Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Tales From the School Yard: Chalk Spacescapes

I recently got a project funded on Donors Choose, and within a week, my new art materials were pouring in...including some chalk pastels, which arrived just in time for this week's lessons.

My middle school kids would never admit it, but they do rather like trying new things, and the chalks have been a hit this week (you know your lesson plan is a win when a 7th grade boy walks in and says, "This is cool!!"). Yesterday, I made them follow along with a couple of videos that showed them how to use chalks and do some cool blending techniques, but today, I let them loose with black construction paper and a few sample ideas I found on the internet.

They took it from there. : )

This one is mine. Not finished!


I'll take more pictures as they finish, and I have plans to hang them around the school for everyone to enjoy.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

My State Is Prettier Than Yours

Today, I gave Sylvie some room to stretch her legs, taking her out to the gorgeous California coast via Highway 1. My silver girl loves the windy roads, and handled them like an absolute champ--even managing to maintain a 35 mpg average all day!

Springtime in California is fleeting--before long all the green will dry up and the heat wave will settle in for months at a time. But right now, it is glorious, and I enjoyed my wander immensely.

Good morning, Syl! While I loved my RoPro, I have to admit
that Sylvie has grown on me VERY fast. 

A small market in Bodega Bay, where I found some post cards
for my brother.

Bodega Bay is...obviously...on a bay, so this was my first
glimpse of open ocean.

At a restaurant in Bodega Bay. :)

I headed north of Bodega Bay for a bit and stopped to get some
shots of the Pacific. 

Spring time means our state flower, the Golden Poppy, pops up
(pun most definitely intended) everywhere.

Pardon the copious bird droppings. 

Arch Rock and California's wild and reckless coast line.

Back in Bodega Bay, giving some major side-eye to this.

Tomales Bay

I met Summer in Point Reyes for lunch. 

Just out of Point Reyes, some Happy California Cows.

You're not imagining it--there was a bit of a fog rolling in.

And yet, it's still gorgeous.

For her first major day trip (over 300 miles--previous longest trip was to Emeryville and back), Sylvie was an absolute rock star, and I look forward to many more adventures. :)

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Spot the Duck

Sometimes, when I'm feeling particularly grown-up, and that I've been Adulting like a pro, I need a bit of balance, and out comes the duck.

Over the weekend, I did some major spring cleaning, and over the last few days, I've started filling out loan paperwork for a mortgage. It's all very exciting and...terrifying. So, out came Cali Swimmy, and we've been having a bit of fun doing Spot the Duck pictures on Instagram. Most of them are pretty easy, but a few are tougher. He can blend in when he wants to.

Sunday, at my storage unit.

Sunday, admiring my organized close.

A tough one--Mom's garden.

Celebrating the $5 I put in this little bank to start my London
2017 fund. 

Filling up Sylvie's gas tank.

Wandering around Lincoln, waiting for the thrift store run by the
cat rescue group to open up.

He's in this one. Hint, doing what he loves most. 

Fairly self-explanatory.

Cleaning the freezer.

Scrapbooking my London trip.

After a good workout with Matt...who never acts like the duck
thing is weird. 
Mom's gorgeous Japanese maple.

Visiting my new physician about my anxiety...and you know,
if a duck calms me down, then roll with it.

Even Cali is like, "This is a LOT of supplements, hon." But
most of us are magnesium deficient and the doc recommends it
for anxiety, as well as the calcium and vitamin D. Matt got me
on fish oil years ago for fat loss, and the others aid digestion and
insulin conversion. 

Maybe I'll do a few more--we'll see. I'm thinking of driving over to the coast this weekend. A little ocean time always does me good.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Gettin' Real Up In Here

So I'm in the process of filling out a loan application for a mortgage.

A mortgage. Oh, holy.

Of course, I've been moving in this direction for a while now, figuring out this whole Adulting thing, but now that I've spoken to a mortgage broker (my good friend's uncle, and already proving to be really awesome on just a few hours' acquaintance) and received a loan application, it's all getting so real up in here that I think I need to take another #spottheduck picture for Instagram.

(I've been doing that this week.)

But honestly, I'm ready for this--a little worried, yes, that my last five years of partial employment and unemployment might affect me negatively, but otherwise confident that with my income, my debt-to-income ratio (very small) and my good credit rating, I can qualify for a loan and find a nice condo in a nice enough area. And it will be mine. Walls can be painted, shelves assembled, pictures hung with abandon. If I want teal bathroom walls (yes, please!), I can have them. I just have to work my way through the paperwork first.

Hell, I bought a car all by myself in November, and lived to tell the tale. 

