Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Scoutmaster Mike: Nick’s Eagle Project Gets Underway

Last night was actually something of a rarity; we decided to not hold scouts due to the number of boys that were not there. However, last week we officially got underway with Nick’s Eagle Project.

His project is to hold a toy and animal needs drive, and one of the items on the animal needs list was rope toys. These are used by dogs to exercise their jaws and play with, and the cotton threads that make up the ends of the rope also act as dental floss for them.

Making the toys was fairly easy process, and one that we discovered was significantly less expensive compared to buying the same toys in a pet store. We started out with 30 feet of clean and untreated cotton rope (polyester and nylon rope cannot be used for these, as the chemicals used to make them could be poisonous). The rope was then cut into 3 foot long sections. Two overhand knots were tied towards the end, leaving about 4 inches of rope dangling from the ends. Another overhand knot was placed in the center. From there, the boys basically played tug of war with the ropes until they became good and tight. Finally, each toy was shaken out so that the ends of the rope hung free and loose.

The final products of the efforts were ten rope toys, and they will be a small part of the toys and items that he will collect for the Peninsula Humane Society, but for now, it was fun to give the boys an activity that they could directly apply to the project and have some fun doing it.

Oh, and an added bonus, we now know for real that Jamboree preparation is a reality in our household. The first payment for $300 was made yesterday. One down, eleven more to go (total bill for just Nick will work out to about $3,500, not counting what I will spent to get to Jamboree to work it). It seems funny to already be paying for an event that will be taking place in 2010, but I'm glad we are preparing and planning for it right now. This way, it will be much easier to manage, and it will all be paid for well in advance.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Ego Over Matter: Fitness Goals and Challenges for 2009

For the record, I am not a fan of New Year's Resolutions. In fact, my only resolution I make every year is that I make no resolutions. However, that does not mean that I don’t believe in looking at goals I’d like to set and make an effort to achieve them. In this manner, I decided it was time to make Ego Over Matter a regular column again, and to that effect, I have decided to do something I have not done for many years… reinvigorate my quest for 300/400/500.

Now, for those not familiar with these numbers, they are as follows. The idea is that a genetically typical individual, after many years of effort and work, could reasonably be expected to master a personal best power lifting style Bench Press of 300 pounds, a personal best power lifting style squat of 400 pounds, and a personal best power lifting style deadlift of 500 pounds. This was a goal of mine many years ago, and I can honestly say I got about 75% of the way to the goal, but ultimately had to stop due to injuries and other life priorities. Since I made the commitment back in September to join a gym and become a frequent participant, I have now decided that I want to get back into the groove of someday achieving those magical digits.

Every goal has to start somewhere, and every goal, no matter how lofty, has to be broken up into smaller goals. What’s more, those smaller goals have their own daily goals that need to be set as well. Thus, I’m starting out with setting a macro goal, that of being able to do the classic 3/4/5. My more immediate goals are to get back into the groove of lifting towards that purpose, and to condition my body to allow me to start reaching those lifts. Those will require conditioning of ligaments and tendons, and that conditioning will have to take place along with raising the maximum lifts. It also means I’ll have to start lifting heavier weight for fewer reps, something I have not done in quite some time. Thus my first goal is to work through a rigorous strength and conditioning routine, one that will last approximately 12 weeks. The first 4 weeks will be focused on hypertrophy (raw muscle building, emphasis on higher reps and relatively light weights). The second 4 weeks will be focusing on Strength and power, with an increase in total weight lifted and a decrease in repetitions. The third period, for three weeks, I will work towards peaking, with an emphasis on low reps and heavy weight. Finally, one to two weeks where I will not lift at all, but spend the time doing “Active rest” (cycling, swimming, running, etc.). From there, I will start the cycle again.

Every time I embark on a new fitness approach, I have to remind myself that there are of course limitations I have to deal with, and those limitations may slow or even ultimately stop my progress. The things that must be worked into this equation are:

I have an ankle that was broken when I was a teenager (sometime in 1986).
I had a deep laceration to my wrist in 1995 that cut into my bone.
I had a compression fracture to my L5 vertebrae at the junction point between L4 and L5 happen in 1996.
I suffered a tuberosity fracture to my left arm in 2002

While I am hoping that none of these will sideline my progress too much, they are structural irregularities that I have to account for as I train. What’s more, I’ve also been feeling odd twinges in my elbows the past several weeks (and the right elbow has been somewhat dodgy since well before August).

So my goal is to make each Monday my “Accountability day” and to report the good, bad and just plain icky of all that went the week before. Notes will be kept, calories will be counted (and in some cases go well beyond needed maintenance) and I hope real progress will be made. Still, I have no illusions that this process will get me where I want to be in just 12 weeks. It won’t get me there in 12 months. It’s possible it may not get me there in 5 years. Still, I know if I put the effort in and keep track of what I do, I’ll get closer than I am now :).

Monday, December 29, 2008

Madd Money: Charting a More Refined Course in 2009

2008 was a pretty darned good year all told for my family and me. Financial total wise, it was not a banner year, but that is because the entire market retreated heavily in 2008. The housing market is down significantly, and some might say rightly so, but it’s still not pleasant to think that an asset you hold is down in value. No, the reason why 2008 was a banner year in our household was that, for the first time in many years, our total savings rate increased, and it increased significantly.

At this time last year, we paid off our mortgage for our house, with the goal to take that house payment money and save it, not inflate our lifestyle and buy more stuff. Looking back at what the market has done this year, it turned out to be one of the luckiest moves we ever made. We've never for a second assumed this was some skillful financial decision; I just felt anxious about not being able to save money for the future, and thus made the decision to sell off my shares of Cisco and Synaptics (the only single stocks I still owned) to completely and totally get us debt free, everything including the house. From there, I made the decision to invest going forward in broadly diversified mutual funds through my company’s 401K plan, through mine and my wife’s ROTH IRA’s and through our children’s 529 plans.

The biggest win for 2008 was the fact that we fully funded a six month emergency fund and determined an absolute threshold value (more than the threshold means we can take that money and invest; fall below the threshold and all investing outside of funding an employer match for 401K stops until the threshold is reached again). In addition, we also maxed out one ROTH IRA, are close to maxing out a second ROTH IRA (we still have until April 15, 2009 to do so), and contributed an additional 9% of gross income to our 401K plan. Looking back, we managed to average a savings rate of 25% of gross income every pay period. Again, that was boosted significantly by the fact that we were no longer making a house payment.

So in the closing days of 2008, things we determined we did well were:

• making an evolving budget and fine tuning it each month

• living primarily on the “envelope system”, where we used cash to make most payments for expenses during the month

• developing a grocery plan that allowed us to significantly trim our grocery bill (truth be told, we could probably do even better if we got truly aggressive on this front, but we're doing way better than we used to :) )

• keeping and monthly funding an escrow account of our own to allow us to pay for recurring expenses (car repairs, insurance, taxes, etc.)

• utilizing a “blow money” system for each of us to allow for some spending freedom (each of us got about $120 per month that we could use as “no questions asked” money to spend)

• budgeting for Christmas this year and making a hard determination that we were not going to go beyond a certain amount of money

• taking advantage of a Health Savings Account with high deductibles to lower our health insurance premiums considerably (even though we spent more cash of our own each visit, our total costs for the year were less than we spent last year with the premium structure the way it originally was)

• we only had to dip into our emergency fund once the entire year (to fix our oven which had a burner go bad)

• we downsized a lot of things that took up a lot of space and gave us more control over the areas where decided to keep things (hnothing worse than going out to buy something you need, knowing full well you have it somewhere, but no clue where it might be because of too much stuff in the way!)

• refinishing our deck and painting the exterior of the house ourselves, while a lot of work to do, was a huge net savings over hiring a professional to do it. This has also given us some confidence in tackling some additional projects in our house on our own.

All of which led to our being able to bank 25% of our gross pay on average in 2008.

By contrast, there were a few areas where we decided we could do better:

• there were a number of “surprises” that seemed to pop up on a recurring basis (things that, try as we might, we just didn’t see coming, or they suddenly got thrust on us and required that we spend to cover them). Last year, we made a point to write down any “gotcha” that we had to deal with, and this coming year, we plan to continue to do the same, and compare it to last years “gotcha” list. If we see it’s about to happen again, we know it’s something we need to plan for and apply to the regular spending escrow account. We realize we can’t plan for every eventuality, but many months of data help to determine true anomalies and which areas really should be worked into the ongoing budget.

