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Lupinia Studios
Randomness from Natasha Lockhart
natashasoftpaw
Raindrop on Flower by lupiniastudios
Raindrop on Flower, a photo by lupiniastudios on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
A raindrop clinging to a flower petal.

Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Captured Predator by lupiniastudios
Captured Predator, a photo by lupiniastudios on Flickr.

Via Flickr:
This lion is one I don't recall seeing at the DC zoo before, but he looked more predatory than any of the other big cats. One look in his eyes said "I'd rather be eating you".



EDIT: Testing to see how Flickr posts to LJ work. Interesting. Would anyone be interested in me posting my photos here, like I do with Tumblr?
7 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Originally posted on my website: http://www.lupinia.eu/cars/sportscar-bonding.htm

As I've covered before, a car is not just a means of getting from point A to point B for me, and whenever I acquire a new one, part of the new car experience is bonding with it. I like to take whatever its niche is, and push it to see just what it can do, whether it's speed, handling, or off-road capabilities. Aside from being a big part of the fun of car ownership, this is also practical: Within six months of acquiring a car, I don't wonder what it can do or how it will react in any specific situation/conditions. I know.

This process of learning and experimenting with what a car can do is also a learning experience for me and my driving abilities. I won't claim to be the best driver in the world, that's incredibly arrogant, but my passion for cars has made me a better driver through my desire to explore what these machines are capable of. I've learned new techniques and practiced my skills in ways that most people never do. I have a lot to learn, and my new Audi is good at showing me just how little I know, but I want to learn it.

In the past, my Land Rovers brought me to explore the world of off-roading. My first Land Rover, especially, was very, very much a learning experience for me, on multiple levels. By pushing my truck into more and more extreme territory, I not only learned what it was capable of, but what I was capable of as a driver, and I learned so much about driving in extreme conditions that it became a whole new passion all on its own. This is the experience I've been having with my Audi TT.

For the most part, since I bought it, I haven't really left an urban environment, or ventured into truly challenging roads with it. I've been able to test its capabilities occasionally, taking sharp highway ramps as fast as possible, but that doesn't really show me anything about the car, aside from a single data point, maximum turn speed. And it certainly doesn't do anything for my driving skill; American highways are too controlled and limited to reach high speeds or exhibit precision, they're simply a means of getting somewhere. Granted, my Audi is great at that, very comfortable and luxurious, but I wanted more. I wanted to see what a real sportscar could do. The sportiest car I've ever been able to really experience was the Acura Integra I had in high school, which was totalled in 2006, so it's been awhile, and I've never had a vehicle this powerful or agile. I couldn't wait to see what it could really do.

Challenging roads are hard to come by in a major metro area, so what I really wanted, since the day I bought it, was to take it to the mountain roads near where I grew up. They're twisty enough to exceed the handling capabilities of most cars below 40mph, and when you throw in the fairly extreme grade of some segments, you get a road that's limited solely by the capability of the car and driver, not by speed limits and threats of law enforcement. In May 2013, I finally got an opportunity to take my Audi there, and see what she could do. I was not disappointed.

I was in my hometown for Mothers Day, and before the last day of my trip, I wanted to get up to one of the high mountain peaks for sunrise photos, and do my ritual mountain drive in the new car. So, in the middle of the night, I headed for Reddish Knob, a trip I've made so many times that I could pretty much drive it in my sleep. Perfect.

The drive started out simple enough, I zipped through curves with ease, going through the rolling foothills as fast as I dared, warming up before the real challenge. And, as expected, it was the most exhilerating thing I'd done in awhile. I was still in my comfort zone, though. Until the second part of the trip.

I stopped at a small lake on the way up, to take a break and make sure the car was ok (having just come from a Land Rover Freelander, it still feels weird to have a car that won't self-destruct on a whim). When I resumed my trip, I decided to step things up a notch. The steep roads and constant curves are difficult for an automatic transmission to make sense of, even a super-advanced one like mine. Plus, part of performance driving is getting the shifting right, a real weak spot for me, so I popped over to manual mode for the remainder of the trip. Instantly, I was grateful for the paddle shifters on the steering wheel, instead of having to keep one hand constantly on the shifter, it made things much easier, and when shifting can be handled with a finger-flick, it feels so much smoother and more controlled. Unfortunately, for a little while, I felt my inexperience shining through. My shifting was sluggish, I was always either too high or too low, and it distracted from my steering at a few points. Especially when I spent so much time looking at speedometer and tachometer trying to figure out which gear I was supposed to be in, or looking at the gear indicator to figure out where I already was (an unfortunate downside of paddle shifters and modern electronic shifting). But, about halfway up the mountain, I had a moment of clarity.

In one of my all-time favorite movies, How To Train Your Dragon, there's a scene that is always both riveting and heartwarming to watch. There's a video here, but it focuses on the main character, Hiccup, learning how to ride the dragon, Toothless, and how to work the prosthetic dragon tail he created. The dragon's prosthetic tail has a series of positions, controlled by the rider, which mimic the dragon's natural tail movements, and in theory, the cooperation of a skilled human rider can allow the dragon to fly as naturally as he could before the accident that damaged his tail. This scene follows the pair on their first test flight, where Hiccup has to put the tail positions he's written down to the test. At first, their flight is a bit awkward, with Hiccup sluggishly going through varying positions, and Toothless grudgingly attempting to both lead and follow. But, after recovering from a spin, Hiccup nearly loses his reference sheet while flying straight into a complicated series of rock pillars at high speed, where one mistake will send them head-on into solid rock. He tries to read from it for an instant, then drops it, proceeding into the obstacles purely on instinct. He doesn't make a single mistake. He and Toothless expertly navigate the rocks at dizzying speed, zipping through the exit without a scratch on them, something that wouldn't have been possible if Hiccup had still been reading from his reference sheet.

Along this drive, I had an almost identical experience. While I knew the road pretty well, there was a particularly nasty blind turn I had completely forgotten about, followed by a series of rapid back-and-forth curves, and it came up on me while I was going way too fast (or so I thought). Instantly, all of my gauge-watching ended, as I reacted to the turn and proceeded through the harsh curves after it. I stopped thinking about whether I needed 4th or 5th, I stopped thinking about whether I should take the turn at 40 or 50. I simply listened to the engine, read the road, and shifted on instinct, the things I should've been doing all along. In the process, I felt more in-tune with both my car and the road than I've felt in a very, very long time, and I made it through the remainder of the drive far faster than I originally thought possible (still didn't break a speed limit though!).

The experience was a truly special one for me. In the nerdiest terms possible, I felt like I just gained enough driving XP to level up, and when I made it to the top of the mountain, I had to just stop and reflect for a moment. But most importantly, it was an experience that reminded me how much joy I get from the essence of the performance driving experience. For years, I've been so hung up on comfort and gizmos that I've gotten even more disconnected from driving as an art than I was to begin with.

Much like my first off-roading trip, this trip was a driving experience that taught me a lot, but mostly showed me how much I have to learn. I've had a sporty car (Integra) and a fast car (Crown Victoria) in the past, but this experience showed me that I know almost nothing about sport driving. But I want to learn. I've now seen a glimpse of what my car can do, enough to see that the capabilities of my car exceed my own skills, and I want to increase my skills to match what my car can do. So, I plan to learn as much as I can, to get the most out of this amazing machine that's now a part of my life.

Sadly, I no longer live in the Shenandoah Valley, so zipping away to the mountains on a whim is generally not an option. But, I can probably find performance driving classes in my area. And I'll certainly be taking road trips to my old home from time to time, to do this sort of thing again. For me, it's not enough to have a fast car that'll do as much as I want it to. If my skills aren't a match for my car's abilities, not only am I disappointing the engineers who crafted her, I'm wasting my money on a machine I can't properly use. Both are unacceptable to me.
Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Originally posted at http://www.lupinia.eu/cars/geico.htm

Almost three years ago, I switched my car insurance from a local agent in my hometown to Geico. In the process, I saved almost 75% on my insurance premiums, which would normally be one of Geico's much-applauded success stories. And for most of the time I've been with them, they've been great. Until I had a claim to file.

The short version of this story is that for a solid month, I've been pleading with Geico over some of the damage caused by an incident that happened in February, disputing their insistance that some of the damage caused in the incident was pre-existing, when I had photographic evidence showing it was not. In that month, I've been called a liar, called unobservant and ignorant, and when I wouldn't back down from the truth, subtly accused of fraud. I take these allegations very seriously, as someone who proudly works for a government agency dedicated to investigating fraud; it's not in my character to make an untrue claim for personal gain, and even if it were, no sane person would jeopardize their entire career over something like this. Additionally, when I presented evidence and witnesses, they were ignored and dismissed, in favor of provably-false anecdotal assumptions, the sort of thing I thought I'd left behind when I moved to a real city. All the while, I was without a car for a solid month, and while that didn't affect my ability to perform my job, it did interfere with my spring travel plans considerably.

In the end, I've withdrawn my dispute over the claim, because I'm so tired of fighting, and this battle has brought me to tears numerous times, due to stress and anxiety. But I will never back down from the truth, and I will never forget what happened. If you're currently a Geico customer, or are considering switching to them, I highly recommend reading this; there are no guarantees that this will happen to you, but if they feel the need to treat a customer the way they treated me, they deserve for the world to know about it.

The Incident


I purchased a 2009 Audi TT on February 8, 2013. I took it to the Mr. Wash Car Wash in Merrifield, VA on February 9, 2013, less than 24 hours after purchasing it, because I wanted to do a photoshoot with the car and it had picked up a few water spots from the light rain I drove through to get it home. Unfortunately, this car wash was a violent one. It shook the entire car, brushes seemed to be out of alignment, and at some point in the wash process, the front license plate was physically ripped from the bumper, stripping the license plate screw holes. Upon returning home, to my usual spot in the parking garage at my apartment building, the harsh overhead lights illuminated spots on the hood that were previously not present. Examining them led me to discover that the entire car, front to back, was completely covered in scratches and chips, none of which were previously present, much of it on the nose of the car. Since the paint was mirror-perfect and in original showroom condition when I bought the car, naturally I was upset. The car wash manager initially didn't want to listen, until I pointed out that when I pulled up the second time, one of his employees inside the wash bay was holding my forcibly-removed front license plate. A report was taken, but the car wash's head office insisted that the car wash is "brushless" (it's not), so I turned to Geico for assistance, since that's what they're supposed to exist for.

Before | After

The Claim


On February 12, I contacted Geico, opened a claim, and gave my statement. At first, they sounded exceptionally helpful; it definitely wasn't my fault, and they'd take care of going after the car wash to recover costs, which is exactly what I hoped for and expected. The prospect of going to court myself wasn't very appealing, and Geico can afford better lawyers than I can. We scheduled an appointment for a preliminary estimate with a Geico adjuster, and that's where things started going south.

The Geico adjuster examined the car, and pointed out a number of areas that looked pre-existing, including the severe chips on the hood. I pointed out that I had photo evidence proving they weren't pre-existing, an estimate was written, and I went on my way. When I spoke to the liability adjuster, who was the only person in this entire process who actually listened to what I had to say and tried to be the slightest bit helpful, he looked at my photos and said there would be no issue including the hood chips in the repairs, the evidence was very clear-cut. Trusting him, I scheduled the repairs at the best body shop I could find in the DC metro area, and dropped the car off on March 11.

The Complications


Geico's original estimate showed a great deal of inexperience, saying that the significant majority of the damage would buff out. When it didn't, the body shop contacted Geico for a supplemental estimate for the remainder of the work that needed to be done. The total damage ballooned from $800 to $3000, and almost the entire car needed to be repainted, but almost all of it was approved. The part that wasn't approved? The hood chips, despite me being assured that they would be covered, were not. I was told that they were pre-existing rock chips, and I was welcome to open a separate no-fault claim for them (with a second deductible, of course), but they would not be covered under this claim. My evidence was blatantly ignored, the adjuster said "I don't care what photos you have, I say they're pre-existing rock chips" (exact quote).

