Tuesday, September 30, 2008

T - 1: I Flit. I Float. I Fleetly Flee. I Fly

Well, today is the last day of this part of my life. I have had a great ride at this company.

For nearly 20 years I have had the freedom to pull together creative people to build new products or manage older ones in new ways. The pace of change has been exhausting, and we have had our success because the team here has been creative, smart and dedicated. And because the owner of this global company encourages his businesses around the world to act exactly as if they were running their own business.

I never thought I would stay at any one job for five years, much less 17. But really my job here has been different every year; only my title has stayed the same.

And on the personal side, it has been nothing short of fantastic. Just consider all the places we have visited on company business - London, Tokyo, Paris, New York, Beijing, Singapore, Copenhagen, San Francisco, Toronto, Honolulu, Shanghai, Athens, Warsaw, Oslo. Oh yes, Auckland, too.

Some times when I think about starting out in Rutland, Vermont, I cannot believe that I have ended up in Sydney and that we have been welcomed as friends when we have visited such places as Toronto, Copenhagen, Budapest and Hanoi.

But of course, it is the friends closer to home who have meant the most. Some of the people who worked and laughed and argued here have meant the world to me. Some have already moved on from the company, and some are still here. I won't mention any of them because I would feel terrible to leave one out accidentally. Let's just say, if you think you're on the list, you probably are.

A while back I wrote that I was thinking about my exit music in the movie of my last day. The playlist is down to five. To make that shortlist was tough. Songs had to get past Johnny Paycheck's "Take this Job and Shove It" (my Dad's choice, although I don't really agree with the sentiment); Toby Keith's "Time to Hit the Road" and the one I really wanted to go with "Funkytown" by Lipps.

So here are the five playlist finalists with the lyrics that made me choose them. I guess you can tell by the headline of this post which one was the winner.

Back to the howling old owl in the woods
Hunting the horny back toad
Oh I've finally decided my future lies
Beyond the yellow brick road

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Lyrics by Bernie Taupin

I got a head full of ideas
That are drivin' me insane
It's a shame the way she makes me scrub the floor
I ain't gonna work on Maggie's farm no more

Maggie's Farm
Lyrics by Bob Dylan


Driver says, "You don't know where this bus is going?"
Old man says, "I just want it to get me through.
Hey, I'm staying on the ride, it's gonna take me somewhere."

Stay on the Ride
Lyrics by Patty Griffin


You woke up this morning all the love has gone
Your papa never told you about right and wrong
But you're looking good, baby, I believe you're feeling fine
Born under a bad sign with a blue moon in your eyes

Woke up This Morning
Lyrics by Alabama 3


So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye -- Goodbye!
I'm glad to go, I cannot tell a lie
I flit, I float, I fleetly flee, I fly

The Childrens Song
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II

Monday, September 29, 2008

T - 2: Five Easy Pieces

Today is tidying up day. I am clearing out my office, boxing up the stuff on my shelves, wrapping my pictures in bubble wrap and generally trying to remove every file from my computer that might lead to my arrest.

People keep asking me how I feel now that retirement is so close. Some are convinced I must be sad or at least melancholy. Others are quite sure I must be overjoyed at the freedom I will now experience. Linda is positive I will just use the newfound time do things that will ultimately require bringing in contractors to fix.

In fact, I have been planning this so long that there aren't any wildly strong emotions. I am optimistic that this next quarter of my life will be interesting and fun. I am pessimistic that the world economic mess may make a nonsense out of our retirement planning, making it all very hard financially. Maybe big highs? Maybe big lows? (Think Leo DiCaprio in Titanic, lucky enough to win the ticket for the ship's inaugural cruise and then even luckier to hook up with the beautiful rich babe, only to have the idiots on the bridge dump everyone in the icy water. And if that isn't bad enough, you have to listen to Celine Dion as you drown.)

Oh well, que sera sera. (You know Celine is bad when you'd rather have that Doris Day song running through your mind all day.) Today is the final Monday of the pre-season. It is time for the final list of five things I will do when I retire. And for the first time, I can write about five things I am going to do this week!

1. Wednesday:

Start my walking regime by walking to the club next to my (former) company, where they are throwing a farewell party for me. Later start my stumbling regime by trying to walk home from the party.

2. Thursday:

Apply for my Senior Citizen's Discount Card. Grey power rules, and there are discounts and bargains galore. And I swear, this is no joke. When you go the website and check out what discounts are available, the first one that comes up is for 10% off on funerals and memorial services.

3. Friday

Start being financially responsible by organizing our accounts, setting up the software to do Linda's company's books, arranging a meeting with a financial advisor and scheduling an appointment with the bank to discuss better interest rates. Alternatively, play online poker.

4. Saturday

To the hardware store! Time to get all the gear I need if I intend to take over most of our gardeners' work -- a new weed whacker, hedge trimmers, edger, pruning shears, one of those big noisy air things that blows all the crap off the pavers, aspirin, Tiger Balm, vodka.

5. Sunday

A day of rest, so I will begin to catch up with friends I haven't caught up with lately. They will, of course, recognize it as my blatant attempt at filling up long retirement days with little to do. But if I cared what they thought, I probably would have been in touch with them before this. In fact, if that's their attitude, I don't want to catch up. I will play online poker instead.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

T - 3: Clothes Maketh the Man

I am not sentimental about my clothing. This makes me the polar opposite of my darling. One of my favorite party tricks is to amaze our friends by asking Linda what she wore, say, to the first day of school in her last year of high school. Some times she's not so sure about the accessories, but she's almost always able to get the basic outfit right if the day held any significance at all.

I, on the other hand, cannot remember what I wore last night. Well, that's not strictly true. It was shorts and a T-shirt. What I can't remember is which T-shirt it was. But since I only wear T's and shorts around the house, I know it was one of them.

Which is a roundabout way of getting to today's post. I realized a few days ago that as of Tuesday I don't need - and will not use - most of the clothes hanging in my closet. Oh, there will be the odd occasion when I need a necktie or a suit, but really would God have given the world Ralph Lauren if he wanted men to wear more than Polo shirts and chinos?

So now there sits the imposing pile of my business clothes in the picture up above. I've already set aside and kept in the closet more suits, blazers, trousers, dress shirts and neckties than I am ever likely to use. However, I will get very annoyed if I have to buy anything like that down the road, so I would rather save a few more than I need.

But my dilemma is what to do with the rest? My inclination is to give them to charity, but be honest with me. When have you seen a homeless person my size? And if you have, was he in desperate need of a suit and white shirt that required cuff links? If there are some really large guys looking for used clothes on eBay, I might be able to offload a few items, but I think we all know the chances are - pun intended - slim.

I suppose neckties are one size fits all, but I am pretty sure the local soup kitchen isn't going to start requiring ties for dinner just because I've given all my Fornasettis away to charity. So what to do? Everything in me cries out that it would be a terrible waste to just chuck them in the bin, and I won't do that until I think about this more.

In the end, I suppose it will be a matter of buying more plastic storage boxes and putting them in the storage bin we rent because our garage is too full to take anymore. And here we are supposed to be paring back rather than adding storage.

Oh well, at least there is one genuine benefit from all of this. By shrinking my closet space down, I have been able to give Linda the extra space. So now she will have even more room to store what will surely prove to be even more impressive memory tricks at our parties in later years.

