Lookout Mountain, Chattanooga

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

It's all just a balancing act

I’m a planner. I’ve been a planner from way back. You’d think that would automatically make me well organized. Naaaaa. Achieving that goal is a constant struggle. Unless I’m expecting company, papers cover most available surfaces.

The trouble is I don’t like to file. Yuk. I do like to recycle, and therein lies the problem. I have to study every piece of mail that comes in before I can sort into toss, shred, or recycle-whole piles.

But when a bill comes in, I pay it. When a vacation’s in the works, I compare locations, airfare, and lodging possibilities for days on end. When the laundry’s wet, I dry it. And when my husband comes home from work, dinner’s waiting for him.

I tell you, I’m on top of things. Most of the time.

But in my twenties, I saved $10,000 and blew all of it going on a one-month European vacation and two years of court reporting school that didn’t pan out. By my early thirties, I’d saved another $15,000 and spent it on a wedding, a car, a baby, a house. In my mid thirties, the second baby arrived. Did we question long-term expenses? Heck, no! We lived on a wing, a prayer, and, Steve’s ability to pull in a steady paycheck. The urge to contribute to the family finances overwhelmed me on occasion, but it was never calculated to last.

And we never really worked out a budget. The mere word struck terror in my heart. We didn’t spend much and, therefore, no budget was needed. Or so I claimed. The truth was that I was afraid I’d find out I should spend even less.

But now retirement looms, and it’s time to ask—well, actually, considerably too late since this question should be addressed in one’s twenties:  Is retirement something we can afford? And, more importantly, when?

To my way of thinking, the best retirement calculator is T. Rowe Price’s: http://www3.troweprice.com/ric/ricweb/public/ric.do?adcode=7208&PlacementGUID=66B8A3E8203C44F389F50FE7E4482F7E

When using this, you’ll understand the need for another question: Where does the money go? And to figure that out, I just spent five hours poring over Quicken, labeling the expenditures I should’ve been labeling all along, and drilling into my head that I would need to continue to do so from this day hence.

Breathing a sigh of relief, I’ve determined that, at least, in my case, common sense = budget within means.

Phew. I don’t have to go back to work.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Home Sweet Home (yet again)

From the looks of this blog, you’d think that I vacation endlessly because: 1) I frequently write about vacationing, and 2) my blog entries are few and far between because I’m either preparing, experiencing, or recuperating from a vacation. And while it’s not true that I’m perpetually on vacation, it is true that I just returned from another.

As glamorous as Hawaii? Well, no. But, like the one in Hawaii, it was an action-packed vacation taken during lovely weather and enjoyed in good company (but this time, other than my husband). At the luau, I was surrounded by beautiful native women and muscle-bound native men. In Ohio, I experienced the same thing. My great nieces are nothing if not gorgeous, and my muscle-bound nephew spends untold hours lifting weights.

If someone asked me what I enjoyed best, I couldn’t say. Was it the visit with one of the lovely couples my husband, kids, and I have vacationed with throughout the past 30 years? How about dinner with a friend who knew my husband before I did? My mini-reunion with high school friends? The family lunch and dinner? Meeting the Amish for the first time? The breakfast with a friend or the tour of the Courthouse provided by another? The time I spent reading my book to appreciative first graders in my cousin’s library? A birthday celebration with a few of my aunts, uncles, and cousins? Watching a great niece wow the audience as she danced and sang her heart out? Holding my 3-month-old great nephew as he cooed and drifted off to sleep? 

Yes, it’s difficult to pinpoint THE highlight, but I do have to expound, as I did in an earlier blog entry, about the delights of getting together with friends I’d grown up with. Last January, four of us met in Nashville and couldn’t stop laughing for two days. This time, eight of us—plus a husband thrown in for good measure—met in Findlay for dinner, followed by dessert at the locally famous ice cream place, Dietsch’s, at which time we ran into a locally—and, apparently, nationally—famous basketball player by the name of Aaron Craft. (Not being a sports fan, I just assumed my friend knew the guy when she gushed, “Hi, Aaron.” I didn’t realize he wasn’t just another guy with whom she was flirting until she gave her husband a pen and said, “Don’t come back until you get his autograph! Get him to sign your t-shirt!” And, yes, it was an OSU t-shirt, and, yes, the husband came back with said signature. Anyway, the evening—and the laughter—continued on the back porch of a friend’s house, and I ended up feeling sorry for any class member who couldn’t join us that evening. 

