Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Needles and the Damage Done

I was ever so hopeful that i would just be able to go into Kaiser and have them print out a nice little manifest to show that I had all of my immunizations and that they were up to date... but no such luck! turns out there are a number of immunization records that have not been recorded for me, and a few that I have not determined immunity for.

so today, what I had hoped would be a fifteen minute in and out for paperwork became a three hour circuit where I got tested, gave blood, and got screened to determine that I needed at least two shots and possibly more. I received my tetanus booster cocktail today (felt like getting gasoline pumped into my arm, ouch!) and I also received my first of three Hepatitis A and B vaccinations. I will need to do a TB test when I come back from scout camp, and *then* I should be all caught up.

Sheesh, the things I do to be a good example to my Scouts (LOL!).

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: Paper by the Pounds

This is one of the most aggravating aspects of my reality; try as I might, paper always seems to find me. What's worse, it always seems to accumulate. Much of the time, the paper that accumulates is not of a high enough importance to actually keep it, but I get terrified when I try to decide if I should throw it away.

I woke up early this morning to try to get through what has amounted to reams and reams worth of paper related to certain areas of my life. There are household papers (receipts, warranties, manuals), there are mortgage papers (which we have paid off, but we need to keep a while longer just in case), there are financial papers (account statements, balances, accounts that no longer exist), tax papers (going back as long as Christina and I have been married, and I would really like to purge some of these years), and yes, the most egregious bulk of papers consuming my existence, Scouting papers. In fact, my Scouting paper is approximately 60% of the stuff I have accumulated, most of which is not relevant at this stage anyway (most of the papers are flyers related to events and activities with a moderate but not indefinite shelf life). I had hoped I would make a decent dent, but I was not completely successful. I did manage to vacate my office of all superfluous paper, but in the end, all I really did was bring it down to the garage and downsize it a little bit (There is so much more I still need to do).

Today, though, I have prepared myself for what shall be a merciless battle. Granted, all of the paper and items are in the garage, but that gives me one tremendous advantage... it's all in one place now! IN anticipation of this, I have hooked up the shredder, gotten out the multiple page protectors and clear cover binders, and tonight will be a massacre of unparalleled proportions. In short, I will not set foot into my house until the paper monster is drawn, quartered, beheaded, and the items in question given their due place:

1. Home papers in the filing cabinet in the appropriate slots.
2. Financial papers in their appropriate folders.
3. Tax papers in their associated binders (and likewise in the filing cabinet)
4. All Scout related paperwork put into binders and (gasp!) put into our Chartered Organizations Scout Closet!!!

Do I believe this will be a once and for all victory? Of course not, but I do believe, if I really approach this with the necessary effort, that it will go a long way towards resolving this issue. It will of course take diligent effort to stay on top of this, and make sure that it doesn't creep back up on me again.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Madd Money: Peninsula Library System and Safari Books Online

One of the things that has made 2008 and 2009 memorable for me is the fact that I made a conscientious decision to not buy new books, and to use the public library as often as possible to read, learn and discover things. One area that I have found to be mildly frustrating has been the area of technical books for Computer Science. In many cases, the books that I am most interested in (or need to be most interested in) are the newer ones, and in many cases, the Public Library doesn't have many of those yet.

What's more, not every technical book is created equal. I freely admit to being a fan of the O' Reilly book line. O' Reilly is probably best known for the old style wood block prints of various animals on their covers, but even more key is the way in which their books are written. There is a specific formula, and this formula is especially appealing to me. They use every book and teach fundamentals (regardless the topic) for the first three or four chapters. Everyone who reads these books knows this, and because of that, tech geeks joke about the books that we never read past chapter 3 or 4, or the books that we all have that we start on chapter 4. So in general, when given a choice, I tend to gravitate towards O' Reilly books. There are some O' Reilly titles in the library, but many of them are the broader and more general topics.More specific titles are a little harder to come by.

Several years ago, O' Reilly launched Safari Books Online. This is a collection of technical books, cross references and code samples that allows for the user to read through literally thousands of books, many of them as specialized as your needs require. There is a subscription fee associated with the service. If you have a steady diet of technical books, say one or two a month (in previous jobs and at various times, I certainly have had that level of demand) the subscription made a lot of sense. However, in the last few years, I have not had the same level of need, and thus paying for the subscription was seen as a luxury. But I really did miss it at times, and often wondered if I should renew it for my own career development.

Well, the great news is that the San Mateo Peninsula Library System (i.e. the one that I am a part of) has answered it for me... it's a service offered by the PLS, and my library card gets me access to the Safari Books Online subscription! Lately, I have been exploring C#, a programming language my company is deciding to use for all future development. Going the traditional library route, I may have to wait several weeks for a title to come in, and in the event that it's not an O' Reilly book, i may work through several sections to decide that I'm not digging this particular book (unlike a business book or a novel, I need to actually feel connected to a computer or technical book. If I don't, I don't feel that I learn as well. Sometimes, even O' Reilly books have this problem, and then I may need to wait a few more weeks before another title is available that I can try. With Safari, I can go right to the titles that interest me, and withing ten or 15 minutes, I will know if this is a book that will work for what I want to do.

So for those of you out there who often cite the lack of certain titles as to why the library won't work for what you want to do, especially you computer geek types like me, ask your public library if they have a Safari Books Online Subscription, or if they use a comparable service. If they do, try it out for awhile and see if it works for what you want to do, and finally, if you find yourself being a dedicated user of the system, consider giving SFO some love and subscribing directly. If it's going to be a "Casual Affair", then by all means, use the library's system... you do pay for it, after all :).

Monday, July 27, 2009

Took A Few Days Off, and Did It Ever Feel Great :)

Starting Thursday afternoon, my family and I decided that we wanted to have some time together and go off and do some things together. This was a busy several days, but so very fun. We started out by camping in Big Basin Redwoods State Park down near Santa Cruz. Nick and I took responsibility for the cooking and setting up of the camping area, and the girls had fun helping set up the fire and just exploring the area around where we were camping (Blooms Creek, the first main camp area as you enter the park from the North side). Nick regaled everyone with his excellent Dutch Oven cooking skills, treating us to Coca-Cola Chicken and Philmont Ranger Peach Cobbler for dinner and Dutch Oven Train Wreck for breakfast. We then explored around the park and looked at truly massive Coastal Redwood trees and other stretches of forest that made us feel right at home, and far away from home, both at the same time.

After our time in the park, we drove through the various "mountain towns" that stretch along Hwy 9. between San Jose and Santa Cruz. These towns include Boulder Creek, Ben Lomond and Felton, among others, and we had some fun looking at various sites along the way. NNick spotted a house that was made to look like a castle. He asked if we could stop so he could get some pictures of it. By doing so he met the maintenance crew for the house, and they invited us in for a tour of the place; unexpected, but very cool :). As we continued driving down Hwy 9, we also made our way into Santa Cruz, and then turned up the Cabrillo Highway to explore some of the beaches and natural preserves that run along our coast. One of the neat stops was at Pigeon Point Light Station near Ano Nuevo Natural Preserve. It's a neat old Lighthouse that also has a youth hostel on its grounds. The Lighthouse is a rapidly disappearing method of navigation, but one that was used for centuries. Northern California has one of the foggiest coastlines in the world, and its fair share of shipwrecks. Thus, the various Lighthouses that can be seen along the California coast are great reminders of our recent past, and it was fun to stop and take a closer look.

We also celebrated our version of "Pioneer Day" this weekend with members of our Stake at Coyote Point in San Mateo. This was a big gathering of the six wards that make up our stake, and it was a lot of fun to see so many people that I only occasionally get to see. It was also fun to see Karina, Amber and Nick playing and hanging out with their friends. Recently, the Crystal Springs 1st Ward and the El Camino Ward merged their Primary, Young Men's and Young Women's groups together, so our Young Men's group has picked up several new boys. It was terrific to see both Young Men's groups spending time together and getting to know each other more :).

The final cap of the weekend was to get to spend time with the Delgado's. Carlos and Kelly are literally the longest tenured couple that Christina and I have known together. In fact, Carlos and Kelly were at the Stone in September of 1990 when I first met Christina (Carlos was and is the lead guitar player for High Wire). We had wanted to have an opportunity to get our families together to do something fun, and this weekend, that finally happened. We went to meet up with them at the California Academy of Sciences, and it was so fun to watch our kids interacting with each other. Amber and Gabriel were inseparable much of the time, which was really cute, and Karina loved doting on little Sara. Carlos and I had fun geeking out on all of the exhibits and explaining to our kids what they were (that is, when our kids weren't explaining them to us first (LOL!) ).

