Life Outside My Cube

My life, a work in progress.

Soggy, but in a good way

That was a busy weekend. Pretty much spent all of it focused on riding. You guessed it – I won the lottery to fill one of the 2 empty spots in the MSF Basic class. Woot!

There were about 24 people in the class, 2 instructors. We spent the first rainy evening going over the MSF manual together. Pretty boring. Rainy Saturday and Sunday the class split and we spent going over “drills” of various kinds in the rain on provided bikes (I had a Kawi dual, though several others rode on the several Rebels provided for the class). Sunday we took a skills test in the rain and I passed and got my card, which allows me to skip the BMV skills test – all I need to do now is get my license updated for a motorcycle endorsement.

Did I mention the rain? We had some clearing on Saturday afternoon, but were soaked by the end of class, and it pretty much rained all Sunday. The instructor joked that we were going to get in more riding in the rain than most riders get all year. I didn’t quite care for it. :-)  I didn’t have a real waterproof jacket, the rain pants I bought at Wally World on Friday night weren’t that much good after a couple hours of hard rain, and I had to literally wring out my leather gloves at each break. At least my feet (thanks, mom, for the hiking boots you bought at Christmas!) and head (I bought a helmet in 20 minutes before the Friday night class) were warm.

So now I have all the basics in my head. It’ll be a long time before I feel comfortable, though. I was pretty tense going above 20mph, and never shifted above 2nd gear. I really need some time on the road around my home town. I’m still a bit apprehensive about riding the 30 minutes to work, despite the fact that I’ll never be going over 45mph the whole way. Maybe Friday; it’s supposed to be nice weather then.

So I’ve taken the first step; the road awaits!

Licensed to ride

Passed the test for my motorcycle permit. I can riiiiiide!

Well, I *may* ride. I still don’t know beans about it. Unfortunately, the MSF course I was planning to take asap is Sold Out until September! I didn’t notice that before when I checked out class times! Well, I still may be able to sneak in – they have a “standby” list in case someone doesn’t show. I’ll show up for this weekend’s class – it’s Friday night, half Saturday and half Sunday – and continue to show up until I get in. And it looks like rain all weekend, so perhaps there will be some dropouts.

The Rebel

I – who have never owned or ridden one – bought a motorcycle today.

The wife and I have been having an ongoing discussion about finances and vehicles, and one of the options that arose was getting a commuter bike (inexpensive to purchase, great gas mileage, would allow family the van each day). I’d researched bikes a number of years ago and determined that I could get a reasonable one for $2-2.5K, but at the time there was no money for that. Now, however, there was.

I began hunting online again, and found  the Honda 250 Rebel. A smallish one, but universally liked as a great starter bike. It’s commonly found in MSF basic courses, and pretty widely available. I zeroed in on Rebels, and found a 2003 for $2000 about an hour away in the sticks. A quick decision to look with the option to buy (we’d already been thinking positively about the motorcycle option), and I hit the road after work to see it.

Good looking except for a gas tank dent, small amount of rust, and an older front tire, it *looked* like what I wanted. The owner ran it through the gears for me (I didn’t even have a permit at the time), threw in a wind screen and side bags, and I gave him what he asked for it. Not sure whether I was just trusting – he was a software guy as well – or naive. But we loaded it on the truck and I hauled it home.

Now I need to take a test to get my permit, and sign up for a MSF course. I should be excited, but it’s still kind of surreal. I never really thought I’d purchase one, especially on such short notice. But it’s a lovely-looking bike, and I’m more than anxious to learn how to ride it.

While the purchase price was pretty reasonable, I’ve started to look at motorcycle gear, which is *anything but* reasonable. I realize that I’m going to need a helmet, gloves, jacket, rain gear, etc. which could easily add another grand. Think I’ll start with the minimum, and add as we can afford it. Hoping to get 60+ mpg, so that’ll help a bit in saving gas money.

I Made a Difference Yesterday

I voted.

