Thursday, December 31, 2009

Bye-bye 09

In the best tradition of news organizations around the world, I am taking advantage of New Year's Eve to write the laziest post possible - The Top Ten List. After 254 posts in 2009, I am pleased to tell you the ten most read entries of the year:

1. Politics as Usual (August 28). This is the one where LK and our friend Walt renew their commitment to spirited political debate. And remember, as far as each of them is concerned, they never lose.

2. Birth of a Notion (September 30). No idea why this trifle was widely read. Perhaps it is because I violated copyright and used a Dilbert character?

3. Bronze to Jorge (March 30). Our favorite reality TV contestant lost. And we were devastated. At least this started some e-mail correspondence with Jorge, which was the highlight of my fan mail. (OK, my only fan mail.)

4. Blog Block (May 3). It's easy to see why this one got read - I linked to many of my favorite blogs. And nine months later, it is interesting how few of these blogs I am still reading. Fickle me!

5. A Shaggy Don Story (September 4). The one where I got my hair cut. Seems everyone I know enjoys it when things don't work quite as I had hoped they would. My mother told me that when she the pictures, she laughed and laughed and laughed.

6. Elementary School (February 25). My first - and certainly not my last - post about fixing the toaster.

7. All at Sea (September 11). With little to do, we eat, drink and gamble on the ship. Which is pretty much what we do when we have lots to do.

8. Connie Francis Saves the Day (July 27). In which Don and LK play games in the car.

9. Bowled Over (May 18). A brief essay on how to cheat at Wii bowling.

10. The New York City Marathon (December 5). In which I describe a virtual death march in NYC ending in the terrifying place called Tiffany & Co. Still scary.

Happy New Year to all. We are spending New Year's Eve by driving to the northern beaches of Oahu to fill in the hours before we can start drinking without feeling totally dissolute. See you in 2010.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Aloha At Last

Aloha! Yes, we finally made it here two days late.

This post may be one of the few I will ever write like this. I am writing about a day in which nearly everything went as well as anyone could want. No grumbles, no complaints, no observations about some jerk or other.

Nope we woke up to 7 above 0 Fahrenheit in Pittsford and went to bed when it was 75 in Honolulu. (You may have noticed by now that I can't figure out how to do the degree sign in this program, but we're all friends so let's not get too hung up).

We got up at 5am to confirm our flight was actually leaving, and packed the last few odds and ends. Sandy and Dave picked us up a little before 6am to go to the airport. We were expecting long lines at security after the scare on Christmas Day, but we had the easiest and fastest time getting through I can ever recall at Rochester Airport.

Waiting to board the plane, they announced it was a full flight, so would everyone do their best to board quickly because they were hoping to -- ready for this? -- leave early so we could all make our connections. And we did!

In Chicago, our next gate was about 150 meters away, and we had about 40 minutes to kill before boarding. Actually most people on the flight were killing their time by standing in one of the longest queues I have ever seen. Apparently the plane was overbooked and people had been given boarding passes without seat assignments, so they all had to line up at the gate to get a seat while they airline begged people to take a really good deal and let them put on a later flight.

Our seats had been assigned when we checked in at Rochester, but we got in the queue just in case there was a problem. But before we got to the desk they called boarding and we took two steps to the left and got in that line. We were on board within seconds.

Once in the air, the stewardess - sorry, flight attendant - insisted we have a second Bloody Mary. "That's the whole point of going to Honolulu," she said. Such wisdom in the air. And then they served what may have been one of the better meals I have had in the air. I watched a great movie - Inglourious Basterds. Then we slept a bit. And we were in Honolulu.

Shirley was waiting at the hotel. She had made sure there was plenty of ice in the freezer. And I had what was my toughest choice of the day - Grey Goose or Absolut.

We were feeling a bit lazy and ordered a pizza and salad to the room. The pizza was fantastic. And by 9 o'clock I discovered that I had stayed on the East Coast long enough to be on their time zone so my body clock thought it was 2am and time for bed. I am pretty sure the Grey Goose had nothing to do with it.

After 8 hours of sleep, LK and I woke up around 5 and dressed to go out and have some coffee while we let Shirl sleep in to a more civilized hour. And for the first time in 5 weeks I was able to put on my retirement uniform - shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops. I'm telling you, it's been a very good 24 hours.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Waiting, Waiting


Oh the weather outside is frightful.
But the fire is so delightful.
And since we've no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

But we do have some place to go! We want to get out of here and go to Honolulu.

We didn't clear the waitlist this morning, and we're in Pittsford one more day. Our friend Shirley is all alone in the hotel there, waiting for us. Undoubtedly she is having a miserable time because we are not there with her. It's lonely at the pool!

So now we're confirmed on the 7:55am flight tomorrow. Only, they're predicting 5 to 10 inches of snow tonight.

Oh God, will we ever get out of here? Will I ever be able to wear shorts and t-shirt again? Will Linda lose her tan?

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Escape from New York

Right now I am winging my way from the cold and snow of upstate New York heading to beautiful, sunny Honolulu.

Oh wait, that's what I was supposed to be doing. Instead I am still here in Pittsford (Peg, Sandy - please note I did NOT say "stuck" here in Pittsford) because there was a big snow storm in Chicago. That was where we were due to transfer to the Honolulu flight, but that isn't going to happen today.

And because this is the busiest week of flying, the airline can't even guarantee they will find seats for us tomorrow. They have nicely confirmed that we can get there two days late.

I woke up at 5 this morning to get ready for the early flight. First thing I did was check flight status, and that's when I saw the bad news. Then I checked my new itinerary and that's where bad news turned into a horror show.

Because our Rochester flight was now going to arrive at noon, a couple of hours after the Honolulu flight had departed, they rescheduled us. Oh, not to mid-afternoon, but to a flight to Denver at 6am tomorrow morning. The bad news? We would have to spend Sunday in an airport hotel. The good news? Because it was a 6am flight we would have to leave around 4am, what with the extra security measures in place.

You know travel is getting sucky when leaving a hotel at 4am would be the good news.

Once we got to Denver, we were scheduled to enjoy six or seven fun-packed hours sitting in the waiting area. Even I can't pace my Mile High Marys well enough to endure that much time. We would finally arrive late at night in Honolulu on Monday.

So I called United at 5:40am to seek alternative flights. This is no exaggeration - I finally hung up at about 7:40 with waitlists for tomorrow and confirmation for Tuesday.

The woman who was assisting me tried everything under the sun to find seats for us, but couldn't do it. She even called two competitive airlines to see if they had seats. I cannot fault her efforts, but I do wonder why I can now go on the Internet and see four different routes for tomorrow that would get us to Honolulu. After a 2-hour phone call, I will give it a break and wait for this afternoon to see if someone else can't get us on those flights tomorrow.

Besides, there's good and bad with staying here a little longer.

The good? Well, it's at least one more day with Peg and Sandy and Dave. (Mind you, I am not sure they all consider it a positive, but I do.) On a lesser note, I get to watch all the Sunday afternoon football games I would have missed while on the plane.

The negatives? Well, we're missing a day or two of beautiful Honolulu and laughs with our great friend Shirley, who is already there waiting for us. And we are a little concerned that Shirl may feel the need to drink our portions of the booze in the room, just to make the bottles look balanced.

Oh, and one more negative. LK just looked around and said that there was nothing for her to do since she had done everything yesterday in preparation for leaving this morning. "Looks like I may as well go shopping," she said.

I wonder if the airline would consider those costs the sort they compensate for.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Stuffing

Animal rights advocates protest against the treatment of geese raised for fois gras, the fancy French version of chopped liver. They protest because the bird is confined and has food forced down its throat in order to create a fat liver, which is after all what foie gras means.

I am beginning to understand how the geese feel. It is now 30 days since we landed here. Our first full day included a Thanksgiving feast at Bob and Deb's and last night included a magnificent Christmas dinner that Sandy prepared - crown roast of pork, stuffing, brussells sprouts, a pomegranate and arugula salad ... well, you're getting the idea. And in between we've had more breakfasts, lunches, dinners, snacks and drinks than I care to recall.

It seems like all I've done is open wide and swallow since we landed here. And I have even been really slack and haven't done my WiiFit exercises since we left Oz. In fact, about the only exercise I have had is walking to dinner when we were on the cruise ship.

I can honestly say that the wisest decision I have made this year was to buy pants with expandable waistbands.

I do think I need to do something about this girth of mine. Last night at dinner I discovered that a former neighbor of Peg's had asked her if I was still fat. Even taking into account that retired people develop new topics of interests, it surprised me that someone who barely knows me would be interested in my weight.

