Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Close Shave

Justin was looking good for Christmas, complements of uncle Nick and Titi Cathy.  "Feel my face, daddy... I think it's time for another shave."  Either he's a really good actor, or he doesn't quite understand that at six years old he has zero reason to actually need a shave.  Either way, I'd say this pre-Christmas gift was a hit.  Pretend stubble or not, the next shave can't come soon enough.

Black Tape Christmas

Christmas shopping simply looks a lot different these days.   It seems that long lines, chaotic traffic, rude shoppers and messy crowded stores can officially be left for the birds. If my tally is correct, every single gift under our tree this year arrived by waving the magic wand called amazon.com.

From a feeble online bookseller, to over 60 billion dollars in annual sales... And to think that (besides their various kindle eReaders) they don't actually manufacture anything.

What I would have given to come up with that website myself.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Dunes Village

November rolled around and man, did we needed a vacation. Ok, so you've read the last dozen blog entries and I know what you're thinking: Vacation from what? Trip to New York, marshmallow roasts, pumpkin patches, laid-back homeschool environment, … every day sounds like a vacation to me!

But what you didn't read about was Naomi's regression in potty training, the timeout chair in the kitchen that seems to be occupied 24 hours a day, days when Jasmine cries every 10 minutes for no apparent reason, Justin loving school one day and making it a miserable experience for everyone the next,  4 children yelling "stop copying me!" (you copied me first!) every 20 minutes,  malfunctioning septic tank and a dug up backyard, meals where the last kid finishes 85 minutes after we started, arguments about who gets the bless the food, allergic reactions, discipline issues at the Y, sinus infections, 174 questions every 10 minutes of absolutely no importance, more toothpaste on the bathroom sink than in the tube, 3 girls to part and brush before every departure, and a perpetual stack of dishes and clothes to be washed every day of the week.  And that's just off the top of my head.

Another thing that Venesa pointed out just recently is that, when homeschooling with four small children, it's a constant battle to keep the house clean for any decent amount of time since the mess makers never leave! While you're cleaning up the west wing, they're destroying the east one.  It's enough to make you want to tape their mouths and tie them to a chair for a few hours just to get a little peace of mind.  But I looked it up... and that's illegal for whatever reason. So yes... it was time for a vacation of the pick-up-and-go variety, and it was just in time to catch the November special at Dunes Village Resort.  Indoor water park. Oceanside Queen Suite (after a free upgrade).  With less than two days notice, we booked a $360 room for under $100 per night, after taxes.   Nothing like a 70% discount to say, hey, we know it's cold outside but if you've got 4 kids under 7 that are driving you insane; then this is the place for you.


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The 3.5 Challenge

Last week I was surfing the web in my usual haphazard, nonsensical, non-linear way.  You know, that method where you do an internet search on tire size (because we had our second flat tire in about a month) and less that two minutes later you end up reading about the history of knitting… because a search on tires led to a discussion board about wheels… on sedans versus trucks… busses with permanent wheels… wheels on the bus… children songs.. toys for christmas… Justin likes the Avengers… random article about boys and action figures… dress-up for boys…  super hero costumes… make your own costumes… sewing… knitting… and bam! You've landed on a bizarrely interesting article on the difference between knitting and crocheting.  I'll tell you what… the internet is a dangerous place for those of us who lack focus. Anyhow…  It must have been that type of drunken stagger through the internet that led me to a blog entry about how some couple paid off their mortgage in 3.5 years.

The funny part is, I never even read the entry.  It was probably just one of a dozen windows that I left open as I dashed through websites like a madman and promptly left for work.  But when I got home I was greeted by a wife who, with determination in her eyes, cornered me in the kitchen and said, "I read the article you left up on the screen… and I'm ready! Let's do it!"  Um…. okay… but what article?  She figured that I had left it up for her to read, so we both found it funny that I had no idea what she was talking about.  Evidently, my last click of the mouse led to a blog entry that had convinced her to take up her sword and conquer the financial dragon that is our mortgage.  And so we discussed it, I read the article, and it all left us with the question of, can we do this, too?