Thankfully, my lovely wife reminded me when I arrived home from work that it was May 3rd, so we all went over to the local precinct and cast our ballots. Didn’t take much consideration; one of the primary (no pun intended) reasons we wanted to vote was to make our voice heard about the local school levy.

This school levy was put on the ballot for two main reasons – overcrowding in the district, and the age of the local elementary school. It would have funded the construction of a new high school. The timing of the ballot coincides with the near-end of the current school levy, as well as a gub’mint contribution of 65% toward new construction. Technically, it was a bond issueof 1.8mills, plus .5mills added to the existing 11.1 millage.

The total estimated cost for the construction is just over 35 million. To a guy who’s never signed on anything over $150,000, and whose children have never darkened a classroom doorway (home-educated all the way), that number’s a bit beyond my comprehension.

Our current millage of 11.1 places the district’s current income at around 60 million dollars annually. Divided by the 3618 enrolled students, that makes about $16,500 total cost per student per year (including salaries, building, maintenance, etc). In contrast, we spent, on average, $4-600 per year. For both of our kids. Somehow that new $35M building just doesn’t seem to make sense to me.

Apparently, though, there were a lot of people to whom it made a lot of sense. Fortunately, there were enough of us who voted against the issue, though it was the closest one in the state. I like to think that I was one of the 197 voters who made the difference.

Why I Don’t Bill My Clients

I’ve done web development on and off for a many years now, and worked for all kinds of clients. In general, those clients were good to work for, but every once in a while one would come along that would make my life miserable. For whatever reason, despite a very specific quote, people feel free to change, append and rework their requirements as the project progresses, asking for minor but time-consuming changes, and generally assuming I would be available at their beck and call whenever they wanted.

I found that writing and maintaining code in these situations very stressful, and have, over time, been more selective in choosing clients and turning down work. However, there’s still a sense of control that any client has when you’re working for them that tends to inhibit me. For example, if I’m asked to add a feature to a site (designed by someone else) I might want to rework a section of particularly ugly / unmaintainable code. But I’m not getting paid to rework the code, so I have to limit myself to the objective, even if as a result it takes longer. Or, for example, I might want to add a feature the client hasn’t requested. But I don’t want to set a precedent that I always deliver much more than they pay for. Billing sometimes is a hassle, and people don’t always seem to want to talk about money openly.

So about 6 months ago I decided I didn’t want to charge clients for web development anymore. Hosting (I’m a reseller) yes, new design no. I’d read an article someone wrote about this, and thought it would be a good solution to my issues. Here’s how it’s worked out.

Case 1. A new client was looking for a new site for his business, eventually e-commerce. He did not understand anything technical about the web, nor did he have a good idea where a website fit in his overall business marketing plan. We talked a while about philosophy, and the work/time involved in setting up a site. He wanted to know about “typical” costs, and was skeptical about my “no fee” policy. He about choked when I said that it would not be unreasonable for local companies to charge $5000 for a starter ecommerce site from scratch. I should have walked away then. Instead, we talked about completing it in phases, and I started with phase 1, a simple 5-pager. Trying to pull information from him was very difficult, and I instead made a CMS backend so he could edit content himself, which he eventually did. I never heard from him again.

Case 2. An existing client was looking for a new website for another business venture. She had a pretty clear outline of what she wanted (including an online subscription product), though we discussed through a number of details. She was initially skeptical about the “no fee” idea, but agreed to give it a try. I’ve been working on the site on and off for a couple months and it’ll be ready for release in about a month. She’s got a business and marketing plan, and funding. It’s been a lot of fun working on the site, adding things as I wanted to, spending as much time as I want on features. I welcome additions and changes from her, as my focus has changed from working according to a spec, to working toward an excellent website. We’re more like a team, rather than a contractor/client. She sent me a $3500 “down payment” check yesterday.

Those are the only two clients I’ve had since my original pivot, and the clients and situations were so very different, but I’m so psyched about how things have turned out with the latter one. Working on her site is still *fun*, and I’m enjoying writing code without stress.