It reminded me of a tweet from director Kevin Smith I read the other day. He made me aware that I have passed the Point of Husky, turned left at Chubby Road and ended up in the neighborhood of Really Fat. Smith was doing a whole riff on "You know you're too fat when ..." and he got to "You know you're too fat when you own the airplane seatbelt extender that you used to be too embarrassed to ask for." And all I could do was visualize that little bit of belt sitting in the bottom of my cabin bag.

It is obvious I have to take another stab at dieting. Oh, not on on our last day here. And certainly not in the next week as we celebrate New Year in Honolulu. And I suppose it won't be practical to try to start in January with all the stress of getting the house cleared out. And Jaki and Robert are over in Oz all of February so that isn't going to be a good time. I suppose March is possible. Let's pencil it in.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

We're halfway through Christmas, and it's been fun and is sure to continue so.

I say halfway because the day is over in Australia. This is the first time we haven't been in Sydney for the big day since we moved there in 1988. We've talked with Jay and Lora, Matt, Rachael and Lily, but it's not the same as being there. We realized how much we miss all of them and how we have become so used to having them around.

Having Christmas with Lily the past several years has really made the day very special again. I had forgotten how wonderful Christmas is when you see it through the eyes of a child. We've promised Lily a Greek or Russian Christmas on January 6th when we get back. I hope it doesn't seem like week-old leftovers by then, but somehow I suspect a 7-year-old will always be able to get in the mood for more presents. I am just hoping she isn't expecting 12 lords-a-leaping by then.

On the plus side, this is the first holiday season we have spent with our parents and siblings in over 20 years. We had a great Thanksgiving with Mom and Dad and Bob and Deb in Rutland and are really enjoying this Christmas week with Peg, Sandy, Dave and Jordan. We will be heading over to Sandy and Dave's to open presents soon, and then back again later for the feast.

Everyone gets a bit sentimental at this time of year, but why not? Family, friends - all the people you love and care about. What great people and what a great time. Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Presents

Last night Sandy and Dave gave Linda and me a great Christmas present when they treated us to a wonderful dinner at a new restaurant in the area, the Next Door Bar and Grill. That simple name is misleading because it is quite an elegant place, with fantastic decor and equally great food.

They offer what very well may be the best sushi and sashimi this far from the ocean. Three of us started with that, and Dave stayed on the sashimi wagon with his main course.

LK opted for cooked food and started with chicken livers in a cognac sauce and then braised veal cheeks with spaetzle and red cabbage. Thumbs up on both.

Sandy and I had scallops with an arugula and pancetta salad with a sweet-and-sour vanilla sauce that may have been the tastiest bit of greens I can remember.

It was a great night, and a wonderful Christmas present from two of our most special people. Sandy said they thought the dinner was a great idea because LK and I were impossible to buy gifts for.

I assume that means that one of us has simple tastes and needs and does not require anything making it hard to buy gifts, whereas the other one gets whatever they want whenever they want it and therefore is impossible to buy gifts for. Of course, I am not naming names.

I've already given LK her Christmas present. While we were in St Maartin on our cruise, I bought her a Pandora bracelet and told her then that it was her Christmas present. When I reminded her of that today, she argued that I had said it was Cruise present. Silly me - I didn't even know I was expected to give a Cruise present but - faced with the idea of having to go to the mall on Christmas Eve afternoon - I convinced her she had misheard me.

I asked her if she had bought a gift for me yet. She hardly took a second to answer that I already had my gift. "Your Christmas present is that the bracelet is the only gift I got."

I think LK has perfected the concept that it is the thought that counts.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taking Flight


We got lucky yesterday, but what a mess the travel system was. With the winter storm shutting down Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, there were massive cancellations of flights in Fort Lauderdale. The lines waiting for tickets stretched well past the hundred mark, and the lines at the service windows were even longer.

We were getting to Rochester via Charlotte, so we had no problems. In fact, our flight to Charlotte may have been one of the few that was on time yesterday. When we got past the security checkpoints, there was hardly a seat available. With two hours to go before boarding, there was but one solution - we headed to the bar. The Bloody Marys were spicy enough to require a Samuel Adams after - as we say in Oz, the proverbial cleansing ale.

We decided to have lunch. we both chose the salt and vinegar chips. For dessert, LK stuck with the salt and vinegar, but I went with plain. A quick trip to the loo before boarding turned into a long trip as the men's room was jammed like a stadium at halftime. But as we lifted off the ground, I felt especially lucky that we were among those who were getting to their destination on one of the worst travel days in US history.

And I don't mean lucky in that we were getting to Rochester. Hey, the penalty for not getting there would have been another day or two in the warm weather of Florida.

No, I mean lucky because the week before I had called the travel company to try to change our tickets so we wouldn't have that long, long wait before the flight. They were able to do it but they said there would be $150 "re-ticketing" fee for each ticket. I translated that into approximately 60 drinks on the ship and told them , no thanks, we'll sit in the waiting area.

If you haven't guessed, the ticket we would have changed to involved going to either Washington or Philadelphia to transfer. In other words, I would have spent $300 more to get tickets that would have been for cancelled flights.

And when I think of how much I would have heard from LK as we dragged our bags around the airport and tried to find a hotel with rooms left - not to mention how many times I would have been reminded of it over the next several years - I believe you can understand why I felt lucky to be flying out of Fort Lauderdale yesterday.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Aboard the Solstice

Cruising is like this. You get on the ship, full of energy and raring to go. Then you have a couple of drinks, eat too much, stay up late on the first night and fall asleep like a baby in a cradle as the ship rocks you.

The next day - a day at sea - is dedicated to the fine art of doing nothing, or at least not very much. You sit on the deck, the temperature perfect as the breeze cools you. You read, maybe have a Bloody Mary, read a little more. By the end of the day, you have officially entered veg mode. And it only gets worse after that.

Even writing these posts has seemed like work. But today I am snapping out of it. Oh, not enough to write a proper post with a beginning, middle and end. But at least a few notes about our first few days on the Solstice.

=========

We had only been aboard the ship a few hours when I heard someone yelling my name.

I ran the company in Australia for nearly 20 years. I was the host and a speaker at international conferences the company held for the past 10 years. And I come from a large family - nearly 50 first cousins. I wasn't expecting it, but I wasn't surprised that with more than 3,000 people aboard, someone who knew me was on the ship.

When I turned around to see who it was, it was my old friend Jinn. I last wrote about her on September 9. In case you don't feel like looking it up, Jinn is a card dealer in the casino of the ship we took in the Mediterranean. Turns out she had been transferred to this ship in time for its Caribbean season.

That's right. It wasn't former colleagues, old friends or family that recognized me. It was a casino dealer.

"See, Donald," LK said, "they remember you."

I told her I wasn't sure it was saying good things about me to be remembered by the casino staff. On the other hand, there isn't much I can do about it. And it is nice that here I am on a strange boat and within hours I hear my name shouted out. Even if the next thing she said was, "Shuffle up and deal!"

===========

Single guys, I've got a tip for you. Buy a Kindle and go on a cruise.

After years of buying the Next Big Thing in technology, LK has finally hit on a crowd pleaser. Every day, someone asks us about them. There is so much interest in these e-readers that I cannot imagine them being more or less standard gear within a few years.

In the meantime, people not only ask you about them, they then tell you the types of books they read, the business they are in, their favorite authors, and lots more. I'm telling you, single guys, you don't even need a pick-up line - just show 'em your Kindle.

===========

And finally, some good and very bad news about the ship.

The good news is that it is a lovely ship, the restaurants and bars are very nicely done and our room is spacious, comfortable. No complaints.

The bad news - there is a disgusting pig aboard. On Tuesday I went to the men's room by (where else) the casino. I opened the stall door and saw what I now refer to as the Turd Tornado. Believe me, you don't want any further description, and I don't want to remember it in detail. Let's just say it was one of the biggest gross-outs I've ever seen.

I left the men's room looking for a staff member, and the first I saw was the maitre d' just inside the restaurant door. It wasn't a time for service, and he was organizing his staff for the dinner hour. I went inside; he looked at me, and because he was a maitre d' and because it wasn't time to eat, he did what nature intended. He ignored me and walked over to his staff.

There may have been a time when I could be cowed by a snobbish maitre d' but I am way past that. I followed him around the corner. He was talking to three staff and did his best to ignore me. However, I am retired and have become a patient man. But I am still competitive, and while waiting I decided that I would see if I could out-maitre-d' him.

