Sanitation & Comfort in the Big Apple

Famous in story and song, New York is the city that does not sleep.  Stevie Wonder marveled over the sights: “Wow, New York – Just like I pictured it – Skyscapers and everything!”
living for the city
Many an artist sang of famous landmarks on Broadway and elsewhere, including “…the rumble of a subway train and the rattle of the taxis.”

never sleepssubway

No one sang about, or even mentioned in this city built for urban tourism, the complete absence of an adequate number of public restrooms for tourists and others possessed of the biological need to eliminate liquid waste.
public toilets
For a place that prides itself on being a tourist mecca, the absence of adequate water closets is mighty inhospitable.  Whether purposeful or happenstance, this lack of modern creature comforts came to the fore during a recent day trip to meet my daughter.
save the planet
We both arrived via inter-city bus, conveniently equipped with on-board potties. I availed myself of this jittery and bouncy on-board aiming challenge twice during the ride from Baltimore, to make sure I hit the Port Authority empty, in a manner of speaking.  Of course, being on a weight-loss program that encourages the drinking copiously, I had 48 oz of  water plus two cups of coffee sloshing around inside of me as I disembarked.  Because my bus arrived in Manhattan an hour earlier than my daughters, I found the Dunkin Donuts across from the Port Authority and had another cup of coffee.
port authority
She arrived and we went to lunch.  I had a couple of glasses of diet soda, and by mid-afternoon we were in the shopping district of Greenwich Village and SoHo.  My kidneys had done what kidneys do, my bladder was doing what bladders do and I was feeling the call of mother nature.  However, none of the otherwise-ubiquitous coffee shops and chain restaurants were in view or nearby and the opportunity to relief did not manifest as the urge grew. A problem was developing and a mighty uncomfortable one at that.
As it turned out, many street corners in this gentrified, funky yet upscale Manhattan shopping mecca have small neighborhood restaurants and bars.  Ostensibly, such places of business have public restrooms.  But much to my growing discomfort, I learned that they are not for the public at large so much as for paying patrons.  After being turned away at one or two, following a direct and honest request to use the facilities, a plan formed. Here is how it worked.
no restrooms
He who needs to make a wee wee, saunters into a nice restaurant or upscale bar.  You know, the one that says “restrooms are for customers only” on a plaque with beautiful gold foil inlay, in the window or by the door.

no pay

“Hi. We’re from out of town and  your establishment has come so very highly recommended that we would like to make reservations for this evening if it is not too late.  Party of eight; might you be able to accommodate us at 6:30?”
I continue,”Say, I just thought of it.  One in our party has unusual food allergies.  I apologize but I should have mentioned it earlier.  Might it be possible if I could have a glance at your menu?  Restaurants such as yours usually work, but I just want to verify that there are items on the menus that this one person can accommodate, you know, from an allergen perspective. Many thanks.” I am handed the heavy menu, the one professionally printed on linen in cursive, with some wine offerings hitting three figures per bottle.
“Oh, good, I think that would work.  My family is a half-block away shopping, so before we book I’ll double-check and come right back in in a few minutes to firm up that reservation.  Meanwhile, while I’m here anyway, would it be a bother to duck into your men’s room?” Deception complete, I relieved and my bladder and kidneys were ever so appreciative for the return to normalcy.
enter exit
I was four-for-four with that one, one Saturday afternoon last Fall. In four differing establishments I used the potty, without once paying the intended price of a $22 plate of pasta. Point is, it should not have come to that.
I understand why there are not public restrooms in (say) parks and such.  They can be sketchy places and prone to criminal activity.  Maybe the Paris solution would work in NYC?


