Water and Incense, Prayer and Belief

In Thailand, people call their capital city Krung Thep (pronounced “kroong tape”), meaning “City of Angels.”

Sixty years ago, Krung Thep, known in the West as Bangkok, did not in any way resemble the sprawling, noisy metropolis it is today. During that fabled time, Bangkok was a truly exotic city of the Orient.

canal.jpgIt was a different time, a different place. People lived their lives by the water, along a patchwork of klongs, or canals, stitched together like a moving, flowing tapestry. Teak houses perched on stilts lined the waterways. Wives did the household laundry on their dock steps, keeping a watchful eye as their children splashed and played. Merchants carrying food and goods paddled their flatbed canoes to and fro, occasionally stopping at a house to trade goods or gossip, oftentimes both.

arun.jpgEach morning the smell of burning incense wafted from house to house as people prayed to Buddha before starting their day. They prayed for guidance, forgiveness, comfort. Happiness. Hope. At daybreak, monks dressed in flowing orange robes silently glided from home to home, collecting humble offerings of food and other basic necessities for their sustenance. In that era, people donated their time and effort -not just their money- to build gilded temples. They had belief and faith in a Greater Power.

In one particular teakwood house, a young mother was in the throes of labor, the sounds of her struggle projecting through the wood shutters from her room overlooking the canal. Hearing and seeing the commotion, the neighbors walked and paddled over one by one to lend support. After many hours of labor, she finally gave birth to a beautiful boy with a full head of hair. He let out a cry signaling his first gasps of breath, bringing great joy and relief to his mother, family and neighbors. Congratulations and salutations floated along the canal, travelling the same path as early morning incense.

For a few months the mother cared for her child. She fed and bathed him. Could not remember what her life was like before he arrived. Every morning, she told her child stories about the world around him. Every evening she covered his crib in a mosquito net, leaving the bedroom shutters barely open so he wouldn’t catch cold from the water’s breeze. Several times a day, the young mother lit incense and said a silent prayer for her son. That he would have kwaam suuk, enlightenment and contentment, every day of his life.

Then suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, the baby fell ill and died. His mother clutched his lifeless body in her arms, refusing to let his spirit go. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her voice extinguished from endless sobbing, her hopes and dreams shattered.

Buddha.jpgFor days she knelt in front of the shrine ensconced on her porch. Neighbors looked on with concern as they sat on their porches along the water, knowing that there were no words to comfort her. She prayed to the golden statue of Buddha, alternately sobbing and whispering her sorrow and bottomless despair.

The day of her son’s funeral, she knelt again in front of her family shrine. She lit three sticks of incense and a candle, and made an offering of ripe tangerines. She made vows to Buddha: She promised to cease eating meat, to devote her life to doing good and building good karma. Praying in hushed tones, she asked that her son be brought back to her. She dabbed banana paste on her deceased son’s left foot, and tomato paste on his right foot. “Put these marks on him when he returns, so that I know it is him,” she pleaded.

After her special prayer, her sorrow did not fade. But at last she relented, allowing her family to take her son’s body to his funeral. She continued to weep. And pray. For many weeks thereafter.

About a year later, the bereaved mother’s younger sister gave birth to a son of her own. Upon inspecting this newborn child, the young mother whose baby had died a year earlier let out a shriek. On the newborn’s left foot was a big black birth mark, and on his right foot a big red one. Her prayers had been answered: This was her child, delivered back to her arms. She considered him the reincarnation of her deceased son, and for a full year she raised him and refused to let anybody else hold him. She only let him go when she finally realized the anguish she was causing her sister.

This is a true story. I have colored in some of the surrounding details, but these events did indeed occur. The baby’s (American) name is Sam. He is now in his sixties, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and grown son. He is one of my parents’ oldest and closest friends.

I have seen the marks on his feet.

bkk.jpgWas what happened the result of mere coincidence, or the sign of a Higher Power at work? In our hurried, cynical world, it would be nice, if only briefly, to imagine life in a teakwood house along that canal. Where the travelling scent of burning incense from each home mingles in an unspoken communal blessing, and spirituality and holiness flow freely upon the water. Where a person can kneel beside the water and whisper a prayer, creating in that solemn moment a true hope that what you wish for may come true.

