Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Let's Play Catch Up

I bet you're ready for an update, yes?  I don't think there's been any question that the last half of 2012 has been a blur on the Morton-Wood crazy train.  



Mike's Homecoming

The cats were absolutely thrilled when Mike swapped the 100-degree temperatures of the Middle East for the balmy weather of Iowa.  Several weeks of sleeping in, eating food that isn't reconstituted, and an influx of relaxation time has acclimated this wacky vet to our time zone.  


Mike's next plan is to recommence classes in January and obtain a job, both to keep his time occupied and our finances in good shape.
 
Teaching Demands

Right as Mike got home, I started two classes back in Waterloo.  Now I've done two classes at a time before, but I split them between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo.  I can't say that I regret driving 60 miles away two nights a week, but I have learned that I should avoid such an arrangement in the future.  There's something about that extra two-hour roundtrip that throws off my schedule.

Right now I'm teaching my standard film class and the new-to-me public speaking.  It's only the second time I've taught oral communications and my class is 3x larger than the first round (ok, increase of 6 to 22 students, but still ...).  I'm starting to get a real feel for the class and have gained considerable confidence since this summer.  But it's nonetheless a huge amount of work because it's still experimental for me.  And, much like a writing course, public speaking is a heavy work load between activities and grading. 


I also got offered a temporary editing gig with my university.  All students have to write a 15+ page paper to graduate. Beyond their subject area teacher, another faculty member offers feedback and edits - that's me.  I only had a handful of papers to edit, but they were drafts by students, not finished articles from my magazine colleagues, and accordingly took a lot of time to comb through.  A fantastic challenge for my editing skills though!  

Sometimes I wonder why I teach so much though.  This year I've taught 5 courses (one more than I usually have) and 2 were for the first time.  I suppose it's a teacher sin to say you do it for the money, but let's be honest about adjuncting - like any job, it's to pay the bills.  I love teaching; believe me, I'm very passionate about exposing my students to new ideas.  I just so happen to need an income boost that adjuncting can support - I don't think admitting that devalues what I do in the classroom.

Finances
Mike's deployment income has finally wound up.  With some vigilance, we were able to accomplish the following with our windfall: 
  • I can proudly say that we have ZERO credit card debt!  Not a penny is owed to any financial institutional (beyond loans, of course).  That's $7,000 that is no longer hanging over our heads or collecting interest.
  • We paid off our family debt. 'Nuff said. 
  • Our Jamaica vacation of $4,700 was paid for out of pocket.
  • Using my teaching income, we have rent secured through April 2013.
  • Our savings account is the healthiest it's ever been 
I always do a double take when I log into online banking.  Originally we were going to pay off a $9,000 car loan.  But we got to talking about the future and how we're now back to a single-income family.  We agreed we would feel more comfortable stashing that money away while Mike looked for jobs.  Financial advice recommends that you have 3-6 months of expenses available for emergency savings - we're more than covered now.   


I have never had that much money in savings in my life and it frankly scares me.  At least we're both good about keeping money locked up - no crazy plans to buy gizmos and gadget we don't need.  We do know that our 1998 truck will likely need to be replaced in the next 12 months.  Good motivation to leave those funds where they are.  

Salary Increases
Part of that drive comes from our 2013 financial outlook.  I recently earned a cost-of-living pay raise at work amounting to 2%.  While appreciated, an extra $80 a month is nothing to sneeze at.  Sure, that represents two tanks of gas or a workable amount of groceries, but nothing more.


Instead, I'm going to finally open a 401k.  I won't miss that money and it will at least be a start to retirement savings.  Would love to contribute more, but we just aren't there yet.  Can't be taking away from the utility bill to fund the future.  Just need to keep working on reducing our other expenses so I can eventually put in more. 

What's going on with you?
  

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Bad Day for Iowa

My post today has nothing to do with financial advice or tips to improve your life.  It has everything to do with two children who can no longer ride their bikes, go to school, be with their families, or grow into adults.

Earlier this summer, two cousins went missing in Evansdale, IA.  Today, it was confirmed that their remains were found in nearby woods. 

It's not every day that murder rocks your community.  At least not in Iowa.  And most definitely not to children so young (8 and 10).


It's weird to be in Cedar Rapids, 60 miles away, and feel the sadness of this situation.  But I lived in Cedar Falls/Waterloo for 8 years and Evansdale practically merges into Waterloo.  All three cities are in Black Hawk County, a place I called home for a long time. 

My connection to the area is still deep and I return routinely to meet with old friends.  I still teach in Waterloo and my students are all locals.  I can't count how many times I drive past Evansdale on Hwy 20 in a given year. 

I was in Waterloo this summer when this all started.  My students and I talked about it - there was a huge sense of community.  People were concerned, wanted to help.  One of my students was an officer with the Evansdale Police Department.  Naturally they couldn't say anything, but it was clear long nights were being logged. 

The search for the girls remained strong as the weeks marched on.  Fliers are posted at every gas station and grocery store I frequent, even in Cedar Rapids.  Awareness for the case has been everywhere.     

I was in Waterloo last night when the first press conference announced the find.  And  I sit here now, from the safety of my desk, thinking about this morning's confirmation.


I can't shake this intangible feeling I have today.  Is it shock?  Is it a mixture of sadness and anger?  A taste of grief?  I can't tell.  This is the first time I've had even a remote connection with a tragedy like this.  All I can tell is that when something like this happens in your town, the reverberations are profound. 

This isn't a crime happening in a big city far away.  You're not blaming the victims for doing something that led to their demise.  It's not a stranger's kids, someone else's family.  
   
