Custom Navbar

Friday, January 30, 2015

Aloha, You Dumb Tourist - The Drawbacks of Paradise

Danielle diving with the sea turtles
Danielle diving next to a sea turtle in Napili Bay, Maui.
There is no such thing as a perfect paradise on Earth, but Maui comes pretty darn close. Warm ocean waters teeming with beautiful sea life. Breathtaking views from all over the island. Food so good you'll think you're dreaming. And enough zip-lining, boat-riding, parasailing, surfing, swimming, hiking, and sun-tanning to occupy adventurists of any age.

Ultimately—as our chill surf instructor would say—"It's all cool, bro."

Still, this paradise isn't without its drawbacks, and after ten days of writing and photographing and videotaping and tweeting and Facebooking and everything-else-ing the most delicious aspects of this tropical heaven, we thought it might be prudent to warn you about some of the drawbacks. So if you're thinking of visiting Maui, here are some of the things that tripped us up during our vacation (not that Maui isn't still one of the most awesomest places on earth!)

Bad Directions

For some reason the locals don't know how to give directions, so if you get directions, make sure they are very, very specific. Because sometimes "hang right and it's on your left" really means "turn right, drive two miles, you'll see a really complicated intersection with lots of touristy stuff, but if you turn left down the really narrow one way road that you can't really see because of the palm trees and keep your eyes looking to the left you'll eventually see a really small building with a tiny pink sign that says Hala-ooh-I-Can't-Pronounce-This-Word in minuscule print."

Other times it's as simple as, "See that sign that says, 'Do not enter'? Enter there." (No, seriously, someone said that to us, but, hey, it got us where we wanted to go.)

Beware the Tip Jar

Maui's tourism industry thrives off tips
Maui is all about tourism, which means most of the locals work in the service industry and thrive off tips. This gets especially irritating when you book a tour as part of a "package deal," like we did with our sunrise/bicycle/zip line tour. We had no less than five different people to tip—the bus driver who picked us up, the sunrise tour guide, the bicycle tour guide, the zip line guys, and the driver who took us back. We didn't have enough cash to tip everyone, but if we had that would've easily been $80 in tips to three different companies for one excursion.

Timeshare Discounts

Danielle and I wanted to go on a whale-watching tour, so we went to Boss Frog's, one of Maui's top tourism meccas for anything and everything you want to do. A Super cool dude named Mark said he had a great deal for us—a $140 dinner cruise on which we would see whales for $12 if we agreed to sit through a timeshare presentation for 90 minutes. Ninety minutes. That's nine, zero. Super Cool Mark told us if they didn't hold to that to let him know. Dinner, a boat ride, whales, all for $12? I can suffer a 90-minute blowhard, sure.

But the dinner cruise was a disappointment. It wasn't technically a "whale watching tour," so the captain wasn't obligated to go hunt down whales. We saw some way out on the horizon, but not as up close as the official whale-watching boats. The food was mediocre, the drinks were disappointing, and don't even get me started on the timeshare people who did not stick to their 90-minute promise—two hours and ten minutes later, we weren't happy.

Back to Super Cool Mark. When we told him about our disappointing experience he did us a solid and sent us on a whale-watching tour at 50 percent off the listed price. Thanks, dude!

Not All Beaches Are Created Equal

A rental car can take you from bad beach to awesome beach
If you go to Maui, rent a car. There shouldn't be any ifs, ands, or buts about it. Your own transportation is a must. Taxis are expensive. Buses are scattered. And you might have a hotel with a very rocky beach when there is a silky, sandy beach just two miles down the road. Fortunately a car came with our vacation package, and we used it every day.

Read the Fine Print

Like I wrote in Friday's blog, Cost-Saving Vacation Tips, having the best hotel wasn't a priority for us. We like to do stuff. The hotel was just a place to crash. Still, I knew my beach-loving wife would love a hotel room on the beach, so when I booked the hotel I was sure to note that I had chosen a room with an "oceanfront view." The room we got, however, did not have an oceanfront view. The hotel was an oceanfront hotel WITH oceanfront views, but not every room had such a view.

