Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Open Enrollment Time is Coming!

Ah, insurance. For me it's one of those things that I know is important, but that I get a little overwhelmed diving into. I've learned from experience how important it is to plan ahead for the expenses that come with illness or injury, though - my credit score is still a mess from when I missed a lot of work back in 2009 due to health issues and quickly fell behind on bills as a result. Like a lot of people in the millennial age group, I don't have a lot of money set aside for an emergency. A recent study by Aflac found that 35% of millennials have less than $500 set aside for unexpected medical expenses. (You can read some of the other stats in their post about being One Emergency Away From Financial Disaster - It's pretty interesting!) If you don't have paid sick days available, missing a week of work plus medical expenses can add up super quickly!

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, my mom has been in the hospital this week. It's a little odd to be writing a post about preparing for unexpected medical costs when I'm kind of living it at the same time.  Speaking from current experience I can definitely say that dealing with the illness of yourself or a family member is scary and stressful enough without worrying about the financial side of things at the same time.

Looking forward to hanging out with my mom back at her house again, instead of the hospital/nursing home!

The 2nd round of open enrollment begins November 15th, so now is a good time to do some research on your benefit options! Even if you are already insured, you might want to consider a supplemental plan like those offered by Aflac. They offer plans that can help out with the expenses that can come with an accident or illness, such as child care or the bills that continue to show up even when you're unable to work. Nearly half of millennials surveyed said that they spent 30 minutes or less selecting their benefits last year. I spend way more time than that deciding which boots to buy for fall! A little extra time spent checking out your benefit options now to prepare for the open enrollment period could make life a lot easier if something unexpected does happen. There's no magical plan that's a perfect fit for everyone. Do your future self a favor and take the time to educate yourself about your options so that you're sure you're making the right choices for your life.  (I feel like I should end this post with some kind of "Knowledge is power!" graphic, or one of those "The more you know!" stars. I'll resist that urge, though.)

I was selected for this opportunity as a member of Clever Girls Collective and the content and opinions expressed here are all my own.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Overdue Update

Yeah, I've been missing for like two weeks. Sorry about that.

You may have seen on my blog's Facebook page that my mom is in the hospital. She was sick for several days last week and I completely exhausted myself (and totally screwed up my back) taking care of her. Nothing makes you appreciate things like a hot meal and a shower like realizing you haven't had either in three days. I finally convinced her to go to the hospital on Thursday, probably mostly because I pretty much broke down crying from exhaustion while trying to get her to eat breakfast. The ambulance came and picked her up, I texted my sister the info about the hospital she was going to, and then immediately ran to throw up from the stress, which went on for about the next 24 hours. (Have I ever mentioned that my body likes to totally shut down under stress? The entire day of vomiting thing is sadly pretty familiar.)

Turns out that there were a lot of factors at play. Mom's doctor had put her on a new medication and she had a bad reaction to it. (The first day she took it she slept for almost an entire day, which totally freaked me out, but once it wore off she was fine. I guess that taking it again put her body over the edge?) She also had some kind of infection, as well as some digestive issues going on. She's not young and she's small, so it all ganged up on her pretty quickly.

She's been in the hospital since Thurs, and three of my sisters have been keeping her company (two pretty much full time, one for a while yesterday.) I am still feeling pretty gross, but did make it over once to check in on her the day that the others couldn't be there. I was still pretty much too dizzy to drive, but I would have felt awful if she'd been there with no visitors all day.

She's getting a little bit of strength back, but it's going to be a while before she's back to being able to take care of herself, so within the next few days she's going to move to a nursing home for about a month. I'm not a fan of that idea, but she needs a lot of care right now, so it's the best option. Luckily there was a spot open at the place just 2 miles from where I live, so getting over there to spend time will be pretty easy.

It's been rough, you guys. Worrying about someone you love is kind of the worst. I think that we're all especially freaked out because when our dad went to the hospital ten years ago, he never came back. Even though that was a totally different situation (he had a pretty major stroke), it's hard not to feel the echos of those emotions, to keep catching the little similarities. It's scary. And I think it makes us all react differently than if we'd not had that previous experience.

