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.

Location:

— 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.

On the last Saturday before Christmas, I made my annual gift-shopping trip to the mall. I always procrastinate like this, but it's so hard to keep coming up with thoughtful gifts that I tend to put it off as long as I can.

Quite frankly, the whole Christmas gift-giving thing is out of control but it is what it is. Many businesses, they say, can't survive without the annual holiday gift-giving blowout.

So now I'm walking through the mall, by myself, trying to come up with some worthwhile gifts for family members. In the middle of the crowded, bustling, noisy mall (I had to park in another area code) were all these jammed-in kiosks and tables selling myriad sundries and whatnot — dried meats, Tupperware, cell phone cases, you name it.

All of a sudden, a beautiful blonde woman steps out from one of the kiosks and approaches me. Remember, I'm alone at this point — I'm shopping for gifts for my lovely wife, after all — so I must have appeared to be "fair game."

"Give me your thumb," the beautiful blonde says to me. I'm pretty sure all men dream of having a beautiful blonde just come up and talk to them for no reason, but I'm not sure, "Give me your thumb" is the sentence they expect to hear.

Without even having a chance to think about it, I stuck out my left thumb. The next thing you know, the blonde pulls out a small pink sanding block and proceeds to rapidly scrub and buff the fingernail on my thumb, and, when I say buff, I mean buff. I have electric sanders that don't move as fast as her flying fingers did.

At this point, I really didn't know what to do. I mean, I was supposed to be Christmas gift shopping, not getting a manicure, you know?

"Excuse me," I said to the hard buffing blonde, "but isn't this kind of a chick thing?"

"Yes, it is," she cooed, "but guys do it, too, when no one is looking."

Huh. Here I am, 55 years old, thinking (hoping) my days of doing things when no one else is looking were just about over. So I carefully extracted my left thumb from her delicate grip, and promised her I'd return at some point with my wife.

She seemed a little disappointed but OK with that. Later, on my return trip past her kiosk, I could see she had another guy roped in.

I heard him say to her, "But I work construction and my hands are always all messed up." Last I saw, she was still cooing and buffing him. Hard working girl for sure.

The next day, I'm sitting in church, waiting to enjoy the annual Christmas pageant. I removed my coat and got settled in when I noticed something was different. The morning light was coming through the beautiful stained glass as usual, but, when I looked down to read the program, I noticed that my left thumb was shining brightly.

I'm not even kidding here — my left thumb was buffed so finely, it was reflecting light. I've never had anything like that going on with my fingers before; you can trust me on this. It was quite unnerving. I kept my hand down so as not to distract the costumed children as they acted out their intricate and beautiful program.

Then Monday morning, on the way to work, I had to make sure to keep my left hand below the window — I didn't want to blind any oncoming drivers. When I got to my desk and sat at the computer, I couldn't stop staring at my super shiny left thumb.

It was clearly so different from all my other fingers it stood out like, well, a sore thumb. I started to think up stories to tell the guys when they walked over; I didn't want them to think I was having some kind of a mid-life crisis or something. (I prefer the lifetime crisis that I've been living instead.)

Fortunately, I had a remodeling project going on at the house. But, even with the sawdust and paint, my thumb still shone brightly for many days afterward. (The sexy blonde did say it would last two weeks.)

Now that I think about it, I should have bought the buffing block from the blonde and used it on my motorcycle gas tanks. I'll bet the shine I could have achieved with that little pink bad boy would win me some trophies at the bike rallies next year. In fact, I'm sure of it.

Seriously though, what was this woman thinking by selecting me for the manicure/nail buffing treatment? What guys do you know walk around with glistening, shiny fingernails?

Maybe I'm sheltered but my friends — even my gay male friends, of which I have a few, don't do this, even "when no one is looking." I mean, my buffed left thumbnail was so shiny and slippery, it was actually quite disconcerting. It just didn't feel right.

I think showering once a day and trimming my nails once a week or so is about all I want or need. What I could really use is a good way to get the grease out from under my fingernails when I work on cars and bikes. Now, that's a tool or treatment I would buy and use.

A segment on a newsmagazine show one time showed a car on the side of the road with a flat tire. When they had a "normal" person standing by the car, most people would drive by, and occasionally someone would stop and help.

When they changed it to a hot blonde standing by the car, so many cars pulled over, it was almost causing an accident. So there you go. We love young blondes, what a surprise.