PS This is my sister-in-law's birthday. Happy Birthday, Sandy - have a great day. Love ya.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

T - 4: The Long Good Friday

In a week in which so many things are the last this and the last that, yesterday marked a significant last. I hosted a small lunch that I christened The Last Swipe, for it was the last time I will swipe a credit card to pay for a business lunch.

For some people, that might not be a big deal. For me, it is monumental. How monumental, you ask? Let's just say that when we left Lee's Fortuna Court, Stan Lee, the owner, shook my hand as one does when an athlete completes a fantastic career. I was the Ted Williams, the Tom Brady, the Don Bradman of business lunches.

I was a good, competent luncher in the US. I have great memories of the beginning of so many lunches in New York and later in Boston. (I cannot really claim to have memories of the end of all of these lunches.)

But it was here in Oz that I became a world-class player. No weepy Marlon Brando scene for me - when I landed here I became a contender!

Susan started me on my path to greatness, When I arrived here 20 years ago as editor, she wanted me to meet and greet the top people in the industry. She was a firm believer that lunch was the best way to do this. Frankly, if I have had any mentor in this lunching game, it was Suzey. And to this day she continues to impress me with her lunching strategy and technique. A real pro!

I need to add that about six weeks into this environment, Linda complained quite bitterly. It had something to do with her not thinking it was fair for me to come home drunk every night. (Perhaps I haven't mentioned that a business lunch in Australia is considered a failure if the food bill is greater than the drinks bill.) She had a point, and I have in later years successfully solved the problem by bringing her along with me.

But yesterday was the end of this tradition. I don't want to be one of those contenders who fights one too many bouts or signs on with the New York Jets for one last year. I want to go out on top of my game.

I may be the only one who comes to this blog who regularly watches Dora the Explorer, but Lily and I love the show. My favorite character is Swiper, a fox who steals things. The audience has to yell "Swiper, no swiping," when they see him. If they do it early enough, Swiper snaps his fox fingers and says, "Oh, man!". But if you don't see him in time, he steals whatever he is after and laughs at you, saying, "You're too late."

Not sure which line I should be using, but at yesterday's Last Swipe, I do know a great tradition has come to an end.

Friday, September 26, 2008

T - 5: Never Throwing in the Towel

There are two very old blue towels in the bathroom. They sit among a dozen or so newer, fluffier, bigger towels. And if those aren't enough there are many, many more in the linen closet, most of which have never been used.

Yet it is the old blue towels to which I return every morning. They are not the best towels, but they are my towels. I like using them, even though they are in such a state that it would never occur to me to let a guest use them.

The one in the picture has a huge hole in it. Actually, it's almost perfectly rectangular, and the lines of the tear are quite straight. It's as if someone at one point brought scissors to the bathroom and neatly excised a chunk of my towel.

That, of course, has not stopped me from using the towel. If anything, it has made me even more committed to using it, knowing that at some point that rectangular gap may widen, or even tear apart the whole towel. And that will be the end of it, because as much as I love that towel, I will not love it when it is the size of a dishtowel. I have very few requirements in this area, but one is an easy two-handed buff of my wide, wet butt.

Not having the blue towels would be distressing, though. It would be like sitting in a different chair at the table or the wrong spot of the couch in the living room. It would be nearly as difficult as trying to fall asleep on the wrong side of the bed.

I don't think of myself as a creature of habit, but maybe that's one more time I am kidding myself. I don't really know why I feel so strongly that it's the old blue towels or no towels. It may go back to my childhood when I couldn't get to sleep without my blanket, not the one you pull over your shoulders, but the little one I had had since I was an infant. The one I called "my banky" long after I had stopped baby talk.

I'm not sure how old I was when my parents finally broke me of that habit, but I was old enough that I can still remember when I needed that blanket in my hand as I went to bed. I will have to ask my mother how she broke me of the habit. It would be spooky to find out she cut a rectangular hole in it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

T - 6: Itching for Knowledge

I have an itchy caruncle. In fact, it's been itchy all week and driving me crazy. I know I should not rub it, but I have such little will power.

OK. OK. I'll tell you. A caruncle is that little bit of harder, red stuff in the corner of your eye closest to your nose. (It's also the wattle of birds, but that isn't relevant here, even though I can make my double chin look like one.) My caruncle has been itching like mad this week as I suffer major bouts of hay fever.

As much as the itching irritated me, what really drove me crazy was that I didn't know the word for that part of my eye. I had searched the Internet to no avail. It was frustrating. I figured if something itched that much I should at least know what to call it.

Fortunately Samantha came through in the clinch. She very politely acted interested in my complaint yesterday. Then last night she sent an e-mail with a link to an illustration of the human eye she had located on the website of the Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto. Besides winning the Wednesday Evening Search Engine Speed Test, Sam also illustrated one of the amazing things that has happened in this world of ours in the past dozen or so years. People now expect to be able to find out the most arcane and even trivial facts within seconds.

Thank God for Google, I guess. Twenty years ago I would have wondered briefly what that bit of my eye was called and then completely forgotten about it. Because before the worldwide web it was all too hard to find out and totally unnecessary. So am I better off now that I know I have a caruncle (two, in fact)? Probably not. And you are certainly not better off knowing that my caruncle itches. But there you are. It's the Internet era. I know something I didn't need to know and now I have shared it with all of you.

Happy Last Thursday of my working life. And just remember. If your caruncle itches and you rub it, be careful not to scratch your sclera.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

T - 7: And My Number Is Beechwood 45789

Here's a quick quiz. What do ET, Linda and Lily's friend Aden all have in common? (Aden, you may remember, is the little boy who wanted to come home with Lily and me the other day.)

The answer: they all had trouble phoning home.

In ET's case, as I recall, the problem had more to do with distance and technology. Aden's problem was more direct. He didn't know his phone number. As it turns out, neither does Linda.

We've had our current phone number since we moved in the year 2000. However, during the transition from our other house, we kept the old number active and had those calls forwarded. In keeping with this month's theme of cutting out unnecessary costs, I decided that eight years was long enough to pay the phone company for a number we didn't use anymore and I stopped the call-forwarding service Monday.

On Tuesday, I got an angry call on my mobile. "You shut off the old number," said my darling. "But I told you I was closing down the call forwarding," said I. And in the tone of voice that has given her an 87% winning percentage over the course of our marriage, Linda said, "But you didn't tell me when you were going to do it, and you didn't tell me what our phone number is. You know I don't know it!"

So of course, it was my fault. In my defense, I had assumed Linda just doesn't care to know her phone numbers since she has never learned her mobile number, either. Silly me. I really do know better. Her life with electronics is like shaker furniture - functional and beautiful in its complete simplicity.

Take, for example, voicemail. Call her up on any of her numbers (none of which she will have given you, by the way) and the voice on the machine isn't even Linda's. Apparently, she isn't even available to record the message telling you she isn't available. Some women don't do windows. Linda doesn't do voicemail.

But it is a mistake to think LK is a Luddite, antagonistic to new technology. She is among the first to embrace new gadgets, but she is equally swift in refusing to learn all the bells and whistles (and even some of the basics) that come with them. As she says, of course she could learn them but why bother when there is someone else who will end up taking care of it for you.

