1/31/09 - Dish Network, what am I going to do with you?

We are going to go back in time to start this post. Roughly two years ago, my wonderful wife and I were living in Conway where Conway Corp reigns supreme. We were paying about $20 a month for basically all the cable channels we needed (although we didn't get Food network at the time). Life was good.

Then we decided to move to Sherwood, where we knew that Conway Corp would not be providing service and instead we would have to deal with Comcast. I have NEVER had a good experience with Comcast. Not to mention, in order to get the same service we had in Conway, it would have cost roughly $60 a month. (although we would have been getting Food network). Internet was also issue, but that is a different story (and on that note, I can't recommend AT&T DSL service more...it rocks).

In an attempt to save us some money, and stay as far away from Comcast as possible, I looked into getting Dish or DirectTV. My research showed that Dish had better service for a better price. I knew going in that the price listed on their website was not the final price as they would manage to sneak in fee after fee. After several phone calls, I was right. There was a fee for local channels, fee for not having a phone line hooked up, so on and so forth. I also asked about HD services as I knew that at some point, I would upgrade to that. I was told it would be an extra $10 a month, end of story...I know, I know, I should have known better.

So here we are, about 3 months ago, and I have now bought a new TV and need HD service. I call up, and ask them to add the HD service at $10 a month. Then I find out that I will need to upgrade my dish AND receiver. It would be an additional $100 to upgrade my receiver. This, of course, did not make me happy. I explained to them that I had apparently been lied to when I signed up, and I pointed out that if I were a new customer, I could get all of the equipment free of charge. They were "nice enough" to discount the installation by $50. The put the $50 on my bill, and we had our stuff upgraded and after a wonderful conversation with the installation guy, found out that when I signed up for the new service, everything was great except for the fact where they didn't actually sign me up for anything. After more conversations, everything worked great on the HD end, as I believe I reported on multiple times.

Next billing cycle, I check my bill and see a charge for $100, with no $50 discount. I had to call which takes time out of my day. The phone call ended with them crediting my account for the correct amount. Problem solved, all is good.

Now comes the really fun part. Last Thursday, I checked my credit card only to find a $300 charge from Dish. Immediately, I called to find out what was going on. Again, I had to take time out of my day, to fix something that shouldn't have been broke in the first place.

If I had to guess, I would say it was about a 30 minutes conversation. During this conversation, I had to explain that I only had one receiver set up at my house, forcefully request that they credit my account, and then explain that getting my refund in 61-90 days was unacceptable. This conversation ended with the $300 being credited back to my card on that day. I said I would give them 5 business days, and then I'd be calling back.

This afternoon, 6 business days later, the money was still not back in my account. That really ticked me off (the fact that our dish has been reliable about 25% of the time over the last two weeks doesn't help this story). I called and spoke with the first Caucasian male I've ever talked to on Dish support, and explained that I was not happy and basically had no reason to continue service with Dish. He said there was a problem with the refund and he had reprocessed it. At that point, I told him flat out that I wanted to know what Dish was willing to do to keep me as a customer. This conversation ended with her saying that the money would be credited to my account in 5-7 business days, I would start receiving HBO and Starz free of charge, and I would be getting a $10 discount for the next four months. They are also coming out Tuesday afternoon to try to fix the problem with our dish.

Altogether, I still prefer Dish over Comcast, I still think Dish's prices are better than DirectTV, but if they screw up this $300 credit again, and if I have any issues with these new "free" services and discounts. I don't think I have a choice but to move on.

I'm sure there will be a follow up to this episode....stay tuned.

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1/23/09 - Diets really work.

Although I believe I am a rare case, it takes almost little to no effort on my part to drop weight. Since starting this last Tuesday, I have not worked out, and have done cardio twice (basketball games on thursday nights). Yet still, by simply cutting my caloric intake to 1500-2000 calories a day, I have gone from 172 to 166 pounds. Averaging about half a pound a day, the only day that was not the case was the day after I caved in to my desire to eat at Golden Corral and enjoy their Applewood grill (which is absolutely amazing...you have got to try the chicken) when I gained a pound a half. The opposite is that between this morning and 24 hours prior, I dropped 3 pounds. I think our scale is screwed up.