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From Airwolf to Zero in 25 Years

I was watching some daytime TV (not a frequent occurrence haha) and caught Erik Estrada of “CHiPs” fame pitching $50,000 plots of land in the middle of nowhere in Washington State. He was touting the community’s waterfront location and resort-like amenities, but it looked like the place had zero infrastructure. Just a bunch of overgrown weeds surrounding some mucky body of water. He also conveniently forgot to mention the 300 days a year of rain. The commercial was very poorly produced. And I’m no expert, but judging from the TV spot, his golf swing sucks.

airwolf.JPGSaw Ernest Borgnine pitching some Internet software or service a while back on some crappy cable channel (what the hell is the target audience? 90 year-old bloggers?). Lots of cheapo special effects, touting some ridiculous service I hadn’t heard of since. Dude, Ernest is a real actor. He was Dominic in “Airwolf”! He won an Oscar, was in The Dirty Dozen, and lots of other notable movies and shows that I’ve never heard of (I know almost nothing about pre-70s movies. I just remember once, when I was a kid, my dad walked by while I was watching Airwolf and exclaimed, “That’s Ernest Borgnine!” He certainly never walked by and said “Hey! That’s Scott Baio!”).

Best for last: California’s one-time gubernatorial candidate himself, Gary Coleman, of “Diff’rent Strokes” fame. Currently (or was about 6 months ago when I last checked) pitching Cash Call, which makes unsecured loans to people whose credit scores are lower than their shoe sizes.

I’m the first to say that work is work, no matter where, how or what. I don’t care if I sell pork bellies or Lamborghinis- if I can make a decent living at it and it’s legal, chances are it’s not beneath me.

But to go from being worshiped by fans worldwide a few decades back to pitching utter crap in late-night cable spots today has got to be one of the worst things that can happen to a person’s self-esteem. That’s not even considering the miserable financial condition they must be in today to have to do this kind of work.

Maybe we should start a Save the Starving Actors Fund. Wait, that’d cover like half the population of Los Angeles. That is, if you pronounce “actor”, “waiter”. Let’s change it to the Save the Starving Once-Famous Actors With Negative Investing Acumen Fund. I’ll donate my collection of Airwolf action figures. The ones I blew up with firecrackers back in the 80s.

Actually, I don’t pity Erik, Ernest and Gary and their legions of career-zombie cohorts. They had it good at one point and lost it, while many people go through life without having seen much true success at all (I don’t always pity them much, either, but that’s for another post).

But it does make me wonder. Happiness and success I think are often defined in relative terms: How we are doing compared to our past circumstances, relatives, friends and neighbors is often more important to us than how we are doing in absolute terms. Considering that, is it preferable to:

  1. Go from having everyone in the Western world (remember the Cold War?!) mimic you saying “wadjutokkinboutWillis!” two, three decades ago, only to wind up pitching $5,000 loans to drunks who think a freshly laundered wife-beater is “dressy casual”; or
  2. Have not had that career former life in the first place. At least that way you’d spare your grandkids all the boring stories about the glory days, back when TV shows were all in 2-D.

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Words to Live By

A person’s approach to life, work and play can sometimes be summed up in a simple expression or two. In considering the phrases that I live by, I realized that they are rather simplistic. But I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing. These are the rules I try to live by:

  1. Keep it simple
  2. Giving is more rewarding that receiving
  3. Don’t mistake luck for skill
  4. Good judgment is key to success
  5. When in doubt, deep fry

Poor Richard's AlmanacThere are a whole lot of values missing from the list: spirituality, work ethic, civic responsibility, just to name a few. And my interpretation of each phrase may be much different from the obvious. Especially rules 1 (for me it also relates to materialism, in addition to work and other things) and 2 (pertains to family and friends, not to charitable organizations). But in the end these are the phrases that resonate most with me.

I’ve already discussed a bit of rule 1 in a previous post about my friend Jason A. At some point in the future I will elaborate on the rest of them here on SuckyBlog. For now, you can contemplate them as standalone expressions, totally unspoiled by my verbosity and open to your personal interpretation.

These are the words I live by. What are yours?

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The Spoiledest Generation

This is admittedly from my own personal perspective, and is not meant to be a general observation that applies to everybody.