When he finally could not resist taking a little peek to see if I was still there, I raised my hand in the classic gesture of maitre d's the world over, and flicked my hand to indicate he should come over. Surprisingly, his previous training as a waiter must have been so ingrained that he responded like one of Pavlov's puppies.

As he approached, I merely said to him. "The men's room next door is filthy and more disgusting than anything I've ever seen."

"That would be maintenance that would take care of that," he said.

"Fine," I said, "then that's who you should call." I turned on my heels and walked away.

The turd tornado was gone when I checked an hour later.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Cold As Ice

So it's Sunday morning, and I am sitting down here in Fort Lauderdale now. The sun is shining; the temperature is going to be 85 this afternoon. That temperature is about 85 degrees warmer than it was on Friday.

And I am happy to do the conversion for my metric buddies - that's about 30C difference from one day to the next.

Back to Friday. The drive from Rutland to Pittsford was one of the easiest imaginable. In a week filled with winter storm warnings and dire predictions of snow, Mother Nature decided to give us a break. The sun was shining brightly; the roads were dry. In fact, there was barely any traffic and the drive was made double easy by being able to use cruise control.

Now when I say that Mother Nature gave us a break, you've got to know that she didn't give us a complete break. The winds howled around our car the whole trip. Trees were swaying, reeds were rocking back and forth, and every once in a while a gust would push the car a few inches to the left or right.

But as King Lear said, "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks." What difference does it make, I thought. After all, the car has a heater and the windows close tight. I should have remembered one of the chief messages of King Lear was a warning about arrogance.

With about 30 miles to go before we arrived at Peg's, the fuel gauge started to edge towards zero. I could have tried to make it, but why risk it. We pulled into a service area on the Thruway and drove up to the pumps.

My first clue that perhaps things were not balmy here was this poor old dear trying to fuel her car in front of us. She was probably in her 70s and had that hug-yourself-all-over look that people adopt when they're very, very cold. She spent minutes reading the rules about how to fill the car. Well, it was either that or she had frozen in place.

When I got out, I started to think she had frozen in place. The temperature was in the low 20s, but the winds were screaming. Wind chill factor is a misnomer - chill is what you do to a bottle of wine. Wind frigging freezing factor is more like it. Factoring in the wind, the temperature had to be well below zero. And that's Fahrenheit. Try -18C, if you can imagine it, you Aussies.

One of the things I discovered on Friday is that, having lived in Oz for 21 years, I have acclimated to the more reasonable temperature band of Sydney. On our coldest days, we don't even come close to hitting zero - and that's on the centigrade scale. So there I was trying to pump fuel while feeling that my face was going to freeze, crack and blow away in the gale.

I had intended to fill up the tank. I got to 9 gallons and decided that I could not stand one second more. So back inside the car for a blast of heat. And a little anatomy lesson as LK asked what it felt like to have your testicles sucked into your belly. I had to explain to her that it wasn't like a vacuum or one of those old pneumatic tubes, and there really wasn't any sensation - especially since most of the bits down there had lost any feeling in the freezing cold.

We had plenty of time for the discussion as we sat waiting for the older woman in front of us who was still trying to figure out how to fill up the car. I don't know if her hair started out white or frostbite crept up. This won't qualify as my proudest moment, but I saw that the service station attendant was staying comfy in his little glass booth. I figured if anyone was going to come to her rescue, it was the guy on the clock. So I sat in my seat and thought, "Take your time, dear. I'm in no hurry. I will just sit here and warm up while you finish."

The next day we flew to Florida.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Woman Who Lost SONY

AT&T and Verizon have a lot to answer for.

The good news is that cell phones give people the freedom to talk to one another wherever they are whenever they wish. Unfortunately, that's also the bad news because they have also given people the freedom to be rude and ignorant - and all apparently without even being aware of it.

Our train ride from New York to Rutland was uneventful but for the grumbling presence of several people in our car all yelling into their mobile phones at ever increasing volume levels. It was almost as if they didn't realize the phone's technology actually means they don't have to yell for their distant friends to hear them.

It all started with the young, heavyset woman directly behind us. In one of those relentlessly cheery and artificial tones that so many American salespeople master, she called someone in her company to let them know the bad news. "We lost SONY," she eventually got around to telling them with a little less chirp than the rest of her conversation.

She went on to explain - again, with the volume set at 11 - that so-and-so didn't like them, and someone else wanted them but lost their budget. And about 10 more minutes of blah blah blah. But even to someone like me who did not know the details of her business, there was no mistaking the fact that she had taken a kick in the guts and was dealing with it by being chirpy and loud.

It must never have occurred to her that the rest of us in the train did not view the car we were riding in as her office away from the home office. Nor did it seem to occur to her that sharing confidential business information with a train full of strangers might not be the smartest thing to do. And it certainly must not have occurred to her that all of us were thinking of her as the woman who lost SONY.

Right behind her was a guy with a wireless bluetooth headset hanging off his ear. He was short and looked a lot like an extra running around the headquarters in the background in an episode of 24. Because the woman who lost SONY was raising the decibels in front of him, he had to speak even louder as he conducted his business on the train.

It was starting to sound a bit loud in the car but really ratcheted when a third cell phoner joined the party - and he, of course, had to speak even louder than the other two. Who in turn raised their volume to deal with what I suspect they considered the loud, rude people behind them.

The best part of the whole thing was when the train moved into areas where the signal was lost, and each of them desperately started saying, "Hello? Hello? Can you hear me? I think I'm losing you. If you can hear me, I'll call soon when I get a signal ..." etc etc etc.

They all got off in Albany, which meant the last two hours of the trip were mercifully quiet and peaceful. Well, that is until this old guy who was the only other person remaining in our car decided we would be interested in his life story and what he was doing in Rutland this weekend.

I don't know how to be rude to people who strike up these sorts of conversations, but it did occur to me that taking a call on my mobile right then might not be such a bad idea.

PS = Don't ask me why but Google's blogger site does not permit ampersands in a post label, so AT&T becomes AT+T. Odd.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Winter Starts

Oh the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we've no place to go,
Let It Snow! Let It Snow! Let It Snow!

Lyrics by Sammy Cahn




Assuming this technology works, this video is a brief work by the artist formerly known as Linda. I asked her to use her brand new Flip to make a brief video showing the winter weather that attacked us last night.

When our train arrived in Rutland 15 minutes early, it didn't seem like a big deal to just wait outside the station until Bob and Deb showed up to pick us up. That was until we stood out there and I realized that the temperature was 18 (that's Fahrenheit, about -7.8C for my Aussie pals). I think I toughed it out about 30 seconds before I pulled out the mobile and rang for them to come as soon as possible.

Over night a couple of inches of snow landed, and they cancelled school this morning. Throughout the morning a light snow continued to fall, but the hellacious part of the day was the howling winds that gusted up to 45 miles per hour (72kM/hr - and pretty soon folks are going to have to figure these conversions out for themselves.)

I haven't dealt with a car covered with snow and ice for 20+ years, but memories came flooding back as I swept and scraped the car. By the time I could see through the windows, I had cold toes and very cold fingers. Not turn-black-and-fall-off-your-hand cold fingers, but pretty chilly for a guy who's been used to wearing shorts and t-shirts in December.

The short drive to my parents turned out to be easy, but I worried lots before heading out since I haven't driven in snow and ice for nearly a quarter century. Isn't it like riding a bike? asked LK. When I pointed out to her that I tend to fall off bicycles, she seemed to begin to understand my concern.

Anyhow, the snow has stopped even though the wind is still whipping the bare trees and knocking over Christmas decorations. With nightfall, there may be a bit of ice on the road on the way back to Bob and Deb's later on, but by and large it should be a safe enough trip if I take my time and pay attention.

The good news is that winter is going to go easy on us for the next few days, which will enable us to drive back to Peg's without battling the notorious central New York blizzards I remember from when we lived there. Once in Pittsford, we can keep the car parked if the roads aren't good.

Anyhow, we haven't really experienced winter in a couple of decades, so it is good that it has happened today. Good in the sense that I am pretty sure we have learned not to come back for a visit at this time of year again. Spring, summer and autumn will do just fine, thanks.

Sad News

The message we have been dreading came yesterday. Our good friend Andy has died. He fought on bravely and much longer than anyone thought he could after being diagnosed with cancer last year.

