Friday, July 31, 2009

Dances with Wranglers (South Dakota, Day 2)

Today the great state of South Dakota yielded up even more delights for us. We started out our day with a trek up to a place I have wanted to visit ever since I was a little girl. Yup, Mount Rushmore!

In pictures, Mount Rushmore always looks colossal, with the four presidential heads (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, respectively) completely dominating the Black Hills landscape. In real life, Mount Rushmore is much smaller than I expected. It still was amazing to see, though, and I certainly commend the National Parks Service for the fine job they have done in keeping the place up so well, and keeping costs down (there is no admission cost, only a $10 parking fee good for multiple days). One thing that stood out particularly to me (actually, I have thought of this many times over the years), is the fact that Calvin Coolidge was President when they began the project, and agreed to federal funding for it, but he never tried to make his own face one of those carved into the mountain. If they were to carve Mount Rushmore today, you can bet the current president would certainly make sure his mug was up there (that's not an Obama dig - I believe any recent or future President would be that way). Coolidge had class!

Immediately after Mount Rushmore, we made the very appropriate decision to go to the Crazy Horse monument. It's not finished yet, but it still put Rushmore in the dust! All that is completed so far is Crazy Horse's head and part of his arm, and the rest will probably not be completed in my lifetime. It is a beautiful, momentous tribute to Native American history, and it's abut time, too. In addition to the work-in-progress monument being carved into a mountain, there is also a fantastic Indian museum there, which took up a considerable amount of our time. It was almost as impressive as the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. There were also numerous Native American artisans displaying and selling their beautiful work. Most impressive is the fact that Crazy Horse is being created entirely without federal help - all the funds have been raised through admissions, the gift shop, and donations.

In the evening, we stopped off at Fort Hays, which houses some of the sets used in the film "Dances with Wolves." It wasn't terribly impressive, but it made a nice diversion while we were waiting for dinner. For that important meal, we ate at the Flying T, which has a chuck-wagon dinner followed by a musical show. I couldn't believe how tender and juicy my roast buffalo was (I have plans to eat as much buffalo as possible while I'm out west, since I have yet to find any back east). The show was great. Local musicians The Wranglers entertained us with a rollicking blend of cowboy music and comedy. Nearly everyone (including me, horrid singing voice notwithstanding) joined in when they sang "The Battle of New Orleans," and I was beyond delighted to hear them perform "Tumbling Tumbleweeds," one of my favorite old cowboy songs (yes, I occasionally indulge in a bit of Roy Rogers or Gene Autry).

Tomorrow we're off to Deadwood. I can't wait to visit the same place where Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane one strutted with their weapons proudly cocked. So far, I think South Dakota is one of the most under-rated states in the USA!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Buffalo, Gold, and Bears, Oh My! (South Dakota, Day 1)

Technically this is day two in South Dakota, but since Mom and I got here in the evening yesterday, the only thing we did was go out to Perkins for dinner (their broccoli cheese soup gets major props from me!) and then go to bed. So, I'm considering today to be day one.

For those who are feeling a little lost, I am currently on my long-awaited "Wild West" vacation. Mom, Dad, and I are spending one week in South Dakota followed by one week in Montana. It all started last year when I mentioned to Dad over the phone (I was in Korea) my longtime dream of visiting Yellowstone, and suggested that he and Mom join me for a vacation out there in 2010. One week later, Dad called to inform me that he had booked a vacation out there...for July/August of 2009! He thought we should spend two weeks in Montana, but since I like to see as much as possible when I travel, and since I have always wanted to visit Deadwood and Mount Rushmore, I suggested one week in Montana and one week in South Dakota. It's been a little hectic for me to plan around this, since I am moving to VA the day after we get back to MI and then starting work the day after that. Still, I am really glad that we decided to do this.

