A New Post!

So what do you do when you realize it’s mid-February and your last blog was about Christmas? Nose to the grindstone and write a scintillating new entry? Welllll……

How about instead: find an excuse to post something, anything, so at least the ghost of Christmas past will stop haunting me.  And so my lack of inspiration and perspiration may be your gain. That is, I decided a good excuse for a new post would be to announce a big SALE! Yes indeed, for those of you who find my usual $2.99 price a bit too rich for your budget, my entire Kindle eBook catalog is now on 99 cents each. That’s right; everything from the #1 humor book “A Guy’s Secret Guide to 50 Shades of Grey” to my seldom read thriller “The Light Amid the Darkness” is less than a buck each on Amazon. Act fast, because this offer could end any time I dang well please.

For now, anyway, this price is only good on Amazon. Unfortunately I’ve had a difficult time changing prices on the other retailers, so I’ve learned to set once and leave alone. But hey, if a month from now I’ve still not come up with a new blog, well, that remains an option….

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Oh, Christmas Tree

Just in time for the holidays here is a reprint of a 2006 column. For obvious reasons this is a family favorite. It was also the easiest column I ever wrote. All I did was come home from the evening in question and write down what had just happened. Sometimes you can’t make this stuff up.

xmas tree

“Could you come over and give us a hand?”

My mom sounded calm enough on the other end of the phone, so I said I would later, as I was in the middle of a project.

“No, right now,” she insisted. “The Christmas tree is falling over, and I don’t know how much longer your father can hold it!”

There are definite benefits to living across the street from your parents. I get lots of leftovers and invitations to dinner. They get rapid response Christmas tree righting.

This is no minor service. You should understand that my parents live in an old house with ten foot high ceilings. Family tradition dictates that the Christmas tree must touch the ceiling. It also must be wide and dense, so they always have a huge, beautiful tree.

Except one unfortunate year, when I was six years old. My mother was ill, so for the first and only time, she let my father and I go and pick out the tree. The result was a scraggly, scrawny Charlie Brown type tree. You can tell when someone perusing our family album reaches the photos of that Christmas by the howls of laughter. Hey, it looked fine to me and my dad…

Anyway, I rushed over to relieve my father, who was standing half submerged in the branches of the fully decorated Christmas tree. Well, not fully, as more than a few bulbs had departed in the initial tipping.

As I took my post, my mom filled me in.

“It was perfect. But no, your father had to monkey with it.”

“It was leaning,” he said.

“It was not.”

“Yes, it was.”

“It was perfect. But he had to fiddle with the base, and luckily I was in here, because it started to fall over. I caught it, but I couldn’t hold it. So he grabbed it, and that’s when I called you.”

“It wasn’t straight. Move it a little to the left, Tom.”

My father circled the tree, checking the angle.

“Rudy, watch for the (crunch)… ornament.”

“#&*%!”

“Earlier he had me crazy about that star,” she said, pointing to the ornament topping the tree. “He climbed the ladder to put it on, but then he couldn’t find it. He was sure he’d dropped it into the tree, so I searched and searched the tree, getting all pricked and scratched, but no star.” She started laughing. “Tell him where it was.”

“On the blade,” he mumbled.

This made no sense to me. “Where?” I asked.

My father looked sheepish, and pointed to the ceiling fan, a few feet from the tree. “I forgot I’d set it on top of one the fan blades when I was up on the ladder.”

“Well,” I said, “at least you found it before you turned the fan on. Could have impaled someone.” Visions of the shooting star got us all giggling.

My father was now under the tree, trying to adjust the base. “Wait,” I said, I can’t tell if I’m holding it straight.”

“Cookie, stand back and see if it’s straight,” my dad said.

“A little to the left” she replied, “now a little bit toward you. There.”

“Are you sure?” my dad asked.

“Yes.”

With much mumbling and grumbling he tightened the base, and crawled out.

“Perfect,” my mom said.

My father circled the tree. “It’s not straight.”

“It is too!” my mom replied.

“No, look here from the side. See? It’s leaning backwards.”

“Well how could I tell that from the front?”

“&%^*!” my dad said. “Tom, lean it forward.”

“I can’t,” I said. “You tightened the base down, remember?”

“#!*%!”

My father went back under the tree and loosened the base again. We tilted the tree back and forth, consulted with my mother, and finally he tightened everything down. I released my grip and stood back.

“Well, that looks great,” I said.

“Yes, perfect,” my mom said.

My father circled the tree. “It’s leaning,” he said.

“NO!” my mom and I shouted.

“Dad, it’s really okay,” I said. “The tree is just a bit fuller on one side, so it might look a little bit uneven. But it is straight. Really.”

