In late 1996, CJ and I purchased our first Saturn – a burgundy SL1, which became CJ’s primary vehicle.  We were so happy with it that we purchased another one in 1999 – this time a blue SL1.  "Blue" became my primary vehicle for the next 7 years before being traded in for my current vehicle (a white Kia Rio).

We traded in "Red" for our third Saturn in 2004, this time a burgundy Ion.  The Ion became CJ’s primary vehicle up until this week, when on Monday she got rear-ended.  She texted me right after it happened:

The good news: I’m fine & the car is mostly fine.

The bad news: I got rear-ended and the trunk doesn’t shut because the bumper is crumpled.

Happy Monday!

The car was still drivable, and the bumper was still attached, so after dealing with the police, CJ just bungeed the trunk down and came home.  Our insurance company (Progressive) was awesome – arranging for the car to get into a local body shop the next day, and also arranging for a rental for CJ while it was in the shop.

Then I got this text from CJ yesterday:

When you have a moment, please call me at home

Uh-oh.  When I called, CJ said she just spoke with Progressive.  The agent said that the cost of the repairs would exceed the value of the Ion, so they offered to cut us a check for it.  In other words, the car was officially totaled.  The amount they were offering for the car was generous given its age – nearly 12 years – and its mileage.  We decided to let the Ion go.

When I got home, though, I found there was an unexpected side effect of us letting it go.  Lucy was on the verge of tears when CJ told her.  She insisted that she wanted to ride in the "red car" one more time.  Lucy has grown up with the Ion.  The Ion and the Rio are the only two family cars she has ever known.

So, this week – a week that literally started with a "Bang!" – we said goodbye to the longest-running vehicle we’ve ever owned.  It also brings to a close nearly 20 years of Saturns for us.  While they’ve had their share of quirks, recalls, and repairs, our Saturns were very reliable vehicles.


Thank you, Saturn, for keeping us safe, and getting us from point A to point B all those years.


Just Makin’ Copies – We Swear!

It’s been quite a while since I added something from the Mental Album, and yesterday CJ announced that she had to get some copies of some legal documents made.  That dredged up a very funny story from my consulting days that I realized I’ve never told here.

Until the last few years, there was a chain of copy centers around here called Kinko’s that I visited every so often.  Kinko’s has since been acquired/merged by FedEx, so I think the name "Kinko’s" is on the way out, and seems to be getting replaced with "FedEx Office".  I never really thought too much about the name, though.  For me, "Kinko’s" was synonymous with "24-hour copy center".

Several years ago, I had to go to Connecticut to pitch for some new business.  My pitch partner and I flew out the night before, and we were finalizing the presentation all the way out on the plane, and in the hotel that night.  Our pitch was something like 10am the next morning, so we could afford to take it in and get it nicely printed and bound up the morning of the presentation.

We woke early the next morning and checked out of the hotel.  As we were walking out, we stopped by the concierge’s desk, and asked him where the nearest Kinko’s was.

For the next 5 seconds, the look on that man’s face was part confusion, part disgust, and part "I just came on duty, and it’s too freakin’ early for this sort of thing".

It was a long 5 seconds.

When he finally regained the ability to speak, he managed a question.  "A what?"

"Um, a Kinko’s?"

Very carefully, struggling only slightly to maintain his composure, replied, "I don’t know what that is."

"Just a copy center."

"Oh!"  He visibly relaxed a full three notches.  "Well, if you need something copied, the front desk can help you."

"Well, we need it bound, too."

"In that case," he replied, "if you go down this road a few miles there’s an OfficeMax on the right."

"Ok, thank you!"

We managed to make it out to our car and shut the doors before we completely lost it laughing.  I assumed that Kinko’s was a nation-wide chain.  Apparently it wasn’t, or at least the chain didn’t have a link in Connecticut!

Looking back – and putting myself in that guy’s shoes – if I had never seen or heard of Kinko’s and someone asked me where to find one, the first thing the 6th-grade boy in me would have come up with would be "adult-entertainment industry", which is where I’m sure his mind was.

You know, to that point, I’m just glad we explained that we needed something copied BEFORE we explained we needed something bound.