• there is still a lot of “stuff” that we have that is really of questionable utility value, but I’m still leaning on the side of “oh no , I can’t get rid of that”... but each time I approach these areas, I get a little better and a little more realistic. Not to mention, I’d also like to see some monetary return for some of these items should I sell them. My “Shedding of Innocent Stuff” section of this blog was developed to help me do exactly this :).

• in 2009, I want to make our household finances 100% transparent, where all of us (including the kids) have a true understanding where the money goes and why. This way, it’s my hope that the whole family can pitch in and help make the decisions about what we can do and how to manage our home. Now that tools like NetworthIQ and Quicken Online are readily available (and free to use), this should be relatively easy to accomplish (of course, the devil is always in the details, ain’t it :)?).

• In 2009, I want to encourage my children to make some concrete plans regarding their own money that they earn, and how they would like to donate, save and spent it, with a goal of all the kids at the minimum making a commitment to tithe 10% regularly, save 40% and feel free to spend the remaining 50% if they so choose.

So those are my concrete financial goals for next year, which can always be associated with the more amorphous goals of “earn more money” and “save more money” that everyone always makes. It’s my hope that following through on the areas we did well in 2008, as well as using the action plan we have for 2009, we will be able to do both :).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Shedding of Innocent Stuff: After Christmas Edition

One of the rules that we put into place last year to hopefully overcome the intense crowding of our garage, closets and other things was that this year we would make a very concerted effort to send a lot of different items to other people to do with what they will. After a day of going through closets, gathering up old clothes, books, and other items that could either be donated or junked, we came down to the requisite after Christmas Goodyear run and special pickup for the garbage company.

This year, we have a larger than normal sweep because we really made an emphasis on out with old, in with new wherever possible. We got the kids on the program with this early and they were down with it originally, but amazingly, come the day after Christmas, that resolve gave way in a hurry (LOL!). Still, after making a strong push, we managed to get to the point where there was a full car for donations:

Things that didn't quite make it (along with a fairly large amount of yard cast-offs after the deck repair and repainting of the house):

While it makes a rather large dent in the garage and elsewhere, it amazes me that there's *still* so much stuff that I know I could legitimately downsize and probably not be any worse for wear for doing so. Still, I know we have a long way to gountil we are completely clutter free, but dang it, we're sure trying (LOL!).

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Day After Christmas :)

Well, we had a great time celebrating with our families. Christmas is always a two day event in our family. My wife's parents are from Germany and Austria, so their tradition is to open gifts on Christmas Eve. My son got something he has wanted for a long time, an Apple iTouch (think of an iPhone, just without the actual phone component). We had fun seeing the kids reactions to their various presents (Nick smiled broadly when he saw Season 2 of the anime series BLEACH, and Karina about flipped when she realized what I'd gotten her... a book on cosplay costumes from Japan).

I asked the family to not worry about getting me presents this year (I reasoned that it was my own money they were spending, and while I loved the sentiment, a handmade card or a hug from my kids and wife and a Merry Christmas wish was good enough for me). Well, my son was *not* going to stand for that (LOL!). He decided that he was going to get me a Christmas present,and since he had the money to do it, he figured it was perfectly alright to do so. So what does my son get his dad? An awesome art book called "All Color but the Black" (drawings and illustrations by Tite Kubo, the artist for the original "BLEACH" manga).

Another neat gift that the family received this year was totally unexpected. It came in the mail from a "distant relative" :). On a forum that I participate in, I discovered a family that shares my great-great-great grandfather, John Pack. I've had the opportunity over the past few years to get to know this family, celebrate their up times, feel concern about their down times, and feel really happy for them when the father of the family came back from serving overseas in Iraq. For fun, I sent them a gift of a DVD they were interested in a few months ago as an "early Christmas present". Well, what should my wondering eyes see... a few days ago, in the mail, appeared a gorgeous hand knitted afghan from my distant cousins. It was a really neat gift, one that my children commandeered immediately (LOL!). More to the point, it was just a fun feeling to have a connection at Christmas with a part of my family that I have never met, yet in some ways I've had more interaction with them than I have with people who are much more closely related to me. The takeaway from this one is that family is who you make it to be and who you nurture an effort to make a part of yourself :).

Christmas Day is always the day of my family getting together, so we pack up the family and drive out to Danville to spend the day with my parents, my siblings and their families. One of the coolest revelations of this Christmas? Both of my sisters are getting married! We knew about Adrienne's engagement for a couple of months now, but Renee sprung the news on us yesterday. We are very excited for both of them, as the guys they will be marrying are terrific and will be very welcome additions to our family.

So today, I will be kicking it at home, helping to put away a number of new items the kids got, shedding some things that could probably find a better home elsewhere, maybe perusing a couple of episodes of "Samurai 7" (a Christmas present I gave myself :) ), and just feeling good about the fact that this Christmas was a very enjoyable and ultimately relatively stress free day, spent with the people we most waned to spend it, and in celebration of whose life it was meant to commemorate.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

MERRY CHRISTMAS...and God Bless Us, Everyone!!!

Here's to everyone I've met, known, loved and lost this year. I wish you all a very Merry Christmas and some time to reflect on the birth of the most pivotal man in the history of mankind. I am grateful for his life, for his ministry, for his atoning sacrifice and for his Resurrection, and the hope that I can be part of that atoning sacrifice. The greatest gift of all is that atoning sacrifice, and for me, the best gift I feel that I can give and the best words I can say is that "I Know That My Redeemer Lives".

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Fighting “The Spirit of Envy” at Christmas

This post was going to be something totally different when I started writing about it originally. It was going to be a semi-humorous jab at the extension that has been attached to just about every Christmas card I have received in the past twenty years, something I have grown to call “the brag letter”. Anyone who has received a Christmas card knows what this is, it’s the recap of all of the things the family has done over the year. I had intended to poke a little fun and give others a hard time for their letters… except that, as I started to write about it, I stopped and took a hard look at my own motivations for doing so. In other words, “what is it about these letters that gets under my skin?”… and I discovered a few things about myself as I was doing it.

The classic "Brag Letter" mostly follows a format where there are three areas discussed; how great the kids are doing and the amazing things they are doing, what kind of huge promotion that dad or mom got at work (or some award that was received), and some fabulous trip, vacation or amazing undertaking or act of service that was performed. Of course, not all letters look like this, and some families actually poke fun and take some entertaining liberties with the “brag letter”. One family that I know, who truthfully has the ways and means to “really” do up a doozy of a brag letter if they wanted to, always send one out that makes it sound like they are living like “Hillbillies somewhere in the holler” and it cracks me up every time I see it. Another family sent one this year that, while it had the hallmarks of "great things", also made a point to include an amusing or, shall I say, “less than perfectly glowing” report about various things. Honestly, I appreciated this greatly, and I enjoyed this letter more than any other I’ve received for many years. So what is it about these letters that get to me, and more importantly… WHY do they get to me?!

Ive determined that. first, it makes me wonder if somehow I’m short changing my kids, because “my” letters, were I to write one, don’t include stories of my kids doing amazing things and achieving great and stratospheric and unimaginable heights… and yet, as I look at my own children and the things that they have been doing, to many, their achievements are seen as somewhat special and groundbreaking. For instance, I take it for granted that my son is almost an Eagle Scout at twelve years old… well, why wouldn’t he be, with his Dad as the Scoutmaster and one who intimately knows the ins and outs of Scouting and how to maximize the efforts needed? Plus, with his already having had five years cub scout tenure and now two years boy scout tenure, it’s like breathing to us, it is second nature… yet to others, the idea of a boy being just twelve and so very close to becoming an Eagle Scout is considered phenomenal. Likewise, I'm not sure how many girls ages 8 and 10 become super knowledgeable about Native American Dance performance, especially when they are not Native American to begin with, and more to the point go out and perform for others. In this, I started to realize that my kids do a lot of things that would be considered special by others, and that I’m just as guilty of “bragging” on them as anyone else.

