The misadventures of a first time father

Knocking down debt with the snowball method – another update

Eight years ago, I was single, working as a newspaper reporter and living on my own in an apartment.

Oh, yeah. I was also buried in debt – student loans, credit cards, car payments, you name it.

It’s not something I’m proud of, but as I’ve chronicled here in the past, I put all this out there for two reasons. The first is as a motivator. By admitting to the mistakes of my past, publicly, I hope to be less likely to repeat them. The second is because it is a reminder for me of just how far I’ve been able to come at eliminating debt.

Back then, I felt trapped, helpless, that this was going to be the way it was for the rest of my life and there was no way I could possibly get myself out of it. At times, I even took the absolutely wrong approach of looking at myself as a victim. I blamed the credit card companies, I blamed the banks, I blamed everybody because I felt ‘preyed upon’ in my youth, I didn’t know what I was getting into, etc. That didn’t help matters.

But in time, I realized I had to sink or swim. I got serious about it early on, but my desire to “clear up the books” only intensified when Meg and I got married, and hit overdrive when we had our little guy and began to realize that one day, there’s a good chance we could outgrow our house.

Before he was born in 2012, I had managed to clear up the credit card debt and now live completely credit card free. It’s incredibly liberating. Planning budgets, spending only what you have, saving for something if you really want it. It’s like a great big puzzle, but one that is so absolutely satisfying when you’re not owing money (and interest) to someone.

We bought our current house as a foreclosure and fixed it up, keeping our mortgage low but putting a nice roof over our heads and a warm place for our family to grow.

With the credit cards paid off, I began, as noted in earlier posts, to focus on student loan debt via Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Method to debt. With four student loan lenders, I took focus on one at a time (making regular payments to three of them), but throwing as much extra money as I could at the one with the smallest balance.

We’re often told to go for the one with the highest interest rate, but there’s a psychological aspect to paying something off. It motivates, it makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something, and hitting the lowest balances first allows you to do that and feel great about it, making you want to move on to the next.

So for me, I tackled Keybank. Once they were paid off, I moved on to National Education, taking all the money I was paying each month to Keybank and ‘snowballing it’ on top of my regular National Education payment. Before I knew it, I had that student loan paid off as well.

That then led me to two student loans and a car payment. The car payment was the lowest balance between all three, so I took the payments I was making to Keybank and National Education and snowballed them on top of my car payment, which has just recently allowed me to pay off my car more than a year early.

It really feels incredible.

This is where I was in May 2014:

National Education – $1,500

Car Payment – $6,800

Sallie Mae – $12,200

Discover/Citibank Student Loan – $23,000

Here’s where I was in September 2014:

Car Payment – $4,833

Sallie Mae – $11,878

Discover/CitiBank Student Loan – $21,379

And here’s where I stand now:

Sallie Mae – $11,379

Discover/CitiBank Student Loan – $19,386

I’m not one who needs a new car every few years and believe me, if I can maintain the one I have and get it to last as long as possible, I will be thrilled to do so, because now I own it. No bank, no dealer, just me.

Believe me. I’m the guy who is still using the old 4:3 television set I got as a Christmas gift from my parents in college 15 years ago as the family TV in our living room. I’m not one obsessed with spending money on the latest and greatest.

Of course, now there is all that money that was going toward these snowballed car payments each month, which has totaled out to roughly $700.

So, from here, I stood at a crossroads, determining what to do with that $700. If I were to continue on in the purest form of Dave Ramsey’s Snowball Method, I would take that $700 and apply it on top of one of the two remaining student loans. But, there’s other things I’m taking into consideration, including the possibility of needing another car eventually and the fact that one day, we might need to be looking for another house if our family grows out of the current one.

With that in mind, I’m doing a sort of ‘partial snowball effect’ from hereon in, taking $200 of that car payment money and applying $100 extra toward each of my student loans (Discover and Sallie Mae). It will likely take about five years to pay them each off, but that’s better than the 9 remaining years if I were keep making basic payments on each.

That leaves $500 of non-earmarked money that can be put away for any variety of things – whether that be some toward an emergency down payment for a car one day, a little money put aside for Christmas shopping, building savings, or just eventually being able to have some more money to put toward a mortgage if we decide it’s time to find a new home.

I’m not writing this to brag. The reason I’m doing this is because I once felt so buried that I saw absolutely no hope that my life could get better, but it did. It took time. It took cutting back, living a little more simple, not having everything.

