I Need That Thing!

Yan Krukau, via pexels.com.

Carol: “Is this the Computer Robotics and Automation Programmingdepartment?”

Mike: “Yes, this is CRAP.”

Carol: “Oh good! I need a thing!”

Mike: “Um, can you be more specific, what kind of thing do you need?”

Carol: “Oh yes, it’s that thing that Alice has over in the Business Underwriting and Resource Planning division.

Mike: “I’m very familiar with BURP, but can you tell me what thing you’re talking about?”

Carol: “Oh yes, it’s a very great thing. And we in the Business Accounting and Resource Focus division have the very same issues they have in BURP, so we need the same thing.”

Mike: “Right. But BURP has a lot of things. What is the thing you are referring to?”

Carol: “Alice, over in BURP, can tell you. She said it fixed everything. I need everything fixed, too. Once my management hears that Alice fixed everything with the thing, they’ll ask me why BARF doesn’t have it, too!”

Mike: “Okay, we’ll set up a meeting with Alice and see if we can get to the bottom of this. In the meantime, I’ll need you to complete the online intake form.”

Carol: “There’s really no need for that. This must get this done, and fast. I am leaving the country for three years tomorrow, so there’s no time to complete the form.”

Mike: “Well, in CRAP, we prioritize requests based on the Level of Effort or LOE and the Return on Investment, or ROI. We need to know those things before we can proceed.”

Carol: “I can tell you this has all the ROI and no LOE. This just needs be done immediately. I can go to the CEO if you need me to, but I’m leaving the country in a few minutes so there’s no time. You just get the thing and let my assistant, Greg, know when it’s done.”

Mike: “That’s not the way it works. We have hundreds of requests and projects underway. Unless you’ll be funding it yourself, from your own budget, we need the intake done and then we’ll evaluate your request against all the others.”

Carol: “I have all the money, so yes, it will come from my budget. Greg will give you the money. I have all the money. Money is no object. This must get done immediately. It is the HIGHEST priority for the company — even the CEO doesn’t know about it.”

Mike: “Well, if you’ll be funding it, then I will assign a project manager, a business analyst, a robotics developer, an automation developer and a legal representative to get started.”

Carol: “That’s great news. You talk with Alice and Greg. It would be great if all of BARF could have the thing tomorrow. Bye for now.”

Mike: “Hi, Marcia. We’ve got a TOP PRIORITY request from BARF. I need you to set up a meeting with Alice from BURP. She has a thing that Carol wants in BARF.”

Marcia: “Sure thing, Mike. What is the thing?”

Mike: “Alice will tell you everything. Greg, in BARF, also knows the full story. This is your TOP PRIORITY. Assemble a full project team immediately. Carol is funding this and it has the CEO’s attention.

Marcia: “Hi, Chachi, this is Marcia in BURP. Are you familiar with the thing they have over in BARF?”

Chachi: “What thing, there are many things?”

Marcia: “Oh, right, the thing that fixed everything. We need to replicate that thing for BARF. This is the board’s top priority – you’re authorized to drop everything to help with this initiative.”

Chachi: “I’m not familiar with the thing. Do you know who wrote it?”

Marcia: “I don’t think anyone wrote it, it just works. Let’s set up a meeting with Alice – she is in the loop.”

Marcia: “Hi, Alice. Thank you so much for hopping on this call last-minute. We need the thing for Carol in BURP.”

Alice: “Marcia, which thing are you referring to?”

Marcia: “The one that has all of the ROI and fixes everything.”

Alice: “Oh, right. Yes, we stopped using the thing in 2018 because it didn’t work. It was very expensive and broke everything. The Objective Obtainment Program Section, OOPS, was disbanded as a result. The thing is bad.”

Marcia: “Hello, Carol. We’ve determined that the thing is no good.”

Carol: “Oh, yes, totally bad. Not quite sure why you’re looking at the Thing in the first place. Probably not a good use of your time. You may want to re-evaluate your CRAP priorities.”

A bite to eat

My maternal grandma wasn’t a great cook.

Grandma often would beckon guests, whether it be a Saturday afternoon lunch, a Christmas dinner or everyday breakfast with: “Come get a bite to eat.” It didn’t matter how large or small, simple or complex the meal, it was “a bite to eat.”  I never saw folks running to her table, though. A solid saunter was about all most could muster.

I’m sure I’ve just committed some type of familial blasphemy. Surely the concept of grandma as a mediocre cook violates some law of nature. You have gravity, the sun rising in the East and grandmas being highly accomplished in the kitchen. Alas, grandma didn’t let anyone starve, but she did not fit the mold of one who turned every raw ingredient into a memorable crave-worthy dish.

My dad dreaded ever having to go to my grandparent’s house to eat. We would cruelly joke while driving to their house for a meal that we would eat as little as possible to be polite and then we’d hit McDonalds on the way home. We never carried through with that plan, but without question, we knew dad was going to be sick after eating grandma’s cooking.

My grandparents were simple country folks. They started their lives together as dairy farmers, but when the farm failed in the late 1950s, they switched to factory and clerical work. Their kitchen was far from clean and almost no sanitary procedures were employed.

A bounty of great vegetables was harvested from their acres of gardens but were compromised by being prepared in unclean conditions, fried in pools of butter that had been lounging, uncovered, hosting flies for months on end. Or cooked with bacon drippings and other animal fats that had been collected over the course of years.

The house and outbuildings of the family farm.

They kept the farmland and during my lifetime the acreage had become hundreds of acres of natural forest. Only two family friends were allowed to hunt on the land and grandpa had one rule for those friends: if you harvest a deer, we want some venison — whatever you think is fair. As a result, the many chest freezers that crowded their breezeway were packed tight with freezer-burned chunks of animal parts. The gamey meat would be butchered in the kitchen, on top of piles of hoarded bread bags and Sunday flyers from the newspaper. It would be served up with floury, fatty, scorched gravy. It was an experience for all the senses.

The farmhouse.

There were a few winners that slipped through grandma’s kitchen, however. One was what she called chili sauce. I’ve had many chili sauces, and nothing has been a corollary to hers. Grandma’s was rich in tomatoes, not spicy, not sweet, had onions and green bell peppers in it — diced very fine. As with most cooks and an appreciated recipe, she was coy about how the sauce was prepared. Deceptive and evil, even.

One of my cousins in fact was beside herself thrilled when she thought grandma had spilled the beans on that sauce. She soon learned that, when followed, the recipe yielded something more akin to brake fluid than our beloved chili sauce.

Grandma at her rickety kitchen work table.

One of the simple meals routinely served on the farm was boiled white beans with chili sauce on top. Simple though it was, the big flavors made it a favorite of mine. I never got sick from a meal of beans and chili sauce. I think the tomatoes killed any bugs, crawly or microbial, that may have been present.

For breakfast there often was oatmeal from the “oatmeal pot.” This was a large cast iron dutch oven that hastily would be rinsed between uses but God help anyone who suggested that it actually be cleaned. Breakfasts had been cooked up in that pot since the mid-1930s without it being threatened by soap or a scrubbing pad.

In addition to the aromatics lent by that well-seasoned vessel, grandma would slow-cook the oats with heavy cream, brown sugar, a bit of molasses and raisins. I watched her make it numerous times and I think I make a decent oatmeal, but nothing comes close to my memories. It was just the right consistency (I like my oatmeal on the dry side), chunky and sweet. With some over-buttered toast, it was a great way to get going in the too-early morning hours they kept to. One would have done well to not look inside the pot, however.

Grandma also made a lot of carrot bread. Carrots (and several other crops) grew very well, and they sold them to grocery stores. Her carrot breads were always a little bit burned and tasted more or less okay. But what makes the memory for me is that around the holidays when she’d bake quantities of them, she’d make me my own full-size loaf —without nuts.

The rickety kitchen table — in COLOR!

She usually loaded the loaves up with walnuts. As a kid I despised nuts of all kinds, so grandma made a special loaf just for me, wrapped in a “recycled” bread bag. She’d put a strip of masking tape on the bag and write “For Aaron” on it so there would be no mistake.

Someone’s cooking, and meals with important people in our lives or around special occasions, certainly can be taken up a level by amazing kitchen execution. But it’s the love, warmth, care, togetherness and thoughtfulness that make a shared meal important and worthy of memories.

Grandma’s cooking was always more than just “a bite to eat.”

Those windshield wipers slappin’ out a tempo…

Those windshield wipers slappin’ out a tempo 
Keepin’ perfect rhythm with the song on the radio

Drivin’ My Life Away by Eddie Rabbitt 

Lucas Pezeta, via www.pexels.com.

Lying in the back seat of our Volkswagen Squareback, fading in and out of sleep, I listened to the “wee-wee-wee” of the windshield wiper motor, working to clear the rain. The motor sound was loud in that tinny car. Most were back in the day, before motors perhaps were made quieter and cars got better sound insulation.  

I’ve always liked rainy, stormy weather, and listening to the wiper motor was calming. It seems that whenever we returned from a visit to my grandparents, 90 minutes away, it rained as we headed home late at night. 

