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.


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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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The Great Ithaca Write-In


On the 25th anniversary of the Great Ithaca Write-In, people were invited to once again write thoughts about my hometown of Ithaca, NY.  Here is my entry:



One Day In Ithaca, May 17, 2013

Like it or not, I am an Ithacan.

I was born here 57 years ago in the old hospital on Valentine Place. The converted hospital now houses college students. That is fitting. Hospitals are about life and death, and Ithaca’s health is dependent on students.  Ithaca inhales students in the fall, resulting in increased traffic, high rent prices, sales tax revenue, and jobs. It exhales them in May, giving townies a chance to find parking, tables without reservations, and a bit more room in the produce aisles at Wegman’s.

Cornell University sits like a contented fat cat on East Hill, well aware that as the county’s biggest employer, it calls all the shots. It owns a ton of tax-exempt land in Tompkins County, thus shifting the tax burden to everyone else. Oh, it gives a token sum to the County in appreciation for things like fire protection, care of roads, etc., but Ithacans still pay one of the highest tax rates in the nation.

Cornell does indeed provide jobs. However, world-class Professors don’t come cheap, so it’s suppressed wages for most everyone else. It’s easy to claim you pay the prevailing wage when you actually set it.

Cornell brings culture to Ithaca. Music, lectures, sports, theater… Of course any event worth attending probably means you have to pick up tickets (if the students haven’t claimed them all) at an on-Campus location with no parking during normal work hours, but hey, they offered. Kind of…

And let’s not forget the number two educational institution on South Hill, my alma mater, Ithaca College. (Motto – We’re Number Two, So We Party Harder!) It may not be as large, or as prestigious, but that doesn’t mean they can’t charge more to attend. But its smaller size works in the townie’s favor – you can actually attend cultural events fairly easily at IC. And my wife and I do.

The Cornell/IC dominance is a mixed blessing. Ithaca would be yet another boring, cultural-deprived, dying upstate town without the recession-proof education industry here. Hey, low paying jobs in a high tax, high rent town are better than no jobs in a low tax, low rent town. Other upstate cities have been devastated when the manufacturing base shifted south and overseas. Ithaca also lost most of its old-school manufacturing (Morse Chain, National Cash Register, Ithaca Gun.), but close proximity to Cornell has helped spur a growth in small high tech firms (Advion, Kionix, etc.)

But what else is Ithaca besides college students and the lackeys that support their educational endeavors? Well, it’s the home of the last of the free-range hippies. We have a world famous vegetarian restaurant (Moosewood), a thriving Farmer’s Market, lots of yoga classes, we’re gay-bi-tri-trans and things-you-never-heard-of friendly. We have a huge annual book sale to support our public library. We have fun summer festivals where a wide range of artists and musicians perform. (And by wide range, I mean the talent level…) Many wineries are a short designated-driver ride away.

People here are passionate about their pet cause. They have an opinion and you deserve to hear it! Unlike most surrounding counties, Democrats outnumber Republicans, so mostly what you hear about reflects liberal ideology.  We’re way more Maddow than Limbaugh. I suppose there’s a welcoming place in the world for right-wing-nut, gun-toting anti-government whack jobs, but it ain’t Ithaca. Not that a few such folk aren’t here; they’re just vastly outnumbered. However, if you’re a left-wing, anti-gun, anti-drone, anti-government whack job, well, there’s a street corner reserved for you.

So in general we’re over-educated, over-taxed and underemployed. Me? What did I do with my BS in Cinema, ‘78?  Well, I’ve worked for Cornell at various times, showing films to ILR students or editing bird song tapes for researchers. Other jobs in Ithaca involved selling real estate, playing in rock bands and running sound companies.  My present employment is with the County government, insuring our election process goes off without a hitch. It’s admirable, important, civic-minded work. It’s also rather tedious and not much of a challenge after ten years. So I write in my spare time, mostly humorous pieces, because I figure there’s enough tragedy in the world – just watch the news – so I’ll try to bring some laughter.

And Ithaca is cold. We have long, drawn out depressing winters, and more grey cloud days than anywhere east of Seattle. Sunshine is rare, thus appreciated.

There is great natural beauty here. Majestic waterfalls and gorges. Hiking trails through lush State forests. Autumn, with hillsides painted in Technicolor reflecting off a deep blue lake, will take your breath away.

