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This was the first Thanksgiving that I’ve ever traveled, and what a whirlwind trip it was.  My uncle recently purchased a house in Niles, Michigan, and we wanted to go out and visit him before the weather turned too cold for us wimpy Californians.

His house is so cool, especially the 2-acre grounds.  I imagined huge garden parties in the summer, my nieces running with wild abandon in the backyard, and sipping cocktails in lounge chairs.  At least, that’s what I’d do with the place if I had it.  Not sure if my uncle has those same plans, but maybe I can convince him.

The city of Niles, Michigan is very quaint, especially the downtown area, which is peppered with funky stores, antique “malls,” and old-time businesses.  They city is so much smaller than the one we’re from, so it was very interesting.  My uncle seems to be making some friends which is good.  The main thing that I noticed is that the people are much more conservative there than they are in the Bay Area.  Then again, I think most small towns in middle America are much more conservative than the Bay Area.  😉  The one example I have is that we went to a converted mansion in South Bend, IN for Thanksgiving dinner.  When we arrived in the dining room we ordered two bottles of wine – one white and one red – for the table of four of us.  You should have seen the stares!  The woman at the table next to us nudged her husband and sat there agape, as if we were slugging back wine by the gallon.  I looked around and saw that every other table in the room had either iced tea or water – no alcohol of any kind. So weird!

After a day and a half in Niles, we left for Chicago.  I had seen pictures, heard stories, but nothing compares to actually being there.  Chicago is a stunning, immaculate, architecturally gorgeous city!  I still think San Francisco is more beautiful, but I do love Chicago.  I wish we had more than two days in this fun, lively city.  I’ll definitely be back.

I could fill many more paragraphs with all of our adventures in the two day trip, but for now, I think I’ll let my 200+ photos speak for themselves.  I tried to get some artsy shots, so I hope you enjoy them.

Thanksgiving 2009 – Michigan & Chicago

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012503_real_home_loan-1Ok, so the title of this post isn’t exactly positive.  Actually, my last few posts on here haven’t been positive, which is not normal for me.  I’m usually a really upbeat person, and even though life isn’t always sunshine and roses, I try to see the best in each situation.  And, well, I guess if you read through the posts, you will see that even on a bad date, I find ways to make it funny.  Or, when dealing with bad neighbors, I try to see the silver lining in starting the home buying process.  So that’s a good thing – turning a bad situation into something positive is still in keeping with the way I try to live my life.

Last Monday I had an appointment with a lender that a colleague of mine is using.  He absolutely loves this woman, and couldn’t speak more highly of her.  The list of documents that I needed to bring with me to the meeting was daunting, to say the least:

  • teaching credential
  • employment contract
  • 3 months of paystubs
  • 3 months of bank statements
  • 3 years of tax statements
  • 3 years of W-2 forms
  • rental agreement
  • social security card
  • passport

Whew!  I had to bring the teaching info because I was trying to get one of the special loans that my city offers to teachers.  I found an accordion divider that held everything perfectly, and was proud of how organized I was.  There was a slight moment (or hour) of panic when I couldn’t find my 2008 tax forms, until I realized that I e-filed last year, and had it all on the computer.  I tore my files and drawers apart looking for it, but hey, at least those are totally organized now.  LOL.

So I walked into the office very confidently on Monday, knowing that my credit score was good(ish) and that I had all of the necessary documentation with me. The office isn’t too far from school, and although they kept me waiting 15 minutes, I still felt good about the meeting.  CM greeted me and apologized for the delay, explaining that she had been out of the office a couple of days the week before, and was trying to catch up with everything.  Not a problem.

We headed to her office and began the process of filling out the loan application, reviewing my documents, and seeing what type of loan I could qualify for.  All of a sudden CM says, “girl, you make too much money!”  WTF?!  I have NEVER, EVER heard that phrase uttered regarding my income.  I’m a teacher, for God’s sake.  Is she nuts?  When I asked what she was talking about she said that I make too much money to qualify for the teacher home buyer loans.  How the heck is that possible?  Yes, I finally earn a decent salary, but I’m not making the top of the payscale yet.  Something seemed strange.  Then she mentioned that I also made too much to qualify for my city’s new home owner loans, as well.  ???  I had never heard that those programs were tied to money.  You’re either a first-time home buyer or you’re not, right?  What does money have to do with it?  Does  this mean that doctors and lawyers wouldn’t qualify either?  Because I can guarantee you that they make more than I do in the first few years of the profession.  Again, this info made me doubt her.