My father came to the United States with $80 in his pocket and no friends or personal contacts in America. He had to borrow money for his plane ticket. My mother came here also with hardly any money, and didn’t know anybody but my dad. They were not married at the time- she was friends with my dad’s sister, who asked my dad to find my mom a place to stay and help her enroll in junior college.

My mom initially stayed with a nice family, trading some babysitting and household chores for room and board while she went to junior college. That is, until she kept getting sick and the family asked her to move out. After my parents married, my father went to night school for his accounting degree. In addition to night school, he worked two jobs to support my mom and his sister (my aunt came over for a short while), both of whom were attending junior college.

Most in my parents’ generation don’t speak English well. They didn’t have access to high paying jobs when they were building their lives. They usually had to start their own businesses, funded with money they personally borrowed from family and friends. Despite the disadvantages they faced, my parents and those of their generation managed -through hard work, sacrifice, and sheer determination- to raise a family, bring lots of relatives over, and help each other attain at least a middle class income.

I think being so accustomed to self-sacrifice compelled my parents and those like them to shelter their offspring from the same difficulties they themselves faced throughout their lives. And in some ways, I think our parents’ good intentions had unintended consequences, because we the children certainly took advantage of it. I was afforded a private education my entire life- it was costly and my parents had to sacrifice a lot to send me to private school and college, but they always managed to come up with the tuition somehow. I never really had to work to earn spending money when I was young- my parents always gave me a generous allowance even though they sometimes struggled to pay the mortgage and other bills. At most I would help out at the family business on weekends. But that was more like just hanging out in downtown L.A. on Saturdays and doing a smidgeon of work here and there when I got bored or felt inspired.

Naturally, my experience is similar to those of many of my friends and cousins. Most of us would help out our parents here and there, but mostly we just took everything we had for granted. We hung out, went to school, and spent our parents’ money. We whined, cajoled, and demanded our way to some shiny new car when we got our drivers’ licenses. We went skiing in the winter, went to New York or Europe in the summer, and bought excessively expensive camping gear for class trips in the fall. All on our parents’ dime.

Now our parents are nearing retirement age, and we are all grown up, with responsibilities and families of our own. We have college degrees and professional careers, nice cars, expensive homes and large mortgages to match. Yet we are not all that actively focused on building savings and assets. Many of us have high enough income that, with a lot of saving and some calculated risk, could lead to true wealth accumulation and ultimate financial security. But we don’t care about that. As a generation of shallow imposters, we simply care about projecting the perception of wealth. We can point endlessly to the marketeers and McKinsey consultants who have propagated the mass luxury market, but ultimately we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We don’t pay much attention to the only part of our financial lives that we have 100% control over: costs. We simply want our luxury cars, trophy houses with granite kitchens, designer clothes, meals at fancy restaurants that serve bland food. And we don’t want them when we can truly afford them. We want them now. Instead of thinking about asset allocation, we think about whether we have enough cash coming in every month to make the payments that support our lifestyle. In our minds, the high income spigot feeds from a bottomless well and never gets clogged.

A lot of us in the kids’ generation probably would have benefitted greatly from facing more career and financial hardship. I can’t help but think that our priorities would be quite different- we’d probably care a lot more about having cash in the bank and a lot less about 5 star hotels and home decorating. It would certainly adjust our expectations and make us more grateful for what we have. Since when did lifestyle become a worthwhile goal? Financial security for yourself and your family is a worthwhile goal. Fostering strong personal relationships with your family and friends is a worthwhile goal. Indulging in expensive wine and custom furniture are not.

It’s funny how, despite all of my negative observations about my generation, in my parents’ eyes they feel that their goal in life has been accomplished. From the day I was born, all they really wanted was to assure that I lead a life filled with happiness and security, no matter the sacrifice to them.

For my own generation, though, I wonder about how we will look back on our own lives when we are old and retired. We’re in our late twenties and early thirties now. For our entire working lives we’ve never experienced an economic downturn that’s lasted longer than a year or two. We’ve never been net borrowers with interest rates at 13%. We’ve never owned a house for 10 years without seeing it appreciate. We’ve never had a favorite aunt or sister ask us for a large personal loan to start some risky business. We’ve never felt compelled to seriously consider such a request simply because we don’t want our loved ones to go from their menial day jobs to the graveyard shift at a gas station every night just to pay their bills. We’ve never had to decide between taking a vacation and paying our kids’ tuition. We’ve never had to defer paying a credit card bill to free up enough cash for a down payment for our teenage child’s first car. We’ve never faced true hardship in any way that is remotely comparable to what our parents had to endure.