A community coming together in unity often generates a sense of ownership.  Those are our girls.  And this is what makes everything about this situation feel personal.    

The scarier thought is who is responsible and why?  If there's a concrete suspect, the police haven't said anything and the tip lines are still open.  You shudder to think that someone in your community could have done the deed (assuming it's someone local).  That someone who you could have seen at the grocery store, walked past at the gas station, would do something so terrible. 

It's easy to read a detective novel or watch a crime movie and never feel a connection with the victims - they're just a plot element.  You focus on the police officer, the private investigative, the inner workings of a killer's mind in those stories.

But this isn't a story.  These victims are real.  Someone murdered two kids in a small town and no one knows why. 


I can't help but think how long those two were actually alive after they were kidnapped.  Did they suffer or was it over mercifully?  You don't want to think of the horror anyone, much less children, much less young girls, could experience in a situation like this.  My mind nonetheless is nawing on those possbilities.

Until the full details come to light, it is a crime of randomness.  No obvious rhythm or reason.  Just bad luck, to put it plainly.   I suppose that's what hits people the hardest - there's nothing and no one to blame.  All these negative emotions and no one to take them out on.    

There's no moral of the story here.   No safety tips or preventive measure to pass on.  Only a profound sense of disgust that the lives of two kids were deliberately stolen.       

Friday, November 9, 2012

Voter Regret in 2012


Just momentarily, I'm renaming this blog "When Every Voter Counts." We'll be back to our regularly scheduled programming shortly :)




Up until this week, I hated politics. The political atmosphere of my childhood was so monolithic that everyone assumed they were all on the same page. In other words, it really wasn't discussed. At least not in front of the youngins.

College was fraught with the politics of student organizations, university decisions, interpersonal communication, and teacher-student discourse. Alcohol, pop culture, sex, music, movies, and art were also discussed at length.

I'm sure I had and have friends who are very politically active, but I never sought out those conversations. As a chronic nice person, I didn't want to be amid heated discussions where passion is hard to distinguish from disrespect and my lack of political knowledge could be ridiculed.

Don't get me wrong - I voted the minute I could. I have voted in three presidential elections and two for state officials. I know my voice counts and it's my right and duty to make sure it's heard, even if filling in bubble sheets is my only active and public contribution.

But the last decade of my life has been spent becoming progressively more glum about this country. A striking contrast to every other part of my life, I am jaded.

I have a rather pessimistic view of the current state of affairs and where we are headed. I'm a registered independent and no matter whether I like one party's talking points over another, I feel our political system is broke. I want to believe it serves the people and I want to have hope that things will get better. But the evidence accumulated in my relatively short life isn't very encouraging.


That changed this week. Because of my bleak viewpoint, I had a major crisis of conscious when it came to voting. I was terribly worried about the repercussions of my vote, about what kind of national atmosphere it would be contributing to. I was torn between voting for the guy I wanted in (and knew was likely to win) and a third-party candidate who best represented how I would like to see this country shift.

I stared at the ballot for 5 minutes. I filled in my scantron sheet and dropped it into the machine. It didn't feel good.

Instead of the relief from voting being over, I felt ashamed. Mad at myself that I hadn't been better informed about my full range of choices. Embarrassed I'd only looked up who the independent options were hours before hitting the polls. Exhausted by being one of those "treacherous" undecided voters even when I had a ballot in front of me. Angry that my indecision was largely from feeling the weight of a depressed economy and clipped future resting on my shoulders.

That's not who I am.

Watching Obama's victory speech was uplifting. Seeing the number of women, minorities, and gays elected to office was inspiring. Hearing about the percentage of those same groups, including my age bracket, who showed up to the polls did my heart good. The old establishment, which rarely gives two pence about my future, is visibly scared. I now see more of the America I live and know on a daily basis represented by those in office.

It's just the tide of change I needed to spurn my own change. Never again will I let myself be immobilized because I can't imagine a bright America for all again. I'll be damned if I fail myself again by not researching my candidate options until I feel my decision is sound and justified.


Politics is still scary. I probably won't talk to you about them in person unless I trust that you won't jump down my throat. I'll never be that person who relishes a flame war on Facebook.

But I will research, read, reflect, and engage in civil conversation. I will ask others to respectfully share their opinions, even if I know ahead of time that I will likely disagree. I will explore unfamilar or intimidating issues (foreign policy, anyone?) to better inform myself. I will make sure that my friends know that I won't dismiss them because our politics don't line up.

There's a lot of things our country needs right now. For my part, I'm going to do my best to inject some kindness in our political discussions.  Because people like you and me - who may be reserved, nice, and considerate - America needs us to stop the political bullying.   

What are you going to do?

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shit Civilians Say to Military Families Before a Homecoming

If you've been keeping track, you know that Mike's return is on the horizon.  While this is happy news, I've been stunned lately to discover how many people in my life have serious misconceptions about what a miliatry homecoming is like. 


Between photos of people joyously hugging and YouTube videos of kids being surprised by mom or dad in a classroom, it's really easy to think homecomings are nothing but warm fuzzies and tears.

It surprises people to hear that stress, nervousness, anxiety, and exhaustion are part of the mix too.  Folks have a certain idea about how you should be feeling leading up to a homecoming and they can be confused if your reaction doesn't fit their expectations.

So out of the mouths of (well-inintentioned) civilians comes the top 5 comments I looove getting at this stage of a deployment. 

1) You must be so excited!

