Thursday, April 30, 2015

What My Dad Taught Me About Investing


     As I've mentioned before, I do my own taxes, and having just finished that anguishing exercise a couple of weeks ago, I've been thinking about my retirement nest egg. Just the other day I rebalanced a portion of my portfolio, taking a little money off the "aggressive growth" table and moving it onto the "value" and "cash income" tables.

     It was my dad who got me started doing my taxes, and who insisted I start saving some money as soon as I started my first full-time job, at $135 a week. He was old school, and always did his own taxes and his own investing, right up to the bitter end, when he died in 2002 at age 91.

     My dad was not a banker or financial analyst. He was one of those old-fashioned “country” lawyers who could see past the con job that someone was trying to pull, cut to the heart of the matter, and see a problem through to its logical conclusion. He didn’t make big money, but he eventually became a “millionaire-next-door” type by living frugally, paying his bills on time, and putting something aside for the future.

     You might think his investing approach from 50 years ago wouldn’t be relevant today. And I guess it isn't, if you want to be a day trader or bet on the next new social media stock. But the fundamentals haven’t changed from his time to ours – not if you’re trying to build up a decent nest egg and secure a comfortable retirement.

      He always advised me to make sure my insurance policies were in place, and to keep some money in a safe, secure, federally insured bank account. But then he’d say, whatever your long-term goals, you should invest at least some of your savings in the stock market. For despite its pitfalls, the market is one of the few time-tested routes to financial security.

     So as I've gone about about picking stocks or researching mutual funds or ETFs, or discussing a plan with my financial adviser, I try to remember these five basic principles. Or, what my dad might have called . . . words to the wise.

     1. Don't get scared . . . out of investing because you think the stock market is rigged. Contrary to what many people believe, over the years the equity markets have been democratized – by Merrill Lynch back in his day, and in modern times by discount brokers like Fidelity, Schwab and Vanguard. There has been a huge increase of financial information available in the media, so the stock market is relatively open and transparent, particularly when compared to debt markets which do not enjoy the same level of public scrutiny. 

     2. Wall Street insiders . . . purposely complicate financial products, labeling them with misleading names in order to confuse the public. For example, remember the credit default swap? It wasn't really a swap at all. It was an insurance policy. Insiders end up making a lot of money when customers don't understand what they are buying. So I try to follow my dad’s advice, which wasn’t original to him, but is no less worthwhile: Invest in companies where you know what they do and how they make money. If an investment story is too complicated, it's probably not reliable. 

     3. If you think you can beat the market . . .  well, good luck with that! You're not the smartest person on Wall Street, and neither is your financial adviser. Top players in the investment world work for big institutions and deal in hundreds of millions of dollars. The people who work for you are the ones who couldn't get a job where the real money is made. You can't outsmart the market, so just be in the market, with a low-cost index mutual fund or exchange-traded fund. 

     4. People on Wall Street are not . . . looking out for your best interests, they're looking out for their own best interests. (If it's any consolation, the politicians in Washington, the moviemakers in Hollywood, the oil producers in Texas are all just as self-interested -- and often short-sighted -- as any shark on Wall Street.) This is another reason to stick with a low-cost mutual fund instead of taking a flier on a hot stock that someone smarter than you may be trying to unload. 

     5. Investment experts rely on . . . sophisticated statistical models, and they have access to top leaders in the business world. But even they don't always know what's going on. None of us is old enough to remember 1929, but maybe you recall the crash of 1987 or the flash crash in May 2010. Wall Street wizards enjoy all kinds of advantages that we don't have – but even they don't get it right all the time, because things in the real world don't always work out the way the analysts say it will.

     My dad was even-tempered, and had profited from decades of experience, and so he would remind me that the stock market doesn't go up all the time. And it is always ready to take money from bold and brash traders who think they know more than they do. But on average the stock market goes up between 5 and 10 percent per year. The stock market gives us regular people a chance to own a small bit of the great American capitalist machine which, for all its faults, can help us build a retirement portfolio, and produce income in our later years when we’re no longer working.

