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Eating in public #6
Tipping calculations

I recently gave serious consideration over how much to tip our waitress at one of our favorite sushi joints.

Most people, when thinking about tipping, are concerned with the percentages.

“How much should I tip?”  debates ensue over the quality of service, the accuracy of the order, the class of the joint and so on.

This time I had to figure the amount based on friendliness. That’s a hard one to compute. The waitress technically did what she needed to do, but she wasn’t friendly and appeared to detest being in that space and time vector.

I generally start out assuming that a server deserves 20%. I deduct based on problems encountered during the dining experience. But is apathy really a problem? We were going to eat there and enjoy great food regardless of this lady’s enthusiasm quotient. But each time she came to our table to inquire about the food or to refill our water glasses my wife and I exchanged the “What’s up with her?” glance.

Notice that she came back to make sure the food was good and made sure we never ran out of water. She did her job. But I think she would rather have been de-pilling her sweaters.

On the other side of the thought, if the server is really friendly and happy and smart, but the food is lousy and full of flies, they still might get the 20% out of me. A lot goes into the tipping calculation, but being a nice person can trump a lot of other ills.

But that doesn’t mean you can sneeze on my burger or drop ear wax into my soup. There are limits.

In my opinion most of the problems that take place in a public eating establishment are related to something that happened in the kitchen. Yes, I know, if the server doesn’t refill my drink, doesn’t come back to make sure I’m enjoying the meatloaf even though I ordered the fish-n-chips…those are things upon which the server might want to improve. But usually the fault lies elsewhere. That is important to consider when doing the tipping calculation. I think the tip is for the server (and this is often shared with the ancillary dining room staff) and should reflect the quality of their work. If the steak is raw or a box of Morton ended up in the soup, the fault lies with the white-smocked ones hanging out in the stainless steel forest, not the one with the order pad and apron.

I’ve always been a generous tipper. I grew up next to a restaurant and my family ate out often. So I’ve spent a lot of time around service personnel. But I think my tendency to tip on the high end comes from my appreciation for the work that goes into the job.

I have a lot of sympathy for wait staff. They’re on their feet for a long time. They’re constantly in motion. If they so much as sit down for a second, the clientele looks at them with accusations of lazy in their eyes. They have to be quick-minded, able to deal with all of the whackos that tend to inhabit the dining public and they have to know everything on the menu. And not just what’s on the menu, but what’s in the kitchen, what the cook on duty will or will not do for a customer and whether or not they turned the “OPEN” sign on.

Oh, and they’d better not get sick or plan to retire, because they’re probably not getting any benefits whatsoever. Apart from free cottage cheese. All they can eat. After the expiration date of course.

They are the front line of the business. Regardless of the source of the customer’s angst, it’s the server that gets both barrels. But how much pull do they have over how the business operates, how big the slice of cow is or how much mode is in the a la mode? I’m guessing not much.

They show up, they hussle, they keep track of orders, they work with computer terminals that always seem to have keys missing or mis-labeled, they have to smell dozens of kinds of food all day and clean up after your drippy-nose kids all while banking a sub-minimum wage. Oh, and they have to do side work like filling the salt and pepper shakers, making sure each of 29 kinds of sweetener packet is available at each table and spreading ice-melt on the sidewalk.

Being a server is hard work. Even when they just do the bare minimum, it’s more work than this desk-jockey code-writer is interested in doing. Call me lazy if you must, but I am in awe of how hard they work. Hard work they do to serve me. And you. Regardless of the type of day they’re having. Regardless of the type of day we’re having. Regardless of how ornery Mel is being toward them.

No, I’ve never been a waiter myself.

Nor a waitress.

I’m not biased.

“Miss, there’s a fly in my soup.”

Maybe I’ll make that 21%.

Workplace lessons from my dad

My dad, Leonard Kuehn

“How much money do you make?”

Yes, you read that correctly. How much money do you make? Send me an email with the amount.

You can tell me in terms of hourly, weekly, annually. However you like. Before taxes, if you please.

I suspect that I shall get no emails containing such information. And if on some wild chance that I do, they’ll probably be bogus.

If you asked me to do the same, I’d refuse.

Do you know why you are reluctant to tell people your earnings? I am because of one of the many workplace lessons my dad taught me.

Our attitudes about our earnings are complicated. My wife is a native of Romania and in that country people talk openly about their earnings. So I suspect the way people think about income is not universal.

I think the more one makes, the more reluctant one is to spill the beans. Oddly, the further back in time you reference, the less shy we are about giving up the digits. For example, when I started working at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I was hired on for 29.5 hours a week at $3.72 an hour. The federal minimum wage at the time was $3.35, so I was feeling pretty good. I had only worked there for a few months when the newspaper celebrated its 150th anniversary and the publisher passed out raises in recognition of that fact. That put me at $3.90 an hour. I was ready to start shopping for that Mustang GT!

But my current salary? I’d rather not say.

Almost all of my views on compensation, saving and retirement come courtesy of my dad. What he taught me, both emphatically and by simple example, left a deep imprint on me and I think about him and his life almost daily.  That’s probably not so unique. We’re all shaped by the people who raised us. But I do believe my perspective comes from a pretty unique place.

In order for you to understand, let me tell you about my dad.

My dad was born to German immigrants in 1907. He attended public school for just a couple of years and since he didn’t speak English, he dropped out. He essentially had no formal education. If you asked him what grade he got to he couldn’t say for sure. His learning came by way of his hands, sweat and street smarts.

He ran away from home when he was 13 years old and rode the rails. He was a hobo. A bum. He went many places on the trains and worked odd jobs in various cities in order to eat.

He eventually arrived in Kalamazoo, Michigan. There he had jobs as an engine tester for Buick, as a laborer in an asbestos plant and finally at a parchment paper-making plant. Over the years he had many jobs with the same company, even as it was bought and sold numerous times.

By the time the Great Depression came around he was a supervisor and during that horrible period, he never lost his job.

My dad was too young to fight in WWI; he was too old for WWII.

He married and had a family: one daughter, two sons. He divorced after over 30 years of marriage.

In 1966 he married a woman 35 years his junior.

She was younger than his own youngest child.

I’ll give you a moment to ponder that.

He was 59, she was 24.

He was older than her parents.

Several months later, his wife pregnant with yours truly, and just shy of his 60th birthday, he was laid off from the paper plant. By that time he was the plant manager at a facility that made plastic drinking cups. They made the kind of cups you often see at a picnic. His world came crashing down around him. He had been earning a very good salary for several years. Now he was newly married, baby on the way, and no job.

He had worked for several decades for the same “family” company. He had known the owners personally. He thought he was a star employee…there never was any hint of anything bad on the horizon. He felt like his generous pension and Social Security benefits would provide an excellent retirement.

Now he, along with many other similarly-aged men, had been cut loose. The company essentially didn’t want to pay full pension benefits to those men. It was a cost-saving measure. Today they might go to court and there are stronger laws to help prevent such actions. In the late 1960s, and being in management and not protected by a union, these men had little to no recourse.

The older I get and the more experiences I have, the more I appreciate the terror that must have gone through my dad’s mind. Fortunately he had a young wife who was just finishing college and starting her career. He had a safety net.

So in 1966 my dad decided to be a house-husband: he would stay home and raise me while my mom went off to work.

I never heard my dad say a bad thing about his former employer. His two sons from his first marriage worked for, and decades later retired from, the same company.

He did talk about his experiences, though. He talked about his “career”, though he never would have called it that. His constant lesson was “Don’t count on the company to take care of you.” But he never said it with malice directed towards the company. At least in my hearing.

Sure, he had been mistreated. But plenty of companies simply went out of business before paying pensions. Or some manager made a mistake and a business went bust. Anything could happen. There had been the Great Depression and while he worked straight through, it had been his job to let men go during that time. He knew bad things happen but he wasn’t the type to blame. Rather he was the type to take inventory and look for the next path.

Decades after the Great Depression he was still bothered by the faces of those he had terminated. If he hadn’t let them go, it would have been his own job lost. But nonetheless, he fully appreciated how fortunate he had been.

One of the great emotional struggles for my dad came in the mid-1970s when the three of us were at the mall. A man and his wife came up to us and it turned out that this guy had worked for my dad during the Great Depression…and my dad had let him go. I don’t  remember the man’s face, but I remember his words: “Why did you let me go…I had a family?”

I understood what was going on. Not as much as I now do of course. It sucked the breath out of my dad that day…and for a long time after.

So unlike those I grew up with, I didn’t have a dad who was starting his working life, trying to figure it all out. Instead I grew up with a dad who had sixty years of living under his belt. He knew life before telephones, electricity, automobiles and indoor plumbing were commonplace. He lived to age 87 and never flew in an airplane. I learned from the man that such a life created.

