Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Debt Free For Real!

Well, it's official. I just sent in the final payment on my mortgage and now I am completely, 100% debt free. Let the celebration begin!

And yes... to be honest, I did go out and spend some money on myself in celebration. I bought myself a nice new winter cycling jacket.

I was getting by with my layering system, but you know, layers do have some drawbacks when it comes to active sports. I was finding that in order to stay warm enough on chilly rides, I was ending up with 3-4 layers of bulk, which were a bit restricting in terms of movement.

I was starting to feel like the kid in the movie "A Christmas Story" who is bundled in so many layers that he literally cannot move!

Anyhow, my new jacket is designed specifically for cycling - all the blue parts are wind-proof and waterproof with an extra layer of insulation where you need it most. The black parts, while still insulated are stretchy and breathable, so I'm hoping it will keep me warm without all of the bulk and sweat buildup.

In keeping with that theme, I also bought myself a Smartwool (merino wool) base layer.

This one was a bit of a sentimental purchase since my mom bought me one last Christmas that I ended up having to return because it was the wrong size. At the time I really, REALLY needed a new pair of bike shorts, so I got them instead of getting the Smartwool in my size, but ever since I've sorta regretted it, and found myself searching in vain for one at the thrift stores.

Guess I figured this was a good time to honor my mom's gift and buy one that actually fits.

Anyhow, I'm pretty psyched about having the mortgage paid off. I'll still have to pay taxes and insurance, but that works out to less than $125/month. And just the peace of mind of being out of the banking system is HUGE for me.

I know that home ownership often gets a bad rap in the minimalist/simplicity community, but I really think that buying my house was one of the best financial decisions I ever made.

Of course, I did luck out with the timing of it all. I bought right before the housing boom, and I shopped around for over a year until I found a great deal on a house with plenty of room for me and the kitties.

Within a year of the purchasing my home, the value tripled. My initial loan was at 9%, but when the rates fell I refinanced and put the monthly savings into extra principal payments.

Those payments, plus a few mortgage Christmas checks from my dad, allowed me to get the 30 year loan paid off in about 17 years. And even with the extra principal amount added in, my monthly payments were still less than what it would have cost to rent a studio apartment!

And while it's true that there are upkeep costs inherent in owning a home, it's not like those costs don't exist when you're renting - they're just built into your monthly payments, and you have no control over how and when those expenditures are made.

Since I've been willing to do most of the work myself, and have a high tolerance for things like avocado green shag carpeting and plastic bathroom tiles, I've been able to keep those costs relatively low.

I'm certainly not saying that everyone should go out and buy a house, but for me at least, it was one of the big keys to achieving financial freedom.

So what do you think? Is home ownership a good or bad thing for you?

Sunday, October 27, 2013

To Halloween or Not to Halloween

So Halloween is fast approaching, and I'm in a quandary.

I used to LOVE Halloween. It was fun to see all the kids in costume, to get to feel all benevolent giving out treats and to just generally enjoy the season.

But as time has rolled on I've become more and more ambivalent about the waste and unhealthiness of this holiday. I mean, I want to support the kids and all, but is giving them toxic treats wrapped in plastic really the best way to do that?

For a while, I decided the thing to do was to give little toys instead of candy. So I went online and bought a bunch of small party favor type toys. But, they're all made in China and 99% of them are plastic... is that really better? Plus, the kids really want candy.

Then I though I'd buy bulk candy wrapped in foil. But it's hard to find, and still, do I really want to contribute to the childhood obesity epidemic?

But the thing that's really bothering me is much more fundamental. It's the way trick-or-treating is done these days. It used to be that trick-or-treating was an opportunity to be neighborly and get to see all of the neighborhood kids having fun.

But these days, there aren't that many kids left on my block, and the past few years I've been the only house with the porch light on.

But that hasn't meant that I've seen any fewer trick-or-treaters. In fact, each year there are more and more. But it's not because neighborhood kids are walking further, the parents just load them all into the SUV and drive them around the neighborhood to houses with the porch light on.

So I'll get upwards of 100 trick-or-treaters, but only one or two are kids I recognize. The rest seem to be shipped in from who knows where. The cars pull up, and about 10-12 kids pile out - they knock on the door demanding candy and then pile back into the car.

Is this just me, or does this seem like it's not really in keeping with the spirit of the holiday? I suppose it's hard to blame them when there are so few houses giving out candy, but still... it's not like the kids who show up don't already have several pounds of candy in their loot bags.

And then as the evening progresses, the trick-or-treat thugs start to show up.