Maybe I should add a blonde wig to my roadside hazard kit. I can pack it along with the flares, battery cables, and flashlight. I'll bet, if I wore it, they'd pull over, then, as they got closer and noticed the mustache and the five-o'clock shadow, they'd just peel right outta there.

The lesson is this: If you're a guy and a good-looking blonde says, "Give me your thumb," you may want to think twice before you do.

Location:

During the holidays, many homeowners drag out festive lights and decorations to create vivid landscapes bursting with color. In my neighborhood, there is one house that is always outstanding — lights on all sides and levels, wrapping all the windows, including part of the roof and even some of the landscaping.

One time, about 20 years ago, I met the homeowner at one of our sorely missed neighborhood block parties. Just to make conversation I asked him how he did such a wonderful job lighting his house each year.

"Oh," he replied, "you want to know the family secrets!"

Er, no, I was just interested in the Christmas lights. Believe it or not, he wouldn't tell me a thing.

Well, I've been doing holiday lighting myself now for so long I've decided to share my own "secrets," if you will. A big part of getting in the holiday/Christmas spirit is seeing all the nicely lit houses, so in the hope of sharing some of the joy, here we go:

— 1. Holiday lights are discounted so much after the new year, sometimes up to 90 percent, that it makes absolutely no sense to buy them at any other time. Just go into your favorite home center or drug store after the holidays are over and stock up for next year.

— 2. The old-style glass lights have a limit to how many strands you can plug in series. The new style LED (light-emitting diode) lights are much more power efficient, so you can create much longer runs. Just follow the instructions (always a good idea with any device).

— 3. If you're lucky, you have a lot of exterior electrical boxes. If you don't, you can always have some good weatherproof ones installed. The other option is to use outdoor-rated extension cords. Make sure the cords are outdoor rated, and be sure to install them in such a way that no one can trip over them. I like to wrap the exposed connections in plastic and duct tape as an extra safety precaution as well.

— 4. There are all kinds of gutter clips to attach strings of lights to your house. These are also on deep discount after the holidays, so that's when to buy them. I've had to modify some styles of these for particular applications, which is easy to do with side-cutting pliers. Be sure to wear eye protection when you snip the plastic, as the cut-off piece shoots all over the place.

— 5. If you need to use an indoor outlet that's OK, just run it out the window and don't pinch it too hard. Use some kind of insulator to keep drafts out of the small window opening.

— 6. At some point, you'll probably wind up on a ladder. I can't stress this enough: Be very, very careful any time you're on a ladder. I had one collapse under me, which led to rotator-cuff surgery, no fun at all. Just put "ladder+safety" into any Internet search engine — you'll be glad you did.

— 7. How many lights should you put up? Some folks have so many they could land a 747; others have many fewer, maybe only a candle in the window, but it's done so tastefully it works. Here is where I'm at a big disadvantage, as I have no artistic sensibility at all. I just put up enough lights to where I know the kids will be satisfied. Works for me.

— 8. Using timers makes controlling when the lights come on and off easy. Outside-rated timers are insulated for safety, so always use these outdoors. I like mine to come on when it first gets dark and stay on until at least midnight.

— 9. I do all the work in setting up and putting away the lights myself, but, if you can get any help, be sure to take advantage of it. It's easy to damage dangling strings of lights, and you can always use a third hand.

— 10. Strings of lights lead a hard life. They make a tool that injects a brief voltage spike into the string. This will often bring some bulbs back to life. But light strings are wearable items that should be replaced over time. Since the discounts after the holidays are so great, regular replacement is a good thing to do.

— 11. Storing used strings of lights is difficult — you'll never get them back in the box they came in. You can get plastic cord wraps from the home center, or you can wrap them around a tube of some sort and then hang them. If you just toss them in a box, you'll have a nasty mess next year. Anything is better than that.

— 12. To light trees, they make long poles to help you get the strings up there. Again, just make sure no one can trip on the extension cord when you run it back to the house.

— 13. Replacing your porch or garage light bulbs with colored bulbs is an easy way to add a little color with not a lot of work.

— 14. It costs money to really do up your house big time (lights, time, electricity), so it's up to you how much you want to get into it. If you really want a house that folks flock to see from miles away, you're going to pay for it (as well as almost surely annoy your neighbors) so make sure that's really what you want to do.

— 15. I try to put my lights up as soon after Thanksgiving as possible, since it's so much work, you might as well enjoy them for as long as you can. Here's an entrepreneurial thought: removable siding that hides the lights underneath, so all you have to do is pull a few panels each year and you're done! If you start a business based on this, please remember me when Wall Street issues your IPO (initial public offering).

