Saturday, February 25, 2017

Wherein I lose my faith in the media

Once upon a time, I was in college.  I believe the year was 1984 or 1985.  Three acquaintances and I were out late, up to mischief.  1 AM or so.  (N.B. Nothing good happens after midnight.)

Our residential college lay on one side of Main Street in Houston with the Medical Center and a large park across the street.  We heard screams coming from the park.  "Odd at this time of night," says we to ourselves.  "Let's investigate."

We followed the sounds and found an older African American gentleman on a young woman with a knife to her throat.  We enjoined him to cease disturbing her.  He stopped, rearranged his trousers, and ran.  The young woman told us he'd been raping her.  We pursued him.

He ran toward the east with us in pursuit.  One of us, an artistic type, began to sing "Time Is On My Side" as we ran.  Seems a bit odd now, but somehow it kept us going.

As the gentleman had retained his knife and occasionally stopped to take swipes at us, we kept some distance.  One of us got too close, and the gentleman managed to stab him in the arm.  He (the stabee, not the gentleman)* encouraged us to maintain pursuit, then he went to the emergency room at the Medical Center.

As we crossed Hermann Park Drive, a car with an African American couple stopped and shouted at us to leave the gentleman alone.  We shouted that he'd been raping a woman and asked them to call the police.  It was then I realized that a group of young white men chasing an older African American man late at night might be viewed in different ways.  Bad optics, they call it now, I think.

Eventually, several police cars arrived.  I never did find out whether the people in the car, our stabbed friend, or the emergency room had called them.

They surrounded the area of sparse trees the man was in.  We shouted that he had a knife and had already stabbed someone.  He threw his hands out to the side, throwing the knife at the same time.

They got him on the ground.  And beat the crap out of him.  That offended me quite a bit.  Had we caught him, we'd have beaten the crap out of him.  We'd seen both of his crimes.  But the police had the assertions of three white college students chasing an African American man.  They didn't know he'd actually done anything.  They didn't know we weren't the bad guys.  One cop even yelled at the man for bleeding on his pants.

A news crew showed up and interviewed us.  Here we were, three students from a pretty prestigious and selective university, two of whom were engineers being trained to observe and report those observations accurately, giving the news crews everything that had happened.  When we read the article in the newspaper, they got everything wrong.  All of it.  And there died my respect for the news media.

A few afterwords:

  • The man was not charged for the rape.  The woman had been homeless and had left.  He was charged and convicted for the assault.  We later found out from the prosecutor that the man was 60 and had 17 prior felony convictions.  Pretty spry for his age and a bit of an over-achiever.

  • Our stabbed friend was fine.  He came out of the episode a showy scar and a good story.

  • When going to court as a witness, you can fit more people in a Porsche 944 than I would have imagined possible.  One of us (sadly not me) was pretty well off, and that's what he drove.

  • The room where they stored the witnesses during a trial was on a high floor, had operable windows, and made a great perch for testing paper airplanes during hours of tedious waiting.  There were no cell phones in those days, so we were forced to improvise our own amusements.

  • The response time of the police and of the news crew surprised me.  I don't believe the pursuit was over a mile.  Granted that we were running slowly, and there were occasional stops to avoid being perforated, but still.  It must have been a slow night for them, and they must have been quite nearby. 
  • Bullet points are almost as fun as real bullets.  A bit quieter, though.

* All Antecedents Matter

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Automate Your Finances

Keeping track of money and where it goes can take a significant amount of time.  You have to get your pay check into the bank, transfer funds to short-term, long-term, and targeted savings, funnel money to investments, pay bills, buy groceries, and the list goes on.  You should also know where all of it has gone so you can decide whether it is wise to repeat the same behavior in the future.

I find myself more interested in money as a philosophical concept than interested in bookkeeping (except for the fact that it's the only word I know with three double letters in a row).

If you take advantage of the technology available today, you can save a significant amount of time AND money.

Do you receive a pay check?  Ask if it can be direct deposited.  That saves you a trip to the bank and the opportunity to misplace the check.  Most companies and most banks can easily set up direct deposit for you.  If your bank can't do it, you should choose another bank.  If your company can't do it... well, choosing another place to work is a different topic.

