Archive | May, 2012

One By One

31 May

There’s this really cool pine tree in my backyard.  18 years ago, it was a normal pine tree.  It grew in the proper direction (ie up), had the right number of trunks (ie one), and seemed unlikely to collapse and take out the back of the house.

17 years ago, it got struck by lightening.

The thing is, the tree didn’t die.  Despite a two foot long blackened fissure down the middle of its trunk, that tree refused to slowly decay into firewood.  I mean, if I were a tree and a bolt of lightening turned me into my own Siamese twin, I’d probably give up growing.  After all, lightening strikes the highest point.  More height would just invite more lightening (that bit about lightening never striking the same place twice?  Totally false).  But this tree is not me (which is good because a tree writing a blog would be really weird), and so the tree kept growing.

17 years later, it’s still growing in the proper direction (ie up), but now it has two separate trunks that twist and turn and generally give the impression that we hired Tim Burton as our arborist (note to self- hire Tim Burton as our arborist).  It still seems unlikely to collapse and take out the back of the house, which is good, since the tree is now tall enough to not only take out the back of the house, but a significant portion of the front of the house as well.

This tree has killed other trees (one of which nearly fell on my brother.  Somewhere there’s a video of that…), grown over two separate hammock-hangings, fought off the ever-encroaching kudzu, hosted countless generations of squirrels, chipmunks, cardinals, blue jays, and woodpeckers, and currently provides shelter for a pair of very noisy owls.  It’s no longer the tallest tree in the yard, but it’s certainly no shrimp at around 50 feet.

It’s a monument to tenacity, this tree.  Despite a major setback, it kept fighting for its right to grow and produce pine cones and slowly be consumed by kudzu like the rest of Georgia’s trees.  It healed itself, and its remaining scars are the most beautiful things in the yard.

The way I see it, if a freakin’ tree can survive a direct lightening strike and continue growing, I ought to be able to survive a few minor setbacks of my own.

So grow on, you magnificent tree.  Rest assured that the city’s chainsaws will never reach you.  I cannot make the same promises re: Tim Burton’s influence.

Not pictured- the top of the tree. I couldn’t fit the whole thing in without climbing onto the roof… which I’m not allowed to do anymore.

 

A Wednesday Pick-Me-Up

30 May

This is one of those random posts that I do every once in a while.  We’re sitting at the beginning of what promises to be a long and hot summer with little to distract us from the inevitable political ads.  So, when the politicians start flinging mud at each other and yelling about who is damaging public education more, keep in mind that there are some teachers who do still care deeply about their students.

Deeply enough, in fact, to coordinate something like this…

 

 

Happy Penultimate Day in May, everyone.

How My Financial Reputation Might Be Better Than My Social Reputation

28 May

Wouldn’t it be great if people came with a friendship score?  One that told you how likely they were to return your phone calls, keep your secrets, and just generally not be creepy?  What would be even better is if such scores came from three independent sources- so that you could get a really clear picture of someone’s value.

No, wait, I got that wrong.  That wouldn’t be great.  It would be, oh what’s that word?

Oh yeah- terrible.  It would be terrible.  I’d have a score of about 30.  Out of 800.  (I’m horrible about returning phone calls.  PS- sorry Malerie).

The good news is, we don’t judge people’s value based on their friendship scores.  The bad news is, banks and potential employers do judge our value based on our credit scores.  That’s why it’s always a really good idea to know your scores.  (That’s right- today’s post is a commentary on credit scores.  You’ve been warned).

I’ve been signed up with CreditKarma for about four months now.  I saw the ad on TV, thought to myself “there’s no way that’s really free,” and set out to prove the TV wrong.  It turns out the TV was right, to an extent.

CreditKarma.com tracks all your credit accounts- your credit cards, your mortgage, your car loan, your student loan, etc.  It then uses a version of the credit score algorithm to compute your potential credit score.  Since the site operates independently of the three credit bureaus, the score is not guaranteed.  However, the site does help you get a good idea of where you generally are, credit-wise, and it really is free.  No credit card required for sign-up, and no paywalls.

When I signed up in February, my credit score was 732.  I had one credit card with a $0 balance, two student loans with a combined balance around $70k, no late or missed payments, and a delinquency notice for $53.

That delinquency notice concerned me.  I ordered my credit report through the site, which you can do for free once a year (just like you can order the reports through the bureaus themselves for free once a year).  When my TransUnion report came, I saw that I owed $53 to a Dr. B- for services rendered in Summer 2008.