The second thing I've noticed is that there tends to be an undercurrent of "implied success"; being made partner in a firm, becoming Vice President of a company, some award or recognition in their professional life… you rarely see someone say “Dad got laid off this year”, "Mom got downsized”, "Junior is holding on by the skin of his teeth to not fail Trigonometry" or "Dad just plodded along doing what he's always done". I’m 40, and I’m an Engineer. Not a Director, not a VP, just an everyday Engineer, and I've been one now for seventeen years, and enjoy being one. It's what I do, and I'm cool with that. At times, though, I've come to feel as though I’ve somehow failed or underachieved. Yet at times like this, I can just as easily look back to this past year and see a number of areas where I have done some special things; some of which have to do with my professional life, and many others having to do with Scouting (which is, arguably, my second "full-time occupation", according to many who know me :) ). 2008 saw me complete my Wood Badge ticket items and receive my beads, as well as be asked to participate as one of the teachers in the upcoming course for 2009. This year saw me become the fully fledged Scoutmaster for our growing Boy Scout Troop, and culminated with two Wards in San Francisco having their Scouting programs folded into ours, with me ultimately leading them and directing them in their Wards while they pursue their advancements. In short, the leadership of the Stake has entrusted me with being the center of the Stake’s Scouting program for three of our six Wards. The Order of the Arrow Dance Team has grown from a small endeavor to one of the most visible faces of the Lodge in the Council and in the community, with requests from schools and even a foregn embassy to have our little troup perform. I’ve come to realize that I have met a level of success in a beloved arena, mainly because it’s the work that I feel truly defines me (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my work as an Engineer, but if I have to choose between having one marker on my tombstone over the other as what defines me as a person, I’d much rather be known to history as “The Scoutmaster” :) ).

The third one almost always comes across regarding purchases, or trips, or other events that are described in a manner that says “we are so wealthy and it is so great!” This is the one that I find myself feeling most ashamed of reacting to… especially since many of the families I find myself recoiling towards these mentions, are the same ones that, a decade and a half ago, could barely rub two nickels together because they were struggling so mightily to get through various schooling programs, whether they be medicine, law, business, dentistry, etc. During this period of time, Christina and I were the ones living very well with two incomes and an infusion of regular stock options from where I was working. I’m sure that we looked like the “well-off ones” to them back then, and others perhaps looked longingly at us and what we were able to do. I also have to remind myself that we made very specific goals and plans where we decided there were things that we wanted to do, both for ourselves and our children. We decided that we would make do on just one income. We decided that Christina would be a full time mom while our children were growing up. We decided we would be aggressive about saving for retirement and our children’s college savings. We vowed that we would live our lives debt free. Our lives and the things that we do (and just as often don’t do) have grown out of that discipline, and slowly but surely, we are starting to reap the benefits of that. That could likewise be something to put into a “brag letter”.

Thus, I am ending this post today with the admission that I am a total hypocrite… I come down on a practice that, in many ways, is exactly what I do right here in this blog. My kids are special and fantastic, our life is blessed extraordinarily, and I and my family have achieved a unique level of success and security that, perhaps, some of my friends don’t have. In short, I’ve realized that my attitude about Christmas letters is little more than a “Spirit of Envy” that blinds me to the fact that, as Montgomery Gentry put it, “I look around at what everyone has, and I forget about all I’ve got!” What’s more, I realize that any success I have is tempered by the fact that a loving Heavenly Father expects me to *do something* with that success. As I’ve quoted before, and will do so again (somewhat paraphrased and modified for today)… “One hundred years from now, it will not matter to anyone, least of all my Heavenly Father and his son, Jesus Christ, what car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, or how much money I had in the bank, but the world may well be a better place because I was important in the life of a child”. In my world view, if I can be judged by that, and if I can be found weighing in on a positive balance, that would be the ultimate “brag letter” from me. I hope to someday get a chance to write that one and I hope some of you will be around to read it when I finally have :).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Larsen's Homestyle Honeycrisp Applesauce

This past weekend, my kids and I decided to go in the back yard and harvest the late blooming apples from our apple tree. I’m not an apple expert, but based on the times that this tree’s fruit ripens (usually late November and early December) and the coloring and flavor of the apples, I think it’s a Honeycrisp tree (hey, it came with the house, and there wasn’t a tag on it when we ultimately got it :) ). What I can say is that these late harvest apples are “fantastic” and very sweet.

This year, we were able to pull off the equivalent of a full grocery bag full of pristine, clean apples, with about 2/3rds of a bag worth of apples that got a bit of insect or bird carnage on them. Hey, it happens :). This is the single biggest harvest we’ve had from this relatively young apple tree, and as we go into the next several years, we have hopes that it may yield even more.

While apples can last quite awhile, we were seriously wondering… what on earth are we going to do with all of these?! We decided to go through and pick the biggest ones (about 30 or them) and set them aside for daily eating. The rest, which varied in size but had the same flavor and development) we made into what we call “Larsen Homestyle Applesauce”. This is how we make a typical batch:


8-10 Honeycrisp apples
1 cup water
Juice from ½ of a Meyer Lemon
½ cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Take the apples and put them into a food processor (or you can use a mashed potato press to get the same result). The goal is to get a fine chop and press of all of the apple pieces. For best flavor and smell, do not remove the skin (personal preference; I like the flavor of the pectin in the skin :) ).

Mix the juice from the lemon with the apple mixture (this helps to slow the oxidization of the apples and keeps a lighter color. It also adds a hint of sweeter citrus to the overall taste (Meyer lemons being considerable sweeter than most other lemon varieties).

Put the apple and lemon mix in a saucepan with 1/2 cup of water, and place on medium heat for 25 minutes. The goal is to reduce the water and apple juice. When the applesauce mixture is the consistency of lumpy oatmeal, mix in the other ½ cup of water, the ½ cup of brown sugar, and the teaspoon of cinnamon. Reduce for another 20 minutes until the texture is just right.

The end product is a fairly chunky applesauce (not too soft but not too crisp) and it is a little reminiscent of Apple Pie filling, but not quite as sweet. This is great to eat by itself, but also tastes great when served with ice cream. We’ve now made three batches of the applesauce and devoured just about all of it (LOL!). Next year, if we get a similar yield or better, I’m going to invest in some canning supplies and actually store some up for later (or perhaps give some of it away :) ).

Monday, December 22, 2008

For Vampire Fiction, The Original Is Still The Best :)

I will admit, today's post was spawned from my watching my wife and my son devouring the Twilight books. Back when I was a kid (read: not quite the time of the Stone Age, but perhaps not nearly as hip as Dynastic Egypt :) ). I had the chance to come to grips with the most celebrated vampire story of all, Bram Stoker's Dracula. I also witnessed the 20th century's fascination with this character, and subsequent stories related to vampires that have been written since (yes, I totally dug Lost Boys, as cheesy as it is today, and Forever Night was one of my favorite TV shows in the early and mid 90's. It's probably also no accident that my favorite video game of all time is the Castlevania franchise, with its revolving characters through the ages and their never ending hunt to rid the world of Dracula.

I made a decision this year that I was going to delve deeper into Project Gutenberg and explore the books of my youth and many others that I never had a chance to read. Project Gutenberg is dedicated to putting all of the world's public domain literature into E-book form (anyone out there who owns a Kindle and has not put this site on their list, shame on you :) ). With the release of "Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia" just over a month and a half ago, my fascination with the aforementioned Carpathian Warlord and Count was renewed, and I decided it was time to dig back and see if the original work would still "rock my world". I can say with confidence that "rock my world" it still does :).

Gang, Stoker created one for the ages here; even if you are not a fan of horror or vampire stories, as a first rate mystery/thriller, it is still top notch. What was most fun was to see an at the time common literary device used in a masterful way, that of making the story effectively narrator-less. Well, to be fair, it had several narrators, but each one spoke just from their own point of view, and it was left to the reader to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. Reading from Jonathan, Mina, John, Lucy and Abraham's journal entries, subsequent letters and telegrms, and contemporary newspaper clipping made for an intriguing read, and left you with the feeling that you understood what was happening, and allowed you to carry the suspense of the story without beating you over the head with the moral or the message that you are supposed to get. Sadly, that's missing from a lot of the books written today.