One of my favorite holiday pastimes was always driving around Brooklyn and Howard Beach marveling at what dedicated homeowners who are really into outdoor lighting can do. You'd often see parades of cars driving by slowly and ogling the gala displays.

We'd always park and walk around the block to look up-close. Aside from miles of dazzling lights, there were also many kinds of large stationary sleighs and reindeer, some of them movable.

Many homes even pipe Christmas music outside for your enjoyment as well.

The best one, I think, is on a corner in Brooklyn. This guy replaces his garage doors with Plexiglas, and, inside the garage, there is a very large diorama with model railroad-type structures and scenery. He has all kinds of exquisitely detailed scenes that you really need to see to believe — the attention to detail is stunning.

It is simply lovely, and I always would drop a couple of bucks in the slot to help support him. It was worth it because it was so very, very beautiful. I hope he's still doing it.

So there are my holiday lighting "family secrets." Now go hang some lights. 

Location:

The last time I took the Red Cross Adult Learn to Swim program was 17 years ago when I was 38. When I completed it, I still couldn't swim, but I did get a card saying I no longer had to have my parents present when I went into a pool, ha-ha.

My fondest memory of that class was watching some really obese ladies just lie right down on the water and float like it was the easiest thing in the world. Excess weight has its downside certainly, but these ladies were having a grand old time by effortlessly lying on the water in total peace. Good for them.

When I heard the Guilderland YMCA was doing a Community Adult Learn to Swim program I decided to sign up. If you don't know how to swim, like me, then you know there's a real fear of drowning involved anytime you're around water.

They say the only way to get over your fears is to face them, so here was my chance (again). I don't have enough body fat to float so easily like the large ladies did so I knew it was going to be hard work, but, what the hey, I'm game for anything.

Growing up in Brooklyn, we went to the beach a lot, but no one ever taught my brothers and me to swim. No one on my mother's side of the family swims; as for my father, I can remember watching him way, way out in the ocean at Rockaway Beach, with only his head visible bobbing up and down with the waves.

I guess he was too tired out from working all day, six days a week, and then the driving to the beach and carrying the umbrella, cooler, and everything else to bother teaching my brothers and me how to swim. A full day at the beach with three young boys is a lot of work for any family.

I had only two experiences in water growing up, and both were pretty bad.

Once, at a teenage pool party, I got thrown into the deep end. I remember thinking at first, "This is bad because the phone numbers for all the girls I know are in my wallet," and then thinking, "Hey, forget about the wallet, I can't swim!"

To get out of the pool, I had to flail around randomly until I locked onto a girl who thought I was trying to drown her.

Then, another time, at Rockaway Beach, I found myself standing in the ocean up to my neck and feeling a sinking feeling, pun intended, as the soft sand beneath my feet began to give way. At that point, while I'm surrounded by hundreds of people at the beach and looking OK, I'm feeling like I'm about to get pulled in and lost forever.

Somehow, by moving my arms, I was able to pull myself back to shore without having to scream for help like a pathetic loser. Very scary. 

Can you see why the Red Cross has a tough time teaching me to swim? I have very little experience in the water, and, what experience I do have, is terrible. Still, I was determined to try really hard this time. I mean, it's now or never. So here's how it went:

First lesson

As I'm standing by the pool at the Y in my swimming trunks, I'm trying to convince myself not to just turn around and leave. This is how it is when you're really nervous about something.

When the class started, I could barely hear what was going on — I had ear plugs in and there was music playing. Then I'm thinking, why am I the only one in the whole place with chest hair, to say nothing of back hair? Where is Burt Reynolds when you need him?

Soon, just like that, I was in the water. It's cold at first but, once you're in all the way, it's fine. Way back when I took the class the first time, I'd learned how to put my face in the water and blow bubbles. I found that just knowing how to do that made me a lot less anxious.

Then the teachers and volunteers tried to help me do the front and back floats. I'm not all muscle and bones, I do have some body fat, but my problem is I get so nervous I get stiff and sink easily.

They worked with me on this for a while, and then we did a drill with life jackets. For me, this drill was worth the price of the course in and of itself. I will never get on a boat again without a life jacket on.

The final drill was a tight group survival hug in the water as a body heat saving exercise; all I know is, since I was the only guy in the group, I enjoyed this exercise very much.