Today we face war in Iraq, diplomatic conflict with a defiant Iran, the threat of terrorism, a breathtakingly large trade deficit, and a receding (perhaps bursting) real estate market. It is quite possible that in the unforeseen future looms a protracted economic downturn. One that adversely affects the careers and livelihoods of the majority of us who are now in our prime. On Wall Street they have a saying: “In a bull market, everyone can claim to be a genius. But a bear market truly separates the men from the boys.” I wonder how our character holds up if we ever encounter such hardship.

And perhaps many of us will be blessed from the day we are born to the day we die with the inheritance of a sheltered existence that our parents so dearly bought for us. That would certainly be good for our own comfort, but how does that affect the way we raise our own children, and the values we pass onto them? When all of us -our parents’ and our own generation- are all long dead and gone, how do our incomplete set of values translate into any sort of a lasting, constructive legacy for future generations? Decades from now, when people look back on my own generation, will they comment on our outstanding character? I don’t think they will. I think they will condemn us for our unhealthy sense of entitlement. For failing to recognize that the greatest inheritance our parents left to us is not the fancy education or the down payment on our first house, but rather the selfless example they set and the strength of character they embodied in building truly meaningful lives.

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Jelly Bean Conundrum

Ronald Reagan, famous for keeping a jar of jelly beans on his desk during his Presidency, once said: “You can tell a lot about a fella’s character by whether he picks out all of one color or just grabs a handful.”

When I was young and still vying to become Master of the Universe, I used to sift through to get just the one or two colors I liked. These days I just grab a random handful. Not really because I feel bad about depriving my fellow Jelly Beaners of the treasured orange ones, but more because I just can’t be bothered to actually sift through them. I don’t even care what brand of cola I drink these days (it’s Wal-Mart cola more often than you think!). I do, however, still carefully pick the peas out of my fried rice (peas suck so hard that I will continue doing this until I die).

Reagan didn’t elaborate on how to interpret his conjecture. So I changed my Jelly Beaning MO. Does that make me an easier going, more pleasant person? Or just a bigger wuss?

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You know you need to move out of the city when…

You take your baby to the park and she is too scared to crawl off the picnic blanket onto the grass.
(courtesy of Mike Edwards)

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Maximizers and Satisfisers

Our friends Cung and Alice introduced us to this Maximizer/Satisfiser concept. I’ve since expanded on it so it’s probably unrecognizable to them at this point. Thank goodness for creative license. I guess one person’s creative license is another person’s bastardized brainchild.

Maximizers price shop. They compare. They check out floor samples. They do lots of research on the internet before making a purchase. They’re not necessarily cheap- they often like and want good stuff. They figure out what to buy based on the vectoring of such factors as features, quality, price, looks and cachet. I’m not quite sure how to graph that -there aren’t enough axes if your feeble mind, like mine, is unable to conceptualize beyond three dimensions- but you get the point. They always want it at the lowest possible price. Well, the lowest price from a reputable vendor that doesn’t sell their wares out of the trunk of an ’82 Buick. Sometimes the cost in time and effort exceeds the actual dollar savings or the added utility of getting the best features in an item, but they go through the exercise anyway. For some, finding the best deal becomes a bit of sport. It’s not like they always need to get the best deal for something- it’s just that they can’t sleep at night unless they know they did. Maximizers can also sometimes fall into the grip of analysis paralysis, in which case they just don’t buy anything for a while to give them time to consider even more details that range in importance from earth shattering (well, maybe not quite earth shattering but somewhat important) to insignificant. Maximizers I bet are often insomniacs (Me).

I bet a lot of “maximizers” hail from middle or upper-middle class backgrounds. Pat’s friend from med school, Justin (he is an Australian heterosexual guy who wears cosmetics- go figure), once told us about his summer selling shoes at a department store. The kids from lower income families would save up for a new pair of sneakers, and when they finally had enough money they would walk into the shoe department, point to the pair they want, and wear them out of the store with the tags still attached. Easy sale. The rich customers would go in, usually without much of a clue, ask the clerk which one or two styles they recommend, take a quick look, and make a choice pretty quickly. Price is not terribly important to them, and they just buy what seems to look good and feels comfortable. Again, easy sale.