I had a kinda sucky reminder of just what stress does to my brain yesterday. (I have some anxiety issues, they blow.) While my sister was here doing some laundry, I ran out to the store to pick up some groceries and household essential stuff. Pulled up to Walmart and decided that I'd get gas first, since as usual my low fuel light had been on for like 20 miles. Of course, as soon as I finished putting gas in and went to get back in the car, I realized that I didn't have my keys. They were inside the (locked) car, on top of my purse. Cell phone? Also in the car. Gas station's phone couldn't make outgoing calls, so I went into Walmart, where the service desk told me that their phone couldn't either, but that the one back in electronics could. Some very kind people standing nearby offered to let me use their cell phone. (Love you, random people!) Of course, I couldn't remember part of my sister's cell number. I knew the last 4 digits, but the first 3 were totally escaping me. Instead I called the house phone, but no answer, and the lovely phone loaning people were ready to leave. I finally figured out that I could call the hospital where my other sister was (the desk had a phone book, yay!) and have her call the sister at my house to tell her where my spare key was. WHEW.

Of course, I forgot that I had MOVED the key a few weeks ago, so despite my very precise directions, she couldn't find it. Since she couldn't call me (no phone!), she ended up calling the gas station (where she knew I was waiting for her to bring the key), who came on the intercom and asked the person at pump 16 to come answer a call. We decided she would come and get me, drive me home, and then take me back to my car. The whole crazy thing took over 2 hours from the time I got locked out of the car to when I was able to get back in, and then I still had the shopping to do! I think it's best summed up by what I said to my sister as she pulled up to the gas station to pick me up- "My week is going REALLY WELL! How about yours?"

So that's what's up here lately. I've been trying to balance taking care of everything at mom's house with not letting myself get so stressed that I end up in the hospital, too. (Been there, done that. Twice.) It's exhausting. I'm just now getting around to trying to catch up on work, too. (Apologies if the sponsored posts outweigh the more personal ones for a bit, I've fallen behind and don't want to let the lovely people that help me afford cat food down.)

A lot of people in my life (and strangers) have been really awesome and supportive, which is especially wonderful since there are a few who (not unexpectedly) have been less than kind. But we're all human, and I think we're all trying to do the best that we can.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Taking An Afternoon Break! #mymikesmoment

“I participated in an Influencer Activation Program on behalf of Mom Central Consulting for mike’s hard lemonade. I received a Circle K gift card to facilitate this review and a promotional item to thank me for participating.”

You would think that with summer ending and almost a month ahead before we start getting into the holiday season, early fall would mean a chance to kick back and relax, right? HA! I don't know about you guys, but for me things have been totally crazy around here lately. I always seem to be on the go, and usually feel like I'm about a week behind on just about everything. 

You're going to have to mentally pencil in the storm clouds, since this photo just makes the sky look glowy.

Today, after a super long and stressful morning I was in serious need of an afternoon break. It was the perfect time to try out the special edition mike's hard pink lemonade that I'd been asked to tell you guys about, and let me tell you... random middle of the day break to sip a drink and watch a thunderstorm roll in? Pretty much the best way to de-stress after a crazy morning of working at home! It was light and crisp and sweet without being too sweet, and just the right amount of alcoholyness (totally a word) to let me relax and de-stress a bit before diving back into work. It's so easy to get caught up in the "OMG, I need to accomplish all of these things!" frenzy that I often forget that actually stopping and taking a little break to take care of myself actually makes me way more productive in the long run! 

Especially cool is that October is breast cancer awareness month, and this limited edition version is doing its part to raise awareness and fund research - they've donated over $1 million to breast cancer research so far! Gotta love a drink that gives back! (I also learned that it's made with real lemons, so... this counts as a serving of fruit, right? ...right?) The limited edition hard pink lemonade is only available around this time each year, so now's the time to grab a 6-pack unless you want to be stuck waiting until next fall!

Have any of you tried these yet? Any other tips for refreshing breaks from the daily craziness? 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

You Had Me at Chocolate. (Okay, and at HELLO.)

