Out of the Box

free crab

When I was in college, one of my professors told a story of these crabs in a box at the Fisherman’s Wharf in Seattle. He said that these crabs are alive and all just piled in this box, and every once in a while a rebel crab will try to break free and almost get out of the box, but the other crabs will pull him down.  In their chaos and confusion of trying to all climb over each other to get out, none of them get out because they keep each other down.  And they all die.  Steamed or boiled, dipped in butter. It is the inevitable fate of each crab all because they cannot stand to see another doing something different or better.

Several months back, when Papa Francisco was visiting the States, my old Sunday School teacher (from my Baptist days) said some very false and mean things about the Pope and Catholics in general on Facebook.  It was not pleasant and I was very hurt, and, truthfully, quite furious.  I wasn’t actually surprised and was sorta expecting someone from my past to pipe up over the course of that week with something, but when it actually happened my anger was stronger than I anticipated.  At first, I was a lone Catholic in a sea of Fundamentalists defending the Faith and Church teachings with Scripture and Tradition. I attempted to be outwardly patient and dignified as I was inwardly seething at the barrage of insults. I was seriously about to run out of grace and snap as the arguments on the opposing side got personal: someone said how “sorry they were that I had lost my way so badly in my sin” and that they “always remembered me as a very intelligent girl and who used to have a real heart for Jesus and whose dad sometimes wouldn’t let her come to church” (um… first: my dad is a Catholic who took me to a Baptist church at my request four times a week, and second: NO ONE says mean things about my daddy to this daddy’s girl).  I felt like the rebel crab being dragged down, my joy being sapped from me, when suddenly…

The Calvary (Marine-life activists?)  came to the rescue!  Baptists, Methodists, Mormons, Non-denominationalists, back-sliders, front-pew-sitters, and even an atheist reached out their hands to pull me out of that box of snapping, fear-mongering, chaos.  I was reminded again and in many ways how ignorance and fear mostly lead to tragic consequences, but kindness and love can help in every situation.  I was also reminded that stooping to meanness only sucks you back into that damn box of crabs.

This past weekend was one of my favorite sets of Bible readings.  Each reading really spoke to me and entered the very cockels of my heart, which was still bruised and as yet a little resentful still of the attack.

Jeremiah 1: 4-5, 17-19  The word Yahweh came to me, saying:

5 ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; before you came to birth I consecrated you; I appointed you as prophet to the nations.’

17 ‘As for you, prepare yourself for action. Stand up and tell them all I command you. Have no fear of them and in their presence I will make you fearless.

18 For look, today I have made you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, a wall of bronze to stand against the whole country: the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests and the people of the country.

19 They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you, Yahweh declares, to rescue you.’

As the priest said during his homily, God made me a prophet. He made us all prophets, to proclaim His word and truth.  He made me strong, and with faith in His grace, no one can tear me down because He is with me.  I need constant reminding of this because I am wont to make excuses…

First Corinthians (or One Corinthians, as Trump would say, lol) 12:31—13:13

Set your mind on the higher gifts. And now I am going to put before you the best way of all.

1 Though I command languages both human and angelic — if I speak without love, I am no more than a gong booming or a cymbal clashing.

2 And though I have the power of prophecy, to penetrate all mysteries and knowledge, and though I have all the faith necessary to move mountains — if I am without love, I am nothing.

3 Though I should give away to the poor all that I possess, and even give up my body to be burned — if I am without love, it will do me no good whatever.

4 Love is always patient and kind; love is never jealous; love is not boastful or conceited,

5 it is never rude and never seeks its own advantage, it does not take offence or store up grievances.

6 Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but finds its joy in the truth.

7 It is always ready to make allowances, to trust, to hope and to endure whatever comes.

8 Love never comes to an end. But if there are prophecies, they will be done away with; if tongues, they will fall silent; and if knowledge, it will be done away with.

9 For we know only imperfectly, and we prophesy imperfectly;

10 but once perfection comes, all imperfect things will be done away with.

11 When I was a child, I used to talk like a child, and see things as a child does, and think like a child; but now that I have become an adult, I have finished with all childish ways.

12 Now we see only reflections in a mirror, mere riddles, but then we shall be seeing face to face. Now I can know only imperfectly; but then I shall know just as fully as I am myself known.

13 As it is, these remain: faith, hope and love, the three of them; and the greatest of them is love.

Isn’t this just one of the greatest passages in the Bible????? It just sums pretty much everything up, to me.  As Jeff Cavins pointed out in the fantastic Bible study I have been doing at my parish, I cannot have one hand raised for Jesus and praising God and the other around the throat of someone that hurt me, because forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a will…Jesus didn’t “feel” like dying for us, he chose to because he loves us. God forgives me over and over again, and I owe my fellow humans this same forgiveness if I expect God to forgive me.  Tearing someone else down for any reason does not build you up and it certainly does not make you holy.  I am called—no, COMMANDED—to love…holding on to resentments, thinking ill thoughts, and spreading meanness is certainly not loving.

The funny thing is, the more you love, the easier it is. That channel of grace gets wider and stronger.  I used to hold grudges ’til kingdom come, but lately my flashes of anger tend to cool quite quickly.  I still have an Irish temper and a smart mouth that gets me into plenty of trouble, but I am becoming more understanding, apologetic, and forgiving than I was before.  Though I have so much more room for improvement, I sure hope it counts for something, anyway, and I know I didn’t come that way, so it MUST be grace…

Finally, the Gospel: Luke 4: 21-30

21 Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.’