This was a problem, as I’ve never seen a Dr. B-, and wasn’t even in Georgia during the Summer of 2008 (I was in North Carolina, letting children play on a huge aquatic airbag and teaching them to swim faster than a snapping turtle).  I called TransUnion, listened to their oh-so-fascinating hold music (Pachelbel’s Cannon? Really TransUnion?), and finally registered a formal complaint about that deliquency notice.  I assured the woman on the other end of the call that I a) was me, b) hadn’t seen a Dr. B- during the Summer of 2008, and c) did not, in fact, wish to send him $53.  The woman told me that TransUnion would “open an investigation into the matter, and mail the results in 6-12 weeks.”

6-12 weeks.  Great- my credit score investigation had the same delivery window as a late-night infomercial purchase (Oh my god- it’s a pillow AND a tea-strainer! I so need that!).

A mere two weeks later, a very official looking envelope arrived in the mail, addressed to me, with no return address.  As the local court system sends the same envelopes out with jury duty summons, I looked at it the same way a Hogwarts student would look at a red envelope (Actually, if the court system would send out Howlers via owl post, I would probably be a lot more excited to get a jury summons).

I carefully opened the envelope, ready to drop it on the ground and run away if it combusted (a legitimate concern in the HP universe), and took out the single sheet of paper.

It read, in its entirety:

Dear Ms. Anderson (They really called me Ms.  *sigh*)

     This is to inform you of the results of a recent investigation into your credit report.  The results are below.

Sincerely,

[name redacted]

TransUnion Investigative Services

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Disputed entry- deleted.

Gee, thanks TransUnion for making that crystal clear for me.  Succinct is always better when dealing with sensitive financial information.  No one wants to read on and on about how a stranger USED THEIR NAME TO HAVE A WART REMOVED or anything (I have no idea if Dr. B- actually is a dermatologist. I just like to imagine that he/she is).

Because, you know, shingles isn’t painful enough.

In any case, the mysterious charge was deleted, and my credit score jumped to 755 in March.  It stayed there for April too, despite the fact that my student loan balance decreased by over $2k over those two months.

This month, my score is 763.  Want to guess why it changed?

I’ll give you a hint- it wasn’t because they finally updated my student loan balance.  It was because I opened a new credit card account.  That’s right- my credit score went up 8 points because I signed up for a new credit card.

*Sigh*  Credit scores are ridiculous.  Credit card companies are even more ridiculous:

  • I’m 25, and someone just handed me a credit card worth $10,000.  That’s 10x the limit on my bank-issued card.
  • Because of this, I am now more eligible for other credit cards with even higher limits.
  • This is what’s wrong with our country’s economy.

While I appreciate the card issuer’s faith in my financial status, I can assure them that I won’t be approaching my limit any time soon.  (Unless ThinkGeek.com has a fire sale, and then all bets are off).

So while my new credit card sits safely locked up, with its initial balance already paid off, and no intended uses until at least October, I’m going to enjoy my 763 credit score.  I’m also going to put a freeze on my credit to make sure no more surprise charges appear.  In Georgia, this costs $3 per bureau.  $9 isn’t much to pay for peace of mind.

Oh yeah, I’m also going to update you all on my student loan pay-off progress.

$8,825.82 (End of April balance)

+ $48.64 (May interest)

– $1,329 (May payment- just $5 off the ideal! So close, and yet so far).

————–

$7,545.46 (End of May balance)

My goal for May was to be under $7,800.  I made it by $254.54.  Since I’ve already drawn up the budget for June, and it looks like I’m going to be able to pay the full $1,334 (YAY! but more on that later), I’m going to set my end-of-June goal at $6,300.

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Ok, I’m off to dye some clothes black in washtubs on the back deck.  Not to sign off on a cryptic note or anything.

Art Club, and its Related Realizations

24 May

Now this is the law of the jungle

As old and as true as the sky

The wolf that shall keep it may prosper

But the wolf that shall break it must die

As the creeper that girdles the tree-trunk

The law runneth forward and back

For the strength of the pack is the wolf

And the strength of the wolf is the pack.

                                                                                                                             -Rudyard Kipling

Last night was Art Club.  I really like Art Club- even though I can barely hold a paintbrush.  My talent lies with the written word, not with tubes of paint.  The good news is that Art Club doesn’t care.  They let me come anyway, and I get to spend hours in a real artist’s studio, just doodling or staring off into space.  It’s also a very low pressure social situation, and it’s helping me make new friends out in the real world.  Plus, last night they had gluten-free yogurt covered pretzels.  So really, Art Club is a win all around.

But not always.

