"...it's like Will Rogers, Jean Shepherd and some grumpy Jewish man all rolled into one."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

This Does Not Compute

The irony in today's subject is that it came to me while listening to streaming music through an app on my wi-fi connected smartphone, which was wirelessly transmitting the tunes to the Bluetooth speaker my friend Bert gave me for my last birthday.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I make use of the free version of the music app. This means I must listen to commercials after nearly every song. The ads alternate between exhortations to upgrade to the "premium" version and enticements for other products. Just now I heard a pitch for a wi-fi enabled garage door opener: "If you drive away and leave your garage door open, it sends your phone an alert to close it!" Back when we lived in a house with an attached garage, I received such notifications via phone long before the advent of wi-fi -- whenever I headed to work and left the garage door open, my wife would leave a castigating voicemail on my office line letting me know I'd forgotten to close the door "again."

The concept of integrating computing devices into everyday objects and then having them communicate with you is known as the "Internet of Things." It's commonly abbreviated as "IoT" or, more colloquially, as "PitA." (If, like me, you are older than the internet, you know what "PitA" stands for.) It is almost impossible these days to purchase any kind of household appliance, or yard machinery, or sign up for pest removal service, and not have a phone app associated with it. Your dishwasher will text you when the pots and pans are clean and dry and ready to be put away. Your lawn mower will update you on how high the grass has gotten since its last clipping. Your exterminator (You have an exterminator? Sorry, but I'll pass on that dinner invitation.) will provide a link to a live webcam so you can see what kind of critters are darting around in the crawlspace under the house. You've likely heard about the latest refrigerators that scan the bar codes on your groceries and generate a shopping list when the milk's gone bad or you're out of Jerusalem artichokes. There are even models with cameras inside, so if your idea of hijinks is to make an unscheduled stop at Hannaford, you can connect with the fridge and confirm what is, or isn't, inside it at that moment. There's nothing like subjecting yourself to the hassle of searching for a too-narrow-to-open-the-car-door space in the supermarket parking lot, steering your buggy through the too-narrow-for-carts-to-pass-each-other width of the aisles inside, then purchasing a 35-pound bucket of cat litter instead of the gallon of 2% milk you promised to pick up on your way home.

You can remotely turn the lights on and off in your house (with special light bulb kits that'll set you back a mere $70); you can get a "smart" thermostat that learns when you like to make a room warmer (when you're in it) or cooler (when you're not; it takes cloud computing to figure this out?). And perhaps you've seen the commercials for devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home (and of course Apple's is coming soon) which, if you have any semblance of sanity remaining after going through the installation process to ensure compatibility with your router and enabled devices, respond accordingly when you bark out commands like, "I want pizza!" or, "Play some polka music!" or, "Goddam it, where's that pizza I told you to order thirty minutes ago?" You can ask the Echo, "Alexa - tell me a joke," to which "she" responds: "You paid $140 for me, imbecile. The joke's on you."

Here are some other state-of-the-art appliances poised to take their place along with the overpriced, clumsily-functioning, and soon-to-be-found-on-Craigslist devices already mentioned:

  • A wi-fi connected tabletop convection oven that recognizes 25 different kinds of food and cooks them automatically. *I* can't even recognize 25 different kinds of food. Do you still have to take the bacon out of the package to cook it? If so, then what's the point? This oven sells for $1500. Some of you may remember when banks used to give out toasters for free when you opened a checking account.
  • A fork that counts how many bites you take, and buzzes in your hand if you eat too quickly. My wife counts how many bites I take, and she buzzes in my ear if I eat too quickly.
  • A machine that "simplifies" home beer brewing, so it allegedly takes half the time and half the skill of the usual home brew set-up. While I don't home brew, I know many people who do and have great admiration for their dedication to crafting something that otherwise can only be found in every liquor, grocery, drug, and convenience store within a stone's throw. This device costs $800. Do you know how many six-packs I could buy for $800? Enough to get through two-thirds of the Labor Day weekend.
  • A nonstick pan that provides recipes and tells you when to flip whatever you're making. This device costs $129, and one of the recipes included is for a grilled cheese sandwich (really). I do not need $129 worth of technology to tell me how to make a grilled cheese. There's a fool-proof method to follow here: flip the sandwich over 10 seconds before you smell the pan side starting to burn.