Well yes, I am, but that's not the only emotion I'm experiencing.  In fact, I'm overwhelmed and could use a glass a wine, but that's not the answer you were expecting, was it? 

Understand that homecomings are stressful in a hundred different ways.  You're taking two people who've been living completely separate lives and throwing them back into the mix. 

It's unavoidable that the ones left beyond and the one returning will find themselves changed, both by the inevitable flow of life and by conditions produced by the deployment. 

Now add in kids who've grown (or been born), careers that have changed,  medical scares, family deaths, or any number of other events that could have happen. Stir and see if things gel together or boil over. 
 
 
Non-military folks find it hard to imagine that you could be anxious about seeing your special someone for the first time in months.  But butterflies in your stomach is completely normal, just as it is for first dates and kisses.

2) X months?  Wow, that flew by fast! 

Sure it did ... for you.  I really have to restrain myself when people say this.  What I want to scream is "You weren't in my shoes, you weren't living this every day.  Things were normal for you, not me."

3) At least you had Facebook / Skype / phone calls / email!   

Just because a communication channel exists, doesn't mean deployed folks can use them.  Anything from security measures, location, quality of the internet connection, schedules/time zones, and access to technology can prevent communication.  For this round, Mike and I essentially had email, with a facebook chat maybe once a month. 


I really loved the people who told me "you should be thankful it's not during WWII - you could only be getting a letter once every couple of months!"  

Really dude?  I'm sure that sucked 65 years ago and kudos to the ladies who braved it, but the last time I checked it was 2012 and people got to communicate in real time.  So. Not. Helpful.

4) I bet you can't wait to get laid!

I shouldn't have to dignify this one with a response, but I don't know how many people have recently made some innuendo with a wink. You'd think that reunited couples just strip each other on the tarmac and go to town! 

Sorry to disappoint, but stress, canned food, relentless work schedules, less than desirable sanitary conditions, and uncomfortable sleep arrangements for months on end can easily kill the libido. Sometimes a few down days (or weeks) are needed before you can hit the sheets. 



And some people, might I add, have some self-restaint.  You've already gone for so long without this aspect of your relationship, you can hold out a little longer. 
5) You must be glad it's over now!

This one bothers me the most.  Just because a person is physically back home doesn't mean things are over.  Reuniting a military family is a process.  You have to reestablish connections, get to know each other again, redefine what's normal.  There's a huge emotion component that has to be actively worked on and it takes time.  

Then there's the practical stuff.  While the returning person gets a break for a bit, work, family responsibilities, or classes will soon come calling.  The person holding down the fort often has no break since they want to shield their other half from reality for as long as possible. 

So what do you say?

I sense a few of you shifting uncomfortably in your seats thinking, "damn, I've totally said that before."  It's ok - we know you're not trying to be irritating <pats you on the head>


The best thing you can do is ask open-ended questions.  Realize that asking "are you excited?" implies that the person should be excited.  So if they're feeling overwhelmed instead, they might feel worse because they can't tell you they're over the moon yet. 

Simply ask "how are you feeling?" and listen.  The chance to really say how we're feeling is truly appreciated.  And we still promise to flood your facebook with happy hug pictures.

To those who hold the silent rank, keep on truckin' 

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Going Grain-Free ... For Now

A full 9 months into this year and my medical quest to find health is at its end.  I have exhausted all options for doctors and learned much along the way, mainly about things that I don't have.  I do not suffer from high cholesterol, diabetes, a malfunctioning thyroid, nutrient deficiencies, a sleep disorder, any endocrine issues, allergies, or a number of gastrointestinal disorders.


My recent endoscope/colonoscopy revealed a relatively healthy GI system, with the exception of acid reflux.  Which is odd, considering I don't experience symptoms of heartburn.  Nonetheless, erosion to my esophagus lining was noted.  Nothing else was found.

It's a funny thing to know your body isn't functioning properly and have no diagnosis in hand to improve your health when the regular efforts of diet and exercise haven't touch your ailments.  At this point, I rather give up on finding a concrete reason why I can't achieve physical wellness.

But the search these long months has not been in vain.  Dumping birth control profoundly stabilized a number of issues I was experiencing and Vitamin D cut through the mess of hormones the birth control had created.

 
It will be interesting to see if taking Prilosec for the acid reflux will make any difference.  I'm not fond of taking medications long term, so the plan is to use the pills until the end of the year and then examine other options.  

In the meantime, I'm initiating my plan to cut out grains from my diet.  If I'm eating cleanly, then maybe I'll have better luck at figuring out what triggers my digestive distress.  I don't know if this will be a permanent diet switch and I'm certainly not being as strict as avoiding things with yeast extract or corn starch.  

I'm simply categorizing grains as a treat, something to have once in a long while.  Because I know this Casey's pizza lover will eventually cave.  At this point, drastically cutting back but not out is my approach.



Here's a recent dinner: 8oz of tandoori-spiced chicken, green beans with almonds, parmesan-roasted potatoes, and this amazing blend of orange-poached pears and apples (recipe to come since BHG doesn't have this online).  Paired with a glass of milk, my belly was comfortably full but not gassy and I have leftovers that will be the envy of my coworkers tomorrow. 

Do note that me avoiding grains isn't about vilifying carbs - it's about me trying to find what balance of foods is right for my body.  With oats a problem, whole corn a source of headaches, and rice recently making my tummy unhappy, it's very much worth my time to rid myself of related foods to see if that will help. 

