Christmas Presents and Garbage Year after Year

PC260089Christmas Morning last year, when I opened the Lego Star Wars ship that Conner insisted was not under the tree, he declared a halt to all present opening while he built it.

Relatives brought presents over and insisted that he open them, but he just kept on building. This shook my Christmas morning tradition to its core. He was doing it wrong... Or was he?

He was so happy that he simply refused to open more presents. He was playing and he didn't want more stuff... He just wanted to play... I love that boy's focus.

I always thought our kids were getting too much stuff.  Look under the tree on Christmas morning and there's an entire toy store wrapped in colorful paper thanks to the combined efforts of our extended family.  But when Conner broke the present opening spell it really hit me. Our kids get too much stuff and it's not good for them.

With all the poverty in the world, too many presents probably seems like a ridiculous thing to be concerned about, but if I teach my kids they need more and more stuff to be happy I'm pretty sure I'm doing them a big disservice.

More isn't necessarily better. More does 3 things:
  1. Makes for a wild rush of fun present opening  - [fun but not sustainable fun. It last as long as the wrapping paper does.]
  2. Sets the kids expectations that they need new stuff to be happy (I've heard Alex tell me this) while actually making them unhappy. - [not only wrong, but backwards. See my On Happieness and Presents post.]
  3. Generates a lot of stuff that goes in landfills 
In 2008 I was so surprised by the amount of garbage that I took this picture on the pickup day after Christmas. I was holding the camera over my head so the bings look smaller than they are. The big green bin (~5 feet hight) was completely full of trash. There are 3 regular size bins full of recycling, with a 40 gallon black plastic bag of garbage between them and 3 large boxes of cardboard.

I'm embarrassed by the amount of waste that passed through our house in that 1 week.

Christmas Garbage 2008

2009 was a big change. The big green garbage bin on the left has only one 13 gallon trash bag in it. The rest is recycling.

Christmas Garbage 2009

The reduction in garbage is because we started composting food scraps, we can now recycle all plastics 1 - 7, and the kids presents are mostly getting smaller (legos instead of sit on toddler bikes.) Still it's a lot of waste for 1 week.

After 2008 Christine and I asked our families to scale back on the gift giving and, to a degree, we all did.  But leading up the the holidays there's this weird dichotomy of (everyone in our extended family including me) wanting to give our kids lots of presents and not wanting to over do it at the same time.  Year after year we have erred on the side of lots of presents because it's so easy to get wrapped up in the idea that more is better.

I think this year will be different. At least for gifts from Christine and me. Learning from Conner we picked out a few gifts we know the kids will like and then stopped present purchasing. The theory is with less stuff we'll have more time to enjoy what we do have. And if we struggle, Conner can show us how to make a game out of just about anything.

I'm a grateful that we have the ability to spoil our kids but one of the best gifts we can give them is to teach them how to be happy without constantly needing more stuff.

Stay tuned in January for the 2010 Christmas garbage picture. 

Update January 10th 2011

So there it is. After Christmas, we filled the garbage can and three cans full of recycling. The same three cans as previous years, but without the extra boxes. It's an improvement.

Goodbye Jerry

Christine and I adopted Jerry, our anxious cat, 8 years ago. We did this based on the theory that a second cat would be a good companion for Tom who was home alone most of the day. I remember the adoption pretty clearly. We went there in search of an orange cat and Christine fell in love with Jerry, this comically small, black cat who was afraid of everything. Even air seemed to scare him.

Jerry on the Cat Stand

Jerry was, by anyone's measure, a nervous cat. The adoption people said it had something to do with him being taken away from his mother too soon.  Soon enough, our theory of 2 cats keeping each other occupied panned out and he and Tom were thick as thieves.

Tom and Jerry Playing

Jerry was there when Alex was born. Well, not the exact moment, but he was there when we got home. It took a while but they got used to each other.


