Going to war

A fool and his money are soon parted. - English proverb (paraphrased)

In last year's in review post, I talked about how we didn't make a lot of progress on our final debt (we're not including the house debt): the student loans. Today marks a special day for us as a family. Today we begin, in earnest, our war with that debt.

We've made some progress in the last few years with some of our debt. In July of last year we paid off all our credit cards (again) and got rid of them completely with the help of our shredder. But those student loans have hung around for what feels like forever. This week, we talked with the girls (since the boy is too young to understand human language) about our debt and our plan to get out of it. We feel its important to talk to our kids about money so they don't make the same mistakes we did. I hope we're off to a good start.

In addition, we gave them a promise: when the student loans are paid off, we will take a trip to Disney World. That got their attention.

I write this now to mark a significant point in our family's history: today is the day we begin our great war. This might be April 1, but it is no joke — we are at war.

Maybe it’s time to get off your high horse

Author's note: This was originally posted on Medium. I have adjusted the timestamp on this post to reflect when it was published on that platform. Since this is the home of my writing, I've decided to permanently move it here.

Recently I attended a new Meetup group focused on a budding new web framework.

This particular framework is interesting, and shows lots of promise. It piqued my interest enough that I shifted my schedule around to drive an hour to join others interested in this new technology and introduce myself. Before the meeting started, I mingled with others who asked the inevitable question: "So what do you do?"

The answer has been the same for some time now: I work in municipal government, and mainly with Drupal.

As the meeting progressed, I got to see some examples of the new framework, how it's being used by the group's members, and got to thinking about how I might use it for my own projects. One of the presenters showed a content management system he had built, which had a handy feature: in-place editing.

"To talk without thinking is to shoot without aiming."
- English proverb

I was impressed at this framework's particular implementation of in-place editing, and commented that Drupal has something similar but its implementation feels a little bloated, and certainly not as fast as the one I was seeing in this presentation.

"That's because Drupal sucks," the presenter said.

Now, I would certainly agree that there are things in Drupal that are easier to do with other tools. I would agree that this in-place editing feature seemed better than Drupal's. I would agree that Drupal has entered interesting times where developers in the ranks are a little divided aboutwhere things are going.

But as I drove home, I couldn't help to think to myself, "Maybe you should get off your high horse."

Tell me if you've heard this before

Here's a list of things that suck (allegedly).

Apple sucks. Microsoft sucks. Java sucks. Ruby sucks. Python sucks. Rails sucks. PHP sucks. JavaScript sucks. WordPress sucks. Starbucks sucks. Dunkin' Donuts sucks. Chevy sucks. Ford sucks.

The list goes on and on and on and …

So here's the deal: what works for me, might not be the best for you, whatever it is. And the great thing is, THAT'S OK. Governments, news organizations, and educational institutions have adopted Drupal, by and large, because it works for them. Ford owners buy their vehicles because it works for them. Dunkin' Donuts drinkers (myself included) enjoy their coffee because it works for them.

So, to just flippantly say something sucks just because it doesn't work for you is a wee bit immature.

I won't be so bold as to say I've never said that something sucks. I will say, thankfully, that as I mature I'm finding it's a big world filled with lots of opportunity, and I need to find what works for me and roll with it. And for that matter, you should do likewise.

Words have incredible power.

If I had a different mindset, I could certainly see myself thinking, "I don't think I'll go back to that group," seeing as the first time I visited the thing that puts food on my table and clothes on my family's backs was flippantly disregarded. But, I'm a big boy. I can take a lot of what you throw at me. But someone else might not be as resilient.

But that brings me to my final point.

Learn the fine art of thinking before speaking

We have a saying around the office: "I can't fix 'it sucks.'"

Criticism is fine, as long as it is useful. But criticizing for criticism's sake? I don't see the value in it. Perhaps before we speak, we should take Jason Fried's advice and give it five minutes.

If you want to critique, offer ways things could be better. It could provide a fantastic opportunity to learn something for all parties involved. Through dialogue, rather than complaining, you might just gain insight that you couldn't have gotten otherwise.

Does that mean I don't think there's a time and place for disdain or disagreement? Oh my, not at all. But critiquing without discovery isn't fruitful, and could end up doing more harm than you thought.

And frankly, that sucks.

In review: 2014

A long December and there's reason to believe, maybe this year will be better than the last. - Counting Crows, A Long December

It is time for my annual "year in review," where I take stock of the year and look forward at plans to come. Let's just get into it.


