Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Mark my words, I'm buying a GPS.

This will involve two of my least favorite things: admitting I have limitations and spending a largish sum of money. I recognize that there are glitches in mental wiring like dyslexia and discalulia that make skills like reading or math far more challenging, but I've spent years trying to tell myself that my total lack of directional sense was something I just needed to figure out how to fix. At this point, I'm willing to give up and admit defeat.

I was reading some Heinlein a few months ago, and the aspect of the fantasy I found most fantastic wasn't outside the realm of the normal: the protagonist had an unerring sense of direction. Forget interstellar teleportation, dragons to slay, and a beautiful sorceress eager to marry me and just as eager to let me go bed others, I want that! Alas, I'm still perpetually lost.

I don't think it's a lack of spacial skills, not exactly, anyway. I managed to test above average on the portion of the junior high aptitude test that required mentally folding diagrams into their corresponding three-dimensional objects and rotating those objects in my mind. I just don't have the ability to orient myself in space. That annoying gap in my reasoning that makes finding my way back to the correct road once I'm off of it almost excruciatingly difficult. This eventually leads to panic as wrong turn after wrong turn takes me farther and farther from any remotely recognizable landmark.

Over the years, I've managed to cope. On foot or bicycle, it isn't that bad. You can slow down enough to really look around, and if worst comes to worst, people getting their mail or walking their dogs are pretty friendly when lost pedestrians finally break down to beg for directions. When driving, however, it's pretty nasty.

My mother firmly believes that this, like so many problems in my life, will be solved once some magical nagging quota has been reached and I finally decide to do what she's been telling me to do all along, in this case pay attention. Paying attention and repetition do help. I reached the point where I was able to navigate my hometown and certain sections of my college city fairly well, largely because I'd devoted enough hours to wandering them on foot and trying to memorize enough to put together a mental map. Mapquest, Google maps, and the like do offer some benefit when I have to get somewhere new, but when I manage to screw up by taking a wrong turn, or when the direction is missing some crucial component, like that the road will split and I need to be in the left lane when it does, and by the time I realize this (if I do) nobody will let me over, I'm doomed.

I had one of those little compasses with a suction cup to stick to my windshield, but I accidentally left it in my mother's car when I returned it, and it was of limited use anyway. If I knew I needed to be on highway Y north, I could confirm for myself eighty seven times in the course of my journey that I had in fact turned the correct way when I'd gotten onto the highway, but once I managed to get myself lost, knowing which way north was was generally not all that beneficial since I had no idea which way I was supposed to be going. Road atlases are okay for determining which interstates intersect in which cities, but they are darn near useless to me when I'm actually in those cities, whizzing along at sixty miles per hour, and have just missed my exit.

All this was hammered home to me last night when, after two rather unpleasant days of school in a row, I decided a brief escape would be good for my sanity. I headed to the bustling metropolis of Southhaven, Mississippi with no real plan in mind other than to go be somewhere that wasn't here. I thought perhaps I'd see a movie since I've had a free pass in my wallet for months, but everything I wanted to see didn't take passes so I treated myself to dinner at Chick-fil-a and did a bit of shopping without actually buying anything. That was all lovely, but the getting turned around umpteen times wasn't. I ended up accidentally in Memphis twice. The trip home became even less fun after I took a seemingly logical turn and found myself on a bumpy, poorly maintained little road leading to a tiny town in Mississippi, then managed to get even more turned around in my attempt to get back to the highway and instead found myself on an otherwise empty road in the middle of the night, hurtling toward nothing, surrounded by only empty fields as far as the eye could see. I turned around at the first opportunity, made my way back to the tiny town where I'd gone astray, located a sign telling me what town I was in, briefly pondered calling my boyfriend and/or mother and waking them up in the hopes that they could use Google to help me find my way back to civilization, or at least the highway, but I ultimately made it home on my own and fell into bed, utterly drained from my little adventure.

So I'll read some reviews, compare prices, and try to get a good deal on a global positioning system, but at this point, I really don't care what it costs.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

I've got a brand new credit card.

No, I'm not planning any wild spending sprees. USAA informed me that my data may have been compromised and sent me a new card. (It seems I'm not the only one dealing with this in recent weeks.) It has been a non-issue. Activating the new card took about a minute and a half. I immediately logged into my Neflix account to change the billing for my oh-so-extravagant one movie at a time plan to the new card number, and I spent a few more minutes on the phone with a nice lady from Doctors Without Borders to update the information for my monthly donation. Having so little of my life automated has its advantages.