All in all, a fabulous whirlwind three day "vacationlet", if you will. Now it's back to work for one week, and then I'll be gone for eight days with Troop 250's scouts at Summer Camp.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: A Life With No Habits?

It's taken me awhile to come to grips with this, but over the past several weeks, I've been reading a lot of Winget (don't worry, this is not a Larry Winget exercise per se, but it fits today's topic somewhat), and he's really big on changing habits and replacing bad habits with better ones. As I was looking at my various habits (and I have a few of them to say the least) I was struck by the fact that, actually, what I really suffer from is a overall lack of habits.

Over my life, I've known many people that are honest and serious creatures of habit. My wife Christina is one of them. This is by no means a put down, but for much of her life, she would have the same meals for breakfast for months or even years on end, she has a very solid routine of things that she does every single day, and this is part of the structure of her life. By contrast, my life is markedly without ingrained habits; most of what I do is what I refer to as "opportunity activities"; I do what I have to do when I have to do them, but there's generally no rhyme or reason to why or how. Take food, for example. When Christina and I go out to eat at a restaurant, it's generally a given that Christina will, depending on the restaurant, order something familiar that she likes (nothing wrong with that at all, it beats ordering something she hates). By contrast, I actually make it a point any time I go to a restaurant to almost never order the same thing twice, I always choose something I have never tried, if indeed there is an option I haven't tried. In some ways, I think this sense of "must be different" is about the only truly consistent habit I have.

In many ways, this feeds into my online life where, OK, I do have habits, and some of them not really all that good. I read sites that I enjoy probably way more often than I should (not because they are bad, but because they can be major time sucks when I need to be doing other things). Seems logical that I should say "OK, I will limit my time to viewing site [fillInTheBlank] between (time A) and (time B)". I have every intention to follow through with it, but I almost never do. The reason why? It would require me to submit to a scheduled habit, and I'm discovering that's a really difficult thing for me to do, silly as that may sound.

The point I'm trying to make is that we talk about the clutter in our lives and shedding of it so that things will be more orderly and tidy in our lives, but rarely do we consider that not having habits about certain things can be seen as "life clutter"; it's like a messy room with no organization (or very little, in any event).

To this end, I'm trying an experiment for the next 21 days. Why 21 days? Because that's the amount of time many psychologists believe it takes for a fledgling habit to actually become one. Thus, for the next 21 days, I have decided to put together a list of things that I know that I need to do on a regular basis, and I commit here and now to set aside time to deliberately do them, and make every attempt to do them on a schedule. You may think this would be obvious to many people, but I assure you, to me it isn't. This way, I'm hoping to make it so that many of the things in my life I keep saying I mean to do I will actually do in a more timely manner, and I will also hope to corral those things that threaten to suck away my time into specific areas and spaces where they can be prioritized and allowed to run free for their respective times, but once the time is up, that's it until the next day.

This is going to be a real challenge for me, so don't be surprised if this topic comes up often in the next few weeks (LOL!).

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Madd Money: Eat Out For the Adventure, Not the Habit

In my world view, the whole point to going out to a restaurant is to try something I have never had before. Since I often look at the costs associated with anything that I do, I want to be sure that I'm going to both enjoy the place and also enjoy the food item that I have never tried before. Also, I tend to want to go out for food that I would otherwise not eat at home.

Going out to eat is an expensive endeavor in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn't mean that you cannot enjoy the experience, or that you have to forgo it entirely. Christina and I used to be big time foodie geeks, and when we lived in San Francisco, we would go out a *lot*. Now that we have three kids and all that goes with that, we have trimmed back on the various "food expeditions" but we still like to go out perhaps once or twice a month, and when we do so, we want to find something unique, interesting and worth the time and money to scope it out.

With this in mind, I want to give some solid props to K-Tofu and Grill in San Bruno. For those who are fans of Korean cuisine, this is a great place to get a solid Korean food fix without breaking the bank. The dishes are reasonably priced and they have a wide variety of food options to try. Their Moeun Ohjinjoh Twigim (deep fried spicy calamari) and Dolsot Bibimbab (mixed beef, vegetables and rice served in a hot stoneware pot) are both notable and quite memorable dishes, and price wise, you get a substantial amount of food (Christina and I were quite happy with the two items listed above and more than fed both of us very happily :) ).

So if Korean is your thing, check out K-Tofu and Grill on San Mateo Avenue in San Bruno. If you never considered Korean food as being "your thing", well, this place may help you start :). Wherever you decide to go, if you want an adventure and want to try something truly unique, going out may be the best use of both your time and your dollars. Otherwise, do more meals at home and aim to make those nights out truly unique and special :).

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Aches and Pains of Getting Older

I never imagined I'd be one of those people grumbling about "oh my aching this" or "oh, my aching that", but this past weekend has both made me aware of it, and how very capricious life is and what causes things to happen.

My weekend was summed up by some great high points. The Troop had a terrific "mostly minimalist" campout at Sam McDonald Park. I say mostly minimalist because we had to still pack up more gear than I would have liked to (but since we had some brand new scouts that had never been backpacking before, we decided to bend the rules a little bit :) ). I slept out under the stars with just my sleeping bag, my bed roll, a ground cover, and nothing else. I also brought nothing my pack couldn't carry, so I was totally self sufficient on my pack this weekend. We hiked the Forest Loop Trail with a fair amount of vertical ups and downs, and later went to Pescadero Beach and played among the rocks and the sand and the surf. Through all of this I felt fine, and had not troubles at all.

Waking up on Sunday morning was when everything went south. Somehow, while sleeping in my comfortable king sized bed, with all of the comforts and modern conveniences of home, I managed to pull a muscle in my upper back (feels like it's right over my right scapula). This has made moving around a rather eventful experience, to say the least. getting dressed, taking a shower, ducking in and out of a car, all of this has been made to be more eventful than I ever hoped it would be (and aggravating, just to be clear on that front as well).

Why is it that when I go out and do things that most people would think would trash you, I suffer no ill effects, but when I come home where it's comfortable and safe, all of the annoying things happen?! Yes, I realize that that's not really the case; I've had my share of scrapes and bruises and "owies" occur outside of home, too, and even on my outings and activities; I'd be full of it if I said that I didn't get hurt at times doing those things, but somehow, life conspires to wait until I get home to do damage to me much of the time, and I find it slightly ironic that my body's biggest enemy is my own bed (LOL!).

Sorry for grumbling today, but this is one of those days where I'm feeling rather irked. I know I'll be better soon enough, but it's the waiting for the soon enough that's going to drive me crazy!

Friday, July 17, 2009

On Dealing With Stress

You all will have to forgive me if I’m on a bit of a “Winget” tear these past couple of weeks, but I’ve been reading through the four books of his I’ve picked up from the library, so a lot of his core philosophy is taking up a fair amount of my time lately. Still, there’s a lot that he says (bluntly and with no subtlety whatsoever (LOL!) ) that make a lot of sense, and I really liked the thoughts he has concerning stress (note, this is his concept and his chapter from "Shut Up, Stop Whining, and Get a Life" that I'm talking about here, and this is honestly verbatim the exercise he suggests that you do in the book, so here it is for your voyeuristic pleasure :) ).

Now, here’s a rhetorical question… if you could give up all your stress right now, would you do it? I think the answer for most people is a resounding “YES”, but that brings up back to the question of, “how am I getting stressed out to being with?!” There are people that will help you do “stress management” and figure out ways to help cope with stress, manage stress, and work with stress, but wouldn’t it be great if we could all just learn to eliminate stress entirely?!

In Larry Winget’s world view, and one I feel I am agreeing with more and more, (and this is a direct quote):

“Stress comes from knowing what is right and doing what is wrong.”

So what causes you stress? Here’s some of the things that I deal with and often cause me stress:

· getting ready for Scout Outings
· studying for school (when I went) or studying for work (which I do now)
· dealing with yelling and noisy kids
· arriving late to anything
· missing work deadlines
· annoyance at rapid transit for delays
· not being in the physical shape I want to be
· earning enough to cover the basics but wishing I had more for [fillInTheBlank]

That’s a fairly decent and representative list (LOL!).

So here’s the premise and the idea to follow on with. In each of those listed items, what is causing the stress? Is it the item in question, or is it my response to it? Actually, is it the fact that I am not responding to it correctly that’s really the cause? In each and every one of those areas, I know what I should be doing. The fact that they are a stress in my life is that I’m not doing what I should be doing.

So let’s take the list and let’s see what we can do about it:

· getting ready for Scout Outings (this one is actually really simple; just make sure that all of the gear is packed well in advance, that all parties know what they need to do, and then let the chips fall where they may. If the boys forget something, they forget it and they do without. If I forget something, the same applies. Freaking out over it doesn’t help anyway).

