The Cost-Benefit Analysis!

Fredericksburg had a hotel (see “I Like Not Camping!”); everything else was dependent upon that! From the early days of our marriage, my wife and I were enamored with the offerings of the Commonwealth of Virginia. From its eastern shore beaches to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the west, we hit the road to explore its expansive natural beauty and historic landmarks. Our hotel was Central Command for the daily treks.

Fredericksburg is part of the Northern Virginia region, north of Richmond and approximately 45 miles south of Washington, DC. Although not known as the gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains, Fredericksburg had a hotel and it was from there that we embarked on a 200-mile westward day-trip to Skyline Drive and the Blue Ridge Parkway – “America’s Favorite Drive”.

What may seem an arbitrary admission now, I must profess that my wife is of the “been there…done that” persuasion, which limited our exploration of any one location…“so many places to see, so little time!” Consequently, it was necessary to cram as many miles and destinations into the “here and now”, as the likelihood of a return visit to the region would be…well…absurd.

As you surmised, we had set an ambitious itinerary, covering many miles. Taking advantage of the pre-dawn promise of a pleasant summer day, we packed a picnic basket with an assortment of snacks and beverages and headed out the door. The analogy, however, between places and time is imperfect in that the shortest distance between two points is often boring. Avoiding the fast-moving, as-a-crow-flies, beeline byways, we targeted the less beaten, scenic path to our first destination…South Royal, VA…the northernmost entrance to Skyline Drive. One and a half hours and 70 miles through the agrarian Virginia outback. “Down the country” as the locals would say.

The second leg of our journey took us south along Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. Skyline Drive is a two-lane, National Scenic Byway, which traverses the Eastern Continental Divide. The torturously meandering route boasts 75 scenic overlooks and 2 visitor centers (with restrooms), but can only be accessed (or egressed) at four evenly-spaced points; the southernmost point…Rockfish Gap…being our destination…105 additional miles or two “long” hours (without stops), if you’re tracking. For those that miss the escape ramp at Rockfish, Skyline Drive continues south as the Blue Ridge Parkway for an additional 469 miles.

For the final leg of our trip, we opted for direct, well-traveled thoroughfares; a two hour, 90-mile return trip to Fredericksburg…confident we’d arrive in time for dinner. The Harry F. Byrd, Sr. Visitor Center is located at Skyline Drive milepost 51. Shenandoah National Park’s southernmost public facility operates on weekends between the hours of 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.; we were burning through the oil of a late Saturday afternoon, nigh closing time. The sign indicated that Mr. Byrd, Sr. was an American newspaper publisher and political leader of the Democratic Party in Virginia who passed away in 1966. Unaware of the societal successes that justified his memorialization-by-name on this end-of-the-road Visitor Center, we were just as grateful for the use of his restrooms. And so we did, then headed back on the road to Fredericksburg.

But this isn’t really a story about Virginia or site seeing. It may as well be a tale on the subject of purses; that effeminate accessory that’s been at my wife’s side longer and more assuredly than me. Regardless of its form…backpack, baguette, bowling bag, bucket bag, clutch, doctor’s bag, envelope bag, feed bag, hobo bag, messenger bag, minaudiere, saddle bag, satchel, shoulder bag, sling bag, tote bag, or weekend bag…(deep breath)…the purse or pocket book has been an instrument of womenkind since the 15th century. Don’t take my word for it, the Museum of Bags and Purses in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (yes, it exists), professes that “The introduction of pockets towards the end of the 16th century meant that the men’s bags slowly disappeared in the course of the 17th century. From then on, bags belonged almost exclusively to the women’s domain.” (http://tassenmuseum.nl/en) My wife’s purse was her sine qua non; indispensable. From my perspective, the purse, supported by the advent of the automobile, was critical to the success of marital long distance travel.

Fredericksburg had a hotel, to which we returned at approximately 5 p.m. Moving through the unlocked door, we tossed our belongings onto the bed and sat in the two opposing chairs to de-stress a few moments before heading back out to dinner. I shut my eyes…for one moment.

