When I was growing up, my family would often visit relatives or host relatives. It was always the same, like in every Italian household: The grownups sat at the big table, and the kids sat at the card table that was brought out for these occasions.

After a huge meal finished off with delicious pastries, the adults would then just sit there and talk over coffee. At that point, my brothers and whatever cousins were around would always leave the room to do something — anything — else.

Why? Because all the grownups would talk about were doctors and medicines and aches and pains and things like that. Kids don’t want to hear that; they want to play. You know where this is going, I’m sure.

The insufferable COVID-19 virus has prevented my family from entertaining and visiting friends and relatives. Thankfully, we still communicate in other ways.

In fact, being able to see my grandson on video calls has been a lifesaver. What we would have done without that I don’t know.

So we do keep in touch, and because we are now of That Age, we do talk about our various illnesses and whatnot. You can’t not. If someone has cancer, you want to know about it, period.

I’m in my early sixties. I feel great, yet I just had my fourth surgery in the last six years. This time it was rotator-cuff surgery on my right shoulder.

I had a nasty ground-bee infestation by my garage where I spent the better part of two weeks swatting at them. They’re gone now but they got the last laugh, as I think that’s what screwed up my shoulder. I know, I wouldn’t have believed it either, but it is what it is.

Never mind the surgeries. I’m at the age now where, when I look at the obituaries, there is a very real chance a relative, friend, neighbor, or co-worker will be in there. If you live long enough, that’s what happens. In fact, I’ve collected so many of those little plastic-coated prayer cards that they hand out at the funeral homes that pretty soon I’ll have a full deck.

Imagine there was no COVID and we were able to gather together for birthdays and other events. Surely, talk would turn to our various aches and pains, like it did in my family when I was growing up.

While it’s good to know what others are going through, you can’t extrapolate it to your own situation. That’s why you go to a doctor. Just because your buddy got this drug or that surgery doesn’t mean that will work for you.

As with cancer. Some get chemotherapy. Some get radiation. Some get chemo and radiation. Some live 20 years after diagnosis and are still going strong. Some die in a week.

The best we can do is offer encouragement and support. Each of us has our own unique physiology shaped by our genes and our lifestyles. While it may be kind of cool that your buddy goes around with a pig valve in his heart, you might need a pacemaker. That’s just how it is.

I’ve been using a CPAP [continuous positive airway pressure] machine to sleep for the last few years. Though it works well, it’s just very cumbersome and not something I’ve ever actually gotten comfortable with.

There is a new thing now where they implant a battery-powered device in your chest. When you go to bed, you click what looks like a TV remote-control to activate it, causing your tongue to move forward periodically and keep your airway open.

People who have this say it’s way more convenient than CPAP and a lot less intrusive. Downsides are it’s yet another surgery and you can no longer get a chest MRI [magnetic resonance imaging], but I’m looking into it anyway. I’ve always liked robots, so maybe I can become partly like one.

I think we have to realize that getting older involves the body breaking down, no matter what we do. Walking and exercising, eating well, having a good social support system, and keeping active with interesting activities can add years to your life and keep you mentally fit. It’s getting that to mesh with the aching joints, diminished endurance, and potentially awful diseases like cancer and diabetes that takes getting used to.

We all read about athletes having surgeries and then coming back to play again. In fact, it happens so often that we take it for granted.

Let me tell you, I for one don’t take it for granted. For my rotator-cuff surgery, I was told not to lift anything heavier than a cup of coffee with my right arm for a month, and then to start physical therapy. It will take at least six months from that point to get back to normal.

That means I had to miss the fall motorcycle riding season, the best time of the year to ride, but what can you do? It’s for the best.

We all have to cope with aging however we best can. I know for me, as long as I have access to a library and all the wonders within — books, movies, newspapers, clubs, and so much more — I’ll be OK.

I don’t care if I won a million dollars; that aspect wouldn’t change for me in the least. If I can start the day with a good newspaper like this one and end it with a good book, I’ll be happy as a flea in a doghouse.

My relatives used to sit and talk about their doctors, medications, and aches and pains all night, and it drove me crazy. I wish they were around now so I could tell them that I finally understand.