I doubt it was the intention of the hotel owners to be misleading in this way. It was likely Expedia's fault for not communicating to the hotel that we had selected an oceanfront room. When I showed the lady at the hotel's front desk my receipt for the room and that it very clearly said "oceanfront" she quickly and kindly moved us to a much better room with a majestic view of the Pacific. So be careful when you book to read the fine print, but don't be afraid to inquire about discrepancies.

Lost in Translation

Speaking of communication errors, we noticed several times there was a breakdown in communication between companies—whether it was between Expedia and our hotel, the timeshare people and Super Cool Mark, or the three different companies operating our sunrise/bicycle/zip line tour. It seemed like everyone was on their own schedules, but no one was on anybody else's. When so many cooks are stirring the pot there needs to be better communication.

That goes for websites, too. Three times we encountered situations where what we got was not what was offered on the website—not the least of which was Anthony's, a little hippie cafe that offered picnic lunches with rentable coolers on their website. When we stopped there on the Road to Hana, we found out that lunches were more expensive than the website listed, and cooler rentals were no longer an option. You had to buy one for $8. The food wasn't that great either.

Aloha ... You Dumb Tourist

The Shaka, or "Hang Loose" hand sign
Hawaii might be called The Aloha State, but real Hawaiians don't seem to say, "Aloha." Trust me, as a tourist, you'll get Alohaed at every corner, but if you start saying it back you'll stick out like a sore thumb. Real Hawaiians say, "What's up, brudda!" or "What's up, sister!" They're also fond of "Hello," "Hi," and the more modern, "Hey!"

Oh, and if you think about flashing the "hang loose" hand sign, it's ok. Everybody does it. But you're not in Southern California, so don't call it "hang loose." In Hawaii, it's the Shaka.

Get it? Got it? Good!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Our Surf Teacher From The Zoo + 5 Things You Never Knew About Surfing

Non-athletic. That's me. But I'm tall and trim—about six feet, broad shoulders, long legs—so I can fool most anybody into thinking I know how to use my body. The truth is if I didn't have hands to catch myself, I'd have no face from all the tripping and falling I've done over the years. My nose would be flat. Just a flat nose. Just a flat face with a flat nose because I'm a big non-athletic clutz.

But apparently I'm good at surfing. I paddled into a wave, got to my feet, kept my balance for a short distance, and sat back down before I wiped out. More than once, I might add. That's surfing right?

Just humor me, ok? I suck at every other sport in the world. Let me have this one, tiny thing.

Our Instructor From The Zoo

I've got to give credit to our instructor, a man who introduced himself as Armadillo, or Armor for short. He claimed to come from the zoo. He has a brother named Possum, and other family members from the rat species. Honestly, if you asked me if he was kidding, I wouldn't know what to say. In between pushing back long strands of gnarled blond locks from his copper face and looking like he desperately needed some weed to take his mind off his hangover, for all I knew Armadillo probably actually was born in the zoo. Who knows?

The great thing about him though was that even if we didn't learn to surf, Armadillo gave us plenty of Entertainment.

"Dude," he'd say looking at me, "you're doing awesome. These two girls here are doing everything wrong, but you're awesome. Well, except for your feet, get your feet wider apart. And don't slouch. Relax, man. You're too tense. Scoot back. *sigh* Ok, never mind. You're hopeless."

He asked if Danielle and I had any kids with us. When we told him no he sounded disappointed, saying one of the highlights of teaching surfing lessons to kids is being able to pick them up in high winds and skip them across the surface of the water.

"Seriously, bro, that's what we do. Me and another instructor. I'll grab their arms. Another guy grabs their legs and we just chuck 'um and just watch 'um skip—dush, dush, dush. Well, when the parents aren't looking of course."

Despite his antics, Armadillo managed to instill confidence in us—me, my wife, and a financial advisor from Kentucky named Robin who had the pleasure of learning how to surf with us.

"Whatever you're worried about, it's not going to happen," Armadillo said. "You're not going to drown. You're not going to get blown away by the wind."

"What about shark attacks?" I asked. (Because, seriously, that was all I was really worried about.)

Armadillo was silent for a long moment. "Actually, I can't say don't worry about that because, well ... ah-hem. Let's go surfing!"

Surfing Lessons at the Goofy Foot Surf School
The two of us alongside our fellow student, Robin, and our
surfing instructor Armadillo at the Goofy Foot Surf School.

