Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Kleenmaid Made Clean

Yesterday was clean out the fridge day at our house. It's a good sized fridge, so you can keep pushing opened jars and leftovers further and further back until they're completely out of sight and mind. But it's only when you then start stacking stuff on top of each other that you realize it's time for the fridge clean-out.

I need to remind you that keeping the kitchen is my responsibility, so as much as I would like to, I can't blame LK for anything going on in there. In fact I have to give her credit for suggesting that it was time we tackled the job.

First, some good news. Since I retired and take my lunches at home, our leftovers are getting eaten and there's only the stray Tupperware that escapes my attention. Yesterday, about the only thing we had to throw out was something that looked like ratatouille. Since we haven't had ratatouille in at least 10 years, I can only guess what it started its life in the fridge as.

We also threw out some fruit and berries. Linda had bought them in a splurge of optimism that I might start getting my vitamin C in some format other than a Tom Collins. The fact is that a few years ago I did the South Beach Diet, and found it really helped to lose weight by dropping carbohydrates and fats.

So out went breads, potatoes, fried food and fruit, among other things. Needless to say, the diet ended long ago and I have happily reintroduced sandwiches, potato chips, and other yummy stuff. But I have religiously avoided reintroducing fruit, feeling it shows I am still trying to stay true to the diet. Besides, if I liked fruit I probably wouldn't have needed the diet in the first place.

So yesterday out went old fruit, along with a couple of other things that were still edible but which we both knew were never going to get eaten. That left us with a bunch of jars and containers. I won't bother you with the details, but I do think the exercise left us with some questions about ourselves.

First, what sort of people have five nearly empty bottles of Caesar dressing in their fridge? In our defense, I think it's because we do not need a full bottle when we have Caesar salad, but we are too frugal to throw out the two tablespoons left. So we wait six months and throw them all out together.

Second, can anyone suggest why we had six half-empty jars of black olives? I should point out that Linda doesn't like them that much so it is obviously me who keeps opening new jars. But after the clean-out, the real challenge is to figure out how to tell if they've gone off. OK, I know that the ones with scum on the top should go down the drain, but since the water is black in all the others how can you tell if they are OK?

Third, we actually debated whether a nearly full jar of the African chili sauce, harissa, that had an April 2006 use-by date was still any good. I guess there are two questions here. First, who in their right mind would actually discuss whether something almost 3 years past use-by is OK to eat? Second, since we obviously only used this once that long ago, why did we care?

Lots of questions, but I am too close to the action to answer them. But really good news. We have made enough space in the fridge that we are going out this morning on a major shopping run. I think we'll skip the fruit, but we do need to replace the harissa.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Don't Go Changing

I never was much of a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson, but more than a few times in my life I have been fond of quoting his rationale for changing your mind: "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Whenever anyone goes from Point A to Anti-Point A, they seem to think Emerson's quote justifies the shift, and I am no exception. (Mind you, it seems to me that if Emerson was really right, then he probably didn't feel the same way a year later. But that's another issue.)

I'm thinking about this because I believe I am driving Linda crazy by saying one thing and doing another - again and again and again. Just yesterday around noon we discussed whether we should pot some plants we had bought, and I said it made more sense to do it at the end of the afternoon when it was cooler.

So Linda proceeded to start doing other tasks, and I played online poker. But after about 30 minutes, I was bored (which means "not winning" when playing poker) so I walked out and told her I was going to pot the plants. She looked so frustrated and told me she wanted to be involved because there were things she waned to do with some of them, and she wouldn't have started what she was doing if she'd known I was going to change my mind so quickly.

Fair call, but I am quite used to changing my mind. I don't think this is a getting-older thing for me. I seem to recall changing my mind a lot when I ran the company. Lots of it wasn't really changing my mind, of course. It was forgetting what I had said earlier and saying something different later.

But when you're "The Boss", people put up with you changing your mind. And when you decide their annual raises, they seldom point out you are an inconsistent twit. Sure, they grumble and undoubtedly call you nasty names behind your back. But if on Monday you say Do This and say Don't Do This on Friday, they seldom argue. Mind you, the smart ones know that gives them a perfect choice to do whichever they want to do, because they can always say, "But you told me you wanted this..."

While changing your mind works when you're "The Boss", it's a bit different when I am home and clearly "Not The Boss". Let's just say that Linda laid out a clear, convincing case point by point explaining why I am inconsistent and not particularly helpful when I do this.

But Linda goes beyond explaining why my inconsistency is annoying. If it were only that, it would just be a meaningless little spat. Where she excels is that she uses the opportunity to train me. It's almost as if looking ahead to the many years we spend together when both of us are retired, she knows she must change whatever I do when I drive her crazy or she is likely to - er - go crazy.

It's all kind of like the way we handle the remote control for the TV. Although she slipped up once and let me see that she really did know how to use it, standard procedure calls for me to check the listings, set the recordings, and otherwise choose the channels we watch. In one sense, I am in charge - I control the clicker. But funny enough, it's only lately that I realize the shows I am choosing are almost exclusively cooking and home development. Somewhere along the line, without even being aware of it, I have been trained.

And yesterday I learned it was my inconsistency that was the real hobgoblin of a little mind. Oh, don't get me wrong. She offered me the choice of going ahead with what I was thinking of doing or waiting for her to be ready.

I used the time to start writing this post.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Fim Fed Da Mama Fiddy

We Aussies have one more thing to be proud of. Scientists from Georgetown University have discovered that some of our dolphins are the world's most advanced tool users among animals, second only to humans. And they're even teaching other dolphins how to do it.

Flipper would be proud. Well, actually, Mrs. Flipper would be proud, because it turns out that only the females seem able to learn how to do it.

In Shark Bay in Western Australia, scientists have discovered some bottlenose dolphins that have begun to use sponges to protect their noses as they hunt for fish in the coarse sand. By protecting their noses, the "spongers", as the scientists call them, are able to fish much longer than the dolphins that haven't figured out how to do so.

The whole story by Robert Lee Hotz is in the Wall St Journal here, but they may not let non-subscribers read it.

Some scientists think that only females learn the technique because they spend more time with their mother who teaches them while young males go off and hunt in packs. Kind of like home economics under water.

I would put forth another theory and suggest that the male's wife and mother actively discourage them from using tools - but perhaps I am just making this all about me.

The dolphins even go so far as checking out various types of sponges until they find one that fits just right. They can spend up to 10 minutes looking for the right one. Think of it as sponge shopping, and I think it helps to explain why only the females learn to do this.

No matter, it is still fascinating to see animals discover and begin to adopt things we once described as a purely human activity, such as using tools. The parallels between the dolphins at Shark Bay and humans are quite striking.

But there is one area where I noticed that dolphins were nothing like us humans. Hotz writes, "Only the daughters could be seen still sponging once they reached maturity. The sons tried it but almost always abandoned it."

I think you can figure out the punchline here yourself.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Season's Greetings

(To play this video, click on the Play Arrow.)

There is one thing in this world of which I am certain. And that is that I can make my sister-in-law Sandy cry.

At least 5% of my blog posts get a message from her saying they brought a tear to her eye. At first I assumed that was her none too subtle way of telling me I am one bad writer. But then I recalled the times I had seen her cry - lots of them. Sandy is one of those wonderful people who has a direct connection between her heart and her tear ducts, and when she is moved, more often than not she cries. Tears of joy, I guess they're called.

I saw her cry the first time I joined the family for Christmas in Rochester one year. I saw her cry when they visited us out here. I saw her cry in Boston - oh wait, that had more to do with the martinis we drank the night before. But you get the idea.

She has a heart as big as Texas, and sometimes she just needs to get whatever is inside outside. Tears work as well as anything else.

So what's this got to do with the short video above. Well, Linda said be sure to put that video on your blog. I am positive it will make Sandy cry.

That, plus the fact that we are half a world away today but send our love to Sandy, Dave, Jordan, Chris, Peg, Norma, Red, Tom and Ben and all the others we do not see enough of. As Lil says, "Merry Christmas from Australia."

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Decoration Days

It's about 6:30 on Christmas Eve and Linda and I are following our holiday tradition and having a drink as we watch television. Oh, wait a minute, that's what we do every night.

But tonight our daily habit has a holiday theme because we're watching some special called "Extreme Christmas". It's about people who decorate their houses for Christmas and don't stop until they've created a cross between Disneyland and New Orleans' French Quarter at Mardi Gras. One idiot runs so many lights that he needs generators with enough power for 80 homes.