At Art Club two weeks ago, I felt like an imposter.  Everyone else painted beautiful pictures, made mixed media collages, or hodge-podged papers, while I sat and stared at a blank canvas or fought with a temperamental vintage typewriter.  I had found a scrap of wallpaper that looked like a cross between animal skin and tree bark, and typed a poem onto it.  I’d also found a rectangular piece of canvas-covered wood.  I figured the paper and the canvas would look good together, but I couldn’t figure out how.  I spent most of the evening isolated from the others, growing more and more frustrated with myself.

I ended up leaving that night with a blank piece of canvas and my scrap of wallpaper.

But last night was different.  As I drove to the studio, I had a minor epiphany (yeah, I know.  I’m prone to epiphanies.  Bear with me here).  I realized that the reason I am so bad at art was because I am so good at forcing perfection.  I can’t let myself go, because I might make a mistake and ruin a canvas, or use too much glue, or spill blue paint on the studio’s fluffy white muppet of a dog.  But art isn’t about perfection- the exact opposite, actually. (Except painting the dog- that’s always frowned on).

So, being the well-trained social scientist that I am, I decided to conduct an experiment.  I would make myself draw, with  well-defined pencil strokes, something on my canvas that night.  I would have to add color, I would have to figure out a use for the wallpaper and the poem, and I would have to leave with a finished art-type product.  Those were the rules.

I kind of hate myself sometimes.

I sat down at the table in the studio and I picked up a pair of scissors.  I cut apart the words of the poem into phrases and single words.  I replaced the misspelled words with proper spellings, and laid the poem out on my canvas.  Then I picked up my phone and consulted Google Images for a picture of a jungle tree.

Then I made myself start drawing.

It kind of, sort of, looked like a tree.  With winding roots.  Almost.

The artist who runs Art Club came up to me at one point and asked what I was working on.  I meekly explained that I was creating a background for my poem, and she asked what poem I had chosen.

It’s from The Jungle Book, I said.

Oh?  The artist asked.

Yep,  I said.  AND THEN I STARTED SAYING IT.

OUT LOUD.

AMONG PEOPLE.

You guys- I haven’t quoted poetry to anyone since I was 8 years old and it was a school requirement to pass 3rd grade.

Then an even weirder thing happened.

As I said the words of the poem, a new meaning sprang into my mind.  The pack cannot exist without the wolf, but the wolf is nothing without its pack.  It may be the law of the jungle, but it’s also the law of life.  My family wouldn’t be my family without me (they’d be someone else’s family).  I also wouldn’t be anybody without my family (because they’re the only ones who tolerate my crazy).  The same is true for my friends.  They’re my pack, and without them, I’m not much.

It was big moment for someone who generally avoids being out among people.  (I told you I was prone to epiphanies).

It doesn’t actually change anything, since it didn’t make me suddenly willing to go out every night, but it did bring a deeper and more personal meaning to a poem I’ve loved for many years.  It also inspired this blog post.

Oh, and my experiment was a success.  I made an art-type product.

An art-type product? Definitely. Anything else? No, probably not. But still cool to me.

And it’s now hanging on my bedroom wall, right across from my autographed picture of Tom Felton.

Link

How A Honda CR-V Saved My Life

23 May

How A Honda CR-V Saved My Life

I’ve been trying out the idea of freelance writing, and I submitted a few things to Yahoo Voices.  One of them was published today.  Now, I know it’s not going to pay anything, and likely few people will see it, but it’s still exciting to see my name and picture on there. (Also, if you click that link above- I might get money.  That’d be pretty cool.)  Fair warning: the article contains actual pictures of the accident.  It’s not pretty.

Chasing The Dream

21 May I have wanted to be all of these things. It's a good list.

Do you know what question I really hate?

“What do you want to do with your degree/career path/ life?”

I mean, this question was so easy when I was 5.  I wanted to marry Tigger, but I would have settled for Peter Pan.  I could have spent my days bouncing around the Hundred Acre Wood or flying over Neverland, taunting Rabbit or teasing pirates.  I could hunt heffalumps or indians, and look for a lost tail or a missing fairy.  I already had brothers, so it wouldn’t have been hard to adjust to the mostly-male cast of either world.  I had a plan, I tell you.  It was going to be perfect.

Sadly, I think I have to admit that my life probably not going to work out like that.  Apparently there is an age limit on both worlds, and I think I’m closing in on it.  Even more sadly, there is not an age limit on people asking me what I want to do with my life.

You see, I’ve made some choices in my life that would seem to indicate that I had a goal in mind when I made those choices.  I went to college, got a degree, I went to grad school, I got another degree.  For the normal person, this implies that there is a set career path in mind.

I am not a normal person.

