Totally St. Augustine # 11 (Sept. 30, 2014)

Other duties as assigned

As I went online early this morning to take advantage of a fantastic sale on American Girl dolls I realized more than ever how my life has changed since I “retired” nearly three years ago.

My short stints as an adjunct instructor at the University of North Florida and as opinion editor for the St. Augustine Record aside, retirement has pretty much been a misnomer.

My LinkedIn page describes me as a “professional handler” for my 11-year-old daughter and that pretty much sums things up. The job I retired from had me making four or five 156-mile roundtrip commutes to Gainesville each week. My new job has me making 10 14-mile roundtrip commutes to Murray Middle School each week.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Friday’s and Saturdays I make (all told) 10 additional roundtrips of nine miles each to Abella’s School of Dance.

I’m putting fewer miles on my car but I’m spending almost as much time driving and waiting in parent drop-off/pick-up lines.

I retired a couple of years earlier than I had planned. With me working out of town, much of this child handling was taken care of by my wife. Trouble was my wife also had a full-time job making all this handling problematic. We ran the numbers and an earlier retirement for me was possible.

My new job is the best one I’ve ever held, even if I forgot to read the fine print in the job description. Listed under “other duties as assigned” were a whole bunch of things I had little or no experience doing. Number 326 on that list was “online purchases of American Girl dolls to support fundraising efforts for the St. Augustine Ballet.”

Number 57 on the list is “vacuuming the entire house at least weekly because we have a couple of dogs who shed enough hair to fully supply a medium-sized pillow factory.”

Speaking of those dogs, number 32 on the list is “to walk them around our neighborhood for as long as it takes to fill two plastic grocery bags with reprocessed chicken and beef byproducts.”

There are several duties relating to washing and drying clothes, but perhaps the most challenging is number 77, which states “regularly folding the stash of dried clothes both in the dryer and piled on top of the dryer.” I neglected to take the “folding clothes” elective while a student at the University of Florida.

At least 125 of the “other duties as assigned” involve the care and handling of my daughter. I must help her with her homework; ensure she is well-nourished; facilitate problems arising at school; and check to make sure she consumes her vitamin every morning.

I must maturely and compassionately understand how physical changes associated with my daughter’s progression through “tweenhood” might affect her behavior. I must punish her when necessary and make her believe that such is probably the most unfavorite part of my job.

My wife pitches in quite handsomely with many of the duties associated with my new job and does so while working a full-time job herself. I’m grateful for this but, more than anything, I think she’s after my job.

This column could be much longer but I’ll have to stop here because duty number 143 calls. I need to go online and purchase a couple more pink ballet tights for my daughter. Let’s see should I go to Discount Dance Supply or All About Dance? My work is never done.

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Totally St. Augustine #10 (Sept. 15, 2014)

How to save some cash

Reading this column may save you $33. At the very least it will probably save you $13.

Everyone who owns a car has to get his or her oil changed. Well, maybe you don’t have to, but not doing so will probably reap unpleasant “rewards” somewhere down the line.

Often I get the oil in my cars changed at the big box store most of us view as a necessary evil. I do this because I bought my tires there and figure I might as well get my oil changed when it’s time for a free rotation and balance. Usually the whole process takes 1-2 hours. During the wait I aimlessly roam around the store looking at stuff. Rarely do I buy anything.

The folks at the big box store are not overly concerned with customers’ time, and customer service doesn’t seem to be one of the specialties listed on the certificates of personnel posted in the auto checkout area. I won’t dwell on this but I will say that this failing often means it could take half a day to get your oil changed and tires rotated and balanced there. When I anticipate this happening I usually opt to get my oil changed elsewhere.

Enter the quick-service oil change joints. Often you can get a $10 coupon that will allow you to get your oil changed there for about half what the big box store charges. Pretty hard to believe, isn’t it? And if you’re female you can get your oil changed at a special price on Wednesdays that is still pretty good. How do they stay in business? Quite simply, upselling is their game.