That makes good sense. Until the day you can't phone home because you don't know the number.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

T - 8: Barbie and Ken(nedy)

That's my last barbie against the wall, It's a wonder, known as the Big Green Egg. That big black thing in the front is our 5-burner gas grill, and if you look closely you may notice the Weber in the background.

As the delivery man said when he brought us our Big Green Egg the other day, "Boy, you sure are into barbecues." He would have been even more impressed had he known about the other Weber around the corner. Some people have sculpture gardens. We have a barbecue garden.

One of the things this blog has taught me is that I don't know myself as well as I thought I did. Writing most days about whatever pops into my head is teaching me that I was probably a lot better off not letting whatever it was that was popping inside my head get outside. The Big Green Egg is a good case in point.

I have for years assumed it was Linda who was our family's overshopper. Well, let me be clear. She is. However, I now admit that she is not the only one.

I don't know what makes me buy things that really are not needed. And I especially don't know what it is that made me buy the Big Green Egg so close to my retirement. I know it's considered a superior barbie, and I have watched with jealousy as it was fired up on the barbecue cooking reality show. (Hmmm, do you think product placement works?) But I really didn't need it, and I am starting to worry that barbie is to Don as crack is to a junkie.

Oh sure, the Big Green Egg is considered the best for smoking food. That's how we justified buying it, perhaps not remembering that we almost never smoke food. But we will, we promise ourselves. No, in the end I don't really know why I decided we needed the Big Green Egg. I have already deleted four or five paragraphs trying to explain it, because they were either untrue or did nothing to explain it. Perhaps in the end it is no more mysterious to collect barbecues than, say, stamps or coins. Or perhaps not.

I know thinking about all this has changed my views on world affairs. I agree with Barack Obama's political positions most of the time, and have disagreed profoundly with many of John McCain's. But now I read he has seven houses and 13 cars, and I can't help feeling that maybe I have more in common with him than I ever realized. I bet he wouldn't wonder why I have four barbecues.

Monday, September 22, 2008

T - 9: Show Stoppers

Oh, it's a long, long time from May to December
But the days grow short when you reach September
September Song
Maxwell Anderson, lyrics

Actually, here in Australia the days grow long when you reach September, but you get the idea. End of September = next Tuesday = retirement.

Today I am supposed to write another list of five things I will do once I retire. All morning I have been (w)racking my brain to come up with the list. By the way, there's a very interesting Internet discussion on whether you "wrack" or "rack" your brain. Some say it's wrack, which is more or less an ancient variation of wreck. Others say it is rack, as in the implement of torture. My favorite part of the whole Internet exchange about the words came when someone asked the question, "Can I rack anything else besides my brain?"

Anyhow, having (w)racked enough, today's list is going to be five things I will STOP doing when I retire.

1. I will STOP writing about the meaning and origin of words.

Why? I believe most people don't give a rat's arse about this. (By the way, it's extremely interesting to look at why the English and Australians use arse, while the Americans use ass. OK OK, this type of discussion will stop but not until I'm retired.)

Anecdote: Susan Searle once told me I had a large vocabulary. I told her it was because I had a big dictionary.

2. I will STOP telling the same stories over and over and over and ......

Why? Stop me if you've heard this one before, but Linda is fond of saying that people who tell the same stories are rude because they aren't bothering to remember what they said to you earlier.

Anecdote: Susan Searle once told me I had a large vocabulary. I told her it was because I had a big dictionary. See!!!!!!

3. I will STOP eating Indian food.

Why? There's no delicate way to put this, but that in itself is probably a pretty good clue. As I grow older, things I used to love have started not loving me. Come to think of it, that happened fairly frequently in my earlier years, as well.

Anecdote: Just listen to Johnny Cash sing, "I Fell Into a Burning Ring of Fire".

4. I will STOP reading newspapers.

Why? This may be startling coming from someone who has spent the last 25 years of his life publishing trade newspapers, but there are a couple of good reasons. First, I get more info than I need on the Internet and I really don't care if I see it on a piece of paper. Second - and probably more important - the major newspapers here are very poor quality and they don't justify the cost now that I am being more careful about money.

Anecdote: A couple of weeks ago, reporters went on strike at Fairfax, our leading newspaper publisher. The reporters said they were striking to ensure that quality, independent journalism was not imperiled by proposed job cuts. To guarantee their independence, they urged supporters to write to the Federal Government and urge them to intervene to prevent Fairfax from implementing the cuts. Yep, asking the politicians they cover to help them out in a labor dispute is the sort of independence I want from quality journalists. I think I can safely save my bucks.

5. I will STOP buying things I already have.

Why? Well, the equation is simple:
Fixed Income - Unfixed Spending = Cat Food by the age of 70.

Anecdote: I don't know how to describe the feeling of getting to page 80 of a book I have just bought and realizing I've already read it. Recently. Or I could tell you of the albums I paid for at the Itunes Store only to realize I have the CD. Or I could tell you how we just purchased a new barbecue to go with our other three barbecues. In fact, I will tell you tomorrow.

Friday, September 19, 2008

T - 12: Fame Is the Name of the Game

Something very nice and unexpected happened last night. I attended the annual IT industry awards dinner put on by our reseller title ARN. Part of the ceremony involves inducting people into the ARN Hall of Fame. After naming three of the industry's well known and respected leaders, Susan Searle, the publisher of ARN, then added my name as a fourth inductee.

When I say it was unexpected, I should add that it wasn't just unexpected by me. At least 610 of the 620 people there would not have expected it, either, since they had no idea who I am. I could see that many were thinking that you probably should be at least a little bit famous if you're going to get into a Hall of Fame.

Nonetheless, I've got my ticket stamped, and I'm in. Let's face it, with my hand-eye coordination I was never going to find my way into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And my musical abilities wouldn't win a Karaoke night much less pave the way for a trip to the Cleveland Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame. But I am now in this Hall of Fame, and it's pretty cool.

I was very touched that the team at ARN would do this for me since ARN was the first publication I started once I became managing director. It has been hugely successful, dominating its market and at one point running more ads than any other publication in the country.

To be honest, most of the time I was little more than a cheerleader for the team at ARN. Suzey and her various colleagues throughout the years did all the hard work and made it happen. All I did was give them the keys, and they drove it to success.

In many ways my career here has been what I like to call the Amelia Bachelor Career. Amelia died in 2002 at the age of 94. This Hollywood actress, whom you probably have never heard of, set a record for having appeared in more movies than anyone in history -- a record that continues to grow.

Amelia, you see, was the actress who posed for the image of Columbia in the logo for Columbia Pictures, and every time a movie from that studio started, there was Amelia lifting that torch high.

So you don't need to be the star of the movie to be the one who sets the record. Some times all you need to do is get the whole thing started and hold up the light so they can do the rest.

That's not such a bad career. Hey, it got me into the Hall of Fame.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

T - 13: The Fire Down Below

The pre-season for this blog is nearing an end and it will soon be Game On when I retire.

This week I will get my last regular paycheck. Next week I will probably be wondering what in the world I was thinking about when I got into this. But it's far too late to worry.

I do think the transition from running a company to tending the garden will be a little trickier than I have acknowledged. But I can only go with the flow and see what happens.

