Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fine Wines at Night. Trashed in the Afternoon.

Well, we have gone from highs to lows in about 18 hours.

The high was last night when we went to dinner at Andrew and Majella's. It was the first time we have seen them in ages, and we were really grateful for their invitation to catch up before we said au revoir to Sydney. What turned out to be a huge bonus was a simply fantastic dinner and some outstanding wines (Petaluma chardonnay and Geoff Weaver Lenswood Sauvignon Blanc, to name two of my favorites that I haven't splurged on since retirement). AB even remembered Linda's fondness for scotch and bought Laphroaig, which is a bit of an overachievement when the usual question is Red or Black. Lovely night.

But then we called an early mark. OK, it wasn't that early since we had already been there six hours - about the time hosts start wondering what they have to do to get you out of there. But it was still early enough that we still hadn't made it to Sunday yet. Which meant a taxi did finally show up - no certainty on a Sydney summer Saturday night.

And no matter how wonderful the dinner at Andrew and Majella's, today was looming.

This was the day we had to throw out about a third of the stuff in the garage. It was heavy lifting and hot, dirty work. Lugging all that stuff out to the curb reminded me of something, and then I remembered - most of the things I was taking for collection was stuff I had carefully organized when I cleaned the garage about 13 months ago. (I wrote a a post about it, and at least it had made sense then.)

I guess I could have made tough decisions last year and thrown more stuff away, but LK was out of town and I do understand the difference between a tough decision and a foolhardy one. Anyhow, today's decisions on whether to junk-it-or-move-it were all hers. And to be fair, she was quite ruthless. Lots of the stuff that went to the curb, of course, has been in the garage for well over a year so there is a logic that says we probably don't need or use it anyway. Still, that's just logic. it's tough to throw out stuff. For some of us.

But of course, one man's trash is another man's recyclable goods. Before we had even locked up the garage a woman drove up in a station wagon and asked if we minded if she had a bit of a scavenge of our things. From prior pick-ups we knew this would happen and had put usable stuff on the curb and left the true rubbish in the driveway so the people who drive around collecting trash wouldn't have to deal with the stuff beyond repair and re-use. I didn't do it so much to make their life easier, but because I've learned that they throw stuff around that you have to pick up later if you don't sort it for them. What is the world coming to when people scavenging your trash aren't neat!

Anyhow, this woman headed up a family team. Her two young kids started going through stuff and picking out things like broken shovels. We tried to explain to the kid that he was going through the true junk pile and things like a broken shovel weren't very good. But he seemed pretty happy with the pickings there. Then she phoned her husband who showed up in a pick-up truck, and they chose a few more items from those on display.

It seemed kind of odd to be using a beautiful Sunday afternoon training your pre-schoolers to pick through other people's trash. But then again, maybe that's why everyone around here calls Greenwich a family-oriented suburb. Doesn't mattter. Only two more weeks here.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Streak Going to the Dogs

She's leaving home
After living alone
For so many years.

The Beatles

Today is Streak's last day with us. Our good friend Caroline - well aware of our plans to live the vagabond life this year - offered to take custody of the cat who has lived with us for more than a decade (which is a writer-ish way of saying I don't recall how long ago we got her but it was definitely more than 10 years ago).

Despite being an older cat Streak never grew very big, Coupled with her calico markings, she has kept a fair share of the kitten about her. That and the fact that she can be quite affectionate if, in fact, you are lucky enough to be in that category of people she likes. Caroline and Streak obviously bonded while Caroline was house-sitting for us earlier this year. Or perhaps the cat is just clever enough to have figured out that she would have a better life with Caroline than having us throw her into the cattery for months on end every time we head overseas.

No forget that last bit. Streak isn't clever at all. As fond as I am of her, I have to be honest and say that Streak is one of the dumber cats I have owned. And I am fairly certain she has no recollection of us ever having abandoned her to the joys of the cat spa resort (as we explained it to her).

But she is lovable, and that is why she is getting a new mommy. There is a slight question mark looming over this, though. Caroline's roommate has a couple of dogs. Given that Streak has been unable to get along with any of the neighborhood pets, we aren't too sure how she will adjust to her new life, and Caroline is already recruiting contingency foster parents if it doesn't work out.

So yes, you could say that Streak is going to the dogs. While literally true, I have learned that a bit of wordplay is not wise when talking about getting rid of pets.

When we moved to this house our dog, Sadie, absolutely hated the change. She became very destructive and was obviously a dog in depression. The woman who cleaned our house loved pets and had a passel of them on the farm where she lived. She liked Sadie and offered to give her a new home. The idea of the dog having open space and other dogs to play with was a perfect solution.