“Where’s my purse?” “Isn’t it on the bed? Look behind the picnic basket.” “It’s not there!” “Maybe it’s in the car…I’ll be right back.” I returned from the van, a little more exasperated. “Well…where could you have left it?”, which was less a question regarding its whereabouts, than my reconsideration of its historical significance!

“Well…we stopped at the Visitor Center to use the bathrooms.” “Do you remember having your purse then?” “I had to have had it…my toothbrush was in it and I remember brushing my teeth!” Another arbitrary admission…my wife is a dental hygienist. Factoid about hygienists…if they aren’t sleeping, they are, more often than not, brushing their teeth…it’s what they do.  What they have is super white teeth…it’s their superpower! She followed, “I may have left my purse in the Visitor Center washroom.” (“Way to go, Wonder Woman!”)

At 6 p.m., my wife phoned the closed Visitor Center and was lucky to reach an attending park ranger. I sat nearby in my chair, listening as my stomach growled. “You did…that’s great…yes…great…my husband will come and pick it up…great…yes, he knows the way…yes, ha ha…he would know that already…OK…yes…thank you so much! You have a good night too!” Click! “They have it at the guard gate and they’re expecting you.” In that moment, it was obvious to me that the fact that my wife had already made this journey once, coupled with the lack of her requisite purse, made it impossible for her to participate in the long, return trip! In that same moment, I also kept that conclusion to myself, only now sharing it with you to complete the obvious connection-of-the-dots. Been there…done that! My stomach continued to growl and my brain responded with the onset of a headache.

But this isn’t a story about Virginia or site seeing or purses. It is, I promise, a teachable moment on the value of cost-benefit analyses (CBAs). Stop me if you already know this. CBAs provide a systematic approach to estimating the strengths and weaknesses of alternatives (i.e., should I stay or should I go). Applying equivalent money values to the benefits and costs can help you decide which decision would be best for you or, in my case, which alternative I would have opted for, absent the decision being previously made by my wife and the park ranger. So out the door I went.

There’s a lot of time in 288 miles. As I gazed out the driver’s side window at the passing deja vu-packed scenery, I couldn’t help wonder if the trip was economically warranted. The premise was simple. Would the fuel and depreciation costs of driving a vehicle 288 miles (check my math) be greater than the cost of a purse and its contents? With each passing mile, I advanced the hypothetical scenario. The average cost of a gallon of gasoline (1997 dollars) was $1.50. We drove a 1997 Chevy Venture (van), which averaged 19 miles per gallon. Doing the math…a 288 mile, there-and-back trip would cost approximately $23 in fuel. In addition, the depreciation value of a year-old van (assuming average mileage, maintenance, insurance and repair costs) is approximately $0.20 per mile or an additional $57. From “my side” of the analysis, the total cost (without benefit) would be $80. That was easy.

To calculate “her side” of the analysis took me every remaining mile; what do I know about the contents of a woman’s purse (that’s sacred territory)?!

At mile 25, my headache gave me my first inkling:

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = $3

At mile 50, the obvious came to me:

  • Wallet (cheap, unremarkable) = $7 (Note:  the CBA assumes that credit card companies would be contacted to report the loss.  Credit cards, themselves, have no intrinsic value. Nor does her library card!)
  • Traveler’s Checks and Checkbook (no intrinsic value; notify bank)
  • Cash = $17 (we discussed in the morning)
  • Change = $4.25 (mostly in dimes, nickels and pennies jingling at the bottom of the purse)
  • Van Key = $5 (replacement fee)

By mile 75, I was freewheeling:

  • Woman’s Compact (with mirror) = $5 (I read that all woman carry these and that the ones who don’t are dead; is that true? If not true, I’ll take a $5 deduction!)
  • Moisturizer = $5
  • Brush = $5
  • Planner = $2
  • Mini-Calculator = $2
  • Cheap Sunglasses = $3

At mile 100, any essential items escaped me:

  • Lipstick = $2.50
  • Nail Polish = $4
  • Nail File = $0.25
  • 2 Pens = $1
  • Candy Wrappers (no value)

I arrived at the guardhouse at approximately 9 p.m. I handed my driver’s license to the park ranger to confirm my identify and my relationship to the purse. “Here it is….you don’t look so good!” “Long day” I responded. “And I have a headache…you wouldn’t have any aspirin would you?” “No…sorry…maybe there’s some in your wife’s purse.” I gave it a quick check…no aspirin! “Ugghhh…no such luck…well, thanks for finding her purse.” “Oh…I didn’t find it…someone in the restroom brushing their teeth found it.” “Another dental hygienist!” I mumbled.

My headache continued as I circumnavigated the guardhouse, waved goodbye, and headed back to Fredericksburg (again).

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = minus $3.00 (deduct)

Darkness filled the remaining 144 miles as the late summer Virginia night surrounded me. The throbbing in my head restricted my ability to fill the remaining dark voids within my wife’s purse:

  • Q-tips (really?)
  • Hair Pins, Clips and Ties = $1
  • Tissue Pak (unused, $1); Tissues (used, gross)
  • Coupons (no value)
  • Unmentionables ($2)

Satisfied that I had accounted for a reasonable assortment of contraband within the bag, I completed my assessment by adding in the replacement value of the purse itself.

  • Purse (cheap, unremarkable) = $15

I struggled to complete the CBA. My Side = $80…Her Side = $82. My headache intensified! I arrived back in Fredericksburg at midnight; the disappointing results of the CBA reverberating in my head. Ahead, the soft neon glow of the hotel sign beckoned me to Central Command one last time. Out of the corner of my eye, I observed the lights of a small 24-hour convenience store. Aspirin!! I swung right into the driveway, parked the van, and walked inside. “Aspirin?” I asked the clerk. “Aisle 3B.” was the response. I walked up 3A, past the woman’s purses; my headache intensifying. Quickly grabbing the 100-count, I returned to the front of the store to check-out. “We have a 200-count.” “No…the 100-count will be just fine…how much?” “Three dollars.” I paid the clerk, grabbed the aspirin, and walked out the door, smiling for the first time in a long while.

  • Aspirin (1 bottle, 100 pills) = $3 (My Side)

My headache dissipated as I drove the remaining block to the hotel; the unopened aspirin bottle lay at my side. Fredericksburg had a hotel, and I was finally there; satisfied this would be the last time I would pursue a lost purse in the Virginia outback.

Final CBA: My Side = $83…Her Side = $82!

This Is My Fire Story! (The First One)

Ironically, the man who stated that “Genius is initiative on fire” also opined that “No man is ever old enough to know better.” (George Holbrook Jackson, 31 December 1874 – 16 June 1948, British journalist, writer and publisher.)

When it comes to fire, I am dumber than a box of matches. Without that intellectual spark, I have also not benefited from the wisdom of age. So this is my fire story…the first one. Sadly, a second story is forthcoming. Let’s keep them both between friends, for they bring me no gratification. I will deny they ever happened. Except for various police and fire department records, there is no evidence these events actually occurred. Nor will there ever be, as verified by my thorough sifting through the ashes.

The Learning Years!

We purchased our first house in 1990; a two-story colonial constructed in 1889. The skeleton of the house consisted of a framework of aged pine. A good, sturdy, dry, strong…did I say dry…wood. Wood that is 100+ years is referred to, in expert wood-burning circles, as “seasoned”! For 10 years, we lived in that seasoned house.

Homeownership comes with responsibilities…cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, fixing leaks, lighting the furnace pilot light. Not realizing some opportunistic author actually published a completely illustrated book entitled, “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Home Repair and Maintenance”, I was left to my own devices (or lack thereof).