Love Letter from My Life Insurance Company

Happy Holidays, everyone.  Yes, it’s trite, but also it’s safe.  I contend that no one reasonably can be offended by those two words.  Happy Holidays  is as safe as painting the office in a rich shade of white. Further, the desire for happiness is a near-universal human aspiration.  It’s written into the US Declaration of Independence after all, and thus, it must be true.
founding fathers
More than a few of us spent (or wasted, depending on one’s perspective) much time and energy during your youth in the relentless and frequently unrequited pursuit of happiness.
cookie monster

Inasmuch as it’s been months since I’ve posted about anything at all of any consequence (save for the occasional picture of a family member of inane internet meme),  it seemed appropriate for this blog to be about changes since then.   Change, for me, arrived via the US Mail.
Several days ago came a seeming form letter of sorts from my life insurance carrier.  You know the kind:  you can convert your really cheap term insurance to some extremely pricey alternative that has the additional benefit of (insert insurance industry gobble-de-gook here) and it will only cost you the full purchase cost of a large new boat each month, in addition to the hundreds you already pay.  Yes, I too throw those form letters away.
This one was different. Here it is:

“…The 20-year term life insurance policy you purchased 20 years ago is about to expire.  You are still alive somehow, so we won and you lost.  We have your money and you are not getting it back.  We’ll be happy to sell you another term life insurance policy, maybe, depending on what our doctors think of the sorry state of your health….”

“… Of course, you are now 54 years old and not 34, so your policy will cost an arm, leg, and another arm – because we really doubt you’ll live long enough to see the plan mature and we are not in business to lose money.  And   by the way buddy, that medical screening starts with and focuses on (drum-roll please) – your weight….!”

“…Fat people die early all the damn time, and if you are not skinny enough to cast no shadow standing sideways, your premium will be exorbitant as we laugh all the way to the bank. Love, Your Life Insurance Carrier.” 
oy gevalt
Maybe not in those exact words, but may as well have been. Well and as some of you know, at least twice before in my life I have lost several dozen pounds and it seems that need – motivated my dollars and cents – is here again with not a moment to lose.  This blog, therefore, will recount my trials and tribulations with (yet another) endeavor to undo a lifetime of unrepentant gluttony.  Anyone who wants to embark with me is more than welcome.  As we prepare for a January 1, 2016 start (what are resolutions for, if not to resolve?), here are some considerations I have pondered over the years of fighting and losing the Battle of the Bulge:
Pounds are Lost Through Liquid Elimination – Doubt it?  Drink a bunch of water.  Wait until you badly have to go to the bathroom.  Hop on the scale.  Pee.  Hop on the scale again.  If you are like most people, you have lost a pound or more, right then, right down the drain.  Stepping up the water intake will help your body eliminate pounds more regularly, particularly if you also curtail sodium.  Don’t use the salt shaker, and if you can see or taste the salt, whatever you are eating is too salty.
cat pee
It’s Push-Aways More Than Push-Ups – A couple of weeks ago, I am at the gym and overhear the conversation between a couple of 20-somethings in the locker room.  “I can eat however much I want because I come here every day” is what I gleaned from their conversation.  My experience is more comparable to most middle-aged people:  easily 80% of weight loss is achieved through portion control.  Push-away from the table.  Push-ups (and more generally, exercise) certainly helps muscle tone, cardio-vascular health, energy and such.  However, without portion control (yes, you can call that calorie counting), the odds are that a gym program alone at best will achieve weight maintenance but not loss.  Calories out must exceed calories in.  Eating and drinking fewer calories is the easiest and most direct path.
Trust The Experts – At age 54, I’m running out of time to be wrong if I try and lose weight on my own.  Weight Watchers (and its competitors) are tried and true programs that work for many.  Some derive benefit from the camaraderie at the meetings (particularly, it seems, if they are female, for whatever reason).  Several years ago I identified (or a friend identified for me) a “free” online system for guided weight loss through tracking nutrition and exercise.  It’s called “Sparkpeople.”  I have an account there – I’m boss61 if you want to find me and follow along – and I have found the web site easy to use, convenient and reasonably motivational.  It’s also free (though like many web sites, they’ll try and up-sell on the margins of your screens unless you use ad-filtering software.

So, two weeks to go.  Or better yet, start now.  Who’s with me?