Here's the background: We have 3 rental properties with remaining mortgage balances of $158K, $125K, and $82K; and a primary residence with a balance of about $197,000.  That's over a half million dollars of debt owed to 3 of 4 different banks combined.  That's a sad state of affairs, not to mention a state of high financial vulnerability.  Lord knows that we are always one unemployed tenant or one collapsed roof away from what would feel like financial disaster.  Not a fun place to be. So, true to Dave Ramsey form, we decided to focus on the smallest of the four amounts. The $82,000 mortgage started in 2008 as a 30 year $124,000. One year later, we were at least fortunate enough to refinance to a 15 year mortgage.  That dropped the payoff date from 2038 to  2024.  Since then, we've been putting extra money towards it here and there, chipping months off the amortization table whenever we could.  That has us down to an expected pay-off date of September, 2023; essentially 10 years from now.  Which leads us back to the question of, can we do this?

We combed over the finances for about 48 hours… and came up with an answer of no.  But we did try. We drew up plans to cut our YMCA membership, cell phone plan, grocery budgets, etc.  But the truth was that we had been there, done that a number of times already… and are at the point where there honestly doesn't seem to be much left to cut.  With no cable, no home phone, no car payments, and few things left in our lives that anyone in their right mind would call luxury… we seem to be in a good position to maintain our title of Mr. and Mrs. Frugality.  Nonetheless, we massaged the numbers for hours at a time, and it just didn't add up.  Even if we sacrificed big time on our quality of life, the trade off between what we'd gain (maybe a year or two less on the mortgage) and the conveniences that we'd lose just didn't seem to balance out.  Besides (and funny enough) I had just mentally committed to increasing our charitable giving next year. Somethings gotta give. So we closed the book on the conversation, and moved on.  Ten years ain't too shabby, after all.

Except I never really moved on.  This thing ate at me until I finally said, ok… the numbers don't add up… but let's do it anyway! Four years or bust!  Let's get this done!  After all, has God not done crazier things in our lives over the past few years?!  He created the heavens and the Earth and parted the Red Sea… and so I'm willing to think that he could figure out a way to nip a little five figure mortgage in the bud.   Especially with the gainful employment that He has blessed me with.  So let's go for the gold, because even if we fall short, it's still a victory.  I have to believe that the God we serve would still honor our pursuit to be good stewards over the worldly possessions that He has blessed us with.

So consider this entry our public declaration… because it would be easy to not say anything and just try to do it unannounced…  avoiding public scrutiny throughout the process, and saving us the potential embarrassment of not reaching the goal in the end.  But the public nature of an entry brings with it a certain amount of accountability.

So why 4 years?  Why not aim to cut the 10 years in half to five, or better yet why not match the 3.5 that the original blog entry mentioned?!


I wrote that last question two days ago… and (as much as I tried) I have yet to come up with a good answer.  I'd write… then promptly delete… then write… ponder… and promptly delete.  Because no matter how well written the words, or savvy I tried to be in the statement of my excuses… my conscience kept coming back to the same thing: Hypocrisy. Here I am in one breath saying that God can heroically bridge the gap between our goals and our abilities if that's His will. And in the very next breath, I limit Him because of my own lack of faith.  Man, talk about being smacked in the face.

From our calculations, just cutting our mortgage from 10 to 8 years would require somewhat of a heroic effort and a good amount of sacrifice and cost shaving our our part. But the truth is that we could do that ourselves. For me, setting the goal to five years would have put it in the "wow" category. And I guess sliding to four years put even more space between, "wow… look what we did" and "wow… look what God did to honor our faithfulness!"… And I was content with that until I messed up and asked the question: But why not the 3.5 that we actually read about? Why scale it back at all? What is it that's making me think, yeah, that was good for them but that's just not reasonable?  It's only a difference of six months, but it felt so much bigger than that.  I tell you, I have struggled with this question for two days now; but funny enough the answer was obvious from the minute that I typed the question.  Don't limit me.  That's what I heard.  And man, was it convicting.  Here I am starting a blog entry that I was rather proud of, and it somehow morphed into a public evaluation of my personal faith.  Talk about painting yourself into a corner.  But here I am, with a marquee match up of God versus my personal pragmatism.  And thanks to the blessing (and curse) and free will, who wins is totally up to me.