Stoker also took the efforts of making the story both ancient and modern; while it had many classic stereotypes of its era (British Empire and sentiments thereof are very clear, and the growing mistrust of the immigrant in Great Britain are not so subtle subtexts in the writing) it also was very up to date; I found it very interesting to see the notion of using a phonograph to keep a journal, taking the underground subway (which indeed there was in 1897) to let me see this Victorian era as not so far removed from my own after all. By contrast the depictions of the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains is so vivid, the reader cannot help but envision it vividly.

What was also fascinating to me was to see the changing roles of the age; Mina Harker's character was a thoroughly "modern" woman, though not modern in the sense that we would consider today, but hugely ahead of her time and station as depicted in the book. Bravo to Stoker to make a heroine who had some backbone to her, not in a hackneyed fashioned that is so commonplace today as books and stories are written of a comparable time, but truly a woman who was willing and able to push boundaries without seeming to be trite or forced. Mina's character works because you can believe that a woman like her actually existed. By contrast, the character of Lucy Westenra was more of the classical view of womanhood as existed in England (or once existed). Lucy seemed like a character straight out of many of Jane Austen's novels.

So really, why am I writing this review? Is this another piece of frugality? Is it part of my desire to relive a classic without hitting a book store? Is it a call for less clutter? It's all of these, I guess, and it's also a plug for Project Gutenberg. But really, it's my way of saying that the classics that genuinely stand the test of time do so for a reason, and Dracula is truly a book that stands the test of time. So for those who are currently enjoying this resurgence of Vampire fiction (last brought to the surface when Anne Rice was on a tear in the early 90's), please do yourself a favor and read the original bestseller of the genre. Seriously, you'll dig it, I promise :).

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Ghosts of Christmas Pictures Past

Last week, my family went to get our annual "Santa Shot" that is our tradition every year. I said I was pretty sure that this is a tradition that we did every year from 2000 on... I was right. In 2002, we also did an at home picture for Christmas Cards (I think the last ones we ever sent out, to be honest (LOL!) ). So it is indeed an annual tradition since 2000. So for fun, I thought I'd post those pictures:

Christmas 2000 and a smaller Larsen Family, but Amber is indeed there :). She'd just have to wait another month or so to make her debut (LOL!). Nick was 4 and Karina was 2.

Christmas 2001 - Now we're all here :). 5 year old Nick, 3 year old Karina and not yet 1 year old Amber.

Christmas 2002 - The card card shot we sent out to our friends and family...

...and us again with our white haired and bearded friend. Nicholas was 6, Karina was 4, and Amber was just shy of a year old.

Christmas 2003 - The years I went back to school and swore I would not grow my hair back until I graduated (LOL!). Nick is 7, Karina is 5 and Amber is just shy of 3.

Christmas 2004 - OK, I was nearing graduation and I was doing jobn interviews, I decided the skinhead interviewing might be a little bit freaky. It would be the last time I would have any serious hair growth on my head, for now very obvious reasons (LOL!). 8 year old Nick, 6 year old Karina and not quite 4 year old Amber.

Christmas 2005 - And the kids are getting bigger :). 9 year old Nick, 7 year old Karina and not quite 5 year old Amber.

Christmas 2006 - I like this picture because it's one of the few where Karina wore her glasses. 10 year old Nick, 8 year old Karina and not quite 6 year old Amber.

Christmas 2007 - Last year's shot. Looks like we had a theme going this year, and I'm not sure why Nick was sulking (I probably gave him a hard time about something, I'd be willing to bet). 11 year old Nick, 9 year old Karina and not quite 7 year old Amber.

...and even though I posted it last week, here's Christmas 2008. Nick is 12, Karina is 10, and Amber is just shy of 8.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: Releasing More Captive Books

When I went through the process a couple of months ago to find books that Powell's wanted, I had a large stack of books that they *didn't* want (to be expected), but part of me wasn't sure what I wanted to do with these books. I decided to try a little experiment (an "In sight, sort of in mind" process). I took all of the books and I stacked them next to the bookshelf in our family room, but in a way that was not going to block any one's way or get in the way of anything... and I lest them sit there for an extended period. My goals was to see how many of the books I pulled from, for any reason. If I pulled a book, it went back on the shelf, since it meant there was a value to having it after all (i.e. I'd actually referenced it or decided I wanted to read through it again).

The grand total of books that I pulled? Eight. The total number of books not touched in any way, shape or form? Close to 100. Now on to the next step.

This weekend, the goal is to find one of three places:
1. local used book store(s)
2. The public library
3. Salvation Army and Goodwill

At the end of the day this Saturday, it's my hope to see all of the books find new homes, outside of my humble abode.

What was the point of the exercise? It was my way to see if I would reconsider any of the items. For the most part, there were few books that, on further reflection, I was going to re-reference. Most of them were out of date, or otherwise had been transplanted with different interests and goals. For those that didn't fit that category, I had discovered that much of the information on any of the topics that I wanted to keep and hold on to was readily available on the Internet, and often in a much more easy to access manner (as well as much more up to date).

Again,I don't wish to appear the total Philistine... I do enjoy reading, and I enjoy having good books. I've decided, however, that the best way to reinfoce my love of reading, keep in the habit of finding new books, and not overcrowding our living space is to let the public library be my source of reading material. I do pay for it, after all (it's one of those things that my dutifully paid property taxes goes towards supporting :) ). Thus, while I shall see the tomes of days goner by leave my premises, I know that, for many of them, I can easily see them again. for the others, well, I haven't looked at them for this length of time, I'm pretty confident my life will go on without them there ;).

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Scoutmaster Mike: Series Ball and the Idea of Teamwork

Last night I had a smaller group than normal (it’s to be expected this time of year with the Christmas programs at schools and such; my son decided to support his sisters for their school performance program rather than attend the meeting last night, which I was OK with. The choice was greatly influenced by the fact that there would be cookies and punch at the school program (LOL!) ).

So with just a few boys (we had seven show up last night) I decided to borrow a page from Wood Badge and teach “a game with a purpose”. This game goes by many different names, but the version we played last night is what I refer to as “series ball”. It works like this. Each boy uses a number 3 sized soccer ball. There is a starter and a group of boys in a circle. The number of boys can vary, but you need at least five for a meaningful game, and more than twelve gets really hard to manage. Anything in between is fair game.

The game has three simple rules. Each boy can throw the ball to another player provided the other player meets two criteria:
1. the player cannot throw to a person to their immediate left or right
2. the player cannot throw to the person they just received the ball from
3. the player cannot hold the ball for longer than one second

The game has one objective; see how many balls can be thrown and maintained in the air at any given time. A “perfect game” would be the number of players being equal to the number of balls. Sounds easy? Let me assure you, it’s not (LOL!).

The boys warmed up to the game pretty quickly, but I wanted to see how long they would stay at it, or if it was a game they would tire of quickly. Turns out, they played the game for almost the entire meeting, from 7:00 PM until 8:10 PM. What we noticed as they played was very interesting. My goal was to talk to them about team building and the approach towards accomplishing a goal. To that end, we stared experimenting with how to throw the ball, and who would receive it. One ball, no problem… two balls, still relatively easy… Three balls… now we started to see some break down. Frustration started to develop, and the boys started to get a bit agitated with each other. Different ideas were coming into the picture, and sometimes the ideas were at odds with others. Some boys tried to keep a rhythm, while others tried to get rid of the balls as quickly as possible. Slowly, the boys started to see that they were not going to get “better” at the game unless they all agreed on some ground rules. The first was that they all agreed to a set throwing pattern. Some boys would throw the ball lower, and some would throw the ball higher. Some boys decided that using and counting out the one second (one-one-thousand) before throwing the ball helped maintain a rhythm. As each of the boys started using these methods that they communicated, they were able to increase the number of balls they had in play, at least for a little bit. While the “perfect game” was not achieved, they were able to sustain five balls between seven players for about eight throws. By the end of the game, they were able to maintain a pattern with four balls for even longer.