Less calming was the staticky noise coming from the AM radio (it would be years before we got a car with FM). Every time we drove under an overpass, the radio would cut out as the signal was interrupted. 

Our Volkswagen Squareback had a distinctive, and loud, wiper motor.

One late night in particular we were once again heading home from my grandparent’s and it was storming. Something was not right with the car and dad had switched off the radio to listen better. I woke and sat up, knowing something was not right. I was too young to know what was going on, but I could sense the concern from my parents and my apprehension grew. 

Finally, the car quit, and we coasted to the shoulder, rain pelting the car, the click, click, click of the hazard flashers going and my parents wondering what to do on that dark, remote stretch of U.S. 131. 

Not long after moving to the shoulder, the sky was lit by the rotating red beacon of a Michigan State Trooper, pulling up behind us. The Trooper came up and talked with dad for a few seconds and then had us all move into his car while he used his radio to get us help. 

Sitting in the back of his patrol car I was met with all kinds of new sounds: the whirring of the spinning red light on top of his car, his own wipers fighting off the rain and the cackling of his two-way radio while he made arrangements for a tow truck and a cab to come from Kalamazoo. 

I also remember being cold in the back seat and the Trooper cranking the fan to get more heat. 

I fell asleep again in the big Checker cab that drove us home that night – a cavernous beast compared to that tiny VW! 

I’ve always been interested in switches and knobs and similar controls. Today we have very complicated stalks on our steering columns that control very sophisticated wiper systems. We have multiple speeds, intermittent swipes, rain-sensing activation – all at the tip of our fingers. I think it’s a good system, but I also miss the dash-mounted controls of earlier autos that required a long reach into the dark abyss to work them. 

The windshield wiper and washer control on late-70s era Chevrolet trucks.

The first vehicle I can call “mine” was a 1977 Chevrolet Blazer. It had a novel windshield wiper control that I just loved to fiddle with. It was comprised of a single vertical bar: push in for washer fluid, slide left for slow swipes, right for fast ones. As an early driver I often would apply the squirts just so I could run the wipers.  

I’ve always been easily amused. 

My first solo drive was from our home on the outskirts of the tiny village of Gobles, Michigan to the new McDonalds in neighboring Paw Paw. A friend of mine, Susan, had just gotten a job there, and I needed her to hook me up with a Quarter Pounder With Cheese to celebrate my new driver’s license! 

I remember two things about my first solo drive. One, when I got to the four-way-stop at Armstrong Corners, with nobody around, I floored it – the first time I was able to burn a little rubber and feel super cool.  

That was quickly followed by a sense of terror in the pit of my stomach as I realized I left a small puff of smoke in the air and was a little scared to be going so fast! 

The second thing, after my burnout, was playing with the wipers! Not the radio (which had FM!), not the other knobs, not weaving side-to-side, not going fast. No, the wipers. I squirted fluid on the windshield and ran the wipers. There was no rain. The glass was perfectly clean. But I wanted to feel that switch in my fingers and hear the comforting sound of MY wipers wee-wee-weeing across the glass. 

These days windshield wipers are far less entertaining. They are almost silent. The noise we hear is from the rubber scraping, sliding, skidding across glass. It’s certainly not the calming rhythm that can lull a small boy to sleep in the back seat, with a belly full of grandma’s cooking. 

I am not a crook!

(The following true tale may include hyperbole and drama not contained in the actual events).

I was a difficult convert to the cult of Costco. I resisted for years. It wasn’t until a good friend of mine, I’ll call him Mark, gave me a gift membership, that I embraced the goodness that is Costco.

Once I actually shopped there, and had a few samples and of course a hot dog, I was a convert.

As a good Costco member, I have oft-questioned the receipt-examination procedure one must go through to exit the facility with one’s 300-pack of AAA batteries and lifetime supply of Nutella (there’s no such thing, by the way). But I’ve questioned lightly, not wishing to anger the Costco gods. But really – what is the point?

For years I have successfully exited Costco facilities in various states without a fuss. Routinely I exchange a friendly salutation and a weather-related comment with the Sharpie-wielding clerk and am on my way to the parking lot to begin the “Where did I park…?” seek-and-find adventure.

My most recent visit was this past Sunday. It had been many months since my last trip to worship at the house of Costco and I felt rusty. It took me several harried moments to remember that I had to flash my Costco Membership Card to gain entry to the hallowed grounds. The embarassment! I felt like a lowly newbie.

Every trip to Costco is a social experiment about to go off the rails. This trip was no different. The entire state of North Carolina and a large part of nearby Virginia were shopping. It was packed wall to rafter with humans of all descriptions.

We had our list and proceeded to work it. It wasn’t a long list, but it contained some items that we prefer to get at Costco. There of course is the thirty-dollar bag of chicken breasts, plump and in their own little freezer-friendly cocoons. Then the mixed nuts with sea salt, a happenstance purchase of a bottle of red wine from Portugal, a couple of bags of snack items to test and finally allergy and indigestion pills.

As I’ve already hinted, the joint was hoppin’! The pharmacy area was the last we visited which is near the checkout lanes. An examination revealed that the lines went all the way back into the store, to the camping tents, grills and tofu samples.

There were many lines.

Many lines of carts overflowing with goodness.

Many lines that were not moving.

A mass of humanity that looked weary, tired and close to tears.

But then I noticed the new self-checkout lanes – and they had essentially no lines! Perhaps I was saved!

In general, I avoid the self-checkout option. While I fully admit my lack of skill may be at fault for these machines routinely failing to scan my goods, it nonetheless makes me self-scan averse.

And let’s not forget the $4 bottle of red juice from Portugal – that would throw a wrench into the do-it-yourself works.

However, I bravely filed a change of flight plan and started the tedious process of redirecting my cart through rivers of folks: tall, short, wide and narrow, clued and clueless, so that I could align with one of the self-check lanes.

Once I was queued, the air was filled with various Costco clerks singing out: “Scan your membership card first! Scan your membership card FIRST!”

I was ahead of them! I assumed that’s how the process would begin, and I was ready! I had my card in hand and was poised to scan.

That’s when the confusion started. This machine beeped and talked a lot. It’s as if it had spent a year in solitary confinement and was finally released into the world and had things to say. My, did it have things to say!

“Scan your first item. Item in bagging area. BEEP! Lift your right foot, step behind the line, take off your hat. BEEP!”

I scanned my first item.


“Place item in the bagging area. Beep! Did you know Costco has great prices on tires?”


I scanned the next item.


But I saw no item recognized on the screen. Do I scan again and risk a duplicate? I waited. I sensed anger building from others waiting for my machine. I tried to read messages on the screen, which was cluttered with ads, instructions, unnecessarily truncated text and issued forth beeps of different pitches and volumes.

I scanned my fowl breasts once again. This time the “Beep!” was followed by proof that my item had been scanned.

“Put your item in the bagging area and be sure to visit our commissary for some cooling frozen yogurt!”

I scanned some more and again was berated for not putting my item in the bagging area fast enough. We sort of learned that we had to place the item and let it rest before adding it to our bag (yes, THIS time, we remembered to bring our own bag!).

As you are a wise reader, you know the wine was next.


“Beep, beep, beep! Age-restricted item in self-checkout lane four! Beep! Beep! Adult Beverage Violation Code Four!”

Lights now appeared on a pole attached to the whining machine. Fortunately, a Costco clerk was not long in coming and overriding the message (she didn’t even ask for my I.D. – rude!).

As I said, our list was short, just eight items (remember that number – it will become ever so important).

While preparing my payment card for action, a Costco clerk stopped in to say that “These machines require that you place all items in the bagging area and leave them there until all items are scanned and you touch the ‘Pay Now’ button.”

Well, okay. We were done at that point…but I quickly had the question about when someone has more than will fit in the “Bagging Area.” I wanted to ask – to further my knowledge for future Costco escapades, but the herd of people on my six was growing ever less patient.

As that day’s luck would have it, the touchless method of card payment failed me. I waved, I tapped, I parried my card – it would not be read. I resorted to the barbaric, ancient method of inserting my card into the reader.

Thousands looked on, basking in my embarrassment.

But the worse was to come!

Our transaction complete, we pedaled our way toward the exit, which had two Costco Receipt Evaluation And Sharpie Engineers on duty.

Being left-handed, I stuck to the left lane.

“Good afternoon, did you find everything you were looking for?” Gwendolyn queried.

“Yes, we did. Looks like rain. We could use it.” I answered.

Gwendolyn, swiping her Sharpie across my receipt, said “Have a nice day.”

But before I could take one step, “Hold on, you have eight items in that bag, not six.” Gwendolyn stated.

In a tone.

She must be confused, of course she is. Everything’s stuffed in the bag, she can’t see everything, she’ll paw through the bag and let us go.

But no – her highly-trained eagle-eyes did in fact correctly spot a discrepancy. You see, our receipt indicated SIX items paid for and she pulled EIGHT items from our bag.

“Step aside, step aside, right here. I’ll have to get a supervisor to evaluate your issue.” Gwendolyn said in not a quiet voice, which no longer seemed to care if we’d found everything we wanted.