But the feeling of a possible future that’s not tied to a shackle of debt is one that can and will keep me going.

Sleeping kitties and spinning plates

"Quit hoggin' the covers."

                “Quit hoggin’ the covers.”

Of all our three cats, nobody is the bundle of love that is our Jasper. While our other two have their moments of wanting some love, Jasper has been ever-consistent since the day he arrived and first curled into Meg’s lap and went to sleep on our front porch.

Just as early upon his arrival, shortly after we would call it a night, the sound of little paws could be heard hurrying up the stairs and leaping onto our bed, making his way over the cloud of sheets into the middle of the bed. He waits for us to lift the sheet or comforter so that he can tunnel in, turn around so his head sticks out at the head of the bed, and then plops down on one side, usually with a paw on Meg, and quickly dozes off.

The other night, as Meg and Jasper slept, his purring next to me lulling me into a relaxed state of sleep myself, my mind began to wander. And it wandered to the realization that things won’t be like this forever. For a while if we’re lucky, yes, but not forever. Sadly, nothing is. It all began to hit me like an emotional avalanche at that point. Every night this amazing little kitty curls up like a child between us, giving us more unconditional love than probably any human is capable, and yet, how often do I stop to realize just how amazing that is? How often do I stop to appreciate it?

Let’s broaden the scope a bit beyond Jasper, because my realization was prompted by but in no means limited to his furry, lovable little self.

I’m often a victim of my own drive to do things, cornering myself into a routine and life made up of to-do lists, projects and whatever the next priority is. I don’t know what it stems from. Sometimes I think it’s because I have some (possibly irrational) obsession with creating, making things, doing things, leaving something behind (be it a website, a book, a blog, a comic, a film, or any other project I tend to be working on at the moment). Because of this, there is constantly a list of things to be scratched off my planner each day, or the dry erase board next to my desk.

But the side effect of this drive to constantly having many irons in the fire is that I literally live a life controlled by lists, motivated by crossing something off that list, completing a project and immediately looking to what the next project is.

And in the meantime, I’m never stopping to appreciate the life around me – the people, the places, the events, the emotions and yes, the cats like Jasper.

I often like to quote Ferris Bueller, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. “

And that seems to be exactly what’s happening. I’m 35 years old. It seems like I blinked and 18-34 were gone, already a lifetime ago. And yet, I’m still going at the same speed on a million different things as I have all those years past instead of stopping to realize and appreciate all the wonderful people around me – my wife, my son, my parents, my brother, our cats, our neighbors, our friends – and truly enjoy the time I have with these folks while it’s available. Because before I know it, the next 35 years will be by in a blink, and no amount of blog posts, comics written, films made, books published, will ever be able to make up for it.

This isn’t a blueprint for how I’m going to do it, because honestly, I’m not quite sure. But I’m hoping that, much like other issues, admitting to it and realizing that it’s a problem might be the place to start.

A Headline of Some Importance this Mother’s Day (well, for us anyway)…

Here we go again. That media, making a big deal out of everything. Okay. It is kind of a big deal. ;)

Since we’re both pretty big fans of the satirical newspaper The Onion, this seemed like a natural approach for ‘the big reveal,’ as it were. Fortunately, our son turned out to have pretty good timing and inherited his father’s hammy acting. :)

In all seriousness, we’re very excited.

(you can click to enlarge, if you like)

The Rutabega - Copy copy

“It not real anymore”

Spring has arrived, and with it, a chance for our son to run around outside to his heart’s content (sometimes even longer). Running, singing, dancing, playing, and possibly the most interesting, exploring the world around him.

It was in my mom’s backyard the other day when my casual sitting and absorbing of sunshine and fresh air was brought to a halt by his urgent need to take me with him elsewhere in the yard. “Me show you something.”

He laid himself down on the cement step outside the back door, saying “Helloooo, ladybug! Dada, there a ladybug down here.”

He loves ladybugs, and I love his constant need to protect them when he finds them. We were even at a playground recently where he thought some holes in red plastic on a slide/tube were ladybugs and didn’t want to go down for fear of hurting them. When I showed him they weren’t ladybugs at all, he felt incredibly relieved and continued on his merry play.

I looked over and there it was. On the ground, next to that cement step, aside from pieces of broken stone and some dirt, was a slightly faded ladybug, still and silent.

Then, he said, “It not real anymore.”

Huh, I thought. What an interesting observation. He was incredibly correct. I knew exactly what he was telling me. The ladybug had long since passed, but it sent me into a swirl of thoughts about how his little mind, a few months shy of three, processes such things.