      

Monday, April 27, 2015

If Only the Earth Could Retire

     As I surveyed the Baby Boomer blogs this week I began to wonder: Would it be possible for the Earth to retire from its job of supporting over 7 billion (and growing at a rate of more than 100,000 individuals every day) dirty, messy, hungry, greedy, self-absorbed, disease-ridden humans?

     As a bit of background, blogger Meryl Baer of Six Decades and Counting is taking a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. The other day, in 90-degree weather (global warming anyone?) she made a trek up to the nearby pyramids, where original inhabitants worshiped the sun, the moon and the planet Venus. She recounts her expedition in Stepping Back in Time Near San Miguel de Allende, and wonders about the venerable king who's buried there and the ancient people who lived in the area before the Spanish arrived to wipe out an entire civilization.

     One word of caution though: Don't wander over to her blog if you're afraid of heights!

     Meanwhile, Laura Lee in Love Has Created a Space for Us updates us on her effort to get back to nature in Colorado. She and her husband are building a solar-powered home in the foothills of the Spanish Peaks, and she notes, in C. S. Lewis's words, "You are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream."

     On The Survive and Thrive Boomer Guide consumer journalist Rita R. Robison takes a different approach. She recently attended an American Planning Association conference in Seattle and in Startling Ideas to Ponder on Earth Day she reports on the unconventional views of Stewart Brand, conservationist and founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue. In his closing speech, he applauded the migration of people to cities, saying that when people leave natural areas, those areas heal and return to their normal, balanced state. Brand also called for bringing back passenger pigeons and wooly mammoths to help natural areas recover in this new era of climate change.

     But maybe Kathy Gottberg of SmartLiving365 has the most practical approach. In Right Sizing -- Choosing Semi-Retirement Instead of Retirement she reflects on a friend of hers who is retiring in a few months. The friend has worked at a challenging job for over 25 years, and is more than ready to move onto something new. But underlying that excitement is a bit of worry about the uncertainty inherent in the future, and that makes Gottberg reflect on how she and her husband are approaching their own future. In their quest to right-size their lives, they have gradually slipped into semi-retirement in a natural and stress-free way. So while so many people ask the all-or-nothing question about retirement, it may turn out that "right sizing" is the best solution of all.

     And just maybe that's the way for us to approach Mother Earth as well. Not as an all-or-nothing proposition. Not to herd all people into artificial environments, but to appreciate the natural world, reduce our impact on the globe, and try to relieve some of the stress we put on the environment so we can all live together in a world that's not a hot, steaming garbage pit, but a beautiful garden that offers a place for all of us, and where even wooly mammoths can carve out some space for themselves on this land called Earth.

Friday, April 24, 2015

How Much Is a Book Worth?

     As you know, B works at our local library. Yesterday I got an automated call from the library telling me I have an overdue book. I know what it is:  Inferno: The World at War, 1939 - 1945 by Max Hastings. It's a big book, over 600 pages long, and it's not exactly a quick read. (I took a break, about halfway through, to enjoy a Michael Connelly mystery.) But the book is interesting. I've read a lot of material about the war in Russia and Southeast Asia that I didn't know about. I'm on page 480, and so I really don't want to return the book until I've finished it -- even though, now that the book is overdue, the meter is running at a whole 10 cents a day in fines.

     Yesterday, after B got home from work, and after dinner, we were talking about something involving one of her colleagues at the library; and so I mentioned that I have an overdue book.

     "Oh, well," she said, "just go onto the website and renew the book."

     "You can do that, even if it's overdue?" I asked.

     "Yeah, sure," she said. She was sitting at her computer. "Here, I'll do it for you. Oh, wait . . . do you know your library card number?"

     "Not off the top of my head," I replied. "Don't worry. I'll do it. The number comes up automatically on my computer."

     So I went over to my computer, logged on to the library website, and called up my account. Sure enough, the overdue book was Inferno. It was due on April 10. I found the renew button, clicked on it, and now the book is due on May 15. I've stopped the fines.

     Then I was curious, so I clicked on the tab that said "Fines" -- which had an exclamation point over it. It showed that I owed $1.20 in late fees, for the book that was overdue by 12 days.