On an ending thought - Did you know your insurance is unlikely to cover an endoscope/ colonoscopy if you're under the age of 50?  Me neither, though I doubt knowing that beforehand would have changed my mind about getting one.  Is $350 worth knowing that I definitely do not have Celiac's, IBS, or colitis?  I'm not sure if I could say either way. 

What are you doing as of late to improve your health?

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell (review)

Do you believe in the idea of the self-made man or woman or do you acknowledge that we are all products of hundreds of influences, from our parents, teachers, and friends to innate abilities, the culture we're born to, and our ability to seize an opportunity?  Outliers: The Story of Success is a fascinating book by Malcolm Gladwell that explores how the world around us is just as important to our success as individual traits. 


I got introduced to this book at work.  My coworker had found the book somewhat depressing, in that her interpretation was that it argued that uber successful people - like a Steve Jobs, the Beatles, or Bill Gates - are rare anomalies in our culture, folks who just happened to be at the right place at the right time.  I've never looked kindly on the idea that success is a matter of luck, so I was intrigued.

Turns out the book takes a different approach - it argues that we incorrectly define success as the result of someone's individual traits and efforts while ignoring the many influences that shape that person. 

In an interview included at the back of the book, Gladwell says, "What I came to realize in writing Outliers is that we've been far too focused on the individual - on describing the characteristics and habits and personality traits of those who get furthest ahead in the world.  And that's the problem, because in order to understand outliers I think you have to look around them - at their culture, community, family, and generation.  We've been looking at tall trees, and I think we should be looking at the forest." 

The argument is that no man or woman is an island - success isn't forged from a person's singular will and drive.  Instead, it is a complex, fluid combination of factors, some that you have control over, some that are a byproduct of your culture and time period.  "Ability, opportunity, and utterly arbitrary advantage" drive our achievements, whether we want to acknowledge that or not.

The common yet incorrect notion that success is achieved by individual efforts alone
This was an intriguing idea to me.  I've always been curious about influences such the validity of birth order (I fit the description of an oldest child to a T), your personality profile (like Myers-Brigg, I am totally an extrovert), or even something as unscientific as astrology signs (again, perfect example of an Aries).  But I'd never really wanted to acknowledge how the sum of my life is a collaborative effort and any resulting success is owed to those factors.

Gladwell provides many examples of how a person's skills and experiences + their ability to recognize an opportunity can catapult them to astronomical good fortune.  What's important to recognize is that the outliers of any given time, like a Mark Zuckerberg, logged in many hours to get to where they're at.  Personality traits and culture opportunities aside, hard work is still at the heart of success.

Interestingly, 10,000 hours of time dedicated to honing a skill allows you to call yourself an expert.  The number is borrowed from computer programming, but it serves as a benchmark for any skill you need to develop.

The Beatles are a great example.  You could write a whole book about how each of the four members were really gifted musicians and how they spent their childhood developing their individual proficiencies.  But singularly gifted musicians do not a successful band make.
  
Gladwell points to their time spent in Hamburg, Germany where the band took a low-paying, lack luster gig where they played for 8 hours a day, 7 days a week.  They ended up playing live 1,200 times before their success blew up in Liverpool.  All of that practice resulted in fine tuning their style, memorizing all their music plus covers, and developing the stamina for perform live.  

 
The key here is that the Fab Four not only were a mixture of individual talents, but together they recognized the value of their performances in Hamburg.  Because they saw the benefit of hours on end of practicing, they could take advantage of it.

And that's the key takeaway from the book - you need to recognize your own strengths and when an opportunity comes along to develop them further.  

"It is not the brightest who succeed ... nor is success simply the sum of the decisions and efforts we make on our own behalf.  It is, rather, a gift.  Outliers are those who have been given opportunities - and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them" (pg 267).

I think about my own life and find this to be true.  An average college professor teaches 6 courses a year.  When I lived in Cedar Falls, I taught 30 courses in two years - unintentionally cramming five years of teaching experience into less than half the normal time.  

Before that in college, I was a marching assistant in marching band, meaning that I taught drill and marching fundamentals to my section.  I was also in a greek organization and for two years I was responsible for the education of new members.  In high school, I helped with Sunday School, was a teaching assistant to a grade-school band, and spent a semester helping in a special ed classroom.  And hats off to all of the wonderful teachers I had along the way that encouraged me to grow and served as role models.

I joke that being a teacher is part of my personality.  While that's true to some extent - I like talking in front of people, I gravitate to leadership roles, and I'm a passionate learner - I've also amassed a huge volume of teaching experiences in a condensed time frame.  

And it wasn't by accident - I always knew I wanted to be a teacher in some form, so I was always looking for opportunities to try it out.  It doesn't mean I'm a better teacher than other folks my age, only that I'm a more practiced teacher.  I'm more experienced and comfortable because of the exposure I've had. 

 
I could outline the same thing when it comes to my love of writing and literature - how my parents swear I could read at an early age, the availability of books in our house, how my hometown had an excellent library, that I had fantastic English teachers at every step of the way, and how I was always writing creative stories as a kid.  

But it was me who decided to turn this love into a degree, strategically picked classes, joined professional organizations, took an editing job at my college newspaper, tutored in a writing center, volunteered to edit a department publication, and went to a ton of conferences to test out my own research. 

I hope I don't sound egotistical looking at my path to success, which is moderate in my own eyes given my 28 years.  Will I ever be famous as Bill Gates or Lady Gaga?  No, and that's ok.  We can't all be outliers (not to mention that kind of fame has a lot of downsides).  But we can take an inventory of our own strengths and be vigilant for opportunities to move us forward.