Monday, April 20, 2009

A wedding season dilemma.

What does a relatively broke young schoolteacher get a middle aged cardiologist as a wedding gift? My dad's late sister's husband is remarrying, and I'm excited about going to the wedding at seeing my relatives, but I have little idea what to get my uncle and his new bride. This is only the second wedding where that I've had to get a gift for on my own rather than letting my parents handle it, and I've recently discovered that there are people who take wedding gifts very seriously indeed so I don't want to screw this up. I guess I'm just going to set a budget and pick something off the registry more or less at random. Ok, well, not quite at random: there's no way I'm paying $29.99 plus shipping for a leopard print bath rug.

Now I just have to set a budget. I don't know that I can follow the cover your plate "rule" since I honestly don't know what they're spending on the whole shebang. I'm also not sure why their decision to throw a lavish or modest affair should affect what sort of gift I give them; I wish them equally well either way. I'm thinking that I may actually spend less than when my friends from junior high/high school/college(/I hope for the rest of our lives) got married last spring. They were broke college students starting a life together who actually needed a lot of things. My uncle is a widower with a teenager and his bride to be is also a fully fledged adult with a kid of her own so I think I can assume they both already have can openers despite registering for a very shiny new one. Is it cheap or heartless of me to think like this? What do you consider a reasonable amount to spend on a wedding gift?

Friday, April 17, 2009

The new set it and forget it emergency fund.

I've found myself awash in liquidity these past couple of months after a c.d. matured and the series I Bonds I bought last April reached the one year mark and are now available for emergencies. After careful consideration, I decided to buy more bonds, putting $2,000 in last month and another $3,000 in last week, giving me a grand total of $8,050 in I bonds, plus accrued interest. A year from now when I'll be able to redeem bonds as necessary, that'll be a perfectly acceptable emergency fund.

I know rates are going to be lousy for a while, but I think I can live with 0% interest in the wake of serious deflation. Even though I got pretty spoiled by HSBC back before the economy tanked, I know that the point of an emergency fund is to keep reserves on hand, not to generate more income. I'm more concerned about inflation eating away my savings when we finally get out of the recession but interest rates don't catch up right away. I Bonds should combat that pretty effectively.

Somehow, there's a much bigger psychological barrier to going to a bank and physically signing over the piece of paper than to electronically transferring invisible money from savings to checking so I don't think I'll be tempted to cash in the bonds for non-emergencies. However, if I ever do need money in a pinch, I can redeem up to $1,000 worth of bonds at a time at a bank anywhere in the country and walk out with the cash, which is a darn sight quicker than waiting for money to move from one account to another by way of ACH transfer. It's also pretty nice to be able to make a decision once and forget about it for the next couple of decades instead of fretting over chasing rates.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

It's tax day, but I just don't feel like writing about money.

This is, or at least was, a personal finance blog. It's April 15th. This space should probably contain something tax related, maybe musings about why I waited until today to actually mail in my returns, a review of the free H&R Block TaxCut online program I used to double check my forms, commentary on how ridiculous it is that I'll be getting over $1,400 back between the federal and state returns (a consequence of starting my job in August but withholding like I'd started back in January), a list of ideas for constructive ways to use the refund money, or perhaps some historical perspective on the Sixteenth Amendment. However, I'm just not feeling it.

Instead, I really want to write about my kids. I want to write about the typically disaffected senior who was so into nervous system Jeopardy that he yelled, "F*** yeah!" at the top of his lungs after getting a particularly tricky question right and then looked absolutely mortified when he realized what he'd done. I want to write about the joys of mixing baking soda and vinegar, about the sixth period students who invited me to come to senior skip day with them, about the grumbling that the New York Times article I'd assigned was "like reading Shakespeare", about how those same grumbley students actually got a lot out of said article after I finally hit on a good way to absolutely force them to use active reading strategies, about the miscreant who decided to stuff burning paper under my classroom door today. That's my life right now. Not that money isn't important, but I'm not devoting nearly as much of my mental energy to the topic as I was a year ago.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

It's all been said.

I'm reaching recession overload. Everywhere I turn there are more stories about the causes, impact, and how to adapt. I'm getting utterly sick of the human interest features about how everyone is coping or not coping with the changes. Yet, a lot of my thoughts are along the same lines so I haven't been posting a lot.