Savings can be automated to a degree as well, again depending on your bank.  My credit union allows me to direct portions of my direct deposited pay check to a variety of accounts.  I have emergency savings, investment savings, home repair, and travel savings accounts.  When my pay check arrives at the bank, they put a small amount in each of those and the rest in my checking account.  I'm a salaried employee, so I know exactly how much will go each place each pay period.  If you're an hourly employee, you would have to arrange the order money got distributed in order to make sure you make it through the month.  Many investment accounts can autodraft your checking or savings accounts on a schedule.

Bills can be autodrafted from your bank account as well.  Any bill that is the same amount each month is an ideal candidate for this.  Insurance, trash service, rent/mortgage, phone service (more or less), etc. are known quantities.  You have to pay them.  Putting them on autodraft can enforce your budgeting, too, and help you discipline your spending, since you know they're coming out, and you know when.

Utilities?  My local utility offers a program they call Level Pay - they average the cost of your last 12 months of utility bills and charge you that each month.  They review it once a year.  If your usage is higher, they offer you the opportunity to pay any excess balance and keep the same monthly amount or have the amount raised.  If it's less, they lower the monthly rate or give you a check.  During one particularly tight time for me, I got off the Level Pay, took a refund check for current needs, then went back on in the summer when my usage would be higher.  The big advantage of Level Pay for me is that I have a known utility bill, so I can have it autodrafted as well, knowing what the amount will be.

My mortgage was once with my credit union.  I was able to make an arrangement with them to automatically pay half of my mortgage each pay period.  That seriously leveled out my payments each pay period.

The only bill I don't have on autodraft right now is our gas card payments since that amount varies quite a bit depending on what has been going on, and I like to keep closer track of that.

"But, Weet!  How do I know how much money I'll have at any given time if everyone in my life is taking money out of my account willy nilly?"  I'm glad you asked.  You have to budget, and you have to track.  But that is much easier and much less time consuming than opening bills, writing checks, and such all throughout the month.

I believe that every bank and credit union on the planet now has online banking.  You can go there to see when and what amount each has taken.  I use a spreadsheet that's set up like a check register.  On the lower rows, I have a list of autodraft sources, the amounts, and the approximate dates they draft.  Maybe I'm lucky, but I don't have any that straddle pay periods in the dates they draft.

It's a working spreadsheet, and not a record, though it could be done either way.  At the top of the balance column, I enter the current balance.  Right below, I enter outstanding checks and unique bills that are due.  Below that go the autodrafts scheduled.  And I enter my paycheck that's coming as a credit.  If the balance doesn't go below zero anywhere, I'm OK for that pay period.  If it does, I look at timing of the unique bills to see if they can wait, or I transfer a bit in from savings.  I probably spend about a half an hour each pay period doing this.

The main benefits of automating finances?
  • It saves lots of time.
  • It saves money - no late fees, no stamps, no envelopes, no checks
  • It automates discipline - it forces you to budget (which you should be doing anyway)
  • It saves money - automated savings/investing puts it where you mean for it to go and you can't forget to do it.
P.S. I recommend against using online banking or payment from your phone.  If you lose your phone or leave it unattended (and many people do), you're at risk.  Also, most phones aren't secure enough from external attack.  Unlike Nike, I'd say, "Just don't do it."

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Say, "Thank you!"

Years ago when I lived in Houston, the wife and I had a favorite restaurant.  And I had a favorite dish there.

One day we went in, and it was off the menu.  Sadness!  I asked the manager about it.  He told me that they'd had complaints about it, but no one ever said they liked it.

I learned a lesson that day - many more people complain than compliment or say thank you.

After that, I decided that I was going to start telling people what they were doing right, so they'd know it was right, and I could keep getting it.  Some examples of what I mean:

A pharmacy where we had prescriptions closed and transferred their prescriptions to another nearby.  The new pharmacy had about a 33% increase in their number of customers.  I went in the first time to pick up a prescription, and the staff member said hello as I walked up and kept apologizing for the delay.  Funny thing was, even though they were much busier than they had been before, their service was better than the old pharmacy. On return trips, one lady was so friendly and helpful that I had to tell her how much I appreciated the service.  Then I went and told her manager.  I figure that compliments are great and all, but a word to a manager may get her a raise.

I work with photos and reports sent by email from a large number of contract inspectors.  Some do a great job, and some... not so much.  When I get a good set of information, I try to email the guy directly and tell him what he did right and why I appreciated it.  I copy the person at my company who decides which inspector to send out on a job.  I want that guy getting more work.

