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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Now that we're in full winter sports mode, it won't be long before playoffs start. In that vein, I decided to have a playoff of horrible things.

I have them in two groups of 12 where they'll go head to head, with the most horrible things in each group facing off against each other for the title of Most Horrible Thing. I truly have no idea how this will turn out, so let’s get started:

Horrible Things Division I:

1. Colonoscopies

2. PBS Fund Drives

3. Telephone Menu Systems

4. Taxes

5. Supreme Court

6. Cell Phones

7. Traffic

8. Teenagers

9. Sarah Palin

10. Ear Hair

11. Anonymous Critics

12. Tar Snakes

First round of

Division I

1 vs. 12, Colonoscopies vs. Tar Snakes: Colonoscopies are once every 10 years and you have to drink a gallon of that awful stuff the day before. Tar snakes are when they don't have enough money to do a proper road repair and just fill the gaps in with tar; these are awful when you ride your motorcycle over them, believe me. Since colonoscopies only happen once every 10 years, tar snakes win the first bout.

2 vs. 11, PBS Fund Drives vs. Anonymous Critics: PBS fund drives just go on forever, and, if you donate early, you still have to sit through the whole thing. Who needs another tote bag anyway, plus, despite all the donations, there are still commercials! Anonymous critics are all the tweeters and bloggers who post all this Internet vitriol without identifying themselves. As bad as the fund drives are, anonymous critics are worse.

3 vs. 10, Telephone Menu Systems vs. Ear Hair: Telephone Menu Systems — "your call is important to us" — are a perfect example of how technology doesn't always make life better. Ear hair is something we men get as we age; it's awfully ugly, very hard to take care of, and just plain gross. This is a real tough one, but telephone menu systems are that bad so they win.

4 vs. 9, Taxes vs. Sarah Palin: Taxes are not bad in concept; they allow us to have a functioning society where everyone gets benefits (police, road repair, food inspection etc.). The problem with taxes is there are too many of them and the laws are too complex. Sarah Palin, on the other hand, continues to be a national embarrassment. Her latest gaffe was "the truth is an endangered species at 1400 Pennsylvania Ave." She was of course trying to criticize the White House at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; even school kids know where the White House is. This is an easy one — Sarah Palin wins in a rout.

5 vs. 8, Supreme Court vs. Teenagers: The Supreme Court, despite the judges’ combined age and "wisdom," when push comes to shove, takes the easy way out and votes on party line. Teenagers think they know everything and make your life crazy until they finally "get it." At least teenagers grow up. Supreme Court wins this one.

6 vs. 7, Cell Phones vs. Traffic: Everything is about phones these days, and, while smart phones truly are technological marvels, it's just getting to be too much already. Traffic is bad but, if you have a good stereo and have some travel smarts, it can be death with, so cell phones win.

On to Division I finals

First round of Division I is over, so now we have:

— Tar Snakes vs. Cell Phones: Phones affect more of us so they win;

— Anonymous Critics vs. Supreme Court: Anonymous critics are cowards so they win;

— Telephone Menu Systems vs. Sarah Palin: She will, I hope, at some point just go away, so telephone menu systems win.


Second round is over. Anonymous Critics get a "bye" so we have:

— Cell Phones vs. Telephone Menus Systems: Isn't it funny how both are phone related? Telephone menu systems easily win here, which brings us to the Division I finals:

— Telephone Menu Systems vs. Anonymous Critics: This is a tough one because both are truly horrible, but you can always ignore or delete anonymous critics, so telephone menu systems are the winners of the Horrible Things Division I playoffs!

Division II

1. Congress

2. Tuna Casseroles

3. Reality TV

4. Plumbing

5. Political Ads

6. Unwanted Phone Calls

7. Squirrels

8. Piercings

9. Graffiti

10. Coffee Snobbery

11. The Packed Snow at the End of the Driveway

12. Low-Interest Rates

1 vs. 12, Congress vs. Low Interest Rates: This Congress, our paid representatives, has done virtually nothing. When Congress does act, it's often to obstruct rather than achieve. Meanwhile, the stock market goes up and up yet you can't get any interest at the bank. How are you supposed to teach kids the value of saving? We can throw the bums in Congress out, so low-interest rates win.

2 vs. 11, Tuna Casseroles vs. the Packed Snow at the End of the Driveway: Just the smell of a tuna casserole leaves me nauseas; you just can't serve tuna hot. Compare this to the snow at the end of the driveway, packed in by the town plow in that low area by the street; my back hurts just thinking about it. As bad as heated tuna is, the packed snow at the end of the driveway wins.

3 vs. 10, Reality TV vs. Coffee Snobbery: I refuse to watch any so-called "reality TV," which is of course produced and scripted. If you want my attention, at least make an attempt to put on something worthwhile. As far as coffee snobbery, give me a plain cup of coffee, not a latte or a frappe or a whatever. We can always turn the TV off, so coffee snobbery wins.

4 vs. 9, Plumbing vs. Graffiti: Of all the trades, plumbing is the one I least like doing. There's nothing worse than a leak and the damage it can cause. Some people like graffiti but, no matter how artistic you may think it is, it's still vandalism. I can always get better at plumbing or hire someone, so graffiti wins.

5 vs. 8, Political Ads vs. Piercings: When did all the political ads go negative? It's really awful when you can't think of anything to do but criticize your opponent. Piercings are something I've never gotten; when you see a pretty young girl with this shiny thing sticking out of her nose, all you do is stare at it, ugh. Painful. As bad as the negative ads are, piercings win.

