Though the weather has been increasingly spring-like lately, I've been hoping for one more good snow. No one seemed to share this hope; they simply looked at me with shaking heads. This morning I woke up to what you see above. Not quite the six inches I'd hoped for, but I'll take it.

Am I crazy? Probably. I do like cold weather, though, and there's just something about a good snow that brings a bit of the wild to this manmade landscape.


Changing Your Own Oil: Black Gold

Thanks to Suzanne for her comment on my post, 12 Ways to Live More Cheaply. Along the lines of saving money on auto maintenance and repair, I wanted to add a tip. Change your own oil.

Not everyone will be willing to try this, but it is really much easier than you'd think, and it will save you a good bit of money. I used to change my oil on occasion when I was in college, but I'd left it up to others for several years now. That was until I went to Jiffy Lube recently, with a $7 off coupon, and still ended up paying $38 for a basic oil change. There's no excuse for that.

Now, it is possible (easy, really) to find oil changes for less than what I paid, but even at $20-25, you can still save money. Plus, you have the added benefit of familiarizing yourself with your vehicle, being certain you're getting quality oil and filters and doing it on your schedule.

So, what's involved? Every make and model's going to have its own specifics, so do a bit of research or purchase the Haynes manual for your car. Your owner's manual should help you identify the recommended type of oil, the capacity of your engine and the location of the oil filer. Beyond that, these basics will get most of the way there:

First, you'll need jack stands or ramps ($20-60). You may be fortunate enough to have enough ground clearance (the distance between the pavement and the bottom of your car) that you don't need them, but chances are good that you will. To use jack stands, you raise up one corner of your car with the factory-issued emergency jack, slide the jack stand under a solid frame point, adjust to height and lower the car onto it. Repeat on other side if needed. Ramps are quicker and fairly self-explanatory, but I'd recommend using them with a second person acting as a spotter. Chocks to keep the grounded wheels from rolling are a good idea, too, though wood blocks or other things can work as well.

Second, you'll need oil and an oil filter. The oil cap on your engine should indicate the type of oil you need and your owner's manual will tell you how many quarts. Auto parts stores often have deals on 5 quarts and a filter for $13-15. They'll also have books (and employees) that can help you identify compatible oil filters.

Third, take your oil filter and look at the oil filter wrenches ($5-10). Find a universal one that fits it or, even better, find a wrench specific to your filter size that can be used on a socket wrench (if you have one). In a pinch, you can simply take a screwdriver, punch a hole in the old oil filter and screw it off, but that's pretty messy. Ideally, the filter should only be hand-tightened on, so it shouldn't be too hard to get it off, but it often is.

Fourth, get a drain pan ($10). There are a variety of them that can capture your old oil then store it until you take it for recycling (at the same place you bought the oil--Autozone, Murray's, etc.). Be warned, however, that nearly all of them leak. So store it laying down, not standing up.

Fifth, figure out the size of the oil drain plug (the bolt on the bottom of your engine where the old oil is drained) and get a wrench to fit or a socket to go on your socket wrench if you don't already have one. My Honda's was a 17mm. I had 15 and 19mm but had to go pick up the proper one. This shouldn't cost more than $3 or so.

Lastly, be sure to have some rags on hand to wipe up spills. Work gloves and a flashlight can be useful, as well. And a funnel can be handy but isn't necessary if you're careful pouring the oil in.

The first time you change your oil may be a bit daunting and take longer than expected. Once you get the hang of it, it shouldn't be hard to knock it out in 15-20 minutes. And, once you make your initial investment in a few tools, you'll be saving anywhere from $5-25 with every change. Nice, eh? You'll probably find that changing your own air filter is simple, too, and costs about a third of what others would charge you.

One other way to save money is by changing your oil every 5,000 miles rather than every 3,000. Most modern cars don't need the oil changed as often as the Jiffy-Quickie-Speedy folks say. It's simply a money maker for them.

WARNING: While changing your oil is very simple, if not done right, it can be dangerous. I've given you the tools and, hopefully, the motivation to do it. I'm not walking you through the specific steps, however. Be sure to research the process for your vehicle or find someone knowledgeable to walk you through it. Once you have it down, I suspect you'll enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. Be safe and enjoy it!


Feel the Pain

By God’s grace, I am celebrating ten years of sobriety today. It’s good to mark these milestones. I hope you’ll indulge me a moment as I’d like to share something specifically for those in need of some milestones, some distance from their bondage.

If you are going to experience healing from addiction and other types of brokenness, you have to be willing to feel the pain. Just as the old fitness adage goes, No pain, no gain. It sounds trite and easy to say, but is so true.

We desperately want God to deliver us from our addiction to porn or our thirst for alcohol or our inability to be without a “romantic” relationship. We long to be free. We pray. We study. We might even fast. But we don’t experience that freedom. Why? I believe a lot of it has to do with our fleshly self-preservation instinct. We avoid the pain. We’re not willing to feel the pain. We simply want God to take the pain and addiction away and make us whole.