So, with that said, here is a quick recap on my resolutions.

1) Working out - as mentioned above, I haven't gone in almost 2 weeks.

2) Getting up a better time - This has been alright. Although I've been a little sick (just a stopped up head), so I've been dragging a little bit, but this morning I was up and going at 7:00 with very little problem. I'm not doing as well as I would like, but I'm doing better than before.

3) Eating better - I am definitely doing well in this area. Of course, I am going to a team lunch with work today, and we are going to larry's pizza, an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet that serves some of the best pizza ever, so I'm sure that doesn't really count as "eating better".

4) Grass Guys - still, not a whole lot of stuff I can really be doing. Very soon I'll start research on liability insurance, and I need to write up my commercial quote template still, but advertising won't start until march.

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1/13/09 - Resolution progress - 2 weeks

1) Working out. This has gone great. 3 times a week, we all three seem to be motivated, and the workouts have kicked my butt. I'm giving myself a high mark on this one.

2) Getting up at a better time. I have failed on this one. I did great last week, but only because Cristi and I were carpooling together. Since I didn't HAVE to be up at a certain time, I have slept until 7:30-8:00. At the same time, I've stayed up until midnight and later.

3) Eating better. Today I started my diet. It's not going to be easy, but I have to do something. I have decided to not eat more than 200 calories at a time, and I can only eat once an hour (preferably every two hours or so). I'm also going to log exactly what I eat during the course of the day as a running diary for me. On top of eating better, I am going to drink a gallon of water a day. The first few weeks of the year I did the complete opposite of eating better, but I was mainly doing that to "get it out of my system" so I could start this new venture. It's difficult to grade myself on this because to this point I have done what I have planned, but it's not really a great plan.

4) Work on Grass Guys. I haven't been able to do much at this point. I need to write up my Commercial Quote document and research liability insurance a bit, but other than that, this is a slow time for the lawn care stuff. I can't grade myself on this one.

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1/11/09 - Got in one of my Christmas presents

I am a huge fan of the Food Network. I never got it when we were living in Conway as it as never part of the base package. In fact, I don't think I had ever watched the channel until we moved back in with my parents for the two months before we bought our house.

Before that, I just assumed that an entire channel about food would be about as much fun as watching Lifetime. I could not have been more wrong. Once I realized how much I enjoyed most of the shows, that is about all I watch. I flip between Food Network and ESPN, and if any company offered a package where I would only have to pay for those two channels...I would probably do it.

I have Good Eats and Unwrapped setup on the DVR. I've been known to record several other shows including Diners, Drive-ins and Dives and Iron Chef. I watch many of the competition shows (don't remember the name of it). I love Ace of Cakes, but hate the owner (Duff, I think is his name). Giada at Home, Guy's Big Bite, Emeril Live...all enjoyable shows. I don't like the Neely's or Barefoot Contessa and a few others, but for the most part, if it is on Food Network, I can watch it.

I say that to say this, since then, I have really started to enjoy cooking more. I used to love to do it and would often surprise Cristi with a "gourmet" dinner when she would get off work. Although I can follow a recipe very well, I've also been known to come up with my own recipes and experiment on previously cooked recipes to make them my own. During this time, and after watching several shows, the one thing that always impressed me was the way most of the chefs could slice, dice, mince, chop and pretty much cut through anything VERY VERY FAST.

A while back, Good Eats did a special on knives. He explained what you should get, why you should get it, how to use it, how to care for them, so on and so forth. Since then, I have had a desire to own a nice knife. We currently have two Pampered Chef's knives that work, but are far from premium quality. I started doing my research and decided that I wanted a 7" santoku chef knife. The size seemed to fit what I wanted and the shape would allow for multiple uses other than just slicing or chopping.

