Thursday, February 11, 2016

"One for the Aged"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Now that I have reached 62, the age at which geezers such as yours truly are eligible to take Social Security payments, I have made an important discovery.

No, it’s not where I put my glasses, because I don’t wear them, though I do use glasses to drink red wine, which I consider over-the-counter heart medicine.

My discovery is that I am now being carded again. But not when I buy wine, which is not surprising since I am almost three times as old as the minimum drinking age of 21. If you invert those numbers, however, you will get my maturity level.

I am being carded for practically everything else because I am according to the U.S. government, whose taxes often tax my heart, which is where red wine comes in handy a senior citizen.

A dozen years ago, I became eligible to join AARP, which stands for the American Association of Retired Persons, even though I can only now start getting retirement benefits but can’t get full payments until I am 66.

At the rate I am being taxed, unfortunately, I will be working posthumously.

Still, I have been eligible for senior-citizen discounts since I was 55 (inverting those numbers does no good) and have often been given the benefit of lower prices without being carded, which makes me wonder if I look like a geezer to younger people, which these days is just about everybody else.

Last year, for example, I went to the aquarium with my daughter, my son-in-law and my granddaughter. After handing the young (of course) person at the register my debit card to cover the $22 charge, my daughter said, “You should have asked for a senior-citizen discount.”

The young (of course) person at the register looked up at me and said, “I already gave it to you.”

“Is it that obvious?” I asked.

She smiled and handed me a receipt for $20.

I guess it was a fair trade-off.

What I don’t understand, in addition to everything else, is how the U.S. government calculates who is eligible for what, at what age they have to be to get whatever it is they are eligible for, and — this is the most important part — if the people making these decisions were drunk when they did so.

Take half-years. They are very important to toddlers, who don’t say they are 3, the age my granddaughter will turn next month. Instead, they insist they are “thwee and a half.”

This stops at approximately age 5 and doesn’t become important again until that period of time halfway between ages 59 and 60, at which point, according to a bunch of government employees who obviously had been out on a three-day bender, you have to be 59 1/2 to take penalty-free withdrawals from any of your retirement accounts, even though you can’t retire until you are 62, 66 or somewhere in between. I am reasonably certain, however, that you cannot be dead, in which case you have to pay another tax.

Another important half-year is 70 1/2, when you’re required to begin taking money from your tax-advantaged retirement accounts, with the exception of a Roth IRA or your 401(k), if you're still working.

Since my name isn’t Roth, there isn’t enough money in my 401(k) for me to live on for more than the equivalent of one baseball season, there is no account on earth in which taxes are an advantage, and I am still working, though not to the satisfaction of my employer, I guess this won’t do me much good.

I would jump off a bridge, but first, of course, I’d have to pay a toll.

In fact, this whole thing is taking a toll on me. The only solution is to use the not-entirely-feeble excuse that I am old and ought to be forgiven for not understanding what the hell all these rules and regulations mean.

In the meantime, I think I’ll have a glass of wine.

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, January 28, 2016

"The Paper Chase"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate

As an old newspaperman living in a digital age, I am often asked if print will survive. My answer is yes, and for a very important reason: You can’t wrap fish in a website. Besides, what are you supposed to do, housebreak your dog on an iPad?

That’s why my columns, aside from their obvious benefit of being a cure for insomnia, are so valuable.
If one thing has irrevocably changed, however, it’s newspaper delivery, which used to be done by kids on bikes. Now it’s done by adults in cars.

In my never-ending quest for column material that can be used by puppy owners to keep their carpets clean, I recently rode with Lucille Marshak, a newspaper carrier whose best delivery on a dark and stormy night wasn’t the newspaper but, fittingly, a dog.

I met Lucille at a gas station at 3:45 a.m. and climbed into the back of her 2011 Kia Sedona, which already has nearly 200,000 miles on it and was filled with hundreds of newspapers that Lucille unfailingly delivers, every day except Christmas, through rain, snow, sleet and gloom of night.

On this gloomy night, it was rain that Lucille had to drive through.