Mom and I flew out here, and Dad opted to drive (saves the trouble of renting a vehicle). The flights for Mom and I were a little crazy - Kalamazoo to Detroit, Detroit to Minneapolis, then Minneapolis to Rapid City - with very short layovers between flights. With my knack for timing, I was on day three of a migraine when we left, and the pain and nausea got steadily worse as time went on. By the time we got here, I was one sick, over-medicated girl! Bed and my special chiropractic pillow (Dad brought it with him so I wouldn't have to lug it on planes) have seldom looked so good!

Today I felt much better, thank goodness! We got an early start, since South Dakota has a two-hour time difference from what we're used to. Dad had spotted an advertisement for a place called Bear Country USA, and it sounded good to all of us, so that was our first stop.

Bear Country is not cheap, but anyone who comes to South Dakota should be sure to go - it is well worth the money. We drove through a huge wildlife area, where we were able to get super close to elk, mountain goats, arctic wolves, bighorn sheep, pumas, buffalo, and more bears than I have ever seen. The animals were completely relaxed, and seemed to view the cars as toys put there for their amusement. One of my favorite sights was a white buffalo. I have heard of them, but until now I had never had the chance to see one. Following the drive, we parked and went to Babyland, wish is basically like a cute little zoo filled with almost painfully cute baby animals. For us, the best exhibit was the baby bears. They were roly-poly furry dumplings who played, wrestled, and hammed it up for the cameras. (I will be posting pictures after I get moved in to my apartment in Manassas and have unpacked my camera cord).

Following Bear Country, we went to the Thunder Mine, where we took a fascinating tour into the mine. I got some great photos, which I am looking forward to using in class. We followed the mine with a tasty lunch in Keystone, which included buffalo stew (delicious). After lunch, we toured the area for a while longer, and then drove back to Rapid City, where we went to the Geology Museum. The museum has an excellent collection of rocks, minerals, gemstones, and fossils. History museums are still by far my favorites, but I really do enjoy looking at different rocks and gemstones. The dinosaur skeletons were mind-bogglingly large. Every time that I see one in a museum, I find myself very grateful that they are extinct. I mean, can you imagine going swimming and then running into one of those ginormous creatures that resemble a water-dragon? Or taking the dog for a walk and getting chased by a T Rex?

The New Apartment

Below is a floor plan and a video tour of my new apartment, still in its "before" stage. After I move in, I'll try to post photos to show what I've done with the place.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

The Vole Videos

Here are the videos I took of the dogs and their vole (from quite some time ago):

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Hurray, I Don't Have to Sleep in My Classroom!

That's right, folks, Stephanie is officially freed from the short sale and is now in proud possession of a stunningly gorgeous apartment. It has a sunroom, a huge walk-in closet in the bedroom, a fantastic spacious kitchen, a HUGE bathroom (for an apartment), and wonderfully large windows. The apartment complex is gated, which really pleases me. Security is a very happy thing! There is also a swimming pool, fitness center, and media room for my enjoyment. Jasper will love it when he learns that we are close to several parks and a battlefield.

Not only did I get my new apartment today; I also found a good credit union (for my personal feelings on banks, feel free to read a few earlier posts). As I always manage to, I met a very interesting new person today, too - the manager at my new credit union. She's a very sweet gal from Uzbekistan, which makes her the second person I've met from there - interestingly, I so far like 100% of the Uzbeks that I have met! Either it's a country full of neat, lovely people, or I've just had the luck of running across the cream of the crop so far.

Dad and I finished off our busy day with driving out to Woodbridge to finish getting out of the short sale, and to make another sacred pilgrimage to that mecca of furniture stores, IKEA. I picked out the last remaining items of furniture that my apartment needs, and since I take possession tomorrow officially, I can leave it right here to be waiting for me when I get back on the 12th of August. I can hardly wait for the big move!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Life with Father

My dad is a very interesting man. He gets upset if you buy a medium beverage instead of a large, since, according to him, large is always a better deal (even though I waste half of a large beverage). He used to drive up to twenty miles out of his way just to "save" one or two cents per gallon on gas. He loves to yell at the TV whenever he feels that a referee has made a bad call, or if he thinks a player needs his wise advice. He insists that corn raises his blood sugar too much (he's a diabetic), yet will eat two pieces of frosting-covered cake at a wedding. He's arthritic, yet lies on his belly on the floor to play with Mitzi, his seven-pound malti-tzu (who used to be mine, until I went to Korea). His love of peanuts nearly rivals his love for my mother (okay, I'm exaggerating a little on this one).