While we never got into outdoor lighting, we used to decorate a lot at Christmas. But we got out of the habit because we started taking trips overseas during the Christmas holidays. Putting up a tree for three days was just way too much trouble.

But we're staying home this year so Linda went for it. She spent the better part of a day doing a wonderful job of decorating the tree. We put the tree upstairs because we got rid of our old television and speakers and there was this wonderful space where the tree fit perfectly, and we could anticipate that all of us would sit around while opening gifts.

Regrettably not all logical decisions yield perfect results. Those with good analytical skills will have recognized that the room where the tree is now has no TV or sound system. So, while the tree is pretty, there's not much to do up there except read a book and look at the tree. Even Linda chose not to go up there when I suggested it the other night, noting there wasn't anything to do.

I don't want her to feel like she wasted her time decorating the tree, so every night when we go up to bed I have started singing O Tannenbaum. It got old by the second time I did it, but I continue to do it each night to show my deep appreciation for all the work that went the tree that has so few people around it that philosophers would debate whether it would make a noise if it fell over.

We had friends over for lunch yesterday, and I noticed that Linda worked her way around to bringing Coralee upstairs ostensibly to show her some handbags. But I can't help but wonder if there wasn't a bit of strategy in bringing the handbags out right in front of the tree. And by the way, that's not a criticism. If I had spent all that time decorating that tree, I would have insisted on all of us having lunch in front of it, and I would have absolutely insisted that everyone had to pee in the upstairs loo just to make sure they walked by the tree.

But no matter. Tomorrow morning, Lily is coming over for her presents. Linda has set the star aside and will have Lily put it on the tree. And even if we all only spend the time when Lily opens her gifts, that tree will have been well worth the effort because we will remember that with such fondness.

In the meantime, if anyone knows the second line to O Tannenbaum, could you please email me. I think it's getting very tedious to Linda to hear me singing "O Tannenbaum! O Tannebaum! Da da da dum, da da dee dee."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Is This the Season to Be Jolly

Bah humbug! Here it is three days to go before Christmas and I just cannot work up any enthusiasm for it this year. Oh, the bah humbug bit is wrong. I don't have negative feelings for it. I just don't have any enthusiasm.

Part of it is probably that I haven't been subject to much of the constant push for the holiday spirit that we used to get in the US. I don't think I have heard more than one or two Christmas songs so far this year and only a handful of homes around here actually put up decorations.

And I am not really sure they are all Christmas decorations. The people across the street have put up lots of pale blue lights in the bushes on their front lawn, and they are quite beautiful at night. My only problem is connecting pale blue to Christmas. Maybe it would work if they put up loudspeaker and played Elvis singing "I'll have a blue Christmas without you," but I am quite sure that hearing that song over and over would be quite effective in keeping me out of a jolly holiday mood.

It also doesn't help that all of my childhood memories equate Christmas with cold weather days where the sun sets around 4pm. Having the longest day of the year just four days before Christmas and sitting around in shorts and t-shirt just doesn't make me think of singing Jingle Bells. Even though we moved here more than 20 years ago, it's hard to break the connection between White and Christmas - but to be honest I would do anything in my power to avoid snow and freezing temperatures, so perhaps it's better just to get a bit sentimental listening to Bing Crosby dreaming of one.

There's another reason I am not much into Christmas this year. And that's the gift giving. Other than going out with Linda for Lily's gifts, everything else has been left in LK's hands. I will do online stuff for my family in the US, and leave it to the shopper in the family for everything else. But if Christmas is the season for giving, this year for me is more like the season for not working up a sweat about it.

Linda and I aren't exchanging gifts this year. We stopped doing it a few years ago when we both realized that if there was anything in this world either of us wanted and which we could afford, we just went ahead and got it. Why wait? In my case, this was because there wasn't much I wanted so when I did want it, it seemed simpler to just go get it.

In Linda's case, I think it had more to do with her belief that I was unlikely to get it right if I went out to get something she really wanted. But LK is a problem solver and one day she explained to me that almost anything from Tiffany would either be appropriate or easy to exchange for something appropriate. That worked until she realized that it was even easier if she just got it herself. So now we don't exchange gifts at Christmas.

Anyhow, now that I am retired, I am showing a lot more restraint about buying stuff for myself. So, LK, if you're reading this you should check out the Hairmax Lasercomb as featured on Rachael Ray's show. Think of it as a gift for both of us. I know it costs $540, but if it really grows back hair over bald areas, it should make both of us go Ho ho ho and restore our holiday spirit.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Groceryman Always Rings Twice

The groceries came about 20 minutes late this morning. (I call them groceries even though they included bottles of scotch and wine. But then again, I am leading a campaign here to have alcohol added as a food group. If it gets down to negotiations, I am even willing to let them remove leafy green vegetables so we don't end up with too many food groups.)

For the past couple of months, Linda has been ordering groceries online, and they get delivered the next day. It brings out the bargain hunter in her, and when she sees, for example, that toilet paper is 25% off, she buys an amount that could best be expressed as two levels above bulk.

That is one of the downsides of online shopping. When you are in the store and have filled up two shopping carts with toilet paper, you get a very strong visual signal that it's time to move to the next aisle. But online, you just order away.

I understand LK's thinking. Toilet paper is something that will always get used - especially with Don around.

What she doesn't seem to think about is that we have run out of cupboard space where we can put toilet paper. In fact, I believe she is considering getting lots of little table cloths, stacking the packs of TP and covering them as if they were end tables. I suppose that's better than making 640 of those little crochet covers some people use. Now that would be a design statement.

We've been shopping and doing business online for many years, but recently it seems to have taken on a momentum of its own. In just the past few days I ordered office supplies, LK ordered flowers for Christmas, I sent some Christmas presents from Amazon, we moved money into a term deposit at the bank, downloaded music for the iPod, paid just about every bill we have, played poker, booked a tradesman to come and do some repairs at the house, and I even booked the Salvation Army to pick up some donations.

Yesterday I told Linda that we had to be careful or we would never see another human except for delivery people. (That doesn't count the kids when they need something.)

Two thousand years ago, you pretty much had to wander off into the desert or a cave, but today becoming a hermit is a practical option. I don't know why I would want that, but I guess you'll know I've moved there when I even avoid speaking with the delivery people by handing them a sheet that says I have taken a vow of silence.

Friday, December 19, 2008


It's been a couple of days since I posted, and I am starting to feel vaguely guilty for not doing it. Unfortunately, life has settled into a nice, easy rhythm but that hasn't led to a lot of topics I want to write about. Summer has finally come in beautifully, and with Linda starting her holidays today everything seems very laid back.

Oh, our accountant came by and we reviewed our retirement plans. I could write about that, but then you would all urge me to get a job, and I am enjoying this too much.

I could write about everything we're doing to get ready for Christmas, but the fact is Linda put up the tree a while ago, and we haven't done a blessed thing since then. In fact, with a week to go, we finally realized we had better call Rachael and find out what we should get Lily for Christmas. Turns out she hasn't done her shopping yet.

(That last bit proves, by the way, that you can really only get one paragraph out of NOT doing something. I am sure I will get a full post when we finally do it.)

I've started organizing Linda's business files. Believe me. You do not want a post about that.

Yesterday when I was walking I realized how great it is to be here, and couldn't help thinking about the ice storm and other winter weather hitting the folks in Vermont and Canada. So I decided today that I would shoot some pictures this morning to let you see some of the stuff that I get to see on my walkabout in Greenwich.

To be honest, there are bits of Greenwich that you have to just ignore - especially where the oil tanks are a little further down on the east side of the peninsula. But the majority of it is fantastic. Most of these pictures are from Mann's Point Park, and a few are from the nature path between Shell Park and Greenwich Point. You can check all of this out on Google Maps here. When it comes up, type "Greenwich NSW, Australia" in the search box.

Or take the easy way and just check out the pictures on Shutterfly here. One of the neat things I like about this little park is that you can see all of Sydney's three northern bridges from here. The famous coat hanger, the Sydney Harbor Bridge, is obvious, but I think the Anzac Bridge is really the most elegant and beautiful. Functional old Gladesville Bridge is off to the west.

I am seeing a friend for lunch and LK and I are shopping this afternoon. Should be some material by tomorrow!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Third Man

That's Davy with me on the night he hosted a great farewell dinner for me. He became the third head of the company when I left.