The Dispute


When I chose this car, it wasn't the only Audi TT I looked at, but I picked it in large part because it was the only one I could find with no cosmetic damage, not even minor nicks. I examined it when I took delivery to confirm, and re-examined it even more thoroughly when I got home, carefully looking over every body panel. This is something I've always done; I'm exceptionally passionate about my cars, and nothing happens to the paint or body of a car I own without me knowing about it almost instantly. I have a discerning eye for visual defects, which is an asset to my work, so when I say the paint was pristine when I took delivery, I don't say that lightly. And when Geico offered me the option to double my out-of-pocket costs (and impact my flawless insurance record negatively) or settle for a significant number of blemishes on my previously-flawless new car, I refused to accept either option. So I started talking to people.

The liability adjuster, who was the initial point of contact for the claim, was very sympathetic, and the only one at Geico who even looked at the photos I added to the claim. Unfortunately, since it was an auto damage issue, and Geico is weirdly bureacratic and compartmentalized, he was completely incapable of doing anything or helping in any way. I talked to two different auto damage adjusters, who didn't care what I had to say or what the pre-incident photos showed, their minds were made up. I talked to the body shop, who said they did kinda look like rock chips, but they believed me when I said they didn't exist immediately prior to the incident, and agreed that a car wash with foreign debris embedded in the brushes could've caused the damage as easily as rocks. Plus, the chips were down to bare metal with zero signs of weathering. But, since the shop is not Geico, they couldn't do anything either.

I didn't want to name names in this article, but the next two people I spoke to deserve it.

Steve Wladyka


The Geico adjusters put me in touch with Steve Wladyka, supervising adjuster for the Northern Virginia area, saying it was his decision. So I talked with him about it. He said there was no possible way a car wash could cause paint chips, even one with an obvious alignment/calibration issue and likely foreign material in its brushes, which was hitting the car hard enough to remove the license plate. He didn't look at the photos I provided, nor did he care to. His justification for calling them rock chips? His wife has a black car that's about the same age (but with considerably more mileage), and it has chips on the hood, therefore every car with 20,000 miles has the sort of heavy hood damage seen on mine, in places like this where roads are treated in winter. Because that's scientific enough to base legal decisions on, right? Aside from the obvious falacy in this, what about the fact that the car has summer sport tires and has likely never been driven much in winter? Or the fact that some of the chips exposed bare metal, yet had zero signs of weathering or wear, or touching up? Or, if anecdotal evidence is admissable, how about the fact that among people who have a similar lifestyle to me (commute to work via public transit, car stays in garage almost all the time and is only used on weekends and occasional evenings), no one has rock chips on their car? I could walk through my entire apartment building's parking garage (almost a block long) end to end, and not find a single car with the sort of damage on the nose than mine had.

Mr. Wladyka wasn't interested in the pre-incident photos of the car, which clearly showed a mirror-smooth perfect hood. He didn't look at them, and wasn't going to. He didn't want to talk to either of my witnesses, one of whom saw the car less than an hour before the incident. He couldn't answer my questions about his reasoning for his assumption other than his wife's dinged-up hood. After talking in circles for a few minutes, he finally said I could dispute the claim, which would halt all work on the vehicle, so I did. I also alluded to getting a lawyer involved. Mr. Wladyka's response was almost giddy, with a sort of "bring it on" bravado that really caught me off guard, and while I knew it might come down to involving lawyers, I really didn't want to go down that road.

After that conversation, not much happened. No one at Geico contacted me. My attempts to reach out to the company through other channels were unsuccessful, all I found were people who couldn't help, or chirping crickets (usually the latter). The shop contacted me for a status report at one point, but couldn't be very helpful. I asked around friends and coworkers for a recommendation for a local lawyer, no one could offer anything, and having never done this before, I had zero idea where to start.

Finally, I was able to get the contact information for someone higher up. But things went even worse than with Steve Wladyka.

Bill Knauss


I called Bill Knauss, claims manager for Virginia, on April 4, and left a voicemail. He returned my call on April 5 around lunchtime. The conversation followed mostly the same pattern as with Steve Wladyka; I had photos, eyewitnesses, and science, he had three adjusters following hunches and anecdotal assumptions, which somehow trumps evidence. I had a few new points to make, all of which were summarily dismissed with more nonsense, to the point that I felt like I was talking to a 12-year-old (his LinkedIn profile doesn't help that feeling). But then it got worse. He accused me of having buyers remorse about my car. He accused me of buying it without examining it. He even hinted at an accusation of committing insurance fraud, saying that I was trying to get the car wash to cover pre-existing damage. He had no interest in looking at the photos, which disprove both his assumptions and his accusations, and when I offered witnesses, he said "I'll talk to whoever you want, but it won't make a difference, it's my decision and no evidence you can offer will change my mind" (exact quote).

I did provide contact information for the salesman who sold me the car, an older gentleman who's been selling cars for 30 years, and who is probably the most transparently trustworthy sales person I've ever had the pleasure of doing business with. He took great pride in both the car and in working out the details of my trade-in, and when I told him about the car wash damage after I picked it up, he was devastated, volunteering to go to court and testify if he had to. I don't know if he was ever contacted.

Aftermath


Ultimately, there wasn't really a resolution. I withdrew my dispute on April 9, after contemplating it over the weekend, and evaluating how much more time it would take to continue fighting this.

I contacted the body shop for an estimate to cover the hood chips out of pocket, with numbers already in my head. If it was $200 or less, I could easily pull that out of my next paycheck. If it was $500 or more, I'd start serious lawyer-shopping. The number they said was $400, right in the middle. I opted to go ahead and pay out of pocket anyway; that's a lot of cash to cough up without notice, especially right now (March was expensive), but it's not impossible. I've told both Geico and the shop to resume work on the vehicle.

I will be seeking a new insurance company before my current policy is up for renewal. I will never do business with Geico again. I will never recommend them to anyone, whereas before this, I happily recommended them to everyone who was looking for insurance, usually citing the incredible decrease in my premiums after switching.

Through this ordeal, I ended up paying almost double my deductible. I had to make alternate travel arrangements for several out-of-town events I'd been planning to attend for months. Aside from the generosity of friends, any place I wanted to go that wasn't within a half-mile of my apartment or train station was out of reach. And, of course, there was the Geico-induced stress. I lost sleep over this. I cried over this. My ability to perform my job efficiently suffered, from having to take so much time for phone calls, research, and psyching myself up for those calls.

Congratulations, Geico, you won. I'm not a very strong person, I'm not the sort of person who can effectively navigate or stand up to bureacracy, and you broke me. I hope it was worth it.
4 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Originally posted at http://www.lupinia.eu/personal/social-networking.htm.

Where does a person go to be truly social on the internet? This is a question I find myself asking all too often, and once I settle in somewhere, I seem to have to find somewhere else to go.

Today, Twitter announced that they were pulling all non-web-based versions of Tweetdeck, and in doing so, they will no longer function after May of this year. This comes after a long string of Twitter API and developer rule changes, and it seems that the worst fears of many Twitter users are coming to fruition.

This move doesn't affect me directly, in any significant way; I use Tweetdeck on my phone, but I have no real love for it, and I mostly only use it because for all its faults, it has the best notification system of any Android client, by a huge margin. But, combined with the API changes that limit what third-party applications can do with Twitter, it demonstrates pretty clearly that the Twitter actively does not want to offer a user experience better than the horrifically inferior experience of the primary official app. And that's a problem for those of us who use Twitter heavily as a communication and content creation platform. If you're a passive consumer of media, or use Twitter very lightly, then sure, the standard Twitter client is fine. But it can't keep up with my Twitter usage.

My preferred Twitter app, TwInbox, is an Outlook plugin that delivers a Twitter experience far more flexible and more powerful than anything else I've seen available, and if/when it no longer functions as a Twitter client, I will immediately cease all use of Twitter. I'll be looking for a mobile Twitter client to replace Tweetdeck, but I've never primarily used Twitter from my phone, nor do I want to. In the meantime, I'll continue using it, but I feel I need to see what other networking options to use, as I've done before.

I heavily used email mailing lists, for many years, and to this day, I still greatly prefer them over other group communication methods. But I'm in the minority on that, so mailing lists are largely abandoned nowadays. Ditto for Live Journal, and its later offshoot Dreamwidth. I used both very heavily, but as Live Journal's service degraded for non-Russian users, others abandoned it, and it lost the main thing that kept me posting regularly, interactivity. I enjoy writing, and I enjoyed using LJ to document memories, and to keep up with others who did the same. But when comment volumes dropped in LJ's later years, it didn't feel worthwhile to spend 1-2 hours a day writing a post, to get little to no interaction. Twitter accelled where LJ failed, with significantly less time commitment. But Twitter may lose that soon, so what else is out there?

Google Plus has come up in my circle of friends a few times, and it shows some interesting promise, but I have no interest in using it. For one thing, while Google has revised their name policies somewhat, they still clearly want to be the identity police. If I sign up on a site with a particular name or handle, that site has no business telling me I'm wrong, no matter what their standards are. I don't care that Google+ no longer wants my legal name, I have the right to identify however I want to on the internet, and they obviously don't agree. Additionally, Google is creepy, and while some people trust them to hold their entire lives, I do not. They haven't earned my trust, and they've done quite a lot to harm my trust. I don't want to use a service where, if I say something that isn't PG, or they decide my name isn't my name, my phone suddenly won't work anymore.

Facebook, of course, is even worse than Google on every count, and most people I know won't use Facebook because of this. I'm one of them. But just because Google's creepiness is less intense than Facebook's, that doesn't mean Google isn't creepy.

Tumblr has a great deal of popularity, and I have an account there, but I'm not interested in using it for anything more than mirroring content I create. It's a site that isn't trying to be the identity police, and in that regard, it's absolutely fantastic. But, it's a terrible platform, one of the worst web applications I've ever seen. It's not good at long-form blogging/content creation, it's not good at short-form messaging, there are no privacy controls, and the user experience is unusably poor. Most importantly, any sort of interaction is impossible; there are few direct messaging methods, and aside from "reblogs" (repost the entire original post and discussion thread to your own blog, with your comment added at the end), there's no way to comment on or reply to a post. This is a dealbreaker for me, and it contributes to my other issue with Tumblr, signal-to-noise ratio. The SNR was fantastic on LJ, noise was near-nonexistant until people started posting their tweets to it, and even then, it wasn't unbearable, especially once they added tag filtering. On Twitter, it's pretty mid-range, but since it's exclusively short-form, the noise is exceptionally easy to mentally filter. But on Tumblr? Every post takes up a ton of space, and it's almost exclusively noise, with no tools whatsoever for controlling it. I follow about 6 people who actively use it, parsing my Tumblr feed takes more time and concentration than my Twitter feed (where I follow over 250 people), and yet I get less out of it. I'm not interested in a GIF clip of a TV show I already watched, I want to read what you write and see images you created or captured.

I haven't seen many other platforms take root among my friends, and it concerns me to think that of the currently-popular options, none are usable to me. I have zero hope of Google or Facebook becoming less awful, especially since both platforms seem to exist solely to funnel personal information into the hands of the parasites known as marketing departments. I like the sound of App.net, sort of, but I don't see them taking root with my friends, which creates a circular problem; if no one I know uses it, it's not worth paying for, but if I don't buy an account and use it, others won't either. It's possible that Tumblr might become less awful, but since they seem to have zero development budget, I'm not holding my breath. I'd love to see a service that's basically Twitter, but that recognizes such a thing works best as a platform, not a single application.

Regardless, you can always find me on my website, it will never, ever go away. I know having a strong presence on the open web isn't what everyone does anymore (something that always disappoints me, and not just because I build websites for a living), but I will never stop having a strong web presence. And no matter what other services I use, my website will always be my home base, the place where I post all my content first, and where I tell you where else to find me.
5 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Originally posted at my website, view the original at http://www.lupinia.eu/personal/money-management.htm

Personal finance management is something that everyone needs to know as an adult, but that few people are actually taught. And, ironically, people who come from wealthy families, where micro-managing money is much less of a priority, tend to be much better at it. But, it's not impossible to learn. I'm living proof of this. Everyone has their own methods and approach, this is mine.