On a vacation or a short trip, my father is even more interesting. He refuses to buy a single ice cream for everyone on vacation, instead opting to buy multiple boxes of ice cream treats, then harasses everyone for not eating enough (the last time he did that, he got upset with Mom and me for not being able to each eat six ice cream bars). He positively delights in arguing with or ignoring whomever is acting as his navigator when he drives (if you tell him to go left, he turns right). His idea of relaxation is beating the sun out of bed, and he finds endless joy in trying to make everyone else relax in the exact same manner.

So, since my father is on this short trip to Virginia with me, you can probably imagine how "interesting" it has been so far. Dad recently bought a Tom Tom (GPS) to help him navigate. He's as excited as a small child about his new toy! My sister set it up for him, carefully selecting the voice that most closely resembled an annoyed, menopausal woman in order to help him pay attention to the Tom Tom's directions better. After today, I can assure all that he treats the Tom Tom almost like a human navigator. Yup, he still doesn't listen!

We had a brief detour in Maryland because Dad didn't believe the Tom Tom and I when we both assured him that he needed to turn right on a particular exit. When the two of us told Dad to go south at another exit, he tried to go north (picture me screaming "No Dad, south, SOUTH, SOUTH!!!"). At another point in the trip, he neglected to notice that there were two left turn lanes, almost turned directly into a minivan with my new car, and then spent the next twelve miles arguing with me, claiming that there was only one turn lane and that the other guy was 100% at fault.

Believe it or not, Dad and I actually had quite a nice drive down, despite his creative interpretations of simple instructions. I enjoy spending time with him, even when he doesn't listen. We spent most of the ten hour drive discussing country music performers (I started learning about them in an effort to bond with him years ago), John Wayne (ditto), aging, Mom, cars, and plans for the future. We had a good time, and I remembered why I miss him every time I move away. In spite of Dad's selective hearing, we made it safely to Manassas, where we are now comfortably ensconced in a hotel room. Dad is entranced by his softball game on the TV, and I'm content with Mackie (my MacBook).

Tomorrow, the hunt for my new apartment begins. On one hand, I'm excited beyond belief. On the other hand, I'm a little wistful, knowing that I'm going to miss seeing that eccentric, "interesting" father of mine every day.

Monday, July 20, 2009

"On the Road Again..."

Today I am off to Virginia in search of a home. Doesn't that sound so sad and pathetic? It's like a film. You know, they really should make a movie of my life. At the moment, it is closely resembling a 1930's screwball comedy! Or perhaps a tragedy. I guess it's all a matter of perspective. I'm choosing to be amused, since laughter suits my temperament better than weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Dad offered to come with me, and since that means a reprieve from driving, I accepted his offer. We're leaving this morning, spending Tuesday and Wednesday looking at apartments, and then I'll make my decision on Wednesday after the last appointment, after which we'll shove off for Michigan again. I feel so much less stressed, even though I really shouldn't feel any less stressed. That's the difference made by once more being in control of a situation.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Stress Seems to Like Me Lately...

I've been up late plotting, and I think I have finally worked out a solution. As my readers are now aware, I have decided to back out of the sale, since the bank is apparently run by people with the work ethic of Paris Hilton. Which means, that I am now put in the unenviable (but definitely humorous-someday-in-the-future) situation of having to move in less than a month, with no place to live. I start work on the 13th of August, regardless of my housing situation.

