Thursday, May 29, 2008

Feed Me, Seymour

Evidently we have monsters in our garbage cans... and it is Justin Alexander's responsibility to feed them. The garbage can has turned into his own personal magic show as he revels in his ability to make things "disappear". So every night, after tucking him in for bed, V and I now have one more task to add to the to-do list... Checking the garbage can for shoes, socks, building blocks, cell phones and remote controls. But not sippy cups. Evidently those are recyclable. 

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Milestones pt. XIII: 11 months

Justin Alexander turned 11 months old today, and to me it is totally crazy to think that he will already be a year old in 31 days. Wow... so this is what people mean when they pose the rhetorical question of "where does the time go?" Incredible.

Justin at 13 weeks, and again at 9 months

As for milestones, it's now official: Somewhere between 10 and 11 months old, Justin Alexander officially started walking. Granted, if you count "baby steps" (i.e., two steps and a plop) then he's been walking for a while, but Grandma inadvertently came up with a better definition of walking the other day when she asked if he is walking more than he is crawling. And the answer is yes. And even more to the point, he has gotten to where he pretty much doesn't like to crawl. We have video of him walking, but I'm almost reluctant to post it because he has gotten so much better at it even since the video was shot (a couple of weeks ago). Even in the progression of the video you can see a decrease in is his need for deep concentration and hand waving for balance. He still teeter totters through the house, but the progression has been fast. Just today he was flying around like he had a shot of caffeine in his bottle; clapping, screaming, zigzagging and speed walking through the living room like a lunatic. It's like something just clicked (I think his confidence, mostly) and now it's off to the races. Here's the video link.

The second big milestone is that sometime during the past 2 weeks, Justin finally broke the 20-pound barrier in weight. The big deal about this is that, by Virginia state law, we can turn a rear-facing car seat forward if the child is older than one year and weighs 20 pounds or more. As of his previous visit to the pediatrician, we were a little skeptical about him breaking that mark by 12 months since he was in the 8th percentile (yes... I said 8th) for body weight. But sure enough those weight-gain milkshakes we've been feeding him finally kicked in and presto... he'll get to see the highway from a whole new perspective in 31 days. It'll be nice to actually be able to see him while we're driving. On the other hand, he has gotten so accustomed to looking out the window and not being able to see us while we drive, that it might also be amusing to see his reaction to the 180 degree rotation.

Last but not least, in case you missed the previous link, the photo archive has been updated for May, so you can click here to access new family photos (including a few more from our Shenandoah trip last weekend). Enjoy.

Financial Snapshot IV

The Bottom Line: We have officially paid off 2 of our 3 debt accounts and are superbly ahead of schedule in our quest to become debt free. What follows are the details, for those who are interested.

The Strategy
Dave Ramsey's strategy is to first accumulate an emergency fund (he suggests $1000) and from there you are supposed to use every surplus dollar to pay off your debt. In other words, unless you have no more consumer debt, your savings should not climb above that $1000 mark. The idea is that, as long as you have enough to cover short-term emergencies, in the long run your dollars are better served by eliminating your debt. It is not until your debt is totally eliminated that you should begin to increase your savings beyond your given emergency fund mark.

For us, our emergency fund should probably be substantially higher than $1000 due to our inflated cost of living and the ownership of 2 rental properties. As I mentioned in the last snapshot, owning 2 rentals and a primary residence means that for any given month we can be on the hook for $3700 of mortgage payments if our tenants were to disappear... And once you tack on an additional $3K+ for cost of living (we're working on lowering that number)... it is no wonder that we were reluctant to deplete our savings in order to pay off debt. In short, the rewards of paying off the debt did not seem to outweigh the risks of living check-to-check.

The Big Payoff
But with all of that said, at some point during the month we got tired of looking at our balances and just said what the heck. The most troublesome of our two tenants has paid rent on-time a whopping two months in a row (ha)... and the newer, more reliable tenant has sent postmarked checks for the remainder of the year. And so we took that little bit of peace of mind and ran with it.