I told her that my younger daughter used to deliver our hometown paper, The Stamford Advocate in Connecticut, when she was about 12 and that I once took over for her on a Sunday morning when she was sleeping at a friend’s house.

“It was murder,” I added. “I had to lug those heavy papers in a bag around the neighborhood. And I didn’t even have a bike.”

“Kids don’t do that anymore,” said Lucille, who is 61 and for the past 25 years has been delivering Newsday of Long Island, New York, where I now live.

As we made our way through the wooded back roads of Lucille’s long and winding route, which was eerily illuminated by the headlights of her car, a dog suddenly appeared out of the fog.

“I spoke with the owners earlier,” said Lucille, who began at 1 a.m., “and promised I’d  be on the lookout for the dog.”

The dog apparently was on the lookout for Lucille, who pulled over and, at my suggestion, opened the back door. The pooch, a beautiful husky, hopped in and shook herself off, giving me the shower I didn’t have time to take.

“Do you have to go to the bathroom?” I asked the dog. “We have plenty of newspapers.”

The grateful canine, who didn’t take advantage of my offer, for which I was grateful, slobbered me in kisses.

When Lucille pulled up to the dog’s house, her sibling owners, Chris and Jenna Dooley, both in their 20s, came running out. Their father, Charles, stood at the door.

“I was walking on the wet road in a pair of socks, calling her in the rain,” said Chris, adding that the dog’s name is Dakota and that she’s almost 2 years old. “My friend was over and when he opened the door to leave, she scooted out.”

It was now 4:15, way past Dakota’s bedtime.

“Come on, Dakota, let’s go inside,” said Chris. But Dakota didn’t want to leave, preferring to snuggle with me. Eventually she relented and went with Chris, who put her on a leash. “Thank you so much,” he said.

“Aren’t you forgetting something?” asked Lucille, who extended her hand out the driver’s-side window and said, “Here’s your paper.”

For the next four hours, Lucille regaled me with stories, like the one about the woman who came out to get the paper naked, and the one about the angry guy who chased her in his car and tried to run her off the road because he didn’t want an advertising supplement.

She also showed me how to make a perfect hook shot, left-handed (she’s a righty) and over the roof of the car, to get the paper to land in subscribers’ driveways.

Then there was the Stolen Paper Caper, which occurred on the route of Lucille’s husband, Ron, who co-owns the family delivery service, which has included their three now-grown children.

“Two women were arrested for taking papers because they wanted the coupons,” Lucille recalled. “Ron and I were interviewed on TV.”

Ironically, a guy in my neighborhood has been stealing papers, including mine, while he walks his dog.

“Maybe the dog isn’t housebroken,” suggested Lucille, who has two dogs of her own and plenty of canine friends on her route.

“If it will help,” I said at the end of a fascinating night in which I saw how hard Lucille, Ron and other newspaper carriers work, “I’ll give the guy copies of my column. His dog will be greatly relieved.”

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, January 14, 2016

"The Skin Game"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
For the past 40 years, which is how long I have been in journalism, I have had a nose for news. So I guess it was not surprising that the news I received recently involved my nose.

Who knows what news you will receive about your nose until you go to the dermatologist, which is what I did and was told I had skin cancer on you guessed it my ear.

No, actually, it was on my nose, which is my most prominent feature with the notable exception of my mouth, a cavelike aperture made even larger because it frequently contains my size 11 foot.

But back to my nose, which is nothing to sneeze at.

“I think I know what this is,” said my dermatologist, Dr. Adam Korzenko, who has a practice in Port Jefferson Station, New York.

“Yes,” I replied helpfully, “it’s my nose. Believe it or not, it was this size when I was born. I couldn’t lift my head until I was 3 years old.”

“No,” the good doctor told his patient patiently, “I mean this little red spot.”

“In my case,” I countered, “the red spot isn’t so little. If I stood on a street corner, cars might actually stop.”

“I am going to do a biopsy,” Dr. Korzenko said, “but I am 99 percent sure this is a basal cell carcinoma. It’s not life-threatening, but you should have it removed.”

“My nose?” I exclaimed. “That would involve dynamite and jackhammers. You’d have to hire a construction crew.”