If you’ve been following me lately, you know that, after a lifetime of being a music-loving non-musician, I’ve started learning to play the guitar. As I continue on this journey, I’m more and more amazed about what an all-encompassing activity playing a musical instrument is.

Truly, anytime you see anyone playing an instrument really well, you are witnessing the fruits of much love, work, passion, and dedication. It’s just incredible that there are so many good musicians to enjoy, and so many who are willing to share their knowledge. Musicians are really great people.

Let’s break down the phrase “learning to play the guitar.” First of all, there are many kinds of guitars and similar stringed instruments like ukuleles, dulcimers, and banjos. Even keeping it strictly to guitars, there are six-strings, 12-strings, acoustic, electric, acoustic-electric, bass, classical, and guitars with various other string counts, shapes, sizes, and styles. So many choices for just one instrument!

Then there is the style of guitar music you want to learn. You name it and it’s out there: blues, rock, pop, folk, classical, traditional, flamenco, and on and on. The musical use of the guitar is limited only by one’s imagination and passion. It is hard to believe that one single musical instrument is so incredibly versatile.

Once you settle on a type of guitar and a type of music, you next have to consider how to study and learn. Again, there are so many choices it’s almost overwhelming: books, videos, YouTube, private lessons, group lessons, friends and family, church groups, or just listening and trying to emulate what you hear.

Many of the most famous guitarists had very little or no training, don’t know how to read music, and yet can play the frets off any guitar you hand them. The all-time greatest electric guitar player, Jimi Hendrix, was so poor growing up he started playing on a broomstick.

His version of “The Star Spangled Banner” as played at Woodstock still sets the gold standard for alternative versions of our national anthem all these years later. Not too bad. Maybe I should get a broomstick.

My first guitar instructor was not big on reading music or music theory. He was more about feel, repeating a few basic chords, and turning them into songs after a lot of practice.

My next teacher, a music-school graduate and professional musician, was all about music theory, reading music, and learning about all the technical aspects of guitar playing. He had a totally different outlook than my prior teacher.

Same as when you browse the countless learn-to-play-guitar YouTube videos — everyone has their own take, and it’s up to you to find someone you can relate to. So much involved in that one phrase, “learning to play the guitar.”

As far as actually playing the guitar goes, here again, there is so much to learn. One can be a rhythm guitarist, carrying the main melody of the song while others take the solos that we all love.

Of course you have “guitar heroes” like the gone-from-this-world-all-too-soon Eddie Van Halen, who made everyone want to quit their jobs and schooling to become lead guitarists who can “shred,” for better or worse.

You can concentrate on playing individual notes, picking out songs and hymns note for note. Or you can strum chords (technically three or more but sometimes only two notes at the same time) and maybe write songs and sing and play them to try to become the next Bob Dylan.

Of course classical guitar is a vastly different technique, and so is fingerpicking country-style, and bending/tapping notes like in heavy metal, and, and, and — you get the idea. You can study guitar your whole life, it seems, and still find more to learn.

Once you learn the basic mechanics of the guitar — to play all the notes and chords cleanly with good tone — you’d think you’re home free. Not! That’s when the whole “musical” aspect of it comes into play.

It’s one thing to play by yourself, but if you want to play with others, you have to be “in time” or “on the beat” at all times. You have to know when to “come in,” and when a simple nod of the head can mean to start or to stop or to take a break.

Music is really another language and, like any language, it has its often arcane rules. It helps very much to learn to “sight read” standard sheet music and “tab” (tablature, an alternative written musical notation) as well. Got all that?

As you can imagine by now, for any kind of guitar-playing, there is just so, so much practice involved to even do the basics well. Just getting your two hands to work together in a coordinated fashion is a challenge.

Heck, it even comes down to the individual fingers. When I was having trouble making a certain chord, my piano-teaching, organ-playing, choir-directing, lovely and talented-beyond-belief wife, Charlotte, said to me, “You tell that finger to just stay down there and not to move.”