"It is impossible for a hockey player, or Bill Joy, or Robert Oppenheimer, or any other outlier for that matter, to look down from their lofty perch and say with truthfulness, 'I did this, all by myself.'  Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience.  But they don't.  They are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy.  Their success is not exceptional or mysterious.  It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky - but all critical to making them who they are.  The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all" (pg 285). 


I truly enjoyed reading this book - clearly from the length of my review, it was thought-provoking.  Not in a controversial sense, but in that it encouraged me to look at my life and acknowledge the many shaping influences to my achievements, whether I had control over them or not.  It also prompted me to revisit how I personally define success: in life, relationships, my jobs, our finances, ect.  Definitely something to mull over.

I would recommend this book to anyone, but particularly those in career-oriented fields, those at the bottom of the corporate ladder, and anyone who enjoy sociology or behavior sciences.  The book is written in a clear writing style, is well organized, and cites all of its research.  I'll definitely be checking out Gladwell's other books in the near future.

How do you define success in your life?  Can you see how particular moments, key people, and personal qualities have helped you get to where you are?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Tidbits from a Busy Bee

Hello strangers!  The Busy Bee is ready to give her monthly report.  Ready?  In between interesting tidbits, my photos will show some of the fun I've squeezed into my crazy schedule.

Madison Farmer's Market

HEALTH

The ongoing hunt to find the source of my health issues is hopefully on the last legs of the journey.  A trip to the allergist showed nary a peep of an allergy, both for foods and pollens.

The last stop is the gastroenterologist (GI specialist).  I suffer from an unneeded amount of digestive distress.  While I've done sleuthing in my diet to discover triggers, the inconsistency in my symptoms has made it impossible on my own to get to the root cause.

Boating on the Mississippi
Later this week, I will have the distinct honor of getting an endoscope and colonoscopy.  I am so excited <sarcasm>.  The doctor's going to be looking for signs of Celiac's Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, and Colitis. 

No matter what's found, I have decided to avoid wheat products henceforth.  There's a lot of diets out there that echo this - Paleo, low carb, Atkins, ect.  This isn't about those.  It's about me acknowledging that if oats do terrible things to me and corn sometimes gives me a headache, then maybe grains as a whole would be better left out of my diet.

Over the last few months, many well-meaning folks have given me the advice to cut out meat, dairy, and/or grains.  They all claim the same thing - eliminate the trouble food group and your body will bounce back in no time.

Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Madison) - right before my camera batteries died
Here's the thing - we don't all share the same genetics.  I truly believe you have to find what works for YOUR body.  If one master diet could serve us all, you'd think we'd be eating it by now.  What's healthy for an average person could cause inflammation for someone with lupus or fibromyalgia.  The foods needed for someone who does marathon training differ for someone recovering from cancer.

I think we can all agree organic, natural, unprocessed foods are best, but which combination is right for you is best decided by you.  

FINANCES

Our finances are in really strong shape at the moment.  Here's what I've accomplished since Mike's deployment checks have rolled in:

Personal family debt: eliminated
Jamaica vacation: 100% paid for
Savings account: currently $4,000
Rent: paid through December
Credit card balances: $0 across all five

Omaha Zoo
Originally we were going to pay off the car, but we both decided that a real savings account would serve us better.  This is largely because while right now money is great, we are looking at a significant gap when Mike returns in a handful of weeks.  There's no job he's coming back to.  There's the possibility of classes, but he wouldn't be able to start again until January 2013 - which means his first GI payment wouldn't be until February.

Looking at a nearly 4-month gap is nothing to take lightly (in fact, it's a little scary).  That's why I've been funneling all of my teaching paychecks to rent.  We don't want to be stressed and wringing our hands over food vs. gas while we wait for Mike's classes to begin or he hunts for jobs.  We don't want to go to Jamaica and regret spending the money on a vacation. 

I'm really hoping 2013 is the year for Mike to get a break.  We're talking a lot about how to rustle up a job, looking at whether we should throw all our energy into finding him a full-time job, settling for part-time so he can still take classes, or even get into temp work.   We will make this work.

BREAKING DOWN THE BUDGET

One thing that I've been doing is really digging into our finances.  It's easy to budget when you just look at your monthly bills and estimate how much groceries costs.  But there's tons of other semi-regular expenses that can be anticipated if you only calculate the cost.

Here fishy fishy fishy fishy!  More of the Omaha Zoo
For example, cat food.  Laugh now, but anyone with furbabies knows they're not free.  I know that we get a huge bag of cat food for around $35.  What I've never considered was how long that bag lasts us.  I know it's more than one month, but is it 2 or 2.5?  At what interval will I need to spend that $35?  Once I figure that out, I can then think about how much we spend on cat food annually.

This same activity can be applied to seemingly random but necessary items - furnace filters, cat litter, laundry detergent, shampoo, soaps, vacuum filters, ect.  Most of these are also things that you can stock up easily.  

Imagine you know that you spend $25 a year on your shampoo.  Doesn't seem like much, but that's $5 or so in a shopping trip where it might make a difference.  And yes, I've been there at the end of a shopping trip, trying to decide where I can cut $5.  Put back the shampoo or the frozen veggies?  It's not a fun game to play.   


Squeaky cheese courtesy of Wisconsin

These variable items are different for everyone, but make a list of how many you go through in a year (or even quarterly).  If you have a little extra one paycheck and you know exactly which items you still need to get, you can maximize that 5 or 10 bucks. The key here is stocking up to your needs, not buying just to fill up the linen closet - only buy the volume you need.  


