Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Investments Good and Not-So-Good

The other day found me weeding in the garden and thinking about investments, as in "Geez, if I calculated all the time, money, and effort that went into these tomatoes, I suspect they'd start to look pretty expensive." But worth it, mind you, definitely worth it.

That got me thinking about other investments I've made over the years: some good, some not-so-good.

Let's start with the not-so-good. Exhibit A: e-Toys. After I finished law school and started working for a firm, we managed to set aside a little money ($500) to invest, even as we struggled to pay off all our accumulated debt from law school. This was the boom era, and so, when I asked a successful investor friend for his recommendation, he said, "Rambus." I looked up the stock, and was appalled to see that Rambus stock cost $75/share and had held steady at $75/share for a couple of years. I looked at e-Toys, and visions of e-commerce sugar plums danced in my head. What's more, eToys was trading at $6/share, meaning I could buy a lot more eToys shares for my $500, and more is better, right? Wrong. Within a few months, eToys had gone bankrupt, my shares were worthless and Rambus was trading at $500/share. The moral of this story: indexed mutual funds. That, or "I should've gone to Vegas."

Bad contractors. 'Nuff said.

Corners we tried to cut when we built our house. Anything we went cheap on, we regret: from toilets to double doors to "functional" sinks. If the price sounded to good to be true ... it was.

Annuals. You buy them, they look nice for a little while, then they die. (See previous post.)


Okay, so how about the good investments?

(1) Good knives. Sounds a little morbid, I know, but if you cook even a tinesy bit, a good knife is worth its weight in gold. The only downside is that good knives spoil you forever, so you can't stand using a bad one. We received a set of high end J.A. Henckels for our wedding, and we still use them 14 years later.

(2) Good pans. Same thing. I've decided that if it's something we at least once a day, it's well worth investing in quality. We currently use a Calphalon non-stick set. It's about worn out after something like five-years worth of use. Cost us $350, but we've used it thousands of times.

(3) Quality outdoor gear. Rain gear, fishing gear.
(4) Travel. This may be a personal thing, but we've never, ever regretted money we've spent to travel as a couple or as a family. Okay, so we may regret the occasional bad hotel or restaurant, but travel, broadly speaking, has been a terrific investment. Along with this one, I've learned to appreciate the value of quality souvenirs. Not junk stuff, but quality art work or crafstmanship that reflects a particular culture or locale. Becky's had to prod me on this, since I hate shopping, but a lot of the stuff we've collected--from Japanese pottery to Lombok masks--serves as a reminder and memento of some great trips to fascinating places.

(5) Chocolate.
(6) Real ice cream. Real gelato.

(7) Time spent with friends and family. Okay, sorry to go all mushy on ya, but seriously. This isn't something that comes naturally to me. I'm a bit of an introvert, and I always have a million things to occupy my time and attentions, so I have to make a conscious effort to make time for, say, a one-on-one trip with the kids or a date night with Becky, but I never, ever, regret that effort. Best investment. Ever.

Feel free to chime in with your own investments, good or bad, but don't ask me for stock tips ...

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Christian Comes Home

After nearly two weeks in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit (NICU), Christian decided he'd had enough. With only "proof that he can feed himself" standing in the way of him and home, he tore out his feeding tube (literally) and, almost overnight, went from drinking about 40cc of milk in one feeding to nearly three times that amount.

And so they were forced to let him go, and we abandoned plans for T-shirts that said, "Free Christian" on the front and "Let My Baby Go!" on the back.

In all seriousness, we are deeply grateful to have our family all together again--the first time in over a month--and for the the many wonderful doctors, nurses, and other staff at the University of Utah Medical Center, who made it all possible. (A big thanks too, to Jenny and Joe Davidson, who went above and beyond in watching our kids over the past month to allow me, and later, me and Becky, to spend so much time at the hospital.)

Christian, for his part, will probably soon long for the relative peace and quiet of the NICU, as he's been mobbed by his siblings ever since his triumphal return home at about 11:00 a.m. this morning. We're thrilled to have him home, and feel greatly blessed to welcome another child into our family.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Garden Lessons

Two lessons from the garden this week: one philosophical, and one practical.