22 And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips. They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’

23 But he replied, ‘No doubt you will quote me the saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” and tell me, “We have heard all that happened in Capernaum, do the same here in your own country.” ‘

24 And he went on, ‘In truth I tell you, no prophet is ever accepted in his own country.

25 ‘There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven remained shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land,

26 but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a town in Sidonia.

27 And in the prophet Elisha’s time there were many suffering from virulent skin-diseases in Israel, but none of these was cured — only Naaman the Syrian.’

28 When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged.

29 They sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; and they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him off the cliff,

30 but he passed straight through the crowd and walked away.

So, God made me (and all of us Christians) to be a prophet and promises He will be with me; He commands me to love, which is the greatest of all things; and He reminds me that a prophet is rarely accepted in his own country (though His reward for us is greater than the suffering).  I am not going to convince everyone I meet, especially in my former church, of the truth I have found, but I can live it…and I can show and tell others of the love and truth…especially those others who have felt the “bad side” of so-called Christians and have the scars to show for it.  Refusing to give in and spread negativity is the only way to fight your way out of a box of crabs.  More than that, by building each other up and loving each other past our faults, showing mercy, and rejoicing in our faith, we can all get out of the box.

Odds and Ends, Doors and Windows

Whew! Sorry, ya’ll. I have been SO busy lately. I hope to post more regularly from now on, though. Since it feels like forever and a year since I have posted at all, I will catch you up on some things. The theme lately has been silver linings…

1: Praise God, through whom all blessings flow…albeit in His time, His will be done. My husband has been long-suffering in his career. The company for which we work has been going through a considerable re-organization that is quite complicated and too boring to talk about, but suffice to say it has been an adjustment. My husband was hired on before he finished his degree, and has since graduated more than a year ago. Normally, with his experience, work ethic, bilingual language skills, and now his credentials, he would be readily considered for a promotion…but such is not the case at this time. It is doubly hard on him because his department is actually understaffed and is basically forced to work overtime, so it is a little frustrating the company is not considering him or really anyone in his particular position for a promotion. Since we car-pool much of the time, I have been working overtime with him (in my own department), so while this has been good for our bank account, it has been bad for our home life and sanity.  I humbly ask that you keep my family in your prayers and that an opportunity arises soon that is good for his career advancement and for our work/life balance.

2:  Our parish has seen a whirlwind of change these past few months. First we got a new (awesome) priest, Father O’Brien. I have enjoyed each of our (many) priests we have had in the past two years, but it is nice to have some stability and the hope of growth in our parish. He has already instituted loads of changes, big and small, and all for the better, in my opinion. Saint Matthew parish feels more alive and dynamic already with new Bible study groups, new technology, new activities, more opportunities for fellowship, and a priest with a gentle demeanor but an obviously passionate heart for Jesus. It has been so exciting to grow more with this fantastic Christian community and find new ways for us to “go ye therefore” out into the world.

3: Speaking of which, our parish resurrected our old tradition of the International Food Festival to celebrate the feast day of our patron saint. I made bigos, aka hunter’s stew, which is a yummy Polish dish, and it was a hit. I was very flattered that two people asked me for my recipe, and happier that I didn’t have to carry anything home but a nearly empty pot.  Despite cooking for my own heritage, I actually dressed in a traditional costume of my husband’s. He punked out and conveniently didn’t find his own costume in time, but I got to wear a pretty dress and hold the Mexican flag in the procession of flags into the church.

Mary Anne (Colonial USA) and I (Mexico) at our parish International Food Festival in honor of our patron saint, Saint Matthew. Courtesy Saint Matthew Parish, Winter Haven, FL

Courtesy of Saint Matthew Parish, Winter Haven, FL

4: I had a recent procedure to get more insight into our infertility issues, so the De Lara family can hopefully welcome new little members someday.  It was super painful, but only for a few minutes, and the results were good…so maybe it truly is just a matter of time. Nothing has been found wrong with either of us, but despite nearly 4 years of trying for a baby, I continue the roller coaster of extreme hope to absolute dejection every month.  I have decided that maybe God just wants us to be in the very best position possible to welcome a baby, so he is waiting until just the right time to bless us. Maybe he wants him or her to be so perfectly beautiful and smart that he is taking extra time in making the mold or something. This is pretty much my greatest (and sometimes only) comfort when I cry on the bathroom floor every month or when I open facebook and see yet another pregnancy announcement or the birth of another baby to a family that has had two babies in the time we have tried for one.

5: My sweet baby seeester is getting married in one week! It has been a flurry of last minute preparations for her destination wedding in the hills of North Carolina (the autumn leaves are going to be swoon-worthy to this Florida girl). Today was her bridal shower and I just was so overcome with how much this girl has grown into a woman I truly admire. She was a little bit of a wild child and somewhat unpredictable in her youth, but experience, education, and the love of a good man have helped her best self shine through. She is so loyal, gentle, caring, generous, and more precious than rubies. He is a pretty great guy, too, and such a welcome addition to the family. He came over to my parents’ today after her shower was over and she made a plate of leftovers for him and showed him the pretty gifts. He was the cutest when he put their new oven mitts on each hand and played with their other gifts when he thought the rest of us weren’t watching. My mom and dad are patting themselves on the back that they married off all three of their college-educated girls just as each reached 30 and their rambling, big, empty house goes up for sale in a few weeks and they are starting their next chapter of tooling around in a trailer.