· studying for school (when I went) or studying for work (which I do now) (yes, it’s tedious at times, and yes it’s the last think I may *want* to do at any given moment, but it’s these things that reap positive benefits down the road. The answer is to not procrastinate, to do a little each day and focus on small steps instead of trying to accomplish big jumps. Plan the work, work the plan).

· dealing with yelling and noisy kids (is it the kids problem, or is it my problem? Why does this stress me out? Because I don’t want to hear it, or because I have not done the necessary things earlier on to prevent the escalation to this point? Ah, now there’s the rub! Instead of getting aggravated that the kids are yelling at each other, I should be earlier in the process [maybe days or weeks] helping them understand how to deal with and interact with each other).

· arriving late to anything (this is pretty simple, actually… leave earlier and prepare to do something if that action gets me there early. If something happens along the way that delays us beyond our control, well, realize that… it’s beyond my control, and stressing won’t change that fact).

· missing work deadlines (now really, this is just all about the man in the mirror. If it’s because I did all I could and couldn’t get it done on time, then I have to simply state I did all that I could and that the time just wasn’t enough… but often that’s just not the case. The real reason is procrastination or poor planning, or not reading through and understanding how long something will really take. While on a rare occasion there is an unrealistic deadline, ultimately I have to be the one to say “this can be done in X amount of time” and then I better darn well make sure that I allocate enough time and focus to accomplish the task in X amount of time, since that’s my word on the line there).

· annoyance at rapid transit for delays (if I can control it, and if I can make an alternate plan, I should do so. If I can’t, I need to contact those who may be waiting, explain the situation, and then let go of it. I’m not the train conductor; there’s nothing I can do to make them arrive on time. While I’m waiting, I might as well do some other things that require attention).

· not being in the physical shape I want to be (dude, this is entirely “man in the mirror” stuff; no one to blame but yourself. Eat less, exercise more, make the time to do it. Otherwise, just pipe down and deal (LOL!) ).

· earning enough to cover the basics but wishing I had more for [fillInTheBlank] (the real question is “what are you willing to do about it?” Is overtime an option? Can you freelance a little on the side? Would talking a second job be an option? Are you allocating your money correctly to the areas that are most important? Have you asked your manager for a raise? Have you done work of a quality that is commensurate with the asking? Each one of these questions is squarely in MY court. If I have stress here, it’s my own fault, and my own domain to do something about).

So what makes you stressed? And at the end of it all, is it the circumstances, or is it you and how you deal with them? I know my answer after doing this. How about you :)?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Simple Night Out With My Older Daughter

Last Night, Karina and I went out for a daddy-daughter date. Because of work and so many other things going on, I haven't had much of a chance to spend some 1:1 time with my older daughter, so we decided to change that last night.

First stop, Shaw's Ice Cream and Candy... this is Karina we are talking about here, so does this surprise anyone (LOL!)? We each had a single scoop cone and I asked her all about her current camp program she is attending this week (we have an in-town camp called Camp Kaleidoscope, where the kids get to be involved in a lot of games, activities and crafts. Each year we have opted to give each of our children a week or so opportunity to get out of the house and interact with other kids and do things they can't do at home. This was what Karina chose to do this year :).

Afterwards, we decided to go and check out the Millbrae public library, since it's nearby. Now, you may not think that a date to the library is much fun, but Karina really enjoyed it, especially since this isn't our regular library that we go to. It's interesting to see how the buildings are laid out,m what each one offers, and how they differ from our regular library in San Bruno (and since they are all linked together, we can check stuff out on the same account :) ). Millbrae has a large selection of DVDs, about 3 times what the San Bruno library has. I also noticed that there were a number of Korean television series DVDs in the foreign language section... wonder if my friend Tom had anything to do with that (LOL!)? We both decided to pick up a few DVDs to see over the next week or so. Karina picked up some instructional DVDs related to art and watercolor. I picked up "The Animatrix", just because I wanted to see it, and we both agreed on the 3rd season of The Muppet Show :).

It may not seem like much, but it was a great way for us to spend two hours together, have some time to talk without interruption, and the whole cost of the thing was a pair of ice cream cones (well, Karina picked up a bottle of Skittle Spray for herself... I don't even know how to begin to describe it except to say image Binaca breath spray, but it's made by Skittles. You're welcome :) ). I'm looking forward to seeing how she likes the Muppet Show (she knows many of the characters, but seeing the original show is a different experience (LOL!) ). Should be fun.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Scoutmaster Mike: SM is Getting a Home of Its Own

After much consideration, thinking and the need to make something that is a big part of my life more specific, I've made the decision to start a new project. While I will still update MKL's Muse on as close to a daily basis as I can, one set of posts are going to go away, or more accurately, one set of posts will be getting a more specific grouping and a blog of their own.

I have created a new blog called "Scoutmaster Mike", and this will contain many of my musings commentary and other aspects about being a Scout leader and all that goes with it. This will be the first of my blogs that will be topic specific. In other words, my various musings about Scouting that are specifically scouting related (trips, activities, thoughts about Scouting), will now appear there, so those who are Scouting Geeks, I encourage you to jump on and follow along. That's not to say that I will not put the occasional Scouting post here, too, but I will tend to save those for the moments and thoughts that are more personal and reflective of me and for me (and of course, for those voyeuristic types that like to follow along with my musings (LOL!).

Today's Post is the Scoutmaster Minute that i shared last night, and I will from time to time make a mention of posts that I make there in my entries here. My thanks to those who have encouraged me to consider spinning this section off. There's no questions it's the one area of my life that I am actually something of an authority on and can speak at length about (well, outside of the dumb and silly things I do in my day to day life, I have the equivalent of a PhD in THAT :) ).

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Getting Things Done, 15 Minutes at a Time

I've been trying to jump start a number of things that I have wanted to get done, but many of these things have just been sitting around and waiting to get the inspiration, desire and nerve to jump in and do it. This may sound easy to do, but it's more elusive than it seems at times. I think the biggest reason for this is that so many things overwhelm us and we make them out to be larger than they really are.

I have decided that it's important to break these things down and make them accessible, so I'm practicing a new model so that I can get some of those "quick wins" in to motivate me to get going and do more. To do this, I've decided to focus on very specific items, give myself a very concrete time limit, and make a simple criteria for saying "It's Done" or "It's Not Done". Example; I'm currently in the process of learning C# and C# Script. The reason is that I want to be more conversant with the development team that I work with and get a better understanding of the products that we develop and what goes on "under the board", so to speak. A vague and nebulous plan like "learn C#" is a hard thing to wrap one's head around, but "read chapter 3 in C# book and work on the question s at the end of the chapter" is an easy goal to wrap your head around. It fits what I like to call a SMART approach to accomplishing tasks (those Wood badge geeks out there already know what the SMART acronym stands for; Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time Based.

I've discovered lately that the last element, "time based" can be my worst enemy or my best friend. When a project is nebulous, and it's needed in a short time, I tend to get hung up on the details and suffer from a, "analysis paralysis", or I get so anxious about it that I find reason after reason to put it off, only to convince myself "ah, what's the use, I can't do it anyway!" Personally, I *HATE* this aspect about myself, and I know that I do it way too often. there are many things that I love to do, and when I love to do them, I can totally dive in and spend hours and hours on them. It's the other tasks that I know I need to do, they will be important and reap dividends down the road, but they are tedious, onerous or just plain hard, and sometimes not in a fun way (I really wish I could say that programming is fun for me. It is, but not in the way that, say, backpacking or snowboarding is).

So how does one get over the hump and start getting some "wins"? For me, it's the 15 minute rule; I break down anything I need to do in 15 minute chunks, and I determine very specific things I need to do in those 15 minutes. Why 15 minutes? Because I can handle anything for 15 minutes! What happens is that, after you get some small victories under your belt (you read through something, you accomplish a small goal, you put into practice something you have learned, you can focus on the next fifteen minutes, and the next and the next). This way, instead of just saying "I tried to do something today, but it didn't work out" you can say, I accomplished eight steps towards my goal today, and those eight steps took me two hours to complete.

One other big benefit of the fifteen minute rule is that, if you see that you are not getting anywhere with something, you can make the decision to stop and do something else, and not feel like you have totally blown your plans or your momentum. I've discovered I'm a terrible multi-tasker. I need and relish the ability to focus on one task at a time, and also, I'm way too prone to give into distractions if I try to do too many things at once. The fifteen minute rule allows me a simple method of focusing on something. It also allows me the option to tell people "sorry, I'm right in the middle of something, but if you give me [component of 15 minutes left, then I can talk with you about [whatever]].