So it is.  The new goal is three and a half years.  July 1. 2017.  A bit of a ridiculous goal if you ask me.  But then I'm reminded… nobody asked me.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Alphabet Soup

The background: During our last homeschool conference, Venesa got inspired to abandon our english curriculum midstream and switch to one called Logic of English. The new curriculum suggests teaching cursive before manuscript (print) writing, which meant heading back to square one with our first grader.  Nonetheless, we were still sold on the switch, as (amongst other reasons) the fluidity of cursive letters actually seemed to be more suitable for a six-year-old boy lacking fine motor skills.

The cause: A milestone celebration was in order.  It was a rough start but after a couple of months into the new curriculum, the lowercase cursive letters were a done deal.  

The task: As part of the celebration, Venesa came up with the idea of making cursive letter pancakes.  Something simple to commemorate the occasion.

The detour: Venesa had to get to an early morning hair appointment and passed the baton to daddy with clear instructions: Here's the batter.  Make a few letters, maybe A, B, and C. I'll be back in 45 minutes.

The problem: Daddy is a recovering Type A personality.  Uncompleted tasks are painful, and the alphabet doesn't stop at C.

The result: A whole lot more pancakes than we needed, and the tastiest alphabet song ever sung.  Pass the syrup, please.

Jasmine hits the practice board with cursive g's

J is for Justin knocking his cursive assignment out the park.
Next on the menu: Uppercase.

City Slickers

More pics from our New York trip.  Statue of Liberty. Hotel quiet time. Subway rides. Jalen's Birthday.  Hello Kitty. And a grandma that clearly got lost in the moment.

Monday, November 25, 2013

180 days

In South Carolina, beginning at the age of five and continuing until their 17th birthday, all children are required to attend 180 days of school.  Homeschoolers are no exception. The truth is that counting the number of days of instruction doesn't measure much of anything, as there is no measurable standard as to what "a day of learning" looks like.  What one school may cover in a week, another might cover in a single day.  Yet the two schools would pat themselves on the back just the same once they reach the end of the school year.  With that said, we're pretty content with the pace at which our kids are learning… but that still leaves this artificial hurdle of 180 days.  But that's where the flexibility of homeschool kicks in.

Picture me outside on a warm summer day, trying to unroot dying bushes in front of the house.  The kids see my struggle, drop their bikes and stroll over.  I drop my shovel and let each kid take a turn trying to pull the bush out of the ground.  As they do so, we talk about root systems, how strong they are (the roots, not the kids) and how skinny roots the width of our arms can hold up trees the width of our five bodies combined. And that's when I look up at Venesa, and we both high five… because, hey, that sounds like science class to me. School day!  Oh yeah.  One down, 179 to go.

Two days later, Jasmine wants to know where our mail comes from.  Fast forward through a 10 minute discussion of the United States mail system, a trip to the post office, and a "letter" mailed to the grandparents; and what do you have?  Well, that's social studies if I've ever seen it.  Bam… School day!

Of course, I'm half joking… but only half… because while we don't skimp on our school curriculum we also try to never miss the opportunity of teachable moments; and our recent trip to New York was no exception.  Subway stations, city buses, 9 million people, the Statue of Liberty, and what was once the tallest building in the world? Bam! School day!  It's a beautiful thing.  68 down.  112 to go.  No field trip forms required.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Jinx

Every year, my school has an opening ceremony during which all of the faculty and staff members are introduced to the incoming class of students.  In 2011, during my first year employed at the school, I missed the ceremony because of the death of a family member and the resulting sojourn to Pennsylvania for the funeral.  Fast forward 12 months and I'm thinking, count me in for the opening ceremony because (two years in a row... same weekend...) what are the odds, right? Well, on July 12, 2012, my maternal grandmother passed away.  Yet, I was still pragmatically optimistic.  My thought was, hey... at least school didn't start yet, right? Wrong...  the service date?  One month later. The weekend of (you guessed it) school opening ceremony.  Fast forward. Fast Forward. Fast Forward. And bam... Here we are, weeks before the start of the 2013 school year.  There's no way in the world a third family member can die on the same weekend.  I mean, come on.  What are we, jinxed? Mind you, no one has passed away on my side of the family during any of the months in between.  It's like we wait for the school to start each year.  Or maybe we wait to get through one last summer, I don't know.  But here we are, a full two months away from opening ceremony, and I find myself taking a mental survey of the health status of my entire family in order to figure out which member is most likely to die this year during opening ceremony.  Morbid... I know, but can you blame me?  I mean, every time my phone rang in September, I was like, "Oh My Gosh! Uncle Joey! I knew it would be uncle Joey!.... Come on kids, pack your bags. Uncle Joey's dead." It was a stressful month to be a Reyes.