The point to this exercise was to show the boys that, in all aspects of life, teamwork is essential and building it is a non-trivial exercise. Many people expect that people with similar goals are going to just get in and get something done (even adults think this very often). The truth is, there are a lot of different stages of development in teams. Bruce Tuckman first put a set of names to these phenomena in 1965. He referred to this as the “Forming – Storming - Norming – Performing” model, and each stage is necessary to pass through before a group can become a well performing unit. My goal with the boys was not to frustrate them, nor was it just to occupy their time with a game. Ultimately, my attempts were to help them see how each individual contributes to a project, and how the group succeeds or fails can often be shown to be the results of one or more people who decide not to “play along” with the others. Just as there are times when being an individual is critical, being a part of a team that performs well requires all to get involved together and somehow “get in sync” with one another. My hope is that, last night, the boys that left the meeting had a little more to think about other than a semi-frustrating game their Scoutmaster threw at them. Time will tell, of course :).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madd Money: Multi-Blog Collaboration and Free E-Book

I'm borrowing and paraphrasing this post from Blunt Money and others, since I think that, in these times of challenge and trial, it's good to be reminded of some good old fashioned common sense when it comes to living on less than we earn. She wants to spread the word and alert as many people as possible to the E-book, so that's exactly what I'm going to do :). Note that I have no content nor have I contributed to this project in any way, other than right now, and my sharing this information with others.

Jason, who runs the "Live To Budget" blog, compiled an e-book called Spend Less Than You Earn. This group of ideas and sugestions come from himself and nine additional bloggers. What's also cool is that this E-book is 100% FREE. Just right-click on the link above, then select “Save Link As…” and you are good to go.

In addition to Live to Budget, the other bloggers participating in this E-book are:

Almost Frugal
Being Frugal
Blunt Money
Credit Withdrawal
Finance for a Freelance Life
Lightening Online
My Debt Free Goal
My Super Charged Life
Simple Mom

The purpose of the E-book as stated, is that:

“bloggers who have contributed to this ebook all decided that they wanted to take control of their financial situation. Each of them came to the realisation that enough was enough — they no longer wanted to spend more than they earned, and they no longer wanted to have a large level of debt…This ebook is an attempt to collect the best information they have to pass on. Every blogger included has offered two or three of their best posts that they believe will help the reader take control of their personal financial situation today.”

Happy reading :).

Monday, December 15, 2008

Confessions of an Anime Geek

I grew up with the first wave of Anime that became popular in the United States in the 1970's. Shows like "Speed Racer", "Kimba the White Lion", and of course "Gatchaman" (which we knew stateside as "Battle of the Planets") looked different than Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, or He-Man and Thundarr the Barbarian (yes, I'm dating myself here (LOL!) ), but it wasn't for several more years until I started really paying attention to the differences. Truth be told, it was my son and his school friends that brought the Anime bug back to me earlier in this decade (around 2000 and 2001). Since then, there have been many series that I have seen, become interested in, become less interested in, and finally found those that are worth viewing over and over again (and in my case, outright owning).

Thus, for your Holiday viewing pleasure, I am going to present my personal favorite of the many Anime titles that are out there. Note, these are series I'm commenting on. There are *lots* of cool one-off's out there that are awesome to see, but I generally don't buy one-off's, preferring instead to view those either through loans from the public library or video rental (maybe I'll do another post a bit later about my favorite one-offs :) ). Also, I tend to like individual storylines that have a limited run; the series that were limited to 26 or 52 episodes, all contained, rather than the serial ones that run on and on and on for a dozen years. The quality of the shows that were made for limited runs tend to hold up better and the pacing is usually much more interesting, IMHO. With that, here are my top picks:

Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex (and 2nd Gig)

For me, these are two different stories but they take place in roughly the same time frame, so I consider them both worthy of purchase. This series is based on the late 80's/early 90's manga by Masamune Shirow, and it's a very cerebral and thought provoking series. The Wachowski Brothers, when they were developing "The Matrix", used "Ghost in the Shell" as an example of how they wanted to define the ultimate look of their movies. The storylines are based around a cybernetic future, where the line between humanity and machinery has become so blurred as to almost be indistinguishable. It's seen through the eyes (mostly) of Motoko Kusanage, a cybernetic human whos brain and part of her spinal cord are all that is left of her humanity; the rest of her is all machine. The secondary title refers to two things. First, it's the notion that individual efforts can lead up to a congruent whole all unto itself (an idea that's eplained pretty well here. It also is used to describe individual episodes in the series. Standalone Episodes are just that, meant to be watched on their own and not necessarily as part of an overall story arc. Complex episodes, however, are all meant to tie together and tell a greater story ("The Laughing Man" in the first season and "The Individual Eleven" in the second). Gang, when it comes to storytelling, immersive worlds, and a thrilling ride in animation, really, it doesn't get any better than this. Also, those who may be turned of by the "Moe" look of what is traditionally seen as the Anime style (girls with big eyes, near non existent noses, exaggerated features, etc), there is virtually none of that here. The approach is realism, and the animators at Studio I.G. do a fabulous job. In addition, the music in the series is also wonderfully integrated and enhanced due to the score by Yoko Kanno and various numbers performed by a myriad group of singers (Russian born artist Origa being one of my personal favorites).

Fullmetal Alchemist

Imagine a world that split away from our own about the time of the Renaissance. Now imagine, in that parallel world, that the laws of Alchemy operate in the same way that the laws of Physics do in ours. Add to that a world about on the brink of starting their equivalent of World War I as experienced in our Earth's time frame, and you have the setting for another of the best Anime series ever (IMO), Fullmetal Alchemist. This is the story of two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric, the struggles they undertake to get back what they have lost, and all that happens along the way. While this show moast certanly leans to "Moe" anime stylings, and has its fair share of humor and whimsy associated with it, the overall story is a roller-coaster ride and is at times hilarious, intriguing and heartbreaking. The underlying story about how Edward and Alphonse sacrificed so much to help bring back their MOther from the dead carries through the entire series, and these choices are examined through the philosophy of "Equivalent Exchange", and how those words both inform, and haunt, their world.

Cowboy Bebop

A terrific, and groundbreaking, Anime from the late 90's, this one really made an impression on me. Yoko Kanno does the music for this one, and whereas "Ghost in the Shell" is all cool techno and funk, "Cowboy Bebob" hearkens to big band Jazz as the soundtrack to an odd group of space age bounty hunters. Spike Spiegel is the rebirth of Bruce Lee in the late 21st Century, May Valentine is the wild-card gambler who always gets in trouble, Jett is the older and more war torn member of the party, often giving sage advice to others (that usually goes unheeded), and Edward is a whiz kid that can hack any computer anywhere, but she comes with her own set of weird quirks (and yes, "Edward" is a she :) ). Add to that Ein, the coolest Corgi ever to appear in an Anime, and what you get is a rollicking ride that likely to be watched again and again.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

This one is heavy, no doubt about it. It's an odd mixture of cyberpunk, mecha (meaning the giant robots that are often seen as the symbol of Japanese Anime) and the blending of Kaballah mysticism into the idea that the end of the world is com ing, and humanity is facing its annihilation at the hand of "the Angels", extraterrestrial entities bent on destroying humanity. It's only line of defense is the people in the organization NERV, and the giant mechanical creatures called "EVA". The pilots of these mechanical devices? 14 year old teenagers, each with an unusual quirk or back story. This one is both renowned for a complex story as well as being an investigation into the realms of mental illness (series creator Hideaki Anno was quoted as saying that the show itself was cathartic to him and was his way of explaining how he ultimately overcame clinical depression).


This is an example of a story that, perhaps, may prove to run too long to maintain its vitality over the long haul, but the first two seasons of this one are terrific, well paced, and both amusing and wrenching. Ichigo Kurosaki is a fifteeen year old kid who "sees dead people", or rather, can see and communicate with the spirits of those who have died. However, in Ichigo's world, there are two types of dead people. The first are called "wholes", and they tend to pass on into the next world without much trouble. the second group are called "Hollows", and these are the ones that didn't necessarily want to die, or have not come to grips with their deaths. Through rage and anger, they transform into creatures that look to prey upon the living. An afterlife army of "Shinigami" ("Soul Reapers in the English dub) helps to combat these creatures and keep the bulk of humanity blissfully unaware of their existence. It's into this batle that Ichigo finds himself becoming a "Shinigami" in his own right, a substitute "Soul Reaper". This show has now been running for several seasons in Japan, and two of those seasons are now available for purchase stateside.

