31 May 2006

Stuff You Oughta Know About Student Loan Debt

Stop the presses...student loan debt is rising! Maybe this is news to some, but working in the admission office of a private university, it surely isn't shocking to me. I know students who have left college owing more than they would on a mortgage for a house. That said, while I believe in living a debt-free lifestyle, and I am working towards that goal, I do understand that student loans are the only way some people will ever finance their college education. Now, does this mean that there aren't better ways to manage that debt? No. But, given the overall sense of entitlement permeating the country, not many are willing to accept something that they perceive as second choice if there first choice is within their grasps - albeit with a touch of debt thrown in.

Government data says that the average 2003-o4 college graduate owed nearly $20,000 in student loans on graduation day. It is not unreasonable to think that this amount will rise significantly in the coming years, too. The government recently raised the amount that students can borrow, so naturally, this number is likely to rise. Frankly, the story is probably even worse than stated. It doesn't seem that this study takes into account the amount that parents borrow to send their kids to college, most likely in the form of PLUS Loans (Parent Loan for Undergraduate Studies). "Gap" or "alternative" loans also increase the total amount of money borrowed to pay for college. PLUS Loans and gap loans also carry higher interest rates than federal student loans, so they are an even more expensive option for paying for college.

Why the exponential spike in loans for college funding? The simplest answer is that the cost of attendance at both public and private universities is rising faster than the money available in gift aid (scholarships and grants, both from the institution and the state and federal governments). For example**, the amount available in Pell grant money to the students who theoretically need the most to attend college was $3,354 in 1990. In 2006, that amount is $4,050. Using the inflation calculator, you can figure that a Pell grant was worth nearly $5,200 in 1990 in current dollars. Not only has the Pell grant not kept up with the increasing costs of college education, it has effectively been CUT. So, if the poorest students have less access to education grants from the government, and still want to attend school, logic says that the money may have to come from loans.

How about the cost of attendance? If the aid is not increasing, surely the cost of attendance can't be going up much, right? Ummm....not exactly.

Average College Tuition and Fees 2005-06 versus 2004-05
  • At four-year private nonprofit institutions, tuition and fees average $1,190 more than last year ($21,235 versus $20,045, a 5.9 percent increase). Total charges average $29,026 ($1,561 more than last year's $27,465, a 5.7 percent increase).
  • At four-year public institutions, tuition and fees average $365 more than last year ($5,491 versus $5,126, a 7.1 percent increase). Total charges average $12,127 ($751 more than last year's $11,376, a 6.6 percent increase).
  • At two-year public institutions, tuition and fees average $112 more than last year ($2,191 versus $2,079, a 5.4 percent increase).

Average College Tuition and Fees 2005-06 versus 1989-90
  • At four-year private nonprofit institutions, tuition and fees average $9,235 more than 1989-90 ($21,235 versus $12,000). That makes for nearly a 77% increase, nearly 30% more than the inflation rate, in general terms over the same period.
  • At four-year public institutions, tuition and fees average $2,591 more than 1989-90 ($5,491 versus $2,900). That makes for an 89% increase, almost 40% more than the inflation rate, in general terms over the same period.
  • At two-year public institutions, tuition and fees average $1,091 more than 1989-90 ($2,191 versus $1,100). I don't even need to do the math to see that tuition almost doubled since 1989-90, while inflation overall stood at about 55%.

Given all this data, it is easy to see how people need to rely more heavily on debt to finance their education. Tomorrow, I will examine ways to manage this debt -- yes, I do believe that there is a way to do this!

**Data source: Paying for College

Read the rest of this article...

30 May 2006

Worst Stadium in the Majors

Long before The Sporting News suggested a "Baseball Buddy Roadtrip," a buddy and I have been doing much the same for the last four years or so. Our trips were very similar to the ones that they suggested, and we have gotten so far along in our quest to see every major league stadium, that between us, we have seen 28 of the current 30 major league stadiums. Next month, we have a date with the new Busch Stadium in St. Louis, and in July, we will make a trip to Toronto to see the Rogers Centre (Ugh...what a name for a ball park -- we may still have to call it 'SkyDome').

Since we will have visited all the active stadiums, we decided that one of our projects before the end of the summer will be to rank them all -- 1 to 30. We're guys -- lists simplify things for guys, so it seemed like a good project. Even though we know that we have to see all the stadiums before we start the ranking process, there are some natural biases, so the first two on the list have already been filled in.

1. Wrigley Field -- it's a no brainer. I am not going to get into the whys and hows of the ranking system now...maybe that will make for a summer's worth of posts. But, for now, just know that Wrigley is the best of the major league stadiums.