     And this brought up an issue that B and I have discussed before. She thinks 10 cents a day is a perfectly appropriate fine for an overdue book. And the truth of it is, she sometimes gets an argument -- usually from an older person -- about the amount of a fine.

     An elderly woman wants to take out a book at the library. She goes to the circulation desk, and the clerk informs her that she owes, say, $1.50 in fines.

     The woman immediately starts to argue, making excuses, pleading ignorance, poverty, disability, travel plans, family matters . . . anything at all to get out of paying that $1.50 fine.

     But I think the fine for an overdue book is too low. Really . . . 10 cents? That's ridiculous. It ought to be higher. At least a quarter a day.

     After all, the fine for an overdue DVD is $2 a day. (And by the way, people rarely argue over the $2 DVD fine). What does that tell the patrons of the library? It tells them that a DVD is worth 20 times what a book is worth. It says that a book is hardly worth anything. Nobody wants it. It's useless, a throwaway.

     Which is exactly what B's son believes. He is wedded to his laptop and his smartphone, and thinks libraries are oudated and antiquated. Why do you need a library when you can get almost all the information in the world downloaded immediately to your electronic device? Why store all those dead-tree books when you can download any book you want onto your iPad -- usually for only a couple of bucks, and often for free?

     B's son is a smart kid. He is not a real reader. He occasionally reads a book, but he's got no respect for the printed word. He thinks paper books are an anachronism. They belong at a tag sale where you buy old lamps for $1 and old books for . . . 10 cents.

      So anyway, after I closed down my computer I told B I was going up to bed. But then I stopped and turned to her: "Oh, by the way, I owe $1.20 at the library. That's got me quaking in my boots. I'll make sure never to let a book get overdue again."

     "Very funny," she remarked.

     "You really ought to raise that fine," I pressed, not for the first time. "You know, you don't just automatically get respect. The library needs to stand up and say that these books are worth something. But 10 cents says to people: Ignore me; abuse me; I'm not worth anything. Most kids these days won't even bother to bend over and pick up a dime off the ground. At least a quarter is . . . worth picking up off the ground. You really should raise the fine to at least a quarter a day. Stand up. Be strong. Demand some respect for the books."

     She looked at me, rolled her eyes and (knowing I'm a Seinfeld fan) said: "Good night, Mr. Bookman."

    
    

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

How Do You Know You Have a Good Dentist?

     I got back from vacation to face reality. I had a dentist appointment.

     When I was growing up, my family always went to Dr. Murphy, who had a dental office in his home only a few blocks from our house. Dr. Murphy was old school. I remember, when I was little, he didn't use novocaine. Instead, he'd instruct me to rest my arms on the sides of his chair. Then he'd lean on my right arm as he started to drill and tell me, "Just raise your right arm if it starts to hurt."

     Of course, I'd start yelping, and try my hardest to raise my arm; but I was a little kid, and he was a big guy, so my arm wasn't going anywhere. It hurt like hell; but he finished the job as quickly as could be expected .... more quickly than if I'd been able to wiggle and squiggle and protest. So I guess this was his way to minimize the pain, before novocaine.

     I chipped my front tooth when I was in high school. By this time Dr. Murphy did have novocaine. He inserted a post into the tooth and filled out the chip with some kind of white compound. Now, 50 years later, that repair is still doing its job.

     I tried a few dentists as an adult, until I landed on Dr. Saltzman. He had dark hair and a deeply lined face to go along with his gruff exterior. But he took good care of my teeth for 25 years, filling cavities, putting in a few crowns, and generally keeping my mouth healthy by doing as much dentistry as needed, but not any more than necessary.

     About ten years ago Dr. Saltzman retired. A young fellow took over his practice, but I was not happy with him. And I haven't been happy ever since.

     The replacement was a nice guy; but the first job he did, a crown, never seemed right to me. So I switched to a group practice a few towns up the line. The office was reasonably priced and took my insurance. The problem was that you never got to see the same dentist twice. Every time I went in, there was a different person working on me. A lot of patients came and went; it was like an assembly line.

     Eventually, though, I developed a relationship with one young dentist and managed to schedule my appointments with her. She was caring and seemed to do good work.