First, some background. While I currently have pretty decent income, this was not the case as recently as October 2012. I was raised in a lower-middle-class family by parents who were (and still are, in the case of my mom) absolutely atrocious at managing money. It led to a paradoxical upbringing, where we couldn't afford cable TV or vacations, but I had no shortage of Legos. So, going forward into adulthood, no one taught me how to manage money, because they didn't know. The only thing my mom could do was balance her checkbook on a month-to-month basis, which is nothing more than a simple data validation process. I was on my own, and I was awful at it. As I gained access to credit, my terrible financial skills came into stark relief, and when I spent three months making pretty decent pay, it became obvious that I was doing something very very wrong. It wasn't until 2010 that I developed a method that worked exceptionally well for me, and while I won't pretend it made me wealthy, it did take me from being incapable of saving money to having a surplus most of the time, something that kept me out of many disasters in the subsequent years.

And this isn't written from the perspective of a rich yuppie, or at least it's not supposed to be. Until October 2012, with the exception of that three-month period in 2008/2009, I spent the entirety of my adult life (post-2003) living well below the federal poverty line, and as an additional complication, most of that income came from self employment, leading to extremely unpredictable cash flow. In fact, 2004 was the only calendar year where my gross annual income exceeded $10,000, prior to 2012; and even in 2012, I only broke that threshold at the end of the year. I made up for it with support from family, but it dwindled slowly after 2009, until it became almost nonexistant in mid-2012, and even when I had it, it wasn't without a great deal of strings attached. And yet, I never missed any payments, never defaulted on a debt, never went into bankruptcy, and even overdrafts were rare (they've been nonexistant since early 2010, despite having many months with zero income during that period). This stuff is not impossible.

Management and Budgeting


Technically, this is something I've been doing from the start. In 2004, when I opened my first checking account, I started using Microsoft Money to do my actual money management and tracking, and a few months later, I ditched the paper checkbook register entirely. Since then, I've switched from MS Money to Quicken (only because MS Money was discontinued, Quicken is an inferior program), but the theory is the same; use software to manage your finances, to see what you have, notify you of payments, and see in real-time the impact of spending decisions.

Most people I know use their bank's online tools, but that doesn't count, because it only shows you what you've already spent. It doesn't do payment reminders/notifications, you can't enter future purchases ahead of time, and it only shows the accounts you have with that one bank. Plus, even with the best online banking, there's zero possibility to track statistics and trends. Online banking is an important part of the system, but that alone isn't helpful.

Services like Mint.com are close, because they'll show everything under one umbrella, but they're still inseparably tied to real accounts, which makes the savings portion of this post much more difficult.

So, exactly how do I manage my money with Quicken? Obviously, I track all transactions, like a big digital checkbook register. All calculations are automatically performed, and I can enter future transactions as easily as I enter current ones. So, for example, I'll see that I have $800 in my checking account, like I would with my online banking, but I'll also see that there's $450 in assorted transactions coming out in the next few weeks, without having to rely on memory. I also have reminders for every recurring bill and income, which are automatically entered two weeks in advance for automatic payments. Thus, there are no financial surprises for me, and I haven't had a surprise overdraft in years; not because I had enough money to not overdraft, but because I never accidently exceeded my checking balance, I always knew precisely how much was there without having to run mental calculations all the time. Just a quick glance at the "ending balance" for every account is needed.

There are more powerful tools as well, most of which I don't currently use, but they're great to have. For one thing, Spending by Category is eye-opening; want to know how much you've spent on food, groceries, fuel, bills, or hobbies over any given period of time? One click. There are a lot of different flavors of Income vs Expenses graphs as well, which are vital for figuring out the impact of a life change such as a new job, new living situation, new car, or change in pay/hours. I used these tools throughout 2012 to work up budget projections for my job search, because I was entering unknown territory, and needed to know what sort of apartment I could afford, and what my salary requirements were. Thanks to these tools, I could quickly determine what my vital expenses were, vs less important spending, and I spent quite a lot of time tweaking numbers to see what varying combinations of salary and living situation would create. Those projections didn't require a ton of setup; I didn't have to create elaborate Excel spreadsheets filled with calculations, or spend hours pecking at a calculator and scribbling on a notepad. All of it was pre-made, ready to go whenever I wanted to look at it.

The best part, however, is the ability to arbitrarily create accounts for specific purposes. This is something that's vital to how I track my finances, and something that can't be done by anything other than desktop financial software (as far as I can tell). I've used this ability for a variety of purposes over the years, and I've grown accustomed to it in a lot of ways. For example, I use it to track money I owe to people. It's extraordinarily rare for me to borrow money from anyone nowadays, and as a rule, I try to avoid owing money to friends. But, when I do borrow money from someone, I track every penny of it, and a virtual account helps tremendously with this. It also helps tremendously when I'm owed money by someone. It comes in handy for planning trips, especially conventions; all related expenses are pre-calculated, so I can see how much I need and in what timeframe. Similarly, it's great for large purchases. And, if you have accounts at an institution where online banking is tricky or nonexistant (some medical billing firms, Paypal, and some consumer credit banks), it provides a method of transaction tracking without requiring a link to an existing account, and without requiring robust online banking support. Lastly, the main thing I use this for nowadays is tracking savings for specific purposes, but more about that in the next section.

Obviously, you don't specifically have to use Quicken, and the fact that it's PC desktop software is a limitation for some people. But I absolutely recommend finding a tool that fits for you, that has some or all of these abilities. Money management is more than just seeing what you have, it's the ability to play with it to see how to use it to its maximum effectiveness.

Saving


As recently as 2008, I used the usual excuses, and believed them 100%. "I can't afford to save money." "I'll start saving once I pay off this loan/credit card/owed money." "I'll save any surplus cash I get." And so on. If saving money isn't hard-wired into you from an early age, starting to do it seems like something only people who make more than you do, no matter how much you actually make. It seems especially impossible if your income is low, and/or your budget is already tight. I've been there, it hurt when I first started doing it. But it's not impossible, no matter how low your income is, and simple math can force you to make it a habit. The trick is percentages, and saving with goals in mind, instead of just the abstract saving for the sake of saving.

In 2010, with no job prospects, I decided to make a serious attempt at self-employment. Instead of just fixing computers on the side, I made it a real business. In preparation for this, I read a surprisingly good book on entrepreneurship, which covered a lot of information on how to be successfully self-employed, and I learned a lot from it. Ultimately, my business failed, but from reading the book, I know precisely why it failed, and the lessons I learned have helped me in my career and life since. One of the most valuable lessons was how to save money, and while this book didn't spend a lot of time on it, the method it covered was wildly successful for me. It also saved me from bankruptcy many times over; when making irregular income, saving is simultaneously more difficult and more important.

To put it simply, the magical method isn't that magical, it's a matter of creating savings for specific purposes. First, in one savings account, select a percentage of every penny you receive that will automatically be saved. Whether it's your regular paycheck or a dollar you found on the street, everything you deposit will be split this way. The percentage can be whatever you want; the book's author recommended 5-10%, but even 1-2% will accomplish the end goal. This savings account is your "wealth" account, which is a cheesy way of saying this account cannot be touched for anything other than purposes which provide financial improvement. The author mentioned business investment, but for those of us who aren't natural entrepreneurs, it'd be more like retirement funds or stocks. Otherwise, that money sits, and cannot be touched for any reason, even a financial emergency.

Step 2, and equally important, is to create a second savings account. Same rules apply, a set percentage of everything you deposit will be split into this account. But this time, instead of the account being a Do Not Touch account, this one is your "gifts" account. It can be used as much as you want, but only for people other than yourself, and only for gifts, charity, or doing things for others, not for money owed to someone. You can use it to take a friend to lunch/dinner, buy holiday gifts, or give to charity. For any other purpose, that money is untouchable, and it especially cannot be used on yourself.

Maintaining those two accounts will, in and of itself, count as saving money. But this method goes far deeper than that. By creating rules and goals to define your savings, and sticking to it, you make saving a habit, and you train yourself to think in terms of money saved on a deep, fundamental level. And unlike abstract concepts like emergency funds and generalized savings accounts, these two account definitions are highly effective at getting anyone to easily save money. The "wealth" account, as cheesy as it sounds, carries a certain weight and connotation, and as it builds, it's hard not to take pride in it. It's no one's money except your own, separate from any obligations or debt, and can counted on to always be there, a great thing if you're accustomed to every penny being allocated for some purpose. And the "gifts" account is extremely practical for anyone; if you often find yourself lacking money at holidays, and wish you had more, this is your Christmas/birthday fund. You'll always have at least a little something for a special occasion. If you're like me and tend to spend everything on others, this helps reign that in, keeping gift purchases controlled and predictable.

As time goes on, you can expand this model to fit your needs more precisely, but I recommend sticking to this religiously for a minimum of six months before trying to change it, unless something is really out of whack. I stuck to it for about a year and a half before I started tweaking things. My original split was 10% to the wealth account, 5% to the gifts account. Nowadays, it's a little more complicated, partly to keep my rather severe impulse spending problem under control. From my regular salary, I put 5% each into wealth, gifts, and "trips & goals", a third account definition I added for large purchases, vacations, conventions, and other big expenses. Additionally, any extra money I receive from things like Craigslist/Ebay sales, side work, gifts, and tax refunds is split with 10% into wealth and gifts, with all of the remainder going into Trips & Goals. This separates disposable income from my checking account, to force myself to think and calculate before making any purchase that isn't part of my standard budget.

There are two special cases in this savings model, debt and emergencies. Obviously, debt is toxic, and should be avoided except as an absolute last resort. But I certainly won't judge someone for their debt. Unfortunately, I also can't offer a whole lot of advice in getting rid of it, but I will say that this savings plan can be used for debt payoff. The rule I set for myself is that I can use the "wealth" account to pay off debt accounts, but I can only do it once per account, I can't use those funds to pay off an account if I use it again after I've paid it off. So, if I pay off a credit card, then use that card again, I can't use the wealth account to pay it off again, I have to do it the hard way. Additionally, that account can't be used for payments, it can only be used for lump payoffs.

As for emergencies, I intentionally didn't mention an emergency fund, partly because the author of the aforementioned book seemed to believe that responsible people don't encounter financial emergencies, and the original book frowns on such a thing. Obviously, that's not realistic, but an emergency fund is a very abstract thing for someone who's , so I created a rule for this savings plan to allow for an emergency fund. Basically, no account is explicitly defined for this purpose, but as long as I don't do it more than once every 2-3 months, I can borrow money from any savings account (except the gifts account) for purposes other than intended, as long as I pay it back as fast as possible. Essentially, it allows me to write an interest-free payday loan to myself. I don't recommend doing this within the first six months of this savings approach, but once you've established the overall savings model as an instinctive habit, this is allowed.



That's really all there is to my money management process, and while every person's needs are different, I hope this will help get you started. When I had little to no income, this process saved me many, many times over. Nowadays, some of this is less relevant to me personally, and I'll spend the next few years shifting towards an actual retirement fund, but the principles are the same, and no less helpful. And, when I had little to no income, these methods were how I managed to always have at least a little cash on hand, without going into the red. So it's relevant to everyone, I think.

I'll put a caveat on this that I'm not an accountant or a CPA, and I have no real training in this sort of thing. Aside from the aforementioned book I read, this is the result of self-teaching and trial-and-error. But it works well for me. And if you're struggling with any of this, I hope it'll help you as well.
1 howling || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Originally posted at http://www.softpaw.eu/personal/the-girl.htm

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was just starting to grow up, but she was very, very lonely, and very sad. All of her childhood friends had gone on to other things, she no longer had school, no college or university would take her, and no one would pay her to do the only thing she thought people would pay her to do. On top of that, she hated her own body and didn’t know why, and she felt like no one would ever love her. So, she spent her days bored, lonely, and sad, doing little except wasting time, waiting for something interesting to happen in her life, or for some way to escape life as she knew it. Such things never happened.

One day, she heard about something that sounded like fun, and being the bored, lonely girl she was, she had plenty of time to look into it. She expected to see a bunch of people who had a weird hobby, but what she found was so much more. She found a world where everyone wanted to be her friend, where she could be whoever and whatever she wanted, and where she could escape her miserable, dull life, creating a new one however she wanted. She might even find love in this new world!