2. Fenway Park -- also a no brainer. If you are a Red Sox fan, you would probably rank this #1, and a Cubs fan would go the other way. Since I am a fan of neither, I can say - objectively - that Fenway is a solid #2.

I think picking these two as #1 and #2 is the easy part -- picking the bad ones could be just as easy. This weekend, I had the errr....pleasure...of seeing my beloved first-place New York Mets play in Miami against the Florida Marlins. The Mets won, so the park is secondary, but ProPlayer....err...Joe Robbie....err...Dolphins....ummm....Dolphin Stadium may well be the worst stadium in all of major league baseball. I figure this stadium is so bad, they couldn't even sell the naming rights.

So, what makes a bad stadium? Well, a number of things...like perpetually empty seats:

It doesn't help that all those empty seats are a hideous orange color, either. Obtrusive, omnipresent advertising is a pretty big strike against. Also notice...MORE empty seats:

I am not even sure I know who the Miccosukee Indians are, but their ads are all over left field. Yes, that is a 'Benihana' ad ON THE CLOCK! This is just a representative sampling, but the whole stadium is like this. Plus, this is a football stadium that happens to host baseball games in football's offseason. Evidence of that is everywhere -- the Miami Dolphins have actually been good, and have some all-time players. The Marlins have been sporadically good, but they have no all-time greats, because whenever they win, ownership sells off all the good players and "rebuilds," because they cannot compete revenue-wise (in such a crappy stadium). Below is the view from our seats -- eighth row. We were still pretty far away from the action (all things are relative -- we are not as far away as the folks sitting above the 'Tire Kingdom' ad), and for a $40 ticket, this is pretty far away from the action. Also, check out the empty seats.

OK...so, you're thinking that I am harping on the empty stadium thing. Well, the Marlins were playing the first place team in their division, and there are quite a few New York transplants in the South Florida area -- and, the Marlins best pitcher, Dontrelle Willis was pitching against a future Hall of Famer, Tom Glavine. You would think that there would have been some folks that would come out to the game. Still, the Marlins drew about 15,000 fans on Friday night (less sun, maybe that keeps people away?) with the Mets pitching Pedro Martinez. For our game, a Saturday afternoon, on a holiday weekend, with the pitching matchup mentioned earlier, drew all of 13,000 fans. For comparison's sake, the last place Pirates drew over 30,000 fans to their park. A snoozer of a game in Minnesota (versus Seattle, in another awful place to watch baseball) drew over 25,000 fans. Two teams with below .500 winning percentages (the Angels and the Orioles) drew over 43,000 in Anaheim. The point is -- people went to baseball games on Saturday in rather large numbers -- some even saw some bad baseball teams. But, the Marlins may get the worst support in all of baseball - and it makes their ballpark that much worse.

Another asthetics issue -- there is no "front" to the stadium. It is just a big, concrete circular structure. In short, it has no personality.

I like to think that I can find SOMETHING that I like about every ballpark -- this one, I don't think that I can. On top of all the things that have physical photo evidence, I can also tell you that the food was expensive ($7 for a bottled beer, $6 for a foot-long kosher hot dog), the home town fans were outnumbered about 3-1 by the visitors, it was blistering hot (no, the Marlins have no control over the temperature, but they should have a retractable roof stadium, like Houston, and/or they shouldn't play games at 1 pm in the middle of summer), the mid-inning promotions and graphics were beyond cheesy (airboat ride race, with the damn Miccosukee Indians sponsoring the thing -- more ads, and, last, but surely not least....the Mermaids.

Yes, the Marlins, in an effort to whip their fans into a frenzy, have the only "female rally" team in all of major league baseball. Cheese factor? 10+! Cheerleaders? Yes, Miami is a football town, but, cheerleaders in baseball -- I think not.

All of this adds up to the worst stadium experience in the bigs. So far, we have identified the following...

1. Wrigley Field
2. Fenway Park
30. Dolphin Stadium

The parameters have been set, and we just need to fill in the other 27 stadiums!

Read the rest of this article...

29 May 2006



'Nuff said.

Read the rest of this article...

25 May 2006

Sometimes It's Hard to Not Be Judgemental

Since I have started writing and reading a number of blogs, I have found myself becoming increasingly judgemental about other people's issues -- especially financial ones. Believe me, I am in no place to judge anyone. My finances have been screwed for the last 10-plus years, and while I am making progress getting things together, I still do the kinds of things that other people would surely consider stupid.


It was hard not to read this week's USA Today article from their series "Couples and Their Money." I'll try to paint the picture for you, before I got judgemental.