Imagine that, now I’m talking to a single finger. Just when you thought you’ve seen and heard everything.

What it really boils down to is, if you want to play guitar or any musical instrument or even sing, you have to be dedicated, have a passion for it, and practice, practice, practice. The way we learn things is to repeat them over and over so we can develop “muscle memory” and then just do them without thinking about it.

I did this with touch typing, with motorcycle riding, and with various other skills. There is no shortcut, either. If you put in lots and lots of hard, consistent work, you’ll slowly get better and better over time. It really is as simple as that.

I’ve been telling people that every time I have a good practice session I get a tenth of a millimeter better. One millimeter is a tiny distance, about as wide as one of the letters in this sentence, and a tenth of that is that much smaller, but that’s truly how I feel.

The fact that I seem to be getting this tiny bit better over time is just enough motivation to keep me going. In fact, the other day my wife heard me practicing and said, “That sounds like music.”

Wow. For a beginning guitar player, that kind of compliment, coming from someone as accomplished as she is, is as good as it gets.

At a local music store, you had to fill out a form to get a free lesson. As I was depositing my entry, I couldn’t help but notice the completed form that was already on the top of the stack. On the line where it asked “What are your goals in learning to play music?” was this, scrawled in big, blocky, child-like letters: “MAKE ME A STAR!”

Forgetting about our celebrity-obsessed culture for a moment, if the person would have answered something like “to learn how to play to the best of my ability,” ironically, he or she may really someday become a “star.”

No one can make you become a star, or a good husband, teacher, mechanic, etc. You have to work, and work hard, to succeed at anything in life. One would think that was common knowledge. Guess not!

If you’ve been thinking about starting a musical instrument, an exercise program, learning another language, or whatever, I urge you to stop thinking about it and just get off the couch and do it. Now that I know learning music is something I can at least attempt, I only wish I’d gotten started 20 years ago. Sigh.

The best musicians started when they were kids. So don’t just think about it or wait for it to come. Reach out and grab it and do it! You can if you want to. Yes, you really can.

Music is a gift that transcends ages and cultures. To finally be learning to make it myself is truly a dream come true.

Every now and then you hear someone say something like: “He’s been a bachelor so long, he’ll never get married.” When I hear this, I think of some poor sap missing out on the joys of marriage and family life. I really do. There are many things I now know about myself that I would never have known if I hadn’t been living with my family all these years.

For example, I know that, at 6 a.m. in a dead-quiet house on a weekday morning, I can be heard at the kitchen table, “chewing,” way upstairs in a second-floor bedroom. Who would have ever thought eating a bowl of cereal while reading the newspaper would be anything but a solitary activity? Only someone married with children would know that.

I’ve also been told I should close the door when I go to the bathroom. Yikes. Fortunately, thanks to the miracle of Metamucil, I don’t have that problem anymore.

Apparently I close doors “too hard.” You probably think you just grab a door by the handle and close it. Not if you’re living with a family, you don’t.

The “correct” way to do it is to grab the handle, move the door to just before the closed position, then slow way down, turn the handle, gently move the door into the closed position, and then let go of the door knob very carefully so that the spring-loaded latch gently engages into the hole in the door jamb.

Got all that? Now how would a bachelor ever know that? You single guys are missing out on quite a bit, I think.

I never, ever knew that I walk up and down stairs “heavy,” but I do know now. Forget that I weigh a little more than 200 pounds. When it comes to stairs, I have to mentally imagine myself as male dancer effortlessly flitting about the stage.

But Frank, you ask, what if you’re carrying a bunch of tools up the stairs to fix a leak under an upstairs sink? No matter — don’t be “heavy” on the stairs. I’d never have known this was even a thing if I weren’t married with kids. Lucky me!

I’ve known for a long time now that I “get out of bed wrong.” Here’s the thing: You have to get out of bed in such a way that you don’t move the covers or shake the mattress or make a squeak, so that anyone else in the bed doesn’t even know you are trying to get up.

You bachelors, I feel very bad for you, since this is a skill that requires practice and dexterity. I’m still working on this one.

