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8/28/08: A Moment In History

I've learned over the last couple of months not to post on Fridays based on the trickle of traffic I typically get on this day. I especially should know not to post on a Friday leading into a major holiday --- Labor Day Weekend --- the official end of the summer and all the impracticalities and luxuries that go along with it --- setting horrific amounts of pork on fire, sitting in traffic for hours in one lane traffic headed to some beach, doing more walking than just hustling home, not having to share the road with hoards of school buses and angry teachers on their commutes.

But I can't let this Friday pass without saying history was made Thursday night the moment Barack Hussein Obama took center stage. Since delving into politics at the age of eight when Jane Byrne ran for Mayor of Chicago, I've grown weary of politicians on both sides of the aisle and the Independents like Nader unfortunately unfortunately haven't done much other than dilute votes. I don't care that Obama, Biden and their respective families may have stood around on stage for a little while looking a bit misdirected while the music shifted from Born in the USA to some kind of Hans Zimmer-ish superhero/epic movie score music. I could care less about his tie and the effect it gave off when televised and I for damn sure wasn't interested in what any talking head had to say afterwards. My father had a critique of his speech --- whatever. He promised a lot. But what politician doesn't? I believe only presidential candidates that don't go overboard with their promises are those who run for student body president. They know very clearly that can't make promises they can't keep, such as no school on Fridays or less homework. But in the end everyone is entitled to their opinion without reprisal (too much, anyway). That's what makes this nation great.

As an African American (and rarely impressed) male I am inspired that this man, Obama, with similar skin and similar opportunity, made it to center stage yesterday and captivated a nation in a moment that will be his and ours (all people) forever. The tears, the elation, the desperate need for hope etched on the faces of so many in the audience proved that. I was touched to see two women in the audience, one black, the other white, embracing and in tears after he spoke.

My first thought after Obama spoke was a disdainful, And I have to go to work tomorrow. But you know what? I do have to go to work. I do have to do everything within my faculties and maybe beyond to put my best foot forward. I do have to do everything it takes to better myself, my family and anyone else whose life I come into contact with and I need to move forward, with my head held high because I can. It's my right, as it is that of every other American.


Seven Steps Toward Establishing Financial Stability for You and Your Kids

Since my man, Damon, got all financial in his comment responding to my post two days ago I've decided to delve into his point a bit more.

Keeping the house in order first and foremost means keeping your own pocket in order. For those of us who have money we can count, the first act in this is self-control. Like mom telling you, "make sure your eyes aren't bigger than your stomach," don't spend more than you have.

Pay down your debt and save, save, save. And then save some more.

1. Build Your Knowledge

Because I make money that I can count I don't believe I should pay a financial planner to manage my very manageable assets. This is a personal choice. But I couldn't live without the wisdom of individuals such as David Bach, author of The Automatic Millionaire and Smart Couples Finish Rich. These two books teach you how to stop wasting your money, get out of debt, and how to set up an automatic money management system (also known as a budget). A couple of other great books that help to clarify the relationship one should have with money are, The Millionaire Next Door and The Richest Man In Babylon. The personal finance editions of Money Magazine and Fortune Magazine are also great resources that provide monthly up-to-date information on becoming a more financially secure you.

2. Get Life Insurance

As Damon also suggested, get life insurance. You may think you are wasting your money on something you can't see (especially us people of color - I learned this the hard way during a brief stint selling life insurance), but drop dead one day and listen to how much your relatives curse you for leaving them with your bills. Seriously though, a life insurance policy (preferably term-life) with an appropriate death benefit can mean your children and your wife will not experience a setback because your income has been removed from the pie. Plus there should also be enough money in it to put you in the ground and pay off your debts (like the mortgage). Visit Bankrate.com for life insurance company rankings and calculators to help you determine how much you need.

3. Set Up a Rainy Day Account

A Rainy-Day savings account is invaluable as rainy days occur unexpectedly. I'll never forget the time I ran over a pipe a few years back on the Van Wyck Expressway and shredded two tires and bent one rim. I spent a better part of that afternoon trying to figure out how I was going to make it to the next day since I had unload all the cash in my checking account and use a credit card to get towed and buy new tires (I drove on a bent rim for a while). With a Rainy Day account (filled with enough cash to cover 3-6 months worth of expenses) things like this are manageable. It takes a long time to do (I'm not there myself), but it's worth it.