Dad taught me that no matter how good the employer, no matter how excellent the benefits, you’ve got to make your own plan. He wasn’t teaching distrust, rather wariness. He was a big believer in personal responsibility.

In those days there weren’t IRAs or 401(k) savings plans. And stock or mutual fund investing was a deep mystery and not nearly as accessible as today. But he had learned the hard, very hard, way that you can’t trust someone else to take care of you. They may try, they may say they will, they may have good intentions or ill, but you’ve still got to be responsible for yourself.

Even as a young child I worried about making a living. Would I get a job? Would I earn enough to be independent? Would I have a good retirement? I still think about it on a regular basis. No matter how much I save, will it be “ready” when I am? Will I outlive it?

My dad also prepared me to do what the boss told me to do. I’m not saying I’m a perfect employee. Not even close! But my goal is to do what my manager wants me to do. Even if I don’t agree with nor like what I’m asked to do, I try my best to do it.

I think my dad’s belief was that if you are a good employee, are agreeable, have a good attitude about work and foster a partnership with the boss, when it comes time to either let people go or move people up, you’ll be in a better position. I spent a few years as a department supervisor and while I learned that I am not cut out to manage people, I also saw the wisdom of my dad’s example.

If you’re the type to complain or resist or challenge all the time, without really good reason, it’s just instinct for the boss to not have the best plan for you. If workplace changes send you on the offensive, how do you think your manager is going to view you?

I’ve had some pretty good managers. I’ve highly respected the managers who could do my job. If I dropped dead on Monday, those bosses who could simply do my work earned my respect. They knew what was involved so they appreciated what I did and understood the effort involved. And they could also look at my work and fairly and completely evaluate it.

I also had some managers who had no clue what I did but admitted that fact. They knew they needed done the work that I was doing but also knew they didn’t know how to do it. I respected them for knowing what was important and trusting me to do it. It was also important that they evaluated me based upon my level of success and the reports they received from my “customers.”

Managers that have not garnered my respect are those who believe that by simple fact of their position they are imparted with knowledge and experience related to my work. Those who fake or pretend get a suspicious eye from me, not respect. In my opinion no one person knows everything about anything. And some who end up in management positions think the position imparts special powers or knowledge. It does not.

However that may be, I always tried to do right by the manager I had at the time.

My dad often would tell me that even a bad situation doesn’t last forever. The bad manager will move on. You will move on. The situation will change. He would have appreciated the more modern motivational phrase “Nothing too good or too bad lasts for too long.”

So I always try to be a good worker. I want my boss to like me, say good things about me and not be the one he or she complains about around their dinner table. I’m certain I’ve been that topic of consternation from time to time, but I strive to not be.

My dad also stressed that you shouldn’t tell others how much you earn. Because my dad was a supervisor he hired and fired. He had union and non-union employees. He had hourly and salaried workers. I benefited from his decades of experience. His advice to me was to think only of myself. If I was considering a job, consider the work and the pay being offered. If it was a fair deal in my mind, I should go for it. If not, walk away. Similarly, after having the job, if the level of work or effort was not worth the pay, it was up to me to justify and ask for an increase. But if I didn’t get it there was no purpose in being mad, cutting back on my effort or becoming that “bad” worker. The mantra of personal responsibility said I should simply look for something else instead. While on the clock, do your best, that’s what he would say. If the pay doesn’t measure up to the requirement, the boss or company isn’t at fault. They’re making a valuation decision for themselves. It’s my job to put a value on my skills and work. If the requirements don’t match the pay, the employer isn’t the bad guy, I simply need to accept it or make a change.

My dad would tell me stories about workers who did the same job under him, but got paid differently. As a little kid those stories were rather abstract. It just seemed normal to me. It wasn’t until I had been working for a while that I understood the import.

Dad would tell me about one person who made more because he was always on time or early, always took on the additional request without moaning or complaining. That person was one of the “go-to” fellas dad could trust and rely on.

The employee making less did just what was required, nothing more.

To this day I hear co-workers complain about differences in pay. The amount we’re paid for our labor is not always fair to be sure! Sometimes it’s the result of who negotiated the best. Sometimes the differences are a true mystery. But I learned, at least from my dad’s experience, that there was a reason. On the outside, and from those on the plant floor, it may have seemed arbitrary and unfair. But since he had to justify what he paid people to those in the accounting office, he had reasons.

I’ve tried to take that lesson to heart. Again, I try to be agreeable and work with people rather than against. I try to keep my complaints and gripes away from the boss unless there’s something constructive we can do to address them.

My dad also made me think about how people feel when they learn about other’s pay. As my dad would tell me, if you share with others what you’re making, there’s almost nothing good to come from it. If you’re making more than the other person, they resent you. And they may complain to the boss that they want to make as much as you do. You have their resentment as well as the angst of the boss who now has yet another personnel headache to deal with.

And if you are the one making less you are likely the one who will complain to the boss. You’ll feel undervalued whereas just before hearing of your co-worker’s pay, you were happy to show up and do the work for your pay. Now everything is called into doubt.

Of course it’s useful to know what the pay is for similar jobs. This is particularly true if you’re actively trying to secure a new position. Sharing numbers with co-workers, especially out of idle curiosity and nosiness, seems like a dose of poison to me.

I recall at one job we had two women with the same first name working in the department. Each woman had a different job description. Our pay checks were often stacked on the boss’ desk and we’d just grab our own each payday.

One day one of the women accidentally grabbed the pay envelope for the other person with the same first name. To this day I believe it was an honest mistake. But she was totally blown away by how the amount of the other woman’s check. Granted, the job descriptions were miles apart, and I don’t think anyone thought the higher-paid woman was being over-paid, but it brought to light the size of the pay gap between the jobs.

Oh the problems that discovery created! Talk spread of how much one made over the other. Any time the higher-paid woman made a mistake the pay difference would come up.  For months and months it was a divisive force in the department. It was not good. The discovery was an accident and neither woman had done anything wrong, nor had the company, in my opinion. But the knowledge created a rift that lasted for a long time.

I think we often believe that those doing the same job should be paid an identical amount. If there are five shipping and receiving clerks, they should all make the same money. They’re doing the same job: they we should earn the same money. That’s the belief.

When we’re talking about race or gender in the workplace I’m totally on board — those should not be factors in determining pay. Nor should family size (I actually had a manager tell me once that I wasn’t getting a raise because a colleague needed it more because they had a “family”).

But I’m not completely sure pay should be identical. Nor do I think one should make more simply because of seniority. Nor should someone automatically earn more based upon  their level of education.

You could have two people come into a job, one with 10 years of experience and a Master’s degree, and the other with no degree and no experience. On the surface it might seem proper to pay the first person more. But what if that first person just doesn’t “get it”, is slow to learn and pick up on the details of the job, or comes in late, takes long lunches, leaves early, does the bare minimum and is rude to customers? Should we take that into account? What if the person without a degree nor experience hits the door running each morning, customers love her and she picks up each new task instantly? Which person is more valuable to the company? Which is better at the job? Which deserves more? Which one do you want to keep?

Pay can also get out of whack due to the company’s desire to be fair. I once lead a team of people and inherited an employee from another department that was being restructured. The employee that joined my team had done nothing wrong, but their job was no longer required. The company tried to do the right and fair thing: they transferred this person to my team. But the sticky point? The prior job paid more. Paid more in fact than I was making.

That’s when I learned that the supervisor doesn’t always make more than the supervised. Over the years I’ve learned in many ways that this is not unusual. Good companies don’t want to penalize people for changes in priorities, so they keep someone at their former rate of pay.

Of course as the supervisor that bothered me. Over time members of the team realized this person was making more than they were (considerably more). It was a constant source of stress.

But that’s not all. This transferred employee was used to somewhat regular pay adjustments due to good performance. On my team the pay was never adjusted because it was already so far above the top pay for the current job description. So over the years this transferred employee began to forget how the company had tried to look out for them and began to feel like a victim.

People who know me well know that I have very fond feelings about my years at the Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper. It was certainly not always roses and ice cream, but the Gazette was a good place to work. I had a couple of managers whom I did not like but I had more managers who were good and good to me. I’ve been away from the Gazette for about 13 years as of this writing and am still in weekly contact with one of my former supervisors. Yet another, who unfortunately passed away shortly after his retirement, was like a second father to me…he was a real mentor to me personally and professionally.

The Gazette paid for 100% of my college degree. About the only thing I had to pay for was parking! They provided a flexible work schedule that allowed me to get my education (albeit it took me eight years to get a four-year degree).

The Gazette is owned by the Newhouse family and, at least historically, they had benefits that were enviable. I had a pension plan and a 401(k) plan. I had totally free health insurance that was excellent. I had life insurance. I had unlimited sick time (the rule was “take what you need when you need it – we trust you.”) Paid vacation time was also generous in the extreme.

