Saturday, January 27, 2007

And she can turn pages too, folks!

So that none of you doubt my continued ability to read, may I impart upon you a few book reviews. You may have noticed that my book reviews differ from those of, say, the New York Times or other astute publications. For one, I don't read the latest books from the hippest authors. That is because my opportunity to locate reading material for the week comes before story time at our local library. I have approximately .3 minutes before the two kids completely lose their patience and would rather fall on the floor screaming than allow me to follow my literary dreams. But now and then in my haste to find a book that looks good (and yes, I've judged many a book by its cover), I discover a good one that I can't put down.
Today I bring you three. Really, just two and one with a perfect quote.
On the more serious side, I succombed in to my historical novel hunger by reading *Pope Joan* by Donna Wolcroft Somethingelse. GREAT read. If you like Phillipa Gregory, you'll love this book. It's set in the year 800 AD, the darkest of the Dark Ages, not exactly tea and crumpets for the average Jane. The story is historically based, but her research was limited to the poor record keeping of the time. The author had to make a lot of suppositions based on half-truths told in Church records, etc., but the story is not written out of the fabric of her imagination. Starting with her childhood, it tells of the life of a girl named Joan who is smart at a time when women aren't allowed to be smart. Or literate. She has a fascinating mother, a you-just-want-to-kill-him-he's-so-awful dad and other colorful people in her life. I don't want to ruin anything for you so I'll just say this. I could not put this book down. (As a side note: I can't imagine not being allowed to read. I really don't know how I would survive.)
And a lighter selection after you've read *Pope Joan* and are thoroughly disgusted with the way women were treated... *Chasing James* by Sarah Mason. It's funny, silly and a has a great ending. I'd pretty much say it screams I AM CHICK LIT at the top of its voice but if you pick it up expecting that, you'll be swooning over this book. There's really nothing more to say about it. Fun and fluffy, and I'll read more from this chick.
I have known of Gish Jen for a long time. Seen her novels all over the place, but only now read *The Love Wife*. LOVED it. She is not Amy Tan's younger sister, and any comparison would be based entirely on their Asian-ness. (An aside: I'm just realizing the lack of Asian mainstream novelists (mainstream = not only read in college lit courses) out there. Is it just me?) They couldn't be more different. Whereas Tan uses Asian mythology and imagery to enrich her works (which I love), this particular book has none of that. It's more direct about the impact of many kinds of relationships on us without being too what's-going-on-in-my-heart-y and mushy. My all-time favorite quote (at least for now) lies in this book. The mother of the family is thinking about these huge sunflower plants that came up randomly in their lawn and how much she enjoys them, but wonders how a relative that's coming to visit will think of them. "Yet if I could add a word to our language, it would be a word for this: the peace a grown woman feels on the days-the rare days- when she needs to consider no view but her own." I think that is delicious.
So there, a few more pages for you to contemplate. Pass on your suggestions, since I just read myself out of mine.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Things good, and things not so good

Not so good: Several folks I know, near and far, are dealing with major life changes at a time in life when they're probably not expecting it (yes, there are times that upheaval is normal: think 6th grade, think college). One example: we heard earlier this week that *another* major employer in the region we just moved from is going under--and this means lots and lots of 30, 40, and 50 year olds with comfortable lives are out of work. As we *finally* have moments where we feel like adults (it's fleeting, but it does happen), the thought of suddenly having the rug pulled out (or the paycheck snatched away) is frightening. I so feel for those families that are having to completely retool.

Good: The good thing: after having it as a new year's resolution for, oh, ten years: I've signed up for guitar lessons! I'm so, so excited. They start in February--so we'll see how they go.

Technicalities: And one more technical note: is it even possible to have multiple google/blogger identities off one email address? I'd like to keep this blog separate from my work blogs, but I have my work email hooked to this blog and to my others...hmm. I've looked through blogger q and a's and can only find the advice to go in and change my userprofile each time. That seems kind of clunky?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

A financial lesson that isn't terribly entertaining.

