Photo Friday: Packing Problems

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My lovely husband, my rock, the wind beneath my wings….well, he’s having some trouble packing.  This usually results in me having to relinquish some of my luggage space to his exfoliating creams or his extra 30+ t-shirts for a ten-day trip.

So that’s it, Dear Readers: tomorrow, all that stands between us and the lush isle of Kaua’i are four planes, three layovers, 21 hours and several iced coffees.

Since I doubt we’ll be doing much (if any) posts to this blog for the next week or so, please follow us on Instagram (@lanceandjeff) and Twitter (@lanceandjeff) (and go ahead and like us on Facebook, while you’re at it) to get the most up-to-date, kitsch-ily filtered photos of pineapples and frozen cocktails and snarking comments about fat Americans on the beach (oh wait, that’s us…)

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Hawai’i On My Mind: A Few Of Our Favorite Things

Not that we’re experts in Hawai’i or anything (especially since we’ve only ever been to one of the islands together), but, to paraphrase our friend Rosie, we know what we like and we like it hard.  So the following are some of the things that have been dancing in our heads as we grow ever restless for our Hawai’ian vacation:

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Sunset drinks at The Edge of Waikiki: We stumbled into this patio bar at the Sheraton Waikiki resort after its neighbor restaurant removed some of our favorite items and went scrambling for a place to get a drink.  What a find!  The Edge, sandwiched between the Sheraton’s infinity pool and the Pacific, has by far the best sunset views of any bar in Waikiki.  And the drinks are so bleeping strong that, after two. I was literally falling over in gift shops and politely asked to leave.  We can’t wait to see Lynn again, our favorite server!

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The steak plate lunch at HI Steaks: Like Las Vegas, the cost of eating in Hawaii can start to add up, and most places you can go to grab a quick bite in Waikiki are overpriced for the pretty mediocre food you get. On our last trip, as I was starting to get fed up with the lack of quality options, we stopped in the local Foodland supermarket on the way back to our hotel when we decided to try their counter-service HI Steaks.  And it just happened to be the best meal, hands down, of anything we’d had on that vacation.  Perfectly cooked steak, seasoned rice, AND a spinach salad for $10? (And it didn’t hurt that Lance’s Hawaiian boy crush, seen above, worked the register on every visit.)

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You know, natural beauty and stuff: This one is obvious, but between gorgeous sunsets, Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, Waimea Falls, or various racially-insensitive islands, Hawai’i is a treasure trove of beauty.  Point-n’-shoot cameras don’t really do it justice.

collage4Bold-ass birds: There are a lot of birds on the islands, including wild chickens, peacocks that roam around the Waimea Botanical Gardens, or seagulls who will hop right into your hotel room and steal your food when you aren’t looking.  We dubbed them, “bold-ass birds,” because they get closer to humans than we’ve ever seen on the mainland.

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Yup, I”m pretty cool.

Uncle Bobo’s: We went to Uncle Bobo’s Smoked BBQ in Ka’a’awa based on the recommendation in the O’ahu Revealed travel guide.  And it is no joke the best barbecue I’ve ever had.  It’s a little shack-y type establishment next to a post office, just across the street from the beach; it seems a little dive-y, but isn’t that how BBQ is supposed to be?

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Shave ice and Yogurtland: Yogurtland is by no means Hawai’i exclusive (I don’t even think it’s Hawai’i born), but the first time we stepped into this self-serve froyo chain was in Waikiki, so it has a strong association with Hawai’i for us (it is, no doubt, the best chain froyo out there, too).  Then there’s Hawai’ian shave ice, too, which is basically where a huge chunk of ice is, duh, shaved down and served like a sno-cone and doused in sugary syrup, sometimes over ice cream.  These treats are a steal at about $3 (sometimes more if you add on a whole bunch of flavors).

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Fruit stands: Roadside fruit stands have the best, freshest pineapple you’ll ever have…and you’re supporting a local business!  Look at you, hippie!

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Being cute: Lance is no happier than when he’s in Hawai’i.  I can’t wait to see that smile on his face, even if his teeth are all brown and yellow.  Ick.

Hawai’i On My Mind: Pre-Trip Stupid Depression

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[I don’t want to sound like I’m trivializing any sort of depression or mental health issue, much less PTSD, but the acronym was just too easy and I’m nothing if not lazy.]

It’s started already.

It usually begins a week or so out from our vacation: Lance starts getting blue, mopey, nihilistic.

He’s stops going to the gym. “What’s the use? Nothing’s going to change between now and when we leave.”

