Offers I Can Refuse

Like many well-intentioned bloggers, my posts have become fewer and fewer over time. Life has a way of creating demands that relegate self expression to the “nice but not necessary” category. I have no doubt I’ll pick up the pen again (actually, plop the lap top in my lap) and blog more often – there is an itch there that wants to be scratched – but for now, some combination of too-much-to-do and then too-damned-tired tend to keep the muse at bay.

That said, I still check to see if anyone tried to contact me via the blog, as it would be rude to ignore them. However, a real person with a real comment hasn’t shown up in years.

Oh, I get lots of  “comments” from the blog site, but they all have to do with things like Fake Rolexes!, Calvin Klein Underwear Outlets!, and Canada Goose Jackets!  Pretty easy to just click “Spam” or “Trash.”

But today I paused over the Spam button because there seemed to be a legitimate question. It related to a technical aspect of the blog, concerning page loading speed. “Okay,” I thought, “A geeky question, but I’m a geeky kind of guy, and I could answer that.”

But then I noticed the reply to: Boobs Tumblr.

Okay, if you’re scamming me with social engineering, you might want to rethink that.

Or maybe that was the point? I would see a link to Boobs Tumblr and say “Hey, let’s check that out!”

Um, no. I’m not 15. Or stupid. Well, not THAT stupid, anyway…

But the good news in this sordid tale? It incensed me enough to blog about it! So thank, Boobs Tumblr, whoever and wherever you are.

But please stop commenting on my blog.


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An Open Letter to Oprah

oprahDear Oprah,

What is the deal with television interview shows that use a constantly moving camera? Especially when they have both people in the shot, and the camera keeps moving in a lazy arc back and forth around them? It’s annoying. Stop it. What it is supposed to represent – a restless dog’s eye-view of the conversation?

I don’t know who started this “I can’t sit still for two seconds” style of camera work, but I first noticed it on your otherwise wonderful Super Soul Sunday productions. I highly recommend this antidote to the flotsam and jetsam of most TV programming. Interesting, intelligent people discussing spiritual matters in an easy-to-follow question and answer format. Good for you, Oprah.

But stop with the ADD camera work! I’d at least like the illusion that I’m sitting across from you and Michael Singer, listening to a fascinating conversation. But I can’t sustain that fiction when I’m constantly annoyed by a viewpoint that drifts lazily to the right, then lazily to the left, then lazily to the right. Sit still already!

This roving camera adds nothing to the experience besides annoyance. Yes, we see slightly different angles of you and your guest and the scenery. So what? Who cares? All it does it call attention to the fact that this is a television show. Duh.

On a related note is the jittery camera for close ups. Put it on a tripod, for god’s sake. And stop zoomimg in and out. Again – I know I’m viewing this world through an electronic eye, but the experience would be way more enjoyable if you stopped calling attention to it.

Here’s how to do interview TV. Static two shot of both people, to establish the setting. Close up of a person talking. Close up of a person listening. Mix and match, and you’re done. No pans, tracking shots, or zooms needed. If you want me to feel like I’ve invited two interesting people into my living room, that’s all that’s needed. The second you call attention to camera work, the illusion is shattered. Honestly, Oprah, if you were visiting I would not spend the whole time walking in half-circles around your chair.

Though I first noticed it on your network, I see that these restless camera techniques have also spread to public television. You’d think the producers of quality public programming might be immune to trendy TV techniques, but sadly, no, they have also embraced the fidgety camera. Why? Do they think they will attract a younger demographic with their “hip” camera work? Hello – all you are doing is annoying your regular viewers. No one is going to watch a program because the camera moves around a lot. Or turn the channel because it doesn’t.

I realize I’m tilting at windmills here. You’re not about to read this letter (ever), much less respond, “You know Tom, you’re right. It is extremely annoying to watch a TV show that constantly calls attention to the camera. It distracts and distances the viewer, the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do. Thank you for bringing this to my attention.”

But on the fat chance cold day in H E double L possibility this letter actually got through to you, just one more item. A lot of people now have 40” or bigger High Definition televisions, so could you please back up a bit on the close ups? Giant heads with magnified nostrils and pores also breaks the illusion of sitting in the living room and listening to a fascinating discussion, unless you normally wander over at regular intervals to inspect your guest’s face with a high-powered light and magnifying glass.

Sincerely yours,


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Why I Hate Sherry Brown

I’ve never met Sherry Brown. I have no idea what she looks like, how old she is, or what she does for a living, but I hate her.

I do know she has at least one daughter, who liked to skip school 8 years ago. I know this because I kept getting automated messages on my cell phone from the high school telling me Tiffany was absent without an excuse. My only child, a son, who is not named Tiffany, had graduated a few years before, so I called the high school to tell them there must be a mistake. They asked me for my phone number, and said they had it registered to Sherry Brown. I explained I had no idea who Sherry Brown was, but I had gotten a new cell phone a few months earlier, and perhaps Ms. Brown previously had that same number. They said they’d take care of it.

But I kept getting automated calls telling me Tiffany was absent. I’d call the school and they’d say they were sorry, it was an automated system, but they would take care of it. After a few more times someone finally admitted that no one in the office knew how to change the program to stop the calls or change the number.