Weird Noises Our House Makes: a Parable

The planet earth is our house. When it acts unpredictably (e.g., weird weather, sea level rise, certain plant and animal extinctions, tsunamis, etc.) maybe it’s just nature being random. Maybe it’s nothing we did, are doing, or can do anything about. Maybe, however, it’s caused at least in part by something we are doing or not doing, the least of which may be directly linked to our own myopic stupidity. Maybe the unpredictable behavior of our planet is akin to strange-if-not-bizarre, miscellaneous noises that a house might make. Usually such noises mean nothing, unless they are telling us something.

Maybe Al Gore was right.

Maybe Al Gore was right.

Houses make noises, particularly older ones. Most homeowners have grown accustomed to the noises their houses make, and have largely become desensitized. The root causes for the noises can be people walking around, plumbing, electrical appliances, the wind and the like. Early on a Saturday morning as I type this, I hear the fan inside my laptop, the quiet whoosh of central air-conditioning, the low hum of the refrigerator motor and the ticking of a couple of different clocks. If not blogging about it, I’d be consciously aware of only the absence of sounds from my still-sleeping family.


Some years ago, late one evening when everyone was in bed, I became aware of a different house sound. For about 20 seconds at a time, repetitively every couple of minutes or so, there was a click-bzzzzzzzzt-click sound. The initial click coincided with a brief dimming of the light in our bedroom.

The easy answer was to turn off the light, roll over and go to sleep. That approach (i.e., going to sleep) cures a lot of ills. Only by chance, this approach was not the one I chose on this particular night even though had we discussed it, my wife may have advocated it. Again, for most late night perils and ills, that solve works well enough most of the time.

On about the third cycle, I became consciously aware of this sound, as the lights dimming caught my attention. On one more cycle, I thought to myself that it’s our well pump. By cycle number 5, my brain was more keenly focused on the question of WHY the well pump was cycling repeatedly even though everyone was in bed. The well pump, you see, is triggered by a pressure decline in our household plumbing, which in turn is triggered by the use of water. But on this night, everyone was in bed and no one was using water.


Click-bzzzzzzzzt-click. “What’s causing that”, I wondered out loud. “What’s causing what? Whatever you are talking about, go to sleep” murmured my sleepy wife. “I’ll be back. I need to go see…” was my response. Out of bed, through our main level I walked, only to find everything dark, off and quiet. There it was again, “Click-bzzzzzzzzt-click!” With increasing puzzlement and the beginning of growing concern, I headed down the steps into our just-finished basement. Stepping off the last step onto the carpeted playroom floor, my toes squished into the sodden and saturated carpeting and padding!


CLICK-BZZZZZZZZT-CLICK! While bellowing “Houston, we have a problem! This is no drill!” at the top of my lungs, I splish-splashed my way to the laundry room, situated at the corner of the basement where the well water enters the house. Running through about an inch of water on the floor, I spotted the washing machine supply hose and its hole. Not feeling the back-pressure of the closed washing machine inlet valve (because of the hole), the well pump and pressure tank were performing precisely as designed: delivering fresh groundwater into the household plumbing system, and gradually filling our basement to the tune of roughly 5 gallons per minute.


The rest of the story is less fun and an object lesson in how the Money Pit in which we live can roar in unpredictable ways. Overnight, literally as well as figuratively, we became experts at basement flood cleanup and restoration. Since then for a variety of reasons differing in detail but with the common link being the stupidity of man (me) and never really nature or an “Act of God”, we’ve had the unhappy opportunity to further refine our urban flood control expertise. We own the most gear for this purpose short of Serv-Pro, and are adept at drying out Humpty Dumpty and putting him back together again.


We have learned that carpet padding is the perfect aquifer, that drywall can wick water upward, and mostly, we’ve learned that when a flood occurs, much like when someone has a stroke, minutes matter. Timely action is the best means of limiting risk, cost and challenge, and maximizing the odds of successful restoration.


The planet earth is our collective house and the air conditioner is broken. The basement is flooding. It’s getting warmer and wetter, whether we stay in bed and ignore the circumstance or not. A week does not go by without needs of record worldwide temperature increases, melting ice caps and other evidence of global warming.