“It not real anymore.”

The earliest recollection I have of even thinking about death came from the episode of Sesame Street when Mr. Hooper died. And honestly, it still sticks with me to this day. I still get a little sad during Mr Hooper’s scenes as we watch Christmas Eve on Sesame Street.

My first real dealings with death, personally, came in the third grade, when one night I received a phone call to our house (long before cell phones, kids!) from a classmate, who was crying, and told me that a girl in our class had died in a car accident while on a family vacation. A lot of the evening is an emotional blur of a memory, but I remember it having a big impact. I had been very lucky up that age of 8 or 9 or whatever age I was in third grade, in that I didn’t have to deal with death up to that point. So, when it hit that first time, it hit like a rock. I remember being quite a mess, and not being able to really comprehend it all. My grandfather, who lived across the street at the time, came over and talked me through it. I don’t remember what he said, exactly, but I remember some of it was a, sort of, reality-based “they’re gone. they’re not coming back and you’ve got to accept that, deal with it, and do the best you can.” I’m probably not giving him enough credit. It wasn’t a bad talk, it was just to-the-point. But it worked. At least in the long run. I still get emotional about the loss of people in my own life, but my grandfather’s words/lesson always stayed with me that while we can miss someone (or miss a ladybug), you just…find a way, some way to carry on with your own life. It’s different, for sure, but you do it, because, like he said, you can’t change it, no matter how much you want to, so you have to do your best.

Meg’s explained (in some simple terms) for him in the past why one of my parent’s dogs or our neighbor wouldn’t be around anymore. And someday, we will have to have a more in-depth talk on the topic, of course, but for now, I’m okay with him processing that ladybug’s lack of presence however he wants to in order to understand.

The Little Mouse Santi

As I’ve mentioned (a lot) in the past, storytime is a very important part of our daily routines. Whether it’s post-bathtime or not, our pre-bedtime ritual always involved getting a few books off our little guy’s bookshelf (although for quite some time he’s been old enough to pick them out on his own), all plop down on mama and dada’s bed and read together before calling it a night. It’s a ritual, and one that means quite a lot to all of us.

Sure, sometimes we read many of the same ones over and over again, because the little guy has his favorites that he wants to hear again and again, but every now and then, he lets us slip in a new one to try. That’s why when I was given the opportunity from Independent Publishers Group to take a look at a new book, I jumped at the chance.

So we recently read a new book before bed called “The Little Mouse Santi.”

The book, written by David Eugene Ray and illustrated by Santiago Germano, tells the story of a mouse named Santi who, more than anything else in the world, wants to be a cat. He practices all day at everything he thinks cats are good at – strutting themselves across a room, swishing his tail, cat baths, meowing, and of course, looking bored with life.

While the other mice laugh at Santi, he longs to join the cats he sees outside on the farm, eventually overcoming his courage to give it a try when he spots a cute orange tiger cat lounging in the grass.

The illustrations in this book by Germano are beautiful, with a slick, clean style across every line, making even those mice who are laughing at poor Santi downright adorable.

I really did enjoy it. If I had a critique it’s that I liked it enough that I wanted more from it. I would have liked a little more reassurance and confidence-building from Santi as he finally establishes the courage to step out of his comfort zone in the pursuit of his dream. I wanted Santi to feel bad about what the others say but get over it, realizing what they think doesn’t matter. What Santi does in the course of the story comes with a great gamut of emotions that I think everyone goes through at some point in their childhood, and I think a child could learn a lot about self-confidence and the joy of being unique if there were just a few touches upon overcoming those emotions along Santi’s journey.

It’s a swift read, and as I say, accompanied by absolutely beautiful color illustrations. Having never published a children’s book, I certainly can’t speak to the process. But as a reader, I felt Santi’s adventure and dreams could resonate a lot with a small child, but I’d love a little bit more to it.

Coloring our composers

Colorful Composters“What’s the purple guy’s name?”

The question came out of the blue from the backseat of the car one afternoon driving home,

I looked around – nope, no one dressed in purple out shoveling their driveway or going for a jog that he might be looking at.

Just a moment or two ago, we were talking about the music on the radio. He always likes to ask “What’s this guy’s name?” which I’ve come to learn is his way of asking who the artist is. I tend to keep it to two channels in the car when he’s with me – SiriusXm Symphony Hall for classical and sometimes 40s on 4 for some music from the Big Band era. (I save the 80s and 60s music for when I’m on my own.)