We last saw Andy in July last year when we visited him and Doni. That's a picture when we went out to dinner on the last night. It was after his diagnosis, and yet you would have never known it from how much he did to make us feel welcome and at home. On the other hand - typical of him - he was more than ready to talk about what he was dealing with. Or not - our call.

Andy was my counterpart in Canada, and we first got to know each other when we discovered how much in common we had running the businesses. He always was my best source of ideas when I had a problem to solve.

But the business stuff - while a running conversation between us - sooon became secondary to friendship. We had so many good times together. He made the trip to Australia a couple of times, and we were able to teach him the joys of an Aussie barbecue with lots of good red wine.

Andy was one of the funniest, most laid-back guys I knew. If you wander back among the earlier posts of this blog, you will even find some of his comments on my writing. My favorite was when he decided I was the opposite of concise and succinct by marvelling at my "verbosatility".

He was also sharp as a tack and amazingly creative. It was great fun and a great privilege to know him, and it sucks to think that we won't be laughing with him again.

Probably the most fun we had was when he joined LK and me for a holiday in Budapest in 2007. There's a great picture of him from that trip, and I think it says as much about his personality as any words I could use, so I will end this sad post with a happy picture.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Walt and Terry and Ed and Kelly and Sam's Club

So let me see, my excuse for not blogging this weekend is ... well, I guess I don't have one.

We arrived at Walt and Terry's Saturday afternoon in a freezing rain, and by evening wet snow was sticking to the ground. Our first experience with the white stuff in a long, long time - but we were happy on Sunday when the temperatures went back up and the sun melted most of it. Enough is enough, after all.

Saturday we were invited to be Walt and Terry's excess baggage and went to a lovely dinner at their friends, Ed and Kelly. We've spent a couple of evenings with this great couple before when they came over to Walt and Terry's while we were visiting, but it was really nice of them to put on such a nice night and ask us over.

I do wonder about our reputation, though. LK and I have been in Freehold twice in the past three years - admittedly for a full week in August. We have never visited Ed and Kelly, yet when we walk in they don't even ask if we want a drink. They simply pull out a bottle of Johnny Walker and a bottle of vodka - which, come to think of it is what my mother does, too.

Sunday was, for obvious reasons, a little bit lazy. Very disappointing football as the Patriots showed they probably won't go deep into the playoffs this year, and then a great dinner with some of Walt's homemade goulash - the genuine article from a guy who knows.

Then yesterday LK and I talked Walt and Terry into taking us to Sam's Club. Starting with Robert and Jaki and then Walt and Terry, we have been hearing so much about this store that we just had to check it out.

For the Aussies reading this, Sam's Club is a Walmart-owned store run like a buyer's club. It has everything from electronics to groceries to booze to a pharmacy, and the prices truly are amazing. For example, in a belated attempt to kind of cover some of the expenses of offering us hospitality, we bought Johnny Walker and Absolut in the extra-large bottles. The 1.75 liter bottle of Absolut cost $30. Which, compared to Australian bottle shop prices, means I was getting a free liter of the stuff.

Most of the grocery items tend to be super-sized but amazingly good value. LK loves cooking pork loin, but the ones we get at home are about 1/6th the size of this cut - which cost a grand total of $13 (about $14 Aussie dollars). Such bargains - and Walt tells us the quality of the meat is excellent.

By the way, Linda didn't want to pose for that picture. She said you're just going to make some wisecrack about me holding a piece of meat. Which hurt my feelings a bit. I think most of you know that this blog is just one long love song to my sweetie. Can't imagine why she feels I might make fun of her. Besides, now that I've planted the idea I know most of you are coming up with your own wisecrack. Feel free to share them with me.

Anyhow, backtracking today - bus to New York to catch a train to Rutland - for a couple of more days with my family. Having a ball.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Food for Thought

Oh, we have eaten well here in New York. We have had pastrami at Katz's Delicatessen, one of the places that celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain listed among the "13 Places to Eat Before You Die" in a magazine article earlier this year. I will spread out the remaining 12 rather than face a retirement with no further goals.

Katz's is an odd place. There are guys at the door handing you tickets as you walk in and telling you not to lose them or you'll end up paying $50. But when you see how many people there are and how crazy the place is, it makes sense.

This is the restaurant where Meg Ryan did her fake orgasm noises in the movie "When Harry Met Sally". That's the scene where Rob Reiner's mother in the background tells the waiter, "I'll have what she's having." In fact, we chowed down one table away from Meg Ryan's table in that scene. We knew because there's a big sign over the table telling everyone. I suspect the staff just got tired of having to tell everyone who asked about it.

As for the critical issue, the pastrami was excellent, but I suspect Bourdain is about the only person in the world who could not find another place to be in his 13 places all for the sake of a pastrami sandwich.

Along the way, we also ate at a great Cuban restaurant, an Irish pub, and a generic cafe in the neighborhood here.

Yesterday we returned to the cafe, the Pink Pony, for brunch. I had a sandwich and LK celebrated a return to her childhood by having hot chocolate and french toast with fresh fruit. Everything looked pretty good, but I noticed she left a bit of the fruit. I understood.

Last night we had a wonderful evening catching up with old friends Kevin and Pamela, whom we haven't seen in a couple of years. We went to Telepan, a trendy restaurant about halfway up the west side of Central Park.

We all did the four-course fixed price menu. The price was a real bargain, and even though our waiter told us the portions were smaller, none of us could have eaten another bite by the end. I had foie gras, scallops, sea trout and a cheese plate. Oh yes, and some very nice chardonnay. Yummy.

Having feasted and shopped and walked and done a museum and Broadway show, we've squeezed heaps into our New York holiday. We're now packed and ready to check out on our way back to Walt and Terry's in New Jersey. Apparently, we left an ounce or two of vodka and scotch when we visited last August.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The New York City Marathon

I am writing the morning after a day that left me with sore feet and so tired I didn't even want a drink before bedtime. The Ks took Manhattan.

We took the subway up to Rockefeller Center to check out the Christmas tree yesterday. The weather was beautiful - somewhere in the 60s - and there were crowds jamming the area around the tree and ice skating rink.

After obligatory pictures, we went into the Metropolitan Museum Shop to buy a Christmas gift we had seen in their window. Once inside, we got upgraded significantly to a really cool gift. The only problem was that the original gift weighed about 2 ounces and the new gift is big and weighs about 20 pounds. Can't say any more or the surprise will go away for someone, but we left it to be picked up at the end of the day.

We then wandered around in search of a restaurant for lunch. Unfortunately we were wandering around Fifth Avenue, and there aren't any restaurants there. Once we figured that out, we wandered down a side street and ended up at an Irish pub where we drank Harps with our lunch.

Then the day took a new turn. LK and I have had a 25-year fight going on. It's about who will be responsible for what we do. Neither of us wants to do it. It used to be enough to be the first one to ask, "What do you want to do?" to win, but now LK cleverly counters that with "Whatever you want" and from there it generally goes back and forth until we have exhausted our "I don't care, whatever you want to do" and one of us made a decision.

That, of course, means if the decision is no good it's your fault. Which is also the reason we have the fight.

LK won yesterday - and last night reminded me quite strongly that I had first broken her original plans for the day and then made the decision to do the things we did, so any pain I felt was my fault. We walked north along Central Park to the Whitney. That's about a mile and a half, which is no big deal on such a beautiful day.

Then we walked around the museum for about two hours. The only time I sat was when I visited the men's room. When we left, I was game for a taxi back to the store where we left our gift and a bar until our play started. LK - who was also complaining about sore feet - saw no reason that we couldn't walk back the mile and a half.

"But we can take a taxi if you want to," she said. I recognized this very clever ploy. Either wuss out and admit you're tired without me having to, or suffer, fat boy. Of course I couldn't take a taxi.

Walking back down Fifth Avenue, we came upon one of the scariest sites I have encountered in New York - Tiffany & Co.

It was crowded and the clerks were not their typical all smiles and patience. They were busy and crabby. LK picked up a gift for someone on behalf of someone (more Christmas secrets) and even she was getting crabby about Tiffany by the time we left. The crabbiness also may have had something to do with her comment that she was a bit surprised that I hadn't picked up on her comment and bought something for her.

I played dumb.

We got back to Rockefeller Center and picked up the gift, which now appeared to weigh about 3 or 400 pounds. We had tickets to a show at 8 and had to kill 2 hours. I had fantasies of a bar stool and a very cold beer. And we found just that two blocks away from our show.