Now, please don't think I'm a Luddite (which, for years, I thought was a fan of the host of the old "Password" game show) -- while I may not be an early adopter, I have enjoyed the benefits of technological advances and internet-based services for quite a while. It's been more than a decade since we dropped our landline in favor of going smartphone-only. I pay nearly all my bills online, and step into a bank branch only when I am jonesing for a lollipop and don't have a haircut scheduled. And I mentioned that gift of a Bluetooth speaker, which I use to listen to my favorite artists from the 70s, the 80s, but mostly the 70s while cooking, cleaning, or spending time in the bathroom to shower, shave or shi... er, sit and read for a while.

But enough is enough. Our dentist recommended we start using a rechargeable electric toothbrush; fair enough, but the brand the practice encouraged us to purchase comes with Bluetooth connectivity, sharing the data with an app to keep track of how often and for how long we brush each day. Honest to God, if someone needs to utilize that level of technology to avoid cavities, then dentures are a foregone conclusion.

Plus, when I check my phone to see how I'm doing, I keep dropping it in the toilet.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

I'm Not Your Stepping Stone

The phone rang shortly after noon one day last week. The display indicated the call was from my beloved wife, Carol, no doubt stealing a few minutes from her lunch break to express her profound affection for me.

"Hello, my dearest darling," I answered.

The voice on the other end of the line said, "I'd like you to check out this rhubarb-centric website to watch an instructional video, make a list of the required materials, and pick them up this afternoon so I can get started on making some concrete stepping stones for the garden as soon as I get home from work."

After a brief pause, I replied, "Who is this?"

One of Carol's patients had brought her several big rhubarb plants. The patient told her that, in addition to using the stalks for strawberry-rhubarb pie, the leaves -- which are "yuge" -- could be used to make a decorative impression in concrete. Carol, being a very crafty person (meaning, in this context, "arts and crafts"), was immediately intrigued and, as is her nature, wanted to get started on the project without delay.

I said sure, right after I finished what I was doing (which was dozing while watching SportsCenter, but I may have told her I was folding the laundry) I'd watch the video, compile the list, and -- if I had to -- spend a few hours wandering through the aisles of the hardware store. At this stage of my life, a trip to the hardware store brings almost as much titillation as a bachelor party's visit to a strip club.

I Googled the website, quickly viewed the video, assembled the list, and hit the road. The top priority, as you might imagine, was to purchase a bag of concrete. My only prior experience with the material was from slipping on it while running around our community pool as a kid. Little did I know that there are, like, EIGHT different kinds of concrete. I tried to stream the video again on my phone to see if I could pinpoint which variety was used for this project, but inside the cavernous store I had no bars (unlike inside the cavernous strip club, which had three bars downstairs and two more in the VIP lounge), so I selected a package that looked vaguely familiar from my original viewing. I awkwardly muscled an 80-pound bag of concrete mix into my shopping cart. Shrugging off hernia symptoms, I then deadlifted a 50-pound bag of sand from the shelf. I think they call that move a "deadlift" because the effort nearly killed me.

After checkout, I managed to heave the load into the back of my car, launching a cloud of concrete and sand grit that covered every square inch of the upholstery. I lowered the windows and opened the sunroof, hoping to blow all the granules out on the drive home. The moment I merged onto the highway it started to rain, so I quickly closed up everything before the moisture had a chance to mingle with the concrete and form a rigid carapace around the seating in my Subaru.

Once Carol came home from work and was ready to get underway, I wrestled the monstrous bags out of the car and into the wheelbarrow, stoically shedding only a few silent tears from the effort, and delivered everything to where she planned to tackle the creation of the decorative pieces. "OK -- I'm going to take a nap cut the grass," I announced. "Wait," she said. "Aren't you going to spread out the sand for me?" I wrangled the bulky bag of sand out of the wheelbarrow, sliced it open, and dumped it on top of her work table. "There you go. Have fun!" I headed toward the soft and inviting living room couch tool shed to retrieve the mower, getting only two steps away before Carol called to me again -- "What about the concrete?" "What about it?" I replied. She pleaded, "Can't you mix it up for me?" I let out a deep sigh while thinking to myself, "When did this become a collaborative project?" (I may have actually mumbled those words sotto voce, but I don't think Carol heard me.)

