Holiday in Spain

For Spring Break this year our twin 19-year-old daughters, both in college, told us they were headed off for the entire week to visit a good friend who was studying in Spain. As I do when I get almost any news these days, I cringed. Sending teenage girls off to college today is scary enough. I live in fear.

Every time a story comes on the evening news and I see the reporter is standing live on location from a college campus, I stick my fingers in my ears and sing “la la la” to myself until the report is over. I once was a college boy, and didn’t consider myself all that nefarious, but now wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat having nightmares about them. Sending daughters overseas is even worse, if that is possible. It is a scientific fact that European boys are extremely dangerous creatures. They speak with fancy accents, they often have luxuriously curly hair, they wear sweaters over their shoulders, and they drive small convertibles very fast on narrow winding roads. They also go to cafes where they serve drinks that taste like licorice, but will knock a girl on her trasero after just a couple of sips. If sending a girl off to college here in the United States is like asking her to swim in shark infested waters, sending her off to Europe is like tying a porterhouse steak around her neck, pushing her into that water, and ringing a big silver dinner bell.

The night before they left, my wife and I sat the girls down for a serious talk about the dangers of going abroad. They were not to talk to strange males, of any age at all. Nobody was going to buy them a drink, not even a cup of coffee. They should just say no. If some cute boy with an accent offered to show them the museums of the city, the answer was to be an emphatic “No!” If a boy said, “Buenas dias!” they were to say “No!” (I have only a limited knowledge of the language, but I am pretty sure that at least in Spanish, “no” conveniently does mean “no.”) I also carefully walked them through the plot of “Taken,” the movie where ex-spy Liam Neeson sends his daughter off to Europe, where she’s almost immediately kidnapped by Albanian human traffickers. Old Liam had to fly over in the middle of the night, and before it was over, had to shoot up half of Europe before he got his kid back. I explained to my daughters that while I love them very much, I did not actually have a very particular set of skills, and that they’d be pretty much out of luck. If anything bad happened, they would need to bring an Albanian language guide and a whole lot of extra mascara.

Also explained to them that everywhere they went, there would be teams of pickpocket children waiting to steal everything they own. These children, I said, roam the streets, stealing from unsuspecting tourists, coming home only at night to hovels where they handed over the loot to nasty old men. (Luckily, neither of my daughters has actually read Oliver Twist, or they would have recognized the major plot points.) The girls looked at me, as they often do, as if I was a soft-headed old geezer, and went back to their packing. The next day, we took them to the airport, and watched through the security glass as they walked off towards their plane and, I was sure, their most assured doom.

At the end of their week, just before they left, I got a message on Facebook. The girls were sitting in a café when they were approached by a little boy from the street. He was trying to get them to buy him some food, and held out a menu, pointing out the things he wanted. They politely declined, and it was only after the little boy had left that my daughter realized that he’d only used the menu as cover to distract her attention from his other hand, which was busy stealing her iPhone off the table. There was nothing I could do except message my daughter back, telling her 1) I was so very sorry, and 2) I told you so! I wasn’t happy, but if I had to pick, I guessed a pickpocket was better than a Romeo in an Alfa Romeo.

But I did get out my phone and, as quickly as I could, sent a message to her stolen iPhone: “I don’t know who you are, but I do have a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you…”

Rules for being on a binge with your significant other

ID-10090757All across this region, as we have suffered through winter, people have been compensating by hunkering down inside and nesting. But these days, instead of stalwart indulgences like alcohol or dessert, they’re mainlining old TV series on Netflix — the new craze of “binge watching.”

For the uneducated, binge watching is where viewers sit for hours, days even, in front of the set and watch episode after episode of a single show until they either go crazy, develop bedsores or both. In workplaces, people who used to talk about plans for picnics or home projects are seeking advice on which shows will get them through the entire weekend. They used to just call it being “lazy,” but in the new vocabulary, watching a show is now called work — “Hey! I’m working my way through seasons one through 10 of ‘Friends!’” The only creatures on Earth who move less than binge watchers are baby cows on their way to becoming veal.