Some times I think it would be easier if I were the sort who could set personal goals, map out strategies, analyze myself and change the bits that are holding me back. Self-improvement, I believe it is called. It's not something I have ever given much consideration to.

It's not the same for my friend, Jon. He came to work at our company in 2000. During his time here, he was often the chief reason I could get the job done. He's a really good guy and I am lucky to count him as a friend. As with all good friends, there are a few things that need to be overlooked. In Jon's case, it's his ongoing quest for self-improvement.

It's not like he needs to improve, but for some reason he is driven to do it. Early on in his time here, he signed up for an Anthony Robbins weekend seminar. According to Wikipedia, Robbins is a famous self-help guru who has been found guilty of plagiarism and has had to refund hundreds of thousands to franchisees after the Federal Trade Commission found he had misrepresented potential earnings. His best-selling book "Unlimited Power" writes extensively about a Yale University study to prove one its main points. The only problem is such a study was never conducted.

To me those sound like almost perfect credentials to become a famous self-help guru. The seminar Jon attended was called "Unleash the Power Within". Part of the power that was being held on this leash, apparently, was the ability to stand on burning coals and not burn your feet.

Firewalking didn't seem to me to be a talent that was going to do much to make you happier or wealthier. In fact, I wasn't sure what part of your self it would improve, but Jon was keen to give it a go.

At lunch a few hours before the seminar started, we talked about it. Jon thought it had to do a lot with mind over matter. I suggested to him that no matter how focused his thoughts were when he started his walk into the coal pit, he was probably going to get into the middle and think, "My feet are burning!"

Jon came back to the office Monday with blisters on his soles. I think he still blames me.

He also came back slightly less enthusiastic about Anthony Robbins, and I took that as a sign that the weekend had indeed been a major step toward self improvement.


It seems appropriate to add a footnote to this post.

In 2002, 20 managers of Australian KFC restaurants burned their feet during a firewalking exercise. I imagine even the chickens enjoyed the irony.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

T - 14: A Fistful of Dollars

Big news here in Oz this morning. John Murphy, one of our members of Parliament (think Congressman, Americans) complained on the floor of the House yesterday that his wife received a skimpy portion of beef stroganoff at the cafeteria in Parliament House.

Now this guy makes $130,000 a year and yet his wife is scarfing down cheap food at the government cafeteria - and complaining that the portions are too small. That may seem pretty cheap, but what elevates Mr Murphy to another level is that he feels this situation is so serious that he is willing to use the floor of Parliament to whine that some formal government intervention needs to take place. It's one thing to be careful with your bucks. It's quite another to take center stage and let the entire nation know you expect a proper portion of stroganoff for your wife when she eats at the cafeteria in the future.

Inspired by John Murphy, I am ready to let the world know that I, too, have a bit of a cheap streak in me. Simply put, I love The Dollar Store, that great shop where everything is priced a dollar.

I found out about The Dollar Store from its biggest fan, my father. When I am in Rutland, he and I inevitably find ourselves trawling the aisles of The Dollar Store looking for bargains. It's quite competitive as to who will be the bargain hunter of the day. He has a clear advantage because he can place his purchases on his walker, while I have to carry mine.

Socks, hairbrushes, glow-in-the-dark toys for Lily -- these have all found their way under the Dollar Store scanner in my recent visit although I used to wonder why they have to scan products in a store where everything costs a dollar. I stopped wondering after I spoke with a few of their staff.

My Dad goes in for a broader sort of buy - nuts, soap, kitchen cleaning products, cookies among them. We really do love buying that huge amount of stuff for so little money.

The big surprise to me is that my mother absolutely hates the Dollar Store. I think it's because, unlike my father and me, she pays attention to the other people in the store.

Well, I hate to say it, Mom, but the vote is now 3 -1 against you.

Yesterday Linda came home from having her hair done. On the way back she had stopped at our equivalent of The Dollar Store (not surprisingly, here it's The $2 Store), and she was loaded with bags of goodies.

She had ribbon, wrapping paper (orange and green, "for the times you need to give a gift and it's not Christmas"), lint pickers, manicure brushes, cat-fur-and-lint removal rollers, velcro strips, 54 hair bands, 2 cheese cloths, 4 plastic funnels, curlers, eyeshadow applicators ("You never know when you're gonna need them") and 2 balls of string.

She was proud to have a haul that size and have spent only $42. I understood the feeling.

However, I must say I was a little surprised. To say this as tactfully as I can, I always thought of Linda as more Tiffany & Co than The $2 Store. When her father visited shortly after we had moved here I remember him saying, "It's first class or no class." I am pretty sure that may be the only thing they both agreed on that year.

When I suggested yesterday that it was a bit out of character for her to fill up a couple of shopping bags at The $2 Store, Linda said, "This is the type of thing - if we're caught in between and you need wrapping paper, cheese cloth, whatever, you end up picking it up someplace that charges you three times more because you don't feel like going up to Crowie." (That's the suburb of Crows Nest, where the store is.)

So not only is my wife a bargain hunter, she's actually the sort of person who has started anticipating the day when she will suddenly need cheese cloth. The things that can still surprise you after 25 years!

They say every man ends up marrying a woman who is just like his mother. I suppose there is some element of truth to that, but it appears I may have ended up marrying a woman who is also just like my father.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

T - 15: Use It or Lose It

Welcome to my last two weeks of gainful employment. I am choosing the background music for my farewell ride home from work. Obvious choices have been "Take This Job and Shove It" or "I Ain't Gonna Work on Maggie's Farm No More", but given the economic news today I'm leaning toward "Buddy, Can You Spare a Dime?"

One thing is certain. No matter what happens with the global economy, retirement is bound to impose new rules on our personal economy. I am quite sure it will spell the end of our spendthrift ways.

Spendthrift is one of those words that just doesn't sound like what it means. To me, it seems like it should mean thrifty spending, not extravagant waste. No matter, it's a pretty good word to describe some of the stuff we have acquired. Doubt me? How about a $45 cup of coffee, a $20 loaf of bread, a bicycle trip averaging $175 a mile.

Oh, it's not that we actually spent $45 for a cup of coffee. It would need a quart of Johnny Walker Black in it for me to cough up that much. But that is how much a cup of coffee averaged after we bought a cappuccino machine and stopped using it fairly quickly when it all got too hard.

Our house is full of these white elephants. I am not sure what possessed me to buy a trouser press. History proves it certainly was not to press trousers. I know why we bought the KitchenAid food processor and blender. I am just waiting to see if we will ever use them. Probably while we listen to the mini-CD player if we ever get any mini-CDs.

No, this retirement thing is coming too fast and it is time to end the waste. This week's list is about our White Elephants. We will either start using them or send them to the white elephant burial ground known as a garage sale. Here are five action items needing a tick in the box.

1. Item: An espresso and cappuccino machine. Works well. Missing the little piece that tamps down the coffee.

Why keep: It makes really good coffee.
Why sell: Linda doesn't like espresso and I don't like cappuccino.
Decision: Sell. When we bought this for several hundred dollars, we forgot that we don't drink much coffee.

2. Item: A bread maker. Good condition. The loaves it makes are kind of on the small side.

Why keep: The smell of warm bread when you wake in the morning.
Why sell: The South Beach Diet.
Decision: Sell it. To hell with the South Beach Diet. Use the money to get another one that makes bigger loaves.