Well, it seemed so. The problem came about when our friends would ask where Sadie was and we told them we had sent her to the farm. Invariably they would nod. Some, mostly animal lovers, would frown deeply and go Hmmm, while others would shake their heads Yes and say they understood.

This went on quite a while until eventually Linda and I realized that everyone was assuming that when we said we sent the dog to the farm we were using a euphemism for having her put down. So we then spent the next several weeks making sure we told everyone that we really had sent Sadie to a farm where she was living the good doggie life.

Some of our animal lover friends looked a bit skeptical until we added that she was so truly on the farm that she had even been kicked by a horse she tried to play with. At that the animal lovers smiled as if to say all was well in the world of friendly fauna.

So we will not be telling folks we sent Streak to the dogs. Instead we will say she has a new mummy. And that she was a good little cat whom we enjoyed while she was with us.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Flip Flop

Things are proceeding apace with our move. We're in the process of taking inventory in order to insure our stuff for the move. Part of the job requires listing the replacement value of items, and yesterday we pulled out bulging folders full of receipts and invoices. Fortunately, shoving those things into folders over the past years is going to make this task much easier than it seemed before we pulled the receipts out.

What won't be quite so easy is doing the actual inventory. Oh, it's dead easy to say here's a couch, there's a chair and there's a lamp. But anyone who has even a minimal knowledge about my bride's penchant for acquiring things would have an idea of the monumental task we are facing.

In fact, we want to make sure the insurance company will have no doubts about the number of things we have if we need to make a claim, so we are using the Flip to make a video of everything. Some of them will be interesting films in their own right, I think.

For example, yesterday we filmed "Indiana Linda and the Cavern of Cashmere". Drawer after drawer was opened and one cashmere sweater after another was lifted to reveal yet another cashmere sweater below it. It was a bazaar of goat fur unrivaled in its diversity of color.

Today we will film the documentary "The Treasures of China" in which we explore the patterns of Wedgwood and Villeroy and Boch and others I can't recall. We may expand it to include the Crystal Cavern, featuring Waterford and Riedel, but it may just make the movie too long to be enjoyed.

Of course the real challenge will be to count and document LK's footwear. I would like to do stop-motion animation on this and have several hundred pairs of shoes, boots and flipflops march past us. I figure I can call it "The 400 Sole March". But getting it right will take planning.

So last night I asked LK how many pairs of flip flops she has. "Oh, a couple of dozen, maybe." I snorted in derision, and she put on this wounded tone. "Well, how many do you think I have?" she asked.

I thought about how lately she always matches her t-shirt and flipflops. And I mean always. I guessed she had to have about 50 pairs. "Oh, don't be silly," she said, "maybe 30 or a little more. But no way do I have 50 pairs of flipflops."

I pointed out that she had bought about a dozen pair in our last trip to the US, and surely that must have pushed her pretty close to the half century mark. "Yes, but I left some of them at your mother's house," she answered, as if that somehow meant they weren't her flipflops if they weren't in the house with her. It made me wonder if that meant I was not her husband if I was travelling away from home, but I decided that might take the conversation in a direction I would regret.

Anyhow, she kept talking about it even in bed last night so I agreed to the 30-pair estimate just to get some sleep. But then today she came down in a bright yellow t-shirt. Of course she had bright yellow flipflops on.

"This is the first time I've worn them," she said. After a brief pause, she added, "I forgot to include them in my count last night." The 400 Sole March just keeps getting longer and longer.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Buy Low, Sell High

Linda has said for years that market researchers could make a fortune by just tracking what we do. It's not that we're trendsetters. More like we are often into something before anyone knows it's already a trend. More often than not if we make a life decision or buy a new type of product, in a month or two one of us will come across a story that says that the hottest trend happening now is our new choice.

There are hundreds of examples (and the notorious exception, mini-CD players).

When we decided to downsize our house because the kids had all moved out, we discovered a month later that lots of people our age were doing the same. When the kids moved back in with us in the smaller house, that too was pretty much a universal phenomenon.

When we developed a strong yearning to do nothing more at night than stay home and eat comfort food, we read soon enough that cocooning was the latest Boomer trend. And at least one of us (OK, me) unknowingly joined the crusade to have obesity classified as an epidemic. (Hey, diabetes didn't even become a leading disease until I joined its ranks.)