Normalists, or How We Broke the Cycle of Excessive Living to Pay Off Our Debt–Part 2

money tree.jpg

The Big Guns

We have talked about identifying what is important and what isn’t, so you can shed some clutter, and about real easy things that pretty much everyone can do to cut down on some monthly expenses, but today we will talk about how to kill debt for the long haul.  This is a very big sacrifice we have chosen to make, and with our momentum, we will be debt free in about 6 years.  Like, completely debt free.  We will be only 38, so that is huge.  Obviously, we may have some setbacks and things may not go according to plan, but any headway we make is better than no headway at all. We have just one child (thanks to infertility, not for lack of desire), and both of us work, so I realize this is a much more aggressive tactic that may not be even feasible for some families with more kids or a stay-at-home-parent, but if you have the ways and means, then jump on the train now, because adding kids or losing a job to the mix will complicate matters later if you don’t have things under control now.

1: We drive used cars. I bought my car new in 2007 and it was my first ever brand-new car…and likely my last ever. I hated and resented that car payment every month. Cars are not generally investments, people.  They depreciate, instantly. They do not appreciate, unless you have a mint-condition fancy car that is in high demand, like a classic Corvette.  Do not be fooled and enchanted by the bells and whistles. Buy a used car and either learn basic repairs yourself or befriend a mechanic;  you will be SO much better off.   I plan on keeping Geoffrey (that is my car) until he falls apart, which is hopefully not for a very long time. He has only needed very minor repairs and maintenance, so we are lucky so far.  My husband bought a used Infiniti in cash a year ago—a car that cost $65,000 11 years ago—for $3500, and it is immaculate and way nicer than Geoffrey and will likely outlive him. I shudder when I think of the money the previous owner wasted on the Infiniti.   You really can find a good deal on Craigslist or whatever, but buyer beware.  Our car has had one owner, no accidents and had all the service records.  Even if the Infiniti lasts only another 3 years (which it will last longer, God forbidding accidents), we will have spent only $875 a year on owning it over the course of 4 years, minus gas and regular maintenance, whereas the previous owner spent $6,500 a year while owning it for 10.   I don’t like new car smell THAT much.

2: We make extra payments and buy things in cash. You are thinking you have heard this before, right? Like, every day on Yahoo…but wait, there’s more.  Learning to manage our income to the maximum benefit of our family is the toughest thing we do. It is where the belt gets really tightened.  We get paid every two weeks.  Instead of paying bills monthly, we pay every two weeks. There really isn’t much difference in that, but it does accumulate over the course of a year and it has helped us get ahead in lots of ways.  I have made a handy, dandy chart that shows exactly what our bills are, where our current debts stand, how much progress we have made, and how much money we have after bills are paid. We pay ALL of the bills due for those two weeks the very day we get paid, then we take out the remaining money as cash and that is it. We pay for mostly everything.in.cash.  When it is gone, it is gone…but believe me, when you know that little wad of cash is your gas, groceries and whatever else you need for two weeks, you think twice before parting with it for any reason.

We also pay more than what our minimum payments are on most things, but we do have a system.  We decided that paying 30 years for a house and ultimately paying twice what you purchased it for really sucks, and since that is our biggest asset, we decided we needed to squash the bank that was sucking its blood.  We started off with first telling ourselves that our $800 mortgage payment was really $1000, and we did that for a while, and were elated to finally see the balance move down  for the first time in, um, ever.  Then we got really brave: we decided to live off of one income and pay the house with the other.  We would also apply any bonuses or income tax returns to the balance.  In one year, we decreased our mortgage balance by $28,000, which was 27% of our principal.  Once our house is paid off, we plan on turning the cannons at the student loans, of which we now owe more on than our house.

We also attacked our debt from the other side, by paying down all of our little debts on our credit cards .  We do have credit cards: we have two very small limit secured credit cards (which are basically small CDs really) and one large-limit credit card in case ish really hits the fan.  If we put anything on them, we pretty much pay them off immediately.  We use the snowball method: we started paying off the smallest debt by making extra large payments, while maintaining minimum payments or just more than minimum payments on other little debts.  Once that was paid off, we used all the money we were paying on the previous debt, plus the money we have been paying on the next smallest debt and killed off that debt, and then so on. We closed out 2 small private loans, 2 store credit cards and paid off the the credit cards we continue to keep open in this manner.  We keep our credit in good standing by occasionally purchasing gas or groceries on a credit card and then paying them off right away.

3: We pay ourselves.

Finally, we have made our savings account a bill. We always pay ourselves. We have been able to build up our emergency fund in this manner, so that if something were to happen, we would have enough money in savings to pay all of our bills as we do now for 3 months.  Ideally, it is supposed to be six, but we decided 3 would be good because we always pay extra on everything and we could stretch it to six by making minimal payments if we had to.  We maintain a certain number pretty much always.  We do add to it, but we can also spend that money if we want to, like for a little vacation or remodel on the house, but only to the minimum amount we agree to keep in savings.

We contribute to both traditional 401(k)s and Roth IRAs. We have had mixed reviews from several financial advisors about which account we should contribute more to, so we are still figuring this one out. Currently, we contribute enough to meet the requirements for our company to match our yearly contribution to our traditional 401(k), and then some. It is on an increase of 3% each year, which will be accelerated once our debt is paid down. We also contribute 12% currently to the Roth IRA, which we will also accelerate once our debt is paid. The goal is to max these accounts our for how much we are allowed to contribute, per the IRS, once we have cleared our debt.