The Gazette invested in me in numerous ways. I got training in Novell NetWare, Solaris, Atex, Camex, laser imaging technology…the list is long!  That type of training was and is very expensive. I got to travel on the company dime.

I knew I was being treated very well, and my dad was proud that I had a job with such a good company. It was a job, with its good and bad, but I was happy.

But then one day I was contacted about a job at another newspaper. It was a much larger operation and they were looking for someone with my skills. They contacted me through a colleague of mine.

I wasn’t looking for another job. I perhaps was a little bored at the Gazette and would have been interested in going to corporate or to one of the larger newspapers in the chain, but I was more or less happy where I was. And the city where this other job was located was not appealing…not even a little bit. But they wanted me to come out to interview and look around right away.

So I decided nothing could be harmed by going and checking it out. I was surprised by how much I liked the place and the people and the philosophy behind how the job would be structured. Oh, there was a lot to like about the job they were offering. I found myself being very interested in making the move. They had me on-site for a couple of days so I could spend time learning about the area and seeing the operation in full swing. By the end of the first day I was thinking I might like this job.

Before my visit was over they were offering me the job. And the salary offered was a lot more than I was making in Kalamazoo. $20,000 more per year. That’s a lot of money in my book. This new place didn’t have a pension, but many of the other benefits were the same. Plus the working conditions and hours and on-call responsibilities were much, much more favorable.  And instead of being on a team of five people, I’d be on a team of 30+ people. In short, they were offering a huge raise for me to do a fraction of the work I was responsible for in Kalamazoo.

I thought long and hard before accepting that job. I think I took a month before giving them a positive answer. And it wasn’t about that $20,000 increase in salary. It was the complete package. It was a good move for me. These many years later I still am glad I made the decision. I learned a lot more at the larger company, my responsibilities increased, I got even more training, my quality of life improved more than I can say and over time my salary was improved even more.

It was a good thing. But it made personal many of the lessons my dad had taught me. At the time I was in an odd situation in terms of managers at the Gazette. I had essentially two managers. My time was being split between two departments and two projects. When I went into one of my boss’ office to give my notice I was asked how much the new job was going to pay me.

I hesitated. My decision was firm – I was leaving. And because I had learned how much value another company put on my skills, and because I’d be leaving behind some really fantastic colleagues who deserved more, I decided to be totally honest.  So I gave the amount of my new salary.

Without missing a beat my manager said “I can bump your pay $10,000 right now, today…if you want to stay.”


I was worth $10,000 more than I was already making? I wonder how much my co-workers were making? Was I the stupid fool who was working for peanuts while everyone else was getting paid more? I don’t know…I’ve never learned how much my colleagues were making. But I was sick to my stomach that all I had needed do was threaten to leave and I could have gotten a substantial salary increase.

I was already on my way – for a lot of reasons, so the $10,000 “offer” didn’t sway me. But it was an important, and painful, lesson. A lesson I had learned from my dad, but it became personal. And painful.

Dad’s been gone for a long time now. But his experiences and lessons continue to be valid and I rely on them every day.

I feel bad that he spent a lifetime working so hard only to be cast aside at the end. Until I get put in that little box in the ground, I won’t know how my story ends. Will I fare any better? Will I fare worse? I just don’t know. But I do my best to be a good worker and to take responsibility for my own path. That’s what dad would have suggested and I think he was right.

I wish I knew…

We can’t escape marketing, sales and advertising information. No matter where we are there is some effort underway to get us to buy something or select one product over another.

There are numerous publications and sites devoted to helping us make a decision about where to spend our money. Blue? White? Green? There’s probably some place that will give you the low-down on each one and make a recommendation of one over the other.

I like to read various sources about the latest car, gadget or tool. Whether I particularly want what’s being reviewed or not, I’m interested to know what is available.

But I’m often flummoxed after a purchase because the information I really wanted was never brought to light. There is a standard list of features and benefits and differentiators touted between competitors, but what I need to know is somehow left out.

In the fall of 2009 I was shopping for a car. I was interested in several moderately-priced, high-MPG models. I read everything I could find on the models I liked, I test-drove several and walked out of at least one dealership due to ill-treatment.  I was going to spend about $16,000, and the last car I purchased (the famed 2000 Ford “Explodes In Your Garage” Focus) hadn’t been such a great experience, so I took my time.

In the end I bought a new Honda Fit.  I really wanted the sport model because that was the only way to get cruise control, but I didn’t want to spend that much more money, so I got the base unit. Ever since I’ve regretted that decision because I really, really miss cruise control. But I knew that going in. Many sources clued me in to the fact that I couldn’t just add cruise control — it was only part of a multi-thousands-of-dollars package. What I didn’t know was that the radio controls are totally whack.

During my test drive of the Fit, I made sure I could see well, made sure I was comfortable, tested the brakes, the handling, all that normal stuff.  I pushed the radio button, listened to a couple of stations and evaluated other features of the car. I liked the car enough to buy it on the spot and take it home.

But years after my purchase the radio still confounds me. Why? It’s a stupid little thing, but it annoys me every day. In the center of the radio is a very large round button.  You push that button to turn the radio on. Very convenient. Very obvious. Works great. But when it comes time to turn it off? You might think you’d push the same button that got the jams jammin’ in the first place, but you’d be oh so wrong. No, push that same large button and you get into some other zone of time and space where you adjust fade, balance, and myriad other functions I don’t care about. To turn the unit off you must press a tiny oval button located off to the edge of the unit. It’s so NOT user-friendly. And try to frantically kill the radio when you must answer an important call whilst barreling down the interstate at 90 MPH!  (Okay, 45 MPH, it IS a Fit after all).

The large Mr. Obvious button in the center turns the radio on. The hidden ovoid button in the top left turns it off.

That’s something I would have liked to have seen in one of the reviews. I still would have bought the car, it’s a great car, but every day I want to ask some Honda designer “What the Dolittle!”

My wife and I each use Canon cameras. Even though they are very different models, the controls are very similar and we can use each other’s cameras without much trouble. But my wife’s has this “quirk” that really annoys me. When you press the Take-A-Picture-Now button, there’s a delay before the picture is actually taken. The subject can move, the photographer can breathe, the Space Shuttle can be restored to service and the picture hasn’t been committed to memory yet. My Canon however is nearly instantaneous. And in fact I’ve used other people’s cameras and noticed the same thing: some shoot instantly, some must pause and check current atmospheric conditions in Outer Slobovia before agreeing to capture the moment. And yet I’ve never seen a review or advertisement talk about this property. This is a quirk that would prevent me from buying a camera. It’s very annoying.

Similarly, I have used a friend’s Nikon camera and found that when you take a picture with that little black box, it makes so much noise that the sleeping lion you’re shooting is likely to awaken from her mid-noon purr to see if human tastes as good as tuna. I don’t like that one bit. And if you haven’t had the opportunity to make a comparison, you might never know that such a distinction existed.

Some time ago I helped a fellow woodworker assemble his brand-new table saw. We had a fun day of drinking beer, putting Tab M into Slot Q and wondering why the manufacturer had included so many extra washers that clearly we did not need. My own table saw is nearly 20 years old and while I haven’t seriously considered replacing it, while working on the setup of this new model I was struck by the fact that it had heavy plastic covers for the feet. Again, this is not a huge deal. But my saw has bare metal feet. Many do. But I noticed on my friend’s saw that it made it much more stable and if you need to move it around it moves without scraping the floor and vibrating like a 747 loaded with buffalo crashing into the Mojave. All reviews on table saws will talk about amperage, cutting capacity, accuracy, etc. But nobody told me I had a choice in feet!

My, what nice legs you have!

Household appliances need better pre-sale revelations as well. I’m a real goober when it comes to noise. I don’t like it. But when you shop for a refrigerator or vacuum sweeper or hair comb, you’ll get information about sucking power, amperage, efficiency, storage capacity, bag versus bagless — all kinds of important stuff. But they don’t tell you that this particular refrigerator will keep folks in the next zip code from getting a sound sleep because of its bubbling, gurgling, hacking and knocking noises. Why does it need to make so much noise? I have visited other people’s homes and their cold boxes purr along quietly while mine announces its presence on an hourly basis causing me to increase the volume on the TV so as not to miss the latest Life Alert advert. The vacuum may get every last crumb of particulate from the last meteor impact, but even the ear protection I wear when shooting powerful handguns cannot restore sanity to my aggravated cochlea.

Does the EnergyGuide label give me a decibel level for my refrigerator? Or does the box for the vacuum have a sound rating? They don’t. And neither Consumer Reports nor the Good Housekeeping Institute will tell you, either.