  • Completing a Whole30 (again) - One of my goals was to finish a second round of the Whole30. I did in January 2014, but wasn't as pleased with my progress as I had hoped. I would later look back and realize I shouldn't have been disappointed (more on this later in the post).
  • Build something - Another goal was to "build something," in 2014, and I'm pleased to say I did. In March, I made a bookshelf for my daughters. I also cobbled together a wooden stable for my oldest daughter's play horse, and made myself a little table to sit next to my recliner at the house. In the beginning of December, I launched Candy Cane Lanes, a project I have had on my mind for a few years.
  • Pursue minimalism - I got to see The Minimalists in person, and went home completely inspired. Shortly thereafter, I started writing about my (seemingly never ending) journey toward minimalism at The Chaff. I made great strides in getting rid of many of my personal possessions, but I still have such a long way to go.
  • Had a son - OK, this wasn't really on my list of goals last year, but once we found out we were pregnant, it became a pretty big priority. Rogan Archer Gruber was born Aug. 23, 2014. I like him (but we are so totally done having kids).


  • Obstacle race - I really wanted to do a Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder race, but it didn't happen. I didn't make it a priority, so I didn't train, and the goal was never realized.
  • The Final Debt - We didn't make a lot of progress paying on our last debt (the student loans). After finding out we were pregnant, we stopped paying extra on debt and instead put money in savings. This was a wise decision, and one I don't regret. We did keep ourselves from adding any new debt, especially when we cut up the last credit card in July.
  • House project - No, I didn't get hardly anything done around the house that I wanted. I did get our garage door fixed, and took card of "necessary maintenance," but painting and upgrades were a no go. At least I have all the paint purchased, should I have the energy to get started (babies tend to wear you out in the early months).
  • Stress, Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt - This year turned out to be a year full of change for me, with some positives with a lot of negatives. It's been really stressful. I had to work hard to keep it together, but somehow, I did. But the stress of the year came with a price. I haven't kept up my exercise routine that I was so diligently following. I used food for comfort instead of nourishment, and now I find myself longing to do a Whole30 to heal my body and mind (and probably go longer than 30 days). Things have sort of stabilized for now, but I need to do more to get things running optimum. Maybe I should set some goals. Speaking of which ...


Looking ahead at 2015, I see it as a period for a reboot. Let's just call it a rebuilding year.

  • Total health reset - Not long ago, I walked at least 10,000 steps a day, lifted two or three times per week, and ate mostly unprocessed, whole foods. I felt great. So, my goal for 2015 is to get back to that healthy mind/body state, without being preachy about it.
  • More minimalism - I am so happy with all I managed to jettison this year, but I have lots more to go, especially with a family of five. It's time to get the kids on board, and really tackle the rest of our possessions, together. If Joshua Becker can do it, so can we.
  • House projects (no really) - I need to paint the inside and outside of the house. I have purchased bathroom flooring that needs installed. I also need to fix our lawn after all the wear-and-tear it took from my wife's business, which closed in May. This may or may not preclude selling the house, but these projects need done, regardless.
  • Write more - Between this site, The Chaff, and my totally neglected development blog, Save Early and Often, I have no shortage of outlets for doing more with words. I do wonder how many blogs a minimalist can have and still be a minimalist ...
  • Start a podcast - I'm going to put this in the "Maybe, we'll see" category. I was recently a guest on the Better Know a Jackal podcast, and I really, really enjoyed it. I have the hardware, I have experience with making a few episodes of a podcast before, and I have the skills to put it all together. I think I'd like to take a stab at it, once I figure out some vague idea of what I think it might be about. But again, we'll see. I've got plenty to work on already.

I guess that wraps it up.

I have this tradition where on New Year's Eve every year I listen to the Counting Crows song, A Long December, while I wait for the ball to drop. It has been a long December, and an even longer year. Here's to 2015; may it be one of rebuilding.

Just wanted to say thanks

When I was just a young pup, I grew up in a town that loved baseball.

I got my start in the local Little League, but a problem with my knees forced me to sit out all of middle school from playing any sports. Then, as a sophomore, I was granted a clean bill of health.

By that time I was too late in the game to be good at any sport, but I did still enjoy watching baseball. That is, until the strike. Then my taste soured for baseball for a very long time.

How long? Until this year, when the Royals rallied and got all of nearby Kansas City fired up. I have really enjoyed watching the games and was heartbroken when they lost last night. But, they did well. They should be proud of their accomplishments.