Jerry's nervous nature meant he hid in the basement when anyone visited. Actually, he hid in the basement most of the time; that is with one exception. Jerry loved Christine's parents. I don't know what it was about them but when they visited Jerry's entire demeanor would change and he'd become more friendly. The rest of the time he had Tom.


I know cats aren't pack animals but I think Jerry looked out for Tom. One day about 4 years ago a dog came into our backyard and was harassing Tom. Tom was not fairing well and then Jerry came tearing out of the house. He basically clobbered the dog. I had no idea Jerry could fight, but that dog went running and Jerry took off after him faster than I've ever seen him run.  Jerry returned 10 minutes later without a scratch and we never saw that dog again.

Tom and Jerry

Even as they got older Jerry tended to stick near Tom when he wasn't hiding in the basement.


Jerry's body gave out today. He was in really bad shape all week. It took the doctor a few days to figure out he wasn't going to get better, but it was pretty clear to us he was very sick. Last night I put him on my lap and he purred for hours.  Today Christine built him a fire to keep him warm before I took him to the vet.  When I went down to get him he was just lying there purring. I think he really liked the fire.

I'm going to miss Jerry, but I think his death is going to be even harder on the kids. They've been paying more attention to the cats lately. Alex and Conner are very proud of their ability to keep Jerry calm enough to pet him. Tonight the boys couldn't sleep, so we looked at some of these pictures and told stories about Jerry. We had lots of laughs.

Jerry was a good cat, a good friend and part of our family. We all miss him.

Jerry's Seat

Allison Conducts the Tuba Christmas Orchestra

Allison Conducts The Christmas Tuba ConcertAllison made her conducting debut at the annual Tuba Christmas Concert yesterday in Ayer, MA.

The concert is a Russell favorite because it features an all tuba orchestra which, in my opinion, is the coolest band makeup in the history of bands. Towards the end of the concert they asked if any kids wanted to guest conduct and Allison decided to go for it without any prompting from me.

She took my hand and together we walked onto the stage.  Allison didn't appear to mind the audience, but seemed a little nervous in the presence of the orchestra. Tuba players are usually pretty big guys and to a 3 year old girl I'm sure they seemed enormous. Even so, she seemed happy as the conductor gave her a quick lesson in leading the orchestra.

Conducting Lesson

Then with a wave of her wand, the orchestra was off playing an up tempo "We Wish You a Merry Christmas!"

Allison Conducts Tubas

I was, and still am, beside myself with pride. Not only was she brave enough to get up in front of a crowd and conduct a bunch of burly tuba players, but she handled them with grace and seemed to enjoy the experience.

On the way home that night she fell asleep. As I carried her from the car to her bed she woke for a moment and quietly asked "Daddy, can I conduct again next year?" I said "Yes sweetie." Then she put her head back on my shoulder and with an even softer "Thanks Daddy" she went back to sleep.

Alex and I Prepare For Winter

The machine had made many noises in it's long life, but a "snap-spin-clang" was not one of them.  He stood there in the driving snow staring down at the starter handle in his hand. The cord hung limply from the handle, mockingly disconnected from the engine deep inside the bowels of the snow throwing beast.   

Some would claim that it was the wear and tear of 15 years that caused the starter cord to break. He knew it was his massive upper body strength. Yet that knowledge borough him no consolation as a snowplow threw a half ton of slush on his driveway. 

That was me last year. The snow blower I inherited from my high school years has been sitting idle since then, and I was determined not to start the winter without a snow blower. I considered purchasing a new one, but there's something about the challenge of using my hands to fix such a long lasting machine that called to me.

So that's what I spent my afternoon doing yesterday. It turns out this brand of snow blower requires a fair bit of taking apart in order to get to the connection point for the starter. Alex came in to help and together we replaced the starter mechanism.


He's pretty good with his hands.


The parts Alex helped went a lot faster than when I worked alone and he seemed to have a lot of fun.  I really get a kick out of doing stuff like this with him.


When we finished it started up on the first pull.