Now, as I said before -- I had no experience working with concrete. My knowledge of how to prepare it was limited to that brief video. It seemed simple enough - stir together concrete and water, in measured amounts, in a deep bucket using a big stick until it reached the proper consistency. As the weighty bag kept slipping from my grip, I guesstimated the amount to pour into the mixing bucket. The good news -- aiming for 40 pounds, my bucket weighed in at 39.5. That was close enough for me; I added the recommended amount of water to the dry contents and commenced stirring. Too late, I realized I should have started with the water and gradually added the dry mix. That would have saved me thirty minutes and injuries to both wrists. It also would have resulted in far fewer profanities uttered during the process.

Carol came over to examine the finished slurry -- "Is it supposed to have rocks in it? The stuff in the video looked smooth, like cake batter." "Look," I steamed, "I bought the kind that looks like the bag in the video. I had no idea how many different kinds of concrete there are, or what their specific uses might be. If you want some other kind of concrete, then get in the car with me RIGHT NOW and we'll head back to the hardware store and you can pick out what you want." "No, I'll try it with what we've got here and if it doesn't work, then we'll try again another day."

I fervently hoped not to spend another minute, much less another day, on this project, but I nodded my assent. Dying for a towel to mop my sweaty brow and a cold beer drink of water, I headed toward the house. "Where are you going now? Aren't you going to make the stones with me?"

I'll cut to the end result: to our delight, the stones turned out just fine, whether or not we used the right kind of concrete or are still on speaking terms. The patterns are lovely and distinct; the contrast between the delicate imprint from the leaves and the solid mass of the concrete will make a striking addition to our garden.

I also learned a better way to deal with Carol's request for assistance with her next crafts project: there's no harm in letting her call go to voicemail and give myself a chance to come up with a concrete reason why I can't participate.

Photos and sweat equity courtesy of the author. Craft skill and ability courtesy of Carol.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Save time by ignoring these household hints

Look for the tabs on either side of a box of aluminum foil and press them in -- they keep the roll anchored, so when you go to rip off a sheet you don't pull the entire roll out of the box.
  • If you forget to press in those tabs and the entire roll comes out of the box, drops off the counter and unfurls the length of the kitchen into the dining room, you can choose to either waste the better part of a day unsuccessfully trying to roll it back up, or just bring your misery to a quick end by slicing your wrists on the serrated edge of the box.

When making your own guacamole, place an avocado pit in the container to keep it colorful longer.
  • It's possible to stab yourself in the hand, nearly severing a finger, when trying to remove the pit from an avocado with a very sharp paring knife.

Store cottage cheese upside down in the original container. This forces air out and keeps it fresher.
  • Make sure the top is securely reattached before turning the container upside down.

You can use a pair of pantyhose as an emergency replacement for a broken fan belt in your vehicle.
  • It was a complete coincidence I happened to be wearing a pair of my wife's pantyhose the day I utilized this tip.

When a light bulb breaks in the socket, slice a potato in half and use it to grip the broken section. Twist gently to unscrew the damaged bulb.
  • Do not use that same half a potato to then make homefries.

If you've spilled red wine on your clothing, remove the stain by sprinkling with salt and then covering with club soda. Let it sit overnight before laundering.
  • Mix the remaining club soda with scotch and ice and sip throughout the evening since your wife suggested you lay off the wine for awhile.

Boil orange peel and cloves to get rid of unpleasant smells in the kitchen.
  • Fry some onions to get rid of the overwhelming smell of orange peel and cloves.

Place a few drops of essential oil on the cardboard tube of a toilet paper roll to make your bathroom smell wonderful.
  • As long as you don't let anyone actually use your bathroom.

There are at least five different ways to pit cherries!
  • Which is why I stick with applesauce, right out of the jar.

Clean your barbecue grill with a wad of aluminum foil.
  • Which is all you can do with it once you forget to push in those tabs and the roll escapes its cardboard confines, refusing all attempts at reintroduction into polite society.

Be sure to avoid look for the next article in this series, with answers to common cooking conundrums such as:
  • When a recipe calls for canola oil, can I substitute 10W30?
  • What the hell is "Cream of Tartar"? And why does it come in such a big container when all I ever need for anything is 1/8th of a teaspoon?
  • What other uses are there for sour milk, other than pouring it on my husband's cereal the morning after he's spilled red wine all over the place?