From the Mental Album – Taking to the Sky

I’ve loved aircraft and spacecraft since I can remember.  To this day, I still love going to airshows, or walking through a flight museum.  On our trip to the National Air & Space Museum Extension at Dulles this past July, I could have camped out there for days, reading and looking at everything.

When I was a kid, I decorated my walls with pictures of planes and spacecraft:



I had a LOT more disposable time on my hands in those days, and much of it went to building models of airplanes and spacecraft (mostly the Shuttle).  At my peak I think I had two dozen models assembled and taking up most of my room’s shelf space.

I also built a lot of gliders and other less functional models out of anything I could find around the house – drinking straws became airplane bodies; poster board became wings; toothpicks glued together became structure shapes; masking tape was my friend.  My crowing achievement, though, was the design and construction of my own spacecraft – the TFD-3.


“TFD” stood for “Tuning-Fork Design”, the major structure feature of the craft.  The “3” reflected the two earlier versions of the plane I built, one for use in my home-made window tunnel (also known as the stairwell leading down to the main floor of my house).

I didn’t build out every nook and cranny of the TFD-3, but there were three that I did focus on: the cargo bays, complete with movable robotic arms; the collapsible solar panel arrays, and the cockpit/crew quarters.  I spent a lot of time on the latter especially, building in an ejection/recovery system (the entire cockpit would lift away as a separate pod), controls, sleeping and eating accommodations.

It warms my heart to see Katherine and Lucy enjoying planes too.  They each have several toy planes, love airshows, and got a huge kick out of the Air & Space Museum this summer.  Neither of them have shown any interest in building model planes yet, but perhaps I need to simply show them what you can do with a few boxes of toothpicks, some glue, and some poster board.  The sky’s the limit.

From the Mental Album – The Curse of the Lawnmower

My family has some interesting experiences when it comes to lawnmowers.  And of course, the only type of "interesting" that makes it onto this blog is synonymous with "traumatic-at-the-time, but funny-years-later".


The oldest was when I just an infant.  My Dad had me on his lap sitting outside, watching my Mom mow our lawn.  Our yard at the time had a telephone pole near one of the corners, and an anchor wire that came down to the ground.  Where it met the ground was a patch of very long grass.

When my mom got very close to that patch of grass, the family of rabbits that was taking shelter there decided that this loud, rumbling thing bearing down on them wasn’t going to divert, and decided to make a quick exit.

My mom, being focused on avoiding the cable, suddenly saw a group of small, furry, and VERY fast things explode at her feet in multiple directions at once.  She didn’t realize what what going on, but the adrenaline kicked in and she jumped and yelped.

My dad being several yards away from the bunny explosion, immediately saw what they were.  Being the loving husband that he was, simply pointed out the shrieking thing at the end of the yard to me, "Look, Mark – watch mommy jump!"


Not to worry.  Fate, it seems, has a sense of irony.  A few years later (I was probably 4 or so), dad was mowing the yard.  All was well, until a different set of creatures decided that they didn’t want to be run over with the mower, and also decided to make a quick exit.  Unfortunately, the creatures this time were ground-nesting hornets, and they weren’t exiting to run away so much as they were exiting to attack.

Dad made a standing long jump over the mower and ran frantically to the house.  Mom heard him yell from inside the house and ran to open the door.  They shut it in time to keep the hornets out.

I happened to be playing in our neighbor’s yard at the time.  Their house had a staircase that went up to their second floor.  When my dad started screaming about the hornets, I turned tail and ran up to the second floor.  When I got to the top, the male part of my personality kicked in and decided that I needed to be brave and help my dad, so I ran back down.  When I got the ground, the "what-the-heck-are-you-thinking-that’s-a-whole-nest-of-hornets-chasing-him!" part of my personality took over and I ran back up.


Years later, I was mowing my grandfather’s yard.  He had a small riding mower, and getting to use it was a treat – I mean how else was I going to get any experience driving at 14?

My grandfather had a large number of fruit trees in his yard (apples, figs, pears, etc.), which required a fair amount of weaving.  In one of my passes, I turned without realizing how close I was one of his trees, and that’s when I froze up at the wheel.