We live, largely, in a service economy.  Lots of the people you encounter have had to deal with grumpy people before you got there.  Thank them for their good work, and tell their boss.

We each contribute to the environment we live in.  I want my environment to be better.

Do you?

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Strongly consider not going to college

Everyone these days knows that every kid needs to go to college.  When I was in junior high school back in the dark ages, people knew every kid needed to go to high school.  This post is long, but it's all important.  I'll try to weed it for length as time goes on and I have the inclination.

It's always beneficial to question what everyone "knows" from a "what if" perspective.  Clearly, you don't do the opposite of what actually works - e.g. don't walk down the street with your eyes closed.  But do figure out if what everyone "knows" actually produces the benefits they say it does.

People will tell you that a college graduate earns X dollars more than a non-college graduate over the course of his working life.  They won't tell you that the study that produced that statistic was chock full of selection bias and conducted back in a time where it might have been more true than it is now.

For example, it might have worked out to be true for me.  But I'm an engineer, and you're not allowed to be one of those without a Bachelor of Science degree in engineering.  On the other hand, who's to say that I wouldn't have done something different and made lots more money and been happier?

Economics 101 discusses supply and demand.  The more you have of something, the less valuable it is.  Think how much you value packing peanuts and plastic grocery bags.  In my 20's, everyone had a high school degree.  The only people who ever wanted proof were the people in the admissions offices of the colleges I applied to.  It had almost no value to anyone else.  The same thing has now happened to college degrees.

High school teachers began to value the ability to make a living over education.  Colleges had a vested interest in increasing attendance.  Government got into the lucrative student loan game.  And education became a product instead of a path.  "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" sounds inspirational, but "be cool, stay in school" is more honest.  What it means now is "we won't let you work, and we have to store you somewhere."

College isn't what it used to be.  It began as a difficult training ground for minds that could benefit from that training.  As more educational demand was created, they had to come up with more product that people who would not benefit from being there could pass.  My generation joked about "underwater basket weaving."  Yours can look at any class or degree that ends in "Studies."

So, what do they tell you college will get you, how can you get that elsewhere, and what does time in college really get you?

What they tell you you'll get:
  • Better jobs
  • A broader mind
  • More money

Better jobs: This depends on what you want to do.  Do you really, really want to do something that actually requires a degree?  If so, that's OK, but what are those really?  Some examples include being a:
  • Doctor
  • Engineer
  • Accountant
  • Attorney
Basically, if you want to do something that still actually requires that you have a degree, for example because you have to be licensed to practice that profession, it may be worth it.  May.

I was told I should be an engineer because I was good in math and science.  I couldn't have done that without a degree.  But make sure that you really want to do something before you go get a degree in it.  Get a job in an office that does what you think you want to do so you can see how it works in real life.  You won't get a job doing it - you'll probably be filing or answering phones or going to the office supply store.  But you'll be around it, and you can ask the people who do it about the realities of the job.  And if they'd do it again, knowing what they know now.  Ask them what they like about it.  Ask them what they don't like about it.  Ask them how it's different doing it for a living from how they thought it would be when they were in school.  People love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.  Make up any question you can think of.  But don't get a job in that office first thing.  Ask your friends what their parents do, then when something strike your fancy, ask their parents about it.  Again, people love to talk about what they do. Ask them about it.

A broader mind:  Not so much any more. Your electives or gen eds or whatever they call them will show you some additional aspects of the life of the mind, but you can just as easily look at the curricula of a number of colleges, find one you like, download the reading list and notes, then do it yourself.  When you're in class with everyone else (most of them slower than you) and a bored professor, you'll get a live Youtube video.  Just watch Youtube in a disciplined manner, and you'll get just as much for free.  Just skip the cute cat videos.  MIT has all of their course material and notes online for free.  There may be others.

More money:  Not.  Unless you're doing something that absolutely requires a degree.  Otherwise, you'll have spent (more like frittered) 5-6 years to graduate (if you graduate at all) with a degree that lets you work at a coffee shop or sell phones from a strip center store.  Do some googling for stories of college graduates not working in their fields and not being able to pay their student loans.

And if you do get a job in the field related to your degree, you'll probably end up in an office earning very little.  Econ 101 also says, "buy low, sell high."  The people who run the company understand that deeply.  They will buy your time low from you and sell it high to someone else.  If the work is your goal and not the money, you'll be okay.  You have to understand that and be okay with it from the start.