5 Things You Didn't Know About Surfing

1. Bikinis and Surfboards Don't Mix
Most movies about surfing always show the female surfers in bikinis because, well, I think the reason is obvious, but after 10 minutes on a surfboard you begin to realize just how unrealistic that is because surfboards HURT! Even with a long-sleeved surf shirt my stomach and chest were beat red by the end of our lesson and the insides of my thighs were chaffed from straddling the board.

2. Surfing Should Be Called "Paddling ... With Style"
Surfing is hours of hard work for about 10 minutes of payoff. If that. First, you have to paddle. And paddle, and paddle, and paddle, just to get in the right spot to catch a wave. If there's a current, you have to paddle almost continuously so you don't float away. When a wave comes, you have to paddle—furiously!—so you can get momentum to ride the wave. And when you're ride is over you have to paddle all over again to get back out to sea. Surfing shouldn't be called surfing. It should be called Shoulder Exercise, or maybe S.E.D., for Shoulder Exercise, Dude. But that just doesn't sound as cool.

3. The Stereotypical Surfer Dude Actually Exists
"Surfer dudes" are real. They're not just some stereotype invented for TV. I already told you about Armadillo, who is every bit the laid back surfer dude you've ever imagined, but there were plenty of others just like him with long, scraggly hair; dark, spotty skin; a nonchalant strut. Even the girl working the desk at the surf shop was throwing off those chill surfer chick vibes. But, hey, it's cool, man.

4. Surfing Will Kill You ... No, Really.
Death is like a major deal in surfing. If you don't do it right it will kill you. There are sharks in the water that can kill you. There are rocks and rock walls that a wave can plow you into in a matter of seconds, killing you. If a wave carries you in too far and too fast even the shore will kill you. When you wipe out there are rocks and coral under the water that will gash your body, slice your hands, and, yes, even kill you.

5. Snowboarding Doesn't Make You A Better Surfer
I was proud to tell Armadillo that I was a fair snowboarder on the wintery cold mountains of Vermont. He just dropped his head between his shoulders in disappointment, as though he suddenly realized the work he had cut out for him in teaching me how to surf. "Snowboarders are the worst," he said. "They're so used to having their feet strapped to the board." And he was right. Shuffling forward and backward on a surf board is kind of essential to making the whole thing work, but making myself move my feet was a challenge.

Going Back for Seconds

Unfortunately, cameras and surfing don't mix, so Danielle and I have no actual proof that we did any of this. We intended to go back and rent some surfboards and take turns surfing while one of us takes pictures from the shore, but, honestly, surfing can, like, KILL YOU! After being on Maui for a week and catching bits and pieces of information about currents, high winds, sharp rocks, coral, gashes, cuts, bruises, gangrene, and, yes, even sharks, you slowly come to understand that surfing is epically dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.

So we opted to go to the mall. Much safer.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Cost-Saving Vacation Tips

Cost-Saving Vacation Tips
Traveling from Vermont to Hawaii isn't easy. It's a 22-hour journey of driving, flights, shuttle busses, layovers, and more flights, all culminating in an epic collision between an exhausted traveler and some faraway hotel's welcoming bed pillow.

Such an epic journey isn't easy on your finances either, but it doesn't have to break the bank, and it certainly doesn't have to involve going deeper into debt, so long as you plan for it smartly.

Here are some of the ways that Danielle and I saved money on our trip to Maui.

Know What Kind of R&R You're Looking For

It's dangerous to go on vacation with nothing but vague notions of rest and relaxation in your head. Everyone wants to kick back on a vacation, but if you don't think of HOW you're going to kick back you run the risk of making the dollars in your wallet an endangered species.

For me and Danielle, having a nice hotel in Maui wasn't a priority because the type of vacation we wanted involved a lot of activities, not the least of which involved spending loads of time on the beach. As long as the beds are comfortable, we're not picky. For us, the hotel room is just a place to crash after a long day of doing stuff.

If, however, your dream vacation is all about lounging around the resort with a good book, watching TV, or admiring the view from the pool, than maybe you'll want to put a little more money into your hotel. This means, of course, that you should reel-in the rest of your vacation spending.

