Since we’re traveling to New York for Christmas this year, we’ve had a few early celebrations and gift-openings to include various friends and family members that we’ll not be seeing on Christmas Day proper.

Max is two-and-a-half this holiday, and he is still, as you may have guessed, obsessed with the choo-choos. Here’s what we’ve learned from the occasions he’s had to open presents so far: Save the trains for last or he’ll stone-cold ignore the rest of the gifts. Max still has three unopened presents under our tree alone, because once that switch-track expansion set was out of the box, there was no going back.

Our living room floor, which is not small, is completely covered by a complex wooden railroad network consisting of multiple junctions, spurs, bridges, underpasses, unloading zones, crossings and yes, even a roundhouse. I guess we’ll vacuum next month.

Two days ago, Max said his first three-syllable word: “Derailment!”
Does fortune favor the bold or the foolish?
Brush with Greatness

Last week we were Christmas shopping on Saturday--Max was conveniently asleep in the stroller the entire time we were at the toy store--and we (along with several hundred other people) bumped into Frank Jackson, Cleveland’s newly elected mayor. His bodyguard was trailing him, pushing a cart-full of toys, “For the grandchildren,” as he put it. It was a funny sight.
Buy Nothing Day is this Friday. Lifehacker did a post on it; there were some interesting commments. Here's mine:

Buy Nothing Day is simply a sanity check. It is a reminder that we don't--or shouldn't--need *things* to be happy. It is a reminder that mindless, excessive consumerism is not good for an individual or for a family, and should not be the primary basis of an economy. The idea of the "door-buster"--of getting people hyped up into a rabid state of intense desire for bargain-priced goods that they may or may not need--is reprehensible. We should be embarrassed by the froth coming out of our mouths.

For the record, although I am an individual with decisively liberal moral values, I am very much pro-capital. I enjoy making money, saving money, investing money. I love to buy nice things from time to time. But I don't go crazy. I take public transit instead of driving. I try to leave a small footprint, to live well below my means.

There is a burgeoning underclass in this country that is becoming completely trapped by the consumerist culture we've created over the years. Our buying patters, our city-building patterns, our dependence on the car, our expectation for an ultra-high standard of living (compared to the world as a whole)--all these factors (and a few more not mentioned) are eliminating the "middle class" and creating a poor, work-until-you die-class, and a middling-affluent work-until-you-die class. Of course in the top percentiles of society are the ultra-wealthy. Why are we moving in this direction? No one is to blame. Everyone is to blame. A consumption-dependent economy is part of the problem.

*Trade* always has been, and always will be, a part of the human condition. But we must stay sane. We must not behave like rabid dogs. Shun the door-buster. Embrace Buy Nothing Day for its symbolism alone, then learn from what you've done, and let that lesson manifest itself throughout the entire year.
On using peer pressure to motivate yourself: Ideally, we want to be centered enough not to need the eyes of others to keep us moving toward our goals, or to "do the right thing."

But hey, none of us are perfect, right? So a small, temporary dose of peer pressure might be a good way to kick us back onto the path toward personal accountability. Then, as quickly as possible, we must wean ourselves of this technique, and again rely primarily on the strength of our own conscience and drive.

Peer pressure is a dangerous substance, and is best kept contained in a small, tightly locked box.
On saying "yes" more: The idea of more frequently saying "yes" acknowledges the notion that the universe is an abundant place, that there are opportunities for those who are receptive (and perceptive), that one should go with the flow. Saying "yes" can be a way to break out of an imprisoning, monotonous routine.

However, saying yes too often can whipsaw you around, make you lose all your money, and leave you dead. In my business, I have personally observed several very successful individuals who say "no" much more, at least one hundred times more, than they say "yes". But many of their yeses have won big, because they were entered into carefully. Once they found something that was a "yes", they took it all the way...

How about we say this instead: "Be open-minded about, but carefully scrutinize, all opportunities, ideas and decisions that you encounter. Then, if you find something worthwhile, say 'yes' and give it all you've got."
Here are some recent comments I've left on Lifehacker:

- Dollars and sense: "A part of what you earn is yours to keep." It sounds so simple that it approaches being silly, but it's more difficult than most people are willing to admit. Can you save one penny for every ten pennies you earn? It's been said another way: "Pay yourself first." ... Read "The Richest Man in Babylon" by George Clason and "The Millionaire Next Door" by Thomas Stanley & William Danko. These are very basic, very illuminating books that will hopefully leave a lasting impression on you regarding the essence of managing your financial life and maybe, just maybe, *creating wealth*. ... There's no magic: 1) Save money--make this your first financial priority. What follows next is simple: 2) Spend less than you earn! Live below your means (according to the Motley Fool)! Budget! 3) Avoid the types of debt that work against you (i.e., home mortgage OK, mortgage on investment property OK, student loans bad but still OK because they can increase earning power and typically have very low interest rates, BUT, credit cards that carry a balance BAD, BAD, BAD!). 4) Invest your money. There are too many investment vehicles to name. Find one that suits your personality. This will take significant time and effort, but you must do it. Remember, earning less on your money than the rate of inflation means you're losing money.

