Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Christina Booked Us a Camping Trip... Has Hell Frozen Over (LOL!)?!!

So imagine my surprise when, at work, I got the following message...

"Hey there, I wanted to let you know that I booked us for camping at Big Basin State Park on the 23rd. I'm looking forward to it... I think (LOL!)"

Now for everyone to really appreciate this, certain words just don't naturally flow together, and these are referred to as "oxymorons"... jumbo shrimp, military intelligence (to quote an oft incorrect but familiar one), and now, "Christina camping"... I don't know where I went wrong with this over the years, but for some reason, Christina just never got into camping. It may have just been her upbringing; it wasn't something her family did very often, whereas with my family, camping was the definition of the summer vacation getaway. I remember a few times staying in a hotel whenever we went anywhere, but I absolutely remember camping all over the country and up in Canada. My grandparents on my Mom's side were really hardcore campers, and they were exceptionally good at it. It used to crack me up to see pictures of my mom and her parents at various campsites... with chaise lounges and full dresses reading books and looking like they were poolside, yet there they were next to a tent under the redwood trees. In any event, my appreciation of camping came from that.

I remember early on when Christina and I were dating, we went to go up and hang out with my guitar player, his girlfriend, and her friend and husband up in Humboldt County near the Eel River. Now, at this given time, I didn't really own any gear, so we made do with what we had in our car, and used the car as a makeshift tent (a Ford Escort with the seats folded down makes for a surprisingly roomy place to sleep). Added to that, we also took some time and floated down the Eel river in inner tubes. It was later in the summer, so there wasn't as much water, but we still made it down, albeit with the various mosquitoes and such. To me, this was just a normal part of being outside, not perfect, but an adventure nonetheless, better than some I'd had, but not as great as others, but overall, sure, it was a fun weekend. Christina *hated* it, though, and I think that has soured her on the idea of camping ever since.

Fast forward 18 years, and the kids and I have embraced the ethos of camping, and look forward to going whenever we can (greatly enhanced by the fact that I'm a scout leader and, well, that just comes with the territory). Because of this, we have invested in camping gear and have access to a fair amount of items to make the experience comfortable, if not downright palatial. Still, Christina balks at coming with us much of the time... it's just not something that she like to do, and I can understand that. Her exact wording is "it's a lot of work for a little enjoyment".

Now, I'm not sure I can change her point of view on this, but her wording got me to thinking about a number of things that I do that are "labor intensive with a little bit of enjoyment"... and to an outsider, I can see how that might be perceived. In Christina's eyes, camping, snowboarding, native American dance, scouting, they are all a lot of work, with a lot of gear, generally speaking, and require an intimate knowledge of how to use it and deploy it to do anything. I think this assessment is correct, but I think it misses the mark in a few areas. For starters, yes, snowboarding requires gear, clothing, and a vehicle to get where you want to go. A Day trip can be an exhausting experience, absolutely, but once you get there, once you strap on a board, and once you start riding, all of the preparation fades into the background and you just enjoy the ride. The same goes with camping. Yes, you need to set up a tent, and you need to have some gear to cook food out in the wild, but with practice comes efficiency and speed, so while Christina looks at it all as a big chore, for me half the fun is getting out and getting things set up nicely. From there, whatever we want to do is wide open. No clocks, no phones, complete freedom to do whatever we want to and know we have a cover to get back to in the middle of one of the prettiest places we might want to be in at any given time. For me, *that's* the allure of camping, and getting out there and seeing how well I can test myself against nature... and in this case, I have a car I can keep extra comforts in. I'm not sure how Christina would handle a more bare bones backpacking camping trip (it does have the fact that very little needs to be carried going for it :) ).

So I am looking forward to our trip to Big Basin, Hey, any excuse to get out and camp is fun for me, but the fact that Christina recommended it makes it even more special. I'm totally curious to see how this will all pan out... I hope as a great experience she will smile about. We shall see :).

Monday, June 29, 2009

Scoutmater Mike: Aftermath of the “Silent Campout”

On Friday afternoon, seven boys and four adults gathered together for an interesting experiment. Though we as Scout leaders often talk about being just advisors and that it’s the boys that lead the program, in reality a lot of the program is led and directed by adults. Likewise, while boys want to believe that they are ultimately in charge, there are a lot of things that Scout Leaders do in the background that they are often not aware of. What happens when the adult leaders make good on a pledge to completely butt out of the leadership decisions and leave the whole experience, entirely, up to the boys?

The answer is... what happened this weekend (LOL!).

So here’s a recap… we arrived at Huddart Park right around 6:00 PM. The adults set up their camp area in the first camp site, the boys set up their camp just down the hill in the next camp area. Close enough so that we could observe and take notes, and intervene if safety required it, but far enough away that we wouldn’t be able to hear general conversations or interfere with any of their plans. While the adults had their camping area up and together in about 20 minutes, the boys… well let’s just say it took them quite a bit longer. We brought five tents for the boys to use… but they opted to go with two. One large one, one small 2-3 man one. The adults got together and quickly put together their dinner; Paul had premade the enchilada pie recipe that we had, so we just started the coals and waited for them to get ready. While we waited, we also put together a recipe called “Monkey Bread” which we had never tried before. By the time the coals were ready, we had both dishes on and cooking. Looking down at the younger guys camp sites… two guys were actively engaged in trying to cook, with little to no help from anyone else. After the adults had finished dinner, we all quickly got together and cleaned up our plates and washed out or pots… the boys were still trying to cook as the sun was going down.

While I said that we would not interfere, I did pop down a couple of times just to see how everything was going. Nick had planned on a dish called Coca-Cola Chicken, and it turned out terrific, but it took a long time to cook with what they had. As I promised not to interfere with their plans or their preparations, I withheld comments, but I could clearly see that they needed to have a better understanding of how to effectively cook with charcoal, something that only comes with experience. By the time they were ready to cook their cobbler, the coals had died down and they were having a difficult time getting enough heat to cook it. I suggested that they scoop out the cobbler and put it in a container and try again the next day, a decision my son decided was a good one :).

As the adults decided to turn in, we noticed that there was a fair amount of noise in the lower camping area. True to our word, we decided to let them keep their own time… if the SPL didn’t quiet them down, then they would be allowed to do whatever they chose to do… as long as it didn’t wake us up. Around 3:00 AM, when there was still some nattering going on, it was enough to wake up Chris, who then yelled out a “Boys, go to sleep!”… and all was quiet in Huddart Park after that (LOL!).

Morning came, and the adults awoke with the rising sun around 7:00 AM. We proceeded to get right to breakfast (a great concoction I discovered called Dutch Oven Train Wreck… looks awful, tastes fabulous (LOL!). Looking down, I could see that the boys were grousing as to what they should eat, and realizing that they did not grease the griddle they were cooking their eggs on… net results, some chunky eggs for some, and some boys that opted just not to eat. A review of the camp area was quite telling; there were pieces of equipment strewn everywhere, and it turns out that, since the boys only set up two tents, it was somewhat amusing to see that one small tent was housing five boys, while a big tent had two boys in it (not sure who decided that, but hey, there it is).

After we finished cleaning up everything and packed our stuff into the car, we announced that we would be leading the boys on a five mile hike from the entrance area to the Toyon campgrounds. Some boys were equipped with hiking books, their scout shorts and an activity T-shirt. Other boys opted to wear what they felt was “cool” and “fashionable” (read: tight skinny legged jeans and converse sneakers). I will admit I carried probably the hint of a wry smile as we all made our way to the Toyon campgrounds and back… there were some grumblings from some boys that their jeans were uncomfortable, and that their feet were starting to hurt (hey, ‘Be Prepared” is more than just a motto, it’s a way of life for scouts). By the time we came back to prepare for lunch, again, the boys had their fixings and we adults had ours. The boys found out, sadly, what happens when food is not put away properly. They had two loaves of bread to start, but one of them disappeared during the night (likely cause being a raccoon that decided white bread would be a nice night-time treat).

As we drove the boys home and we saw them alternate between smiles and grumblings, we think some valuable lessons were learned this weekend. First, many of the miscommunications could have been handled if the boys had put together a duty roster and explained who was responsible for what (something the adults did each campout, but which they decided they didn’t need… until it was too late (LOL! ). Also, they noticed that the adults took some time and prepared many of the food items in advance, which saved time. They also saw that teamwork was what got the adults to get everything done efficiently and cleanly, and that we were rarely at a loss for time or in need to scramble for anything. The boys also realized that the scout uniform is designed to do things in, more so than their everyday wear (Nick was walking a little “wide legged” yesterday.. , that ought to be all you need to know to explain his state of being). It sounds like I’m poking fun, and I‘m really not… but I will admit to smiling a little bit at these revelations the boys are having now. For the last two years, I have been trying to get them to follow this model, and encouraging them to do what they need to do to make it happen. This has been seen as meddling, and adults taking on too much of a leadership role with the Troop. After this weekend, I hope the boys now have a much clearer picture as to what truly leading a campout entails and I will be very interested in seeing how the next campout goes. Whether or not the next one is truly a “silent” campout again is anyone’s guess, but I really do look forward to the day when we have one of these silent campouts and all of the objectives get met at a high level. Then I’ll know I’m really doing my job right :).