I’ve done a number of jobs on eLance in the last few months, and most have been stressful; most all the clients are looking for the most they can get for the least amount of money. There are some exceptions, to be sure, but it’s a totally different kind of work – fairly high-pressure, low profit. I wish I could get a “Client 2” job three or four times a year; that would be 100% satisfying in every way.

Building a Zen Garden

Worked in the garden today. Not the home garden or the community garden – those are my daughter’s domains. But the garden I’m creating at work. My boss calls it the “Zen Garden”.

There’s an unused section of the gravel parking lot, about 25×25 that’s been left go for a couple years. I decided that was a waste, and have begin in earnest to reclaim it as a nice partly-shaded beautiful lunch/break spot. It’s on the north side of our 2-story building, but on a corner, so it still gets partial sun, plus a nice breeze off the west side of the building which faces an open park. It’s fenced in on 2 other sides, so opens to the existing parking lot.

I started thinking about this last year, and talked about it more than I really did that all much. I did mow it several times, dragged over some old railroad ties from the weeds, spent about $30 on yard-sale plants and bedded the hostas against one of the railroad ties with some rotted loam from against one of the fences. I also trimmed the tall weeds and brush from the fences, and trimmed the overhanging branches from the trees. I scrounged a couple of rainwater containers. We brought over a small load of dirt and old sandbags to spread around, and a load of grass to help start a bit compost pile. It was a rather lot, now that I think about it. I also thought about it a lot last year.

So this year, I began thinking about it long before the snow melted! I designed a grand entrance, with brick pillars, rail fence and arbor entrance in my head; I don’t know if that’ll get done this year. Now that the weather has broken, I see there’s so much more landscaping effort needed! So far I’ve raked a lot, bought $100 worth of shrubs at Lowes, outlined and partially filled the front two raised beds, planted 4 forsythia and some unknown plants from last year, and done some minor trimming.

The next steps include:
– Purchasing a dozen railroad ties
– Taking delivery on 6-8 yards of topsoil
– Purchasing and planting a bunch of annuals as fillers
– Continuing to shop for, buy and plant perennials
– Digging and constructing a small pond
– Orchestrating a water system (i have it all planned!)
– Bringing power outside the building
– Building a half-shed against the building for tools and etc
– Purchasing a push mower
– Purchasing a picnic table, chairs, benches or something

Work isn’t paying for any of this, which allows me a great deal of freedom to choose what I want to plant and how to do it all. It’s quite gratifying to see things take shape, since I live in a condo and can’t do any of this at home. Hopefully things will be sufficiently completed so we can take lunch breaks and “zen out” in this park during the summer. I’m looking forward to it!

More Questions

Blogger Steve James has kindly provided a list of questions you absolutely must ask your interviewer when applying for your next job. Insightful ones. Perhaps obtrusive ones. But in all, questions whose answers are likely to affect your own employment decision. He lists 10 of these must-ask questions on his blog, and has some 40-odd others you might consider.

Don’t Mess with the IRS

Smitty pulled the sedan away from the curb and slowly began his circuit around the city block. Despite his nervousness, he noticed his stomach grumbling, and regretted not taking the time for breakfast that morning. He was in such a hurry not to be late he had completely forgotten to eat.

“What the hay,” he thought, “They won’t be done for a ‘nother half hour at least, I got plenty of time to stop at Gloria’s.”  It was his favorite restaurant in town, or rather, the only one within a half-hour of this lonely corner of Arkansas. Smitty had grown up here in Beauford, near the bottom of the 15 in his graduating class, preferring to tinker around engines rather than books. He’d begun doing minor car repairs at Doc’s Auto on the east end right out of high school, and while becoming an expert auto mechanic, never had much ambition to go further, preferring the slow life of a small town. Gloria’s Home Cooking was a regular stop at least once most days.