6 vs. 7, Unwanted Phone Calls vs. Squirrels: I don't mind taking a survey now and then, but not during dinner. What happened to the Do Not Call registry? Not working in my house. Squirrels are true suburban marauders, wrecking havoc with bird feeders and digging up the garden. As bad as the unsolicited calls are, because of the damage and commotion squirrels cause, they win hands down.

On to Division II finals

That's it for Division II first round, so now we have:

— Low Interest Rates vs. Squirrels: This is a tough one. There are other investment vehicles, so squirrels win.

— The Packed Snow at the End of the Driveway vs. Piercings: Snow eventually melts, so piercings win.

— Coffee Snobbery vs. Graffiti: Graffiti is a criminal act, so graffiti wins.

Again, after the bye we have:

— Squirrels vs. Graffiti: I'm letting squirrels off the hook easy here though I hate to do it! Graffiti wins.

— Graffiti vs. Piercings: I realize not liking piercings may be a generational thing, in that I'm so old I just don't get it. Therefore graffiti wins Division II Most Horrible Thing

And the winner is...

That means we are down to the finals for the Most Horrible Thing:


Telephone Menu Systems vs. Graffiti: This is an interesting final — I honestly had no idea how it would play out.

Telephone menu systems are so bad on so many levels. Think about it, a call to your business is an opportunity for you to put your best foot forward, to reinforce that customer relationship that you've worked so hard to build.

Instead, when you force your customers to go through level after level of frustrating menus just to finally get to a real live person, whatever goodwill you may have earned is basically lost. I've actually taken time off from work to visit places that have awful telephone menu systems, that's how much I can't stand these things. That's why I'll always support companies where a real live person is there to help you.

Graffiti, no matter what any "artists" tell you, is vandalism. I love walking in the downtowns of new cities and I just hate to see wonderful old buildings ruined by this garbage.

Sit by a railroad crossing and count how many boxcars are "tagged" as well. What a total waste of creativity. This is a tough call, it really is, but I'm going to give telephone menu systems the win for Most Horrible Thing, with graffiti a very close second.

If you think about it, the fact that there are so many "players" for a Most Horrible Things contest is pretty bad, and I'm sure you can think of other ones. Oh well, we can always focus on the good stuff. The glass is half-full, right?

There is a restaurant in downtown Albany called Justin's that my lovely wife and I try to go to at least once a year. The menu at Justin's changes often, but there is one dish called ropa vieja that is always there and that we always order.

This is Cuban braised beef that is cooked slowly all day long, so tender that, when you dig in, all you need is a fork. My mouth is watering just thinking about it, that's how good it is.

Now I'm certain Justin's has many other good dishes on the menu, but I wouldn't know because, from the first time I've been there and every time since, the only dish I've ordered is ropa vieja and I've been totally satisfied.

One time, I was feeling especially hungry, so I ordered the macaroni and cheese appetizer. This was by far the best macaroni and cheese I've ever had, which leads me to believe that Justin's is capable of some very excellent cooking besides the ropa vieja, but no matter: I've found what I like and that's it. I don't have to think about it, I just order it, and I'm always in heaven. Good deal.

This phenomenon of finding out what you like and sticking with it resonates with me. It does manifest with food a lot I notice; I won't use any mustard other than Gulden’s nor any ketchup other than Heinz, but it's not only food related.

You may know the rock group ZZ Top from its many eighties hits and videos like "Legs" and "Sharp Dressed Man," but they were around a long time before they really took off. In '75, ZZ Top released an album called "Fandango!"

The first side of this album was recorded live, and it's such dynamic, explosive, and euphoric rock-and-roll that, though I've owned the record for, unbelievably, almost 40 years now, I've only played the other side maybe three or four times in all those years, and I'm a really big ZZ Top fan. The thing is, like the ropa vieja, the first side is so good that it's just about impossible for anything else to be better.

You've heard the term Catch-22, which describes an unsolvable situation, like not being able to get a job until you have experience but not being able to get experience until you get a job. The phrase comes from Joseph Heller’s classic sixties ridiculousness-of-war novel, Catch-22, and this book surely is a masterpiece, which I've thoroughly enjoyed reading. (It's especially relevant now with our military so active all over the world.)

The next book Heller wrote is called Something Happened, which is so fantastic and wonderful because it's a satire of our society (especially corporate society) that's so dead-on honest it's almost frightening. When I read Something Happened as a young man just starting out in corporate America, all the nonsense involved in bureaucracy and getting ahead finally made sense to me.

Joseph Heller wrote more books after Something Happened, but I've never read any of them because, truly, there can't be any that are better.

Am I missing out by ordering only ropa vieja at Justin's, by only listening to side one of ZZ Top's "Fandango!” and by not reading any of Joseph Heller's later works after Something Happened? I sometimes wonder, I really do, but, every time I partake of any of these, or Gulden’s mustard or Heinz ketchup, I'm so satisfied — thrilled even — that I don't even bother with thinking of anything else.

To have this kind of satisfaction with anything in this world is quite remarkable, I think. Try the cheap bland mustard or watery ketchup and then get back to me.

Let's take it one step further. When I asked my wife to marry me it was because I'd finally found someone like my mother: smart, beautiful, sharp as a tack, and not a wallflower. Sounds Oedipal but when you are around such a strong personality your whole life, I think it just grows on you (at least that's what I think happened).