I think the most important thing that I learned in graduate school was what I did NOT want to do.  I realized that I did not want to work as a lobbyist, a political consultant, a policy-maker, or really in anything to do with governmental politics.  I also realized that while I’m pretty darn good at biostatistics, SAS (the statistical analysis program favored by pretty much everyone, for some unknown ungodly reason) and I do not get along.  At all.  (You can ask the three school computers I accidently took out of commission for verification on this.)  Unfortunately, those were the two main things my degree focused on.

Now I have a Master’s degree that I’m probably never going to use to its full capacity.  I’m actually OK with this.  The problem is that most people don’t understand that.  There is a stigma attached to not using a degree- like the owner has failed to properly pursue their dreams.  For some, it’s out of laziness, for others it’s because of the job market.  For me, it’s because my dreams took a hard left turn somewhere between first and second year.  In any case, it’s not an easy concept to explain to people.

I’m going to try to explain this concept to people now.

I took an economics class my first semester in graduate school.  It was on Wednesday evenings, from 4-7 pm.  That’s dinner time for most people.  It was torture for the 30 or so of us trapped in that room each week.  I’m just saying- when you start trying to figure out the social cost vs the nutritional benefit of cannibalism, it’s time to get out of class.  Now, I had a wonderful professor.  She was kind, cared about her students, and tried to make the material interesting to us.  That’s a huge thing in a graduate school professor.  It wasn’t her fault that economics is the most boring subject in the entire world forever and ever and for always.

Naturally, my brain couldn’t handle this kind of self-imposed confinement for long.  Just before midterms, my mind finally snapped.  Out of the blue during lecture, a short exchange popped into my head: “And just who are the Nocturnes?”  “They’re us, obviously.”

That was the beginning of the end.  In about a month, I had written a 65,000 word novel, mostly in three-hour weekly increments.  My notebook pages were dotted with economic formulas and bits of notes that I’d jotted down when my attention wandered back to the actual class lectures, but mostly it was full of the story of a girl who sends herself away to boarding school only to find out her classmates are not exactly totally human.

I know, original idea, right?

That’s not the point here.  The point is I did what I had always wanted to do- I wrote a novel.  It was a terribly written novel, and editing so far hasn’t made it much better, but it was mine and it was complete.  I was so ridiculously proud of that thing, and honestly, I still am.  Even though it’s terrible.

Two years later, around the same time, I wrote another novel.  This one turned out much better, mainly because of all that I had learned about how not to write a novel from the first one.  The second novel is called Northgate, and I’m even more proud of it, even though it’s technically incomplete (I prefer to think of it as leaving the ending to the reader’s imagination…).

That’s not exactly the point here either.  The real point is that it took me a very long time to realize what it was that I wanted to do with my life.  This may be because it’s not a very well-accepted career move, or because I was afraid that people would belittle my dream, or most likely- that I would totally and completely fail at it.

But I remembered something that I had forgotten in the two decades since I was 5: dreams don’t have to be practical.  That’s what makes them dreams.

I also realized that now is the perfect time to really chase down my dreams- because it’s not like I have a full-time job or anything.  I actually have very few responsibilities in my life right now.  So, *deep breath,* I’m going to start giving the true answer to people when they ask me The Question.

Go ahead, ask me.  You know you want to.

You: “K, what do you want to do with your degree/ career path/ life?”

Me: “I want to be a writer.  But more than that, I want to be a creator.  I want to make things that make people feel things- books, blogs, pictures, videos, etc. (and yes, I will say etc.  Just like that: E.T.C.)  I don’t care if people remember my name, but I want them to remember the things I made.”

You: “Wow, that’s a really good answer.”

Me: “I know, it took me several years to come up with it, and a few hours to memorize the proper inflections for it when spoken.”

You:  “It was time well spent, I’d say.”

Me: “Yep. Far more useful than that second economics class.  By the way, you’re going to save $7 if you buy that game pre-owned since you have a membership card.  It’s a better economic decision… DARN IT!  The curriculum seeped into my brain anyway!”

You: “Um, ok.  Nice talking with you.” *You scurry away at this point*

This is exactly how the conversation is going to go down.  Those of you unfortunate enough to interact with me in real-life know I’m telling the truth.  I’m sorry, but it is what it is.  And you know what? People may not remember my name, but they do remember that strange redheaded girl who works at the video game store and has that eloquently-phrased dream, and that’s what it’s all about in the end.

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Right?

Growing Up

The underlying message here: you may grow out of a dream, but your dreams should always outgrow you.

The Worst Things to Say To Someone In Debt, Part II

17 May

Since I started this blog back in January, I’ve gotten a lot of penny advice about my student loan debt.  (Actually, I got a lot of it before I started this blog, but I didn’t bother to write it down.)  Penny advice, for the uninitiated, is any piece of advice that is obvious, unhelpful, or just downright rude.  It comes from people trying to offer their two cents, but what actually comes out of their mouths isn’t worth half of that.