Distance to tree: 3 feet

(inner voice) Um, turning would be good now.  Any time.

Distance to tree: 2 feet

(inner voice, annoyed) Dude, do you see that tree rushing towards you at high speed?!?

Distance to tree: 1 foot

(inner voice, now quite irate) WAKE UP!!!!!!!

I disengaged the clutch, and almost immediately came to a stop.

Distance to tree – 2 inches

The mower’s running and I’m standing on the clutch, afraid to move.  After a few seconds – REAL seconds this time – I shifted to neutral so I could let the clutch go.  My leg was starting to tremble as the adrenaline left my system.  After a few more seconds, I backed the mower up, and kept going.

Naturally, I never told anyone about this until now.  My parents probably wouldn’t have let me get my license at 16 if I had.


This past spring, CJ moved a couple of mats to the front sidewalk, hosed them down, and left them there to dry.  Now, the easiest way to get to a particular patch of my front lawn was to push the mower over this particular piece of sidewalk.  The mats were only about half an inch thick, so I didn’t think there would be any problems if I just mowed right over them on my way to the grass.

That worked for the first mat, which happened to be the heavier of the two.  It stayed on the ground.  The second mat?  Yeah, not so much.  It wasn’t as heavy, so when the mower got directly over it, the convection current set up by the blades literally sucked the mat up, violently shredding it.



Perhaps this just comes down to avoiding power tools on wheels.  Ok, CJ, no street-sweepers, bulldozers, or Zambonis for me.

From the Mental Album – When Harvey met Sunshine

This is the third of a three-part series talking about my two favorite childhood pets.  We first met Sunshine, and then Harvey.  Now we’ll see what happens when Harvey meets Sunshine.


You may recall from the second part of this series that Harvey developed a fatty cist under her tail feathers later in life.  We originally thought it was yet another egg, but the vet told us differently.  We had Harvey out of her cage one night, examining her. 


I think we had just brought her home from the vet, and were discussing what he said. 


I remember sitting on one of the chairs…

dum-dum dum-dum

…holding her in my hand, just a couple of feet above the floor.

dum-dum dum-dum

At that moment, Harvey wasn’t in her cage, and she wasn’t in my room.

She was in Sunshine’s reach.


Almost faster than I could see and in one smooth move, Sunshine snatched Harvey out of my hand and into her mouth.  She immediately started to retreat with her prize.  Everyone in the room screamed, with the exception of Sunshine who had her mouth full at that moment.  Blue feathers were flying everywhere.  I grabbed Sunshine by the scruff of her neck and started smacking her butt to get her to let Harvey go, which she eventually did.  She probably only had ahold of Harvey for a few seconds, but those were some of the longest seconds of my – or Harvey’s – life.

Dad took care of Sunshine (yet another time when she was locked in the basement).  Mom and I started to carefully examine Harvey.  At first, I thought the only real damage done was the loss of feathers, but then I lifted up her wing, and saw the blood.

A lot of blood.

My first thought was to get it stopped.  Apply pressure?  Stuff her side with gauze, or washcloth?  Those would have probably been viable, even recommended, options here.

Yet, for some bizarre reason, my brain at that moment came up with flour.

Yep, that’s right, pack her side with flour.  That will stop the bleeding.  Flour!

Um, yeah.  Did I mention that I don’t do well under life-threatening pressure?  Let’s all be glad that when my daughters were born, there was someone with an actual medical degree in the room guiding the process.

So, my parents did what any parents would do when their child was on the verge of a meltdown because his pet parakeet had just been mauled by the family cat.  They started spooning in the flour while I called the animal emergency room.

Sidebar: That’s another thing I’ve noticed about kids and pets.  They don’t get seriously hurt until after 8 o’clock at night on a freaking Saturday.  You know, when the only option left is the ER?

The animal ER said they we should bring Harvey in, which we did.  When we arrived, we explained what had happened, and the receptionist took her back.  I honestly can’t remember how long we waited, but it was probably at least 20-30 minutes.  Eventually the vet came out into the waiting room to talk to us.