He eats pizza for lunch…and dinner.  “What does it matter? I’m such a fat cow.”

He’s quiet, distant, his mind obviously consumed by…something.

You see, this, dear readers, is Lance’s Pre-Trip (Stupid) Depression.  He’s sad vacation will soon be over before it’s even begun.

“In a week and six days, we’ll already be back from Hawai’i!” he whines. “WAH!”

I’ll admit, I struggle with this thought process, which basically substitutes a person’s understandable “excited anticipation” for an impending vacation to a morose melancholy about the fleeting nature of vacations.

And once we’re actually sitting on a beach in Hawaii or perusing through shelves at Tower Records in Shibuya for obscure foreign cast recordings of Broadway musicals, it’s no better.  Lance will let out an extended sigh and mumble, “I can’t believe our vacation is almost over…” when, in fact, we have six days left.

“Well, what’s the point of even going on vacation if you’re just going to be miserable before you go, miserable while you’re there, and miserable once vacation is over?” I ask, exasperated. Lance admits this change in his mood doesn’t make any sense.  “Just let me eat my half a large pizza…!” he pleads.  ::MUNCH MUNCH::

I even try to rationalize with him.  “You do realize,” I say, not helping my cause because I’m already establishing myself as a condescending jerk, “that we have other vacations to look forward to, planned all the way through spring of 2015! New York! Dollywood! Disneyland! A cruise! Europe!”

“But none of them are Hawai’i,” he states simply.

…And I can’t argue with him there.

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Travel Tuesday: Hawai’i On The Cheap

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We weren’t even supposed to go on vacation this year.  We were supposed to “be good,” save up some money, find enjoyment in everyday things instead of dashing off to Florida or Chicago or, well, Hawai’i.

But, when Lance employs his puppy dog eyes and dimples…well, how could you deny him a vacation?

Still, we had to find to a way to take a vacation cheap.  I’d been slowly building up my reservoir of American Airlines frequent flier miles to redeem for a trip to Europe, but since we’d redeemed our last bulk of miles for a trip to Japan (my choice), I (somewhat begrudgingly) decided to bequeath my miles to Lance, and that’s how we’re flying to Hawaii for free.*

[*plus $5.00 per person transaction fee.]

The Flight(s)

There are lots of ways to build up your frequent flier miles balances, the easiest being signing up for an airline-branded credit card, but this kind of behavior makes me nervous because of the pings to your credit score and trying to manage that many extra cards (my brain just doesn’t work that way.)  Still, one card sign up will probably net you enough sign-up bonus miles to get you to Hawai’i.  Easy peasy macaroni cheesy.

Still, that game makes me a little uncomfortable, so I play a longer one (think Monopoly instead of Connect Four).  There are a lot of little, free ways to collect miles, usually through online promotions or through online survey sites like e-Rewards.  You can also keep up to date with the latest promotions via some useful blogs like Mommy Points, View from the Wing, and One Mile at a Time.  By using e-Rewards, earning miles for hotel stays and car rentals (for both work and personal travel)  and cashing out my hotel loyalty program points for airline miles, I was able to slowly grow my frequent flier mile balance to just what we needed for two roundtrip, off-peak tickets from Philadelphia to Honolulu (35,000 miles each.)

Later, when we decided to split our Hawai’i time between O’ahu and Kaua’i, I redeemed another 5,000 miles a person for one way tickets and had to pay $90 each for a ticket back to O’ahu since there weren’t any award seats available for the day we wanted to travel.

So now we’re at $190, for two roundtrip flights from the mainland to Hawai’i and two roundtrip inter-island flights.

The Hotels

The trouble when we booked our frequent flier mile trip from Philadelphia to Honolulu is that the frequent flyer award availability was limited; there were no flights that allowed us to stay for seven nights, so we’d either have to stay for four or five, or stay for ten or longer.

Of course, since this is Lance and Hawai’i is his ultimate favorite place, we chose to stay for ten.

This then posed a significant challenge to our “budget” trip to Hawai’i.  Waikiki is not cheap, especially when you want to stay in a decent hotel (Waikiki is chock full of crummy, old, run down hotels that can charge an arm and a leg because it’s Waikiki).

Since I got a Hyatt-branded credit card last year (for the no-international service charge), I’ve been accumulating Hyatt points which can be redeemed at one of the two Hyatt properties in Waikiki.  Our “target” hotel was the Hyatt Place Waikiki, since it’s newer and requires fewer points per night to redeem.  Over the past year, through various bonus points promotions (spend $6000 on your card and get an extra 6000 points) and basically putting all of my expenses on the card (and, of course, paying them off immediately), we were able to get three nights for free.