Rested and refreshed, we wandered down to see Carrie Fisher's one-woman show "Wishful Drinking". She was very enjoyable, but this post has gone on so long I won't write a review now. Suffice it to say, we grabbed a quick pizza and salad after the play, definitely grabbed a cab for the trip back to the hotel and slept very late this morning.

This morning I am feeling great, my feet are ready for action and the weather remains good. Last day in New York. Time to go.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tenements

LK booked us into a tenement on the Lower East Side for our stay in New York City. No kidding.

We're at the Blue Moon Hotel, a lovely, renovated tenement house in the neighborhood made famous by so many movies about immigrants first arriving in America. After so many years of Intercontinentals and Ritz Carltons on business trips, it's fun to discover these boutique hotels in parts of town that almost never see a business conference.

This is the neighborhood of the movies "Crossing Delancey" and "Hester Street" and "The Gangs of New York". We seem a million miles from the upmarket midtown of Manhattan.

The hotel doesn't number its 22 rooms. Instead, each is named after a famous performer from the first half of the 20th century when it actually functioned as a tenement. We're staying in the Ella Fitzgerald room, right next to the Frank Sinatra room. When we checked in and the clerk asked if I had ever heard of Ella Fitzgerald, I was able to tell her that I had her on my iPod. I thought it was pretty impressive. Linda assured me no one was impressed.

The hotel is two doors away from the Tenement Museum, and we checked it out today. They have a variety of tours that show you what life was like in the New York tenements of the 19th and early 20th centuries. We chose a tour called The Moores, which looks at the apartment of an Irish family that immigrated to America in the mid-1800s.

Our chief concern in booking the tour was that it required us to walk up 63 stairs to the fourth floor of the old building. I am particularly aware of how difficult it would be for them to carry me down steep stairs should my body suddenly decide the exertion is all too hard. I was especially concerned because our guide - excuse me, our educator - was 75, and I didn't want to show how hard it was for me to keep pace with a really old guy! (Just kidding, Mom and Dad!)

The good news was that my Wii Fit training worked fine and they had the good sense to have us all sit down and watch a presentation when we got to the top floor. I was only breathing a little bit fast when we got up to walk through the building 10 minutes later.

They wouldn't let us take pictures in the tenement, and I cannot quite understand why. There was nothing much that could have been damaged by flashbulbs. In fact, as you can see from this picture from their web site, the rooms were pretty much bare and sparse. There were a few artefacts and pieces of furniture, but nothing that couldn't be photographed.

By the way, what you are looking at with this picture is 2/3rds of the apartment that would typically house 6 or 7 people - and around 11 during the Great Depression. There was only one other room - a very small bedroom which could sleep as much as the two parents and three or four of the younger children. You just had to hope no one wanted to turn over during the night.

More than 7,000 families lived in the building during its lifetime. All of them were poor, many of them lost children to the unsanitary conditions - conditions which were due in part to the fact that people didn't even know there was a connection between cleanliness and health until the 20th Century. (Thanks to our educator, Gerry Lemmon, for that tidbit.)

At one point this part of the Lower East Side had more people per square foot than any other part of the world, including Calcutta. It was where the Irish and Germans came, followed by the Poles and Russians and Italians. Later the immigrants from Central and South America arrived.

Even for new immigrants, the American dream was alive - move to a better place, get a better job, get your kids a better education. It was virtually everyone's desire to get out of this area as fast as they could. This was the starting point of their great life's adventure. After today, I think it's kind of cool that so many people are coming back here to make sure that time is not forgotten.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Training Day

Unlike Christmas - or even Halloween - there aren't a lot of great Thanksgiving movies. With the exception of a great scene in Woody Allen's Annie Hall, probably the best is John Hughes' Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

That's where Steve Martin learned to be funny by playing straight man to John Candy, and the theme is all about trying to get home for the holidays by any means possible.

John Candy in this movie and I had a lot in common. We both had moustaches, we both played the accordion, and we were both - well, a punching a bit above the weight on the chart. Although I never was in a polka band like John Candy, I do wish I had been.

I couldn't help thinking of this movie today because we completed the transportation trifecta by taking the Amtrak train from Rutland to New York City.

Please permit me to become the greatest advocate for train travel since tracks were standardized. What an immense pleasure to take a long train ride. Look at your ticket and see that you have nearly six hours in the air, and your heart sinks. Same time for the train - you've hit the jackpot.

No droning engine noise, no seatbealts, not even a perfunctory safety demonstration that no one watches. You can stand up any time - even during takeoff. You can eat, drink, read, go to the loo - and no one ever tells you the tracks are a bit rough and you need to keep your fat ass in the seat.

And during most of the trip - that is, the part when you are not looking at the backyards of people in upstate New York who have train tracks running within a hundred yards of their homes - the view is great. The last part of today's trip was like taking a superfast cruise as we were right next to the wide Hudson River from Albany down to Yonkers. Beautiful.

I suspect passenger trains will disappear soon. In fact, I am surprised they are still around. But LK and I agree wholeheartedly on this one. (With the obvious exeption of those who have to use the rest rooms during the six hour trip), trains are easily the best way to get from Point A to Point B.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Leftovers

I think I had forgotten what Thanksgiving weekend means. It is the holiday that lingers long past the day. Food is followed by more food until it seems that not eating is an act of rebellious self-expression (or desperation).

After turkey dinner on Thanksgiving proper, we had ham for variety the next day. This was all followed by the inevitable: turkey chili, turkey soup, hot turkey sandwiches. And remember the ham? We also had frittata with ham and pea soup with ham. And LK and I will be taking ham sandwiches on our train ride to New York tomorrow.

There was also a fair amount of dessert left over after the big feast. As Linda noted when reviewing the family feast, "Only the Kennedys would have four pies, a cake, ice cream and whipped cream for a meal for 10 people." You would think by now she would have learned that my family has its priorities and adheres to it.

Today is also the first day that hasn't featured non-stop sports on television. Football, football, football, and more football is interrupted only briefly by a basketball or hockey game. It got so bad that LK - who normally is able to ignore whatever sport is on the TV - finally was forced to notice. Mind you, her comment was not about a particularly good play but about the looks of one of the Miami Heat players: "I don't care how rich or famous you are," she said. "That hair and those tattoos make him look like a big twat." Frankly, she was right, and it was encouraging to have her finally share a game on the tube with us.

Even the news was about sports this weekend as every news organization worked hard to figure out if Tiger Woods' wife had a mean slice when she swings the club.

The orgy of food and televised sports left me pretty much brain dead. I thought of blogging, but my blood sugar levels were not conducive to writing any posts. Besides, every time I thought of doing it there seemed to be a great pass play and I wanted to watch the six replay angles.

One of my favorite bloggers, the Poker Shrink, perhaps said it as well as could be on his blog, "Keeping Your Head in (All) the Game(s)". I love his writing and urge you to check him out. Recently he's been wandering the US and avoiding poker. His promise last week to write about Dante has been deferred a couple of times, the last with this post yesterday:

Due to circumstances beyond our control and a deluge of tryptophan. The Circles of Hell, particularly the one concerning gluttony will be delayed one more day. Tune in tomorrow when MSG swollen fingers will attempt to return to issues of portent and blah-blah-blah.


I know what he means - even if I did have to look up the meaning of tryptophan. Oh well, Thanksgiving is now well and truly past. Bright and early tomorrow we're on the Amtrak to the Big Apple. Where we undoubtedly will eat and drink a lot.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Sleepless Over Seattle

Happy Thanksgiving.

We are up and drinking lots of coffee getting ready to drive to Rutland this morning. A big family feast at Bob and Deb's awaits this afternoon.

The trip from Honolulu to Rochester was uneventful - and pretty much unsleepful. Neither of us got more than an hour's sleep in the red-eye so we were completely knackered by the time we landed here around 9:30 yesterday morning. It's getting to be our travel pattern - Hello, great to see you, please wake us up in a couple of hours.

I partly blame LK because she broke one of our traditions in Honolulu.

An odd thing happens when we fly United in the US. For the past many years, all of our miles on United and its Star Alliance partners has meant that our United frequent flyer cards are at a gold level. We know we will lose them soon enough now that our business travelling days over, but it's been a nice plus in recent years.

Whenever we travel, we have shown those cards and they have gained us admission to the lounges for Singapore Airlines, Thai Airlines, Air New Zealand, Lufthansa and several others. For some reason that I still cannot fathom, the United Airlines card that gets us into lounges from London to Bangkok won't get us into the United Airlines lounges in the US. Odder still, had we joined, say, the Singapore Airlines frequent flyers instead, that card would get us into those lounges.