She did say that I could qualify for one type of loan offered through the teachers’ retirement system in California.  Ok, good.  They could give $55K, but it required that I had at least $3K of my own money.  Why?  I had already told her that my parent said they’d give me $10K if I really needed it.  When I asked if the money had to be my own, or if it could come from my parents, she said, “no, it has to be yours.”  When I asked her what difference it made, she said, “well, they’ll know if it came from your account or someone else’s.”  Really?  If it’s in my account, I think it’s mine, right?

Then we came to the part of the application where they were asking ethnicity. Her computer was set up in such a way that she had a screen that she could look at, but she had a 2nd screen that was facing me.  She began to check “Hispanic,” and I immediately corrected her saying, “I’m not Hispanic, I’m Italian.”  And she said, “well, maybe we should keep it as Hispanic, because you might get more money that way.”  I was FLABBERGASTED.  I told her that I wanted her to mark Caucasian, because that’s what I was.  I mean, here is the same woman who not 5 minutes before told me “they” would know if the money was mine or my parents’ yet she was now asking me to falsify my ethnicity to get more money?  Wouldn’t “they” also find out about that?  While we’re at it, why don’t we just put down “Native American,” since there’s probably even MORE money for them.  It’s ludicrous.

At that point she’d lost me.

She ran my credit, and the score was a lot lower than the one that I had run on myself.  I guess my car loan finally showed up, and at the beginning of any loan, it lowers your credit, until you establish a good payment record.  She said, “boy, I wish you’d talked to me before you bought that car because I would’ve stopped you.”  I told her that even if I had talked to her, I would’ve bought the car anyway, because my lease was up and I needed a new one. At that point I just wanted to see what the numbers said.

She  told me that I’d have to come with $20K of my own money and that I qualified for a $325K loan.  Now that may be a lot where you live, but in the Bay Area, that’s nothing.  Seriously, I can’t get a nice condo for that amount in any part of the city that I’d want to live in.  And I don’t want to downgrade where I live and find myself in an unsafe situation.  There are problems with where I live now, but at least it’s safe.  And I don’t own it, so there’s no long term commitment.  Plus, the mortgage payment would be $2100 (including $300 in HOA fees), which is a lot.  If I’m going to pay that much on a mortgage, I want to live in a really beautiful place.  After she told me this terrible news, she also said that because of my credit, I’d need to buy $13K in points to cover the closing costs.  Ok, so I have to come up with $33K of my own money on a $325K loan?  That’s 10%.  These days, people are putting 3% down.  Where are those loans?

I left her office telling her that I wanted to wait. That I didn’t have the kind of money she was talking about, and I needed to discuss all of this with my parents.  But really I just wanted to get out of her office.  She seemed so shady and I really wanted nothing more to do with her.  At all.

So here’s where I am: I’m going to stay here for the next several months and pretend that I’m paying $800 more in rent than I am.  I’m going to put that $800 in my savings account and save up some money.  Plus, it will mimic what my mortgage payment would be like, minus the HOA fees.  It will be good for me to see what my lifestyle will be like with that sort of mortgage payment.  I’ll be able to realistically see if I can really afford to buy something.  I know that by not buying this year I’m losing out on $8K in tax credits, but that’s the way it goes.  Maybe there will be a tax incentive next year, too.  And if not, so be it.  This is not the type of decision that I want to rush into.

By waiting for a while I’ll also be able to build up the credit a bit more, which will help with the amount a bank is willing to loan me.  I also want to consult a few other lenders/mortgage brokers to see if what this woman was telling me is accurate, or if she was out of her mind.  I want to make sure that I go to someone who is trustworthy and who has integrity, neither of which I felt in this woman.

They say that everything happens for a reason, and I think it’s better for me to wait right now.  I don’t want to move around the holidays.  Also, I just found out that I can’t get out of my 1-year lease, so I am stuck here until next October, unless I break the lease.  Which I’m totally willing to do, but I think I’d rather not have that added stress during the holidays either.

So, for now I’m still a renter.  Still dealing with noisy neighbors, but things have calmed down next door a bit, so I think I’ll be able to live with it, for now at least.

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Yesterday I had a fantastic Saturday:

  • Zumba in the morning
  • Headed to Los Gatos to pick up our latest wine club offering at Flemming Jenkins with Ish.  We stayed for a free tasting, just because.
  • Lunch at Willow Street Pizza to have their amazing summer salad special – skirt steak with peaches and goat cheese on mixed greens with a balsamic vinaigrette.  Yum!!!
  • A quick trip to Benefit to buy some new lipsticks.
  • A trip to Walmart to look for workout clothes – more about this on Bella on the Beach.

