Sunday, February 24, 2008


This is a picture that I look last week and have been staring at it ever since. Yeah, the little kid on the right is cute and all... and I know I've probably taken better, more flattering picture of V in the past, but there's just something about my wife in this picture that keeps me coming back to this photo and reminds me of how fortunate I am to have (yes a beautiful family, but) her especially. It seems absurd that sometimes I lose scope of that, but I guess life can get in the way of pretty much anything if you let it.

Speaking of which, last Wednesday was V's 31st birthday. Granted we had a cake, she got a gift, and we both really enjoyed spending a little more time together than usual this weekend (even if 96% of it was to-do-list stuff)... But I still have to admit that I didn't do a good enough job of prioritizing our celebration of her special day. Without a worthwhile plan in place, it kind of slipped by us without any of the fanfare that she deserves and usually looks forward to. And here we are 4 days later still trying to figure out when we'll be able to fit in a dinner date to commemorate the occasion. Just sad. And I know she's unfazed, already into her preparatory routine for the workweek ahead, and will quickly tell you "it's cool" because we were both busy, and we still had a fun weekend, and spent time together, and yadda yadda yadda... but I still feel like a scrub because I know I could've done better.

We don't have a lot of differences of opinion... but our desire for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and holidays could not be more different. While I am a no-big-deal kind of person, she is one who anticipates and relishes in the celebration of anything "first". I can hear her now telling me how "today is the anniversary of our first (fill in the blank)"... first meeting, first date, first visit, first phone call, first home cooked meal together, first toe nail clipping,... etc. Usually, I'm smart enough to know that even when I don't "get it", if it is important enough to her then my job is to "do now, figure it out later"... and I've been getting pretty good at following through with that. But this year I had a relapse, and so now I've got my work cut out for me to make up for it next year. So, 12 months from now, if you get a postcard in the mail from us discussing how warm it is in Puerto Rico, you'll know why.

Happy 31st, my love. And happy 32nd in-the-works.


Numero uno, since at least 3 people have asked, maybe I should clarify... No we are not literally going to Puerto Rico next year (lol)... Well, maybe we will, who knows. But more than anything my point was to suggest that next year we will be sure to have more fun with her birthday. Whether that is in Virginia, Puerto Rico, or the western coast of Sri Lanka, I have no idea. But for now... V, you can stop ordering travel brochures and checking our frequent flyer miles [kidding].

Numero dos... We did finally make it out to her birthday dinner on Monday. We ate at a local Japanese steakhouse, had the place to ourselves, and I did what I could to embarrass V by dancing in the middle of the Restaurant to some Japanese music. I had no clue what they were saying but the hostess was nice enough to pump up the volume for us anyway. In the end, I'm not sure which was funnier: me trying to dance, or V tripping over a chair trying to get away from me. Either way you slice it, it was a good time.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Gleeful Glider

Everyday is something new, weird, and usually hilarious in the world of Justin Alexander. Yesterday he decided it might be more fun to pull himself up and push his walker around the house rather than walk around in it. Then he spent the next 20 minutes (still on the outside of the walker) clinging onto the side with one hand and playing with the tray toys with the other. Yes, these are the same toys that are easily accessible when he is seated in the walker... but strangely they seem tons more fun to play with in the face of danger; i.e., while sliding across the floor in a moving vehicle, hanging over the side, with no ability to stop, walk, balance or let go.

Once that got old, the walker then became a sled and the new game was to put both feet on the base and find someone willing to push him around the house (the lazy bum). And finally... because everything comes full circle... he spent the rest of his playtime trying to put himself back in the walker by climbing over the side and launching himself into the driver's seat.

Of course he never did make it over and back in on his own... but at the least he didn't disappoint in the entertainment department. Most kids use the walker to... umm... walk. Justin Alexander, the human highlight reel, devoted the 244th day of his life to uncovering the hidden joys of his Elmo Walkmobile. And with that, who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Friday, February 22, 2008

The Wire

While V is ready to hold a candlelight vigil, hold hands, and sing Kum Bah Yah; Justin and I are applauding at the tail end of what has undoubtedly been a great accomplishment. Just 1 day, 15 hours, and 23 minutes (oh... and 54 seconds... but who's counting) shy of Justin's 8-month birthday, we are down to the wire. Total milk inventory consists of 2 frozen packs of milk which he will undoubtedly drink today. From here on out, we'll do what we can to alternate between breast milk and formula while V continues to phase out her breastfeedings and heads towards resignation from the Dairy Products business. The good news is that, at 8 months, Justin has already been decreasing his milk requirements anyway; rapidly moving towards a regiment of twice-a-day full-bottle feedings (breakfast and bedtime), with everything in between being solid food meals with a swig of breastmilk to wash it down.  