This post is brought to you by Lindt HELLO, but the enthusiasm about chocolate (and the cat) are my own. (Seriously, you can't have my cat.)

Sometimes, being a blogger is a pretty sweet gig.

Earlier this week, I was asked if I'd like to try out the new line of HELLO chocolate from Lindt and tell you guys about it. Eating a bunch of chocolate was a lot of work, but someone's gotta do it, right?

This is what happens when I try to photograph just about anything that is not a cat. It becomes a cat photo whether I wanted it to or not. And yes, Grem only has 1 1/2 ears. He says hi.

The new Lindt HELLO line of chocolates comes in three different shapes - sticks and minis, both of which I've been nibbling on for the past two days...

My store was out of the Strawberry Cheesecake sticks. Sad! The minis are perfect for taking to a movie to share with a friend or significant other, btw! You can also buy bags of the chocolate minis that are all one flavor, but I love this mixed bag for trying them all!

...And larger chocolate bars. All three of these forms come in all four delicious flavors. I've been trying to pick a favorite, and I still can't! I think it's between the Strawberry Cheesecake and the Caramel Brownie, but my mind might change the next time I take a bite of one of the other two!

Definitely happy that I said hello to these! Then again, I'm not usually shy about saying hi and making connections. I've met some of my favorite people by starting up random conversations (usually on Twitter these days - I'm such a social media addict!) and just seeing where they go. There's nothing to lose by saying hello, and you never know where the conversation might go - new friends, new networking contacts, new love, or just a fun exchange of ideas! I recently woke up to my phone totally freaking out with notifications because a person with a ton of Twitter followers that I'd been chatting with a bit had retweeted something I said, and within a short time it had something like 26 retweets and 89 favorites, and I had a new pal. (Um, and Taye Diggs followed me. No big deal or anything.) (OMG.)

And then there was this week, when my favorite news show host (and imaginary boyfriend) totally commented on my Jay Z joke: 

 I'll admit, I swooned a little, typos and all. #nerdycrushes I actually shared my bag of  chocolate minis with my mom while watching Chris's show at her house last night!

Following that idea of a hello leading somewhere interesting, Lindt has partnered with Ashley Tinsdale to create a super cute romantic comedy web series called "It Started with HELLO." The first two episodes are already up (You can check them out here!) and the next two will come out on October 2nd and 9th. Love that you can choose alternate endings to watch, and recognizing a few famous YouTube stars! And it's ok, I won't judge you if you snack on more than two minis while you watch, especially if you share some with me!

There's also a great sweepstakes going on where you can win some sweet prizes! (Pardon the pun.) Here's what you can win!

Girls Just Want to Have Fun (9/24 – 9/30)
• Enjoy a shopping spree with the girls + yummy Lindt HELLO Chocolate!

Sweet Staycation (10/1 – 10/7)
• Lindt HELLO treats you to a pampered night in – movies, books + chocolate!

Besties Reunion (10/8 – 10/14)
• Reconnect with your bestie at the spa for a day + Lindt HELLO chocolate to sweeten the deal.

Just Click Here to enter the Lindt HELLO Sweet Connections Sweepstakes - It's quick and easy, and you can enter once a day, which means 7 entries for each prize! If you win, be sure to tell me about it!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Blue Spring Heritage Center

One of the places I was most interested in visiting on my trip to Eureka Springs was the Blue Spring Heritage Center. It's a mix of history and beautiful landscape, and definitely worth an hour or so on any trip to this part of Arkansas!

That bit of the sign where it says "1 1/2 Scenic Miles" - they're not kidding! I kept wanting to snap pics as I was driving, but given that the road was quite narrow and twisty, it didn't seem like a very good idea, even though I only saw one or two other cars along the way. The highway leading here (both from Bentonville and from Eureka Springs) is, believe it or not, WAY crazier! You can only go 20-30 mph for several miles because it twists and turns and dips like crazy.