Maybe global warming is not our fault and maybe there is nothing we can do. But in case there is something we can do, turning off the light, rolling over and going to sleep, hoping it all will be normal in the morning, is the wrong move. By morning the damage might be done and by then, there is nothing left to do but call the insurance company, stop paying the mortgage and declare bankruptcy. We owe it to our kids and grand-kids to get out of bed, investigate, turn off the water, clean up the mess, wring out the carpet padding, throw the breaker on the air conditioner, etc.


Darmok – Or All The Calories He Had Had Had

Space, the final frontier of the campy and inane?  Not always.  Bear with me here.


The most thought-provoking and conversation-elucidating Star Trek episode all time, by far, was a story from Season Five of “The Next Generation” called Darmok. Our intrepid Space-Farers, living in a future where there simply was no energy crisis, unresolved Middle Eastern conflict, global warming, national debt, or obesity, encounter a powerful alien species and endeavor to communicate.


The aliens are chatty enough, but what they have to say is completely nonsensical. As the TV audience gradually learned at the same time as the Enterprise crew (which is a writing style that made Star Trek great, when pulled off), that they speak in metaphors. Metaphors, all the time. Nothing but metaphors. With the TV audience as bewildered as the crew, one astute Starship crew member remarks that the alien conversation is as though when meaning “romance”, the words used would be “Juliet on the balcony.” A grounding in the culture and history of the alien world would be necessary for comprehension, even if the words themselves could be translated (and in the Star Trek world, a universal translator exists).
Even the metaphors, used frequently enough, were shortened to the first word. Much like the court case that established the rights of the accused being called Miranda. Out-of-context and without cultural references, Miranda means nothing. Try “tea party” – a political effort to reign in excessive government spending and its manifestation of taxation. Not obvious, from the words. We know because we are familiar with the words being metaphorical for a philosophy favoring smaller and less costly government.
Ultimately, through trial and error with the TV audience learning right along with the crew-members, some halting basis of communication was achieved and a potential war was diffused and the credits rolled. So let’s try this means of communication out in the world of dieting and weight loss. It might go like this:

1. Hindenburg – I ate so much I feel I could explode.


2. Richard Simmons wear – tight, fitting, shiny spandex gym clothes


3. Perrier Poisoning – Overdoing water consumption in an effort to be healthy and pee off the pounds

4. Bugs’ Plate – lots of raw veggies, like Bugs Bunny would have eaten


5. Jake and Elwood – Four whole fried chickens and dry white toast (not a good diet)


Bonus entry – “All the calories she had had had had no effect on his effortless attainment of his weight loss goal.”

Now you try it. Do better than me. Be metaphorical, alliterative, or grammatically accurate if in a most incongruous way!


Copyrighted images from

Baby Boomer Embraces Digital Age

Shamed by my kids who accuse me of being anti-technological and thus aging rapidly before their very eyes, I have been dragged kicking and screaming into the world of 21st century digital music. I know what Spotify is, am an avid user of Pandora and feel lost without my mp3 player or Smartphone as music sources.  It was not always this way. Some historical perspective is on order.

all about that bass

In high school I was the guy with the most records (albums and 45s) and a fast-growing collection of custom mix-tapes. In college I was the guy with the biggest speakers in the dorm windows and the electronic muscle to pump my (stuck in the late 70s to early 80s) musical taste into the quad.

stairway 45ttba

Mix tapes were a specialty and a road trip necessity; I was the only person I knew with two ultra-expensive cassette decks, for their (relatively effortless at the time) preparation. I owned a couple of thousand dollars worth of stereo equipment, when my friends had boom boxes and the like.


At summer camp I was the DJ (so to speak) for Saturday night dances, more often than not. My car stereo similarly was a source of (irrational) pride and expenditure. When Elvis Costello sang “Radio, Radio”, he was targeting me. The radio was my best friend, and often the only constant in my life that regularly warped out of orbit, from high school, to college, to graduate school with various far-flung summer experiences between.