Do you know what? He can do that. He has that power. But I believe that He often doesn’t because we would learn nothing and the glory would most likely be misappropriated. In order to fully put our trust in God and surrender our addictions and hurts, we must set aside those things we are using to soothe ourselves. We must be willing to see our broken state unclouded by chemicals or other distractions. There’s some truth to the 12-step notion of “hitting rock bottom” before you can begin to heal. At that point, you are completely vulnerable and really seeing your life for what it is.

Now, I’d like to point out that the same holds true whether you have earned your addiction all on your own or if you’ve been wounded by others. It would be easy to excuse those who’ve been wounded, believing that they are entitled, at least to a certain extent, to some balm for their pain. Why should they have to re-live the pain to receive healing, right? But however we got where we are, God wants us to put our complete faith in Him. In order to do that, we must let go of our bottles, our remotes, our Blackberries—whatever is lulling us into a false sense of wholeness—and feel the pain. Then, with both hands open and outstretched to the One who knows our hurts like no other, we can receive the healing, the freedom, that we desperately need.

Parting Ways with Bipartisanship

Someone once said Republicans are the party of bad ideas, while Democrats are the party of no ideas. And there’s nothing worse than when the two join forces and say, “Hey, let’s team up and see how we can make that bad idea of yours even worse”.

Let’s talk about bipartisanship. The term’s been thrown around a lot lately, but what does a “bipartisan bill” or “working in a bipartisan manner” really mean? On a literal level, it means Democrats and Republicans are working together to accomplish something. I think it also suggests some sort of noble compromise, a setting aside of petty ideologies for the greater good. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? Politicians are right up there with used car salesman for most folks, so any time they’re on speaking terms with one another and not simply pipelining pork back to their districts, it seems like a good thing.

I’d like to suggest that it’s not.

When people choose cooperation over fighting, it’s usually a good thing. But not always. Our Founding Fathers (and their wives, I’m certain), constructed a government that was intentionally branched to provide checks and balances on power. We have the—c’mon folks, say it with me—the Executive branch, the Legislative branch and the Judicial branch. Each has a role and each has some authority to rein in the others’ power (though the Judicial branch is probably a good deal more unfettered than was intended).

What happens, though, when one party gains control of all three branches? Do the checks and balances work as intended? Not really, which brings me to my point. Some people complain that Republicans are becoming the party of “no.” Fine. People will complain. They want their change and they want it now. But in the long run, if the minority opposition doesn’t stay vocal and adversarial, they grant far too much power to the majority. It is their responsibility to say “no” whenever they feel it’s needed, and they shouldn’t be ashamed or cowed in doing so.

The same really holds true for both Democrats and Republicans. Either party, with majority control of all three branches, has potential for great abuses of power. I will say, though, that the Democrats’ intrinsic fondness for big government does exacerbate the problem of one-party rule, though Republicans have certainly not shied away from enlarging government in recent years.

So, regardless of your political affiliation, let’s stop assuming bipartisanship is always a good thing and acknowledge that partisanship is not only typical but necessary for a healthy democracy. Let’s hear it for the dissenters!


Thoughts on Cloning and Other Life Issues

I’ve sworn off commenting on news sites for the duration of Lent, possibly beyond. It’s become a frustrating and distracting exercise in futility. So, rather than “cast pearls before swine” and reap sophomoric ad hominem attacks in return, I’m going to post some political commentary on this blog. Hopefully these posts will be food for thought, whether you agree with my perspective or not.

This week, President Obama overturned President Bush’s ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. At the same time, he expressed that human cloning, a potential path for embryonic research, is “dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society.” He added that this action was “about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda – and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

There is much that could be said about this. One could address Obama’s severely misplaced priorities; his convenient use of ideology one moment followed by his condemnation of it the next; or the propriety/impropriety of using tax dollars to fund research which definitely destroys human life while only potentially saving or improving life for others. But these criticisms are being addressed well enough by others elsewhere. I want to look at a couple of things few are talking about.

Let’s talk cloning. Obama describes it as “dangerous” and “profoundly wrong.” Based on what, I wonder? Human cloning certainly has a stigma to it. There’s a sci-fi thrill we get thinking about it, but few people—polls suggest roughly 10%—support the practice. People of faith often have a gut instinct that human cloning is “playing God” and, therefore, wrong.

Contrary to movie portrayals, clones wouldn’t be soulless (as far as I know), arrive as adults or have the same minds as their “original.” They’d just be a much younger twin of whoever was being cloned, but shaped in unique ways by the environmental variables and decisions made in their own life. So what is the big issue, aside from feeling that it’s creepy or narcissistic? As odd as it is to say, I really don’t have any strong objections to the practice of human cloning, at least on the surface level. Unlike embryonic stem cell research, the end product of human cloning is not a lost life but a living twin. The likelihood of human embryos being killed in the process of perfecting such a thing is a problem for me, and I don’t believe we should ever even consider cloning for “parts.” I just can’t find a solid basis for considering it “profoundly wrong,” though I’m open to hearing the arguments.

