4 vs. 9, Music vs. Electronics — Music in all forms is the true common language among humans. If you , you can have it 24/7 no problem, just amazing. Electronics is what makes all our technology possible, from space travel to smart phones. I'll give music the win here only because I can't imagine living without it.

5 vs. 8, Vacations vs. Books — Vacations are a good thing, but, if you're lucky and love your job, they might not be so important to you. Books are the best way I know to share knowledge between eras, races, genders, etc. Books win this one easily.

6 vs. 7, Railroads vs. The Beach — Railroads are the single most efficient way to move mass amounts of goods; nothing else even comes close. The beach is the quintessential summer fun and relaxation destination (don't forget the sunscreen). As much as I love the beach, I'm giving railroads the win because they are so useful.

So now we have:

Walking vs. Railroads — Walking wins here because it's so basic to the human condition, but that doesn't take away from the utility of railroads in any way.

Motorcycle Riding vs. Books — As much as I love motorcycle riding, I can't curl up in bed with my bike, so books win.

Art vs. Music — Quality art can move me, no doubt about it, but I can't slow dance with a painting or a statue, so music wins.

Which brings us to:

Walking vs. Music — This is really tough because I love both so much, but they make some really nice high-end wheelchairs, so music takes it.

And now for the Division I final:

Music vs. Books — Does it get any tougher than this? There's actually an opera called Capriccio by Richard Strauss where the heroine has to choose between two suitors, one who uses music to woo her and one who uses poetry (I won't tell you how it turns out; go see it for yourself). Almost an impossible choice, but I have to choose books since the written word is what great societies are built on. 

Division II

Good Things Division II:

1. Football

2. Watches

3. Tools

4. Friendship

5. Libations

6. Cigars

7. Marriage

8. Disc Jockeys

9. Cursive Writing

10. Democracy

11. Water

12. Crocs

1 vs. 12, Football vs. Crocs — I've been a football fan since I can remember and I still love the game, though all the concussions as players get bigger and faster concern me greatly. Crocs are those ugly rubber shoes that are so comfortable you can't believe it. I'm giving Crocs the win, as my feet are that important.

2 vs. 11, Watches vs. Water — A good watch is a thing of beauty. Now that everyone carries computers, I mean smartphones, around all the time you see fewer watches, but they are still a symbol of status and class. What can you say about water, you literally can't live without it, so let's give water the win.

3 vs. 10,  Tools vs. Democracy — A good tool fits your hand like a glove and lasts a long time. That's why good used tools command such high prices. Democracy is good in principle but has its problems: people can be bought off and there are many other kinds of corruption. Still it's the best system out there. Tough call, but I'm giving tools the win because with good tools a good man or woman can build anything.

4 vs. 9, Friendship vs. Cursive Writing — I've had people tell me they have no friends and I honestly don't know how they survive. Good friends make life worth living. My cursive writing has deteriorated over time. The only way I can make it legible now is to write excruciatingly slowly. At least I still know how to do it — there are now school systems where it's no longer being taught at all. This is a mistake; everyone should learn cursive writing. I'm giving friendship the win because it's so important for personal happiness and well being, but cursive writing is in no way a loser here.

5 vs. 8, Libations vs. DJs — I've always been able to enjoy libations in all their forms without having too many problems, simply because I hate hangovers so much. Still, I realize that alcohol ruins people’s lives, which is a real tragedy. I've always loved disc jockeys as well. How can you not? On a long car ride , the DJ keeps you company, which is a very intimate and special thing. I'm giving DJs the win because I can always live without libations.

6 vs. 7, Cigars vs. Marriage — Smoking is another thing that, done to excess, ruins lives and even kills, but an occasional cigar is something to be savored. Marriage is the cornerstone of our society. I know the only reason I go to the doctor at all is because my wife makes me. I'll give marriage the win, but, if the weather were warm, I'd be outside with a fine cigar for sure.

So now we have:

Crocs vs. Marriage — You might think it makes no sense to compare two things that are so different, but both keep you comfortable and will wear out over time unless you take care of them. I'll give marriage the win, but I've seen new fur-lined Crocs; if these are good year-round this answer could change. Are warm and comfortable feet that important? Heck yes.

Water vs. DJs — Water is truly all you need to drink. We take it for granted but in many parts of the world it's a scarce resource. DJs are falling out of favor as other forms of entertainment take over, but a good DJ, whether on radio or at a club or wedding, is still a great thing. I'll give water the win because it's so fundamental to our existence but not because I don't love DJs, believe me.

Tools vs. Friendship — Tools make our modern world possible, but what kind of a world would it be without friendship? Friendship wins.

Which brings us to:

Marriage vs. Friendship — Two sides of the same coin, don't you think? Let's give friendship the win, since (hopefully) you have to be friends before you get married anyway.

And now for the Division II finals:

Water vs. Friendship — You do need water to live, but in medieval , before they had sanitation, you were actually better off drinking beer, since the brewing process killed off the harmful bacteria. I wouldn't want to drink beer all the time — it would taste terrible on bran cereal — but it would be tough to live without friends, so I'll give friendship the win.

Finals

That brings us to the finals:

Books vs. Friendship — Books have been an important part of my life since I can remember. When I lived in Brooklyn, I was lucky enough to have a library within walking distance. I can remember making many trips loaded down with all the books I could carry. Books truly are "a moveable feast" as the great Ernest Hemingway would say. A good book needs no batteries or wi-fi connection, yet it can transport you to another time, another point of view, another reality. Such a deal. I can't imagine a life without books.