There you have it! The De Lara method of managing the financial chaos we wrought upon ourselves in our 20s. I gotta tell ya, just 2 years into my 30s, we have mended a lot of financial fences with this.  God willing, we will keep pressing on. Most of the time, I still feel like a little girl that wants my mom, so I feel all adult-y when I look at my monthly budget and the headways we have made from month to month.

Do any of you have any special tactics you would like to share?

Normalism, or How We Broke The Cycle of Excessive Living to Pay Off Our Debt–Part 1

It has dawned on me lately how very excessive our culture is. It is ingrained in us and almost beyond the point of help, sometimes. I recently binged watched House Hunters and House Hunters International on Netflix and I became increasingly annoyed with the “must haves” of some people (granite countertops, stainless steel appliances, five bedrooms, a study, a separate play room, a large yard with a fence, etc.), particularly people moving overseas and expecting American-style housing. Not that I am not guilty of having demands of my own (A/C is non-negotiable unless I am living in Scandinavia or something), but I can easily see how we, as Americans, annoy others with our grandiose sense of living.

Up until a few years ago, I was very guilty of blowing my money on pretty items–clothes, housewares, etc.–and also of racking up debt. Luckily, I met a person that was raised dirt-floor poor and opened my eyes to how silly I was being. Chalk it up to being young and dumb, with no real concept of the future other than what I needed/wanted the very next moment rather than 10 years from now. Despite being 32, I have only learned how to “adult” since I was about 28.

There has been this great movement of people shedding stuff and becoming Minimalists and giving up large houses for teeny tiny adorable portable homes.  I have read the famous blog of the same name and have read many other accounts of people following suit.  They are pretty inspiring and make me kind of wistful.

I am not a Minimalist, however; I am a Normalist and a Realist.  I need some stuff.  Maybe not NEED, like I need air, but I do need some stuff.  I need it because it does actually make me happy.  I LIKE to see my walls adorned with photos of places we have been, family members and my lovely paintings that I have collected.  I LIKE to read Better Homes and Gardens and recreate my outdated spaces into beautiful rooms.  I LIKE to have to go a whole week without washing clothes…sure the mountain is huge at the end of the week, but there are usually clean socks to wear even if I wait until Saturday to do the wash.  Anyway, if my little home things make me happy, then there is no sense of getting rid of them.  Happiness is pretty essential.

However, my family has made a very conscious effort to live more simply, so as to be Normalists, not Excessivists, with the grand goal of paying off all of our debt and retiring early so that we can ENJOY life.  How do we do this and is it hard? Quite easily and not at all hard. Well…it does take some sacrifice, but once you are used to it, it really isn’t hard at all.  You will still have things, and hopefully a lot less clutter in your house and in your life.  After you have decided on which things are important to you, look for ways to enhance those things and just cut out the rest.  Figure out the items you own that you actually use for your things that are important to you, and which things hide in a cupboard 364 days a year.

Really, you just have to decide what is really important and what isn’t and what you can do for yourself and what you cannot. Some things don’t require a lot of skill or talent and you are able to find a YouTube tutorial to learn to tackle them yourself: basic auto repairs and maintenance or non-structural home remodels. You can even make it a family affair. Seriously.  Our family is very busy–both adults work, and kid has school and Tae Kwon Do.  There are probably lots of ways we could cut back on things that would give us more time, but our biggest problem is actually debt.  Our primary goal is to reduce and eventually eliminate our debt as fast as possible, so that we can re-focus our energy into having lots of fun while we are still young.  We make an extra special effort to use our free time productively together: we all help cook, clean, and do yard work, so that we all get time to do fun things together, like play games or sports.  My able-bodied neighbor with a large family of helpers just spent $3,000 on having her house painted…my husband, son, and I painted ours ourselves for about $700, and both projects started and ended at the same time.  Granted, neighbor and kids were probably chilling in their house playing video games or some such and having a grand ‘ol time,  but our little family was jamming to the radio and took breaks to cool off in the sprinklers. Our time together did not suffer for work and we added value to our home while saving money.  Savings: heaps and loads, plus you get quality time together, which is priceless.

The easiest thing to cut is cable.  Back in 2009, when I still had cable, the package for internet and cable was over $100…I think it was $130, to be exact, and that was for a lower-level package, no premium channels or anything.  I was never home long enough to watch $130 worth of TV, in my opinion.   When I was home, I really liked to garden or ride my bike.  We cut cable when my husband moved in and we have used Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and YouTube ever since.  Commercials are fewer, I don’t have to worry about setting the DVR, and I can binge watch when I do have time to kill or cannot sleep.  Better than all that, with all three streaming services and YouTube (which is free, obviously), we spend a grand total of about $25 a month.  My husband and I will often go what a game or a boxing match either at a friend’s or at a sports bar if there is one he is dying to see and it isn’t streaming online anywhere. Savings: $105 a month/ $1260 per year.