Another trick I've found?  Look for store gift cards that A) have no expiration date and B) no inactivity fees.  You can use those as a portable savings account, especially for perishable items.  I'm using this technique for gas currently, as it's a relatively fixed constant that I can defray in advance.

So wish I could have taken some home, but alas, they wouldn't have survived the trip back to Iowa

So there you have it.  Up until last week, my life was consumed with wrapping up my other two summer classes and the regular duties at the magazine.  I have a break for the next 8 weeks and then start back with two more in the fall.  It's not ideal, as I've already laid out, but it's 4 more months of rent that I can secure.  

Soon enough, Mike will be back too.  Not only will some of my responsibilities be shifted (I think I deserve a month off from scooping cat litter), but my favorite travel companion, food and movie critic, mandatory exercise enforcer, and snarky jokester will be around to keep things interesting.

Friday, July 27, 2012

This, That, and the Other Thing

Mum's the word on the blog as of late.   Life has been pretty hectic lately and I've had little time to recount my adventures.  So here's a quick overview of what I've been up to this summer before I go back to the craziness of my schedule.



An Indulgent Weekend of Memories

I recently sojourned back to my hometown for a doubleheader of social event - the wedding of my oldest friend and my 10-year high school reunion.

The wedding was seriously one of the best I've ever attended.  Held at a local park, there was only close family and friends, maybe 45 people at most.  Everyone sat down to a picnic-style lunch and then they had their ceremony.  Everything was simple, refreshing, and meaningful.  A perfect example that weddings don't have to be a big production.

Simple but tasty cake and cute homemade table decorations

Wild flowers formed the ceremony centerpieces
After a quick break, I journeyed to the opposite side of the lake and took a trip into the past.  Maybe 25 of my 100 classmates came, but honestly, it was really nice.  Those that came really wanted to be there.  To talk and connect, not just reminisce.  I genuinely had a fantastic time catching up with people and spent 6 hours doing so.

It was also a good lesson in judging people.  When you come from a small town and you're one of the few who has moved away, you tend to think that you've escaped the shackles of stagnation and gone on to something better.  It's easy to look down on those who have never moved away from their place of birth, particularly when you see the town never changing.

But as I listened to my classmates who are still locals, I grew to understand and respect their decisions.  They talk about how their families are still there, aging relatives need a helping hand, they found jobs like anyone else, they have a strong network of friends, and it's a good place to raise a family.   

(source)
I mean, isn't that largely what everyone wants out of where they live?  When I consider that Mike and I are still searching for the right place to truly call home, I am glad for them.  It's a true gift to be where you want to be.

Teaching

In addition to my magazine job, I also teach several times a year for a private Iowa university.  I made this connection when we lived back in Cedar Falls and I now split my teaching duties between the Cedar Rapids and the Waterloo centers.  I generally teach four courses a year (8-week schedule) and classes are offered sporadically.  Because students don't always need what I can teach (gen. ed.), my services aren't required on a routine basis.  

I love teaching.  Anyone who knows me can tell you teaching isn't a skill of mine, it's a personality trait.  There's many ways to become a teacher, but I've always gravitated to it naturally.  It's just a part of me that needs to thrive.  


In my head, I hope I'm as interesting as McGonagall and not laughable like Trelawney (source)
This summer's teaching schedule has been challenging.  I have not only one but two courses I've never taught before - a public speaking class (not even in my field) and a popular literature course. 

This means that I had to create these classes from scratch - everything from lectures and PowerPoints to in-class activities and worksheets.  Not to mention the very structure of the course - assignments, text list, reading schedules, grading rubrics.  I'll be all the more prepared the next time I teach these courses, but preparing for these has certainly demanded more of my attention than I was counting on. 

I'm also teaching two courses right now when I normally do one at a time.  With a 4.5-hour night class, that means two of my evenings are completely accounted for and one involves a 2-hour roundtrip commute. 

Luckily, I have awesome students and they never seem to have a clue when I'm feeling less than competitent because I'm in new terrain or I'm a touch frazzled because I'm working two jobs at once.  

Fun with Friends

As I move into the second half of this deployment, my social schedule is much more managable.  It's true that most weekends I have something on the calendar, but it usually only involves one of my days and not the entire weekend.  The activities are usually low-key as well.

For example, I went on my first scrapbooking retreat earlier this month.  Some girlfriends and I rented a local place that was for quilting/crafts marathons and provided cute sleeping quarters.  It was nice to not go far but feel you were somewhere else.  

Mine looks NOTHING like this (source)
I'm not a crafty gal by any means.  I always loved arts and crafts as a kid, but I never found a medium that really spoke to me (or honestly, that I was good at, lol).  I have friends who knit, cross stitch, crochet, make jewelry, do photography, paint, and sew clothes.  I just like other people's art :)     

I scrapbooked in college but haven't touched anything in five years despite collecting odds and ends from trips and weddings along the way.  Certainly had enough material to work with! 

I find that while I don't gain any concrete pleasure from scrapbooking, like it would be something I was in the mood to do, it is an easy way for my brain to shut off and my hands to stay busy.  It's relaxing and helps me to slow down.     

Work + Life Balance

As I struggle to keep my schedule and sanity in check, I am implementing a new rule - weekend activities can only demand one full day of my time.  For example, I will be visiting my sister in several weeks.  I will go up on a Friday and come back on a Saturday, leaving all of Sunday to myself.   