The first lesson has to do with personal growth: I bought a bunch of heirloom tomato seedlings in early May and planted them at the same time. At the time, they were all roughly the same size. Some two months later, one of them--"Nyagous"--towers over all the rest. Here's the point: that tomato plant didn't get so big and healthy in a day; rather, day by day, it did something better than the rest and, over the course of two months, that modest, step by step improvement made a huge difference in the final result. Moral of the story: it's a mistake to think, as I often do, that one can suddenly break out and do great things. In reality, one's life and character are determined by the slow and steady accumulation of good decisions, daily effort, and getting the little stuff right. The little things add up.

The practical lesson has to do with aphids, or some tiny aphid-like fly that seems to have infested my beloved tomato plants (except for the Nyagous, by the way: go figure). I ran to the garden store in desperation, and they said that the only option to "save my plants" was a pesticide called "Sevin," which, from what I've read, is the equivalent of releasing a neutron bomb in the garden plot: killing not only aphids, but pretty much everything else for miles, from earthworms to stray reindeer. Bad idea. After further reading dug up recommendations that included killing them one by one(!) and using an old nylon to dust them with flour(!!) I stumbled upon this revolutionary suggestion: blast them off with a jet of water from the garden hose. Incredulous, I tried it, and I'll be jiggered if it didn't work just fine. Cheap. Simple. Effective. Did it wipe 'em out? Nah, but it certainly knocked 'em for a loop, which is all I wanted in the first place. As for the rest, my garden is full of ladybugs, damsel and dragon flies, and they know just what to do with a wandering aphid ...

(Photo courtesy of AIA GUY..Rwood on Flickr; original available at:

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Fourth of July

For a variety of reasons, it wound up just me and Sarah (my ten year old daughter) at the fireworks display tonight.

We lay on a blanket in the grass among the glow-in-the-dark frisbees and whirling light sticks, and listened to a guy on the loudspeaker repeatedly express his thanks for the "Decoration of Independence." They played a lot of sappy tunes from the 80s and 90s. Everyone sang along (loudly and off-key, I might add) to I'm Proud to be an American, and the display ended with a massive finale as the loudspeakers blared the 1812 Overture.

So, a bit silly at times? Yes. Hokey? Oh, yeah. But wonderful all the same. I am proud to be an American. What a great country. Happy Fourth of July!

(Photo courtesy of smtpboy (Josh Simmons) on Flickr; original image available at

Friday, July 3, 2009

Dr. Wiseguy’s Gardening Tip #1 – Annuals vs. Perennials

It’s taken me a long time, but I think I finally got this whole annual vs. perennial thing figured out: if a flower is bright and colorful and looks like something you’d want to put in your front yard, it’s an annual, which means it will die soon. If it’s kinda scraggly looking with itty bitty flowers, chances are it’s a perennial, and it’ll hang around far longer than you’d like.

I’ve figured this out by doing a lot of research on the subject. For example, the word “annual” has both Latin and Greek origins. The Latin word annualis means “buy repeatedly,” and the Greek word anulopolis means “a sucker is born every minute,” which explains why nurseries love annuals so much.

All of this amassed wisdom came in handy today at the annual Fourth of July sale at the local nursery. In front I found these gorgeous black-eyed susans in one gallon pots, with enormous yellow petals and deep purple centers. Appling my rule (see above), I guessed—reasonably enough—that these must be annuals, rather than the perennial variety, which is hard to grow around here and which often has thin, scraggly looking blossoms of pale yellow. It usually looks like it’s dying, even when it’s quite healthy.

But my little rule can’t really be so simple, can it? No-oooooooo. A little research and you will find that Rudbeckia F1 ‘Tiger Eye’ is “technically a perennial” as in “this plant is a perennial if maintained through the winter months at a constant temperature of 82.6 degrees Fahrenheit with Mozart’s Symphony No. 10 in G Major playing in the background,” only they left that last italicized part off the label because, as we learned from the Greek, if a flower looks good at the garden center, it just has to look good in my yard, and it'll make it through the Winter, right?After all, it's a perennial, not an annual, except it really isn't.

Clear enough?

(Photo of Rudbeckia FI 'Tiger Eye' courtesy of mbgrigby on Flickr; original image available at

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Pete Hawkes

My brother Pete is a graphic designer and an innovator in something called Flash animation: basically the software that drives all the little moving pieces you see on websites and web advertising. He recently redesigned his website and put together a "Flash Reel" to showcase some of his work: Pretty cool stuff. Needless to say, he's a tremendously creative guy, and it's always fun to see what he comes up with next. So, stay tuned.