LifeRules now in paperback!

I’m happy to announce that my blog, LifeRules, is now available as a paperback book! This book contains the first 50 LifeRules, as published in my blog. If you would like to own a copy, for yourself or as a gift for someone, you can purchase one on Amazon.


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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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