4. Start Saving for College Now

Find out if there's a 529 Plan (preferably a Direct Plan to avoid paying commissions) in your state. You have to contribute to it after-taxes, but the interest grows tax-free and you can withdraw it tax-free as long as the money is used toward qualifying educational purposes. In other words, your child's college tuition. If you Google 529 Plans or visit Bankrate they can give you all the specifics regarding contributions, setup, etc. Note: No matter how old your kid is, this has a future payout/payoff. Do your best to ignore the ups and downs of the current market (the technical terminology for this is tolerating the market). If you can't, then you have low tolerance (not a bad thing), if you can, then you have high tolerance (not a bad thing either). Like 401ks, 529 Plans provide a diverse array of investment options.

5. Build Your Nest Egg

If you have a retirement plan where you work (401k, 403b, etc) you should be putting at least 10% of your gross pay into it every paycheck. If 10% is too high a number to swallow then start off at 5% and then ease up to 10% and if you're brave try to contribute the maximum. The more you save, the more you'll save in taxes. But if you don't save, then you're working for free. Meaning, if all you do is pay your bills (other people) and buy stuff (depreciating assets: cars, clothes, etc. made by other people) that won't be worth anything once they go out of style or become obsolete and you save nothing for yourself then all you've done is work to give other people your money --- you're working for free. In my humble opinion there is nothing is more tragic than watching someone in their golden years struggling to make ends meet because they don't have a nest egg (for this part, you may actually need a financial planner, or a good financially sound friend you trust to advise you).

6. Get A Will

You can't take it with you. As Damon indicated we're not going to live forever no matter how invulnerable some of us (me, especially) might feel from one day to the next. Getting your house in order on paper for the day that you're not around to keep order is a step that shouldn't be taken lightly. A will takes the guesswork out of your estate and will keep your family from killing each other over what you've left behind.

7. Discipline, Discipline, Discipline

Steps one through five don't matter if you don't put them into practice and keep practicing them, day in and day out. Allow yourself to make mistakes, otherwise you'll never stick to it, but don't get lackadaisical. Remember, your financial stability (and that of your kids) is on the line. Isn't that worth giving it your best shot?

If you follow these seven steps in time you'll be able to add more steps, manage more money, exercise more control over your life, stress a whole lot less about the unknown, and know that barring the end of the world, the kids will be taken care of.

Now the real key to making this work is getting your spouse/partner on board to work on all this with you.


What Are You Going To Do For Your Kids?

Growing up I wanted to be a superhero, and in some instances a super-robot. I was in first grade when I used to daydream about being in control of Johnny Socko's Flying Robot (I am seriously dating myself) and doodle epic battles where I was the robot.

But there was really no way I was going to pull off owning a Japanese robot. Moving right along to the world of D.C. and Marvel Comics, I quickly fell in love with and fell in love with the idea of being Superman, Batman, Spiderman, the Hulk, and practically every other hero in the Marvel Universe.

In reality, I was more like Charlie Brown (my overall favorite) and like he and his dog, Snoopy, life in my head became a lot more vivid than the actual life I was living. The majority of the fame I experienced as a child was as a science fair champion and a 1st place finisher in most of the piano competitions I was entered into by my parents.

And things stayed this way until I was on my own.

Along the way I experienced some success in sports, primarily as a track & field athlete (the 400m dash was my specialty). And then in college, I pledged a fraternity (to date this was one of the most emotionally demanding, physically grueling and insane things I've ever chosen to do).

Still in pursuit of grandeur, I decided to settle in New York City and eke it out for a little bit following the old adage: If you can make it in NY, you can make it anywhere.

And for reasons that have been boggling my mind for the last few days, all I've ever taken since arriving here are mind-numbing, life-sucking desk jobs. Some have been more glamorous than others, but at the end of the day, all them have been boring as hell.

And now I'm a parent in my mid-thirties with a youthful enthusiasm and vigor that I cling to with my very essence. I'm plagued by the idea of growing old and not realizing some of the things I've always dreamed of being.