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Coil and Water

I am sitting at the table on our back deck, gazing at the lake and my surroundings on an absolutely glorious day. The sky is blue with billowy clouds. The water is undulating gently, stirred only by a slight breeze and the occasional surfacing of bass, trout and pickerel.
We have a tall post in the yard, from which we hang an assortment of feeders in order to attract a variety of birds. Just this morning, while contentedly sipping my coffee, I've seen orioles, sparrows, blue jays, woodpeckers (including a juvenile pileated), goldfinches, nuthatches and, of course, chickadees.
Hey, what's that zig-zagging across the surface of the lake? Whoa, it's a snake! I can't really make out its size or what kind of snake it is.
Now there are swallows sailing around, snatching insects from the air with amazing speed and precision. One of them is diving toward the water -- uh oh, LOOK OUT for that snake!
Hmm... now I don't see the swimming snake. I wonder if it's decided to slither amongst the rocks stacked along the shoreline.
There goes an eagle soaring past, headed toward the island in the middle of the lake. I never fail to be amazed when I see an eagle; they're just so JESUS CHRIST! the snake is now in the yard...
"Calm down," I tell myself. There are no poisonous snakes found in the state of Maine, I have been assured. Of course, just because a snake isn't poisonous -- does that mean it won't bite you? Or do non-venomous snakes also have teeth? Wouldn't it still hurt like a son of a bitch if a regular snake bit you?
OK... I don't see the snake anymore; it must've gone back into the water. I can hear the distinctive cry of an osprey; let me step down from the deck and see if I can spot him overhead. Maybe he's returning to his nest in the woods, next to FUCKING HELL! THE GODDAM SNAKE IS RIGHT IN FRONT OF MY FEET!! I ALMOST STEPPED ON HIM!!!
Back on the deck, there is a hummingbird buzzing around the hanging flower pots, darting from one bright nectar-laden bloom to the next. I hope I don't scare it away since I'm now crouched atop the table, coffee spreading from the mug I knocked over when I jumped up. How can anyone be so sure there are *no* poisonous snakes in Maine? What if someone had a rattlesnake as a pet and it got loose and bred in the wild? I recall that rhyme I learned in Cub Scouts: "Red to black, venom lack; red to yellow, kill a fellow." What am I supposed to do -- wait until this motherfucking snake bites me in the leg, and then, before he slithers away, snap a picture of him with my phone to show the EMTs so they know which kind of anti-venom to administer once they find me collapsed in the driveway with my airway swelling shut?
Look out, gentle mourning dove! There's a murderous snake hiding in the grass; don't come down to the ground to nibble on any of the seed that's spilled out of the feeders or else he'll dart up and crush your cute little head in the vise-like grip of his deadly jaws. Then he'll swallow you whole, I just know it.
I wish I had my long-handled metal rake handy, or a machete. Or maybe the chainsaw. I must remember to bring some yard tools along for protection the next time I go outside. If I ever go outside again.
I want to dash back into the house but am afraid to come down from the table, because what if the snake is lurking underneath? I think I can leap inside directly from my perch through the open door... oh, SHIT! The sliding screen is blocking my way. Ah, what the hell -- I can always replace it. Here I go...
Christ almighty... that screen is much tougher to barrel through than I thought it would be. Instead of giving way, it rebounds me ass over teakettle and now I'm flat on my back on the deck. I may also have a concussion. Let me lay here for a moment and try to clear my head. I don't think I'm bleeding anywhere, but boy does my OH DEAR GOD THERE'S THE SNAKE COILED UNDER THE TABLE RIGHT NEXT TO MY FACE!!!
Alright... now I'm back inside, with the deck door closed and locked behind me. As soon as I calm down a bit and change my underwear, I'll call to have a new patio screen installed. And then put the house on the market. This place is for the birds.
Clouds, island, lake and feeder post, as seen from the deck. Snake lurking just out of frame, most likely.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

McMaster of Denial

Statement from national security advisor H.P. Lovecraft H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that President Trump shared classified intelligence with the Russians during a meeting in the Oval Office:
  • "The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time -- were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known… I was in the room. It didn't happen."

Statement from sports agent Y.A. Tittle H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that Alex Rodriguez tested positive for banned substances:
  • “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time – were prescription pads found in Alex’s Miami complex, or was Mr. Rodriguez in the company of anyone who knew how to spell ‘testosterone.’ And he did not use a Ziploc baggie filled with urine and strapped to his leg in order to pass a random drug test. I was in the bathroom with him. It didn’t happen.”

