Well, That’s Alarming



           I was up early, quietly putting the finishing touches on a story I was writing about dog turds when the smoke alarm started to shriek, and by shriek, I mean an eighty-five-decibel blare that sent my heart bursting out of my chest.

            “What the flying swear word!” I blurted, but those words were drowned out by the screeching smoke alarm. The alarm then stopped as suddenly as it started.

            “Huh,” I said, slightly amazed. Swearing apparently can silence a smoke alarm, but that silence didn’t last long before the alarm started again, and it was even more terrifying and belligerent than the first time.

            It should be noted that my gut reaction when the alarm went off was not to wake my wife and gather her, the dog, and the family photos, and race out to the front yard before the house was engulfed in flames. No, no, no, not at all. My reaction was probably the most common male reaction to this particular situation—to swear loudly and creatively and look for a hammer with which to smash the offending alarm.

            The second time it went off, I got a little worried, so I did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances. I wondered if a spider might have crawled up inside the detector or maybe, it was the humidity. Believe it or not, these are two common causes for false alarms with smoke detectors. Then I wondered why smoke detector manufacturers couldn’t make a smoke alarm that is immune from spiders and humidity. These things must go off all the time in Florida, which is the world capital for spiders and humidity. No wonder those old snowbirds are hard of hearing. I’m surprised they aren’t twitchy too.smoke

            Oddly enough, I never once considered that there might be a fire in the house, but I did sniff the air. All I smelled was coffee, but I was now filled with smoke alarm jitters, so coffee felt redundant. Meanwhile, Mrs. G. and the dog were both still sleeping.

            Without warning, the smoke alarm started blaring again, so something had to be done. The unit is mounted nine feet off the floor and flat to the ceiling, and in a remarkable bit of technology; it has a symbiotic relationship with the other eight smoke detectors in the house. They all talk to one another, gossiping back and forth as if they were a row of 1950s housewives having their hair done. “Did you see what he did the other day? What a goofball,” has likely been a very buzzy topic.

            Since my reach falls about a foot short of being able to grab the device, I went to the kitchen pantry and got the small two-step stepladder. This is the type of ladder that women used to use to get up and away from mice, only to realize that their hair was now entangled in spiderwebs.

           Once I was under the now quiet alarm, I unfolded the ladder and climbed up one step. Not enough. One more step and my head almost hit the ceiling, so too much. If I could have hovered in between the steps it would have been perfect. While I was eye-to-eye with the alarm, it fired up again, which caused me to recoil like a terrified toddler playing with a Jack-in-the-box.

   jack-box_0        “What in the holy swear word on a birthday cake?!” I said. I then grabbed the screaming alarm, twisted it by the neck, and popped it off the bracket. “Take that, evil screaming alarm beast,” I said, but that was not the end of it. It was still squawking in my hand, refusing to die. I clearly had the Jason Voorhees of smoke alarms.

            I finally figured out that it was experiencing separation anxiety from being disconnected from the rest of the gabby smoke detectors, but being the heartless creature that I am, I opened the little trap door and plucked out the backup battery. It let out one last fading gasp before it died in my arms. Not taking any chances, I swaddled it in a towel and shoved it in the closet.

            So here’s what I know. If there had been an actual fire, the nearest alarm would have sensed it, relayed the information to the other eight alarms, and they all would have gone off in unison. Had this happened, the noise would have been so loud, it would have shattered the windows, thus allowing air to rush in and fuel the flames up to wildfire level in about two seconds. One of these alarms is loud; nine of them in harmony would make coal miners in West Virginia wonder what the heck was making all that noise.

            So this specific alarm was bad, but why was it bad? Well, it’s hard-wired with a backup battery, so the battery must have run out of juice or was about to do so. I went into the basement to my battery stash and looked for a nine-volt battery. There was an entire alphabet of batteries, but only one that was nine volts. Perfect. I poked it under the lid into the smoke detector, and as soon as I slid the little cover closed, the unit sent out a bone-chilling scream.