Tim earns more than $100,000 a year as a senior bank loan officer; Caren makes about $65,000 a year as a physical therapist. Yet despite their ample salaries, they say they're "absolutely unable to put money aside, except with retirement accounts."
This inability to save also has them in over $400,000 worth of debt. I will admit that I don't know how anyone finds themselves in almost a HALF MILLION dollars worth of debt, but I still don't really think any less of them at this point -- they just spend more than they make, which doesn't really make them that much different than many other Americans. Further, almost 3/4ths of this debt is from the couple's primary home mortgage, so maybe the huge debt can just be attributed to keeping up with the Joneses? You would think, though, with a family income of $165k, a house with a $285k mortgage is not out of range, no?

Apparently, expensive dinners out, extravagant gifts given to one another and their son, and house fixer-upper projects (you would think that for $285k+, it would already BE fixed up, no?) all add up. While these may not be the financial choices I would choose to make, there is still no need to be judgemental, right?

How about this?

One thing they're not worried about is the cost of Edson's college education. They've decided that college expenses shouldn't derail their retirement savings.

"We basically told him that he can work his way through college," Caren says. "He can get loans; he can get a job. That's what makes the world go 'round."

And the nominees for Parents of the Year are....The Mayberry's. It's bad enough to dig themselves a financial hole, and teach their child that this is "normal,"and be so materialistic that having "stuff" trumps financial responsibility, but to set your ONLY son up for a possible financial hardship because of sheer selfishness is absolutely beyond me.

Families who make $165k per year should have no trouble funding one child's college education. Instead, because of their income, their son will have very limited access to anything except loans when it comes time to applying for financial aid. "Working his way through college" is a nice image, but why would you want to start you only child off behind the proverbial eight ball? Because it is more important to have a boat? Lovely priorities and a lovely message to send to your kid.

Others have commented on parent's responsibilities to their kids. The general concensus is that children are not entitled to extravagant weddings and expensive private school educations, but parents should take some control over their expenses to make sure that their children are at least somewhat taken care of when needed -- most seem to believe that it is not too much to expect parents to contribute at least the cost or the equivalent to a public university education, if it is realistically within the family's means. It still comes down to a measure of "to each his own," but just remember, your kids are the ones who will determine which old folks home you will be spending your golden months living in. Your call, Dad -- the nice, modern facility, or the crooked home that they showed on last week's '60 Minutes?'

If I were the Mayberry's, I don't know if I would want my son picking my 'home.'

Read the rest of this article...

As I Lay Dying...

I am so over being sick right now. The last three days have found me horizontal on the couch. I have eaten all the chicken soup and toast that I can stomach and I have consumed enough orange juice and tea to almost float away. I am pretty sure that I can also name all of the peripheral characters on 'Saved by the Bell.'

I dare say that tomorrow I will either be at work, or in the hospital. I don't even really care which.

While catching up on the joys of daytime television (apparently, Luke and Laura aren't an item any more), I found that Bravo has a new project called Brilliant but Cancelled. The idea is that the shows featured where shot down by network execs before they were able to reach their full potential. I have to admit -- I got sucked into watching The Jake Effect. The show's not bad, but I don't know about brilliant. NBC never even ran the show -- EVER! Besides, one of the stars is Nikki Cox, which is kind of an unfair distraction for a sick boy. And, on a complete side note, Jay Mohr is now married to Nikki Cox, which proves that there is a Satan, and someone named Jay Mohr has sold his soul to said Satan. Look at that picture again and tell me I am wrong!

But, I digress....

The idea of 'brilliant but cancelled' made me think of which of my favorite shows over the years got the axe before their time. So, I present to you, The Travelin' Man's Top 5 Shows That Got Prematurely Axed:

  1. The Honeymooners -- Long before Cedric the Entertainer turned in a blaxploitation version of Ralph Kramden, The Honeymooners defined television. There is a reason that the show refers to 'The Classic 39.' Yes, there were some additional episodes, but this show was really about one year of episodes -- 1955. I am a huge fan, and REALLY wish that there were more episodes of this show around. I remember watching WPIX when I was a kid. The Honeymooners came on TV at 11 pm every night, and I would watch them on my black-and-white television. I realized quickly that I got to see every episode almost once per month....and I didn't mind at all. The Honeymooners was also the foundation for other shows that came along later -- The Flintstones, King of Queens, and, heck, even Married with Children.
  2. Clerks: The Animated Series -- Compared to this series, The Honeymooners was on television as long as M*A*S*H. ABC torched this show just two episodes into it's summer run. The ratings were not at all stellar, but you would have thought that ABC would have had some money invested in the show and aired all six original episodes to see if they could find an audience. Of course, thie summer was also right when the original 'Survivor' aired, so no one may have watched anyway. This show was clever and on-topic -- you know, just like a Kevin Smith movie.
  3. Brooklyn Bridge -- No, this is not a theme developing (but, I do love the Bridge). CBS bounced this show around in a couple of different time slots before finally bagging it after just 33 episodes. Perhaps airing the show, about Brooklyn Jews on Friday nights (the Jewish Sabbath) wasn't the brightest idea any network executive ever had.
  4. Murder One -- Now this list gets serious. Talk about another series that was completely jerked around by the network. Wow. ABC didn't know what to do with this series. You could make the argument that it was a little ahead of it's time -- a crime drama whose one plot develops over the course of a full season. Imagine '24' without the shackles of being filmed in real-time. One hour dramas to this point were always wrapped up with a tidy bow before the big hand crossed back over the 12. This show told the story of a crime, from commission to arrest to trial, over the course of a whole season. The lesson that Fox learned very quickly for '24' was that in order to build an audience and make this work, they needed to show the episodes in order, at the same time, every week, without interruption. Unfortunately, ABC never caught on to this, and Murder One died a premature death, never earning ratings equal to the critical acclaim. It's a shame -- a fabulous cast (Daniel Benzali, Anthony LaPaglia, Mary McCormack, Stanley Tucci, D.B. Woodside, Jason Gedrick, Barbara Bosson, and more); an intriguing story and Stephen Bochco -- all wasted.
  5. Sports Night -- In my mind, the single most egregious misuse of a television show by a network. ABC shuttled this show around it's schedule with no regard for developing an audience of any kind. I was a FAN of the show, and I never knew when it was on. The creators behind this show are the legendary duo of Aaron Sorkin and Tommy Schlamme. I suppose that if this show had not failed, there may not have been 'The West Wing.' Like 'Murder One,' the writing and acting were superb. Unfortunately, in addition to the challenges faced by the ever shifting time slot, the show also had to fight the stigma that it was a show about sports. Anyone who gave this show the time of day would have found out that this was a sharply written workplace comedy/drama -- the kind of show championed nowadays with programs like 'The Office.' Again, maybe this show was ahead of it's time. Maybe ABC just wanted to deprive me of seeing more of Sabrina Lloyd? The final episode was one of my favorite, as the fake CSC network was sold to a company called "Quo Vadimus" (Where are We Going?). In one of the final scenes, the new owner tells the producer (Desparate Housewive's Felicity Huffman) that "anyone who can't make money off of 'Sports Night' should get out of the money making business." Umm...hello, ABC? Can you hear me now?
More discussion seems to focus on those shows that stay beyond their welcome, but, for me, these five shows are the antithesis of 'jumping the shark'.

Read the rest of this article...

24 May 2006

A Day In the Shadows of the Brooklyn Bridge

I sat on this post for almost a week. Call me sentimental, but I saved this one for the 223rd anniversary of the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. I remember when I was a kid looking up at the majestic bridge as we would make the drive back from my grandmother's apartment to our home on Long Island. I always asked my father if we could take the bridge to get home -- not realizing, of course, that the bridge would take us into Manhattan -- quite the opposite direction from suburbia.

One of the things that I have always wanted to do -- well, always = as long as I could remember and realize that the bridge connects Manhattan to Brooklyn -- was walk across the Bridge. A few weeks ago, I mentioned this to a group of native New Yorkers, and their response was simply, "Why?" Maybe they didn't get my George Mallory reference when I said "Because it's there," because all I got back from them was blank stares. I know it's touristy, and I know "touristy" is not usually something that makes me jump and shout, but I wanted to do this.

So, I lured a travel colleague friend (I am pretty sure with the premise of pizza and ice cream!) to make this trek with me. We parked in Brooklyn, took the subway into Manhattan, and then walked back across the span. This was surprisingly easy - the toughest part was finding a parking spot, and since it was easy enough to expense, even that was less an issue than it might have been if I had to fork over $19 to park out of my own pocket -- we would have at least made a cursory circling of the block for street parking! A short walk to the subway station (on High Street), $2 for a single-ride MetroCard, and one stop on the subway -- and we were in Manhattan, about a block away from the Bridge (the entrance to which is located right in front of City Hall).

I figure that most people who do this once probably walk the other direction, from Brooklyn to Manhattan. I can see why. The views coming up on Manhattan are astounding. Sometimes I really forget how pretty New York City can be. I was told that it was about a 20-minute walk, but I should allot more time because I will want to stop and look around more than once. You can see a good bit of lower Manhattan from the Bridge. Not too long ago, this shot would have included the World Trade Center. On the lower portion of the picture, you will also see the building that formerly housed the legendary Fulton Fish Market, which has since been relocated to the Bronx.

Not only is the view back on Manhattan breathtaking, but the Bridge, itself, is something to look at, too.