We go over the names, and his retention has been fantastic, remembering names like Mozart and Beethoven, and even Vivaldi, of whom he says “That’s a silly name!”

So, as he kept asking me who the ‘purple guy’ is, I honestly had no idea what he was talking about.

Then he kept going, informing me that Beethoven is red, Mozart is blue, and Vivaldi is orange, and asking once, again “What’s the purple guy’s name?”

I didn’t have an answer for him, but while confused, felt like I finally had some kind of explanation. Whoever this ‘purple guy’ was, it must have been someone associated with the music.

This could have just been some one and done car game he was playing, but it also made me look a little further into something I was only peripherally aware of previously – something called synesthesia.

I’m not saying that what he did was any indication of synesthesia, just that it prompted me to look into it a little more out of curiosity.

Synesthesia is defined as a condition where one of our senses (such as hearing) is, at the same time, perceived as if by one or more additional senses, such as our sight. There is another form of synesthesia that associates objects like letters, shapes, numbers or people’s names with a sensory perception such as smell, color or flavor. The word synesthesia comes from two Greek words, syn (together) and aisthesis (perception). Therefore, synesthesia literally means “joined perception.”

The most common form of synesthesia is colored letters and numbers, when someone always sees a particular color in response to a certain letter or number. (“Nine is green, B is red,” that sort of thing.)

According to a Neuroscience for Kids site by a faculty member at the University of Washington, there isn’t an official way to diagnose synesthesia, but researchers have set up some guidelines (although it isn’t something all are in agreement upon; it serves merely as a starting point for diagnosis):

  • a potential synesthete does not actively think about their perceptions; they just happen.
  • instead of experiencing something in the “mind’s eye,” such as when you’re asked to think of or imagine a color, a synesthete often actually, physically sees a color projected outside of the body.
  • it has to be perceived the same way every time. If you see red when you hear the letter B, it has to be red every time.
  • the color is often remembered better than the object, name, letter, etc associated with it. (i.e. you’d remember orange better than you would Vivaldi).
  • The perceptions also cause emotional reactions and feelings.

There doesn’t seem to be a definite estimate of how many people can have synesthesia, according to the research by the Washington University faculty member. The ranges seem to go from 1 in 200 to 1 in 100,000, and notes that there are probably many more folks who have it but don’t realize they have it. They often tend to be women (three times more likely in the U.S. than men), are more often left-handed, are of normal or possibly above-average intelligence and that it often times seems to be inherited.

I find this to be a fascinating area of study, and whether the little guy actually did see a color, or our little composer bit was just a one and done episode of silliness that prompted me to learn a little more about synesthesia, well, color me interested.

Happy Birthday, Mr Rogers

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Courtesy of TheDailyQuotes.com

Today, Mr Fred Rogers would have been 87 years old.

While the gentle “Won’t you be my neighbor?” has, over the years, sometimes turned into a bit of a sarcastic punchline in pop culture, Mr Rogers himself, and the lessons and values that he presented, left a lasting impact on my life, as no doubt it did countless other lives over the course of multiple generations.

I was about 3 or 4 when I first joined ‘the neighborhood.’ My brother was just born/was a baby, and we lived in a two-family apartment building in an area of our city that, while maybe not that great, was home. I still remember running from one of the apartment to the other when Sesame Street would end, grabbing my sweater and sneakers because I knew what was up next.

And as Mr Rogers walked through that door and greeted us viewers, I sat in the living room of our apartment, putting on and zipping up my little sweater along with him, and tossing my sneaker from one hand to the next. I wanted to be just like that guy, I would think.

As I got older and grew out of the daily routine of my Sesame Street/Mr Rogers TV block, the values that came from them remained, even if I didn’t realize it.

No, I would have to wait until I was a great deal older, and much more introspective about myself and my life before I would see that. But now I do. I realize that while I was watching with a childhood curiosity and thirst for entertainment back then, what I was getting was a reinforcement of values and morals that taught all of us what it meant to be a good person.

It was really special. I knew it then, even if I didn’t know why. And while it took a few decades later and becoming a father myself, I know it again.

Thankfully, those lessons are being taught to new generations today through Fred Rogers’ Company in shows like the animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.

So thank you, Fred Rogers, for all you did for me and for so many other kids over the years. For teaching us, not our ABCs or 1, 2, 3s, but how to be kind, why to be kind, and how to help.

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