For Christmas, I did ask for one, but really didn't expect to get one as I specified to all who asked that I wanted a really nice knife...not something you can just pick up at Wal-mart. I actually didn't really price them until after Christmas, and quickly found out why no one got me one. Cristi's grandma from Florida hooked me up with a sizable gift card to Bed Bath and Beyond and so that is one of the places I looked. In all honesty, that is about the only place I looked, but when I saw it, I knew I had found the one.

I couldn't find just the single knife on their website, but I did find this pair. I got the larger of the two, and after my coupon and gift card, it only cost me about $20. It was out of stock when I bought it so they had to ship it to me. On the 7th of January, 2009, I received in the mail the most amazing cutting machine (well, for us in the kitchen, my lawn equipment blows this thing away when it comes to chopping and dicing) I've ever used.

I almost begged Cristi to let me make her a salad, and she was nice enough to let me. I started off by being able to shred the lettuce (she prefers Romaine) in strips that you could easily use in a cole slaw. Previously, when we cut tomato, our knifes are so dull that you have to just about squash the thing to get it to cut. One smooth motion with the knife and I was taking off perfect spaced slices. We also like to use olives in our salad, and as a joke, I was going to show how awesome by knife was by dropping an olive on it and letting gravity cut it for me. Although it only went half way through the olive, the fact that it didn't bounce right off amazed me.

So...although most people would think I'm crazy for wanting and actually purchasing a $80+ knife, now that I have it, I could not be more excited. I'm actually looking forward to the next time I get a chance to cook, because I'll be sure that whatever I pick out requires a lot of stuff to be cut up.

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1/10/09 - CD Review - Pink's Funhouse

Pink released a new album a while back called Funhouse. Although it was released on October 28, 2008, I didn't actually get the album until about a month ago. Up until that point (and even after), I spent most of my time listening to the NKOTB album, but as soon as I heard it the first time, I haven't been able to change my playlist.

I don't want to go through in detail like I did for The Block, but there were a handful of songs that really deserve to get mentioned. Something I should mention is that this album was recorded during her seperation from Carey Hart (husband of roughly two years). Several of her songs reference relationship problems, and her ability to portray emotion in both her lyrics and delivery is really what sets this album apart from others for me.

The first of these is the first song on the album - "So What" which was the first single released. Unfortunately, it has been played to death by local radio stations, so I'm kind of sick of it and have considered removing it from rotation, but even still, it's just kind of catchy and for my money, really sums up Pink's attitude and personality.

Sober is her 2nd single, and also the 2nd on the album. I'm not going to lie, I have no idea what she is trying to get across in this song. Those that can translate her lyrics to something I can understand, please help out in the comments. The part of the song that I love is "I don't wanna be the girl that has to fill the silence...(complete silence for 2-3 seconds)...The quiet scares me 'cause it screams the truth" For me, there is just a ton of imagery in those two lines.

I really am not going to go through all of the songs, but the 3rd track deserves a mention. "I Don't Believe You" has more feeling than some artists can put in an entire album. Here is a youtube video of the song. The lyrics are in the information bar about the video. The ending of each chorus with her question, "Right?" hits me pretty hard. Her delivery makes it truly sound like she is desperate for answers, for someone to reach out to, or somenoe just to give her a vote of confidence.

Mean, is track 9 and could be an anthem for many relationships gone bad. There is no doubt in my mind that this is basically a portrait of her life. It just goes over several different scenarios of how things look different on the first date versus several months/years down the road. Of course, the line of "How did we get so mean?" is a question that has been asked by virtually any couple. My wife and I have a better marriage today than we did 5 years ago, but no doubt about it, we've had our times when we have to step back and ask each other than very question.

Several other songs that could get their own review are Bad Influence, Funhouse and Boring. None of them are going to be winning awards, but they will be on my playlist for quite a while.

