Spend more time playing

Your time awake can be divided into one of two categories… work and play. Simply, if you are happy doing something, you are spending your time in play. If, on the other hand, you would rather be doing something else, you are working. Work is any activity that one would rather not be engaged in at that particular moment.

“But what is work and what is not work?  Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to fell trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles?  All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.  There are in fact very few activities which cannot be classed either as work or play according as you choose to regard them.”
- George Orwell

So, the difference between work and play is not where you are, what you are doing, or if you are getting paid. It is a matter of attitude.

The switch from play to work happens instantly. Say you are out fishing (presumably a pleasurable activity) and your phone rings. Assuming that you would rather be fishing than talking on the phone, you have just started working.

Or say you are at a party. Those around you are apparently having a good time. And by your own demeanor, you are as well. But if you would rather be home on the couch watching Homeland, you are working.

Given this definition, you should strive to devote as much of your time to play as possible. You will have an easier time of it when you retire. You have much more control over your activities than when you are younger and burdened with responsibilities. And you are more able to be honest with yourself regarding what you really enjoy. In the meantime, approach work with the right attitude, and you might be able to count the time as play.

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Learn the art of small-talk

I am always amazed by people who can go to a party and strike up a conversation with anyone in the room.  They can always find something to talk about with strangers and friends alike.  I am not one of these people.  I often wonder where this skill was taught, and what I was doing instead of learning it.

Perhaps it was taught in the Armed Forces, which I missed.  Maybe on youth sport teams, like Babe Ruth baseball, or at basketball practice.  I never played on any sports team, so if that is where it was taught, I missed out.  Maybe it was taught hanging out in bars in college.  I didn’t do much of that.  I always thought that engaging in conversation was a way to exchange information, or to solve a problem.  It never occurred to me that you could have a conversation about nothing.

I mention this because it remains a problem for me to this day.  I am not into sports, so before I go to the barber shop (yes, I know about the bald thing, but I still have to go every now and then), I have to study the sports page.  I need to be ready to respond to my barber when he says “How about those Red Sox!”  It helps to know that we are talking baseball here.

I have learned that many people are not that interested in my views on politics, voting rights, abortion, universal health care, etc.  Venturing into these subjects is a recipe for disaster.  Better to talk about the weather, or fishing, which at the moment seems like a safe topic (unless the conversation heads to discuss those Piping Plovers).

So, the advice I can offer now is to learn the art of small-talk.  I can’t tell you where to learn it, or how.  Just that it is important.

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Buy a big snowblower

More snow!  When we moved to the Cape, I thought that we wouldn’t see much snow down here.  It used to be the place where golfers could play all year.  No longer.  This is the second storm this week, and I have used my snowblower 5-6 times already this year.

 When it comes to snow removal, there are two types of people: snowblower people and plow people.  While I am a snowblower type, I do understand the convenience of having someone plow your driveway for you.  Who wouldn’t like sitting inside with a cup of coffee and watching someone take care of the snow removal for you?

 I’ve tried it, and it was a sense of frustration for me.  When was he coming?  We only had 2 inches of snow, why is he here?  Why is he putting the snow right in front of the gate?  Why is he plowing my lawn? And when he was done, I still had to go outside and do the walk, the cars, and the clean-up.

 So years ago, in 1988, I got my snowblower.  Yes, it is still running and working quite well.  I take good care of my stuff, but that is the topic of another blog.

 While others may consider using a snowblower a chore, I kind of like it.  It gives me control over when to remove the snow.  If we are expecting lots of snow, I may do it mid-storm.  But most of all, it lets me stick to the driveway and other areas that I choose, without tearing up the lawn or planting areas.

 If you are thinking of buying a snowblower, I suggest you get a big one.  I have a a Toro 624 (6HP) two-stage. It is not huge, but big enough to tackle a 12-14-inch snowfall.  There are small, one-stage units out there, but I don’t see the point.  You need help when you are faced with lots of snow, not when you can easily push it around with a shovel. 