When we started going on cruises, that age-old vacation became the fastest-growing segment of the tourism industry. When we decided to retire early, thousands of others our age joined us --- albeit most of them because they lost their jobs rather than choosing Option B.

In the past year alone, we have become Wii addicts, Flip video producers and Kindle readers. It has now reached the point where CNN calls us up on a slow news day and asks what we're doing so they can do a feature that will appeal to their baby boomer demographics.

Which is all a long way around to talk about our decision to sell the Sydney house and move to Tasmania. There are lots of reasons we chose Tassie, and we are absolutely excited to be moving there. But the initial decision to abandon Sydney was purely and simply based on money. In fact, it was the factor that let us decide that blogging and listening to old Cars albums in the afternoon would be more fun than working.

One of the most incredibly lucky things that ever happened to us was that we bought our first little house in the early 90s. (That's the down-sized one I mentioned.) What was lucky was that we bought it in Sydney, a city that so far has defied world trends by having property values go through the roof in the 90's and early 2000's --- and then was nice enough to us not crash to earth during the global financial crisis.

What happened was, the money we spent on our first house doubled in 7 years, enabling us to buy the house we are in for another week or so. And that house more than doubled in 9 years when we sold it in November.

During that time, we were able to buy a lovely place near the beach outside Hobart about five years ago. It cost about 15% of what a similar place in Sydney would cost. So the math is dead simple: Cash in the Sydney house, move to the Hobart house. Bank the money and at current rates, live nicely on the interest.

So what does this have to do with trends? Well, just as we were both getting sore elbows from patting ourselves on the back for such astute decision-making, LK came across this story in the New York Times.

Called "Baby Boomers' Second Act" the opening paragraphs feature this observation: "By selling their homes that are paid for, or mostly paid for, in expensive urban areas and moving to sometimes astonishingly less expensive parts of the country, many boomers may well be able to pay cash for a new home and avoid the dire financial straits that some economists predict for them."

So it turns out that once again what we thought was a novel, arresting idea turns out to be pretty much run-of-the-mill thinking by lots of people like us. So, not too many points for originality, I guess, but at least we have the comfort of knowing that lots of others from the Most Selfish Generation are thinking the same way we are.

Who knows, maybe we can organize a love-in on Kingston Beach once we settle in.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Lying for Fun and Profit

Much too late to matter in my life, I have discovered the secret of being a good negotiator. You lie.

With nothing to lose except money and integrity, I decided to see if I could get the movers to lower their quotes. Not having much heart for it, I decided to make the process as short as possible. So I chose the guy (whom I will call Monty) who had put in the slightly lower bid and I told him the other guy (whom I will call Sid) had underbid him by $900.

It wasn't quite a lie. What I said was that Sid had underbid his quote for packing by $900. Which was true, except that I neglected to add that Sid had charged so much for the actual move that Sid's bid was in fact the higher of the two.

It's what the ad agency calls "Truth Well Told". Lying but without the guilt, in other words.

Anyhow, Monty - the guy with the slightly lower bid - said he couldn't match that $900, but he would talk with his manager. (Apparently this is standard practice in every company except those I run.) And to no one's surprise, he came back with a $450 cut. He still thought he was behind in the bidding, but those of us who can see behind the curtain know that he just increased his lead by $450.

So now I had to figure out how to lie to him so it would make sense that I would accept his bid even though it was higher than Sid's. I told Monty we would prefer to deal with him since he seemed to want the business more, and would take his bid.

I know. To people who love negotiating, I virtually jumped in the sack seconds after the first kiss on the cheek. To them, that's not really negotiating. More like premature capitulation.

But look at it from my point of view. I hate negotiating, but I had already got the lower bidder to go lower, cut some bucks off the price and earned Linda's respect. (Well, OK, that's a lie, too. But she was happy we were saving money.)

And then Sid called. I told him that he had been underbid by a lot. It was something like $650 in fact, but I told him $900. He said he couldn't match it.

Then he called back ten minutes later. He had talked with his boss. Of course.

Apparently Sid's company was tired of getting underbid by Monty's company, so they were going to beat their bid.

He cut his original bid by $1,250. He was now truly a couple of hundred cheaper.


Monty didn't think so, of course, as he realized that when this lying old fat guy told him he had the business he was - well - lying.

Monty talked with his boss again, and they could cut a little more. Since now - for the first time - they really were behind, that got them very, very close, but not enough to get their nose in front. Funny enough, they might have won if they had put that number up right from the beginning.

But of course I could not tell him this because he thought he was way behind. And I couldn't really even discuss it with him because I was having trouble remembering which lies I had told whom.