I have a DishNetwork satellite TV system. I really like it. I’ve had satellite TV from DirecTV and DishNetwork since 1993. I’ve had receivers from a variety of manufacturers. But did you know there’s a difference in how quickly channels change, based upon the receiver you have? I didn’t, either, until I’d been through a few. The RCA unit I had was the best. Key in a new channel number and as soon as you released that last number, you were watching Headline News in all its glory. But the Sony unit I had needed time to consider my channel change request before granting my wish. I guess the Sony was being my built-in conscience: “Do you REALLY want to watch Rednecks Fighting Gators, Aaron?” But that’s a feature of this equipment that I’ve never seen discussed. It’s only after you’ve made an expensive and hard-to-change-decision that you learn these things.

Most of these peeves are about minor things. But they add up! I leave work in the afternoon and the radio puts me in a bad mood. I walk in the door of the house and the fridge is rattling away, scaring the cats and goats next door. I vacuum the carpets and get a buzzing deafness in my ears. I proceed to watch a little HGTV and fall asleep waiting for the program to change away from the latest Lifetime “My Husband Is A Terrorist” flick.

I think we need a website that gives no-nonsense “I wish I knew…” information on a variety of products. I’ll make millions!

I just hope the site works the way you want it too, or you’ll write a nasty blog article about me.


Eating in public #5
The free refill

Beverage refills used to cost extra.

Yes, it’s true. Many of today’s kids don’t remember a time when drink refills weren’t free. That’s right punks, we used to pay our buck for a Coke and when that one was gone, if we were still gripped by the dusty fist of thirst, we had to, gasp, pay another buck!

I don’t know when it happened, but it sure seemed to take hold overnight. One day Coke and Pepsi were duking it out with taste-test challenges all over the country, the next day they were all but giving it way. And oh, what a blessed thing it was!

In the old days when we’d order our favorite carbonated beverage to go with our our deep-fried mushrooms, we’d get our beverage but if we wanted more we, brace for it, HAD TO PAY EXTRA! I am not lying to you. I swear, I am not! Of course you had to be really thirsty to justify the expense so I don’t think too many people did it.  I know I’d try to pace myself and ration the goodness that is a fountain-served Coca-Cola.  Then I’d turn to the free water to handle the critical thirst-quenching duties.

My experience with the restaurant carbonated beverage goes back to last days when the flavoring syrup was mixed with soda water right at the counter. The Carousel ice cream joint on Main Street in Kalamazoo, MI as well as the Spayde’s Pharmacy lunch counter in Gobles, MI held on to the old ways as long as they could.  At The Carousel a big red Coca-Cola contraption sat upon the counter and Dorothy, the proprietor, had to pour the thick Coca-Cola syrup into one section and soda water into another. (On some occasions she’d re-sell just the syrup to those suffering from a sore throat — on a doctor’s order only). She pulled the lever on the machine and the two fluids would mix and you’d have yourself a cool eight ounces to go with your hot dog (hold the relish, please).

It was pricey stuff.  I don’t remember how much Dorothy was charging for a Coke, but once your measly glass was empty, you had to pony up some more coin if you wanted another. Today the waitress at Pizza Hut brings you a brand-new 164-ounce flagon of Pepsi after you’ve only but glanced at your current supply.

I don’t know the financial model behind all of this. Of course they’ve been giving away condiments, as well as salt and pepper, all along.  So why not the beverages?  But if you’re going to go that far why not give me another three ounces of sirloin if the first eight didn’t quite fill me up?

When I put myself in the shoes of the restaurant owner I just can’t make it add up. Apart from giving away the added beverage I’ve also increased my labor costs. Wilma the waitress now has to make repeated trips back to give all the teenagers in your brood countless refills on their Mountain Dews.  That’s time Wilma can’t be upselling table five to add the grilled onions to their steak or order up a hot fudge sundae. And don’t even get me started on the increased ice expense!

Now I’m sure there are those who are cynical enough to think that they’ve just watered-down the beverages so it all works out. I’m sure that may have happened, but they couldn’t water it down too much – the soda junkies of the world would notice. At a minimum there’s some color in there and that’s gotta cost something.

The Freestyle

To take an even greater leap toward insanity, now there is a machine, called The Freestyle, that can dispense 100 beverages from a single spigot. From its touch-screen interface the customer mixes and blends their own crappy concoction.  A little Mountain Dew, a little Mr. Pibb, a splash of Ginger Ale, a swish of Orange Crush and a topper of Coca-Cola.  Oh yeah, this is for the better, no doubt about it.


With almost every joint offering up the free refill, I’m amazed by all of the goobers who continue to buy anything larger than the smallest vessel available. When you can get the 99-cent baby cup, and refill it to your heart’s content, why would you pay $2.95  for the Mega-Burpo size?  There’s no logic in it…other than we’re too lazy to get up and push our empty beverage cup into the lever and get another spray of beverage.

No, I don’t think we’re meant to understand this one. And after several years of studying the angles I’ve decided to give up. Instead, I’m going to accept it as one of those extra-special little things in life that make facing each day a little more joyous. Sort of like the whipped cream in a can.  Whipped cream you can shoot into your mouth until it’s hard to breathe. Oh, but that’s another story.

Eating in public #4
Waitress, there’s a fly in my pie

I’ve often heard people remark that if you could see the kitchens of most restaurants you’d never eat there. The implication is that sanitation standards are not a high priority. This may be true, but think of the things that we do in our homes. How many of you have a teenager who drinks directly from the milk jug? Enough said.

While I don’t think sterile utensils are necessarily the goal, I’ve noticed some things that, while not necessarily a risk to health, are blatantly gross.

There are of course health department standards for what can and cannot happen in a kitchen. For example, when a cook accidentally whacks off his index finger while separating a joint in a piece of fowl, it is expected that the mess be cleaned up, and the meat be disposed of (the bird that is – the appendage may be a candidate for reattachment). But there are many more disturbing things that go on behind that magical swingy door.

There often are common preparation areas that many meals travel through. Have you ever gotten a lone onion ring with your french fries? That’s an added “bonus” that you can see. Imagine what you cannot see!

Have you ever taken the time to watch the journey that a restaurant wiping rag takes? One rag with, hopefully, some cleaning solution on it, sees a lot of action.. After about thirty minutes that rag is starting to get ripe with onions, mustard, lettuce, mayo and who knows what else in it. All of those great edibles are fine when served up on a clean plate, but put them together in a rag for a couple of hours and something starts to ferment and grow that isn’t suitable for bottling under a fancy cork.

That’s bad enough. But often that very same rag is used to wipe off seating surfaces. The rag that wipes the area where many a butt parks itself is wiping the table where my naked utensils have been resting. Just imagine those rotting mayo goobers and butt residue dancing all over your fork and knife.

Most cooks need to taste their food during preparation. We all understand that. It doesn’t mean that they’re stealing food throughout the day. No, they want to make sure they’re doing it right and that what they serve is good. If the chef didn’t occasionally taste the food passing by I would suspect that said chef was dreaming about a career change to NASCAR. But using one’s fingers or the same old spoon to snag the sample is unacceptable. Those of us eating in public don’t want their phlegm and spittle added. Salt and pepper are fine, thank you very much. But I suspect we get the former nonetheless.

I’m not a hair-toucher. Okay, I don’t have hair. But if I did, I wouldn’t be touching it whilst working with food. Hair is greasy and oily. Especially around my food I don’t want the cook’s nor server’s hair cooties. So think about those little scratches made to their itches or the re-arrangements to their coifs. That’s getting on their hands and then getting on the utensils and food. Think of the grossest person you’ll see today. Imagine dragging a fork through that person’s hair before using it to take a mouthful of creamy cole slaw. Doesn’t evoke images of grandma’s kitchen now does it? Unless your grandma was a greasy slob in which case you’ve probably got more important issues.

Hair causes yet another problem that most people overlook. I’ve got nothing against long hair but servers need to think about where their hair is when they hoist that big serving tray up on their shoulders. Time and time again I see them heft the big load of plates up there only to have the hair on the side of their head drag through the food. I’d say that most of the hair that we find in our food didn’t come from Stan in the kitchen. It came from Stella’s pony tail.

The at-table refill procedure is, on the surface, a great advance in customer service. The at-table refill entails the server bringing a pitcher to the table to refill your beverage. On the face of it this isn’t a bad way to go. If nothing else they limit the number of beverage containers that must be run through the dishwashing process. However the pourer is often not paying attention to straw location. Think about where the mouth-end of the straw is during the refill. Often it’s bouncing around the spout of the pitcher.  That means that all of the cooties from hundreds of straws are now crawling around near the spout of the pitcher. Those cooties are desperate for a new home on your lips.