“It’s leaning,” he said. “If I just…”

“DON’T TOUCH IT!” my mom and I yelled.

Out-voted, but unconvinced, he reluctantly gave up. For the moment anyway.

He chuckled, “You know, you might get a call at three in the morning…”

“I won’t answer,” I replied.

As I left their house, carrying a jar of my mom’s soup, she said, “Don’t forget it’s your father’s 75th birthday this Friday.” She eyed him. “If he makes it till then.”

He made it. Happy Birthday, Dad. And Merry Christmas to my most wonderful parents, who’ve been knocking over and setting right Christmas trees together for more than 50 years.

 (2013 update – Dad now has made it to 82, and they’ve now been knocking over Christmas trees for more than 57 years!)

 

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Under The Weather

weatherSo a friend of mine was feeling “under the weather.” Which, we all understand, means a bit ill.

So what do you say when you’re feeling well? “I’m over the weather”? Or just “I’m feeling weather today”?  Or would you be “on the weather,” since something that’s “under the radar” can later be “on the radar.”

And how does one feel “under” the weather? If you go outside, you’re in the weather; it’s never above or below you. After all, isn’t “weather” just a description of what’s happening in the air around us?

I guess in a plane you could be over the weather below. So perhaps if you’re underground you’re “under the weather,” but why should that mean you’re not feeling well? Unless the reason that you’re underground is that you’re dead and buried, but then you wouldn’t be telling anyone how you feel.

Anyway, just wondering…

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Funny Downton Abbey Guide Now Available

downton_cover_fullsizeIt’s here! Or, there, actually… That is to say, my latest eBook, “An American’s Guide to Downton Abbey,” is now available from all major and most minor online retailers. It’s informative, funny, and cheap! (Hmm, I’ve been described that way…)

Anyway, download it to your Kindle or iPad or Nook or phone or pc or whatever, read it, and then please give me a nice review and tell your friends. That way I’ll sell lots of copies and be motivated to write another funny book that will make you laugh and you’ll write a nice review and tell your friends and… well, this could go on and on, and wouldn’t that be great! See my web site for more info.

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An American’s Guide to Downton Abbey – Coming Soon!

cover_250My latest eBook, “An American’s Guide to Downton Abbey,” is scheduled to be released October 1st. Unlike my best-selling humor book from last year, “A Guy’s Secret Guide to Fifty Shades of Grey,” this time I’m tackling a subject I truly enjoy. But that doesn’t mean I can’t have some fun with it! Here’s my first attempt at a book description:

Downton Abbey is a much-loved BBC period drama that has captivated audiences on both sides of the pond. However, for Americans, trying to understand and follow a story set in an aristocratic British household in the early part of the twentieth century can be a bit confusing at times. But never fear, for this short, funny guide will explain things like “entails” and help the viewer keep track of all the various characters and plot developments in Season One. Viewers already familiar with the world of Downton will enjoy a more in-depth immersion, while newcomers will be better able to understand and appreciate this first and subsequent seasons.

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Set Up Running

And now for something completely different… I’ve never written a book review before, but that didn’t stop me from doing it anyway. The review below was for the Cornell Railroad Historical Society, a club I belong to. I thought my fellow members would enjoy said book, hence the review for our monthly newsletter. As mentioned below, I doubt non railfans will find the book as compelling, but I quite enjoyed it.

Set Up Running, The Life of a Pennsylvania Railroad Engineman 1904 – 1949, by John W. Orr      Penn State Press, 2001

set up running

Ah, the Golden Age of Steam. Luxurious named trains like the 20th Century Limited conveying the rich and famous between cathedral-like stations with speed and comfort.  Oscar Orr was a steam engineer during that time. However, the closest he came to the above picture was when a passenger train thundered by as he sat idling on a siding with a load of coal cars behind him. But it is precisely his seemingly more mundane experience that makes “Set Up Running” such an interesting book to me.

The book details the life of “O.P.”,  as he was known, as told by his son John.  O. P. worked on the Pennsylvania Railroad from 1904 until 1949. He primarily drove slow freight trains on the Williamsport division. Most of the book consists of John retelling tales of the road that he heard from his father.  Since John wasn’t actually there, he either has a terrific memory of what O.P. told him or is just good at seamlessly filling in all the small details. Be that as it may, he paints a credible portrait of life on the Pennsy. Maybe it all didn’t happen exactly that way, but it sure seems like it could have.