Pack Food ... or Have a Grocery Budget

Food, glorious food! One of the greatest reasons to go on vacation is to eat food. Sometimes it's the whole reason you go on vacation—to eat exotic foods! The problem is that beyond that lonely concept people don't put much effort into planning what they're going to eat while they're on vacation. They just wake up one morning and realize, gasp, we need food! This usually results in paying for last minute room service or eating out, like, a lot.

Pack food. Bring snacks, like granola bars, trail mix, muffins and water. When you get to your destination go grocery shopping and make plans to prepare at least half your meals yourself. Our hotel in Maui came equipped with a fridge and small stove which made it easy to scramble some eggs in the morning, and the nearby beach had grills handy to barbecue some chicken we bought at a grocery store down the street. We grilled enough chicken for four meals for less than $8. Eating out for those four meals would've easily cost us $100.

Pack Conservatively

Unfortunately the airline that Danielle and I were flying with had a $35 cost per checked bag, outrageous when you consider the exorbitant cost of plane tickets these days. We knew we would have at least one checked bag, but with some careful packing we were able to get everything we needed into our carry-on luggage. Did it mean making some sacrifices? Yes. (I had to leave behind the navy blue belt that matches me red shorts, but I was pretty sure I would survive.)

Have a Budget

You budget for your electric bill. You budget for your mortgage. You budget for birthdays and Christmas. So budget for your vacation! Decide—not how much you're willing to spend—but how much you can spend, and stay within that limit. If, with two days of vacation left, you've maxed out your allotted spending money and the kids want to go mini-golfing, say, "Sorry, kids. Jake and Danielle say 'no.'" Shoot me an email. I'll send you our PO address and your kids can write us a nasty letter.

Remember that Not Everything Has to Cost $$

While there are some vacationing things that are going to cost money no matter what, NEVER forget to check the area for free fun. Danielle and I made a list of hiking spots we wanted to visit in Maui as well as some historical landmarks. Maybe hiking and sightseeing isn't your thing, but there were also art shows, music, playgrounds, beaches, and other free stuff that we could've enjoyed.

Plan Your Vacation At Non-Peak Times

Granted, this might not always be possible due to your schedule, but usually the best rates at hotels and resorts are during times when they don't see as much tourism traffic. If you know where you want to go, do some Googling and find out when their off-season rates come into play. You could save yourself a bundle of money.

Use Your Judgment

Obviously a family of five doesn't have the same flexibility as a young couple with no kids, or an older couple who are all done going through the Baby Steps to financial freedom. Know your limits. Talk with your spouse. Pray about it beforehand. Put together a vacation that works for you in the here and now. It might not be that dream vacation you've always wanted, but don't worry about that. You'll get there eventually. Try to keep your eyes focused on the end game.

Keep pinchin' :-)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Maui: The Christmas Gift She Never Saw Coming

Pray for us. This Wednesday we're getting on a plane at 6 in the morning, traveling to Newark, NJ, to catch a flight to Los Angeles, CA, where we'll get on a plane to fly to a 10 day stay on Maui, HI.

Yeah, it's going to be brutal.

I suspect Danielle, my summer-loving wife, will do a face-plant hug of the seashore the moment her feet hit Mr. Sand and I'll be lucky to get any time with her once that wife-stealing son-of-a-beach gets his gritty dunes on her. I hope she doesn't neglect me too much though because it's due to my own personal genius... ness... that we're even going on this trip. So, you know, credit where credit is due, and all that.

Back in November when I asked my wife what she wanted for Christmas, she jokingly said, "A trip to Hawaii." She mentioned this two other times, and it became unclear to me just exactly how jokey she was actually being. Regardless, I began to wonder just how plausible a trip to Hawaii really was. I mean, we had the money. We had the time. Why not go?

I really enjoy travel planning, so I took to Google to see what there was to do in Maui, what resort life was like, and how much the airline industry would rip us off for two plane tickets (because, really, what does the airline industry ever do except charge ridiculous amounts of money for what is, essentially, a miserable experience coupled with molestations courtesy of the TSA.)

But when it came to actually spending the money to pre-book everything I decided to hold off. Danielle and I work very closely together when it comes to our finances and I wanted her to be part of the ultimate decision making, but, still, I figured I could seduce her travel tastebuds with some palate-whetting visuals:

—a genuine Hawaiian luau
—sandy beaches
—surfing lessons
—sandy beaches
—a sunrise zipline tour
—sandy beaches

I even printed up some little flash cards of the many sights we aimed to visit.