As it turns out, May was an ideal month for us to get bold with our debt reduction. Our monthly zero-budget is based on us receiving 2 monthly paychecks apiece. This works out perfectly for me as I'm a semi-monthly (24 checks a year) state employee. However, as a biweekly payee V gets 26 checks per year, which leaves us with 2 months per year that she gets a 3rd paycheck. So BINGO... For the month of May we received an "extra paycheck". We spent most of it on new clothes, camera equipment, and that new bedroom set we've been eyeing for a year now. Psyche! (Y'all know better). Of course we threw the whole thing at our debt. And on top of that, we got our Economic Stimulus Payment this month, and so that was another $1500 that we were able to funnel directly to our debt (please tell me you didn't spend your whole rebate check!!)... Long story short, we took those two checks, plus a chunk of our savings, squeezed our monthly budget for any more change that would fall out, and paid off two of our debt accounts. So Student Loan 1 AND the Credit Card Debt (or what we called the Stupid Tax) are both officially GONE. From March 2006 to date, we have gone from a debt total of  $29,695.10 down to a total of $10,925.81! [insert jump for joy here].

Here is the corresponding snapshot:

So where do we go from here?
Here's where we deviate from Ramsey's plan yet again. As to not stay financially exposed too long, the plan is to start accumulating our emergency fund again. Of course a big part of that is continuing our efforts to sell our primary residence. If that happens then we'll be in a position to reduce our cost-of-living significantly, and increase our mobility (which opens up more options like moving to an area with lower costs of living,  either of us switching jobs, or V staying home for baby #2). It would also give us an easy out towards paying off Student Loan 2. In the event that we don't sell the house, it may be a while before the final student loan account is paid in full (the current target is July 2011, but I expect that to change). At 3.25% interest, this will cost us about $700 in interest over 3 years, which we think is worth the trade off.

But who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


This past weekend we took our first hiking trip as a family.  It was supposed to be a camping trip (tent, sleeping bag and all) but the temperature dropped to 10 degrees below reasonable and so we ended up at the Skyland Resort both nights. We still cooked outdoors all weekend, managed to get a decent hike in on Saturday, and also trekked through the Sunday drizzle for a couple of short hikes before heading home. In all, we had a great time and can easily say that Justin's first big trip to the Great Outdoors was a success. Here's a few photo highlights from the weekend. I'll post a link to more photos once I get around to updating the archives. Enjoy!

Monday, May 12, 2008

First Mother's Day

On Friday, my parents drove down from Pennsylvania to attend Justin's dedication at church and they also stuck around for Mother's Day. Obviously I couldn't take and be in the pictures at the same time, so I had to hand the camera off to a friend... and so now we have a nice collection of outrageously blurry shoots from Sunday's service. But all we could do was laugh once we saw them since it's my own fault for having such a complicated camera.  

As for Mother's Day, I was too cheap to buy anything for V, but Justin was nice enough to let me sign my name on the gift that he bought her. He made his mommy a book documenting their first year together. Unfortunately, just like the church photo, some of the following are a little blurry (particularly the book text)... but here's the best I could do to capture the pages on the blog as to share the contents with you. Enjoy.

V received an Edible Arrangement from the in-laws

J. Alexander's Dedication

Mother's Day

ps... for the record, a number of V's cards on Sunday said happy (ahem...) FIRST Mother's Day. And with that, the defense rests! And this case is officially closed! yum... redemption always tastes so sweet. Even when it comes 12 months later :o)

Thursday, May 8, 2008


"... didn't I say no pictures before 7am?!!"