And with that (aside from the ups and downs of his first couple of weeks of life) tomorrow will probably mark the first day of Justin not being exclusively breastmilk-fed. Chances are, we'll be mixing him up an Enfamil Cocktail to commemorate the occasion and toast to the boatload of sacrifice that his mom has endured to stay true to her goals. Now mind you, the original goal was to feed him breastmilk exclusively for 6 months. But being the overachiever that she is, the objective quickly got shifted to 12 months once the first milestone came and went. So now that she has made it to 8 months, all of a sudden this is supposed to be a disappointment.

Good grief. What happened to perspective? I still remember the night that Justin actually figured out the whole breastfeeding thing. It was the day before a doctor's appointment. Between soreness and mental fatigue, we had taken a few days off from even trying to feed the knucklehead. You were at your wits end, ready to throw in the towel and prepared to tell Dr. Oliver in the morning that the breastfeeding thing just wasn't going to happen. But before that could happen, you agreed to give it one more shot. And wham. The kid latched on like a fish on a worm hook. And ever since then he's been eating like a champion.

Hey, remember sticking your finger in his mouth trying to get him to unlatch? Or better yet, remember all of those times you didn't use your finger like you were supposed to, and felt the pain of trying to rip his head away from the milk faucet? Oh yeah. The good old days (ha).

So I said all of that to say, please be reminded darling wife that during his first few weeks of life, the crazy boy originally couldn't tell a breast from a bootstrap! Yes, we've come a long way and I hope that despite your disappointment, you are sincerely able to see all that you've accomplished. Especially in light of all that you have given up to achieve those accomplishments. Not to mention all that *I* have given up, too. Hey, I get my two best friends back! So if no one is happy about this milk parade coming to an end, you better believe that your husband is doing backflips and cartwheels as we head to the finish line. Well... I'm doing the backflips on the inside. I just can't bust those moves like I used to.

But seriously, for 8 months you breastfed or pumped... in South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania... before work, after work, between classes, on your lunch break, after dinner, before dinner, often times while cooking dinner (so talented!)... at 8pm, 11pm, 2am ("Babe... did you set the alarm?")... 3am... half asleep... fully asleep (ha! if I had a dollar for every time I found you asleep at the pump or while feeding)... while grading papers... on the phone... in private... in public... in front of family... in front of friends (you used to be shy... what happened?) the car... while parked in a deck... on I-85 (luckily I was driving)...

The list goes on. And so do the memories.

And when you weren't pumping or feeding, you were thinking about pumping or feeding. And doing what you could to wrap your schedule around the next feeding / pumping time.

My point? It's simple. I commend you. Admire you. Am so very very proud of you. And just wanted to make sure...

That you are proud of you, too. We Love You!

Now get off the computer and go make some milk.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Milestones, pt X

With my parents in town this weekend, it did not take long for me to get scolded repeatedly about not keeping up with Justin's milestones more diligently. Every 15 minutes today, V and I heard "you didn't tell us that he was...", to which we replied, "oh yeah, he's doing that now, too". Hey, we try, but there's not a blog in the world that could capture how incredibly joyful Justin is in person, not to mention trying to document the 1,074 new things he does every day. Watching him grow, learn, and literally transform on a daily basis over the past 7+ months has been just about the most incredible thing that I've ever been a part of. Just amazing.

As for the latest milestones, the new joke around the house is that Justin either has a stash of comic books under his crib mattress or has been staying up late to watch Jay Leno... because his new routine is to wake up in the morning and spend about 15 minutes just laying there laughing and giggling in darkness. And of course by the time we got used to that, he had already added a twist to it. Wednesday morning, V went to scoop him up from his crib as usual and found him standing up in the crib, waist high to the top of the railing, looking about ready to hop over and head downstairs to make his own breakfast. She had been warning me for at least a couple of weeks that it was time to lower the mattress, but I just knew we could buy a little more time.

I guess that's what I get for thinking. Needless to say, once we got over the shock of him pulling himself up in his crib, we immediately lowered the mattress. Well... almost immediately. Of course there was the business of making a movie first (duh... we're the parents that milk every moment for all it's worth, remember?) THEN we lowered the bed. The video is long, but it was so funny to me, I couldn't figure out which parts to cut. It shows everything from Justin being thrilled with his ability to pull himself up, to the bed-lowering process, and ends with his final inspection of the new crib modifications. Just to show off, he also threw in a few James Brown dance moves and a couple of gurgles that sound dangerously close to words. Funny stuff.