 Two more suggestions. I would recommend one with electric start.  I don’t have that, and pulling on the starter cord is getting harder.  And second, buy a brand from a local dealer that can service your unit. 

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Know when to keep your mouth shut.

Several years ago, Mary Jane and I were at a dinner party with some friends.  Seated across the table from us was a couple I had met before, but really didn’t know very well.  They were from a different state, and I had only been in their company a few times.  The conversation had turned to the 2008 Presidential race and to the Republican VP candidate, Sarah Palin.  She had been in the race a few months and, unfortunately, had been required, on occasion, to actually speak.  Her background and lack of experience were well-known, and I had a hard time understanding who would vote for her.

As the conversation proceeded without my participation, our table mate said “I really like her.  I think she would make a great Vice President.”  I sank a few inches into my chair.  I tried to keep my mouth shut.  I mustered all my self-control, and adopted a mild manner.  “What do you like about her?”, I asked.  “She is just like me!” was the response.

Now, I reached a crossroads.  Do I engage this person in a debate over her qualifications to be President, or do I go back to my eggplant parmigiana?  This was not the time or place to press this conversation, and it was unlikely that I was going to change the mind of this person.  So, I retreated.  I think it was a good decision.

There are so many opportunities to get into trouble and argue with people these days, especially for a highly-opinionated person like me.  If you have children, parents, in-laws, or a spouse, you can get into serious trouble very quickly by not knowing when to bite down hard and stifle any attempt to offer your opinion.  Just remind people of Rule 22: Don’t mistake silence for agreement.

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Know where you spend your money

Last year, I spent $292.89 on fishing, $274.01 on iTunes stuff, and $860.25 on coffee.  Could you produce figures like this for how you spend your money?  If not, I strongly urge you to start tracking your expenses.

Now, I will admit that this is a bit of an obsession with me.  I track and categorize all of our expenses, including our cash expenses.  This has caused some discussion in our house, but Mary Jane has been a trouper and has tried to comply with my requests.  As a result, we only spend about $10 per month that I can’t account for.

This sounds hard to do, but I can tell you is is not that bad.  I have used Quicken for the past 10-15 years, and it is truly the most useful software I own.  It takes no more than 10-15 minutes a week, and it provides great insight into where you are financially.  Most institutions will provide your transactions in a way that can be loaded directly into Quicken, so data entry is at a minimum.  But there are a few tips that make managing your financial life easier.

First, charge everything.  This applies to gas, food, restaurants, and pretty much everything that you buy that costs more than $5.  You will have a record of your purchases, you will get some sort of reward points (if you get the right kind of card), and your transactions will flow into Quicken very easily.  

Notice I said “charge”.  Use a charge card, not a debit card.  Now, I know that some people have trouble with charge cards and have trouble paying the full amount due at the end of the month.  Certainly, if you are one of these people, look elsewhere for advice.  But if you can pay in full each month, get a charge card that provides great rewards, and throw away your debit cards.  There are far greater consumer protection laws for charge cards than for debit cards, at least in Massachusetts.

Second, try very hard to jot down your cash transactions.  In fact, you should really not be using cash very much at all.  And periodically, compare your cash to what Quicken thinks you should have.  This will tell you how good you are at recording those cash transactions.  Just adjust your balance and strive to get better next month.

If you stick to this program, I guarantee you will have at least one “Holy Crap!” moment.  “I spent $860.25 on coffee!”  You will either become comfortable with this level of expense, or you will find ways to cut it down.  

Finally, if you ever plan to retire, these sort of records will be invaluable.  Now, time for a coffee.

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Realize that accidents don’t just happen… they are caused.

During the Fall season in the Northeast, one of my strongest childhood memories comes to mind.    Walking home from school and seeing my father in the yard burning leaves.  Back in those days, it was common practice to rake leaves into a pile, set it on fire, and stand by with a garden hose.  The acrid smell of smoke was everywhere, and I loved it.

One day, however, I was not looking forward to arriving at home.  That day, I had been running in the schoolyard after someone, and I tripped.  No big deal, but I had a hole in my pants.  We were a typical middle-class family… enough money to live comfortably, but not enough to allow everyone the luxury of a closet full of clothes.  These pants were relatively new, and I knew I was in for the third degree when my father heard the story.