Of course I look at other women — all men do, no matter what they say — but I've found my ropa vieja, my side one of "Fandango!" and my Something Happened in Charlotte so I have no desire and can't conceive of being with anyone else.

Get this — every now and then she tries to slip a cheap mustard or ketchup by me (some great coupon or something). How ironic is that!

If you find a dish or book or record or person that you really, really, really love, there is always a chance that you may be missing out on something better, but what do you care as long as you really, really, really love that dish, book, record, or person?

Chew on that (pun intended) while I head over to Justin's for some delicious ropa vieja


A little over a year ago, I took time off from work to accompany my wife to a doctor’s appointment. I'd been to plenty of these over the years (we have three kids) but somehow I knew this one was going to be different.

Sure enough, the doctor wound up telling us my wife had stage-one breast cancer. That was a life-changing visit.

When I heard the news, I didn't flip out or anything. Turns out stage one (later they determined it was really stage two) means the cancer was discovered early. That means, if you are lucky, some kind of treatment like chemotherapy or radiation will work. But, even at this early stage, I just felt that somehow my wife would get through this. She's tough.

It was determined that chemotherapy would be needed. To facilitate that, "minor" surgery would be needed to install a port for the injections. This surgery supposedly has a 1-percent failure rate. However, during the procedure, they punctured my wife's lung, which required a long and painful hospital stay. No surgery is ever really minor.

I had heard of chemotherapy but I never really knew what it was until seeing it up close with my wife. What they basically do is inject you with poison in the hope that it will kill the cancer without killing you

My wife was scheduled for four doses, but could only manage two and a half as it was literally killing her with general pain, nausea, neuropathy (extremity pain), and more. Fortunately, it looks like the process still worked, as here we are a year later and she is currently cancer free. Notice I said currently. "Aye, there's the rub" to quote the Bard.

My wife says we all have cancer to some degree — it's just a question of how much it grows. As a "survivor" now, she just has to keep getting checked and hope that it doesn't come back.

Survivors talk about being "clean" for five years as a goal, but cancer can return at any time; it's a wicked beast for sure. We had a counselor who had been a survivor herself, but then her cancer returned with a vengeance.

Her funeral was a real tearjerker as she was a terrific person with many great friends and a loving family. That's why, when you have cancer and are supposedly cured, you always have to be realistic and stay focused. Sad but true.

One of my responsibilities during this trying time has been to update my wife's Caring Bridge web page. This is a site where you go to follow up on people undergoing various treatments.

For a while, I was updating it all the time, with information on the chemotherapy infusions, the many doctor visits, and her overall wellbeing. I did get in trouble a couple of times for putting too sensitive information out there.

I mean, I was trying to deal with it as a real journalist would, but, as you can imagine, there are a lot of intimate personal details involved with breast cancer. Overwhelmingly I've been told I did a good job, and it sure saved making a lot of phone calls. I hope I won't have to do much more of it.

As if having cancer isn't bad enough, there's the added struggle of trying to keep your main doctor, your oncologist, your breast surgeon, and your plastic surgeon all on the same page, along with keeping track of all the medications, appointments, and related paperwork. It's a cliché but it's truly adding insult to injury.

Fortunately, my wife is very organized, but, as she'll tell you, having "chemo brain" doesn't make the endless record-keeping any easier. Truly, being sick is one thing and then administering the sickness is another.

And be sure to sit down when you look at the bills! We have good health coverage, thank goodness, but it still takes your breath away.

Lance Armstrong has fallen out of favor for his lying and cheating over so many years, but the organization he founded for cancer patients, now called The Livestrong Foundation, continues to do great work for cancer patients.

My wife got into an exercise program the foundation sponsored, and it was terrific. The instructors really cared and really knew what they were doing so it was just tremendous. Big "props" to Livestrong.

Another group my wife has found great comfort in is Bravehearts. This group for female cancer survivors goes on retreats to the ocean and the mountains where the ladies get pampered and supported by people who care.

My wife has gone on several of these weekends and has had a great time every time. If there's one good thing about cancer, it's that it brings out the best in so many different people from all walks of life. A friendship made through cancer survival is like the lovely silver lining on a dark gray cloud.

By far the most difficult aspect of the whole ordeal for me has been accompanying my wife to her infusions. If you've not been to something like this, you should be told it's quite a reality check: There are many people in that room hooked up to chemotherapy drips who may or may not be there the next time you go.

Most have no hair (my wife still looked beautiful even when bald) and many are so gaunt and frail you wonder how much time they could possibly have left. Still, the staff at our place, New York Oncology and Hematology, were always upbeat and competent.

You could even say it was a pleasure to see them each time; that's how nice they all were. Once my wife found a comfy, heated recliner and started the process, she could look out windows with picturesque views, strike up a conversation with a fellow patient, or just read or pray.

Mostly it's quiet and serene in there (except when a loud personal cell-phone call lasts too long or the always-on TV is too loud). Being that you have to be there whether you like it or not, it means al lot that it's as nice as it is. Again, something about cancer just brings out the best in people. It's very inspiring.

Getting cancer later in life is one thing; you've lived for a while so there's that. What really unnerves me is cancer in children.

Sadly, it's not that uncommon. Seeing little ones, bald and attached to a chemo-drip, is enough to make even the toughest of us melt. It just gets me right in the gut. All we can do is hope the researchers keep working hard on a cure.