The mix of folks on the Bridge were an absolute slice of true New York. There were fitness junkies running the length of the span, navigating their way around tourists stopping mid-pace and gawking up at one of the towers. During rush hour, the six lanes of automobile traffic below may be slowed by congestion, but the pedestrian walkway will have any number of walkers, joggers and cyclists peacefully traversing their slice of Americana.

I can only tell you that all this walking made me a little hungry, and I had a pretty good lunchtime meal planned ahead. If you want to read more about it, click to the next page....
Grimaldi's is an institution in Brooklyn. You know -- that might be an understatement. Grimaldi's is arguably the BEST pizza, in a pizza-lovin' town. The gang from Slice thinks that nod goes to DiFara's, and I am not going to pick a fight -- both are better than what I can get in central Florida! I actually took this picture a few backs when I visited Grimaldi's for the first time (sorry, the camera battery was going on me!). The line you see is one that they consider relatively short. I was told that at night (10 pm-ish), the line can go around the corner. On the Wednesday afternoon that we went, we walked right in around 1 pm with no wait whatsoever. Just to give you a comparison, though, on my first visit, which was around 5:30 pm on a Saturday night, we waited about a 1/2 hour for a table, and then another 45 minutes for the pizza. On this visit, not only did we get in right away, but this** arrived at our table about 10 minutes after we ordered:

**OK, I cannot tell a lie. That was not our pizza. Remember I said that my camera battery was going? Well, I stole this picture from someone else, but it looked surprisingly like our pizza, and sometimes you just gotta make do. Know what I mean?

Let me tell you, this is a SERIOUS pie. Ours had pepperoni, roasted red peppers, and extra fresh basil. The first thing that most people notice is that the mozzerella is not shredded, it is sliced. This makes for a definite texture difference than what most folks are used to. The pepperoni were smallish discs that packed a powerful flavor. But, what makes this pie is the crust -- crispy, yet chewy, too. Check out the charred edges, a product of the coal-fired ovens.

Like with many New York City establishments, at Grimaldi's you get a little history, and always a colorful story that usually involves lawyers and/or death threats. Note that this place is not necessarily cheap -- a small pie (6 slices, of which there was not much leftover with 2 hungry folks) with three toppings and two non-alcoholic beverages was $30 with tip. Also, notice the rules -- no credit cards, which they make quite clear -- I guess you wouldn't want someone to eat and then realize that the place only accepted cash; no slices (odd for a NYC pizzeria); and they also offer no half toppings - you can get only half if you wish, but you pay for the whole topping whether you eat it or not.

Recently, Grimaldi's opened up a Long Island location in Garden City, which is very convenient to where I usually stay when I am working up that way. I may give it a shot, but something tells me that it just may not be the same experience as the Brooklyn location.

My gut tells me that a disproportionate number of people finish their meal at Grimaldi's with dessert served at the Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. Rationalize away the calories as best you can -- it IS about a block walk down the road to get your ice cream. One bite of the ice cream, though, and you won't care much about rationalizing anything. This stuff is GOOD -- really GOOD. I was taken there before word really got out about this place -- and boy have times changed. You will likely find a line if you come at any regular meal or post-meal time. Still, they quickly move folks through, ice cream in hand, so the waits are minimized.

I took no pictures of the food here, but I will tell you that the folks who run Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory are proud of their product. This sign awaits all visitors, explaining that you are about to consume ice cream that is about as close to homemade as you can get without doing it yourself. Again, you won't find bargain basement prices here, either -- a small cone/dish with one scoop will set you back $3 and prices go up from there. They also don't bury you with all kinds of choices -- they only make about 8 flavors at any given time - my personal favorite is the vanilla with chocolate chunks. I have also had their wonderful chocolate and coffee flavors.

The thing to do here is take your dessert and head out back onto the deck that sits at the edge of the East River. Again, you get a perfect view of the Manhattan skyline. This is obviously one of those places where bridal parties come from miles around for the photo opportunities. On the Saturday that I visited, there were no fewer than six bridal parties patiently waiting their turn to take pictures with Gotham as the backdrop. Maybe the part that surprised me most was just how patiently the parties seemed to be waiting!

For 223 years young, the Bridge still looks pretty good. In honor of George Mallory, all true New Yorkers should add walking across the Brooklyn Bridge to their list of things to do before you die.

Edit: Grimaldi's Pizza was featured in the Dining Out: Best of 2006 post.

Read the rest of this article...

Paying the Stupid Tax

When I was broke - really broke - I grew accustomed to paying late fees on my accounts. At the time, I really didn't have much of a choice. I suppose, in retrospect (and knowing what I know now), I MAY have had some choices, but I either didn't know that I had a choice, or I simply ignored it. I always remembered a childhood friend who referred to these types of fees as the "Stupid Tax." The theory was simple -- if you were stupid enough to get yourself into the position where you couldn't pay all of your bills, then you should be taxed.