If money is your goal, there are much better ways to achieve that.  I, personally, don't think money is a satisfying goal, but that's the topic for another place.

How you can get what they promise elsewhere:

Better jobs:  A good job comprises a number of elements, including but not limited to:
  •  Fulfillment - Some people seek fulfillment from their work.  Some people seek their fulfillment outside their jobs with the job's being the means to live while they get that fulfillment.  Either way is okay.  But if you get your fulfillment outside the work, the work must not interfere with that.
  • Adequate pay - You have to be able to live within your means.  If material things are not important to you (and I hope they're not), you have a wider range of work available to you.  If material things are important to you, you need to be able to afford them.  Without debt.
  • Low stress - Your job should not add so much stress to your life that you cannot enjoy the rest of your life.  It should not drain you.  Life is too short.
  • A decent work environment - Your job should be pleasant enough that you can bear it.  Ideally, you work with decent, friendly people and decent, friendly customers or clients.  Your own attitude can make all the difference in that, but you should know that you become the product of the people who surround you.  Don't stay where the bosses, co-workers, or customers erode you.
All that said, where do you find a good job?  That totally depends on you.  The key is to remember that you control a lot more than you think you do, and certainly more than other people will try to tell you.  This, too, is really a topic for another article, but here goes.

Most good jobs are found by talking to people, not by sending in endless resumes or posting on job boards.  Go talk to people.  Find out who makes the hiring decisions.  Then ask them if you can talk to them about what they are looking for in candidates.  Tell them you're not asking for a job.  Tell them you're asking about what they do, how they do it, where they look, and what they're looking for.  Remember?  People love to talk about what they do.  But you have to be truthful with them and with yourself.  Actually be interested in what they look for.  Tell them when you get into the conversation that if you are what they are looking for, you may pitch yourself, but that you really want to know what they're looking for.

Here is what I look for when I'm hiring someone:
  • Attitude - I want a positive person who will be an asset to the atmosphere.  I'll spend most of my weekly life with that person.  I don't want someone who will erode me or the people they work with.  A good attitude makes a better environment, and it makes me more money.
  • Work ethic - I want a person who will get the work done in the most efficient way possible.  To start, the most efficient way possible is my way.  After they have been there long enough, they may find a more efficient way.  I don't need someone who always needs to be busy.  Those people can sometimes distract themselves from the important work.  I want someone who will do the important stuff right away.
  • Aptitude - I want someone who can learn to do stuff.  I'll need them to do more than they already know how to do, so they need to be able to learn.
  • Skills - This is the last thing I look for.  I want to hire a great person.  If I find that person, I can teach them to do what I need them to do.  That said, I'd prefer someone who has done a bit of research into what I'm likely to need and has prepared themselves for that.  See attitude and work ethic above.
I'm the kind of guy you want to work for.  There are other kinds.  Some people and some companies will view you as a commodity because they need warm bodies.  Review the good job elements above and decide whether you want to work for that person.  Maybe you do.  That's okay.

A broader mind:  You have, in the palm of your hand or via your keyboard, all of human knowledge to date.  But you have to be disciplined in using it.  Don't use it to look at cat pictures and argue with people.

Read books.  Lots of books.  Google reading plans.  Google lists of the 100 best books.  Read those books and the study guides that go with them.  Don't just believe the books or the study guides.  Read them critically and question them.  Compare viewpoints.  Read the books in paper via or electronically via Project Gutenberg.

Read blogs.  Lots of people with big brains research and write about topics with more depth than you may have the time or inclination to research yourself.  But heed the caveats in the paragraph above.  You'll have to dig through a lot of chaff to find the good grain.  It takes time.  When you find some you like, look at the links on their blogrolls.  Comment on the good blogs.

Learn to ask good questions.  Avoid asking questions that you could find the answers to yourself with a little looking.  That's lazy.  Ask questions that get to the heart of a matter.  Ask questions about the nature of a topic.  Look for patterns and ask questions about those.  Ask people about what they do.  People love to talk about what they do.  (Have I said that already?)  Ask them about their hobbies.  Ask them what they daydream about when they have 5 spare minutes.  Ask about ideas.  Especially ask about ideas.  They're the source of all action.

More money:  Work for yourself.  Start a business.  Don't assume that you need a lot of money to start a business.  I once started a business with a free tool kit that I received for subscribing to a magazine.

Don't assume that the business has to be the only thing you do.  It could be a side endeavor that grows to meet all your needs or that just earns extra spending money or the money to buy a luxury that you really want but don't need.