The bites weren’t as serious as they looked, she said.  It looked like she was going to make it.  They did, however, have to spend a while getting her cleaned up – at which point she shot me a glare as if to say “what the hell were you thinking – FLOUR?!?”  At that point, the life-threatening pressure lifted, and reason was allowed to flow back into my grey matter.  Oh yeah, flour would have been good to soak up the blood, but not so good at stopping the bleeding in the first place.  Yeah, what the hell WAS I thinking?

At any rate, I don’t remember if we had to leave Harvey overnight, if they bandaged her up at all, or pretty much anything that happened after the vet came to talk to us.  I just remember being very relieved that Harvey was going to live.



Harvey went on to live quite a bit past that incident – at least a year, if I remember correctly.  She did regrow the lost feathers, but I don’t think she flew after that.  I think the cist on her butt put her off balance.  I also don’t think I had another pet of my own after Harvey.  She was the last in a long line of hamsters, mice, and fish.

Sunshine went on to live a few more years yet.  She saw me through high school, and would eventually meet the college girl I was to later marry.  Although “meet” is probably too cordial.  “Hissed at” is really closer to the truth.  CJ used to say that she and Sunshine came to an agreement: Sunshine would continue to grant CJ life, and vice versa.

All of our childhood animals brought a lot of joy to our lives.  And a lot of good memories.

Just don’t ever look to me for veterinary medical advice – especially when you need it the most.

From the Mental Album – Harvey

This is the second of a three-part series on my two favorite childhood pets.  The first part, on our cat, Sunshine, was published back in March.  I didn’t really intend to wait five months to write this second part, but I’ve had a very unusual, and at times difficult, summer.  In this second part, I’ll reminisce about the only member of the Gilbert Family Pet Air Force – Harvey, the parakeet.

TopGun Harvey*

We bought Harvey from a pet store, and the only two requirements I had for the sales person were that he be blue, and that he be a he.  The first was obvious.  I had to take the salesperson’s word for the second.

Harvey’s wings had been clipped by the pet store to prevent him from flying away.  After I had him for a few months (perhaps a year), his wings grew back to the point where he could fly around my room.  I let him out with some regularity, reasoning that he could use the exercise.

Harvey in Flight with Mark

Unfortunately, there were a few challenges to letting him out.  The first was our cat, Sunshine.  Before every flight, I made sure Sunshine was NOT in my room, and shut the door so Harvey would have a safe haven to fly in.

The second was Harvey’s talons.  Whenever Harvey happened to land on you, he would dig in his talons to keep from sliding off.  Totally understandable.  Unfortunately, they were rather sharp most of the time, so this tended to draw blood if he happened to land somewhere lightly-clothed.  The pet store told us we could trim them with a standard pair of nailclippers, but we had to make sure we didn’t cut them too close to the claw, otherwise we’d nick the blood vessel in the talon.  Imagine a 14-year old and/or his mother trying to hold a squirming bird so we can cut his talons, and actually managed to MISS the blood vessel.  Yeah, there were a few panicked times when we did nick it, and spent the next several minutes trying to stem the flow with tissue.

The third challenge was that Harvey, like any other bird, pooped.  And when he was in flight, the poop tended to be also.  It was a good day when it landed on the hard-wood floors, or on the top of my dresser where it was smooth and easy to clean up.  Many times, however, he got my bed, my shirt, the rug, and so on.  To the best of my knowledge, he never got my hair.  Let me just say that I’m very thankful for the little things in life.

Harvey on Blinds*

At some point, many months after we got him, Harvey began to shred the newspaper at the bottom of his cage.  Why in the heck would he do that?  I wondered.  Silly bird.  I changed it and went about my merry way.  He shredded it again.  I changed it again.  This continued for several days until I finally gave up.  Fine!  Whatever.

About the same time we noticed that he was developing a bulge on his butt, right below his tail feathers.  I thought he might have been developing something like a tumor or other growth.  I’m fairly certain we didn’t take him into the vet to look at it, because the vet probably would have warned us what was about to happen next.  You see, one Sunday morning, while I was still clinging to the last remnants of sleep, my Mom came in to get me moving for church.  She happened to walk over to Harvey’s cage.