     A couple of years ago I had to have a crown, and my usual dentist wasn't around so another dentist did the job. It seemed okay, for a while, but eventually started causing some intermittent pain. Then I started to get food caught in another tooth, and when I brought it to my regular dentist's attention she insisted that everything was okay. Then, last fall, she did a crown; and just last month a piece of the crown broke off.

     So I decided to try out another dentist. I thought of B's dentist; but she's not entirely happy with him, and besides, he's getting older and will probably retire soon. So I found a local dentist on the Internet, with some good reviews, and I had my first visit yesterday.

     She said she could replace my broken crown. She also said the crown that was hurting me had not been fitted in quite right -- there was a small gap that was probably causing the pain. And she pointed out that the place where food was getting stuck had part of an old filling broken off, and a cavity was beginning to develop underneath. The filling was too old and too big to replace. I needed a crown on that tooth, and also the tooth next door.

     This new dentist seems very confident. I thought I was in good hands. But after I got home I began to wonder: How come my old dentist didn't notice these problems? She never seemed incompetent, just a little rushed. So do I really have these problems, or is this new dentist looking to do extra work in my mouth? How can you tell?

     I googled both these dentists. My old dentist went to a top dental school. I couldn't find any review of her; but the reviews of her office were mixed. Some patients were satisfied; others cited outdated equipment and long waiting times. The new dentist also went to a good dental school. She seems to know what she's doing. She certainly has a more modern X-ray machine; perhaps she's even a little full of herself. But do I trust her?

Saturday, April 18, 2015

A Dirty Little Secret

     I've been traveling, away from home for nine days, and so far it has rained every single day, except one -- the very first day of my trip. Today, my last day, the sun peeked out for a while; but then the clouds blew in and brought yet more showers.

I like Hampton Inn
     I'm not complaining, though. I wanted to play more golf, for sure, but I did accomplish at least one of my goals for this vacation: I left the cold weather behind and greeted spring a few weeks earlier than I would have otherwise. I wonder how far spring has advanced at home -- there won't be any trees out, but maybe the daffodils and the forsythia. And when I talked to B she said she'd been sitting outside on the deck in the afternoon.

     Anyway, what's the dirty little secret? That traveling is not always what it's made out to be. It's not always sunshine and silken beaches. Not always luxurious golf resorts, or well-kept historical sites. Sometimes it's just the mundane monotony of the tourist traps and the American road, with fast-food joints, gas stations and chain hotels.

But I love KFC!
     Today, driving back north along the I95 corridor, I saw lines of cars and vans returning north, presumably from Florida. Obviously, retirees. The license plates read Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts.

     The rear windows of the SUVs were packed to the roofline. There were a few RVs; and many cars sported a trailer on the back with extra paraphernalia. I even saw a big Chevy Tahoe pulling some kind of homemade conveyance with a golf cart strapped into it.

     I spent a week at a golf-and-beach resort with my friends. But I also confess to staying over at a Best Western (no good); a Hampton Inn (I liked), a Homewood Suites (I liked even more). I have not stooped to dining at a McDonald's; but I plead guilty to Hardees (yuck); KFC (I'm sorry, but I like their chicken); and I've twice dined at a Cracker Barrel.

     So now you know that I'm no gourmet . . . another dirty little secret.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Best Laid Plans

     Well, I was hoping to offer a post full of sun and surf, retirement fun and hilarity. Instead, we ran into the rain. We played golf on a cloudy Friday, then started out on Saturday, in the rain, with a weather report that predicted 100 percent chance of rain. It continued to rain, off an on, for the next four hours, but we soldiered through the day and finished like the proud retirees we are.

     The next day we'd scheduled as a day off, and it was a good thing, too, since it rained all day. Then on Monday we set out, again in the rain, until we were washed out after nine holes.

I spent five minutes on the windswept beach
     That night I developed a runny nose and a sinus headache to beat the band. I took some Advil. It didn't seem to help at all.