“Mornin’, Smitty,” a cheerful voice called out. Darlene, the granddaughter of Gloria Wells, for whom the restaurant was named, was the current owner, cook, cashier and waitress. “Late start today, huh? Get’cher usual? Momma made us a coffee cake fer Sunday dinner yesterday, I can cut ya a piece,” she continued, setting a chipped white coffee cup on the counter and pouring it full. Of course, Darlene knew everyone in town, and served them up home cooking and conversation at least once a week. She kept an eye out for Smitty, an only child whose parents had passed years ago.

“Um, yeah, that’s good. I mean, uh, eggs and everything, plus ‘at coffee cake. An’ I gotta get going. Lots to do today.”

“Oh? Whose car you workin’ on now?”

“Car? Oh, um, well, Ol’ Man Jenks needs a exhaust put in, and ah, you know, a bunch of other small stuff. I gotta get goin’,” he concluded, looking out the windows down the street where he’d come from.

“Hmm,” Darlene replied. She could tell Smitty wasn’t telling all. “Ok, Mister Top Secret Project, you know. I’m just yer best friend in the whole world. You don’t have to tell me anything. I’ll just make yer breakfast and feed ya, don’t worry about me!”

Smitty hung his head. He knew he was hiding something, but just couldn’t tell Darlene what he was involved with. He was always open with Darlene; she was like a sister to him. He felt terrible. “Aw, Dar, it’s just… Oh, I don’t know, there’s some things a man’s gotta keep to hisself, you know? I ain’t mean to be secretive or nothin’, I just got some stuff to do an’ can’t tell nobody about it.”

“Ok, fine, fine.” Smitty was the only customer at the time, and the next few minutes were difficult and very quiet. His breakfast finally arrived, and Darlene stood behind the counter refilling his coffee cup. “I”m sorry, Smitty, I don’t mean to pry. It’s just that you and me haven’t had secrets from each other before. I don’t know what to make of it. Is everything all right?”

“Sure!” Smitty answered quickly, but then added, “I guess.” He glanced out the window again, and back to his plate, his cheeks reddening.

“Who you lookin’ fer, child? I ain’t seen you so worked up in a long time.”

“Dar…”

“What is it, honey? You can tell me.”

“You know that ol’ house I got? Well, I… oh, man, I is in such a mess, Darlene,” he hesitated, holding his head in his hands. After a moment, he continued, “I ain’t been able to pay no income taxes fer a coupla years now, Doc’s just don’t have enough business to keep up.” He sighed deeply.

“Oh, Smitty,” Darlene said, “I didn’t know things was that bad. You should’a told me!”

“Well that’s not the worst part yet. These outta town guys in suits come in last week and told me they was gonna report me to the IRS, but if’n I’d help ’em out with a job, they’d gimme two thousand dollars! Dar, that’s mor’n enough to pay all my back taxes! Oh, I didn’t know what to do, so’s I just said yes, an’ here I am, but I think they’re doin’ somethin’ terrible.”

“What do you mean, here you are? What are you supposed to be doing?”

“Jest driving. You know, pick ’em up when they finish their business at the bank, and drive ’em out to the county line bridge. Oh, it just don’t feel right,” he wailed.

“At the bank?…” Darlene paused. “You don’t think…”

Their conversation was interrupted by a siren. Quickly turning toward the front window, Smitty looked on as the squad car pulled up to the bank building and two officers bounded out and into the front doors. Smitty and Darlene couldn’t speak; a hundred thoughts going through their heads. A minute later, the officers led out two men in handcuffs and into the police car.

“Did you know…”

“Oh, I didn’t even ask what their business was, I know I shoulda, but I was in such a mess,” Smitty moaned. “That coulda been me bein’ arrested, if’n I’d been waitin’ for ’em at the curb like I’s supposed to. Glory be, Darlene, if you hadn’t a kept after me with your questions, you’d be seein’ me in tha jail. Jes’ like yer mother, never a minute o’ peace around here when she was around…”

“Why you ungrateful wretch, Smitty, I oughtta smack you silly, you old good for nothin’…”

She stopped and began to grin as Smitty looked up at her, beaming. “Gotcha!”