Thinking about the transition to a new head for the company, I think my timing was just a bit off. If I had just waited three more months to retire, I would have realized that I could do a mini-Blagojevich and make some money by having the people who wanted my job pay me to recommend them as my successor to the owner of the company. But, as the Illinois governor lamented of the Obama team, all he could expect from them was appreciation.

Actually, I would settle for a little appreciation from Davy but his comments today to an earlier post make me wonder if he is in that frame of mind any more. Rather than make you chase them down, here they are:

Davy Adams has left a new comment on your post "SPECIAL POST: Behind the Scenes at Fourth Quarter":
"4Q"...guess it makes a change from "TITSWC". Actually, I thought this blog was all about IDG's 4th quarter. Was there fine print? Was it assumed knowledge? I guess there was always the connection because you chanted "TITSWC" all the way through Q4 and I muttered "4Q Don..4Q" in October when I realised what I'd got myself in for :-)
Posted by Davy Adams to Fourth Quarter at December 16, 2008 4:43 PM

In case you have forgotten, TITSWC stands for "tell it to someone who cares" and 4Q is just the abbreviation for this blog, Fourth Quarter. But from his comments, a few things are becoming quite clear to me.

First, I now know who is yelling that at me when I drop Linda off at work.

Second, Davy isn't setting a good example by replying to silly posts like this while at work (4:43pm!). That's actually a joke because Davy was one of the people with whom I used to be able to play e-mail gotcha. That's where you send an e-mail to someone at a ridiculous hour, say 2am on Friday night, and they reply immediately to let you know you can't catch them asleep at the wheel. That's scored as a Gotcha and they get double points for being online at even crazier hours than you. Mind you, once you are retired, none of this counts anymore because it is just assumed you are an old fart who is having trouble sleeping.

Third, based on the things he wrote, it's pretty clear that the honeymoon period for his new job is just about over. Given that the guys running banks and car companies are being vilified and humiliated continually over their businesses, I guess it is to be expected that this little computer publishing company here in Oz will be doing it tough, too.

It does take the fun out of your first time to be the Big Kahuna (a metaphor, in Davy's case). Even though it was more than 20 years ago, I can remember the sense of accomplishment when the guys in Boston asked me to run one of their then least successful international businesses. And the international bit is what's key.

It's kind of spooky to realize you're in a job for the first time where your boss not only isn't in the building, they are not even in the hemisphere. Even the time zones are wrong, so you really don't have lots of chances to talk things over.

For some of us, that turns out to be good. I used to tell my bosses in Boston that I made the company start each day with a prayer thanking God for making the Pacific Ocean as big as it is. Strange how few of them thought that was as funny as I did.

But not having a boss close by has some serious disadvantages, as well. Few realize it, but the chief advantage of having a boss is having someone with whom you can share the blame when you stuff up. Think about it. If you haven't told your boss about something and it all goes horribly wrong, your boss gets to yell and scream at you and maybe even sack you.

But if you've shared it with them --- well, guess who gets a bucketing then from the Really Big Kahuna (and with him that's not a metaphor). Your boss may still fire you since the creative ones usually know how to point fingers at underlings better than at themselves. But at least they will have had their ears boxed for the effort.

At least when you read his comments to my post, you can see that Davy is a quick learner. When I left I shared lots of my secrets with him. One that I learned early seems to have sunk in. I told him that you only get about 12 - 18 months of blaming the guy who came before you for all the problems in the company so don't waste the opportunity by being nice about it.

I have a sense of pride that I have trained him well.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Trend Setter

Fashion! turn to the left
Fashion! turn to the right
Oooh, fashion!
We are the goon squad and we're coming to town

David Bowie, Fashion

I realize many in the fashion industry no longer consider Michael Jackson to be a trend setter, but once in a while one of his outfits really gets my attention. That was certainly the case when I saw this picture at the UK's Mail Online website (which has lots more photos here).

Without commenting on Michael's personal eccentricities or even his legal and financial history, I can say with certainty that with this one picture the King of Pop has validated one of my post-retirement fashion choices. And knowing one of the world's greatest former stars shares the same taste as I do makes me proud.

I am referring, of course, to his footwear. For most days lately - and I do mean most - I am either barefoot or my feet can be found wrapped in a pair of clogs. I first started wearing them when we travelled because it was so much easier to slide into and out of them when going through airport security. But now they have become my standard shoe, except when I am going for my walk.

My entire retirement costume is pretty predictable, I guess. Shorts, t-shirt and clogs. That's it. When Linda was doing laundry yesterday, she put a small pile of T's and shorts on the table and said, "Here's your clothes for the week." She was right.

But it is really the clogs that finish it off. LK often tells me I am going out in public wearing slippers, but everyone knows Timberland doesn't make slippers. I had assumed she was just teasing me about my fashion sense. But I now see that this is a fairly common mistake, for even the supposedly hip Mail Online writer Simon Cable wrote about Jacko, "However, his lower half was not quite in keeping with the (Zorro) theme. Instead of a cape and boots, he opted for slippers and a bright blue tunic."

I need to add that I do vary my wardrobe based on the circumstances. If I am going to a restaurant to have lunch with a friend, I will put on a polo shirt and chinos. But now that Jacko has shown me just how creative you can be when you start with a good pair of clogs on your feet, I am also going to look into masks, hats, veils and tunics. Just because I am retired doesn't mean I have to forsake fashion altogether.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

SPECIAL POST: Behind the Scenes at Fourth Quarter

G'day. Today is a momentous day as this marks the 100th post for this blog. What began as a rather tenuous stab at figuring out how to post on August 4th has grown into one of the most fun and addictive things I have ever done.

I think of the blog as an online diary of what goes on in my life from "when I retire until I expire" (I like rhymes, as you can see). Using the biblical four score as a standard age, I named it Fourth Quarter, or 4Q for short. I never anticipated being widely read, but I must be because almost every day when I drive around Sydney someone yells "4Q!" at me. It's funny how I had to retire to become popular.

A few of you - OK, one of you - asked what happens to the blog if I make it past 80. Well that is pretty obvious to me. I will just rename it Extra Time, and of course it will only end in sudden death.

Part of the problem with doing a blog about what happens when you are retired is that some days not much happens. I don't know about you, but even I have my doubts about how much more I can milk this walking bit. Already LK is suggesting that there needs to be a firm limit on how many times I mention her. And even if I put on my biggest creativity hat, I cannot think of a way to be interesting to write about falling asleep after lunch.

In fact, a few things happened this week that make me wonder if retirement is going to end up being one very slow, walker-assisted descent into low self esteem. Three examples will suffice:

1. I write about how I tackled this great project and cleaned the junk out of the garage. Within an hour my friend Robert had written and showed how his latest retirement project involved putting in a new floor for their bedroom. He even included pictures and made a special note of the power tools he used. Which we all know he was doing just to rub my clumsy nose in it.

2. About a week after I wrote about my, shall we say, mediocre results at online poker, one of the kids who used to work for me has quit the company in order to become a full-time, professional poker player. He's made this decision because he has been doing so well lately. I wish him well - even though I think I hate him.

3. I write about a n easy visit to an electronics store, and the only comment I get back is from Davy suggesting that the real test is whether I have the same good fortune at - where else - a hardware store. I am detecting a theme. And it seems to have a lot to do with what some of you see as my shortcomings.

But enough of me. No, actually, this is about me. So let's finish with more about me.

Some writers would have you believe they are inspired gasbags who write because their muse makes them. But I am quite a few steps further down the artiste ladder. For example, one of my largest motivations in starting this was that I wanted the folks at my old company to say to themselves, "Damn. He wasn't as dull and removed as we all thought he was. I wish I had known him better before he retired."

OK. It doesn't seem to have happened, but at least it gave me a reason to put fingers to keyboard. And, come to think of it, a couple of times people at the company have been yelling "4Q!" at me when I drop LK off at work.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Princess and the Pea, 2008

There is a story by Kevin Helliker on the Wall St Journal website right now called "The Rise of Beds, and Falls of Dogs". You can read it here but they may not make it available for non-subscribers.

Basically it tells of the growing danger to house pets caused by the higher and higher mattresses that are now being made. Apparently, old dogs don't quite realize that they can't jump on and off the new mattress the way they did the older one that was closer to the floor.