Friday, June 26, 2009

Now I Know I’m A Grown Up :(

This one is going to be going into some weird territory today, gang. As I’m sure everyone at this point is aware, two American celebrities died within hours of each other yesterday. The first that we heard about was Farrah Fawcett. The second was Michael Jackson. Both of them had some measure of influence on my life as a kid. Farrah was, in many ways, the first fantasy of an at the time 9 year old boy. Her poster was the most ubiquitous image in 1976 and 1977, and oh yes, I had a copy as well (I didn’t actually have the poster, but I had a smaller 8x10 that I kept; I wasn never talented enough to win it at the County Fair). Michael Jackson was with me throughout my entire life, it seems; I really don’t remember a time as a kid when I didn’t know who the energetic singer of the Jackson 5 and later of solo fame was. I well remember weekends at the Golden Skate when I’d “rexx” to the Jackson’s “Shake Your Body Down to the Ground” and I also distinctly remember dancing at Maverick’s in 1979 (our town had a “Kid’s Disco” that many of us who were between the ages of 10 and 15 went to… imagine trying to pull something like that off in today’s world and climate). Anyway, “Off the Wall” was released that year, and it was one of my most played albums and I danced to many of those songs that year and for many years that followed. Regardless of the unusual and depressing aspects of his life later, this youthful powerhouse is ther Michael that inspired me to perform, and it's the Michael that I am choosing to remember today.

Today, both of these “icons” of my youth are gone. It feels strange when I see people that were directly visible in my life and who were effectively in my consciousness getting sick, having health problems and dying. It reminds me of the fact that someday, I too will die, and it also reminds me that there are “markers” in my family history that I may well have to pay attention to, and one of those markers may well spell complications for me and potentially end my life. The men on my father’s side almost to a man developed prostate cancer in their later years, as did my father. Many of them died from complications surrounding it; my dad however found it early and took preventative measures. This has taught me that prostate cancer is a strong possibility for me once I hit my 50’s. My mother’s side of the family has had a history of heart disease; my grandfather was turned off like a light switch when he was 72, with massive heart problems… problems none of us knew anything about, because “Pop Pop” on the outside looked the absolute picture of robust physical health and was a man in incredible physical shape. Thus I also have a history of heart disease as a marker in my family. Is it likely that I will be stricken with either or both of these, or is it possible I’ll skip both of them? Hard to say, but if family history is any indicator, the odds of me getting off clean on both counts are very iffy.

Thus this brings me to today, strangely feeling a weird kind of void. I realize they were just people, and they were people I did not even know and never met, but they were part of my childhood and young adult life, and now they are gone. More people from the tapestry of my growing up that are disappearing as time marches on. That’s the way life is and how life works. Someday, most of the people that made up the tapestry of my life, both unknown celebrities and intimate friends, will be gone, and for many, I will be the one ultimately gone from their lives. This is just a reminder to live each day as though it were your last, because for many, their last days come when they least expect it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: A Gym Warriors Rig

This would seem like the logical place for an “Ego Over Matter” post, but I’m not actually talking about working out this time, I’m talking about doing all of the stuff one needs to do to look like a presentable human being afterwards (LOL!).

As of late, I’ve upped the intensity on my workouts considerably. I used to just go in and lift weights for about half an hour or 45 minutes, then come back to work and call it a day. Cardio was, for the most part, nonexistent when it came to my working out. Since I am now in “T-minus 8 weeks until High Wire’s show on August 22nd” mode, my morning details have changed. For the last few weeks, my routine has me arriving at the gym early enough to allow for two hours of workout time and clean-up. I’m currently putting in at minimum one hour of cardio training, along with my regular daily workout. The net result is that I sweat a lot more when I train, and as such, showering is not just a nice thing to do, it’s totally mandatory.

A few months ago I posted about my home rig that I use for shaving. It’s fabulous for at home, but let’s face it, I’m not going to lug a scuttle, brush and Merkur 1904 with me everywhere I go. First, there’s not enough room for it, and second, I’d look like a total tool using up half the counter space at the gym. So in the mode of getting the best bang for the buck and minimal footprint (as well as minimal total time to use), I had to rethink my approach to those manly morning rituals when I’m out and about at the gym. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Shave in the shower. Now, for me, this is a really simple thing to do; I’m clean shaven both on the face and on the head, so really, I can do the whole thing blind. What I don’t want to do is use a DE in the shower; I’ve tried it and end up cutting myself more frequently than not (this may speak to my technique, and I may revisit this in the months ahead) but for now, I’ve backslid when I “road warrior” and I’ve resurrected the use of my Mach 3 and blades. There’s an interesting product that I use called King of Shaves, and it’s a low water gel that almost defies description… it almost feels like you are slathering on hair gel… but once you whip it up and rub it on your face and scalp, and then run the blade over it… wow, it’s close, quick and comfortable. Note, this is not what I would use for a luxurious at home shave, but for a quick five minute blast in the shower at the gym, it’s awesome :).

2. I keep a small bottle of Anti-plaque rinse, a tube of whatever toothpaste I have on hand (if given a choice, I like Tom’s of Maine, but I’m really not all that picky and I’ll get whatever is on sale more times than not) and my toothbrush in my toiletry bag (which has a neat little belt clip attachment that I can hang from the shower dividing rod). Rinse, brush, put away, all in a matter of minutes and all without leaving the shower (is this too much information for some of you (LOL!)?).

3. One of my best discoveries over the past year has been the ubiquitous and beneficial uses of Witch Hazel. It makes for the most effective after shave, skin cleanser, breakout protector, and it even helps with sore muscles at times. I keep a spray bottle in my bag full of witch hazel, and after the shower and shave, I spray it on and rub it in. Feels great, has a neutral scent, and it’s inexpensive enough in quantity to replace several other products, so it’s a money saver, too :).

4. The final item is a standard deodorant, but even this is close to being phased out as soon as I can find a good source of large alum block. Alum block serves two purposes. The first is that it’s an excellent hemostat for shaving nicks and cuts. What’s more, it’s also a terrific body deodorant (it’s not a true antiperspirant, but it hugely cuts down on the bacteria growth that causes odors).

All together, these items allow me to take care of business quickly and completely, and it takes very little room. As I get older and find my time compressed from many angles, I grow much more appreciative of ways that I can get more out of less in less time and with less effort. This constitutes what I consider to be a pretty good gym warriors rig. If you have other suggestions for doing more with less in similar circumstances, let me know :).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: The Kitchen Cleanout

On Saturday, I found that I was at home and had some free time to ponder and consider a few things regarding our kitchen. There are certain things that we do and certain rituals that surround our cooking, and because of those rituals, we have accumulated a small army of wares that, many times, do not get used or have just sort of piled into our cabinets. I think it was when I was looking to get a griddle out of our corner cabinet and having to fight all of the stuff surrounding it (and skinning my knuckles in the process), that I decided enough was enough, and that we really should take a look at what we have in here and why.

To be fair, I asked Christina if it was OK to embark on this particular journey, since this is one of those times when my decisions were going to have a possible radical effect on her life and reality, too. We both spend time in the kitchen, but it can be argued that she easily spends three or four times the amount I do there. Thus, I couldn’t just arbitrarily impose my ideas of what would work or why, it had to be something we would both agree to and with.

To this end, we went through all of our cupboards and drawers and we pulled out everything. We put these items on the kitchen table and we looked to see what we had. In the process, we discovered that we had two large nonstick cooking pans that were absolutely identical… and this totally baffled me. Why did we have two of the exact pans? Would we really have a need for two large pans like this at the same time for the same meal? We both decided that the answer was no, and we let one of them go.

We had a number of pots and pans that were holdovers from many years back when we still had an electric range. These items had thin walls and are really not suited for use on a gas range (you have to watch them like a hawk or the contents get scorched and then cleaning is a nightmare!). We decided to let most of these items finally go, but we kept one of them as an experiment. We jokingly refer to this as the Mac and Cheese pot, so we will see how often it gets used and see how many times we have to go to great efforts to clean it. If the answer is more than twice, then we will downsize it in favor of one of our other pots.

We found that we had a bunch of mismatched lids… they didn’t go with anything. Time for them to go.

Somehow, we had accumulated a copious amount of low grade plastic storage containers. Having storage containers in and of itself is not a problem, we just had way more than we would ever practically or realistically use, even if we were to fill the fridge and freezer with various dinners. Many of these are being repurposed rather than thrown away; Since they are clear, they make for great storage options for small items in the garage and in my upstairs closet.