None of us who are cancer-free can really know how those who are suffering with this dreadful disease truly feel. They may put on a good public face in trying to do their normal routine but inside they may be tired, or in pain, or just feeling drab.

You know when you're not feeling good it's hard to get excited about anything. I still have to check myself, as there are so many things I want to do that I don't give a second thought about, but for my wife or my mother (she has a form of cancer, too), these things are not so easy or not doable at all. I need to just be happy they are both still around.

Recently, we had a combination cancer survival and birthday party for my wife with lots of friends and relatives attending. What a good time we all had. My wife thoroughly enjoyed catching up with everyone, running around all day to meet and greet and give hugs.

If you'd seen her, you might have found it hard to believe she was ever sick at all. How great is that. Miracles do happen.  A life saved is a wonderful thing.

Let's hope my wife's blood tests keep coming back negative. There's a lot left we have to do together. With any luck at all, we'll be able to do them, and for a long time to come.

The next time you see a pink ribbon magnet on the back of a car, or a big burly football player wearing pink sneakers, just stop and think about what it really means. I know I do.


Here's a great word we don't often hear spoken but that we deal with (at least I do) all the time: conundrum.

According to my faithful dictionary, a conundrum is an intricate or difficult problem. See what I mean? You don't hear the word conundrum a lot but you sure experience it all the time. Let's take a look at some of the conundrums I deal with on a regular basis.

My kids have all turned out to be good drivers; my wife is, too. (She even tells me she was Driver of the Year in high school.) Empirically, I accept this and yet, when any of them are driving and I'm a passenger, the level of fear, even panic, that I feel is palpable and quite disturbing.

My wife's car has a handle over the passenger door and I often squeeze it so hard I wonder if I'll break it. I really don't know why I feel this way — they really are good, safe drivers and I'm glad for that.

But put me in the passenger seat and I'm sweating bullets. Probably it's the simple lack of control you feel as a passenger, which is reasonable in my case since I'm the driver maybe 98 percent of the time I'm in a car. But that 2 percent! Oh boy, now that's a conundrum.

Cat conniptions

If you've been on the Internet at all, you know that probably 50 percent of it is cat related: photos, videos, Facebook posts, anecdotes, etc. This paradigm plays out in my house as well, as I'm surrounded by cat lovers and not one, not two, but three, count 'em, three indoor cats.

My family gets such intense pleasure and enjoyment from these often quite aloof animals that, if I didn't see it for myself, I wouldn't believe it. Now I don't have anything against outdoor cats; they earn their keep by preying on vermin, though I can't stand when they attack the beautiful birds, nature’s lovely natural singers, that I love so much.

My problem is with indoor cats and specific behaviors of theirs that I just don't like: going up on kitchen counters (and, yes, they do this when you're not there); throwing up all over the house and leaving disgusting hair balls everywhere; hunting and stalking everything that moves; and sniffing the food apprehensively every time they approach it — which is all the time — when it's the exact same food that sits out there 24/7/365.

Suffice it to say I'm not a "cat fancier," yet I'm prevented by the democratic process from getting rid of the furry little pests, er, I mean the lovely wonderful things. Now if that's not a conundrum I don't know what is. Thank God for single-malt scotch.

One time the pastor at church told a story about a cat who left the house and returned six months later. As the congregation oohed and aahed over the almost Biblical return, I'm sitting there going, "What I wouldn't give for six months’ peace and tranquility."

I know, I have issues. Still, to me it was a great sermon. Six months! One can only dream.

One of the cats is on a prescription — probably stress from having so much to do all day — and I was sent to the drugstore to fill it. The druggist calls me over and says, "Palmeri?"

Yes I say.

Then he goes, "First name?"

So, in front of all the other druggists and the customers, he made me say out loud, "Snickers."

How embarrassing is that. Please go away for six months!

Channel-changing challenge

Let's say you're changing channels before the game comes on and you happen upon a Seinfeld episode. Despite the fact that you've seen these over and over and know all the jokes, if you let yourself linger, it's all too easy to get sucked in and then you've wasted a half-hour.

You know it's going to happen and you still can't do anything about it. Talk about conundrum city.

Regretting the missed ritual

When my faithful Toyota Sienna died, I had to find another vehicle quickly. I wound up getting another mini-van, and, even though its used, it has a pretty good warrantee, but get this — the warrantee is only in effect if I let the dealer do the oil changes.

You might think this is no big deal, and for some it may not be, but for me it has turned out to be one of the worst decisions I've ever made.

Here's the thing: Today's cars are so complex and full of electronics that there's really not much a dedicated owner like me can do mechanically any more, save for the good old oil change. When I do them, it's like a ritual: a nice warm day, garage door open, with dirty hot oil draining into a pan and "Car Talk" on the radio.

Then I'll go mow the lawn while every last bit of nasty old oil gets drained. Finally, I'll put in a new filter, inspect everything under the car, and then pour in the best oil I can find so I know I'm good to go for many thousands of miles. Now, all of a sudden, because of this stupid warrantee situation, I can't even have the simple time-honored pleasure of doing an oil change on my own vehicle.

What a colossal mistake I made. Unlike many obvious conundrums, I didn't even realize that not being able to change my own oil would be a conundrum until it was too late. Live and learn, ain't it the truth.

To add insult to injury, the one oil change the dealer did do, it royally screwed up. Sometimes it really does go from bad to worse, but at least I learn from my mistakes — I will never buy a vehicle from a dealer that insists it has to do the oil changes again.