I’m pretty sure I’ve just technically Frenched the tattooed trucker in the corner by sipping on my straw.

Eating in public #3
The tipping point

I was once informed that the word “tip” was an acronym that stood for “To Improve Performance.”  I suppose we, in the dining public, would leave funds on the table to induce the individual to perform well. They know that if they don’t do a good job they won’t get much, or maybe nothing at all.

Perhaps it’s okay to look at it that way. But I prefer to look at a tip as payment for service.

I’ve never waited a table in my life. That’s not counting the occasional family gathering when mom’s evil eye and swift kick to the knee indicated that it was my turn to clear the table. I have, however, known many a food service professional. They all have a story to tell but the one common thread is that they don’t get paid squat. As of this writing, the federal minimum wage for wait staff is $2.13 per hour. You didn’t know that, did you? But it’s true. Not that the “regular” federal minimum wage of around $7.00 an hour would keep any single person’s cupboard stocked with steak and Starbucks.

That couple of bucks an hour that they get paid by the establishment scarcely pays for their toothpaste and People magazine bills. When you leave a tip you aren’t doing them any favors – you’re compensating them for the work that they’ve done on your behalf. Stiff them or be stingy and, in my book anyway, you’d better have a good reason. You can disagree with the system, but that’s just the way it works.

Whenever I set my size 13s in a sit-down public eating establishment, I mentally give the service person a 20% tip. If they do a good job, they’re getting the 20% (and it probably will be rounded up just a bit to save myself the mathematical tension).

Notice that I said a good job. They don’t have to go above and beyond the call of duty — they just have to do a good job. Before they introduce themselves, they’re getting 20%.

I start to deduct from the 20% for deficiencies. I don’t keep a spreadsheet going and the deductions aren’t scientific but, for example, if my beverage is not regularly re-filled, I’m going down to 15%. That’s quite a big drop I admit.  But there isn’t much work involved in keeping a glass of water filled. And in my experience if the beverage isn’t attended to, then not much else is, either.

After food is delivered, whether it be the opening salad or soup, the main course or dessert, I expect my server to check back with me. They should make sure I got what I ordered, that the food is acceptable and that there’s not a large piece of asphalt in my mashed potatoes. Failure to check back will result in a reduction.

I’m also looking for friendly service. It’s a bonus if I’m entertained and leave the public place happier than when I entered.  Make me laugh out loud and you’re destined for extra tippage. I want some semblance of a smile and to be treated nicely. This is important because on nearly any given shift the service folks are putting up with rude customers like you. Customers who can’t make up their minds, customers who complain about everything and colleagues in the kitchen who aim to make life as miserable as possible. Plus they’re on their feet all day. So we shouldn’t expect refrains of “Happy-Happy, Joy-Joy”,  but I do expect a nice disposition.

The server always should offer dessert. Even if I’ve just had a hot-dog. Even if I’ve just consumed inhuman quantities of chow. Offer me dessert. If they don’t, I’m going to feel like I’m  being herded like a bovine on my way to the next pasture. So they’ll take a deduction on the tip. Plus they’ll lose the addition of the dessert to the tip calculating base.

Finally, the dirty dishes need to be removed regularly. Dirty dishes piling up is not appetizing and it also restricts freedom of movement whilst trying to ingest foodage. On one hand I will argue that it isn’t the job of the server to deal with the dirties, but in establishments where it is, their performance in this area will be reflected in the tip.

All of that said, it’s very rare that I tip below 10%.

I try to take the atmosphere into account. If it’s clear a bad day is being had by all, I’m not going to add to it by withholding coin. We’re all human and none of us is on the top of our game all the time.

When I was a single dude I took full advantage of the tipping process in order to arrive at the the“getting to know you” department. Some might liken it to prostitution but I was simply rewarding a fine-looking young lady for  being so. I mean, if I can’t express that I’m a decent, up-standing citizen by leaving a 200% tip, then what’s the point of living in a free-market economy? I don’t know.

Now don’t think for a moment that female service professionals don’t understand that this goes on. They pander to it, believe me. The staged casualness of their hand on your shoulder? The endearing phrases such as “Can I get you a refill on that honey?” when she’s not talking about bee-juice? The revealing and evocotive garments? The questions to which the answers hold to meaning? They’re all there to distract the male customer from his wallet.

Of course it’s all fake and just meant to provide a pleasant atmopshere. One that will have us men leaving a decent tip even though the order destined for table 17 ended up in front of us in error. And even though we didn’t complain as we ate the liver, onions and wind chime casserole.

Standing around and waiting on us is hard work.  Even in the simplest of joints, just watch what goes on.  Dealing with the public is horrendous on a good day.  If you can’t afford or are unwilling to offer up the 20%, get a candy bar at the gas station and keep on down the road.

These folks work hard.

Their wages are low.

They put up with a lot of crap.

They put up with you.

Pay ’em.

Eating in public #2
A corner, a bar and a rack of ribs

I can’t begin to imagine the number of times that someone has taken me to a restaurant that, left to my own initiative, I never would have tried.

I know better than to judge a restaurant by its appearance, but I also know that I should drop a few pounds, give to charity and obey the speed limit.

On balance most of my adventures into unknown dining establishments have turned out to be fine. Or better. In fact, quite often a great little gem has been uncovered.

One such place is The Corner Bar and Grill in Kalamazoo, MI. At least it was. In a building dating to the late 1800s, The Corner Bar and Grill recently closed its doors. While it has been more than a decade since I shouldered through the flimsy, grimy doors, I still have a sweet spot for it in my gastronomical garage.

In the 1950s, when my mom was a hippie, it was a hangout for that crowd.

In the ’80s and ’90s when I frequented the joint, Tuesday night was cigar night. Even though I don’t smoke, the atmosphere of cigar smoke, Miller High Life served up in 8-oz glasses from the ’40s, and amazing ribs made for a great break from the hours of setting type and making printing plates at the local newspaper. Plus they had free popcorn to keep you thirsty and downing the amber liquid of joy.

The Corner Bar and Grill was dirty. It was old. It had a dozen floor elevations due to sagging floors and failed attempts to repair or update.

Judging from its outward appearance you would be forgiven for thinking that the building housed an enterprise that rebuilt carburetors. Or fabricated farm implements. But no, it was a place to eat. In public.

And people did eat there. From young dropouts to yuppies, to members of the UAW — you might see every walk of life in there at any time.

But why was it so high on my list? Those ribs!

I love ribs. But I’m picky. I generally have a rule about bones: I don’t eat around them. I don’t work for my food. I want to get in and out quickly with as little muss and fuss as possible. I don’t even eat chicken drumsticks unless the Colonel himself is threatening me with court martial. I want to cut and fork my meat like a civilized neanderthal.

For this reason if I’m to enjoy a rack, they must be tender, so very tender. The flesh must fall off the bone at the mere suggestion of fork movement. And the barbecue sauce must be thick, sweet, tangy and not very spicy. And there needs to be enough surplus sauce to suffocate every last potato wedge and dinner roil. The ribs served up by The Corner Bar and Grill were delicious, copious in quantity and cheap. And they were good, too.

Clinically it was a disgusting place, not suitable for public ingestion. I’m sure it had been several administrations since the place saw any sort of cleaning effort. I shudder to consider what lived on the other side of those flippy doors to the kitchen. Egads!

I’m sorry it’s now gone. Even though they haven’t benefited from this big tipping public eater since 1999, I wanted one of the best places in my personal history to go on. Go on so that one day I might stage a triumphant return and so that others coming along behind me could enjoy the time machine that was The Corner Bar and Grill.

Goodbye, my friend.

Eating in public

I don’t work in a restaurant. I never have.

Nor do I play a waiter on television.

In fact it would be an uncomfortable stretch to consider any of my past employment to be “service” in nature.

Unless you count the time when I guided a gaggle of goslings out of the roadway.  Your call.

I grew up on a major state thoroughfare in rural Michigan.  The two-lane road was a major artery for semi tractor-trailer rigs, RVs and law enforcement officers in their shiny, blue Dodge sedans.

Next door to my house was a humble restaurant.  In the 1950s it was a drive-in.  Named “The Country Drive-In” it overlooked farmland and woods.  It provided about eight spaces for motorists to park, grab a burger, a dog, a Coke – basic sustenance to push them towards the completion of their journey. It also had a few picnic tables, important so that weary motorists could sit on dirty, splintered pine boards while eating their meal.  After twenty minutes of that, the flat, sun-hot vinyl bench seats in the family wagon seemed plush.

The occasional farmer on his Farmall or John Deere would also stop by to grab a bite and share critical agricultural lies with others engaged in the sow and reep trade.