“It was an accident!”, I pleaded.  “What were you doing?”, he asked.  “I was running”. “Oh, so you caused the tear in your pants.”  And so it went.  And by the time I went away to college, I’ll bet I heard this 1000 times:  “Accidents don’t just happen…  they are caused.”

Of course, I didn’t get it.  I thought that any unplanned consequence was simply an accident, over which I had no control.  But as I got older, I realized that most times, my father was right.  

Not paying attention.  Not being observant.  Thinking that it was someone else’s responsibility to fix something.  Being negligent.  Not fixing something when the problem first surfaced.  Letting something go too long.  Over-estimating your capabilities.  Trusting someone else to do something that you should have attended to yourself.  These are the reasons that most accidents occur.  Once you realize that, I’ll bet you have far fewer accidents.

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Just suck it up!

I recently attended a very elegant wedding on New Year’s Eve in New York City. It was the wedding of my son-in-law’s sister.  When MJ and I arrived, we went to a large room where the family had gathered for professional pictures.  Of course, many people had their own cameras and cell phones, as did I.  Pretty much as soon as we walked in, the mother of the bride saw me and came over to greet us.  She was holding a video camera, plus a small digital camera.  She handed me the still camera.  “Here, please take this and take some pictures for me.”  In this situation, there is only one response:  “Sure.  I’ll be happy to”.  Because, as she pointed out to me later, “Just suck it up for the family!”

 And she is so right.  If a family member asks you for something, just do it.  “Can you help me move?”  “Would you be able to come over on Saturday and help me spread six yards of bark mulch?”  “I’m robbing a bank on Saturday and I need you to drive the getaway car.”  Ok, maybe not that last one.  But to most other requests, if a family member asks, just do it.

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Don’t buy cheap duct tape

There are a few items that should be in every home, car, boat, and tool box.  One of those essential items is duct tape.  The number of things you can use it for is limitless.  And as you may know, most things can be fixed with duct tape and Vise grips.

 When shopping for duct tape, it is often tempting to go for the least expensive brand.  Don’t do it.  There is a great difference between the major brands and the off-brands.  The differences include the difficulty in tearing the tape, the strength, the durability of the adhesive, and the resistance to moisture.  These factors should lead you to one of the name brands:  Scotch, Nashua, Duck, Gorilla.  In my view, Gorilla tape is the best.

 And another tip…  don’t use any of that plastic or vinyl tape to seal ducts.  For that purpose, you need aluminum foil tape.  I have a sawdust collection system in my basement, and every seam is sealed with the foil tape.  They were sealed over 10 years ago and are as tight today as when they were done.  Regular duct tape will dry out and fall apart.

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Be clear on what you are being asked to do

I provide the on-site technical support around my house.  There are only two of us, but with the gadgets, computers, and other electronic stuff, I sometimes feel like this is a full-time job. 

 Some time ago, Mary Jane was commenting on the performance of her laptop.  “It is running very slowly these days.”  I jumped in with both feet in an effort to find and fix the problem.  After some analysis, it was clear that she had several applications running and there was not enough physical memory.  The system was paging.  When we got together, I was eager to tell her that I found the problem.  I was ready with my pad and pencil and ready to explain how memory management worked in a demand-paged environment.  I was only a couple of minutes into my presentation when I saw that glazed-over look that I’m sure many teachers are very familiar with.  “Don’t you want to understand what is going on?” I asked.  “No.  Just fix the problem” she said.  I told her we could buy some expensive laptop memory, or she could just close applications when she was done with them.  Guess which she picked.

 I frequently get questions like “How do you make my iPad work like this?”  or “I don’t like how my iPhone does that!”  I used to grab the device, and say something like “Look, it’s very easy to change it.  Just go to “settings”, etc.”  The glazed look again.  “Don’t you want to know how to change it?”  I ask.  “No, just fix it.”

