Friday, September 28, 2007

Dad's Pachelbel Bedtime

Wow, if you thought Mom's William Tell Overture was good (below), you'll love this. Brilliant.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Agony of the feet

Up until Monday night, my woodworking project was progressing nicely, albeit somewhat slowly due to current circumstances. So far I have the makings of a file cabinet and bookshelf, with a desktop to go across them, all stained and waiting for a coat of polyeurethane.

Things took a bit of a downhill slide Monday night when I did a fantastic impression of Tim the Tool Man Taylor.

If you've been to Home Depot (and who hasn't?) you may have noticed that the guy who does the pre-recorded announcements is the guy who played Wilson the neighbor on the show Home Improvement with Tim Allen. You might have also noticed the one announcement that repeats quite often, explaining how HD is a "working warehouse", and that they try to keep us safe in numerous ways, and that we should always ask for help when lifting heavy items. Well, wouldn't you know it...right when he said that I dropped a sheet of plywood on my foot and broke my big toe.

I think the worst part of it was when the woman standing about ten feet from me at the time saw what happened and said, "Ouch! That looked like it hurt! You okay?" to which I calmly responded, "oh yeah, it missed me. No big deal"

I was lying.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Someone tell my kids.

A Japanese study says early-risers are actually at a higher risk of developing heart problems.

Now if we could convince our children not to wake us up at the crack of early, we might live a little longer.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Renew crap

This blows my mind. According to the Engadget article,

Memorex is hitting all the right buzz words with its new line of "ReNew" products, unfortunately the company forgot to spend much time thinking about the products themselves. Sure, it's all packaged in recycled cardboard and egg carton recycled paper, built with recycled plastics, meets RoHS standards and all that jazz -- Memorex will even plant 75k trees through the Arbor Day Foundation with a portion of the sales -- but unfortunately the products themselves scream "cheap crap."

So, how, exactly, will creating more products that will quickly end up in the landfill save us from filling up our landfills?

It reminds me of a shopping bag from the Gap I noticed in our house the other day. It was a heavy paper bag with think ink printing, coated in a heavy plastic-like clearcoat, with rope handles and metal grommets. Totally not recycleable. However the text on the bottom of the bag stated "made from 100% post-consumer waste paper. Please reuse this bag". So in other words, "we made the bag in an environmentally friendly way, but it's up to you, Mr. Consumer, to keep it out of the landfill. It's not our problem any more. Deal with it."


Preparing to leave

So as you may have read, my mother-in-law passed around Labor Day. She lived in a little apartment in Shadyside, and for the most part I've been taking on the task of moving her belongings out of there while my wife understandably builds up the strength to even go near the place so soon after.

I can thankfully say I haven't done this too often. The last time someone close to me died and I was involved in the demolition process was when my grandfather passed away about ten years ago. Comparing the two events, I must say that cleaning up my mother-in-law's stuff has been a piece of cake. She was a woman of simple needs. She had no car. No home ownership. Not much furniture. Oddly enough the one thing she had the most of in life was televisions. Why a single woman in a small apartment without cable TV needed four TV's I'm not sure. But regardless, I thank the woman for making the process relatively painless.

Throughout the process (which still continues), I have found myself thinking quite a bit about what I would do to better avoid putting this sort of burden on my family members if I knew the end was near. So, I guess it's time to put things in writing. Bear in mind that none of these ideas relate specifically to my mother-in-law or my grandfather. They are simply thoughts that popped into my head.

1. Take some time to clean out your closets. Closets are the absolute worst when it comes to this sort of shovel-out. 90% of what's in the average closet could have been thrown out years ago. 5% is something you thought you should save, and tossed in a closet never to be seen again. And the remaining 5% is perhaps of interest to someone.

2. Don't save greeting cards. My grandparents saved every one they ever received. Those cards may have meant a lot to them. They meant nothing to us except an extra trip to the trash bin.

3. Get your files organized. NOW. A close relative should have a complete list of your accounts, credit card numbers, insurance policies, safety deposit box locations, etc. There's plenty of articles out there about what to it now.

4. Make sure someone knows your passwords. The previous item is something everyone knows. But I think new on the list is to have a way of letting the person in charge of safekeeping of your documentation know where to find your passwords to important systems such as Quicken, or to your bank website. This is especially true if you are the only spouse that pays the bills. I often think about how I use Quicken to pay everything and, if I were to be gone, my wife wouldn't know the first thing about even starting the program up.