     Ever the trooper, on Tuesday I got myself out of bed and over to the golf course with my friends -- only to be rained out yet again before we'd even finished the first hole. We slogged home, and I spent most of the rest of the day in bed. I did get up and dragged myself across the street to the grocery store to pick up some DayQuil and NyQuil, and some vitamin C. That's all I know to do for a cold.

     That evening I called B about 8 p.m.  "I've got a terrible headache," I told her. "Do you know, can I mix Advil and NyQuil? I took some DayQuil earlier. But I was thinking I'd take an Advil now and then the NyQuil in a couple of hours."

     "No," she told me. "Don't take any Advil. Take the NyQuil now. You'll get a good night's sleep."

     "But it's too early to take it now," I said. "It's only 8 o'clock. I'll fall asleep, then wake up at 5 a.m."

     "No you won't," she insisted. "Take it now. You'll go to sleep in an hour or two. And you'll sleep till 8 in the morning."

     So after we rang off, I downed the NyQuil and read my book for a little while (Inferno by Max Hastings, about World War II, which was recommended by Dianne at Schmidleysscribbling and which is a great book, but a little depressing when you're already feeling lousy with a cold). I drifted off to sleep around 10 p.m. And sure enough, I woke up a little after 8, feeling a whole lot better.
But this is what made me feel better

     My group hadn't scheduled anything for our last day, figuring it would be a make-up day in case we got rained out. But the rains continued, and so we missed out on our rain date as well. We weren't too happy, and a few minor arguments broke out. One of us is a cleanliness freak; the rest are not. One of us brought some DVDs of old TV shows and pressed everyone else to watch along with him. We were going out to dinner. We all like seafood -- except (you guessed it) for one guy, so we ended up at a roadside greasy spoon that no one liked.

     I did finally make it down to the beach this afternoon, before coming back to the condo and taking some more NyQuil. I was feeling better, but not all better. And so, once again . . . Zzzzzzzzz . . .

    

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Week Excuse

     This is the week of the Masters, probably the most prestigious golf tournament in America or the world for that matter. The Masters is held in Augusta, GA, every April.

     Tiger Woods is there, along with Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and all the other top players, including 75-year-old Jack Nicklaus, 79-year-old Gary Player and 85-year-old Arnold Palmer who as a threesome hit the ceremonial first shots on Thursday morning. (As of right now, on Saturday, 21-year-old Jordan Spieth holds an impressive five-stroke lead over the field.)

     So it may not surprise you to know that I myself am heading south to play golf . . . but not at the Masters. I did not get an invitation to play this year. I have never received an invitation to play. Even in my wildest fantasy, I don't get an invitation to play at the Masters. But I have found my way to another golf mecca, which is Myrtle Beach, SC.

     It's a tradition as sacred and revered  as the Masters, at least among my small group of friends. We abandon our wives. We leave our various responsibilities, obligations and household chores behind. And we head off for a week of golf and all the hilarity that accompanies it. Well, we do not go to the "gentlemen's clubs" that dot the Myrtle Beach landscape. We do a little drinking; but to be honest, none of us is a real drinker. One or two beers is about our limit; or sometimes, one or two Diet Cokes will suffice.

     We do however, go out to dinner and order all the stuff we rarely get to eat at home -- onion rings, French fries, hunks of meat, lots of desserts, and plenty of donuts for breakfast. We know this stuff is bad for us. But once every few years is not going to kill us. At least, that's our excuse.

     We spend some extra time going to the fitness room -- for real, there a fitness room at our resort -- and prowling the golf shops looking for bargains on a new golf club or electronic doodad that promises to improve our game.

     We're staying at the beach. It should be warm enough to walk the beach, but the water will probably be too cold for swimming. I do own a wetsuit, however, and I brought it along, just in case.

     Most of the time, when I travel, I prefer to go with B -- like I did when we went to Philadelphia last weekend. B and I always have a great time on vacation. But sometimes, you just gotta let loose with the guys.
     

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

An Underrated City

     It's the fifth largest city in the United States, the sixth largest metropolitan area. It has more colleges than Boston, and more history than Washington, DC -- and for ten years it actually was the capital of the United States.