Don Aslett and Larry Winget are two guys whose no nonsense approach to work and getting things done greatly appeal to me, and both of them have the same philosophy when it comes to time management... they think it's a crock; you cannot manage time. You can only use time, and what you choose to do while you use that time is what makes the difference between success and failure. Don't manage time, manage accomplishments; if stringing together ten or twenty accomplishments gets you to the goal of doing what you set out to do, then by all means do that. At the end of the day, you will always feel better saying "I did 20 or 30 small things" or ""I made 20 or 30 steps towards accomplishing my goals" than you will if you said "I worked the whole day, was busy the whole time, but didn't feel like I accomplished much of anything". If you feel like the latter statement (and believe me, I have lots of days like that) try going the 15 minute approach and making lots of small steps. You may find that you get to the point where a given area gets so familiar and so well covered that, over time, you only need 15 minutes to get big things accomplished. Like many things in life, though, that only comes with experience, so start setting your timer (or stopwatch or whatever you want to use to keep you honest :) ) and start setting some 15 minute goals today!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Shedding of Innocent Stuff: Video Tapes and Media

Do you ever find yourself in this situation? You have a cabinet that id dedicated to media that you have purchased (DVDs, VCR tapes, CDs, video games, what have you) and you think to yourself "am I ever really going to watch any of these again?" I'm going through this experience right now. I realized that we had a skewed sense of what we had and why we kept it when I realized that we had moved a storage cabinet into the 1/2 bath upstairs, and that the storage cabinet housed video games and DVDs. I wish I was kidding about that.

It helps to move back a little in time to where our heads were at regarding this. We knew that when we bought our house in 1999, its 1800 sq. feet was going to be a limitation eventually... and that's not a bad thing; if anything it forces us to be realistic about the stuff we have gotten over the years, though not realistic enough to realize that we have been doing an endless shuffle of stuff because of it. Now, for the record, I'm not going to go the George Carlin route... buying a bigger house so I can keep "more stuff"... we are very happy with the home that we have and we are not going to move in any time frame less than decades, seriously... but that still brings us to the point of "what do we do with the stuff we have in the space we have without buying more stuff to hold the stuff we already have (sorry, Carlin does it so much better (LOL!) ).

Anyway, one area that I keep looking at is our videotapes and DVDs. Frankly, I have just a few things I really like to keep and will hold onto indefinitely, but many other items are just strangely hanging around for years and years. Yes, I'll admit it, I have my top five movies as DVDs, I have a few classics, and I have some of my favorite anime series on DVD. We also have a bunch of videocassettes that we have held onto for the kids, yet I seriously wondered if they have bothered to look at any of these lately, and if they would actually miss them.

If you decide to be the "big meanie" and try this, here's my suggestion... take all of the VCR tapes and DVDs that you think might genuinely not be missed, put them in a box and put them someplace not obvious (but not someplace you would totally forget). Put a date on the box, say three to six months. Then wait... if you get one of your kids coming up to you saying "Dad, I can't find [fillInTheBlank]", then you know you have come across one that somehow matters to the kids. Go and get it, say that you found it, but don't divulge the hiding place of the other tapes (I don't know about the rest of you out there, but with my kids, anything that is suddenly in eye sight becomes indispensable, never mind the fact that they haven't watched or thought about it for close to two years prior !!!).

Right now I've gathered a good sized box of kids VCR tapes, most of them likely to never be watched again. Frankly, if I'm going to strike on this, I need to strike now, while VCR tapes are still a viable media. Five years from now, there may be no interest among friends for VCR tapes; they be about as coveted as 8 tracks (and yes, I am old enough to have owned 8 tracks, don't rub it in (LOL!) ). I would much rather see these go to people that have young kids that would enjoy seeing them than keep them floating around my house not being used, not being watched, and taking up space that is coming at a greater premium each year as the kids get older.

Thus we have begun a new experiment. I'll check back in October to tell you all what ultimately happened :).

Friday, July 10, 2009

Game of the Month: Shin Megami Tensei Devil Survivor

Back in March, my company gave me a really cool 4 year anniversary gift; a $150 gift card for GameStop. My co-workers know me well, what can I say (LOL!)?

The last title that I purchased from this was Suikoden Tierkreis, and I posted about that last month. A couple of weeks ago I picked up a new installment in one of my favorite long running game franchises, the ATLUS juggernaut Shin Megami Tensei (hereafter referred to as MEGATEN).

I love MEGATEN story lines because they tend to do away with most of the stereotypical Medieval trappings of fantasy and role playing games; MEGATEN games typically revolve around occult and cyberpunk aspects, mixing a little bit of horror, and a little bit of fantasy, and a bit of modern, current Japanese culture (Anime and Manga standards abound in these games). MEGATEN games also blend myth, legend and faith elements from many different cultures (Graeco-Roman, Norse, Celtic, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Chinese, Hindu and Japanese lore all make their way into the storylines) with the prominent use of "Akuma" (English translation would be "Devil" or "Demon"; the Greek idea of a "Daemon" is perhaps more accurate) and in the games you either instill yourself with their power, or you recruit them to your cause. You as a character develop skills for yourself and the Akuma, or you fuse individual Akuma together to create stronger or more skilled Akuma. The games are often morally driven, where your choices and your attitudes determine how the story flows. Also, one of my favorite aspect of MEGATEN titles is that things are rarely what they seem.

This brings me to my current installment, MEGATEN Devil Survivor. The story is classic MEGATEN; you and a few of your friends have decided to go shopping in downtown Tokyo on an afternoon. While doing so, the Government of Japan imposes a lock down in the area. No one comes in, no one goes out. You and your friends are stuck in downtown Tokyo, with strange creatures appearing in various places (Akuma), with a hunger for humans. You have two choices, get killed or fight back. One of your friends has given you and your team a device... it looks a lot like a DS, but it has special capabilities... one of them being the ability to make contracts with Akuma. Now, instead of fighting Akuma alone, you can enlist them to fight with you. All the while you realize that things are developing rapidly, you have little time, and the Japanese Government knows that the people in the Tokyo loop are in great danger, but they are not going to do anything to help. If you want to survive, and if you want to save the countless people trapped inside of the Tokyo loop with you, you must take out the threat that's trapped within the Tokyo loop with you... and here's where I'll shut up and let those that want to play the game take it from there :).

This is the first MEGATEN game to be available in the DS format. It is not a dungeon crawler like so many of the other MEGATEN titles that have preceded it, where you search for relics or items, have encounters and cover a world map with actual movement. This title is menu driven, with many areas having similar components; look around the area and get a text blurb about what's happening. Listen in on conversations and get a fast overview of the situation. Talk to your team mates and to people directly identified as protagonists or antagonists. The information gathering elements of the game can be performed very quickly, so that you can focus on the important stuff, like recruiting Akuma, crafting their abilities and practicing those abilities in strategy based battles. Battles are designated as such, and usually are one-off situations, with various areas around Tokyo designated as "Free Battle" areas. Yes, this is an SRPG, and if you want any chance of surviving certain battles later in the game, you have to spend some time doing free battles and leveling up. The battle system uses a grid overlaid on scenery and feels a lot like many other SRPG's on various platforms. If you have ever played Suikoden Tactics or Final Fantasy Tactics, the battle system will feel very familiar. You have strengths and weaknesses, your Akuma have strengths and weaknesses, and opposing Akuma also have strengths and weaknesses. Exploit and outmaneuver your opponents and you win. If they exploit and outmaneuver you, well, you die!

Some interesting elements of the game include an email interface (you don't really get live editable email, but you can interact with it directly and send replies (canned) to other party members, and your replies can help shape the story to a degree). You receive messages telling you what potential things will happen. You can join the Devil Auction where you can make contracts with Akuma and get them to join your side. You can take two Akuma and fuse them together and make new and more powerful Akuma (or in some cases, less powerful Akuma... you have to pay attention to what you are doing).

In some ways, this is MEGATEN meets Yu-Gi-Oh!, as it feels like as lot of the encounters and aspects of them are very similar to that type of play, only instead of a one to one and single face off, you have chess style battles between 3-3 groupings, and a win/lose based on taking out the entire party or the leader of the party. There's a fair amount of "grind-up" to be done, and exactly how much you want to do is left up to you (encounters are almost all luck based if you are lower than the targets, somewhat challenging when you are on-par, and ridiculously easy if you get to be 3-4 levels over the targets... of course, these encounters give you a lot of practice trying out different Akuma and skill combinations, so they do not feel tedious. Well, at least most of the time they don’t :).
One interesting element about this game is that there is no active timer. Nowhere in the game does it tell you how long you have played, just that the story has progressed a certain point. Certain events move along the clock, but free battles do not, so you can spend *hours and hours* doing free battles. Thus, I have no way to tell how much of my life has been sucked into this game... good or bad, you decide (LOL!).