Justin's "nite nite time" used to be as predictable as clockwork, from 8:00pm to 6:30am without fail. But as 8:00 has drifted to 8:30, I've been having to wake him up in the morning so that he could still see mommy off to work, bathe, eat, and get dressed in time to make it to "school" at a reasonable hour. The only side effect of this is that he is a little more cranky when I have to wake him versus when we let him wake on his own... and so V and I are now considering sliding his bedtime back down to 8pm over the next few days. The only disadvantage would be that sliding it back would cut down on the already limited amount of wake-time we get with him on weekdays as working parents [but I can't lie... there are some days when 8:30 cannot come fast enough for either of us!]. But it's either that, or I continue to get the big-lip-treatment in the morning for starting his day prematurely.

But in the meantime... have you ever seen such a hardcore pout on a 10-month old? 


Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Odd Men Out

There was an article in Sunday's paper about a professor at my university who is (according to the headline) being fired for giving out too many F's. I don't know him personally, nor do I know the details of everything that led to his dismissal from the University. Therefore, by no means am I defending him and his classroom performance... but I do have to say that everything else that he said about my day job is probably true.

I love my university. And I cherish the opportunity to work with my students. Yet and still, as he suggests in the article, there are plenty of days at the University when integrity seems like a thing of the past, and plummeting levels of expectation for student performance seem to be embraced by faculty and administration alike.

Case in point: This semester I started with 22 students in my upper level course. Ten dropped out after midterms (mostly at my request). Another withdrew just days before the final exam. And of the remaining 11, after today's final exam I suspect that only 3 or 4 will pass the course. I should probably point out that historically my pass rates for this class have never been this low, but it is not uncommon for this course to have a pass rate of 50% or lower. Now granted, I have been much more fortunate than the guy in the article in that my low pass rates for this course have never come into question by administration (probably thanks to my track record with success rates in other courses)... but it still brings to light the following dilemma:

Grade Inflation
The students that enter my upper level course are consistently deficient in both prerequisite content knowledge and their ability to learn in general. To add insult to injury, every now and then I will get a group of students in the same semester who could not pass an exam even if I stapled the answer key to the back of the test paper. And this was the case for me this semester. So my question is, if my primary objective is to achieve a particular pass rate in order to uphold our enrollment figures... then who's objective is it to ensure that undeserving students are not allowed to (further) tarnish the reputation of our university by receiving degrees they most certainly did not earn? When I come across so many upper level students that are so dreadfully unprepared in myriad areas, it pains me to think of how many professors must have simply passed these students along in order for them to have made it this far in their academic careers. It makes me think that there was a memo that I missed that read "Please pass Johnny if he ends up in your class. He is not very smart nor does he try very hard, but he shows up every day and that should be enough for at least a B". Long story short, it makes no sense for my students to be this deficient in study habits and content knowledge in their junior or senior year at the University. It is all very reminiscent of those stories you hear about kids who somehow make it through high school before anyone figures out that they cannot read or write. Where are the teachers? And what are they teaching the students? It all makes me question the true value of the degrees that we administer to hundreds of students at the end of every semester. Exactly what are they graduating from? And how academically worthwhile was their journey to get to that point?

Consolation Prize
But if nothing else, I take solace in the fact that, despite the F's and D's... and despite my no-nonsense approach and their repeated attempts to pass my class... my student reviews remain above average and almost all of my students (from the A's to the F's) deem me as one of their favorite teachers. Because at the end of the day, they are smarter than most of my colleagues give them credit for, and can appreciate the love that might come with a failing grade far more than the nonchalance and lack of concern that often accompany a passing grade in other courses. Even though my elevated standards are often their demise, they still understand the extent to which I care about them, how much effort I put into trying to help them learn, and (even if they don't attain it) can appreciate the level of discipline, focus, and dedication that is required to pass my course. Because at the end of the day, who really cares about a trigonometric function or what the graph of tangent looks like? But those other life skills are transferable, and those are the ones that I wish my colleagues would spend just a little more time developing in our students.

As for the article, to me the best part is when the student says, "If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't have taken his course. I was still in a high-school mindset, and he's not a high school teacher." The funny (extremely sad?) implication there is that for all of her other professors there was simply no need to shed her high school mentality and perform on a collegiate level. Most notably, there were no ill feelings towards that professor in particular, but just an observation that his level of expectation was very high and simply did not jive with the rest of her collegiate experience.