A nice surprise was that we really hadn’t accumulated too many “unitaskers” over the years; though we had a few odd items that we decided just didn’t make sense to keep around, such as a small plunger operated chopper, the electric can opener, a bevy of manually operated can-openers that had just lost effectiveness over the years, and a slant type cooking device that looks surprisingly similar to a George Foreman Grill. We also have a salad spinner that, while I questioned if it was actually worth hanging onto, Christina swears she uses it every time lettuce is used for anything, so it’s cool, it stays :).

What we ultimately kept is as follows:

1 2 quart reduction Sauce Pan w/ lid (Viking)
1 2 quart Dutch Oven (Lodge)
1 3 quart Sauce Pan w/ lid (Viking)
1 3 quart “Mac and Cheese” Sauce Pan w/ lid (Revere)
1 6 quart Sauce Pot w/ lid (Lodge)
1 8 1/2 quart Sauce Pot w/ lid (Viking)
1 3 quart Saute Pan w/ lid (Viking)
1 11” Fry Pan w/ lid
1 3 quart Casserole Pan w/ Lid (Viking)
3 Pyrex casserole dishes (various sizes)
3 Corning Ware casserole dishes (various sizes)
2 bread pans (small and medium)
2 cookie sheets
3 muffin tins (2 small, 1 large)
1 13" Flat Bottom Cast Iron Wok
4 Stackable storage and mixing bowls with lids
A bunch of various plastic ware containers for storing leftovers (enough for about 6 full family meals)
1 Waffle iron
1 Griddle for pancakes and cooking bacon and eggs (we’ve had this thing forever and anticipate having it for just as long :) ).
1 food processor
1 rice cooker/steamer
1 blender
1 standard 2 slot toaster
1 toaster oven (honestly, I could see the day when we just kept the toaster oven and dropped the standalone toaster, but Christina is not seeing it that way at the moment (LOL!))

The great thing about doing this was that we liberated a lot of cabinet space that was not being used efficiently before, and we consolidated all of our regular use items into a simple to access area, and all right near the range where they can be of the greatest use. As always, it’s the pieces that actually get used that make the most sense to keep handy, the occasional items can be stored elsewhere, and if it’s really just occasionally, perhaps a case can be made that it shouldn’t be there at all. We’ll see how this more minimalist approach works for us (and truth be told, it’s still not all that minimalist, but it’s a lot better and easier to access than what we had before (LOL!).

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Madd Money: Are We Really Living in “The New Normal”?

As we are watching people react to “The Great Recession”, there is a definite change in some people’s attitudes and approaches to things. I can truthfully say that I am one of them. Some time ago, I made a rather flip statement that I was not going to participate in this recession, and a few people asked me later what I meant by that? For the record, when I said I was not going to participate in this recession I meant attitudinally I was not going to give in to negativity and downer thinking, nor was I going to look to others to provide me a windfall or relief. It also meant that I was going to do what I had to so that I could thrive in a climate of negativity and pessimism, wherever possible. I’m not a really big or motivated spectator of “the Economy”, but I am a very motivated active participant in *MY* Economy, i.e. the one that effects my family and me every day.

A phrase that is being used a lot right now is “The New Normal”, and it’s often spoken about with pessimism. However, there are many that are taking the opportunity to say that “The New Normal” need not be a doom and gloom scenario. There is even a blog and site called The New Normal, written by Roger McNamee (and he has a book with the same title :) ), and I’ve had a good time reading the entries and thinking about the ideas in it. Note: The New Normal in this case is of a technology and development aim; makes sense because I work with software and technology, this would be the avenue I’d think of first for these things. Also, many of the areas he talked about were from four years ago; his last entry was written May 13, 2005. Still, the ideas he presented, and their impacts on our lives, deserve to be explored and considered.

According to McNamee, the hallmarks of “The New Normal” are:

1. Technology is changing just about everything.

2. Globalization is changing the nature of economic opportunity.

3. Every individual is on his or her own. We have more power than ever before, but no safety nets.

4. None of us has enough time to deal with life.

I think that these sentiments are accurate for many of us, and that they do reflect the reality of our day to day lives. There are many that are scared of this “New Normal”. We live in an age where governments, companies and institutions are losing steam at an amazing rate. The days of one or two countries calling the shots with regards to the economy are fading quickly. Globalization is real, it’s here, and it’s a permanent part of our landscape. Automation of work and processes, and the commoditization of that work and those processes, is reality. If I cannot distinguish myself from another person who can do the same job as I do, whether they be in San Francisco or Sierra Leone, I better not be surprised if my work or my job goes elsewhere.

The key is planning, and that planning will take time. We grew conditioned to the idea that success comes quickly in the 90’s and this past decade. It’s rarely the case, but that’s what we have been led to believe. For most of us, we need time and a plan to develop our skills. Information and accessibility do not translate to mastery (it’s taken me awhile to wrap my head around this one, but I think I’m finally getting it). We can read everything, follow everything, learn and see the latest and greatest trends, but the fact is that there is no replacement for the necessary wood shedding required to actually get good at something. If you want to become an excellent musician, you have to practice. If you want to become an excellent engineer, again, you must practice. If you want to become an excellent money manager (personal or otherwise), you have to practice living in a way that is long term sustainable And allows you hte ability to account accurately for where your money goes.

With the realities of “The New Normal” what can we as individuals do? I like McNamee’s list, and I like his approaches to them, with some tweaks of my own:

First, move on from the 90s. The conditions that made it such an explosive and profitable decade have matured and become part of our lives. It will take another paradigm shift to make something like it again. Feel free to work to see if you can make another one, but don’t passively wait for one to come along, you may be waiting a very long time.

Second, work at a company you believe in. Put your efforts into things that matter and with people that matter to you. Making money but being miserable is rarely a long term method of success, and the resulting things that end up cluttering your life may very well prove to not be worth it in the end.

Third, establish a balance between your professional and personal lives that you can sustain for five or ten years. I remember when I was younger I thought I’d love to be a clinical psychologist, since I love talking with people and analyzing things. I gave up that pursuit because the idea of a bachelors degree, then a Masters Degree, then various internships and externships, and the notion that I wouldn’t really be doing any work until I was 30 turned me off to the whole thing. What happened was that I fell victim to the idea of “get results quickly” instead of following through with my plan, which would have taken much more time. Today, I have come to see that large scale changes take time to bring to fruition, and they require patience and a lot of very small goals that can be chained together to large scale objectives. Theory is great, but you have to make time to put some doing in so that you can get good at the thing you ultimately want to do.

Fourth, remember the three Ps: priorities, planning, and participation. We can’t do it all, at least not all simultaneously and hope to be stellar in all areas. There just isn’t enough time. There is no shortage of important things that we all can and should be doing with out time and our resources, but we have to come to our own conclusions about what is most important to us. Many have asked me how I became successful at Scouting, and the answer is, I don’t really know if I am successful, but it doesn’t really matter; I do it because I love it! When you love something and you are willing to put your all into it, opportunities abound. It’s not because I had opportunities handed to me, but it was because I enjoyed doing scouting so much that I was willing to jump into new avenues and try new things, even if they scared the living daylights out of other people (LOL!). For me, my ability to give back to my community and the net generation is ultimately what drives me. I get my sense of joy out of watching kids learn, seeing them smile when they prove that they have mastered certain skills, and then can grow up to be productive, moral and ethical stewards of their worlds. In a nutshell, that is what I am passionate about, and that’s where I choose to put my emphasis. At the same time, I enjoy doing what I do for a living, and realize that, if I want to reach higher in that area, I need to apply the same level of focus and attitude as I do to those areas, too.

So for those out there who are hearing this “New Normal” for the first time, or you have anxiety about it, I encourage embracing it, and growing with it, and doing all you can to align with it rather than fight against it or wait for a return to “the good old days”... because there’s really no such thing as “The Good Old Days” coming back, just a never ending and moderately changing sequence of “New Normals” that we will all face as time goes on. I’m looking forward to embracing and working with those times when they get here, for better or worse. How about you :)?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Madd Money: Beware the Dangers of "Autopilot Actions"

I'm usually one who is pretty good about certain things when it comes to frugality and focusing on areas where I know I can shave a few bucks here and there. However, there are certain areas where, for some reason, I just go on autopilot. For the record, there are many times when autopilot is awesome, and it's a great thing to do when you are actively trying to save money (setting up automatic deposits into a 401(K) account or an IRA or 529 plan should be the normal course of action for most people; this way, there's never a guess as to whether or not you remembered to make a payment or deposit, it just happens). However, there are times when spending money that you can really make some boneheaded decisions, and it doesn't even dawn on you until after you finish with it.

Case in point, this weekend I finally got off my duff and went to get my oil changed in my car. Generally speaking, this is not a job I do on my own. Could I? Yes. Do I want to actually put in the time to do it? No. Hence, I will usually pay someone to do this for me. I follow my owner's manual's schedule of oil changes, which calls for every 5,000 miles. At the rate that I currently drive, it takes me close to a year to drive 5,000 miles. Most of my life revolves around driving to BART and back most days, plus we have the minivan for our generally extended family excursions; my car sees more mileage during the winter months and for scout camp, but other than that, it doesn't really get driven very far.