We can debate the validity of that argument, but it stuck with me.

It really stuck with me. I'm not sure if everyone who cannot pay their bills is always due to stupidity, but having the money to pay your bills, and just not doing it -- well, that reeks of stupidity. Due to my travel schedule, I find that I miss paying a credit card bill on time. This really sucks because I usually pay my balance in full, so I get hit with finance charges that I would not normally pay, as well as the $29 "You Missed Your Payment Deadline by a Day" Stupid Tax.

Even worse, having the money in one account, and spending it out of another -- well, stupidity reigns supreme again! Worserest of all (work with me....I am making a point), is having a check in your own possession that will cover all that you spent, but not depositing said check until after you are overdrawn truly raises the bar on the stupid-o-meter.

So, today, when I logged into my online banking statement, I found that I had been overdrawn (I have overdraft protection, so they transferred the money from my savings to pay the charges). I had some charges hit from last week's business travel and my monthly student loan payment. I guess I never noticed that my balance had gotten dangerously low -- I do like to keep about $500-1,000 reserve in the checking account, because I am not the most up-to-date person on all of the debits, credits, and pre-authorized monthly payments into and out of my checking account. The problem is that I never realized that my travel reimbursement check was sitting in my desk since last Friday.

Net result - $10 Stupid Tax paid to Wachovia so that they can better handle my money than I can. $10 is much better than the $29 to the credit card company, and a lot better than what would have been if they simply "bounced" the overdrafts, and then I had to pay Wachovia about $25 a pop PLUS each of the vendors -- three, for a total overdraft of about $60. Maybe I got a discount on my Stupid Tax.

Read the rest of this article...

21 May 2006

Worst. President. Ever.

Last week, while driving to Brooklyn, I passed this sign on the BQE. My first thoughts mostly revolved around how it could only be New Yorkers who could express themselves so simply yet eloquently. On the other hand, it may well be a transplanted New Yorker who placed this sign, as a native would have likely used the phrase "Worst F#$%ing President Ever." Still, I can't complain.

Apparently, though, neither myself, the sign-maker, nor my driving companion are the only ones who feel this way. None other than former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, John Edwards, said so much this morning on "This Week with George Stephanopolous." President Bush's problems, foibles, and malaprops have been chronicled elsewhere and probably don't need to be repeated here (I wouldn't want to antagonize my wide Republican readership!), but if you google search "George W Bush is an idiot," you will have more reading material than you can possibly endure.

What this brought to mind for me, though, was a conversation that we had in my 9th grade social studies class. Mr. Henson was the history teacher students loved and hated. He was passtionate about history -- maybe a little too passionate. I learned a lot in that class -- some of which sticks with me today. I am not sure why, but I remember a discussion about which presidents Mr. Henson liked and disliked. This was at the time of the Reagan presidency, and he was no fan. Someone asked if Reagan was the worst president of all-time, and he replied emphatically that the worst president of all-time was Ulysses S. Grant. He went on a ten-minute tirade about Grant -- how he was always surrounded by scandal, he was a racist (well, anti-semetic, but I remember him calling him racist), and just an all-around dim bulb. He did say that he was a great military leader, but he surrounded himself with corrupt cronies in his time in the White House -- such that perhaps he was not corrupt, but by surrounding himself with so many others who WERE corrupt, it was tough to escape their shadow.

Something tells me that Mr. Henson would be no fan of W, and my gut says that history will look upon him much the same way as US Grant, without the niceties of military service to blunt the blow.

Read the rest of this article...

19 May 2006

Old Business, Part II

Good Morning America** has been airing a series this month entitled "$100 a Day in May." You can see all of the video clips from that link. I have watched a few of them so far, and there have been some pretty good tips, but I don't know if any of these (even combined) are going to net anyone I know $3,100 ($100/day in May?).

As I view episodes that are worthy of comment, I will post on them....and I guess there is no better place to start than with the first installment. The idea is simple enough -- the government is holding your long lost and forgotten dough and all you need to do to claim it is step up and show your hand. I don't think that there's anything more simple than this kind of free money -- heck, it was already yours (at one time).

The story claims that (a) one in eight people have money held by their home State Treasury; and (b) the average claim amount that one is owed is over $900.

I have seen this type of story before on the news -- it seems like it is something that usually airs during sweeps month (hark, it's May!). They run the names of those with money to be claimed once a year in the local paper. It really does seem like the government and the media are doing their part to make you aware of this missing/found (guess it depends on how you look at it) money. Still, I have never bothered to check to see if I have any of this outstanding money. I guess I figured I was pretty on top of my finances and there would be no way that I could be missing money somewhere. There have been some times in my past when a "found" +/-$900 would have come quite in handy, and still I never checked.