The middle class customers, however (especially the educated, working professional types) would go into the store and examine every little aspect of each style they were considering, to the most minute detail. They would compare and contrast the material, the price, the stitching (memo to shoe shoppers: it doesn’t matter if it’s American or European, Nike or Addidas- they’re all manufactured in the same shoe factory in China by some lady who used to be a farmer but now lives in one of the factory dorms, eats in the factory cafeteria, sends her two kids to the factory school, and now spends 12 hours of her day stitching your Nike running shoes that you just discarded last week after you accidentally stepped in a big steaming pile of dog poo). Definitely not an easy sale.

Satisfisers are the store clerk’s wet dream. The rich shopper example from the shoe store is a classic satisfiser. They know what they want (“Honey…I stepped in some dog poo…I’m going to get a new pair of shoes!”). They drive to the mall to get it. They ask the clerk which one looks good. They might try one on to be sure the thing’s not a foot death-trap. They go “hmmm…I like the little bright red flap on the back of the shoe…let’s see…$250…sounds good!” Then they whip out the credit card, and are quickly on their way.

Satisfisers don’t do endless amounts of research. At most they’ll ask one of their maximizer friends what to get and where to get it. If their maximizer friend starts to expound too much on the pros and cons of the different choices, the satisfiser’s brain automatically switches to thinking about something totally different- this is a highly evolved defense mechanism designed to keep the satisfiser brain from being overloaded with seemingly useless details. Satisfisers I bet fall asleep before their heads hit the pillow (Pat).

Ok so I called myself an insomniac and classified myself a maximizer. That’s not entirely true. I often have trouble sleeping, but I am not really a maximizer. I am a cheapskate. Cheapskates are cheap for cheap’s sake. They revel in being cheap, and they don’t care too much about quality. They just want it to do the job, and most importantly they want it cheap.

If Neutrogena Shampoo is considered good and reasonably priced (Pat), the cheapskate buys Suave anyway because it’s cheap and besides, it’ll take at least 15 years of continued use before it makes you permanently bald (me). In those 15 years, the cheapskate would have saved $2,343.53 in inflation-adjusted dollars by using Suave instead of Neutrogena. If that’s not more valuable than personal scalp-follicle longevity, I don’t know what is.

Cheapskates don’t throw anything away, because that AC/DC adapter for the cheapskate’s now-damaged, discarded calculator may come in handy someday in the future. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll make an iPod that needs the same voltage, wattage and plug size as that Canon calculator from 1988. Or that broken cordless phone. The one with so much static buzzing that you can’t actually hear any discernible sounds, and on the other end the person talking to you thinks you’re calling from Alpha Centauri. That thing’s still in the linen closet, with the power adapter neatly taped to it. Just in case McGyver shows up with some bad guys on his tail and needs to construct a morse code communicator with the parts.

Mind you this is all relative. Some people can afford a luxury car but still drive a Civic. They are cheap. If they drive a Lexus, they are likely maximizers (lowest maintenance luxury car). If they drive a BMW, they are likely satisfisers (fun to drive, but they didn’t quite consider the high maintenance costs when they bought it). Some people can only afford a 1985 Civic but drive a brand new Acura. They are headed for personal bankruptcy at worst, or a lifetime of renting their home at best.

Ok so now you know what I am. Which one are you?

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Life Lessons from Family & Friends – Jason A

jason.jpgWe are the sum of our experiences, and those we know and love are the ones who teach us the most about life and happiness. Everyone in my life has contributed to making me a better person, and i am compelled to share with others what I have gained from each of them, out of gratitude and as a testament to them, and perhaps with a small hope that their examples will contribute constructively to others’ lives. This is the first installment.Jason and i have known each other since 7th grade. Back then he wore a black Member’s Only jacket and had thicker hair. We became excellent friends in high school, where we co-founded the informal Camel Club, which was comprised entirely of two members, no more and no less, kind of like the sith lords from a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. we are currently considering an exception to the two member rule- the induction of a third member, one Radley A, Jason’s 1 year old son. The camel club was devoted to doing nothing but sitting around and laughing at stupid jokes. The only “official” activity was the official camel club song, which comprised of the smurf and hawaii 5-0 themes, sung simultaneously. little radley will have to learn at least the melody of one of the songs to qualify for induction. or we can just give him a can of blue food coloring and a jar of cotton balls. he’ll mess around in it and inadvertently make himself into a baby papa smurf in no time.