While your oil is being changed they will visit with you in the customer waiting area and show you a dirty air filter. In years past it was usually the round air filter that surrounded the carburetor. Today most cars use fuel injection systems, negating the need for this filter.

Not to worry, later model cars have something called a cabin air filter, which works just as well for quick-change oil change folks.

A few months ago I was presented with one such filter when getting the oil in my wife’s car changed. The technician told me it was dirty and needed replacement. However today was my lucky day because he had the right one in stock and he’d sell it to me for $20 off the regular price of $49.99.

I asked him how much the filter would cost if I went to the big box store and he said that he had never priced them there but they usually cost $25-$30 at the auto parts stores. That was close enough for me so I gave the go-ahead for the filter to be replaced. I joked with him that I had better not later find out that the filters generally cost much less than that.

That same day I researched the subject and found out that they did. Several auto parts stores offered the same filter for about $17.

I called and spoke to the manager of the quick-change oil place. First he said the price included installation, which I told him was ridiculous because his technicians had to reinstall my old filter if I didn’t purchase a new one. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, the manager agreed to refund me $13. I was tempted to bring up the outrageous $3 shop charge supposed to cover rags and a squirt from a spray can of lubricant but I saved that argument for another day.

Then, a few weeks ago, I went to another quick-change oil place and had my own car serviced. Sure enough, the technician showed me the cabin air filter and said he had the replacement in stock for $49.99. I smiled at him and declined. He then noted that my vehicle (with 74,000 on the odometer) required synthetic oil or the warranty could be voided. I told him I had always used regular oil when having it changed. He then had me sign the receipt noting that warranties were voided because he installed regular oil. I didn’t ask him whether his business would pay for engine replacement if mine “blew up” and I had agreed to the installation of synthetic oil, which is quite a bit more expensive. Somehow I don’t think so.

I left the quick-change oil place and drove a ½ mile down the road to an auto parts store (across the street from the big box store) and purchased a high-quality cabin air filter for $16.49. It took me about 10 minutes to install, including the time to look up the procedure in my car manual.

Happy lubricating!

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Totally St. Augustine #9 (Aug. 29, 2014)

Election “news” and other thoughts

I woke up this morning and read a totally outrageous lead in an online “news” story and then decided to make Tuesday’s primary the subject of this column. More about the online story in a minute.

I actively supported one candidate in this election and he won. Barring a major write-in upset come this November, Jeb Smith will make an excellent county commissioner.

This campaign was marred in its final days by the existence of what some described as “offensive mailers.” Several individuals, including me, speculated on the origin of these mailers. I do not believe any of the candidates themselves had prior knowledge of their existence, nor do I believe they condoned them. I still haven’t seen one of these mailers but I know enough about their content to state whoever circulated them should be ashamed. The saving grace of the situation is the mailers seemed to have had very little effect on the outcome of the election.

In an earlier column I gave a masked description of whom I voted for and made some veiled predictions. My success rate in both areas was underwhelming.

Of the eight individuals I voted for, five were victorious. I voted for losing candidates in one county commission race and two judgeships. I had predicted that I would have six winners, one loser and one candidate making a runoff. At the time I thought Jeb Smith would be in a runoff because I incorrectly assumed there would be a runoff if no candidate claimed a majority. That happened but the result didn’t generate a runoff.

A commission candidate whom I voted for and I thought would lose, did lose. And two judicial candidates whom I voted for and I thought would win, did not. The turnout was poor but it’s likely that a larger number of voting electorate would not have changed any of the outcomes. Still it’s disappointing to see so many potential voters fail to exercise their proxy.

I’ve had previous issues with the online “news” service referenced at the beginning of this column. I won’t rehash them here. But the “news” lead I read this morning awakened the sleeping journalist in me.

Let me state that I don’t have a horse in the race for St. Augustine mayor. I’ve met Mayor Joe Boles and am appreciative of his strong support for the St. Augustine Ballet. I have not met his runoff opponent, Nancy Shaver. I am not a resident of the city.