I had, and for that matter still have, a decent collection of vinyl records reflecting my stereotypical late baby boomer tastes as well as obligatory albums one had to own for self-respect among one’s peers (e.g., Led Zeppelin IV).  Of course, records are prone to warping and scratching, and cassette tapes respond poorly to heat, humidity, long-term storage, age, etc. Of course, in the mid 1980s I was blissfully ignorant of age-related decline.  I, and my music, both were young and feeling invincible.


Even as I was denying changes in myself, technology changed. Video came along to kill the radio star. I eschewed MTV (other than Martha Quinn); I liked the music more before I knew what the artists looked like.

Times changed again. CDs came out and were more expensive than albums, could not be recorded onto (initially, anyway) and generally seemed like a giant conspiracy against my right to collect, listen to and play free or nearly-free music.  Yes, the sound and durability was better with CDs, but I was displeased at music industry “gotcha.”


However, with changes in my life (girls, and eventually a wife, house, after a while more, kids) I less could justify the continued investment both in music and the media with which to play it.  I found less time for music, except in the car.  Even there, I’d gravitate to news and sports.

sports radio

I came to joke how my musical taste become sort of a time marker for the day I graduated college; I came to be no longer familiar with the latest artists, sounds, trends, and that was OK. Just as Bruce Springsteen had grown up a decade before me, to my chagrin, ultimately I had grown up too.

I no longer could listen to some of the music of my youth.  Most Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin sounded like noise, though I still had a wistful place for Stairway to Heaven and its iconic role at Saturday night dances at camp.


Technology continued to change relentlessly.  When our company was young and I was about 40, a couple of 20-something employees were heavily into free music file-sharing software and programs that seemed tools of music piracy.


I prohibited their installation and use at the office, but a part of me looked at those guys and thought “I’d be just like that if I was in college or just coming out.”  Secretly I was jealous, and wistful for the years when I was the go-to music technology guy and owner of lots of ostensibly-free music.


Mp3 players and smartphones ushered in yet another technological revolution, as did various online musical services as diverse as life insurance options (rent, own, rent-to-own, etc.). Gradually I became an aficionado of subscription music services, most of all Pandora . However, the biggest shift in the music collecting and listening experience in the last 5 or so years has been this:  listening to music is much more a private experience than ever before.   Between my headphones at the gym or in the pool (music is the soundtrack of my workouts), the privacy of my car, or the closed doors of my office, when I listen to music, nearly 100% of the time it is only me listening.

donna summer

I now care not how others may judge my worthiness by the presence or absence of certain iconic songs or artists in my collection. I can crank up Donna Summer to my heart’s content and no one scoffs and tsks.  I can disdain and disown all manner of classic rock no matter how iconic and essential my peers may judge a given artist or album to be, and no one knows.  Jimi Hendrix may be an icon but to me he is un-listenable. Only with the help of my kids have I been exposed to some newer artists, of which a handful I’ve become quite the fan.  Listen to Bowling for Soup, the Neon Trees or One Republic sometime.

These days the large speakers no longer are in the windows, and the wattage of my receiver has given way to more sophisticated devices. Music is more of a personal experience and not so much a communal one. I relish my headphones for the gym, and my waterproof mp3 player for the pool. The music is for me and less for everyone else within earshot. They have their music and their incorrect tastes in songs and artists. Live and let live; I’m not going to change them and have given up trying.

As recently as a year ago, my amazing new headphones (light weight, washable, gym-worthy and amazingly tuneful) still are connected to my mp3 player when walking or working out. Just when that mp3 player decided that a $100 pocket-sized device as too good to be true and stopped working altogether, my Smartphone was fast being discovered as an entertainment device, already having been relied on to deliver me Orioles games on the radio anywhere. And now, music too, from the pocket of my gym shorts.


Whether or not this is the end of the technological musical odyssey remains to be seen, but where we are works for me.  I still have much of that old, massive equipment, but it collects dust and may not stand the test of time very well at all.  The difference is, that’s now okay, for all of my music fits in the palm of my hand and on my head.