In short, this is a fun entry in the MEGAverse, and I love the fact that it’s for the DS, meaning I can take it and play it anywhere, instead of just when I have a few free moments at home (which, frankly, are getting to be rarer and rarer now that my kids are older and play console games, too). Still actively playing, late into day three of a seven day arc, so I'll post another entry when I finish... can't promise when that will be, but if past games are any indication, expect a follow up entry in about two months (LOL!).

Late Add-On: It's my Dad's birthday today. Please join me in wishing Spencer Larsen a happy 69th birthday (not sure if he'd have a problem with me outing his age like that, but knowing my dad, I doubt it highly :) ).

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Philosophy of "Drinking Straight from the Bottle" :)

There’s been a phrase that I love, and I think I first saw it many years ago as a cartoon on one of my co-worker’s cubicle walls. The picture was a silly one of a guy lying down under his bed, with a cyclone of wreckage in the room. The caption was “Some people view their lives where the glass is half empty, some view their lives where the glass is half full. Steve drinks straight from the bottle.” The cartoon is meant to be silly and amusing, but in truth, that phrase has stuck with me for all these years, and I’ll tell you why.

I *HATE* the glass half empty/glass half full metaphor, because it always implies that you have to take the situation as it is. If it’s half empty, then you are a pessimist. If half full, then you are an optimist. My problem with the metaphor is that you have to accept the glass as something that doesn’t change. Like life, it’s to be dealt with and you have to choose how you want to look at it. Personally, I opt for a third option beyond pessimism and/or optimism. Call it “determinism”. My whole point is to say 'why do I have to “accept” a glass AT ALL?! Do I really want to take life based on what it gives me, doled out in a portion in a glass? NO! I’d prefer to take life head-on, thanks, and figure out my own way to deal with it'. While I believe in a Heavenly Father and a divinely resurrected son that is Jesus Christ, I do not believe that they gave me this life to plod on and just accept what comes my way. There’s not just one glass and one apportionment, there are countless glasses, or the way I want to consider it, there’s no glass at all. Life is a bottle, and the only thing that’s absolutely sure is that eventually that bottle will run out for me in this mortal life. At that time, I’ll set it down, and pick up another bottle on the far side of the veil, and life/existence/metaphysical energy/you name it will go on from there.

This, in my world view claiming to drink from the bottle isn’t a funny or silly punch line… it’s the whole point of why we are here :). The volume of the bottle varies, and the only time the bottle will be empty is when I draw my last breath on this Earth. Until then, ultimately every meaningful decision I will ever make, and thus the shape of my life, falls squarely into my sphere of influence. So grab your own bottle and join me. Optimism and pessimism are passé; they require that you accept the world as it is, and either be happy or sad about it. I’m going with determinism, thank you very much… now hand me that bottle (LOL!).

Follow-on: This is an article that is currently runing in the Mormon Times by Orson Scott Card called "Mormon Tribe Feels Like Home". I'll be writing more on this topic in the future, but I want to alert anyone who may find it interesting to read it now :).

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Madd Money: The Value of "Doing a Little Every Day"

Having finished "You're Broke Because you Want to Be" by Larry Winget, I found an interesting comment towards the end of the book. Larry described growing up on a farm near Tulsa, Oklahoma as a kid, and some advice that his father gave to him. His father told him, at the time that a young calf was born, that if he would work with that calf, and if he would carry that calf from the mother's pen to the feeding and grooming area, and back, that he would be able to continue to do that almost indefinitely... but he'd have to do it every day for that to happen.

The story goes on to say that Larry did indeed continue this ritual for several months, and in that time, the calf grew considerably, but he was able to still carry it each day. Then because of rain, he missed a day, and when he came back to do it, he found it harder to do, even after missing just one day. Later, there was a series of storms that caused him to not be able to get out and do more than just the absolute basics of care for many days. When that week was up, he went to try to carry the calf again... and couldn't do it. That was the end of the road for that experiment.

This story has a parallel in the ancient world, in the fable told of Milo of Croton (sometimes attributed to "Milo of Crete") where Milo carried a baby calf shortly after it was born on his shoulders, and did so every day until he could carry the weight of a full grown bull on his shoulders. Now, in both of these cases, I don't know how realistic it is (a full grown bull is a mighty big thing, and we're talking somewhere around 800-1000 pounds; maybe a single lift, but carrying it around on a regular basis?! WOW!!!). Still, the stories both present a simple principle that can be used everywhere(in finance, work, hobbies, etc.) and that's the value of practice each and every day.

Back in January, I embarked on an experiment to learn Japanese, and to that end, I bought a video game called "My Japanese Coach". I played that game a little bit every day for three months, and in that three month stretch, I memorized the Kana alphabets and some basic phrases and started learning sentences and practicing longer phrases. Then a couple of games came out that I really wanted to play, and I took a break from the daily Japanese. When I got back to it, I saw that I had forgotten (already!) a lot of what I learned. I still remembered quite a bit, and I'm still learning, but it's going slower and I'm not progressing at the same clip as I did when I did a little bit every day.

When we make new habits, whatever it may be, it's the ongoing daily input that really makes the difference. If we want to get stronger with weights, yes, we will have to wait for the body to recover, so "daily" in this case may not be a perfect metaphor, but regular enough to remain effective has to be in place. Training once a week won't cut it in most cases; we have to be regular, consistent, and we have to apply a little more effort and take on "more weight" each time to keep moving forward. Scripture study, balancing our financial lives, learning a foreign language, developing software, all of them follow the same principle... and for me, so does blogging. the only way to really get markedly better at something is to "do it every day".

My son recently started playing the viola, and we've had chats about practicing and getting more proficient, I told him that there is a book called "Outliers", written by Malcolm Gladwell, where he describes what makes someone World Class at something. Throughout the book, Gladwell mentions the "10,000-Hour Rule", the idea being that the key to success in any field is practicing a specific task for a total of 10,000 hours. Roughly put, if Nick were to practice every single day, an hour a day, and never miss a day, he could become a world class viola player roughly by the age of 39 (10,000 hours, into 365 days a year at one hour each day, gives us roughly 27 years). If he practiced two hours a day, that time would be lessened to about 13 1/2 years, or by the time he was 25. 3 hours a day would be 9 1/4 years, or by age 21. Of course, whether or not that is practical is another story, but it illustrates the fact that those who become not just good, but great at what they do, tend to do it not because they are super gifted or extraordinarily talented (though theat certainly helps), but because they put in the work to achieve that greatness... and they do it every day.

My hope is that I may be able to take from this and also start "carrying my calf" and do so daily :).

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Madd Money: The Case of the Disappearing Water

Remember the old saying "an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure"... and It's even more in real money (that's a joke for anyone who remembers the old Showtime comedy "Brothers"... if you don't, don't sweat it :) )? Well, I decided it was time for me to start taking a look at some areas around our house that might be causing us some troubles.

One of the things that has been driving me crazy is the water bill... it seems absurdly high based on what we do and it also looked like we were using quite a bit more. Why was this the case? I decided it was time to get to the bottom of it.

First, we know we have an older toilet in our master bathroom, and that older toilet has a large capacity tank. A simple fix is to fill a milk jug with water and sand and park it in the tank (instant 33% savings of water with each flush). However, it seemed that that didn't do the trick. As I took apart the toilet mechanism to see what might be happening, I noticed that the fill release for the fill tube seemed to run even after the toilet was full... translating to dropping into the bowl and then gravity carrying out the water through the bottom of the bowl. No idea how much was flowing through, but it was enough to have that dribble effect for extended periods. Replacing the flow tube and seal fixed that problem. But could there be another possible answer? After doing a little research online (yes, I researched leaky toilets, just because I'm strange like that :) ), I found that in many older toilets, the ball stopper and gasket age and cease to create a tight seal. A quick way to check this is to put some drops of food coloring in the bowl after it fills, and make a point to not use that toilet for two to three hours, then check the bowl. If you see tinted water, you have your answer. It's reported that the average toilet could lose up to five gallons of water a day if the ball stopper or closure mechanism doesn't seal correctly. It's my next fix to do.

Next, take a look at all of your sinks, and see if you have any leaks. A great way to check this is to pull down the stoppers on all sinks and go to bed, and then check them in the morning. If you have a puddle of water in the sink, bingo! The good news is that, while it will probably take some dismantling of your faucet hardware to replace some washers or seals, it's a relatively simple repair to do and doesn't require a plumber to come out and do it. For those who have not visited WikiHow, make it a site to stop at and peruse. If you actually have a leaky faucet, here's how to fix it :).