Let’s say you discover a new musical artist, for example, the simply wonderful Tamaryn, a young lady from New Zealand, who’s song “I’m Gone” is a swirling, ethereal performance filled with color and moods such that you are transformed into a trance-like state whenever it comes on.

If you were a bachelor or living alone, you might be tempted to turn up the old Victrola and blast that thing until you bask in all it’s avant-garde glory. But do you even consider that loud music can damage your ears?

When you live with a family like I do, loud music is not allowed under any circumstances. My ears are protected whether I want them to be or not. Safety first!

I’ve been told by family members that I don’t “wear my pants straight.” I can honestly tell you, if it weren’t for my loving and caring family members telling me this on more than one occasion, I would not even have known that there was a straightness involved in pants-wearing, even though I’ve been wearing pants my whole life.

Yes, the pants and belt need to be straight — belt centered under the belly button, seam in the rear going straight vertically down. Now, if I see a guy with “crooked” pants, I just assume he must be a bachelor. Poor sap!

Living with a family is healthy as well. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen something in the freezer like a gourmet ice-cream pop. Then I open the box and it’s empty.

Just think about that for a minute. Someone took the last ice-cream pop and left the empty box in there. Turns out that’s a good way to cut down on calories, so there you go. Think family, think health.

One day, I had finished painting something, but I knew I’d need to do a second coat, so I went for the aluminum foil so I could wrap the wet brush for the night rather than clean it. The aluminum foil has been in the same spot in my house forever, but it wasn’t that day.

Turns out the aluminum foil had been moved to a different location and no one told me. So a bachelor would never have found out that wax paper works almost as well as aluminum foil to store a wet paint brush overnight. You really do learn a lot from the family you live with. No way a bachelor ever would have found out that interesting fact.

Now just to be clear, I am loud by nature and I tend to run around like a bull in a china shop, trying to get my tasks done. Plus several in my family work odd shifts, which means they are trying to sleep during the day while I’m often running around like a maniac trying to get things done.

Believe me, if I could achieve “stealth mode” I would, but there’s only so much I can do to be invisible and unhearable. In the meantime, I’m glad I have so many loving family members watching and listening to everything I say and do.

You poor bachelors, I don't know how you get by.

Day 1: I was doing a major outdoor project near the house, by my garage. I had wood, power tools, and extension cords all over the place. At one point, I noticed a huge bumble bee hovering about. Hmmm, that’s strange, I thought. There were no flowers where I was working.

Day 2: I’m working hard with a power drill. All of a sudden, I look up and I see not one but two huge bumble bees. Now I’m thinking: Hey, what’s going on here? All of a sudden — yow — I got stung on my left shoulder.

I don’t know what guys do who aren’t married to someone who knows everything, but I went screaming into the house, yelling for my wife. When she saw what it was, she got some water, dragged me back outside, mixed the water with some dirt, and slapped it on my shoulder. Surprisingly for something that crude, it actually worked. According to my wife, the mud draws the stinger out. How about that. Lucky I married up.

Day 3: I’ve dealt with nasty yellow-jacket ground nests before, so I reached into my playbook from that since I still had a ton or work to do outside. What I do when confronted with ground nests is to first find the hole. That was easy in this case.

The bumble bees were clearly coming and going from a hole close to the house on the side of the garage, right where I was working. I hooked up my shop vacuum cleaner and placed the hose — with as long an extension as I could rig up — so that it was right next to the hole. Then I watched and waited.

Sure enough, as bees returned to the hole — probably filled with pollen from flowers — they got sucked into the vacuum. Even ones that tried to exit the hole got sucked in as well. That’s a great trick you might want to file somewhere.

Let me say right here that I love bees and their symbiotic relationship with humans. We need them very, very much. However, when a nest is so close to your house that you or yours are getting stung, it just has to go, period.

Day 4: I went out early in the morning after putting the shop vac away the night before. I thought I was all done with the bees. Ha! Little did I know it was just the bee-ginning.

The bees started right back up, entering and exiting the hole again. I didn’t want to use the shop vac again because it’s rather loud. Instead, I got a fly swatter and, believe it or not, I was able to achieve a very high kill rate with that simple plastic tool.