This new world brought her adventure, as well. It took her to far away cities for exciting events, where she was absolutely overwhelmed with new experiences and spontaneity. Where she had previously lived a predictable, pre-planned lifestyle, she now had excuses to drive hundreds of miles on a whim, for all the fun she could hope for, with little more than a few hours notice. And for a time, she was the happiest she had ever been.

Unfortunately, all this adventure led her to neglect her old life. For awhile, she lived with a boyfriend she could only have meaningful conversations with when they were immersed in her exciting alternate life. She held occasional jobs to pay for her alternate life, and still went into debt to go on adventures, but mostly spent the entirety of her time entrenched in her alternate life. When she wasn’t immersed in that world, it was all she could think about, to the point that she considered leaving her real life entirely on multiple occasions.

But, her alternate life helped her through the dark times. It helped her discover why she hated her body so severely, so she could lay out a plan to fix it. It helped her meet more new friends than she could ever imagine, friends who cared only about who she truly was, and weren’t interested in the layers of masks and bravado she created in her real life over the years to make it more bearable. And, most importantly, it helped her discover that she had creative talents that were worth more than she ever dreamed possible.

Strengthened by her alternate life, she set out on the greatest adventure of her entire life, a quest to seek out the sort of real life that she thought was only a dream. Equipped with a fraction of her belongings, she took the scariest step of her life, a step away from the safety net of her home. Surrounded by the incredibly deep love of the friends she met in her alternate life, her confidence blossomed, and she put her creative work in front of wealthy people, hoping that someone would pay her to pursue her passions. And, after several months of this quest, when her resources were dwindling, her quest paid off.

Suddenly, in her real life, she had more money and power than she ever dreamed possible, with more available in the future. Her real life was no longer painful to think about, it was something she was actually proud of. She had the money to go on more quests and adventures than she had time for. And, her friends from her alternate life were so proud of her, and so happy for her, that she cried for days just from the sheer, overwhelming joy surrounding her. Her alternate life brought her so much joy over the years, brought her true love in a way she never imagined even existing, and above all, it brought her the strength, courage, and ambition to turn her real life into something that didn’t bring her pain. And it did all that without her having to pretend to be anything she wasn’t. She didn’t have to wear a mask with her friends, she could show everything in her heart, good and bad, and trust that they would love her with all their hearts, just as she loved them with all her heart.

But perhaps most importantly, she now knew that she didn’t have to escape into her alternate life ever again, because for the first time in her life, she knew with certainty that she had the power to change her real life to look like what she truly wanted. And, in time, she knew that she no longer wanted to leave her real life. Instead, she knew with certainty that she could continue reshaping her real life, until it simply became her alternate life, without sacrificing any of her fun, or any of the love in her life.
3 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
As of this post, my 2009 Audi TT has been in my posession for about 48 hours. I've gotten to know it a bit, learned what it can do, and I love it even more than I expected I would. The drive home from the dealership was downright blissful, and while my new-car bliss with my Land Rover Freelander came with a number of caveats, there is nothing about this car that causes me significant concern.

First thing's first, this is a sports car, so its performance is a big part of its appeal. I haven't had anything sporty since 2006, when I had my Acura Integra, so I didn't have a big frame of reference going into this. But as soon as I started driving it, I remembered the fun of a sports car. I remembered the adrenaline, the thrills, and the outright joy from driving a performance machine. The TT did not disappoint in the slightest. In fact, it's by far the fastest and best-handling car I've ever driven, and I'm seriously interested in using it to improve my performance driving skills. I'm pretty ok at handling a car, but most of my driving skill is based on off-road and severe-conditions driving (where I'm proud to say my abilities are top-notch, getting snowed in doesn't happen to me when I have access to a four-wheel-drive).

The transmission is disorienting, but I'm getting used to it, and as I adjust to it, I love it. It's VW/Audi's DSG, a computer-controlled dual-clutch manual transmission. So, its user interface is that of an automatic (shift lever with Park, Neutral, Reverse, Drive, and +/- manual shifting, and no clutch pedal), but its function is that of a manual operated better than most pros, yielding surprising fuel economy, fast, smooth shifting, and performance that doesn't feel dampened by a torque converter. The disorienting part is that, despite being used like an automatic, it feels very much like a manual, especially at slow speeds. It'll pull itself along at idle, but it feels a bit unsteady doing it, particularly in reverse, and it can have a hard time starting uphill, I have to be quick on the throttle to make sure it doesn't gain any roll-back momentum. The manual even recommends using the emergency brake to hold the car in place when starting on a steep incline, like a manual transmission car, and it's something I'll need to practice before I visit a more hilly area, like Harrisonburg or Pittsburgh.

One thing that's taken me by surprise, in a very good way, is how the technology in this car can make such a night-and-day difference between sport and normal driving. It's equipped with a magnetic adjustable suspension, with a switch to toggle between Sport and Standard modes. Initially, I assumed this simply meant that the button changed how stiff the shocks were, but Audi went beyond that. The car is equipped with an entire suspension subsystem, which controls how stiff the shock absorbers are based on what the car is doing. During hard turns, the outside shocks stiffen. During hard braking, the front shocks stiffen. And when sport mode is enabled, the shocks do get stiffer in general, but from what I can tell, these responsive-dampening scenarios also increase to the point that a hard turn feels more effortless than even a car built strictly for track driving. Additionally, the transmission has a Sport mode, which changes the shift timings and clutch performance from "luxury sedan" to "track car", and functions more like what I expected from the TT. With these two settings combined, the difference between sport and normal is like having two completely different cars, a luxury coupe and a supercar.

Beyond performance, though, this car is incredibly luxurious. Which, in some ways, is more important to me; I could've gotten any number of high-performance cars for this price, including some that are considerably faster, and a few that handle better. But I bought an Audi TT for its combination of luxury and performance, and I was not disappointed. When not in sport mode, it drives and rides like a comfortable, quiet sedan, albeit one that hugs the road like it's on rails. The seats are incredibly comfortable, I could easily spend hours in them, and the heated seats are such a treat in this cold weather. The leather is soft, supple, and an absolutely joy to sit on, it's like being hugged every time I drive. And, the climate controls are significantly better than anything I've ever imagined a car could have.

After the first five miles of my trip home from the dealership, I quickly decided to pull off for a long dinner and manual-reading session. For years, I've always told everyone to read the owner's manual of their car(s), cover-to-cover, and following that advice has taught me many things about every vehicle I've owned. In the case of this car, reading the manual was an absolute requirement, because there's just so much to this car. In a general sense, it's a luxury car with a great deal of technology and features, but I had an additional disadvantage, since every vehicle in my family is ten years old or more, and my Freelander's feature set was rudimentary by comparison. I was quite satisfied with the Freelander at first, having come from a bare-bones sedan and two mid-90s luxury cars, but the difference between the Freelander and this Audi is staggering. So, reading the manual led to many surprises, and also greatly increased both my love of this car and my loyalty to VW/Audi in the future, in two very big ways.

First, to put it simply, I could not imagine a more perfect car if I designed it myself. Everything that's ever annoyed me about every car I've ever driven has been changed in this car to fit exactly how I'd want it to operate. Things that are normally automatic, that I'd like control over, have controls for the driver to switch them on or off, and things I do manually that I'd like to automate have been automated. A few examples:

-The windshield wipers automatically slow down when the car is stopped, something I normally do myself, and the rain sensor has adjustable sensitivity.
-When slowing downhill, the transmission automatically downshifts to use engine braking. My Freelander did this, but from what I can tell, the TT is much better at it.
-Daytime running lights are present, but there's a switch for them, so I can keep them off permanently. Ditto for the "coming home" lights, something that's nice to have occasionally, but completely pointless in well-lit parking lots or my apartment building's parking garage. Ditto for automatic headlights as well, something else I dislike.
-The windshield wipers hide under the edge of the hood, but instead of having to play games with turning off the ignition while the wipers are turned on to get them in the right position to replace the blades, there's simply a computer setting that pops them upwards.
-There's a power-retractable spoiler, so I can have it when I need it, but keep it tucked away when it's not needed.
-The heated mirrors can be easily switched off when not needed.

Second, this car is like the Linux of cars, everything is user-configurable. The in-dash menu system can control countless settings that I expected I'd need a computer interface device to adjust. I never expected any car on the market to have this level of customization available through in-car interfaces.

Generally, a car's stereo system doesn't get my attention, because I've always replaced mine in every car I've owned, and most of the ones my family has owned. I knew that the stereo in this car had an abnormal number of features, but replacing it wasn't completely out of the question. I was exceptionally impressed. Not only does it do everything I want a car stereo to do (satellite radio, Bluetooth, MP3 playback that isn't device-centric), it does everything my top-of-the-line aftermarket stereo could do, and much more. Aside from the aforementioned key features, it has auxilliary input, a 6-disk CD changer, two SD card slots for MP3s (versus 1 in the stereo I put in the Freelander), and an incredible level of control in the steering wheel buttons. It also has navigation, but it's pretty rudimentary, especially in its text entry, so I'm not sure how much I'll actually use it.

After all this praise, there are some negatives to mention, but they're greatly outweighed by the positives. The biggest is the backseat; there pretty much isn't one. I went into this purchase expecting the car to be a 2-seater 99% of the time, because it's rare for me to have more than one passenger. But, while the TT is known to have a backseat that pretty much only exists for insurance classification purposes, I figured it would be about like my old Integra; uncomfortable for average-sized adults, unusable for large adults, but functional for short periods if needed. In the Integra, with the front seats all the way back, the back seat had 4-6" of leg room. In the TT, with the front seats all the way back, the back seat has zero leg room. Literally, the backs of the front seats sit flush against the back seat. Curious about the uselessness of the back seat, I tested it out myself. If I put the front passenger seat far enough forward to still be able to sit in it, it was physically impossible for me to even get into the back seat. If I slid the front passenger seat all the way forward, I could get in the back, but the seat couldn't be slid back at all. So, I'll be considering this car strictly a 2-seater, with rare exceptions. Annoying, but far from a dealbreaker.

The only other negatives are pretty frivolous, and unlike my Freelander, there's no high-stakes sword of Damocles hanging over it. I wish it had a sunroof, for one thing, I really enjoy having as much glass as possible in my vehicle. But it's bigger than my Integra was, so it doesn't feel claustrophobic without one, and with the cabin layout and window design, there's plenty of sunlight coming in (unlike my Crown Victoria). I also find the interior lighting pretty lacking; it's lit by strategically-placed directional LEDs, which are beautiful to look at, but pretty insufficient for actually lighting anything, unless it's dark enough for high beam headlights, a situation difficult to find where I live. I may install a real dome light in the future, as long as I get one from another Audi of a similar year. And, there are two features my Land Rover had that I wish were present in this car; heated windshield, and rear windshield wiper. I get why there's no rear wiper, it'd be impossible to add one in a way that doesn't break the elegant curves of the car, but I do really miss it. I'm genuinely surprised there's no heated windshield, though. I'm keenly aware that heated windshields are abnormally prone to cracking, and horrifically expensive to replace, but after having a vehicle that had one for two years, standard defrost can't even compare. And the heated windshield washer fluid reservoir is helpful, but useless until the car warms up.

One other thing that bears mentioning is that, in some ways, this car doesn't quite feel like it's mine. Part of it is that it's such a massive upgrade over my previous vehicles, or anything my family has ever owned, that it feels more like a rental than something that's mine. But more than that, part of my usual car-purchasing process involves a ritual of replacing the stereo, installing other electronics like my HAM radio, and making a list of what I want to do to it. This is the first time I've ever had a car where I literally had no changes in mind, aside from the aforementioned dome light. There's nothing I'm substantially unhappy with, nothing I'm in a hurry to upgrade, and especially nothing that's within my abilities to change. I won't be adding my HAM radio, mostly because there's nowhere to put an antenna that isn't hideous. There are a few things that would be nice, like an integrated USB charging system, and I'm considering getting it painted a different color in a few years, but really, it's exactly what I want, right out of the box.