Oh well, we've learned to adjust. For years, whenever we fly out of Honolulu on United we no longer try to crash the lounge. Instead we go straight to the bar near the gates and order a Mile High Mary. This is a very large Bloody Mary in a water tumbler with double shots of vodka and spiced quite hot. It is garnished with a lemon, a lime and a dill pickle. OK, I cannot figure out the pickle, either, but it tastes pretty good and it counts as one serve of vegetable in my diet.

So waiting to leave Honolulu, we had our MHM, and I was getting ready to complete the tradition for the overnight flight - which is to have a second MHM - when Linda suggested we didn't need it. I pointed out to her that I wasn't thinking so much of need as want, but LK held firm. Wanna share one? I asked. Nope. I bowed to the pressure and passed on the refill.

Which was all better for us and healthy and all that stuff, I know. But then both of us were grumpy and tired from not sleeping on the flight when we arrived here yesterday. I believe it was our punishment for not completing the MHM tradition. I can only hope that Linda has learned her lesson.

Anyhow, gotta run. Long drive ahead this morning.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Leaving On a Jet(Star) Plane

We arrived in Honolulu this morning. A classic Hawaiian morning, beautiful blue skies, the temperature warm but not too warm, the light sparkling on the water. We did what you would expect. We went to bed at 9:30am.

That overnight flight from Sydney is just so tiring. Even if you get plenty of sleep, you don't get enough. And when you get into Honolulu at what is still 4am in Sydney, you're tired. So catching up on a few more zzzz's is first on your mind. And what good news to get to our hotel and discover that our room was ready even at 9.

We are in Hawaii because Jetstar had a fantastic deal about six months ago, and we couldn't pass it up. From here, we can use frequent flyer points, so it's a very economical way to go.

Jetstar is the airline Qantas created a few years ago to be able to compete at the budget airline end of the market. Some bright sparks at Qantas had decided they could do the impossible - make money by providing even crappier customer service than they normally provided.

The deal we took was for very inexpensive seats in what Jetstar calls StarClass. I am pretty sure they meant to call it StarkClass, but must have felt the K was unnecessary. Their web site points out that your extra bucks get you several great benefits. I was particularly attracted to the promise of wider seats. Having now spent almost 10 hours in one of those wider seats, I can only think that had we flown economy I may have had a permanent impression of the seat recliner button on my left cheek, because this boy's chubby cheeks weren't ever going to be sliding around in those StarClass seats.

We also got free food. I won't do cheap airline food jokes, but I haven't thought about our trip a few years ago aboard Polish Air Lot. I did last night.

Jetstar does not have stewards and stewardesses. They are customer service managers. To their credit, they do (barely) manage customer service. One particularly cheerful young woman customer service manager managed to give us the wrong immigration forms (no big deal), the dessert we didn't order (not that serious) and walked away during breakfast service forgetting to give LK her coffee as we were waking up (potentially life threatening mistake - she's lucky LK was in the window seat and couldn't crawl over me to get to her).

It wasn't all that bad - just not all that great. But things got better once on the ground. At the taxi rank, the luck of the draw gave us a stretch limo, so we at least got to the hotel in the taxi equivalent of StarClass. And as I said, the room was ready early. So we've now had a snooze, the sun is shining brightly at midday, and we have 24 more hours here in Honolulu.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Homeward Bound

389 years ago the Pilgrims travelled the rough Atlantic to reach Plymouth. After a near-death experience, they survived and celebrated their first harvest with a feast which continues today. Thanksgiving.

This afternoon LK and will travel the skies over the Pacific en route to our families. After what we assume will be a much more pleasant experience, we will wander around Honolulu for a day. Doing what retired folk do - picking up the best fares, using frequent flyer points - we have a layover in Hawaii. However, there are far worse things in life than having to spend a day in Honolulu.

On Tuesday we fly overnight to Peg and the family in Rochester, arriving Wednesday morning. Thursday - Thanksgiving Day - we will drive to Rutland to have a major feast with the family at my brother Bob's.

All of which means, there isn't much flexibility in today's to-do list.

So in an hour I will bring Streak to the vet's where the cattery will pick her up for her holiday at the upscale cat hotel. (At least that's what I keep telling her it is. I am not sure she believes me, since she just stares blankly.)

I need to get prescriptions filled at the pharmacy. I need to go to the bank to fill out some forms that will come due while we are gone.

I've already had the mail held, but need to stop the newspapers and also ring the security company and the gardeners to set up for while we are gone. I need to forward phone calls to my Skype number so I don't end up paying outrageous international fees.

Oh yes, we also need to talk to our lawyer and accountant. We sold the house Saturday and have to get things in motion with them. And we want to send a thank-you gift hamper to Mary-Anne, our agent.

What else have I forgotten? Oh, who cares? We're heading home for Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Going Once, Going Twice...

That's Mary-Anne.

She sold our house this morning. For more than we were willing to take.

I feel bad for ever doubting her.

Please ignore all previous posts on the subject.

Think Harry Belafonte, instead: "All together now. All day, all night. Mary-Anne."

Friday, November 20, 2009

They're Showing Our Cops

Mary-Anne finally called around 12:30 to discuss my e-mail cancelling the auction.

I know myself too well. All she has to do is tell me she is so sorry we were upset, and I will tell her don't worry, we didn't really intend to cancel the auction, we were just letting you know we didn't like Damien's attitude, we need love, we are pathetic, so sorry to have wasted your time.

That's why I asked Linda to answer when the phone rang.

Apparently just about the first thing Mary-Anne said was, "It was Damien, wasn't it?" Almost as if she assumes we are the sort of people who would jeopardize a major thing like selling our home just because we didn't like some guy. Which, of course, is the case.

Once Linda confirmed that, oh yes indeedy, it was Damien, Mary-Anne told LK how he had ignored her strong advice to treat us as intelligent, experienced, knowledgeable, witty and gracious people who understood the process of selling, etc. Or something like that. She vowed to LK that Damien would have nothing to do with the negotiation process. That was her job, and she knew what we needed and wanted and would do her best to deliver it. Don't you worry about Damien. He's nothing more than a carbuncle on the rump of the sales process.

Mary-Anne said she had been out all morning trying to drum up more interest in the auction. Excuse me - not THE auction, OUR auction. She also explained that cancelling the auction would send a terrible message to the one very hot prospect she has. LK didn't mention it to me, but I suspect she may have also mentioned her children.

LK told her she wanted to chat with me about it, and would call back quickly. We chatted, she called back, and the auction was on again.

I don't believe Mary-Anne actually used the term "bad cop" to describe Damien, but she may as well have. It is pretty obvious that being the good cop has its advantages. Like being able to blame everything on the bad cop. Like making sure the people you're double-teaming still love you even if the bad cop goes too far. If you're really clever about it, you can even get them to believe that you two weren't working the act together.

And being the good cop even means you get to be the super nice person who celebrates the making-up-after-breaking-up by stopping by with flowers after you've agreed to continue with the auction. Hydrangeas, LK's favorites. How doe Mary-Anne do it? She's not a good cop - she's a great cop!

Auction in less than 16 hours.

Cold Feet

There is a reason a groom's friends take them out for major drinking the night before the wedding. For many guys, if they were to just sit around thinking about what they are doing the next morning, the chances are probably 50-50 they will be a no-show. It's not because he doesn't love his fiancee, although he would know he is risking their love not surviving his cold feet. And it would be with full awareness of how many people will be so pissed off if he cancels the wedding at the last minute.

He would do it because in the base of his male brain a little voice would be saying there's no turning back after tomorrow and all the negative things that you chose to ignore during your months of euphoria will start to look a lot more significant when you get on with life.

By the way, I sent the following e-mail last night:

Hi Mary-Anne

Linda and I have spent most of the evening discussing Damien's remarks this morning, and we do not think we have confidence in going ahead with an auction.

Damien started out the meeting by telling us his estimate of the property's value was well below our hopes, and quite frankly that has made us reevaluate our thinking on the property.

We are happy to wait until the property is able to attain the sort of value we require, and we both think an auction which sets a lower bar is an atrocious marketing statement.

We want to cancel the auction on Saturday.

Of course, you can still sell the house through the period of the contract, but when the contract ends we are removing the house from active consideration and will wait until the market is such that we can achieve the amount we feel is fair for for the house.

I know you will want to discuss this further, but we believe the best course of action is to cancel the auction.