Second lesson

During the first lesson, there had been a lady who was a beginner too. At the start of the second lesson, I saw her by the pool in her bathing suit. Next thing you know, she was gone.

Again, if you're a swimmer, you probably don't understand the fear involved in just getting in the water when you don't know how to swim. So this lesson, I had two lady volunteer teachers all to myself.

They tried to help me with my floating, but I was still very nervous so I was basically just sinking, which was very frustrating. Then they had me try some rudimentary moving my arms and kicking, but I'm just really uncoordinated when it comes to swimming, since I've never done it before.

How frustrating it is to watch normal people doing something so apparently rudimentary as swimming when you don't have the first clue how to do it.

It's like when I teach someone how to ride a motorcycle — they get overwhelmed at first when trying to remember how to operate the throttle, clutch, and brakes using their hands and feet while trying to balance, steer, and stay in control.

You have to work at these kinds of things until you're no longer thinking about them, you're just doing them. At least there's no chance of drowning on a motorcycle! I was so frustrated with my lack of progress, I left after only 45 minutes of the scheduled hour.

Third lesson

This time, the other beginning student was back. It was great to see her conquer her fear by showing up again.

So now I had only one volunteer working with me almost the whole hour. I definitely got more comfortable in the water, but still had trouble doing the front and back floats. Even adding a little leg-kicking and arm-moving didn't help. I was still too nervous to just let it come naturally.

When I tried the front crawl again, I found I wasn't getting any forward motion from my legs. I've been working at a desk my whole life and, due to that, I have very poor ankle flexibility, so I have a hard time generating propulsion.

The good thing is, I was starting to feel less nervous, like there was a chance I may be starting to get it. The thing that makes it hard is watching how easily the volunteers and instructors swim. I mean, these ladies are all trim and fit, not a lot of extra body fat, yet they can just lie flat on their backs in the water and float all day long. Amazing.    

Fourth lesson

This time, I had the main instructor work with me almost the whole hour. She even had me put fins on my feet so I u feel what it's like to get a good push going. We worked on my stroke, but it's still a case of me thinking about it and not just doing it.

At least, after this lesson, I had the idea that, with more practice, I might someday be able to learn how to swim. Believe me, for someone like me who has never been comfortable in the water, that is quite something.

When the lesson was over, I was just about to head into the locker room when one of the lifeguards called me over to tell me how well I was doing. Can you believe that? She really made my day, let me tell you!

About this time, I started asking all my friends if they could swim. Those who can (which is most of them) honestly can't believe I'm managed to go this long without learning to swim.

The ones who could generally have been swimmers all their lives. They all told me to just relax and I'd get it in no time. The problem is, the only time I hear the word “relax” is once a year right before the doctor does something horrible to me.

I guess the more people who tell me they can swim, the better for me, because then I start to think, "If they can do it, I can do it." At least I hope so.

When I ask the swimmers for tips, most of them say they just do it. For example, if I show them the motion of the front crawl, or show them how I'm being taught to breath, they say they don't do it that way — each person seems to just do what works for them.

One guy told me to take a deep breath and hold it and then I'd be able to float, but the ladies who just lie on the water are breathing — they're not holding it in — and they float just fine.

For someone like me who works with precision machines like computers all day, all this swimming stuff just seems so nebulous. When you can't ride a bike, they give you training wheels, but the Red Cross doesn't recommend wearing any kind of floatation device lest you get overconfident. Makes sense but until — if ever — I start to make some progress it's just an uphill battle that never ends.

Fifth lesson

I went into this lesson very confident, but, for some reason, just like the other beginner did in week two, I felt like leaving even before starting. I mean, it was all I could do to force myself to go through with it.

The only reason I stayed was because I knew my wife would be extremely disappointed with me if I left, so I decided to stick it out, which of course was the right thing to do. I started out slowly but, by the end of the hour, I thought I had made good progress on floating.

They even told me during the lesson that I could consider myself Level II now, so I must have been doing something right.

The really big news is, I seem to have mastered the survival float. This is where you float prone (on your tummy), with your head just under the water, and come up for air occasionally. The fact that I can basically do this now means that I might actually be able to save myself from drowning if I have to.

This, as Fucillo would say, is huge. Being able to do the survival float — to know that you may actually be able to save yourself from dying in the water — is just fantastic.

Sixth lesson

This was the first lesson where I actually had some fun in the water. I had two volunteers work with me the whole time.