So it seemed I had three choices – one, ignore the voicemails, two, get a different phone number, or three, get Tiffany to stop skipping school.  I was reluctant to get a different number because I had been using it a while and had given it out to everyone as my new number, and besides, a different number might mean a different set of problems. So I chose to ignore the messages, and eventually Tiffany either graduated or dropped out, because the messages stopped.

Well, the messages stopped from the high school.  But various Dentists and Doctors also left automated messages keeping me informed of Sherry and Tiffany’s appointments. I figured it was important that Sherry and Tiffany not miss their appointments, so I’d call the doctor’s office back and tell them I wasn’t Sherry Brown, and I didn’t know how to contact her, and please remove this number from their system.

Ms. Brown and Tiffany must have shown up for their appointments, but apparently weren’t too keen to actually pay for those visits, as I soon started receiving calls letting me know my balance was past due.

Then Sherry moved. Skipped town was probably a more apt way to put it. I started getting calls from from Virginia, Florida, Texas and other places, mostly about unpaid utility bills and charge cards.  Sherry was on the move, leaving a trail of bad checks behind her. Eventually those bills were turned over to collection agencies, and then the fun really began

Now the calls were nasty and threatened dire consequences if I didn’t call back and resolve this matter at once. Occasionally I’d call to tell them I am not Sherry Brown, and I’d get grilled about did I know her, or how to contact her, and why did I have her phone number? Often the person on the other end of the line would just hang up on me as I asked for them to remove my number from her file.

Eventually I started getting calls from attorneys. Lawsuits were being filed. I pleaded with one to take my number off the case, and she said she couldn’t do that, as it was part of the official documents. I was dumbfounded. “I just told you the information you have is wrong, but you can’t correct it?”  Apparently not.

So eight years and counting, the calls continue. Most any phone number I don’t recognize is likely some lawyer or bill collector looking for Sherry. Though it’s proven to be a waste of time, I occasionally call back in the vain hope that someone, somewhere, will stop linking my phone number to Ms. Brown.

But it’s unlikely. Papers are shuffled and boxes are checked, “Left message for Brown re court date,” and nobody really cares if Sherry actually got the message. Pass the file to the next set of bill collectors or lawyers. And soon my phone rings – “This is a message for… Sherry…Brown… Please contact our office about an important matter immediately. Your case number is blah blah blah blah blah…”

You know, I don’t really hate Sherry Brown. Yeah, she leaves a trail of unpaid bills behind her wherever she goes, but it’s not like she set out to aggravate me. I’m actually more upset with those tasked to track her down, the incompetent and uncaring people and who just keep passing along bad information, who can’t be bothered to remove a wrong phone number from a file.

So if you ever have any dealings with Sherry Brown, let her know I don’t really hate her, or even bear her any ill-will.

But make sure she pays cash.

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Money for SomEthing


The Supreme Court decisions in the McCutcheon vs. the Federal Election Commission and other cases like Citizens United left little doubt that the trend is towards less restrictions on political contributions. And whether or not you think that’s wise, it does represent a unique, historic opportunity.

People opposed to unlimited campaign contributions say that money will unduly influence the outcome of elections. They think that’s a bad thing. The people supporting unlimited spending think it’s a good thing. Well, they don’t usually come right out and say that, but you don’t support unlimited spending because deep in your heart you believe it doesn’t make a difference.

But as I said, the trend is clear: like it or not, tons of money will continue to be shoveled into political campaigns.  So now what?

How about a complete rethink about the whole election process? And what if the new way forward, as a by-product, would also simplify elections and reduce taxes?

The way things work now, on one side you have candidates and the people with money that back them. On the other side, you have their goal: the office they want to win. In the middle, you have the voters. How about we just streamline the whole process and got rid of the most unpredictable element in this equation – the voters?

Sure, there might be a bit of sour grapes from the voters, but they still have their constitutional right, as always, to try and influence an election by giving money to the candidate of their choice.

Here’s how it would work: The government would simply post the soon to be available “elected” offices, much as they would any other job position. Then, on “election day,” there would be an online auction.  No sense reinventing the wheel here, just use the fortuitously named “e-Bay.”  The office goes to the highest bidder. What could be easier?

And – here’s the bonus – the money from the auction would go directly to the government, which could lower taxes. Talk about win-win-win!

Some parts of the process wouldn’t change much. Candidates would still have to find backers and raise money, but instead of spending on ads and robo calls and setting up PACS, the money would go directly back to the taxpayers at auction time.

It’s still a very democratic process. If you believe in a candidate, vote with your pocketbook. Put your money where your mouth is. Put up or shut up. If you’re not willing to mortgage your house and max out your credit card to support your candidate, then don’t complain if he or she doesn’t get elected. You obviously didn’t care enough, so quit your bitchin’.

If you think about it, it doesn’t change things all that much. It’s still our time honored tradition of pay to play; it’s just much more honest, obvious and easier now.

One last thing to consider: with the antiquated system we now have, occasionally a candidate who spends less than their opponent still manages to get elected. Here’s a chance to put end to that blatantly unfair scenario once and for all. We, the people, deserve to have the best damn government money can buy!

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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.


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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