Because both my parents were educators, I don't think they noticed all of the creative signs I exhibited early on. For my father it was work, work, work. For my mom it was pray, pray, pray. Grow, grow, grow was missing from this. There wasn't too much time in between to actually discover myself as a child.

When finally left up to my own devices, I didn't know what to do, or where to go to get it going for myself. But I hold no grudges because now I have wisdom to accompany me in all my decision making. I have the luxury of making less mistakes as I continue on my path.

Now to the point of all this.

I've been completely re-invigorated by the Beijing Olympics. It was an awesome 2 weeks that had me glued to the television from 8pm to 2 am for 14 days straight and left me a complete mess both at work and home. My daughter sat with me through most of the games imitating the divers, gymnasts and sprinters. She's also been banging on everything (including my dome) with a decent degree of syncopation.

Now does this mean I attempt to have her beating a drum while she balances on the pommel horse to dismount into a 100m sprint? No, is the short answer. But I am in the position to direct her path a bit based on what I see her naturally exhibiting.

My son, a nice young man that I'd like to focus a bit more, is quite the football player who has recently taken up an interest in basketball. During games, whether he has the ball or not, he's running down the field like a runaway freight train. While watching an umpteenth sprint event these past Games, I realized running track might be a reasonable additional outlet for his raw talent. Like Michael Phelps, he's a bit awkward with mismatched proportions that just might spell victory for him, if not domination, in an individual sport. I had to work for my speed. Like a young man named, Usain Bolt, my son's comes naturally. It's up to him ultimately, but I'd love to see him harness it.

My dreams aren't over by any means, but my kids' are just beginning. I intend on doing as much as possible to facilitate making them happen.

What about you and yours?


Cheating Hearts, Regretful Hearts

Most of you who visit know this site is about my mix of joy and bewilderment with fatherhood, my wife and the things that happen in this life --- New York and otherwise. As stated in my previous post, I've got plenty to proud and happy about.

But it isn't like this for everyone. Many men and women alike regret this decision, like the Mexican dude I saw yesterday on the 2 Train wearing a shirt that read "Life Sentence" with a icon of a man and woman exchanging vows at the altar. A few months back I bumped into a friend of mine, now married with kids like me, and he told me point blank, "I get p---- every chance I get, kid." And he wasn't referring to his wife.

Plenty of people get divorced. But so many more are bound by fear, religion/values, finances and family and choose to stay and remain in abject misery.

So these questions next are for the brave:

Do you ever regret your move down matrimony lane?

Are you tired (or have you ever been tired) of being a parent?

If you could do it again, would you?

Have you ever cheated to deal (for real or in your head or on the computer)?

If you dare answer (any or all of the above), please feel free to do so anonymously if you prefer. I'll start the honesty ball rolling by saying that I don't regret getting married, but there have been times when I've wondered if I was smoking crackrocks when I decided to walk this walk. And there are other (worse) times when I hope I'll wake up and discover this was all a bad dream.

No worries, ladies. My wife has felt much worse about me when she's found herself in this place.


She's Always There

If I could theme the summer I've had with my wife, I'd probably call it The Summer of Oil & Vinegar. And if I had to say which each of us are, she's the oil: resilient, making pieces work together, flavorful (if used properly) and flammable...very, very flammable.

I've been vinegar, plain and simple.

But no different than shaking up vinegar and oil to make a tasty seasoning, we work well together when things (beyond our control) are shaken up.

This past Friday while driving home, the sky turned black and a storm that looked like something straight out of the Bible came down on us. The thunder and lightning was the stuff of movies until it touched down onto a transformer about four blocks ahead of us and set off a bright fluorescent electrical explosion (2 to be exact) and power lines began falling down in front of us like leaves. Then it became very real. We both oohed and ahhed for a few moments. But after quickly deciding we didn't want to die, I did a U-turn in the street to try a different way home.

Then came the hail.

Ever the man, the only thing I was thinking about at this point was my truck and the windows of my truck getting destroyed. The only thing I could see out of my windshield at this point were my windshield wipers, but it was time to get outta Dodge (or whatever you might say in an instance like this).

I accelerated up to seven miles an hour and then had to slow down to about three due to a gust of wind that sent what looked like a wall of water across the hood. A few minutes and a few dead stoplights later, we were idling safe and sound on the ground floor of a parking garage with a few other drivers (all male) who were clearly thinking the same thing.