"Is this is a joke?" she asked.

"If this is a joke," I said, "it's one of the cruelest Christmas presents ever."

"No joke."

But, no, it wasn't a joke. I can always tell how excited she is about something by how quickly it hits Facebook. In this case, I think she set a new record.

Honestly, Hawaii was never on my radar of places to go. I like the cool, damp, bleakness of places like Scotland, England, Seattle, and home. But, really, in the dead of a Vermont winter after weeks of sub-zero temperatures, even I found myself tempted by the warm shores of a tropical paradise.

I suspect this blog will become something of a travel blog over the next ten days as we explore the various sights, try the various foods, and enjoy the many majestic vistas of Maui. So stay tuned!

Keep pinchin' :-)

Friday, January 16, 2015

My Top 10 Movies Of 2014 ... And The Worst

It sort of depends on how you look at it. Either 2014 was a great year for movies with dozens of under-the-radar independent films to enjoy, or a rather dull year with many disappointing blockbusters. I'm of the latter opinion—2014 was a disaster.

North American box-office revenue was down by 5 percent over 2013, which is the biggest decline in nine years, according to the Hollywood Reporter. The summer, which was supposed to be Hollywood's biggest money-making time, was actually its worst, with revenue tumbling 15 percent from 2013.

Movie attendance was at its lowest in 20 years, with an estimated 1.26 billion consumers purchasing movie tickets between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. That's the lowest number since 1.21 billion in 1995.

For me, making a top 10 list for the best movies of 2014 wasn't easy. Back in January I thought it was going to be a great year because there were a ton of movies I really wanted to see, but time and time again 2014 saw me emerging from the theater with my old pal Disappointment. So here's my top 10 best movies of 2014 carefully compiled after much humming-and-hawing, which will be immediately followed by my 10 worst movies of 2014, a list which came together quiet easily.

#10 — American Sniper

As a director, Clint Eastwood has grown leaps and bounds ahead of his peers—Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Space Cowboys, The Bridges of Madison County. His work over the last 20 years has been surprisingly genuine, sophisticated, and beautiful. American Sniper, the true story of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, is no exception. It's a difficult film to watch as it exposes the true horrors of fighting Islamic extremists in Iraq and the brave American soldiers dealing with PTSD on the homefront. Actor Bradely Cooper gives the performance of, not just his life, but perhaps the year. A brutal film that's brutally honest and well worth seeing!

#9 — Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Consider this entry my shameless self-indulgence. Okay, so Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was loaded with flaws, I'm not denying that, but as a life-long Ninja Turtles fan the film was fun for me from start to finish. The four main characters, Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, and Donatello, were exactly who they were supposed to be, their personalities shined through, they rocked, they were awesome, but was the plot smart? No. Were the villains threatening? No. Was the story tight and well-executed? No. Was the movie a good time? Cowabunga!

#8 — X-Men: Days of Future Past

Director Bryan Singer, the original director of X-Men and X-Men 2, returns to bring the franchise back to glory and he does so in spectacular fashion. The action scenes are exciting. The story was touching. The movie deals with worthwhile themes like hope and family. Oh, and—one word—Quicksilver. Just remember that—Quicksilver. Watch the movie and you'll know what I mean.

#7 — Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The first entry in this rebooted series back in 2011 convinced me that a franchise about genetically altered apes taking over the world could actually be interesting. But this second installment officially made me a fan! Performing just as well, if not better, than its predecessor, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a gripping thriller from the first few minutes of its intense opening sequence to the final brutal showdown high atop a crumbling tower. With an Oscar-worthy performance by motion-capture master Andy Serkis the film is a technological marvel that shouldn't be missed.

#6 — Captain America: The Winter Soldier

I give this movie credit for one main reason—it had balls! The story is brave enough to take directions that are new and interesting and even dangerous for a major motion picture franchise. But that's what I love about Marvel, they're not afraid to take risks. Captain America has always been a tricky character to write because it's so easy for him to become a one dimensional, puritan, all-American goody-two-shoe, but this movie keeps him interesting, grounded, human, and fun to watch. Winter Solider isn't just a great 2014 flick, it's one of the best films in the Avengers franchise.