In March, I wrote a post called The Top 10 Worst Things to Say to Someone in Debt.  A lot of people liked it.  Some of them wondered if it was all true (sadly, yes).  Others wondered if it made people stop saying things like that to me (sadly, no).  Still others wondered if I’d ever considered carrying a taser to silence the stupid people (Ok, there may have only been one person wondering that, but part of me felt like they may have been on to something).

The good news is that since people are still offering me terrible advice, I’m still writing it down to share with you.  You’re welcome.  So sit back and enjoy, or sit back and cringe inwardly like I do.  Either one works.

The Worst Things to Say to Someone in Debt, Part II

5. Why don’t you sell some of this stuff?  This is a hold-over from Part I.  It’s still on the list because it is still so commonly asked.  The short answer is, keep your hands off my books.  More diplomatically, I have sold (or tried to sell) the things I don’t use.  The problem is, no one wants to buy CDs from the 90s, and even fewer people want to buy a sibling.  The things that I still own are things that have a higher value to me than their prices.  They are books that I can get lost in over and over, movies that can still cast their spell, CDs with autographs and memories attached, and siblings that for whatever reason just don’t sell.  I’ve got a dozen or so DVDs listed on half.com right now, but the point remains the same.  If I buy something, I plan to use it until it breaks.  I’m not interested in its resale value.

4. Have you tried clipping coupons?  The short answer: yes.  Yes I have.  Coupons are very nice, when I can find them for the products that I use.  I have food allergies, and it’s rare to find sales or discounts on gluten-free foods.  Also, I have an extremely picky rabbit who has demonstrated several times that she would rather be hungry than eat any other type of food than her normal brand.  Naturally, that is the brand that never goes on sale.  So yes, I do hunt for deals and I do take advantage of sales, but I won’t sacrifice my health (or my pet’s health) in order to save 30 cents.

3. What do you want to do with your degree/ what are your goals?  This one isn’t actually unhelpful, but it still bugs me.  Mainly, I want to get out of debt.  Beyond that, I have no idea what I want to do.  Ok, that’s not true.  I do know what I want to do, it’s just hard to admit to it because it has little to nothing to do with my Master’s degree.  I want to write, I want to create things, and I want to be able to use my imagination every day.  When you say things like that to people, they smile politely and say, “Well, that’s nice.  But what do you want to do for a job?”  Convincing people that what I just said IS what I want to do for a job takes a lot of effort, and I usually just cave to the social pressure and say that I’m still trying to figure that out.  Lack of direction seems to be a more acceptable answer than the desire to work in creativity.  Go figure.

2. Isn’t there a better job out there?  Oh, I do love this one, especially when it’s said to me while I’m at work.  Actually, that’s really the only time I do hear this line.  I’m not sure why people feel the need to ask me if I’m looking for other employment when I’m obviously already employed somewhere, but I do wish they’d stop asking me that in front of my boss.  It makes for an awkward conversation later on.  While I’d love a full-time job, the simple answer is that there just aren’t many of those to be had, and even fewer of those in my field of study (or my field of choice).  Besides, I like my jobs.  They let me be silly, nerdy, and/or stay in my pajamas all day.  So no, there really aren’t better jobs out there.

1. Why don’t you go back to school?  The simple answer is because that’s how I got into this mess in the first place.  While being in school does defer my loans, I’m pretty sure that the loan companies would eventually catch on if I just went from degree program to degree program.  And before the inevitable follow-up can be asked, no, there actually aren’t grants out there that I can apply for.  I’m a middle-class white girl with a Master’s degree.  No one wants to give me money so I can go earn another degree.  Those grants are for first-time college attendees and single moms and those with more variety in their genetic backgrounds.  My Scottish/Irish self just does not qualify.  Believe me, I’ve checked.

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So there you have it.  Five more unhelpful things that people say to me regarding my student loan debt.  The good news is that for every bad thing someone has said to me, there are at least a dozen good things that I’ve heard.  Also, I checked my student loan balance this morning, and it’s $7,533.  That’s exactly $4,000 lower than my starting balance of $11,533.  4K paid off in five months- not quite where I had hoped to be, but much further than I would be without the blog.  I’ve found a lot of support through this blog in just five months, and I could not have gotten this far in my quest without each and every one of you.  Thank you.

And look- a pretty graph!  (You all know you wanted to see it.  I know exactly how many of you clicked on the picture of my budget last week.  73).

The colors are nice, but that blue line needs to get its act together pronto.

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