If you sit by the hole, you can just see the yellow on their backs as they start to emerge. Then it’s like a game of whack-a-mole. The returning ones are trickier, as they circle the hole fairly rapidly, and only slow down when they’re sure it’s the right location. That’s when you get your chance to whack them.

Unfortunately, often the first whack doesn’t kill them; they can still crawl around for a very long time afterward unless you whack them several more times. Believe me, I took no pleasure in this, but it had to be done.

Day 5: I had thought I was all done by Day 5, but then another hole appeared and there were so many more I had to drag out the shop vac again. Yes, it was that bad. I have dry, sandy soil in that location, which turns out to be perfect for ground-nesting insects. By this time, I had finished the outdoor project, and now it was all about controlling the bee problem. I was a man on a mission.

Day 6: No vacuum needed but there were still so many bees coming and going that I would go outside, and if I just stood there for five minutes I was sure to see at least one or two. So that’s what I did all day, go in and out every now and then, hunting and killing bees.

I don’t know how many I got in total, but if you add in the ones sucked into the shop vac it has to be in the triple digits. I also put out a 2-liter soda bottle with the top cut off, stuffed back in upside down, and sugary soda inside. I read that bees would be attracted to the scent and get caught. Didn’t work. Got a lot of ants, though.

Day 7: Unbelievably, I had another hole develop and there were still more bees coming and going after a week. I was going bee crazy at this point! I looked up methods on YouTube for ground nest removal.

Some people are just nuts. Muriatic acid? Pouring gasoline into the hole and lighting it? Truly crazy stuff. Apparently bees don’t like the smell of garlic or cinnamon, but I was too far gone to try deterrent methods like that. I needed to end it sooner rather than later.

Day 8: The morning started with yet another hole in the same area. I sat there with the fly swatter and killed about 25 of them before the action stopped. I dug up the area but could not find the nest or the tunnels. Then I got out a big tarp and used concrete blocks to just cover the whole area. I checked in on it periodically after that and it appeared to have done the trick. Appeared.

Days 9 to 15: Every day with the tarp on the ground started out with about 25 angry bees wondering what was going on. They were so mad their incessant buzzing sounded like screaming. I was able to get most of them with the swatter, but boy were they angry.

Serendipitously, I heard a report on National Public Radio about ground-nesting insects like bees, ants, and wasps. Turns out some of them don’t have hives, but rather live alone underground where it’s cool and they can produce their larva. I think that’s what I was dealing with, though why there were so many I have no idea. Probably it was building up over time, and I only noticed it when I had that large outdoor project to do.

Day 16: Finally, no more bees. Hallelujah! My plan now is to put in patio pavers and stone to get rid of the sandy soil that attracted them in the first place. I’ve had my fill of bees for a long, long time. I don’t even want any honey these days.

Bee-lieve me, I bee-moan the fact that this bee-came such a beeg thing, truly bee-yond the imagination, and I’ll bee much more cautious bee-sides the house from now on. Un-bee-lievable. Just bee hopeful they don’t bee-set you next.

All of us are consumers of many different products and services. Companies spend tons of dollars trying to figure out what we’ll spend our hard-earned dough on. However, I think this is easier said than done, as the behaviors we consumers exhibit are often far from rational or predictable.

There is a blended whisky called Chivas Regal. It’s an OK product but not anything to go crazy over. When it first came out, sales languished since competition is stiff in the blended-whisky category.

Then its owners did something radical: They doubled the price. Once they did this, sales took off and have never looked back.

As a consumer you might ask yourself: How could doubling the price increase sales? This is the exact opposite of what they teach in any basic economics class.

Turns out a lot of people like to give a bottle of whisky as a gift. By doubling the price of Chivas Regal, the receiver of it as a gift knew instantly he had just been given one of the most expensive bottles in the store.

In fact, my wife and I have often noticed that many receivers of gifts in our family — and I’m sure yours too — have no idea of what we paid or went through to give certain gifts and don’t react accordingly. So by doubling the price, Chivas Regal solved that problem in one fell swoop. Brilliant for them, but not so good for those of us who actually buy whisky.