#5 — How to Train Your Dragon 2

A sequel seemed irrelevant, yet inevitable, after How to Train Your Dragon was released to critical and audience acclaim. I baulked at the idea of a second installment, until I saw it and realized that this series actually had a lot more to say. I loved the way this movie handled everything, from its story points to the age of its animated characters to the family drama that unfolds in smart and surprising ways. It's a truly touching film with some great visuals and moral lessons.

#4 — Edge of Tomorrow

During production it was called All You Need is Kill, which I thought sounded retarded. The name was changed to Edge of Tomorrow for its theatrical release, and then changed again to Live. Die. Repeat. for the home video release. *rolls eyes* Whatever. It'll always be Edge of Tomorrow to me, a fascinating Groundhog Day-meets-Aliens time-travel thriller that doesn't let up. Seriously, when the story gets going, it is an all-go no-quit action thriller with enough story and wit in between to keep your eyes glued. Tom Cruise gives a notable and surprisingly humorous performance as a military desk jockey turned reluctant soldier who finds himself stuck reliving the same day every time he dies. The plot twists will keep you guessing and the ending is a full-on mind job!

#3 — Guardians of the Galaxy

As much as 2014 sucked for movies, there is hardly a top 10 list anywhere that doesn't have Guardians of the Galaxy on it somewhere. This is another entry into Marvel Studio's ambitious Avengers franchise that takes a lesser-known group of comic book heroes and throws them into the Marvel cinematic universe. The film was a surprise hit on many levels—it out-grossed almost every other movie in 2014, it told a powerful, deeply personal story about family and redemption, and it took a bunch of B-list characters and brought them up to the same level as Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. Guardians of the Galaxy is a hilarious thrill-a-minute ride.

#2 — Godzilla

You'll see this movie panned as often as it is hailed, and here's why: the current generation of movie-goers raised in a cushy American lifestyle of immediate gratification can't tell a good movie from a hole in the ground. If the story isn't spoon fed down their throats with exploding computer graphics every ten minutes, they have no patience for it. This makes a slow-burn thriller like Godzilla a hard pill to swallow. The monster himself doesn't even make an appearance until more than halfway through the movie, while the main action sequence isn't until the very end, but—sweet, fancy Moses!—what a jaw-dropping action sequence it is! Unlike most movies today, Godzilla goes with a "less is more" approach, which, when dealing with something we've already seen dozens and dozens of times, makes the movie all the more thrilling. If you have the patience, Godzilla's payoff is epic!

#1 — The Lego Movie

Some of the best movies today are happening in the field of animation, and The Lego Movie stands head-and-shoulders above them all as an example of just how clever, creative, and fun they can be. The first three-quarters of this movie play out like a hyper-active child's imagination gone on a binge, but eventually you realize that there's a reason for that. The film isn't just an off-the-wall comedy. There's a second story running along in the background that deals with some powerful family issues, and when it all comes together at the end you'll be smiling with happy tears. The Lego Movie is a laugh-a-minute flick with a big heart at its core. Oh, and did I mention Batman steals the show? Just sayin'.

The Worst Movies of 2014

The Nut Job - worst movie of 2014
#10 — The Nut Job
A heartless animated film full of animated movie cliches and a predictable plot. I was hoping voice actor maestro Will Arnett would save the film, but, unfortunately, his character is surrounded by too much clumsy filmmaking.

Sabotage - worst movie of 2014
#9 — Sabotage
Arnold Schwarzenegger continues his attempts at making action movie comebacks and fails more spectacularly than ever before. Sabotage should've been a great Whodunnit? thriller of bad guys vs. badder guys, but it ends up being a bland serving of been there/done that.

Transformers: Age of Extinction
#8 — Transformers: Age of Extinction
I keep waiting for Director Michael Bay to realize that vomiting computer graphics onto a movie screen doesn't make for a good movie, but he seems determined to remain stuck a prepubescent boy's CGI fantasy land. Apparently his vomit is good enough for China because 74 percent of the film's gross came from overseas markets.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
#7 — The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
I'm not one to gripe about book-to-screen story changes, but I did get nervous when talk arose about Director Peter Jackson splitting Tolkein's The Hobbit into three movies. Sadly, by this final entry, the weariness is felt. The movie is two hours of violence, with little story, little to do with its titular Hobbit, and much to do with plots and characters that have nothing to do with the book. Peter Jackson finally let me down.