 I have learned to ask a few simple questions when I am given a job.  “”Do you want to know what is wrong, or should I just fix it?.  “When do you need it fixed?”  Simple questions.  They will lead to a happier wife, and when she is happy, my life is better.

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Do your homework

This story is rather long, but I think it illustrates what happens if you act on a whim and fail to do your homework.

 I first visited Cape Cod in 1965.  Peter, a college friend, had a summer cottage in Megansett, in North Falmouth, and he invited a group of us to visit for a weekend in spring of our freshman year.  I was hooked on the place.  I loved the weather, being near the beach, and the variety of things to do.  At the time, I didn’t fish or engage in boating, but there was plenty to keep me busy.

During college, and well after, I visited my friend often.  His family welcomed me to visit any time I wanted, and even assigned me a standard room in the cottage.  I became a regular.

One Saturday morning I woke up with another in a string of bright ideas…  I needed a boat!  My friend didn’t have one and I thought if you were a regular on the Cape, you needed a boat.  So I announced  at breakfast that I was going to look at boats that morning.

After breakfast, Peter and I headed to a local boat dealer.  Sitting in the lot, on a trailer, was the perfect boat.  It was a 16 ft run-about with a 50 hp Evinrude motor.  It was nice and clean, it looked brand-new, and it was in my price range.  I wanted it.  So, right on the spot, I gave the salesman a deposit, with instructions to have it ready next Saturday for pickup.  I had to have a hitch attached to my car so I could take my new toy to the water.  I thought it strange that the salesman kept telling me that the boat was “as is”. Of course it was…  I could see how it was. (This was before I went to law school!)

Over the next week, I got my car outfitted with a hitch, and I was very much looking forward to picking up the boat on Saturday.  Of course, Peter was drafted to help, and I thought another friend would be insurance, so I also drafted Bob to the party.

Saturday finally came, and the day was beautiful…  calm winds, bright blue sky…  a perfect day to tool around Buzzards Bay in my new boat.

We picked up the boat, signed the papers, and hitched her up to the car for the ride to the water.  We had to make a few stops…  we needed a cooler, ice, lots of beer, and gas.  We were good to go.

Before too long, we were at the boat ramp in Megansett, and I managed to get the boat trailer lined up with the ramp.  I stationed Peter off to the side to guide me down the ramp, and positioned Bob in the boat to manage it once it was in the water.

At this point, I should mention that I had never been in a small boat and had no idea about the basics of boat ownership or piloting.

As the boat entered the water, I heard Bob yelling “It’s filling up with water!”  Luckily, we hadn’t unhitched the boat from the trailer, so it was a simple matter to put the car in “drive” and head up the ramp.    As I did,  Bob asked “Did you install the drain plug?”  What drain plug?  I didn’t know that boats had a drain plug. But lo and behold, there it was dangling from the steering wheel.

We installed the drain plug and gave it another go.  The launch was perfect.  The boat was tied to the dock, the car and trailer were parked, and the three of us were off for a day of boating.

The motor started on the first crank, and we headed out of the harbor.  Rather than tool around the harbor until I got the feel of the boat,  I headed for the open waters of Buzzards Bay, and a lighthouse about 3 miles offshore called Cleveland Light.  It was a beautiful day, no waves on the Bay, and we were cruising a top speed toward Cleveland Light. This is what I’m talking about!

This lasted for about ten minutes, and then the motor made some sputtering sound, and was then dead quiet.  We were about 2 miles offshore, sitting in the boat, with nothing to help us in this situation.  Well, we do have beer, but no radio, no anchor, no suntan lotion, and most of all, no clue how to get this motor started again.

After drifting for about thirty minutes, we were fortunate to be able to flag down a passing boat.  The captain was kind enough to tow us right back to our dock, where we managed to get the boat back on the trailer.  This could have been so much worse.

During the week that intervened between buying the boat and picking it up, I did some research on why the salesman was so clear that the boat was “as is”.  It meant that, no matter what, I wasn’t getting a dime back on this boat.  This was clear.  So rather than risk an argument with the dealer, I decided to take the boat to another dealer in Falmouth…  one who specialized in Evinrude motors.  So we took the boat down to Falmouth to see what could be done about this motor that won’t start.