On Saturday Morning, I went int and decided, I just want to get a standard oil change, no extras, no frills, just the basics. However, while I was doing this, I was asked, "OK, do you want to go with what you have been using previously?" Well, of course, why wouldn't I? We ticked off the list for all of the things that were optional and I answered "no" to all of them. Finally we rang up the estimate, and the estimate was $65. Really?! Wow, that seemed high, but then again, it had been almost a year since I last changed it. We were already there, they had prepped the car, and I figured it might well be in line with what oil changes cost right now. Besides, I felt it was more of a hassle to close up everything and look elsewhere than to just get it done. Less than half an hour later, I was out the door, and for the moment, feeling glad I'd gotten it done.

When I got home, I put the receipt on the counter, as I usually do and started going about some morning details around the house... until I heard a sharp "Whoah! You spent *how much* to get an oil change?!" For those astute readers, that "whoa!" came courtesy of Christina. She was not at all happy about this, and she showed me a bunch of coupons she had for oil changes... none of which were for any areas near us (yeah, I'm justifying... more on that in a minute :) ), but as I was looking at these coupons, my heart sank. Did I really just pay a 100% premium over these other places? Could that honestly be right? And if so, what made that difference and why?

About a half an hour later, I got a call from Christina... she went down to ask the place where I'd gotten the work done why in the world an oil change would cost so much. What in the world did I buy?! This was where the revelation part came out, and where I whistled under my breath, got a little mad and testy, but deep down, knew that Christina was right... I violated a basic rule of personal finance, and did it just because I was in that spur of the moment and figuring, "sure, let's just go with what we've always done". In this case, what I had always done was get the top of the line synthetic oil for my car... oil that until yesterday, I had not realized carried close to a 200% premium over standard oil.

Now, granted, the whole reason that I got this oil was because of my frequent very short trips, and the idea I wouldn't be changing it again for another year of 5000 miles, whichever came first (and the last few years, it's been a toss up). Perhaps, if I had considered all that, I would have gone with my original choice, saying "well, since I drive a lot of very short hop trips, and since the car doesn't hit 5000 miles many years, is $70 too much to pay for what amounts to an annual oil change. Problem was, I didn't even do that level of due diligence, I just accepted that that was the way it was and (shrug!) OK, I guess we'll just do it. Looking to see that I could have had the same service done for anywhere from $30-45 less struck home, though. What's more, I probably could have saved at least $30 just by picking a different grade of oil.

Thus, I'm sharing this less for this weekend. There are moments that are emergencies, and in those times, paying for a particular service at a particular rate is just the way things go. At other times, though, it pays swell to do a little research and see who is offering what, and for how much and what that entails. While I saved a little time, I would gladly have given up an hour's extra time to have saved $45. Thus I now have to chalk this up to the "well, make sure to remember this this time... and as an added reminder, I will be printing out this blog post and putting it into my car's owners manual, right next to the next service milestone (65000 miles... not too bad for a 9 year old car ;) ), so that I do not just jump in and do what I've always done. Being alert, awake and active is a much better choice... and hey, it could save considerable money. Even if it doesn't, it helps to know why you are paying what you are paying and for what... at least that way, you can answer *why* you chose something and at least have a plausible explanation. In any event, even this old dog can learn some new tricks.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Thoughts: Orson Scott Card and Humor in Marriage

As many of you may know, I'm a big fan of Orson Scott Card. I can't say I enjoy everything he writes, but more times than not, his books grab me and keep my attention and are memorable long after I have read them (one of my all time favorite books is Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus).

"Scott" also has other outlets for his writing (his column "Uncle Orson Reviews Everything" is considered required reading regularly by yours truly), and he also supports and hosts a gathering and community at nauvoo.com for Latter-day Saints (a place where I have met many cool friends and several of their blogs can be seen on my blogroll if you are interested :), and if you do decide to stop by and read, any posts by a guy named "boardmadd"... yeah, that's me (LOL!) ).

Back in September 2008, Scott started writing a weekly column for the site "Mormon Times" (published by Deseret News) and his column is called "Orson Scott Card: In The Village". His most recent article, "Marriage needs lots of humor" was published on Thursday, Jun. 18, 2009, and I feel compelled to share it with others :).

I greatly enjoyed reading this article and thought about the many ways that Christina and I have shared humor in our marriage over the years. At times, we can both be very serious and earnest, but we can also be a pair of Grade-A goofs when we feel like it. We both love to laugh, and we both love to do things that get both of us smiling and acting silly, and like Scott, we have out own phrases and demeanors that have carried on for *years* now, most of which are total mysteries to our friends.

One of the long running "gags" of ours is the phrase "Would you kill Billy Madison?!" and the languid, hateful answer of "Yes!", usually followed by laughs, and invariably followed by people staring at us, thinking we've lost our minds. It helps to understand where this comes from, and when we say it. Back in 1995, Adam sandler made a silly movie called "Billy Madison" and there were a number of commercials made for this movie. One of them was "Adam Sandler interviewing a Serial Killer". He asked a bunch of questions about the moviegoing experience, all of which were answered with a "yes" (would you buy popcorn? Would you sit in the balcony? would you buy a soda?, etc.)... a long list of "yes" questions. Finally, the punchline question was "Would you *kill* Billy Madison?", followed by a pause, and a psychotic "yes". the first time we heard this together, we just cracked up laughing.

Some time later, we both were having a conversation with friends, and someone was asking a bunch of questions where it seemed all the answers were "yes". At that point, I looked at Christina and said... "would you *kill* Billy Madison"... and she did the psycho "yes" answer... and we both started laughing hysterically. It's almost scary to think that this has been a running gag between us for close to 14 years, but to this day, any time we find we are in one of those discussions where ever questions seems to require a "yes" answer, it's a good bet that "will you kill Billy Madison" will get asked, usuallyto the complete bafflement of the other people in the conversation :).

There are times to be serious, and there are times to be silly, and I'm grateful for having opportunities to be both. What's more, I'm very grateful for the love of an eternal companion that just plain "gets me", occassional goofball silliness and all. Seriously, it makes life fun :).

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Madd Money: Changing Cooking Perceptions and Attitudes

For those who know me, you know that I am one who enjoys cooking. I’m not stellar at it, mind you, but I feel pretty good that I know my way around a kitchen. What’s more, I definitely know my way around a campfire kitchen even better.

Several years ago, during the years just after we bought our house, we made a decision to remodel our kitchen and during this process, I insisted on getting a Viking Range. I argued that I wanted a professional grade range and that I wanted to have professional quality gear to go with it. My logic was somewhat sound, in the sense that, if we invested in a stove that was high quality and had a lot of great features, we would be more apt to cook at home and also be more apt to take advantage of such a system for years and decades to come. It seemed like such a great idea, and we had the money in our budget, so why not shoot for the moon?

So here we are 10 years after buying our house and 8 years after doing the remodel… and I have to say, on two accounts, I’m rather disappointed with the Viking. Personally, I love the look, and I think it’s awesome when it works correctly, but there has been an ongoing issue that we have had to fix every few years, and that has been the ignition relay. We’ve replaced it twice now, and we have also had to replace the convection fan motor bearings, two things that should have little to no issues. While that has been a little bit of a frustration to deal with, it pales in comparison with what was a true conceit purchase… the Viking cookware that we bought.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the cookware; it’s very well made, and it’s very sturdy and has performed beautifully, but as I was looking back at the cost of getting additional items, I though “you have got to be KIDDING me!!!” A single stock pot costs $300?! Why in the world did we buy this? Honestly, I know the answer, and it was for the same reason that we bought the Viking range… I knew the name, and I knew that they were synonymous with “high quality: and “professional grade results”. Add to that, we allocated a set amount to our kitchen remodel and update. The cookware update went with that, and we figured, hey, why not?!

The irony of this is that I have been working with my scout troop the past few years with regards to cooking, especially with camp Dutch Ovens and kitchen Dutch ovens and other cast iron cooking tools. The prime maker of these items is a company called Lodge. They have been around now for 125 years or so, and I was impressed to see that many of their original pieces made when their foundry was first opened are still being used by families and cooking enthusiasts today. Could you imagine using a pot or a frying pan 125 years after it was made?! I thought that was incredible, so I decided to experiment with some meals and the way that I made them. I came to the conclusion that I enjoyed cooking with, and I feel I got better results, cooking with my black cast iron cookware than I did with all of the high tech Viking stuff. The Viking stuff is gorgeous, to be sure, and the Lodge cookware doesn’t look as spiffy (though I admit that I am a fan of the black cast iron look :) ), but when it comes down to performance, evenness of cooking, and the ability to retain the dishes warmth through an entire meal, Lodge wins hands down. What’s more, I would never think to take the Viking stuff camping, but I’d grap the Lodge pieces in a heartbeat. The real clincher? Many of the Lodge items are much less expensive!

This does not mean that I am going to go out and throw away my Viking cookware. No way, this is good quality stuff and it does a good job where I need it to, but I’ve decided that, going forward, I’m probably going to see more black cast iron in my future (LOL!).