In the early ’70s, drive-in movies and restaurants were in decline. New owners took over the “drive-in” and a more traditional dining establishment was created. The main building, which wasn’t much more than a kitchen, was expanded to accomodate seating for a goodly quantity of folks.  A few years later a salad bar was added. That was followed closely by an investment in a pizza oven.

Rumors persisted for years that the idea to add pizzas to the mix was spawned by one of the cooks, a student at the local high school.  I never learned whether or not that was true, but Bart made one incredible pie. Regardless of the party responsible for the idea, pizzas were good and good for business.

Many in those isolated parts had little to no experience with pizza. To some it was viewed as hippie food.  So the novelty was, I suspect, what prompted people to give it a try. The comfortable and familiar drive-in made it safe for the conservative residents to give pizza a test chew.

It surely didn’t harm the equation that the pizzas were excellent. To this day, despite having gorged myself on the finest offered by Chicago and New York, my mouth still waters when I remember a Country Drive-In House Special.  That was their signature pie – it included nearly everything except fish and boots.

The pizza success lead to yet another expansion of the joint’s footprint.  Soon the owners decided to go for a more upscale atmosphere and they sold the pizza-making equipment.  That was a mistake, in my eyes at least.   Shortly thereafter the restaurant said “Hello” to its third owner, Dolores.  The new owner changed the name to Shagnasti. Regulars called it “The Shag”.

During my childhood I was friendly with all of the owners and their families.  The air-lock entrance served as my respite while awaiting the arrival of my school bus on frigid winter mornings.

From my before-school vantage point I observed with fascination the operation of the restaurant. It was a fantastic choreography: trucks delivered boxes to the back door and out came a menu of delicious edibles!  In the morning they’d be firing up the grill, preparing stock items and bundling flatware and napkins. When I returned from school they already had fed dozens of people and were preparing for the dinner crowd.

As a kid my goal in life was to be able to go in by myself, sit at a table, and order one of my favorites: a cheesburger basket and a Coke.  And pay with my own money.

I remember the day that my dream came true.  Everyone knew me so I was treated to great service while the crew no doubt exchanged giggles about the little man eating his lunch.  I was careful to pick a booth near a window so I could keep an eye on my wheels — a red bicycle with a banana seat.

My family probably ate at The Shag once a week.  Tuesday nights were reserved for another dining establishment.  That’s when we would drive 12 miles to a place called DiJuancos (pronounced “dee-won-koes”).  On Tuesday night they had an all-you-can-eat buffet that included a huge salad bar and, a favorite for my parents, huge golden fillets of lake perch.   This was one of those dark, smoky places that were probably just the ticket in the ’40s.   It had a wooden dance floor and on certain nights Gene and The Starlighters would play audience requests.

And I must mention the semi-regular breakfasts at a place called Cathy’s Kitchen.  Cathy’s was a unique spot.  During the week it served as a very popular breakfast,  lunch and dinner spot. You’d find small-town political figures, state troopers from the nearby state police post, farmers, truck drivers and other folk.

A major transformation took place on Friday afternoons.  That’s when Cathy and her husband Bill geared up to host one of the state’s largest flea markets – run from the counter in front of the grill.

Flea market weekends at Cathy’s was anything but normal.  It felt more like a carnival except the clowns didn’t wear the big floppy shoes and the performers were our neighbors.  A large number of the attendees looked like they were attending the market only by permission of someone in authority…if you get my meanin’.

Even though my family ate in public on a regular basis, we did have quite a few meals at home. My father was a house-husband before it became P.C. and he handled the bulk of the shopping and the cooking, though he didn’t touch the laundry: mom wouldn’t let anyone touch her washing machine.

Like anyone who takes their kitchen prowess seriously, paw had his specialties for which he was famous: homemade donuts, ice cream, and his famous chocolate layer cake with whipped cream and bananas.

He wrote his own cookbooks over the years, documenting what worked and what didn’t (he was sometimes alone in his assessments of “success” however).

He also went through two distinct winemaking phases: dandelion and rhubarb.  I think he got a great deal of pleasure out of the process.  The high level of effort required made his wine-making a relatively short-lived chapter in my dad’s dining dabblings.   Which was fine for me since I was tasked with picking dandelions during the Dandelion Wine Summer. He thought of it as great privilege while I wondered what I’d done that was so wrong to deserve such punishment.

To this day I regularly eat in public, about once per day.    I know how to cook, and I actually enjoy it.  However I choose to eat in public for various reasons. One of the reasons is that until I was 43 I was single and cooking for one is a drag.  You end up eating the same thing for days on end. Not to mention that many items need to be tossed before they are eaten.

I make a mean meatloaf but no matter how good it is, after a few dozen servings it’s about as appetizing as it sounds.

In my non-scientific studies I have proven to myself, with some bias perhaps, that eating in public costs about the same as eating at home.  Of course I don’t make a daily habit of patronizing establishments that lay out multiple forks in the placesetting.

I find that eating in public is great theatre.  For the price of a meal, and ya gotta eat anyway, you are able to view all segments of society deal with their business crises, family bickerings, heartbreaks and triumphs.

Think about virtually any major event in life and eating in public will be close at hand.  Success, accomplishments, and other happy times are celebrated and shared around a table with food and service.

Similarly when we are forced to process the challenges in life, we use food and drink as a distraction.  Often public dining with a friend or two allows for the type of interpersonal communication that cannot happen elsewhere.

A booth in a public eating establishment is a calming vehicle. You say more, you think more deeply and you drink lots of coffee. Perhaps problems are not solved, but weighed, shifted and balanced so that we are able to shoulder the burden, tip the server, walk past the hostess and resume our regularly scheduled lives.

I like to people-watch. Generally you don’t hear that from someone who has yet to start their subscription to Modern Maturity, but there it is. I like to observe and pigeonhole people into categories. I write mental back stories and dramas for those whom I observe. I am able to predict with fair reliability what people are going to do or say next.  It’s terribly fascinating.  And eating in public is the only way to engage in such a pursuit without getting a license, hanging out a shingle and paying for malpractice insurance.  Or being fitted for one of those slimming canvas suits with the wrap-around arms.

There are of course other places to observe the human animal, but eating in public provides the most variety. In no other location are your subjects a captive audience. Restrained by their hostess-assigned seating, they stay in one place and deal with their issues.

While eating in public, you are able to stare at your subjects. Try that in a mall, on the street or at the grocery store. I contend that you can’t do it. People notice, feel threatened and if they don’t contact the local constabularly, they break off the performance that you intended to observe.

There’s some special security that people experience when surrounded by menus and little blue packets of Equal. There are just enough other people and minor distractions that you can get away with blatant snooping without detection. It’s far better than going through someone’s medicine cabinet where you invariably drop some heavy glass object into the sink, thus giving away your clandestine activities.

Consider the other things that we do to sustain our lives and comfort. Breathing and blinking are almost always done in public. It would take a freak of coordination to accomplish such necessary functions in private.

Most matters of personal hygiene are attended to behind closed doors, or at least only in proximity to close relations. You don’t often see strangers assembled in public to brush their teeth, floss, clip their nails, jamb Q-tips in their ears, pluck wayward hairs or lather, rinse and repeat.

Yet that basic human need of ingestion is shamelessly carried out in front of others. And joyfully so.

I can make no claim to being well-traveled, but I have been to a dozen states, including Canada. From coast to coast, with very little variation, menus are the same. That is absolutely mind-boggling to me.  In most other businesses, uniqueness and inventiveness are encouraged to differentiate one from the competition.

I suppose a restaurant’s offerings are just too sacred to meddle with. Restaurants are unwavering when it comes to their rigid stance on what to offer the dining public.

Places that serve breakfast, of which I have the distinct sense the number is dwindling, can be counted on to serve up unrealized chickens in a wide variety of presentations.  Eggs come sunny-side up, over-easy, over-medium, over-hard, scrambled, soft-boiled, hard-boiled and finally, for the really particular, poached.

When I was a child, eggs frightened me.  But not at home. At home they were safe because my dad was doing the cooking.  But “out” was a different matter. Ordering eggs required membership in an exclusive club. You had to know the secret handshake, the password to the fort. It was a mystery to me.

I ordered french toast only to avoid making an embarassing egg-prep faux pas. It can be very traumatic to a child, being exposed as an egg novice. (Later in life I learned a similar mystery would confront me when it came to “medium” versus “rare”). For the most part you can expect the server to be poised. But I always feared their ridicule, knowing look, questioning glance toward one of my adult keepers or, worst of all, a query for more egg-prep-preference information!

After the eggs come the major bread groups:  french toast and pancakes. Like many other foods in our lives these two have ulterior motives. They exist purely as vehicles for butter and maple syrup intake. You probably didn’t know that, but it’s true.  Neither french toast nor pancakes have any flavor nor nutritional value. I have tried and failed to breakfast on butter and maple syrup using only a spoon, spatula or saucer. Such efforts are doomed to failure.