I enjoyed this insider’s look at an oft-neglected aspect of a bygone era. You get a real feel for the daily life a freight train steam engineer. It’s probably too detailed for the non-railfan reader, but then again, such a reader probably wouldn’t pick up the book in the first place. And even casual railfans, like me, will be puzzled at times. (What, again, does a Johnson Rod do?)

It’s easy to romanticize the age of steam, but it was a tough, hard job running a train, especially when you’re pulling heavy loads up tough grades with less than cutting-edge equipment.  The hours were long, the conditions harsh, but O.P. took pride in his skill as an engineer.  We often hear about how he successfully dealt with various weather or scheduling or equipment problems.

This is the real nitty-gritty world of steam power. Since O.P. mostly worked either freight trains or in the yards, the engines he drove were a bit past prime.  The newest and best were reserved for passenger and fast freight trains. Occasionally, though, he was called upon to test drive a new or improved engine, a job he much enjoyed.

Even for aficionados the book can drag in places – do we really need a mile by mile report again and again about the struggle up hills between Williamsport and Elmira? Or details about the schedule of trains he took to get back home?

Probably not, but then again, it does paint a very detailed and vivid picture of the life he led. After reading this book I feel I have a much better understanding and appreciation for what it was like to be a freight train steam engineer in the first half of the 20th Century.

In summary, if your idea of a great vacation destination is Scranton P.A (Steamtown!) you will probably enjoy this book.

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Valued Customer

I just opened a letter from my current propane provider. I won’t mention the name, but let’s call them Club Bourbon, which sounds more like a cigar bar, but so be it. The envelope had touted that since I was a “valued customer” I would automatically receive the benefits of their “Bronze Service Plan.” We’ve been thinking of switching propane providers, so haven’t re-upped on the yearly contract. I assumed this was an enticement to stay on, a special benefit. After all, we’ve spent thousands of dollars with them over the last five years. Then again this was coming from a company whose main claim to fame seems to be over-market pricing to the unwary.

Curious but dubious, I opened the envelope. Because we’re a “Valued Customer” they are committed to our safety and satisfaction, peace of mind, blah blah blah. The bulleted bold items proclaimed they would provide “Professional installation, replacement, maintenance, checkups and repair service” and “24/7/365 emergency service.” So far, so good.

We’d had a heating and plumbing service plan before with Halco, and it was a pretty good deal for what it cost, though quality of service varied with the tech they sent. (Ask for Tom.) But we dropped the plan when we bought a new boiler, since it was under warranty.

So what exactly, as in the fine print, was Club Bourbon now offering us “valued customers”?

Well, under “plan benefits,” I found that it makes us “eligible to purchase” installation, repair or maintenance services at the “then current parts and labor rates.”

In other words, I can hire them at the going rate to work on my heating system.

Okay, now I really feel special…

Who thinks up the stuff? And does it work? Do people say, “Hey, I’m sticking with Club Bourbon, because even though they cost more than most any other provider, they’ve enrolled me in their Bronze Service plan, and I can now hire them at their current rate to work on my heating system”? Unlike those other companies that, apparently, won’t come work on your heating system for their current rate?

There’s more than one born every minute, as evidenced by the fact my current supplier is still in business. But that probably sealed the deal for us getting a new propane provider. It’s one thing to insult my wallet, but don’t double down and insult my intelligence.

Sheesh.

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Hello, Operator?

mobile phones“Tom, you have to see this!” my wife said. She was watching a YouTube video about the new mobile phone we’d ordered for her. I looked over and saw someone write the word “flower” on the new phone’s screen.  And then, like magic, a drawing of a flower appeared. My wife beamed. “Isn’t that great,” she said. “Yeah,” I replied, “just what I’ve always wanted – a telephone that can draw flowers.”

The “phone” in question is obviously much more than just a telephone, as is most any “phone” these days. Even the word telephone sounds archaic. In fact, it’s probably more accurate to say her new phone is a tablet computer that you can also use as a telephone, too. (So far, no one has come up with a great word for this hybrid – phablet just doesn’t sound right.) You can watch movies, listen to music, surf the web, or tell it to draw flowers. You can talk to it and it can talk back. And no doubt it can do a whole lot more we don’t even know about yet, but I assume doing the laundry and mowing the lawn are a bit beyond its capabilities.  At least for now… and I almost said too bad it can’t do my taxes – but it probably can.

Back in the day, but not really all that long ago, a telephone was a rather pedestrian appliance. You used it for one purpose only – to talk directly to another human being. High tech was the advent wireless phones. You could walk most anywhere in your house and still talk on the phone! Without dragging around a wire! Maybe, just maybe, even step out to the porch before you lost the signal.