Street scene in Chestnut Hill

     I'm talking about Philadelphia . . . land of Philly cheese steaks, the hoagie, the Phillies, the Flyers, the Eagles. Okay, maybe the sports teams aren't underrated. Philadelphia hasn't been in the Superbowl or World Series anytime in modern recorded history.

This storefront "proves" there's a hip Philadelphia


     But we spent the weekend in Philadelphia and were awestruck by the historic district, with its 2080-pound Liberty Bell, as well as Independence Hall and a number of other 18th-century sites. If you cup your hands around your eyes to blot out the skyscrapers, you might think you're still in Colonial America.

Not a greenhouse; a breakfast place

     Philadelphia is also home to many college students and young people. Boston has Harvard, MIT, BU, BC, Tufts, Northeastern. But Philadelphia has the University of Pennsylvania, Temple, Drexel, Swarthmore, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, Villanova, and a whole equation of others.

A local food co-op

     Of course the city has its many urban problems both racial and economic. But we found at least one peaceful, prosperous, racially mixed middle-class community in Mt. Airy. And Philadelphia can also boast a few young, hip neighborhoods like Fishtown, Fitler Square, Manayunk.

Our hotel
     
     I'm no expert on Philadelphia, just a tourist. We stayed in an area on the northwest corner of the city called Chestnut Hill, which is kind of "hip" but for an older crowd. There are lots of restaurants and coffee shops and antique stores and gift shops, as well as a food co-op and a couple of bed-and-breakfasts.

It's an old city. But there's new construction as well

     We ate at the Flying Fish restaurant and met the owner, who chatted us up and told us he's been running restaurants in Chestnut Hill for 40 years, ever since he graduated from Penn. I had celery root soup -- which I'd never tasted before, and it was really good -- and an entree of crab-filled pasta. B had brisket, and judging from all the slurping and moaning going on across the table I'd say she enjoyed it quite well.

The Flying Fish restaurant

     His daughter runs another restaurant up the street that serves breakfast and lunch. We wanted to stop by for a bite but ran out of time. So we're going to have to go back to Philadelphia . . . if for no other reason than we didn't get a chance to try all the restaurants!

The reason we have to go back



Saturday, April 4, 2015

Jersey's Not So Bad

     I'll be doing a lot of traveling for the next month, like any self-respecting retiree should. Except I won't be going to Hawaii or Tucson or Sarasota. I'll be going to . . . well, to start off, I'm traveling through New Jersey. Land of Chris Christie and Tony Soprano.

     The temptation is to do some New Jersey jokes. And I'm thinking Tony Soprano is New Jersey tough, so people from New Jersey can take it. For example:

     Why is New Jersey called the Garden State? Because Oil, Petroleum, Nuclear, Land Fill & Toxic Waste State didn't fit on a license plate!

     I said I was traveling through New Jersey. I'm not actually stopping there. Nobody actually stops in New Jersey. You wanna know why? Take a look:

New Jersey produces a lot of industrial materials

      Of course, you're probably thinking I'm not being fair. You can find a pile of junk somewhere, in any state of the union, if you look hard enough. So here's another view. This from Trenton:

View of Trenton, NJ

     Okay, say what you want about Trenton, but I happen to like the Janet Evanovich crime novels which feature the exploits of the tough, wisecracking Trenton bailbondsperson Stephanie Plum.

      Why does California have the most lawyers, and New Jersey the most toxic waste dumps? New Jersey got first pick.

     But still, it doesn't seem like this guy is particularly happy about being in Trenton:

At the Trenton Amtrak railroad station

     But one good thing about New Jersey is that it isn't very big. Go southwest, and you reach Philadelphia:

The Philadelphia skyline

      And to the northeast stands New York City:

New York's Freedom Tower rises up behind the Jersey skyline

     Now I know there are at least a few people from New Jersey who read this blog, so I hope they won't be offended. In a way, it's a compliment that I can joke about their state -- it's an appreciation that they're tough enough to take a comic shot or two.

     Did you hear about the power outage that took place at the state university in New Jersey? Over 30 students were stuck on the escalator for three hours.