At this point, just 3 days later, there is almost zero shock value left in watching him pull himself up. He's fanatical about it now, and has probably pulled himself up at least twice on every possible piece of furniture in the house. And as a result he has become an absolute handful to watch. I find myself secretly wishing for the return of the little immobile baby that stayed wherever you put him. Even the crawling was manageable. But with standing comes falling. And falling. And falling. And falling. And falling. And falling. And then there's the falling. Leading me to believe that this intermediate phase between standing and walking may be the doosey of them all. But then that's what I thought about crawling 3 weeks ago.

During their babysitting stint today, Grandma and PopPop also learned that Justin is now a full-time hand-and-knee crawler (no more commando crawl) and is starting to glide around the house like he's got wheels on his elbows and knee caps. It is so weird how overnight the transition was. We went from not being able to figure out what he wants 1/2 the time, to being able to put him down and letting him figure it out himself. Of course, the toy of choice that he typically crawls to is almost never really a toy at all (he'll pass by three bright squeezy things to get to a remote control, cell phone, shoe, camera, or space heater) but then I guess that's to be expected.

Last but not least, he has progressed to stage 2 baby food (which means tastier food and more variety) and has also added his first taste of table food to his food repertoire. It started with him mushing his way through an occasional slice of bread, then advanced to the occasional cracker... and sadly it has now progressed to the routine "cracker, wine and cheese" midday snack between bottles. Minus the wine and cheese part. On most days anyway. I've yet to capture his contemplative looks on film, but the funny part of the cracker experience is that, because he usually holds the cracker with his entire hand, he has yet to figure out how to get to that last part of the cracker that is trapped underneath his fingers once he has eaten around the edges. Of course, letting it go would mean losing it, so that's not an option. And he obviously can't eat through his fingers, though he has tried this too. So this has been quite the conundrum for him. I think today's strategy was to squeeze his fist, crush the cracker, and just lick the crumbs up once they fall.

Not the most efficient plan in the world. But I've gotta give the kid 8 points for ingenuity.

I've been told that 24 hours later, while I was in SC interviewing tenants, Justin figured out the cracker thing and learned the virtues of switching hands in order to get at the remaining cracker wedge. Didn't take long I guess.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Financial Geekdom

From poking around, I'd venture to guess that the average feedback rate for non-profit blogs is less than 1 comment per 500 visitors. And so with the typical blog reader having a serious aversion for leaving comments, it's usually difficult to assess who is reading your posts, which entries people find interesting, etc. Granted, there is plenty of software available to track the number of visits to a given website, and even how long they stay on the website. But besides direct feedback, we'd never know the difference between those who haphazardly peruse our website and those who actually take an interest.

With that said, I have to admit that I was quite surprised to find out how many people actually took an interest in the Stanley Johnshon series in December. Since then it has been kind of cool to go different places and have people just randomly start telling me about their financial plans, strategies, blunders, etc. Long story short, for those who fall into that category, I am glad that you found the series provocative and I'm certainly happy to contribute even a little food for thought as you contemplate your personal financial goals and strategies.

In the past week or so, I have had a number of people ask me about creating a budget in MS EXCEL. And being the nerd that I am, I thought it might be worthwhile to share my latest rendition of our family budget with those who are looking to start one of their own. So with that, you can click here to download a template of what I've come up with as we try to sort out the financial scrum that we call a bank account. However, I must warn you: I'm still working through this new format myself, so it is a work-in-progress and may still be running rampant with errors. If you find some, let me know! As I make changes I will try to keep this online version updated.




Advanced vs. Basic
There are two worksheets in the linked file (see the tabs at the bottom of the worksheet). The first is the Basic Budget. This is an easy way to keep track of your finances on a monthly basis. The Basic worksheet is not very sophisticated, but is all most people will need to get started. The second worksheet (Advanced Budget) is financial planning on steroids. It is based on an annual planning horizon, rather than a monthly one and involves a lot more formulas and data collection than most people are willing to put up with. So unless you are an EXCEL / Math geek like me who revels in the details of number crunching and gets excited over the inclusion of "if/then statements" in a spreadsheet, I suggest that you delete the advanced sheet and pretend it never happened.

Overall Format
Our format lines up with what Dave Ramsey calls a "zero budget". To account for every dollar of your typical monthly income we have 2 major sections: INCOME and EXPENSES. The total of each section is given in the yellow boxes. So when you're balancing your monthly budget, the goal of this "game" is to make sure that INCOME - EXPENSES = ZERO. The cell called "Budgeted In - Out" checks this for you automatically. If this is not zero, then either you don't know where your money is going (you'll get a positive value for the amount left over) or you've spent more than you have (you get a negative value and beat with a shoe). In the end, the two yellow boxes should be identical for every month.