For those that have sprinkler systems, if you notice that you have heads that do not have even spray pressure (or one head seems to do well but others down the line are performing less optimally), it's possible you may have a leak on one of the sprinkler heads (best case and easiest to fix) or in the underground line (not so easy to fix, but still doable). Last night, as I was lying in bed, I hears the sprinklers go off, as I usually do, but this time, it sounded like a rushing rivulet instead of the steady drone of the sprinklers. Sure enough, when I went out to investigate, I noticed that the head closest to my side of the bed against the back wall of our house was gushing water... the sprinkler head had cracked. Bad news, it needs to be fixed. Good news, since it's the sprinkler head itself, it will be relatively easy to replace.

Long story short, if you have high bills and you can't quite put your finger on why, do some basic water hunting. It's too early to tell if these changes will make large scale savings, but even if they don't, you can feel good about the fact that you are limiting waste by checking and doing some simple maintenance in these areas. Happy hunting :).

Monday, July 6, 2009

Teach Your Children Well, and They Will Teach You

It was an interesting day yesterday... Christina was released as the Primary president after nearly four years in the role (I think this is the longest I've ever known anyone to serve in that position, at least in any of the wards that I've attended). I remember back when Christina first joined the Church; she was given the opportunity to be a teacher in Primary early on, and thus, since 2001, she has been actively involved as a Primary teacher, counselor in Primary, or Primary President.

With her release on Sunday, she had the chance to join me in Gospel Doctrine class for the first time in at least 8 years. I remember her saying as we were gearing up for the release that she was worried that she would not fit in with Gospel Doctrine or Relief Society, since her entire point of reference to the church was through Primary. Well, it was amusing to hear her say, as she was sitting with me through Gospel Doctrine (we were discussing the ways that people often choose to leave the church through such things as being offended and through finding faults and rationalizing why we do certain things)... she leaned over to me and said "hey, this is just like what we covered in Primary". As I smiled and gave her a hug, I thought for a bit that, really, those lessons that we teach the kids in Primary *are* the Gospel, and that usually, the stuff we talk about in the "adult classes" are really just variations on the theme. Sure, we put more adult language around them, and we go into greater discussion, but really, the principles we learn in Primary *are* the whole of the Gospel, and to that end, Christina has spent the better part of eight years helping teach those lessons to the children of the ward, including our children.

Anyway, I just wanted to say how very proud I am of Christina and how much time and effort she put into her calling as Primary President. She was terrific in that role, and I'm so very happy that she got to have the experience. I'm also happy that, at least for a brief period of time, I will get to have her sitting with me in Gospel Doctrine class, something that we have not experienced together in close to 8 years (LOL!). We'll see how long that lasts, as I don't think that the Ward will let he sit still for very long :). Still for the time being, as a friend of our pointed out, "Christina has spiritually fed so many for so many years, now it's time for her to step back and allow others to spiritually feed her for awhile" :).

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Madd Money: A Fly on Larry Winget’s Wall

One of the things that I tend to do is I get to reading someone, either like or dislike what they have to say, and then if I personally like them, I ponder what they have to say, and if I dislike them, I tend to shrug off what they have to say. Dave Ramsey is a great example. Personally, I like Dave, and I like his take that combines the practical and the spiritual. Being a Latter-day Saint, I appreciate someone who has a biblical and spiritual outlook when it comes to money, and is not afraid to harmonize the two. By contrast, Robert Kiyosaki’s approach just grates on my nerves, so I have been less compelled to read his material. The fact is, both have good information and good approaches to dealing with money.

Larry Winget has been a guy that has intrigued me for awhile now. Maybe it’s the bald head and the loud voice, maybe is the absolute brashness of his demeanor and his “take no prisoners” approach, but I’ve decided that it was time to dig in and see what Larry had to say about money and where to place efforts and emphasis. To that end, I decided to start with “You’re Broke because You Want to Be: How to Stop Getting By and Start Getting Ahead”. Much of the time, people get books like this for two reasons. The first one is that they are genuinely struggling, and they want to figure out how to get out of a mess. The second is that they may not be in a mess, or maybe they are already moving along, but they are stuck in cruise control, and want to shift gears. Personally, I feel I am in the second category, so I tend to focus on things that fit that second area. The take home message from Larry in this book is as follows (this is literally verbatim from page 200 of the book, so do not credit me or think these are my maxims… these are Larry’s, and sum up his philosophy in this book very well):

1. Know where you are.

2. Take responsibility for the situation.

3. Feel bad about it. Experience remorse.

4. Make the decision for things to be different.

5. Know exactly what you want your life to look life.

6. Create an action plan to get there.

7. Know what you are willing to give up to get what you want.

8. Spend less than you earn.

9. Figure out ways to earn more.

10. Stop all unnecessary spending.

11. Pay off debts as quickly as possible and only go into debt for things with long-term value.

12. Build a cushion. Save!

That’s it. What I find very interesting is that the first 7 could just as easily have been from the scriptures or from Spencer W. Kimball’s “The Miracle of Forgiveness”. In short, we need to recognize that we are on the wrong path, or even if the path isn’t wrong, realize there may be a better way to travel it. As a hiker, I can appreciate that meandering on a path uses up a lot more energy than picking a line and walking with a straight purpose. This is the point that Larry is making, that we all need to make a commitment to focus on our goal, make a plan to get there, and work like maniacs to achieve that goal. In a nutshell, that’s Larry’s big thing; people don’t succeed by luck or smarts alone, they succeed because they are willing to work longer, harder, smarter, faster and better than their peers. Something we all think we understand, but rarely do we really put it into action.

I know that I fit this category, so while I may not be in a situation where I am wanting for anything (I’m not the guy meandering all over the path or off the path), but it’s very possible that I need to review the map and make sure I know the best and most efficient trail to take, and that I observe review and adjust my pack for the journey. Some things will need to be jettisoned to get to my goal, some things will need to be better utilized (tools that are not used or are not in a condition to be used are better than having nothing, but just barely; having a dull knife is better than not having a knife at all, but having a properly sharpened knife is *lots* better and much more helpful).

My next Larry book is “It’s Called Work for a Reason: Success is Your Own Damn Fault”… and I’m looking forward to reading it :).

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy 233rd Birthday, U.S.A.

It's interesting to me how much time has transpired since my first really memorable 4th of July. That one was 1976, and my family at the time made a trip to the East Coast, bought a car, and traveled down the Eastern Seaboard. I remember waking up in New Jersey the morning of the 4th, and us driving until we got to my parents friends house near McLean Virginia to celebrate the evening of the 4th with Fireworks seen from the Capitol and other parts of the Potomac. I was 9, and from that day on, the 4th was something special (celebrating the Bicentennial probably also made it a little more potent of an experience for many I'm sure.

Since then, 33 years have passed and I've lived long enough to see the ups and the downs of this country, but one thing is certain... it's people are resilient. They are proud, courageous, and they care about their land. That's not a platitude, it's an observation, one Ive seen over the past 33 years many times.

So today, while celebrating the BBQ, the fireworks, and other trappings that we all consider part of the 4th of July, let's also all take a moment to celebrate "Independence Day" and to also remember all of those people who, over the past 233 years, have given their all so that we can still celebrate today our independence. Let us also reflect a bit on those whose Independence we had a hand in taking away (can't have the good without the bad, as I said, and there were 500 nations here before we were here). Let's pledge once again on our country's birthday to make this country one that will be proud to call itself "Land of the Free, Home of the Brave".

Friday, July 3, 2009

In Praise of UP

After reading about UP in Orson Scott Card’s review, I was even more excited to see it than I had been by its initial premise (I’m pretty much a Pixar fanatic, and I’ve seen just about all of the Pixar movies, so it was pretty much inevitable I’d see this one, too. Add the premise of a positive (albeit differently named) not to the Boy Scouts, and I was already interested. But to hear Card describe UP as “an American animated film that approaches Miyazaki’s best work”… wow, now *this* really had me interested.

My family saw UP last night, and yes, I agree with Card on two points. First, it definitely approaches the ambition of Miyazaki and I would classify it up there with many of Miyazaki’s best, but even m ore than that, it just plain works as a story that hits you on many levels. It’s fun, and it’s sweet, but it’s also poignant and touching. It never gets boring, and the visuals are just plain stunning, even in the quiet parts.

My hats off to Pixar for approaching an idea with courage and grace for an animated film; it showed the life of two people in love, and the realities that go with that love, the ups the down, the happiness, the sadness, and to also echo Card’s review (hey, he said it first, so I have no right to present it as though it were my idea)… I’m proud of them for actually showing what happens when a loved one reaches a decline in their life and actually dies. This happens early in the film, so don’t feel like I’m ruining the story by mentioning it. I loved how they set up the story for Carl and Ellie; from being little kids to marrying, to working together, to fixing up their home, all the way to the end of Ellie’s life and that adventure they just never got to take.