Then came the first “mobile” phones. I justified buying one because at the time I was a real estate agent. I could call a listing from outside their house and ask if I could show the house to a prospective buyer, and imagine their shock and amazement when they asked “when,” and I said “right now!”  (The fact that the seller didn’t appreciate getting only 30 seconds notice was another issue – hey, you wanna sell your house or not?)

That first mobile phone only worked in limited areas, and every call cost a few dollars. The fees could really add up if you were “roaming.” It had a full-sized handset attached to a shoebox sized transmitter. It was “mobile” in the sense that you could take it anywhere you could also take a large, heavy shoebox. The idea that one day you could actually fit a phone in your pocket was still pretty much science fiction.

But of course that day came, as phones got smaller and smaller and smaller. At one point, late nineties perhaps, having a small phone was a source of pride. Slim little flip phones that you could stick in your pants pocket and not look like you were shoplifting something were all the rage.

But they were still just telephones. You could call someone, and they could call you. Well, isn’t that was phones were for?

But then came “texting.” I didn’t really understand why anyone would want to tap out a message on a tiny keypad – “Hi Mom” was press 4 twice, then once, then press something for space, then 6 once, then 6 three times, then 6 once, and god help you if you made a mistake and had to redo a letter.  It was so much faster to just call. Not to mention isn’t that what phones are for, talking to someone?

Ah, my age is showing…

You all know what came next. Phones that doubled as music players. Phones that could do email. Phones that could surf the web. Phones that let you watch movies, for crying out loud.

I sure don’t get that last one. I thought the ideal was to get the biggest dang television you can, with a surround sound system, so you get the most movie theater-like experience. And yet people are excited to watch a movie on a tiny two or three inch screen?

Well, soon four or five inch, because sure enough, when you want to watch movies or surf the web, a bigger screen is indeed better. So now phones are growing again. Not sure where it will end. Perhaps, like the boom box craze in the eighties, we’ll see a kid walking down the street with what looks like a 60” plasma screen TV perched on his shoulder.  A brilliant picture, great sound, and then… it rings.

Actually, it probably won’t ring, just “ding” that a text has arrived, because this next generation seems way more prone to text than talk. Most of us parents have learned that if you want to reach your kid right away, send them a text.

Talking to another person is such low priority to the younger set that I’m convinced you could advertise a phone that does a great job of sending texts, playing music, surfing the web, sending email, and playing movies, but, oh by the way, doesn’t allow you to talk to someone, and they’d not only buy it, but prefer it.

We’ve come a long way from one ringy dingy, Ernestine…

 

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Great Summertime Sale!

Ah, summertime, and the joy of vacations and extra reading time. To celebrate, I’ve put all my eBooks on Amazon on sale for 99 cents. Not sure how long I’ll run the sale, so just buy them all now so you’re set for some fun summer reading. Enjoy!

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Walk A Mile in My Slippers

Pursuant to the law that says the sun shines when you forgot the sunblock, and it rains when you left your umbrella at home, I left the house today wearing my slippers. They’re not really slippers; they’re just very cheap, slightly oversize ten dollar slip-on shoes I bought at a discount store to use as slippers. Because they’re loose and flexible, they’re fine for padding about the house. I never intended to use them as real shoes – I figured they’d be terrible.

I was right.

On most any other work day of the year it would have been no big deal.  I park behind my office building and then sit at a desk all day. Heck, the slippers would actually be more comfortable than shoes in the office.

But today, of course, was different.  I had to drop my car off at Hunt’s Garage for an inspection and oil change, and thus had to walk a mile to work. (Actually, 1.1 miles according to Google Maps, but what’s a tenth amongst friends). I noticed the inappropriate footwear as I exited the car at Hunt’s. “Shoot” was not the word I uttered.

What could have been a pleasant amble turned into a torturous trundle. These shoes were NOT made for walking. They lived up to my billing as slippers, as they kept trying to slip off my feet. By the time I got to work my feet and legs ached.

It did make me realize and appreciate how fortunate I am to normally wear comfortable, supportive shoes. No doubt millions of people would have seen nothing wrong with my cheap shoes, indeed might treasure them, if the alternative was barefoot. So I won’t complain too loudly, but I will point out what a distracted dufus I can be while trying to get out the door in the morning. On various occasions I’ve forgotten to shave, forgotten my wallet, my lunch, my cell phone, and bill payments that absolutely had to mailed that day.

Actually, I’ll blame the last item, as the night before my wife had set out for me three envelopes that “absolutely have to be mailed.” So as I got ready to leave I kept checking that I had them with me.  And I did, but forgot my shoes.

Could have been worse. I’ve yet to show up for work in my pajama bottoms. The key word there is “yet”…

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