3. Item: Hands-free telephone car kit.

Why keep: Hands-free driving and talking.
Why sell: Hands-free talking and driving. As Linda will gladly share, I have enough trouble paying attention to traffic as it is.
Decision: Sell it. Since I bought it four years ago, I haven't once wished I had installed it.

4. Items: A man's and a woman's bicycle (the latter with a bell and plastic ribbons in the handles). Ridden a total of 10.5 miles while going to wineries in the Hunter about 10 years ago. Tires need inflating.

Why keep: Exercise is good.
Why sell: Five years ago we sold the car with the bicycle rack attached (used once).
Decision: Keep. If I ever get around to assembling the bike I bought Lily eight months ago, we can go pedaling together.

5. Item: Treadmill. The whole deal with lots of dials and a heart monitor. Barely used (of course)

Why keep: Exercise is good.
Why sell: Detect any trends here?
Decision: Sell. With so much more free time it's easier, cheaper and more interesting to just hoof it outside. Besides, isn't the point of retirement to get off the treadmill?

Monday, September 15, 2008

T - 16: The Honeymooners

Oh, how they danced on the night they were wed. Well actually, I have no idea if Norm and Red danced on that night 61 years ago today. But since I was born 9 months and 5 days after their wedding, I have always suspected they were doing more than the cha cha.

It's very difficult to write about your parents' anniversary because, unlike so many kids today, most of us in my generation weren't already around to become the flower bearers at the ceremony. However, I do know a few things about Norma and Red's wedding.

I am pretty sure they couldn't do a full-on church wedding because my mother wasn't a Catholic at the time and the Church in those years wasn't anywhere near as happy as they are now to just have people get married. I know they honeymooned at Ausable Chasm in the Adirondacks. And I know, because I have asked, that I am not really a honeymoon baby despite the timing and my feeling that it would have been ever so romantic if I were.

What I can write about is how remarkable it is that these two wonderful people have spent 61 years together. First, give them a trophy just for their endurance! They have been together more than 22,000 days. Think about that time frame. When they got married, the first passenger jet had not taken off; the first transistor radio had not been built; and Korea was still a single country. Or to make it all about me, they have been married long enough to conceive me, raise me, send me out into the world and watch me grow old and fat and - in two weeks - retired.

In 61 years there have been tough times and bad things have happened. Everyone's life happens that way. What is remarkable is that their life together has included so many more good times than bad. And by now they have gone from being the spunky young lovers in the pictures above to being two people who care for each other so deeply that they make me aware of how strong true love really is and how it ends up connecting people in profound ways that you can only guess at when you're 20 and sure yours is the greatest love ever.

I could go on, but Red has given pretty strict orders that this blog was only at its best when it was funny. So I will end up by saying, "Happy 61st, Mom and Dad. Love you both."

PS - This is also a big day for Jamie, who celebrates a significant birthday. Happy Birthday, JP.

PPS - I know this is Monday, but I am hereby declaring it a Mom and Dad Day - a Blog Holiday - and deferring any list-making until tomorrow.

Friday, September 12, 2008

T - 19: All the News that Fits

That's the Kiama blowhole on the left. You might think I am taking the easy way out and starting this post with a phrase that strikes just about everyone as funny.

But in fact, Kiama is in the news here this week, and it has nothing to do with the blowhole. (OK, I used it a second time because it is funny.)

We're having an interesting time here in New South Wales. We just got a new premier (our equivalent of a governor, for you in the US) and he appointed new ministers (the members of Parliament who run the various divisions of government). Our new minister for police - a man from Kiama - managed to hold onto his job for all of three days before he became our former minister for police.

That is because the newly appointed former police minister was forced to admit that he had danced in his underpants at a drunken party held in his Parliament office three months ago. If you really need more information, you can read all about it here.

It's not quite our version of toe-tapping US Senator Larry Craig, but it has been all the buzz here in Sydney for a couple of days. There's something irresistible about a super silly politician getting caught with his pants down - or completely off in this instance.

This made me curious about just what sort of news stories Aussies really do read. Interestingly, it seems to vary widely among the various states according to the Fairfax news web sites. Here in New South Wales, the sex scandal barely beat out the critical international news about a drunken Russian pole vaulter. In Victoria, the readers were naturally eager to know more about a methane leak that has forced the long-term evacuation of an entire neighborhood.

The West Australians couldn't wait to learn more about a national manhunt searching for a guy who had punched a kangaroo. (No, I am not making any of this up.) But it was the reading habits of Queensland that really made me take notice.

These are the 5 Most Read Stories from the Sunshine State:

1. iPod invented by furniture salesman

2. Aussie teacher produced porn with students

3. Man gets stuck in window, suffocates

4. Child porn victim busted in search for herself

5. Truck wedged under Toowong bridge

If the stories we read reflect the type of people we are, then I will leave you to draw your own conclusions about Queenslanders. For you in North America, it might be enough to know that they are affectionately known by the rest of us here as Banana Benders.

One of my best friends, Jon, is from Queensland. He's a good friend, even though he has twice handed me his resignation. But now that I have read this list, I believe I had better have a think about him, maybe a post next week.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


I will not post today, the seventh anniversary of that most horrible day in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. So much hatred, so many innocents killed, and tens of thousands more dead in the subsequent actions taken in retaliation for that day. There really isn't anything to say today that hasn't been said.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

T - 21: The Heavyweight Division

There was a disturbing news story yesterday. "Exercise Can Overcome Obesity Gene" ran the headline on WebMD. The story went on to report that even people who are predisposed to being fat can lose weight if they move their dimpled butts. I doubt if the researchers were too surprised by their findings, since most of us plus-sized people have more or less suspected this for quite a while. We were just waiting for scientific confirmation.

Nonetheless, it is inconvenient to so quickly lose a major excuse for being overweight. The discovery of the fat gene only became news a few years ago, and instantly it was just that little bit easier not to feel guilty about no longer fitting in the clothes I had bought when I could no longer fit into my other clothes. I was never tested for the fat gene, but I was working on the assumption that I was a high probability case. After all, when my folks used to visit me in Florida 25 years ago, we would go to a restaurant and book a table in the name of the Plump Family. None of the staff ever batted an eye.

To now know that I must bear full blame for the shape I am in is disheartening. The one glimmer of hope I hold is that this particular study was conducted among Amish people, so it may only apply to gentle people with beards and straw hats. But I doubt it.

There are lots of bad things that happen when you're overweight, but one of the few benefits has been a general feeling of euphoria when I go back to the US. Here in Sydney I tend to stick out - literally and figuratively - as the heaviest person around. But in America, I am back with my own kind, just one more chubby in a land overflowing with chub. I am almost never the heaviest person around.

There really aren't too many other benefits to being so big. We don't even get our own stores, but have to share them with the Tall Guys. I suppose if David Duchovny were to get really, really fat, it would help him cure his sex addiction, but I'm not sure you'd call that a benefit.

Probably some of the few good things come in a left-handed compliment sort of way. If you're dancing, all you really have to do is shuffle your feet, wave your arms and jiggle. You look fairly active, and you can see that people are thinking you're pretty graceful for a fat guy.