I guess there is only one song that I had to remove from my playlist because it annoyed me, and that was This Is How It Goes Down. I can't explain it, but it just rubbed me the wrong way. For an album of 14 songs though, and only one is not worth listening to, I'd say Pink's album gets very high marks.

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1/7/09 - Sidekick....RIP

Yesterday, my parent's made the very difficult decision to put our dog to sleep. Although I no longer live there, he is still partly my dog. It was the right decision. Over the last month, maybe longer, he has been dealing with kidney disease. Add that to his life long struggle of bad knees and leg tendons, and he was really ready to go. He had lost possibly as much as 25% of his body weight, and seemingly a majority of his body mass. He was 13 years old in human years making him roughly 91 in dog years.

When my dad went to pick him up to take him to the vet, he didn't object at all. This is not his normal reaction, as typically he liked to show his teeth if he didn't like what you were doing to him, which was usually any time you made him go in a direction he didn't feel like going. That behavior tells me that he knew it was time.

I can't even begin to retell all of the stories that he and I shared together. I would get in the middle of the floor with him and wrestle to the point of him barking, growling, showing teeth, "biting" my arms (which included him simply opening his mouth and putting it on my arm, no harm was ever done), and so on. Others did this, but I was the only one who could turn off his playtime with a single command, and then start it back up in an instance. Without a doubt, that is my fondest memory of him.

He will be missed, but I have too many extremely good memories to truly feel sad about the whole situation. It was the right thing to do at the right time.

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1/6/09 - How much is too much?

Over the weekend, I borrowed a game from my dad. Although, currently it is my youngest brother who is playing it, it was a Christmas gift to my dad, so I borrowed it from him. Knowing that I only had it for a short period of time, I wanted to get in as much as I could, because it is a game that I love.

From Friday night at about 7:00pm until Sunday night at about midnight, I logged roughly 20 hours playing. You might want to factor in several things such as turning on the console, load times, and a few other items, but even still, we will go with 20 hours of gaming time. So out of the 53 hours during that time, I spent 20 hours of that holding an xbox360 controller.

Needless to say, my wife was not all that happy about it the time I spent playing, but she understands how I go through stretches of "serious" gaming. Another thing to consider is the times when I was playing. I played from about 7:00pm until about 3:00 in the morning before I went to bed. We woke up about 9:00 and goofed off around the house before we finally went out and did some shopping. Obviously, I didn't play during this time. I played for a few hours when we got back and before we went out to dinner. After dinner, I played until probably midnight, if not a little later. We woke up Sunday morning, went to church, then a Sunday School party. When we got home, Cristi and Makenna took a nap...I played games. I paused every once in a while to help take care of Makenna, eat dinner, and a few other things, but then played until midnight. Even though I did spend 20 hours playing, most of that time was while the rest of my family was asleep.

The biggest downside is that when I am playing, I am unable to focus on anything else. I become completely enveloped in the game going on, and even if I pause the game and turn away, my mind is still in the pixels. If I turn off the console, I'm right back to normal. So that I know is something that frustrates Cristi.

Ok, now, I want to put something into perspective. I have recently been playing Gears of War 2 quite a bit (not as much as I gamed this past weekend, but still, a fair amount). Since it was released in early November (roughly 60 days ago), I have logged 26 hours of multiplayer. Once again, most of these hours are in the evening before I go to bed and after Makenna and Cristi are tucked in for the night. That averages out to half an hour a day. In reality, that's closer to 3 hours a night, once a week or so. (and of course that does not include time spent in campaign mode).

Microsoft tracks all the statistics on their website, and they have leaderboards so you can track where you are in different game types, maps, and so forth. Well, the leader, as of this morning is sitting at around 466 hours. Averaged out, that is 7.6 hours a day, every day, since the game was released. Once again, this does not include time spent in waiting rooms, waiting for a game, campaign mode, or just simply waiting for games to load. I would guess that the total time would be much closer to 9 hours a day. When I see things like that, I realize that I don't spend very much time playing at all. Of course, I'm sure that most of the people in the 9 hour a day range are college students, or single half-adults still living in their parent's basement (or above the garage). The difference being that they have zero responsibility.