And Ithaca is family. My parents were born here, and a lot of my extended family still resides here. That counts for a lot, and partly explains Ithaca’s magnetic pull on me.

I like that I really know this place, that I have serious history. I can remember downtown before The Commons, Triphammer Road before the Mall. I’ve visited the public Library at three different locations. I’ve seen neighborhoods cycle from families to elderly to students and back to families again. Fifty years of physical environment changes are available for recall in my mind. (Though I can’t remember where I left the cars keys, but that’s another story…)

I didn’t have any choice, I was born here. But the few times I’ve ventured away there was always a reason to return. A lot of the rest of the USA holds little appeal to me. You can keep your crowded big cites, or your desolate flat plains, your arid desserts or any place even colder than here. I once drove across the US, and couldn’t imagine living anywhere along the way until I reached Seattle. Rolling green hills, lots of trees and water – sound familiar?

Even now I try to plot an escape, based on needs Ithaca can’t fulfill, like a good job and warm weather. But so much of my life, my soul, my being has been crafted here.  I’ll always remain an Ithacan at heart. It’s too late for anything else.

Like it or not, I am an Ithacan. I mostly like it.

Tom M. Paolangeli




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Physicists Find Higgs Boson and Missing Socks

Maytag Repairman

Jesse White

Scientists in Geneva, Switzerland, report that they have finally found the elusive subatomic particle called a Higgs boson.  Sometimes called the “God Particle,” it was first predicted in 1964, and scientists have been looking for it ever since.

Dr. Jesse White, a physicist at CERN, is credited with designing the experiment that led to the discovery. “The idea came to me when I was doing my laundry,” White said.  “I just finished folding everything and noticed a sock was missing.  As usual.  And then it struck me – if we knew where missing socks went, maybe we’d find the missing boson there, too!”

White designed a unique experiment where radioactive tracers were added to the socks of all the scientists at CERN. “Anytime a sock went missing we’d use an incredibly expensive machine with lots of blinking lights and beeping noises to search for it,” he said. “Sometimes the errant sock was found under a bed, or simply stuck to the inside of the washer. That was good for the guy missing a sock, but no help in finding the boson.”

However, years of careful research revealed that socks were slowly coming apart, until they became so fragile that one day they’d literally dissolve in the washer or dryer. “We finally did a really close examination of the lint filter,” White said, “and sure enough, that’s where the Higgs boson was hiding!”

“It makes sense when you think about it,” he said. “Most people, scientists included, just aren’t that careful about cleaning the lint filter. Oh, they think they get most of it, but if you look at it under a microscope, you’ll see lots of teeny, tiny particles stuck there. Most of the material is from socks. But look close enough, and you’re likely to find one of those particles is a Higgs boson.”

Although it won’t be official until peer review, it is expected that the discovery will be confirmed. (A previous discovery claim in 1973 was dismissed when the embarrassed researcher admitted he’d thought everyone had been looking for Higgs’ bosom. The lawsuit brought by Mrs. Higgs was settled out of court.)

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Lawyers, Guns and Kindergarten

Not much new under the sun.

Today’s paper had an article from AP about 5 and 6 year old kids at school  playing with  Hello Kitty bubble guns or using their finger as a gun while playing cops and robbers, and other such pretend gun activities, which led to the children getting into big trouble, even being suspended. Which of course led to parents getting lawyers, etc.

Now, I know, especially post Sandy Hook, school administrators are understandably sensitive about kids imitating guns in a school setting, but I do think a little perspective is called for.  I’m not opposed to discouraging gun play at school, but suspending kindergarteners because of a “zero tolerance” policy seems ridiculous. Zero tolerance for hitting or biting – I could get behind that. But for pointing your finger and going “pow”?Especially because the whole issue of kids and pretend guns isn’t new, or likely to go away, as my column from 12 years ago shows:

Finger Pointing

February 2001

From fried food to Freud, it’s amazing the way one idea leads to another. My musing started after I read one of those easily missed items in the newspaper last week

AP, Jonesboro Ark. “An eight-year-old boy was suspended from school for three days after pointing a breaded chicken finger at a teacher and saying ‘Pow, pow, pow.’ The incident apparently violated the Jonesboro School Districts zero-tolerance policy against weapons.”

Now, despite my sympathy for educators at their wits end trying to ensure our children’s safety in a world that has seen terrible acts of violence in our public schools, I still thought this was a bit of an overreaction. I was immediately reminded of a Buddhist saying, “The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon. One must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon.”