“You can keep your nose,” Dr. Korzenko said reassuringly.

“Good,” I responded, “because nobody else would want it. But I have to ask a question: How could I have skin cancer? I am not a sun worshipper. And if I go out on a sunny day, I always slather myself with sunscreen.”

“This probably goes back to when you were a kid,” Dr. Korzenko said. “It’s very common. I see 800 cases a year. And it’s really nothing to worry about. But you should have it taken care of.”

The skin, Dr. Korzenko said, is the body’s largest organ (sorry, guys), which is why it is important to have it checked regularly.

A few days later, the biopsy came back positive.

“Are you positive?” I asked the nice person who called with the news.

“Yes,” she said. “We’ll book you with a surgeon.”

Not long afterward, I went to East Setauket, New York, and sat in the office of Dr. Evan Jones, who was ready to do a Mohs procedure.

“Mohs?” I inquired. “Please tell me Larry and Curly won’t be assisting.”

“They’re on vacation,” said Dr. Jones, adding that he would numb my nose with a local anesthetic.

“I don’t care where it comes from,” I said. “You could even use something imported, like beer. I could go for one.”

“Then,” he explained, “I’ll take off a thin layer and run a test on it. If I need to take off another layer, I will until there are no more cancer cells.”

The procedure lasted about an hour, most of it spent waiting for the results to come back. Dr. Jones took off one layer and a tiny bit more before saying, “OK, you’re all done.”

The next day, I went to see Dr. Gregory Diehl, a plastic surgeon in Port Jefferson Station.

“I don’t want to end up with a third nostril,” I told him.

“You can breathe easy with two nostrils,” he said.

“Maybe you can use spackle,” I suggested. “Of course, then you’d have to throw in the trowel.”

“I have a better way,” said Dr. Diehl, who explained how he would take skin from the upper right side of my nose and use it to seamlessly cover the cancerous area that was removed during the Mohs procedure.

It was ingenious. And artistic. And swell, even though my nose didn’t swell any more than it did before.

Now I am cancer-free, on the mend and looking as lovely as ever. And I owe it to Drs. Korzenko, Jones and Diehl, all of whom are credits to their profession and good guys to boot.

I may not be a doctor myself, but I am going to give everyone a prescription: Go to the dermatologist regularly and wear sunscreen.

The nose knows.

Copyright 2016 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Remembrance of a Cool Guy"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
The first time I met Carmine Pikero, the man who would become my father-in-law, he was standing in the parking lot at Stamford (now Trinity) Catholic High School in my hometown of Stamford, Connecticut. It was 1971 and he was there with my future mother-in-law, Jo, and the girl who would become my wife, their older daughter, Sue, whom I always had a crush on.

Sue and I had just graduated (she honorably, me miraculously). I walked up to Sue, kissed her, wished her a nice summer and said I’d see her in the fall at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont, where we both were going.

“Who the heck is that?!” her parents wanted to know.

“Oh, that’s Jerry Zezima,” Sue said casually. “He’s going up to St. Mike’s, too.”

They must not have been too comfortable with that. Their trust was sorely tested shortly after we graduated from college. Sue and I, with our good friend Hank Richert, another Catholic High grad who also went to St. Mike’s, met at the now-defunct Sittin’ Room in Stamford for a Saturday night of conversation and conviviality. We all drove separate cars (I wasn’t formally dating Sue at that point) and didn’t overindulge, but we did stay until the place closed.

“I got in my car and started to drive home,” Sue recalled when I spoke with her on the phone the next day. “As I was going up Long Ridge Road, I saw the headlights of this car behind me. I drove some more, but the car was still following me. I was getting scared. I turned onto Cedar Heights Road. So did the car. Then I turned onto Clay Hill and the car was still behind me. It followed me all the way home and up the driveway.”

“Who was it?” I asked anxiously.

“My father,” Sue said. “He was livid. He was out looking for me. He wanted to know who I had been with. I told him I was out with you and Hank.”

All was (eventually) forgiven and I started dating Sue. When we were married, her parents warmly welcomed me into their family, just as my parents warmly welcomed Sue.