“You!” Darlene reached over the counter and hugged Smitty around the shoulders.

“I’ll get them taxes paid somehow,” he said. “An’ I ain’t gonna do no more work for strangers without askin’ more questions!”

* Question 7

Drowning

Perhaps I’m one of those people who need to learn things the hard way. Perhaps I just need a concrete example in order to burn in a principle. Regardless, I had to take the difficult road in order to learn that debt is to be avoided like the plague.

My wife and I began life together with debt – me with a car loan and her with a school loan. Over several years of apartment living we erased that debt, and enjoyed spending the surplus income. We took a couple car loans in later years, once even buying a living room set on delayed credit . Those were paid off as expected, and we rejoiced at the increase in spendable income when the loan papers were burned.

We borrowed some money from my dad to get set up in our first small house on a city lot. Spending habits changed a bit, less money going toward pleasure and more toward home expenses. I was adept at home repairs and improvements, so we built equity in our little house and sold it at profit some 4-5 years later. The gains were put into the next larger home, which again was mortgaged for 30 years. This time the improvements needed were quite a bit more substantial, and we had no saved money to put towards them, and our mortgage was high (large farmhouse in 5 acres). About this time, our income was significantly reduced, and we chose to downsize.

We again sold the house at profit, and bought a smaller one. We retained some $15K to cover temporary living expenses until my income would increase. It never did, and we plowed through that, $50K of credit debt and a $20K loan from a friend, before I was able to find a job. Soon after, we were able to move once more, into a condo of a friend. A year later we found ourselves owing $10K in back taxes. We rented the condo for $200/mo plus I did all the maintenance on his 4 condos, so we were able to put a lot more into paying down our debts.

The payments on the credit debt was killing us, though, and at one point we were late or missed a payment on one of the cards and went into default. We made arrangements with a collection agency – stressful times – and after a couple years, they offered to settle for half of the $40K remaining if we would pay $20K now. I sought a loan from my dad for the $20K and finally paid off that debt, though we now owed him.

Both personal loans have been paid off. We increased our rent to $500/mo so as not to take advantage of our friend’s generosity. We still owe most of the IRS money, and the remaining credit card is down to about $2K. Then just when I thought I could see the end of the tunnel, two of our cars died. Despite the literal ache in my heart, there’s now another car loan for about $14K.

It’s a heavy burden to bear. We’ve been prevented from more fully assisting our children in the life directions they’re pursuing. Paying for college isn’t even an option. Moving into a home suitable for us and my wife’s ailing parents has been and is unlikely. We’ve set a poor financial example for our children, and haven’t given them a strong financial footing. We’ve had our hands tied in so many ways, and felt the burden of living paycheck-to-paycheck for so long. My wife has been a supreme blessing by managing our checkbook for all these years. I don’t know how she does it – I tried for a little while, and the frustration was too much.

It’s been about 11 years since we started getting into this mess, and it’ll be another 3 years before we’re debt free, unless God has a greater lesson for us to learn. I can hardly wait for that day!

* Question 5

The Slough of Despond

Five years ago I was at the tail end of  self-employment, and a year from accepting a position with my current employer. I was working for my father on and off – he did not have sufficient income to pay me fulltime – and some programming, web design and home-business gigs. Unfortunately, there was not enough sustainable income, and my family was getting deeper and deeper into debt, which would at one point top $50K. I was feeling helpless, frustrated and depressed.

I had left my previous job 6 years before, to take on some work with my dad. He (inexperienced in software development, but too persistent to let that get in his way) designed and coded a software program used in the long-term care dietary business, and needed help with, well, Help. It wasn’t writing code, but technical manuals was fine with me to start with. I shortly after began to assist with software development, support, sales and marketing. It wasn’t long, however, until financial difficulties began. There was not sufficient income from the company to support me fulltime, despite my dad’s hopes and dreams that things would get better. He paid when he could – or wanted to – but it wasn’t enough, and we soon began relying on credit.