Here’s the lead from this morning’s story: In a race that could have been decided between the two candidates last night, had the field not been corrupted with a spoiler, political newcomer Nancy Shaver of Lincolnville shows St. Augustinians that there is hope for a more fiscally sound, resident-oriented, customer service driven community when she drew all but 29 votes as the man who has held the reigns at the City Commission table for the past six years.”

I’m not sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if even Nancy Shaver was embarrassed by this editorial commentary masquerading as news.

No doubt the line between news and commentary has been blurred in recent years with the advocacy roles played by MSNBC, Fox News and others. But most of what these operations present as news is just that, news, albeit sometimes slanted. What I read online this morning was about as far from news as you can get.

Congratulations to the winners in this week’s primary. And thank you to all those who were brave enough to put their names on the ballot in pursuit of public service.

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Totally St. Augustine #8 (Aug. 20, 2014)

The Big Apple: A nice place to visit

Just returned from a visit to the Big Apple and, as much fun as the trip was, there were things that happened which make me thankful I call St. Augustine my home.

The trip actually took my to my childhood home on Long Island. For the first 17 years of my life I lived in Long Beach, N.Y., a seaside community that was most recently devastated by Superstorm Sandy in late 2012. It’s a nice town, just under 30 miles from the heart of midtown Manhattan. My sister still lives there and we stayed with her during our four-day visit. I’ll refrain from making any “editorial comments” about the particulars of our visit and leave it to the reader to decide why I give the nod to my 31-year hometown, St. Augustine.

We had tickets to see Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic Theatre in Manhattan during the second day of our visit. Although it is possible to drive a car from Long Beach to New York City and park, it’s not something a sane person would attempt. The preferred method of travel is to take the Long Island Railroad. We called the 5200 cab company to take me, my wife, my daughter and my sister to the train station. It’s something my sister has done many times before with the fare being $5 for the short, 1.5-mile trip. We were charged $20 on this occasion because the hacks charge by the person. I vowed to call for four cabs the next time we are there.

The round-trip train ride was pleasant and without incident and cost about $75 for the four of us. As might be expected, Penn. Station was as harried as downtown St. Augustine following Independence Day fireworks. This situation exists at the 34th Street hub just about 24/7. While in the Penn. Station restroom I was privy to wash my hands next to a rather disheveled man who was drying his bottom on one of those high-powered hand dryers. He was hard at it when I walked in and when I left.

Having grown up in New York, I knew that you have to leave your Florida manners at the door when walking the streets of the Big Apple. You don’t engage with anyone. We were approached by costumed comic figures seeking a tip for the privilege of taking a photo with them. We kept on walking and hoped they would use some of the tips they earned to launder their outfits.

Before going to the Phantom musical, we opted for lunch at the American Girl Café on 49th and Fifth Avenue. It was most enjoyable and we earned lots of reward points on the $140 bill.

The Phantom of the Opera was all that it was cracked up to be and it’s no wonder that it is the longest running musical on Broadway. Again we racked up lots and lots of reward points on the $600 we paid for the matinee tickets. I was afraid to ask my wife how much she paid for the official program, which came with a silk rose.

It was wonderful to see my sister and also squeeze in a visit with a dear friend, who is recovering from a serious injury, during our time in the Northeast. The weather was fabulous (we missed the largest rainstorm of the year by a day) and the pizza and bagels are the best that can be found anywhere.

We invited my sister to visit with us this Christmas and watch her niece dance in the sixth annual production of the St. Augustine Nutcracker. She won’t need to take any cabs or trains and my guess is that she will like what she sees at Lewis Auditorium just as much as the show at the Majestic Theatre.

While I will not debate someone who suggests that St. Augustine is a nice place to visit, I believe a more accurate statement would be, “It’s a nice place to live.” And with all due respect to the Big Apple, it’s a nice place to visit.