Or in this case, the chicken finger for a gun.

But on further reflection, perhaps I rush to judgment, not knowing all the facts.

Maybe the chicken finger was shaped like a gun, honestly surprising and scaring the teacher. I would have thought the breading would have been a dead give away, but maybe the teacher figured it was an elaborate camouflage, something the eight-year-old cooked up (pardon the pun) to avoid detection so that he could smuggle the gun into school.

And while it’s easy for me to poo-poo this potential poultry pistol, I might feel differently if I was the one staring down the down the greasy muzzle of a loaded chicken finger.

I can’t stop thinking about this.  Would the boy still have been suspended if he just pointed the chicken finger at the teacher, but didn’t say “Pow, pow, pow”?  That doesn’t seem quite as threatening, but zero tolerance is zero tolerance.

Does the school have rules to cover such contingencies? Say three days for pointing a chicken finger and vocalizing,  two days for menacing but not vocalizing, and one day for carrying a concealed chicken finger?

Maybe it’s the “Pow, pow, pow” part. So what if they were having pizza that day? If he pointed a  slice of pepperoni and said “Pow, pow pow,” would the punishment be the same?

And how about some adult responsibility? What ever happened to the Brady law? Did anyone do a background check on the kid before serving him? Did he have a past history of using food in a threatening manner?

Maybe it’s a second amendment issue. When our forefathers gave us the right to bear arms, were they only thinking of muskets, or did they consider briskets?

And the teacher, when she got home from work that day, what did she say to her husband? “George, I don’t know if I can take it anymore. This morning a kid pointed a chicken finger at me. How was I to know it wasn’t loaded?”

The culprit’s mother, Kelli Kissinger, seemed to miss the point entirely. She said, “I think a chicken strip is something insignificant. It’s just a piece of chicken. How could you play like it’s a gun?”

Kelli, dear, don’t be so coy. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed that little boys can and will pretend anything is a gun. A colleague of mine once lamented that he and his wife decided early on that no toy guns were to ever cross their threshold. So instead their four-year old would just pick up a stick in the yard and say “Pow, pow pow.”

I thought this boys and guns thing was common knowledge. If so, then shouldn’t the school district shoulder some of the blame for allowing potential pretend guns to fall into little boys’ hands? At the minimum, a thorough review of their menu is in order. I mean, this was only a chicken finger. Think of what they could do with a hot dog.

I could next reflect on what perhaps is the real issue here.  Just why are little boys so determined to play with guns that they’ll use anything, even something as unlikely as fried cafeteria food? I’m sure a Freudian might see possible phallic overtones to this whole “males and guns” thing, but I’m not going there. All this fried chicken finger talk is making me hungry.  I’m heading out to the Elmira Road, Fast Food Alley.  But to be safe, I’ll just order a nice round burger.

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Pope Tommy

Pope Benedict surprised the world today with the news that he would step down. It was only 8 years ago that he was elected pope, and back then I weighed in with my thoughts on the matter: mainly, the Cardinals should have chosen me! So to remind them of their missed opportunity and give them a chance to get it right this time, here’s a rerun of that column. (References upon request.)

May 2005 

I was really disappointed when I heard Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope. Nothing against him, mind you, but I was really hoping they would elect me.

I knew I was a long shot, but it wasn’t impossible. Technically, any Catholic male in good standing with the church can be elected pope, and I’m Catholic, and male, and as far as my standing, well, truth is I’m really more of a lapsed Catholic. But the way I look at it, that could have worked in my favor. Let’s face it; there are lots of us. What better way to reach out to lapsed Catholics than electing one of them pope?

I figured I had other things going for me too. Like my last name. Say it slowly, and linger over every vowel. Paay ohhh laawwn  jelleeeee. Very Italian name, which would make the Italians happy. And I’m half Irish, so that would make the Irish happy. And of course I’m an American, so that would make Americans happy.

I’d want to be seen as an accessible, down-to-earth, regular-guy type pope, so I’d tell everyone to call me Pope Tommy. If you insist on something more formal, then Tommy the First.

I could so easily look the part. Heck, I even have a good start on a tonsure, the shaved top of the head look favored by medieval monks. Mine is naturally occurring – surely a divine sign?

I know most popes were priests, and I’m not, but I was an altar boy. I’ve been backstage, so to speak. I still know the difference between a cassock and a surplice. And I look good in black.