Last month, researchers at the University of Texas announced the results of a new study proving that people who binge watch are more likely to be lonely and depressed because they’re neglecting their relationships. But a lot of people, most people in fact, are binge watching with their significant other. That’s a good thing, but just like anything else you do with your significant other, you’d better do it right or not at all.

A confession: My wife and I have fallen into the trap of binge watching. I am actually binge watching a show while I write this column. That is why I’ve come up with a few rules that should act as guidelines to make sure your relationship does not fall apart like a “House of Cards.”

1. Pick wisely. This ain’t like going to the movies. Your entertainment choice is going to affect your life, and relationship, for days, if not weeks. Remember, there were five seasons of ”The Wire,” but “Murder She Wrote” went on for 12 long, long years. No relationship could survive an epic drudge like that. If yours can outlast 264 hours with Mrs. Fletcher, you’re a rare couple.

2. Don’t get ahead. There’s nothing worse than watching a show with a partner who already knows what’s going to happen. Even when they don’t say a word, the slightest expression can make you nervous. You’re sitting on the couch with a human spoiler alert. (As a side note, I just asked my wife if there were any rules she might suggest. She said, and I quote, “If you do watch ahead, keep your mouth shut. Rule No. 1 should be “Don’t kiss and tell!” Her rule No. 1 left me doubting my own rule No. 2.)

3. Don’t bail. You’re making a commitment here. You cannot get partway into a show and then suddenly opt out on your partner. My wife watched the first season of “The Wire,” then when it was time to watch season two, episode one, she walked out of the room 15 minutes into it. Who does that? I mean who does that!

4. Know when it’s time to split up. Yes, binge watching is done best with a partner, but two people can’t agree on everything. Right now, my wife likes “The Fall,” a UK show about a serial killer. I personally hate shows about weird guys who show up at your house in the middle of the night and kill you with a knife. I don’t know why, but that just makes me nervous, especially at bedtime.

I like to watch “Doc Martin,” another UK show, but this one’s about a doctor who moves to a small seaside village where … well … nothing happens. I find it very soothing. There are plenty of shots of boats in the harbor and a number of great sunsets. My wife would only watch if the village also had a violent sociopath hiding in the fishing nets.

5. If you do go solo, don’t talk about It. My wife knows that if she were to go on about her serial killer show, I’d only pretend to listen. And when I do talk about the goings on in Portwenn, the precious little village that is slowly learning to accept its new doctor, she actually gets up and walks out of the room.

Come to think of it, while these are all great guidelines for codependent binge watching couples, these rules are also a perfect way to keep an actual relationship on track. You need to pick your partner wisely and don’t get too far ahead. You don’t bail halfway through, but if you’re smart, you’ll know when it’s time to split up. Most importantly, though, is if you decide to go out on your own for a little freelancing, never, ever, ever talk about it.

Or, as my wife cheerfully informs me, “Don’t kiss and tell!”

Celebrity’s apprentice

The first thing you have to know about my marriage is that my wife and I are very competitive. When we go to the supermarket, we always stop by the blood pressure machine to compare scores. When we run together, if we finish at the same time, my wife will run an extra mile, knowing that I can’t go one more step. If my wife has read something interesting during the day and brings it up, I desperately search my mind for something even more interesting that I’ve read, and sometimes I have to make up a story.

The second thing you need to know is we get recognized a lot, or at least one of us does. My wife, Gretchen, is a food and features writer for the Post-Gazette and is on television regularly. She makes appearances and speaks to community groups. When we walk through the supermarket, every once in a while I see someone give her the “I want to look without looking” stare. Their heads don’t move, but their eyes do. As we pass, they whisper to their spouses excitedly. I try to move just a little bit closer at these moments. Reflected glory is better than no glory at all.

I fall into a different category of celebrity. Think of me as C-list edging toward D-list. I’ve been writing a newspaper column about our family for 14 years, but because my picture does not appear with my column, very few people recognize me. When people do realize who I am, I get comments such as, “I always pictured you as shorter and somehow balder.” Or “I always thought you were much older! We call you the ‘cranky old man!’” (This is, in fact, the ultimate insult. They’re saying, in effect, that as personalities go, mine is quite unattractive.)