     And to be fair, there are a lot of nice places in New Jersey as well. Many of the beaches along the Jersey shore are really gorgeous, and Cape May is one of my favorite vacation spots, anywhere, especially in September when the crowds are gone but the water is still warm. And remember, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis used to go horseback riding in the New Jersey hunt country. So you know it's gotta be nice out there. And by the way, those Kennedys were pretty tough, too.

     Speaking of tough, it makes me wonder. It takes a tough person to be president. I wonder if Tony Soprano would have made a good president. He certainly could whip Congress into shape. He might even be able to handle Vladimir Putin and take down ISIS. Whaddya think: Would he have been a Democrat or Republican?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

"Don't Worry, I Can Hold It"

     Around where I live we start playing golf in the beginning of April. It was opening day of the season. My friends and I usually play at one of our local public courses, but this year we wanted to get the season off on an especially good foot. We decided to travel up the parkway and play at a really nice links course in the country.

     The only thing about the course is that it's about 40 miles north, or close to an hour's drive. So my friend -- the friend I call Peter -- and I decided to carpool. Now if you knew Peter, you'd know he's a little . . . well, how do I put this? He's a little "creative." As in quirky, flakey, off-the-wall. We all love him; he's fun to be around; he's really a great guy who'd do any favor for you in a minute. But he's a little . . . well, if you ever watched "Seinfeld," he's our Kramer.

     Just one quick story about Peter. A few years ago, when he was getting a divorce, he decided to take a vacation to Australia. He went by himself. He arrived at the airport and picked up his rental car. Did he want the insurance? Usually you answer "no" to that question, because a rental car is often covered by your regular car policy, or else your credit card. But Peter was in a foreign country; so he decided to be safe and take the insurance.

     He threw his bag in the trunk, got in the car, and drove off the lot onto the highway. Then he remembered he'd put his hotel information in his bag. In the trunk. So he pulled over onto the shoulder of the road. He got out, leaving the door open, went around to the back of the car and opened the trunk. His head was buried in the trunk, rooting around for his papers when . . . WHACK! A pickup truck clipped his open door. The car door went flying off in an explosion of metal and plastic.

     The truck stopped. It was hardly damaged. Peter was fine. But the rental car had a big gaping hole on the driver's side where the door was supposed to be.

     Peter stood there for a moment. Then he shrugged. He got back in the car, turned around and went back to the rental car lot -- not 15 minutes after he'd left. He returned the car and explained what happened. They gave him a new car, and he drove off to enjoy his vacation.

     This could only happen to Peter. So it might not surprise you to hear that I told Peter I'd be happy to be the one to drive to the golf course. We arranged to meet at the mall by the parkway. He'd leave his car there; and I'd drive up to the course.

     I pulled into the lot next to Macy's, as we'd agreed. He wasn't there yet. I parked; I looked at my watch; and then I saw Peter drive up. He parked next to me, pulled out his golf bag, and I motioned for him to throw his clubs in my backseat.

     He put in clubs in the back then opened the passenger door and got in. "Sorry I'm a little late," he apologized.

     "No problem," I said.

     "I had to take my medicine this morning."

     "Oh, what medicine?" I asked.

     "Well, have you ever had a colonoscopy?"

     "Yeah, sure."

     "I'm getting my first one tomorrow. So, you know, I had to start the medicine today."

     "The medicine?"

     "Yeah, the stuff that's supposed to get you ready for the procedure. It cleans you out. I wasn't allowed to eat breakfast this morning either. I'm really hungry."

     "Wait a second, Peter . . . you mean the laxative?"

     "Yeah."

     "Well, Peter, don't you know, we'll be on the golf course for four hours. It's an hour drive up there. Another hour back home. We'll be gone for six hours."

     "Yeah. So what?"

     "But . . . have you ever had that stuff before?"

     "No, why?"

     I was breaking into a cold sweat, imagining Peter exploding all over my car. "It makes you go to the bathroom. That's the whole point."

     "Oh, I can hold it. No problem."

     "What do you mean, hold it? You can't hold it!"

     "No, really, I can hold it."

     "Peter, you're . . ."

     Then Peter looked at me. A big smile crossed his face. "April Fool!"