From there, we get to the story of the flying house, a lost land, a boy who wants to be a good scout (and as a Scoutmaster, I have had these boys in my Packs, Troops and Crews over the last 16 years, so this part of the story especially gave me a big smile), action, adventure, talking dogs, a really big bird, a dirigible and its captain, and all the things that make a Pixar movie, well, a Pixar movie :).

What I also enjoyed about this movie is the fact that its message was wonderful… it reminds us that many times, the greatest adventure that we will ever have will take place within the walls of our own home, and that’s the adventure of having a family you deeply care for and want to be with… there is a very sweet scene later in the movie where Ellie’s Adventure Book shows a page that says “Stuff I Plan To Do”, meaning the adventures she plans to have. We see this book merely with blank pages, and through the movie, it’s implied that that is all that is there. However, later in the film, as Carl looks at the pages, he sees that they are full… full of picture of his and Ellie’s life together. Pictures of a couple smiling, doing things around their beloved house, pictures of a day on a blanket in a field, and all the way up to their last picture together… the final message written saying “thank you for a wonderful adventure, Carl… now go make a new one! Love, Ellie”.

That just floored me, and it actually brought tears to my eyes. How often have each of us hoped for some unattainable excitement, some grand way of living, and ignored the greatest adventure that exists right in the walls of our own homes, with the very people we ought to really call our greatest adventure? If nothing else, I hope that I can keep that message as a reminder that my greatest adventure is in keeping the fire of a love alive with my beautiful wife and the never-ending adventure of raising three great kids (and I have a really cool dog, too, though she doesn’t talk :) ).

If you are one of the handfuls of people that have not seen this movie, by all means, go see it. Even if you want to wait until it comes out on DVD, you need to see this one. It’s a keeper!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Madd Money: What’s Your Excuse?!

Every once in awhile, I like to read things that shake up my paradigm. I believe it’s valuable to be challenged, to be pulled out of your comfort zone, and face things in a new, or at least different, manner. Through one of my favorite blogs (All Financial Matters) I came to hear about and grow interested in a guy by the name of Larry Winget. Some of you may already be familiar with him, but for those who aren’t, suffice it to say that “warm, fuzzy and cuddly” is not this guys style. He’s somewhat more akin to Gunnery Sergeant Hartman from Full Metal Jacket than any motivational speaker you’d likely come across, and frankly, that’s what I like about him. He has trademarked the phrase “the World’s Only Irritational Speaker” (LOL!).

With titles like “Shut Up, Stop Whining, & Get A Life: A Kick-Butt Approach to a Better Life” (2004), “It's Called Work for a Reason!: Your Success Is Your Own Damn Fault” (2007), “You're Broke Because You Want To Be: How to Stop Getting By and Start Getting Ahead” (2008), and “People Are Idiots and I Can Prove It!: The Ten Ways You Are Sabotaging Your Life and How To Overcome Them” (2008), you can get a pretty clear picture as to what Larry’s all about. Larry’s advice can really be summed up very simply:

* figure out what your excuse for not being where you want to be is
* mercilessly kick the crap out of that excuse
* focus on the goal you want to achieve
* buckle down and work your butt of to get there
* don’t stop until you are there.

When you finish all that, pick another goal, and repeat the process.

Is it really that simple? I’m beginning to honestly believe that it is. So I decided to follow along and try my own thought experiment regarding this. Am I where I want to be right now? That’s a hard thing to say because it’s so general. I have a nice life, I don’t really want for anything, my family’s needs are met… yet I would gladly double or triple my income if I could… or would I?

See, here’s where I decided it was time to take Larry up on his approach and see if what he says rings true. Do I really want to do what it takes to double or triple that income? The answer is no… or perhaps I should say “my mind wants to say yes, but my actions clearly say ‘No’”.

Digest that for a minute… it’s our actions that determine what we do and why we do it. Another comment that sunk in with me is that “where your money goes, that’s what’s important to you”. Sounds obvious, right? Yet there’s more to it than that. Think about it this way. Put down on paper what you believe your goals are and what your direction is. Think about what your work goals are, what your life’s ambitions are, and where you think you are heading with them. After doing that, sit down with your check and credit card statements, and track your spending for the last year (or more, if you are up to it). See where you have placed your discretionary money (rent or mortgage, food, lights, and transportation are somewhat given, they are not really discretionary, but even those can be depending on how much is spent). Tally up the categories and see if anything jumps out at you.

I did this, and boy, was one thing abundantly clear. I claimed that I wanted to further my career, that I was focused on doing whatever it took to do well at work and get ahead. That’s what my mind has been telling me… but my actions and my track record tell a very different story. Over four years, I have spent maybe $700-$1000 towards work related training and personal development associated with my job. By contrast, I have spent close to $10,000 over that same period for Scouting. Note, this is personal expenditures to do things, attend trainings, learn techniques to teach to others, purchase gear and learn about it so I could demonstrate it… I’ve put in a community college semester towards my job. I’ve put in half way to a Master’s Degree into Scouting. Think that may be a significant comment? Yeah, I think it is.

The biblical proverb in Luke 12:34 “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” can also be rendered as “where you choose to put your treasure will show you where your heart actually is”.

So now that I have done this experiment, what exactly do I want to do with this information? Is my heart telling me that my true career is in Scouting, and that I should be putting all of my energies into that, since I’m obviously already doing exactly that? It’s an interesting thought, but I have certain reservations... First, I do Scouting because I enjoy it, but I have this strange aversion to making it my career. Since it is something that I enjoy doing and have a passion for, I would rather not get into the political or numbers side of Scouting; my passion is with the Scouting PROGRAM. If I can find a way to make a great living at being a champion of the Scouting PROGRAM, NOW I have something that truly interests me. The fundraising and hustling to make numbers, truly, I have no interest in at all, but that’s the reality of being a Scouting professional (well, most of the time). My true focus and passion is on the program, and how the boys learn from it and interact with it. I’ve always said “when I’m financially secure and I don’t have to work any more, I’d love to go to work for the Boy Scouts”, because I don’t want my livelihood to be dictated by Scouting, I want that passion to come from within me for its own sake, not for a paycheck… and again, I’m making excuses.

So here is where I stand today, and here’ is what I am wondering… what do I really want to do? Do I want to really triple my income, or do I really want to make Scouting a greater part and purpose of my life? My head says I want the money, my actions say Scouting. I know my excuses… now the real work begins… what am I going to do about it?! For the answer, I guess we will all just have to stay tuned :).

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Madd Money: Feeding the Cars

I’m now 41 years old, and in that time, I have gone through my fair share of automobiles. Some have been great, some have been terrible, some have been placeholders until the next one came along (especially when I was younger). But in each case, I learned a little bit about myself and the process of buying and owning cars, and where it’s placed my head about them today. This has been an odd journey, so I think it’s only fair to start at the beginning:

The First Car: 1975 AMC Hornet (Dec. 1983 - Jul. 1984)
For the record, this was one of the ugliest cars I have ever seen, but it worked and it drove, so I didn’t complain too much. Also, it was given to me by my dad, so it was free. It came with its quirks, such as a manual transmission that locked up if you didn’t shift it in the right order (it was a 3 speed, so going from 1st gear up to 3rd gear or 3rd to first, or from 2nd to reverse) would lock it, and you would have to get out of the car, lie down on the ground, and flip two coupling levers to get the transmission unstuck. I still have burn marks in my left forearm from doing this and burning myself on the tailpipe. The clutch proved to be twice quick to deteriorate (partially from my lack of experience in driving it) and the car finally gave up the ghost after a concert I went to (to see Berlin at the Wharfield ...the aftermath of the Hornet breaking down having some more serious consequences for my at the time girlfriend and me, but that’s a whole 'nother story (LOL!) ).

The Second Car: 1971 Ford LTD Station Wagon (Oct. 1984 - Nov. 1986)
My grandmother Kathleen gave me this car when it became clear to her that her ability to drive was becoming greatly hindered by her advancing age, so she gave this car to me at that time. From December of 1984 to November of 1986, this car and I were inseparable. It was a boat on wheels, but it was a great way to pack people and stuff and go places. I even used it to deliver pizzas for almost a year, but man, talk about wear and tear on a vehicle. I think we replaced the brakes twice during this period (and when I say we, I mean my dad). I also didn’t realize it at the time, but my gasoline bill was a huge percentage of any take home pay I received. This car probably would have continued on for quite some time had I not gotten into an accident on Hwy 580 in November of 1986 that completely totaled the car.