            “Son of a bad swear word (as a verb) red-butted monkey on a merry-go-round!!” I said. That was a good one. I’ll have to remember that.

            Out came the battery, on came the pants and shoes, and a trip was made to Lowe’s.

            Since we have nine smoke detectors in the house, it seemed prudent to replace all of the batteries at the same time. They advise changing the batteries twice each year when the clocks are changed, but since the Daylight Saving Time people and I have a huge disagreement on the worth of their time altering lunacy, I choose to ignore their battery advice.9V

            I found the Great Wall of Batteries and looked for the squatty nine-volt size, which has fallen in popularity because AM transistor radios are no longer the height of technology. I believe they are only used now for garage door opener transmitters and smoke detectors, and of course—by eight-year-old boys with damp tongues and more curiosity than brains.

            There they were, buried behind the bargain-priced fifty-count pack of AA batteries, and … huh … would you look at that?

            Four batteries in a pack and I needed nine. This was the hot dog/hot dog bun situation all over again. They were also absurdly expensive, but without any choice, I bought twelve batteries. This will leave three of them lost in the wilderness, hopefully with enough power left when I need one in the middle of the night in a few years.

            Once I got home, I brought in the normal stepladder from the garage, which gave me the perfect amount of headroom, plugged in the smoke detector, twisted it back onto the bracket, and with the trepidation of a crack-addled bomb diffuser, I inserted the fresh battery, and slowly slid the cover shut. I then closed my eyes.


            One down, eight to go.

            So that’s how it went, and as far as I can tell, I bought myself another year or so of peace for thirty-six dollars. Plus tax.

            And that included three extra batteries.



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America—3.5 Million Square Miles of Stuff



           There’s a small motel located off the main road on which I travel daily that has been there for as long as I can remember. It’s the type of place that reminds me of something from another era; where one expects to see congenial men playing checkers over a barrel and waving at the cars as they pass by.

            The motel has outlived the Budget Inn that was kitty-corner across the road, although the large Budget Inn sign still remains years after the inn was leveled. The inn itself has been replaced with an acre or two of blank asphalt fronting endless rows of self-storage units. I keep imagining tired travelers pulling in at the sign, parking their car, and saying to one another, “Well, this is a colossal disappointment.”

            The small motel across the street is still there, though, divided into a series of tidy duplex buildings. They’re almost cabin-like, slumbered under a canopy of trees behind a large in-ground pool. It’s nothing fancy, but I suspect it’s well kept.

            The check-in desk is also the home of the current owners, who must always be ready for arriving guests. Here we are, here’s your key, please enjoy your stay, all for forty-six bucks a night. Not forty-five. Forty-six. The kitchenette is extra, but they have color TV, free HBO, and in a nod to the times, free WiFi. Not a bad deal for the weary traveler for less than fifty bucks. On a hot summer day, it’s not at all uncommon to see bathing-suited nomads catapult through the air and belly flop into the pool, while others lounge around the rim as if they are in Cabo, not caring that they are only a few dozen feet from four lanes of traffic and a Mazda dealership.

            On most weekend nights, a brightly lit neon No shares space with the Vacancy sign, but on weeknights, it doesn’t. During no-vacancythe day, I can often see the housekeeping cart in front of the units as they tidy up the rooms for the next guests. I’ve never had a reason to stop to see what it’s like, but I’m glad it’s still there, and I hope it stays. The past few years have brought a westward creep of car dealers, and it would be a shame to have the place plowed over for yet another generic vendor of automobiles.

            Most days I drive by without giving the motel a second glance, but sometimes I think about it, mostly because I’ve always known it to be there. It’s one of the many local landmarks that are seared into my brain. This is either a casualty or a benefit to living within twenty-five miles of where I sit right now for all of my sixty-plus years. I’ve been here so long that I know what used to be where something else is now, and I’m comfortable with that familiarity. Sometimes I ask myself if that’s good or bad.