And for little dogs like Pekingese ... well, I think Stephen Crane (the vet, not the 19th century novelist) said it best. "For a little dog to take a flying leap off a bed that's five to six times higher than he stands is an act of courage, and a recipe for injury."

I know what he means. Little dogs are courageous - or perhaps it's stupidity masquerading in human terms of bravery. One of my favorite dogs growing up was a chihuahua named Buttons. She was everything a little dog needed to be - fearless, aggressive and unaware that she could be crushed at any second by whatever or whomever she was yapping at.

But this post is prompted more because of the high beds than the leaping little dogs. For more than a year now, Linda and I have been using one of those over-swollen mattresses to create a very high bed. Linda loves the VHB. I hate it. But that may be because I am not comfortable with any piece of furniture that is higher than my butt.

But Linda, I imagine, feels she's doing the 21st century version of The Princess and the Pea. The fact that we had to consider installing oxygen masks above the bed doesn't phase her. It is, shall we say, a topic of difficult discussion almost every night as she seems to float into the rarefied air where we sleep, and I flop my way onto the bed like a walrus trying to itch its butt with its short flippers.

I sent her the Wall St Journal story to show her that I wasn't insane when I told her these beds posed dangers. I'm not even looking to change anything, but I thought she would at least acknowledge that the extra height of the new mattresses did create problems.

But when I asked her about her reaction, it was her practical nature that came forward. Without acknowledging that I may have had just a teensy bit of right in my position, she did say, "Look, if you're worried about getting in and out the bed, why don't you just buy a set of those dog steps."

"I am not buying dog steps to go to bed at night," I said.

"Yeah," she shot back, "but if you are having trouble getting in and out because of your bad knee, then why don't you just get a step and make your life easier."

I might, I told her, if my leg didn't get better soon. But it would just be a regular step, not a dog step.

"Well, that makes sense," she said. "But it doesn't change anything. It's still a dog step, even if you're the one using it."

I guess you can see why I seldom win one of these discussions. And I am sure most of you will agree with my decision to never, under any circumstance, use a step to get into our very high bed.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Garage Banned

Linda was out of town Wednesday, so that is when I planned to clean out the garage. We use the garage for storage and in the past year it has become a magnet for anything that didn't have a more logical home. As oblivious as I can be to such things, I knew it was getting out of hand.

I keep my wine in a couple of wine fridges out there, and I could only get to one of them - and then only if I moved half a dozen items ranging from suitcases to Matt's punching bag.

Being essentially a lazy person, I decided limited access was OK. I would just take from the one fridge until it was empty and then figure out what to do to get to the second later on.

Then the other day our kids scraped some paint from the wall moving a TV we don't use any more. I knew the paint to touch it up was on the far side of a jungle of cardboard boxes and toys Lily had grown out of. I thought to myself, it's just a little gouge and it's upstairs where few will see it. I decided I could wait longer.

Then the clincher. Linda decorated the Christmas tree and couldn't find the carton with the little rug thing you throw around the base and the star that goes on top. As she told me this, she also mentioned that she has storage cartons with summer clothes that she can't get to anymore. Too many omens. The Year of Living Messily was coming to a close.

I tackled the project when Linda was out of town as a surprise gift to her. OK, that's what I told her, but of course it also meant that she and I wouldn't do the project together and end up having those inevitable disagreements about where to move something or other and whether this or that is worth saving. So in that sense it was a gift to both of us.

I started by throwing out all the empty cartons that used to have wine in them. That actually cleared a fair portion of the place. Then I tackled the Museum of Ancient Luggage. For some reason we have difficulty throwing away suitcases, even when they are broken. We have about 9 suitcases with handles off, wheels broken, zippers jammed - you know, the kind that put the "lug" back in luggage.

These have all been replaced with newer suitcases so there is no earthly reason to keep them, but we have. One or both of us was always thinking we can get this repaired or replaced. Knowing that we haven't done such a thing in sixty years didn't matter. We may change our lifestyle any day now. No matter - on Sunday night the broken suitcases are going on the curb for trash pick-up.

Anyhow, I discovered that most of what was in the garage is junk and should be thrown out. Some of it - like Lily's old toys - will make good donations to a charity. What remains will be easy to get to.

I finished around 6, quite tired and dirty but ready for the praise, admiration and thankfulness LK would inevitably show me. However, soon after I finished with my shower, she rang to tell me that she had had a rotten day and to top things off her flight had been canceled and she would be moved to a much later flight.

When she finally arrived home, she was exhausted and her mood was sour. When I showed her the garage, I think she knew she should praise me. But she was too tired, and even though she tried her best about all she could muster was the equivalent of "That's nice, dear".

The next day she was much more appreciative, but by then I had slept and awakened with what seemed an extreme number of aches and pains in my shoulders, arms, back and legs. A day-late attaboy wasn't going to do much to fix my mood. On the other hand, that 15-year-old shiraz in the second fridge might go a long way toward helping.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

I Like Bing Lee

This retirement thing just keeps getting better. Today, only 16 days before Christmas, I went to the mall to get some things we needed. At 10am on Tuesday, there were about 10,000 more parking spaces available than were usually free at the times when we used to shop on the weekends.

In fact, I had my choice of several spots right next to the entrance. And when I went inside, there was hardly anyone shopping. But best of all, the people who worked in the stores still tried to act like they were busy and made great efforts to ignore me. Not everyone likes this benign neglect level of service but because I really hate shopping, I hate it even more when some total stranger is trying to be of "assistance" when I just want them to bug off.

It did occur to me that the mall may have been quiet more because of George "Little Hoover" Bush and the economy he built for us as a going away gift, but it is more pleasant for me to think I've gained an advantage by being retired. So that's how it's going to play out in my mind.

The stuff we needed was pretty mundane - a new printer, an electric broom, a fan and new bathroom scales (Yeah, yeah, yeah. Don't waste your time writing wise comments on that. I can hear them already.) Each purchase was a bit of a learning experience.

For example, the color printer from HP cost only $20 more than if I had just purchased the ink cartridges that come with it. In fact, the more expensive ink refills for our broken printer would have cost more than this whole printer did today. I remember a while ago that HP's profits as a company for the whole year equalled the profits it made from selling ink cartridges. In other words, everything else they did lost money. Interesting company - and probably why printers are so cheap now.

The thing I learned when buying the electric broom was what it was. When LK said she wanted one, I had no idea what an electric broom was. When I asked her, she looked at me as if I was a few degrees short of a semi-circle and explained that it was just a lightweight, small upright vacuum.

I didn't want her to laugh at me so I didn't share my original thought that it must be some crazy broom that sweeps by itself - kind of like in a Walt Disney cartoon. But I don't know why she didn't just say she wanted a lightweight, small upright vacuum.

With the bathroom scales I learned that they're now making digital readouts that go all the way up to 160 kilos - about 350 pounds. It will be so nice now not to go past zero and have to add the two numbers. And even nicer to know that somewhere out there must be some people who are even bigger than I am.

I didn't learn anything special with the fan, only I was more careful when assembling this one and didn't put the base on backwards as I did with the last one we had.

But the day's most fantastic learning experience was discovering Bing Lee. For you in North America, Bing Lee is a Sydney appliance and electrical retailer. Up until today my main awareness of it came from its impossible-to-erase-from-your-mind jingle "I Like Bing Lee" and the nearly incomprehensible sales pitch of Mr and Mrs Lee. The Aussies really won't want to see another one of their commercials, but the rest of you can check one out here to see what I am talking about.

Their slogan is "Everything's negotiable" and as LK sent me out today, she reminded me that it is a tough old market and I had better get some serious discounts from my purchases. Well, Mrs K, I am pleased to report that unlike a certain person who shouldn't have done it, I can proudly stand beneath a banner reading "Mission Accomplished".

I used my tried and tested negotiating technique. I told the sales guy, "My wife said I needed to get good prices, and I am terrible at negotiating. So can you help me out so she doesn't get on my case."

Let's just say, that everything - right down to the bathroom scales - really was negotiable. I should also add that I, too, like Bing Lee.

Monday, December 8, 2008

I Sing the Body Defective

Over the weekend a blog at the New York Times site reported that a Malaysian man had been killed at a karaoke bar because other patrons thought he had been hogging the microphone. Blogger Robert Mackey went on to cite other reports of karaoke violence, much of it having to do with people trying to sing Sinatra's "My Way" or just about any John Denver song. All of which, in its own way, is kind of understandable.