5. Got something weird in your drawers, something you don't want people to see? Get rid of it.

6. If you own something that is of value or has meaning to the family, but that value might not be obvious to the naked eye, make sure to document. For example, if that little statue of the baby Moses on the mantle was carried by your great-great-great uncle Moishe on his back as he walked from Poland to New York (I'm just sayin'), then make sure someone knows it before tossing it on eBay or, worse yet, in the trash. If it's VERY valuable, mention it in the will. If it's just something you feel would be meaningful to someone, write it down and give it to the person in #3. On the other hand, don't go nuts. I have a friend who's mom thought she had an incurable tumor (she got better). Once she heard the bad news, she went around the house with a post-it pad bequeathing every last item in the house to one relative or another. Now that she's better, they are STILL finding post-its on everything down to the Pyrex cookware.

7. Pay for as much of your burial proceedings as you can in advance. Buy a cemetery plot. Take out an insurance policy that covers the burial fees. The only thing worse than having to bury a loved one is having to bury one and THEN deal with around ten thousand dollars in fees.

8. Make sure someone knows who your estate lawyer is. The lawyer should have copies of your will (you DO have one of those, right?) and will be able to make the whole process MUCH easier.

9. If you rent, make sure someone knows the terms of your lease. Currently we're dealing with a landlord who thinks he has the right to charge us a "termination fee" of several months' rent. That's not what the lease says. But the lease was written by a FORMER building owner. Currently the lawyer is working that one out.

10. If you have IRA's and annuities, it's important to be aware of the tax implications upon your death. Your survivors will have several different options for withdrawing the month to work around tax obligations. I say discuss those things now!

11. Do NOT save years' worth of bills and paperwork. It just confuses matters. Just as an example, my mother-in-law had an investment account back in the 80's with one company. In the 90's she switched to a different company. Around 2005 she switched again. She saved all the paperwork from all three accounts. The only way I could tell the first two accounts were not in existence was to call the investment companies, one of which no longer existed. That wasted a couple of hours. Keep all your current paperwork organized in one place, and list all current accounts on that document you're going to prepare for the person safeguarding your information.

12. Wanna have a little fun? If you know you're going to check out soon, toss some cash in your clothing pockets. The fact is that when emptying out the closets, your survivors will need to go through every article of clothing to make sure you didn't stash your diamonds in the pocket of the coat you last wore in 1984. And that's really boring. Might as well make it interesting for them, and toss a couple of bucks in here and there. Funny story related to that. Before my grandfather died, he took several thousand dollars in cash out of the bank before a trip to Florida. The money disappeared. He swore the housekeeper stole it, until the day he died. When we cleaned out his closet. Guess what we found? The cash, in the original bank envelope, in a jacket he decided he no longer liked.

More suggestions?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

A major milestone

On the way to work today I had the pleasure of watching the odometer on my '99 Mazda 626 hit a hundred thousand miles. It makes me feel good to know that We've gone for about six years with nary a car payment, as both cars were fully paid for in '01. I dread the thought of buying something new right now. For one thing, I don't need the extra bill each month. For another, I'm concerned that if I bought right now, by the time I was ready to unload it there'd be all sorts of new technology on the road and my current car would have the resale value of a CD player. I think I'll treat my Mazda to a nice birthday washing. Perhaps some new belts, a little shine. It's taken care of me. I'll try to reciprocate.

Monday, September 17, 2007

My slow return

Boy, what a couple of weeks it's been. As mentioned previously, we're dealing with a sudden and somewhat unexpected loss in the family in that my wife's mom passed away. It was a really harsh time. She was a 3-time cancer survivor, but in the end what got her was heart failure. And we don't even know why. It might have been the many months of chemo; it might have been her stem cell transplant; it might have been something totally unrelated and completely coincidental. We won't ever really know, as religious belief took precedence and we opted out of having an autopsy done. Over the past weeks we've been literally surrounded by friends and family, dealing with a swarm of estate issues, with cleaning out an apartment that hasn't been rearranged in 15 years, and with dealing with two children that no longer have a bubba. I've been wanting to blog about so many things just to clear the air and get some perspective, but I don't know even where to begin. So I figure I'll just chip away at small chunks until I reach some sort of equilibrium. I'm not even sure if that last sentence made any sense, but I've had a couple of beers, so deal with it.