Sometimes, when my wife makes a public appearance, she’ll say afterward, “Three different people asked about you!” She says this in a tone that suggests that she finds the questions, and me, tiresome. When this happens, I make no outer movement but do an inner end-zone victory dance, spiking an imaginary ball.

As a result of my being the man without a face in the paper, I have to work harder at getting attention. When we meet someone at a party, I will drop some line such as, “Oh, I wrote a very funny column about that.” Then I wait for someone to say, “Oh, you write a column?” (Some people have very few social skills and are quite rude, so I have to repeat the hint three or four times before they take the bait.)

The other day, my wife was appearing at an annual event where a bunch of local celebrities cook for a charity. As I have done year after year, I came along to help her manage her pots and pans, provide general support and sneak hors d’oeuvres.

Toward the end of the evening, one of the volunteers assigned to help the celebrity chefs stopped me as I was walking through the kitchen.

“Excuse me,” she said, eyeing me up and down, “Can I ask you who you are?”

“Sure,” I said, giving her my name and waiting for the recognition. “But I’m just here with my wife, you know, helping out.”

“Oh,” she said. “So … you’re … not a celebrity.” I wasn’t sure whether it was a question or a statement.

“Well,” I said, “I’m here with my wife, but I do write a column for the paper as well.”

“I’ve never heard of you,” she said. “When does your column run?”

I told her it was in on Saturdays, and she shook her head. I described the column. Not ringing a bell, and she claimed she read the Saturday paper cover to cover. She asked how long I’d been doing this, and I told her it had been running for 14 years.

“So,” she said, “What you’re saying, then, is that you are not a celebrity.”

“That is correct,” I responded with a sigh. “I am not a celebrity.”

She nodded and moved on. At that instant, I realized that I’d gone from “Celebrity’s Apprentice” to “Biggest Loser.”

I wonder if there’s an E-list.

Send in the drones

Everywhere you look these days, you see stories about machines taking over jobs that regular people used to have. In factories, big robot arms are elbowing aside real working Joes by the score. Deliveries are soon going to be made by flying bots. Cars are parking themselves, and maybe even driving themselves. The machines are coming, and if you have a job, they’re coming for yours.

The big obsession right now is, of course, drones. All across the country, people are literally freaking out. Even though I’ll bet a hundred bucks you haven’t seen one in person, I guarantee you that people you know are looking over their shoulders right now, sure that a drone is going to sneak up on them and steal their life, liberty or property. There’s almost a drone story a day. Last month, a rogue drone slipped over the fence and onto the White House grounds, proving that even flesh and blood nutjobs are being displaced by machines.

I’m not one of those tinfoil-hat types who worries about Uncle Sam following me from the air. The government these days can barely do the things it is supposed to do, let alone master the technology necessary to do the things you don’t want it to do. Call the IRS help line and see how long you end up on hold. … There’s nobody there.

No, I worry because these are machines, and machines break down — all the time. This morning at work, the escalator was stopped dead, and when I went to take the elevator, the little light told me at the car was on my floor, but the door never opened. If we can’t get simple machines that carry us upstairs to work properly, do you really think we ought to be messing with stuff that could kill us?

Drones are essentially little helicopters that fly themselves. Helicopters, no matter what size, have sharp spinning blades on them. All it takes is one small malfunction, and that drone that was supposed to hand you your Amazon order could cut your head off. Growing up, I hardly ever worried that about getting decapitated by the milkman.

Likewise, I don’t want a car that might decide, all by itself, that we’re about to hit something and throw on the brakes. I trust my own eyes a lot more than my on-board computer. My Mazda right now is telling me that I have to check the air in my tires even though I know they’re fine. My wife’s car has had the “check engine” light on for three months and nobody knows why. I would be extremely upset if I went through my windshield because my car mistook a mosquito on the sensor window for a deer.