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ego Over Matter: It’s ON!!!!

This is the running joke at work. Everyone knows that, when the multiple bags of Kroger’s Mixed Vegetables in various arrays start taking up a fair chunk of the work freezer, that Michael is “Getting Serious” (LOL!).

For those who have missed my last two summer transforms, here’s the deal. I pride myself on being an active and focused Scoutmaster, so I make a goal to “make weight” for Scout Camp every year (pshaw, and you all thought this was about my upcoming show… well, OK, yeah, it is, but camp happens before then and that’s the time I’m aiming to “make weight” for :) ). The reasons for this are many fold; first, I want to have enough energy to chase my little camp rats around and let them know that they can’t outrun me. If they go over the line, I will hunt them down (LOL!). Second, there’s a lot of walking from place to place in camp. That walking is a lot more comfortable if you don’t have to lug around a bunch of extra pounds. Third (and one of the more compelling reasons, I’m discovering) is that, since Summer Camp is in August and it’s *HOT* where we go, less adipose tissue == less insulation == less overall feeling of being hot! Seriously, that goes a *long* way with me.

Thus, recently, I went and I picked up 9 bags of Kroger Mixed vegetables in various varieties (for those who are previous readers, I walk up and over Nob Hill to go to Bell Market on California and Hyde St for my little shopping trips). I particularly like this market because they often have their $0.99 per package sales. That’s the equivalent of getting 30 pounds of food for about 15 bucks, not bad at all :). I rotate through the mixes each day, usually dousing them mercilessly with Tapatio Hot Sauce (I always go into spice overload any time I aim to make weight; maybe it’s psychological (shrug!) ).

Anyway, it’s already starting at work, people are opening the freezer…

“What in the… who loaded up the freezer?!”
“What is all this? Does anyone actually eat this stuff?!”
“Wait a minute… is Michael in attack mode again?!! (LOL!)”

Yes, much as I hate to say it, my reputation precedes me :). In any event, I have approximately six weeks in which to “make weight” and to that effect, my exercise and eating have been “kicked up several notches”. Of course I want to look good for the show, but that’s pure vanity. Not being able to fully enjoy camp? Now *that’s* torture, and one I have no intention of going through if I can avoid it!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Rock Meets Red Road

A few days ago, I made comments about the fact that I wanted to make a stage outfit for our upcoming gig that had some unique qualities to it. I wanted to be more of a reflection of who I am today and where my head is at now rather than try to recreate who I was back in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

Let’s face it, I’m not 21 anymore, and I’m not the same rail thin, long haired, pretty boy that I used to be (look, the “pretty” part is entirely subjective, but I heard it enough from enough people back then that I’m prone to believe it (LOL!). Add to the fact that Mother Nature has seen fit to not bestow much in the way of genetic gifts in the tonsorial department (that’s a long winded way of saying there’s a reason I shave my head today :) ). So how can I pay homage to their former glam rock past, while firmly acknowledging that I am now 41, above the 200 pound mark, and significantly less pretty than I was once upon a time? One adapts and plays up what they are about today, that’s how.

I’m not going to unveil anything too soon, but suffice it to say that I have decided I will be sort of an amalgamation of Johnny Cash, Los Lobos and R.Carlos Nakai (well, I won’t be playing a cedar flute or anything, but yes, there will certainly be “red road” influence to my look.

Those who have known me through the years have known that I have always had a strong affinity with Native American culture, music, dance and clothing. Therefore, it should be absolutely no surprise to anyone that I am planning to work that into what I wear on stage. I’ve closed out a few options by finding an awesome shirt and I have some extra items I will definitely wear, such as my long standing turquoise and silver necklace. The rest, I’m still looking into and trying to decide how I want to go about doing this. I’m currently on the lookout for a tight pair of black jeans (I’m too old to wear leather pants; that’s just trying way too hard at my age (LOL!) ), and I’d love to score a used pair of motorcycle style square toed boots. The big debate, and the one Christina is most curious to see what I’m going to do, centers around two questions:

1. Will I wear makeup again (leaning towards no at the moment, but I might change my mind on that)
2. Will I wear my earrings again for the show (this one I’m a little unsure about. Part of me says why wear them since I don’t wear them now, but another part of me says they were a big part of my “rock & roll” look back in the day, so I might as well bring them out for this show. I’ve had several people tell me I should, no one suggest I shouldn’t, and honestly, I’m not sure at this moment though if I go significantly Red Road, then yes, I will wear the earrings to bring out the rest of the look.

8 ½ weeks until showtime… I’m getting exited, anxious and nervous, all at the same time. Regardless of what I ultimately wear, what’s important is how well the show goes. IF we have a lousy show, no one’s going to remember or care what I wore, just that we didn’t deliver on our promise. If we hit the ball out of the part, well, then having a memorable outfit is definitely a plus ;).

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Scoutmaster Mike: Planning for the "Silent Camp Out"

Our Troop is currently in the process of planning a unique little adventure. It’s called a “Silent Camp Out” and it is basically my son Nick’s idea.

A few weeks ago, we were driving up to Point Reyes and back, and Nick was looking through one of my books (Footsteps of the Founder, a book that is filled with quotes and comments from Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of Scouting in the United Kingdom. One of the quotes that Nick commented on was Baden-Powell’s idea of holding a silent camp out, and how we should do something like it.

The idea of the silent camp out is that the Troop goes somewhere that is not too difficult to get to or set up in, and there are two camp areas set, both in sight of each other and close proximity. One camping area is for the adult leaders, and the other camping area is for the scouts. Both camps must be wholly self sufficient; cooking utensils, food, tents, sleeping bags, fire rings, etc, all need to be maintained in their separate areas. What’s more, the adult leaders are officially not allowed to talk to or make comments about what the boys in the Patrol are doing. They can intervene when safety is at issue, or it is absolutely necessary to do so, but otherwise they are to take a “bee seen and not heard” role.

The purpose for this type of outing is to show the boys what their teamwork and skill level really is if they were totally left to their own devices; no adult help would be forthcoming unless it was absolutely necessary. If the kids didn’t pack something and it wasn’t dangerous, they would do with out it. That went for food, sleeping bags, tents, clothes, what have you. The adults are free to hang with themselves and talk amongst themselves, but they are not free to comment directly to the boys. If there is any feedback about the event, it is to be handled after the camp out and then only at the next Troop meeting.

My hope with this is that we will have the ability to see the boys step up and really lead each other. More so, it’s my hope that I will have the will power to actually keep my mouth shut for the entire campout (at least as pertains to the boys and what they are doing :) ). This could be an awesome experience, or it could be a nightmare. It just might be both (LOL!). Anyway, we are going to be embarking on this grand experiment on June 26, 2009. I’ll definitely let y’all know how it turns out ;).

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ego Over Matter: The Games We Play To Get Motivated

As I’ve said in previous posts, the mind sometimes needs to have a break in its routine, or something to tweak or distract it, so that our long term goals can be met and managed. While the drastic may be effective in the short term, it’s rarely effective in the long run. Humans are creatures that like comfortable habits, and if we are too strict in certain areas for a targeted amount of time, it can be really difficult to stay motivated and hold the line.

Weight does not come on all at one, though I do think that, if you have been heavy before, and you lose weight, it’s much easier to drift back to that point again. This may be a weird analogy, but I look at the human body the same way I do a thick latex balloon. When the balloon is fresh, it can take effort to blow into the balloon and expand it. Let the air out and then attempt to fill it with air again, it takes a lot less pressure from your breath to fill the balloon again. This analogy is similar to how the human body reacts when a person slows down their activity or when a person increases caloric intake, even if just a little bit on either end (and of course more pronounced if both sides of the equations are modified in the same direction).

Identifying why and where these strange little tweaks of life take place can be very telling. One of the biggest where I work is the copious amounts of snack food that are available. As a Q.A> Engineer, I tend to deal with work that can be interesting and exciting at times (and really, I do enjoy what I do for a living and strive to improve my effectiveness at it), but sometimes I have to deal with the tedious and monotonous (hey, it happens). The periods where I need to deal with the tedious and monotonous are my body’s biggest enemy; the reason is that I get restless, and then I get up and page, and then I need to walk around, which brings me ever closer to the break room and the potpourri of chips, nuts, crackers, chocolate, candy and any number of other things. By the end of the day, I can easily have added 1,000 more calories than I needed for that day, and have no way of accounting for it (well, no actually, it’s easy to account for it… it went from the cupboard to a bowl to my hand to my mouth… tada!!!). What I mean is that those are mindless calories, often consumed with no purpose other than “it was there”.