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Totally St. Augustine #7 (Aug. 4. 2014)

Why voting is like growing a beard

Just finished filling out my absentee ballot. As a registered Republican from Precinct 304, I was able to vote for governor, state senator, two county commissioners, three circuit judges and one school board member.

I won’t list whom I voted for but I think it’s OK if I share some of my personal demographics.

Six of eight races had incumbents. I voted for four incumbents and against two others. The last time two of these incumbents were on the ballot, I voted for their unsuccessful opponents. Six races (with a total of 16 candidates) included seven women among the hopefuls. I voted for five men and one woman.

To my knowledge, I do not think any candidate for whom I voted was ever elected because of my one vote. I feel pretty confident my 42-year streak will not be broken this year. Why then do I vote?

There are two primary (no pun intended) reasons. First and foremost I believe it is the obligation of all citizens to exercise their proxy at election time. This pays homage to all those who came before us and made sacrifices to ensure that we are able to live in a free society that facilitates taking for granted our right to vote.

The second reason I vote is related to something called “the argument of the beard.” I learned about this argument in my freshman logic class at the University of Florida a few years before I was able to legally cast my first vote.

The argument goes like this: If you shave one hair off a beard it will not eliminate the beard. What difference does one hair make? Shave off another hair. You still have a beard. And another, and another and another.

At some point the beard will be gone even though you are shaving hairs off in “inconsequential” one-hair increments.

Individual hairs have meaning when it comes to beards and individual votes have meaning when it comes to elections. At least that’s my theory.

This year’s first primary is scheduled for Aug. 26. Absentee and early voting could mean many races will be decided before Election Day. Yet every vote is important and I urge those who are duly registered (and have a clue whom they’re voting for) to exercise their civic duty and cast their ballots.

In a future column I’ll report on how many of those who received my vote finished on top. I’m predicting six winners, one loser and one making a runoff. Readers should be warned, however, my voting success and my predicting prowess are historically both wanting.

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Totally St. Augustine #6 (July 24, 2014)

I’m Grumpy. Don’t make it worse.

In spite of my usually affable nature, I suspect I may actually be a closet curmudgeon. For Father’s Day my family gave me a T-shirt with a caricature of one of the Seven Dwarfs and a warning, “I’m Grumpy. Don’t make it worse.” My family might be on to something.

I looked up curmudgeon in an online dictionary. The first definition listed was, “someone who gets annoyed easily, especially an old person.” Methinks I’ve been busted.

As long as I’ve been branded a curmudgeon I think it’s only appropriate that I list some of the things that have annoyed me recently. I have a feeling I’m not alone.

I vote so I get a lot of political mailers. Got one yesterday from an incumbent county commissioner who listed awards that St. Johns County received from three separate news organizations and intimated he had something to do with it. Earth to county commissioner … you didn’t.

Speaking of politics, I subscribe to an online local “news” service that accepts paid advertisements from local candidates and then presents them as letters to the editor and/or news. The political disclaimer is buried in an “election information” paragraph following the letter or news. Only the thorough and motivated reader realizes what he or she just read is actually a paid advertisement.

At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I will admit to frustration at calling our local cable company (that no longer has a local office) with a problem and finally connecting with an agent for whom English is a second language. It seems that these agents have as much trouble understanding me as I do them because the cable company’s service technicians have missed two scheduled appointments with me in the last 10 days alone. I can’t wait to call them back to fight for the two $20 “missed appointment credits” that will undoubtedly fail to find their way to my next billing.

Here’s a peeve that can be summed up in one incomplete sentence: Bicyclists who ride the wrong way in bicycle lanes and/or completely ignore traffic rules, signals and signs.

Generally speaking, I like the supermarket where my family does most of its shopping. Nonetheless, I would like to make it illegal for cashiers to ask me either of these questions when I check out: Did you find everything OK? Would you like to contribute a dollar to (fill in the otherwise deserving charity)?