Fruits Basket

All battle, swords and tech makes Michael a dull boy. I will confess I bought this series mainly as something for my girls to watch (it's billed as a "Shojo", i.e. for girls). However, I found myself enjoying this one immensely, and when my girls ask if we can watch it again (which they invariably do every few months), I say "no problem". The story follows Tohru Honda, a fifteen year old Japanese schoolgirl who loses her mother in a car accident. Through the days, weeks and months after that tragic event, she meets the members of the Sohma family, who are a wealthy and large clan of people who share a secret... there are among the Sohma's men, women, boys and girls, who have been "cursed" to carry the spirits of the Chinese Zodiac. When they are under great stress, or when they are hugged by members of the opposite sex, they transform into the various animals of the Chinese Zodiac (plus one more, the Cat). The series revolves around Tohru meting these people, caring for them, and ultimately looking to see if she can be the one outsider to help all of the Sohma clan as they carry this curse. While this is a series that is aimed at girls, it has a charm and a quality of animation that makes it one of my favorites as well.

A note to any and all who are newcomers to Anime... in the US, animation is often seen as kids fare. In Japan, nothing could be further from the truth. While, indeed there are kids shows, many of the best Anime would be shown on telivision at 8:00 PM, 9:00 PM and 10:00 PM and be the equivalent of watching programs like CSI, The X-Files or the current Battlestar Galactica. In short, much of the situations and the dialogue may not be suitable for younger viewers. If this is a concern, be advised. Also, the action is some of these programs can be very intense, and some of the scenes can be quite graphic. Again, this owes to the diverse audience for many of these programs, many of which are really not at all geared towards kids. I'd encopurage all parents to read the reviews and commentary about each of the series before making any purchases, and I would *always* encourage parents to screen any Anime before letting kids see them, especially those aimed at an "over 14" demographic.

Also, one final tip... I have found that I enjoy the stories best when they are played back with the original Japanese dialog and English subtitles. While I give credit to the cast of actors that dubs these programs into English, and some of them do a superb job at it, there is something about the original Japanese dialog that gives poignancy to the scenes that the English dialog often does not. Also, sadly, it seems that the English dialog tends to be more "edgy" and use harsher words than the equivalent Japanese translation, hence there are titles where I tell my kids "sure, we can watch that one, but we'll watch it with the Japanese voice track and subtitles".

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Taking a Tag From Talitha

OK, so Talitha didn't tag me, but since it's a quiet morning, I figured I'd play along anyway :


1. Go to your pictures
2. Go to the 4th file & upload the 4th picture
3. Post & tell about the picture
4. Tag 4 friends

So with that, here we go:

I met a "friend" through myspace some years ago named Mika (pronounced "mee-kuh") who is a veritable expert in the art of sewing, and a comprehensive and almost obsessive love of Manga and Anime. One of the things she does to make money for school and other things is she makes very adorable fleece hats that are based on various Anime characters or otherwise come from "Kawaii" things (Kawaii is the Japanese term for "ridiculously cute" :) ).

I got all three of my kids Mika made hats a couple of years ago and this is the one that Amber wanted, a bunny rabbit called "Mokana Chan". I had each of the kids wear their hats and I took pictures of all three of them to sent to Mika so she could put them up on her site. Amber's just happens to be the fourth on in my photo folder :).

So who might actually play... OK, here goes: Erika, Sarah, Nedra and Christina :)

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Proof I Should Have Stayed In Bed

I woke up Saturday Morning feeling not at all well; congested head, headachey, the whole nine yards. I'd been fighting a cold much of the week, and this time, I just felt like I'd been clubbed in the head. Still, there were a lot of things we needed to do today, and that required my actually getting up and helping out. Anyway, as we were running around yesterday, at one point my son wanted to make some Jell-O as part of dinner. I decided to give him a hand and I helped him dissolve the Jell-O packet over the stove.

Next thing we know, the phone is ringing, only the cordless phone is in the bedroom. No problem, I think, and I rush off to go answer the phone... and that's when it happened:

It was an accident, of course, but what happened was that the cabinet door that's overhead was let open. I should say that it is overhead for everyone except for me! Sure enough, as I was practically at a running start, I glanced the bottom of the cabinet, which opened up and caught against the side of the refrigerator... which had the net effect of me looking like I'd been hit across the head with a two by four! Needless to say, my family was rather alarmed as I dropped to the floor and clutched my head (not an entirely voluntary reaction). the next thing I knew, my son was there with ice in a plastic bag (wow, he really has been paying attention in Scouts :) ), and he was the first to say "Oh my gosh, Dad, your head!"... which doesn't exactly instill confidence at moments like this (LOL!). Fortunately, it's just a welt that will likely turn into a really vibrant bruise in a few days, but hopefully, I'll be no worse for wear from the overall experience.

Yep, I should have just stayed in bed (LOL!)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Charity Spotlight

NCN over at No Credit Needed is asking people to write about their favorite charities for his charity spotlight series. What’s your favorite charity? Hop on over and let him know.

A charity that has been near and dear to my heart for many years is SOS Outreach (formerly known and beloved by me as Snowboard Outreach Society). Its mission is to take at risk youth all over the country and introduce them to the sport of snowboarding, giving them a taste of the mountains, the fresh air, and a life outside of what they normally deal with. It’s been shown that this can be a big paradigm shift for kids, and that for many of them, getting this exposure to another part of life can have tremendous affects over the long term for these kids.

I have proudly and gladly donated gear and clothing to this organization, and were my schedule more allowing, I would love to have the opportunity to become a "Learn To Ride" coach for these kids. I am hoping in the coming years to be able to take the opportunity to do exactly that, and when I do, SOS Outreach will be the organization I do it with (they have an affiliate program up and running in the Lake Tahoe area where I regularly ride).

Anyone interested can see more about them at

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Larsen Christmas Tradition

We've been at this for at least eight years now (I can check a little later to make sure), but since 2000, for certain, we have made the visit to "the Mall Santa" for an annual family portrait.

This all started a number of years ago with a frame that was given to us as a Christmas gift by our friends Robert and Robyn. We told them that we would make sure to put a different picture in it each year as a reminder of their friendship and what they mean to us. Every year, we get the picture shortly after the beginning of December, and we display it with the rest of our Christmas decorations until January 1st, when all Christmas decorations come doen and get put away until the folowing day after Thanksgiving, when the decorations come out and go up again. Each picture goes into a special memory book that Christina has maintained with reflections of the Christmas season that particular year.

One of these days, it will be a fun little project to scan them all into a gallery, but for now, Have a Merry lead up to Christmas 2008 with the Larsen Family and their old friend, Santa :).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Madd Money: The Economics of Snowboarding

As we enter the middle of December, I have both feelings of anticipation and a sincere need to do a personal gut check… this is my favorite time of the year, the months between December and April. It’s snowboarding season in my area, or at least it is struggling mightily to become such (not much snow yet, but we are hopeful).

The act of snowboarding and the price of snowboarding have changed dramatically over the past decade and a half. Back in 1993, the classic “day trip” of the average Bay Area snowboarder was easily under $100.00. That would be a day trip of just myself, driving from the San Francisco Bay Area, paying for gas, packing my own food for the trek, purchasing a basic ticket, riding a full day, and then driving home at the end. Due to the nature of my home and my family, multi day trips are a rare occurrence in my reality. The average tank of gas cost somewhere around $23 (multiply that times two, realistically), and the average lift ticket ranged anywhere from $24 to $40 if you really wanted to splurge at a fancy place. this pricve of course expands when you factor in family members who also come along for the ride.

Today, even with the slide in gas prices of late, an average tank of gas costs about $35 (times two) and good luck finding a ticket that’s not bumping up around $40 even at the smaller ski and riding areas. Places like Squaw Valley and Heavenly Valley have become true luxury visits (and at almost $80 a lift ticket, I need a real good reason to go there now, like a truly spectacular event).

Still, my family enjoys snowboarding, and it’s a sport that I truly adore and love. So what’s a man to do when he digs riding but wants to maximize the ride while also maximizing the value? Is it possible?

The answer is yes, but it requires a little bit of creativity, flexibility, and shedding of attitudes in many cases. The first place to start is gear. Now I’ll be the first to admit, having been a competing racer and freestyle rider for several years, I have had my share of “gear snobbery”, and when you are racing or otherwise looking for a competitive edge, yes, there may well be value in nit picking over the minutiae of the gear that you use. However, for most everyday average riders, the difference between a mid-level board and a top-flight flagship board is not detectable. Paying $200 or $300 more for a professional grade competitive board may make you feel better, but mechanically, it’s not going to make a noticeable difference (the one place I differ on this philosophy is with boots; if you are going to splurge on any piece of gear, the difference of $50 to $100 when it comes to a pair of snowboard boots can make a world of difference. Still, a good boot fitter can make a pair of mid level boots every bit as fabulous as a top tier pair of pro endorsed boots for considerably less).