I find that I really need a solid day or an uninterrupted half day to just be spontaneous, to have no demands or schedule, and to simply be a home relaxing.  I become irritable when my life is really scheduled and I'm always on the go, which has pretty much been the last couple of months.  This restores a touch of balance to keep me recharged for the next round of must-dos and take-care-of-this-nows

Movies/TV Watched Lately

Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?, and Silence of the Lambs (all for the film class I'm teaching)

We're Not Married (Marilyn Monroe)

Scrubs - now halfway through Season 5 (thank you Netflix and 25-minute episodes)

Books Reading
Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (class)
The Apt Pupil (also Stephen King, for pleasure)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (amazing book, also for class)
The Hunger Games (re-reading for class)
The Help (you guessed it, for class)
The Outliers (have borrowed from a friend for too long and need to finish stat!)

On the shelf - The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (patiently waiting in line) and Shadow of Night (resisting the temptation to start because I know I won't be able to put it down!)

How is your summer going along?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

July 4th - My Least Favorite Holiday

News shocker - I'm not a fan of July 4th.  


What's that, you cry?!  How is it possible for a military spouse to not enjoy massive amounts of grilled food on her country's birthday?  How can she not shed a few tears every time the anthem is played or a flag waves?  How can she not break out a red, white, and blue outfit on the most sacred day in the US?

In short, because it's just another holiday that is commercialized, overly busy, full of scheduled expectations, and soaking wet in disingenious patriotism. 

There, I'm officially a party pooper :)  


You have to understand that I hail from a small town that lives and breathes for its July 4th celebration.  The population doubles from a cozy 10,000 to a nauseating 20,000+.  The crowds get even more insane depending on which political pundit makes an appearance in a given year.  

The parade is one long commercial for local businesses, a reverence for all of the area sports teams, and a deluge of church pamphlets.  The carnival downtown is as you would expect - overrun with teenagers on a sugar high and iffy looking rides.  I'll give them credit for the fireworks though.

Out of my 28 years, I have spent virtually every Independence Day in Clear Lake.  I have been in 9 parades - 1 time as a flag, 6 times playing an instrument, and twice herding students with instruments.  I have played in 8 evening concerts for the Municipal Band and would be happy if I never heard a march again. 


Aside from the obligatory funnel cake, I am 4th of July-out.  Seriously.  After Hillary Clinton and Bill walked the parade a few years back and there were 40,000 people in town, I vowed to NEVER be in Clear Lake on the 4th.  

It's not just a battling the crowds issue.  Or sweating like a pig at a hog roast while you watch the parade.  Or awkardly running into people from the past who have the same Leave It To Beaver worldview.  Or that when my husband's deployed and I see him being treated like a disposable tool (more so than usual), Uncle Sam and I tend to exchange dirty looks.   
It's simply the general hullabaloo that goes with the 4th.  To me, it's become obnoxious.  It's so American - big, brassy, and busy.

I know, that's what people love about it.  I'm not knocking the Statue of Liberty and all she stands for.  And I'm certainly not hating on all of you grill-happy, sparkler-holding, parade-loving junkies out there either.  I just cringe at the thought of being subjected to so much stimulation in one day.  

I relish that I have tomorrow off and no where to go, no one to see, no schedule to hold to.  It's my personal independence day from work and teaching and I'm going to spend it patriotically watching movies and reading.  

Because that's one things we Americans need more of - rest and relaxation.

How are you spending your 4th?

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Deployment Checkup - Barely Halfway There

Several months into this deployment and I'm wondering why I ever said things were a cake walk <shakes head>.  Every separation has its ups and downs and hopefully Mike and I are clearing out of separate rough spots.


I can't speak of Mike's difficulties, but mine have come in the form of stolen time.  At present, my life is a highly scheduled existence that bounces back and forth between work hours, trade shows, and summer teaching.  Throw in meal planning, errand running, exercising, financial watchfulness, and Merry Maid duties, and I've got enough time leftover to sleep.      

While part of my hectic schedule is mostly inevitable and partially self-inflicted, I came to this should-have-been-obvious conclusion recently:

I have a lot of time by myself, but not a lot of time for myself.

When there's so much to do, it's ridiculously easy to lose track of yourself.  You sacrifice your need for relaxation and fun ahead of required to-do lists.  But this only creates stress, resentment, and a permanent frown.


For me, it's predictably resulted in a rebellious body - aches, fatigue, no weight loss, allergies/stuffy noses, and migraines.  All that little physical stuff that slowly chips away at your sanity.

It all came to a head last weekend.  I was supposed to be attending a special wedding for dear friends.  Instead, I got my third migraine three weeks in a row.  I have never in my life missed a wedding due to illness.  I cannot convey how crappy it feels when you really want to go see someone's nuptials but have to acquiesce to your body's demands instead.   

I knew this first half of the deployment was going to be tough.  The front end was loaded with almost every weekend reserved for business travel or social visits.  Barely any downtime was built into the schedule. 

I'm an on-the-go person.  Busy suits me, it always has.  Busy is also helpful during deployments, acting as a distraction and a way to hopefully speed up the time.  But life is all about balance and I become resentful when every moment is scheduled and there's no time for spontaneity.  Busy people know that their Achilles heel is becoming too busy.

<raises a guilty hand and looks sheepish>  


I am superbly thankful that I have a weekend free of schedules.  Not free of to-do lists, but I actually have time to clean and organize.  Anything I can do to right the course of a messy apartment will easy my mind greatly.  And I have several good books I can tackled in between cleaning tasks, as well as Prometheus waiting for me at the theater as a reward. 

I am also going to burn a vacation day here shortly.  I've barely touched them this year and I can tell I definitely need a break from work.  I also know a day off will be crucial before I hit July-August, in which I'll be teaching two classes in addition to work. 