And as I write this, they’re testing driverless cars, hoping to get them on the highways before you know what hit you. Ironically, if they get their way, the next thing to hit you probably will be … a driverless car. The only thing worse than a car that can stop by itself is one that can go wherever it wants. There’s a huge difference between California, Pa., and California USA. I know that, but I’m not sure that my car’s onboard computer knows that. I don’t want to look up from my iPad in the back seat to see we’re halfway through Ohio.

The machines are everywhere. When you fly in an airplane, the pilot is more likely to be up in the cockpit trimming his fingernails than doing any real flying. The computer is in charge. All’s well until the computer gets a glitch, and somebody who’s only flown so far on a simulator has to take the yoke of an actual airplane. If that happens, you might want to scribble a note to loved ones on your cocktail napkin and stuff it in your pocket, then stick your head between your knees.

I have no problem using technology to do things nobody cares about, such as writing this column on a computer. But when it counts, when lives are on the line, I’d prefer to rely on actual flesh-and-blood human beings over silicon-and-steel machines. I’m worried that someday, I’ll be stuck inside my house, scared to death that some malfunctioning drone will either hit me in the forehead or some driverless car will come careening across my lawn, flattening me like a pancake.

Then some robot-driven ambulance will come and rush me to the ER, where a computerized mechanical doctor will assume I’m a robot, too, that I’m just experiencing a malfunction, and I’ll try to pull his plug before he pulls mine.

I just hope it’s not too uncomfortable when they insert the AA batteries.


Hacked! So why isn’t my bank more upset about my identity theft?

Last week, someone stole my identity.

I know that seems stupid. Regular readers of this column will wonder, after hearing about my life, why anyone with a perfectly good identity of their own would want to pose as Peter McKay. Half the time, I’m not sure I even want to be me.

Driving down the road, I got a recorded robo-call from my credit union saying there had been “suspicious activity” on my credit card. As a middle-aged man with children in college, I technically possess a credit card but can only use it for practical purposes like jimmying doors or scraping ice off my windshield in the morning. I magically have to go to the bathroom just as the check is coming toward the table. I knew there had been no suspicious activity. In fact, there’d been no activity whatsoever. I decided to stop into the credit union and check it out.

Once inside, I explained to the older lady behind the desk that I’d gotten “the call.” She nodded and pulled up my account on the screen. “You, sir,” she said, “have been shut off. Did you go to Harlem on Tuesday afternoon and buy $245 worth of wigs?” She looked over her glasses at my balding pate and obvious lack of style and shook her head.

“Then, later that same afternoon, you took a hot yoga class in Carmel, Calif. Two hours later, you purchased $375 worth of beauty supplies at a shop in Seattle. Then you ran up a big bill at a Mexican restaurant in Dallas, and then topped the night off at a club in Los Angeles, where it looks like you tried to pay for bottle service to the tune of $1,250 but got declined!”

Before I could say anything, she pulled out a form from her desk, had me sign it, told me the charges would be removed immediately, and said a new card would be on its way to my house. No questions asked. We’d just forget this ever happened.

At first I was extremely pleased at the great service. I was worried that I’d be under the third degree. Of course, I don’t wear a wig, but who wouldn’t like to try hot yoga at least once? As I walked out of the credit union, I realized they hadn’t asked me a single question and weren’t all that curious as to how it went down. That meant, of course, that this was THEIR FAULT AND THIS HAPPENED TO THEM ALL THE TIME!  (I’ve never figured out exactly how to shout in a column, so take all those capital letters to be a major, major AHA! moment.)

Suddenly I was angry. I grew up thinking banks were safe. When we were kids, my brothers and I would go to the bank with our mom, and we’d cower at the security guard standing in the corner. Sure, we’d do little things. My favorite was waiting until Mom went to the window, then sidling over to the pile of deposit slips and writing “THIS IS A STICK UP!” on the backs of as many as we could, and slipping them back into the pile. We giggled at the hilarity when one of our neighbors went up to the counter and the alarm bells went off. But really? We always thought of our local bank as a veritable Fort Knox. When I deposited my $5.75 there in fifth grade, I knew it was safe because the retired cop with the service revolver would put a slug in anybody who tried to take it.