No, I guess now that I have lost the best excuse ever, I am going to have to get serious about this exercise stuff when I retire. In the meantime, I will still enjoy that other benefit of being a big guy - when Linda cuddles in bed and calls me her Chubby Hubby.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

T - 22: A Real Donnybrook

Apparently I rubbed my father the wrong way with yesterday's post. When I spoke to him this morning, I expected him to be pleased that I had taken the time to type his poem about me into the blog. Instead I heard, "I've got a bone to pick with you."

As so often happens, the bone my Dad was picking had to do with one of my wise-ass comments. This time it was when I said I hoped any friends reading his poem wouldn't start calling me Donny. Of course, childhood nicknames tend to linger on in families, much like the stories of some screw-up you made when you were five or six years old. So, for 60 years I have been Donny to my family, just as my brother remains Bobby to all of us. I am not completely without guilt here, as my son Benjy - excuse me, Ben - will verify.

In some ways I envy Linda. Her dad occasionally called her Linnie, but it never stuck and there just aren't that many nicknames you can make from it after that. And her sister is bulletproof. I mean, what is the childhood nickname for Sandy?

There will be no arguing with my father that Donny isn't really a grown-up name. "I went on the web and looked up famous people named Donny," he told me. "There were more than 9,000 of them!"

I am not sure what web he was using, but his claim led me to explore the amazing record of Donnies throughout history.

The first thing I discovered is that there is indeed a www.donny.com. And yes, it belongs to none other than Donny Osmund, he of the magnificent smile and wrinkle-free face in the picture above. On this site you can buy a book commemorating the 50th anniversary tour of the Osmonds, you can check out photos of Donny, and best of all you can watch videos of Donny.

My favorite is the "Airplane Pillow Fight" which is described as "the famous pillow fight during the flight home from the Oprah show. See the entire Osmond family join in a sea of pillows as part of the fun time that took place." You can watch it for yourself here. If you are anything like me, you will curse fate that there was not an armed sky marshal aboard the flight.

Thinking of Donny Osmond made me think of Donny Hathaway, the great soul singer who died so young so many years ago. Thinking of him made me think of Donny -- well, actually, I couldn't think of any more of the remaining 8,998 famous Donnies. So back to the web I went.

Google eventually found the TV character Donny Crane, the son of the legendary Denny Crane. And if fictional characters are OK, let's accept the variant spelling and include Donnie Darko. But it was pretty slim pickings. They did find Donny Wahlberg, but I must protest that we are stretching the boundaries of famous people at this stage.

I asked Ask.com for "famous people named Donny" and got a list of other topics, including "Famous People with Anxiety" and "Famous People who have had mental and/or emotional illnesses". I am not sure why they came up, but it does make me anxious.

Ask.com also suggested going to nameplayground.com where I found that Donny entered the Top 1,000 names for boys in 1937 and was last on the list in 1990. Its highest rank was #376 in 1976, fuelled I suspect by people watching Donny Osmond and his sister on their TV show.

No, I strongly suspect there are not 9,000 famous people called Donny. Think about it. Can you really see Donald Rumsfeld called Donny? Donny Sutherland? Donny Bradman? Donny Trump? It's hard to think of them as Donnies, isn't it?

Well, actually, if you knew their parents you probably wouldn't think so.

Monday, September 8, 2008

T - 23 (Part II): The List Keeps Getting Longer

Seventeen work days to go. This retirement thing is almost here, yet like most things you plan for a long time it is somewhat startling to realize it is really going to happen.

I remember feeling that way the day I married Linda - kind of a "Wow. After all the talking about it, it's actually happening today." That is unlike my first marriage to Mary, which was planned so quickly it was more like "Wow. What just happened?" But that's another story.

Today's story is that it is Monday, aka List Day. I know I'm whining about something I myself decided to do, but it really is a two-edged challenge I have set for myself. On the one hand, it has turned out to be incredibly difficult each week to think of five things I will do when I am retired. On the other hand, it's a little scary to think that I cannot even come up with 40 things I plan to do in the next 20+ years when I am free to do almost anything I want. So I soldier on.

Today's list are five digital talents I must develop in retirement.

1. Learn How to Sell Stuff on eBay

Why: We have too much stuff - waaaay too much. For example, our walls have little space left for pictures. Hence, the 14 or so just sitting on the floor leaning on the wall. I will be bringing another 12 home when I stop working. And those are just pictures. I will post a separate blog some day about the nearly infinite number of things we own that we have used once --- or never. Believe me - waaaaaaay too much stuff.

Major concern: Linda nods yes when I bring up the concept. Tends to not even blink when I discuss the implementation.

Solution: I think I will be selling my stuff first.

2. Learn How to Edit Video

Why: Now on our third video camera, we have never produced anything worth watching because I have never figured out video editing. Even those videos of Lily as a two-year-old get a bit long after 25 minutes. However, we have great footage of family and places, and it would be worth the effort to get them into watchable format. YouTube beckons.

Major concern: Movie making may not be my forte. I once filmed Ayres Rock from the same spot for about 30 straight minutes. It never moved once.

Solution: I think I will need to involve Linda and her stronger artistic sensibility in the finished product.


Why: No, that isn't me being rude. It's an accounting package for small businesses that Linda uses in her business. Besides house cleaner and gardener, bookkeeper is to be one more of my duties as I work my way back down the career ladder.

Major concern: I don't think the Tax Office will be quite as understanding as my current company is if I forget to include some of the entries.

Solution: I had better do this before I open the bottle of white wine.

4. Learn to Play the Keyboard

Why: Quite a few years ago I bought an electronic keyboard with every intention of becoming at least adequate playing it.

Major concern: My parents had me take accordion lessons when I was younger. This means I am pretty good at songs that only require the right hand. It also means, I find it easier to play if I lie on the bench and reach around to the keys to play. However, I do look odd stretching my left hand in and out as I do it.

Solution: One-handed polkas to begin with.

5. Mobile Phone Texting

Why: I want to be able to continue to post blogs while I am travelling and without an Internet connection. Every time I log on to write one of these posts, Google offers to show me how to post from a mobile phone, so I am assuming it won't be that hard.

Major concern: Big, clumsy thumbs and fingers on the phone's tiny keypad. Add in eyes that have trouble focusing on the words on the screen.

Solution: Patience. And a pretty firm idea that anyone reading a post that starts "Wfdhfo dfh hfhejkh !!" will just assume I'm drunk.

T - 23: Happy Fathers Day

One of the very best things about living in Australia is that they celebrate Fathers Day on a different Sunday than in the US, so I get two Fathers Days a year. Ben and Tom in June, Matt and Jay in September. Yesterday was Fathers Day. needless to say, and it was also Jason's birthday so we had a great afternoon together.

I know today is Monday, the dreaded List Day, and I will get around to that later. But yesterday reminded me of the nicest birthday gift I ever received when my father gave me a poem he wrote about his first Fathers Day. This is it, and I reprint it in the profound hope that none of my friends start calling me Donny and don't judge me too harshly for being the way I was when I was nine.