She continued to get on the public address system to announce “I need a Front Line Supervisor to the Receipt Check Area for an incorrect item count investigation. Security, please secure the exits.”

I had that sick feeling in my stomach. My legs went weak. AAA still has free bail coverage with their road service, plan, right?

Everyone entering and those trying to exit stared at us.

“I AM NOT A CROOK! No, seriously! Yes, Nixon was a little bit dodgy, but I AM NOT A CROOK!”

After many minutes in the purgatory that was the “aside” area, the Front Line Supervisor arrived.

She took the receipt from my hand and started removing items from our bag.

“Oh, I see you didn’t want to pay for the Prilosec and Allegra – the most expensive items in your cart today. You do realize that you must pay for EVERYTHING, not just some things, right? This isn’t your pantry – this is Costco!”

Her hands on hips and her head set to a jaunty angle, I lamely tried to defend myself.

“I’m sorry, I was sure I scanned everything. I must have missed them.”

“It sure looks that way, doesn’t it?” Samantha the Supervisor declared.

“Give me your membership card and a credit card – I will extract your payment for these items.” Samantha ordered.

I meekly handed her my cards and she disappeared.

Was she going to shred my membership card? Would I be banned?

Were those sirens the sheriff or an ambulance?

Samantha returned with my cards and yet another receipt for the two items from my ATTEMPTED ROBBERY.

“Be more careful in the future. Make sure each item is reflected on-screen before going on to the next one. We’re watching. You won’t get away with this.” Samantha advised.

“Is it okay for us to go now?” I asked, still trembling.

Samantha: “Yes, though it looks like rain.”

But then Gwendolyn returned to the scene: “Samantha, don’t forget to Sharpie the secondary receipt to close the investigative loop!”

“Oh, yes, thanks Gwen.”

Samantha grabbed back the receipts soaking up the sweat in my palm and squiggled black ink around.

“Thank you for shopping at Costco. We sure could use the rain.”

Give me my words!

The Kindle Adventure – A Preamble

Historically, because he’s both a curmudgeon and lover of the printed word, Uncle Aaron has read his books the way J. Gutenberg intended: printed on paper.

Being somewhat of a techie, the electronic versions of books were also appealing. For some time, he lived with toes in both streams.

At long last some years ago he purged all printed matter save that which had some emotional import. At that time, the reading of words in book form switched to the world of the Kindle. Now mind you, with many devices already in inventory, he didn’t want to add yet another, so the Kindle application was used on tablet and mobile phone. Occasionally the Kindle web reader was called to service when required.

It was a good life. The birds sang. The flowers grew. The band was together and making beautiful music.

But as does happen in life, things change. And our hero took to a different point of view. Lying in bed to read from the Kindle app running on his tablet fatigued his portly arm sticks. Reports from his word-inclined associates raved about the improved experience to be found by reading on a true Kindle device.

Uncle wasn’t sure if he’d like or use a dedicated Kindle device, so he didn’t want to spend much money to give it a virtual page-turn or five. Normally he goes for the top-of-the-line, newest model where tech is concerned. Not for bragging rights, mind you, but to have the longest practical life and best performance available. But on this occasion, spending hundreds of dollars on something that may quickly become a coaster was not appealing.

Those facts in pocket, our boy bought the oldest Kindle kit available: the 2010 version of the Kindle Paperwhite. This device got great reviews, though it only works on 2G Wi-Fi networks, has limited (by current standards) memory and processing speed. But at $87-ish dollars, it was a price that was tolerable for a testing-of-the-waters.

Once the device arrived, Aaron was really quite pleased. The device was small and light and easily handled. It held a charge for long periods of time and, as his associates had advised, the reading experience on the purpose-built display was superior.

The reading-of-words life continued to prosper, books were checked out from the local library, books where purchased, books were shared, words were consumed. Team Kindle for the win!

Uncounted words later, and after many months, Uncle Aaron one evening picked up said device from the charging area only to notice the warm display showed the icon of a battery with an exclamation mark in it. This gave significant pause – surely this was not a good portent.

With millions of unread words locked away behind that icon, screaming to be ciphered, Uncle Aaron started the investigations, troubleshooting and other machinations oft-associated with bringing computational devices to heel.

Because it was an older-model device and because it had been in use for a number of months, Amazon happily informed Uncle that there was no warranty coverage for the battery. But alas, they were willing to sell him any of the new Kindle models available. In fact, it seemed that it would bring them great joy to do so!

On a careless whim, he also checked on the feasibility of replacing the battery all by his lonesome. A replacement battery was found for a mere $16. Several YouTube videos demonstrated the replacement procedure. While said procedure would not be summarized as “easy” nor “simple” – they were not too scary. So, willing to gamble $16, and with encouragement from Mrs. Uncle Aaron (the undisputed brains of this operation), the battery was ordered.

Mr. Aaron resumed word consumption on his iPad, which reinforced his affection for his favored device from the land of Kindle. The battery arrival could not come too soon….

The Kindle Adventure: our hero is challenged

You may remember from the first installment above that Mr. Aaron did much research on the replacement of the battery in his Kindle. During that research it is important to note that the only marking he was able to find on his Kindle was the following text on the back: Kindle Paperwhite 10th Generation. No date. No serial number. No part number. No model number. And he used a magnifying glass.

When he searched for a replacement battery online, he used the search phrase “Kindle Paperwhite 10th Generation” which returned many legit-looking results.

As an aside, Mr. Aaron also watched at least five YouTube videos detailing the process for replacing the battery. In all of those videos the only identification used was Kindle Paperwhite 10th Generation. And in all of the videos, the device shown matched Mr. Aaron’s…seemingly in an exact way.

Can you see where this is going? Mr. Aaron’s audience is a wise and intuitive one…this author has faith in your Sherlockian powers.

The replacement battery was ordered from an Amazon seller with many good reviews. The cost, including all taxes and fees was $16. But before pulling the trigger, just for fun, Uncle confirmed that Amazon still had approximately 1,500 of these Kindle models in stock and listed them for pennies under $80. So, $16 was perhaps a good gamble to repair the device.

The battery eventually arrived at Mr. Aaron’s domicile. There were no instructions whatsoever just a plastic box and the battery. Upon first inspection, there was surprise at the size and shape of the battery. It looked very small compared to what he’d seen on the YouTube videos. Looks can be confusing, no? And the manufacturer claimed that this replacement battery was of an improved, more efficient design and offers “…up to nearly twoce (sic) the power life…” of the original. So, an apparent difference in size was perhaps understandable.

In all of the YouTube videos, those demonstrating the replacement were “professionals” with a proper set of disassembly tools. Even with those tools they all cautioned that one should make small, careful movements because it is very easy to crack the case or the screen. They all mentioned that the slightest bit of “torquing” could render the unit beyond repair.

Not having such tools and not wanting to buy yet another set of single-use tools, Mr. Aaron elected to use old plastic credit cards and his innate raw skill.

This observer is happy to report that after a mere 20 minutes of tedious and admirable work, the Kindle was dismantled without even the slightest bit of concern. No crack, no twist, no breakage, no uttering of oaths. It wasn’t easy, and all of the lessons from the videos were accurate and useful.

But in the end, joy was not to prevail on this occasion. The sadness was not the result of disassembly woes. No, reader, that was not the cause!

The first order of business was to remove, with tweezers, a blob of silicone that sealed the battery connection to the main board. This was a fairly fussy procedure, but was done successfully. That’s when it became clear that the new battery was not, in fact, a replacement for the old. The connector of the existing battery bore nearly no resemblance to that of the new. Imagine trying to swap out the plug to your toaster with a hose nozzle. One is not like the other.

At this point in the adventure, minor oaths were in fact uttered and a cloud of frustration rose in the kitchen.

Mr. Aaron was ready to call it quits. A fair and valiant attempt had been made, but it didn’t work. End of game.

But Mrs. Aaron cheered him on: “The hardest part is done! You got the Kindle opened without breaking it! See if you can return the old battery and order the right one! Keep going!”

One part of Mrs. Aaron’s argument held this wisdom: with the device opened, he could get the exact model and serial number from the existing battery – hopefully allowing for the ordering of the exact item required.

The First Order of Business was to see about a return of the incorrect battery. A couple of Amazon communiques with the supplier authorized a return. Normally they don’t take a return at all once the battery tab is removed, but they took heart and agreed to refund his monies. However, the shipping would be at his expense. They emailed a return label, RMA, etc. with instructions to take it to a UPS Store for packaging and shipment.

The Second Order of Business was to order the correct battery. Allow me to remind the reader that the first battery was a mere $16. The more correct battery, including taxes, fees, bribes and other inducements, was $35. Still less than the cheapest Kindle replacement, so he pressed on and ordered up the new juice box.

Alas, this new part will arrive sometime within the next 4-12 weeks. Clearly it is being hand-crafted by electronics wizards just for Uncle and his reading pleasure.

In the meanwhile, in reference to the First Order of Business, the Aaron family, with a fresh UPS label printed and battery in hand, visited their friendly not-so-nearby UPS Store.