When I was small, I had a best friend. Then we moved and I never saw him again. That's the problem with even your best friends — sometimes you or they move, have a falling out, or even die. Friends come and go like butterflies looking for nectar. We savor the good times and hope they never end, but time, the tireless taskmaster of us all, just marches on and on.

I'm giving the win for Best Good Thing to Books, because they're always available and always wonderful. Amazing that in these modern times something so low-tech like books can still be the best thing, but I'm not surprised. Support your local library and read (or write) a good book. You'll be glad you did.

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— Photo by Frank L. Palmeri

Drawbridge down: Frank Palmeri has built a storage space all his own, proving a man’s home is his castle.

— Photo by Frank L. Palmeri

Sort of like a Murphy bed: Frank Palmeri imagines he could sleep on this door if it were pulled down, creating a Man Cave above his stairway.

A Murphy bed is a bed that conveniently folds up into a wall when not in use. These space-saving beds were put to great comedic effect in plenty of old-time movies and TV shows like the Three Stooges and such; there's just something inherently funny about being in bed one minute and disappearing up into a wall the next, with arms and legs flailing and sheets flying.

You don't see too many Murphy beds these days (though kits are available if you want to build your own) but, strangely, I just had something very much like a Murphy bed appear out of nowhere in my house. Yes, I really did.

My four-bedroom house is plenty big, but I have no place in it that I can truly call my own — a place where, if I put something down, I can be absolutely 100-percent positive it won't be disturbed. That place for me just does not exist.

One time, I had a motorcycle gas tank painted beautifully. I received it from the painter in October and needed to store it until the spring. I put it in the furthest corner of the attic, figuring it would be safe from harm.

When I retrieved it in the spring, there was a dent in it. No kidding. Of course, no one knows how it got there. I really, really need a place in my house to call my own.

We have a stairway that goes from the garage to the basement — it cost extra when we had the house built but I use it all the time so it was well worth it. The stairway had a lot of height to it but the space was unreachable because it was, after all, just a stairway.

Over the years, I'd always wished there were a way to access this wasted space. It got to a point where I would sit at the top of the stairs and just stare, pardon the pun, at all the unreachable space, hoping for inspiration. (Getting a freshly painted gas tank bashed in will do this to you.)

Then one day it hit me: I could build a folding ramp to access the dead space over the stairs.

Now I was a man with a plan. I had to think how to build the ramp in such a way that it would be strong, safe, and easy to use. Of course, there's dreaming about it and then there's paying for it.

I don't know if you've been to a lumberyard lately, but wood is not cheap. The plywood, studs, lag bolts, and heavy-duty hinges I bought really added up. Then I purchased adjustable shelf hardware and some other hooks and things to help organize the space.

Finally, I bought a heavy-duty pulley. The idea was to take an old barbell plate and attach it with rope to a pulley to act as a counterweight. Setting it up this way would make it much easier to raise and lower the heavy ramp.

I'm not trained in carpentry or anything like that — I never even had any kind of a shop class in the parochial/college prep schools I attended — but I read a lot and try to learn from my mistakes. Working slowly and carefully, I soon had a working ramp installed.

The shelves I built in front of it are so strong I can store really heavy things like motorcycle engines (I have a few waiting to be rebuilt). To prove how strong the ramp was, I called my wife out and had her watch me jump up and down on it.

Since I've put on an extra 10 or 15 pounds over the holidays (at least), this may not have been the smartest thing to do (though I know I've done much stupider things in front of my wife). Still, the ramp held and it's working just fine.

Of course, now that I had a real functioning stairway storage area, I had to freshen up the dusty and cobwebby unpainted stairwell itself. So this meant more money for primer, paint, wood filler, and all the labor to paint everything in the stairwell — ceiling, walls, stairs, and handrail.

I know a lot of us get quotes from contractors from time to time for various remodeling and home-improvement jobs. Invariably these quotes are rather high, but the thing is, this kind of work just takes so much time and, as we all know, time is money.

I mean, even if you get on a roll and really hack away at it, there are waiting times for glue to harden and for paint to dry that you just can't avoid. Plus there's a limit to how long you can work while still working safely. One should never play around with tools if one is too tired to work safely; it's as simple as that.

So now the job is done and I'm showing it off to my brilliant RPI mechanical engineer future son-in-law. I demonstrate how the pulley works by moving the ramp up and down, etc.

He looks at me and says with a straight face: "You know what you just did? You built yourself a Murphy bed!"

Well, go figure, in a way I really did. All I'd have to do is put a pillow on one end of the ramp and I could just sack right out.

Of course, if I do that, I'll have to add those safety rails you put on kids’ beds so the little ones don't roll off; taking a header off the ramp and down into the basement would be quite the story on the local TV news but not much fun at all.

Actually, all I need to do is add a flat-screen TV over the door and I'd have a mini Man Cave, or, in my case, a Man Stairwell. Hot-diggety-dog!

All kidding aside, with a full basement, a walk-up attic, and a shed, there is no reason I should have needed any more storage space, but, like many, we have a serious clutter problem that sorely needs to be dealt with. It's not time to get a big green Dumpster and just toss everything out (at least I don't think it is), but we're way overdue in sorting and getting rid of our clutter.

I'm hoping my new super-organized and efficient Man Stairway/Murphy Bed with kick start us on the road to de-cluttering, once and for all (and I hope I finally have one place in the house where I can safely put something and not have it be disturbed).

Note: If you see me sleeping on the folded-down ramp, please don't close it up like the Three Stooges did all the time. That's only funny when it happens to someone else.

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