And the visit with the Amish was eye-opening. My sister, having sponsored many foreign exchange students through the  years, often went to Holmes County to visit the Amish. She knew the area well. We visited the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center where a tour guide explained the heritage of Amish and Mennonite people from their Anabaptist (doubly baptized) beginnings in Zurich, Switzerland in 1525 to the present day via a 10 foot tall, 265 foot long mural-in-the-round. But, more gratifying as a visitor, I was invited into their homes. Through her regular visits, my sister, being the extrovert she is, made special friends. I learned a lot from my brief encounters; for instance, while I understood their primary mode of transportation was horse and buggy, I didn’t know that they could have others transport them. (One family had just returned from an Amtrak trip out west.) I didn’t know that they could get dispensation to obtain electricity under special circumstances—for instance, in the running of a sawmill. I didn’t realize that many of them had beginnings similar to my own. In fact, one of the women recalled her husband’s first encounter with an indoor bathtub—acquired before our own—she couldn’t get him out. (I remember our first tub, and it didn't have a drain.) To tell you the truth, I hadn’t realized that they were more like me than unlike me.

So, anyway, Bonnie’s Excellent Adventure was just that. I can’t answer the question of my favorite highlight adequately, but I can answer this one: Did I look good behind the wheel of the little red, rented Fiat? 

You bet!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Visiting the Big Island (a.k.a. HAWAII)

Some of you may have noticed that I haven't written for about a month. Trying to gather my thoughts since vacation has been an uphill battle. Preparing beforehand, the vacation itself, and recuperating afterwards took a huge amount of time. Keeping a journal while traveling resulted in a full-blown travelogue although I'm sparing you many of the details. (If you don't think I kept a list of expenses, addresses, phone numbers, every single dish that Steve and I ate, the books we read, and what movies we watched, you're sadly mistaken!) But here are a few facts:

April 16: Whereas I usually pack light, my bag weighed nearly 50 lbs., having to pack both cool- and warm-weather clothing (many of which were new--one can't experience a second honeymoon in old attire). We booked the airfare, rental car, housing, insurance, snorkeling trip, and luau through www.deltavacations.com. I had the foresight to download two movies.

April 17: We took a cab to the Huntsville airport, arriving at 5:45 a.m. The flight from ATL to LAX, although long, was relatively comfortable. Once there, we raced from plane to plane. The final leg of our trip—LAX to Kona—was miserable. The plane was the same size—a 757—yet, I'm convinced, it held more seats. The travel time was 13 hours altogether. (If you're planning a trip this size, you should include an additional 7 hours to get to Australia!)

Arriving on time, we admired the huts that comprised the Kona airport--and, no, we didn't get lei'ed. We picked up our rental car and went to the lovely condo we'd found through hotwire.com. We then drove to a nearby restaurant that sat on a hilltop overlooking the ocean.

April 18: We ate at a wonderful place called Bongo Ben’s and got on the road again. (Gas was $4.90/gallon compared to our own $3.75.) We drove to Point South, the most-southern tip of the U.S., surrounded on three sides by ocean. 

Our next stop was the Hawaii Volcano National Park; we saw a movie at the visitor’s center and visited the Jaggar Museum where we witnessed steam rising from the caldera as part of the Kilauea Volcano. Since it had turned into a chilly day—63 degrees with a brisk wind—we put off hiking until the next morning. We had reserved three nights at the Lazy Lehua Cottage, a place I found through www.vrbo.com.  Nestled in the rainforest, the place was lovely and private, requiring the warmth of the fireplaces but no drapes. (And all this for $120 a night!) Steve figured out how to get the key from the lockbox and laid it on the table. After touring the upstairs back porch, we went out to the downstairs back porch where he promptly shut the locked door. Oops! He was able to skim over the porch railing, walk around the front, and enter through the (fortunately) unlocked front door.  

We ate at the Thai Thai Garden Restaurant but not until we ruled out the lodge. After waiting for a couple of minutes with no greeting, Steve asked the woman behind the counter if we were in the right place to be seated. He said, “I don’t mean to be rude, but . . . .” and she said, “Are you sure? Because I’m helping another customer.” We walked out.

April 19:  We seemed to get a jump on the other hikers, arriving in the parking lot at 8:25 a.m. The four-mile hike took us down through a crater via switchbacks. With its moon-like surface, we had to follow piles of stones, called cairns, to make our way across and back up the other side via steeper switchbacks, sometimes including stairs. The morning was absolutely lovely, and I eventually zipped off the legs of my hiking pants. When we returned to the lot, we jumped in the car and drove the minute beyond to the lava tube hike, Lasting only about 15 minutes, the walk took us through a small cave made by the flow of lava. Named appropriately, the Lava Rock Cafe was our next stop. We took it easy that afternoon. 