The peculiar thing was, I didn’t feel I could just say “no” to him and move on. By the time things were bad, I was fully involved and he was – to a great extent – dependent on me. I felt that to bail out at that point would be not only end my hopes for a work-at-home job, but also crush his hopes and dreams. How could I do that to my own father? I was beset on all sides – my supremely patient wife continued to urge me to quit, my bank account begged me to find a paying job, and my dad continued to not care about my financial situation. I felt helpless to act at all.

Well, I did act a little, and purchased a reseller account from a web host, thinking that I could fill in the gaps with web programming and hosting. Weak in the sales/marketing area, I found myself undercharging (per my astute wife) for work, and giving away too much for free. Hardly the way to make a decent income, but when you’re working for your friends (how else do you get started in this business?) I felt like it was almost an insult to charge going rates. Plus, I wanted to “build up the portfolio.” Unfortunately, since I did next to nothing marketing-wise, the web business didn’t grow. I don’t believe I was equipped to be a successful entrepreneur – I was only a technician (according to The E-Myth) and missing the kind of skills needed to grow the business. Here I was full of programming skills, but I didn’t know how to effectively do anything about getting clients. That was frustrating.

So I was in a horrible financial situation, feeling helpless and frustrated. There was a terrible amount of pressure to change my situation, but I seemed to be paralyzed. One reason might be that I sincerely thought that working from home was the Ultimate. Oh, we’d escaped the traditional church and were meeting in homes, we’d rejected public schools and home educated our children. Bringing the work home seemed like the next logical step, and God-ordained. Yet here we were in a much worse financial situation than we’d ever been in! What was I doing wrong? Were we totally deceived? I began a long period of self-doubt and depression over our situation. I lost interest in work, in the business, in home life.

What do I wish I would have done differently? I don’t think leaving the previous job was wrong; I’d do that again in a moment (besides, a layoff there was imminent). Here are some things I, in perfect hindsight, would redo:

– Talk openly with my dad about my finances, and ask pointed questions about his. Finances were never an open subject with my folks, and I didn’t get started of with a good foundation. Hence I had no savings to draw on, and we weren’t accustomed to changing lifestyle to accommodate reduced income. Anyhow, if my dad and I could have talked about my financial needs on a regular basis, perhaps we both would have come to the conclusion that it wasn’t working out, and bail earlier with no hard feelings.

– Connect with other web developers in the area in order to work cooperatively. I was lacking some skills, but perhaps with others we could have presented a full complement of abilities to potential clients. In an office, I find myself wanting to connect with other independent types at coffee shops, open workplaces, and the like – I should have jumped at those opportunities, or created them. Alone in a home office is no way to network.

– Get out my shell. I’m an introvert, and find it extremely difficult to cold-call and meet new people. Less so now, but much more then. I should have sought for advice on how to overcome this inward tendency, and how to improve those skills needed for an entrepreneurial business to survive.

– Open up to people. When things are going badly, I have a tendency to withdraw. I should have talked more openly with my wife and family about what I was going through, and drawn comfort from their love. I felt like nobody knew what I was going through. I’m sure some did, but I didn’t open up about it, to my loss. It wasn’t all about me and my failures (what I thought at the time); it was about the journey God was bring me – and us – through. That should have been shared more openly.

– Do that which I think or know is right. I was full of fear at what people would think, or how people would take my actions if I stopped working for my dad and friend (I’d set up a little home-business with a close friend that supported his business) and found a “regular” job again. Walking in fear is not a good thing, I realize now. I wish I would have gotten that back then.

A bright spot in all of this is that our eyes were opened – through that friend – to the beauty of God’s undying love and the hopeful theology of the kingdom during this low period. Had I not gone through these difficult times and been brought so low, I don’t believe I would have been as open to receive these truths. Through the slough of despond, God has brought us out into a beautiful vision of life and purpose. That’s a topic for another post, I think.

* Questions 6