The Rally To Restore Sanity

Paul at the Rally To Restore Sanity Last Saturday I attended the Rally to Restore Sanity on the National Mall in Washington D.C. with my brother John, our friend Dhiren and a few gazillion other people.

John, Dhiren and I made a road trip of it heading, down from MA on Friday. The plan for Saturday was to spend the morning seeing the sites and then get to the rally by noon. We had no idea just how big the rally would be.

At 9am, we took the metro from Bethesda MD into D.C. and quickly realized that we were going to have to pass on the site seeing. Even in Bethesda there were so many people heading to the rally we couldn't fit on the first train. Once in D.C. we became part of stream of people, turning into a river of people, which quickly turned into a full blown flood of bodies heading to the Rally.

Crowd Streaming to the Rally To Restore Sanity

Lots of these people had hilarious signs like this one.  I couldn't agree more with this guy.

And more serious ones like "Relax. It says McDonald's." There were so many great signs but this one was my favorite.

Rally Sign - Relax! It Says "McDonalds"

This guy was giving out Free Hugs. His sign says "Free Hugs from a Militant Atheist with a Gay Agenda."

Rally Sign - FREE HUGS from a militant athiest with a gay agenda

I was going to give him a hug, but there was a line of people waiting, and every second the mall was filling up with hundreds more people. Pretty soon we were going to lose our chance to get within visible distance of the stage, so we bolted across 7th street into the mall.

By 11:20 am we were stuck in a sea of bodies just in front of 7th street. John and I recorded this video describing the crowd.

The crowed was huge, excited, and unbelievably friendly. There were people there from all walks of life and all political parties. And even with that mix of people, the entire time I was there I didn't witness a single conflict. Everyone appeared to want America to take it down a notch, and they were leading by example.

Rally Sign - The End Is Not For A While

The view up to the stage was pretty clear, but behind us the news trucks and curvature of the earth made it hard to see if we were in the middle or the back of the crowd. So John hopped up on my shoulders and took some pictures. The people around us thought this was great and several people passed us cameras and asked John to take pictures for them. Given he was already up there, it seemed reasonable to help, so he took pictures for lots of people.

Paul Give John a Lift to get a view of the Rally Crowd

This was the best view he could get back toward the Washington Monument. In retrospect we've come to learn we were in the front of the majority of the crowd. Even so, this photo was taken long before the rally actually started.

Rally Crowd from 7th to the Washington Monument

I pieced together this panorama shot of the crowd from our position on the Mall. It's smushed a lot to fit in this blog. You can see the full size panorama here.

Rally To Restore Sanity Panorama
Panorama of the Rally To Restore Sanity from exactly where I was standing.

The rally lasted 3 hours. If you didn't see it I highly recommend watching a recording. The full video is on CSPAN and you can see high definition recordings of all the non musical parts here.

After a some good music, a lot of laughs, and some brilliantly scripted debate on fear and sanity, Jon Stewart took the stage for a Moment of Sincerity. Excerpts of his closing remarks are posted on Wikipedia.

Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear
Jon Stewart - Moment of Sincerity
Rally to Restore Sainty and/or FearThe Daily ShowThe Colbert Report

His remarks were simple, elegant, and passionate. "...we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus, and not be enemies." The cheer when he said this was the loudest of the entire event. It was a great speech made powerful by the peaceful mass of people patiently listening, clapping, and sometimes cheering as he made the point that Americans would be best served if we all took it down a notch.

I am glad that the rally managed to be done in a way that was completely a-political while still focusing its message on our political process. No politicians were visibly in attendance, and no party-specific agenda was put forth.  This was a rally asking for reason and civility for the people, by the people (ok, by the DailyShow) and it was an event I'll never forget being part of.

John & Paul at the Rally To Restore SanityWhen the rally ended we turned to head home and found ourselves, in a word, stuck. Only then did we start to realize the true scale of the number of people in attendance.