I don't sing well, but I love to perform so karaoke is a natural for me. It has been two years since I last stepped up to the karaoke microphone.

It was at the company Christmas party, so of course I had had a bit to drink. (Well, probably more than a bit since I was willing to sing in public.) But once I got up there, it was a disaster. Without my glasses, I couldn't read the lyrics very well and was relying on a slightly fuzzed memory of the words to "Stand By Me". But worst, I couldn't hear the music I was supposed to sing along to. All I heard on the track were the drums.

Now for quite awhile I have been asking people to repeat what they've just said to the point where Linda has started answering for me when clerks or waitresses or other such people ask me something. But this marked the night that I officially and formally entered the public ranks of the hard of hearing.

I couldn't tell for sure, but I am guessing that within 20 seconds I was about 10 bars behind the recording and fading fast. Fortunately, unlike that unlucky guy in Malaysia, rather than getting attacked I was with plenty of friends, many of whom got up and started singing with me.

Having my hearing fade is only one of the things that happen now that I am entitled to call myself a senior. OAPs (that's old-age pains for those under 50) are so common that I don't even look for a reason when a new one crops up, figuring most are just the result of sixty years of living like I have.

But OAPs don't get me down (especially since I am pretty sure it would be very hard work to get back up). In fact lately I have started to feel much better about them. That's because when I read sports reports, I have started to look at the bottom bit that lists any injuries the players may have had.

Just in today's games that my favorite Boston teams played, there were these reports for their competitors: Indiana guard Mike Dunleavy was out with a sore right knee and his teammate Travis Diener sat out with a sore foot. In football, the Seahawks' quarterback Matt Hasselbeck didn't play because he had a sore back.

Knee. Check. Foot. Check. Back. Check. Yep, my aches and pains are the same ones that highly paid, physically superior athletes have. From now on, I'm not even going to call them old-age pains. They're my senior sports injuries. And don't bother laughing at me. I really can't hear you.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Hitting the Bull's Eye

This is a quick, special Sunday post to share with you my friend Robert's suggested improvements of my target shirt in the earlier post.

Robert's the guy with the great inventive skills whom I met on our recent cruise. You last saw him here with about four gin and tonics on the table in front of him.

He has now re-worked my proposed food stain t-shirt design to the one you see here, and added this note in an e-mail:

How about your top 10 list on this shirt vs your target shirt. expressly designed for pub crawlers.
10) More areas to keep score.
9) Smaller scoring areas for smaller people.
3) When the dart board is missing you can use the old shirt with stains the on it.
2) Using the old shirt you can get double points if you hit a stain spot.
1) When you encounter a wind bag on the bar stool next to you you know a bulls eye
will let the hot air out.
I will let you fill in your best ideas.

OK, Robert. I'll bite.

#8. With that design, no one is going to pay any attention to whatever mess I make of the shirt.

#7. The black outer circle is actually quite slimming.

#6. With all those pointers, it will be easier to find my navel.

#5. If I stand quietly against the wall of the pub, no one will notice me.

#4. By having the double and triple 20 closest to my mouth, I am likely to have very high scoring rounds.

But of course, there's one fairly strong reason that your design won't work, Robert.

Top One Reason the Other Shirt Is Better

#1. When I wear this design, people are liable to throw darts at me.

But of course, there are some people who won't see that as a good enough reason. Anyhow, thanks for the thought, Robert. Have a G&T on me.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Yes, Virginia, I Was a Santa

Today they are holding my old company's Christmas party - the first time I won't attend in 20 years. Davy, my successor, invited me but I declined. I feel I might have veered between looking like Marley's ghost and one of those old guys who attends anything he can and stuffs his pockets with the nibblies.

Christmas season brings back memories of the couple of years that I was a department store Santa. Funny enough I wasn't all that heavy back then, so I may be a good example of an actor growing into a role. 

I enjoyed the Santa bit and I was still young enough not to be cranky about pushy parents, crying and puking babies and about half the kids sneezing in my face. My disguise must have been fairly effective, because my son Tom who I think was 2 at the time, proceeded to scream when placed on my lap - something that happened with about 1 in 20 kids.  I tried to calm him down by using my natural voice and telling him it was really Daddy. That, of course, led him to scream in absolute terror. I never was all that good with child psychology.

One of my biggest disappointments happened on my first day on the job. I was scheduled to arrive at the store in a helicopter, which seemed pretty cool at the time. Unfortunately a blizzard ended that plan, as well as costing me a day's pay since the store ended up being closed for the day. I know a lot of kids were disappointed, but I am pretty sure not as much as me.

None of this is as bad as a report I read out of London last week. Some enterprising souls had set up a Christmas wonderland and advertised it heavily. Apparently, they were able to get enough hopeless sentimentalists to shell out the equivalent of $US70 (or more than $100 Aussie bucks) for each ticket.

Anyone who has ever caved in to their kids and turned into some small-town, unheard-of-but-heavily-billboarded Reptile Park during a summer trip, would have known what they were likely to get. Turns out there wasn't much to see in this Christmas wonderland, for as London's Telegraph described it, it comprised "a Nativity scene painted on a billboard, a broken ice-skating rink and huskies tied up outside their kennels in a muddy field."

The line to see Santa lasted for hours - literally - and then Santa wanted another 20 bucks if your kids actually wanted a picture with him. The final straw was reported to be when someone who had spent hours lining up was told they needed to get in yet another line for their kid to get their present. Dad decided it would be more satisfying to punch Santa in the face, which he did.

I never had to deal with anyone quite that angry, but I guess holiday rage is as real as road rage and all those other rages we hear about. In fact, I wouldn't be at all surprised if there aren't a large number of rich Jewish Americans having their own version of Hanukkah Rage this year.

It appears George and Laura sent them all cards, inviting them to a White House Hanukkah reception. Why the rage? Well, it seems they sent all their Jewish friends a card with a Christmas tree on it. I'll bet even the idiots at the Christmas park in London would know better than that.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Graduation Day

OK. There are some things that I am hopeless about. And Lily is No 1 on the list.

Today was her graduation from first grade and from her school, which only does kindergarten and Year 1. So of course we all went to celebrate this milestone, since it is quite unthinkable that we wouldn't.

From the beginning of these blog posts, I have decided not to write much about Lily. Not that I don't talk about her continually, as anyone who has been in a conversation with me would know. But rather because I know I am so full-blown biased about this kid that I am pretty sure that there are only a couple of her relatives who would want to read what I have to write about her.

Even though I am enthralled with the topic when I talk to people about her, I can still spot some of their eyes glazing over and their lips freezing in a phony smile as I tell them the very funny/very cute/very mature-for-her-age thing that Lily has said. I know many other people don't share my enthusiasm for her and are just being polite when I talk about her. So I do the obvious. I never talk with them again.

But writing is different. Unlike a conversation, it's impossible to know if someone is having trouble keeping their eyelids open as I write about the world's most beautiful, intelligent, loving child. So I have decided not to post much about my favorite subject.

But today was special. Lily has completed Year 1. She was one of three kids chosen to read the narration for the ceremony, and - unfortunately for the other two - she was easily the best. Poise, personality, beauty, grace, stage presence. And all at the age of 6 1/2! It is scary to think what she will be like when she graduates from Year 4 or 7 or, God forbid, high school.

The ceremony was cute and really well rehearsed showing, I believe, that in Greenwich form probably matters at least as much as substance. It was cute to watch as each child came forward and very properly shook the teacher's hand as they were handed their certificate.

But the highlight was the musical interlude where the performing bands from the primary school entertained their future classmates. The group started out with the theme from Star Wars, which lasted only slightly longer than the last scene in the episode with the dancing teddy bears and ghosts of fallen comrades. Matt and Linda were upset we hadn't brought the video camera, since we were all pretty sure this would have been a monster YouTube hit.

Another bunch of players then moved on to a pretty good (for that age) version of Van Morrison's "Bright Side of the Road". And they concluded with "Lady Marmalade". Yep, here in Greenwich we don't think twice about the lyrics if we like the tune.

Anyhow, the best bit of the day was after the ceremony was over and Lily could come over to us all and give hugs and kisses. As a graduation gift, Linda gave her a little bracelet that we had bought in Elba for about $5. She liked it well enough, but I can't help remembering when she was at our house last weekend.