I’d bring other unique assets to my popehood. Some people feel priests are out of touch with the rest of the human race because of that celibacy thing. Well, believe it or not, I’ve had sex. I’ve even been married, too. Twice, actually. (2013 update: make it three times, and yes, the world is ready for a married pope!)

But if it really matters to the Cardinals, I also know what it’s like to be celibate for months at a time, too. (Not that it was really my choice…)

I think the Mass needs some sprucing up. First, I’d invite members of black Baptist churches to come over and teach us Catholics how to really sing and raise a joyful noise to the Lord. No more mumbling through hymns. And I’d ban folk music Masses. The church has a rich tradition of liturgical music composed by giant talents like Bach that has stood the test of time. Bland, recycled second-rate modern melodies would have no place in my church. And hello, Gregorian chant albums have sold millions of copies, so how about more of that?

I’d have special “Aerobics Masses,” where we’d triple the number of times people stand, sit and kneel. Well, maybe only double would be sufficient for a good workout.

Now I wouldn’t go overboard with the changes. Though I would suggest a better vintage communion wine, (something a bit drier, a nice Merlot perhaps?), it’s not like I’d replace the communion bread and wine with lattes and bagels. (Though maybe that would boost attendance at early morning Masses… hmmm, let me get back to you on that one.)

Mainly I’d want to really modernize the church, bring it into the 21st century. All priests would be issued cell phones. That way the wayward could call in sins as they occur, and receive instant absolution and penance. Or better yet, call in as temptation strikes, so that the priest can help them resist. The best way to deal with sins is to stop them before they happen.

I’d also encourage priests to hear confessions via internet instant messaging. I’d allow acronyms and shorthand, like BMFFIHS for “bless me father for I have sinned” but no smiley or frowny faces. Have to preserve a certain decorum.

Finally, the popemobile would have to go. It’s a very uncool set of wheels. I’m thinking when my Cardinal crew and I blow into town, we’d all ride Harleys. And I’d double dare any Hell’s Angels to get in our way.

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Waiting Room Blues

Hospital waiting rooms are one of life’s little endurance trials. No one looks forward to sitting for hours in uncomfortable chairs surrounded by sick and worried people and old mangled magazines, but one sometimes has no choice.

The other day I knew I’d be spending a few hours in a waiting room, so tried to make the best of it. My salvation of late for times of wait has been my Kindle – a world of reading material of my choice in an easy to carry format. That and a travel mug of mocha and I figured I’d be good for the duration.

At least it was a day surgery waiting room. (Emergency Room wait areas are certainly the worst type to end up in, and I have a few experiences perhaps I’ll convey in a future blog.) The only real down side to the day surgery waiting room was that since it was in the middle of the hospital, there were no windows to gaze out of. That made it a bit claustrophobic, and skewed one’s sense of passing time. Is it still dark out? Is it raining? Will I emerge from this isolation chamber to find I’m in a Twilight Zone episode, the one where the world around me has been destroyed and I’m the last human and then I break my glasses? Well, it could happen.

At 6:45 in the morning there were only a few people present, clustered near the television. I headed to the other side of the room. Just a little peace and quiet and leave me alone, please, no conversations with strangers, heck, I’m barely awake. I lit up the Kindle and pondered my many choices, then selected some funny essays.

After few minutes, I became uncomfortably aware of the annoying cartoon voices and sound effects coming from the television. Despite everyone in the room being over 50, and some well past that, SpongeBob SquarePants was the program of choice.  As far as I could tell, no one was watching. I tried to ignore the soundtrack, but once irritating noises are noticed, it’s hard to pretend they’re not there.

This was ridiculous – no one was watching the TV. Should I go over and turn it down? Would my fellow waiters applaud or would someone tell me to leave it alone? Would I be judged as the cranky old man? The TV was high up on the wall, could I even reach it? Maybe the nurse’s station held the remote, should I ask them to turn it off/down/change the channel? Can’t they see this is a room full of adults and no one is interested in noisy cartoons? Why am I letting this annoy me so much?

After fuming to myself for ten minutes, the TV suddenly changed channels – I didn’t notice how it was done – and CNN replaced old yellow pants. Serious stories of mayhem and death and destruction instead of silly stories of sentient sponges. I guess that was an improvement, though silence would have been my first choice.