Regards

Don

Sure, part of this is just our reaction to their tag team effort to get us to lower our expectations. And sure, it won't take much more than a salesperson's sincere and solemn vow to do their best for us to change our minds. But after feeling like we were being played by the people we are paying to represent us, LK and I thought it might be a nice idea to try to raise their expectations rather than lower ours.

I suspect Mary-Anne will be getting into the office any minute now. I'm waiting for the phone to ring.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Under the Hammer

This morning our agent, Mary-Anne, told us she was showing up early Saturday to put up bunting. She urged us to ask our family and friends and neighbors to all show up for the auction. And she admitted that it was entirely possible that no one was going to bid at the auction.

It seems a little like having a block party to celebrate the fact that we're going to have to stay here because the house didn't sell. Actually, Mary-Anne and the auctioneer both are making sales-y positive speak and telling us that the house is likely to sell if the auction is a failure. Only, of course, they don't use words lie failure in a sentence with anything they do.

The auctioneer strongly suggested that we would greatly increase our chance for a sale if we are willing to accept a lower price. Which, as I recall, is one of the basic tenets of capitalism. If we were willing to lower the price enough, I suspect I could go outside and sell the house and skip the auctioneer's fees. But I don't think that is what he was getting at.

As LK noted later, it is becoming obvious that the auctioneer is Mary-Anne's agent. If her job is to be our agent and get people to buy our house, it is quite evident that one of the auctioneer's job is to get us to sell at any price. And the only person sitting at the table who benefits from that, of course, is Mary-Anne who gets commission on the sale.

Back in our working days, LK and I had different approaches to sales people. I tried to motivate them and give them ideas that experience taught me they would never use. LK tended to be very dismissive and tough on them only to screw with their heads once in a while by rewarding them for good work.

I let her deal with the auctioneer and Mary-Anne about lowering the price.

Because Americans don't auction homes, I keep getting asked how it works. Since LK and I received a couple of quick lessons this week, let me try to explain.

This is the theory. People auction their house hoping to get more money than they would through a normal sale. You are not at risk of getting less than you want, because you set a reserve and the house is only sold if bidding goes above the reserve. (I should qualify that to read: You're only at risk of getting less than you want if you listen to your agent and auctioneer.)

If you set a date for an auction, you don't have to have an auction. If someone offers you a decent price ahead of time you are always free to take it and cancel the auction. If nobody has shown any interest in bidding on the house, you can cancel the auction.

But - and this is the interesting part - if nobody has shown any interest in bidding on the house, it is strongly suggested that you go ahead with the auction. To me, it seems like a very public way of letting the world know that nobody wants your house. I can't think of a poorer marketing message.

But we are assured by our agent, our auctioneer, several of our friends, and numerous people we barely know but who feel compelled to talk about selling houses, that not selling at auction can be a really good thing. The thinking goes that there are people who may want the house but are afraid of getting caught in a bidding war and paying more than it is worth. Once the auction fails they come out of the shadows and make an offer.

Or so the theory goes. The alternate theory is that the agent and auctioneer have come up with a great story that means failing to sell the house is really a success of sorts.

Anyhow, the bunting goes up Saturday morning. Shirley is coming over, fulfilling our obligation to get friends to show up. Jason and Lora have said they may come, but I don't know if they knew how early the auction was. If they do come, we will have pretty well brought in every one we could - which may seem kind of sad in its own way, but I can't quite get up the energy to ask others to come over and watch what is likely to be nothing happen.

Mary-Anne thinks there is one couple that definitely are interested in buying but may not bid unless there's some else who starts. She has talked another potential buyer into coming even though they haven't committed to bidding. It's very possible - and looking probable - that the only bid will be the one they call the Vendor Bid. That's the pathetic one the owners put up to kick off the process in the hopes that some one else will say, "Hey, that's pretty low. I'm jumping into this!"

I've decided that Friday night LK and I are baking dozens of muffins. I figure if we put on an auction where nobody bids, at least we can pay some of the auctioneer's fees by selling them to the people who come to our block party.

And on Monday, sale or no sale, we're on the plane to America.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Final Inspection

Today is the final day we have the house open for inspection. Technically, it is open for a short while at 8:30 before Saturday's auction, but anyone who is serious about looking at the place will have seen it by then.

So this morning was the last day when I had extended morning routines. Besides making coffee, feeding the cat and unloading the dishwasher, I had to put the toaster in the cupboard (even though it is now working perfectly), stash the tomatoes and peppers LK had on the counter, put the napking holder away and in general reduce the kitchen counters to one lonely mixer on the right, one lonely cutting board on the left and a mortar and pestle (lonely, except for each other) on the counter. I even have to put the coffee maker away once we are done with it.

Apparently making the kitchen look as if no one uses it makes it more attractive to people who might want to use it.

Both of us are glad this process is coming to a close. We've had one low-ball offer and three or four others who the agent thinks are serious about the place. But there is no guarantee that we will even get any bids at the auction on Saturday. And apparently in the world of real estate, that's not such a bad thing since not selling your house at auction often leads to selling your house right after auction. Or so they say.

We're in a good position, of course. If we don't sell now, it will have just been a little (a lot of) inconvenience and a little bit of money for the advertising, brochures, pictures, etc. We can continue to rent the house we're moving to and stay here until we do get a buyer. In fact, in our original retirement planning we were always going to stay in Sydney for a couple of years. But it looked as if the real estate market here in Greenwich was pretty active, and we thought we may as well go for it now. Going back to Plan A wouldn't be all that bad, in fact.

One of the real problems with all of this is that you can't help doing a lot of calculations, none of which make you really happy except the what-if scenario where you sell the house for much more than you want. But I made the mistake of doing a spreadsheet showing the impact of selling the house for various prices.

Turns out that in the best-case scenario we can live like Auntie Mame and cavort around the world most of the year. In the worst-case scenario, we have to live our life as we planned to when we retired.

Those who worked with me may recall that I always tried to consider what could go wrong with a business plan and what we would have to do if that happened. Turns out that is not the best way to have a life planning discussion with LK late at night. The poor woman was up at 4:30 anticipating our very own personal edition of 2012. For two mornings running.

Then yesterday, I popped up pretty early for me with the sudden realization that I had forgotten to include all sorts of good things - like the money we have - into the equations. I did mention that these were late-night (read, after a couple of wines) discussions.

Anyhow, I was able to come downstairs yesterday and point out that everything was cool with our planning and in fact there really is nothing to worry about. LK went to bed a little early last night and is still sleeping as 8 o'clock rolls around. I will have to remember in the future that spreadsheets are best left back in the work world.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Blah, blah, blah

tor·por (tôrpər)

noun

  1. a state of being dormant or inactive; temporary loss of all or part of the power of sensation or motion; sluggishness; stupor
from www.yourdictionary.com

It's good to know that there are words that perfectly describe the way I am feeling. For the past several days, both LK and I have been in a state of torpor. Perhaps not the stupor part of the meaning (at least until my first two martinis) but certainly the sluggishness part of it.

We have both been feeling more or less betwixt and between. Because we have de-cluttered the house and have to keep it in a state of semi-readiness for inspection, we don't get into anything that might mess the house up. Because we are going overseas in a week - and perhaps getting rid of our house the weekend before we leave - there's no sense in doing any gardening or projects that can't be completed in a couple of days. I was going to add there was no point in starting DIY projects to that sentence, but everyone who knows me knows that that would not be likely to happen anyhow. LK still has standards to maintain.

Because we are going to be in the US, there's not even any point in buying Christmas presents since - even with our dollar now in the low 90-cent range - stuff in the US is always going to be massively cheaper than stuff here with about 50 times the variety to choose from.

And there isn't even anything to do in preparing for the trip. Everything has been booked and planned for many weeks. All we need to do is pack and bring our passports.

So you might think that this would translate into productive use of our time. It would not be unreasonable to think I may use this time to write more. Well, if you know me you probably don't think that, and if you don't think that you are right.

So the lead-up to our getaway next week is replete with things I am not doing - not doing much work around the house, not writing much, not even reading much. The only reason I wrote this post is because it has been so many days I thought some people might wonder if something was wrong. Don't worry. It's just early onset torpor.

In fact, I am starting to see the value of tweets and Facebook entries. Instead of this post, I could have just written:

Don feels lazy

and had four people reply that they liked that, and one comment saying that's not news.

I will work on getting some energy for tomorrow. Maybe a progress update on selling our house. But then again, maybe not. We'll see.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Vet's Day

Today was Vets Day for us. No, not the day remembering the people who served in the armed forces - the other vets. The ones who look at our mixed breed cat and dreamed of sending their children to the best universities.

