A Simpler Time?

We sold a set of something to a guy on Craigslist the other day. He left carrying one cardboard box and one plastic bag with all the items in the set. He texted later and said he was missing something and he had checked the entire box. We reminded him there was a bag as well- he insisted there wasn’t- so we ended up texting him a picture from our Ring doorbell of him leaving our house carrying both box and bag. He subsequently found the bag in the trunk of his car.

Before Ring doorbells, Nest thermostats and automated assistants like Alexa and Google things were simpler weren’t they? There was a sense of community and oneness we seem to be missing today. People had to look out for one another a little more.

Case in point, the Honeywell Winter Watchman, which I found amongst our parent’s old relics. At first glance, I had no idea what this thing did. It plugs into a wall and has an analog dial with the numbers 30, 40, 50 , and 60 on the face.

The instructions on the back were too small for the naked eye, so I took a picture with my cellphone and zoomed in. Here’s what it says:

  1. Plug the Winter Watchman into an electrical outlet located on an inside wall
  2. Plug lamp cord into Winter Watchman (leave lamp switch on)
  3. Set temperature dial 10 degrees below setting of your thermostat
  4. Test the system by depressing the red button to light the lamp

And here’s the best part!

5. When the room temperature drops below the Winter Watchman setpoint, the lamp will light to warn your watchful neighbors to investigate

So, basically if you’re in a cold climate and going out of town, this thing lights a lamp in your house when the inside temperature drops 10 degrees below what you set your thermostat to. Additionally, you have to coordinate with a “watchful neighbor”, hoping they aren’t out of town too, when and if this happens, assuring they have a key and haven’t lost it, and they remember when a lamp lights up in the window of your house to take action. What kind of action it doesn’t say on the Honeywell Winter Watchman. 

These days I can just rely on my virtual community: Nest, Google, Ring, Alexa, Apple Home. If I can just figure out which one to communicate with which one…. Ah, hell, maybe I’ll just go get to know my neighbor instead.

The Mattress Inspector

After struggling to get a good night’s rest for several years, Alex and I finally decided to splurge on a new mattress. The old one was basically a trampoline. If I as much as twitched, it felt like we were back in LA during an earthquake.

So we got a latex mattress that felt like it weighed 3,000 pounds, and if mattresses were sold by the pound this one cost about $1 per. It was expensive, but worth it… at least in the beginning.

Compared to the trampoline, this thing was a firm, yet surprisingly soft, slice of heaven. I can only hope that heaven’s warranty is as good.

A couple years later I felt like I was sleeping in a hole with a noticeable ridge separating me from my wife. Alex didn’t want to admit it, but it was happening to her side too. 

“Can’t we just turn it over?” I suggested. 

“It’s not that kind of mattress.”

“What’s the warranty?”

“Ten years.”

After several arguments with automated customer service phone-bots, I finally got through to a human being who asked me to email some pictures of the sags, the tags and copies of the original receipt. She told me she would have to send someone out to inspect the items before a decision could be made.

I opened the door to The Mattress Inspector. He was carrying a long black case like a professional pool player would keep his prized cue in. He was all business.

I still couldn’t believe there was an actual mattress inspector. I wished I’d have asked for his business card.

I took him to the room and he turned on all the lights, inspected the areas in question, checked the tags (thankfully we kept them on the bed) and then unzipped his black case to reveal the fanciest yardstick measuring-device I’d ever seen.

He placed the fancy yardstick in the worst noticeable sag and read the results:

“This mattress does not pass inspection!” he proclaimed like he was a judge giving a verdict. Then just as quickly he put his fancy yardstick back in its fancy case, told us we’d be hearing from customer service within 24-hours, and he was gone.

And it was as easy as that. They came a few days later and took the bed away.

We’ve since gone the other direction and are sleeping on a bed-in-a-box. We figured for the price of this one, we could just buy a new one every year if we had to.

You’ve Got Fans

It’s been a tough couple of years for everyone, us included. I lost my dad and Alex lost hers. 

So when a friend we hadn’t heard from in awhile called, I was hesitant to even pick up. I mean what to talk about: death, covid, politics? All topics seemed tinged with dread. But for some reason I answered.

“Is Alex there?!” he asked excitedly. I could tell he’d had a few.

I put her on speaker. “She’s right here.”

“Alex, you were one of the original Morganettes, right?” He was referring to a gig Alex had done many moons ago for Captain Morgan’s rum.