The house temperature had dipped below 65, echoing the seasonal conditions expressed by a late Fall day. What heat was left in the house was fast-moving out of the house; soon to be replaced inside by cooling temperatures and, perhaps, snow! “You need to get that furnace started!” I could barely make out the face of my wife through the layers of fleece pull-overs and her favorite wool hoodie blanket. Lacking a competent response, I feigned a sudden and complete hearing loss. (“Furnace…where’s the furnace?”)

Our basement consisted of a 20-by-30 foot “habitable” space. Crawl spaces, the inside joke of home designers, provided additional “space”. The basement floor was partitioned into concrete and dirt portions. I recall seeing a shovel in the corner, but that may be my poor memory or rich imagination. Rounded wood beams…good, seasoned wood beams moved upward to the joists, supporting the weight of the floors above. This was the kind of basement, which warranted a slightly mischievous chuckle every time the local utility company meter-reader knocked on the front door to see it. “Sure, right this way…watch your head!”

The Octopus was located immediately to the right, as you made your way down the stairs. An Octopus furnace is a gravity furnace so-named due to the long ducts coming out of the central unit. It can be quite intimidating, especially to a new homeowner. Standing at the far end of the basement, I stared at the Octopus and, in return, the cold, silent Octopus stared back. The sound of Freddy Krueger scraping his bladed gloves along the ductwork was suddenly broken by a muffled sound from the reality above. “It’s 63 degrees in here!”

I found a cast iron hatch at, what I assumed to be, the furnace front. Stamped into the door were the words “Patent Pending 1875”. With some trepidation, I wondered (for my sake) if the furnace company and patent office had amicably resolved the issues holding up the patent! I kneeled to open the hatch…slowly…and peered into the cold, silent, dark space beyond. With my mind (and heart) still racing, I paused to reflect upon the number of prior homeowners whom had previously knelt in this position…unknowing to the task-at-hand. I looked down at my toolkit, which consisted of a flashlight and box of matches. My first thought was that these items were redundant; I could have accomplished the job with just the matches. Nonetheless, with the potential for gas leaks, I picked up and turned on the flashlight and peered back inside the hatch. I didn’t “see” any!

The pilot light assembly was located deep into the opening; more than an arm’s length. I surmised that the resolution of the patent issue was still pending! Frustrated, I backed out of the opening and looked down at the matches, back at the dark hole, and back at the matches. The matches would be useless after all. This job required something much longer to bridge the great cold expanse. I did a quick visual reconnaissance of the basement looking for the manufacturer’s instruction manual. There must be some logical method to igniting this monster. But there is no method to madness and I quickly concluded that the first homeowner, in a moment of pure genius, had torched the manual to bring about the successful inaugural lighting of the Octopus. Well done, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter! Well done!

Not to be outdone by the wisdom of a Victorian Age gentleman, I focused my flashlight on the forward crawl space. To my surprise, beneath an old fire extinguisher, I observed a stack of old newspapers. It was my Eureka moment…a lit rolled up newspaper in my hand could extend my outstretched arm to provide the necessary reach. I yelled up stairs, reassuring my wife that things would be “toasty” in a few minutes. I smiled with confidence, knowing that there would be no need to call the father-in-law in for help! “Not this time!” I remarked out loud, as I moved aside the fire extinguisher, grabbed a newspaper and started to roll.

The auto-ignition temperature of paper is 451 degrees Fahrenheit, as eminently asserted in Ray Bradbury’s bestselling novel — “Fahrenheit 451″. However, introducing a lit match to paper significantly shortens the wait for the ambient temperature to reach such extremes. “It’s 61 degrees!!” came the voice from above. We continued to lose ground from the required 451 degrees, so I lit the match…and introduced it to the paper. It was an instant success. And in another instant, too much success…

The idea of holding a flaming 451 degree torch at the end of my outstretched arm was soon abandoned. As I instinctively dropped the newspaper, it unrolled exposing the ignited surfaces to a surge of oxygen-infused air. With the ensuing flash of yellow and orange, I soon found myself comfortably warm, in a well lit room; which, in-turn, exposed me to the problem-at-hand. A large fire in a large place rather than a small fire in a small place. Seasoned wood and all!