It hasn't been all bad. As promised, I've dived headfirst into building furniture for our home office. More details to come, but suffice it to say I think I've done a good job replicating that $400 Pottery Barn file cabinet with a $38 sheet of baltic birch plywood. Plus, my buddy Paul and I finally managed to see the Simpsons movie, something long overdue. I think that over the next few weeks, I'll be sorting out my thoughts regarding estate planning, preparation (such that it were) for a death in the family, and the concept of the Jewish shiva. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dealing with Grief

It's funny how things change so suddenly. My last post was about a simple thing like budgeting for overpriced furniture. Only days later, my wife's mom passed away unexpectedly. Needless to say, it's been a little tough to find the time to write in the past couple of weeks, but with the thoughts swirling through my head right now I could write a novel if I had the time. This post is simple a note to let all (okay, both) my faithful readers know I'm still out there, that I'll be back soon enough, and that sadly I've got a whole new vein of subject matter about which to write. In the mean time I'm observing. Having a close family member pass away is a very foreign experience for me, and I'm definitely learning as I go. From the logistics of cleaning out an apartment that hasn't been changed in 15 years, to learning and understanding how a 7-year-old copes with losing one of her most precious and beloved friendships only days before her birthday, I've got a lot to pay attention to currently. More to come. I'll try not to make it too depressing, though. You know me.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Pottery Barn Dreams on a K-Mart budget

With our house renovation behind us, we've lately been spending lots of time hemming and hawing about furniture. Well, maybe more hemming than hawing. As you can well imagine, after dropping a boatload of cash into construction, lately we get a little queasy when we look at the prices of things like dining room tables, couches, and office furniture.

Luckily, none of our needs are immediate. We've got a dining room table, though it's too small and doesn't match our decor (early neo-retro-classic with an art deco-country flair). We've got office furniture that's functional, but reminds me of my college dorm days (hmm... probably because it's the desk from my college dorm). We've also got an entire living room to furnish, but for now that room is the storehouse for Fisher Price's western Pennsylvania showcase.

As I mentioned in a recent post, my wife had the opportunity to hire a professional organizer to create an organized environment for her at-home writing career. I'll write some details on that another time, but suffice it to say having a clean, organized office has given me the bug to do something about furnishing it. So I've started hunting around for office furniture. I've found that the choices out there really, really, really suck.

Unless you like particle board, there isn't much to choose from. My repulsion for semi-disposable furniture automatically knocks anything from Ikea, OfficeMax or the like immediately out of the running. That leaves us with professional-grade places or fancy-schmancy places like Pottery Barn. We also crossed off the professional office furniture places, because we really don't need our home to look like a dentist's reception area.

One of the few places in the world that seems to sell good quality and decent looking office furniture is Pottery Barn. No surprise really. Everyone knows their stuff is gorgeous though pricey. I was recently browsing though their catalog (yes, I was on the john, of course. Bet you're glad I mentioned that) when I discovered this line of "modular" furniture for home offices. I showed Hilary, and she loved it. But as is usually the case with PB, I was horrified by the price. A simple two-drawer file cabinet was $250! Extrapolate that out and we could easily furnish our office for about the same price as a year of tuition at Carnegie Mellon. Not really an option. But I felt I had to go to PB and see this stuff in person, to understand exactly what magical powers this office suite possessed enabling it to garner such a high price.

So I went. And I looked. And you know what? It was very nice. But more importantly, I realized that the design was ridiculously simple. Clean lines, no fancy routed edges, absolutely nothing special (which is why we liked it so much). So, I decided it was time for my next woodworking project.

A half hour later, I had the basic cabinet sketched out in Sketchup.

One trip to Home Depot and $38 later, I had the lumber I needed. Tomorrow, a trip to Rockler (my new favorite store) for some additional components and a can of some good wood finish, and I have what I need to build a proof of concept. I figure if I can make a file cabinet as nice as they can (okay, 75% as nice), then I have all the skills I need to completely furnish our office and have enough left over to send the kids to trade school, at least.

I'll keep you posted.