She picked up Linda's diamond ring, put it on her finger and decided it was beautiful. I just think these cheap costume jewelry gifts aren't going to cut it as she grows up. But then, if she continues to blow kisses at me from the stage, I don't see why that would be a problem either.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Remembrance of Things Present

Have you seen this person? If you're not sure, the chances are you are a senior citizen.

This is a face used in a test devised by Dr Adam Gazzaley at the University of California, San Francisco to determine if your memory is affected by minor distractions. You can take a quick version of the test at the NPR website here. I took it. I'm not telling how well I did.

I started thinking of this aging and memory stuff because of a story in today's Wall St Journal that interviews Gazzaley and other researchers who are looking into issues such as forgetfulness among older people. Robert Lee Hotz's story is here (but I am not sure if you will be able to read it because some of the WSJ stories require a subscription.)

Researchers have concluded that part of the reason for "senior moments" is that older people have more difficulty than younger folk in tuning out minor distractions. Say for example, you're meeting someone for the first time and the phone rings or there's a loud noise. Older people are less likely to remember the person's name because of these interruptions.

Of course, as they say, it's all how you look at it. The researchers are saying older folks aren't as adept at screening out distractions. I think you could say that another way -- younger people don't pay attention to a lot of things that older people do.

The whole memory thing is starting to get attention because of all of us boomers now qualifying for senior discounts. In America, about 8,000 people a day turn sixty. I draw two conclusions from this. First, about sixty years ago many of our parents obviously were making up for lost time and acting like bunnies. And second, there is a real chance that within a few years, more than 78 million people in America will have trouble remembering names.

I recognize how important this issue really is - and how scary it would be to have serious memory loss - but as someone who has always had big gaps in his memory, I am wondering just how anyone will be able to determine if I am getting worse as I get older. At the least the new research gives me a little comfort. I now know that my poor memory probably reflects the fact that I have a long history of not paying much attention to most things.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Uh-uh-uh-uh Stain Alive, Stain Alive

As we slowly work our way through every reality show ever produced, this month Linda and I are watching four-year old episodes of Grand Designs, the BBC show about people building their dream home. Actually, that is the subject, but the show is really about managing projects and how many things can go wrong if you don't plan properly.

The show is obviously having an impact on Linda's thinking. Last night, she was folding some laundry when she asked if the stain on the front of my sweatshirt was a new stain or a legacy of older days.

Before I could recall, she added, "All I know is, if you were a project I would go over budget when it came to buying new shirts to replace the ones you keep dropping food on."

She has a point, I suppose, but it's really not my fault. Sure, a very large percentage of my shirts, ties, sweaters and sweatshirts have interesting blotches on the spot that can best be described as dead center at the top of the highest ledge.

In fact, I can always spot shirts I have given away to charity. They're extremely loose on whoever ended up with them, and there's always that tell-tale smudge in the middle.

It's not like I chose to be clumsy. (And I am not prepared to discuss whether I chose to be fat - not when there are still people out there who will believe me when I tell them it's a combination of genes and environment.) My best guess is that it's a hand-eye coordination issue - namely, when I see food my hand moves too fast to get it in my mouth.

I also know I am not alone. When my friend John and I went to eat mussels at the Belgian Beer Cafe, there was a standing bet on who would ruin their tie first. In fact, I have noticed that most chubby guys have a collection of slightly dripped-upon polo shirts that they wear around the house or out in the garden.

But hey, my attitude is that when you're given lemons you should make gin and tonics. So in the spirit of taking a problem and finding a solution I am developing a range of t-shirts and polo shirts that have targets drawn on the front. (That's the concept of the picture at the top.)

Instead of being embarrassed when we drip that soy sauce on our belly, we can be proud that we've scored a bull's-eye. I can see big guys forming teams and going to pasta houses for their Tuesday night league competition.

There can be a Hall of Fame. (Look, son, there's the shirt the great Don Kennedy wore when he scored 180 with ketchup, mayo and grease in one bite!) There's no reason there can't be a pro league. There would certainly be enough sponsors. I mean, the manufacturers of just about any food that can fall off a fork should love the idea.

Well, I'll leave it at that, for now. But I do think it's time to tell Linda that she doesn't need to worry about a cost overrun if I'm a project. I think we can turn this one into a cash windfall.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Incredible Exploding Holiday

Australia has a history of catastrophic imports. One of our most famous was the decision in the 1930s to bring cane toads in to control pests that were damaging sugar crops. It's debatable whether they did that effectively, but there is no question that they were extremely effective when it came to breeding. Having few natural enemies here, these poisonous creatures now number about 200 million, and experts are desperately working to figure out how to stop their spread from Queensland into other states.

So what does this have to do with our attempt to bring our American Thanksgiving to Australia when we moved here? Hang on - you'll see.

Part 4 - A Very Australian Thanksgiving

Linda, Jason and I had been in Oz about four weeks when Thanksgiving rolled around. We were in a furnished apartment while we looked for a house, and we all felt a bit homesick and out of place in this new land. A Thanksgiving dinner seemed like the perfect remedy to the blues.

This would be Linda's first real encounter with Oz shopping as it existed then. Coming from the land of 24-hour grocery stores stocked with just about anything you could think of, she wandered into the local Woolies to discover that A) turkeys in Australia were about the size of large pigeons and B) even at that size they still take several hours to cook. Which posed a problem since we couldn't start cooking until early evening when we got out of work.

There actually was a C, as well. For it was that night when we discovered that Coopers Ale was a lot stronger than the beer we were used to in the US. While it undoubtedly helped to allay the blues for Linda and me, Jason was still too young to join in.

Probably because of that fact, Jay's memory of the night differs from Linda's. (I have no memory of the night myself.) Linda remembers the Thanksgiving dinner being very late. Jason also remembers dinner being late, but he insists it consisted of salami and cheese because the turkey wasn't going to be done until sometime around sunrise. Poor Jay - the move here was a difficult transition for a 14-year-old.

Anyhow, we decided to do better the next year. By then we were in our first house in Oz, and we had become friends with several other expat Yanks at work. As November rolled around, we all started remembering the great feasts of other Thanksgivings, so we invited them and a few Aussie friends to come to our place for the holiday. We would make the turkey and basics, and the cost of admission was to bring the dish that you most loved from your family's Thanksgivings.

It was obvious that a few of our friends had come from homes with a serious lack of understanding about nutrition, but nonetheless the day was a great success, So much so, in fact, that more friends started wrangling for a seat at the table next year.

No worries, mate! The more the merrier. We were up to two tables the next year, and I recall Linda having to make a turkey the night before in order to make a second on the day. Well, like cane toads, this thing just kept multiplying until it was pretty much out of control.

By our fourth Thanksgiving here, we were feeding more than 40 people. We were renting trestle tables, plates and cutlery, buying wine and beer by the pallet and figuring out pretty quickly that a four-burner stove and oven were put to the test to feed that many people.

One of our Australian friends volunteered to do another turkey for us and bring it, and we accepted gratefully. Our local friend had never cooked a turkey, however, and she didn't know that you were supposed to remove the plastic bag of giblets and other bits that is stuffed inside the cavity. The plastic had melted, and I always wondered if the bird had picked up an odd taste. No one complained, but then again, I only served that turkey to the people I didn't like that much.

The first time Linda or I gave thanks that day was when that dinner was over and everything cleaned up. We realized that we had imported a holiday with no natural enemies, and it was growing rampant threatening to destroy everything in its path.

So we did the only thing we could. We moved to a new house that was too small to hold a feast.

And now over many, many years, we have learned to be wistful as we miss Thanksgiving in America and happy we are missing it in Oz. This year on Thursday, I had lunch at a Thai restaurant with Jason and Lora. That night Linda and I had chili con carne and Matt came in a little later. It may not have been the traditional celebration, but it was nice just having time with the kids and not having to remember the names of 40 people, half of whom I had never met before.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Feast and Sore Eyes

Part 3 - Thanksgiving Today

Most of the world knows about the feast that happens on America's Thanksgiving Day. At the center of this orgy of food is a typically huge turkey bearing only the faintest of resemblances to those found gobbling free in the forests. I don't know how they get these turkeys so big, but I am pretty sure that if one were to win an event in the Olympics it would have to return the medal.

But a single bird, no matter how big, does not a feast make. So the typical American Thanksgiving Day meal also includes approximately 20 side dishes. By law, at least 80% of them must contain either sugar, starch or cream and no more than four of them can actually be healthy.