And so, Royals, I just wanted to say thanks. You made baseball fun to watch. I look forward to next season.

Ending the compromise

Cut up your credit cards. If you use a credit card, you don’t want to be rich. — Marc Cuban, How to Get Rich

What seems like forever ago, my wife and I were on a crusade to eliminate our debt.

A friend had turned me on to Dave Ramsey's plan, and we went after it with a vengeance. We killed our credit card and automobile debt and had money in the bank.

When our first child was born shortly after, everything stalled. We didn't incur new credit card debt, but we weren't making the kind of progress we were on other debts pre-kid. And then kid No. 2 came along. We needed a van, which we bought on credit.

The compromises began. We got credit cards again. And then in 2010, we purchased a house. Along with that came its own expenses, and because we weren't following Ramsey's plan, the expenses mounted up. The credit card bills started rising. We were fools.

A year ago, my wife and I took our 10-year anniversary vacation, and while we were traveling across the great state of Arkansas, we got to discussing all of those things above. We decided to change. We couldn't let things go any further, so on Aug. 1, we refocused our efforts on getting out of debt. I took on more side jobs, and by the end of the year, we had paid off the last of the credit cards.

Except we didn't; when you have a credit card you tend to use it. We didn't typically carry a balance, but it happened a couple of times. Finally we realized: any credit card was too many.

Since my wife closed her business in May, we've found that by embracing the constraint of a temporary smaller income, we can live within our means just fine. It's a challenge, but certainly doable. And so, we've decided to cut the last safety net and embrace constraints even more.

Today over lunch, I shut down the last two credit cards. We are done; no more of this. We will use cash and our debit card, and focus our remaining efforts on paying off the student loans for good. Perhaps the best part was that instead of using my children as a crutch for why we couldn't get out of debt, they've now become a driver for why we will. And so, I had them help me get rid of the last one.

So now, forward. We have no auto loans and no credit card debt. The only thing we owe is our student loans. For the first time since we graduated college, we paid extra on the student loans this month. And when those things are gone, it's "Hello, Disney World!"

It's a good feeling to be where we are today. Today is a good day.

The end of a chapter

After almost four years in business, my wife, Amy Gruber, is shutting down her business, Tiny Tykes Playcare. Today is its last day.

This post is in praise of Amy.

Amy Gruber

When we got had our first daughter in 2006, Amy was working for a school district 30 miles from home. It didn't take long for her to determine she didn't want someone else to raise her child while she went off to work. She finished out the school year, and then found other employment that allowed her to be mom in the day, and worker bee in the evening.

And so, when we had our second daughter in 2009, she got to thinking about how she could stay at home with her children, yet continue to make a living. She decided upon the idea of using her teaching background and created a preschool in our home. Her desire was to create an intimate, manageable setting for teaching young minds, while still being able to be mom.

She did it. With very little advertising, no media coverage (I tried, but I guess they weren't interested), and mostly guerrilla marketing, she transformed our home into a school. She was able to achieve everything she set her mind to, and was blessed to have a steady stream of customers while educating young minds in the process.

Running a business is quite difficult. I've watched how much it's consumed her time and her mental energy. From the (quite idiotic) regulations she had to keep up with, shopping for food for her kiddos each week, keeping up with a curriculum, training, and constant cleaning, she pulled it off fantastically — all while being mother and wife. I don't know if many people knew just how good the hands were that their children were in. I realized I am biased, but I assure you: those kids were in excellent hands.

Perhaps most importantly, when our children look back at their lives, they will remember a mom who was there for them. This was the primary goal, and she achieved it.

But now we've turned a page in this chapter. We are expecting our third and final child in late August. She won't be able to continue doing Tiny Tykes Playcare with a newborn to take care of. We've taken steps over the past few years to whittle down debt, raise some income, and build some savings. Our ability to learn to live within our means will allow her to just focus on being a new mother.

We certainly feel blessed.

And so, she's reached the end of this chapter, and is starting a new one. Congrats to you, Amy. You have done excellent.


The other day on my way to work I had to take a different route.

School is out, and the college kids are leaving for the summer, so that means the city's street construction is ramping up. Most of it is in my path in and out of Lawrence, so I've been getting creative in finding ways across the city to the highway that takes me to work.

In the eastern part of Lawrence, I was stopped behind a couple of cars at an intersection when I noticed a young woman pushing her child in a stroller. After she crossed, I noticed her looking up at one of the houses, seemingly examining its features. She looked relaxed and casual and in no particular hurry.