Interstellar - worst movie of 2014
#6 — Interstellar
I've come to the conclusion that outside of his epic Dark Knight trilogy, Christopher Nolan can't make a comprehensible movie. Interstellar is another overly long, self-indulgent mess of a movie with an absolutely nonsensical ending.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 - worst movie of 2014
#5 — The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1
I didn't really like the first movie. I hesitantly enjoyed the second. And I went into the third movie hoping Katniss Everdeen would finally stop her griping about war and become the woman of action she needs to be in order to stop the tyrannical government and save her people. Alas, she remains the dull, unambitious, sobbing heroine whom thousands of secondary characters inexplicably rally behind. I can't be bothered with any more of these movies. I just don't care anymore.

3 Days to Kill - worst movies of 2014
#4 — 3 Days to Kill
Kevin Costner tries to do what Liam Neeson did in Taken and doesn't quite make it. It's not his fault though. The writing is where this movie suffers with a terrible balancing act between a hitman's violent secret life and his struggles to reconnect with his angst-ridden daughter. The whole thing is just a bland serving of "meh."

#3 — The Expendables 3
The whole premise of this franchise is about taking old, washed-up action stars and throwing them together for the first time so they can blow stuff up. In the first 10 minutes of the movie, The Expendables 3 takes that entire concept and throws it out the window, then proceeds to adopt a younger cast and a hipper storyline, until the very ending when the senior citizens return, but, by that point, who cares?

Hercules - worst movie of 2014
#2 — Hercules
Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson has proven that he's not that bad an actor, so it was a disappointing surprise to see him return to The Scorpion King levels of silliness in this poorly conceived cliche of a movie. Fortunately for The Rock, the fault here isn't entirely his, it's Director Brett Ratner who displays the same movie-making ineptitude that ruined Rush Hour 3 and X-Men: The Last Stand.

#1 — Tusk
One of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen, Tusk left a bad taste in my mouth for days. It's a movie about a young blogger on the hunt for a new story when he gets captured by a demented old man determined to medically transform him into a walrus so he can have an affair with him. Truly unsettling content + very poor execution + a darkly comedic tone = a very unsatisfying movie.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Plans He Has For Me

The plans God has for me
It's a strange feeling to describe, when God speaks to you, isn't it? It's like a thought, or an idea, something brilliant, that cuts through all the confusion and anxiety and stress of a single moment and hits you right in the heart, but you just absolutely, unequivocally know that it didn't come from you. That's what happened to me on Jan. 6.

These last few months have been a crazy blur for Danielle and I. I lost my full-time graphic design job back in the fall, and picked up work with my uncle's construction business and as a seasonal driver for UPS.

Meanwhile, the wife and I are trying to sell our house in Bethlehem, NH, but, as anyone who has ever had anything to do with the real estate business can tell you, things are moving veeeeeeery sloooooowly. In the meantime we've moved in with my Grandma.

Oh, and Danielle quit her job. She worked a high-burnout shift at a high-burnout job in the field of adult mental health, so it was no surprise that she got burned out. Furthermore, since the move to Grandma's her job had become a 50 minute commute. Danielle practically begged me to let her quit. She's got a part-time baby-sitting gig now, but it's just as uncertain as my work future.

Uncertainty. That seems to be the word dominating our lives at the moment. Our jobs are uncertain. The sale of our house is uncertain. Our future is uncertain. It's kinda nerve-wracking.

Last week while I was driving a route during my seasonal UPS job on a very cold, blustery, slippery winter road I felt a panic rising in my chest as I was thinking about all the uncertainty in our lives. I started getting depressed, even angry. I mean, there wasn't even the slightest indication of what I should do next—where I should look for a job, how to get our house sold, whether we should do this or that. There was nothing on the horizon of our future except stress and uncertainty.