The meal carries other traditions, of course. For example, every guest must insist on helping whoever is cooking, no matter how clear it is that you will really just be in the way. Another of my favorites is that after the meal at least one of the older men must loosen the button on his trousers shortly before falling asleep in an easy chair.

But anyone who has seen a Thanksgiving meal in a movie knows all about this. So today, in continuing my short Thanksgiving course for Aussies, I need to write about two things they may not know.

1. The Macy's Parade. For 82 years, every Thanksgiving Day has started with this parade in New York sponsored by the department store, Macy's. This is the parade in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street", and it is generally felt that television was invented so they could show this parade to kids and keep them out of their mother's hair while she made the dinner.

The parade is famous for a couple of things. Notable are its huge gas-filled balloons of cartoon characters. "We see the parade as a huge pageant of American culture," said its executive producer in a recent interview. I guess that would justify their inclusion of Ronald McDonald. He certainly is part of American culture, and besides we wouldn't want the kids to get so caught up in turkey and mash that they forget about Happy Meals.

As a side note, you may like to know that this year the huge pageant of American culture is being extended with the inclusion of giant balloons of Buzz Lightyear, Horton the elephant and one of the Smurfs. And I always thought the Smurfs were from another country.

The parade is equally famous for its conclusion, when Santa Claus rides down the street. For you see, Macy's may call it the Thanksgiving Day parade, but in actuality it celebrates the beginning of the Christmas shopping season.

2. Football. The TV may belong to the kids in the morning when the parade is on, but come afternoon and it is game on as the NFL begins what is in effect 11 straight hours of pro football with two 45-minute breaks built in for those who wish to squeeze in their Thanksgiving dinner and perhaps later take a toilet break.

Having this much football on TV actually makes sense since it keeps the men in the living room and allows them to doze off unexpectedly without falling and hurting themselves. I suspect most of the women are happy to have the guys shuffle off into one room and stay out of the way. I am certain the guys are happy to stay out of the way and not have to do anything except to show up when the chow is served.

In any event, this is generally considered a secondary contributing factor to the invention of television.

All of this aside, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday because it is the one where family and friends make their best efforts to get together, catch up, tell stories, laugh and -yes - eat far too much. Many of my happiest memories are from this day. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Tomorrow: Part 4 - What Can Go Wrong with Thanksgiving in Australia? Plenty, it seems. Eyewitness reports.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Would You Like Maize with That?

Part 2 - The First Thanksgiving

The Pilgrims didn't have anything to do with the first Thanksgiving in North America. Depending on which historian you believe, it either happened in Florida, Texas or Virginia. But there are only so many myths I am willing to dispel, so let's just skip that inconvenient fact and talk about the Semi-official First Thanksgiving - the one with the Pilgrims that all the decorations show.

The Pilgrims had spent a particularly bad first winter in Plymouth - insufficient food and bitterly cold weather (which they, curiously, blamed on global cooling). When they finally staggered out into the sunshine of Spring, they had to figure out how to fish, hunt and grow enough food to get through the next winter. And they didn't have much of a clue.

So they made a deal with the local Indians and created America's first bailout plan. The details have been lost, but the results are roughly: Teach us how to survive in this place, and in exchange we will let you live in poverty for centuries while we grow rich. However, around 375 years from now, we will let you build casinos and many of us white people will come to your land and gamble away much of our wealth, making your tribe incredibly rich just in time for the 21st century.

There was much dissent among the tribal elders, with many arguing that the Pilgrims had created their own mess and why should the tribe bail them out. But in the end the opportunity to own casinos apparently won out.

Critical to the Pilgrims' bailout plan was one of the most interesting men in American history - an Indian named Squanto. In the early 1600s Squanto had been captured and sold into slavery by Englishman George Weymouth. Apparently, Weymouth had to prove to his boss that he had actually explored North America and opted to bring back Indian slaves. Given that flair for dramatic souvenirs, you can imagine how disappointed his son was when his father returned home with a shirt that read, "Dad explored Massachusetts and all I got was this lousy t-shirt."

Anyhow, Squanto finally received his freedom and started heading back to his tribe only to be captured by another Englishman who planned to sell him into slavery in Spain. If you think that sounds unlucky, you would be spot on. Just remember that after many more misadventures this guy ended up working with the Pilgrims.

Squanto is credited with teaching the Englishmen such techniques as fertilizing the land. The fact that they didn't know this leads me to the conclusion that these idiots really did not have a clue about how they were going to survive when they jumped on the Mayflower. Regardless, with Squanto's help the Pilgrims ended up growing all sorts of stuff, as well as fishing, fowling and hunting to the point that they were amazed at the amount of food they had at harvest time.

In the best New England tradition that meant Party Time, and they even invited about 90 of the local tribesmen to join them at the feast. The Indians are reported to have brought five or six deer to the event, making this the first instance in North America of home-delivered Indian Takeaway.

The party was so good that it became a tradition. But typical of the way the Pilgrims made decisions, not quite right away. The second Thanksgiving feast didn't happen until two years later. But after that, it became a must-do event on everyone's calendar.

The holiday, of course, marks the opportunity to give thanks for many things. Unfortunately for poor Squanto there wasn't much to be thankful for. Having helped the Pilgrims, his tribe did not trust him. Being an Indian, the Pilgrims didn't trust him. Before the second feast was held, he died of a fever. Some speculate he was poisoned.

Tomorrow, Part 3. Thanksgiving Today.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Pilgrims Progress

Perhaps no American tradition draws as many questions from the folks here in Oz as does the Thanksgiving holiday. As a nation Australia always ranks in the World Top Three for holiday appreciation, so there's a natural professional curiosity (and perhaps a tinge of envy) here about this American holiday that seems to be little more than an excuse for massive excess.

So, as a public service, I will try to explain the American Thanksgiving experience over the next few days as we lead up to the big celebration on Thursday.

"Part One - Pre-Thanksgiving"

Thanksgiving celebrates the survival of a group of people we now call Pilgrims, although no one called them that in their day 400 years ago. The English government called them criminals, and the Dutch called them illegal immigrants. They called themselves Puritans. Today we would call them the Religious Far Right.

Having fled England where they were committing criminal acts by not following the Church of England, these folks settled in Amsterdam. It is unclear if Amsterdam had cafes that allowed pot smoking in those days, but it probably did because eventually the Puritans decided their kids were losing their religion. Many of you will be familiar with REM's Thanksgiving song about this topic.

Anyhow, at some point the religious leaders decided that it would be better to pack up and move to North America. This showed great foresight, since they realized that if they moved there early enough their ancestors would be able to protest immigration hundreds of years later without appearing hypocritical. So all aboard the Mayflower and on to Massachusetts.

Most Americans think the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Well, it wasn't quite at Plymouth Rock, but even more interesting is that only about 25% of those who sailed on the Mayflower were part of that religious group. Early on this established the tradition that the religious right in America can re-write history to make themselves the heart of the story and claim that their values are the only real American values.

In one sense these people established patterns that continue to this day. As a far-right religious group, they overcame severe hardship - in this case, the fact that talk radio and automated telemarketing hadn't been invented - and still managed to get control of the government even though they were in the minority.

These early settlers were pretty well understocked and unprepared for survival in the cold of Cape Cod and Massachusetts. So they did what anyone would do. They dug up the graves of the local native Indians and ate the food that had been buried with the bodies. This is generally considered the start of fast food in North America. It is also believed to have led, centuries later, to Chex Mix and dry roasted peanuts.

So where's the feast with the happy Puritans and Indians drinking cider and eating turkey, you ask? Having been sold into slavery by the English just a few years earlier, why did the natives decide to help these folks out?  Were there any Indian casinos at the time? If there were, would the Puritans play? Stay tuned for Part Two tomorrow.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Asleep at My Post

OK. It's now 4:30 in the afternoon, and for the past few hours I have been stuck trying to figure out what to blog about. One of the great benefits of the trip we took was that there was something new every day and enough of it was interesting to justify a post. But today I am woefully short of interesting things, and this compulsion to post to the blog is starting to interfere with the natural starting time for cocktails.

Let me tell you how uninteresting today was. As soon as 8:30 hit, I was in the car driving to get my license renewed. It had expired Friday, and I needed to see to that right away. I can't even do any jokes about the bureaucrats - I was in and out within ten minutes with a 5-year license.