Mom: “Mmmmmm mmmm mm mmm”.

Me, groggily: “What did you say, Mom?  I didn’t really get that.”

Mom: “I said, Harvey laid an egg.”

Me: “He can’t lay eggs, Mom.  He’s a boy.”  Apparently Mom had lost all of her “Intro to Biology” knowledge over the years.

Mom, slightly annoyed at her son giving her biology lessons:  “Well, Harvey must not be a ‘he’ after all, ‘cause SHE laid an egg.”

At this point, I dragged myself out of bed and walked over to the cage.  Sure enough, Harvey was down at the bottom of his – er, HER – cage, sitting on a small egg.

At this point, two thoughts hit me.  The first was that this explained why Harvey insisted on shredding his newspaper, and the “growth” on his, – er, HER – butt.  The other was that I got totally pwned by the salesperson at the pet store.  “Boy”, indeed!  The vet would later tell us that it was actually fairly difficult to tell boy and girl parakeets apart.

Fine!  Whatever!  I have a girl bird named Harvey.  Terrific.  No problems here.  Since we didn’t have a boy parakeet – a REAL boy parakeet, mind you – to fertilize the eggs, we decided it would be best to just take the egg away from her.

Time went by, and Harvey laid another egg.  We removed it.

Then another.  We removed that one.

Then ANOTHER.  (At this point it kinda felt like the guy from “Monty Python and the the Holy Grail” who’s castles kept sinking into the swamp.)

We talked to the vet.  He said that Harvey would keep laying eggs because she had some internal number that she was trying to hit.  He said that if she kicks an egg out from under her, then we can take that one away.  Otherwise, she’d just keep laying them, trying to make her quota.  So we left Harvey and her eggs alone.  She laid another, then another, then ANOTHER.

When she hit 8 we noticed that she couldn’t quite keep them all under her at the same time.  We hoped she’d start kicking eggs out so we could take them away.

When she hit 12, she REALLY couldn’t keep them all under her.  I seem to recall someone making a joke about getting a really small egg carton to put them all in.

When she hit 15, we had had enough, and started pulling them out.  We didn’t remove all of them, but 15 was beyond ridiculous.

Then one day she developed another bulge under her tail.  We assumed it was yet another egg, but days went by and she didn’t lay it.  We eventually took her into the vet, who diagnosed it as a fatty cist.  He said because she was so small, he wouldn’t recommend surgery as long as she kept pooping.  Which she would continue to do, over everything.

Harvey was leading quite the complicated life, but she seemed very resilient.  Both of those facts would soon be put to the test.  Find out how in Part 3 – When Harvey met Sunshine.

* For you young whippersnappers, this was how we did LOL captions back in the late 80s.  We put stickers on the hard-copy photos and then…  What do you mean, “what’s hard-copy?!?”

Grandparents Remembered

I remember when I was a kid, before my parents were comfortable letting us stay at home alone by ourselves, my brother and I would spend our summer days with my Grandma and Grandpa P while my parents worked.  My grandfather loved making wine, and it was fun to see all the bees get drunk and stuck in the juice as it was pressed out.  My grandmother was constantly pushing food on my brother and I – not that two growing boys really needed encouragement to eat, but still.  I remember my brother and I riding our bikes up and down the industrial road that ran behind their house, looking for washers and other “treasure” scattered along the road.

I remember spending a week or so every summer at my Grandma and Grandpa G’s cottage on Saginaw Bay, off Lake Huron.  Both of them loved to play card games like cribbage and hand and foot, so we learned to play.  They would frequently have a puzzle going in the sunroom, and I remember helping both my parents and grandparents piece it together.  My grandfather loved to play golf, but I remember he liked falling asleep to TV-golf even more.  My brother and I would ride our bikes around the point where they had their house, and I remember by the time they sold the cottage there were many more houses there than when they first moved in.  I remember fishing off their dock and their pontoon boat, and I remember even catching a couple.

I thought that was how everyone grew up.