A Fathers Day Remembrance

On fathers day in forty eight
God opened up his golden gate
and sent us a baby bundle of joy
in the form a nine pound baby boy
We brought him home to the farm
where his mother could regain
her strength and charm
He howled like a wolf both often and loud
and caused us to come down off from our cloud
After an extended stay at the farm
we departed for Park Street with our bundle of charm
as the years rolled by he became cunning and sweet
he had many playmates on the street
First there was Brenda a cute little lass
they started a friendship that to this day lasts
there were several kids around his age
It seems that they all had a desire for the stage
They were always planning to put on a show
Donny wanted them to know
with my experience you should start
by giving me the leading part
there are many things I could tell
especially there sliding on Porter Place Hill

Don was a bookworm at heart
even from a very young start
he'd come to you with a certain look
saying with pleading eyes read me a book
At his first communion at Immaculate Heart
his request was for a brother from the start
when Bobby arrive all seven and one half pounds
Donny was the proudest lad around
He went to school like a proud brother
and told the nuns my father's pajamas
were ruined by my mother
Don relied on reading and writing
he had little time for sports and fighting
although an avid fan from the beginning
especially when the Boston teams were winning
So to the land of Syracuse we had to go
to the land of less sunshine and more snow
when Don at age nine
began speeches, debating and making rhymes
this was a favorite of mine
He came to me in purple stole
he talked to me and soothed my soul
and then he gave the royal feast
I thank God for giving priests

This made him the contest winner
pretty good for a green beginner
on speech and debating he'd concentrate
from winning of trophies he did just great
Don entered St Johns school to continue his learning
but speech and debating were still his yearning
so let's go to St Louis at the age of sixteen
where Hazelwood High comes on the scene
He got his licence a happy young lad
took the car and picked up the date he had
while driving down the interstate
he was picked up for driving sixty eight
There is much more to be written
both funny and said
this is really an exceptional lad
His success in life is well known
his kindness and generosity shown
so in conclusion I want to say
I'm so glad you were born on fathers day.

By John Kennedy

Friday, September 5, 2008

T -26: Me and My Shadow

Rachael asked me to pick up Lily after school yesterday and watch her until she finished work. (I should add here that I have deliberately avoided blogging about Lily because I know how even my best friends start to get that glazed eye look when I blather on about her. But I can't help it. It's not like I expected to have the world's most perfect granddaughter.)

We had walked a little bit out of the schoolyard when I noticed this boy from Lily's school was walking along with us. I looked around for his parents and didn't see any other adults, so I figured he must live very close. Even so, I was a little surprised that someone wasn't there to pick up a first grader.

Well, like a puppy that adopts you on the street, this boy walked in lockstep with Lily right up to our car. When I opened the car and he threw in his backpack, I decided it was about time to speak with the kid.

I asked him his name and asked him why he had thrown his backpack in my car. Aden was his name. And he told me he had put his backpack in because he was going home with Lily and me.

But Aden, I don't know anything about this, I said, and started to explain the problem. After about five more words, I realized I wasn't making the kind of points that a six-year-old was going to agree with. I went to simple, fact-finding questions.

Aden, does your mother know you're coming to my house? A quick nod of the head yes.

Aden, I really need to talk to her before we go. Do you know your phone number? The blankest stare I have encountered since I caught one of my publishers cheating on his expenses.

Well, to make this story short, I called Lily's mother, Rachael, who explained that yet a third mother normally picked up her child along with Lily and Aden on Thursday. The night before she had phoned Rachael saying she couldn't do it (hence my call to duty), but she obviously had forgotten to let Aden's mother know.

Anyhow, Rachael rang Aden's mother and it all worked out. But besides the funny part of Aden tagging along like a lamb searching for its ewe, it made me aware how strange our times have become. Because I wasn't just worried about Aden, but about me. I am pretty sure there isn't anyone who would think a 60-year-man should be putting a little boy he doesn't know into his car. And I can only imagine how frantic his mother would have become when she learned where he wasn't and had no idea where he was.

Anyhow, Aden turned out to be a lovely boy and his brief visit to our house had a side benefit. Lily bossed him around until his mother came. And only then did she start bossing me around as she usually does. It gave me time to make her snack.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

T -27: Humoresque

The third grade teacher told her class that it was impossible for a whale to swallow a man because its throat was too narrow. The little girl in the first row waved her arm frantically. "But teacher, Jonah was swallowed by a whale. It says so in the Bible," she said.

"No," the teacher said, "as I told you, a whale's throat isn't big enough to swallow a man."

The little girl shot right back, "When I get to heaven, I am going to ask him how it happened."

"But what if he isn't in heaven?" the teacher asked.

"If he's in hell," the little girl said, "then you can ask him."

I start with that today because this morning Red, my father, told me I needed to put more humor into my blog. Start with a joke, he said. When I told him that it was hard to think of something funny every day, he offered the joke above. Whoever invented the Internet has a lot to answer for.

My dad loves to laugh, and he has always shared this love with others making them laugh, too. If there is a party, he is the life of it. And God help you if he has ever caught you doing anything embarrassing. Suffice it to say that I am still hearing stories about things I did as a child more than 50 years ago. And yes, it makes us all laugh when he tells them.

However, as Mr Spock so famously said in Star Trek, humor is a difficult concept. Let's just say there were times when those of us in the family didn't always share the joke with him.

I have many memories of everyone in the room laughing except my mother, who was frowning and simply saying, "Red!" I vividly recall not seeing the humor when he had suggested I sample the mustard in a Chinese restaurant, unaware that it was hot enough to start a fire. And I distinctly remember begging him not to tell jokes when he drove me for a date in that awful age when you're old enough to ask a girl to a party and too young to drive yourself.

But most of all, I remember one time in particular. I was coming home for the first time after being away in the seminary. Dad picked me up at the airport, and on the way home he told me that he was worried about my mother.

What's the matter? I asked. And he told me she was acting strangely. Just that morning, he had walked into the bathroom and she was kneeling in front of the toilet, sawing the seat in half.

I was shocked and worried. Why would she do that? I asked. "I don't know," Red said. "She just kept saying that she was getting the house ready because her half-assed son was coming home."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

T - 28: Old Habits Dye Hard

Having discussed politics in yesterday's post it seems the right time to tackle religion in today's.

When I was 17, I was religious. So much so that I decided I was being called to be a priest. Events would eventually show that the call I heard was a wrong number intended for someone else. But at the time I was determined to wear the collar. The next step was deciding what type of collar it would be, and I began shopping for religious orders pretty much the way Linda approaches the shoe department at Nordstrom's during their sale.

I liked the Jesuits' reputation, but their conventional modern black outfit had no pizzazz, looking just like an ordinary diocesan priest. Loved the Dominicans' white hooded habits, but couldn't get my head around what the order did. Trappists and their vow of silence were never a consideration.

Finally decided it was Franciscan sandals for me, but even then so much fashion choice. Franciscans come in basic black, brown and gray habits. Most wear brown. I went Goth.

And so it came to be that my folks drove me to St Francis Center in Staten Island where I was to stay overnight while undergoing a battery of tests to determine my fitness to enter the seminary. (Those were the days when parents didn't think twice about dropping off their 17-year-old son with a bunch of priests they had never met who were going to "check out his fitness".)

I don't remember the name of the psychologist priest who tested me, so let's just call him Father Sigmund. He ran the other wannabees and me through what I now know is a pretty standard set of profile tests. I am not sure what they were testing for, but it sure wasn't piety and longevity, because I lasted all of about three months in the seminary.