I was gone from 1:20pm to 6pm.  I was so tired when I got home, but as soon as I drove into the driveway, I noticed that my back door was open.  Not just unlocked, but OPEN!

At first I thought someone had broken in, so I quickly went through the duplex and saw that nothing was out of place.  (Well nothing that I hadn’t left out of place to begin with).

Which means that I left for hours without locking my door!!!  Stupid!!!!

I know exactly what happened, thinking back.  I was running late to meet Ish and I was trying to put the windguard up in the back of the convertible so that I could have the top down on the freeway without ruining my hair.  I couldn’t get the darn thing up (gotta read the manual) and I finally said, “F-it, I’m so late as it is, I need to go NOW.”  I remember putting the windguard in my little pantry area, and I thought I closed the door, but I definitely don’t remember locking the deadbolt.  One of the “tricks” with my back door is that it doesn’t close unless you really pull it.  I must’ve thought that I did, but I obviously didn’t.  When I looked at it, the bottom lock was “locked,” but that doesn’t really work unless the door is closed.

The thing is, I always lock my doors.  Always.  Always have.  Growing up, we lived in a really affluent area of the city with a very small crime rate, but we always locked the doors as soon as we came in the house.  Even in the middle of the day when we were all home.  I continue that habit at my own house, and always have.  Better safe than sorry.

Now what’s heart-warming about what happened yesterday is that even though my house was wide open and asking for someone to come in and steal the many valuable and expensive things I own, no one took a thing.  I live in a neighborhood that has a ton of foot traffic, much of it by homeless types who look like they’ve just gotten out of some sort of halfway house.  Some of them look crazy (literally), but they’re generally harmless.  Still, I make sure to keep things locked up, because you never know. It was such a relief to know that no one came in and took anything.  People respected the house.

I’ve always felt safe at home, and now I know that I truly am. That said, I still plan on locking the doors, just to be sure.

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I love wine, and one of my favorite things in life is discovering new wines and sharing them with family and friends.  Usually my wine discoveries take place at a local wine shop or at Trader Joe’s or World Market.  But yesterday I was lucky enough to get to spend the day in Napa with my parents.

As part of my birthday gift, we decided to take a day trip up to Napa to experience the wine country on a weekday.  As much as I love wine, I’ve only been to Napa two other times, which seems unreal to me, since it’s only about an hour and a half (2 hours with traffic) from where I live. My parents are experts on the Napa Valley, so I thought it would be fun to go with them.

We headed out and took the scenic route up to Napa, traveling along the Great Highway, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, and then heading into Yontville.  It was a leisurely, beautiful drive that took us almost two hours, because we did hit some traffic along the way.  But it was worth it.  We had a great time talking, joking, and laughing.  The weather was gorgeous, and sometimes it’s the unexpected moments in a car during a road trip that are the ones we rembember the most.

We had decided to go to Mustard’s Grill for lunch.  I had been to Mustard’s once before, but my parents hadn’t been, and since the owner/exective chef at Mustard’s was recently featured on Top Chef Masters, I thought it would be fun for them to experience her menu.  There was a 35 minute wait, but we didn’t mind, especially after smelling the heavenly aromas coming from the kitchen.  By the time we were seated, we were definitely hungry, and had no trouble figuring out what to order.  Since it was 2pm, we decided to have lunch.  My mom and I had the Grilled Ahi Tuna Sandwich, which had a basil aioli and housemade pickled ginger.  It was devine!  I always like ahi tuna, and this sandwich definitely didn’t disappoint. My dad had the BBQ pulled pork sandwich, which he said was delicious, as well.  We opted for iced tea over wine, since we were hitting the wineries after lunch.  I told my parents that I’d love to go back to Mustard’s for dinner, to truly experience the chef’s cuisine.

After lunch, we went to Cakebread Cellars, because I had been dying to go.  My parents had never been to this winery, so it was a new experience for all of us.  I’ve had Cakebread Chardonnay in restaurants before and loved it, and I knew their other wines would be just as good.  When we pulled up to the winery, we saw a sign saying that wine tastings and tours were done by prior appointment only.  Undeterred, we entered the winery and asked about making an appointment.  Luckily, they had room for us at 3pm, so we only had to wait a few minutes.  The really cool thing about this wine tasting was that they take you on a tour of the grounds (which were gorgeous).  At each stop you make, you taste a different wine and get to learn a bit more about the winery.  I really love this type of tasting because it seems much more fun and interesting than simply standing in a tasting room and sampling wines.  (Don’t get me wrong, I love doing that, too, but when you’re in the Napa Valley, it seems a shame not to fully experience the winery).