It also hasn't presented much of a personality or gender, in my mind. It's entirely pointless imagining on my part, but I tend to strongly personify my cars, and it's easy to do with older used cars. They tend to have enough quirks to feel like they have an entire personality. This one feels much more like a machine, which is strange, but it doesn't make me love it any less.

Ultimately, this car is not only exactly what I wanted to replace the Freelander with, it's exactly what I've always wanted. And, it nudges me back toward my preferred two-car model; I like having a sporty car, and a truck or serious SUV, because I'd rather have two cars that are excellent at their respective tasks, than one car that tries to compromise. This car serves the sporty car slot more perfectly than I could've ever imagined, to the point that I almost don't even need to fill the SUV slot. Eventually, I imagine I'll start pining for a truck again, but I will absolutely not be parting with this Audi until something catastrophic happens. Which I hope won't happen for a very, very long time.
3 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
This post is mirrored from my website. View the original here.

Just under a year ago, I wrote an article about why I love my Land Rover Freelander. It was as much a reassurance to myself as it was a genuine post about the virtues of this much-maligned vehicle, and for much of the time since then, it accurately described how I felt. Unfortunately, that time has passed.

My vehicle purchases tend to be influenced by what I disliked about the vehicle I was replacing (or the vehicle I owned at the time). When I chose my Integra, it replaced a Honda Accord that was boring and uncomfortable. When I bought my first Land Rover, it was to augment the Integra's complete inability to handle winter weather. When I bought my Crown Victoria, it replaced the much smaller Integra at a time when I was spending the vast majority of my time behind the wheel. The purchase of my Freelander was no different; in this case, to replace the Crown Victoria, which I actively disliked, I desperately wanted a vehicle I could feel passionate about, and that had more luxury features than the very bare-bones sedan. I greatly missed the love I felt for my old Land Rover and for my Integra, a love that, while irrational, made the very act of owning and driving the car a joyful indulgence every time I did it. Additionally, this love made it easier to justify routine maintenance, something I didn't have money for throughout much of my life.

I had a few options when I was shopping for my Freelander, but ultimately chose it because, within my price range (less than $8000), there simply weren't many vehicles that met all of my criteria, and the Freelander appealed to my longing for another Land Rover. I didn't go into it completely blind; I did the research, I knew the stories, and I knew the odds. Based on the mechanical problems known to occur with the Freelander, it was a possibility that it would suffer catastrophic engine issues around 60,000 miles, and if it made it to 100,000 miles, I'd be one of the lucky ones. Despite the fact that luck has almost never been in my favor, I went into this purchase thinking I could beat the odds, and that through the power of being a die-hard Land Rover fan, I'd be able to keep it going.

In retrospect, it seems as dumb as it sounds to type it out.

In my defense, there was a lot of information witheld from me at purchase time. The dealer failed to disclose a number of known mechanical problems that I discovered quickly afterwards, including a heater core leak (which, two years later, has not been fixed), a failing power steering pump, and a few other small issues that were discovered and addressed in the course of repairing other problems. Of course, the biggest issue was the seized camshaft, which cost $5000 to repair (and that was after the mechanic cut me a break). I can't prove this, and thus can't pursue legal action against the dealer, but there's no way the dealer didn't know there was a problem with the oil. Either the oil change they performed was incomplete (didn't replace the filter), or they saw evidence of the previous owner's severe neglect and said nothing. Regardless, I had a massive repair bill that nearly exceeded the value of the vehicle six months after purchasing it.

At the time, I was faced with three options: Have the engine repaired by a specialist for about $5000-6000, have the engine replaced by a specialist for $6000-7000, or scrap the truck, default on the loan, and destroy my credit. My payment was at the absolute limit of what I could afford, and the loan was at the limit of the credit my bank would extend to me, so rolling it over into another car was not an option. Since my engine had about 46,000 miles at the time, and most rebuilt engines were at 60,000-80,000, I chose option 1, and my family helped me pay for it. But, I almost went for option 3. I was desperate at the time, and while I was exceptionally proud that I had been able to maintain near-perfect credit through circumstances that would drive most people to bankruptcy or worse, I did still have my Crown Victoria, and ultimately could have survived.

When I chose to have the engine rebuilt, I did so with some mental caveats. The mechanic made no secret of the fact that this would very likely not be the end of my issues with this truck, but he also took it as a matter of personal honor to get it running well. With that in mind, I spent a lot of time thinking about the decision, and chose to fix the truck with the hope that there wouldn't be any further catastrophic failures or major maintenance for at least a couple of years. For awhile, that was the case.

The work was completed in March 2012, just before I wrote the aforementioned article about how much I loved it. And for awhile, things went exactly like I wanted. There were a few issues - failed fuel pump, which turned out to be a recall unaddressed by the previous owner, and a failed oil filter - but for the bulk of 2012, it was exactly the truck I wanted it to be.

Until it started getting colder.

Just before the engine rebuild, I noticed that it often ran rough in cold weather. I assumed this was normal, and it was never particularly problematic, so I ignored it. After the rebuild was completed, the mechanic observed that the truck practically wouldn't start at all on cold mornings, and held it for months trying to diagnose the issue. As the weather warmed up, the problem decreased, and he eventually released it to me, leaving the truck with a residual glitch that, while slightly inconvenient, didn't present much of a problem. And during most of the summer, I didn't notice it at all. But, as the cold weather became more prevalent, the problem worsened.

During the winter, additional problems developed. The windshield cracked, which is no cheap repair on a heated-windshield vehicle. The climate controls jammed in a way that's left me baffled, and left me unable to use the defroster. An oil change at the dealership resulted in a series of catastrophically-failing oil filter seals. While all this was going on, I was settling into a new job, new apartment, basically a whole new life, and while I had a vastly higher salary than at any point in my life, I also had a lot of residual moving expenses, and didn't have much for car repairs. Thankfully, I also didn't have to drive for work, but I did have to drive for anything social, and I'm a rather social person.

The game-changer, however, was when I had an oil change performed by a specialist, instead of the dealer, after the second failed filter. They did an excellent job, but they discovered a fair amount of coolant in the oil. Combined with rather obvious oil seepage from the head gaskets, the diagnosis was head gasket failure (albeit a minor case, since it still runs). I was never given an estimate for repairs, but it's a procedure known to cost upwards of $1200-1500 on cars far easier and cheaper to work on than this one, and it was a very expensive specialty mechanic.

Throughout December and January, the cold-start issue and head gasket issue seemingly teamed up to make the truck borderline undriveable. It now takes upwards of 15-20 minutes to cold-start it, a process that gets worse the longer it sits between drives, and once I do get it running, it runs rough at highway speeds, in a way that makes it feel like it may not bring me back home from my destination. I've gotten oil changes every few hundred miles as a precaution, but obviously, I avoid driving it as much as possible, knowing that it's in no shape to be driven.

The combined cost to fix all the current, known problems is somewhere around $4500. Not counting the cold start issue, which will need to be diagnosed all over again by someone different. The truck is barely worth $4500 in perfect condition, and no amount of love can justify sinking this much money into repairs for a vehicle that, in all likelyhood, will only continue to have major mechanical issues on a regular basis. I mentioned 60,000 miles as a milestone earlier, because most Freelanders that aren't scrapped for seized camshafts at 40,000 miles are typically scrapped at 60,000 for slipped cylinder sleeves. Without taking the engine apart to replace the gaskets, there's no way to know if this is what happened to mine, but given its symptoms and the fact that it just rolled over 60,000 miles, it's a realistic possibility.

More importantly, with all of this going on, my Freelander has lost my trust, so to speak. Even if I were to fix everything, I would no longer have faith that it will get me from point A to point B without catastrophic mechanical issues, especially for the long roadtrips I miss taking. And as it stands right now, I don't even trust it to get me to and from locations within the DC metro area. A few days ago, I missed out on a party at a friend's house, because it was 20 miles away, I had trouble getting a ride, and I didn't trust my truck to get me there and back (mostly back). While I do still have affection for my truck, that's unacceptable.

So, my current options are: Sink thousands of dollars cash into repairs, to fix the current problems. Keep driving it as-is until it's completely undriveable, leaving me with a worthless vehicle that I still owe money on. Or trade it in on something more reliable, now that I'm in a position to afford a higher car payment. Option 1 is borderline impossible, since I don't have a particularly large cash reserve yet, and the assistance I previously received from family is no longer available. As for option 3, I'd mostly be rolling the entire balance of the current loan into a new one, but given the low value of the vehicle and the relatively small amount still owed, it wouldn't affect a new loan much.

I still have a great deal of affection for my Freelander, but I'm giving up. I can't keep throwing money at a vehicle that was so poorly designed that its lifespan is half that of comparable vehicles. I can't keep paying for a vehicle that doesn't serve the fundamental needs of a vehicle, transporting me from point A to point B. And, I can't keep missing out on life because of transportation issues.

I learn lessons from every vehicle I own. My Land Rover Discovery taught me to recognize trouble spots when purchasing a high-mileage vehicle. My Crown Victoria taught me that a car needs to be enjoyable on its own merits, not based on psychological/societal associations, and it taught me the difference between car love and car lust. This Freelander taught me a great deal of things, probably more lessons than any previous vehicle. It taught me that I am not a mechanic; I can perform some tasks and some diagnostics on my own, but I'm dependant upon others to do the dirty work, and therefore, a vehicle that can't be worked on by most mechanics probably isn't a good choice. It taught me that love for a car doesn't make it a good car, and love for a bad car can be extraordinarily expensive. And, it taught me to never, ever buy a car without examining it for myself first.

With these lessons in mind, I have a short list of candidates for my next vehicle, and I'm already in the process of arranging purchase of my first choice. We'll see how things play out. As for my Freelander, it pains me to see a car I love go into the hands of someone who won't love it as much as I do, but I'm done with this chapter of car ownership, and I can accept sending it into the trade-in auction system. I'll even eat the entirety of the current loan, rolled into a new one, if I can be rid of the Freelander and not have to put another dollar into that toxic money-sink.
2 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
I'm in a nostalgic mood this evening, and I felt like writing things I would say to myself at past points in my life.

Age 5: Play with the toys you really want, you'll have more fun doing it. Don't listen to dad, or the girls at school who want nothing to do with you. You're not wrong, there's no "right" toys, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. And I know dad's mean and scary, while somehow also loving and wonderful, but he is wrong. Do it in secret if you have to, but you know who you are, never let him force you to forget it or pretend you're someone else. It'll take a long time to remember it again.

Age 6: The way dad treats you isn't normal, no matter what he says. The nice counselor at school is onto something, don't let dad convince you to lie to her. He'll hit you anyway, no matter what you say. If you tell her the truth, at least maybe he'll get the help he needs, or he'll never be able to hurt you again.

Age 8: Dad is impossible to please, so stop trying. Any answer is wrong, he'll find a reason to hit you no matter what you say or do, then manipulate you into thinking he's an angel and you're the one who's worthless. Turn away from him, try not to let him into your heart, and if you find yourself doing something because it's what he wants, ask if it's really what you want before proceeding. Most importantly, though, stop lying to try to tell him what he wants to hear. It doesn't work, and all that stuff they tell you about lying being contagious really is true, it'll take many years to break the habit.

Age 11: Parents splitting up, rather violently, new school with new kids who don't like you, most of your friends from elementary school went to the religious school. You've never felt so alone before, or so sad. But those kids who goof off all day? They may look like they're having fun, but they're some of the most miserable, broken people you'll ever meet. Even worse than dad. And they don't really even like you that much, you're just the only person who doesn't see that they're not really worth being friends with. Instead of flocking to them, open up more to the school psychologist. Say yes when he says you can see him every week. He'll be the most valuable friend you've ever met, if you let him. Oh, and scouting sucks, doesn't it? You'll learn a lot there, but the cost of that knowledge is pretty high, so if you want to drop out, I certainly wouldn't blame you, and you wouldn't be wrong for doing it. I genuinely can't tell you whether you should stay in or drop out, but if you stay in, know that you will never meet a single true friend from it, and aside from learning a few useful skills that you'll be able to learn in other ways, it'll never benefit you in any tangible way.