I wish I could sit here and say that there is no way I could do that, but considering that I'm willing to stay up until 3:00 in the morning, playing a game, with the knowledge that I will be getting up in less than 5 hours to work a full time job, I'm pretty sure that I could easily average 9 hours a day if I didn't have to make a living, help take care of my daughter, spend quality time with my wife, or actually care about anything.

So there you have it. 9 hours a day is a bit much to be spent playing a video game, whereas an average of a half hour a day is really not all that bad.

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1/5/09 - The envelope budget

As requested, here is a general idea of what the envelope budget entails. In a nutshell, the budget envelope is simply using several envelopes filled with money to determine how much you do/will spend on certain items.

This is not a new idea, and apparently has been in use for MANY years. When we first started it, we mentioned it to Cristi's grandmother, and she thought it was interesting that we would start something that she had been doing for 40+ years. Apparently, she has been using a similar concept for quite some time. Although she had a limited number of envelopes, the concepts were definitely still being put to use.

We were introduced to this form of budgeting through Dave Ramsey. He has a program called Financial Peace University which we did not take, but we did borrow the cds from a friend of mine and I listened to every single one of them. Some did not apply to us, some really hit home. Although Dave preaches heavily on many areas, the primary is to never carry debt...ever...at all...SERIOUSLY...NO DEBT!!!! In an effort to eliminate debt, he introduces the idea of the envelope budget.

So here is how Cristi and I do it. We started with a list of ALL of our bills. We do actually use Dave's zero budget document to list what everything costs monthly (on average) and made sure that our average monthly income was basiaclly accounted for every month. This is definitely not necessary for the zero budget, but it gave us a good idea of where we stood. Although technically unrelated to the envelopes, I recommend it. On top of giving us actual dollar amounts, the sheet also had suggestions on what to use envelopes for, and what no to.

For us, I believe we wound up with roughly 15 enveolopes, from Raider's envelope (covers food and vet visits) to Cristi's hair care and makeup, from Cristi's Diapers to everything we might buy at Wal-mart. In the top right of each envelope, I wrote how much goes into each envelope every time we get paid.

For example, our diaper budget is $15 every two weeks. On the flip side, our grocery/Wal-mart budget is $200 every two weeks. In the top right hand corner, I right this down. I do this for each envelope we have.

Then, every two weeks (the Monday after we get paid), I pull out all the envelopes, and add up how much those envelopes add up to. In our case, it hovers around $500. I go to the bank, and withdraw the amount in cash, typically in smaller bills, to distribute in each of the envelopes. So when I get home that evening, I place $15 cash in the Diaper envelope. Likewise, $200 goes in to the grocery/Wal-mart envelope.

When we need to go to Wal-mart, or when we head to Sam's to get diapers, we make sure that we bring the envelope with us. We know how much money we have in the envelope before hand and make sure that what we purchase will cost less than what is in the envelope. In the case of diapers, we need to refill about every 5 weeks. At a cost of about $40 per case of diapers, we just make sure the money is there.

In the situation where we have an envelope that is short on cash (this week we have already spent $150 of our grocery envelope, with a week left to go), we also have an "Extra" envelope (that is fully part of our budget), and so if need be, we can always use the extra money to cover overages.

Now, if we don't use all of our bi-weekly money, we just leave the money in the envelope until we need to use it. This has come in extremely handy for us. Cristi's laptop was half purchased with our extra money that had saved up over time (the rest was with birthday money). We just had $300 of work on our tahoe, a majority of which had already been saved up for using the envelopes.

In my opinion, this covers two major downfalls that people can typically fall in to. The first is that it is sometimes difficult to know how much you are spending on something without actively tracking it. This basically tracks your spending, and locks you into a certain amount, so not only are you not tempted to overspend, if you truly follow the envelopes, you CAN'T overspend. The second is that it prepares you for unforseen or forgotten areas. Taking Raider to the vet can get expensive, especially when he needs shots and stuff. By putting small amounts back every two weeks, when it comes time to actually pay the bill, it does not ever touch our bank accounts because we already have the money ready to go.