If I play my cards right, I can buy a home, buy some furniture for the living room, and still save money for a trip to London next year.

Bring it on.

But first...pass me a pen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016


My twenties were spent--literally--using my money to buy what I wanted and felt I needed in the immediate. I was never late with rent, major bills, or car payments, but I managed to always have a bit of lingering credit card debt, usually hovering around $5,000, and I generally lived from one paycheck to the next. I would squirrel money away into my savings account, only to squirrel it right back out a few months later.

While I would never wish long-term unemployment on anyone, it has had it's advantages--in particular, that I learned what I can and cannot live without. It was a hard lesson to learn, but one that has stuck with me.

I acknowledge, up front, that I am incredibly privileged to have parents I could fall back on when I needed a place to live. They are wonderful, and it has helped my bottom line immensely as I've crawled out of the hole that unemployment put me in. Still, it's been a crawl, and it's one I'm proud of, because I beat odds that many in this country have no hope of beating simply because they don't have the option to live rent-free.

I lost my job in 2010, and my last paycheck arrived at the end of July that year. By August, I was receiving unemployment benefits, but my monthly income had almost halved. Living on $1,800 a month, when $1,000 of that goes towards rent on an apartment, is not easy. No more "I'm bored" trips to the mall, no more "Pay Day Target Runs" for anything but the absolute essentials. When bronchitis forced me into the Emergency Room at 2:30 in the morning a few months after I lost my job, I suddenly found myself with a $2,500 bill I couldn't keep up with. It ended up on my credit card.

You can see where this is going. After a year of going it on my own, moving in with Mom and Dad started to look really good.

And it has been. Sure, there were adjustments and sometimes we all need reminding that living with others means respecting certain boundaries, but overall, it's been good. Mom and Dad got a built-in house- and pet-sitter. I got a much-needed chance to build my financial base back up.

After two years of total unemployment, I started working very part-time. My contract was only 20%, but at least there was money coming in, and I took on a bunch of private music students, too. Then I moved on to the high school, where I was at 33%, then 50%, and my income grew even more. In these three years, I started a system in which every week I put money into my savings account. First it would be ten or twenty dollars, but as my income grew, so did my weekly deposit. Now that I'm full-time, I can put $100 a week away without batting an eyelash.

I also started slowly chipping away at my credit card debt, making more than the minimum payment religiously each month. celebrating every time I dipped below another number in the 1,000s spot.

So, where am I now?

This week, I officially passed the $5,000 mark in my savings account. It's the most I've ever had in that account in my whole life, and I pretty much refuse to touch it unless there's an emergency. I did use $800 of my savings back in October to pay for my London trip, but otherwise, everything else related to that adventure was paid for out of my checking account.

When I got my tax return last week, I put $300 of it towards my credit card--an extra payment this month--and with my next payment on April 1st, I will officially be below $1,000 in what I owe.

I have debt, of course--roughly $22,000 for my new car, but I'm paying about $50 more each month than I have to.

My credit score has been steadily increasing--though it dipped briefly when I bought the car in November.

I'm so damned pleased with myself, I often walk out into the living room to brag to Mom and Dad about my finances.

This means, of course, that it's time for a new adventure. My job is going well--I like it there, they like me, we all talk about my being there for a while yet, so knock on wood--and I am ready to have my own place again. Thing is, renting around here is expensive, and it would be cheaper to be making a monthly mortgage payment. So tomorrow, I'm going to call a mortgage broker--my friend Sarah's uncle--to get that ball rolling, and I hope, soon, to be talking to a realtor about my options for buying a condo.

Imagine that. Meg, a homeowner. I could paint the walls and build shelves in. I don't want a yard, as I prefer to keep the time and money I'd spent on maintaining it for my travel fund, but a patio with some potted plants would be lovely. If I can swing it, price-wise, a second bedroom with a pull-out sofa and space for my card-making. Lots of bookcases. New living room furniture (I junked my old set last year--it had been destroyed by the late Harley Dude and was never the most comfortable furniture, anyway). And kitties. A pair of bonded rescue kitties to love and find joy in.

But first, I have to qualify for a loan.

Still, I love possibilities, and this definitely presents possibilities. A friend of mine with slightly less income is a homeowner in this area, so why not?

It feels good to finally be a grownup. To take a trip to London without it hurting my bottom line. To know I can pay for my new car and also entertain the idea of buying a home. To no longer need endless stuff because I can see my money going towards more useful endeavors. Hell, I'm even thinking of opening an IRA.

I had to grow up sometime. ; )

Friday, March 11, 2016

Farewell, Dear London...For Now (London 2016, Part 11)

And just like that, the week had passed, and it was time to come home.