Age 12: This is the most miserable school year you will ever have, which probably doesn't sound encouraging, but think about it: Even if nothing changes in your timeline, once you get to the end of this school year, no other school year will ever be worse. So when things look hopeless, hold onto that. Also, I know dad sounds like a lot of fun nowadays, he sounds like he's changed, and doesn't hit you anymore, but don't believe a word of it. Nothing has changed, and he'll still hurt you, but he'll hurt your mind and your heart, which will take far, far longer to heal. Especially don't let him talk you into living with him or seeing him more than you see mom. But take that HTML book, it's the best thing he'll ever give you, and building websites will someday make you more money and bring you more success than anyone has ever thought you were capable of. The kids who make fun of you for it will never make even a third of what you'll be making 15 years from now. And if for some reason you didn't get an HTML book in this timeline, go get one and learn how to build a website. Seriously. Lastly, from this point on, think of school like a job; you're there to learn and perform tasks. It's not the end of the world if you don't have friends, you'll find them elsewhere.

Age 14: The internet is an amazing thing, isn't it? Cling to it, explore it, make friends, express yourself, be yourself. I know it hurts, but think back on what you liked to play with when you were little, before dad got into your head. You weren't wrong, back then, so think about that. At the same time, I know you're really lonely, and have basically only had one friend for the last three years. Church seems like a great place to find a community, and it is, but don't ignore your logical thoughts. Sadly, prayer makes no real tangible difference, and all those great people from church will either reject you or stop caring about you in roughly 5-7 years.

Age 15: So you finally got your wish, and you get to live with dad half-time. Not as fun as you imagined, is it? Take that as a sign, and go back to mom's. She'll gladly take you back, and everything dad says about her actually describes him. Unlike dad, mom can prove this, and she will, when you're older. Or just snoop and find the court files yourself. Also, if you live with mom, she'll give you a car, dad won't.

Age 16: Everything turned upside-down, dad kicked you out, and you're back with mom. I would've warned you not to let dad find out about that stuff, and not to do anything from his girlfriend's computer, but getting out of his house quickly was worth enduring that heartache. I will warn you, however, that from this point on, any contact you have with dad will escalate into creepyness pretty quickly, so try to keep him at arm's length. Also, don't write those letters to mom, the stories people tell you on DPF are total BS, and she doesn't want to know. Lastly, I know you want to latch onto a label, and declare it to the world, but don't be so hasty to set it in stone. As much as it hurts, think very carefully about when you were very young, the sorts of things you wanted to do and play with, and the people you felt most comfortable being around, even though they didn't always want you around. Then go research transgenderism, gender issues, and so forth. I know it seems freaky and weird, and it goes starkly against everything you think you know about how gender works, but seriously, just go read some gender studies books and articles with an open mind, and think about your childhood, before dad got into your head.

Age 17: Computers are great, but dad's success was 100% due to being in the right place at the right time. You're not, and everyone your age is being told that "there's lots of money in computers". Know what happens when an entire generation is told that? They all know everything you do about computers and networking, and most of them are better at it than you. So, it's useful information, but don't plan on being a network engineer at JMU fresh out of high school. Learning programming is where the money will be long-term, and you're already awesome at it. Computer science classes are boring, and they tell you that you have to do their work to be a programmer. But there's WAY more to programming than what they're showing you, and they're pretty much just focusing on the boring stuff that you already know, they're just dragging it out so much that it looks like foreign concepts. Find something to work on in your own time, like websites, and learn that way. At the same time, you're a lot more artistic and creative than anyone's ever given you credit for, and you know it, just look at what you do with Legos, and the elaborate imaginary worlds you spend time daydreaming. You just need to harness that creativity and put it into something other people can see. You should try photography, you'd be pretty good at it. Oh, and take college applications seriously, make sure to actually do them. You'll never get into JMU with that GPA, but you've got writing chops, use them to write an amazing essay. I guarantee /someone/ will take you. Oh, and go research transgenderism; notice that the few TG people you've met were weirdly compelling for reasons you couldn't explain, and your usual reaction of disgust felt somehow wrong? Take it as a sign.

Age 18: Didn't get that dream job right out of high school, huh? I know, it sucks a LOT, but ultimately, it's the way the world works. Not having a plan doesn't mean you'll beat the odds and not need one. Grandma is offering to help you with community college, take it! But don't worry too much about jumping straight into computer science stuff, they suck at teaching it and it's not that important anyway. Just stay in school, learn stuff, and earn those pieces of paper. Don't worry too much about the MCSE though, it'll never be as helpful as you think it will be. Also, research transgenderism, blah blah blah.

Age 19: The more gay people you meet, and the more relationships you're in, the more out of place you feel as a gay guy. Stop ignoring it.

Age 19 and up: Here's a copy of all my Livejournal posts I've made since I was your age.
1 howling || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
You may find yourself in another part of the world
You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?


Thanksgiving is near, and in past years, it's been a bittersweet occasion. In fact, in every year of my adult life, with the exception of one, reflecting on what I'm thankful for has mostly consisted of "well, I guess I have a car that runs, and I cherish my friends". And with the year that was an exception, in hindsight, it wasn't much of one. This year is different. Within the last month and a half, almost every facet of my life has changed dramatically, and if the way I feel now is any indication, it's going to feel weird for a long time to come.

The song I quoted above, "Once in a Lifetime" by Talking Heads (aka "the 'how did I get here?' song"), has always intrigued me, partly because I associate it very strongly with the movie Rockstar, a movie about a lower-middle-class kid from Pittsburgh who's suddenly catapulted into being the lead singer of a top-charting rock band in the 1980s with no lead-up. In my mind, this song has always struck me as a description of what it's like to win the lottery. I now know it doesn't take a windfall to feel that way. I currently find myself living in a beautiful luxury apartment, in a wealthy neighborhood, working a job that's as close to a dream job as I could ever hope for. I suddenly live a very urban, upscale lifestyle. I see my friends at least a couple times a week. And while I don't have as much discretionary income as people seem to think I do, I can't call myself "broke" anymore. To put it simply, in just one month, I've not only caught up to where I always hoped I'd be by my mid-twenties, I've achieved the sort of life that, at many points in my life, seemed as distant and impossible a dream as winning the lottery or joining Starfleet.

I can't help but contrast this with the recent past. One year ago, my gross annual income was a four-digit number, I lived in a large but run-down apartment in my mom's basement, 120 miles from the nearest friends, barely able to keep out of bankruptcy. And my mom is far from wealthy, so aside from free rent and utilities, and help during crises, I was mostly on my own, financially. Things started turning around just over a year ago, in December, when I started getting pretty steady work as an independant contractor, but it still wasn't great. I was able to save money, and quit the job that was making me miserable, but there was no lifestyle change associated with it. I still lived with mom, still in the middle of nowhere. Even a few months ago, while temporarily living with a dear friend, it didn't feel like much changed. That experience helped me get past the initial shock of living on my own, improved my telecommuting work ethic, and gave me what I needed to diminish my long-term depression. But I didn't truly move, I was still barely scraping by (especially when my company couldn't pay me regularly), and it felt like more of the same in a different area.

Coming back to Thanksgiving, all these changes have made me think a bit differently about the holiday. For the first time since high school, I have so much to be thankful for that thinking about it is overwhelming. It's a position I've never been in before. Even when I was a kid, I grew up in what could generously be described as a lower-middle-class household (more accurately, it was a household living way outside its means because there's simply no questioning the idea that a family should own a house in rural America), and my parents found creative ways to make us feel less poor, but throughout my entire life, we were undeniably in budgetary trouble.

I've been assured that I shouldn't feel guilty for my sudden success, but I still do, to some extent. Mostly because I know so many friends who have not been so lucky. And it really is luck. I'll admit to being talented at what I do, but it's luck that I happen to possess that particular talent, and that I happened to be able to look for work in a city where that talent is highly-paid and in high demand, and that I happened to be able to get to that city in time to start the job that was offered.

So this Thanksgiving, I'm thankful that after so many years earning wages below the poverty line, if any wages at all, I was able to make a direct leap into an upper-middle-class career. I'm thankful for the job that finally allows me to make a dent in nearly a decade of accumulated debt. I'm thankful that I no longer have to stress about how I will pay for basic necessities, or worry about being unable to pay my recurring bills. I'm thankful to be able to afford a nice, quality residence in a safe neighborhood, something that really shouldn't be a luxury in America.

But above everything else, I'm thankful for the many wonderful friends in my life. I literally would not be here today without the care of those around me, many of whom are now conveniently close, who have given me so much love and support through the rough times in my life. I hesitate to use this word, but I'm truly blessed by the amount of love surrounding me, love which gives meaning to everything else that's positive about my new career and lifestyle.

Thank you.
1 howling || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
I've considered getting a tablet on numerous occasions in the past, but whenever I get something new, I ask myself these questions:

-Will this fill a need or perform a task that my existing possessions can't fill or perform?
-Is filling that need or performing that task worth the cost of the item?

Whenever I've looked at tablets, the answer to question 1 has always been "not really", with question 2 being "not even close". This is because I've always worked from home full-time, and had access to my desktop PC pretty much 24/7. So, I don't own a tablet.

However, with the new job, and subsequent lifestyle changes, this no longer works well. I'm out of the house upwards of 9-10 hours a day now, without access to my desktop PC, and given the nature of what my agency does, I don't dare do anything personal from the network at work. This leaves my phone, which had previously been just an occasional gap-filler in my mobile communication needs. It sat on my desk without being touched for days at a time, and the only times I used it were for evenings out of the house, or weekend trips. And my phone fell significantly short compared to what I use my PC for, but it was ok for short periods. Nowadays, what used to be a relatively rare occurance - using my phone all day - is now my daily life, and it's rapidly highlighting just how much I hate doing anything on a smartphone. Call me weird, but I don't find my phone the slightest bit convenient for anything except phone calls and GPS. Twitter, email, financial data, IM conversations, time scheduling/calendar, note-taking, and general browsing are all things that I'm very unsatisfied using my phone for, largely because the ways I do those things on my PC are leaps-and-bounds more time-efficient than the way I do them on my phone.

What I really want is a Windows 7 tablet. I know Windows 8 is out now, or is about to be, but there's way too much about Windows 8 that I don't like. And Win8 RT is a dealbreaker due to its inability to run full desktop applications. I've looked at Android and iOS tablets, but since they're basically my phone in a larger form factor, they don't solve a single problem I have with my phone. It's not the small size that makes my phone unappealing, is that I can't find software I like to accomplish the tasks I need to. At best, I have software that's tolerable for short to moderate periods of time. In a number of cases (especially banking/finance), I can't find anything I can even tolerate.

I've had my eyes on the HP Slate for a very long time. With the Slate 2 available, I really like what I see in it. It's a low-power PC, true, but it would perform the tasks I want it to. I'm open to suggestions, though. Here's what I want/need, partly in case anyone has recommendations, partly to sort these things out myself.

Hardware Requirements
-Preferable small enough to fit my purse (the Slate does)
-Must have at least 5-6 hours of battery life under normal use
-Must have at least one USB host port

What I Want To Do With It
-For email, calendar, task management, and Twitter, I use Outlook 2010 very heavily. Few applications do any of those tasks better, or with as powerful organizational tools, and nothing does all of them. I've especially never seen a Twitter client I like better.
-I use Quicken to manage my finances, and all the other tools I've seen require the application's accounts to be tied directly to real accounts, making it difficult to track things like savings for varying purposes.
-I use Opera as my web browser, which is awesome because it runs on most platforms.
-I use Trillian for IMs, but mostly because it's the multi-protocol client I hate the least.
-I likely won't be doing any serious photo work on a tablet, but being able to open RAW files from my camera would be a big plus.
-I'm not interested in multimedia consumption capabilities. If I want to watch TV or a movie, or listen to music, I'll use a TV or stereo.
-Similarly, I'm not interested in games, although being able to run some of the really old ones I like would be a plus. I can imagine playing Sim City on the train home from work every day :-P
-Being able to do small-scale web work would be a HUGE advantage. It's something I've had a lot of trouble trying to do on Android. I wouldn't do any heavy-duty coding from a tablet, but being able to fix something and FTP it without jumping through a bunch of hoops would be nice.