I started praying, and I asked God for a glimpse of His plan, some hope, something to keep me going, something to give me some idea of what we should go next. His answer cut through my brain in a voice that wasn't my own: "I know the plans I have for you. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you hope and future." (Jeremiah 29:11) I was actually startled by this because I knew this answer had come from somewhere beyond myself. The voice in my head wasn't mine. It was a reminder that God has nothing but my best interests at heart. Wherever I'm headed, whatever happens next, it's coming from Him and it will be good.

But God wasn't done speaking to me.

That night when I finished my route, my boss pulled me into his office to go over my performance. He said the company wanted me to come back this summer to cover routes while other drivers were on vacation. It would be a full time position lasting June-through-September. There would be a month off and then the holiday driving job would start again in November. It's not a guarantee, but it would keep me within the company and possibly lead to more steady employment down the road.

It wasn't much, but it was hope.

It was an answer to a very simple, desperate prayer.

What about you? Can you recall a time when God's voice cut through the noise and pierced you with Truth?

Keep pinchin' :-)

Monday, January 12, 2015

How To Refocus Your Finances

Refocusing on finances
Hi. Remember us?

Yeah, we sort of lost track of our blog about three months ago when it fell into the abyss between Mt. Busy and Mt. Really Busy; they're two peaks in northern Vermont on the road to Overwhelmington, overlooking lakes Where-Has-Our-Life-Gone and It's-February-Already. (Yes, those are real lakes.)

These past wintry months have brought a lot of exciting changes into our lives. Right now, we're a week into sub-zero temperatures and I feel sort of like our life was put into a little snow globe and had the daylights shook out of it. Except what's falling down around us isn't fake plastic snow, it's a crazily scary, busy, fun, weird, roller-coaster ride of uncertainty. Our home is almost sold. Neither of us have full-time jobs. It was 30 below on Tuesday.

Whether we like it or not, a financial refocusing is what we have to do right now, and with Christmas having come and gone and New Year's resolutions in full-swing it's likely that's where you're at too. Getting back into the habit of budgeting and financial planning may sound daunting, even overwhelming, but here's the truth: it's easier the second time around.

If your financial focus has fallen by the wayside, the only thing that makes it seem difficult to start back up again is your memory of how difficult it was the first time. Do you remember the first time? I do. It was six brutal months of weekly budget meetings between me, a money spender, and my wife, a money hoarder, butting heads, bickering, crying, until we finally figured out how to do this "budgeting thing" together.

But the second time around isn't like the first. We know the drill. We know what we have to do. Thankfully, Danielle and I never really quit doing our budget meetings, we just have them once a month now instead of once a week. Still, with the major upheaval our life has undergone these last few months, it's time to sit down and figure out what our financial priorities are. This isn't a bad practice to do every once in a while. So...

Think Small

Refocusing your financial goals needs to be broad in scope, but small in steps. One of the reasons people veer off course is because they set their goals too far ahead. Their goals become too unobtainable. They get discouraged. They quit. This is why Dave Ramsey's Financial Peace University approaches budgeting with the "Baby Steps." The first step—get $1,000 of emergency money in the bank—is obtainable within a month for most people. Seeing progress that quickly is encouraging and helps you to realize that, yes, this budgeting process can work!

So as you refocus your finances, make your goals realistic. Maybe your broad goal is to pay off the house in the next ten years, but for this month make it a goal to put an extra $100 down on the mortgage, or $1,000 in six months. The way we handle money is tied to our emotions, and our emotions are motivated when we see progress, so set obtainable "baby steps."

Keep Those Meetings Coming

You and your spouse need to be making your financial plans together. Maybe, if you really love crunching numbers and your spouse doesn't, you can handle it on your own, but you need to at least make an effort to include your spouse in what's going on. Danielle and I talk about our finances a lot. We help keep each other focused and motivated. Knowing what financial dreams are on her mind are important to me, and, frankly, I couldn't do all this math crap without her.


No financial plan should begin without consulting the One who owns it all anyway. "Everything comes from You, and we have given You only what comes from Your hand," 1 Chronicles 29:14. God knows your future far better than you do. He knows what storms are coming your way and how He's going to provide for your every need. You and your spouse—or financial accountability partner if you're single—need to keep God on the front lines of your financial goals.

So start there. Pray. Think small. Keep those budget meetings in the pipeline. Let us know what you're struggling with so we can pray for you and learn more about this stuff alongside you.

Keep pinchin' :)