The store manager tended to the transaction personally. She said the battery needed to be put into a special vacuum-sealed plastic battery shipment pouch. So, she went to the back room to pull off that bit of preparation. Then she did some data-entry work, procured a box to put everything in, added some foam peanuts for good measure, taped it all up nice and tidy. She then informed our boy that such batteries cannot go in flying machines, so it had to be sent via Peterbilt or Kenworth –more expensive, but the law is the law.

After much punching and whirring, the final bill from UPS was $37.

To return a $16 battery.

The Kindle Adventure: you won’t believe this…

This journey surely does continue, but not without a twist, a turn or, dare I say it, a pivot!

Some days after Battery Number Two (I’ll call him El-Shocko) was ordered, an email fluttered into Uncle Aaron’s Inbox. Along with the official Amazon logo there were words that indicated that El-Shocko was, after all, out of stock! The minions at Amazon were quite red-faced over this and assured our hero that his monies would be refunded and that he could order again “…at your pleasure in the future.”

The End.

But wait! That is not the end of the story!

The next day Uncle Aaron was sitting in his recliner and pondering his next action when yet another missive from Amazon arrived. This one said that the earlier message about El-Shocko being unavailable was in fact an error. Be assured, it said, that El-Shocko is on some American interstate, rocking and rolling his way toward delivery!

And you know what happened the very next day? Again, you’re ahead of me, aren’t you! But you’re correct – El-Shocko made a personal appearance in Uncle’s mailbox!

Once again Uncle set up at the kitchen island and arrayed all of the pieces and parts called for. But this time the battery appeared to be a perfect match for the dead older brother of El-Shocko. The connector was the same in fact. Success, it could be tasted!

There was a sense of joyous wonder in the air, albeit muted joy. As you may recall, a similar path had recently been trod, with unhappy results.

After some work to remove the dead, but glued-in, battery, El-Shocko took up residence in his new environs. The battery cable was attached to the main board. The power switch was activated. A moment passed. Then three. Then five. Then – the Kindle logo appeared! The startup sequence was observed. Uncle’s library appeared.

There were words! Words, millions and millions of words! Small, lightweight, easily-read, economical, brilliant, gripping words!

To finalize the process the cover was re-attached and words were read. Together, Uncle and El-Shocko read and read and read.

The good life returned. The birds resumed their song. The flowers bloomed. The band was together and making beautiful music.

Oh, and the Butler did it with a fire extinguisher!

A personal plea to Tom Hanks

Hi, Tom.

It is perhaps rudely familiar of me to address you by your first name. Those of us who are not actors tend to feel like we “know” those of you who perform for our amusement and distraction. This of course is absurd.

I’ve seen you take on the cloak of many people, and I shan’t pick a favorite, but I’m always impressed by the variety of the work you do. I suppose this has led me to feel a familiarity, as well as heartfelt respect.

On the other hand, we are Facebook friends, after all. I’ve liked several of your “found-glove” posts, while you’ve yet to react to a single one of my snarky posts or semi-macro photos of fire hydrants. But that’s okay. I know you’re busy: travelling, learning lines, answering the same question from the press for the bazillionth time, choosing future roles and the like.

A Facebook post by Tom Hanks.

A Facebook post by Tom Hanks.

I have seen in the media over the past few months that you’ve been shedding some stuff. The Airstream and some cars being among them.

And of course, there are numerous reports over the past few years of you gifting typewriters from your collection to individuals. Such gifts touch the heart and how can I argue against your generosity?

But those reports have gotten me to wondering, worrying to be honest, about the typewriters.

What jeopardy might they face in years to come?

Will they be dispersed?

See https://www.thethings.com/heres-why-tom-hanks-collects-typewriters/ for more!

Like you, I have a fondness for typewriters. This affinity has been with me for as long as I can remember. As a small person I watched my mom type on her Smith Corona portable electric that she had used in college.

The first thing I remember from that machine is the fragrance. Like a new Volkswagen of the ‘70s, it had (and continues to emit) a wonderful aroma. It generates a unique olfactory sensation that I cannot describe. It’s not metal, it’s not lubricant, it’s not ink from the ribbon. No, I feel it must be the vapor of the love that went into crafting the machine in some now-defunct factory of the late 1950s.

My grandmother also had a Smith Corona electric that she often typed letters on. As her arthritis worsened, she typed more and more.

When I was starting high school, my mom strongly encouraged me to take a typing class. Apart from having horrible penmanship, she argued that if I could master the keyboard, I’d always have a job.

Another family member recommended that if I had the choice, I should learn on a manual typewriter. Much like driving a stick-shift, it would be a skill that would serve me well.

I followed all of the advice and took up a seat behind a Royal manual typewriter in my high school’s typing class. We trained using the Century 21 method. It was hard work. My mind often went numb while doing the drills. But I persevered.

As my skills improved, I got pleasure from my ability to turn out crisp, clean, elegant copy.

I continue to be in awe of the typewriter. The mechanical complexity of even the most basic machine, especially considering the times some of these gems were created, is stunning.

Consider that when we type, we’re in close, almost intimate, contact with a hard piece of machinery: keys, springs, wires, cogs, wheels, motors. And yet when you get your hands on a good home row, it feels like you’ve put on a perfectly-fitting pair of socks, fresh from the dryer.

My wife and I still have our typewriters of old. I have my mom’s Smith Corona 210 that she used in college, as did I. My wife, who is from Romania, has her Bulgarian-made Maritsa 30. I’m drawn to them and appreciate them for their mechanical power, complexity and beauty.

Aaron’s Smith Corona 210 Electra.
Alina’s Maritsa 30.

You, to my knowledge, have perhaps the largest collection of typewriters in one place. Not because you have fame or relative fortune, but simply because you have the collection, I ask that you protect it.

You owe me nor the world nothing, of course. But I appreciate that however you’ve amassed the collection, that assemblage of hardware is important: as historical artifacts and as art that should be appreciated and preserved.

I can only imagine the space they must take up and I fear that as you re-asses the “things” in your life, you might consider breaking up the band, so to speak.

Please do not do that! Not for me, not for yourself, not for your children, but for the world. Please save the typewriters. Keep them together.

Maybe set aside an endowment for their care. Or bequeath them at the end of your earthly stay to a university of design or engineering, a museum – someplace that will love them. Somehow, please, I beg you, keep them all together and protected. Don’t disperse them.

If and when the time comes when they are no longer your children, please adopt them out as the family that they are – for the benefit of all.

Thank you for everything, Tom. Both for the entertainment that you’ve given us and for the very fact that you have brought attention to typewriters as the important players they are in our past and future.

Please follow these links for more about Tom Hanks’ love of typewriters.

I recommend Tom’s book, Uncommon Type — Some Stories.

Tom Hanks Gave His Corona Typewriter to a Kid Bullied Over Having the Name Corona: https://time.com/5826972/tom-hanks-typewriter-letter/

Many happy returns: Tom Hanks gives typewriter to Massachusetts family: https://www.cnn.com/2017/12/19/entertainment/tom-hanks-gives-typewriter-to-massachusetts-family/index.html

Tom Hanks gifted this Wellesley family a vintage typewriter: https://www.boston.com/news/local-news/2017/12/18/tom-hanks-gifted-this-wellesley-family-a-vintage-typewriter/

Artist receives thoughtful gift from Tom Hanks: https://abc7news.com/tom-hanks-gives-a-gift-typewriter-bay-area/1622726/

Tom Hanks Changes the Ribbon on a Typewriter: https://www.vanityfair.com/video/watch/tom-hanks-changes-the-ribbon-on-a-typewriter

Let’s take a road trip!

What you are about to read is totally true and accurate. You likely will be bewildered and experience stunned disbelief. However, except where I have embellished, lied, amplified or mis-remembered, this is all true!

My wife and I have just completed our first real vacation in years. And I mean that literally. YEARS! We’ve taken a few long weekends away from home-sweet-home, but this adventure was nine days on the road to see something other than our own walls and carpets.

If I didn’t hate people before this trip, and have a short fuse (which I do), those conditions worsened on this trip.

We drove over 2,000 miles passing through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario (Toronto), New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and back home to North Carolina.

We saw some of the most awful roads on our trip. In fact in Pennsylvania I had just, in the dark, entered a curving exit ramp, when the left wheels went through the deepest of all craters. Five cars were on the shoulder after having hit it ahead of us – those cars appeared to be broken and disabled: blown tires and bent-up undercarriages. Drivers were assessing their damage by the light cast from their Angry Birds devices, the look of stunned disbelief quite evident. Our sinuses and spinal cords ached from the impact, but we had no (visible) damage. But we hit it hard! Mr. Toyota: you make a strong Corolla!

We left on a Friday around noon, having worked the morning half of the day. We spent the first night in Parkersburg, West Virginia.

Apparently West Virginia peoples don’t believe in masks, the plague, protecting themselves or their tourists. Our hotel was very busy with a 50th high-school reunion going on – complete with coughing and hacking old smokers all over.