They started us off in the gift shop with Sauvignon Blanc, which I didn’t enjoy.  I don’t care for that variety at all, but my mom said she enjoyed it.  Next, we really began the tour, and they took us into the garden to sample the Anderson Valley Chardonnay.  This was absolutely delicious.  I liked it so much that I splurged on the $37 bottle.  The guide explained that this was made “in the French style,” and whatever they do to it, it is remarkable.  Then we were led deeper into the grounds and got to sample the Reserve Chardonnay.  I thought I would enjoy this wine even more than the Anderson Valley Chardonnay, but I didn’t.  Don’t get me wrong, it was really rich and buttery, but I liked the crispness of the Anderson Valley Chardonnay better.  Next we headed into the wine making area and sampled the Carneros Pinot Noir, which was really good.  We watched them bottle wine as we tasted my favorite wine of the day, the Red Hills Lake Zinfindel. By far, this was the smoothest, richest Zin I have every had in my life, and I would have definitely purchased a bottle, except for the fact that payday isn’t until Friday.  The nice thing is, I can order it online, and I definitely will, when I have some extra money.  Finally, we headed back out to the garden, to the outdoor bbq, and sampled the Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

It was so interesting to learn the history of the family, the winery, and the development of the wine from Barry, our guide.  When we overhead the tour group behind us, we were even more glad that Barry was guiding us, because the girl on the next tour sounded like she should be at Disneyland rather than a winery.  I’m all for having energy, but her fake enthusiasm was a bit much.  I loved the relaxed nature of Barry’s presentation.

We left Cakebread hoping to hit another winery, but didn’t have enough time.  This is the one problem I have with Napa – they close the wineries too early in the summer.  Why not stay open until 7pm in the summer, since it’s lighter later?  Most of the wineries close at 4 or 5, making it difficult to get to many, unless you start out really early in the day.  Still, the visit to Cakebread was really worth it.

After the winery, we went to St. Helena to go to Michael Chiarello’s Napa Style store.  It was nice, but didn’t really have much merchandise out.  He has an amazing selection of spices and marinades, but other that that, I wasn’t very impressed with the wares.  The website and catalogue are so much more visually appealing than the store itself, which I find odd.  Also, we have a Napa Style locally, so I guess I wasn’t amazed because we can go to the store whenever we feel like it.

Then we went to Dean & Deluca, which was great.  I loved looking at all of the exotic offerings, and my mom picked up a bottle of Moroccan marinade that we said we were going to use on some grilled ahi of our own.

After the gourmet food shop, we got back on the freeway and headed to the Outlets.  What’s a trip to Napa without some outlet shopping on the way home, right?  My dad and I both found shoes to purchase, and amazingly, my mom came away without anything.  She’s usually the first one to find something to buy, but this time nothing struck her fancy.  The shoes I got are simple flats from Clark’s (un)Structured line, but they are like walking on pillows.  I think they’re going to become my daily wardrobe staple once school starts again and I’m on my feet all day.

Then we headed back home, but we ended up taking the scenic route by accident.  There was so much fog on the Great Hwy that I told my dad to take the wrong exit, and we headed through Pacifica, through Half Moon Bay, along Hwy 1.  It was absolutely gorgeous to see the ocean over the curves of the cliffs, but it definitely added to our driving time.  We arrived back at my parents house at 9pm, tired, hungry, but very happy.

It was a truly fantastic day.  Beyond the delicious food and the terrific wines, the best part of the day was being able to enjoy time spent with my parents.  I am so very lucky to get along so well with them and have the type of relationship with them that makes us savor the moments we share together.  They are two of my best friends, which is so special to me.

Here are a few photos of our time at Cakebread:

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41umN8uHLRL I just finished reading Everyone is Beautiful by Katherine Center.

I absolutely loved this book, and I have to admit, I was a bit surprised. I wasn’t sure how much I could relate to the story of a married woman with 3 kids. But the story of Lanie Coates is the story of any woman who has seen imperfection in her own life. And really, which of us hasn’t?

One of the things I loved about this novel, besides the brilliant writing and laugh-out-loud humor, was the use of art (photography and music) to demonstrate the creative outlet we all need. I also appreciated the fact that Lanie admits that having kids isn’t all about baking cupcakes and smiling faces. She shows the real side, the very difficult side, that you sometimes wish you could get away from.