- Starter homes: Buying a home you can actually afford is one of those bits of common sense that people seem to have forgotten, for the moment at least. Here's an interesting rule of thumb that I pass on to people: ... Assuming you are not burdened by a large amount of consumer debt, the upper limits of what could be considered 'an affordable home purchase price' are around 3x your gross annual income. If you want to build wealth, limit your home purchase price to 2x (or less) your gross annual income. ... These are extraordinarily simplified notions, and while helpful, should be used with caution. You must look at your total financial picture (especially all other debt obligations) before making any purchase decisions. And of course interest rates affect these multiples. As rates go up, the multiples will go down. ... One final note: I'm a firm believer that home ownership *should not* be the primary means by which one builds wealth. While coastal (and selected other) cities have seen tremendous appreciation, much of the country cannot consistently depend on this type of value growth. ... View owning a home as a tax-advantaged alternative to renting. Then carefully and aggressively invest your money elsewhere.

- How do you use your Palmtop Computer?

- Manage your distractions

Over the years, I’ve heard many parents say how much it hurts to punish their children. What I do not hear discussed as often is *why* it hurts. I suspect the reasons change as your children grow.

Max is two years old. When we punish him it usually involves the infamous “time-out”, or sometimes we put him to bed early without reading any books (he really hates this). For me, at his age, what makes giving punishment hurt is the lost time. I already spend about ten hours per day away from home throughout the workweek. I cherish (as does every parent) every good moment I’m able to spend with Max. Anything that happens to erode or taint this time hurts me.

The old cliché about parents punishing their children: “This is going to hurt me as much as it hurts you...” It really does.
Yesterday Max said, as we traversed some railroad tracks in the car, "Gate ... goes ... down ... train ... come."
Last Sunday we took Max to a small, free railroad museum in Conneaut, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border. As you may or may not be aware, Max is currently obsessed with choo-choos. Obsessed. I suppose this is fairly normal for a 27 month-old boy. Needless to say, Max devoured the museum. There was so much for him to take in that he almost overloaded: An expansive HO-scale landscape with several operating trains; a full-sized, decommissioned steam locomotive; all sorts of old railroad artifacts (signal lights, signs, train parts, etc.); it was pretty impressive for a little non-profit museum.

The kid is so cute I can’t stand it. We bought a copy of the book The Little Red Caboose at the museum; Max pointed at it and said “-boofth” (his attempt at caboose). Rose corrected him: “No, Max, it’s CA-boose. The Little Red Caboose.” Max tried again: “Ca-ca ... R-E ... boofth.” Interpretation: “Ca-red-boose”. Max doesn’t say “red”, he spells it, sometimes “R-E” and sometimes “R-E-D”. In this case he put the adjective inside the word. “Ca-ca ... R-E-D ... boofth”. How inventive...

The museum is housed in an old (early 20th Century) train station, directly adjacent to still-active railroad tracks. Near the end of our visit we heard a (real) train coming, so naturally we thought Max would want a front-row seat. What we didn’t understand (or perhaps temporarily forgot, in our excitement) is just how intense standing 30 feet away from a locomotive traveling 50 MPH can be. Rose and I each covered one of Max’s ears (I was holding him); but it was still very loud and the rumbling of the train shook the ground and our bodies.

Max was scared by the train and was holding onto me very tightly, trembling, but he stood his ground and he watched that train head-on. I said, “Max that sure is a big loud train, isn’t it?” He replied, his voice wavering--on the verge of crying, “Ya!”

But he didn’t cry, and he didn’t turn away. He was so brave, our little boy. I was so proud of him!

The next day, I happened to see this quote, and I couldn’t help but think of Max: “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear” (Mark Twain).

My brave boy.
Happy birthday Grandpa.

This is the type of behavior that's only permissible on one's second birthday:

Max in a junk food-induced mania...

The apple of my eye is two years old!

About a month-and-a-half before Grandpa died, I was flying home from Atlanta on one of those rare sunny early spring afternoons we had this year. Usually when commercial flights land at Hopkins they approach from the north, scribing an arc out over Lake Erie before turning south for the final approach. Sometimes, when the prevailing winds are blowing from a certain direction, the flight will be redirected to land from the south. When this happens, the jet sweeps down southwest as far as New London and Wellington, and then traces the old Conrail line northeast until finally landing. Most people on board complain when this diversion occurs, because it can add as much as twenty minutes to the flight time. Personally I've always enjoyed these detours, because it lets me observe the vast green space in rural southwest Lorain County.