These are the guys who are WAY too old to be out there, and look a lot more like gang members than children. I mean seriously guys, if you're 6 inches taller than me, I think it's time to give it up.

But even more disturbing, each year I get a few adult trick-or-treaters. Some of them don't even bother to dress up, they just knock on the door and ask for candy. Part of me wonders if they're homeless or what.

Add to all that the fact that the whole event is quite stressful on the cats since they have to be locked in the basement, and Sputty's been having a rough week, I'm leaning heavily toward boycotting the whole thing.

I did buy a bit of chocolate so I'd have something to give out if some of the younger neighborhood kids show up before dark, but I think that I'm just gonna leave the porch light off and hide out in the back part of the house.

So what do you think? Am I being a total grinch? Do you participate in trick-or-treating? How do you deal with all of the issues I just complained about? I'd love to hear how other people deal with this holiday.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Returning to the Land of the Living

We had a beautiful little service for my mom last Saturday. We lucked out with the weather and got a gorgeous sunny day sandwiched between two little snow storms. The little mortuary chapel was actually freezing cold, so we moved the whole thing outside into the sunshine among the aspen leaves and mountains.

There are still a few details to wrap up, but my life is slowly returning to normal.

And that means that I'm back in the saddle again!

OK... more like this saddle...

At any rate, this week has been picture perfect for bike riding - sunny days with very little wind and temps in the 60's, so CatMan and I have been out making the most of it before the forecasted storm arrives on Monday.

Tuesday's Bike Ride. View from the C-470 bike trail
You might remember a while ago I wrote a post about Denver in which I talked about Denver's big flood back in the 1960's. After that flood, the city built three flood control dams, and also built a series of bike paths along all of the rivers and streams in the area.

So CatMan and I often ride to one of the three dams. Today we chose the Bear Creek dam.

View from the top of Bear Creek Dam
Bear Creek suffered a bit of flooding back in the September deluge, but it didn't really make the news. This is probably because the dam did it's job and protected the city stupendously. However, the reservoir reached the highest level since the dam was built, and they're still slowly draining it back down to normal levels. They've finally re-opened the roads through the park so we could ride through it.

Bear Creek Reservoir before the flood
So we crested the dam, and cruised down the hill into the reservoir basin. The scene that greeted us was bizarre and amazing. The road we were riding on had been under about 15-20 feet of water, and all of the grass, tree leaves and vegetation that was under water had been killed, leaving an eerie "bathtub line" across the entire landscape.

See the line where the leaves are yellow and green above, but brown below.

In this one you can see horizontal lines on the trees showing the different levels where the water was.

I'm not sure that the photos really do it justice, but it was one of the stranger things I've ever seen, and gave me new respect for the amount of water that fell, and new thanks for that dam! It was sorta funny actually, because every cyclist that came down the hill had the same exact reaction and pretty soon there was a whole gaggle of us standing there in awe taking pictures.

A truly surreal landscape
So, we rode through Bear Creek park, up through the town of Morrison and ended up at Red Rocks. It was incredibly beautiful.

I have to say that the entire day left me with a feeling of awe and gratitude. I guess recent events have made me just a bit more thankful for my life, and a bit more committed to enjoying it thoroughly.

I feel so blessed to lead the life that I do, to live in such a beautiful location, and to enjoy a healthy (if a bit tired) body that lets me get out to enjoy it all. So tell me, what are you grateful for today?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Plot Thickens (yuk, yuk)

So, life in funeral planning land has been, um.... interesting.

My brother flew out to my mom's place in Washington state and started going through all of her papers. After a few days when he had turned up nothing, we decided that we'd just go ahead with funeral arrangements here in Denver.

Since the circumstances of her passing pretty much mandated cremation, we'd had that done, and now just had to figure out where to hold services and whether to inter the remains, scatter the ashes, or what.

I was all about scattering - returning her to the earth from whence we came and all that, but my brother really wanted a place where he could visit and lay flowers. So finally I came up with a good compromise - a little cemetery just outside of town in a rustic location with a beautiful view. They have a "scattering garden" where you can scatter cremated remains and then have her name and information engraved on a plaque nearby.

It was even within the same network as the funeral home in the neighborhood that we grew up in where she'd purchased the pre-paid funeral plan, so everything could be transferred there.

Plus, a dear friend of hers lives nearby and volunteered to host a reception following the service. Everything was falling into place, so I made all the arrangements and had an appointment to go sign the papers and everything the next day.