Statement from talent agent k.d. lang H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that singer Mariah Carey was lip-syncing during her botched New Year’s Eve performance in Times Square on live television:
  • "The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time – were auto-tuning or faulty sound mixes discussed. And Mariah did not expose any cleavage that had not been previously publicly displayed … I was on the stage as one of her backup dancers. It didn’t happen.”

Statement from aide-de-camp J.D. Salinger H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that President Bill Clinton had sexual relations with a White House intern:
  • “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time – were Altoids or cigars discussed. And the president did not disclose any characteristics regarding the shape of his penis that were not already publicly known... I was in the hallway with the two of them. It didn’t happen."

Statement from literary agent J.K. Rowling H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that several plays attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by either Sir Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe:
  • “The story that cameth out tonight, as reported, lacked veracity… At no time -- at no time – were there any discussions regarding ghostwriting or future considerations regarding sharing a screenplay credit. And Mr. Shakespeare did not disclose any dramatic developments regarding seduction, murder, poisoning, illegitimacy, disguise, revenge, suicide, mistaken identity or shipwrecks that were not already publicly known… I was standing behind the arras, eavesdropping. Verily, it did not befall."

Statement from archaeologist A. A. Milne H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that the skull of the so-called “Piltdown Man,” originally offered as evidence of the “missing link” in the theory of evolution, was actually that of an orangutan:
  • “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time – were methods for staining bones or filing down teeth discussed. And the finders did not disclose the results of any fluorine tests that were not already publicly known… I was buried in the gravel beds next to the skeleton for hundreds of thousands of years. It didn’t happen."

Statement from veterinarian T.J. Hooker H.R. McMaster, in response to allegations that the horse known as “Clever Hans” could not actually perform arithmetic:
  • “The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false… At no time -- at no time – were intelligence sources or methods discussed. And the horse did not disclose any mathematical operations that were not already publicly known… I once worked for a real horse’s ass who couldn’t accurately count the size of his own inauguration crowd. That actually happened."

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

No Rhyme or Reason (well, it rhymes a little bit)

Comey was fired; it came as a shock.
Right in the midst of an FBI probe.
Now the department will be run ad hoc
Until Donald J, wandering in his bathrobe,
Decides who its next fearless leader should be.

But once he gave ol’ Jimmy Comey the can
The President said that we all soon would thank him.
And while the courts pick apart his Muslim ban
He lets the whole world know that no one outranks him.
Just like Sally Yates -- didn’t need her, you see.

The President’s staff said ‘twas all about Clinton,
How Comey said there were no grounds to indict.
Which contradicts at what the Donald was hintin’
When he, in his letter, brought Russia to light.
Three times, so he claims, he was told he was clean.

The Democrats cry out together, as one,
This firing echoes an evil Nixonian.
The GOP doesn’t see storm clouds, but sun
Although there’s a handful that call it draconian.
More hearings in Congress will surely convene.

What are we to make of this Tuesday Night Massacre?
How will this impact the Federal Bureau?
Is that Kellyanne on the tube? We can ask her.
While others require explanations more thorough.
There’s no lessons learned when there’s no one to teach.

Just months ago, Trump shook his hand and then praised him.
“He’s become more famous than me!” he was quoted.
But don’t let him think you are one who betrays him;
If seeking the truth, then you’re quickly demoted.
How soon do you think there’s a vote to impeach?

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Scalene the Heights, or Discussing Concurrent Events

I recently flew to Raleigh, NC to visit with my life-long best friend, Bert. We've known each other since our junior high days, and even though it's been decades since we've lived anywhere near each other, we still manage to get together a few times each year. With all the recent fracases (fricassées?) involving airline employees and passengers, I boarded my flight with trepidation. There nearly was a moment of crisis during the first leg of my journey, when I was prepared to challenge an attendant over the fact that my snack packet contained a mere eight peanuts, one of which was rotten -- but I thought better of instigating that confrontation, deciding instead to redirect my vexation toward something positive by attempting to extricate every molecule of the minuscule amount of Diet Coke indifferently dribbled into my plastic cup full of ice.