Then I drove to the old office. We were out of town when they moved to new premises, so I had to get some of LK's stuff from her old office and bring it home. So I did.

I have a fair amount of expertise in understanding what is boring, and I am pretty sure that only my mother would find any of that interesting. Actually, I called her later and told her about all of that, and I am pretty sure she was bored, too. But, being my mother, she couldn't let me know, of course.

I did have lunch with Jon, but the last time I blogged about him he wrote a note indicating that he was not very happy with the jokes I was telling about him. Since he bought lunch today, I am not going to blog about Jon.

After lunch, I went back to the old offices to pick up the remainder of LK's stuff. There my friend Andrew took pity on an old man who clearly was feeling new pains from the earlier moving, and he took the rest of the boxes downstairs for me. But I've already written about what a prince he is in another post.

So what to write about? I think the only thing I can do today is take a page from Fox Television. If you go here, you will see World's Most Amazing Signs from our recent trip. My favorite is the hotel in Barcelona, and I think you'll see why. Read the menu carefully at the Slastice section - it's from Croatia and their spelling leaves a bit to be desired. And the rental sign was in Elba.

Please pray for something interesting to happen to me tomorrow. Or volunteer to do a guest post. Or at the very least act like my mother and make believe you're interested. Thanks.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Your Holiday Feast Shopping Guide

Today's post is done as a public service for the Australians who celebrate American holidays. All seven of you need to do some serious planning right now. And I mean today.

It may seem like you have the best part of the week to get ready for next Thursday's Thanksgiving, but you don't.

USA Foods has sent me an e-mail. They're backed up a couple of days, and even express shipping takes two more days. Well, you do the maths - it's your last chance to ensure your Thanksgiving feast is replete with authentic Yankee food.

Already there are serious shortages. Pilgrim-shaped Pure Maple Candy is out of stock. You will not be delighting your family and friends with those sweet treats this year. In fact, you probably won't even be stuffing their stockings with the Santa Pure Maple Candy because that, too, is out of stock.

And for some of us, this year's Thanksgiving will be a bit less festive than previous years. Mr and Mrs T's Hot and Spicy Bloody Mary mix is out of stock, as well.

But not all is lost. There are still plenty of products available, although you may have to compromise on your brands. For example, you won't be soaking your Thanksgiving breakfast pancakes with Aunt Jemima Syrup, but for $9.99 you can get the 24-ounce Log Cabin Syrup.

(I will do this once. Americans, multiply our prices by 2/3 to get US equivalent. Australians, one ounce equals 28 grams.)

Other Thanksgiving essentials abound. You can be totally creative with your Jello mold. There's a choice of black cherry, cherry, grape, lime, peach, raspberry, watermelon or wild strawberry flavors.

Since I haven't seen one in the 20 years I have lived here, I should explain to my Aussie friends that the Jello mold is one of the healthier-looking side dishes served at the Thanksgiving feast, typically encasing fruit that has been sitting in a can of syrup inside a wiggling mound of sugary, articially flavored gelatin.

For the bakers among you, you can get a 40-ounce Bisquick for $9.99 and 3 pounds of Crisco (1500g) for $15. (If you need to ask what Crisco is, you don't want it. And if you do want it, I would like to know why you would want three pounds of it.)

Other last minute items I would recommend to anyone gearing up for the feast: a jar of Marshmallow Fluff, Keebler Graham Cracker pie crust, Jiffy cornbread mix, Chex Mix (I prefer traditional to hot-and-spicy), Bruce's whole yams in heavy syrup, and - be very grateful - Libby's Pumpkin Pie mix, which is still in stock.

I suppose all this makes Americans look like their diet isn't all that healthy. I would remind all of you non-Americans, that the country became great because it has an attitude of doing what it feels like and figuring out how to fix it later. There's no reason the holiday meal shouldn't reflect that.

For all of you in Oz needing these last minute buys, USA Foods is here. Oh, one last recommendation. I would also pick up the 8-ounce Pepto Bismol for $9.99.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Card Shark

I just watched a recording of this year's final table of the World Series of Poker's Main Event. The event finished while we were travelling, so I was a little late coming to learn that some 22-year-old kid from Denmark filled an inside straight and won $9 million. Peter Eastgate became the youngest player in history to win the main event.

Just like the new champ, I have been playing lots of online poker for several years now. Given that we all use silly names at these websites, I may have even played him when he was just learning how to beat people at my skill level - in other words when he was 17 or so. But whereas he has gone on to reach the top with glory, fame and wealth in his few years of playing, I have settled into a poker niche that is, well, a little lower than his.

There are web sites that actually track your online play, and today I thought I would see how close I am to the new champ. Turns out that my average tournament finish is 49th out of 100. Some may think this defines the word "mediocre." But from my days when I marketed research results, I know this lets me claim that I am better than the majority of players. Hey, every percentage point counts.

Turns out I am in the final 3 once out of every 20 tournaments. To give you perspective, if I were an Olympian, that would be like winning a medal in the 1920 Games in Antwerp and finally making the podium again this year in Beijing.

Look, if I were a racehorse, my record would be 154 starts for 3 wins, a second and 4 thirds. In fact, the only horses that would be racing with that kind of record would be old geldings with shonky legs. Hmmm.

Another website does pyschological profiles of online players. This site told me I was a "Bomb." This sounds curiously like what a couple of my ex-wives have said, so I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. A "bomb", by the way, rates ahead of "red fish" and "green fish," both of which are weak players, and a "caution sign" which seems self evident.

A "bomb" is defined as "aggressive/aggressive", which means that my approach lacks variety and finesse. They suggest that a little discipline would improve my results, which come to think of it, also sounds a bit like things my ex-wives said.

Anyhow, now that I have a better understanding of where I stand, I am going to use young multi-millionaire Peter Eastgate as my role model and inspiration. If he can win the World Series of Poker as the youngest champion ever, why can't I become the oldest champion ever?

I think it will only take a little luck and taking on board all the things my wives have urged me to change over the years. I'm ready. Shuffle up and deal.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

And the Winner Is ... Sydney


We are back in Sydney Monday morning after our trip of about 36 hours. Having done cars and trains and boats and planes in the last couple of weeks, I can tell you that planes are the worst of the lot. No one will argue with that who has had the misfortune of flying with BA to London's Heathrow Airport.

Originally we were scheduled to get back Sunday night but our itinerary had to be changed because we were booked on a British Air flight from Barcelona, transferring in London to Singapore Airlines. And what's the problem with that, you may ask. Well, good old BA - which seems to have completely abandoned any hopes of ever being a quality airline again - has a policy that they will not check bags through to flights of airlines that are not their One World Alliance partners.

This means that we had to check bags through to London, clear customs in London, retrieve our luggage from the carousel, put it on a trolley and wheel it to another terminal in order to check in with Singapore Air. Then, of course, we had to again clear security, which would not have been necessary if we had stayed in transit. (And I should point out that going through security in Heathrow is one of the few experiences I have had where I start to understand what it must be like to be a refugee.) And that's why our original 2-hour layover was never going to be enough time and we had to change to the later flight.

Anyhow, we somehow still ended up having enough time at Heathrow to take advantage of the VAT refund, which is the tax-back plan for the European Union. She Who Must Not Be Named had collected a reasonably good set of tax refund forms during the Accessorize My World Tour 2008, and at 17.5%, it was worth standing in a couple more lines to get that money back.

Needless to say, getting money from governments is never going to be easy unless your're a failing bank, and they certainly did what they could to make us either despair of standing in yet another long line - or just miss the plane. Once the forms are stamped, we joined another line to get the money, and there they tell you they can only give you money for your cash purchases and point you to the post box to mail the refund forms for credit cards.

In other words, I was learning what it's like to be a roadie on the AMW Tour. I'm sure I could hear Jackson Browne singing "Stay" in the background. I calculated we lost about the time it takes to have two drinks in the lounge with all this, but it was worth it, I guess.

Anyhow, you're probably enjoying this as much as I look forward to other travellers complaining about their journeys. So enough is enough.

Now it's back to work for some. And back to not working for others. But it is good to be back, so sing along with me:

I'm always traveling, I love being free,
and so I keep leaving the sun and the sea,
but my heart lies waiting over the foam,
I still call Australia home.

. . .But no matter how far or wide I roam,
I still call Australia home.