Our family also doesn’t try to have the newest, and best things.  I bought my son a Wii way back in 2008 or 2009, which he still plays with and we use to stream shows and movies.  He also loves my old Nintendo 64 from back in the day.  My husband bought a PS3 before I met him, which he also still plays with occasionally, but it functions mostly as a streaming device for music and shows/movies.  My husband is still rockin’ a slider phone from 2006 and I just bought a used iPhone 4 off of eBay.  Phones are just phones to us—we both work in a call center, so talking on one is the furthest thing from our minds and when we are together. Our cell phone plan is probably our favorite money-saving secret (note: this is not a sponsored post, I am just sharing our experience).  We use Ting and we pay only for what we use.  It isn’t pre-paid and there is no set amount that you can use or anything, the service is good, the customer service is great, and you can migrate your old Sprint or Verizon phone (including your fancy iPhone 6) and your old number from any carrier you are with.  You just pay for whatever minutes you use, whatever texts you send, and however many data bite thingies you use, and it tiers them all separately, so if you use more of one and not the other, you aren’t wasting money on the unused service.  Both of our phones together, with internet, costs us about $60 a month. That is $30 less than my old phone bill for just me through At&t. Savings: hundreds yearly on devices, $120 per month/$1,440 on cell phone plan per year.

Clothes were the biggest thing for me to learn to let go of.  I just love pretty things and it has always been one of my goals to dress like a French woman, but my priorities now are to pay debts, so life is easier in the long run.  Debts can haunt you a lot longer than not buying that cute sundress on sale.  I have learned to shop friends’ and sisters’ closets for their cast-offs and the Goodwill store for great deals.  And, I tell ya, if you hit one up near a richer part of town (I like the one in Brandon, FL which is near the Westshore Mall), you get some really nice stuff  and sometimes the tag is still attached! I do go shopping in regular stores a few times a year, or for a special occasion, but mostly, I have learned to re-use and re-purpose what I have by choosing classic pieces and accessories. Savings: Heaven only knows–a whole lot, probably at least $2,000 per year.

Next, we cook… a lot.  We pack lunch daily to work and cook almost every night.  We will go out to eat usually twice a month as a date night, but never anything fancy unless it is a very special occasion.  Our favorite restaurant is a taco truck—no  sense in paying hefty prices for tacos that taste only half as good as taco truck tacos.  Grocery shopping is limited to twice a month, and ain’t nobody got time for coupons in my house, so we are a bit creative.  We cook with what we have on hand for two weeks before the next shopping spree, with the exception being we do stop to get milk and bananas weekly.  We do our shopping at the roadside fruit and veggie stand and we go to a meat market for meat.  We make a lot of stews and soups because 1: they last longer, usually at least 3-4 meals. 2: they make a lot out of a little 3: they are generally healthier than heavier meals.  We always make a meal plan and buy only the ingredients we need for our meals. This keeps us from over-spending and from over-eating because we do not keep extra snacks in the house. Savings: probably about $400 per month/ $4,800 per year.

Finally, we conserve energy.  We live in Central Florida, where it is HOT and HUMID. Insufferably hot and humid, really, from about May through September, finally reaching an agreeable temperature around mid-October.  I have heard tale of people that lived before a/c  in tin roof houses (my mother),  but they are legends of old.  I think the long life-expectancy in this country directly correlates with the mass availability of central heat and air conditioning systems.  But just because you have it, doesn’t mean you have to use it ALL of the time…like Mid-October through the end of April, for instance. If we do get a random cold day in winter, we usually just pile on some blankets or wear socks, because our cold really doesn’t touch the cold that our Yankee friends get.  On normal days, we open the windows in our house and let the breeze in and we also cook outside every chance we get because it keeps the house cooler and the food tastes better.  For the dog days of summer, we have learned to acclimate ourselves to a higher temperature.  When we are not home, the air is OFF and so are ceiling fans, but when we are home, we turn on the ceiling fans and leave the air at about 75. We started bumping up the air by one degree every week until we got used to that temperature. If guests come over, we will adjust for them, but otherwise, we have learned to live with it.  We also hang our clothes up to dry most laundry days—unless it is raining, which is rare; then we go to the Laundromat about 2 miles away because it costs 25 cents and dries the clothes in about 20 minutes—long enough to eat tacos at our favorite taco truck across the street! We have cut our monthly electric bill from about $230 a month to about $75 a month in this way. Savings: $155 per month/ $1,860 per year.

Just by cutting back on some things and using the hands and brains God gave us, we save at least $11,360 per year, not including the savings on our DIY projects and electronic devices. All of this seems pretty common sense, but you would be surprised how the false sense of financial security will allow you to slip into bad habits that create a hellhole of debt. I will bring out the big guns next time, so you can see our aggressive debt PAYING tactics and see if they may help you.

Answer Me This: 4th of July

One of my favorite-est Catholic mom bloggers, Kendra from Catholic All Year, is doing a fun weekly link-up for the summer, and since I love answering questions and talking about anything nonsensical, I will play along 🙂

1: How did you celebrate the 4th of July?

Husband and I put the finishing touches on our house-painting project. We screwed on the shutters and painted the front steps. No joke, y’all, we painted the entire house by hand in this past month…two coats of primer, two coats of paint on the walls, two coats of paint on the trim and eaves, two coats of paint on the shutters and doors, and two coats on the front steps. The two of us with our four hands. In June/July. In Central Florida. For those of you not in the know…it averages about 96 degrees with about 120% humidity. It rains in torrents every afternoon and we have bugs the size of your hand. Pictures cannot do us justice…you really would have had to seen the old beige/pinkish paint peeling off and the obscene amount of cobwebs in person to understand how very fresh and new this is. Plus, we had the whole house stuccoed ($1,700!!!!!! WHAT A STEAL!!!!), so you cannot see the lines of the cinderblocks anymore.  We capped off our productive day with spreading a blanket on the church lawn at St. Ann’s and watching the fireworks over Lake Eva while eating street tacos. Awesome.