Monty seemed to take the defeat with good grace, but he had a bit of spite for his competitors.

"Tell them I came in $200 lower than their bid," he said. "I can guarantee you they will lower it one more time."

"You may be right," I told him, "but I can't do it. It just seems so tacky to lie in order to save a couple of hundred bucks."

God, I even amazed myself with that line.

Then I realized. I was no longer negotiating; I was just flat out lying for the sake of telling a porkie!

I felt kind of bad.

Until it occurred to me that I may have been lying to Monty but he was urging me to lie to Sid. And from there it all gets too complicated.

So I will just relax and enjoy the fact that I am more than a thousand bucks ahead. And as penance for my sins, I will re-read Al Franken's book, "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them" while listening to endless replays of Charles and Eddie's "Would I Lie to You, Baby?" That should cure me.


PS I know the last post promised this one would be about the financial reasons we are moving to Hobart. But I guess after reading today's post, you're not too surprised that I didn't tell the truth. Anyhow, I will try to get to that tomorrow.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Destination Hobart

On Tuesday, Linda scheduled an appointment with Andrea, her hairdresser and personal alchemist (what else would you call someone who turns silver into gold?). When LK told her it would be her last appointment since we would no longer be living in Sydney, Andrea told her she was pretty sure we would return within a year.

Last night Davy stopped by for a drink, and he told us quite a few people at our old company were also sure we would be back soon enough, once we actually lived in Tasmania and discovered we didn't like it.

It seems some of our Sydney friends are pretty sure we won't like the climate and will be bored by the lack of things to do once we leave the Big Smoke.

If I may paraphrase Darryl Kerrigan in The Castle, "Tell them they're dreaming!"

First, let me address the whole Sydney phobia about Hobart weather. It's too cold, too much rain, too little sun. That would be a problem if it were true, but fortunately for us it is not.

First of all, Sydney is on average about 6 Centigrade or 10 Fahrenheit warmer than Hobart. But that is not cold, folks. Hobart is absolutely balmy compared to the places where we spent our high school years, and we are looking forward to a place that actually makes an attempt to have one season seem a bit different from the one that went before. (And after a day this week in which we both felt ill from the scorching heat, cooler temperatures are actually one of the attractions of our next home.)

Ignore the average temperatures, I can almost hear people say, what about those wickedly cold freezing days in Hobart during the winter. Get ready for this one, all you folks in Vermont, New York and even further north. The coldest temperature ever recorded for Hobart was -2.8 in 1972. But that -2.8 is in Centigrade, which is only 27 Fahrenheit. And for those chipping the ice from your windshields in the morning, Hobart's average low temperature in the winter is in the 40s. Brrrr! (Sydneysiders, that was a sarcastic Brrr.)

Last night Davy told us Hobart is too gray, has too little sun. Funny thing about that perception. On average, Hobart does have fewer hours of sunshine than Sydney (but more than Melbourne, by the way). Interestingly, though, Hobart has more hours of sunshine in the summer than Sydney. Oh, also, Sydney averages TWICE as much rain as Hobart does every year. I guess the sky is always grayer on the other side.

As for the argument that there is too little to do there, well, time will tell. But in recent years we have done nothing in Sydney that is not available in Hobart, as well. In fact, the most active thing we've done here in the past two years is head to the airport to go overseas.

But it is important to stress that Hobart is not a little town. With a population of about 220,000 it is bigger than Rochester, Syracuse, Reno, Spokane, Little Rock, Fort Lauderdale and Chatanooga. Oh yeah, and Rutland, too.

And Hobart does have fun things. It may set a record for the number of festivals it holds - the Soundscape Festival, Hobart Fringe Festival, the Falls Festival and the bulk of the Ten Days on the Island Festival. Makes it seem!

But probably the thing that makes it special is the late December party that celebrates the end of the Hobart from Sydney Yacht Race (and that is what I am calling it from now on). This world-class race starts on Sydney Harbor on December 26 and by 1pm the yachts have gone and folks who went down to see it have to figure out what else to do with their day.

Now I am not putting Sydney down, but from my point of view anyone with the proper outlook on life should have figured out long ago that the place to be is where the race finishes, not where it starts. That's where the party starts.

And indeed the arrival of the racing yachts occurs during the Hobart Summer Festival (of course) which is a food and wine festival that starts after Christmas and ends about three weeks later when the last local resident is no longer able to button their jeans.