Look for unfilled needs.  I once started a business based on an underfilled need I saw at the place I was working at the time.  I supported my family for four years on that one.

If you don't have every skill, aptitude, or discipline you need to make a business work, find a partner.  But (and this is very important), spell out all the terms and agreements first, including but not limited to:
  • How will you end the partnership?  
  • Who can end it and under what circumstances?
  • Who gets what if it's ended?
  • How do the partners get paid?  Based on percentage of ownership?  On value contributed?  On hours worked?  On billings generated?  On billings collected?  Something else?  Have a clear formula or there will be trouble.  You're in it for the money, so the money has to be clearly and unequivocally defined.
  • How much work is each partner expected to do?
 Partnerships can be difficult, but they can be lucrative or rewarding.  They must be clearly defined.

What does college actually get you on average?

You'll be 5-6 year behind people who did not go.  You'll probably be starting behind everyone else financially both in career position and in debt.  You'll be behind them in work experience.  Why do I say 5-6 years?  Many colleges actually arrange their schedules so you cannot get out in four years.  The longer you are there the more money they make off of you.

Debt.  Most college graduates struggle with massive debt.  I had minor debt and my wife had large debt.  Her degree did not allow her to make enough to pay her loans.  That was almost 30 years ago.  It's worse now.  We managed to pay her 10-year loans off 15 years after she graduated only because our house burned down and we had some insurance money left over.  Not a good plan.  And did I mention that it's worse now?  Student loan debt is an anchor around your neck.  DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.

You'll have worse morals and a worse character.  You are the average of the people you are around.  The vast majority of people in college are there to party, to avoid commitment and progress, to have immoral sexual encounters, and to drink too much.  Do you really want to be that?

You'll be brainwashed.  Much of college curricula and most professors want to convert you to ideas and assumptions that are actively harmful to you and to society.  They see your college years as a laboratory with you as the test specimen where they can make you into their own image.  Most of them are not there for your benefit but for their opportunity to make you into something less than you are for their own benefit.  Don't let them cripple you.

OK, so you've decided you still absolutely need to go to college.  How do you do it and not end up like everyone else?

Some professions still favor a degree, even if they don't always require it.  My daughter is a classical musician.  She wants to perform in symphonies, even though she knows that she can't earn her entire living doing that.  A music degree actually helps get a job in that field.  The college courses she is taking actually make her a better musician - but only because she is approaching them as a path to becoming a better musician.  She's not merely doing what it takes to get a passing grade.  She is learning and applying the material to her music.

She worked hard in high school and actually learned her material.  She got a good enough score on the ACT to be eligible for a scholarship at a school with a good music program.  I told her she could attend only if she never took on student loan debt.  So, she works hard to learn the material.  She teaches students and plays gigs to earn money to make up the difference between the scholarship and her total costs.  Oh, yeah - and she plays in the symphony to earn money to help pay for school.  She also lives at home to save money.  If you must go to college to do what you want to do in life, this is the way to do it.  Clearly, I'm proud of her.

What do you need to do?
  • Learn your academic subjects in high school.  Really learn them.  Don't just pass them for grades then forget them.
  • Study for, prepare for, and do well on the ACT or SAT.  Start in junior high school, but also take practice tests and learn how to take a test.
  • Make sure you qualify for scholarships and that you can get them.
  • Go to a good state school with reasonable tuition rates.  Don't go to an Ivy League school (see worse morals, worse character, and brainwashing above).
  • Make sure you absolutely know why you're going.  Concretely.  Not "I need to go to college."  Not "to find out what I want to do."  If you don't know what you want to do with your life and that you absolutely need a college degree for it, don't go.
  • Do not live on campus.  Many colleges require that you spend the first year on campus.  They say it's to acclimatize you to campus live.  You don't want to be acclimatized to campus life (see worse morals and worse character above).
  • Learn the material that applies to your field.  Don't just pass those classes for grades then forget them.  
  • Do only what you have to do to pass the propaganda and brainwashing agenda classes.  Do not internalize those lessons.  See brainwashing above.
  • Research the college's drop out rate and how long it takes an average student to earn a degree.  Do not go to one that has bad numbers.  They are producing revenue rather than educated students.
  • Get out in four years or less, no matter how hard you have to work to do it.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Ride a bike.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from parking and parking tickets.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.
  • Buy your books used.  The words inside are the same.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from books.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern. 
  • DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Did I already say that?  It bears repeating: DO NOT TAKE STUDENT LOANS.  Colleges make an inordinate amount of money from students.  They do it on purpose.  You are a revenue source for them.  Your welfare is not their primary concern or their secondary or tertiary concern.  Are you getting the hint yet?