"You think this is going to collapse on us?" I asked.

"I think we're good," answered my copilot-wife.

Because we left the windows open, we eventually arrived home to find found most of our apartment flooded. Without conversation or direction, we put the place back together and began our evening. By the way, the baby slept through the whole thing.

And that's how it goes with us. Calm, cool and collected with things really start getting crazy. Whether that's the tornado we sat through two weeks ago in Chicago, the touches of Hurricane Katrina we faced while visiting Florida three summers ago, the power blowing in the apartment, the fireball she accidentally created while cooking one evening...bottom line: when things get crazy my wife is there. And together we're cool.

I like that and I'm thankful for it.


Are You A Fashionable Dad?

There's a new poll in the column to the right for you dads out there who check out Makes Me Wanna Holler. Fatherhood takes various tolls on a man over the course of time, but what about fashion (if that's a concern of yours)? Have you gone from dapper to dowdy, strapping to strapped, or have you gotten better with time (and age)?

Whatever the case may be, the poll is to the right and it's running through the end of the month. Please, answer all that apply.


Terrible Tuesdays

I've officially been back in the Big Apple for all of seven days and this has been my week:

  • I found an eaten chicken wing on top of my truck.
  • I have been completely incapable of giving myself a clean shave and have walked out of the house more than once with shaving cream in my ears.
  • Every train I've gotten on has either arrived late or broken down.
  • On my way home yesterday, I endured being smashed between two senior citizens on the subway (a man and a woman) who both sat with their legs spread wide like they had packages the size of coconuts. The feel of their old bodies against me made me want to vomit.
  • Over the weekend, on a trip to Rye Playland, my daughter decided to be terrified of me the entire day, which made me feel and look like the worst father in the world.
  • The cat has only allowed me one night of uninterrupted rest.
  • I bought an air conditioner only for the temperature to drop below 70 at night.
  • This morning, in a scene straight out of The Exorcist, my daughter (who has a slight cold) spit Robitussin in my face as my wife and I struggled to give it to her.
Gotta love it.


The Burden of Vanity

Today I spent my lunch break at Westside Vision, a nice little eyeglass store on 28th street in Manhattan. I got a new prescription for contacts. The results were good, sort of.

Since exiting my twenties I’ve promised myself to stay forever young. While physically, this is impossible, in mind and spirit it is not. But I can do as much as I can to prevent the downward progression that comes with age. The more fresh and spry I can be for the wife and kids, the richer all our experiences will be.

Before the baby was born I underwent surgery to correct sleep apnea, a deviated septum and remove nasal polyps which had all worked together to prevent me from grabbing more than a snatch of oxygen with each breath I took. A few months later I subjected myself to a psychopath trainer who got me working out properly and made me truly knowledgeable of what I should and shouldn’t be eating.

Earlier this year, I got Invisalign to straighten what I thought was about three crooked teeth only to be told I have a cross-bite from hell. And now I've been informed that my eyesight has worsened slightly and I have several courses of action at my disposal.

I opted for a new set of contacts and kept it moving. Because the people were so nice, I’ll probably go back to get some glasses at some point in the future. But that’s about it. I think I’ve had enough work to last me a little while.

Stick and Stones & Words Break Bones

In the Bible there's a brief passage in the Book of James that says the tongue is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

On Friday morning after a relatively tame debate between my wife and I (brought on by a temper tantrum thrown by my daughter), tempers flared just enough for my wife to call me a dick. I'm man enough to admit that I did in fact provoke a response from her, but I was caught off guard to hear this. At first I brushed it off with a chuckle.

But then I got to thinking...