But that is the cheerleading bit. Next post, the real reason we won't be coming back to Sydney. Money, naturally.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Here's a quick quiz.

You are about to entrust all your earthly possessions to a company, expecting them to move them safely and without damage or drama from one place to another. You ask two well-established businesses to quote for your business. Which one do you choose?

Company A) The one whose rep told you when he would get the quote to you (via e-mail) and then missed his own deadline by 24 hours?


Company B) The one whose rep told you when he would get the quote to you (via e-mail) and met his deadline. But then had someone in the office ring back 24 hours later saying the quote contained an error and they needed to send a revised quote.

I suppose we could choose C) None of the above, and continue to look for a company that fills us with confidence but frankly there is no more reason to think we'll strike good luck on the third or fourth or fifth time. So we will probably go with one of the original pair.

The quotes are somewhat close on the bottom line, but are surprisingly different in how they arrived there. One is lots more for the packing, but lots less for the actual shipping. I think we prefer Company A because the guy seems to want the business more than the other.

That company is higher in the moving part, so I suppose we could tell him he needs to match the other guy's quote for that part. That would save about $1000. Or, we could just tell both of them that their quotes are too high and we're going with another company unless they want to come back with a last-and-best offer that beats that. Or, as LK suggested a moment ago, we could just ask them both for a better price.

The problem is that LK and I are lousy negotiators. We both hate haggling, and neither of us has ever won a bargaining contest nor are we likely to. (Actually, that's not true. LK won the matrimony negotiations when I said I did not want to get married again, she said she did, and I said OK. From zero to life in 15 seconds!)

Part of my problem is my approach to the negotiating process. Take this house, for example. Within 10 minutes of walking into it 10 years ago, LK and I both told the agent we wanted to buy the house. No wonder, the price kept inching upwards during negotiations. Or when we bought our car and I told the sales guy I didn't want to test drive, just wanted to buy it - how much is it? Amazingly close to the sticker price, you will be surprised to learn.

I was that way in business. Pretty quickly the folks who worked for me learned to never let me negotiate a contract. Except when it was time for their personal compensation contracts. Then they seemed all too eager to have me be the one who negotiated.

And that's the rub here. Obviously these moving companies are open to some sort of to-and-fro on price -- it's just a matter of figuring out how to extract the best deal from them. The other night I outlined a great negotiating strategy to LK - how we'd not bother to call them, argue this, point out that, haggle over whatever.

"Sounds good," she said, "but I don't do that sort of thing well. Are you going to?"

"No," I said, "I'm no good at it, either. That's what I used to have people do for me when I was working."

I suppose we can just act pathetic and ask them to give us a break. I will let you know if that works soon.

Monday, January 11, 2010


An odd thing happened this morning - and I am trying to figure something out about myself that had never occurred to me before. Someone I really did not like much at all passed away last week, and I really have not got a clue about how to act/react to the news.

Barb, the woman who was my second-in-command when I first took over the company died of cancer. She was quite a bit older than me, and had been one of the first people hired at the company. When I first took charge, she seemed very supportive but over time - especially as I started making changes and not working closely with her any more - she decided I was a bad choice to run the company.

I know because she started writing to my bosses in the US telling them they should fire me if they wanted the company to survive. They had the good sense to A) ignore her and B) not tell me about her rantings until she had retired.

I am not the sort of person who holds grudges. Not because I'm a saint, but I have never been the sort to let things bother me for long. But I definitely am the sort of person who can decide I don't want to deal with some one anymore and just ignore them. Once I learned how much she had worked to try to make me fail, I forgot about Barb. And I haven't had a word with her since she retired more than a decade ago.

Now LK is wired a bit differently from me. Being my staunchest defender, she disliked Barb much more than I did for what what she had done, but then I am fairly certain Mrs Ghandi was a real bitch-on-wheels when people went after the Mahatma. However, LK's reaction to the news of Barb's death was that it was sad.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I really don't have a clue how to act/react. I didn't want any harm to come to Barb - certainly did not want her to have cancer leading to her death - but I cannot force myself to feel bad that she has passed away. Call it cold, but how do you manufacture feelings? You either have them or you don't.

Still, it feels odd to me. Odd to have worked closely with someone for many years, to have shared hours of thoughts and ideas, to have turned around the company -- only to have almost no feeling about her at all when she passes away.

Oh well, enough of the self-confession. I guess when I forget about someone, I really do.