My mocha was lukewarm, but I sipped and read on. Funny essays weren’t cutting it, so I switched to a bio of John Lennon. Ah, the luxury of a portable library!

So engrossed was I that I didn’t notice the room filling up. Nature called, and I left my coat on my chair and wandered to the bathroom. When I came back, a woman had planted herself next to MY chair.

The chairs were arranged in sets of three along the wall, and I had, of course, chosen an outside seat. She had plomped down in the middle seat. There were now no other choices but on either side of her, or next to someone else closer to the noisy TV.  How stupid of her, I fumed. Who sits down in the middle seat of a three seat section, especially when you see someone has left their coat on an end seat?

So now I had no choice but to reclaim my seat beside her. She visibly stiffened. Well, I was here first, I left my coat, so if she didn’t want a close neighbor she should have sat on the other end seat.

Thankfully, like me, she wasn’t the type who felt the need to make banal conversation with strangers. We’re in day surgery waiting room; it’s not the maternity ward, so whatever we’re here for is probably not a joyous occasion or something we really need to share. But not everyone felt that way. Apparently there were a lot of colonoscopy patients and their kin present. Nothing like overhearing stories about strangers’ medical history and polyps before breakfast.

I delved back into my Kindle, but noticed my new neighbor seemed a bit on edge. Literally. She had moved from relaxing deep in the chair to perching on the edge, where she fidgeted.  Although she may have been nervous about the reason she was here, I also think she didn’t like a strange and mute man sitting down right next to her. Well, she should have thought about that before claiming the middle seat!

I imagined the dilemma in her mind. It might seem weird for her to just get up and move one seat down, right after I had sat down. Would that imply she found something distasteful about sitting next to me? Believe me, lady, I won’t take offence. We’ll both be more comfortable with a little elbow room. Just get up, pretend you had something to do, then come back and oh-so-nonchalantly sit down in the OTHER chair. Which she eventually did, thank God.  And half an hour later she was gone for good.

Time passed. I lost myself in the early life of John Lennon.  I pushed the Next page button on the Kindle, as I’d done a hundred times that morning, and… nothing. I tried the Back button. Nothing. The Home button. Nada.  Every button on the blasted plastic thing. No change at all. The same page stared back at me, mocking.

Okay, so here’s the downside to a portable electronic library. Unlike a real book, an unforeseen, unpreventable glitch can reduce your library to one frozen page. I couldn’t even turn it off. Great. Out of desperation I held the off button down a lonnng time. Finally it turned off. I turned it back on, and it went through some weird start up sequences I’d never seen before, telling me that this was Tom’s Kindle and I had 0 books. Arrrghhh! But then it thought some more about it, and brought back my library, and reset to the last read page. I gingerly selected Next Page.  Phew. I am saved.

Then a large family, in both senses, came in. They were also the type of family who don’t have public voices – no toning it down, they carried on like this was their living room and we were all just odd furniture. Of course they sat down next to me.

Whatever.  The place was packed, so I could no longer be Mr. Persnickety about where people sat. I tried to ignore their endless loud chatter about kids and relatives and doctors and insurance and television and dinner and colonoscopies.

I silently vowed again that an audio player and noise cancelling headphones would be added to my waiting room supply kit. I tried to ignore their chatter, but what I couldn’t ignore, unfortunately, and there is no delicate way to put it, was the woman’s B.O. Unpleasant is too mild a term, and I won’t attempt a more vivid description.

So now what? I could try the ploy of pretending to go to the bathroom and then go to a different seat when I came back, but the place was now packed, and I might find myself standing or seated next to an even worse seatmate. I did my best to breathe as little as possible.

Salvation arrived shortly, when it was discovered that the only available electrical outlet was behind this woman’s chair, and she wanted to plug in her kid’s game, so she switched seats with him. I braced myself for an electronic symphony of beeps and boops, but praise the Lord, the kid played the game in silent mode. What a great kid!

However, the cord was short, and he struggled with the game, so the woman turned the boy’s chair. That meant he now sat facing my side. Why she didn’t turn him to face towards her, who knows. But the air was breathable, his game was quiet, and life was bearable again.

Until he started kicking my chair.

Not on purpose, of course, just in the way a ten-year-old playing a handheld video game will mindlessly swing his feet back and forth.

My confirming glance and scowl was of course unnoticed, engrossed as he was in his game. Maybe he’ll stop soon. And maybe a coffee cart with lattes and fresh croissants wheeled in by Miss America will suddenly appear, too.