I found myself wanting to trade places with her for the day.

Life has been a bit of a roller coaster ride as of late. Work has been insane. My hometown was hit by a tornado so we went there so I could assist with the cleanup. Our vehicles each had issues days apart of each other, which I repaired myself. We traveled to watch my mother-in-law's graduation from college for her Master's degree. The house has had some projects I needed to take care of.

Add all of that up along with daily life, and it's been a busy time. It has started to dawn on me: I'm burning out and need some sort of a break.

Typically I save up my vacation time for late July, when the kids go to the grandparents during our anniversary week, and the wife and I enjoy a week to ourselves. I'm not sure I'll make it until then. I'm feeling wore out.

But taking time off right now really isn't that feasible. The kids are still in school, so time off wouldn't afford me the ability to do anything with the family. A co-worker is going on vacation next week, so that's pretty much out of the picture anyway. After that, it's off to DrupalCon. That might sound like a vacation, but my experience last year taught me it's a week full of stuffing my brain with ideas and then walking everywhere.

And then, my birthday. I'll be 38 on June 8. So, what should I make of all of this? I don't think this hints of anything exceptionally wrong, but just that I'm learning how to really listen to my body. It's a lot like when the temperature reaches above 74 degrees in the house; I don't need to check anymore. I get uncomfortable and know it's time to turn on the air conditioning.

My body is telling me I need to get some things in my life under better management. My workouts have, for the most part, dwindled down to nothing. I haven't gotten outside much lately, which I need to change. A weekend camping trip sounds like it would do me a world of good right now.

I am in need of some balance. Time to go find it.

In KC: Austin Kleon and The Minimalists

Wednesday turned out to be author night in Kansas City.

I'm not sure how I missed it until Wednesday morning, but I found out Austin Kleon (as he puts it, he's an author who draws) was speaking at the Middle of the Map Fest. I jetted down to OfficePort and enjoyed hearing him speak. I've read two of his books — Steal Like an Artist and Show Your Work — and if you consider yourself a creative type, I highly recommend them.

It was great seeing him talk (and draw) live. By the time I discovered Kleon, it was past the point he had come to Kansas City to speak at TEDx. I'd say this made up for it.


Admittedly, Kleon wasn't my first pick for the evening. For months I've had arrangements to hear The Minimalists speak, and I wasn't disappointed last night. After listening to Kleon, I bolted north of the river to a nice little event space called Black on Burlington to check these guys out.

The Minimalists are two best friends: Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. Together with their vagabonding friend Colin Wright, they spoke about their journey to minimalism, how the audience could get there, and what to expect from the journey.

I've followed their writing on their blog for awhile now off and on. The message of the minimalist philosophy is appealing. Imagine what your life would look like if you had less things in your life. Would you have more experiences? Better relationships? More personal satisfaction with life? Would your mind be more free with less?

I like to joke that I struggle with what I call sentimental attachment disorder. There are these things from my past that hold great sentimental value to me, but I haven't let go of them. Their artifacts of the past, mementos of a live already played out,  yet I hold onto them. Why?

One of the oft-repeated messages of the night was this: When you go to purchase something, ask yourself: "Will this thing add value to my life?" If the answer is no, then don't buy it. It's because we don't say "no" enough, we get all this crap. What happens when we cut out the stuff? Will we be willing to live with what remains?

I had the pleasure of speaking with all three of the aforementioned men after the show. I was chatting a bit before I got in line and ended up being dead last. They insisted on greeting me with a hug (as they did everyone else) and I obliged. It was ... nice. Excellent, really. We talked. I talked. And actually, it seemed as though they listened. They were not simply waiting for their turn to speak. I'm guilty of that. How about you?

Their message was convincing, enough so that I think I'll try their 21-day challenge. And I've already started asking myself the question quite a few times, just today: Will this thing add value to my life? To close the night, Millburn gave a little thought to take with us. I've illustrated it below.



The bookshelf

One of the benefits of living in an age where manufactured goods proliferate is that the cost of things goes down while their availability goes up. Unfortunately, that can also be a curse. It's not a big secret, but a lot of the "easy-to-assemble" furniture you can buy in a store isn't of great quality. I'd love to purchase more high-end furniture, but it's often out of a price range I'm willing to pay. But for those times when I did spend the extra cash, I've been pleased with the purchase.

shelf-crap The old bookshelf is falling apart. Note the sides of each shelf where the sides are pulling away. This is a disaster waiting to happen.