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wherein Grandpa Dave has a great idea

As you remember, when I was young, we were very poor and lived in a refrigerator box.  I told you about Sunday dinners and how I had some chores to do for those..

Have you ever seen a refrigerator box?  It's like a shoe box, but as big as a refrigerator.  Grandpa Dave had cut a door in one end so we could get in and out, but that was the only opening in it.

Having no openings, it was very dark in the dining room.  We couldn't afford candles, so one of my chores on Sunday was to take a bucket outside, fill it with sunshine and bring it into the dining room.  It took a lot of buckets of sunshine to fill the dining room, and the dining room was pretty far away from the door.  You had to go out of the dining room, through the family room, down the hall to the vestibule* and out the door.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, it was lots of work.  One Sunday, I had the dining room about a third full of sunshine, when Grandpa Dave walked in and felt sorry for me and all the work I had to do.  He said, "What if I cut you a small door above the floor, so you can just reach outside, grab a bucket full, and dump it in here?"

I liked that idea a lot.  So he did.

When he opened the little door, sunlight started spilling into the dining room and pretty soon, the room was full.  I couldn't have been happier.

As we ate, bugs and wind came in, which we didn't like.  Grandpa Dave put a sheet of glass over it to keep the wind and bugs out.

I said, "Hey!  We can see out of it like we do our eyes, and it keeps the bugs out.  Let's call it a bugeye."

Grandpa Dave said, "Bugs already have eyes.  Let's call it a windeye... nah, that sounds odd.  Window."

Pretty soon, our friends and neighbors saw how convenient it was not to have to carry sunshine into their dining rooms, and they put them in, too.

And today, everyone uses windows.

* In our family we have a ... well, not a tradition, probably more like a condition, of making up words.  For years, the kids thought we'd made up the word "vestibule."  One of them was astonished the first time he heard it from someone besides us.  Heh!

Wherein I lived in a refrigerator box as a child

One of the series of stories I enjoyed telling the kids was a set of tall tales about my youth. It involved violent incongruities to help exercise their imagination.  Feel free to adapt this story by substituting names from your own family.

When I was very young, my family was quite poor, and for a while, we lived in a refrigerator box.  It was from a fairly large refrigerator, so it wasn't so bad.  It was kind of like living in the forts you guys make.

My room was upstairs to the right, and your uncle Tony's room was to the left.  Our rooms were small, of course, being in a refrigerator box.  There was only room for a bed, a small desk, and a chair.

On Sundays, we had a family dinner.  Since we were very poor, it was usually something like Ramen or macaroni and cheese.  Uncle Tony and I each had responsibilities to prepare for dinner. 

Tony's job was to go to the china cabinet and get out all of the china and stemware for dinner.  He'd put a dinner plate, a salad plate, and a soup bowl at each place, then put the crystal glasses out.

My job was to get out the silver and polish it before we ate.  Of course, we had a salad fork, dinner fork, dessert fork, a knife, and a soup spoon, so it was lots of polishing.

The soup was vichyssoise - that's a fancy, cold potato soup.  We were too poor for hot soup.  The salad was dandelion greens, wild onions, and nasturtium petals.  The nasturtium petals made it taste kind of peppery.

After dinner, we had to clear the table and carry all of that down the long hall, past the billiard room to the kitchen.  We were too poor to have the kitchen next to the dining room.  We had all those other rooms in the way.

Did I mention that the refrigerator box was bigger on the inside than on the outside?

Anyway, after supper, we had to wash the dishes and put the china and stemware and silver away.  It was hard being that poor.

Next time, I'll tell you about one of Grandpa Dave's really neat inventions that people around the world use every day.


Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Undine who lived in the sea in a little village.*  She was lively and curious and mostly delightful.  She swam around and visited her friends.  She visited the schools of fish to see what they were learning, and she visited the reefs where some of the coral looked like a gently waving forest.

One place, she was not allowed to go.  Her father told her she must not go into the seaweed patch.  A nasty old octopus named Salaman lived there.