These memories came flooding back over the holidays, the first without my father-in-law, who died in July at the age of 89.

Dad loved the holidays, especially Christmas Eve, when he got to help my mother-in-law make the Feast of the Seven Fishes, the traditional Italian dinner. He wasn’t a cook (boiling water was his limit), but he did help clean the shrimp and soak the baccala.

He especially liked angel-hair pasta with anchovies.

“The pasta is great,” I used to say, “but I draw the line at fish with hair.”

Dad, who I think would have eaten it for breakfast, would invariably reply, “You don’t know what you’re missing.”

After all these years, I have finally relented. And now I think it’s pretty good.

Dad also was handy. He had to be because he had approximately 17,000 tools in the basement. He must have had triplicates of every kind imaginable, including hammers, saws and screwdrivers, which he liked to drink in the summer, though his cocktail of choice was a vodka and tonic.

Once, when my daughters, Katie and Lauren, were small, I “helped” Dad put up a swing set for them in the backyard of his house in Stamford. My main job was handing him tools. Afterward, I got each of us a beer.

“Thanks for your help,” Dad said.

I smiled and replied, “It was nothing.”

Another thing about my father-in-law was that he was a handsome dude. And a cool guy. He loved to dance and travel the world with my mother-in-law. In fact, they took the family on a cruise to Bermuda for their 50th wedding anniversary in 2000. I got to drive the ship. My father-in-law, calm and collected as ever, ordered a drink at the bar. I didn’t blame him.

But mostly, he was a terrific husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and, of course, father-in-law who set a good example for me. Now I am the father-in-law of Dave and Guillaume. I don’t know if they think I’m cool, but they’re great guys who have patiently and cheerfully put up with my stupid jokes.

So did my father-in-law, a good man who was much loved and has been much missed, especially during the holidays.

A toast, with a vodka and tonic: Cheers, Dad.

Copyright 2015 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, December 17, 2015

"The Zezimas' 2015 Christmas Letter"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
Since I am in the holiday spirit (and, having just consumed a mug of hot toddy, a glass of eggnog and a nip of cheer, the holiday spirits are in me), I have once again decided to follow in that great tradition of boring everyone silly by writing a Christmas letter.

That is why I am pleased as punch (which I also drank) to present the following chronicle of the Zezima family, which includes Jerry, the patriarch; Sue, the matriarch; Katie and Lauren, the childriarchs; Dave and Guillaume, the sons-in-lawiarch; and Chloe, the granddaughteriarch.

Dear friends:

It sure has been an exciting 2015 for the Zezimas! Much of the excitement, as well as a lot of vexation and a fair amount of expense, was caused by household appliances. That’s because the dryer, the dishwasher, the microwave, the toaster and the coffee maker conked out.

Jerry, who is convinced that inanimate objects are out to get him, got some great advice from 83-year-old super salesman Leo Kasden, aka the Appliance Whisperer. Said Leo: “If you check out your appliances every morning and say hello to them, that might help. Maybe they’ll like you better.”

Jerry had further domestic trouble when Sue urged him to change the faucet that had been leaking for months in an upstairs bathroom. Jerry, who proudly bills himself as the Least Handy Man in America, wisely used a screwdriver (vodka and orange juice) and got the job done without flooding the house and shorting out all those new appliances.

He also had a bit of medical trouble when he was diagnosed with skin cancer. To make matters worse, it was on the most prominent place possible: his nose. Fortunately, dynamite and jackhammers were not needed to remove the carcinoma. Now that Jerry is recovering and looking as lovely as ever, he promises (or threatens) to write more extensively about it. But first, of course, he’ll have to put his nose to the grindstone.

Sadly, fate was not as kind to Kitty, a sweet little cat who, at the ripe old age of 17, went to that big litter box in the sky. In her wild youth, Kitty was the epitome of promiscuous sex and teenage (by feline standards) pregnancy. The mother of nine illegitimate children, Kitty is survived by her fat daughter, Bernice, who thankfully has no children of her own.