This most recent visit was the first time since Bert started to date, and then go on to marry, his wife Marsha that just "the boys" spent a few days together. Marsha was visiting with family out of state, so since flights were cheaper mid-week, and Bert and I both enjoy the flexible schedules that come along with retirement, I took advantage of the lower fare while Carol, who is still working, diligently earned the income necessary to subsidize my ticket.

Bert and I did what we normally do together: play tennis, jaw about politics and world events, grill a few steaks, and drink some beer. I must say -- during this visit we drank a LOT of beer. Raleigh is home to a number of craft breweries and beer-centric venues; we stopped in a number of them. But don't be alarmed -- we did not drink and drive. Well, we did not drive very far.

Over a couple of pints at one spot, we reminisced about the one math class we were in together, 9th-grade Geometry with Mr. Schaefer. Mr. Schaefer was an excellent teacher; very matter of fact, expert in the subject, presenting the fundamental concepts and formulas with clarity and precision. Yet, during our first grading period, we noticed he was not infallible; on occasion he'd stop mid-presentation to say, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake." He'd correct it and move on. We, however, decided to keep score, penciling tic marks inside the front cover of our textbooks each time our teacher misspoke. As the months went by, tracking of the erroneous statements piled up in neat groups of fives, and it became a race to see if Mr. Schaefer would reach the century mark before the end of the academic year.

By early May the count had reached ninety-five, so Bert and I focused less on special quadrilaterals and more on ensuring we were prepared to strike when and if the milestone occurred. Finally, with only a week remaining before the end of school, Mr. Schaefer stumbled for that hundredth time. Bert and I exchanged knowing glances but, since Mr. Schaefer seemed to be in an uncharacteristically foul mood that day, we wordlessly decided to hold off making our recognition public right then. A few days later, restored to his usual level of calm, he tripped up again and offered his usual apology. This time we were ready to spring into action. He'd made the most recent error while at the chalkboard, with his back to the class, so I interrupted him -- "Excuse me, Mr. Schaefer?" He turned around from the linear equation he was graphing and scanned the class for the source of the questioning voice. Bert and I rose from our desks and strolled confidently to the front of the room. I announced, "The two of us have been keeping count during class, and we would like to recognize you on the occasion of the one-hundredth mistake you made this year." Bert added, "Here is a certificate we commissioned to document this historic occasion." He presented Mr. Schaefer with something we'd lettered on a piece of blank paper, with a ribbon affixed to it; we each grabbed his free hand to shake it; we returned to our seats.

Mr. Schaefer stood speechless for some time, shaking his head, glancing again at the certificate, then squinting toward the two perpetrators. Eventually, he managed to stammer, "Thank you... I think," before placing the award on his desk and returning to the formula he was showing us how to solve. Shortly thereafter the bell rang, and we filed out of class.

I don't believe anyone other than Bert and myself found what we'd done amusing or entertaining in the least -- none of our classmates, and certainly not Mr. Schaefer. But that didn't matter; WE thought it was hilarious. We'd spent the better part of a year focused on a mission requiring attention to detail and meticulous planning -- even a modicum of math, via the tic marks -- all of which served to reinforce our standing as friends. Even as the transitions to high school, then college, then careers and relationships have taken us in different directions, we've always maintained that closeness -- for over forty years at this point.

We're quite a contrast of opposites. Bert is tall and slender; I'm short and stocky. He's mechanically inclined and can repair or rebuild nearly anything; I'm intimidated by power tools and take at least two tries to successfully change the dead batteries in a flashlight. His groundstrokes are elegant; I'm all about the big serve. And yet we have this connection -- stronger, I think, than between many brothers. I'm sure it's no coincidence we're both only children. (By that, I mean neither of us has any siblings, not that we're emotionally immature -- at least, Bert isn't.)

Bert made excellent use of his facility with mathematics, becoming a successful, well-regarded civil/structural engineer. I used my math skills to calculate what I was sacrificing by leaving several jobs before becoming fully vested in their retirement plans, eventually landing at a company where I was rapidly promoted, becoming progressively less effective in each new role, and finally securing a position in middle management where I reached my level of incompetence before being laid off.

That's all behind us now. More tennis, more steaks, and more beer await. I believe we learned a formula in that long-ago class that would permit me to graph the changes in velocity of my devastating serve as it explodes from my racquet, caroms off the deuce court, and bounces just beyond Bert's flailing reach. But all I really remember from Geometry is that damn certificate.