So here's the world-famous Envelope Accounting System, designed and created by my friend Ingrid. She is one of those people who probably doesn't need it, because she's actually able to control her spending and isn't impulsive because she realizes the value of a dollar. That's why I'm sure she's actually from another planet. That and the fact that she balances her checkbook. Every month. (Is that even legal?)
I spent a few evenings with her working out a personal budget and plan because DH and I felt like we had no idea where our money went but, alas, it was gone.
The first thing we did is figure out how much we earned per hour. You take your net wages (so what REALLY goes in the bank, after your contributions to your 401K, Uncle Sam, etc.) and divide them by 24 hrs. (A novel idea, because really, who cares how much you earn in 8 hours if you live for 24?) I think ours worked out to something like $3.00 an hour (or maybe it was .30.) Then when you go impulse-buy that shirt for $30.00, ask yourself whether you'd want to work for 10 hours for it. Maybe, maybe not. But at least you have a better appreciation for it.
And a few rules help keep your brain in the game.
Rule #1: The ATM is not your friend. It gives the impression that money grows on trees. And it's a theif. For example, if on vacation you decide to use Bank of Canada's ATM since you don't know where the Santa Fe Knothead National Bank is, expect to lose major cash. That $40 you get out probably cost you upwards of $45. Bank of Canada charges $2.50 (let's say) and SFKNB charges an additional $2.50. So you're losing ground.
Rule #2: Use cash whenever you can. It hurts more. You will spend less.
Then you begin Envelope Accounting. Here's a step-by-step guide:
1. Get a stack of envelopes and title each one into expenses. This includes different categories. Ours were: Groceries, Vacation savings, Clothing, Gifts, Auto Maintenance, Gas, Fun household (wall pictures, dishes, pillows, etc), Entertainment (incl. eating out), Auto misc (car washes, etc.), Education (incl. classes, software for computer, etc.), and Vitamins and medications (this is esp. good to separate out if you ahve a medical savings account with your work). I think my sister does a more simplified envelope system involving only about four envelopes, which works too, but I'll get to this first.
2. Take the amount of pay you receive per 2 wks or month or whatever. Take out what you pay for bills and house and car payments. What's left is going into envelopes. So say you have $600 left over.
3. Go to the bank. Inside, where the humans are. (Remember Rule #1.) Each pay period, I would go to the bank and take out our cash in specific bills. We had allotted $300 for groceries, $75 for entertainment, $25 for gifts, etc., and put those exact amounts in the appropriate envelopes. (When I went to the bank, I'd get X# of $50s, $20s, $10s and $5s, etc., so I wasn't trying to remember that groceries owed gifts $5, because then it messes up the whole point.)
4. Put the cash in the appropriate envelope and spend accordingly throughout the week. My sister is quite good at this part. If there's only $5 in the grocery envelope and they don't get paid for a few days, it's leftovers and cereal at their house. (Let's hope you aren't visiting them at the tail-end of a pay period!) If you want, you can borrow from envelopes, but beware...
5. Some envelopes like Vacation and Auto maintenance would start adding up and I would eventually put those into our bank account because I wasn't crazy about having $800 in cash in my house, but I would have a paper tally of what was for what. Here's the main point though. If you're at the grocery store and don't have enough bread for your bread, borrow from something else if you must, or... put something back. When you figure you are stealing from your vacation fund, your weekly need for Brie might be reduced.
6. (Optional, but keep reading) My friend set me up on Quicken and my husband and I kept track of our cash transactions. It was amazing how much money we spent on unexpected items. Like gifts, for example. We had allotted $25 per pay period for saving for gifts. That amounts to $650.00 annually, which sounds like a reasonable amount to spend. With the 20 people in our immediate families, that works out to $32.50 per person including the card. And that doesn't count a single shower, wedding, etc. You'd be shocked at how much trivial things start to add up. But I say it's optional because it's a bit time consuming. I had a hard time keeping up with receipts and with things that don't give your receipts like the farmer's market, etc. It's good to do because we had no idea where the money was going, but now I just do it in random 1 or 2 month periods because I can't stay ahead of the receipt pile. (I know, Ingrid, this is probably the most important part. Comment, please!) At least now, it's not quite so vague who gets our dough.
That's really all there is to it. It's called living within your means and it is hard. I don't know how our grandparents did it, since they didn't have credit card offers in the mail every day. But they did do it, and so can we.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

one problem we've mostly solved, and one we haven't

mostly solved:
Despite the five college degrees between us, it took DH and me 13 years of married life to figure out one simple economic principle:

you should try to spend only what you actually have.

Which means, of course, not putting a few hundred (or thousand) on the credit card and then paying it off within a few months.

We learned a budgeting system based on cash and envelopes from LCS and her DH (who learned it from someone else), and it's so simple that it's embarrassing: take out cash for a particular time frame (in our case, two weeks); look at how much you have left _before_ you buy; and try to spend carefully so that you make it through the two weeks. It really cramps my style in obnoxious ways -- I can no longer spend guilt-free on the credit card, thinking, 'surely we must make enough to cover these inexpensive clothes that I'm buying on sale.' I must say, it really stinks to live within your means.

the one we haven't:
I'm thinking about money and how we do or don't spend it right now because the kids and I just had (should I admit this? I'll probably get reported to the bad mother bureau) quesadillas, pasta, and peas for dinner. The envelopes are running pretty dry, but not that dry; we do have money for groceries. (Just not warm coats. Or gloves. Just kidding, mom!). However, we seem to have a problem with "should have gone grocery shopping two days ago" disease around here. We generally *don't* prefer to go solo w/our darling, perfect children right now (who want to either both be in the back of the cart. or both insist on pushing the cart, under my/dh's legs. or both want to explore the hinterlands of Winco at their leisure.) So, we'll say, "oh, I'll go tonight after dinner." -- And then that night will come, and it'll be dark out (as nights generally are), and sometimes cold, and we'll blog around or you tube 4 minute segments of _Whose Line is it Anyway_ or read books or plan our kitchen remodel or stand on the threshold, admiring our darling, perfect, sleeping children, and groceries don't get bought.