Around 6:30 p.m., we headed to the park again in the chilly rain. We stopped to see the steam vents and then headed to the Jaggar Museum which revealed the perfect vantage point from which to witness the glow of the caldera.

April 20: Packing our backpacks with bananas, water, and raingear, we headed to the park for another hike. Setting out from the Maunahulu Trailhead, we hoped to walk 5 miles there and back. Mostly across desolate moonscape, it didn’t take much rain to convince us to turn around at the one-hour point. We donned raincoats, but the driving rain soaked our jeans below the knees. We stopped at the Pú u lookout but, otherwise, headed back. The sun came out again, and we headed by car down the Chain of Craters Road to see more and more craters. The wind at two of the lookout points quickly dried our pants, so we felt comfortable enough to dine at the Ohí a Café where we ate outside.  

We drove north to Hilo at 2:30 where we saw Rainbow Falls—yellow and muddy—and the boiling pots (but didn’t see what the attraction was). Afterwards we ate downtown at the Café Pesto. After dinner, we crossed the street to a park but quickly crossed back when we realized we were in the midst of some pretty unsavory characters. (It was sunset, and the homeless and druggies were settling in.) We also ran into two Hare Krishnas, a sight we hadn’t seen for quite awhile.  

April 21:  It rained heavily through the night but had leveled off by the time we hit the road yet again. Our first destination was the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden which we found off a 4-mile scenic drive. There we saw heavenly flowers, a gorgeous waterfall, plants with gigantic leaves that looked polished, and trees showing webs of above-ground roots. Although mostly quite sunny and beautiful, a tropical rain hit. We donned our raincoats and, for double protection, stood under a tree with very large leaves.  

Once we got on the road again, we headed north and then west. On the east, we had seen field after field of lava; on the west, we saw that again after going through desert-like conditions and passing several sandy beaches.

We arrived in Kona about 4. While the accommodations weren’t as lush as the previous two, it had its advantages—most notably a balcony looking toward the ocean just a few feet away! It was also within walking distance to everything we needed--and some things we didn't. (While in Kona, I discovered the delights of a Mai Tai.) 

April 22:  We ate breakfast and lunch at home and explored the sandy/rocky beach next to our condo. We found the Farmers Market. That evening found us at the King Kamehameha Luau where we enjoyed Polynesia dancing, fire-eating, music, and a wonderful dinner.  

April 23:  We walked a mile again to get to the pier for our expedition on the Body Glove. We boarded at 8:45 and ate a hearty breakfast on our way to Pawaí i Bay. Steve signed up for a 30-minute underwater trip (called snuba diving). He loved it, and when he was finished snuba-ing, he snorkeled with me. I had trouble getting out because my right foot cramped with the first two attempts. Third time was the charm, and one of the instructors dragged me toward the shore holding onto a small raft because I couldn’t seem to make it on my own steam. The angelfish and sea urchin were abundant. There was a grill onboard, and lunch was provided. I got only slightly seasick.

April 24:  Our big outing today was to visit a sandy beach touted as the most beautiful beach in the U.S., Hapuna Beach. The sea was beautifully colored and the water was warm, but it has nothing over Gulf Shores! The stinging sand, sent by the fierce breeze, drove us off the beach—but not until after Steve’s head took a blow from a flying boogie board!

On the way home, we passed a sign that read “Donkey crossing for the next two miles during dawn and sunset.” Since this included some serious acreage of lava field, we couldn’t manage where they’d be coming from or going to.

April 25, our last day on the Big Island: We hiked to Captain Cook’s monument at Kealakekua Bay. Being downhill all the way meant it made for a really hot, hard climb to 1300 feet above sea level on the way back. The bay was beautiful; the monument was large. On the uphill trip back, we walked by an unsaddled, rider-less horse, a mongoose, and four horseback riders. 

Since our plane wasn't leaving until nearly 9 p.m., we walked around a lot, taking advantage of free WiFi to download movies for the return plane trip. The trip home was even more painful than the one there, including a self-imposed 5-hour layover in LA. (We each received $400 vouchers for volunteering to be bumped.)

Fall-out from the trip: I experienced crackling in my right ear and Steve had some sinus issues for the next three days. Fortunately, both conditions cleared up fairly quickly.

And if you want any more details, just ask!  :-)