It was about 7 p.m. when we arrived and we wanted a good meal and an adult beverage or eight. But we were tired. It was dark and rainy. So we dumped our bags in the room and drove to the nearby McDonalds. Not the type of gastro fare I wanted for my vacation to be sure. I wanted steak, baked spuds, beer and some crazy-tall concoction of cake, ice cream or both, for dessert.

A Quarter Pounder and Filet-O-Fish were to be our first vacation meal delight.

It took us a couple of hours to figure out how to enter the parking lot of said McDonalds. We were shaking with hunger and could smell the fries in the air, but we couldn’t figure out how to get into the joint! Once I finally navigated into the lot, I realized I’d just driven some distance down a one-way street – of course going in the suicide direction. Lucky for us there was no traffic and local law enforcement was busy keeping the peace at a nearby high school football game where the fireworks were blasting off in full force. Or maybe it was squirrel season, I don’t know.

We took our food back to the room, ate and fell asleep.

The next morn I went to the free breakfast to get some food to take back to the room while my wife readied herself for the day’s journey.

Why would people take grandkids to a class reunion? I don’t get it. I was presented with a crowd of 68-year-olds, puffing away on their Winstons, ignoring their pre-teens running about drinking straight from the chocolate milk fountain and running their sticky paws through the bread and bagel basket. I have so far failed to make sense of this.

The only thing I felt safe eating were bananas. And even those were slippery. Bananas should not be slippery.

We ate the tropical yellows in our room and then began our escape.

Next up, I needed my morning addiction: coffee.

I had spied a Starbucks on our way in to town. I knew just how to get there. Or so I thought. In my mind it was only inches away and on our way out of town. I tooled around a bit, both of us anxious to be on our damn way when I said “Forget it, I’ll get gas station coffee!” “No, we’re getting you a Starbucks. I’ll map us.” my loving wife stated.

She did so which took us a couple of miles in the wrong direction but surprise of shocks, it was a nearly-new Starbucks and was one of the nicest ones I’ve ever been in, regardless of state or country!

They all have that Starbucks vibe, but the people were so nice. And they were masked but I swear to you, I think they had all their teeth! Really! I think they had full sets of chompers behind those masks. They were clean, friendly, used full and proper sentences and handed over a venti blonde roast with haste and vigor. I only saw one tattoo and I think it was of a bunny. Well done, Parkersburg Starbucks!

Then we were on the road again (cue Willie).

The first of many ways the world stood on my sciatic nerve was on the West Virginia Turnpike which…get this…only takes CASH! Who carries cash!? Well, I do, but that’s not the point.

I was the subject of several harsh rebukes bellowed by Toll Collector Betty. I’m sure she said “We only accept cash, fine sir” but it took about 17 attempts for us to understand her message. If she’d had just one tooth in the front, she may have been able to enunciate clearly. But no. To be fair, I was distracted by wiping from my glasses the chewing tobacco she was spewing.

These days, having been gone for over 22 years, I can only get around the very major landmarks in my old stomping grounds of Kalamazoo, Michigan. It has changed so much. I mean, they had running water and ‘lectricity when I left, but now they like, you know, have paved roads, Costcos and WalMarts and most of the people wear shoes!

It has become a joke that every time I visit mom, my first chore is to replace light bulbs. And in her house she has can lights everywhere. The only place where there isn’t a can light is over the dining table. She had a few lights burned out so I replaced them with bulbs she’d purchased. Well, the new bulbs were white LEDs and dang – they gave off a great light! The old bulbs were of the Edison variety with bona-fide burning filaments in the bulbs. She was so enamored with the great light from the replacements she said: “Let’s go to Menard’s (the Michigan version of Lowe’s or Home Depot and one superior thing about Michigan that has nothing to do with Lake Superior) and load up the cart and replace every light in the house!?” She was so excited!

A few hours and 37 bulbs later, she had fresh and modern illumination throughout the estate. She informed us that she plans to die when she’s 85 so she suspects these bulbs will last her.


While we were at Menard’s to get bulbs (we literally had a cart full of them), it was very busy. Three lanes open with decent lines in each. It’s almost our turn and mom said “Do you recognize the cashier?” I had paid her no notice until then but when I gave her a solid review I instantly knew it was Meredith – a girl I’d grown up with! Well, I haven’t seen her since the 10th grade but she was easily recognized. But I knew she wouldn’t know me – I look more than a little different. She’d of course recognize mom – she sorta stands out in a crowd of bears and trout.

Mind you, we’re in a long line of gun-toting Michiganders who are slightly toasted now that pot is fully legal there, and mom decided to have a reunion with Meredith! Egads!

“How’s your mom? Where are you living? Are you married?  Kids? Coke or Pepsi?”

Those people behind us were seething! Mom insisted on paying so there was no way for me to hurry our exit. Meredith did her best to be friendly, but kept glancing to the angered farm boys who were sharpening their blades behind us – trying her best to send my mom a CLUE to move it! Mom’s retired and entitled to her own timeline, so what the hell. If I make it to retirement, I’ll do the same.

We finally got out of there with our skins, though one Bubba burned rubber right next to us in the parking lot – he was either trying to flirt with my wife, or run us over, I’m not sure which. (TRANSLATION: Michigan boys think making a big burnout is a major turn-on to the ladies).

We also went to the lakeside resort area of South Haven, on the shores of Lake Michigan. But it was too blasted cold to do much. We walked around, took a few shots and hunted for coffee. South Haven has three independent coffee joints…all of which close at 1 p.m. After that, Michiganders switch to microbrews and hard liquor.

Mom: “But my car has heated seats! Turn on your heated seats and you won’t need coffee!”

Me: “I hate heated seats. They make my butt sweat.”

Wife: “I don’t like heated seats…they make me too hot.”

Mom: “But they’re FANCY! I paid for ‘em, you might as well use ‘em!”

Several miles towards home we came upon a Biggby Coffee location. Desperation called for a stop. I really do not like the juice that comes from Biggby Coffee. But it was hot and warming, and maybe created only a small ulcer.

Next, we were on to Toronto, Canada to visit with family and see some sights.

In order to enter Canada, you have to install an app on your phone, create an account, and enter Passport information, immunization records and the results of a Covid test no more than 24 hours old and a 20-page essay extolling the virtues of the confirming interrogative “eh!”

The day before our departure toward maple-land, we went to a local testing facility to have our nasals probed, in order to satisfy the requirement to cross the border.

We were so impressed with how well organized the place was. All drive-up. In 10 minutes the whole thing was over. They promised that an email with the results (good for international travel) would appear the next morning. We planned to be on the road at 10 a.m. that next morning in order to get to our Toronto hotel before dark.

Morning came and a quick breakfast of muffins and coffee was had, but nothing appeared in our email inboxes. Well, apparently we have an issue with our car warranty, but that would be handled upon our return home.

We began to get nervous. Without those results, we couldn’t cross the border.

Hotel rooms were bought and paid for.

Venue reservations had been made.

The horror!

My wife called the testing place.

They didn’t know who we were.

We had been given no “paperwork” from the nose-voyeurs so all we could give them was names, birthdates, etc.

After she was on the phone for many dozens of nervous minutes it turned out that the clerk had mis-typed our names, email addresses and phone numbers. I’m sure our handwriting had nothing to do with the fat-fingering as we both exhibit enviable script when filling out papers on our knees while seated in our car during a blizzard. Anything is possible.

The fine Michigan lady told us we passed the tests, but that it could take a couple of hours for our certificates to be generated.

And don’t forget to check your Spam folder.

At long last we got our certificates and completed registering on the ArriveCAN app and we hit the road.

Hugs and goodbyes and we were away!

Once on Michigan main ruts, er, roads, it rained. It blew. It fogged. We couldn’t even see the capitol dome in Lansing as we passed by. No impressive photos were had. And the traffic was awful. I can’t tell you how many close calls we had due to the traffic and weather.

We finally made it to Port Huron, Michigan where we could take the Blue Water Bridge to cross into foreign lands.

“Hello, bonjour! Said the nice border security lady. Passports, ArriveCAN code, bribe, fishing license and vaccination cards.”

I handed them over.

I’m always nervous at border crossings.

She was wearing a Glock G22, with two spare magazines. She was ready to not take crap from some fat and bald American. Or me.

When I was a kid, we went to Canada a lot and back then smuggling cigarettes was a big thing. Eight-year-old me was traumatized by seeing a families’ car torn apart by Canadian Mounties looking for smokes, while little Timmy and his doggie watched in terror. The painful memory lingers.

Agent: “Why do you want to come to Canada?”

Me: “To visit the CN Tower and the ROM (Royal Ontario Museum).”

Agent: “You’re coming into Canada to do that on a WEDNESDAY? Who does that?”

Me: “Well, it’s when we got time off work.”

Agent: “What do you both do?”

Me: “I’m a computer programmer, she (pointing to my wife) is a technical writer.”

Agent: “Neat.”

Agent: “How much alcohol do you have in that trunk?”

No “DO you have alcohol?” She ASSUMED alcohol! Is it written on our faces?