So I had to speak up, but I didn’t want to be the cranky old guy telling off someone else’s kid. I knew I was a bit irrationally irritated, but I’d been here now for hours. So in my best “I’m not a cranky/creepy old guy” voice I said, “Excuse me, please don’t kick my chair.” The kid looked up from his game horrified. I tried to give him a reassuring it’s not that big a deal smile, but I’m sure I looked like the demented evil stranger his parents had warned him about.

He did stop kicking, but obviously I had scared him. The woman who’d placed him there had by now rearranged a few other chairs in her living room –  er, the waiting room – and was sitting with the posse she’d come in with.  The boy went to her, whispered something, and she got up and pulled his chair to their circle.  Apparently he preferred the company of known adults and no game to Nintendo sitting next to some weird scary man who didn’t like seat kickers.

Anyway, the morning wore on, and on, and on, and on. My mocha was cold, my eyes were bleary and my butt was sore.  I won’t even go into how there was all this confusion at the end which extended my stay even longer than needed. Let’s just say if all good things come to he who waits, I am really overdue.

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Virtual Inauguration

Below is a column I wrote 4 years ago about watching Obama’s inauguration. Well, if he can do a rerun, so can I!

A recent newspaper article talked about what to expect if you attend Barack Obama’s inauguration in Washington. A record turnout is expected, the article warned, so viewing conditions for most people will be less than ideal. Be prepared to stand in a densely packed crowd for hours upon hours, many blocks from the main activities. Though it’s unlikely you’ll get close enough to actually see the events firsthand, there will be lots of “JumboTrons,” large outdoor televisions, so you should be able to at least watch what’s going on. Expect long lines for security searches, overcrowded buses, and expensive hotel rooms.

This was not exactly a picture that made me want to start packing my bags. But I am excited about this historic event, and I wondered if there was any way to create the “you are there” experience with less effort and expense. I realized that with a little planning and ingenuity, one could virtually create the same experience, all without leaving Ithaca!

Odds are that if you went to Washington, you’d have to get up early and ride a bus to get close to the action. So on inauguration day get up at 4 a.m. and go for a long bus ride. I realize no one would mistake the scenery of Ithaca for Washington, but it’ll be dark outside in both places, so what’s the difference? And since the buses in Washington will be packed, you should stand for the entire ride.

Next, try to create the right crowd ambiance. Start by inviting about 50 total strangers to your house. You’ll need at least as many people as it takes to pack your living room with people standing shoulder to shoulder. If you can’t find 50 people, no problem. Just plan on jamming everyone in an appropriately-sized smaller room, say a large closet. (You can’t all stand in the bathroom, though, because in the real Washington you won’t have easy access to running, much less flushing water.)

The swearing-in ceremony is at noon, but it’s recommended you get to your viewing position 5 to 7 hours earlier. So tell your guests to arrive no later than 7 a.m.  Subject everyone to a “thorough screening” as they enter your home. The Secret Service web page says among the prohibited items are: “firearms, ammunition, explosives, weapons, aerosols, coolers, thermal or glass containers, backpacks, laser pointers, umbrellas, animals other than helper/guide dogs, structures, and bicycles.”

So if anyone shows up drinking a beer while riding a bicycle towing a structure filled with firearms, don’t let them in. (Actually, that is good advice anytime.)

Guests can bring their cell phones. Since the cell phone companies expect their lines to be overloaded, have your 50 guests yell over and over, “HELLO, HELLO? CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?”

An important part of this simulation is the weather. The typical temperature in Washington in January is in the low to mid-forties, though it could get down to the twenties.  This should be easy to recreate in Ithaca. Simply turn off the heat in your house the night before and open a few windows until the temperature drops to the right range. If it’s raining in Washington that day, attach a lawn sprinkler or two to your ceiling. (Remember, no umbrellas, so dress appropriately.)

Finally, the night before place a small television set high up in the corner of the viewing room. This will simulate a JumboTron as seen from a distance.

And that’s it! If you follow my advice, you will have virtually the same sensory experience as millions of other folk who had to spend a lot more money and travel all the way to Washington: Stuck standing in the cold shoulder to shoulder with total strangers yelling into their cell phones for hours and hours, with limited options for food or beverages, no access to bathrooms, all so you can watch an event on television.

Just don’t forget your Right Guard, and pray the power doesn’t go out.

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