In some ways, I was very ready, but part of me wanted to stay longer. Five nights isn't a lot when you're in love with a place.

My choice in hotel and mode of travel to/from the airport proved to be smart. With my flight leaving at 4:30 in the afternoon, I could easily catch the Heathrow Express train a little after 1:00 and be to the airport with plenty of time to check in, pay for the extra checked bag, and relax for a while before being called to my gate.

That left the morning free, so I did what I do best when I'm in London...I wandered.

England is the kind of country that politely tells you which
way to look so that you don't get creamed by a double-decker.

I went back to Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park, this time sticking to the Kensington Gardens side. I think London was begging me to stay, giving me an absolutely stunning morning of pure sunshine. I wandered over to Kensington Palace, and paid my respects to Victoria.

On Bayswater Road, a random building.

I got the sign in the picture to hide the fact that the palace was covered in


A close-up of the statue that is behind the gate in the picture

Elizabeth the Second, Regina
A spire caught my eye, so I left the park and wandered in to the Kensington High Street area.

I will never tire of the pub signs. 

Or any signs, really.

And the old buildings are pretty awesome, too. 

The spire that caught my eye from Kensington Gardens.

I tried to stay near the park, so I wouldn't get lost, and eventually headed back towards it to walk along the south edge.

Taken in honor of my Dutch Duck Lady, Amanda. 

Seems appropriate that I walked by Albert Hall, seeing as how I spent my first
evening of the trip here. 

Across the street from Royal Albert Hall is the Albert
Monument, built by a grief-stricken Queen Victoria after
his death. 

It may seem over-the-top, but I do love their story, and her
devotion to him. 

From the park.
I cut back through the park, just meandering along and enjoying the morning.

I was shocked that I could see the Eye and the Shard in one frame. This was
taken with my zoom, but still. Just goes to show that for as big as it feels, London
is crammed into a small area.

A selfie in the sunshine.

I felt like the bird was telling me to visit the Round Pond... I did. 

These geese were totally calm as I approached, and in fact, started walking
towards me (probably expecting food).

They even seemed mildly curious about Cali Swimmy, and one showed its
approval with some wing-flapping. 

I was getting hungry, and I had one very important purchase to make--a bag I could stuff some of my souvenirs in for the trip home, so I walked back to the north end of the park and out into the bustle beyond.

The only petrol station I noticed in London. 

I would never put American bacon on bread without adding
at least some tomatoes, but somehow, British bacon on a bap
makes a complete sandwich. 
I bought a small bag at a tacky tourist shop (only twelve quid!) and went back to my hotel to pack it and check out. I was able to leave my bags with concierge and do some more wandering. Because of time, I chose to just explore the immediate area around my hotel a bit more.

Home Sweet Home all week. GREAT location, comfortable,
clean, and yes, I'd stay there again. I will stay there again.

The square on which my hotel sits.

Daffodils will forever make me think of England in Spring.

Just a hidden little corner of London, where people go about
their day-to-day lives.

The Paddington area has several streets lined with old homes
converted into hotels. 

A small grocery market.

Hidden on some random residential street corner--a small
memorial to some long-forgotten figure. No doubt people pass
it every day and hardly think of it. But there it is.

This...didn't...make me homesick. 

England's version of Dollar Tree.
 Finally, hunger and the need to sit for a bit won out, and I stopped by a pub for lunch. I only ate two traditional pub meals all week, and this was the second.

Shepherd's Pie

I went upstairs to use the loo and caught a quick snap out
the window to the street below. I walked by that shopping
center (with the W) and Boots every day.

And...alas. It was time to return to the hotel one last time, to gather my things and call for a taxi.

My new bag, my ginormous (and stuffed) suitcase, and my

All morning, I went back-and-forth between the pure joy of being in beautiful London on a glorious morning, and gut-wrenching sadness that I had to leave it so soon. The whole week was a bubbling stew of emotions as I discovered that while the face of a place may change a little, in essentials, it stays just the same, and that the people you love there will be happy to see you.

I remarked on Facebook at some point in the week how lucky I am to have two homes in this world--two places where I can make a life, have people who care about me, and where I can feel I fit. So very lucky, and yet it can also tug at me a little. Every time I fly away from London, I leave a tiny piece of myself there.

On Sunday, I learned the hard way that walking a mile from Paddington to London House Hotel could very easily turn into a two-mile hike (thank you for nothing, Google Maps), and with an extra bag perched on top of my suitcase this time, I wasn't taking any chances, so I had the hotel call for a taxi. It wasn't expensive, and it was way easier than finding my way on London's bumpy sidewalks with a 50-pound suitcase, a bag, a backpack, and a purse.