Of course, a Saturday in the summer is no time to get a diagnosis on an outboard.  So we were instructed to leave the boat, motor, and trailer and they would look at it during the week.  I was to return the following Saturday to pick up my repaired motor.

Saturday arrived, and once again Peter and I head down to get the boat.  The minute I laid eyes on him, I knew it wasn’t good news.  He was wearing a long face when he asked “Where did you get this boat?”  I told him, and a look of “Ah Ha!” covered his face.  I explained that I got a really good deal on thus boat, but it was sold “as is”.

Well, he gave me the news.  The motor had, at one point in its life, been underwater, and our trip to Cleveland Light was the last time anyone would hear a sound out of it.  It was a total loss.  But luckily the dealer had a new motor in stock that he could put on my boat that week.  So, out came my checkbook, and another week began.

Saturday arrived with another trip to pick up the boat.  This time, I dragoon two friends from home to accompany me.  Ed and Cindy were good friends, and I thought a nice trip to the Cape in the middle of the summer would be a nice outing.  We planned pick up the boat, drop it off at my friend’s house, catch a nice shore dinner, and head back to Boston, where I lived.

As promised, the boat was ready to go.  Now we can just get this baby home, and life will be good.  But as I paid the man for my new motor, he said “You’re not going to drive it home on that trailer, are  you?”  “Of course, why not?”  I respond.  He asked that I take a look at the main axle on the trailer.

The main axle was rusted through, and was being held together by a rusty hinge of metal.  Now, what to do?  Being the “out of the box” thinker that I am, I spied a Radio Shack across the street.  They must stock TV antennas masts.  I’ll just get one of those, a couple of clamps, and bolt this whole contraption to the axle.  I’ll drive slowly, and it is only about ten miles.  What could go wrong?

So, with this contraption strapped to the axle, we took off for my friend’s cottage.  Driving very slowly, we made our way through the back streets of Falmouth.  Our route took us past a hotel that is across the street from a small pond.  At this point in the road, there is a slight decline in the road.

As I descended, very slowly, down the road, I felt the car getting hit from behind.  As I looked in the mirror, I saw that my boat has somehow managed to run into my car!  This can’t be good.  So I pulled over to the side of the road, right near the pond, to investigate.  And it was not long before the smell of gasoline filled the air.

It seems that while heading down the hill, the trailer had come loose and off the hitch.  Luckily, I had safety chains installed, so the tongue on the trailer was free to swing around a bit.  And as I descended the hill, it swung under my car and had punctured my gas tank.  I was leaking gas all over the street.

Quickly, I stationed Ed and Cindy to direct traffic around this mess while I headed into the hotel to call for help.  In a very short time, the place was swarming with police, firemen, and a couple of tow trucks.  After mopping up the spill and taking my car and boat to the closest body shop, the tow truck driver was nice enough to take us to a car rental agency.

Heading home in the rental car, we were by now pretty hungry,. And I did promise my friends a shore dinner, so we decided to stop at the Chart Room in Bourne to drown our sorrows.  The Chart Room is an institution and hasn’t changed one bit  in the 45 years I have been eating there.  It has a piano bar, great food, and is right on the water.

As we were being seated in the restaurant, I spied a familiar face seated at the piano bar.  It was my friend Peter’s mother, singing and having a grand old time.  I introduced my friends to her, and we returned to our seats for our dinner.  At the end of our meals, I saw the waitstaff muster in a corner, and soon they are marching in our direction, singing,  with a cake covered in candles.  My friend’s mother had told them it was my birthday.  She was prone to pull stunts like this in the past, but I had not been the target before.

After our desert, we drove home in the rental car, happy that the adventure was over for the time being.  That week, I managed to line up a new trailer for the boat.  So when my car was repaired, I was able to return the rental, pick up my car, pick up the new trailer, and get it over to the garage that was storing my boat.  I’m not sure how they managed to do it, but they got the boat onto my new trailer, and I was on my way to another great day on the water.

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