Tonight I had an inspiration. Dad's solution was to stay in a hotel for my first eight days while looking for an apartment AND working full time. I just don't think that's a viable plan, especially since by the time I get out of work, most leasing offices will be closed or close to closing. My plan is a bit nutty, but doable. I have decided to spend all day Monday calling apartment complexes, which I am doing advance research on online. Then, after picking the best ones, I'll drive down to Virginia on Tuesday, and either stay with my friend in Maryland or with friend's of my friend who lives in Virginia. I'll spend about two or three days seeing all the apartments, then make my decision, apply, and pay the deposit. When I move down on the 12th (I'm on vacation out west for the two weeks prior to that), I'll move in to my apartment. I won't have furniture, since it will be coming down with Dad later, but that's fine. I have a very nice new sleeping bag and an air mattress (actually, two of them). I can camp out! It'll be another adventure that I can relate when I get together with friends.

The advantages to my plan are that I will not be out hundreds of dollars for a hotel, I will be able to go on vacation without housing stress hanging over my head, and I can be certain of finding a place to move into by the correct date. If I wait, I may find myself stuck in a hotel for as long as a month! Yuck!

I've said it before, but really, it just begs to be said once more: WHY DO THESE THINGS ALWAYS HAPPEN TO ME?!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Living Arrangement Frustration

I decided last night that if I do not have an answer from the bank this coming week, I will withdraw my offer. The bank has behaved in a manner that I find ridiculous, unethical, and just plain rotten. It is no longer worth the battle to become a homeowner. I refuse to spend the next month or more living out of a hotel (which I cannot afford) while clinging to the desperate hope that someday the almighty bank will condescend to give me a yes or a no.

So, instead of moving into a new house before starting work, and having the fun of fixing it up to my specifications, I am going to spend my first week of work in a hotel, desperately hunting down an apartment. No more hope of equity, no financial security for my future. Thank you, bank, for screwing up my dream.

Don't get my wrong - apartments aren't horrendous. I've lived in a few now, and I really don't have a laundry list of complaints. It could be a lot worse. At least this way I don't have to keep hanging on waiting to hear yes or no. I just hope this bank remembers the way they've treated people like me once they bury themselves deeply in unnecessary debt and crash hopelessly underneath it all, with little hope of resurrection. What goes around comes just takes a while sometimes.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Surrounded by Inept Idiots

I really marvel at how it took the banks until now to screw things up again. After all, they are clearly being run by people with the intellectual capacity of amoebas. Why am I so peeved at banks at the moment?

1. I closed an account at Bank of America a few months before leaving for Korea. After they mailed my money to the wrong address, I had to call again to cancel that check, give them my information (which they discovered that they already had) again, and reiterate that I wanted the account permanently closed. When I got back from Korea, I learned that they left the account open with fourteen cents in it and wanted to charge me over a year's worth of maintenance fees and overdraft charges. Needless to say, I will never bank with them again.

2. I put in an offer on a house in Virginia three months ago, and still the bank hasn't gotten around to accepting or rejecting the offer. If they foreclose on the current owners, the bank will spend $60,000, and will not be able to sell for as much as I'm willing to pay. They're hurting themselves, but they apparently have money to burn.

3. I went to my current bank, National City, a month ago to change my won to American dollars. They cheerfully offered me an exchange rate that would have cheated me out of over $1,000. The happy teller also informed me that they would need to charge a fee for this service. I opted to hold onto my won a little longer.

4. I opened an account at Comerica just to be able to change over my won. This was the second week of June. I was told that the money would post to my account in seven to fourteen business days. I checked online again today and called the bank. Guess what - it still hasn't posted. Oh, and since they haven't posted my money, they only have to wait another week and they can start charging me maintenance fees (which is probably their nefarious plot). There's another bank I won't be using again.

I'd like to go spit on Alexander Hamilton's grave right now!
"Passage—immediate passage! the blood burns in my veins! Away, O soul! hoist instantly the anchor!
Cut the hawsers—haul out—shake out every sail!
Have we not stood here like trees in the ground long enough?
Have we not grovell’d here long enough, eating and drinking like mere brutes?
Have we not darken’d and dazed ourselves with books long enough?

Sail forth! steer for the deep waters only!
Reckless, O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me;
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.

O my brave soul!
O farther, farther sail!
O daring joy, but safe! Are they not all the seas of God?
O farther, farther, farther sail!"

~Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"