And if you would like to know if you're on my Do-Not-Care-About-Them-Anymore list, just drop me a note to ask about it. If you don't hear back from me, you will have a good idea of the answer.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Quotes To Come

We've had two moving companies in and will be getting their cost estimates by Monday. I can hardly wait, since the guy this morning said, "This move won't be cheap," shortly before he left. I think he was doing what salespeople do best - managing our expectations.

Frankly, I already had an inkling that this won't be cheap because his competitor, who came in yesterday, recommended that we not bring an old, beat-up wooden picnic table and the 4 chairs that go with it. "That would probably cost about $400 or more to ship down to Tasmania, and it might make more sense to buy a new one."

So, the small picnic table and chairs cost $400 to move? I can't wait to find out what the dining room table and its 8 chairs cost. Or the sofas. Or the (3) barbecues. Oh dear, I am really not looking forward to reading those quotes when they come in.

Our stuff is actually going on a fairly interesting trip. It is going to be loaded into shipping containers here and then taken by train to a freighter from Melbourne to Launceston, then by truck to the house in Kingston Beach. The whole process will take about a week.

To be honest, I am not surprised that this is going to be a costly exercise. I always figured our chances of getting out of this cheaply were roughly on a par with Tiger Woods' chances that Elin will just ask for a token monthly payment to cover the kids' school clothes.

We've got a house full of furniture and a garage full of boxes and wine fridges. And for all the stuff that doesn't fit, we also have two storage lockers. We've already decided to get rid of some large items that have seen heavy use, but even though we de-cluttered and got rid of masses of stuff before putting the house on the market, we still have enough stuff to fit out a reasonably sized boutique hotel.

We only have a couple of weeks left here, and I suppose it will help control costs if we can reduce some of the stuff we're shipping. I will let LK figure out which of the household stuff we can sell or donate to charity. As for me, I figure I've got plenty of time to reduce the number of boxes we will need to transport the wine in those fridges.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Back Again

Back in Sydney - the last time we will fly in from overseas and head to this house. I wondered how it would feel, seeing as how it's kind of the beginning of the end for us as Sydneysiders. Fact is, it didn't seem all that big a deal.

Sure, after six weeks of travel it was always going to be a genuine pleasure to plop down in my own chair and fall asleep in my own bed. But neither of us felt a twinge of regret that we will be moving on. Probably two reasons - the big one is that we are really excited to be starting our new adventure in Tasmania, but also we know we will be in Sydney a lot over the coming years. How could we not with so many of our loved ones here.

When we were unloading our luggage from the taxi, a neighbor walked by with a couple of kids. We were standing right next to the sign that announced the house had been SOLD, so it wasn't too surprising to hear her say to LK, "You must be our new neighbors. Welcome to Greenwich!"

LK explained to her that, no, we've been your neighbor for about 10 years and we're the ones leaving in a few weeks. Now, some people might find that a little awkward, but God love the people of Greenwich, our neighbor just smiled brightly and said, "Well, then. Good luck with your packing!" as she shooed the kids down the sidewalk.

Everything was fine in the house, but we did have a few technical glitches that took some of the shine from our return. Only mildly serious, we had set the DVR to record the Top Chef episodes while we were gone, but about half of them had failed to record. So no Top Chef marathon for us this week.

Much more serious, there were hardly any ice cubes in the automatic cube maker in the freezer - just a handful of what I presume to be six week old cubes at the bottom of the bin. It was barely enough to chill LK's Amber Alert. I drank wine rather than have to drink voddie at room temp.

The good news here is that the lever had somehow been pushed up (or down, I cannot recall which). It's now adjusted, and the new ice cubes have been clinking into the bin regularly all day. I can tell by the smile on LK's face that it is music to her ears.

The other technical failure was the car battery. Every time we go away for more than a couple of weeks, we return to a dead battery. Last time, in September, the battery took forever to charge and never registered a full charge.

So, feeling quite proud of myself for being so organized, I carefully removed the connections from the battery when we left on November 21. When I reconnected them yesterday I was not happy that I couldn't even get the radio to start, much less turn over the engine.

I called the NRMA (our version of the AAA) this morning and told them to just bring a new battery because it was obvious my old battery wouldn't hold a charge. Within the hour, the man showed up. He looked at the battery and nodded when I told him I needed a new one.

Then he took out what looked like a coarse wire bottle brush and scrubbed the posts and contacts of the battery. Without a word, he walked to the ignition, turned the key and the car purred.

He smiled at me and said that when there is corrosion, no contact is made and the current doesn't flow. Great, first morning back and I end up calling in Mr Wizard to tell me stuff I am too dumb to figure out myself.