Before I felt entirely ready to be, I was on the Heathrow Express, being whisked out of Central London.

Check-in was easy enough--I had actually checked in online the night before, but then realized I needed an extra bag (eleven years ago, you got two free checked bags--these days, only one), so I went to the counter to deal with that. They were very nice about it, and laughed when I said, "I went a little bit wild with the shopping this week...?"

It's always a relief to have the suitcases taken off your hands, and now I was left with just my backpack and purse.

While getting through security on the San Francisco end was a breeze, this time, it was a little tougher. Somehow in all of the flights I've made since 9/11, I've avoided the body scanner--not so this time. I stood in it with my hands up and then was pulled aside to have my shoes brushed with some sort of thing that's supposed to detect explosives.


Still, I don't complain, I just go along with it and as soon as the agent motioned for me to move on, I was off at a brisk pace to gather my things and skedaddle into the waiting area.

There were some tears, but I mostly kept them in check because it was extremely crowded. After sitting for a while, playing on my phone and organizing my carry on stuff, I couldn't stay away from the shops any longer, and headed off to WH Smith, and...oh, lovely...Cath Kidston.

Want. All. The. Things.
 I bought a lovely mint green polka-dot purse by Cath Kidston at Harrod's on Thursday night, which was packed away in my checked bags. I also bought a bunch of little hand lotions to give out as gifts, and decided, at the airport, to buy a few more so I'd have a few for myself. I paid for those, all while eyeing a wallet that matched my purse.

So, yeah, a little while later, I was back for the wallet. I said it in another post, and I'll say it again: this trip was always supposed to be a little over-the-top (and, for the record, I did not rack up any credit card debt that wasn't immediately paid off on my return, and I didn't dip into my savings, either--this was entirely funded by money I'd set aside in my checking account).

Before I knew it, my flight had a gate assignment, and I started the long hike (this is Heathrow, after all) to the gate for boarding.

We had a couple of delays--first, a sick passenger had to be removed, and all of his bags. International law states that baggage cannot fly without the person assigned to it on board. Then the flight attendant crew had to check the area around his seat to make sure nothing "untoward" (captain's words) had been left behind.

Another duck-on-head-in-the-plane selfie. Look
how TIRED I looked (my eyes are the big tell).
Finally, we were being pushed back from the terminal...and then we stopped. And waited. Finally, our captain came over the intercom again, to let us know that a door had been shut, but some indicator light for the emergency slide wasn't on, and by law, they could not leave the terminal until it had been checked and taken care of. Fortunately, it was fixed within a few minutes, but by now, we were a good forty-five minutes past our scheduled departure time. Our now-very-exasperated pilot informed us that the control tower was not letting us back up just yet, trying to fit us into the line-up of planes waiting to take off and land. Heathrow is a hectic place.

All I could do was laugh--when I left London in August 2005, we were an hour behind schedule due to a technical glitch on the airplane, and then some possible improperly-loaded luggage.

Waiting, waiting, waiting...

Both times this has happened, it's made leaving just a little bit harder--prolonging the agony, I suppose. Now that I was on the airplane, I wanted to rip the Band-Aid off quickly, and get home. Instead, I was sitting on English soil, not quite in England in the proper sense, but not quite gone, either.

But eventually, we had our clearance, and the plane lumbered towards the runway and started roaring to life. As it hit me--in the gut--that I was really, truly leaving England, the tears came, and this time, it was unabashed sobbing, and quiet whispering. "I won't stay away so long. Goodbye...I will see you again soon."

(I had a row to myself, for the record.)

(Though, I sobbed like that in August 2005 and I was stuck with two other people then, so who cares, right?)

The flight was long--an hour longer than going to London, because we were flying against the jet stream. It was surprisingly free of turbulence, for the most part. I watched several movies--Straight Outta Compton, Everest, and The Martian--dozing at a few key spots. Don't worry, I woke up in time to see Matt Damon reunited with his fellow astronauts.

Eleven hours is a long time to sit in a tin can--especially with an asshole in front of you who leans his seat back all the way into the flight, then glares at you every time you get up to use the lavatory and grab the top of his seat

Dude, you deserved it. Even short girls need some leg room.

Anyway, eleven hours. Long flight. By the time we were finally descending over the Bay Area, and I caught glimpses of familiar landmarks, like the San Rafael Bridge, the Bay Bridge, and even my favorite bridge of all--the Golden Gate--I was so happy to finally be almost home that I couldn't feel sad anymore.

Yes, there's a piece of my heart in London...but California gets its share, too.