Speaking of youth, Sue and Jerry relived theirs when they attended their 40th college reunion. Members of the notorious Class of 1975, they returned to Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, the scene of so many stupid pranks pulled by Jerry and his pals Tim, Hank and Clay, who also attended, that they are thinking of suing the makers of “Animal House” for theft of intellectual property. They did, however, behave themselves (mostly) at the reunion.

But the most fun that Sue and Jerry had this year was with Chloe, who turned 2 in March and is already smarter and more mature than Jerry.

She proved it on several occasions, including a trip to the aquarium with Lauren (Mommy) and Guillaume (Daddy). Accompanying them was Jerry (Poppie), who spouted fish puns all day. Naturally, they got Chloe’s seal of approval.

Jerry also introduced Chloe to the neighborhood ice cream man, who melted at the sight of her, and went with her to a children’s recreation center, where he almost fainted in the bouncy house.

The highlight of the year was the White House Easter Egg Roll. On Easter Sunday, Jerry packed Sue, Lauren and Chloe in the car and drove to Washington, D.C., where Aunt Katie and Uncle Dave live. The next day, Mommy, Nini and Poppie took an excited little girl to the South Lawn of the White House, where Jerry was caught cheating while trying but failing to help Chloe win an Easter egg race.

But he made up for it by introducing Chloe to a bona fide celebrity. No, not the president, but Chloe’s hero, Peppa Pig, whom she hugged and posed for pictures with. The day will live on in our memories because that’s the way Poppie rolls.

Merry Christmas with love and laughter from the Zezimas.

Copyright 2015 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, December 3, 2015

"Chloe Meets Santa"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
In 1897, which was before my time (6 a.m. is before my time, too, but that’s another story), a little girl named Virginia asked if there was a Santa Claus.

In 2015, a little girl named Chloe got up at 6 a.m. in her grandparents’ house and asked for breakfast. Then she asked if there was a Santa Claus.

She found out when she went to the Smith Haven Mall in Lake Grove, New York, to see the right jolly old elf who made her laugh when she saw him in spite of herself.

As a sometimes naughty boy who is trying to get on the good list so I can receive reindeer underwear for Christmas, I am not lying when I say that this Santa is the best I have ever seen.

His real name is Ernest Johnson. But he is known in holiday circles, which look remarkably like wreaths, as Santa Ernie.

“I love being Santa Claus,” he told me in a phone conversation a couple of weeks before meeting Chloe, who just happens to be my granddaughter.

Santa Ernie has greeted good little boys and girls at Smith Haven every year since 2001. But he took the role long before that, in 1979, at the age of 40.

“I told a little girl four years ago that I was 654, which makes me 658 now,” Santa Ernie said.

“You don’t sound a day over 483,” I replied.

He chuckled and said, “Being Santa Claus keeps me young.”

When Chloe and I met him, he certainly looked the part. His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard on his chin was as white as the snow. He had a broad face and a little round belly that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly.

“Hello, Chloe!” he said cheerily, his blue eyes twinkling behind round spectacles.

“Santa!” exclaimed Chloe, who will be 3 in March. She was accompanied by my wife, Sue (known to Chloe as Nini); our younger daughter, Lauren (Mommy); our son-in-law Guillaume (Daddy); and, of course, yours truly (Poppie).

Chloe wore a red Christmas dress, with a gift-box bow in her blond curls.

“You’re beautiful, sweetheart!” Santa Ernie told her.

“Say thank you,” Lauren said.

“Thank you,” said Chloe, who wandered through the Santa’s Village display in the center of the mall. She had the place to herself because our special visit was arranged by Noerr Programs, a family and holiday services company headquartered not at the North Pole but in Arvada, Colorado, which gets plenty of snow, too.

One of Santa Ernie’s helpers gave Chloe a little stuffed husky, which presumably helps pull the sleigh if Dasher or Dancer, or Prancer or Vixen, or Comet or Cupid, or Donner or Blitzen calls in sick.

Chloe clutched the dog as she sat with Santa Ernie and Lauren for a picture, but she wanted to do more exploring, so a very helpful elf gave her a book, which she promptly opened and put in front of her face, making the photographer’s job a tad challenging.