Doctor duty

Deciding when to call the doctor is always a conundrum for me. In my experience, most things get better over time, but the self-diagnosis game is not always easy to play (especially when you're married).

The one that always gets me is when you go to bed feeling fine and then wake up with a cold or a headache or a sore back. I thought sleep was supposed to be restful?

For me to have to agree to see a doctor, it has to be something obvious, like an open wound or worse. True, I like reading magazines but I prefer to do it on my own time rather than in a waiting room if at all possible, and, while I do like my doctor very much, seeing her once a year is just fine, thank you very much.

Maxing the motorcycle

My motorcycle is precision-made in Germany and is easily capable of keeping up triple-digit speeds all day on the Autobahn. The conundrum is, we don't have an Autobahn on this side of the pond, so there are not many legal ways to take advantage of this awesome performance.

Every now and then, discretion goes out the window and I wind up with what I euphemistically call a "performance award," that is, a speeding ticket. Lest you surmise that this is simply flippant behavior on my part, be aware that, when your are dealing with a modern, high performance car or motorcycle, it is so easy, because of the smooth and effortless performance, to be on your merry way and not even realize you're over the speed limit, it happens so fast.

I think someday I'll add a sidecar to my bike for the grandkids to ride in; that will slow me down for sure. Until then, for the sake of my license and my insurance rates, I better figure this conundrum out post-haste.

In addition, there are all kinds of mini-conundrums to deal with throughout the day: boxers or briefs (or nothing?); Coke or Pepsi (there is a difference); the highway or the back road (speed or scenery); and many more. It all comes down to making decisions. When you make more right decisions than bad ones you're having a good day. It's as simple as that.
Conundrums can be trivial or complex, harmless or painful, plentiful or sparse, but they are always there and waiting for you to decide what to do. Good luck with your conundrums


It was Mother’s Day at Hamilton Union Presbyterian Church in Guilderland. The service, featuring heavenly sounds from the very musical choir and organist (my lovely wife, who I love to hear play) had just ended.

Normally, I’d leave at this point but we had a friend visiting so I went for coffee time, trying hard not to spoil my diet with all the cakes and cookies just begging to be eaten — a very nice way to start Mother’s Day.

As I’m standing there, two lovely ladies, dressed in their Sunday finest and obviously a mother-daughter pair, approach me.

“Aren’t you the one that writes for The Enterprise?” the mom asked me.

While I don’t get to church that often, or even around town that much, I get this all the time. The power of the written word!

“Yep, that’s me,” I replied, and we had a wonderful conversation about my columns, which they love.

Imagine that. Made my day for sure.

The big thing they wanted to know was how I decide what to write about, since it’s always something different. I told them I just write about whatever I’m thinking about at the time — “Thinking about Things” is the column’s name after all.

For example, I said, you know how, when you drink soda from a can, when you’re almost done, no matter how much you tilt your head, you can never get that last little drop that hides behind that little bit of lid under the hole?

This was something I’d been thinking about writing about for a while. It bothers me because you paid for the soda but can’t get it all.

At this point, the mom, wearing her pretty Sunday hat, looks up at me and belts out, “Who cares!”

I thought that was just great. Moms rock.

I remember one of the first pieces I saw Andy Rooney do on 60 Minutes. It was about paper clips. You wouldn’t think there’s much to say about paper clips, but that was the genius of Andy Rooney — he could take something we all take for granted, like paper clips, and make you think about them in new ways. Great stuff.

That’s creative nonfiction, and that’s what I try to do. The vagaries of real life, including the nuances of paper clips and that little drop of soda left in the can, endlessly fascinate me.

Another writer in the same vein is Nicholson Baker. Check out his book, A Box of Matches. He uses simple things, in this case a box of matches, to reflect on life. This to me is creative writing at its best, to take the tactile feel of a box of matches and just riff on that.

Drilling down like this, focusing on something rather ordinary to bring out larger truths, that, my friends, is real writing. I may know you, but when I know how you feel about a match, I can’t help but know you better.

Let’s get back to the soda. You paid for it yet you can’t get it all. I have similar experiences all the time.

My favorite mustard has always been Gulden’s Spicy Brown. A few years ago, Gulden’s came out with a squeeze bottle. This bottle works well when it’s full, but, in time, you get to a point where there’s plenty of mustard left but you can’t get it out. Very frustrating.

You can try angling a knife in there but it’s not easy. The other day, I got so fed up I actually cut the bottle in half and used a spatula to transfer the remaining mustard to a little container. Would you believe I got about a quarter cup of mustard out? That’s a lot of mustard!

Same thing with toothpaste. When you can’t squeeze any more out, there is still a lot left in there. I didn’t go to school for packaging science, but I think it’s clear there needs to be some improvement in this area. You paid for the product so you should be able to get all of it.

Microwave popcorn has been around for years. My microwave oven even has a popcorn mode, where it can sense the pops and know when to turn off.

When I pop a bag, I invariably get a whole lot of un-popped kernels. Why is this? Why can we send men to the moon but not figure out how to nuke popcorn?

The other night I got so frustrated with this I crunched up the bag with the un-popped kernels and put it back in the microwave. I admit I was kind of nervous about this — I’d never tried to re-pop popcorn before — but, surprisingly, it worked. The bag expanded without blowing up and most of the un-popped kernels popped. Hooray.