The middle of a deployment is nothing like cresting the top of a hill and speeding down the other side.  It's more like being in the middle of a field after hours of walking and thinking about how far you've come, only to realize how far there is to go.  

What do you to do force/schedule yourself to relax? 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Gaining a Sense of Health Back

There's a lot of activity on my health front lately.  I've turned into a major health and exercise nut and am working on the biggest lifestyle change of my life.  I feel stronger, happy, and extremely motivated.  Here's how I've been doing it. 


Vitamin D
The last time I reported, I'd seen marked improvement from ditching birth control and taking Vitamin D supplements.  At that time, I'd only moved my Vitamin D deficiency from a dismal 15 nmol/L to a hopeful 25 nmol/L.  I am happy to report that taking 5,000 IU supplement daily has finally moved me into the normal range at 48 nmol/L.  I can now take 2,000 UI a day and we'll recheck my levels in 6 months to make sure they haven't dipped.

Because I implemented the birth control/Vitamin D changes at the same time, I'll never be able to distinguish which was the more effective move or which symptoms were alleviated by either pill.  It doesn't matter - I will never ever go back on birth control and I'll always be keeping my vitamin levels under a watchful eye. 

Exercise
Addressing the nutrient deficiency has been a complete game changer.  I can ACTUALLY exercise!  It's amazing to not be supremely sore from a simple walk.  Now that my body can handle movement, I've been aggressive about exercising.  

The past two weeks, I've been working out for 4 hours a week - a combination of biking, walks, hiking, Pilates, and resistance bands.  I'd like to exercise for 6 hours / 1hr a day but that will come soon enough.  This spring, I only managed 1.5 hours a week, so I need to be careful about increasing my stamina steadily so I don't crash and burn. 
Pilates definitely kicks my butt - I have zero core strength.  I like it nonetheless
I'm positively addicted to working out as I'm already experiencing those contact highs!  I loved being active as a kid - I was a classic, sports-loving tomboy.  It's so incredible to tap into those feelings of joy and adrenaline again during a sweat session.  Biking is hands down my favorite form of exercise.

Calorie Management
I am consistently keeping track of calories with an online tool called myfitnesspal.com.  I don't use the exercise function, but logging my daily food intake has been really helpful.  I'm not super anal about this - I track about 4-5 days of the week.  

Now that I've been doing it a while, I have mental notes about what one of my regular meals "costs" in calories.  For example, I know one of my staple dinners - bbq chicken, corn, and baked beans - will clock in around 500 calories, is relatively low on fat, and high in fiber. 

I also use the tool to plan meals in advance since I stick to meal planning pretty tightly.  I can chart out breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one sitting, which helps me to be mindful about how many calories are leftover for snacks. 

Despite my efforts to really bulk up on protein and fiber, I cannot bring myself down the 1,600 daily calories that's usually suggested for weight loss.  Even with eating on a 5 small meals routine, I still get overly hungry at that level.  With careful planning and a bit of willpower, I can easily hit and stop at 1,900 calories a day though.

I'm also making a concerted effort to increase my veggie intake.  My sweet tooth allows me to eat fruits with ease, but if it's green, it takes some willpower to like it.  So far I've found that raw broccoli and cauliflower, spinach salads, and peas are manageable.  My mother will also fall out of her chair when she reads this - I discovered that after years of hating green beans, that the Green Giant frozen green beans with almonds are quite tolerable, maybe even enjoyable.  Baby steps, baby steps.   

Not a brand endorsement, but wow, me eating green beans might mean the zombie apocalypse is upon us

Next Steps
While all of these changes have been super awesome, my weight has not budged one bit.  Granted, it's not gone up either.  Frankly, being so close to 200 pounds has me frightened out of my mind.  I don't come from a healthy stock of genes and I know that carrying all my weight around my belly is killing off a future version of myself in the form of heart disease or diabetes.

I know that it takes time to lose weight, build up muscle, and recharge metabolism.  But it does concern me that I'm making all of these healthy, consistent changes and in six months it hasn't made a difference on the scale.  It makes me wonder if I may have other health issues that are still causing less obvious roadblocks.  Which is why my next step is to see an allergist.

I come from a long line of allergy sufferers and while the seasonal colds I get don't really bother me, I still get ear and sinus infections every couple of months.  Truthfully, it's the long-term impacts that have me concerned.  People tend to poo-poo allergies as a serious medical condition, but it sounds much scarier if you think of allergies as daily inflammation, something that's actively doing harm to your body.  


I know for sure that I have food intolerances - oats and peanuts do lovely things to my digestive system for days on end.  Soy milk produces a mood swing within 30 minutes - it mimics estrogen and given my intolerance to birth control, that's not surprising.  I'll never be a vegan though. 

My mom has really bad allergies to corn and I noticed that sometimes, though not always, I can get a headache after eating popcorn.  Or if I have corn tortillas one night and then whole corn the next day, I might have some stomach pain and a headache.  That could be coincidental or related some other food, but not enough to the point where I'm going to ignore it.

I simply want a concrete lists of items, if any, that I shouldn't be consuming.  It would be incredibly dumb to willingly consuming things I'm allergic to.          


There's also new research coming out that shows that instead of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes causing inflammation, it's distinctly possible it's the other way around - inflammation precedes and paves the way for those conditions.  Does make one think.

Halfway into 2012, I finally feel as if I'm gaining control over my health.  Much of getting back into shape is now in my hands and an allergist is really the only other test I can think of that will identify remaining roadblocks.

How's your health been lately?