If I was a dick:

  • I would come first, my job second, my mother and my father third, and my friends would round out the list.
  • I wouldn't be married. What possible reason would there be to settle down when there's a world of women to get to know?
  • If I even managed to be in a semi-serious relationship, Guys Night Out would always take precedence over Family Nights In.
  • I would never argue with my women (that's right, women) because I wouldn't believe women are equals --- so there'd be nothing to argue about.
  • I wouldn't take so much on the chin because a dick doesn't ever want to be seen as weak or vulnerable (which, in my humble opinion, is a true sign of weakness). A dick has an ego to protect at all times. I would always hurt before getting hurt.
  • I'd have a lot more money in the back on in front of me because there'd be no reason to spend it on anyone other than myself.
  • My insurance policy against ever having to get too emotionally attached to any one woman would be to have at least one other woman on the side stashed away in another part of town or in another state. She'd be on speed dial whenever I needed her company.
But I've never pursued any of these things, even when tempted. I'm just not built that way. As a close friend puts it: "E., we're nice guys. We're schmucks and suckers." Oblivious to our limits because we believe there should be no end doing our best to do good. We're unwilling to set boundaries because that wouldn't be fair to the people around us. Nice guys walk this planet anonymously, either ignored or under-appreciated by the world in which they strive to be better. Strong solitary figures of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages. Lonely for the most part, because we are mostly misunderstood by the people closest to us.

I'm many things. I'm far from perfect. I'm sure I'm not always right and I'm not so sure I know as much as I once thought.

But I am not a dick.

To the nice guys I know off the top of my head: Hugh, Eric, Carter, Ernesto, Georges, Chris, Eddie, Duane, James, Andrew, Jesus, Tropical Alex, Akira, Joseph, Ludge, Alfonso, Frantz, Cal, Damon, Erik, Ken, Mike, Mark, Markus, Maurice, Paul, Peter, Beldin, Peter (my cousin), Shawn and Tony...keep on doing what you're doing.

You're not alone.


I'm Goin' Have My Evening, Dammit!

My daughter is quite the actress. She has been for as long as I can remember. She makes you laugh, she dances for you, she sings, she acts out the ideas going on in her little head.

As with most things, there's an ugly side to this as well. She is rude, nasty, loud and outrageous when she doesn't get her way. She knows I'm completely wrapped around her finger and wear my love for her on my sleeve, but mistakenly believes she can get away with murder with me as I'm told so many girls do with Dear Old Dad.

Other than being allowed to breathe, I never got my way as a child. And when I acted out I was beaten with everything from 2x4 boards, books, backhands and rolled up newspapers. If my parents were parents today (my father specifically) they'd be under a jail.

As a result this daddy doesn't play, at all.

My baby loves to put on shows when no one is around. Some have been so spectacularly awful my wife sometimes believes I'm exaggerating.

Right now is one of these times.

After picking baby girl up on her first full day back in New York, she threw a temper tantrum to end all tantrums because she wanted to play rather than eat.

"But you can play after you eat, baby," I said.

"Nooo. Noooo. NOOOO. NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!" This was followed by a bunch of gibberish, stomping, thrashing and rolling around on the floor. Initially, I tried to reason with her and then I became slightly perturbed, but I calmed down quickly. She is a baby, after all. I only got physical when I dragged her screaming out of the front windows. It wasn't safe for her and I didn't want the neighborhood to think I was torturing her when I wasn't.

She screamed and cried for forty-five minutes straight. In the midst of this she asked me to change her into her pjs, asked to go to bed, asked for a bottle, and begged me to make mommy appear out of thin air. I switched out of my work clothes into a pair of basketball shorts, turned on the computer and started typing. I'm a dad, I'm a husband, but I'm a man that's got ish to do, especially now that I'm contemplating a move. Normally I'd sit with her and in a snap it'd be time to go to bed. But not tonight. I'm going to have the evening I planned to have when I left work --- a relaxing evening spent catching up on my Netflix rentals while plotting out my short-term future.

The baby has come out of her exorcism, my wife has arrived, and the cat has stopped screeching for about 30 seconds (her days here are numbered, I pray). All has begun to normalize, but she still hasn't eaten. Hopefully before I go to bed, she will.

Sweet Home Chicago

I hate the Cha Cha Slide as much as I hate the Electric Slide. Ironically, I can do both with my eyes closed, tongue waggin', throwin' the improvisational extra dips and gyrations every step of the way. But as a rule of thumb I hate group dances other than stepping (not Chicago stepping) and nowadays I hate stepping too if it isn't Black frat or sorority related (even though us Black "Greek" people borrowed stepping from Africa). We all have our idiosyncratic hypocrisies. This is only one of mine.