At least I always blog about significant cultural, societal, and moral issues....

Monday, January 08, 2007

Anyone else out there think this is funny?

Yesterday on my way around town, I had a grown man play car games with me. I'm still puzzled by his behavior and his point.
I was driving on the freeway in the family car with two kids in tow. It's a Volvo, and you can't scream "family car" any louder than that. I was doing the speed limit plus 5 (or ten, maybe) (you aren't reading this, right, Mom?) when the left lane slowed down to 5 below the speed limit. This drives me bonkers, and I don't really know why, but seriously I think my blood pressure goes up 10 points when the left lane goes the speed limit or less. (An aside: People comment on the Bay Area traffic, but let me tell you it has nothing on the Central Valley. There: 6 lanes, so you can always get around somehow. Here: 2 lanes. Good luck passing Farmer Brown checking out the crops. In the left lane, of course.)
So with the left lane going too slow, I changed to the right. Over there, a semi was driving the speed limit. So back to the left lane I went. (Yes, DH does not approve of this tactic, but he wasn't in the car.) I got behind the same car that was doing the speed limit moments before, although this time no one was ahead of him. So he slowed even further. Going 45 miles per hour, folks, right there in the LEFT hand lane. We finally passed the semi and I got in the right lane again to try and pass the clown. He speeds up to 80 mph. You know the drill, I ended up back in the left hand lane after someone's granny turns up in the right lane going slow. (I have nothing against her. If she's uncomfortable going fast, she's at least in the correct lane for it.) So the guy plays the "can't pass me" game for about 5 miles. I wasn't late to where I was going so it really didn't bug me, but when I finally did get around him he was laughing and waving like it was really funny. And he had a wife (I'm supposing, maybe a girlfriend) and a child in the back of his car. And he looked relatively together (from the elbows up at least). So I'm ruling out the following behavior:
1. Flirting. Duh on this one.
2. Drunkenness. He never swerved and his judgement was spot on. He knew exactly how to not let me pass.
3. Anger. It's possible that I could have angered him with some manouver I hadn't realized was angering, but he was laughing and waving after I did pass, so...?
4. Playing the funnyman. Maybe he thought he was being comical but he's just bad at it. Not only that, it's a little dangerous to do that since many people where I live carry handguns. And it's irritating. And as we all know, handguns and irritation just don't mix.
So am I missing the punchline? Or do you, too, think it's funny to play with people in traffic and not allow them to pass?

Friday, January 05, 2007

So... I guess I am turning into my mother after all.

After every family vacation, whether it was a long weekend at the beach or a week out of state, our mom would always say (promptly upon opening the front door), "Oh, it feels so good to be home!" At precisely the same time, I would roll my eyes and think, "My mom is such an old lady!! How could she be so excited about the same old boring life?" And then I grew up.
I'm proud to say after two and 1/2 weeks away from our little house, I'm truly glad glad glad to be home. It's weird, because I'm *not* a homebody in the least and a day where I go nowhere is a day that gets me one step closer to the loony bin. But as soon as the tires hit the driveway gravel, I felt like I could breathe again. Welcome home to me.
So a recap of our trip:
Week 1 was spent across the country with friends of mine from my time in graduate school. One couple I know relatively well is in the process of adopting and it was so heartwarming to think of them finally becoming the parents they've dreamed of becoming. We can't wait to hear of their new arrival. The highlight of the week was a wedding of an adopted brother of mine... (not officially adopted but he's been like my little brother ever since we met). I LOVE his new wife, and their ceremony was sweet, simple and brought tears to my eyes. They are one of those couples who just go together SO well. Their families mix nicely and it was so wonderful to be part of their beginning. Then it was off to a long plane ride... with the newlyweds!! We didn't realize it but we ended up on the same flight! They were so gracious, and even took the kids for some of the time. We'd offered to sit on the opposite side of the plane and not acknowledge them, but they wanted to be near us... It was a great way to say goodbye!
Week 2 was in the mountains with DH's family. Lots of junk food, football games and playing in the snow, which was super fun. We did our Christmas presents there, and had a good time with six crazy kids ripping paper and opening boxes! I've said it before, but I'm so thankful for wonderful inlaws who are my friends.
So now we are reaping the benefits of those opened boxes and Boy #1 is flatly refusing to come out of his room. (: Hope your days were merry and bright too.
So after this devastatingly exciting post, I'll