Connectivity
I'm not getting a mobile data plan for this device. The available WWAN card is 3G-only, and I'm having trouble finding info about what carriers it's compatible with. Plus, adding a data plan for something like this to my existing cellphone bill would be around $40-50/month extra. So wifi-only is quite fine.
2 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
I've completed my first week at my new job, and it's fantastic. My coworkers are insufferable conservative dicks, but aside from that, it's as close to a dream job as I could realistically hope for.

I've moved into my new apartment, and while I'm still setting things up, it's pretty awesome. A luxurious condo within easy everyday walking distance of a subway station and a classy shopping center. The price is a bit high relative to my income at the moment, but within reach and, to me, worth paying for.

So, things are pretty freaking awesome right now. But I'm discontent.

A big part of it is that Foxcub spent the week with me, after doing way more than his fair share of work to help me move, and he left last night. So I'm a bit lonely right now, which has put me in a contemplative mood. But on top of that, I've been thinking a lot about how much my life has changed in such a short time, and I'm not sure how to process it.

I grew up in a small town, where the median income is and has always been rather low. I lived my entire life there, up to this point. When I was in school, even long before income inequality really became an obvious thing, there was a pretty stark contrast between student income brackets. Being in the middle of nowhere, no one was truly super-wealthy, but there were a lot of kids whose parents were doctors, lawyers, professors, and other upper-middle-class professions with financially secure households. True poverty wasn't super-common (it's Virginia, not Michigan), but the majority of kids were from blue-collar lower-income families. There was almost no middle ground between these two groups, but there were a few such kids/families. I was one of them, as well as one of my closest friends at the time.

After high school, those income differences continued to shape futures. The richer kids, whose families usually had funds saved up for full or partial higher education, went to four-year universities. A few who didn't fit that description also went to universities, with the help of student loans. But all of the kids I went to high school with who went to a four-year university had one thing in common, every single one of them came from a family where the parent(s) had university degrees. As for everyone who didn't come from such a family? Some attended the local community college for awhile, but relatively few graduated. Most attended vocational schools for skilled labor certifications/training. Some never went beyond high school. In my case, my family wasn't as poor as some, but we were hardly doing well, and with no one in my direct family tree (parents, grandparents, siblings) having a university degree, I didn't really have the proper guidance to pursue it in a way that would lead to success. I went to the local community college, and dropped out after one semester.

So where is everyone now? Almost everyone I graduated with who achieved a university diploma now lives in a major metro area (most of them here in the DC area), working an upper-middle-class career (or being a stay-at-home parent in an upper-middle-class household), like their parents did. Those who didn't are, for the most part, still in Harrisonburg or similar towns in VA, with careers ranging from skilled labor, to lower management, to entry-level service positions and dead-end high school jobs, to long-term unemployment. There's a little bit of middle ground, a handful of teachers and such with a middle-middle-class lifestyle, but they're a very small number.

What's truly interesting is that, out of a graduating class of ~250, only one person has made any sort of meaningful income or lifestyle upgrade. Me. I didn't go to a university, I don't have a degree, I really don't have any specialized certifications, and I spent my entire life living in Harrisonburg, working dead-end jobs. Statistically, I should still be doing that right now. And while I've spent most of my adult life pushing for this, I'm not sure how to process the fact that I actually did it.

I've been down this road before, in 2008 when I got my first real web developer gig. In hindsight, it wasn't as great as I thought it was, and part of my problem is that my employer and I had very different views of what sort of job it was. But I felt like this back then, and never fully sorted out why. And really, not much changed back then. I travelled a little more, went to a con I normally wouldn't, and bought a little more stuff, but overall, my lifestyle was the same. I still lived in Harrisonburg. This time, there's no question about it, and no qualifying statements required, I have a truly good job, with a massive upgrade in living conditions. And that feels weird to think about.

I'm aware that I'm in a fairly unique position, in the sense that despite not attending college long enough to matter, and having no formal training or certification in anything remotely relevant to a modern workplace (I have A+ and Microsoft certifications several generations outdated), I was able to take a hobby of mine (building websites) and develop it into a marketable skill on my own. And I was able to do it well enough to impress a relatively prestigious employer. From that perspective, I have to admit I'm pretty proud of this, a pride that carries over into my work. It takes a lot of work to prove you're a competent programmer, or a competant designer, without degrees in each field. I did both simultaneously, and for the first time in my life, I feel truly validated, like my skills really are as strong as the fluff on my resume says.

But when I look at how much of this was pure luck, I start to feel guilty. Among my current peers and friends, I know a staggering number of talented artists in the same boat (developing their craft outside the system), who deserve this success, but have not achieved it. Among my high school classmates, I remember a staggering number of people with dreams of moving up in the world, many of whom had more clearly-defined goals than I did and more tangible motivation, and most of them are in Harrisonburg, toiling away at minimum-wage jobs worse than my terrible jobs (this is why I've been referring to Harrisonburg as "the town where dreams go to die" lately), having given up those dreams years ago.

I don't know how to end this post. I don't know how I'm supposed to feel about this.
13 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
For several years now, I've talked about how badly I want to get out of this middle-of-nowhere town, but I've never taken a whole lot of pro-active action toward that goal. I've constantly been waiting for some golden opportunity, and/or a perfect financial situation, but after so many years of depressed stagnation, I've finally assembled the motivation to make my own opportunity. But I can't do it alone. I'm not asking for money, I have plenty of that, but if you live in the DC metro area (northern Virginia, DC, or Maryland), I need your help.

My big plan since about October has been to save up enough of a nest egg to survive without income for a couple months, to allow me to job-search without a temp job getting in the way, and without being tethered to where I currently live. In order to make this work, however, I need a place to stay in the area while I job search, and if I get a job, while I hunt for my own apartment. Unfortunately, while I have plenty of talent in my field, I'm a bit lacking in experience to back it up, so job-hunting probably won't be as simple as sending out a round of resumes and scooping up interviews. Since my nest egg will last a few months at best, rather than a year or more, I really don't want to sign a lease, because I want to be able to fall back on my current living situation if I have to, without increasing my debts.

When I Need This
Since I'll be picking up my Rover from the mechanic next week, and I'm currently training a replacement for my paper route, I'm looking to get out of here and start job searching within the next 2-3 weeks.

What I Need
I'm pretty much just looking for glorified crash space. I'm not bringing much stuff, preferably not more than I can carry in one trip of my truck. But, I do need a little bit more than just a place to sleep, so here's a quick list:

-A place to sleep, whether it's a couch, or a floor spot for my twin-size air mattress.
-A place to hang up work/interview clothes; not necessarily a closet, a hook on a wall would do the trick. I don't have much.
-Access to a kitchen, to store and prep my food and drinks. I won't leech off your food, that'd be terribly rude, but my budget won't allow me to eat out constantly. My culinary skills are very limited, so I won't be whipping up anything super-fancy.
-A wired ethernet connection for my VOIP phone line, since it's my primary phone line for conducting business, and my cellphone plan doesn't have a ton of minutes. Plus, my cellphone's ringer is incapable of waking me up.
-A place to park my car. It's a compact SUV, so it doesn't need special parking or anything, but I know some urban apartments have somewhat restrictive parking policies, so it's worth mentioning.

That covers the crucial necessities, but there's one other thing. While I can theoretically work from my laptop, it's much easier to work from my desktop PC, so if at all possible, I'd prefer to have a spot to set it up. I have a compact, portable desk to use with it, about 4' x 2.5', or it can go on a table or something, it's a small case.

As far as a time prediction, I'm looking at a maximum of two to three months. Financially, I could last longer than that, but that's the most I'm willing to go before I have to give up and try to find more temp work back in mom's town. It could be less, but it definitely won't be longer; that's why I want to do things this way in the first place, so I don't end up in a situation where I'm leeching off friends or unable to support myself. That sort of situation is unacceptable to me.

It's also worth mentioning that I won't be sitting around playing video games all day while pretending to find work, in typical furry roommate horror-story fashion. I'm serious about this, and I'll have plenty to do. In addition to some projects that will help my portfolio, and the typical job stuff (writing letters, finding jobs, adjusting resumes), I plan/hope to maintain a contractor relationship with a couple companies I already do some work for here in Harrisonburg, so I'll have a bit of telecommuting to do. Plus, I don't even really play games that much.

What I Can Offer
For starters, I'm a pretty low-impact roommate. I don't smoke, drink, or do drugs, and while I tend to stay up late, I can be very quiet at night. I won't hog your internet connection with downloads. I'm not the most organized person, but I absolutely can't stand actual messes/grime (leftover food, scattered trash, piles of laundry, etc), so while I'm a little prone to clutter, I wouldn't call myself messy. And, I won't be camping out in your house 24/7; between other friends in the area, job-hunting, and my innate desire to spend as little time indoors as possible, I'll have other places to spend my time.

Unfortunately, my nest-egg budget doesn't really allow much for rent. It's taken months to save up enough pennies to make this a reality, having to pay a full share of rent would drastically reduce the amount of time I can spend job-searching before I'd have to give up and return to mom's house with empty pockets. But, I will offer this: If I successfully find a job in the area, I will pay for the time I spent crashing with you.

In lieu of rent, I'll happily help you out in other areas; cleaning, running errands, pet care, etc. Just let me know what I can do for you.

That said, there is one living expense I'm planning on. For a number of reasons, I take very long showers, as much out of necessity as luxury. And, the aforementioned desktop PC draws more than a trivial amount of electricity. So, I will gladly pay a fair split of water and electrical bills for the time I spend living with you; whether I simply cover the above-average difference, or we do an even split of some sort, I'm sure we can work something out.

In the event of a financial emergency on my part (medical expense, major car problem, etc), I'll simply pick up and go back to Harrisonburg.



If you might be able to help me out, it would really mean a lot to me. This is a major step toward getting my life in order and getting my career back on track, and I'm more than ready for it. So, if you live within a reasonable commuting distance of DC, and have a little extra space for a puppy, please contact me so we can work out some details.

Thank you :-)
7 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Recap: I own a 2003 Land Rover Freelander SE3, which is a 2-door half-convertible SUV. The roof it came with is the standard hard-top, which is awesome because it's well-insulated, but it weighs over 60 pounds and it's basically the entire rear quarter of the truck, so removing it is a pain, especially by myself.

Well, yesterday was a pretty beautiful day, and the urge to drive around with no roof was particularly strong, so I decided to take the roof off in the afternoon, in time for a bunch of afternoon errands. Unfortunately, despite the air temperature being relatively decent, it was a beautiful sunny day, and the removable part of the roof is made of aluminum. Painted flat black. And the back of the truck faces southeast when parked. So, it was hot enough to cause genuine burns if I handled the outside of it for too long. Ouch!

I managed to get it inside my apartment, and I have a perfect spot for it, between the couch and the wall next to the door. Except, with the roof so hot, I couldn't get a proper grip on it to get it into place. When I initially set it down, it was too close to the door for the door to close, and I couldn't get my hands on it long enough to move it to the side without scratching it. Finally, out of desperation, I grabbed one of the clamps to use as a handle; I wasn't planning to put a full amount of force on it, I just needed something to hold onto, to help lift and slide. Unfortunately, I didn't make it that far; it seems the clamps are held on with a flimsy plastic hinge, and the material is heat-sensitive (which explains why the roof rattles so badly on a hot day). The simple act of pulling on it in the same direction it's pulled on when the roof is attached caused the clamp to snap off like a toothpick.

Crap.

Now, if this were any other vehicle, my first step would be to check used parts dealers, Ebay, and other assorted places. Even for a Land Rover, a pretty oddball/exotic make in the US, parts usually can be found if you're an enthusiast and know where to look. However, the Freelander SE3 was an extremely rare version; less than 2000 were ever made, worldwide, and while I can't find exact figures, I know it was a popular option in Australia, so I'd guess that maybe half of that 2000 made it to the US. If that. On top of that, anyone parting out an SE3 model isn't going to want to disassemble the roof, since that would kinda make it useless. Sure enough, a cursory search yielded absolutely zero results, so I called the dealership.