Of course omelettes come to mind for breakfast.  Here again we see the traditional: cheese, Denver or Western.

When I was a kid, eating breakfast at Cathy’s Kitchen, they had a real award-winner in my book. A Taco Omelette.  Once in a while you’ll run across a chili omelette or some variant, but the Taco was some good eats. It consisted of ground beef cooked with taco seasonings, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, cheese and a dolop of sour cream. I ordered it with an english muffin on the side and was ready to go!

That pretty much summarizes a public breakfast in this nation.

Lunch across America is a hamburger. And I have absolutely no problem with that. Properly garnished, a hamburger represents a totally satisfying meal that fits between your fingers. It is concise, complete and satisfactory. If we were to somehow lose our hold on the hamburger as the result of some misguided foreign trade negotiation, I feel that the fabric of the U.S.  might very well unravel.

Apart from the hamburger and its variations, we have a few other sandwiches and sundry shapes of deep-fried flesh. Most of it pulled out of freezer boxes in a frosty white form, dropped into a vat filled with a mysterious bubbling fluid and removed crispy, golden and dripping with goodness.

My years of dining experience have revealed to me a very reliable way to gauge the overall quality of a dining establishment. The reuben. While I continue to despise its name, this sandwich remains one of my favorites.

I have found that an establishment that creates a good reuben sandwich generally does a good job with all of its offerings. The reuben gives good clues as to how serious a joint is about ingredient selection.

Quality ground beef can make a burger, but the ingredients in a reuben are much more subtle. While I find myself at a loss to quantify what makes it good, passable or totally without merit, I am satisfied to trust my palette. A reuben sandwich is a delicate work of balance and artwork. I have been both blessed and cursed to ingest reubens from both sides of the track. When done well, it is a hallmark among sandwiches.

I know of a man who makes a similar judgement about breakfast. In my youth this man was pivotal in instructing me on how to get past my egg-ordering phobia.  Prior to his input I always requested my eggs to be scrambled.  There is not a thing wrong with a scrambled egg.  However any choice in life that is made in ignorance is certainly not optimal.

Whenever ordering an egg-based breakfast Richard would request that his eggs be prepared in the same manner as the cook prepares them at home. Because there is finesse and art in egg preparation he believed that you stood a better chance to achieve quality by going with the cook’s choice. Besides, the element of surprise can be a tremendous motivator in the morning.

Ketchup is most-likely America’s favorite condiment. For just about any other food item you can hear those arguing “for” or “against”. Ketchup is different, I think.  Except for a few crazies who use it indiscriminantly on everything from hashbrowns at breakfast to pasta at dinner, I cannot imagine anyone making negative comments about ketchup.

There are folks who don’t particularly like ketchup and don’t use it. But you don’t hear their voices raised at the adjacent table calling for a ban on the red puree of goodness. Perhaps it could be argued that they fear fallout from the ketchup-loving majority, but I think it’s deeper than that. It’s respect. Nearly in the same class as the American flag, few dare to go against this thick red mixture – made of a fruit or vegetable, we don’t know which.

And you thought eating in public was just an accident of convenience.  Oh, my poor, ignorant eater…it is so much more.  So much more.

Beneath The Stars

I like campy things.

That does in fact include the 1960s version of Batman that starred Adam West.  But that’s not the type of campy I’m talking about.

The other campy.

The picture in your head right now is probably the correct one, but how do I know that?  How does one convey what “campy” stuff is?  I think we more or less know it when we see it, but how do you define it?

Since I was a little person with curly hair, I’ve been fascinated by the natural space under the clouds, hatchets, campfires, knives, guns, tents, hiking, chopping wood, cooking over a fire, etc.

Campy stuff, you see.

But what, precisely, is camping?

It’s different things to different people.  And over the past short while I’ve read the journals of Lewis and Clark Clark as well as a biography of Daniel Boone which informed me of the idea that the definition changes over time.

The stories about these historic characters got me  thinking more about a definition for camping.

My parents, my dad specifically, were camping people.  My earliest memory of camping is of a trip to Canada to a place called Bouchard Lake.  My folks borrowed a weary old pop-up trailer for the trip.

Bouchard Lake was located on an old logging road that had years before been retired.  There were numerous rivers and streams on the route, each traversed by use of a hand-made log bridge.

Our camp was dozens of miles from anything.  It was remote and baren.  We fished for walleye and lived off the land to a great degree.

And the mosquitoes, they lived off us.

It was dirty and it was basic.  But that of course is relative.  We had a Ford pickup truck, the aforementioned pop-up camper, sleeping bags, a Coleman gas stove, a Coleman gas lantern, fishing rods and reels, bait, axes, aluminum camp chairs and toilet paper.

Basic compared to our home life at the time, but basic compared to humans in the wilds a few hundred years prior?  I suspect we were in such a state of luxury that in prior eons we could have sold passage to our little camp for many valuable trinkets.

Our camp, around 1972, on the shore of Bouchard Lake.Your author, playing the part of wilderness pioneer.

My memories of that particular trip are vague.  I remember the mosquitoes and some minor details, but I have comfy places in my mind about the trip.

But more comfort was desired by the family.  And a longer stay was planned (my mom was a teacher and thus had summers off, my dad was retired).  Before the summer of 1973 we had purchased a self-contained travel trailer.  The camper, a 23-foot Terry, had a furnace, refrigerator, freezer, toilet, shower as well as the implied shelter and protection such a construction affords.   The beers of deeper Canada could probably still have snacked on us, but I felt invincible.  We had a fort on wheels!

1973 Terry travel trailer, our wilderness outpost.

We camped with the Terry for several years.  I’m not sure what made it “camping,” though.  We were away from home.  But we had running water, heat and as a rare treat, homemade cinnamon rolls made by my dad in the camper’s gas oven.

During many summers we’d spend months in Canada, at our preferred location of Atikameg Lake.  Atikameg Lake was more remote than Bouchard, on the same series of logging roads, but more people knew about it so while we were more isolated from civilization (about 25 miles), we often had the company of like-minded campers.

We were without doubt we had the most advanced camp.  By that point we had large, industrial size LP gas bottles to keep the fridge going, benches made for comfortable fire-watching, wildlife feeders and a large tarp laid beside the trailer to keep dirt out of the “fortress.”  We bathed in the lake and used the camper’s toilet only for middle-of-the-night necessities.

We had pretty sophisticated equipment, but we were remote and camping.

We had many modern tools to make our time in the woods more efficient and comfortable.  Once in a while we’d spend most of the day to make a trip by truck to the junction of the logging road and Canada’s Highway 17.  We went  to a place called the White Lake Lodge.  There we would get milk, soft drinks and other camp supplies.  We’d finish the supply run with an ice cream cone and then head back to camp.

I learned a lot of “camp skills” during those years.  Even though we had fancy rigid shelter, my dad, other campers and Canadian Indians, taught me how to cut wood, how to make a fire, how to catch and clean fish, how to throw an axe, how to make a lean-to, etc.   I treasure those skills. Whenever I watch one of the overly-dramatized programs on TV about surviving in the wilds I think to myself “I probably don’t want to do that…but I think I could.”  And it’s camping that did that for me.

Your author washing clothes in camp at Atikameg Lake, Canada.

In 1978 my parents decided that we needed to see more of North America apart from Canada. We loved Canada, but wanted something differnt.  The decision was made that something simpler was required.

With a pickup truck and travel trailer you have the hitching, un-hitching, leveling, backing, etc. that add to the hassle of making a foray.  So my parents decided that a motorhome would be the next fortress on wheels for us.

They purchased a Southwind motorhome. This unit had many of the same capabilities as the Terry, though it added air conditioning to the mix and a higher level of luxury.  This was not the vehicle for deep woods affairs — we would stick to improved campgrounds that catered to rigs of this size.

We spent a few years being campy with the motorhome but one thing and another (not the least of which was that this rig was a lemon — pits, peels and pulp), we bought our old Terry travel trailer back.

We did a little more camping, but with my dad’s declining health, trips became rare.

I still had that cowboy giddyup in my craw, so when I was a teenager I took my lawn mowing money and ordered an 8×10 tent from the Montgomery Ward catalog.  I was ready to pack it all up and hit the deepest reaches of the frontier!

I was too young and stupid to realize that the frontier didn’t have NBC or CBS.

My final camp outing came when I was about 15 years old.  The youth group at church, egged on by our “adult” leaders Tony and Rick, decided the boys should go camping for a weekend.  We were to do some fire-building, some fishing, some shooting of guns and conduct some general teenage boy craziness in the woods.  And me, having such a great tent, camping experience and firearms was all for it.