Before: Terrible beige peeling off of cinderblock walls

Before: Terrible beige peeling off of cinderblock walls

After: Needs landscaping, but 100% better. Stucco, moss green paint and dark peacock blue shutters and door

After: Needs landscaping, but 100% better. Stucco, moss green paint and dark peacock blue shutters and door

After: take 2.  It is really coming along!

After: take 2. It is really coming along!

2: Do you sunburn easily?

Huh. Do I ever. I have a creamy English skin with a smattering of freckles across my nose and on my shoulders. I never, ever, ever tan. I burn within the span of 5 minutes and then peel two days later. A whole body peel, like a snake. It is the worst because I can see it on the end of my nose and it grosses me out when I change clothes and my skin comes off with my shirt. Once, while snorkeling…actually twice, once in Key West and once in Cozumel…I burned my backside so badly that I could not sit on my bottom for two days, just had to lay on my belly. I could slather on sunscreen every twenty minutes and it simply would not matter. So sad–especially as tan fat looks better than white fat. I could totally fool you into thinking I was skinny.

My back after snorkeling in Cozumel. :-( It is even more painful than it looks

My back after snorkeling in Cozumel. 😦 It is even more painful than it looks

3: Hot dogs, yay or nay?

YAY!!!!!!!!!!!! I love hot dogs grilled or fried, alone and single, or piled high. Covered in cornbread and dipped in honey, nothing tastes better for love or money. Beer-braised and covered in salsa, smothered in mac and cheese, or in la parrillada, slathered in mustard, or covered in slaw–I could eat my weight in ’em, y’all! Bathe in barbecue and crumbled chips, nothing so good ever touched your lips. New York, Chicago, or Coney Island style–a good hot dog makes your tummy smile! 🙂

4: Have you ever personally set off fireworks?

No. I have handled sparklers, but as a general rule, I am afraid to handle fire.  The summer we were married, my husband crossed the county line and brought in contraband fireworks and set them off in his father’s pasture, launching them from PVC pipes. One of them melted the PVC pipe and exploded sideways, on the ground instead of launching into the air. Shrapnel and fire flew everywhere. Somehow we all knew to hit the ground and my 4 year old nephew yelled explicatives to our horror and amusement. I honestly thought I was a widowed-bride until I heard my husband’s laugh out of the darkness. This year, he set off some chasers and one went backwards and chased him…and blew up directly beside him. When I was little, my dad lit a flower bomb and my protective hound dog stamped it out with her feet, crying in fear and pain, but determined to rescue her owner. Pobrecita…she was nursed and coddled and forever locked up when we lit them off again.  Nah…I am just good watching them.

5: Have you ever jumped off the high dive?

No…we have always owned a pool, so I can count the number of times on one hand that I have ever been in a public pool. We never had a diving board. What I have done is jump off the high rock at Juniper Springs and plunged into the freezing (72 degrees is plenty cold enough, anyway) water. I have jumped from rope swings into the water and have been dumped from many a jet-ski. I also have been knee-boarding. Hopefully those count for something 🙂

6: Do you do anything weird in your sleep?

I can carry an entire conversation in my sleep. My mom always said she would wait until I was asleep if she wanted to get a truthful answer out of me. I also stay in one position…I literally do not move once I am asleep, and wake in the exact same position I fell asleep in.

There you have it! That was fun, maybe I will play along next week, too. Until then, back to our regularly scheduled programming.  I am super excited to have the opportunity to contribute to an upcoming online Catholic “magazine” type website–more on that later. I also am getting into the thick of things with my CHRP ladies at Saint Matthew’s…if you are local or visiting Winter Haven the first weekend in October, save the date and come on out…we have big things planned. House projects aplenty are looming, so expect some more DIY stuff in the near future AND my lovely baby sister is getting married soon, so there is lots of planning for that, too!  God bless!

Visit Kendra’s blog–hers is super-awesome and hilarious–and link up to answer her fun questions, or answer them in the comment section here or there!

Five Favorite Books for Tween Boys

Linking up with Jenna at Call Her Happy & Rachel at Efficient Momma for Five Favorites this week.

I do not often get to talk about mommy stuff as my kid is half grown and I only have one, and not a passel. He is, thank and praise God Almighty, a healthy, well-adjusted child, so I don’t have much to complain about with him either. I think in all of his 13 years, he has thrown up 3 times, and the last time he had a fever on my watch was when he was 3 years old and he had an abscessed tooth. Aren’t I the lucky duck?

Anyway, one thing I do lament over is he is no book worm like his mommy dearest. He tolerates reading reasonably well, and very occasionally he will get into a book and forget to do chores or eat, but only very rarely. He used to love to have me read to him as a child, though. He and I would always go pick out two books on payday, so we have a hefty library of children’s books that I am saving for dream baby #2 or for grandkids. He would pick out a book for himself, and I would pick out one FOR him…and invariably he liked the one I picked out more, so I must have good taste 🙂

Being a girl, I grew up in the worlds of Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I own every single Laura book and Anne book, including recipe books. I read almost incessantly as a child and so did my sisters, so this foreign male creature barely seems like my kin at times. Finding books to entice a tween or young teen boy (other than comic books) has been a especial challenge, as he is not quite old enough for more mature content or to grasp heavy themes, but I want to introduce him to weightier material without scaring him off of books. I have to read them first to make sure they are suitable and have some merit to them–he reads enough comic books on his own, so I have to supplement his library with something with more substance. I definitely don’t mind him reading books written from a female perspective, and I encourage it, but since he is little bit hard to induce to read in the first place, I prefer to bait him with primarily masculine books.