Fuels have a flammable range; a certain percentage of oxygen needed to burn. Too much or too little means no flame. Paper is no different. Remove the oxygen source and the fire goes out. In hindsight, I have no doubt that, given the same circumstances, Mr. Horatio Archibald Leadbetter would have engaged his expensive patent leather ankle lace-ups to tap dance bombershay the oxygen right out of that fire. I, however, was just wearing cotton socks…also flammable. Lucky for me, newspaper also burns slow, which gave me time to think.

Again, I heard the muffled voice of my wife. “It’s getting warmer up here…thanks!” (“Save yourself!” I thought to myself)

The far wall flickered with the shadows created by the fire. I was mesmerized by the display, which, for a second, I thought to include the dancing shadow-shape outline of a fire extinguisher. THE FIRE EXTINGUISHER! I hurried to the forward crawl space and grabbed the fire extinguisher, upsetting the remaining stack of newspapers in my haste. Running back to the other end of the basement, I performed a quick once-over of the apparatus. It was old…not Leadbetter old…but old enough for me to surmise that some past owner along the Octopus timeline had stood where I now stood, under these same circumstances. Since the house and furnace were, at least for now, unscathed, I assumed another historical success story. Good job, whoever you were!  Good job!

I learned afterwards that the fire extinguisher was of the dry chemical type; which, when used correctly, is excellent in creating a barrier between oxygen and fuel elements (such as newspaper). I also learned…afterwards…that, to be effective, the user should aim at the base of the flames, not at the flames…at the base of the flames…not at the flames. Write that down.

I pulled the pin and aimed at the flames. The effect was immediate. Riding the thrust of the chemical surge, the newspaper, including the fire, raced across the basement floor…30-feet, all the way to the far side, near the disheveled remaining newspapers. While the temperature within my immediate surroundings suddenly dropped, I couldn’t help but chuckle and imagine being handed the large overstuffed bear by the Carnival Barker. But, alas, reality brought me back once again.

Time is a funny thing and so is fire. If you combine the two, you get to these facts. While newspaper burns slow, that’s a relative fact. Newspaper burns slow relative to…say…gasoline, which ignites and burns relatively instantaneous. While paper burns much slower, a newspaper will still be fully consumed in approximately 15 seconds. As another matter of fact, it’s taken much longer to tell this story than for the actual events to run their course. From the point of ignition to the culmination of the fire traversing the 30-foot basement floor, a full 17 seconds expired; and so too did the fire. Precluding other influences (seasoned wood, additional newspaper, or me), it was only a matter of time before the newspaper torch would have burned itself out…but where’s the humor in that.

Failing in my homeowner task, I stepped slowly back up the stairs and was greeted by my wife, still dressed in Alaskan native vestments. Smelling like smoke and a little ashen, I softly inquired “Is your father home?”

Coming Soon: “This is My Fire Story! (The Second One)”

The Saving Thing!

“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.” (Quote by Mark Twain)

My father lived 64 full years. That’s 768 months or 3,328 weeks or approximately 23,360 days. Almost 34 million passing minutes in which my father lived on this planet, interacting with people, including me. In all that time, I was struck by one telling moment in particular, a simple moment with a simple lesson…that humor is the saving thing and that, even in the darkest hours, a sunny spirit can take their place.

In life, my father was a matter-of-fact, live-in-the-moment type guy. He focused on what was in front of him, unaffected by the sideshow distractions that life can throw at you. Near death, he was resolute in maintaining his focus on what was in front of him…not on the cancer, not on the what-ifs, and certainly not on self-pity. He focused on family and friends…he was there for us.

The dying time is an emotional rollercoaster for family and friends. We spent our last minutes together in unscripted conversations; too afraid to confront the obvious, so we hid behind the routine. The absurdity of discussing next week’s weather was lost in our moment of communion; until our conversation was abruptly interrupted by that unfamiliar and unwelcome silence.