I could go on — try getting the last pickle half out of a jar without resorting to a fork; it’s just about impossible. Or try tasting non-fat, no-sugar-added ice cream — ugh. Or trying to keep track of all your passwords (ridiculous, there has to be a better way). But I think you get the drift.

There are so many little things like this that just bug you because you know they are frustrating and it wouldn’t take much to make them better. Oh well, I must be doing all right if these are the things I have to complain about.

Who cares? I do for one, but you knew that already.


When the first new vehicle my lovely wife and I had ever purchased, a red Plymouth Voyager, got T-boned and totaled, we needed a replacement vehicle right away. Fortunately, a neighbor had a Toyota Sienna minivan for sale.

That Sienna lasted us 11 years before dying at 186,000 miles — how I so wanted to get to 200,000! Though we've since replaced the Sienna, I'm having real problems getting used to being without it. It's like I've lost a dear, departed friend.

Here's the thing: When you spend 11 years with anything, you're going to get somewhat attached to it — think about a comfortable recliner, or a dog, or a neighborhood. I realize now I was really attached to my ugly green minivan.

I honestly thought it would last forever. (I used synthetic oil and everything.) I had that van set up just the way I like it, too: the beaded seat covers like the cab drivers use, a sweet Pioneer stereo, a roof rack for moving the kids’ mattresses around, and a tow hitch for my trailers.

With all the seats in, I could take seven of us to all those special events where it's so much easier to take one car, and, with the seats out, I could stuff full sheets of plywood or even a motorcycle in there. What a great car.

The Car Talk boys on NPR always made fun of minivans, but there is no other vehicle that is so versatile. Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler when he came out with the first min-van; me and all the other handy guys who stuff them full of wood and tools and who-knows-what and the many soccer moms who stuff them full of energetic kids thank him very much and still think minivans are terrific.

So here's what happened: The other day, I was on my way to, of all things, a root canal (my fifth, I'm going for the root canal record it seems) when, all of a sudden, the Sienna started to shake violently and the check-engine light came on.

I managed to get the van to my mechanic where he informed me that two cylinders were dead. Ouch! I immediately asked him to give me a price on a replacement engine, but get this: He refused to do it.

I'm lucky to have a truly honest mechanic, and he explained to me that, because of the vehicle's age and rust and leaks and dings, it would make absolutely no sense to put a new engine in the thing, and that I should just "walk away."

Believe me, I struggled mightily with this decision, but finally I could see that he was right. Emotion gave way to practicality, but not without a lot of soul-searching and remorse.

When we went to the mechanic’s shop to empty out the glove box and get the rest of my junk before saying goodbye forever, I asked my wife to take a final picture of me and my ugly green minivan, for sentimental reasons.

So she gets out her fancy-schmancy smart phone, one of several that I pay ginourmous dollars for the members of my family to have, and then announces that her camera function is not working. Are you kidding me?

So I got out my half-busted "dumb" phone, with its lousy low-resolution camera, and had her take the picture with that. Later, she told me the camera was fine, but some setting was wrong. Sigh. I sure wish it was the not-so-smart phone that gave up the ghost instead of my beloved ugly green minivan.

Then I almost bought a brand spanking new minivan, but, at the last minute, I decided not to. The thing is, I really use my minivans for hauling and towing lots of stuff, and the pressure of having a sparkling clean one was too much to deal with.

I'd be so concerned with keeping it spotless that I wouldn't be able to enjoy it. So I wound up getting a used Honda Odyssey, a very highly rated minivan, but I haven't bonded with it yet. I mean, how can you come off an 11-year relationship and just start off new? The only relationship I've had longer than that has been with my wife. (I really, really miss my ugly green Sienna.)

I briefly thought about buying a pickup truck instead of another minivan, but I didn't for two main reasons: one, I still have a need to seat seven every now and then, and, two, no one ever wants to borrow your car or your minivan or your motorcycle, but they always want to borrow your truck.

I'm not averse to helping out, I'm really not, but it gets out of hand. Here's just one example: I once agreed to help install a window air-conditioner in the spring. The person I was helping was fastidious, and the installation had to be just perfect.

Of course, then I had to un-install it in the fall. So now I'm making two trips a year just for the air-conditioner, and then other odd jobs started popping up, and all of a sudden it's like I have a part-time job.

Don't get me wrong, I love being helpful, but I work full time and own a house and have kids and there are other people who need my help as well. So that's part of the reason I didn't go for the pickup.

If you're not lending it out, you're getting asked to do something with it, and I really do have enough things of my own to take care of.

You know when you go into a really old lunch place like Mike's Red Hots on Erie Boulevard, and the edges of the counters are rounded over from all the elbows rubbing on them over the years? My Sienna had a feature where you could change the radio station from the steering wheel. When I installed my rocking Pioneer stereo, I lost the steering wheel channel changer, but I'd still fiddle with it in an OCD kind of way all the time.

I played with it so much that I wore through the black outer surface and was down to the white plastic below. Just like that rounded over lunch counter, the worn-through radio switch was a symbol of a long and wonderful relationship.

Here's another analogy that might help: Many years ago, I saw ZZ Top at the Nassau Coliseum. The show was phenomenal — Billy Gibbons is one of the greatest blues guitarists ever.

After the show, I bought a long sleeved ZZ Top concert shirt. This shirt became my favorite shirt by a mile, and I wore and washed it so much that it became, after many years, like a rag that I still somehow tried to wear.