View From 7th Street toward the Washington Monument as the Rally ended
Looking back at the Washington Monument as we slowly left the National Mall

This guy climbed up on a light post near 7th street and someone yelled to him "Hey Pole Guy, what's the best way out of here?"  He looked around in every direction for several seconds appearing more and more nervous. Then, resolute, he shouted back "We're screwed!"

Pole Guy Checks for Ways Out As The Rally Ends

About 50 minutes after the rally ended we were able to walk at a reasonable speed. John and I took this video of the crowd going up 7th street.

It was a great day and a thrilling experience to be part of something so big. One of the things that most surprised me was the feeling of standing in such a large crowd and feeling safe. Everyone was so civil. Even when we were leaving, packed shoulder to shoulder everyone kept their cool. A woman was trying to get her son to the first aid tent which was the same direction were were all trying and failing to move. But people didn't hesitate, the wall of people parted and she walked through, and then everyone got back in shoulder to shoulder and we made our way out patiently.

I think it also helped that this woman was there to remind everyone that reasonable people are sexy.

Rally Sign - Reasonable People Are Sexy

The full set of my pictures from the Rally to Restore Sanity are here on Flickr, and embedded below.

My Reason to Rally4Sanity: Donkeys, Elephants, Hedgehogs & Woodpeckers Get Along Just Fine

On October 30th 2010, I'm going to Washington DC to participate in the Rally to Restore Sanity and it seemed the reasonable thing to do is to think through my reasons for participating. This is the second in a series of posts called "My Reason To Rally4Sanity", where I'll take a look at the lack of a real political ideological divide and any other topics that seem reasonable.

I have friends that call themselves Democrats, others that call themselves Republicans, others that are self identified Independents, and even a few self proclaimed Libertarians. I don't know any Tea Party members yet, but that doesn't mean much; I haven't gotten out much lately.

Now listening to our politicians, news anchors, and pundits you would think that if you put a heterogeneous (if you think that means "gay", please click on the link, you're going to miss the point) group of them together they would:
    Wikimedia Commons user Coldbourne
  1. Violently disagree on every phrase spoken
  2. Probably require a trip to the hospital because one of them stabbed another with a salad fork over a dispute on deficit spending.
Don't believe me? Just look at the political ads running on TV and the vigor with which candidates demonize each other, often without a shred of truth to their words.  Fear, distrust and hate, even when completely fabricated, are easy to cultivate and powerful motivators at the ballot box.

There is no civility in our civil discourse... Or is there?

On multiple occasions I've gotten together with a politically heterogeneous group of friends. Initially, they recognized their labeled differences of Democrat and Republican and attempt to avoid talking about politics for fear of a salad fork incident.  But over the past few months I've actively tried forcing a discussion. I just kept bringing things up and got them talking to see what would happen. They begrudgingly started talking about budgets, the deficit, foreign policy, US drug policy, etc.

The conversations (usually economic based) always starts the same way. The Democratic friends would accuse the Republican friends of wanting to use poor people as Soylent Green and the Republican friends would suggest that the Democratic friends should sell all their belongings and give their entire net worth to a homeless person.

But we press on and pretty soon we were all talking about actual facts:
  • How much the country spent on different areas,
  • Types of income the goverment had to fund our spending,
  • How the tax system worked at different income levels,
  • What income level we were at compared to the majority of the US population,
  • What impact the decisions around Social Programs, Drug Policy, foreign Policy etc., have on all of the above.
As the discussion evolved I noticed something I didn't expect: we agreed on most points. To listen to the pundits and politicians, these conversations should have been vitriolic shouting matches with only hatred and disdain as common ground, but that's not what I saw.

I saw civil discourse. I consistently saw recognition that the problems were complicated and intertwined, that all parties brought a useful perspective to the conversation, and that they pretty quickly started agreeing most of the time.

Fun President Blog
To be honest, the only topic we couldn't find common ground on was unrelated to politics. When it comes to toilet paper installation, people seem incapable of compromise. (Editors Note:  There is no debate.  B is the correct way to install the toilet paper roll.)