Back in the day, imagine you worked for a beverage company. One day, you walk into the bosses’ office and say, “I have an idea. Let’s sell water in bottles.”

You most likely would have been laughed at or simply brushed off. Think about it — people have potable water for free in their homes.

The bank won’t even loan you the money for a house if it doesn’t have clean, potable water. In fact, New York City where I grew up used to regularly win awards for the quality of its tap water.

But somewhere along the way some executive didn’t laugh, and now bottled water outsells soda in many cases, no pun intended. I know people who live in places with quality municipal water systems who nevertheless buy bottled water as a matter of course because they perceive it to be “better.” Talk about marketing!

Here’s one I’ve never understood. Somewhere along the way, denim jeans started to be sold that were already “faded” or, unbelievably, with holes already in them for “style,” and they ain’t cheap, either. Are you kidding me?

If you want your jeans faded or with holes in them, do what I and other hard-working men and women do: Use them! Between landscaping and woodworking and vehicle maintenance and everything else, I wear out jeans, starting in the knees and moving on, at an alarming rate.

In fact, I’ve been waiting for years for jeans to come with padded knees so it would take a little longer for me to cut my worn ones into shorts or have my wife try to sew them. The thought of paying extra for fading or holes in jeans is just something I’ll never be able to wrap my mind around.

Maybe my problem with understanding consumer behavior is just with me. For example, I made a comment to a female coworker one time that I had gotten a coupon from a local shoe store that promised me a credit after I spent $250 with them.

“This stinks,” I told her. “I’ll never spend that much on shoes by the time this coupon expires.”

“Frank,” she said, looking at me cross-eyed: “That’s what I pay for one pair of shoes.”


The engine in your car needs coolant to keep from overheating. Coolant is generally a fifty-fifty mixture of antifreeze and water. It used to be you bought a gallon of antifreeze and some distilled water from the drugstore when you needed to change it.

Then “pre-diluted” antifreeze started appearing on the shelves of the auto-parts store, often costing, I kid you not, more than the undiluted variety. Just think about that for a moment: Someone figured out they could cut their product in half with water, and then even get away with charging more for it!

No wonder companies pay huge bucks to try to figure out consumer behavior. Who would have ever believed they could get away with that?

Our Jewish friends have a great word for this kind of behavior: chutzpah.

I could go on. We all know a $10 Casio digital watch tells time as well as a Rolex, but that is irrelevant to the people who like to flash their “bling.”

There is a wonderful brand of wines called Charles Shaw that sells for, I’m not kidding, $1.99 a bottle, affectionately known as “Two Buck Chuck.” You can’t get it in Albany but, once you try it, you’ll wonder why you’ve ever paid more for wine.

And you know the majority of Range Rovers, those high-end SUVs that sell for six figures and are advertised crawling over rocks and fording streams, will never see that kind of use and abuse in the real world. But the thought that they can do that stuff — and the image that goes along with it — are apparently worth that premium price tag.

Let me leave you with this: I own a lot of tools but one tool I have not yet purchased is a miter saw, also known as a “chop saw.” At the local Chinese tool emporium, the one that issues those ubiquitous 20-percent off coupons all over the place, I can get not one, not two, but three, count ’em, three Chinese-made chop saws for the price of one good American-made one.

Now I’m not a professional woodworker; I only do it as a hobby and for home maintenance. So maybe the cheap one would be fine. But, if I buy the good one, it’ll last me the rest of my lifetime; I can leave it to my kids; and I can support jobs and industry in America.

Is that worth paying three times more? Tough call.

Predicting consumer behavior is incredibly difficult because the choices we make as consumers often don’t make a lot of rational sense. Just please promise me, whatever you do, don’t buy the 99-cent bottle of off-brand ketchup. Life is too short. Get Heinz and be happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so it goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


— Photo from Frank Palmeri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

— Guitar playing;

— Ballroom dancing;

— Swimming; or

— Learning Mandarin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your absence has gone through me

Like a thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Yeah. What he said.

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

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