Finally, after I'd cut off so much that there was nothing left, I had to let it go. This is what it was like letting the Sienna go.

Though the seat belts had lost their springiness, the doors didn't open correctly, it made all kinds of strange noises, it leaked, it was rusty, and the paint was truly ugly, that Sienna, like my beloved ZZ Top shirt, was supremely comfortable, like the comfort of a warm blanket on a winter night. I better stop before I start to cry.

If you happen to have an ugly green Toyota Sienna minivan (I still see them around), don't be surprised if there's a guy shedding a tear as you drive on by. That would be me.

Back in the day — and I mean way, way back — men wore loincloths, painted their faces, and went out with spears to hunt down a beast so the family could eat. Back then, manly tasks like hunting and building made it clear what men did and what they stood for.

But now, with smart phones, Netflix, and 0-percent down, 36-month leases, there's not as many manly things for us guys to do. This is a problem — men still want and need to be men, after all.

So I thought I'd list a few manly things I do, since I'm first and foremost a manly man (my cell phone isn't even a smart phone, so there).

One manly thing I do is use government-issued toilet paper. That's no big deal, you say? Well let me ask you this: Would you like to wipe with paper that was purchased from the lowest bidder? I didn't think so. Manly men with government jobs do this all the time, and we hardly ever complain about it.

I like to get these big jars of pretzels at the buyers’ club. They're great but they must have a gorilla putting the lids on, because opening them is surely a manly task.

What works for me is sitting in a chair with the big jar wedged between my vice-like legs, and then clutching and twisting the lid with both hands until the lid breaks free. This is actually quite a good upper-body exercise, and the accompanying grunting noises are sure to entertain all nearby. You didn't think opening pretzels could be a manly activity, but it is.

The electric drill is probably the most useful tool ever invented, and these days just about everyone has switched to battery power for the convenience and freedom. But real men take on the big jobs, and that means corded tools.

I still have corded versions of drills and saws, and trying to do good work while not tripping over the cord is very manly indeed. I always lay sheets of plywood on top of boards and cut them flat with a corded circular saw, and half the battle there — besides keeping the chips out of your eyes — is watching where the cord goes. Manly men know how to do this instinctively.

You ever pull into a gas station and see cars lined up because they're waiting for a pump on the "right side?" You know, if the gas cap is on the left, they want a pump on the left, etc.

Well, as a Manly Man, I'm proud to say I can pump from either side, thank you. Yes, I sometimes have to drag the hose over the car but what the hey, it makes the whole process a little more interesting so that's a plus. Manly men would rather struggle with the dang hose than wait.

I also do my own oil changes. On a nice day with the garage door open and the music blasting, it's not half bad, but doing them in the winter is not so much fun I'll admit. Oil changes involve lying on my back under the car with hot oil dripping down my arm right past my face.

I do save money, of course, but there's extra laundry to do I know, and the spills can be messy. Ironically, I just bought a car where the only way to keep the warrantee valid is by letting them do the oil changes, so I may not be doing so many from now on.

But check this out: If you have front-wheel drive, you have CV joints protected by rubber bellows knows as boots. When I do my oil changes, while I'm under there, I always apply rubber protectant to my boots, so my expensive CV joints will stay protected.

Meanwhile, the boots I wear on my feet are all worn out and dirty. Isn't it something that the boots I own that you can't see are beautiful, while the boots I own that you can see are a mess? That's how my life always works out.

I also do the following manly things at various times:

— Eat broccoli without oil and garlic;

— Listen to LP records;

— Drink unfancy black coffee;

— Get dressed in the dark so as not to wake the wife (that's why I often have two different socks on);

— Drink out of water fountains; and

— Eat raw clams (don't laugh — a local restaurant wanted me to sign a statement before serving me raw clams).

As you can imagine, there are some things a manly man like me will never do, I never:

— Run with scissors (Mom was right);

— Answer the phone (it's always for my wife or a telemarketer so why bother);

— Watch any movies or TV shows about doctors or hospitals;

— Order anything "small";

— Wear sandals with that strap between the toes (ouch!);

— Use any product that is "scented"; or

— Throw anything out of a moving car window.

Back in the day, it was easy to tell who the manly men were; today not so much. But, as long as there are oil changes to do and things to put together and stuff to be moved and strong black coffee, we'll be OK.

You've heard the saying: "There's no such thing as a free lunch." Well, that may be true, but I can tell you for a fact that there is such a thing as a free dinner.

My lovely wife, Charlotte, and I know about free dinners all too well, as we're both at the age where investment and retirement planning companies want our business so badly that they're willing to feed us — often quite nicely, thank you very much — in the hope that we'll hire them in some sort of financial management capacity.

Sounds like a cushy gig, getting free dinners just to listen to well-dressed and smooth-talking money managers for an hour, but (remember my nickname is "Cranky Frankie" after all) it's not all wine and roses. One event in particular stands out.

This dinner was to take place in a town a quite a way from home at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. I work full-time and my wife works part-time, so weeknights are busy as you can imagine. That night, we got it together enough that we were seated at the restaurant about five minutes before the dinner was to start.

I should tell you right up front that I'm a punctual guy. If you tell me the party is at five, I'm there at five. Being "fashionably late" has no appeal to me at all; in fact, it annoys me very much, but I must be in the minority since everyone seems to do it.