So, I’m not bothered by cloning. But I think we’re really asking the wrong questions on these issues. We’re pondering the morality of cloning and the appropriateness of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but I’m not certain we’ve really thought through the implications of manipulating life and reproduction in the first place. It’s like asking if it’s right to build a children’s hospital with stolen money. Regardless of the good done in the end, it doesn’t negate the wrong done in the first place.

Here in the U.S. and in many parts of the world, there are large numbers of children waiting to be adopted. At the same time, with advances in fertility treatments, previously barren couples are now able to have their own biological children. On the face it of, this would seem like a good thing. But is it? While I have no wish to condemn those who’ve gone this route—I’m a father and know the powerful desire to have children—this is really a powerful tragedy and one that is compounded. It is one thing to have structural defects repaired to enable a couple to reproduce. It is yet another thing to spend tens of thousands of dollars for in vitro fertilization (IVF) and other treatments, some of which result in embryos that are then destroyed. Lives are lost, fortunes are wasted and orphan children are neglected, all for the sake of one (or more) biological child.

Just because we can do something, technologically, doesn’t mean that we should. What would the world look like if one generation of people chose to adopt rather than go to extraordinary measures to have their own, biological children? If the president wants to "get radical," he should try that one on for size.


12 Ways to Live More Cheaply

Unemployed? Feeling the financial crunch? Or maybe just wanting to live more frugally? Here are a dozen ways you can save during times both lean and fat. Feel free to add your ideas in the Comments section below.

1. Get rid of your landline and keep your cell contract. Also, resist the urge to upgrade your phone and get a more expensive plan with more minutes. Just be diligent about watching your minutes.
2. If you’re keeping your landline to keep your DSL, don’t. Most providers now offer standalone DSL at decent rates, but you’ll have to do a bit of looking; they don’t push this service.
3. Shop at Aldi. Granted, there are some things you can’t get at Aldi, but you should be able to do at least 75% of your grocery shopping there and save TONS. There are some things, such as Smart Balance spread and good salmon for which you may need to look elsewhere. Produce is better than expected, though quality and selection will vary. If you’re currently a Whole Foods loyalist and can’t imagine shopping at Aldi, stepping down to Trader Joe’s will cut your bill substantially without totally offending your “foodie” sensibilities.
4. Toss the Mach 3/4/5 razor and switch to double-sided safety razors. I bought a two-year supply of blades (100) for $8.50. That would buy me roughly 3-4 of the latest “high-tech” blades. I tried to go all the way and use shaving soap and a brush but wasn’t satisfied. So, I use the super cheap blades and whatever generic sensitive skin foam’s available and get a very smooth shave for pennies, literally.
5. Be a “late adopter.” OK, full-disclosure here. I’m a Consumer Reports guy. I don’t subscribe anymore, but I have in the past and still research big purchases thoroughly. OK, small purchases, too. There’s just too much easily-accessible product information out there not to. If you want to save money and buy things that last, be patient and thorough—be a late adopter.
6. If you don’t have health insurance, be sure to look into the many generic prescription plans available at pharmacies these days. Check the list of covered prescriptions first, but if they include even one or two of yours, it would likely save you a good deal of money. I save around $80 on one prescription every three months through the CVS program.
7. If you own a car, find a good mechanic. Unless your car is under warranty, it really doesn’t make sense to take your car to the dealership for repairs. Though they may have some unique familiarity with your particular make and model, unless you’re driving a DeLorean or Trabant, any competent mechanic should be able to make most repairs and do it much more cheaply than the dealership. Ask friends for recommendations.
8. Sell stuff on eBay. The fees have gone up for selling things on eBay, so it’s not as lucrative as it once was, but you surely have some things lying around which could be sold. If you haven’t used it in the past year, consider it fair game.
9. Stop eating out. Or, if you do it, be intentional. Instead of going out for a big dinner for a date, eat dinner at home then go out for coffee and dessert. Eat frozen pizzas. They’re nearly as good as freshly-baked these days and cost much, much less. Keep one in the freezer to avoid breaking down and getting one delivered.
10. Shop online. Let’s face it, for many items, shipping costs are going to be cheaper than the outrageous Chicago sales tax (10.25%). Plus, you can comparison shop more easily, read reviews and save on gas.
11. Instead of going to movies or even renting them, check out Hulu.com for a good number of free, streaming movies and TV shows. Or sign up for Netflix’s cheapest package for around $9 which allows you to have one DVD out at a time but also allows you access to a lot of instant online movies and shows. If you have an urge to watch a new release that you can’t find elsewhere, try out the $1 rentals at the Red Box kiosks located at many area grocery stores. Just remember not to keep it too long or the fees add up. Public libraries have a surprisingly decent selection of movies, as well, and most are free to check out.
12. Bake a cake instead of buying one for special occasions. A decent cake’s going to run you $15 or more these days as the cost of many basics has gone up. Save at least half by grabbing whatever brands of mix and frosting are on sale at the grocery store or save even more by making it from scratch.