           This does help a person such as me who has the sense of direction of one of those squirrels who suddenly realizes that he’s in the middle of traffic, but can’t decide if he should go left, right or straight up. That’s me in a car in an area which I am unfamiliar. I’m that dazed squirrel.

            “Oh, this looks about right,” I’ll say, turning north when I should be heading south, yielding to whatever directional whim looks reasonable. I navigate by benchmarks, yet even so, I drove right by the road that leads to my sister’s house the other day, and kept going a good three miles before I realized this had happened. I suddenly said to my wife, “where the hell am I going?” and she calmly replied, “Should I set the GPS?” It’s not that I didn’t know where my sister’s house was; I simply drove right by the street by a good mile and turned down some other street, completely thinking I was lostheading in the right direction. I then turned into one of the hundreds of faceless subdivisions around here, hoping it would send me closer to where I was supposed to be, but I got completely lost in the ant maze of streets named after shrubbery. I ended up going around in a huge circle, eventually popping out on the same wrong road I started on.

            This all comes into play because my wife and I are at an age where we’re starting to think about what happens next. I love our house and the land that’s around it, but at some point, it simply won’t be practical. It’ll be too big with too much maintenance as other interests and priorities begin to spring up. Sure, active weekends spent weeding and trimming bushes and mowing the lawn can be great fun, but so can going out and doing other things, and the scales are starting to tip a little towards the latter. Do I really want to spend my seventies and eighties mowing the same lawn I’ve mowed thousands of times already?

            The weather here is largely agreeable, even so, the winters can get a little dreary, but I’m not ready for Florida and I don’t think I ever will be. And of course, there are the onerous New York taxes, which are the highest in the nation. To paraphrase Frank Sinatra—if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere for a heck of a lot less.

            When AARP sends out their monthly magazine, there is often an article on the best places to retire, and the town in which I live is never on that list, nor is any other town in the entire state. South Dakota comes up often, yet the only thing I know about South Dakota is that Belle Fourche is the geographical center of the United States. Most of the towns that make these lists look beautiful when I look at them online, but a fancy brochure has fooled me more than once. Brochures can make Binghampton look swanky.

            Mrs. G. and I have traveled a bit, and we’ve seen France, Germany, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Canada, most of the Caribbean islands, Alaska and maybe a dozen or so other states in the US. Any one of these places has some quality that would make them a nice place to live. I was especially taken with Alaska, but I also liked the Provence region of France and Berlin was fascinating. Would I move to any one of them? Nope. Why? Well, our family is here. That’s important, but people move all the time, sometimes even far away.

            Which brings up something interesting.

            The other day, Mrs. G. showed me a magazine article she was reading about a couple that had refurbi71677shed an older Airstream trailer. It was towable with an SUV, and the inside had about the same square footage as our spare bedroom. Suddenly the idea of hooking up a small trailer of some kind and taking off had an exciting appeal. Keep a home base where we’re familiar, but see what’s out there. Get lost but in a planned sort of way.

            I don’t know if we’ll ever do it, but our bucket list unexpectedly had a new bullet point, and from where I sit right now, it doesn’t look all that bad. Who knows? Maybe we can stop at one of those small motels somewhere—one with a color TV and a swimming pool—and finally see what that’s all about.


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Driving Me Crazy



It was the spring of 1970 when I, a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old, drove my mother’s lime green American Motors Hornet to the absolute failure of my first road test. This wasn’t a “wait for the results to come in the mail” failure; this was a “son, you’ve just failed,” level of failure. I was crushed. After all, I had been driving our previous family car, a nineteen foot long Pontiac Bonneville since I was twelve or so to deliver the Sunday newspapers, and had practiced diligently on all manner of roadways once I got my learner’s permit. I thought this test was in the bag.