Oh, yeah, we were entering from Michigan, so yeah. But she didn’t ask about Mary Jane. She didn’t care about Mary Jane at all.

But we were PREPARED!

Me: “We have about six cans of beer.”

Agent: “How many liters is that?”

Me: “Um, I think they’re each about 12 ounces.”

Agent: “Canada is on the metric system you dolt. How many LITERS are you bringing in?”

Fortunately, Romania is metric and my wife hailing from that land quickly calculated and gave the woman a number.

Agent: “And you’re going to drink that in the CN Tower?”

Me: “No, we’ll drink it in our room.”

Agent: “Because Canada doesn’t have beer?”

Me: “No, but we brought beers we like.”

Agent: “You wouldn’t want to try Canadian beer? Just your own?”

Me: Hunting for my next words, eyes locked on that Glock….

Agent: “Tell me about the weapons you have on-board. Keeping in mind that pocket knives and mace and mean words are considered weapons.”

Me: “All we have is my Swiss Army Knife.”

The Agent gave me a disgusted look, apparently not a fan of the Swiss. She tapped away on her computer while we sweated in the frigid Canadian wind.

Finally, she handed our documents back to us.

But she wasn’t finished with our shivering and apprehensive personages.

Agent: “You’ve been selected for a random Covid screening.”

She handed us two blue boxes.

Agent: “There’s a box for each of you. You’ll drive ahead towards that Red Cross flag over there. Park by the cones. Open each of your boxes and follow the instructions inside. Do not open your windows or doors. Stay in your car. This is a secure area. We will shoot. We’re cold and we can warm our fingers on our hot gun barrels. It’s up to you. Now drive to the flag very slowly.”

I drove to the flag and we opened our boxes. Inside was a form to fill out with the usual identifying informations.

Finally, a Jamaican dude appeared in front of us. How he can exist in such a frozen clime, I do not know. The man did a stilted mime that seemed to indicate that we were to drive ahead through a maze of cones and concrete barriers only wide enough for a Trek to trek. I finally made it through the course with side-view mirrors still attached.

Then we were in the hands of nice Red Cross peoples. I tried to call my friend Mark who is a highly-placed volunteer official with the American Red Cross to see if he could get us out of it, but he didn’t answer. I suspect our call was blocked by the Canadian Air Force, the air being thick with geese on maneuvers.

The Red Crossers swabbed our nostrils.


And they made each of us create a Red Cross Canada account on our phones.

They waited while we did this.

They continued to wait.

Our eyes teared after having been poked from below and assaulted by the strong wind off Lake Huron. Filling out lengthy forms on an iPhone whilst crying is not a scenario that lends itself to speedy completion.

More waiting ensued during which the Red Crossers danced to unheard tunes in an attempt to not be frozen to the tarmac.

Our windows were open so the Reds could talk to us. We were lodged between trailers, barriers and assault rifles. And bears, probably. There was no early escape to be enjoyed. Oh, and that moose. He looked to be asleep, but I think he had one eye open, clearly focused on us.

The app registration complete, they told us that it would allow them to contact-trace in the event our tests came back with bad results.

We were finally released and allowed to continue our Canadian trek, where the maximum speed limit is 55 mph – or 88 kmh – THEY’RE METRIC! I had frequent flashbacks to Jimmy Carter – not the best kind of distraction whilst one is on vacation.

It was several miles through gorgeous countryside before we came upon a gas station. That was fortunate because I needed to change my undies and get a bottled Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino to re-engergize.

Now for a word about the details of the Canadian visit.

We visited Toronto sites, we walked hundreds of miles in the windy, cold Toronto downtown, we ate too much, we drank too much, we shared stories and laughs with family who had met us there. But alas, after a couple of days, it was time to return to the land of angry people (Canadians truly are over-the-top in the friendly department).

I was feeling a little nervous about re-entering the United States of A, given our nasal challenges entering Canada.

We got to the border crossing and because at that time it was closed to all but returning citizens, there was nobody there. One lane open. Nobody ahead of us. Nobody behind us. I think I spied a few clowns to the left, maybe a joker on the right.

The agent glanced at our passports and opened the gate. He didn’t make any utterance. And just like that, we were at Niagara Falls, New York.

Other than that, the trip was uneventful.

Except for that crevasse in Pennsylvania. My lumbar region will always remember you.

I need a vacation.

You’re drinking ice cream wrong

I’m a fairly simple boy from rural Michigan. As you’d expect from that declaration, I’m mediocre in most ways. But you may be stunned to learn of the horrible gap that has prevailed in my realm of experiences. A failing that existed until recently.

Michigan food specialties likely have been well-covered elsewhere. Hit up the internet with a search for Vernors or Royal Crown Cola, fried smelt and Gerber’s baby food. Of course, there’s the Ford Pinto and Chrysler K-Cars, but those are rarely considered edible.

One food item that I never thought was special to Michigan or the Midwest was Malted Milk.

Dairy of all kinds, including ice cream, is exceedingly popular in Michigan. Any ice cream outlet is going to offer patrons a “malt.” This ice cream beverage is ice cream, whole milk and malted milk blended up thick. You have to give a strong pull on the straw to get the elixir to play music on your taste buds. But you are truly rewarded when that band hits that first note of flavor.

Malt for this recipe can be in powdered or liquid form. You can order a simple, I’ve-given-up-on-living “shake,” but where I’m from, you order a “malt.”

Malt takes mediocre, low-quality ice-milk and kicks it up to being something you actually want to invite into your tasting room. Use it with good-quality ice cream and you’ve elevated the experience beyond measure. Any person who has yet to experience a vanilla malt has my sympathy – and my sympathy comes at high cost.

One year my family ventured to St. Paul, Minnesota where my dad’s sister lived. My uncle had just purchased a police scanner and he, my cousins and I were sitting on the living room floor, listening to the calls and pinning the locations on a map. We were focused on the action when my aunt came in with bowls of ice cream with powdered malt sprinkled on top.

At that point I had amassed 13 years of heartbeats on this orb and considered malt a given, like air, the blue sky or Doritos. But when I scooped into that Rocky Road with malt powder, my eyelids peeled back, the official mayhem blasting from the scanner speaker was no longer heard. Rather, my brain was overcome by signals of astounding flavor and palate joy.

It was unclear as to whether my family in Michigan was to blame for not knowing this serving method or my aunt Iris was simply a culinary genius yet to be appreciated on the world stage. Either way, I became a pest for the rest of the visit, suggesting that every meal should include some malted ice cream.

I’m a little older now and have lived in Virginia, Utah and North Carolina. It wasn’t until my move to North Carolina that it occurred to me that malt is not, indeed, universal!

I know, I know. You wouldn’t think so, but after spending several years in this verdant state, it’s true: malt is nearly unknown.

I started to be wary when I visited ice cream shops. I would instinctively order a “vanilla malt.” A couple of times the transaction was completed and I left the establishment thinking “Ah, they forgot the malt – this is ‘meh’.”

Other interactions with ice cream staff resulted in quizzical looks or the blatant: “What’s that?” query.

“What’s that?”


You’re an ice cream service professional and you don’t know what malt is?

How are you allowed behind that counter? Hand in your cow-image name tag at once until you are properly trained!

But no, it isn’t entirely their fault. You see, this region is unaware of malt. For hundreds of years they have consumed their ice cream bowls and beverages sans malt. And they know no better!

I did some research and learned that North Carolina has microwave ovens, the internet, cellular telephones and even sliced bread. But no malt!

There likely will be a couple of members of my audience who might think themselves wise to suggest that I use Whoppers candy as a substitute.

Ummm, I’ll be nice and presume you tripped on a crack in the sidewalk while trying to think. That or an infarct are the only explanations for such wayward imaginings.

I took my studies deeper. If I could not procure a professionally-prepared ice cream malt, then I would simply make it myself. As a child we did this all the time. I had been trained. I had the skills. I knew the tricks, the foibles. I’d simply buy the malt and fashion up the delight on demand.

Not a single store had malt on offer.

Not. A. One.

I went to the internet and my friends who sell goods from their rainforest website. Because there is no time and space warp, I was able to find Carnation Malt without much trouble. But because it is used in such quantities by those living in normal malt-loving states, the packages were enormous. Far too much in price, placing too large a demand on my meagre storage options, to be practical.

I was depressed. The more time went by without a malt, the more I craved it. Carnation tried to trick me numerous times as they sell their instant coffee creamer in a package that is nearly identical to that used for malt. The sleepy part of an eyeball would perceive one of those containers on a shelf and I’d knock over a hippie buying hemp powder to get to that shelf only to find a creamer – not a malt. Fortunately for me, a knocked-over hippy is generally a very forgiving sort.

Then one day I was shopping at a Publix. We have very few of them and as you may know, they are a Florida-based grocery store chain. Definitely nothing about them hints at Michigan or the Midwest or the North. I had all but given up my search for malt and when I saw part of the right-looking container, I was prepared to be duped by creamer. But this was the real deal – it was legit! Behind the pickles, and a little beside the fava beans, there was one lone container of malt.