Flash forward to today where, thanks to Internet hackers, your local financial institution is a revolving door. If you have a Target card, the person at the next register over could be buying cat food at your expense. Go into Home Depot, and you’re probably buying two-by-fours for yourself along with a water heater for a guy in Des Moines, Iowa. They can issue you all the passwords and encrypted sites they want, but if they allow hackers to get into the system from the other side, it would be as if you went to the bank, gave the teller your money, and the teller turned around and handed it right to a bank robber.

Haven’t been hacked yourself yet? Just wait. I picture a day, not that far off, when you’ll get two credit card statements. One will list the charges that you made and have to pay for. The second one will list the charges that some hacker who broke into the system made and you still have to pay for.

To make it clear, the second envelope will say on the front in big letters, “THIS IS A STICK UP!”

Cat calls, sniffles and snuffles

Cats make me sick.

Before I send cat lovers over the edge (and I’m pretty sure many of them are already pretty darn close already), I should clarify. I don’t mean I hate cats; I mean that they make me physically ill. If I am in a cat person’s house, within a few minutes, I start to choke up, my eyes start to water and my skin feels like it’s crawling. Cats are my Kryptonite.

I grew up in a family with a lot of allergies. My brothers and I were allergic to pollen, ragweed, wool and tree dust. We walked around with paper masks on in the spring, like we were expecting to ride a Japanese subway. My mother cleaned incessantly in hopes of keeping dust down. It didn’t work. We went through a box of Kleenex a day.

Luckily, one of our neighbors was a drug rep for the company that made Benadryl, which was at the time a prescription medication. Knowing that my mother had given birth to a horde of wheezing little brats, he took pity and regularly dropped off plain cardboard boxes loaded with little unmarked bottles, all filled with little red-and-white pills. My mother kept the boxes by the kitchen sink, and every time one of us sneezed, we were encouraged to pop a pill, no matter how drowsy it made us. As a result, we stumbled around the house, bleary-eyed and slack-jawed. It looked like an opium den that catered exclusively to children.

The cat problem is especially important to me because my college-age son moved back home this fall and wanted to bring his cat, Swiper, with him. I balked. It would be like asking a kid with a peanut allergy to share his room with Mr. Peanut. I offered my son a choice: He could move into the house if we found a new home for the cat, or, if he couldn’t bear to send the cat away, he could live in the garage. He chose the garage.

While a 20-year-old might be content to live in a structure meant for storage, a cat isn’t. All fall, I would have to deal with the sight of Swiper at our kitchen door, peering in, trying to make eye contact and meowing pitifully. Or at least I assumed he was meowing pitifully. It’s hard to hear him through the glass. I mouthed back, “Go away!” and kept walking. Because I’m pretty sure cats can’t read lips, I accompanied this with making an exaggerated “Shoo, shoo!” gesture with my hands. I am just grateful that cats aren’t tall enough to ring door bells.

My wife, who doesn’t seem to be allergic to much and who doesn’t understand why I would be allergic to anything, dismisses me as a hypochondriac. She also has a soft spot for pets. We already have a dog in the house, a West Highland terrier named Sophie, who sleeps on my pillow when I’m out of town. (I know this because my wife sends me pictures of Sophie dozing on my pillow.) As a result, I have a bottle of Benadryl on the bedside table.

To make matters worse, every once in a while now, I’ll come walking though the house to find Swiper walking the other way. He nods as he passes like it’s no big deal.

“Hey!” I’ll yell, “Who let HIM in!” My wife will give me an innocent shrug and tell me that she has no idea — somehow the cat just slips in when nobody’s looking!

This ongoing battle has been going on all fall, until a few weeks ago. In addition to dismissing my (severe!) health issue, my wife has a tendency to “pocket dial” me from her cell phone. I have saved messages of her singing in the car, typing at work and, every once in a while, talking about me.