The Third Car: 1973 Buick Station Wagon (Nov. 1986 - May 1987)
My dad bought this car in 1976 when we flew back east for the Bicentennial celebration. We bought it in Boston and drove it back across the country. Over the years my dad had it, it had its share of issues (alternator, radiator, etc.) but we kept patching it up and driving it as we could. During this time, I kept using this car for band practices and moving gear, delivering pizzas and going to school. My dad knew this car wasn’t long for this world, as it had issues with the transmission and burning oil, so he encouraged me to save up as much money as I could, and he’d match me dollar for dollar, so that we could buy a replacement car when this one died, which it did in the fall of 2007 (transmission finally went in a billow of smoke that totally fogged up Hwy 680. It was an epic death for that vehicle).

The Fourth Car: 1977 Ford Courier Pickup truck (May 1987 - Apr. 1988)
This car was basically all I was realistically able to afford. It cost $2,000 in 1987, and it was already 10 years old with 60000 miles on it. Today 60000 miles doesn’t sound like much. Back then, it was a geezer. However, it was lightweight and it allowed me to haul equipment for my band, so it worked out well for its intended purpose. There were, however, multiple oddities about the car that had to be addressed time and time again, such as the lack of a catalytic converter and the occasional “gutless wonderness” of the vehicle. It also suffered from the ignominy of my rear-ending a vehicle and crumpling up the hood and front fenders, along with the frame. We managed to straighten out the frame by ourselves using my dad’s car and a chain looped around the frame, but that accident did damage to the engine that ultimately caused its demise in April of 1988.

The Fifth Car: 1978 Saab 99 GLE (Apr. 1988 - Jan. 1990)
For the record, this was and still is my all time favorite car that I ever owned. I loved it when it ran properly. Sadly, when it ran properly grew to be less and less often. Added to that fact was that this car had a lot of exotic parts and repair bills were always stratospheric. But when it was running well, oh it was so much fun to drive. This car actually held out for close to 21 months, an almost record for vehicles at this time of my life (note, this was effectively my fifth car since turning 16). It lasted until January 1990.

The Sixth Car: 1990 Ford Escort Pony (Jan. 1990 - Jun. 1995)
This time, my Dad decided to help me do something we had never done before… he helped me to buy a new car. Mind you, this was not to be any type of luxury purchase, but it was indeed a new, off the lot vehicle. What we bought was bare bones to the extreme. No power windows, no power steering, no A/C. standard brakes, manual transmission… it didn’t even have a radio at first (we added one later). But it was inexpensive, relatively speaking; the car off the lot and all things paid for was just over $7,000. This vehicle was amazing. Unlike all of the other money pits I had driven over the years, this car required next to no maintenance other than the basic oil change and occasional parts that came with wear and tear. What was amazing was just how much wear and tear I was able to throw at this thing over the course of five years. By the time I gave it to my brother when he graduated from college in 1995, I had driven 140,000 miles and had required minimal upkeep. Rob drove it for another four years, and an additional 130,000 miles before it finally gave up the ghost. But wow, talk about dollar for value… nothing I have owned since has come close.

The Sixth.5 Car: 1982 Toyota Corolla (May 1990 - Feb. 1998)
This is the car that Chriustina owned and was driving when we met, dated, married and carried over into our married life. It was her car exclusively from about 1990 until I agreed to take it over as my commute car in 1995 (more on that later :) ).

The Seventh Car: 1994 Saturn SL-1 (Mar. 1994 - Aug. 2000)
This would prove to be the last car that I would buy with payments of any kind (as I don’t intend to ever pay for a car without having cash in hand ever again). We financed $10,000 and made a down payment of $5,000, and we felt like we were being really smart. Christina was the primary user of the vehicle at first, and the idea was that we would have her dive this one, I would drive my Escort, and we would hold onto her 1982 Toyota Corolla as a “spare vehicle”… needless to say, we did not quite realize how silly we must have looked living in San Francisco owning three cars. After awhile, we decided that we would spin off my Escort and we would make do with the Saturn and I would take over the Toyota Corolla, since I was the only one who knew how to drive Stick-Shift and Christina didn’t really want to learn (LOL!). I grew, however, to really regret driving and having the Corolla; it was just too short a car for me, and over time, my back started hurting just from driving it in a hunched over position.

The Eighth Car: 1998 Saturn SL-2 (Feb. 1998 - Oct. 2007)
By this time, working at Cisco has proven to be very advantageous. My stock options and Employee Stock Purchase Plan Shared had raised to what I felt were very high levels. I felt it was time to finally trade in Christina’s Corolla and replace it with a new Saturn that we paid for with cash. It was a Valentine’s Day present for Christina. From there, I took over the Saturn SL-1 and drove it as my main car. This car served us well for many years, and probably would have stayed Christina’s main car had it not been for two events. Both of them were female, and both were born two years apart (LOL!). It became my primary commute vehicle after we bought the minivan. Towards the end of 2007 we decided to downsize from three cars to two cars (it just felt like an incredible luxury to have three cars), so we found a buyer for the 1998 Saturn SL-2 and said goodbye to a car that served us very well for 9 years.

The Ninth Car: 2000 Toyota Sienna XLE (Aug. 2000 - PRESENT)
Frankly, this was spurred entirely by the fact that we were expecting a third child, and the thought of three car seats in a Saturn was just too painful to contemplate. Thus, we went and found ourselves a good quality minivan and joined the ranks of the moms and dads officially (nothing screams mom and dad louder than a minivan (LOL!). Again, this vehicle was paid with cash that was derived from selling stock shares that I had (and I can say this was also the last purchase I made when the stock's I had were riding high). We also traded in our Saturn SL-1 at this point to help with the purchase, but really, the trade in value was not much at all (we had well over 100,000 miles on the SL-1 at this point; I think we got $1,000 as a trade in. Probably could have sold it privately for more, but we weren't really focused on the money at that point in time, we just wanted to get the new vehicle and be done with it. We still have the minivan in active service today.

The Tenth Car: 2001 Ford Escape XLS (Mar. 2001 - PRESENT)
Looking back now, this purchase was entirely driven by my hobbies; I finally gave in and said ‘I need a 4x4, but I don’t want some big hulking gas guzzler, I want something that’s reasonable and can carry my stuff to go snowboarding and camping and do scouting stuff’. That turned out to be the Escape. For this I paid cash, and I had quite a lot of fun going in ans writing a $25,000 check and saying "this is what I'm willing to pay, it's already written, if you want it, just say so. If not, I'll gladly leave". Needless to say, I got the car for $25,000 (LOL!). It's as fully loaded a vehicle as I wanted at the time, which is ironic, considering that, with the exception of the cruise control, many of the other "fully loaded features" I really could care less about... well, OK, I care a LOT about the 4 wheel drive. That was, after all the whole point of buying it. We still have this vehicle in active service today.

From this experience, I have seen all ends of the spectrum when it comes to cars and what their actual worth and value is. On one hand, I have gone through the beater phase of cars, and the incredible costs associated with keeping some of them running (if a person does decide to operate a beater, the best advice I can give is to get a car with very little in the way of extras; the more standard mechanical parts a car has, the more likely it will operate for a long time with little need of maintenance). On the opposite end, I purchased five cars in the space of 11 years brand new, and looking back now, realized that I spent close to $100,000 to purchase those respective cars. While I will admit they were nicer, and they did run longer when I had them, all told, I would say that the net expenses and total cost of ownership turned out to be roughly even.

The most expensive car to own and maintain, hands down, was the Saab. The least expensive car to own and maintain was the Ford Escort. Everything else falls somewhere in between. So what’s my next car going to be? Hopefully something I won’t have to think about for another decade at least, if I can help it. I’m perfectly content to do basic and standard maintenance and then drive the things into the ground or until the wheels fall of, whichever comes first.

From there, however, my plan is to save where we can to put away as much as we need to replace the vehicles when the time comes. At that time, I will purchase a late model used vehicle, preferably between two and three years old and with anywhere from 16,000 to 24,000 miles on it. This way, the major depreciation hit will have already been taken by the original owner, and I will be purchasing vehicle with its utility cost first and foremost in mind. Which vehicle would I buy? Currently I’m looking at a 4x4 pickup with a crew cab, but that’s because of my current reality as a Scout leader. Should the time come that I need to replace my vehicle, then that will be my first choice. If I need to consider this later, then I will let the realities of my life, commute and purposes determine what I will need at that point in time. One thing’s for sure, I will not be purchasing a new car or trying to be in the latest and greatest. The up-front costs are just not worth it.