One aspect of the novel that I could completely relate to was the idea of reinventing yourself. Lanie goes on a quest to get her pre-mother self back. She starts taking time for herself, even when there doesn’t seem to be even one minute. She starts going to the gym, she starts taking pictures, and she starts being a little bit selfish. And in the midst of doing it, she not only regains her “self,” but she also finds the new woman who she has now become.

One of the quotes I love from this book comes from the last page, but it doesn’t give anything about the novel away:

Beauty comes from variety, from specificity, from the fact that no person in the world looks exactly like anyone else.  Beauty comes from the tragedy that each person’s life is destined to be lost to time.  I believe women are too hard on themselves.  I believe that when you love someone, she becomes beautiful to you (Center 233).

This quote made me think about myself.  So often I focus on the things about myself that I want to improve – weight loss, how to deal with my crazy, curly hair, a new foundation or lipstick that will make me look beautiful – and I forget to focus on the things about myself that I love.  My personality, my humor, my intelligence, and my lust for life.  I am beautiful, and this quote reminded me to think about that a bit more often.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a well written story but I feel like it should be mandatory reading for anyone who is a mother.

I look forward to reading Center’s other books, because she is an author with a gift for expressing the everyday in an extraordinary way.

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Ever since I started my weight loss blog, I’ve been writing much less frequently on this one.  Because weight loss is my main focus (almost like a part-time job), it makes sense that I have more to write about that topic than any other.  Still, sometimes I feel badly that this blog, the one I started blogging with, gets pushed back to second-class citizen status.

One thing that seems appropriate to write about here is how I’ve been doing on my quest to “get a life.”  Last August, I wrote a post where I vowed to take back my life and stop living to work instead of just working to live.

I’m happy to report that I am now a reformed workaholic.

It wasn’t easy.  At first I felt like I was really sloughing off on my duties at work.  “I really should go to the play this weekend.” “The students would really like it if I went to that football/basketball/soccer game,” etc.  Instead of feeding into this guilt trip I was laying on myself, I just said no.  I took myself off of the numerous committees I had been serving on and kept only those that I felt were the most important.

Did I feel like I was out of the loop?  Yes.  Did I crave being “in the know” the way I was when I served on lots of different committees and attended tons of school events?  Sure, sometimes.  But that feeling of being slightly out of the dialed in group was well worth the time and energy I found now that I wasn’t spending so much time and effort at work.

It was a strange year for me because CTLB, my best friend at school and one of my best friends in life, left.  I felt a lot lonlier than I had in the past 4 years, when were were “joined at the hip.”  But before you start feeling too sorry for me, I do have an amazing group of friends at school, and we all eat lunch together every day, so it’s not like I sit alone in my classroom and grade papers while I eat a stale sandwich.  (That would never, ever be me, by the way).  We also had a new principal this year, and that made for a lot of changes.  Good changes, but still, there were a lot of things going on this year that left me feeling out of sorts a lot of time time.

But my life outside of the work day was fantastic!  I found that I had tons of free time, and I used it to try new activities, reach out to old friends and make some new ones, spend lots more time with my family, and just enjoy myself by doing whatever I wanted to do – riding my bike, reading a great (or trashy) book, watching movies, cooking, etc.

It seemed idyllic until the school said they were looking for someone to teach a “summer school after school” class.  I saw dollar signs and knew that if I taught the class I would have the money I needed for a down payment on my new car AND I wouldn’t have to work this summer.  So, beginning after February break, I gave up 60 hours+ of free time and taught the class.  (This may not sound like a lot, but this is on top of teaching 5 other classes.  Not to mention grading and prepping for 6 classes).  It is something that I’m glad I did (for the money), but will never do again.  It’s just not worth giving up that much of my life.

All in all, I loved having my life back.  I felt like I was a better teacher because I could look at things from a well rested, happy point of view.  I plan on doing more of the same this coming school year.  Actually, it should be even better because I’m only teaching one honors class, which will dramatically cut down on my paperload.  Can’t wait.

Ok, enough writing, time to get out there and LIVE!

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AM sent this to me last week, and I just got a chance to view it today.  Overall, I love the message that it promotes.  It’s a good reminder that I have so much to be thankful for and I should treat each day as if it were a special occasion (sometimes hard to do).

The video is 3:20, and is worth the time, because it may just give you a little perspective on life that you needed to be reminded of.

Enjoy the Ride

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