When it comes to clothing, you want to dress for the purpose, and OK, if you want to have a little fun and express yourself, go ahead. Still, with a little searching, you can get very good quality gear (jackets, pants, thermals, 2nd layer, gloves, hats, etc.) for reasonable prices, and sometimes, if you look during the off season, you can get tremendous deals on gear at the end of the season. Not such a great approach for growing kids, but for adults, that’s really the best time to buy. There are also a number of clearance places that deal with just overstock snowboard and skiing outer gear. One of my favorites is a place in Santa Clara called Wintersport Warehouse. You can get some great deals on gear especially towards the end of the season.

One of my favorite social exercises is the “gear swap”, where you go to an all day event at a place that sells gear, usually in their side yard or back parking lot. Bring your equipment and check it in along with a price you are willing to let the gear go for. You can also designate whether or not you would be open to trade. For kids equipment, this is probably the best place to go, because the equipment being offered for swap is often kids gear that has been outgrown. Check your local shop and see if they have any information on whether they will be offering a gear swap or if they know of another vendor or group that does (these don’t necessarily have to be stores that do this. It’s just as likely you may see a high school, community college or church do the same thing).

Lift tickets are priced at a premium to those who are the casual riders who go at the busiest times (Friday or Saturday). If you can make arrangements to ride midweek, you can often save as much as 50% off a weekend ticket. If you are a regular rider who is willing to commit to a single mountain, the season pass *can* be a good deal, but you have to weigh in the true cost of such an item. Most mountains require you to ride about eight total days for the cost of the pass to break even, though many mountains offer better deals if you are willing to purchase a pass earlier in the year. I’ve had experiences with season passes, and if I lived closer to the mountains, I’d definitely take advantage of them, but seeing as I live about three hours away, the benefit is less of a bargain. Many stores offer discount tickets, again a bigger discount the farther in advance you purchase them. It also works to your advantage if you go at no peak times of the year (read: holidays and extended weekends). This is fine with me, as I am not a fan of big crowds and big lines. Spending even more money to get less riding in, not a benefit.

Finally, depending on your flexibility, if you are a lone rider, you may find that leaving the driving to someone else may be the best option. There are often shuttle services where you can stow your gear, get on a bus, and let someone else handle the driving. The average seat on one of these deals is about $48.00. For a lone rider leaving San Francisco, that’s a pretty good deal, all things considered. The down side is that there are usually only a few resorts that they go to, and often the bigger, higher priced places. Still, with the savings on gas, you can often still pay for the higher priced ticket and come out ahead than going it solo (plus saving wear and tear on the car). More than two people going up, however, it makes more sense to drive up on your own and split the costs.

I plan to keep a close eye on the costs associated with this season as it ramps us. For me, the quality of the riding time matters more than all of the other costs, but lets face it, watching costs and keeping expenses low translates to more riding time for the money, and frankly, I can get behind that goal very easily :).

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Things That Dads Dream To Hear

This has been an interesting year for my older daughter, Karina. She is my big girl and I love her to death, but she has had her share of small challenges when it comes to school. One of the biggest issues (I hope she won’t feel embarrassed for me saying this) is that she deals with astigmatism as well as far sightedness. Because of that, she has had to wear glasses for several years and it’s been a challenge for her to do things that some kids take for granted. Reading is not an easy thing for her, and sometimes she has to go over sections a number of times to make sure that she gets everything.

This past year, Christina has really given a lot of up front time and attention to Karina to help her get more comfortable with reading, and especially more challenging passages. I am happy to say that that effort looks to have paid off! Yesterday was Karina’s and Amber’s Parent/Teacher conferences, and both of them were very positive and complementary. Added to that, though, were some things that were said about Karina that made me a very proud daddy indeed.

We were very excited when we saw that she had earned all A’s and one B, and had secured a spot on the Honor Roll at school. Yep, that would be a moment to make a parent proud, but that’s not the one that I’m writing about today… the one that really made me feel great was to hear her teacher say (somewhat paraphrased and second hand, mind you :) )…

“we are really happy that Karina was elected by her class to serve as the class representative to the Student Council, because she is such a wonderful role model to the other students. She is always very polite, very supportive of others, and she is kind and considerate to everyone. She doesn’t have any attitude, and I am so happy that she seems to be above and beyond all the “girl drama” that’s so common at this age.”

Really, seriously, that’s a fabulous report, but even if the top Honor Roll part hadn’t happened, hearing the second part of the conference would have made my day just as well. Often, we hope that we are teaching our children to be good citizens and good friends to those around them, and hoping that things like morality, ethics and integrity shine through at key moments. I’ve been so happy to see the many times that they do, and it gives me hope that my Heavenly Father may actually trust me with these very precious loans of three spirit children of his. It’s days like this, and comments like this, that make me feel like I and Christina might actually be doing something right! Trust me, we get ample opportunity at other times to feel exactly the opposite (LOL!), so for today, hey, I’ll take the other sentiment ;).

Monday, December 8, 2008

Taking on "Personal Management": Can Scouting's "Big Bear" Help Adults, Too?

As a Scoutmaster, I've found it interesting that there are three badges that tend to gum up the works for boys that want to progress from Life Scout to Eagle Scout, and routinely, it tends to be at least one of these three badges that cause the greatest amount of perceived hardship for scouts. These badges are:

Family Life
Personal Fitness
Personal Management

Having been a scout leader and a merit badge counselor for close to fifteen years now, I know why this is the case. Each one of these badges requires an up front commitment, a pretty significant one at that. In addition, each one requires that you commit to a lengthy follow-through, and then tracking that follow-through for three months. In almost all cases, it's this tracking for the long term that gets most boys down and frustrated. Still, for many boys, conquering these three badges makes a huge difference, not just in taking command of the Eagle Scout process, but in taking command of life in general.

As I was reviewing with my son the components of the Personal Management badge, I came to the stunning realization that many adults that I know do not have much knowledge of, nor do they actively understand, the concepts that are presented in this badge. As I was looking to see if there was some "Madd Money" topics I could talk about and discuss, I realized the whole merit badge pamphlet, while not ideal in every aspect to what *I* would personally teach or espouse (but pretty darn close overall), it's a terrific primer and fodder for conceivably many posts.

Thus in the course of the next few months, I will be going through each one of these topics, not as a way to rewrite, revise or critique the book, but to give my own take on the topics as presented, and perhaps ways where I might differ in approach. Most likely, though, I'll probably share my own experiences working with this badge and what opportunities for growth can be found within its pages. Moree to the point, I'm hoping to spur on some discussions with my son, as he needs to complete this one, too, hopefully in the same time period (as well as Personal Fitness; Family Life we have covered ;) ). So look for the Personal Management topic to appear under a Madd Money entry in the future. What's more, I'd like your feedback on this particular topic and your own approach to it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It Was 16 Years Ago Today

It's funny, there's so much I could say about this day, but I'm just going to point out that today is the 16th anniversary of yours truly and his beloved tying the knot, making two into one, cleaving unto one another and no other, you pick the sentiment. The point is, today is the day that, sixteen years ago, the most gorgeous woman on Earth (well, to me; understand I'm not exactly unbiased in this particular opinion) said "I do" and "I will" and I'm ever so glad "she did" :).

So instead of waxing rhapsodic about "the way we were" and who were were back then, why not just show you who we were :)...

A few weeks before our wedding at the wedding shower, and yes, I was there (I'm all liberated like that, and stuff (LOL!) ).

At our Bachelor/Bachelorette Party (yep, we decided to be unconventional and hold them together because, well, we're just raging geeks like that :) )". Don't you just love the early 90's garb (LOL!)?

The Bride and Groom the Night of the Celebrated Day.

The two of us out and about a couple of months later on a typical San Francisco afternoon in the Sunset District.

Another early shot of the newlyweds (sometime in 1993).

And now fast forward to us today (a lot has changed)...