Now, though, there is no reason for anyone not to check. All you need to do is consult with your home state's unclaimed property office, which is usually the State Treasurer. Still not sure if it is easy? How about a comprehensive web site that lays out each state's web site and physical address? Realistically, you are about four or five clicks away from finding out if you have any unclaimed property being held for you.

Why am I giving a hard sell on this? Well, guess who found some unclaimed property? It wasn't mine -- I already told you that I know my finances well enough to know that there are no outstanding pots of gold. My deceased father, however, has some unclaimed property in New York. I am not sure if I have access to all of the information I will need to claim it -- I know that I need a death certificate, which I do not have, and proof that he lived at the address attached to the claim, which I also do not have. I am pretty sure that I can get a copy of the death certificate from the State, but I don't know how I would prove that he lived at the address listed (which is the apartment in which we lived before we moved out to Long Island). I will admit -- I am pretty curious. I know that it could be 10 bucks -- but, I suppose it could be a few hundred, no?

I figure that the curiosity will kill me if I don't pursue this, so I may throw a few flares up and see what I can find. If there is anything worth posting, I will let you know. If it is a long lost lottery ticket, the name and focus of this blog will change drastically! My first new post will be titled "The Following People Can Kiss My Ruby Royal Red Keester..."

**Hat tip to Boston Gal's Open Wallet, an excellent daily read

Read the rest of this article...

Old Business, Part I

If I were better at this blogging thing (or, if I haven't spent the 15 of the first 18 days of this month traveling), I would have already mentioned American Airlines' Aadvantage 25th Anniversary celebration. Way back when (1981 -- I think the Earth was still flat), American Airlines launched the first airline loyalty (frequent flier) program. Obviously, in the last 25 years, there has been an explosion of programs, such that loyalty clubs have expanded well beyond the bounds of airlines and into most people's every day lives. You can get a punch card for your sandwich or coffee purchases, points for car rentals and hotel stays, cash back (and other perks) from credit card purchases, and even earn points that you can redeem for free condoms.

But, I digress....

American Airlines is offering a new deal a day for the first 25 days of May. Some of these are pretty good, and many are still available through the end of the month. There are also a few sweepstakes for which you can register to win some Aadvantage miles or other prizes. You do need to get on this, though, as many/all of these deals expire at the end of the month.

Some highlights:

Save 25% on an award ticket flown over the summer.
25 Aadvantage miles per dollar spent on flowers through FTD.
2500 bonus Aadvantage miles for a stay at an Intercontinental Hotel (Holiday Inn, for instance).
Double miles on your next AA flight.
25,000 bonus Aadvantage miles for getting AA MasterCard (enough for a free domestic ticket).

There are more deals -- some may appeal to you more than these. There is a scroll at the bottom of the page that will take you to previous day's deals. Keep checking back for the next week or so for the rest of the deals to come, as well.

Think of me fondly when you are using your newly found mileage wealth for fun and happiness.

Read the rest of this article...

15 May 2006

Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!

Zorn's has been serving home-style meals on Long Island for more than 60 years now. I frequent the East Meadow (1939 Hempstead Turnpike) location whenever I am in town and staying up the road at the Long Island Marriott. This place is simple, yet delicious. I am fond of the fried chicken here, but have never had anything that I would not recommend.

Cafeteria-style is the order of the day. Step up to the counter and place your order. The counter attendants will prepare your plate. Everything is really packed "to go," but they ask if you will be dining in.

The accompanying sides are exceptional and varied. My personal favorites are the stuffing (back/middle) and the mac and cheese (front/right), but friends report that the creamed spinach is also quite good, as are the steamed vegetables.

Reminding people that fried chicken is healthy is important! I don't know if you are really trying to watch your waistline that you REALLY want to eat a lot of fried chicken, but it is nice to know that this stuff is not AS unhealthy as it could be!

This is a pretty standard meal for me -- fried chicken (quarter, white meat) with stuffing and mac and cheese. The chicken is very tasty -- crisp on the outside, moist and flavorful on the inside.

While breast meat can dry out very quickly when improperly prepared, this chicken is nearly perfect.

Usually, the stuffing has more "bits" of meat in it than it did on my most recent visit. Hopefully, this was just a one shot deal and not a permanent change in recipe. The mac and cheese was slathered in a cheddary sauce that requires little else but a dash of salt and pepper to bring out the full flavor. My only other "minus" for Zorn's is that they have eliminated freshly brewed iced tea from their list of available fountain beverages. They do offer Snapple, which I am pretty sure is an absolute must if you serve any kind of food anywhere in New York. I don't drink soda, so the availability of tea is pretty high up on my list of must-haves. For take-away, this is not an issue, though, and even eating in-house, they do have bottled water and bottled teas and fruit beverages.