In a not unexpected turn of events, the head of the seminary called me into his office and told me to check my sandals at the door and hit the road. But first, he said that Father Sigmund was visiting this weekend and would like to chat with me.

I assumed with him being a shrink and a priest all rolled into one, he was going to comfort and counsel me. That wasn't it at all. No, Father Sigmund wanted to talk to me about one of the tests I had taken that weekend on Staten Island.

In this particular test, you are given a blank piece of paper and a pencil and told to draw a person. It must not be a stick figure. Father Sigmund explained to me that it is a pretty basic test to determine sexual orientation since heterosexual men invariably draw a man.

Let me point out quickly that I drew a man. But what Father Sigmund wanted to know was why I had drawn a black man. He told me only black men draw black men. White men only draw white men. In fact, he had consulted with virtually every psychologist he knew and none of them had ever had a white man draw a black man.

I was so unique, in fact, that Father Sigmund had written a professional paper that had been accepted in the most prestigious journal of its day. He was beaming, and in many ways I think he regretted that he wouldn't be able to chart my course at least through the remainder of the Civil Rights movement.

Forget comfort and counsel. Father Sigmund had but one burning issue. Why had I drawn a black man?

The answer is simple. I am absolute crap when it comes to artistic skills, and when I finished drawing my man, I was quite surprised to see that I hadn't done as badly as I expected. In fact, upon looking more closely, I thought my creation looked an awful lot like Sammy Davis, jr. So I colored in his face so everyone else would be able to see the resemblance, too.

But Father Sigmund was so happy to have discovered a unique subject like me that I didn't have the heart to tell him the truth. I just shrugged and said I had no idea.

And so, like the gentle Saint Francis I had so briefly tried to follow, I left with an act of kindness. And a place in the annals of psychology.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

T - 29: A Vermont Yankee in King Arthur's Penal Colony

It's Tuesday here, but Labor Day is just ending in the eastern states. Of all the public holidays, that one was always the least joyous. When we were growing up, it meant summer vacation was over and it was back to, well, labor. Even as adults, it signals the end of summer and seems to say more about the coming autumn and winter than the days just past.

In my earlier career, it also meant that elections were getting closer and closer and it was time to begin pulling out all the stops. (As a digression, I knew what that phrase means, but I wondered how it came to be. Turns out it refers to pulling out the "stops" on a pipe organ to let more air through and increase the volume. But you probably knew that already and feel much smarter than me!)

Of course, in the US there can't be any stops left to pull out. The volume of electioneering has been a roar all the way down here in Australia for more months than anyone should have to endure. I will say one thing, it makes us American exports the focus of lots of questions.

We were at our friends' house for dinner on Saturday, and the other six (including transplanted English and Norwegians), were fascinated with what was going on in the US election. As so often happens lately, many of them knew even more than I do but just assumed that I had some special insight because I had lived there 20 years ago.

One of the more interesting assertions at the table was that Obama can't win because Americans would never elect a black man president. I was all set to give it my best outraged response until I recalled that I had thought the same thing when he first started doing well in states like Iowa back in January. Over the months, I have changed my mind and now I think it's not impossible to imagine Obama getting more votes than McCain although from here the betting line looks awfully close. (I submit that final sentence as proof that I am qualified to waffle on and not say anything, just like the candidates.)

The one thing I do know from afar is that the media seems to have decided that we all need nonstop crap from the campaign mouthpieces. These spokespeople, from both sides of the campaign, fill the airwaves with the most self-serving bilge. If asked a tough question, they smile and answer five different ones. If pressed on a sore point, they immediately tell you a sore point for the competition.

All that changed briefly on Saturday when a Republican spokeswoman was on CNN defending the choice of Sarah Palin. When pressed on the governor's credentials, this impeccably groomed and well-spoken woman decided the best answer somehow involved not answering the quesiton about Palin but discussing Joe Biden.

Her words, more or less: "At least Governor Palin hasn't spent the past 28 years in Washington as Joe Biden has. Someone with that history is part of the problem and will not be an agent of change."

For just a second, this young Republican rabbit's eyes widened in the headlight of awareness that she had also just described her boss. But her earnest smile never broke, I should add.

Of course, all this was before everyone heard about the governor's high school daughter getting knocked up and the governor having been a member of a political party advocating secession for Alaska. But somehow I am pretty sure she could have smiled through all of it and stuck to her talking points.

Monday, September 1, 2008

T - 30: Faraway Places with Strange Sounding Names

Today marks the beginning of spring. Purists know that technically spring doesn't begin for three weeks with the equinox, but here in Oz we get so excited about the change of seasons that we have moved the official start date forward.

All morning I have been thinking of Bob Geldof and how he named his children Fifi Trixiebelle, Peaches Honeyblossom and Pixie. It reminds me that Mary and I had actually agonized about whether it would be too odd a choice if we named our second son Dylan - and finally opted to make it Tom's middle name. Geldof makes me look like such a wuss.

I was thinking of him because his most famous lyrics ever were for the song, "I Don't Like Mondays." And of course the reason I was thinking about that is because today is Monday, and I have vowed to add five more things to the list of what I will do once I retire. No, at least for September, I don't like Mondays at all.

I like lists even less. If this were a weight loss or quit smoking program, I would be spending at least as much time trying to rationalize why I should forget about it rather than how to get through it. The fact that I am four paragraphs into this post and haven't even approached the list should give you an idea how much I am trying to stay away from it.

Oh well, deep breath. Give it one more go, at least. Because I have Spring Fever this week, and because I am well aware that the several million frequent flyer points Linda and I have are probably best used sooner rather than later, here are five places I want to visit after I retire.

1. The American West. Apparently there's more than LA, San Francisco and Las Vegas out that way. We haven't explored New Mexico, Colorado, the Big Sky country and they sound fantastic.
Worst thing: Dear Lord, please let the cost of fuel go back down.
Best thing: Beautiful places
2nd best thing: Most places have Embassy Suites - low rates and free happy hours!

2. Iceland. Seen it on TV, read about it. Want to check it out.
Worst thing: Apparently, it is getting trendy, and that is almost never good.
Best thing: Beautiful and unique geography
2nd best thing: If I'm doing that travel book, it's tax deductible.

3. Iguazu Falls. Haven't been to South America, really want to go. Need to narrow the itinerary down, but Iguazu Falls beckons as the top spot to see.
Worst thing: It's a 25-hour bus ride from Buenos Aires
Best thing: It's supposed to be the most magnificent waterfall in the world
2nd best thing: It was in the last Indiana Jones movie

4. Egypt. The oldest - and only remaining - Wonder of the Ancient World. How can you not want to see it?
Worst thing: Can't shake the worry about going into that region
Best thing: Once in a lifetime look at the pyramids
2nd best thing: Get to sing to Linda, "See the pyramids along the Nile. Watch the sunrise on a tropic isle. Just remember, darling, all the while you belong to me."

5. Africa. We've been three times. I would love to do just one more visit.
Worst thing: You still need shots and such for various diseases.
Best thing: If all goes according to plan, our friends Andy and Doni from Canada will join us.
2nd best thing: You can never get tired of animals on safari