But when it came to politics, these people that claim to support ideologies we've come to think of as incompatible, talked, debated, and compromised. I even saw some of them physically uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance that was being caused by agreeing with someone from "the other party." And yet, their ideas were so similar there was little room to argue.

Democrats and Republicans, listening, debating, compromising, and agreeing. Civil discourse.

I've come to learn from actually talking with people that whether your party's mascot is a donkey, elephant, hedgehog, woodpecker or warm beverage, you're probably more alike than different.

Today our countries discourse is overrun by extremists who use trickery and fear to divide us from our fellow citizens to the point where we are afraid to even discuss politics in polite company. And they do this because they know if citizen "Hedgehogs" and "Woodpeckers" start talking to each other, we'd realize that we have more ideologically in common with each other than with all the fear mongering politicians, news anchors, and pundits.

So, this weekend I'm going to the Rally to Restore Sanity because I think it's vital to our country's health and even survival that we take it down a notch and start to talk to each other in a real civil discourse.

My Reasons To Rally4Sanity: What Causes Elected Officials To Make Bad Decisions

On October 30th 2010, I'm going to Washington D.C to participate in the Rally to Restore Sanity and it seemed the reasonable thing to do to think through my reasons for participating. So, this is the first in a series of posts called "My Reason To Rally4Sanity" where I'll take a look at money in elections and any other topics that seem reasonable.

I've got a theory that most of the issues with our government can be traced back to the way we elect our public officials. It comes down to a matter of their motivation. I think politicians, just like you and me, want to get or keep their jobs, and the way we make them get their jobs causes a conflict between our interests and theirs.

Getting (re)-elected to public office takes a lot of money.  Without ads, which are very expensive, most candidates have no chance at getting elected to federal office, thus they are dependent on big donors to fund their campaigns and therefore to keep their jobs.

Here's the rub: As long as a candidate does things his donors wants, they keep funding his future campaigns, but the moment he or she steps out of line, the donors simply find a new candidate that will do what the largest donors want.

In a system like this you rapidly fill up your elected positions with people that are doing what their donors want and often not what is best for the citizenry or the country. In biology class we called this Natural Selection.

Bad Decision Making

The problem with this cycle of natural selection is that it causes politicians to make bad decisions. Before you get your panties in a bunch wondering if I'm going after Democrats, Republicans or Independents, take a deep breath. I'm going after all of them. You see, it doesn't matter one bit to which party a congressperson belongs. This cancer of needing to raise money to keep their jobs causes all of them to make bad decisions.

So lets take a look at some staggeringly bad decision making.

Bad Decision Making Example #1
Give Me Some Sugar 

cookieI admit, I cried when I learned this from my mentor, but it's true; fruits and vegetables are good for you and processed sugar, not so much. Somehow our government, which gets lots of money form the sugar industry, came to the conclusion that we need to eat more sugar. Check out this short clip describing the story.  It's excerpted from a Larry Lessig lecture on Institutional Corruption.

Seriously, it doesn't get any more cut and dry than this.

Bad Decision Making Example #2
Exempting Used Car Dealers from the Consumer Financial Protection Agency

Yes. This example is as ridiculous as the title sounds. Congress put together a bill (H.R. 3126) to create a Consumer Financial Protection Agency.  Seems like a good idea in the wake of the economic cataclysm we just went through. Turns out a congressman that get's lots of money from used car dealers added an amendment to exempt used car dealers from the preview of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency.

Not to bludgeon a stereotype, but if you were making a list of groups from which consumers might need protection wouldn't USED CAR DEALER be pretty high on that list? The bill hasn't passed yet, but it's pretty clear that this congressman votes where his bread is buttered.

Since we're talking about cars, let's take a look at another piece of legislation; the auto bail out.  There seems to be a striking correlation between how people voted and who contributed to their elections.

Screen captured from

The point here is not that the auto bailout was a good or a bad idea. The point is that it appears, rather convincingly, that our elected officials are voting based on who gives them the money they need to keep their jobs.