Jason is definitely much smarter than me (not hard to do, yhheeeeppp). He has a very high iq and an innate curiosity about how things work. my love for physically taking stuff apart and deconstructing concepts (which often gets me in deep doo doo!) was mostly picked up from jason over decades of inevitable osmosis. He is a very deep thinker of the most genuine kind- he actually cares about understanding the things that occupy his brain without much thought to declaring them to others with an intention to impress. he’s taught me about proper swimming form, electrical wiring, physics, philosophy, and countless other things (yes, we’re nerdy). in addition to all of these things, jason taught me perhaps the most important lesson of all (if it’s not the most important, i would say that it is the most pervasive, as it influences my thoughts and actions every day).

While others may buy baby bjorns to snugly attach their babies to themselves, jason concocted one from an airplane blanket. he would much rather understand how something fundamentally works and implement it himself than buy some whiz-bang gizmo that’s supposed to do the same thing at 10 times the price but breaks after two uses with no way of fixing it. in high school, at the peak of my own unchecked materialism, i once picked up jason at the airport. i asked him if he had a backpack full of diversions for the plane ride, and he simply pulled a wrinkled paperback out of his hoodie pouch and said that it was his in-air entertainment. it was as if a light bulb had literally blinked on inside my head. i thought about the all-manner-of-gizmos i’d have had on my own person had i been on that flight. and how convincing myself that i had to have all of that stuff to survive the boredom of an airplane flight was -partially at least- simply a way to fill a hole in my own soul; to validate my own ill-defined self worth.

in an era of excess and blatant consumerism, it’s easy to get caught up and forget what the true sources of one’s happiness are. like many people, i’ve read and heard a lot of stuff from countless brilliant philosophers, poets, pundits, screenwriters, gurus, know-it-alls and blowhards about materialism and how it affects society and the human condition. i’m even buddhist, having been born into a buddhist family. but buddhists have their own share of blatant materialists who pray for bmw’s. but i never truly understood what true detachment and freedom from material things meant until jason demonstrated it to me in that single moment at the airport, and in countless other similar moments and conversations.

there is a zen-inspired poetry as well to jasonism. there is beauty in simplicity, and fulfillment in understanding, having and doing exactly what’s needed; no more and no less. i’m a sailboat guy, not a speedboat guy (actually, i’m not nautical at all but you get the picture). i prefer a swiss army knife to a giant toolbox. books and magazines are much more practical for a plane or train ride than a walkman, laptop, dvd player or anything else that’s battery operated. disposable containers and wrappers are better than empty boxes and cases that you have to lug back home even after you’ve consumed the contents. a lexus gives you dual zone air conditioning, but a honda gives you the freedom to park in a tight spot without caring about getting a ding on your door. sometimes more is more, but it’s almost always more burdensome.

it’s been many years since high school, and today i like most adults have many financial responsibilities. but pat and i are fortunate- we live comfortably, spend modestly, don’t worry too much about money, and travel to see far-off friends and family when we can. but everything that i own was purchased for its utility, and not for my gratification, to seek validation from others, or to otherwise inflate my ego. i drive a honda, not a mercedes benz or bmw. i use a cheap charcoal grill instead of a fancy built-in gas number, and i enjoy the ritual of stacking and lighting the coals. i buy computers that are a few generations behind the cutting edge. same for my digital camera, cell phone, and every other electronic doo-dad i have. i wear wal-mart sandals and not birkenstocks. i’ll only buy the birkenstocks if the wal-mart or target ones don’t fit my overly wide feet. i invest in low cost index funds and not high fee hedge funds. my floating pool recliner is a single thick sheet of flexible foam that is way more comfortable than the fancy doohickeys that cost twice as much. i buy nothing from the sharper image.

yes, i own these things. but they do not own me.

i am defined by my actions. not by my possessions.

for these life-changing insights, i owe jason a debt i can never fully repay.

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