Considering that this event was being put on by a financial-management company, a company that would like nothing more than the very serious and important job of managing my family's retirement savings and investments (what little we have), you'd think they'd be punctual as well. So now we're sitting at an elegantly decorated table in a fancy restaurant.

I had just put my napkin on my lap when a nicely-dressed company rep gets up and says, "Since we're still waiting on a few folks, let's wait about 10 minutes before beginning." Huh?

Let me get this straight. You agree to buy my wife and I dinner at a fancy restaurant, just to have us sit there and listen to you try and convince us to let you manage our investments. We hustle and race, both of us working people, on a very busy weeknight to get to a restaurant in another town by 6 p.m. and then, just because a few others haven't yet arrived, we are supposed to sit and twiddle our thumbs for 10 minutes?

To me, it's all about first impressions; if you truly want to be my financial manager, you should have started the program on time. Then, when the stragglers show up, you can offer to stay later if they want to question you on anything they may have missed (and since the beginning of these things is all schmoozing anyway, they wouldn't have missed much).

I really, really think it sends a bad message to the many folks who went out of their way to do as we were told and show up on time to make us then sit there and wait, effectively penalizing us for being punctual.

Am I wrong about this? I really don't think so. I have always favored those who are on time, dependable, and honest, and I always will.

So the event starts with schmoozing and small talk while we eat; then, when the meal is done, the PowerPoint part of the presentation starts. This is where they pull out all the stops and try to prove to you that they can manage your money better than any other firm can or even you yourself can.

All kinds of charts and graphs are displayed in the hope of convincing you that this is complicated and important stuff and you better let them handle it. Over and over, they use examples to try to make their point, examining things like inflation, the consumer-price index, etc., in the hope of making things clearer.

This is fine, but here is how this particular presenter prefixed all of his examples: "Let's say you have a million dollars...."

Now here I am, sitting at an admittedly nice restaurant in Schenectady on a Tuesday night, with a group of people who look very much like my wife and I — ordinary working-class folks who may or may not be close to retirement at a free dinner put on by an investment company seeking our business.

As this guy keeps saying, over and over, "Let's say you have a million dollars," I'm sitting there thinking, “Jeez, I know I don't have a million dollars, and everyone here looks about like me and my wife, so they probably don't have a million dollars, either. In fact, if any of us did have a million dollars, we'd probably be on a beach or a cruise or getting our nails done or something!”

I started to feel very bad for myself and the others the more I sat there and he kept repeating it ad nauseum.

Here's the thing: He needed a nice and easy number as an example in the many calculations he was using to illustrate various retirement scenarios and projections. It's also true that, if you add up your house and your cars and your savings and the money hidden under the mattress, it's probably more than you think.

But when he kept saying "Let's say you have a million dollars," and I know I don't, it made me feel like some kind of a failure or loser. I mean, if he kept saying this over and over so cavalierly, maybe it's not uncommon for regular working folks in Schenectady to have a million dollars?

If that's true then I must be reading the wrong newspapers and watching and listening to the wrong news shows. All I hear about is the terrible economic recovery, the lack of good-quality jobs, the many taxes that are killing us, the struggle to pay for basics like food and rent, affordable heath care and prescription drugs, and trying to find a way to  send children to college without going broke.

Do all those people, our many hardworking friends and neighbors, "have a million dollars?" I don't think so.

The next evening, I was still stewing about all this when the phone rang. Believe it or not, it was Million Dollar Man asking for feedback about the meeting! Oh boy, was he in for an earful.

First I complained about having to sit there and wait 10 minutes for the stragglers to show up, even though most of us were there on time. Incredulously he had no idea that this would be a big deal to some of us.

Remember the expression "Time is money?" Here's a financial-services guy who apparently has no conception of that time-honored maxim.

Then I told him how uncomfortable it made me feel when he kept prefixing all his examples with "Let's say you have a million dollars." He told me he just wanted a round figure to make the calculations easy.

When I told him it made me feel like a failure in life to be sitting there, knowing I don't have a million dollars, he was genuinely taken aback. We actually discussed this for about 20 minutes.

I truly believe, if you were sitting there and didn't have a million dollars, you wouldn't feel good about yourself when he kept using this (to me) very high number in his many examples. I think I got my point across but I don't know for sure. He (surprise, surprise) hasn't invited me to any more free dinners, so I guess I'll never know if he's cleaned up his act.

Listen, I know some people have a lot of money. I really do. Even some ordinary-looking people may be loaded.

When I was a bank teller in Manhattan, I had a customer who looked like a homeless lady. She came in pushing a handcart filled with random shabby things, she wore ragged clothes, and she was all hunched over.

Guess what, this was back in the '70s, and, when she pulled her bankbook our of her bra, it had a half-a-million dollars in it, I kid you not. So I know some people, even though they may not look like it, might have a lot of money.

I just know that, when you get a bunch of working people together on a Tuesday night in Schenectady, and you keep saying, "Let's say you have a million dollars," not everyone is going to have that much and you take a big risk of alienating them by reminding them of it over and over. Really.

Look, I'm very grateful for the free dinner, but you have to ask yourself, why is it that investment companies and timeshare companies and buyers’ clubs and things like that have to buy you dinner and give you all kinds of freebies just to peddle their products?

If their offerings were so good, would they really need to do that? I don't see my furnace-repair guy or my car mechanic or my doctor buying me dinner, because they don't have to. Something to keep in mind for sure.

There may not be any such thing as a free lunch, but there are free dinners — if you can stand them.