The store’s public-address system switched from touting their sale on melons (which actually was quite enticing) to a choir of angels singing praises to grass-fed dairy cows the land over.

For some months now I’ll have my personal supply of malt. I’ll survive. Purpose and hope have returned to my outlook. But I am saddened for the rest. I feel hopeless for the professional ice cream operations that remain ignorant of the proper way to prepare an ice cream beverage. Still more traumatized by the masses of humanity who are deprived of this flavor treat.

I never would have thought such an important staple of life would be a rarity. But isn’t that how it so often is? We make assumptions. We don’t know what we had until it’s gone and other such clichés.

As for now, I’m going to blend some Ben & Jerry’s vanilla, a couple of tablespoons of malt and some milk.

That is until when winter returns and I’ll be popping some Vernors into the microwave.

You know about that, right…?

An appreciation of teachers

This year’s Teacher Appreciation Week had me thinking about the teachers in my life.

First is my mom, who taught for 30 years. The first 15 years she worked for the county school system as a teacher of the homebound and hospitalized. In that role, if a student could not attend school due to illness or injury, she would teach them at home. Each week she would meet with that student’s teachers to gather information and assignments and then work with the student so that they could stay current.

For each student she’d have to take the week’s lessons and understand them, formulate how she would teach them, drive to the student’s home and spend a couple of hours teaching (amidst all of the normal chaos of a home). Then the cycle would repeat, with progress being reported to the teachers at school.

Mom, leaving a student’s home.

She had to carry in the trunk of the car all of the necessary books, handouts, and such that all of her students would need.

She loved that job. Ask almost any teacher and one of the major barriers to their success is classroom size. She always had a classroom of one. She really got to know each student and their families.

Her own disability (she lost both of her arms in a farming accident when she was five) provided hope and encouragement. Students suffering with pain, disability and fear would see a woman with no arms driving a regular car (sometimes even with a manual transmission), carrying heavy cases of books and materials, writing, drawing – doing everything anyone else would do. Beyond teaching she was proof that there was light at the end of the tunnel.

She sure went through a lot of cars driving all over Michigan’s rural Van Buren County!

Then the state eliminated funding for that program and made it the responsibility of the individual schools. If a student needed at-home teaching, each principal had to find someone to fill the role.

Mom stayed with the county intermediate school district and worked for the vocational school. This was where high school juniors and seniors would go to learn a trade or job skill. The programs included courses such as commercial photography, printing, data processing, construction, nursing, etc. Students could graduate high school and immediately move into a job.

That role gave my mom another 15 years of different teaching experience: helping students who lacked a particular skill to be successful in their chosen field. For example, if a student had trouble with reading comprehension, my mom would develop a one-on-one curriculum to help them so that they could be successful with their skills training. And because she also had degrees in counseling and personnel management, she helped students to identify jobs that would suit them after graduation and coordinated on-the-job internships.

I mention all of this to say that I saw teaching from the teacher’s point of view. All of the stories you hear about the amount of time and preparation that it takes to teach are true. Hours were spent each week to prepare, grade papers, and plan. Teaching, and doing it well, takes so many hard and soft skills that are subtly needed, but little appreciated.

I saw the rewards of teaching, too. From seeing a struggling student finally “get it” to running into a former student as a successful adult, I can tell you that having summers off was not the motivation to teach.

I then think about my own experiences as a student. Several of my mom’s students came from my own school. This meant that she got to know the teachers at my school while she worked with those students which lead to me getting “inside” information on my teachers. It was sort of like listening at the door of the teacher’s lounge, without all of the second-hand smoke!

It wasn’t until several years ago that I realized how fortunate I was with my teachers. I had been talking with friends who shared stories about their worst teachers. I had no stories to share. I had classes that I was not good at and teachers that I liked more than others, but I had good teachers.

I went to school in the very small town of Gobles, Michigan. It was rural and poor. But the teachers were first-rate. Many spent their entire careers at that small school system. They could have gone to other schools and certainly earned more money, had more and better supplies. But they stayed. Many driving quite a distance to teach there.

But they were good. I suppose it’s natural to not remember a lesson on multiplication tables, or U.S. history or pig dissection. But I remember the kindness and interest they showed toward me. I wasn’t scared of teachers. I didn’t have mean teachers. I had fair teachers who knew their subjects, who taught them well, who cared about us as and our minds, so that we’d be ready for whatever was to follow.

I was so fortunate! And I know that a student sitting next to me in the same class may have experienced it differently. But for me, I was blessed with some great teachers. Teachers I think about, and whose lessons I remember to this day.

For example, my English teacher, Mrs. Brill, who always believed in me, left encouraging and constructive comments in my journal, pushed me to read books that didn’t at first appeal. Who during regular oral book reports, which scared the living daylights out of me, always kept eye contact with me and made encouraging gestures and stayed awake and attentive during 30+ monotone, dull and repetitive reports. More than anyone else in my life, Mrs. Brill made me feel like I had potential, that I could become someone other than a fat, shy, awkward teen. She treated me like an adult, someone who had value.

Mr. Grossa, my shop teacher, who helped me with math by showing me that I could learn it better if I found purpose in it: measuring wood for a project. That algebra, which was a terribly difficult concept for me, was useful when I needed to determine the missing length of a board. That a mistake on a project was not a failure that must be abandoned but rather was a prototype to learn from for the next try. But the biggest thing Mr. Grossa left me with was an ability to plan. Until that year I was easily overwhelmed by large tasks. Mr. Grossa taught me how to lay out a plan: break things down into small steps that could be understood. Then start to attack the plan, learn, adjust the rest of the plan, and so on. This is a skill I think everyone needs in order to be successful. Mr. Grossa taught me this lesson probably sooner and in a more concrete way than I otherwise would have.

Mrs. Hibbard, who I had for sixth grade in a combined fifth and sixth grade classroom. She loved word humor which has always amused me. She used Mad Libs to teach language rules in a fun and memorable way. She also read to us. I have fond memories of sitting on a large, round rug and Mrs. Hibbard reading The Chronicle of Narnia to us. But she was teaching me how to read. She’d ask us questions about the story: what we remembered from last time, what we thought might happen, why a character did something or what they may have been thinking.

Mr. Mayer was my high school physics teacher. He was never afraid of questions. I found myself surprisingly interested in physics and electricity. I was fascinated by series and parallel circuits and based on my many questions he changed up lessons to allow the class to pursue our questions and interests. I remember asking some question about electricity and the following week he had built a doll house all wired up with lights so that we could experiment – all to answer my question. He could have given a statement to answer my question or drawn a picture on the chalk board. Instead he spent his weekend building an experiment so that we could learn based on our interests.

Mr. Amrstrong, my high school biology teacher, helped me to better understand how percentages work. I always sat next to his desk and while we were doing assignments, he’d be grading papers. I’d watch him punch numbers into his calculator and record grades. I had math classes, but watching him so frequently just “use” math made it practical for me.

These are just a few of many examples and impressions great educators have had on my life.

Teachers of course must know their material, that is a given. But it’s the connection with students, the world the students live in, the student’s interests and skills, that lead to success. A good teacher is a combination of years of education, ongoing training, and a heart that knows how to meld all of that into an experience that truly educates.

Gobles High School.

You gonna mow that?

Friends of mine recently announced that they are buying their first house.

Now all of the problems they encounter with a home will be their own!


My third question to them was: “Are you going to do your own mowing and stuff or are you going to farm it out?”

“Well, I’ve given it some thought and I reckon I’ll give it a try. It’s not a very big spot of land, shouldn’t be too hard.”

A couple of years ago we gave up the lawn-care racket. When we bought our current house, I went pro.

I got rid of all the tools, implements and equipment – just gave it all away at the curb. Gone! Poof! A huge load off, I tell you that! For sure.

Unless you’ve got a large acreage or get some cosmic joy and overwhelming satisfaction from making mower-wheel lanes in the grass, I recommend that you not do your own mowing.

Your unknowing neighbors and kin may think your putting on Grand Poobah airs, but I differ. There are many facts to be considered that often go overlooked.

Let’s look at how costly this endeavor is. You’re of course going to need a lawn mowing contraption. Let’s say a decent lawn mower is going to nick your wallet for $500. That’s quite a few Dominos. Pies with extra cheese I might add.

You’re going to have to get that heavy and cumbersome beast home. And assemble it. And not hurt yourself, your spouse or your dignity. If you do end up purchasing said machine, I suggest that you keep the garage door closed during assembly – the neighbors don’t need to know what’s goin’ on. They’ll still be able to hear your pained utterances while you try to get Bolt A into Slot Q while keeping Cog M angled at exactly 37 degrees.

You’re not done yet, my Bermuda friend. You’re going to need a gas can. That’s another $20 pop to your cruise fund.

That can isn’t going to fill itself. At regular intervals you’ll need to take it on a road trip to your filling station of choice. One could argue that the cost of the fuel is minor, but it’s the schlepping that is so costly here. A gas can is a messy, dirty, filthy, dangerous and unstable thing. After a month in the garage it will be dusty, dearly held by a community of spiders and covered with grass particles. Those grass particles will be strongly adhered to the gas that you spill onto the can. And your feet. And your trousers. You’re going to smell just great tonight at the Red Lobster.