In the End...
The moral of this story is that freshman year in college should not resemble the "13th grade". And likewise for grades 14 through 16. But until we get better instructors, higher admission standards, or come to grips with the fact that a 70% pass rate may not be a realistic nor fair objective, professors like myself and the plaintiff in the article will continue to be the odd men out.


And in other news of teachers who are making a difference: As many of you know, my wife teaches the same subject as I do, but at the high school level. With that, I'm proud to report that her level of dedication, radical vision, and determination to make a difference has been embraced and acknowledged time and time again by her students, colleagues and supervisors. So much so that as a junior faculty member with just two years of experience in her current school district, she was offered (not one but) two different department chair positions in the past 3 months alone. One opportunity was at another public school in the same district, and the other was within her very own Math Department. I think it is great that her level of achievement and potential for excellence has not gone unsung. And so next time you see her, be sure to congratulate her on a job well done because she is truly an exceptional teacher. We're so very proud of the difference you make, you magnificent teacher, you!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Walk, Clap & Boogie (Milestones pt. XII)

Seven days ago, Justin turned 10 months old (okay, so I'm late... sue me). His summary in 5 minutes or less? He is still trying to walk, eating more and more table food (despite still having no teeth), infatuated with opening and closing doors, and already getting into plenty of trouble around the house. V just read something the other day about how kids this age understand way more than we often realize... and you can see it in his eyes. He knows when he's up to something. And better yet, he knows when you know that he's up to something. At only 10 months I can already see that the years that I gave my parents grief while growing up will all soon be coming back to bite me in the bottom. And this was evident even before Justin started showing flashes of a temper just 4 or 5 days ago.

Good grief. Fasten your seat belts. 

As for milestones, the most amazing thing he did recently was climb the entire flight of stairs in our house without any help. What baffled me was that we had never allowed him to explore this area of the house, especially since our stairs aren't carpeted. So here I am, thinking I'm doing something cool... exposing him to something new... wondering if he'd understand where the stairs go and how they work... and before I could even devise a plan as to how to conduct this experiment, Justin was already 4 steps up and plowing forward like he'd been doing this all his life. Okay, you probably had to be there, but trust me, it was crazy. Just one step after another. And he was so matter-of-fact about the entire ordeal. And when he got to the top, he turned and looked at me totally straight-faced like, "what's the big deal? they're just steps, man." All I could do was laugh.

I guess I should not have been surprised since he has always been especially observant (everyone labels him a "watcher"). But now his ability to observe and correlate is starting to become more apparent. For months, he has been grabbing the remote and pointing it to the television, so he gets that. But the funniest thing yesterday was when I gave him my set of house and car keys, thinking something new would keep him busy for a minute. But rather than just play with the keys, he grabbed them and took off running for the front door to put the two together. I'm not sure if the correlation was keys-and-door or keys-and-leave... but either way, that's not what threw me for the biggest loop. Instead, it was the fact that in a full stretch the rugrat was actually able to reach the doorknob. OMG! When did our son grow tall enough to make contact with a doorknob? Kind of scary, to be honest. But I'm already seeing how fast this entire growing up process can unfold and fly right by you if you're not careful.

Anyhow, in other correlation news, he also cracked us both up when he grabbed a comb off the floor 2 days ago and started running it through his hair. Not sure who he's been watching to learn that one, but my guess is that it wasn't me. As for talking, "mama" and "dada" are still the words of the day... but we're working on a few more (like "nite nite"), and with a little bit of coaching, his "dada" is slowly converging to "da-DEE"... but we're not quite there yet. And I'm sure there are like 14 million other things that I need to update concerning his evolution... but at 11:21pm after a very long week, I can't think of anything else worth blogging about. So without further ado, here's a 90 second clip of Justin doing his thing. Enjoy and G'nite!