I've dealt with the dealership before, with my old Discovery, and it was never a particularly useful experience. They're the most friendly car dealership I've ever had the pleasure of working with, awesome customer service, but their prices are so nightmarish that even BMW owners would make rape jokes about it. This is the same dealership that wanted over $800 for an alternator, $350 for a windshield wiper switch, and $250 to install a pair of headlight bulbs. So, for a rather complex roof latch on a vehicle that even makes Land Rover enthusiasts say "WTF is that thing??", I was expecting a pretty painful price quote, if they could get it at all.

The parts guy I talked to was awesome, but as I expected, he had no idea what I was talking about, and hadn't seen one of these in-person since they were new (Fun fact: Land Rover Richmond has only ever had 1 Freelander SE3, the showroom demo). So, while it took over an hour to find the roof clamp in their catalog (and confirm that it was the part I was looking for, thanks to Rover's cryptic component names and diagrams), we did eventually track it down, and by some miracle, they even had one in their warehouse (the alternative is to have it ship from England, which can take weeks, as I discovered with the aforementioned wiper switch). Yay! I went ahead and ordered it, and it should be here around Wednesday. The price? $100. Not that I could afford $100 right now, but I was able to borrow enough to cover it. And, really, that's an acceptable price. Still kinda high for a plastic lever-thingy, but for a dealer part that I can install myself and that I can count on receiving in a few business days, it's not too awful.

I initially thought this meant I'd have no roof until Wednesday, which was rather nice today, and I figured I could cover it in a tarp if needed. But, after examining the clamps in greater detail, it looked like I might be able to get the broken one to close; all that silly-looking design complexity turned out to be useful after all! I figured it was worth a try, since we'll have rain on Tuesday and painfully-hot temperatures until then, so with my mom's generous help, we put the roof on and tried to clamp it down. Nearly an hour of struggling later, I finally got the darn thing to latch, yay! Definitely still getting the replacement clamp, I like taking the roof off too much to deal with that every time, but it'll hold until I get the replacement.

All this got me thinking about the soft-top kit again. It was an option that the previous owner of my truck either didn't get (I don't think she even removed the roof the whole time she owned it), or kept and sold separately when she traded it in. Either way, I don't have one, and with the rarity of the vehicle combined with the initial expense of the soft top, they're essentially impossible to find. When they do come up, they typically cost upwards of $500. But, it's tempting, especially if I do end up keeping this truck long-term (it's my current plan). The hard top is quite nice, and very comfy; it's well-insulated, so it's considerably quieter than a convertible rightfully should be. However, it's such a pain to remove, and it obviously can't be stored in the truck, so I can only take it off when I'm at home and have a safe place to put it. If I want to go out to the woods with the top open, for example, I have to leave the roof at home. And, even if I had triple the strength I do, it'd still be near-impossible to install it myself, due to its bulk. With as much as I love opening the roof, the soft top would be really fun, even with as complex as it is. Plus, I could sell it later for probably what I paid for it or more. I just don't have that kind of money right now, or likely anytime soon.

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Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Who was the worst boss you’ve ever had? Did you ever get your revenge?


I was going to make a list, because I've had a number of supervisors who did some pretty crappy things, but only one really stands out. When I worked at a small local ISP, my boss there seemed, on the surface, to be a pretty cool guy. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case.

-He was a massive hypocrite about work ethic; he was either never there or locked in his office to play games or run his porn business(es), while he'd get pissed off at me if I spent a couple minutes looking out the window or did anything on our computers that was even remotely non-work-related, no matter how minor. Even the fast-paced temp job I had this winter didn't mind if I took a couple minutes to rest and look at a news site or something. Oh, and did I mention that we were always completely dead, seldom even having a computer on the bench to work on or a phone call? It was incredibly frustrating to have hours upon hours of downtime and, at the same time, to be yelled at if I had downtime.

-He was a big-time voyeur, to rather creepy levels. What I knew about was that he had a camera in the back office for the specific purpose of keeping an eye on me (I was the only employee), and that he monitored my internet usage. What I didn't know until after the company folded was that he had a number of hidden cameras throughout the office, including in the bathroom. I imagine he got more than he bargained for with that one. The phones were tapped, so he also probably got some interesting conversations with my boyfriends over the course of working there. And, I'm pretty sure he cyber-stalked me; in fact, years later, it wouldn't surprise me if he's reading this now.

-The company couldn't afford to fix/replace a cheap window-unit air conditioner to keep the server equipment from overheating (the office was over a hundred degrees one day when I came to work), yet we almost purchased a large plasma TV for the sole purpose of sticking it in the window to play a PowerPoint presentation for advertising. And this was in 2005, when plasma TVs were pretty pricey.

-He drove the company into the ground, through a combination of mis-management, personal use of business assets (like hosting his gaming clan servers and sex toy sales sites on the company's OC3 lines), and outright embezzlement/tax fraud. For about my last 1-2 months, there were a number of occasions when I was genuinely uncertain whether I'd get a paycheck.

On the plus side, the company's main investor later became one of my most lucrative (though frustrating) tech support clients for my personal side-business. In the process of the company going under, I also managed to snatch up a number of our clients for one-off work shortly afterwards.

==================

I do realize I've been neglecting this, and I apologize. I plan to start writing more, it's just been difficult to find the motivation, since I usually spend upwards of an hour on a post. But, Twitter is insufficient for much detail, and I loathe Facebook, so I imagine I'll start posting again soon.

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7 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
A bit of a recap: I'm a huge fan of the Twitter Ponies. If you're not familiar with them, they're basically a group of RPers who do an exceptional job playing the day-to-day adventures of the cast of My Little Pony. Such an exceptional job, in fact, that even knowing full-well that they're just regular people behind the characters (and even knowing a few of them outside their characters), interacting with them feels like I'm really interacting with the MLP characters. Which is just awesome, on so many levels.

That magical interaction leads to some special moments, too, which I've posted about before. The special moment I posted about in that linked entry? It happened again, on a larger scale :-)

As I mentioned in my last post, I was in the ER at the local hospital again recently, and I was there for a considerable about of time, almost 14 hours total. My phone died within the first 2 hours of waiting, so I was left completely disconnected from Twitter, and unable to tell anyone how I was doing.

When I came home, and caught up on all the Twitter posts I'd missed, I was treated to a wonderful surprise. In addition to all the sweet messages from all my friends, my dear friend Syme did something else, he informed Twilight Sparkle on Twitter that I was in the hospital. What happened next was both overwhelming and touching beyond words. Not only did Twilight send a get-well message, but a ton of the other pony characters did too! The outpouring of support made me cry happy tears for quite some time, and to read through them still makes me tear up. It was very special receiving in-character well-wishings from the entire cast of a show that's very dear to my heart, but beyond that, a fairly large group of people who barely know me took time out of their RP project to tell me to get well soon. As cheesey as it sounds, friendship really is magic :-)

Here are the messages they sent, in the order I received them.Collapse )

There were more than this, mostly out-of-character messages, and they kept cheering me on all the way through Friday's surgery. I simply can't find words to express how moved I am by all this. These ponies really are special, in so many ways, and I'm rather honoured that they took the time to give me so much love when I was sick.

Thank you, ponies :-)

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15 howlings || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
On a lighter note, here's a conversation from a forum I admin that was rather amusing. It's a furry site, and it's somewhat traditional to have "Species Change Week" at some point in the spring, where everyone picks a different fursona species for a week. For example, last time they did it, I was an otter :-P

Anyway, a thread came up asking when it would be, and no one had any ideas. I generally don't even participate, but one of the other admins jumped into the thread, so I figured I'd let him do it. Having just seen a bunch of My Little Pony episodes, I was feeling a little silly, so I posted this:

I, Princess Softpaw, decree that the lion known as Spaz shall be in charge of Species Change Week. :-P

Thankfully, he's a pony fan too, and didn't miss a beat:

Dear Princess Softpaw,

Should I run a poll to assign the date? Or just go BADASS ADMIN and assign it myself?

Always, your faithful student,
Spaz.


Not sure if we'll keep this going, but I wanted to preserve it, because I was very amused. And I posted this:

My faithful student Spaz,

I trust your judgement, do as you see fit. Report the details back to me when you've come to a conclusion.

-Princess Softpaw

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Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
I've been wanting to post for days now, but I really haven't had the time. I still don't, in fact, but I wanted to get *something* up. So, here's a teaser of the post I'll be writing soon :-)

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1 howling || Howl At Me
natashasoftpaw
Everyone who owns a car has their own limit of how much car maintenance they're willing/able to do on their own. Some people prefer to do everything on their own, and will only go to a mechanic for problems of the "engine falling out" calibre. Others couldn't find the oil dipstick if it were bright orange with a big "check oil here" sticker; in fact, that's how the oil dipstick is usually marked in a car. And, as someone with decent knowledge of car maintenance but little practical experience (I don't like getting dirty, eww!), I don't criticise anyone who prefers to let others do the work on their cars. Self-maintenance is awesome, and I have unending respect for those who can be their own mechanic (I hope to join such people someday), but it requires considerable passion and effort, and for many people, that outweighs the cost savings. And that's just peachy.

However.

Anyone who takes a car to a mechanic for a dead bulb, or even allows a mechanic to fix a dead bulb when the car's there for something else, is indefensibly throwing away money. In 90% of cars, it's the easiest possible thing to fix, ranking somewhere between checking the fuel gauge and checking the tires. You don't need tools to do it, detailed instructions are in the owner's manual (along with a comprehensive list of the bulb types used in the car), or the internet, or a book/computer in the store, and thanks to bulb base/socket designs, you usually can't do it wrong. Even headlight bulbs, which are fragile due to the high gas pressures used, are usually pretty easy; just make sure to write "Don't touch the glass!" fifty times before starting. It's like taking your car to a mechanic to have the tire pressures checked, it's a stupid waste of money that really can't be defended with the usual time/effort/eww-dirt/skill reasons.

And for the other 10% of cars, that require tools and/or strange hand contortions to replace some of their bulbs? It's still easier than changing a tire, and as I said above, detailed instructions are always in the owner's manual. So there's no excuse there either.

This thought brought to you by the fact that my car needs a new reverse bulb, and I'm glad I noticed it before taking it for inspection tomorrow, because I can replace it for $2, while my mechanic would charge upwards of $35 (minimum .5 hour labour, plus markup on the bulb) for it.

On a related note, if you buy a car, the first thing you need to do once you get home (or wherever you're going from the lot) is read the owner's manual cover to cover. If you already own a car, and haven't read the manual, go get it and read it tonight. No excuses. I don't care if you've had the car for ten years, or if the dealer spent an hour telling you how the various doohickeys work. If you don't read the manual for your car, it's my opinion that you don't deserve to even own it, because the manual contains every detail of every feature in the car. It also contains basic maintenance information, operating tips (especially for vehicles with unique capabilities, like 4WD or adjustable suspensions), and other details that you may not have even thought about. "Read The F***ing Manual" really shouldn't be a meme, it's truly important advice for everything from a frying pan to a Ferrari.

For example, my sister bought a 2004 Grand Prix a couple years ago, and even though it's a relatively ordinary sedan, it has a pretty nice set of features, including things that weren't in her previous car. Plus, "Read The Manual" is my personal motto nowadays, especially for cars. So, when I delivered her car, I grabbed the owner's manual and strongly encouraged her to read it. She never did. So, in a car she's owned for two years, she can't figure out how to turn on the fog lights, fold down the rear seats (she didn't even know it was possible, but I did, because /I/ read her car's manual), or do anything in the little computer display thingy that every car has now. It took months for her to figure out how to open the trunk without the remote. And I love her, but after this much time, I have no sympathy whatsoever for her lack of knowledge of the features of her own car.

So please, go get the book out of your glove box, get comfy, and have a nice read. You just might learn something about the engineering marvel that moves you around. And if not? At least you'll know for certain that you already knew everything there was to know about it.

Oh, and replace your own bulbs, it's not worth paying someone else to do it, ever.

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9 howlings || Howl At Me