            What did I do? I hit a pothole. There was a car coming in the other lane, and swerving wasn’t an option, so I slowed down to a crawl and rolled over the edge of the road crater. What I should have done, according to the clipboard-toting monster who failed me, was to stop completely, turn on my blinker, and drive around it. His notes said that I failed to see a road obstruction. Was this fair? I have no idea. Probably, but in all the miles I have driven since 1970, I have never, not once, stopped, put on my blinker, and drove around a pothole. The accepted strategy is to either straddle the thing or hit it hard enough to send bits of suspension parts flying in all directions followed by a solid round of creative swearing. To this day, the reasoning behind the particular driving rule that crushed my teenage soul still bewilders me.

            I got over it of course and passed my next road test with flying colors, which began what has been a mostly uneventful forty-eight years of driving. Two speeding tickets, one ticket before there were laws against such things for driving while using my phone at 6:30 in the morning on a deserted country road, and one warning for not having a flag on a single piece of shoe molding that was on the back of my truck. The exact words of the state trooper who let me go with a warning were, “That could have put my partner’s eye out.” It should be noted that his partner was shielded behind at least six feet of squad car hood and a windshield, but duly noted. I taped a flag on the molding.

            As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become even more cautious on the road. I drive the speed limit, or no more than five miles per hour over it, I use my turn signals even when I leave my own driveway, and I cut a wide berth around people jogging or walking along the roadside. I seldom use my horn, unless somebody is being a complete turd, and I never toss litter out the window, unless you want to count the occasional lump of stale chewing gum.

            So here’s where I’m confused.

            I often find myself driving in the city where it seems as if all manner of road courtesy has been crumpled up into a little ball and set on fire. Pedestrians and bicyclists alike will meander out into traffic as if they are surrounded by a force field that makes them impervious to the mass of a two and a half ton Dodge Ram pickup truck. Green light, red light, no light, no crosswalk, doesn’t matter. Out they go, daring people to brake so hard that their feet punch through the floorboards, causing them to Flintstone nal_jaywalk042011b_171500a_8coltheir vehicle to a halt. I don’t want to hit you, Mr. Metropolitan Wanderer, but c’mon already, and while I’m all for the energy saving, health benefits of bicycling, the rules of the road also apply to you, buster. That means stopping your vehicle at red lights.

            I also don’t understand those lanes that are clearly marked for buses only, so if I want to make a right-hand turn, do I turn across that lane or use the lane?  And what about the bicycle lane that for some reason is painted in the middle of the road?  Can I drive on that?

            Oh, here’s another one: Do I yield to the person who is checking Facebook while driving or do I use my aforementioned rule of blowing the horn at turds to jar him back to reality? What about the guy who I see at least once a day who is eating off a plate with a fork? That requires an entirely new level of table manners. Or the young guys on motorcycles who not only zigzag through traffic, but pop off wheelies for no reason other than to check their bad-boy reflection on the front fender.

It’s gettidriving-eatingng bad out there, people. Time was when the worst thing on the road was the person who left their blinker on for miles, but now it’s gotten crazy. I was trying to merge onto the expressway the other day and was finally able to make my move before I ran out of lane when somebody pulled up alongside me, not budging an inch. On the plus side, he wasn’t trying to saw his way through a T-bone and a baked potato, but that didn’t make his douchebaggery any less egregious. It seems that lately, the open road has become a Roman gladiator pit, only a lot less congenial. I’m seriously thinking about mounting sword blades on my wheels to discourage the rambling drivers who simply cannot stay in between the lines.

I know I’m not that old because I’m not driving a Crown Victoria with a row of baseball hats on the rear parcel shelf, but don’t they teach people how to drive anymore? Does the DMV use the same parameters for new drivers as Home Depot uses for their department experts? Got a pulse? Here’s your apron.

Anyway, that’s my annual gripe about the state of modern life, and it’s been brewing inside of me for a while, but I swear to you that I didn’t write this while driving. I couldn’t. I was too busy eating soup, steering with my knees, adjusting the radio, checking my Instagram status, and taking a selfie.


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