Santa Ernie, who with his wife of 55 years has two children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren, and has greeted thousands of boys and girls over the years, knew just what to do to make the picture perfect.

At the end of her visit, Chloe hugged Santa Ernie and gave him a high-five.

“Say thank you to Santa,” Lauren said.

“Thank you, Santa,” Chloe said, adding sweetly, “I love you.”

“Merry Christmas, Chloe!” Santa Ernie said.

“Merry Christmas!” she responded with a wide smile, knowing full well the magical answer to that age-old question:

Yes, Chloe, there is a Santa Claus.

Copyright 2015 by Jerry Zezima

Thursday, November 19, 2015

"No Thanks for the Memory"

By Jerry Zezima
The Stamford Advocate
I am so technologically challenged that my granddaughter, Chloe, who isn’t even 3 years old, is more advanced than I am. I know this because she can use an iPad. I don’t have an iPad, or an iPod, or even an iWatch, although I do have an iPhone and, according to my dentist, iTeeth.

Still, my constant battle with technology wouldn’t be so bad if I could remember the approximately 147 different passwords I need to perform all the tasks crucial to survival in the modern world, such as responding to those generous people in foreign lands who have notified me that I could inherit huge sums of money if I will send them my personal information, which unfortunately I can’t access because I don’t know the password.

For help and guidance, I recently spoke with Joe Guzzello, the manager of editorial systems in my office, where his technological expertise, positive attitude and deadpan humor have saved many computer-crazed employees including yours truly from jumping out windows that don’t even open.

“People are always asking me what their password is,” Joe said sympathetically. “And I always tell them, ‘How do I know? It’s your password.’ The problem is that there are so many passwords that you can’t remember them all.”

“How many passwords do you have?” I asked.

“Well over a hundred,” Joe responded. “I have them in my phone.”

“What if you lose your phone?” I wondered.

“I have a spreadsheet,” Joe said.

“What if you can’t find the spreadsheet?” I inquired.

“Then I’d be in the same boat as everybody else,” said Joe.

“You’d probably need a password to start the boat,” I suggested.

“The thing to remember,” Joe said, “is KISS.”

“I kiss my wife all the time,” I replied, “and it still doesn’t help me remember all my passwords.”

Joe shook his head and said, “KISS stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

“I’ll have to remember that,” I noted, “because when it comes to remembering passwords, I’m really stupid.”

Joe explained that choosing, for example, the name of a pet, or one of your children, or your favorite sports team, and adding a number representing, say, your birthday, will make the password easier to remember.

“But we’re always told not to use the same password for everything, so you have to come up with different ones for your home computer or the one at work or doing your banking,” I complained. “Then, when you have to change one of them, you can’t use any of the previous dozen.”

“That’s where keeping it simple helps,” Joe said. “Some people think their passwords have to be 25 characters long. That’s wrong. Just tweak the ones you have.”

Nonetheless, he acknowledged, keeping it simple can be pretty complicated.

“It was a lot different when I was growing up,” said Joe, who’s 55. “Back then, all I had to remember was my locker combination.”

No such luck for his daughters, who are 18 and 15.

“In school, there aren’t many textbooks anymore, so the kids have to do most of their work on iPads,” Joe said.

“And they need passwords,” I said.

“Right,” said Joe.

“What are they supposed to tell the teacher if they lose their work: ‘The dog ate my iPad’?” I asked.

“They can ask me,” Joe said. “I have all their user names and passwords.”

“User names are other things you have to remember,” I noted. “So are PIN numbers. They’re as bad as passwords.”

“And when people can’t remember them, I get called,” said Joe, adding with a sigh: “It’s not easy being me.”

Joe, who’s also a volunteer firefighter and a happily married man whose wife, he admitted, isn’t too tech savvy, smiled and said, “Modern technology can be a beautiful thing, but it can also drive you crazy.”

“I was already crazy,” I said. “And I still can’t remember all my passwords.”

“Just keep it simple,” Joe repeated.

“I have the perfect solution,” I said. “I’ll come up with a password with the name ‘Joe’ in it. And if I forget what it is, I’ll know just who to call.”

Copyright 2015 by Jerry Zezima