"So, I guess I don't need a battery," I said. He smiled, in that way that is unique to people who know what they're doing when they deal with people who don't know. I didn't even wave to him when he drove away.

I thought LK would be delighted to know that we had saved the cost of a new battery. About all she said was, "That is so typical of you to decide you need to buy a new battery without finding out if it can be fixed first. It's just like when you sent me in to buy a new toaster rather than see if we could fix the one we had."

One thing I've noticed since we got back to Sydney. Not much has changed.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Progress Report

New Year's always brings out a bit of reflection and thought about how well we're progressing in the game of life. Usually it's a 12-month perspective, comparing where we are now to where we were 12 months ago. But that's so last year.

I think it makes much more sense to take the long view. So I am going to compare how I am doing at the end of my first year of retirement with how well I was doing at the end of my first year of school.

That's my kindergarten report card above, and I believe it is not bragging to point out that I got "satisfactory progress" marks in every category. Let's see how I would do today.

The first category is four things I should know: my address, birthday, telephone number and the colors.

Well, today I think I get three of four here. The other day I needed my post code to verify a credit card purchase, and I couldn't recall it. But surely that's just a temporary slip of the mind that is slipping more and more. Also, I might have failed the colors question if Sandy hadn't showed me what persimmon was when we were visiting there. On the other hand, I suspect colors like persimmon, cerise and magenta may have only been invented since I was in kindergarten.

The next category is four things I can do: tie my shoes, write my name, match words with pictures, and follow three directions.

OK, let's be clear here. I know how to tie my shoes. It's reaching the laces that is becoming the challenge. Obviously I know how to write my name, and the report card does not mention writing it so that other people can read it. I am pretty sure I can match words and pictures. And anyone who followed my attempts to repair the toaster probably knows how well I follow directions. So, let's say 1 1/2 out of 4 here.

The next section are three special skills: The first is counting from 1 to 10 understandably. Second is "I like to hear and play stories. I speak plainly in full sentences." And third is "I like music. I keep time. I do what the music tells me."

OK, first things first. The counting bit is a snap. The second is a little dicier. In fact, hardly a day passes when people do not ask me what I had said or meant.

As for the music, well, I like it. I've never been good at keeping time and suspect the nun was being generous with this mark. As for doing what the music tells me, Linda won't let me do that any more.

The next section is about growth in religious habits. It marks whether I say my prayers, am reverent and attentive at religion time and whether I always tell the truth.

Let's just move on.

The next section evaluates growth in my social habits. The first two categories are: "I work and play well with others" and "I listen when others talk. I am quiet when others work."

I will give myself a big tick for the first one. The folks at Full Tilt Poker would all agree that I play well with others. I don't even want to discuss listening skills today.

The next two are: "I take care of school materials and put them away" and "I think of things to do myself."

I have actually become much better at picking up after myself as I have grown old. And I do think of things to do myself, like writing a blog and playing online poker and fixing toasters. So two big tick marks here.

And the final two categories of social skills: "I try to be polite" and "I finish what I start".

Well, I do try to be polite until some stupid moron annoys me and needs to be told off. And I guess I finish some of the stuff I start, although my first two wives might disagree. Maybe a half mark each for these two.

So there you have it. Not a bad report at all. Great progress shown, and very encouraged about the future. (Hey, I didn't say I always told the truth, did I?)

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A Shirley Valentine

"Did you call Robert and Jaki?" Linda asked last night.

Over the years, I have learned that this sort of question can fall into one of three categories: 1) LK genuinely is interested in knowing whether I have done this; 2) She suspects I may have forgotten to call them, and she is gently reminding me in the event that is the case; or 3) She is almost certain I have forgotten and she is reminding me without coming out and saying that I did not do something I said I would do.

Number 1 is considered pleasant conversation. Numbers 2 and 3 are nagging in varying degrees, with 2 being the nice-nagging and 3 being the not-nice-nagging. We have been together long enough that I can usually spot which sort of the question it is, and in this case it was either a 1 or 2. And since I had completely forgotten to ring our friends, I was glad she reminded me - even if it was too late to call. (Part of the problem is that apparently because I have been in so many time zones this trip, I failed to realize it was no longer New Year's Eve yesterday afternoon.)

Anyhow, responding to either pleasant conversation or nice nagging, I told her I had forgotten. At which point, Shirley said, "And you said you were going to call David, too. Did you?" And trust me - it was a Level 3 nag.