You can’t get back time; a moment passed is a moment lost. But you try and we did…try. “Dad, we love you…can you hear us…we love you!” In that moment, you are flooded with things you want to say; what you think you should say…another moment passes…silence and the pulse of time moves forward.

We stood around his bed…a communal assemblage of family and friends; bound together in the sharing of the moment. Breaking the silence, we continued to try…my brother repeating, “Dad, can you hear me…dad, can you hear me? Say something…”

A man can wait his entire life to have everyone’s complete attention; that one moment when there are absolutely no distractions. Everyone in that room, as my dad intended, was focused on what was in front of them. This…was…my…dad’s…moment!

“Dad, please say something…” In that moment, my father’s eyelids twitched; maybe the recognition of my brother’s voice…the light of life still burned… “Keep talking…”  “Dad…Dad…Dad…say something.” We leaned forward in unison; both family and friends. The patriarch of our family, with a remaining breath…what would he say…we leaned further…and he spoke… “Something!” That was it…‘Something!’ In that moment, he spoke the word ‘Something!’ Again silence…then a nervous giggle followed by another; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony of laughter. All our irritations and resentments slipped away and a sunny spirit took their place.

My father lived for a few more days, passing away quietly at home. In death, he continued to present us with situations in the ensuing days, which highlighted the importance of humor and laughter in the healing process. It was those moments that got us through those days.

And those days picked us; we didn’t pick them. The day we visited the cemetery to select my dad’s plot was a cold, blustery, winter day. It went without saying that, absent these unpleasant conditions (and circumstances), we would not normally be out on a day like this. It went without saying…to most people.

“What are you doing out on a day like this?!” We closed the door tightly behind us and brushed the snow from our coats. “Sorry…what?” The proprietors resembled and interacted like “Fred and Ethyl Mertz”, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s vitriolic neighbors on the popular 1950’s “I Love Lucy” television sitcom. The Mertz’ sat around a small wood stove situated in the center of the one room cemetery office. Steam rose from mittens, which were hung to dry over the stove. Blowing snow danced around the window, as the wind continued to howl outside. “Ethyl” repeated the question…making a special effort to enunciate each word this time, “What…are…you…doing…out…on…a…day…like…this?” Perplexed by the question, I shrugged and blurted out the only response that came to me…“My father sent us!” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed; Fred and Ethyl stared, unemotional. Given the nature of the job, I assumed it was their only defense. With smiles on our faces, we were, once again, able to focus on what was in front of us and move forward.

My father’s wishes were to be cremated and buried. When the day came to pick up his ashes, my brother and I drove to the funeral home to complete the arrangements. The director was an old friend of my brother and father. He greeted us at the door and escorted us to his office where we, in short order, were caught up in our common reminisces. Time passed as our conversations shifted between the past and present, stitched together by our common connection with my father. But then there was the business-at-hand; the need to focus on what was in front of us. Steadied by the talk and passage of time, my brother and I got up from our chairs, and indicated our readiness to go collect our dad’s ashes. “He’s right there.” “Sorry…what?” Pointing to a box on the desk, the director repeated, “He’s right there…he’s been there the whole time.” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed…all three of us, maybe four.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the surreal nature of our responsibility did not go unnoticed. It was emphasized by the palpable silence as my brother picked up the box holding my dad’s ashes and as we, together, took the long walk to the car.

I opened the car door and my brother placed the box on the front passenger seat. As he backed away, I reached in and wrapped the seatbelt around the box and fastened the buckle. Together we took one last ride through the neighborhood, ultimately arriving at the house, which would forever be full of wonderful family memories. Sitting in the driveway on that day, we listened through the quietness of the present to hear laughter from years passed; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony. We smiled as the front door opened, and our mom stepped out onto the porch.

In those last days of his life, my dad did have a clear-sighted conversation with my mom. In their private moment, he remarked, “You knew life would come to this…but in our life together, we did focus on the important things…to live, love and laugh.”

And we do too…thanks for the lesson, mom and dad!