Other than reuniting with my daughter and reconnecting with my folks, I didn't do much during my time in Chi-Town. The days were lazy, just as I had hoped. During the day, I cut grass and landscaped the property as if I were a day laborer. I ate as the sun set each day and curled up with absolutely nothing, barely able to stay up past ten once I got comfortable being home.

Crime is up in Chicago, but the hectic life I holler about during my daily New York grind is all but non-existent there or any other place I've been that isn't New York. In Chicago my baby was happy (not that she ever isn't), spry and free to roam and run in a way I haven't been able to offer her since she was born.

The grass is always greener from the outside looking in, but the whole experience left me seriously wondering if I should abandon New York and all my hollerin' for a less congested, outrageously-priced, and distracting life elsewhere.

Where is the question.

Making a move will also require the teamwork of my wife. We will need to get on the same page financially.

This will require some real strong voodoo. The kind one would use to make my long haired dachshund to sprout wings and fly away.

Up next: Talkin' money with your woman (or at least trying to).


Knowing Better vs. Doing Better

My first night in Chicago, I was awakened in the middle of the night and was immediately overwhelmed with the munchies. I made my way to the kitchen and eyed a container of Golden Oreos and in the fridge the bottom shelf was lined with cans of Ginger Ale (my parents' soda of choice). I reached for a can thinking, I can have a few sips and eat a cookie or two, brush my teeth and then go back to bed.

It was 4 in the morning.

I looked at the can, put it back on the shelf, sighed and grabbed a bottle of water instead.

I knew better and as a result, I did better.

Most people probably can't count how many times as a child they heard, "You know better." As as parent, I've listened to myself tell my son, "Meaning well and doing well are two different things."

But am I actually applying this train of thought to my own life?

As a man, a father and a husband there are many things that I want to accomplish. I want financial freedom from debt, I want a home for myself and my family, and I want to be able to live a spicy, spontaneous life with my life with no worries over bills, and looming/constant financial disasters always overheard or around the next corner. Things happen that none of us can control --- that's why this is called life. But if I can do as much as I can to steer clear of the bumps in the road, the better off I'll be.

Knowing better and doing better involves making tough choices.

When I bought my first property I had all these plans to furnish it. Then suddenly I remembered my father had to help me buy the place because I had no credit and frankly, I was broke. I made a tough choice: I moved in with an Aerobed, a folding tray, a borrowed folding chair, 2 skillets, 1 pot, a box of plastic forks, knives and spoons, paper plates, my laptop and a subscription to Netflix and a bunch of large storage bins for my clothes. No TV, no cable, no furniture, no nothing, and not a word to anyone but my lawyer, my parents and my now wife. The majority of my belongings, the stuff I had been dragging along with me since those first few stupid years after college I either gave or threw away. I did this for a year.

Doing better often involves delaying gratification.

My life was very quiet and oftentimes lonely. My lady refused to visit me at my place, and I didn't dare tell anyone else my austere living arrangements. At nights, after dinner, I settled down with my DVDs and my laptop (where I watched the movies) or sometimes I'd just listen to music. Most mornings I'd wake up with my back killing me. But the only bills I had were fixed expenses: mortgage, car insurance, and student loans.

Within a year I managed to clean up a significant portion of my credit card bills, I completely paid off a student loan, stashed a nice pile of cash away into a savings account and qualified (without help) for a home equity loan to renovate my place. I also found out along the way that I established an A+ credit rating. Something I wore like a badge of honor on my chest and still do to this day (although it's dropped a bit).

As a Christmas present to myself I bought a bed: mattress, frame and all (even the stupid extras you know you don't need) in cash, something I wouldn't have ever been able to do before.

I look back on those times and think about the times I face and realize in order to navigate them I need to draw on what I know to succeed (a little bit of divine strength never hurts either). For a while now I've been consumed with dread over how to get by, get ahead, etc. But most of this stuff is only as bad as your perspective on it. Just like buying a house with no credit and no money stopped being daunting once I began to truly sacrifice to make it happen.

I have a house to buy, a baby to put in preschool, a teenager to put through school, a wife to keep happy, and a personal sense of purpose to fulfill. By knowing better and doing better --- even if it makes me unpopular at times in my own house --- I know all of this can be done without too many tears.

How often do you do better when you know better?