As part of our getting-ready-to-go-overseas, we had to get Streak a current vaccination shot since that is a requirement of the places that board cats. Her vaccination was due in September and you might share my thinking that the vets would have given her a shot while they were botching her surgery in - oh that's right - September. We both would be underestimating how well trained they are in getting to charge for everything they do.

Anyhow, Streak and I went in to see a guy who introduced himself as Chris. "So you're here for a checkup and vaccination?" he asked. "Well, no," I said, "she doesn't need a checkup since you folks did all sorts of things to her about five weeks ago." He chuckled at my joke. I wasn't making a joke, of course, but Chris began doing checkuppy sort of things quickly lest I stop him once I realized he was going to do a checkup and charge me for it whether I wanted it or not.

The checkup was mercifully brief. He weighed the cat. He then told me that with older cats the most important thing to watch for was weight loss since that would indicate such things as kidney probems, diabetes, or the other things that kill older cats.

"But, Chris," I said, "when I was here five weeks ago, your colleague told me she was worried that Streak was gaining weight and might need to go on a diet." Chris checked her records and nodded. "Yep, she's even gained a little weight since then," he said. And in a desperate attempt to salvage a consolation point, added, "but if she starts to lose weight, bring her back in quickly."

Chris then prodded Streak in ways that made this placid, lazy cat fairly tense. Based on my observations, I am pretty sure she has no prostate problems, but Chris was fairly concerned about her coat. "This coat is pretty thin," he said, "Do you think she is overgrooming?"

My quick answer was, "I don't actually watch her to see how much grooming she does, but the part of the coat you're worried about is where you people shaved her while you botched her operation in September. It actually looks pretty good compared to how she looked when I got home after that."

He decided to move on. He looked in her eyes. ""Hmmm, this right eye looks like she's had a transplant."

"Yes, Chris, she has. In fact, she had it done here. It's a dog's cornea. And since she doesn't keep walking in circles, I assume it's working."

Chris nodded sagely and moved on a few centimeters until he hit the motherlode. He opened Streak's mouth. "Hmmm," he said quite gravely. "She has a lot of plaque in her teeth."

He held her mouth open and pointed to the plaque on her teeth, which I must admit is not something it had ever occurred to me to look at before. "See, her gums are quite irritated. She needs to have her teeth cleaned." He paused. "To do that, we will need to put her under general anaesthesia."

OK, I know this game. We want to brush your cat's teeth and it's only going to cost a couple of hundred dollars.

"No, Chris," I said. "This poor animal has gone through enough this year and almost died the last time you folks put her under general anaesthesia. I will just encourage her to floss more often."

I wanted to add that I know plenty of English people and Streak's teeth were hardly the worst set of choppers I've seen. And I had never heard of anyone putting a Pom under general anaesthesia just to clean their teeth - although I can imagine it might be the easiest thing to do in some instances.

Anyhow, I am guessing there comes a moment in every vet's life when he recognizes a pet owner who is not about to take out a second mortgage to do things like brush a 12-year-old cat's teeth. Being a vet, though, he did have Plan B, and out of desperation he convinced me to buy overpriced cat food that cleans cat's teeth. I gave in and agreed to buy the special formula scientifically proven pet food.

Anyhow, Streak survived her vaccination day and our bank account more or less survived. Tomorrow LK and I are going for our H1N1 vaccinations. And this is no joke -- Our doctor will charge significantly less to give us our vaccine than Streak's doctor did. And I know she isn't likely to try to sell us a bag of special formula food on the way out the door.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Up in the Air

Early in my journalism days, Corey, my editor, used to complain that "people think you just throw a whole bunch of ideas up in the air and, presto, when they fall back down as words you have a newspaper." I guess I understood his frustration that few people recognized the hard work and experience that went into putting out a good publication.

But when it was my turn to be an editor and later a publisher, I always thought it was a lot cooler to make the whole act of publishing seamless so that readers didn't know or care about what hard work went into their paper but just enjoyed reading it.

Honestly, that sounds more noble than I actually was. The truth is that more often than not my team would be rushing headlong toward deadline with barely an idea of how we were going to get the paper done. And absolutely no clue as to whether there was anything we were doing that was going to end up being worth reading by the time we were finished.

In other words, my style of editing was more or less to throw lots of ideas in the air and hope that when they fell back down as words, they'd make a publication.

Even though I am retired (aka, professionally unemployed), I thought of this today. The lawyer who is doing the contract and other stuff you have to do when you sell a house had sent a questionnaire over the other day. It had to be completed and returned within an hour or two because - well, because I had forgotten to hire him and therefore left him almost no time to compete the draft contract, which was required before the first open house.

(Regular readers will recognize a trend in this procrastination. Irregular readers can find several earlier posts about it. But if you are anything like me, you will put it off and never get around to it.)

Regular readers will also recognize a disturbing tendency to stray off topic, so for their sake I will return to the lawyer's questionnaire. There were lots of questions in there which left me no option but to guess at the answer if I was going to get it back in time. The biggie was about putting the pergola on the deck - and converting it into an undercover entertainment area!

A lot depended on when the work had been done. I had to guess whether the pergola was built within the past 7 years. I didn't think so. Turns out I was wrong. I had to guess whether I had a copy of the Home Owner Warranty Insurance for the pergola - which is a legal requirement for any improvement when selling the house. I said it didn't matter because it was more than 7 years ago. I was wrong about that. Did we have Council approval for the pergola? That I remembered - yes, we did.

The questionnaire asked if I had a Council survey and if not did I want one. I didn't know - both times. So I said No and Yes. Turns out the correct answers are Yes and Doesn't Matter.

I took a few more stabs at the truth, but you get the idea. Anyhow, the lawyer called me up and asked if I could take a look for the Council approval for the pergola. And he also suggested that if I could not find the survey done when we bought the house, we really should shell out the $600 and get one done.

Now that someone has actually asked for a copy of the contract, I was starting to think that perhaps my best guess wasn't exactly what most lawyers would consider best practice. So as part of my ongoing mission to tick off the to-do list, I decided I would give it a look this afternoon.

I went up to that part of the desk known as the Big Square Part Where We Shove Everything We Don't Think We Should Throw Away But Don't Think We Really Need, Either. It took awhile, but eventually I found the Council approval. And while I was searching for that, I found the survey from when we bought the house. And I found the copy of the Home Warranty Insurance. I even found a letter from the bank that we needed to find. I had no idea it was in the Big Square Part etc.

And that is why, as I came down the stairs smiling broadly and ready to share my good fortune with LK, I thought of Corey. Some times when you just throw everything up in the air, it all really really does come down exactly as you wish.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The To-Do List

Normally at 4am there is very little that I think about. Oh sure, in the fog of my mind there are little reminders like don't trip over the cat on the way to the loo and don't forget to flush, but that's about it. I have never been one of those people who sit up in bed bolted awake with sudden worries or overwhelmed by what seems like an impossible amount of work to do.

That's why I was so surprised to be wide awake this morning as the alarm clock ticked over past 4:00. It all came about because somehow even in my sleep I started to understand that we are leaving Australia in 14 days and when we return in early January we very likely will have only a couple of weeks to clear out our house.

As I tried to force myself to return to my favorite dream -- the one where I am young and thin and my hair falls over my brow -- I instead started thinking that we've got to get some moving companies in to give us quotes. And I have to call the lawyer who did the contract for this house and get the survey. And I need to dig out the building certificate for putting the roof on the deck. And we need to arrange for Streak to be boarded at a cattery while we are in the US. And I will be wasting a couple of hundred bucks if I don't consolidate the storage bins we rent. And we really would be stupid not to get flu shots before spending so many hours on planes as winter starts in the US. And - well, there were lots more things on the to-do list, but who can remember the things we think about as we lie in bed trying to get back to sleep?

Letting your mind race through all these tasks is, of course, fairly tiring and I must have dozed off at some point and didn't get up until a little before 7. With coffee brewed, I became a man of action. I turned on the laptop and located some moving companies. I added their web address to my bookmarks. Same with a place that boards cats.

It was too early to call then, but I figured I would get around to it all later. And then I thought that it would make a reasonable blog topic, which I badly need since I haven't posted much lately, so I started writing this. However, despite my love of procrastination, I do intend to start ticking off the list.

For one thing, I don't want to be lying awake at 4am any more. For another, the real estate agent just rang and one of the people has asked for a copy of the contract. Suddenly 14 days is starting to seem like a very, very short time.