There's ample parking once you arrive, and I chose a spot that was a bit far from the entrance to take advantage of some shade. (It was HOT this day!) The only restrooms are next to the parking lot, so be sure to make your stop there before heading in! You enter the center through the Trading Post, where you can buy tickets and learn about the best path for touring the sights within. (You're free to wander around as you wish, but I found that the path they outlined for me was perfect!) They also sell a mix of souvenirs, including a great selection of Native American history books. 

The suggested first stop is a small building where you can view a film about a recent dive expedition down into the spring. Given that I'd spent a good bit of the morning sick from getting overheated (more about that in another post!), I happily sat through the whole 20 minute film, enjoying the chance to rest comfortably outside of my car and cool off in the nice, chilly air conditioning. That rest in a cool, dark room was exactly what I needed to feel refreshed enough to go explore, so it worked out perfectly! Small children might not sit through the film, but stopping in to watch for a while will enhance your experience here if you're someone like me whose enjoyment of a place grows as you learn more about it.

There's also a cool display of local history as you enter the building that houses the film. Loved these vintage Eureka Springs postcards!

Blurry photo of the room where I sat in happy sloth-ness for quite a while before setting off to explore.

Here's the thing: When I was sorting through photos trying to pick which ones to include in this post, I got stuck because they almost all turned out super pretty! This says absolutely nothing about my photography skills and everything about how pretty the waters and gardens were. So without further ado, here are a bunch of pictures of pretty outdoorsy things. (There's pretty much no editing here, btw - the water really is that color.)

Reminded me a little of a Monet painting

Across from the gazebo, you can buy food for the trout for 25 cents. 

The Native American history of Blue Spring was especially interesting to me since I'm Cherokee. (Somewhere between 1/4 and 1/2, I usually just call it 1/3.) Many other tribes used this area for healing, ceremonies, and as a trading place as far back as 1700 A.D., but the Cherokee spent the most time here as they walked the Trail of Tears. It's a strange sensation to stand beneath the bluff and imagine the people who used it as a shelter as they rested on such a long, sad journey.

Not a great photo, but I wanted to include it since the person standing under the bluff gives you some idea of scale. 

There's a lot of walking involved here, but it's a beautiful walk! Although there is a way to get around the park that avoids the use of any stairs, I don't think I'd classify this place as especially wheelchair or mobility disability friendly. If you do have concerns regarding being able to get around, the staff at the trading post may be able to make suggestions for how to see as much as possible within your limits. (I heard them explain an alternate path to a woman who had her foot in a cast, offering a way to see as much as possible without overdoing it.)

The path back up to the exit.

If you're visiting in the warmer months, definitely bring some water along! Although there are plenty of places to rest as you walk around, few of them are shaded, so given the mid-90s temperature when I visited, I didn't spend as long exploring as I would have on a cooler day. I actually ended popping back into the room where the film is shown for a few minutes on my way out, just to cool off in the air conditioning! As far as what to wear, I was in a lightweight dress and flip flops and got around just fine, so pretty much any comfortable footwear should do. There is one spot where you can hang your feet down into the cold water of the spring, so shoes that can easily be slipped on/off are a good idea if you want to get your feet wet. (And trust me, with 50-something degree water, I was wishing it was allowed to totally jump in!) 

Blue Spring is definitely on my list of places to return to the next time I'm in the Eureka Springs area! Judging by the photos that I saw on TripAdvisor before my trip, I couldn't quite figure out why everyone raved so much, but it didn't take long to understand it once I was there. I'd recommend a visit here to anyone who enjoys a beautiful, peaceful walk outdoors, and even more so to those who are also interested in history or archaeology. It was my first stop in Eureka Springs, which worked out perfectly since I was definitely ready for a break from my car after the drive there! 

Handy info:
Admission: $9.75 adults, $6.50 kids, 5 and under free
Open mid-March through mid-November

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Exploring Bentonville

After visiting the Museum of Native American History, I still had a little time before check-in at my hotel, so I found a parking spot in the square of downtown Bentonville and did some wandering around. There are quite a few shops and restaurants within a block or two of this central park, which made it easy to explore on foot without getting lost. 