Well for some of us, not so much... Christina has hardly changed at all!!!

I certainly can't say the same for me (LOL!).

But you know what? She still digs me, and I definitely still dig her, and frankly, when all is said and done, that's all that matters.

Happy Anniversary!!!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Much More than a "Quote of the Day"

Whether or not you are a Democrat, Independant, Libertarian, Republican or any other designation you choose to associate with your political ideology, I think we as a nation would all do well to consider this as a personal manifesto:

"I do not choose to be a common man.
It is my right to be uncommon—if I can.
I seek opportunity—not security.
I do not wish to be a kept citizen,
humbled and dulled by having the state look after me.
I want to take the calculated risk;
to dream and to build, to fail and to succeed.
I refuse to barter incentive for a dole.
I prefer the challenges of life to the guaranteed existence;
the thrill of fulfillment to the stale calm of utopia.
I will not trade freedom for beneficence nor my dignity for a handout.
I will never cower before any master nor bend to any threat.
It is my heritage to stand erect, proud and unafraid;
to think and act for myself, enjoy the benefit of my creations,
and to face the world boldly and say, this I have done.
All this is what it means to be an American."

-- Dean Alfange

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Happy Birthday, Christina!!!

I'm sorry that I had a work deadline that prevented me from actually spending much quality time with you on your birthday, but it looks like your Mom made up for it in spades. Don't forget, we have our own celebration tonight... and I say yes, let's go to Blowfish!!!

To those who are *not* Christina, let me start by saying that life is wonderful, and life is also unfair. This is the face of a 40 year old woman...:

We've long joked that there must be a portrait* hidden somewhere up in the attic that I nor anyone else knows about... come to think of it, Christina does get awful anxious each time I climb up to inspect the upper rafters... maybe she is hiding something up there (LOL!)

Anyway, here's a Happy Birthday wish to the most beautiful woman on Earth, at least as regarded by yours truly :).

* Note: "portait hidden somewhere up in the attic" is a reference to "The Picture of Dorian Gray", a novel written by Oscar Wilde. I'm sure most of you out there already know that, but for those that don't, well, now when you hear me say it, you'll know what I'm talking about (LOL!).

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Scoutmaster Mike: Nick's Eagle Project Proposal

As both a Scoutmaster and a Father, I have the pleasure and the challenge of looking over and discussing the process of developing an Eagle project with my son. The biggest challenge with his age (he's 12) is that there is a limit to the types of projects he can actually take on. When we went to contact a number of places regarding capital improvements or to do repair and restoration projects, as soon as they heard his age, we got a number of answers that ultimately sum up as "oh, he's too young for us to allow that. Our liability insurance wouldn't cover that".

So what does one do when the spirit is willing, but the flesh it to young to be pressed into service? Well, one looks at other options, of course, but more to the point, one looks to areas where they can do something outside of the boundaries of the organization that he wants to work with, yet still have a way to make a meaningful contribution.

For the last year or so, Nick has expressed interest in doing a project for the Peninsula Humane Society as his first choice. Our dog, Rikku, attends a small dog socialization class there on many weekends, so we as a family often go to the PHC facilities over near Coyote Point. I think it has been this continued involvement with the PHC that helped him decide that this is where he wanted to apply his efforts. What also helped was that, instead of just being a random scout making a call, he was able to say "hi, you remember me, I'm there with my dog on many of the Saturdays. I'd like to do a project to help the shelter". So tip number 1, make sure you can be seen as a known identity; it makes people a lot more willing to work with you :).

Even with the willingness and knowing who he is, there's still that age issue. the Peninsula Humane Society has a rule that actual volunteers that do work on the premises or in the shelters must be sixteen years or older, especially if any of the work is construction or repair related. However, there are many other needs that the shelter has for the animals that don't require any involvement with the premises at all. While looking through their web site, we saw that they had a Wish List of items that would be beneficial to the animals. These items were things like towels, blankets, heating pads, toys for various animals, and some interesting items like clean feather dusters for use with helpoing to rehabilitate young wild birds.

With this, we talked a bit and helped formulate a game plan. The Eagle Project that we will present tomorrow to the Peninsula Humane Society (and later to the Pacific Skyline Council for approval) will consist of Nick organizing, leading and soliciting for items on that Wish List, and conducting a Pet Toy and Pet Needs drive. We will generate flyers and distribute them through schools, churches, and communities with a designated day (TBD) where we will come by with the other scouts in the Troop, pick up, sort, organize and ultimately deliver any and all items received to the Peninsula Humane Society.

Nick is learning how it feels to be inthe hot seat regarding this project. While I am happy to help him organize his thoughts and ideas, I've had to make it very clear that he is the one that must make the calls, make the arrangements, work with the individuals that will help out, and be the point of contact. He's discovering that even a project of this nature takes a lot of preparation and planning, and it needs to be communicated with a lot of different people. So far, I think he's doing a pretty good job with it, though I do find I have to be a bit of a nag and say "hey, did you do this today?" It's OK, I expect it at this age (LOL!).

This is the big hurdle when it comes from getting boys from Life to Eagle, so in a way I am happy that he is looking to do this now, and I'm also happy that he is seeing that, even though he is on the young side, with a little bit of creativity and planning, he can make a contribution as meaningful as many older boys make, even if it means the nature of his project will be a bit different than those the older boys would be able to do. Inthe end, what matters is that he undertakes it, leads it, and brings it to a succesful conclusion. While much of that will remain to be seen, I can say with pride he's off to a good start :).

Monday, December 1, 2008

Madd Money: Adventures In Appliance Land

I have found it to be very frustrating that, when we try to do the good thing, or we try to get an item that we want to make sure last for the long haul, we oftentimes realize that we bought something that, honestly, could have been had many other ways and could have been much less expensive for the outlay.

Let's do the time warp here. Back in 2001, I was working with a tech company at the time when tech skills were very highly in demand, and I was being paid very well to do what I do (don't get me wrong, I get paid well to do what I do now, but tech salaries were on the whole *way* high back in 2001). I picked this time to do a major kitchen remodel, converting a small galley style kitchen to a more functional U-shaped kitchen with new cabinets, new sink, new dishwasher, granite countertops, and a true conceit... a professional grade stainless steel six burner range. When we decided that we wanted to redo the kitchen, this was the one item I wanted more than anything. I made the assumption that a range that was used in professional kitchens would be an awesome addition to our house; if it's good enough to be used in a restaurant, it should be good enough for our house! Not to mention the fact that something this durable should definitely be a good investment over the long haul.

Neddless to say, one of the truisms of life is that if anything can go wrong, it will. And in this case, there has been a series of recurring problems with this range. More to the point, I have had several experiences now with appliance repair people, and their attitudes towards people that own these kinds of appliances. First and foremost, I've dealt with people that think that, if you own one of these ranges, you are obviously going to spend a lot of money to maintain it (think of this range as being the Mercedes-Benz of the range world... many people will spend more money to maintain that kind of car just because of the name). I used to believe that I had to do the same, until the parts that I had replaced and the work that I had done stopped working correctly in a short amount of time. Because of the last experience, I decided to audit a few different people and see what they said and what their recommendations were. In addition, I decided to do a little research on my model and see if we could find out a few things. What became very clear from the research whas that after-market items like burners and ignition switches were frequently rated as good if not better than the name brand parts that came at an extreme premium. Moe to the point, repair people who were qualified to service this range had varying rates of pay and attitudes about how much they were looking to charge to service this range.

The take home from this story is that, even when you make an effort to gtet the best and most durable gear on the market, it's possible to get a unit that's not totally perfect. What's more, if you find yourself in the unenviable position of having to fix such a core item, there are lots of options out there to make sure you can the device to work, and you need not feel like you are calling up someone to fix a Mercedes.

One other amusing anecdote on this front. About three months ago, I had a mishap in our kitchen where I physically broke the carafe for our blender. It's been one of those items where I've said "Oh no, how will we ever live without a blender?!" Still, since I didn't want to necessarily just jump out and go buy a blender, we decided to put some money aside and, when we felt that we needed to go and get it, we would do so with cash already saved. It's been three months, we have the money saved, but we came to an interesting realization... we really don't need a blender. Most of our cooking and things that we make do just fine without it. Thus, at least for right now, we've decided the best replacement for a blender is no blender at all (LOL!).