SO how does one effectively blunt these feelings and deal around situations like this during the day? Well, it would be awesome if I could just dump all of the tedious and repetitive tasks I need to do and forget about them permanently, but that is not practical. What’s one to do while they are dealing with sysprep and making virtual machines, or walking through a programs logic paths over and over and over? My current strategy is based around copious amounts of herbal tea, water and sugarless gum… and I mean a *LOT* of sugarless gum (LOL!).Right now, each and every work morning I start with a simple, lower calorie breakfast, and then as soon as I get to work, I rotate and add the five or so chewing gum packs that I have sitting on my desk (for those who care, I’m a big fan of trident Twist flavors and as many packs of different flavored “5” gum that I can find. Add to that about a half gallon of water a day hat has been steeped with various herbal teas (Good Earth’s Spicy Sweet Tea is still my favorite… the lemongrass, ginger and cinnamon kick one’s butt along with the flavor of the roobios bush :) ). Repeat throughout the day, sticking to a low calorie meal around the middle of the day, and then coming home to dinner at 6:00 PM… and then no more after that, if feasible.

So how is this working for me? So far, pretty well. I must confess that I’m not dropping like 10 pounds a week, but then I do not expect to, nor do I really want to. Having learned from rapid weight losses in the past, the “natural man” likes his creature comforts, and when the goal is set, and the desire to train and diet give way, the “natural man” and his desire to be comfortable at all costs roars back into life. My change isn’t meant to be radical, merely to bring awareness to something I’m currently doing all the time… chewing gum until the flavor runs out and the stacking another flavor in. Same goes with the herbal tea; I’m rotating as many flavors during the day as I can. While it doesn’t stop me from eating (and frankly, I don’t want it to *stop* me from eating), it blunts the desire to get up and graze during those inevitable periods of “brain tired, must get munchies to keep going”. Now when I hit that point, I make it a point to take a walk *outside*, which has proven to be all sorts of awesome and helpful (LOL!).

Thus my point for this missive is that, occasionally, a gimmick can break you out of complacent habit, and it can give you a shot in the arm to try another approach. With our show coming up in ten weeks, this is *exactly* the shot in the arm I need right now (LOL!).

Monday, June 15, 2009

Kids Play, Clean Water Is Distributed: Wanna’ Know More?

This month, the President of my company and his wife celebrated their birthdays and wedding anniversary in close proximity (not as close as Christina and I, but not too far away, either :) ). Many of the people in our office decided to make a contribution to a cause that they both care about and want to see grow. Since I also think it’s really cool, I’d like to share it with anyone who reads this blog, too.

PlayPumps provides clean water access to children and families in need in various parts of Africa. The PlayPump systems are innovative, sustainable, patented water pumps powered by children at play. The pumps are installed near schools and double as a water pumps and as merry-go-rounds for children.

The idea is that children, while they are playing in their schoolyard or playground, actively pump water to a receiving tank, where it is stored and then distributed to points where residents can get access to it. In many parts of sub Saharan Africa, water is truly one of the most precious resources around, and being able to drink and wash with clean water is a huge factor in contributing to a better quality of life for many people.

$300 is enough to give a classroom in Malawi playground equipment and clean water for drinking and hand washing.

For more info go to: http://www.playpumps.org.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Eleven Ways Christina Makes My Life Awesome :)

Anyone who knows me knows I am a total goober when it comes to my wife, Christina. I make no bones about the fact that I am crazy about her and that she does so much to make my life fantastic. Is it always picture perfect? Of course not, but then, nothing in life ever is, and wouldn't life be horribly boring if it was? We are two dynamic people and we work together to build a life and a family (and I do emphasize “work”; these things don’t happen all by themselves, they require effort from both sides to make for a happy and healthy marriage).

This post is a total rip-off from Trent Hamm, the author of “the Simple Dollar”. He posted this first, and indeed, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Trent, consider yourself *WAY* flattered (LOL!)

Anyway, here are Eleven Ways that Christina helps us (and me) reach ever forward and upward…

She listens to me. Realize this in and of itself is no small feat, I tend to be a rather wordy fellow. Still, she listens to what my thoughts are, my crazy musings about some thing or another, and she is willing to and able to offer constructive feedback. Christina is in no way a rubber stamp on my opinions or thoughts, but she does help me look at other avenues I may have not considered.

She rarely holds onto anger. In the event that things do get heated, we both have the attitude that, no matter what the misgiving, or the issue, if the voices get raised or if argument ensues, she is able to stop it and get us back to dealing with the important issue. I greatly appreciate this, and I try to reciprocate as much as I can.

She takes care of things when I am not or cannot be around. Whether it be work, or Scouts or some other thing I’m involved in, Christina can be counted on to hold down the fort or help me in whatever is needed, so long as she can do anything about it.

She barters for time. This is the flip side of the last item… if she wants time away or wants to go spend time with friends, we make an equitable split so that we can go and do the things that we like to do or need to do. I like the fact that we do this instead of letting resentments build up over one person doing things while the other isn’t.

She’s a total goof, in the best possible ways. Christina likes to crack corny jokes, and she’ll crack up over the silliest things at times. Sometimes I roll my eyes, sometimes I play along, sometimes I’m the instigator of it all, but all of the time, I appreciate this fact about her :).

She’s the Co-CFO for our family. We share a lot in this department and we work together to make sure that we are living within our means and that we stay committed to a life with no debt. Christina’s a superstar at the day to day details; she commits to making sure that we come out a little bit ahead each month, which lately has taken some considerable precision and deft execution in the past few months. She’s able to be realistic about what we can and cannot do, and often seeks to find ways that we can get better in many areas. To that, I am given the long view, and my job is to make sure that retirement, education, missions, emergency funds and opportunity funds are being balanced appropriately and meet our overall objectives. Each month we share where we are at, if we have made progress, and look to see if everything is where we expect it to be, and if not, we work together to make a game plan for where we need to go next.

She is fiercely protective of our kids. It’s cute to see Christina’s reaction when one of the kids has had a bad day, or if someone is treating one of the kids in a mean or unfair manner. She’s like a wolf in that, and she’ll often leap to that child’s defense and Heaven help the person on the receiving end (many times this is rhetorical if it’s a child or a person outside our four walls, as it only gets discussed with me and the kids, but you don’t doubt for a second, if the situation warranted it, that she would not pull punches if she had to directly confront a person or an issue).

She encourages me to do the things that matter to me, but reels me in if I overextend. Christina knows that I am afflicted with “Helium Hand Syndrome”. Often when there is a nee for volunteers, or there are activities that need assistance or help, I’m the first to step (make that “dive”) in and get involved. She encourages me to do the things that matter to me, but at the same time, she’s also there with the reality expectations; reminding me that “there are only 24 hours in a day, 7 days in a week, 30 odd days in a month and 12 months in a year”. Sometimes I have to pull back from the brink of commitments if they will overrun me. She knows when that potential exists, usually far more often than I do.

She likes to spend as much time with the kids as possible, and is genuinely their friend. I think I can safely say that all three of our kids have an awesome relationship with Christina, and that they view her as a confidant and friend as well as Mom. Christina knows the difference between being a friend and being a “pal”, and to that end she is definitely not the kid’s “pal”; she can be blunt and direct when she feels the kids need to hear the truth about something, and she makes sure that the kids know that, while she is their friend, she’s their Mother first, and she rarely loses sight of that.

She met and loved me when I was a pauper, and has been with me through all of the ups and downs. Christina hitched her wagon to the erratic rocket that has been my life, and never once has she backed away or held back. She’s enjoyed the flush and full times, and has weathered the lean and mean times. We met nearly 19 years ago, and she’s been a constant source of love, help and inspiration to me for the vast majority of that time (we took it slow in the beginning :) ).

She doesn’t need extravagance to be happy. Christina will be the first to admit it, but she has simple tastes, and she is generally easy to please and amuse. While she certainly delights in good food, good music, and enjoys traveling and doing fun things, those things are not required for her to be happy. A family walk around our neighborhood with our dog often gets the biggest smiles of a day, or sitting down with our kids to draw pictures, or cut out shaped to make things. She often says she doesn’t need much to smile, and many times when I may feel like we are not getting where we should be as fast as I want to be, she can often be heard saying (about our house, about or kids, and sometimes even about me (LOL!).. “You know what? I love my life!”

These are some of the reasons why I’m glad that a cute, big-haired, rocked-out girl at The Stone nearly 19 years ago stuck her leg out and blocked me from walking through the door, prompting me to have to introduce myself. I’m glad she did, and I’m glad I did, and to steal and modify a line from Butch Walker… “if the last nineteen years could be seen as a bore, the God, please grant me nineteen more”… and nineteen more after that, and… :).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Clothes Make the Person, Whether We Like It Or Not

I’ve come to realize that I have an alternating love/hate relationship with clothes. Not that I mean I don’t like to wear them, I do (it certainly beats the alternative where I live; were I in Tahiti year round we may be having another discussion), but honestly, I go through cycles where I either care a lot about what I wear or I don’t care at all about what I wear.