Of course, any kid with a healthy imagination and a grain of sense and taste loves Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, though lots of the literary devices of Rowling and (especially) Tolkien will be lost on him for some time yet. Below are some books that I have coaxed him into reading (and one he asked ME to read) and we both think they rock our socks, so if you have a tween/young teen or know one, these might be some cool suggestions for summer reading.

1: Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli

 I cannot say enough good things about this book. Adults and kids alike should read it. It is funny, touching, and gives you something to really mull over. He’s the funnier, smarter, more talented Harry Potter in that he, too, is an orphan left with a weird aunt and uncle but is destined for greater things. Neglected and unloved, he sets out on his own and inadvertently becomes a legend. If this was a hit, then your kid will probably also enjoy Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.

2.  A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park

This is a true story of a seemingly orphaned Sudanese boy and his journey to find refuge in a war-torn country. The story flashes back and forth to the boy’s future in which he comes back to help his country by digging wells for clean water in poor villages. There is plenty of suspense and even a little gore to engage any young boy, and the story is told simply and effortlessly. My son read this in 6th grade and loved it so much he DEMANDED that I read it, which I did, in about two hours.  It was the first recommendation he has ever made me on a book, and he did his mama proud. If your boy liked this one, I recommend The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne. Be prepared for some serious questions, but it will open up great dialogue.

3. Bud, Not Buddy—Christopher Paul Curtis

This is more for the 9-11 age range, but my son loves it nonetheless. Bud, a young orphaned African American boy growing up in the Great Depression (why do I enjoy orphan books so much???) sets out to find the father he never met, who he believes is a semi-famous jazz musician.  A beautiful story of hope, optimism, and sheer grit and determination. Elijah of Buxton, also written by Curtis, is another great story if your kids enjoyed this one, as is the classic Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

4. Johnny Tremain—Esther Forbes

Not for nothing is this one a classic. I always love anything about the American Revolution, despite being an Anglophile, so this one is right up my alley and it appeals to masculine little souls as well. Johnny is a young apprentice silversmith caught up in the intrigue of 1770s Boston on the cusp of the war for independence. There is even a tiny bit of romance in it for boys just starting to be the teensiest bit curious about girls, but not enough to freak them out or anything, and it is very tame and clean. I recommend this book for 12-13 year olds, but The Riddle of Penncroft Farm by Dorthea Jensen is a good choice for the 10-11 year old crowd. Both would make a good reading assignment for an American Revolution unit.

5. My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

This kid lives the life any kid, especially any boy, would dream about. He “runs away” (his parents let him) to live on his own in the Catskill Mountains. He teaches himself all kinds of cool survival tricks that I cannot wait to try out on my next camping trip in Ocala, trains a hawk, and lives in a hollowed out tree. Pretty dang awesome. If your boy (or girl) likes this book, then he (or she) would also like Hatchet by Gary Paulsen and the Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare, or even Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.

I am ALWAYS looking for new books for me and the kid to enjoy together, so if you have any suggestions to entice a 13 year old boy to read, please let me know!


Takin’ What They Givin’, ‘Cause I’m Workin’ For A Livin’–A Working Mom Duly Chastised By Mary

Huey Lewis, Dolly Parton, Johnny Paycheck, BTO….all have songs that speak to the soul of working people. They sho’ do mine. How many times have I felt like saying “Take this job and shove it!” More times than I can count.

First world problems. I hear ya. I am super-grateful that I have a job, especially one that pays decently well. God has given me not only the ability and the capacity to work, but a job that pays the bills. I am not ungrateful for this. I need a job because those horrible student loans will never pay themselves and I need food for ma belly and a roof over my head.

I even have a job that is not exactly awful. Certainly, I didn’t say “I want to be a claims adjuster when I grow up”, but it isn’t SO bad. Yes, I get yelled at on most days. I get talked down to, lied to, pleaded with when my hands are tied (it is a contract, people, ain’t nuthin’ I can do about that). I talk to so many people in a day that I don’t feel like talking at all when I get out of work. I answer a phone so much at work, you better not EVER call my cell phone unless it is a dire emergency, cuz I ain’t answering. I drive an hour in the mornings, leaving before sun-up, because I gotta get the kid to school and traffic is stupid and there is no straight way to get from point A to point B when you live in a land of a 100,000 lakes. I drive another hour home, to a house with dishes in the sink and dinner needing to be cooked. In the winter, I literally never see daylight during the week. So, ok, it sucks, but it is not THAT bad. I get to help people. I get paid decently well for the area I live in, and I have benefits (though don’t get me started on how much I hate health insurance). I have cool work friends and a great boss. I learn new things all the time, every day. Best of all, hubby and I are busting our butts to pay down the mortgage early and eliminate all debt so we can retire in Mexico. It may never happen, but having a dream gets me out of bed.

So why am I “bitchin’” about it, as my dad says? Because, dammit. I don’t wanna HAVE to work outside the home. I am all for women having equal rights and the ABILITY to work if they want to. I absolutely admire the strides women have made to come this far and fight for these rights. I adamantly agree that there should be more women with powerful jobs. Women are, by and large in my opinion, pound for pound smarter than the average man…at least a lot of the women I know. They are resourceful and gritty and strong. As my Mamaw always told me, the man may be the head of the household, but the woman is the neck that turns the head. Women put up with a LOT, are capable of so much, do the lion’s share of housework and child-rearing most of the time, AND lots of them work outside the home. And if we get sick, the world doesn’t stop turning for us…we gotta just suck it up and keep on truckin’… My point is, women already have loads to do without HAVING to be a bread-winner too.

