A History of Fools

The origin of April Fools’ Day is kind of like April Fools’ pranks themselves. If you read through the history, it’s hard to tell truth from fiction. The celebrated tradition of pranking might have started as part of a festival to praise the humble OR it might have been a way to ridicule a captured enemy before his execution or – no, wait – it was because some people got confused about when to celebrate the new year.

It might have started in France. Or maybe England. Or Rome. For certain. Maybe. It’s kind of hard to say…

12mrtAccording to Infoplease, one convincing explanation was provided by Joseph Boskin, a Professor of History at Boston University. He linked the practice to the Roman emperor Constantine, when a group of court jesters told Constantine that they didn’t get enough respect and could do a better job ruling the land. The emperor decided to appoint a jester named Kugel as king for the day, and Kugel took the opportunity to pass an edict created an annual absurdity day. When Boskin’s story was widely reported in 1983, it sounded convincing. But, as it turned out, he was just being feisty with an Associated Press reporter who wouldn’t take “I dunno” for an answer to “Where’d the tradition start, professor smartypants?” So as a joke he’d made up the story and used the reference to “kugel” because the reporter was in New York and he thought, well, everyone in New York eats kugel, don’t they?… When the AP fellow asked him to spell “kugel,” he wondered if the joke would be taken seriously. It was.

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The Key to Wealth & Happiness: Ignore Other People (and other Paradoxes)

I’ve always had a beef with that societal notion of Happiness, and when reading the book Flow on what makes people enjoy life, I realized why. “Happy people” in the media always seem to be rich, thin, beautiful, lucky, brilliant, or talented – all unattainable notions to me or the average Jane. In the book Flow, an analysis of what makes people truly happy, it turns out none of those things drive Happiness at all. And in a recent update to the influential book The Millionaire Next Door, on how ordinary people achieve financial security, the message is similar. Ignore external messages; ignore social media; ignore commercials. Or as a folk singer once said, “it’s an inside job.”

I will note at the outset that this is a somewhat paradoxical entry. I’m telling you to read my explanation and advice on how to improve your life by ignoring other people. This reminds me a little of the Steve Martin bit where he would say, “Now, repeat after me, ‘I will not say things that other people tell me to say’…all together now….’”

But bear with me. The keys to discovering wealth and happiness are not avoiding other people’s advice or ignoring your friends and family, but rather learning when to react to cues from society and the environment and when to ignore them.

The Millionaire Next Door by Thomas Stanley and William Danko

millionairecoverLet’s tackle wealth first; it’s easier. The Millionaire made a very strong impression on me when I first read it 15 years ago. Since many have asked me how I have figured out how to leave the corporate world early, I would point to these principles. The book was based on large scale studies of affluent families and found that people accumulating wealth would probably not be recognized as such. They drive older cars, spend on few luxuries, and save the fruits of their hard-earned labor. They don’t tend to play the lottery but do understand the “miracle of compound interest.” They do take financial risk in keeping with appropriate rewards – save money, leverage money, but don’t gamble money.   A key theme is to ignore “keeping up with the Joneses”: affluent people don’t purchase things because their neighbor has them.

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Happy St. Urho’s Day!

St. Urho is the patron saint of Finland, and March 16th is a celebration day for great merriment and drinking throughout all of the North. As it says on www.sturho.com, St. Urho was the saint who drove the grasshoppers out of Finland, saving the wine crop. His colors are Royal Purple and Nile Green. He did this by uttering the phrase: “Heinäsirkka, heinäsirkka, mene täältä hiiteen” (roughly translated: “Grasshopper, grasshopper, go to Hell!”).

sturhoNow, you might perhaps suggest that there are no grasshoppers in the coniferous forests and ice lands of Finland, where 25% of the land lies above the Arctic Circle. Thank to St. Urho, of course! You might perhaps suggest that Finland is not particularly known for its great wines, but neither is Ireland known for its vodka despite the ballyhoo about the potato crop. And Finland is known for its great drinking, as it ranks 9th in the world for death by alcoholism, compared with the US which is a mere 39th and Ireland which is way down at #63.

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Your Tax Dollars at Work

When doing someone’s taxes, divorce seems to be the most painful situation to handle. The dissolution of a household and its financial entanglements are difficult to pick apart. Even standard questions about whether there’s alimony or who provides 50% of the household support for children push emotional buttons. It’s also very hard to tell someone they’ve been under-withheld and have to pay, especially when they’re making less than $30,000 a year. The financial entrails of the tax year reveal volumes about the miseries and joys within people lives – worker’s compensation claims that speak to turmoil on the job, brand new exemptions heralding a childbirth, or filing statuses that change from Single to Married to Single, Single to Married to Widowed to Single again.

Since transitioning out of my corporate job, I have navigated – by accident or fate – into helping prepare taxes for two services. My venerable friend Jeff, also a former bank finance employee, had mentioned for a couple of years his involvement with a volunteer program that handles taxes for low income earners. The program has many names – VITA, TCE, or Earn it! Keep it! Save It! – and many sponsors, from United Way to AARP, all including training, software, and processes under the aegis of the IRS. This sounded like a good way to redirect my energies while deciding what else to do with my time (aside from blogging for you good readers). As I was completing my required exams to certify, I was also asked out of the blue if I wanted to work a few hours a week by my local tax preparer, and it seemed natural to be entering tax data on two fronts, one for free and one for data-entry level wages. Continue reading “Your Tax Dollars at Work”

Uncle Oscar’s Birthday

Well, that didn’t go exactly like I thought it would. I had this entry half drafted Sunday afternoon, speculating on the culturally tragic implications of The Revenant winning Best Picture and sweeping most of the Academy Awards, but there were quite a few surprises, weren’t there?

8uncleoscarIt was Uncle Oscar’s birthday, and like going to that family dinner, you love it and dread it simultaneously. You love Aunt Sadie’s meatballs, but her inappropriate comments make you cringe. Your cousin corners you about some business venture or cause that bores you to tears or requires a donation. It will go on too long with too much bland food, and you know you’re going to fight with your spouse on the drive there and on the way home. And yet you’d never miss it.

Results notwithstanding, my original question is worth asking: Is it a crime against humanity or a travesty of justice if the Best Picture of the year is a movie you didn’t particularly like? Or one which, from the moment you saw the trailer, you had no interest in seeing? Is the Best Picture the “best picture” artistically or popularly, or sometimes one and sometimes the other?

As the 88th Academy Awards unfolded, I wondered if the movies I happen to like would get the recognition they so clearly deserve in the World According to ME or if those cretinous voters would demonstrate that they were drugged out of their mind or kidnapped by Moonies. My answer, as with most years, is probably a little of both.

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