The reason this topic has been center stage for me over the past few months is two-fold. The first is that my kids are growing up and they are expressing their individuality in ways I’m honestly not that crazy about. Yes, I know this coming from the former glam performer who walked around in pseudo-drag for close to ten years… I get it, I’m a hypocrite (LOL!). Still, try as hard as I might, there is absolutely no denying that you look at people and you react to people based on what they choose to show the world through what they wear. The second is that, I’m actually having to give very focused attention as to what I’m going to wear for something for a change (more on that later ;) ).

This is not to say that I don’t understand the desire to be unique or be one that fits in, or at the very least doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb. Believe me, I lived through a bit of that when I was younger, and I grew to see things on lots of different sides. Case in point; my parents had kids later than many of their generation by comparison (not *lots* later, mind you, but in general, the average American family in the 1960’s had their eldest kid around age 23… my parents, because of just the nature of their chosen careers and how they met, didn’t get married until they were nearly 27 and I was born about two months before my mom’s 28th birthday. Thus, my parents were not part of the baby boom generation as so many of my friends parents were, and their mores and attitudes about style and dress reflected a slightly earlier time and ethos. That came into effect when we were growing up. Long hair was strictly discouraged on boys, and they weren’t too dialed into the whole “California” vibe or look, either (not surprising since my Dad was from Detroit, and my Mom’s reality was steeped in the Italian areas of San Francisco, so again, different reality). Thus, I tended to look odd or out of place when I was younger as compared to many of my friends. Not to say I lived in rags, not at all; my family was pretty well to do, all things considered, but they just had a different attitude about it all.

During my teenage years, when I could have a little more autonomy on how I looked, I definitely strove to find my own style and identity, much of it being cobbled together from different styles as preppy, slash-punk, new wave and some B-Boy thrown in for good measure (Chess King was the “great equalizer” in the 80’s  ). Later on in life, modeling, music, and snowboarding all contributed tremendously to variations in my look, and sometimes extreme variations. The point is, everyone dresses to validate themselves, until the day comes when clothes are no longer relevant to validation.

Somehow, I think I finally stepped into this category sometime around my 35th birthday. Maybe it was the enormity of going back to school, maybe it was just the nature of having three kids get old enough where the focus on them was more important than any focus on me, you name it, but roughly around that time, I came to the realization that I had little time or energy to impress anyone else, and frankly, most people really didn’t care anyway. I think this was also the time I realized that a lot of money went into “keeping up appearances” and that, with being a single wage earner in a family of five (our choice, mind you, not talking badly about that at all), I really needed to evaluate what mattered and what was appropriate for various things and events. Thus, my identity really no longer revolves around what I wear and where I wear it, so long as it’s clean, neat and appropriate attire for the situation.

I admit it, I’m struggling a bit watching my kids care so much about the clothes that they wear and what “image” they project. Maybe it’s just that we finally see things differently when we transcend something; we want others to transcend it, too. While I must admit that some of my son’s clothing choices annoy me a little, none of them fall outside of the standards of the church, and he even makes an effort to not let his hair be a distraction. I’m a bit less hardcore about hair; I figure you really only have your youth to enjoy it, since circumstances surrounding work or genetics will make the choices later in life. I have some very simple rules; no multi-color hair unless nature gives it to you (calico highlights from the sun, fine; colored streaks or fake color, not fine). Hair must be above the collar, and out of his eyes when he’s at church and doing anything church related. That was a request from his Young Men’s President and I make sure he honors it. I leave it up to him to determine how to honor it, otherwise, I don’t mind the bangs in his face look (heck, I had the same haircut in the early 80’s :) ).

My tougher challenge is with my older daughter, Karina. I find it both sad and frustrating that the only clothes she can wear are found in the women’s juniors departments (she’s *ten* for cryin’ out loud) and that the clothing that is offered is mostly borderline scandalous; am I the only dad that does not want to have his daughter looked at as though she’s a streetwalker?! At the same time, I have to be a realist, and work with her (as does her Mom) to fins things that are appropriate and modest enough to wear (this is compounded by the fact that Karina frequently gets confused for being a 16 year old by people, or at least in High School; they tend to do a big double-take when I tell them she’s ten and just completed the 4th grade!). Again, it’s a challenge, but it’s one I realize I have to keep working on, cause Heaven help me, there’s *lots* of people willing to help out in the opposite direction.

This whole post is somewhat ironic in the sense that, over the next several weeks, I will actually be in the process of very targeted clothes shopping… I’ll be appearing on stage for the first time in 17 years! And as such, do you think I’ve given a lot of thought as to what I’ll be wearing? You better believe it (LOL!). See, in this case, I get a pass. I’m not dressing for the everyday, I’m dressing to be an entertainer, and as such, I’m constructing a stage outfit that will be, let’s just say, a bit unique ;). For those who have already seen it… SHHHHHHH!!!!!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Madd Money: Would You Go The Thrift Store Route?

I used to think I was super frugal with clothes; not really flashy, not spending a lot on stuff, looking to get good value at low price whenever possible, but I tended to turn up my nose at the notion of going to a Thrift store or consignment store to buy clothes.

I’m not entirely sure where this attitude came from, or why I developed it, but for some reason it just stuck with me. Shopping at thrift stores was for cheapskates and losers, or it was for seriously overachieving hipsters looking to cash in their street cred by buying the tackiest stuff. This was definitely standard fare when I was in High School in the early to mid 1980’s. The Thrift Store Chic look was huge with a certain circle of people (especially those who tended to worship at the altar of the Paisley Underground… which I did, of course; it was sort of required if you were a fan of the Three O’Clock, Dream Syndicate or The Rain Parade, etc. Still, I think that always colored my impression of what I’d find there).

Earlier in May, I made plans to go out to a club with my band mates and check to see what was going on, and to that end, I wanted to somewhat look the part. Now, I have not really kept up much of a rock and roll wardrobe since I stopped performing, but I figured I might want to get something that at least wouldn’t make me look too much like a Silicon Valley styled nerd (which, lets face it, that’s exactly what I am today (LOL!) ).

I quickly became frustrated when I realized I’d need to spend a fair amount to get an “interesting” enough outfit to my standards... and that’s when it hit me… just for fun, see if you could construct an outfit from stuff at Goodwill! What?! But I don’t shop there! Well, heck, what do I have to lose but perhaps a little time to peruse? So off I went to the Goodwill Store in South San Francisco on El Camino Real.

First, I noticed something... there is a surprising amount of upscale and darn near almost brand new clothing at Goodwill! As I pondered this, I remembered what I did when I lost 50 pounds in 2007… I gave most of my clothes away in celebration. These clothes were also very new and relatively unused, but they just didn’t fit me anymore. I realized that I’m probably not the only one who went through these processes (not to mention on both sides of the spectrum) and thus, there are quite a few items that are practically new. As I was perusing I came across the following finds:

A pair of Gap 1969 black jeans
A super nice collarless long sleeve black shirt by La Strada Pavo.
A pair of Steve Madden “Bosco” boots, barely used
A Wilson Black Leather overcoat, mid thigh length

Were I to go to a store and buy these items new, I could expect to spend over $400. Instead, I got everything for just over $60.00. For the math nerds, that’s like getting those items at 15% off the new, retail price.

Yeah, but dude, their used clothes, and I’m sure they look it… well, just for grins, I decided to put them on and show Christina. She dug the look, especially the jacket (she said it gave me a bald headed Criss Angel look (and yeah, my wife has a thing for Criss Angel... I can’t explain it either (LOL!))). I didn’t share with her where I got them, just to see what she would say. After a bit, she came to ask me “by the way, where did you get the money to pay for those things?” She thought I went retail and got everything new. When I said I got them all from Goodwill, she was a little incredulous at first… I don’t think she believed me (LOL!). That clinched it!

Now do of course be aware that this was a good trip, and it was one where I was looking for a particular effect. One thing I can say about Goodwill is that sizes and merchandise vary considerably. It’s not like a department store where there’s one item in many different sizes. If you find something you like but it doesn’t fit, you’re out of luck for the most part. On the bright side, there are often enough items like it that you can find a good substitute. Your savings can also vary considerably depending on what you get. Shirts and shoes may be anywhere from 50% to 70% less than what you might find in stores. In the case of my boots and jacket, the savings were closer to 90%.

So yeah, I consider this particular outing a success. I picked up durable clothing, some a lot nicer and from brands I don’t normally buy, but I feel confident that they will last a long time, and I still have money in my pocket. Not bad for a half an hour’s perusing ;).

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Eagle Court of Honor

I know this was ten days ago, but I wanted to record for posterity the fact that, On May 30, 2009, Nicholas Larsen received his Eagle scout award, officially (he was designated an Eagle Scout on April 29, 2009 by virtue of completing his Eagle Scout Board of Review).

This was an awesome day, and one I have been wating a long time for. I know that may sound silly, since he's only 12, but really, I've been waiting to pin an Eagle Scout pin on Nick since the day on August 14, 1996, when I heard the words "it's a boy"! Before you think this to be excessive, please remember that on that day, I was the Scoutmaster for Boy Scout Troop 92 in San Francisco, so this line of thinking really isn't all that excessive (LOL!). Add to that the fact that I have been, in one way, shape or form, Nick's Boy Scout leader since the day that he officially became a Tiger Cub on June 1, 2002. So Nick has been a little "fast tracked" in this pursuit, partially by circumstance, and partially by design.