Bad Decision Making Example #3
What About Privacy?

Remember that FISA 3 part series I wrote about a while back. Turns out it only takes an average of 8k in contributions to get a congressman to change his or her vote on privacy legislation. It doesn't even matter what they're voting on, the point is there's a statistically significant data-set showing that for less than the cost of having a house painted you can get a congressman to change their vote.

Now Lessig (in his full Institutional Corruption lecture) argues that these congressmen and congresswomen could be good people with our country's best interests in mind but the existence of money creates at least the perception of inappropriate influence. While I agree, I tend to look at it from the other side. The likelihood that at least some of our congressmen are not selling their votes to the highest bidder is staggeringly unlikely given the evidence.

My Reason to Rally4Sanity

In my opinion, until we fix this issue, all of the other political debates are effectively moot. This relationship between congressmen needing money to get elected, and large groups providing that money, means congress is motivated to make decisions in favor of their donors. I'm pretty sure when Lincoln talked about a government "Government of the people, by the people, [and] for the people" this isn't what he meant.

Honestly it seems like a pretty bad situation. The only people that can change this are the politicians, and they're not properly motivated. So I'm going to the Rally for Sanity in part to add my voice to those people that want us to fix out election system.

I think a great way to fix this problem is to move to completely public funded elections. Opponents of this idea often complain they don't want the government using any more of their money. I'd argue that without spending this moeny, you're pretty much guaranteed the government is going to spend a lot of your money on things you don't want them to spend it on.

But it's a reasonable debate I'm willing to have, and I'll be in DC on the 30th if you'd like to discuss it.

Fall Colors - Trees, Rainbows and Kids

Fall has arrived in New England and the trees are having a so so year. The colors are not quite as brilliant as last year, but still enough to catch your eye.

We've had a few impressive rainbows this year. I'm fairly certain this one is directly over the Irish Pub in Ayer, MA.

IMG_1978 copy

And then there's the trees.




We took a trip up to the CSA where the meat we eat is raised. Seems like a nice enough farm, thought I've come to the conclusion there is no way to raise Turkeys without the smell.

The Boys attempted to win a prize for catching the barn cat no one working on the farm could catch. They never got any closer that in this picture.


Moments after I snapped this picture the kids fell down in a heap. These moments don't last long. You have to be quick to catch them.

IMG_2180 copy

The rest of our Fall 2010 Leaves, Rainbows and Kids pictures are here on flickr.

Allisonisms - Unrelenting Happiness

Allison at the Harvard MA, Festival
Allison's always been a happy kid, but lately she's been bringing the happy with a subtle blissful aggressiveness.

This morning she told me that her teacher has been telling her "No Smiling" which I assume/hope is said in the same way we often joke with her.

Allison explained "But I trick her. I smile when she isn't looking." And then she demonstrated full teeth ear to ear smile with accompanying two shoulder shrug that lit up the entire house.

Christine told me about this one yesterday.

Christine: Allison, please look for your shoes. No playing, just looking.
Allison: Is it okay if i sing while I look?

Until I met my daughter I didn't know you could fit so much happiness in one place.

Alex's Class Trip - Hike Up Mt Wachusett

Today I took the day off work to chaperon Alex's 2nd grade class trip up MT Wachusett. Alex was very excited and we made our way up to the top pretty fast.  The boys seemed to think it was a race.


Looking exceptionally rugged we sat down for lunch at the summit.


On the way down, Alex's friend Julia started to wear out. Apparently she had packed a small library in her backpack in case there was down time for reading. So +1 for reading dedication. Minus a bunch for mountain climbing preparation.

Alex was quite the gentleman. He handed me his backpack containing nothing by a reusable sandwich wrapper and a near empty water bottle and carried Julia's bag to the bottom.


He's becoming a fairly tough and thoughtful boy.

More pictures of our hike in this Mt Wachusett Alex Class Trip flickr set.