Figuring everything was set, I went out to a party with some friends. When I got home late, there was a message on the machine from my brother saying, "Wait, I just uncovered a file with all of her funeral pre-planning stuff! Turns out she did own a cemetery plot. Call me tomorrow and I'll fill you in."


So, all night I'm tossing and turning wondering where this plot could be, and what kind of a wrench this is gonna throw into things. There were people coming from out of town who had already made travel plans, and I'd put a week into figuring out all of the details. I mean, she's already been cremated. Can you inter cremated remains in a burial plot? My mind was reeling.

Please... I thought, please let it be in Denver. That would have made the most sense since she was living in Denver when the funeral arrangements were made. But we'd checked every cemetery in the area, and turned up nothing. But where else could it possibly be? We'd checked cemeteries in Washington state, and every city up and down the east coast where she'd lived over the past 30 years and turned up nothing.

Finally, morning came and I called my brother to get the answer. Are you ready for this? Turns out the plot's located in.... drum roll please...

Salt Lake City, Utah!

Huh? Now, my mother's mother was from Salt Lake, but the family hasn't lived there for generations. I was sure we had some Mormon ancestors in the area, but to my knowledge the LDS church wasn't something that my mother ever identified with. Why on earth would she want to be buried there?

Soooo... now what? My brother said that there were also written plans saying she wanted the services to be held in Denver, but then wanted to be shipped to Salt Lake and interred there. He even had an address where she wanted the services to be held.

So he reads me the address, and then there's a long pause. Isn't that... we both say in unison, where the Villa Italia shopping mall used to be? Now, mom loved to shop, but seriously? She wanted her services held at a shopping mall?

"No wait!" I said, the shopping mall is on South XYZ Boulevard, this address is on North XYZ (the neighborhood we grew up in was right on the dividing line where the addresses shift from north to south, a source of endless mail delivery problems during my youth.)

So I go look at Mapquest to see what's at that spot, and it wasn't much better... it's a WalMart parking lot!

But wait... these plans were made 30 years ago, and the WalMart wasn't built yet. Maybe there used to be a church there or something. So we're both racking our brains.

I had a paper route right across the street from that address and I sure as heck didn't remember there being a church there. Then all of a sudden it hits us both. "It was Peterson's Turkey Farm!"

OK, now my mother had an offbeat and bizarre sense of humor. She delighted in playing practical jokes like feeding us dog food or sending us off to school with cardboard sandwiches on April Fool's Day, but really? She's gonna leave us final instructions to hold her funeral at a turkey farm and then be laid to rest among her Mormon ancestors?

I have nothing against Mormons, mind you, it just all seemed a bit strange and improbable. I mean, this is the woman who told me that God and Santa Clause were equivalent concepts, and regularly hauled me off to consult with her psychic and have my tarot cards read.

And I know she was an animal lover but, a turkey farm? Seriously? By now the gears in my brain were starting to send off some serious smoke.

My brother said there was more, but he was late to an appointment with the probate lawyer and didn't have time to paw through it all, so he sent me the folder via overnight mail, and I got to spend yet another sleepless night wondering what in God's name my mother could have been thinking.

Was she some sort of a closet Mormon? Was she having a secret love affair with old man Peterson? Did she have a turkey fetish? Was it all just a cruel joke?

Well, to make a long story short, it turns out that she inherited the plot. Apparently her mother's family weren't just Mormons, they were Mormon Pioneers - these were the folks who made the overland journey with Brigham Young himself and pretty much founded Salt Lake City.

Turns out there's an entire section of the Salt Lake City cemetery reserved for her family, and only people within the direct bloodline can be buried there. It goes back about 5 generations. My guess is that her desire to be interred there had more to do with her love of family history than it did with any connection to the Mormon faith.

As for the turkey farm, turns out my brother couldn't read Mom's handwriting. What he thought was an 8 was actually an ampersand, and the address she provided was the location of the funeral home where she'd made the arrangements.

While the idea of her being a turkey-loving closet Mormon in love with old man Peterson is certainly more... um... colorful, this makes a heckuva lot more sense.

The folks at the cemetery have been very understanding, and even hooked me up with a funeral home in Salt Lake to handle the interment. So we're going ahead with the service as planned, and then they'll just ship the remains out there and the urn can be interred in the family plot.

Now I get to have the joy of coordinating all of this with no less than three funeral homes - the one out in Washington where her remains are, the one in Denver where we're holding the service, and the one in Salt Lake where she'll be interred.

I guess I have to look at it this way - Mom loved to travel and loved a good joke, so I guess even in death she'll get to fly all over the country, and she certainly got the last laugh!