The other week, though, I was getting ready to leave my office late and saw my message light on. It was a three-minute recording from just a few minutes before. The message started with my wife pulling into the driveway, turning off her car and getting out, then a rustling noise, and then the sound of her dragging in the trash barrels our son had forgotten to take in. Then came the worst part.

“Hey, Swiper!” she called out, “Come here, Babeee!” I heard her clump up on the back porch deck. “Come on, sweetie! It’s so cold out here! Come inside! Heeere, Swipey! Come on inside ….”

As the door closed, my jaw dropped and I sat down.

I put my head on my desk, reached out for my pill bottle and gave thanks that you can now get Benadryl without a prescription.

Get the picture? Flat screen TV proves surprisingly enticing

Our college-age son moved back home last fall. To save money, he’d live in our guesthouse and commute to school.

Our “guesthouse” is actually just our garage. I renovated it years ago as an office, so there’s no cars or lawnmowers to deal with. There’s also no bathroom and not all that much heat. (There are, however, plenty of spiders. Also, I am not sure, but I think there is a raccoon living in the rafters.)

When my son moved in, though, he brought home his TV — a 46-inch flat screen. It was too big to go in the garage, he said, but would we mind if he put it in the living room?

I am not ashamed to say this: When I heard this news, I may have peed a little. For years, I have been lobbying my wife for a bigger TV. She and I have a fundamental difference when it comes to TVs in the living room. I would like to get the biggest set we can, and my wife would like to get the smallest, cheapest, most pathetic TV that you could find. She mourned when they stopped making black-and-white sets. As a result, we would compromise and have a TV that is too big for her taste and one that I have to squint at to see what’s going on. There are Amish families who, after dark and with the drapes closed, watch bigger sets than ours.

My wife was out when my son brought the set home and I helped him carry it through the front door. It looked monumentally big. We set it up next to our existing TV, and it looked like my son’s set had just given birth to a little baby TV. I quickly helped my son install it in the living room before my wife got home. It actually blocked the windows behind it and dominated everything else in our living room. It was a monstrosity. In short, it was perfect.

As my wife pulled into the driveway, I put on “Life of Pi” on demand. I didn’t like the movie all that much, but it had plenty of big-screen but gender-neutral special effects. As my wife came in the front door, I stretched out on the couch, a serene look on my face. She walked past the living room, then stopped, moon-walking back to the doorway to the living room. She dropped her purse, turned to me, held up her finger and started to say, “Oh no, you didn’t!” but I cut her off, with an “Oh yes, I did!”

“I didn’t buy it. He brought it home!” I said, pointing at my son. “It was fate!”

I almost had her.

“Just accept it, honey!” I pleaded. She sighed, and I knew I’d won.

All this fall, watching television was a battle of the sexes. Most shows were interrupted by constant interruptions, from me.

“Look! You can see every hair on his head!” “It’s like we’re right there in the stadium!” “Tell me that’s not a GREAT picture!” followed by my wife’s constant threats to go upstairs and watch her shows in our bedroom.

I didn’t care. I stared open-mouthed at shows I had no interest in actually watching. I watched an entire PBS show about how smart crows are (really, really smart). I actually sat through an entire episode of “Dancing With the Stars” without complaining. (To be fair, Lolo Jones is one of the few celebrities who gets better-looking in HD.) I am surprised that none of the neighbors called to complain about the lights emanating from our windows.

My oldest son called me, from Philadelphia, to let me know that he had just bought a big-screen TV for his new apartment. I nodded smugly. “Got 46 inches going on back at the homestead,” I said.

Then, this week, the hammer dropped. The onset of the polar vortex, the thermostat, spiders and scrambling noises from the ceiling got a little too much for my son. He was moving into the basement. My wife called me at work to tell me the bad (for me) news.

“You should know, he took his TV. He put our old set back into the living room,” she said.

I almost dropped the phone.

“It’s so small,” she said. “For a minute, I walked in the house and thought we’d been a victim of a robbery!”

You could hear my strangled cry of frustration for miles.

“I didn’t do it!” she said. “It’s just fate! Accept it, honey!”