“I was,” she answered, never quite sure where things would lead with this friend of mine I had known since our late teens and who lived life like he was trying out for the Most Interesting Man In the World commercial. This guy had done a walkabout in Australia, built a cabin with his own hands on the Boundary Waters in Minnesota, run a fishing lodge on the Canadian border, played hockey in the USHL, was a self-made man, and was always there when you needed him.

“Text me a picture,” he almost shouted.

“Where are you?” I asked.

“I’m at a middle of nowhere bar just this side of the Canadian border that’s packed! It must be the only place open for miles.” 

He either hung up, or lost service.

“I didn’t even know the Morganettes were still a thing,” Alex chuckled as I searched my computer and found an old video. We sent it. And about 5 minutes later we got the biggest jolt of happiness coming through the phone- a picture of a motley crew of guys at this bar in the middle of nowhere with giant smiles.

“You’ve got fans!” is all he texted.

Who knew a little gig from years gone by that we had basically forgotten about could provide such good feelings for us all.

Don’t Judge a Paint by its Name

We masked up and walked into Home Depot, where strangely half the customers weren’t wearing masks despite the ongoing pandemic. I say strangely because most of the maskless looked like they were straight off a construction site where masks are just another part of the sartorial ensemble of hardhats, gloves, tool-belts and butt-crack revealing jeans.

Alex went straight to the paint sample display and grabbed cards for anything within the gray family, wanting to move on from the yellowy-beiges of the early 2000’s. Who knew there were so many different shades of gray? By the time we walked out of there we needed two bags just for the sample cards.

Once home, we lined up the samples and honed in on three choices: Agreeable Gray, Notre Dame, and I can’t remember the third but it could have been anything so I’ll call it Coconut Clusters. 

Well, of course you can’t decide on a paint color from a 2-inch square, so we trudged back to HD to buy sample cans. This time it was later in the evening, so we thought it would be safer, virus-wise. There were fewer customers, but the nighttime restocking had already begun and the huffing and puffing pallet movers were half-masked at best.

Once back home we excitedly swiped big paint swatches on the wall. I liked the Notre Dame immediately. Maybe it was my time spent in Paris not far from the cathedral I walked past almost daily. Alex shook her head, “I think it’s too blue, but these will look different in natural light tomorrow anyway.”

So we slept on it. I personally had nightmares. I mean I like coconut clusters in my cereal, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be surrounded by that color every day.

As usual, Alex was right: the colors looked different in the natural light coming through the windows: Notre Dame was more French country than Paris gargoyle and Coconut Clusters more General Mills than Sherwin Williams. 

So Agreeable Gray it was.

I know, by name it sounds like a very boring choice, but for us it was the best gray/blue/green/beige, or “greige” option. In fact, the internet said it’s one of the most popular colors of the moment.

But… cut to many man-hours later, Agreeable Gray everywhere, and all of the sudden it looked a little more green than we originally thought. It reminded us of a color we had used years back in our home in LA. Everyone that came over wanted to know the name of that color, which was Garden Wall.

“I think this is Garden Wall,” Alex said in disbelief. I agreed, it did look a lot like our favorite color from years ago. “Hey, we liked it then,“ I said. “At least we didn’t do all this work for Coconut Clusters!”

That Time I Almost Got Ryan Seacrest Fired

New Year’s Eve would be a different experience without him. Kelly would not have a Ryan to chat with every day for the foreseeable future. And that famous pregnant pause between “this” and “is American Idol” would probably not exist.

Year’s back, in Atlanta, a friend was producing a game show with this likable young local kid, Ryan, with a freakishly grown-up voice as the host. We ended up taking him out to some Buckhead bars. We were of age, he was not. I can’t remember if we knew the doorman or if we just had Ryan speak in his deep radio voice, but we had no trouble getting him in.

A few years later, I had moved to LA and my producer friend invited me to lunch with a small group of starving-artist types, one of them being Ryan. It was appropriately Mongolian BBQ. The type of place where you take a bowl  and smash as many ingredients into it as you can. You then hand your stuffed bowl to a guy standing over what’s basically a big flat wok. The guy dumps all your ingredients onto the wok and grills up a giant heaping of hot food for you at one low price.

Ryan had moved out to LA about the same time as me, not long after that Atlanta game show. Judging from our overfilled bowls, I’d say we were both at the starving point. He did, however, have a gig at the local radio station. Not the best time-slot, but a start. He was talking about attending community college as some kind of backup, I guess.