The Zorn's dining room has the feel of an 1800's country store. Wood is the predominant feel -- the tables and chairs, the counters, the floors, and even the roof structure all go along with the theme. The place bustles at lunch and dinnertime, even though Zorn's clearly specializes in take-away meals. There is also a small outdoor seating area, which is ideal for springtime.

Zorn's is one of my favorite places on Long Island, and a true local treasure. If you haven't been, you should add this place to your "musts" when on the Island. One odd note...while I have always found the staff very professional and polite, it seemed as though my picture taking may have made some of their employees uncomfortable. Is there a spate of fried chicken espionage going on around the East Meadow area? Seemed a little odd - even though I do realize that many people do not photograph their food before eating it!

Read the rest of this article...

Site Layout Update

I have added the ability to keep up with updates automatically. On the right sidebar, you will find links to add this blog to your "My Yahoo" page, which is something that I use daily, as well as a few others. I have subscribed to feedburner, so there are likely a few more feeds that I can add if demand warrants. Really, though, the whole reason to do this is to have my own feed show up on "My Yahoo," which will hopefully guilt me into posting more frequently. When there are no new posts for three days, there is a "no new posts" message that comes up under the site. I don't want to see that, so I will try to post more frequently.

My plan is to add the restaurant reviews in a separate archive on the sidebar, as well. I am not sure if I will organize chronologically, geographically, or categorically. I may try a few different views until I come up with something that I like. If you have any ideas, please post a comment.

Read the rest of this article...

"I am the Lord, Your God..."

Relax, I am not getting all Jesus on you. The quote above are the first words uttered by President Josiah Bartlet in the pilot episode of "The West Wing." I had almost forgotten what a wonderfully written and powerful show this USED TO BE. I know that very few television shows can keep up the quality writing and fresh style for too long, but the first year(s) of "The West Wing" were some brilliant television.

Last night, the show ended it's seven year run with a closing look at the Bartlets and the gang who made life in the White House, well, interesting. There is a new president taking office, and we won't have the opportunity to see the transition team, because NBC mercifully axed this dying quail before the ratings plummeted to zero. I guess the reason for quoting the First Commandment was the powerful delivery in which Martin Sheen made his entrance in the first episode. Seems the whacko fundamentalist Christians couldn't identify which was the First or the Third Commandment. Enter stage right, POTUS.

Sheen BECAME the President. Come to think of it, I am pretty sure that I would rather have him (and his wacky family) in the White House than the guy who occupies the REAL West Wing right now.

A few newspapers have taken the time to memorialize "The West Wing" with tributes this past week. The New York Daily News did a "Best/Worst" column; USA Today offers a less-than-stellar epilogue; and even Yahoo! offered a good-bye. Each makes a case for their favorite scenes or moments, but all leave out what I consider to be one of the most pointed moments in the Bartlet administration -- and the scene which made me a fan of the show. Bartlet enjoins a Dr. Laura-esque character in a debate about the Bible, as she claims that the Bible says that homosexuality is an abomination.

"I wanted to ask you a couple of questions while I had you here. I'm interested in selling my youngest daughter into slavery as sanctioned in Exodus 21:7. She's a Georgetown sophomore, speaks fluent Italian, always cleared the table when it was her turn. What would a good price for her be? [silence in the room] While thinking about that can I ask another? My chief-of-staff, Leo McGarry, insists on working on the Sabbath. Exodus 35:2 clearly says he should be put to death. Am I morally obligated to kill him myself or is it okay to call the police?

"Here's one that's really important, 'cause we've got a lot of sports fans in this town. Touching the skin of a dead pig makes one unclean, Leviticus 11:7. If they promise to wear gloves can the Washington Redskins still play football? Can Notre Dame? Can West Point? Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads? Think about those questions, would you.

"One last thing. While you may be mistaking this for your monthly meeting of the ignorant tight-ass club, in this building when the President stands, nobody sits."

This scene takes place on the heels of an assisination attempt, and some of the senior staffers are still not handling it all too well. In this case, Toby (played by Richard Schiff) wanted to step down from his post, but was talked out of doing so by Bartlet. As he walks out of the room, Bartlet simply turns to Toby and says "THAT'S how I do it," referring to keeping focus.

I am going to try to remember that sharp, biting dialogue as the memory of this show. It was a stark yin and yang moment -- seeing the first and last episodes in sequence.

Read the rest of this article...