Coming in this particular time, as the pilot was circling around to begin a southern approach for the 2:23 PM landing, I looked down and saw where my Grandparents had lived for the majority of my childhood--a mobile home park adjacent to the mall in Elyria. I saw the elliptical circulation road interconnecting the park; I saw the community center where I had my first and only meaningful interaction with Santa Claus…and then a wave of memory hit me when I looked down and saw the old railroad tracks where Grandpa and I used to walk.

I don't remember exactly how old I was when Grandpa and I frequented those tracks--I think it was a few years surrounding age seven. During summer we would go there many times. In my mind we would spend all day at the tracks. I would do that thing where you put your ear to the rail and listen for trains coming from miles away. I'd hop from one railroad tie to another as grandpa walked patiently alongside me. Together, we'd pick up and throw the tar-soaked pebbles that filled the gaps between ties. Grandpa was in his fifties at the time, and he seemed to enjoy throwing dirty pebbles as much as I did. To this day, the smell of creosote and tar brings me back to that stretch of rail, a sacred place that will always be home to one of the happiest, most carefree times in my life.

That carefree feeling illustrates one of the greatest aspects Grandpa's personality: He new how to go slow, sit back and enjoy life. I learned how to do this by watching him. As Grandpa progressed through life and eventually into retirement, he seemed very comfortable with his transition into the world of observation, rest and enjoyment. He became a true elder--no longer feeling that he had to prove anything to anyone. He took to sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway on warm days--relaxing, observing nature, greeting visitors as they came. He had the wisdom to teach by quiet example.

Grandpa had a way of seeing through affectation to discern real needs or problems. Once, when Rose and I came home for Christmas, we'd had an argument before arriving at the house. I was convinced that we'd composed ourselves well enough that no one would be able to tell. Grandpa pulled us aside and said, "Hey, are you kids having a spat?" His correction was so humble and his demeanor so caring that we couldn't help but make up right there on the spot. He didn't embarrass us...he simply reminded us of ourselves.

When Rose and I were away at graduate school, we rarely had more than a few cents to rub together. Of course we worked very hard to give the impression that we were doing just fine, but Grandpa knew better. On several occasions, as we were getting ready to leave for our drive back to New York, Grandpa would slip something into my pocket. "Coffee money," he would say. Later, when we were in the car and out of sight I'd reach into my pocket and find that this so-called "coffee money" was often a couple of hundred dollars. This is the kind of guy he was.

I could go on about memories of Grandpa...the way he scared me to death driving the winding roads of West Virginia at 65 miles per hour...the way he found endless joy in mowing grass...the way he just loved a new car...the way that he would always pinch Grandma's behind when she least expected it...the way he became the grandfather that my wife never had...I could go on for hours. But I guess I'll just close by saying that I feel fortunate to have been friends with my grandfather for thirty years, that I'm so happy he got to know my wife and son, and that I'm thrilled I'll see him again someday sitting in his lawn chair in Heaven's driveway.

Robert Woodyard: August 31, 1928-May 18, 2005; 77.7 years old
Caught up in daily duties, it's easy to forget the value of each particular moment. I just looked at a photo of myself and my son playing in the snow in our back yard this past winter. The look on his face--pure joy--made me realize how significant to him that play time was. For me it was just another snowy day. For him it was strange-cold-mystery-powder that you could eat, wad up into a ball, and dive into. For me, thirty-one years old, it was just another demanding Cleveland winter. For him, eighteen months old, it was the wilderness. We probably only went out to play--really play in the snow, not counting going outside for trips to grandparents and the store--half a dozen times that winter. Too cold for the little guy, too much work to get dressed, don't want him to catch a cold, we used all those excuses. But when I look at that photo I realize he'll never be eighteen months old in the snow again! The winter of 2004 is gone forever--glad we enjoyed it with him like we did--wish we'd done even more...

It's not just another winter, it's not just another summer--each year, each season has its own identity in your memory, like a friend you once knew. Make it everything you can, because that's how you'll remember it forever.
Warcraft and Life

For better or for worse, lately I've been indulging in that popular, well-executed, unbelievable time-sink MMOG known as World of Warcraft. This being my first 'serious' experience with MMOG (and yes, I'm one of those non-hardcore players who dove in after reading about it in the New York Times), I'm bound to have some observations.

Here's the first: In life, as in Warcraft, we humans 'level-up'--we become older, more experienced as we move through life over time. However, unlike in the MMOG world, aging and gaining experience in real life does not ensure increased wisdom, skill and accomplishment. While Warcraft characters inevitably become stronger, wiser, more skillful and powerful as they age, we humans have the ability to grow older while getting no better at 'the game of life' due to laziness, apathy, fear, or any number of other excuses.

If only life held the same guarantees as Warcraft...
Trying to understand is like trying to see through muddy water.

Be still, and allow the mud to settle. Remain still, until it is the time to act.

--from the Tao Te Ching