That kind of surprised me - and it certainly didn't bode well for the New Year which was less than 24 hours old that someone other than Linda was starting to nag me. I winced and kind of whined a bit about that when LK smiled broadly and said, "I have decided to take the day off. Tonight, Shirley is going to nag you."

I think she was joking. I hope she was.

And she actually didn't use Shirley's name. She called her Conkie, which is a nickname we gave Shirl in 2000 when the three of us were traveling in Beijing.

We were at the Summer Palace, when our tour guide explained that the Emperor had set up the place we were looking at for his concubine. From the way she looked at Shirley, we gathered she was hinting that Shirl might be my concubine. And from that moment to today, Shirl has been Conkie to Linda and me.

Mind you, experience has taught me it's not a nickname to use in front of other people, especially when we were all working together. Once I have to explain that Conkie is short for Concubine, but not because she really is, but because we were at the Summer Palace and the tour guide looked at us, and blah blah blah. Well, you just know that more than a few times I ended up lamely telling them, "You had to be there, I guess" while they looked at me obviously thinking, "No way this fat guy has a concubine! He's dreaming!"

Shirl is our best and dearest friend, and she shares our love of travel. In fact, she is even more of a world wanderer than we are.

We have been on many adventures together. Before this year in Honolulu, the three of us have seen in the New Year together at the Victoria Falls Hotel, at a lodge on the Serengeti, in a hotel in Capetown and on a cruise ship in the South Pacific near Noumea. Not to mention many times at our place in Sydney.

And when LK has had wanderlust for places that didn't sound all that wonderful to me, Shirl was always ready to pack the bag and head off with her. They've been to Vietnam three times, Cambodia, Turkey and Macy's.

It has always been such great fun hanging out with Shirley. I can only hope that her brief foray into nagging me about something I had forgotten to do was a one-off.

But LK's full words still ring in my ears: "I'm taking the day off. It's about time that Conkie starts living up to her name."

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Last Day of the Year

So this is how we spent the last 24 hours of this year.

LK, Shirley and I rented a car and drove to the northern beaches of Oahu. The news was reporting huge waves at the surf beaches, and we wanted to check it out. We were not disappointed at Waimea, where mere mortals were banned from swimming and, as they announced, "only Waimea experts with two flippers" were being allowed to body surf.

Further over from the body surfers, there were some great rolling waves, and we saw some guys paddle out so far you could hardly see them until they were suddenly standing up and taking a ride that seemed to last forever as a few of them made it all the way to the shore.

Standing and watching the surfers counted as our exercise, so we got back in the car and went off in pursuit of one of the northern beaches' famous shrimp stands alongside the road. LK had read about it, and thought it would be the perfect lunch today. She had even brought handy-wipes. Such a thoughtful woman.

It was only a bit after noon and Shirley and I wanted to wait a little before eating, so we passed two or three of the stands, which LK said were supposed to be among the best. Then we hit civilization (or a close imitation of it in that part of the island) and the shrimp stands were no more.

LK's disappointment was evident, and I offered to turn around. She didn't want to, and I was starting to get that sinking feeling of having made a poor decision when we turned a bend in the road and saw a brightly painted lunch wagon called The Shrimp Shack.

Seldom has a roadside food stand looked so inviting. We all ordered spicy shrimp and an ear of fresh corn on the cob. I went inside the little grocery next to the stand and bought three bottles of local beer. The woman put them in little brown bags and told me to make sure we kept them on the bottles. Then she handed me the churchkey, telling me I had to pop them myself since the store wasn't licensed for drinks on the premise.

So our New Years Eve lunch was very tasty shrimp eaten alongside the beach road, washed down with beer from a brown bag. It was everything LK thought it would be. This is the video LK made at the Shrimp Shack.

Somehow we ended up heading back into Waikiki rather than staying on the coast road, but that was OK. We took advantage of having a car and went to the grocery and loaded up on essentials for the rest of the trip. At least I think 5 bottles of wine and a small Kahlua are considered essentials. Can't figure out why we got meat and bread, though.

And with all that wine, we decided to have Happy Hour in our place. Sitting on the lanai, we were able to watch the great Honolulu tradition of neighborhood fireworks. Even before dark, there were fireworks going off throughout the city, and as the night wore on some professional-level displays were soaring from people's backyards.

As much as we have loved the Sydney fireworks, this seemed more fun - people celebrating the New Year, not the government putting on an extravaganza. Of course, I can only imagine how many trips get made to the emergency room here on New Year's Eve.

It was a lovely end to a year that has been one of great change and great fun. Here's to 2010, and Happy New Year to all.