When my girlfriend heard that Ryan worked at the radio station, she had me call him to see about recording a voice-over reel for her. You know, the kind of thing that gets you jobs reading copy for commercials and such? Well, Ryan, being the nice guy that he was, said “sure thing, come on over to the studio while I’m working and I’ll set you up.”

When we got to the station he had on his headphones, on-air. He was going a mile-a-minute: talking, pushing buttons, flipping switches, multi-tasking. This guy was in his element. He saw us and smiled and waved us in. He held up his finger like “just a sec,” pushed another button or two, put down his headphones and greeted us both warmly.

He had us follow him into an empty studio next to his and showed me how to run the recorder in there to do the demo reel. It was actually easier than I thought. Ryan then bolted to get back to his next radio segment and left us in this studio all alone with the door closed.

About 15 minutes later we were almost done with the demo-reel when I saw a face in the little window in the door to our room. The face had a scowl. I heard a knock and I opened the door. “Who gave you permission to be in here?” the face asked angrily. “Uh, Ryan” I answered. “Ryan!” the guy turned and went to confront Ryan. I rushed to the board and pushed record. “Hurry up,” I said to my girlfriend, “let’s finish this last take before we get kicked out of here!”

Ryan got scolded, not fired, and we kind of lost touch. I hoped it wasn’t for the recording incident.

A few years later, I was in an LA restaurant with another friend who was not in the business of show whatsoever. Up comes this well-dressed kid with the brightest smile, and frosty tipped hair. It was Ryan. He asked how things were and I did the same, though I knew he’d been bumped up to the best time-slot in radio: the afternoon drive. I introduced my friend to Ryan who regaled us with some Hollywood chatter. Later, my friend said presciently, “that kid’s either going to make it big, or crash even bigger.”

I haven’t seen Ryan since…. Well, except everywhere.

Halloween Santa

Three years ago today our  French goddaughter Ines was visiting and told us last minute that she wanted to experience an American Halloween. She was in her late teens at the time so we explained that the trick-or-treating thing was more for little kids. She said it was kind of a dream of hers since she’d seen so many movies and TV shows depicting this event. Plus, she did have a serious sweet tooth. So who were we to crush a young French girls dreams? 

We called our friend’s kid Trent, about the same age, and asked if he’d like to join her. He said sure but he didn’t have a costume. “That’s okay, neither does Ines….yet.”

We rummaged through our closet and couldn’t find a thing. Finally I came upon a Santa costume still in its bag. “How about this,” I asked Alex. “Why not,” she answered, “and we can give her a big pillowcase she can sling over her shoulder like Santa’s bag of toys so she can collect more candy!”

We came downstairs with the costume and proposed it to Ines. “Pere Noel?” she asked a little unsure but when Alex explained the pillowcase to collect more candy with, she was all in. “This is a good idea!” she exclaimed giddily.

Trent came over dressed in an unbuttoned Hawaiian shirt with a T-shirt underneath. “I’m Ace Ventura!” he proclaimed after none of us could figure it out.  Alex helped him round out the ensemble with a nametag. “Otherwise your just gonna’ look like some older kid who didn’t even try.” 

Alex and I always hated when older kids came with hands out, dressed just like it was any other day. “I feel like I’m being robbed by those older kids sometimes,” Alex would say, “I mean, they could at least put on a ski mask or something.”

Trent started telling Ines about all the good candy hauls he’d gotten as a young kid in our parts. “Some of these houses even give out full size candy bars!” Ines looked at me and said “quoi?” She didn’t yet know about the mini-candy thing. 

We told Ines she probably wanted to wait at least until it was dark outside before going trick-or-treating. That’s the way we always did it, but I guess times had changed. By nightfall, people weren’t even answering their doors, or if they did they were mostly out of candy.

Fortunately, some neighbors who always put up the biggest and best decorations were still going strong. These people had a semicircle driveway with a giant spider web going from their house, OVER the driveway, so you could drive right through the web.

They loved Ines’ Santa costume and invited us all in for a small party. Not the normal kids American Halloween, but she did get Santa’s toy bag filled to the brim at this last bastion of Halloween 2017. She had such a big haul, she could barely get her suitcase closed before heading back to France. 

The Hamster Under the Hood

If you ever see us driving down the road and my wife puts her hand out the window and flicks her fingers like she’s tossing something at you, don’t panic; she’s just trying to feed the hamster inside your Nissan Rogue.