What do I mean by have to? Well, I don’t need charts and graphs and a power point to prove to you that the dollar doesn’t buy what it used to, even for people that live simply..and trust me, we live pretty simply. You can look up cost of living difference from 1950 vs 2014 and see thousands of articles about how the middle class is being systematically destroyed by inflation.

Just because I work outside the home, does not mean that I can stop cleaning my home, providing dinner for my family, stop taking care of myself, stop creating a “home” environment, stop creating a domestic church…all of this and still try to find time to relax. Even the word relax sends me into spazzed-out panic…I cannot relax, there is too much to do! “Why are you spending hours writing this blog, Janie?” Because that IS me trying to relax…to find some outlet for myself.

It feels so selfish to say so, when there are many that desperately need work, but I think my quality of life has suffered. The truth is, I see all these other awesome mom bloggers with their close-knit families, their brilliant home-schooled kids, and I inwardly seethe a little. I actively engage with my child a grand total of perhaps 60 minutes a day and most of that is cozied up next to him while he watches Dragonball Z because I am just too tired to do anything else. The rest is “Jack, get dressed. Jack, take out the trash. Jack, pick up your things”.   I have epic meltdowns if someone tells me they have no clean socks. I get angry when I have to go visit family sometimes because it takes away from our precious home time, which is dumb. I know without a doubt that the SAHMs work their butts off, but for me, as a girl that really had no great desire to do anything else other than be a mom, the grass sure looks greener and life more fulfilling. I dunno if these ladies somehow married well or they somehow escaped the horrible vortex of student loans, but even scratching a living off of a rock, I couldn’t quit my job right now.

Women fought for the CHOICE to be able to work in any job they were qualified for, but they didn’t fight for the OBLIGATION. I am all about women being educated regardless of whether they choose to work outside the home or not, because education is vital to keep from regression and suppression and also because learning is fun.

I am not about pushing off working a traditional job all on the men, either. It is totally cool if a dad and mom agree that the dad will be a stay at home dad. It is totally awesome if someone has figured it all out and can somehow juggle both parents working, have a great home life and well-raised kids—PLEASE share your secrets.

What I am sad about is that somehow, in our quest for having everything, we have lost really vital things, or have half-assed everything…we live to work.  I am sad that we continue to entrench ourselves deeper into a society that must work longer, harder hours just to NOT make ends meet in some cases. I am sad that college has become a requirement to get the middle-class jobs (or in my case, just a regular ol’ desk job for which a degree is required but never ONCE used) that you must slave away in just to pay for the piece of paper that got you the job! I am sad that the United States, one of the strongest, richest countries in the world, is so uneven and has allowed poverty to run rampant and has crushed its life-blood middle class. I mean, we don’t even require paid maternity leave in this country—we are one of four countries that do not have this, and the only industrialized nation. Even if if I take my paid vacation leave—which is still far less than other European countries receive—more often than not, the work mounds up while I am gone and I am working some serious OT just to manage the beast when I get back. Despite having a household with two college educated workers with jobs, it is paycheck to paycheck.  What was all that college for, again?

It occurs to me, however, that despite my inward rebellion, I need to align my free will with God’s intention for me. Yesterday was a particularly bad day at work and I came home and ate coconut gelato instead of cooking. I had my little cry and then I surfed the internet reading other Catholic mom blogs and was suddenly reminded that today is the Feast of the Annunciation to Mary. Being a fairly newish Catholic and a very busy person, sometimes it is hard for me to remember all of the holidays at all, let alone prepare for them, but today is something quite touching. Today celebrates the consent of a mere woman to do God’s will, when His plan probably looked nothing like hers. Today celebrates that woman’s overturning of thousands of years of separation from God and His intention for His people caused by another mere woman. So yeah, she was immaculately conceived and sinless, and yeah, all of eternity hinged on her consent, but that pretty much makes my whining seem even more silly. I am not, in any likelihood, changing the entire course of humanity, but you never know what great things could be accomplished through you if you do not seek to do God’s will.

This morning I prayed to God, then I talked a little with Mother Mary and Saint Jane Frances. My role at work was pretty much the same as yesterday…worse even, because I had more to do and many people were out, but it went much smoother and I maintained my poise. When I felt like I wasn’t making a dent in anything, I prayed another Hail Mary and asked for just a little smidgeon of her virtues to align myself with God’s plan for me.

Things will not always go my way and they may never go “my” way, but I am okay with that if they go God’s way. Right now, God’s will is for me to contribute my knowledge and talent to help others navigate loss and turmoil in their lives. My hectic life makes me sympathetic to their plight. Right now, God’s will for me is to keep working hard to pay things off so that I am either in a position to have that traditional family later or to have much to give others (or both). His long-term intention for me may be very different than His current in-the-moment plan. Mary probably wasn’t too keen on becoming an unwed teenage mom facing the threat of her fiancé leaving her to the masses, who would undoubtedly throw rocks at her. She probably wasn’t understanding at all what an impact she was to have, but any inward reluctance at her lot in life was squelched by her trust in God and desire to do His will.  And although I am certain my work days will be smoother and my home life more rewarding if I emulate her virtues, I can tell you it will take a whole lotta Hail Marys to shine this tarnished girl up. Thank goodness eternity doesn’t hinge on me.