Also... Things happen. So plan on them. The "buffer" box is simply our "catch all" category which accounts for everything else that we forgot to include (medical co-pays, postage, gifts, etc.). I think the biggest downfall of most financial plans is that they don't incorporate room for those invitable and forgotten items. There's just no way to think of everything ahead of time, and that is where the buffer category comes into play.

Blue Boxes

The boxes shaded in blue are the categories for which we use the envelope system. Our "dining out" envelope for example, has about $200 in it every month. That includes everything from Carrabbas to vending machines. If we spend that entire amount by the 12th day of the month, then oh well; we better have a nice set of tupperware for those brownbagged lunches. But seriously, the envelope system in my opinion is the main staple of our financial strategy. This is the first month that we have implemented it, and I can already see how it has changed our entire spending philosophy. I feel about a ten times more likely to pass on a given purchase knowing that I will only have $72.84 left in that category until the 1st of the month rolls around again. It is forcing us to consider and prioritize EVERY purchase more carefully, and to operate with a totally different (more wholistic) perspective. It's a constant reminder that our spending in every category has predetermined hard limits that cannot be compromised from month to month. Otherwise, those nonchalant ATM withdrawals and credit card swipes will nickel and dime us into poverty everytime, leaving us on the last day of the month wondering, "Where did it all go?"

Some people literally put cash in envelopes and use it as they go through the month, so when it's gone so is your spending ability. Meanwhile, others (such as us) just keep track daily via receipts. The latter is much more convenient, but takes more discipline. Either way, you have to be committed to staying within the contraints of the envelope limits. Otherwise, it simply will not work. It will probably take a few months of trial and error before we get all of our envelope limits right (eventually they should all be fixed amounts). But even after a couple of weeks we are already getting an idea of how we may need to tweak the numbers for next month. Click here for more info on the envelope system and how it works.

By the way, at the end of the month, once you input the actual amounts spent in every envelope category on the worksheet, the formulas will automatically carry over the surplus amount to the next month's income category.

Advanced Budgeting
The Advanced Budget includes a summary section and also accounts for extra income and unusual expenses (i.e., unexpected and/or non-monthly items). It also includes our annual envelopes, which are for items that we keep track of on an annual basis rather than a monthly basis; such as travel and home improvements. Since I think most people will start with the basic budget, I'll spare you the details of the advanced budget. If nothing else, you can browse the second worksheet on your own to see if it provides you with any additional mental fodder as you tweak and perfect your own financial plan.

Last words...
If nothing else, whether on the computer or with pen and paper, I challenge you to come up with a budget of your own. I've sat down and done this with a number of people over the years, and without fail they have been surprised to see either how much of their money is not accounted for, or how much more they spend than they actually have and why. And I will warn you in advance... having a zero-based budget will force you to look at your money situation literally EVERY DAY of the year. If that seems like too much to you, then just think of the countless other things you will spend time on today that will ultimately reap zero benefits in your life. I'm just asking you to replace one of them with something that will matter in the long run.

Any Questions?

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Flight Patterns

This past weekend, Justin learned the hard way that, sadly, he cannot fly. I would provide more information than that, but since he was on my watch when he took his tumble, my lawyers have advised me not to discuss further details until the hearing. In the meantime, I am out on bail and am allowed to watch him with supervision. As expected he is healing both quickly and nicely. 2 days later, his wounds scabbed over and now (4 days later) even the scabs are almost gone. The picture on the right was taken the day after the fall, and it actually got worse before it got better. But it must be nice to be 7 months old. He dove face first and is no worse for wear. At 33 years old, if I do so much as to stub a toe, I'll be limping for 5 weeks and making an appointment for an MRI. Gotta love the aging process.

In other news, in the same weekend we did learn (on the other hand) that our fencing in the back yard can fly. We had a windstorm on Sunday that literally snapped a few fence posts at their bases and sent portions of our (not-so-private anymore) privacy fence sailing down the block. If nothing else, with loose boards and nails flying around in 40 mph wind gusts, I'm thankful that no people nor property (besides our own) were damaged. Two portions of the fence slid about 30 feet to the neighbors house and landed just beside their shiney new car. With 100 pounds of wood and nails airborne, that could have been ugly.

It's funny that with our house officially being on the market now (I guess that's an update too, huh?) replacing the fence was the only thing I was undecided about in terms of spending the money and getting it replaced versus hoping we didn't have to. Well... Um... Just a hunch, but I'm guessing we'll be getting that done now.

But there is a silver lining. At least now State Farm will be paying for the majority of the new fence, and since it was "an act of God", I'm thinking it won't change our premium. But as for our deductible and any difference in price... can you say, "bye bye tax return"?

Saturday, February 2, 2008