One day, she was swimming around looking for something new to do, and she found herself near... the seaweed patch.  She saw three little flowers growing among the seaweed - a red one, a yellow one, and a blue one - and she thought how beautiful they would look in her hair.  (Little girls think things like that, but I don't know why.)  Being a normal little girl, she didn't understand why her father told her not to go there, so she thought the reasons couldn't be that good.

She swam around for a little bit, working up her courage, and thinking, "If I just swim up quickly to the edge and pick a flower, I wouldn't be in the seaweed patch."  You see, Best Beloved, what she was doing there?  She was trying to see just how much she could get away with and still be OK.

So, taking a deep breath,** she darted over to the edge of the seaweed patch and snatched the red flower and darted back away.  She put the flower in her hair and looked up at the surface of the smooth sea to see what it looked like.  (Sometimes the underside of the surface looks like a mirror - it's pretty neat!)  The flower looked even more beautiful than she expected.

Well, she didn't know it, but Salaman was deep in the darky parts of the seaweed patch, and he'd been watching her idly.  After she picked the flower, he began to watch more attentively, and he moved closer to the flowers (octopi are cagey and opportunistic that way).  He stayed deep in the shadows because the sun hurt his eyes.

Undine swam around a bit more looking at those other flowers.  Yellow sure would look good with red.  So she worked up her courage again, skittered over, and snatched the yellow flower.  She put it in her hair and looked at herself again.  Gorgeous!

She thought to herself, "I don't know what Daddy was on about with the seaweed patch.  There's nothing here.  Besides, everyone knows flower arrangements look much better with three flowers than with two."

So she sauntered back over to pick the blue flower, and.... SALAMAN'S TENTACLE SHOT OUT AND GRABBED HER WRIST!.  She struggled, but he pulled her into the seaweed patch.

Salaman chuckled and said (in his best villain voice), "Aha! I've caught you, Undine!"  And he wrapped her in six of his arms and used the others to swim deeper in.

Undine cried, "What are you going to do?!"***

Salaman said, "What I do with all naughty little girls who disobey their Daddies: I'm going to make Undine stew!"

This puzzled Undine, so she asked, "What's Undine stew?"

Salaman said, "First, I'm going to make a roux.  Then, I'm going to chop up onions, green peppers, and celery and simmer them in the roux.  Then some okra, salt, pepper, thyme, shrimp and... Undine!  I'll serve it over rice."

Undine was even more puzzled.  She said, "Salaman, that's not stew; that's gumbo."

Salaman pondered a bit and said, "Fine, then: Undine gumbo.  Tomato/tomahto."

He went to his kitchen and started gathering up the ingredients while keeping one armicle on Undine's wrist.

Now, during their conversation, a passing, friendly porpoise heard them talking.  He knew Undine wasn't supposed to be in there, so he listened and grew concerned.

When Salaman's back was turned, the porpoise shot into the seaweed patch and butted Salaman right in the ribs.

Salaman said, "Oof!"

Then the porpoise whacked Salaman in the nose with his tail.

Salaman said, "Hey!  Quid id!" and held up all his armicles to fend the porpoise off, and when he let go of her wrist, Undine swam as quickly as she could out of the seaweed patch.

The porpoise joined her and said, "Just what were you doing in there?  I know your daddy told you to stay out of there."

Undine said, in one giant breath, "Idon'tknowIjustwantedtheprettyflowerssoIswamupandhegrabbedmeandsaidhewasgoingtomakeUndinestewbutitwasreallygumboand..."

The porpoise held up a flipper to stop her and said, "Okay, okay.  Let's go see your daddy."  So, they did.

By the time they got to the village, Undine had calmed herself considerably.  Sadly, she'd lost the flowers in the struggle.

They explained to her father what had happened, and he said, "Harumph.  You knew you were to stay away, but you went anyway.  I don't forbid things just to spoil your fun.  I do it to keep you safe.  I'll always explain the reasons if you want to hear them, but from now on, do what I say, OK?"

Undine sniffled and agreed.  She cried just a little, too, even though that's really hard to do under water.

From then on, she was a good little girl, and they lived happily ever after.

* I'm pretty sure this story came to be around the time of Disney's Little Mermaid.  I don't remember that story, so I don't know what, if any, similarities exist.  Undine isn't a mermaid, though. I mean, little girls can live perfectly well under the sea, but fins and tails instead of legs?  C'mon!

** Or whatever one takes under water.

*** We love interrobangs.