Well, fast forward just a hair more... two weeks before the ceremony... and not one but both of my parents are now in the hospital due to chronic illnesses that have taken a turn for the worse.  And I'm thinking, this totally can't be real.  September is officially coombs-reyes-i'm-ready-to-die month, and I evidently won't make it to an opening ceremony until my entire family is dead.

Well... the good news is that (after a lengthy hospital stay for my dad) both of my parents checked out of the hospital with a pulse and escaped the wrath of my school's opening ceremony.  As for the ceremony itself, I was able to attend this year (whoo hoo).  However, I have to admit: Sitting in the school gym on uncomfortable folding chairs for 20 minutes while waiting to wave hello to 125 new juniors turned out to be enormously anticlimactic.  It also proved to be no match for my new fall family tradition.  Just a couple of weeks later, my 48 year old cousin Rosalyn lost her improbable (and somewhat sudden) battle to Lou Gehrig's disease.  Obviously we will miss her, and we also enjoyed the subsequent family caravan to New York as we connected with family and old friends to commemorate my cousin's life.  As for opening ceremony, I have to say that despite how mundane it turned out to be, I still found solace in the fact that I didn't miss it for a third consecutive year due to the death of a family member.  Because that would have just been creepy.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


When you make a habit of pushing people around, at some point you're going to bully the wrong person and get what's coming to you.  Well August 26th was the day... Jasmine took a toy away from some 6-year old in Sunday school class, and BAM... just kidding.  Bruised and battered from a fight? Nope.  Not even an unfortunate fall off the bike, trip down the steps, or sibling dispute can claim this victory (although I believe I heard Naomi taking full credit for Jasmine's shiner).  Of all things... a spider bite. Post doctor's visit, a $65 spider bite, to be exact.  And suddenly I'm just a wee bit less fond of the great outdoors.

My catch and release policy for all things creepy and crawly found in the house has officially been suspended.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Luke Warm

This time of year drives me crazy.  As a phenomenally frugal individual, it's bad enough when summer creeps around and we have to crank the air conditioner up for the next 3 months... or likewise, when the last leaf has fallen and the thermostat stays glued on the heat setting until the birds come back in March.  During those months, if you listen closely enough, I think you can actually hear the electricity bill going up 12 cents every 15 minutes.  tick...tick... nickel...tick... tick... dime... But that's nothing compared to the dreaded in-between stage that fall and spring bring.  Jacket or no jacket?  Am I hot or am I cold... wait... I need a coat when I leave the house in the morning... but I should pack some shorts in case we go to the park after school.  Yep, it's that financially inefficient time of year when you have to use the heat AND the cool setting in the same day.  Can I get an amen?!  Oh it's horrible.   AC in the day... heat overnight.  And somewhere, the general manager of your local electric company is slapping mother nature high five.  Evil little man.

But there's one good thing that almost makes it all worthwhile... despite the financial trickle that the in-between seasons bring, they also bring with them the perfect weather to enjoy a backyard fire and some "mushyellows" on a stick.  Highs in the 80's.  Low's in the 60's.  And somewhere in the middle, the warmth of the fire feels nothing short of magical.

And as the fire crackles, the wood goes snap... crackle... pop... tick... tick... dime.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Room to Run

It started drizzling before we even pulled out of the driveway, but we kept it moving anyway.  There was no way we were spending another minute indoors with this herd of crazy people.  So off to the pumpkin patch we went.  Fenced-in environment, room to run, swings, tunnels, and plenty of pumpkins for us to hide behind.  Sounds perfect.