Let me explain. We’d gotten a rental car the night before a trip to Charleston a couple summer’s ago. I’d asked for a regular-sized SUV, but all they had was a mid-sized Nissan Rogue. I’d never driven a Rogue, nor had I driven too many Nissan’s period, so I thought “cool, let’s try something new.”

Well I must have had the radio turned up too loud on the way home from the rental car place that night, because I didn’t notice the chuk-a-chuk-a-chuk sound the car made until the next morning when we pulled out of the driveway. “Oh no,” I immediately announced. “What now?” asked Alex, who is too familiar with my noise sensitivities. “If this thing is going to make that noise the entire drive, I’m going to lose it.” 

It was a longer-than-usual 6 hour drive, but at least we had some laughs. We pulled up to a drive-through for lunch and the car was noisier than ever. Alex started to chuckle and said, “ask them if they’ve got any sunflower seeds in there.” I knew from her tone that she was onto something. “Why’s that?” I prompted her. “To feed the hamster under our hood.” And she was right, it sounded like there was a rusty hamster wheel under there.

Fortunately, we arranged to exchange the car in Charleston so we wouldn’t have to endure another 6 hours of the hamster wheel on our drive home, but to this day whenever we see a Nissan Rogue, Alex flicks her fingers at them to help feed their hamster.

Dr. Smith Will No Longer Be Seeing Patients

My dad died this year, but I still had a flash of a thought about calling him today. Maybe it’s the fallen leaves on the ground, or the crisp autumn air, or the weekend; weekends were when we’d usually talk.

As little kids we lived on a quiet midwestern dead-end street. When fall came my dad would rake the leaves into big piles that we three kids would subsequently demolish. We’d throw footballs, baseballs, anything semi-spherical and crash-land into the leaves like it was the endzone.

My dad encouraged activity in our lives, and sports were a big part of that. There were often sports on the TV but we’d only watch long enough to get the urge to go out and play that sport ourselves. We replicated Indy 500 races on our bicycles with playing cards in the spokes for engine sounds, summer Olympics with my dad’s workout mat as the only thing to break our fall from a high jump, Stanley Cup hockey in the driveway.

It wasn’t until after my dad died that I really appreciated his encouragement to do things, and how he lived life that way himself. 

My dad was the first person on our block who jogged, albeit in loafers, and he had a pretty good set of weights. Of course I knew about his love of tennis, since he played the sport with us until an accident he had in his 60’s. There was skiing, which was the cause of the accident, sailing (he was a Captain), Army medic, a short foray into pilot training, scuba diving, welding, ham radio operator license-holder, Teamsters Union member, Boy Scout etc., etc.

Going through his things after his death, I joked to my brother that maybe Dad was Secret Service, we were finding out so many things we’d never known.

By profession he was a heart and lung surgeon. How he had time to do all the other things, and be with us at so many of our own events, is beyond me.

We didn’t get to have a funeral for him because of the pandemic but here’s what we kids helped write for his eulogy:

Richard Noel Smith, age 82, of La Crescent, MN died Sunday May 31, 2020 in his sleep of natural causes. Born in Chicago, Rick graduated from Northwestern Medical School and practiced thoracic surgery in Indianapolis, Atlanta and La Crosse. He led a full life accompanied by his wife of 58 years, Carolyn. A renaissance man, Dr. Smith was equally at home in the operating room, on the seas, the slopes, the symphony or the tennis courts. He and Carolyn raised their three children Brian, Kirk (Alexandra) and Noelle who inherited his love of travel, life-long-learning, and an abiding love of reading. He was a proud Grandpa to Rosie and Charlotte (Brian and Suzie Reider-Smith); Colby and Delaney (Noelle). 

There will not be a funeral service at this time. In lieu of flowers please consider donations to the La Crosse Symphony, or the Beethoven Festival.

An Anniversary in the Time of Pandemic

According to Hallmark, your 12th anniversary gifts should be those of silk or linen. Ours was neither. 

For our 10th we were at The Ritz Carlton in Montreal, so we really didn’t care what Hallmark recommended. This year the threat of virus has kept us inside, except for the occasional Costco or home-repair run. 

Like many, we’ve taken to house projects to fill the void. Problem is when those projects create a mess and you have nowhere to dump said mess except, well, the dump.

So we loaded our car up and made the drive. It was nice to be out of the house and going down a different path than the one leading to Costco, so I drove slowly to take in the sites. Pretty trees here, horses in a field there, and birds circling overhead in the distance. I was about to bring the birds to Alex’s attention, as in “look at those beautiful birds in the sky,” when I realized these were scavenger birds circling the dump.