I can assure you that you will not get this correct the first time around. We've been doing this for a full year now and in the next week, I'm going to revamp several of the areas that we budget for. For example, we will be combining Repairs/Tires envelope with Oil Changes to have a simple "Auto Maintenance" envelope. Our grocery budget will go up, while Cristi's hair care will probably go down.

If you decide to go this route (which I can't recommend enough), don't get discouraged if you run out of money the first week (or even the second or third). Just adjust everything until you are satisfied with where your money is going. If you start out budgeting $400 for groceries per month, but actually wind up spending $600, you'll need to figure out where you will spend $200 less in another area.

I hope I have been able to explain what I want in the above paragraphs. I've never claimed to have the ability to word thing eloquently, in fact I'm well aware that I tend to get long winded, confusing and quite boring on occassion. I'd be more than happy to field any questions you might have. Either leave a comment, or send me an email directly to: GravyTrain6 (at) gmail (dot) com.

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1/2/09 - A new year, a fresh start?

The first of the year is kind of a joke. Most people treat it like it's a fresh start to everything. It's almost like they think that the previous 365 days (or 366 during years following a leap year) can just be wiped away.

I can see how that is somewhat true. The holidays for me are always a time of year where work slows down (way, way down), I have to use up the remainder of my vacation, and we get several days off in the months of November and December for holidays. Starting January 2nd, work picks right back up, days off are rare for holidays and I try to save as much vacation as possible for the summer. As far as that goes, it kind of does start over.

Years past, I know that new year's resolutions don't work. It was a coincidence that Cristi and I started an envelope budget on the first of the year, but we have actually kept that all year (and it has worked tremendously...if you want more details, just ask...). I've never known anyone to keep a resolution for more than a month or so, and typically it lasts no more than 2 weeks.

I say all that to say this. I think I might try a resolution or two this year. If they work out, it's a bonus, but if for some reasont hey don't, I'm not going to beat myself up. I was doing really good with fitness and eating habits until about 2 weeks ago. My workout partners got real busy (as did I) with travel, work, etc. so we basically quit working out. On top of that, with Thanksgiving and Christmas brings all sorts of good (and not healthy) food. All that together means that I'm not quite where I want to be.

Here are the things that I'm going to work on.

1) Start working out again. If the other guys can't do it, I have no excuse as I have all the equipment I need at home to get a very good workout every day.

2) Start getting up at a better time. Considering I am supposed to be at work by 8:00. 7:30 is not the best time to be waking up. I also need to work on getting out of bed when the alarm goes off instead of hitting snooze for an hour. This will make my wife very happy if I can fix it. Along the same lines, I need to start getting to bed at a better time, that should help with getting up earlier.

3) Eating better. I think this will come naturally once the holidays are over and all the leftovers are eaten, but it would be nice to start cooking again which would quite possibly save on grocery/food expense, it would allow to better control what I'm eating, and it would give me a reason to use some of the awesome Christmas gifts I received.

4) Really work on Grass Guys. This year, now that I have a few clients pretty much locked in for the next year, I can branch out a little and start expanding into the commerical area. This will take a bit of faith because I will be required to get liability insurance (which is not cheap). Of course, I've been gambling the last two years by not carrying it, but in all honesty, even as well as I did the last two seasons, I couldn't afford it to get it. For me to get the insurance and add this expense, if I don't truly focus on getting the commercial accounts, I'll be in the red for the 3rd year in a row which according to the IRS means that I will have to pay backtaxes on the last three years, filing my business as a hobby (this is of course assuming that I understand the tax laws).

That's the four I've got going, I think what I might do is try to post updates occassionaly on how I'm doing with these. It might give me a bit of motivation knowing that other people will know if I fail or not. It will also give me the ability to go back and look at my progress as well by keeping a log.

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