I was impressed by how many cute, unique little boutiques like this were around! Tons of fun, unique merchandise, and the prices weren't bad, either. 

I think this dressing room was mocking me. (Seriously considered buying this dress - it was on sale! But there was some major side-bra action happening, so I passed.)

Monday, September 15, 2014

What I've Been Reading This Summer

I last posted a What I've Been Reading roundup back in May, so I really need to catch up! Here's a quick look at a few of the books I've read lately.

Bang in the Middle by Robert Shore

I'm a total travel book addict and the UK is one of my favorite regions to read about. Spotting this book on NetGalley made me realize that I really don't know that much about the Midlands, so I picked it up to see what I could learn. England is a little like the US in that certain areas have specific identities - for instance, if I tell you that someone lives in New England, you probably have a different image spring to mind than if I tell you they live in Florida. Brits tend to have a similarly solid idea of what someone from the North is like vs someone from the South, but much like our Midwest, the midlands are pretty fuzzy in terms of a clear identity. Despite being the birthplace of many famous names (Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and Tennyson... the poet, not my cat.) the Midlands are mostly known as an industrial area of mines and factories. Bang in the Middle came about from the author's quest to answer his son's question about where he's from. How do you explain a region with no easily defined identity?

The book is broken down into one city for each chapter, visiting Mansfield, Nottingham, Meltam Mowbray,  Grantham, Northampton, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Coventry, Birmingham, Lichfield, Stoke-On-Trent, Chatsworth and The Crags along the way. If you're like me, you've probably heard of most of these but don't know much of anything about them. (Other than the obvious Shakespeare/Stratford connection, and maybe Nottingham/Robin Hood.) I can't say that I came out of the book feeling like any kind of Midlands scholar, but I do definitely feel a bit better informed. 

There are sections where the author goes off on a tangent that while related in some way, isn't all that much about the actual location, which leaves me wondering if there was just nothing there to write about. (For example, almost the entire Lichfield chapter is about heavy metal music. Totally interesting to read, but not that informative when it comes to understanding Lichfield. He brings the narrative back around to the fact that Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne are both from Birmingham, but again... not about Lichfield.)

Despite several references to the Staffordshire Hoard in earlier chapters, I was starting to think that the author would never get around to actually discussing it, so I was happy that the hoard, as well as a bit about Mercia in general, were discussed in the Chatsworth chapter. (If you're interested in awesome in depth info about the Staffordshire Hoard, the British History Podcast interviews with some of the experts involved are here! A very worthwhile listen. You're welcome for the kind plug for your show, Jamie. You owe me coffee now.)

I'd recommend this book to those who want to fill in some gaps in their British geographical knowledge, anyone planning to visit the area, or, of course, Midlanders who are are totally excited to see their region talked about for a change. However, if it's not something that you already have at least a bit of interest in, it's probably not going to spark any kind of new passion.

Zac and Mia by AJ Betts
Let's be honest, right now when you think teens and cancer, The Fault In Our Stars pops to mind instantly. I'll be honest and tell you that I haven't read the John Green novel of so much fame, but from what I can tell there are quite a few differences. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of the two title characters during their time in and out of a cancer ward.

One thing that I really appreciate about this book is that Mia is NOT the "manic pixie dream girl" that has become such a cliche. She's not one of those Mary Sue characters who is "flawed" in that OMG! She sometimes stumbles or trips over things! Nope, Mia has real flaws, and she's not always that likeable.

It's an engaging, quick read that I zipped through in one night. I think this would especially appeal to teens who have been through medical issues, for obvious reasons, but also because the two kids feel authentic - they act like actual teenagers, not the idea of teens that a lot of YA authors seem to have.

I also finally read Great Expectations last month after suddenly realizing that I never had! I was taking a "Literature of the English Country House" course through Future Learn,which included close readings of excerpts of several novels and poems, one of which was this Dickens classic. I was surprised that the pages I read were totally unfamiliar, I had somehow always categorized it as "already read" in my brain. Oops! Anyway, it's now moved over to that category for real, and it was quite enjoyable!

Read anything awesome lately that I should know about?