Turning off the main road into this literal wasteland with our truck full of crap, I looked at my wife of 12 years and said “happy anniversary honey!” Fortunately, she laughed. And that’s just one of the reasons I love her. 

We had some steaks and good wine to try to make the day special, but I think we’ll always remember the dump trip this anniversary. Apropos, I’d say.

Take the Ride

In early 2020, just as the virus was creeping into our consciousness and not long before the days of confinement, Alex and I got a couple of free tickets to Busch Gardens in Tampa. We’re not huge theme-park fans, nor do we love large crowds. But hey, who can pass up free, right? So we packed our pockets with mini hand-sanitizers and off we went. 

Once there, we wandered around to get our bearings, and noted the park didn’t seem too full. Our first stop was a pond with giant alligators sunning themselves on its edges. Even though there was a moat and a short fence, you could sense the danger of these sleeping beasts. 

Suddenly there were screams nearby and we jumped, fearing the worst, but it was just a rollercoaster looping overhead. I laughed, but Alex wasn’t amused. She had a fear of rollercoasters almost as deep as that of gators. “Oh, hell no,” she said. And I knew she was talking about not riding a rollercoaster that day without even asking her to finish her sentence.

Instead, we wandered into an Egyptian-looking theater to see an ice-dancing show. I wasn’t sure about the whole Egypt/ice connection, but for Alex it was definitely safer than a rollercoaster. We sat and watched really good skaters, on a real ice stage, perform a somewhat meaningless show. The music and movement was mesmerizing, but it was more flash than substance.

We walked out of there comparing it to a French theme-park we’d been to where there were more shows than rides, and every show had a historical storyline from Joan d’Arc to the Three Musketeers to a Roman gladiator event in a replica Coliseum replete with a good-guy gladiator and a bad-guy Roman, chariot races, and lions.

But back to Busch Gardens, a place named after a beer. 

Well, Alex had read somewhere that there were free beer samples, so at least we had a mission. We walked from one end of the park to the other for this supposed free beer but it was a ruse. Apparently, at one time they used to give out beer samples but no more. 

So now dry and tired and frustrated we took a gondola ride over the entire park. From this vantage point you could really make out the main attractions of the place: specifically two giant rollercoasters. One had you dangling from your seat by your shoulders like a rag doll while it went upside down and all around, the other had a cheetah theme and looked a little more basic. Alex saw me smiling at the rides and read my mind. “You can ride a rollercoaster if you want to, I’ll watch,” she said. Tempting, but I didn’t want to leave her behind, so I said no.

After a slow train ride “safari” we caught our last event of the day, a cheetah run. They brought out two beautiful cheetahs and had them chase a toy bird that zipped along a string for about 50 yards. These things go from zero to sixty faster than a Ferrari- very impressive- but apparently they run out of gas after about 500 yards while doing so. Kinda’ like we were feeling after walking around the park all day.

As we were about to head home, the Cheetah coaster twirled above our heads and riders screamed in joy and fear. I noticed we were right near the entrance to the ride, so I said “let’s just see how long the line is.”

There was a jovial bespectacled young girl manning the entrance to the non-existent coaster line so I asked her how bad the ride was for a scaredy-cat such as my wife. The girl laughed and said, “on a scale of 1-10 I’d give it a 3. I mean it’s fast, but that’s about it.” I turned to Alex and she surprisingly seemed game, so we went for it.

Approaching the first hill we anticipated a slow climb to the top, but this thing accelerated like, well, a cheetah, and Alex screamed louder than I’d ever heard her scream. The guys in front of us looked back like “what the hell?” and off we went. At the first drop Alex screamed again and started chanting “oh my God, oh my God, oh my God!” I was trying to hold myself together while also trying to calm her. When we went into an inversion, I thought she might pass out.

A few minutes later, with heart rates higher than they’d been in years, we exited the coaster on wobbly legs. “If that’s a 3, I certainly wouldn’t want to ride a 10” Alex gasped.

On the way home, we were probably both still high on the adrenaline of the coaster ride when I asked Alex if she’d do it again. “I’ve bungee jumped head first from hundreds of feet above the ocean, flown in small planes landing on small island landing strips, skied down from the top of the Rockies, and now I’ve conquered the Cheetah ride. I think I’m good.” But I could tell she was glad she did it.

What I learned was you really should take the ride while you can. 

We’ve since only been out of our house for necessities, with not even the chance to take a chance.