Urban Hydrology and The Holly Tree

I’m the son of a residential realtor.  The whole time I was growing up, I swore I would have nothing to do with that challenging, low-paying and seemingly unethical occupation.  Without going into detail (have the applicable Statues of Limitations all run, since the 1970s?), considerable effort sometimes was undertaken in cosmetically masking major defects associated with homes offered for sale.  The most common type of defect, and sometimes the one easiest to mask, was the wet basement.
flooded house
When in years later my wife and I were shopping for our first home, I was apprehensive and wary about the possibility of inheriting a prior owner’s latent problem of wet basement nature or otherwise.  It is in seller’s self-interest to conceal latent defects and it is in the realtor’s self-interests to say (and not say) whatever was necessary to close the deal.  We came to purchase a raised rancher with an unfinished basement, set into a hill that descends to the rear.  I very carefully inspected the basement wall and floor, particularly on the upgrade side, reasoning that that was the point of its maximum burial and closest proximity to the water table. If there was wet basement, it would be along this wall or floor.

I saw none and the home has been ours since 1992.  More aptly stated, it is the bank’s and they allow us to live here.  Details. mop

For years and through all manner of storms large and small, the basement remained bone dry and we gradually came to perceive that we had ducked the bullet on this common homeowner malady.  Kids came and we finished the basement (carpeting, padding, drywall, etc.), doubling our living space.  The basement stayed dry but for the occasional laundry room mishap attributable to the stupidity of man (me).  Routing of water conditioner discharge line, dry rot of the washing machine supply lines, etc.  Nuisance-level problems that were annoying and frustrating, but nothing that we (now equipped with a big wet-dry vac, fan and room dehumidifier) could not handle if they happened occasionally.
snow pammysnow steve
The “Storm of the Century” left us dry, as did the twice-a-decade blizzard and Hurricane Isabel. Later that year, however, we were mystified and frustrated to see that a rain of average intensity had put 5-to-10 gallons of water onto our basement floor.  We learned that carpet padding is the perfectly transmissive aquifer and cannot be safely dried, and that the basement floor of our home is not level but is slightly tipped to the northeast.  The cost of this education was an insurance claim and the perspective that perhaps we had been wrong about the water-tightness of our home all along.
The hydrogeologist in me wrapped his head around this puzzle. The well-known principle of uniformitarianism teaches that the Present is the Key to the Past, and our past had no wet basement challenges of natural origin. Something had changed, but what?  All of a sudden, we were all kinds of rainwater susceptible in the basement.  The area of the basement wall/floor where it seemed to be coming in (remember we have drywall up and no longer can observe the walls directly short of a major demolition project) seemed directly beneath the front door area.  Standing outside the front door during a deluge revealed that rainwater was not staying in the rooftop guttering in that area but was over-topping the guttering the splashing directly onto the ground right past our threshold.

flood insuranceSo up on a stepladder I went in the next rainstorm,  to carefully inspect our roof-edge rain guttering near the front door.  Sure enough, I saw that the gutter was clogged with the debris from the large holly tree right nearby.  The gutter itself was full of water that was not draining through the clogged downspout. Water was over-topping this guttering, and cascading down the front of the house and saturating the ground immediately outside the foundation, in the exact area where inside we have the water susceptibility.  By hand I scooped out many dead leaves, all with razor-sharp edges and prickers.  Once I had enough of them out, a giant whoosh of water occurred and the guttering dutifully emptied into the downspout.

In the weeks that followed, we undertook a downspout outfall rerouting project courtesy of some corrugated piping bought from Home Depot.   We gradually gained the upper hand on this latent susceptibility, except that the holly tree was doing what hollies do – it was growing.  It towered ever-taller over the roof-line and seasonally and otherwise, generously shed leaves and other debris into the guttering.  Gutter clean-out projects became a regular part of home ownership and when we forgot or became distracted, we remained susceptible to wet basement issues, both small and not so small.


Something more drastic and permanent needed to be done.  So recently, armed with a handsaw, lopping shears and other gardening equipment, I undertook to give the holly a military haircut.  It is possessed of three parallel trunks, each at least 8 inches in diameter.  The one closest to the house now terminates 5 feet about the ground rather than fifteen. Time will tell if my immense sense of sweaty satisfaction is deserved or premature, but I’m cautiously optimistic.


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