Yes, you WILL spill…trust me. Even if you stop the fill inches from the top, the nozzle is going to burp, spit and drip. There will be spillage.

That spillage will get into your vehicle. On your hands. On your steering wheel. On your phone. On your wallet. On your itchy nose.

Try not to spill it or tip it over on the drive home. That grandma with the big hair who stops short in front of you easily could lead to a gallon of 87-octane spritzing around the cabin.

Gasoline isn’t the only dead-dinosaur product you’ll be messing with. You’ll need to change the oil every year as well. Buying those cute little three-dollar bottles of oil is only going to impact your chewing-gum budget, but the changing of the oil, now there’s a job only Goober is truly suited for.

You’ll need to run the machine enough to warm it up, but not so much that the oil is hot enough to cook your Thanksgiving bird.

Then you need to Rube Goldberg yourself a way to catch the oil that you’re going to release from that machine.

You will be wearing oil. You will spill oil. You will make a mess of the entire situation. And make sure no furry creatures come about and start to wear and ingest the oil. That’s a bad thing. If you care about furry creatures. And I know you do – you’re not a cretin.

Once you’re done with the oil-change procedure you’ll have a jar of nasty old oil that you need to transport to a recycle center. And you thought that driving with a can of gasoline was a treat – try a Mason jar of 10W30 and 45 mph. And no, it isn’t going to fit in your cup holder. It’s going to be more tricky than that, especially when you realize that holding the jar between your legs is a no-go.

Next up in your misery is sharpening the blade. That first mow is going to give you such a sense of joy and satisfaction! The grass will look crisp and clean and so handsome! But after about six iterations, the blade is going to be dull and you’ll be frustrated and distracted by grasses that have been pummeled, but not cut, beaten but not sliced, berated but not trimmed.

Routinely you’ll need to tip over the mower, use a wrench and block of wood to remove the blade so you can sharpen it.

You’ve got a bench grinder, right? Because that’s the only way to do this job properly. Those gizmos you attach to your drill are toys, meant to extract funds from well-meaning new mowing people. If you escape without metal flakes in your eyes and knuckles intact, you still won’t have a sharp blade. You will have spent a half hour fighting and struggling for no result.

After each mowing expedition you really should clean out the machine. Grass and dust and muck will accumulate under there. It will. But you know what? You won’t clean the machine. You’ll take a glance in the blade chamber and think it’s not too bad, so you’ll just roll the machine into its garage home.

But it’s going to build up. And it will lead to poor cutting. Hard starts. Blockages to the exit chute. You don’t want that. You’ll have to, at least sometimes, clean the deck.

That will involve using a flat-head screwdriver in a way for which it was not designed, to scrape gunk. That will lead to a pile of allergy-inducing deceased vegetable matter scattered on the driveway.

Next, you’ll be brooming that crap up and putting it in the trash can. Try not to breathe whilst doing this else your intake chute becomes clogged.

Mowers cut the big main grass, but what about the small auxiliary grass? The stuff around the sidewalk, driveway, mailbox and moat? For that you’ll need a line trimmer (don’t call it a Weed Whacker or Weed Eater!). That means more gasoline and more oil.

If you get a four-cycle machine, you’re buying more gas and oil just like you do for the mower. But if you get a two-cycle system, you’ll need yet another gas can to keep separate gas for the line trimmer…to which you will carefully measure and add unique two-cycle oil.

This is getting to be so much fun isn’t it? I know, you’re doing a penguin-esque happy-dance right now!

You’ve put it off long enough, the grass is too high and regardless of how much you don’t feel like doing it, nor how high the heat and humidity, nor how tired you are nor how you’d much rather be organizing your spice rack instead, you must do your duty and mow.

For this you’ll have to change clothes into, well, an outfit that was flashy and swell in the ‘70s, but now is only fit for sweaty, dusty, dirty and grimy yard work.

The mowing will be hard. Even if we assume your machine start easily on the first tug of the cord, you’ll be walking back and forth in monotonous and unfulfilling transits about the property. Your mind will wander all over tarnation. What else can it do? It’s not truly mindless work – you need to stay awake, but the mind will go off to ponder topics that ought not to be pondered. (What does happen to astronaut’s tears?).

Are you overlapping enough or not enough? Are you throwing clippings in Beuregard’s yard (he gets decidedly miffed when you spray clippings on his Camaro)? Are you pitching stones into the road and cracking windshields?

Your feet, ankles and knees will hurt. You’ll step “funny” and it won’t be hilarious. (Unless you go full-on ballet mode and make a body-on-turf impact that amuses the neighbors).

When that eternal moment arrives when you feel assured that you can cut the engine, you’ll next be on to firing up the trimming machine.

If you weren’t wearing protective gear for your eyes and ears before, you’ll need them now (that’ll be $23.95).

That trimmer doesn’t have an exit chute you know – the WORLD is its chute. And that means you, my friend, will be wearing those clippings on your person. The clippings mostly will cling to your pants (you weren’t wearing shorts, were you?). You’ll need to take a broom to yourself before you step into the house…you just will. But you’ll only succeed in removing the clippings on your frontside…the anterior is where all of the clippings that will litter your living room, bedroom and bathroom will persist.

This is so much an adventure, eh? You begin to see why people procreate so that they can make their offspring tend to the task!

Line trimmers can look like some level of fun to operate. But they are tough on the arms, shoulders and back.

Line trimmers constantly beg for your attention. The line needs to be replaced nearly constantly and I don’t care what system you’ve got, it’s a pain. It’s dirty. It’s challenging, and never is successful until at least five attempts have been made. Oh yeah, and that’s about $10 per spool of line…don’t forget that.

You realize of course, that you’re going to be experiencing this joy at least every other week, assuming you have a slow-grow field of weeds…every week if you have a Type-A plot.

Just think of everything else of more value or interest that you want and need to do instead of mowing.

The basic mowing chores may take an hour per week…likely more. Certainly more when you need to get gas, sharpen a blade, add line, diagnose a failure, etc. and etc.

While you’re at work you’ll fall under the demands the lawn puts on you. You’ll envision the tall grasses, swaying in the wind, guiding your mind to say “I should mow tonight.” You won’t be able to focus on the conspiracy theory being spouted in the adjacent cube because you’ll be justifying in your head the putting off of mowing for “just one more day.”

You’ll end up putting it off until Saturday. In your wisdom you’ll figure you’ll get up early, before it’s too hot, and just get it done.

Until Saturday morning when you’re having the best dream about bunnies, coffee cake and massages.

It will be that same Saturday that your spouse has an idea for something amazing, fun and enlightening to do almost anywhere else than home.

You’ll either do the mow and be hot and nasty and tired or you’ll put it off and feel guilty. Don’t forget to avoid eye-contact with the neighbors when you leave – you know 14-inches is too tall for grass in your neighborhood, right?

Do you have an HOA?

That nice vacation you’re on right now? The grass is still growing you know, even while you’re sipping fancy island beverages. When you come home, the grass is probably going to be tickling your elbows – do you really want to come home to that?

Ah, ah, ah! Do not talk to me about electric cutting gear. That’s only going to save you on the petrochemical side of the equation. You’re still going to break a hip and burn hours of personal time doing the dirty work. A rechargeable mowing machine is false economy.

The other hazard of doing your own mowing is snakes. They’re out there. They lurk. They want you. They will get you. They just will, it’s what they do.

You realize now that you should hire a professional mowing organization. You clearly understand the wisdom of my points. I am right.

Yes, it costs money. But you’re spending a lot by doing it yourself. Just consider these costs for your first year:

Gas Can$20
Safety Gear$23.95
Time$1,040 (1 hour/week x $20/hour x 52 weeks)

That’s dang near $2,000.

You’re going to say “But uncle Earl, I’m not going to buy machines every year. After the first year it won’t be that much.”

That’s sort of true, but you’ll have to be budgeting for the replacement of those machines. They don’t last. Fastidious maintenance will extend the life, but that’s costing you in deprived leisure hours along the way.

You’re thinking maybe you’ll compromise and hire Teddy, the 14-year-old down the street. Well, that’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. Teddy is going to stick his hand in the machine to unclog it and you’ll find yourself paying for his missing phalanges, not to mention the dent in that BMW Z4 that was driving by at the exact moment ole Teddy hit that pebble.

Hire a pro. They have insurance. They’re more responsible. They’ll mow while you’re at work so it will be like you’ve hired your own little magic show! You leave a mildly fuzzy lawn in the morning and return to robins singing with glee!

Now, there are many benefits for you, not the least of which is the furthering of your leisure time and opportunities thereto. But you’ll also be stimulating the economy, providing an income to people and maintain a consistently manicured appearance and high value to your home.

Mowing is a trap. Heck, the American lawn is a trap. But we’re stuck with the second part, the first part can be fixed.

Step up. Make some calls, get them hired and scheduled. And live!

Now let’s talk about plowing that snow….