They threw three rings to the bottom of the pool and had me go down and get them. What blew me away was this — it's hard to go down to the bottom of the pool because the water pushes you back up.

This was the absolute first time in my life I've actually felt buoyant in water. Now I know why mobsters have to always put you in "cement shoes" when they bump you off and toss you in the ocean.

I still had trouble doing the back float. I simply cannot relax enough to just lie on the water like the ladies can. There is a male instructor there who, I'm told, only learned how to swim when he retired at 65 and now teaches. Even he can lie on his back in the water and just float, and he doesn't have any more body fat than I do.

I know objectively I should be able to do it, but I'm just not there yet. They did let me try treading water, though not in the deep end, and I seemed to be able to do that, which was great.

Anything that gets me feeling like I might be able to save myself from drowning is what I'm looking for, really. I still had trouble coordinating my arms and legs in any kind of proper swimming motion, but at least I'm to the point where I'm trying in a meaningful way.

Later that week, I looked at some swimming videos online. If you watch our Olympic swimmers like Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte and study them swimming, you can't help but notice the economy of motion they have. They are not flapping their arms and legs wildly like I tend to do; rather, they use powerful, efficient, dolphin-like motions that just power them through the water.

Now these guys, when they're training, practice like six hours a day, point being there is swimming and then there is truly great swimming. I'll never swim like these guys but just watching them is helpful in a way.

Seventh lesson

Had to skip this one. All my life, I've had ear infections and the first thing the doctors ask is, "Do you swim?" Of course I always say no.

Well, I came down with an ear infection — my ears felt like I had expanding balloons in them, my sinuses were all clogged up, and my head was in a fog. No way I could enjoy a swimming lesson like that.

I wore earplugs for all the lessons, so I don't think the water caused this infection; it's just something I'm predisposed to, unfortunately. I hated to skip it just when I was finally starting to have some fun in the water.

Eighth and final lesson

Would you believe I pulled a back muscle in the shower before the last swimming class? Welcome to being 55 years old.

Nonetheless, I had my best swim lesson by far, as I was able to do the back float a couple of times by myself and even made some semi-coordinated attempts at actual swimming. What a great way to end the class.

Afterwards, the instructors and many of the students went out to a well-deserved buffet lunch, with a fun time had by all. The YMCA really does the swimming program right.

I have to thank the YMCA for putting on this program for adults. For folks like me who somehow slipped through the cracks and never learned to swim it's truly a godsend — the water-safety information alone is worth the price of the course.

I especially need to thank the two volunteers who worked so closely with me throughout the course. Rita Vamos walks kind of slowly due to her age, but in the water she's like a swan, as elegant and graceful a swimmer as you will ever see.

Georgia Sullivan is one of the sweetest, most patient ladies I've ever met, and a fine swimmer as well. Both of these lovely ladies went out of their way to rid me of my fear of water. They got me to the point where I was actually having fun in the pool! Big thanks to all the volunteers and especially Rita and Georgia.

This brings up another great thing about the YMCA swimming program. Many of the volunteer instructors are retired folks. How great is it to see retirees being so actively involved in the community, sharing their expertise, and staying vibrant and active?

We need more of this in our community. Retirees should not be teaching only swimming but other things they've learned over the years, things like cooking and balancing checkbooks. What a great way to have our seniors stay involved by doing actual useful things for their friends and neighbors. I love it.

Swimming is a fun activity and an excellent exercise that I've never been able to take advantage of, but, thanks to the YMCA program and it's excellent volunteers, I'm well on my way to making swimming a vital part of my life. It's about time.

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The YMCA Community Adult Learn to Swim Program will again be offered at the Guilderland Y on March 13, 2015. It will be eight weeks on Fridays between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. The cost is $70 and is limited to the first 30 registrants. The Guilderland YMCA also has swimming lessons all year long for all levels, and you don't need to be a member (non-members pay a little more). Contact the YMCA for more information at 456-3634. I'm also told the YMCA team will be putting on a community access TV program about swimming; be sure to look for that as well.

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The other night, I went to the annual roast-beef dinner fundraiser at Bethany Reformed Church. I've been to this before and know it is very well attended — you always have to wait a bit to get seated.

Then dinner is served "family style," although even my food-centric Italian family never served this much food. There is thin sliced roast beef that just melts in your mouth; fresh creamy mashed potatoes and gravy; beets prepared with onion and spices; the good kind of coleslaw, not the runny kind; tender green beans cooked just right; super-soft dinner rolls; and, as if all that's not enough, they have Boy Scouts running from table to table, pushing carts with all kinds of delectable desserts. You can't beat it.