If I didn’t find everything OK, it’s now too late. And, although some might disagree, I think it’s inappropriate to be asked for charitable donations by a merchant simply because you have your wallet open. Perhaps the supermarket should install a booth where an employee could answer questions about grocery locations and also accept charitable contributions.

I could list my response to several other situations that would certify me as a curmudgeon but I’ve probably already qualified. And as one of our incumbent county commissioners has noted, “USA Today reports that St. Augustine is the second best place to retire in the nation.”

I’ll count my blessings instead.

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Totally St. Augustine #5 (July 14, 2014)

The simpler days of a Princess phone

My wife and I are beginning to succumb to societal, corporate, peer and dependent pressure to soon provide our rising fifth grader with a cell phone. Rather than debate the pros and cons of doing so, I thought it might be interesting to briefly explore how telephones, and their use, have so dramatically changed in the last 50 years.

A reader warning here: There was no painstaking research completed by this writer in the formulation of this column. I have relied primarily on my recollections and experiences with telephones beginning in the early 1960s. So if said recollections and experiences are not universally accurate, please cut me a bit of slack. I did, however, start off with an experiment. Having not dialed an “operator” in more than 10 years, I attempted to do so earlier today. We’ll discuss “dialing” in a moment.

I punched “0” on my cordless home phone and, after about 15 seconds of silence, finally got a busy signal. I tried this a few more times with the same result. Does anybody know when the demise of the telephone operator came about? Or does it depend on what phone company you use?

Speaking of dialing, do people under the age of 21 ever use that term when talking about the process of placing a call? If not, do they even know what we older folks are talking about when we say things like, “we’re gonna dial up the pizza place?”

I suppose there are enough old movies and television shows still being broadcast (we’ll discuss “broadcast” another time) that allow echo boomers and generation Z members to connect the dots when they see telephones containing dials and large finger holes. By the way, call me sentimental because I have a dialer app on my cell phone. And yes, I sometimes use it.

I can remember when pushbutton phones became all the rage during the 1960s. You could rent them from your phone companies (yes, just about all phones were rentals back them) and the fee was higher than for dial, or rotary phones. Your wiring also had to be able to handle the tones fabricated by pushbutton phones.

When phone service began transitioning to having customers purchase their own phones, the early pushbutton phones had a switch on the side or back that allowed you to toggle between rotary (produced rapid clicks) and tones. Again, to use tones you had to have appropriate wiring and pay extra.

Directory assistance (if you didn’t have a phone book) used to be a free service provided by phone companies. You could dial 411 or, for numbers outside your area, enter 1-(area code) 555-1212 and tell them what city you wanted.

In the 1980s, home phones began transitioning from corded to cordless. At first, answer machines, caller ID software and speaker phone options came as separate pieces of hardware. As time progressed, all of these embellishments were built into a single piece of telephone equipment.

Car phones were around in the 1960s but were extremely rare and I haven’t the foggiest idea how they worked. They began to proliferate in the late 1980s and early 1990s as people adapted their portable “bag” phones for use in their automobiles.

In the mid to late 1990s the cellular revolution began taking shape with portable phones shrinking in size. Flip phones became popular and with the advent of iPhones and their ilk, phones started doubling as email, texting and gaming devices, cameras and Internet browsers. As I write this, some new feature is undoubtedly being formulated and/or introduced for the cell phone user.

As phones have become more complicated, certain aspects have become simpler. Long distance used to cost extra. Calling overseas used to be prohibitively expensive. You used to be able to charge a phone call to the person you were calling (with their consent). This was termed a collect call. You could call someone “person-to-person,” and if they weren’t available, you didn’t pay for the call. If they were available, you would pay extra. Operators would assist with collect and person-to-person calls. Maybe that’s why I got a busy signal when I tried to dial one earlier.

The jury is still out as to whether we will get our daughter a cell phone as she enters middle school. The cellular companies have run the numbers and what is fairly certain is whatever plan we might choose will not be cheap. If only our daughter would be happy (as my younger sister was) with a pink, pushbutton Princess phone. Not a chance.

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