Nick pins the "Eagle Scout Mom" pin on Christina's shirt.

For some, the idea of becoming an Eagle Scout is a daunting experience. For Nick, it's been a daily expectation. He's been a scout now for about 60% of his life :). that's not to take away from the fact that this is still a big achievement for any young man, whether he earns it at 12, 14, 16 or just shy of 18.

A Dad and Son Moment (yeah, Dad's big time proud :) )

I am happy that Nick decided to take on the challenge when he was young, and I am also happy that he has decided to continue with Scouting and wants to go into Venturing and earn the Bronze, Gold, Ranger and Silver awards. I'm hoping to be there every step of the way with him.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For the Love of (Dan) Carlin

OK, I confess, I’m a History Geek. I love history, I love reading about history, I have many different eras and areas that fascinate me. I’m a longtime geek of Ancient History as it relates to Egypt, Greece, Anatolia, Meso-America, India and Celtic Britain (in no particular order), and thus I’m a fan of books, publications and media that talk about those things. I can now add to that a podcast that, not only do I enjoy, but I’ve even committed to buying and owning the episodes, because I love listening to them again and again and again. That podcast is “Hardcore History” and it is produced and narrated by Dan Carlin.

For those of you who have followed my blog or other comments in other areas, you may already know that I’m a fan of Dan Carlin’s, especially when it comes to his political commentary (his other podcast called “Common Sense” is best described as “an independent’s non-partisan view by way of Mars”). Over the past several years, I’ve grown seriously weary of partisan bickering between Dems and GOP, so I enjoy Dan Carlin’s commentary because he doesn’t pretend to be on any one side. He calls a spade a spade and does so without any party affiliation. If he thinks Republicans are doing something praiseworthy, he says so. If he thinks Democrats are being idiots, he says so, and vice versa. His point is that he’s a fan of the political process and of the Constitution, and that is what drives his shows and his commentary. I don’t always agree with him, but he brings interesting stuff to the table.

It’s this same intensity and drive as a “fan of history” that makes his Hardcore History podcast so interesting and appealing to me. Dan makes no bones about the fact that he is not a historian, he is a fan of history. Because of that, he can go into places a historian likely wouldn’t go. He is willing and able to dissect history’s wild bits in a way that brings it to life, and in a way that is both deeply engaging and very entertaining (his delivery has been described as “William Shatner on crack” (LOL!) ). But the real power of his program is that he takes topics that could conceivably be dull and lifeless and fills them with so much life that you can’t wait for the next episode. Example: he did a three part series on the Punic Wars, each program averaging an hour in length. To some, I’m sure the thought of hearing a three hour monologue on the causes, effects, and aftermath of the Punic Wars would be a snooze-fest. Not in Dan Carlin’s hands! He made it so that I wanted to hear each episode without interruptions, and then I could not wait for the next one to be available. As of this writing, his latest topic is “Ghosts on the Ostfront, Part 1” and it deals with the ramifications and developments surrounding “Operation Barbarossa”, Hitler’s army attacking Russia during the Second World War, and all of the details that surround it. Check it out, it makes for fascinating listening.

Dan’s not content to just ramble; he also posts his references and encourages others to read and learn from them as well. I find this to be incredibly valuable, as it allows me to also see things that I may not have ever seen before, and learn from sources I hadn’t considered.

So for those who have a similar “geek streak” like mine, give some time to check out Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History” and if you like it, give him some love by dropping $1.00 for each episode you listen to and enjoy… as his outro line says “A buck a show… it’s all we ask!” :).

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

When Gaming Gets Out of Hand (LOL!)

So I’ve finished a grand quest, and it’s one that, upon reflection, probably took me way too much time or exposed way too many of my tendencies. What could this be? Was it some grand Scouting project? No, but I did complete two weekends of Wood Badge training which were a blast an I did host my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. Was it some amazing home project? Well, I did do some weeding and restructuring of our backyard, and I did replant an apricot tree that I think is finally ready to survive in the big boxes in the back and thrive (knock on wood). No, the activity I’m referring to is one that, on the average, took two hours out of every day for 70 days. I completed “Suikoden: Tierkreis”.

Now, before people look at me and wonder “dude, you did what?!”, it helps to understand a little bit about how I am wired and what engages me. Many people love to joke that I’m the epitome of “short attention span theatre” but that’s not entirely true. In fact, I can point to many times in my life when I have been “bitten” by something and that bite has driven me to make huge investments of time and interest in something. I know this about myself, and my family knows this about me, too. When I become fascinated with something, it tends to become all encompassing and all-consuming. I’m not content to be a dilettante; I want to do everything, learn everything and know everything about a topic. When it comes to camping, I want to explore every scenario and try out every experience. When I discover a series of hikes, I want to do every one of them. When I was asked to advise the Order of the Arrow Dance Team, I went headlong into learning how to make the clothes and create the outfit, learn the songs, and help the kids present the material. I wish I could better control this particular aspect of my brain, as it would be incredibly helpful if I could actually apply it to other areas of my life, but alas, it’s highly selective… I don’t know I’ve been “bit” until it happens.

“Suikoden: Tierkreis” is the first game I have played in awhile that has had that effect, and I think I realize why. There’s something about the RPG experience that just gets me, especially when there’s an interesting story that surrounds a lot of characters. And in the Suikoden universe, you are guaranteed to meet a lot of interesting characters. For those who have never heard of Suikoden, it’s the RPG franchise of the company I used to work for, Konami. Many different game companies have long running RPG franchises, Square Enix has Final Fantasy (another of my favorites). Atlus has Shin Megami Tensei (again, another of my favorites). You can add many other companies and games to this list as well, and Konami’s flagship RPG series is Suikoden. Suikoden is a series of games that in format in structure are all similar to the Chinese classic Shui Hu Zhuan (水滸傳), a story that was written in China in the 13th or 14th century. The core of all of the stories is the banding together of “108 Stars of Destiny”. In other words, while much of the gameplay revolves around standard RPG fare of quests, battles, story development and area discovery, the biggest aspect of the game, and for someone like me, the most entertaining, is the actual recruiting of all 108 Stars of Destiny (in this version of the game, they are called “Starbearers”). The same idea though is in each game, that the 108 characters band together for the cause of a righteous goal or purpose.

The first time I played the game, I made it through to the final level, and realized that I only recruited 78 total members. I restarted the game after 70 hours of play and this time, I went with a GameFAQs guide to make sure that I was able to find all of them. I was very happy to have done this the second time, because while many of the characters are obvious, there’s a lot of them that are not, and can be missed if you don’t have the right combination of people in your party or other story elements in place. While it’s possible to complete a Suikoden game satisfactorily without recruiting all of the characters, for me, that’s kind of the whole point (LOL!). On Sunday, I completed the second play through with 100% completion, and all 108 Stars of Destiny recruited. Total game time the second go round, 70 hours, which meant I’d put in 140 hours of total play time in two months, or on average, two hours each day.

On one hand, I feel happy that I beat and completed the game. I definitely feel like I got my money’s worth out of the title (at $35 retail value, 140 hours of game play translates to $0.25 per hour… pretty cheap entertainment, if you ask me). Most of my play time was done on the train to and from work during this time, so it really averaged about an hour outside of my commute times. Still that’s a fairly large chunk of time, no matter how one looks at it. What could be done in 140 hours? By comparison that’s the equivalent of 3 ½ weeks work time using 8 hour days as the comparison. Did I figure I would spend this much time? Yes, but I figured it would be spread out over 3 or 4 months. Instead, my brain clicked in a way with it that made me want to complete it much faster (well, faster is a relative term, in my case it meant I was willing to spend more time with it). Thus some early mornings, late nights, and commute times all went into this “quest” of mine. What could I have done otherwise? It’s pretty obvious that I could have easily written 140 blog posts in that time (don’t get me wrong, I’m not sure anyone would want to be subjected to 140 blog posts by me in 10 weeks, but I’m just putting that out there ;) ). I could have been much farther along in my study of Japanese. There’s many other projects that I worked through that could have had more attention and more focus has I not spent so much time on this.

Understand, I’m not complaining, but I am highlighting a factor about me and how my head works. I understand it (somewhat) and I am not saying I felt like I wasted my time playing this game. It was fun, it was engrossing, and in many ways it gave my brain some great exercise in problem solving and vicarious adventure. Still, at the end of the day, it’s a game, nothing more and nothing less. While I’ve enjoyed playing it, and perhaps it may give me some additional insights into solving future puzzles in future games, it’s not going to ultimately give me a leg up on life… well, even there, that’s not entirely true, because if playing the game put me in a better and more focused mood after completion, then perhaps, yes, it did serve its purpose, even if that purpose is to remind myself that “playtime is over” and there’s a bunch of stuff I need to do… that is, until the next game comes along ;).