My mom’s mom died when I was in high school.  My dad’s dad in 2003.  Grandma G and Grandpa P died this year, in February and June, respectively.  Grandpa P died within a week of my wife’s grandfather, so I took two consecutive Fridays off to attend the funerals and spend time with my parents.  When I explained to my team why I needed the time off (and on such short notice), they were very sympathetic.  What really struck me in talking with them was the number of people who said they didn’t know their grandparents like I knew mine.  Several of their grandparents died when they were young, or they just didn’t see them that often growing up, they said.  It’s so cool you got to know yours that well, they said.

I had no idea how lucky I was.  But I won’t soon forget.

From the Mental Album – Non-Euclidean Geometry

My 10th grade English teacher, Mr. Chambo, had an interesting way to award extra credit.  On each test or quiz, he would ask a student to pick a topic.  He would come up with a question in that topic, and if you wrote the correct answer down on the test, he would give you the extra points. 

To select the student that would choose the topic, Mr. Chambo would work his way around the room – up one aisle and down the next.  Most guys in my class (yes, it was an all-male school) would pick a sports-related topic, and not being into sports at all I never got those right.  As a result, when it came to be my turn, I decided that I needed to do something a little different.

You see, there was a corollary to Mr. Chambo’s extra credit rule.  If Mr. Chambo couldn’t find a question for the selected topic, he would give EVERYONE in the class the extra credit.  As a result, when it was my turn I decided to shoot for the stars, and see if I could get a win for everyone.  If I succeeded, I’d also win some hard-earned cred with my peers.

My science project that year was actually more like a math project, and in particular dealt with fractals and strange attractors.  I happened to come across the term “non-Euclidean geometry” in my readings.  I had no real idea what it involved, but since Mr. Chambo was an English teacher and not a math teacher, I figured he didn’t either.

When it came time for me to supply the topic, I first confirmed that the second rule.  He said yes, with a trace of a smile – I think he knew what was coming.  “Ok,” I said, “the topic is, ‘non-Euclidean geometry'”.

Utter silence from the rest of the class.

Then the guy behind smacks me in the shoulder – “WHAT?!?”  I just crossed my arms and smiled.  “Just wait,” I said.  After several more seconds of silence from Mr. Chambo, I asked, rather arrogantly, “So, can you come up with a question?”

He smiled.  “Yeah, as a matter of fact I can…”

My heart sank.

I don’t remember the question, but I do remember I didn’t know the answer.  Neither did anyone else in the class.  Mr. Chambo, as I discovered that fateful day, had a math minor with his English major, and one of his professors actually worked with non-Euclidean geometry, so he had picked up a little.

I sat there for the remainder of the class, and furiously avoided all eye contact with my classmates.  What little cred I had going into that particular class period had evaporated.

Gah!  What are the freakin’ odds?!?

Apparently pretty good, seeing as I married someone with that exact major-minor combination.  Sheesh.

From the Mental Album: My Grandmother, the Traffic Cop

My paternal grandmother, Betty, passed away in February.  During her memorial service, the family recounted several amusing tales that involved her.  Mine was the following.


The year was 1992, and I had just walked for my high school graduation.  My 220 fellow classmates and I were exuberant as we and our respective families walked out to the parking structure where we had all parked.  As you might expect with a multi-story parking garage, having over 220 cars try to exit at the same time leads to a few delays.  As a result, we ended up sitting in our car for a while waiting for the long line of cars slowly passing behind us clear so we could back out of our parking spot.

After about 20 minutes, though, Betty decided she had had enough.

Much to the surprise of my brother and I, she stepped out of the car and walked between the cars in the procession.  She calmly approached up to one of the vehicles that was about to pass, spoke to the driver briefly, and then started back to our car.  She stopped before she got there, and signaled to my Dad (who was driving) that he could back out now.

Most of our car broke into laughter.  Our grandmother had just stopped a line of dozens of cars to make room for ours.  My brother, horrified, sank into the seat cushion as far as he could go.  I seem to recall later him saying that if she was going to do that at HIS graduation two years down the line, he just wasn’t going to invite her.

Betty climbed back in, and I’m sure she was at least a little smug at solving the problem in the most direct manner possible.

I love you Grandma.