My girls have tons of books. After fixing their particle-board bookshelf to keep it from falling apart late last year, I decided that would be the last time. I would build them a bookshelf. I put it on my list of goals for 2014. In the evening of Jan. 17, the start of a three-day weekend for me, I started the work.

My goal was to work hard and fast and get it completed no later than the following Monday on Jan. 20. You see, I'm a great starter but not a great finisher, and I wanted to prove to myself I could beat my own bad processes.

As I got going, I found myself giving in to my temptations. This was for my girls, so it had to be perfect. I kept finding imperfections in the wood that I would keep sanding away at. That process was exacerbated by my refusal to buy an electric hand sander. After buying all the wood, brass screws, and paper and a few other things, I didn't want to shell out another $30 plus for a sander.

The refusal to buy a sander proved to be the most idiotic decision of this build. At first it seemed almost romantic. The sandpaper in my hand, I caressed the wood. It seemed to talk to me, telling me how it wanted to be shaped. I examined every detail, and when I found an imperfection I'd spend minutes on that one area making it absolutely perfect.

Eventually I needed a break. Covered in sawdust, my hand cramping, losing time, I told my wife why it was taking so long.

She asked, "You think $30 is too much for an electric hand sander?"

"I don't now," I said.

I didn't finish by Jan. 20. My minimum viable product hadn't been achieved, and I ended my three-day weekend with the project undone.

Then the cold hit. The snow came. Weeks upon weeks of frigid temperatures  made it undesirable to work in my garage. The bookshelf sat there until we had a break in the weather. I propped open the garage door and worked more on it one weekend. Things were looking good.

And then more cold came, with more snow. More delays. My dad gave me a saw I needed to finish the back. Finally last weekend the weather was great enough for the final stage: a few coats of clear lacquer.

My desire was to put on one more coat before I attached the back and called it done. But this week, the shelf my girls' room began to deteriorate very quickly. It was the end of the road. I needed to finish the shelf. I needed to ship. After breakfast today, I made coffee and headed to the garage. I nailed in the backing, and carried it inside.

The finished bookshelf. It's rock solid.

The bookshelf has some imperfections. This is not the build of a master craftsman. There are some pencil marks I didn't get fully sanded out. The backing has some uneven cuts in places. The lacquer isn't perfectly smooth. And I would have really liked to put on one more coat.

But all of that really doesn't matter. Done is better than perfect.

It is done.


When I got married, my wife was surprised and a little bit relieved that I didn't like to watch sports.

I grew up as a sports fan, a little bit, but in my adult years I didn't see the point in it. I played Little League baseball, and would like liked to play more football, but a rare disease called osteochondritis dissecans forced me to sit out of sports for several years.

The summer between my freshman and sophomore years of high school, my doctor said I was in the clear and that I could play anything I wanted. "I want to play football," I told him, and did until I finished high school. Since I didn't have all the years of experience that my peers did, I really wasn't that good. But I had a lot of fun, and lessons learned playing the sport have resonated throughout my life's journey.

In recent years, I've been more interested in watching sports, much to my wife's shock. I didn't really have a way to explain it, until I heard an interview with Michael Douglas on Alec Baldwin's show, Here's the Thing.

You can hear the episode where, 5 minutes and 36 seconds in, Douglas puts to words exactly what I've been thinking.

Baldwin: "What is your relationship to going to the movies now?"

Douglas: "I'm really embarrassed to say this, but, I'm not a moviegoer. I don't see many movies."

Baldwin: "Why not?"

Douglas: "I waste so much time watching news and sports. I love watching sports because, you know, I can't tell you how it's going to end. My problem with movies is, you know, you get halfway through a movie and ... 'You see, I was right.' I love making movies, but I'm really bad Alex when it comes to seeing them."

Many of today's movies have become copies of each other. Like Douglas, I find myself watching a movie and figuring out the finale way too soon. Documentaries are no different. I used to love them, but once you've seen a movie about how bad our food supply is, the fall of Wall Street, the corruption of money and government, or how everything around you sucks, you've pretty much seen them all.

Sports is a crapshoot. You just don't know how it'll end. You think you know, but you have no idea. I totally thought the Broncos were the darlings everyone said they were and that they'd win the Super Bowl. Seeing how I dislike the Broncos so much, I was pleasantly surprised (and the Seahawks gained a new fan) when they lost big time.

Tonight, as the Jayhawks play the Sooners, I'll gladly watch to see who will win.

Surprise me.


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