As we're eating dinner, I'm trying to have a conversation with a friend seated to my left. While doing this, every couple of minutes I'd hear a long, drawn out "mmmmmm" from my lovely wife who was seated across from me.

This was unusual in the sense that normally she's the talker and I'm the eater. Turns out she has a thing for mashed potatoes and gravy. If you'd looked at her and listened to the "mmmmmm"s, you'd think someone was massaging her at the same time.

I thought it was really funny, because she's always so proper, but now I know her weak spot. If there were a way to package hot mashed potatoes and gravy, I'd be all set for birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays.

Yes, the food was that good. Too good, in a way. I wound up eating maybe four times as much as I should have. I didn't mean to do it; in fact, I didn't want to, but they just keep passing plate after plate until you finally have to surrender.

Consequences

One time, at a restaurant, I'd eaten everything I thought I could, and was about to leave, when the waitress reminded me the strawberry shortcake was still to come. That night, when I left the place, I could not stand up; I had to walk out hunched over, I was so full. This wasn't quite as bad, but it was close.

When I got home, I read for a little bit and then tried to get some sleep, but I was so full I could not get comfortable. If you've ever felt like this, you know it's no fun at all.

I always watch the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, and how those skinny guys — and girls — can stuff so many dogs and buns down their guts in so short a time is a real mystery to me. I mean, it's just painful when you overeat like this.

The next morning, when I got up, I had no desire to eat breakfast. This is one area where my wife and I are completely different — no matter how much she eats, she can always eat again at the next scheduled time.

Not only couldn't I eat breakfast, I made a pact that I would not eat anything the entire day. I did this to make up for the sheer number of calories I'd consumed the night before and to punish myself for being so stupid.

Fasting

The last time I tried to go a day without eating, it wasn't fun. You still get hungry at normal meal times.

I remember waking up early the last time and being so hungry I had to eat the first thing I saw, which turned out to be a too-old banana that was just gross. I determined to do better this time.

As I went about my day, I did many of the things I normally do on a Sunday — work on the bikes and cars, yard work, etc. The only thing I allowed myself was water, one Snapple, and multiple diet sodas, which I know are not the best thing for you.

Actually, I thought I was off diet soda but then Pepsi came out with the Diet Cherry and I got hooked again. Do you know they have chemists working full time to create tastes like Diet Cherry and Doritos and Pringles that you just can't stop eating? They really do.

At least diet soda has no calories, though any time you're drinking something with acid so strong it can clean car battery terminals you have to worry.

Then, since it was Sunday, I sat down to watch some football. If you watch sports, you know there are three kinds of commercials during the games: food, beer, and vehicles.

Even though I was still full from the dinner buffet, I found it hard to see endless commercials for burgers and pizza and what-all. No wonder we have an obesity problem in this country.

The really amazing thing about not eating for a day is how much time you gain. Without having to think about, prepare, eat, and then clean up from meals, you have so much more time on your hands it's astounding.

I was able to get a bunch more stuff done that day than I normally would have. Of course, I didn't feel that great, but it sure was very nice to gain this free time, you bet.

Diet options

I recently read about a diet where you can eat anything you want if you fast for two days a week. In fact, it said it's the rage diet in Europe right now.

All I can say is, the day after not eating, I felt like I had returned to my normal self. I didn't "pig out" or anything, just ate normally and I was fine.

If you think about it, it has to be good to give your entire digestive system a break now and then. I also like the way it's a good test of willpower: How many pizza commercials can you watch without picking up the phone for a delivery?

We are often our own worst enemies, so when you can "win one" it's a real good feeling.

There are now all-you-can-eat buffet places pretty much everywhere. There, you can eat like I did at the church dinner all day, every day.

I, for one, am sure glad they didn't have these when I was growing up. There was a time I'd eat a full dinner at home and then go out with friends and eat three Big Macs right after.

The thought of doing that now makes me physically ill. I know my buddies would have come up with some goofy contest — "Let's go to Golden Corral and eat all the chicken!" — so I'm sure glad we missed this one. The Disco Era was bad enough.

I don't advise eating until you feel sick, but I can say that not eating for a day was a great thing to do to recover from it. In fact, it was kind of fun — I loved all the time I gained — so I might be trying it again. Less is more.

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