I've discovered while home for Easter weekend that my parents are canceling Netflix and shopping at Aldi's. The boy keeps getting sent home early because there just isn't enough work to keep everyone busy. I've quit checking my Vanguard account. It's not a super fun time, but life goes on.

It's the more subtle effects that are keeping me up at night. The physics graduate program at my old university had an upsurge in applications this year as more people tried to wait out the recession and the competition for slots at top-tier programs became all the more fierce. One of the best physics students I know got rejected by his top choice despite being offered large scholarships to other programs. His university of choice dealt with budget cuts by reducing the number of graduate stipends they offer.

His second choice, Cornell University (with an R.P. Feynman award), is hardly a bad option for an aspiring physicist, but not such a great option for someone who also hopes to spend the rest of his life with my friend S. She got a major fellowship to attend graduate school in English at the school that rejected him, and they wound up with zero overlap in their acceptances. It was, to put it mildly, bloody depressing. Fortunately, yesterday at the eleventh hour the National Science Foundation offered him a graduate fellowship, and the top choice offered him a slot since he'll be bringing federal funding with him.

So all that worked out nicely, but it leaves me a bit concerned about my prospects next year. I'll never be the physicist my friend will be. I fancy that I'm reasonably bright and hardworking, but I wasn't the sort of student who could work through enough E&M on my own to take graduate-level general relativity as a sophomore. Throw in that I've done hardly any real physics this year, instead opting to stand back and watch my brains slowly turn to mush as I spend my days trying to teach teenagers how to add fractions so they have a prayer of learning the material I'm actually supposed to be teaching, and I don't feel so secure in my chances of getting in to a respected graduate program.

Yeah, it's nothing compared to the folks who're losing their savings, their jobs, their health insurance, and their homes. Yeah, it's mostly my own darn fault for going into TFA instead of directly into grad school back when the economic outlook was a touch rosier. Yeah, it really is entirely my fault that I didn't keep up with studying every day instead of letting myself get washed away by a sea of grief and then struggling to keep up with the demands of teaching. Like so many others, I'm nervous about the fallout from a variety of factors, some that were totally within my locus of control and others that are far outside it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Things I learned this weekend

I was off at a conference this weekend where I learned a lot of things you might find mildly interesting if you teach high school freshmen. Odds are, you don't fall into that category so here are a few other things I learned:

Renting a van from a rent-to-own furniture store to save a few bucks probably isn't worth it. The initial plan of renting a giant SUV from a reputable national car rental chain got vetoed, and we ended up in a minivan the district hired from a furniture store. It was filthy inside, and after we got up to fifty miles per hour, the handling became alarming. We took it back and the guy at the store offered us another minivan that wouldn't even start. After a bit of fussing, the store guy took the first van to get it checked out and discovered that the treads were separating from one of the tires. The van was more or less okay after that, and by more or less okay I mean it didn't start making horrible noises until we were back within our own city limits.

Posh hotels can be fun. Fancy suites, cooked to order breakfasts, seriously comfortable beds, guitar players each evening, and indoor pools and hot tubs are nice amenities. I can understand why people like to vacation this way instead of spending a few hours in a Motel 6 and/or driving straight through on the way to a relative's house where they'll end up sleeping on the floor.

A sex on the beach is yummy. The hotel where we were staying had a free reception every night, and I decided to partake after my head principal, assistant principal, the woman from the central admin office, and the mentor teacher assigned to me by the district all ordered drinks. It turns out that mentor teacher gives good advice about drinks as well as students. I consumed half a drink Friday night and one and a half drinks Saturday night, putting my total alcohol consumption this calendar year at two drinks. This is on the heels of my unprecedented five drink December! Thus, I'll probably lay off the booze for at least the next couple of months.

It's possible to turn a profit on a nice weekend away for work. I can turn in receipts to get reimbursed by the district for Friday's dinner and today's gas station snacks. However, Saturday is a different story: because we were away on school business all day, we will be receiving a per diem of $42. It doesn't matter that breakfast was provided by the hotel and lunch was offered at the workshop. I spent $1.50 on a cash tip at a buffet Friday night, $9 on a touristy activity that everyone else wanted to do Saturday evening, $1 on tipping the bartender, and $5 on dinner and tip on Saturday (Hurray for cheap and filling cups of soup!). My assistant principal isn't sure whether this will be the case on this trip, but she said people have gotten paid for working on Saturday while off attending these sorts of things in the past.

All in all, it was a pleasant and productive trip.