Ah, but did I mention that this trip was slated for February?  In Michigan?  With overnight lows of about 10 below zero?  And that the fishing would be ice fishing?

Hindsight, baby, it’s a trip.

Well, I won’t bore you with the details of that outing, suffice to say that a nylon tent, when subjected to temperatures below zero, gets brittle, cracks and for all intents and purposes goes “Poof!” into a bajillion little flakes of worthless confetti.

So that was the end of my tent.

And the end of camping for this author.

Until I met the woman I would later marry.  A couple of years ago, before we were even dating, we decided to go camping together.  I bought a little one-person pup tent for myself since she already had a small tent and assorted gear herself.

It was great to get back out there!  I found that all of my camp skills were still with me.  I could still pitch a tent, cut wood, make a fire and cook a decent dinner over the flames.  We sat around our campfire until the hours of the next morning:  watching the snap and pop of the fire, crying the smoke out of our eyes and watching the dark, dark sky.

Since then we’ve camped a few more times and are now, in the footsteps of my parents, looking at travel trailers.  We want more of course.  We’re good Americans.

There’s also something about camp food.    I suspect hot dogs, hamburgers and marshmallows are pretty standard camp fare.  But camp food can vary based upon your experience.  My wife, for example, used to camp with a group whose tradition was to construct a ginormous pot of stew, with everyone providing ingredients for the cauldron.  While a tradition for my family was Wyler’s Instant Lemon Aid.  Oh how I hated that foul fluid!

So, throughout my career as a human, I’ve had many adventures that I classify as some type of camping.  But what, exactly, IS camping and why is it so restorative and good?

On our most recent trip beneath the trees I decided, regardless of how many conveniences you have, it’s being close to nature that does the job.  At least for me.

Being “close to nature” is probably a cliche, but it’s apt.  When I spend concerted time getting soil lodged beneath my finger nails and make fire, I contemplate my life and place in the world.  The stunning beauty of God’s hand, close and personal for a day or two, brings me peace and recharge.

At any point in history people have had certain tools and skills available for living beneath the canopy of sky and trees.  They’ve used them to their best advantage.   We do the same.  In a few hundred years I suspect that people will still “camp”.  They’ll just get to the site with a jet pack and their shelter will spring from a disk that has been sprinkled with magic water.

The smoke will still get in their eyes, no matter where they sit.

Scrappy Scrambled Scrabble

I really like to play the Scrabble board game (  I am an only child and I played the game a few times as a snot-nosed short person, when my mom could be cajoled to join me.   My love of words and wood perhaps made my affection for this sedate game a natural.

My wife and I generally play a couple of games a week.  It focuses our minds, we talk, we have a drink or twelve and we play Scrabble!

Some of the rules of the game, however, seem oddly arbitrary.  I often sit there staring dumbly at a rack full of totally unusable letters.  I wonder:  Why aren’t there more play options?

Well, I would like to suggest a few modifications to the standard rules of play.   And don’t worry, if all players agree to play by these clever rules of mine, nobody needs to go to jail.  Sure, Hasbro owns all the legal bits, but since I’m in the sanctity of my own little castle, I’m going to change the rules to make the game more interesting.  If not more interesting, more differenter (NOTE:  ‘differenter’ is not a legal Scrabble word in any galaxy).

So then, here are Aaron’s rules for Scrappy Scrambled Scrabble!  Word up!


You’ll need the Scrabble game.  That would be the board with the colored squares, little letter tiles, a bag to hold the letters and a rack to hold each player’s tiles.  Oh, and some paper and a writing implement in order to keep score.  If you’re into the scoring thing, that is.  If you just want to play until the tiles are gone, that’s cool, too.


Any word may be used during game play.

Words may be from any language.

Acronyms are allowed.

Abbreviations are allowed.  ROFL!

In short, if you would put the same letters together in an e-mail, letter, article, professional communication or instant message, you’re good.

That means proper names are good, too.  Like Xerox.

If you are the victim of a challenge to the legality of a word you’ve played, maybe you should get new friends.  If your friends have too much dirt on you you’ll probably have to defend yourself against their challenge.  If you can provide evidence of the word in a dictionary or in use by anyone other than yourself (from a website for example) then you can use the word.    If you are unable to provide such evidence during game play, the nice thing to do would be to withdraw those tiles and play something else.  But I’ll leave that to you — the civility of your game is really up to you.

If a word would normally need some type of accent character, the word may be played without it.  For example, you can play résumé, the word for your list of professional achievements, as “resume”.  But, duh, that’s a word, too!  Whoopie!   So, let’s see, another example may be apéritif, which may be played “aperitif”.

Similarly, if a word form is normally hyphenated, such as post-modern,  you may play it as “postmodern”.


To determine which player starts the game, place all letters in the pouch and give them a good shake about.   Each play draws one tile.  The player with the alphabetically lowest letter (closest to “A”) begins the game.  If a blank tile, which can be played as any letter, is drawn, that player starts the game.  If there is a “tie” (two players share the lowest letter), replace the tiles, re-shuffle, and try again.

Once the starting player is determined, all of the tiles are placed back in the bag and shuffled again.  The player determined to start the game draws seven letters and places them on their rack (it may be obvious, but for those of you who are new to this:  the letters face the player and are hidden from other players).  After the starting player has drawn their tiles, the bag is passed, clockwise, to the next player, who draws their seven tiles.  Continue to pass and draw until all players have their seven tiles.


Each player, in turn, places a tile or tiles on the board to spell a word.

You can play a single tile.  For example the article “a” is playable.  See how much fun this is going to be?

Letters may be placed anywhere on the board.   Words may be played across, down or diagonally.  For ease of reading and scoring, all of the words should be played in the same orientation.  Each player should place their words in the same orientation as that chosen by the starting player.

The player then must announce their score so that whomever is keeping score, if you’ve elected to do so, can record the value of the play.  (The full scoop on scoring comes in a few paragraphs.  Patience, my friend).

Finally, the player draws from the letter bag new tiles to replace those just played.  For example, if the player used five tiles from their rack, they draw five tiles from the bag.

That completes the player’s turn.  The party seated next in the clockwise rotation now gets to astound and amaze with their wordspersonship.

The next player may now play.  They may place their tiles anywhere on the board.  They do not need to intersect nor make contact with any previously-played words.


You can garner many more points by adding one or more letters to a word or letter already on the board.  Use your creativity to build on existing words.  Eventually you may be a force to be reckoned with in the world of Scrappy Scrambled Scrabble!


No tile may be moved or replaced after it has been played and scored.

You may use a turn to exchange any or all tiles in your possession. To do this, place your discarded letter(s) facedown. Draw the same number of letters from the pool, then mix your discarded letter(s) into the pool. This ends your turn.  That means if things are so bad you can’t spell anything, you can draw fresh letters, but you have to wait for your turn to come back around to place any tiles on the board.  Boo hoo.  You’ll get over your lost turn, you’re all resilient and whatnot.

A player may “pass” when it is their turn to play.  Play moves to the player next in the clockwise rotation.

If you question the word someone has played, you must speak up before play moves to the next player.  Be nice.  Don’t be a jerk.  If the player is unable to provide suitable proof that their word is indeed a word, they must remove their tile(s) from the board and play a different word.  This time, hopefully, something that doesn’t rankle the others around the board.  Rankled Scrabblers are decidedly unattractive.

The game ends when all letters have been drawn from the cute letter bag and a player uses his or her last letter.  Or when all possible plays have been made.


If you decide to keep score, use a piece of paper to keep a tally of each player’s score, entering it after each turn.

The score for an entire word is doubled when one of its letters is placed on a pink square.

The score for an entire word is tripled when one of its letters is placed on a red square.

Calculate premiums for double or triple letter values, if any, before doubling or tripling the word score (we’re talkin’ big numbers here, bro!).

If a word is formed that covers two premium word squares, the score is doubled and then re-doubled (4 times the letter count), or tripled and then re-tripled (9 times the letter count).

Letter and word premiums count only on the turn in which they are played. On later turns, letters already played on premium squares count at face value.

When two or more words are formed in the same play, each is scored. The common letter is counted (with that letter’s full premium value, if any) for each word.

If any player uses all seven tiles in a single play, that player automatically wins.   Congratulate that player and start a fresh game!

When the game ends (a player has used their last tile or the table agrees no more plays are possible), each player’s score is reduced by the sum of his or her unplayed letters.

The player with the highest final score wins the game.

Here are some scoring examples from the official Scrabble site.

In the following, the words added on five successive turns are shown in bold type.

The scores shown are the correct scores if the letter R is placed on the center square.

In Turn 1, count HORN.

In Turn 2, FARM.

In Turn 3, PASTE and FARMS.

In Turn 4, MOB, NOT and BE.

In Turn 5, BIT, PI and AT.