Via the Hyatt Best Rate Guarantee, where Hyatt will match a lower price from a third-party website and give you another 20% off, I was able to get the rest of our nights at the Hyatt Place Waikiki for $437.61 after tax for three paid nights.  I use hotel search aggregator sites like Room77, Kayak, HotelsCombined or Trivago to search for the lowest rates; these search sites pull rates from dozens of other booking websites, including Expedia, Priceline, and others.

Once we knew we were going to Kaua’i, I booked four nights at the Courtyard Kauai at Coconut Beach, part of the Marriott family of hotels.  Marriott also has a Best Rate Guarantee, so I was able to get our four nights on Kaua’i down to $374.00 after tax.

Our hotel costs for ten nights, then, end up being $811.61, or about $81 a night, a steal on Hawai’i.

The Total

Between the flights and the hotels, we’re just over a thousand bucks for the two of us: $1001.61.  That’s cheaper than the per person cost of our first trip to Hawaii back in 2010, when we only stayed for seven nights and only visited one island.

Granted, this total isn’t including rental cars or food, and we’ll need a little bit of both.  And it doesn’t truly represent how free your trip to Hawaii could be, if you saved your hotel points up longer or played the game a little more intensely to rack up points faster.  But to get a flight and hotel to Hawaii for around $500 a person is a pretty good deal in my book.

 

The Lance+Jeff Guide To Planning Your Tropical Island Getaway

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Welcome to Hawaii Countdown Week on Lance+Jeff!  Lance and I will soon be off jetsetting around the world, leaving this dump of a city (Philadumphia? Filthadelphia?) for the tropical U-V rays of our nation’s 50th state, the Aloha Isles, the “Hawaii” in “Hawaii Five-O:” Hawai’i! (You have to use the apostrophe, just ’cause.)

Way back in the yesteryear of 2010, we thought we had just stumbled upon an unusually great deal to Hawai’i and were convinced we’d never go back.  As it turns out, this will be our third trip together to the islands.  I never would’ve believed years ago (and barely believe it now!) that we’d be fortunate enough to visit as often as we have.  Tomorrow, I’ll go over just how we got to Hawaii this time for a straight-up steal: flights and 10 nights across two islands for less than $1000 for the both of us.

Today, though, I’ll share some of the tips we’ve developed for a successful trip to Hawai’i.  If you ever find yourself visiting this crazy/beautiful place, hopefully these will help you out:

  1. The flight is long, especially from the East Coast, so be prepared.  This means: have stuff that will legit occupy you for 9-11 hours. On my next trip, I’m bringing my iPad, my Nintendo 3DS, my Kindle, and an iPod.  Puzzles books are good, too, if that’s your sort of thing.  And for Pete’s sake, if you are like us and fly in the cattle car called Economy, you’d better eat a proper meal first, otherwise it’ll be like our last trip: the flight attendants ran out of food for sale by the time they got to our row, so Lance and I had to split a cookie somebody spirited out of First Class for us.  One cookie, two people, 9 HOURS.
  2. If you can afford it, get private transportation from the airport.  The last thing you want to do after getting off a 9-hour flight is to sit on an airport shuttle to Waikiki for another hour, which is what Lance and I did on our last trip to save money.  It was excruciating, not only because we were stuck in traffic but also because the bus stopped at every damned hotel and ours was one of the last on the strip in Waikiki.  We eventually got out early and just walked the rest of the way.  Cabs from Honolulu to Waikiki can be expensive ($40+ each way; from Kona to Waikoloa was $80+ each way), so you might want to look into private, flat-rate cars like Hawaii23 (yup, $23 flat rate one-way, up to 3 passengers).
  3. Know what you’re getting in to.  Waikiki on O’ahu is the biggest tourist destination in Hawai’i and it shows–heck, there’s a Cheesecake Factory there, fer cryin’ out loud.  Waikiki is a walkable strip of chain restaurants, resort hotels, ABC Stores, and souvenir shops right on the beach.  It has enough familiarity to feel comfortable while still being relaxed and tropical.  If that kind of environment is not for you, consider staying in another area of O’ahu or on another island.  I can tell you that the Big Island is a much different feel from O’ahu, much less developed and much quieter.
  4. Coupons, coupons, coupons!  Most of the coupon books you find in Hawai’i (like Oahu Gold or somesuch) oftentimes don’t offer you a great deal but can be fun to peruse while on the beach.  I’d actually recommend looking into things you want to do (TripAdvisor’s Activities pages for the Hawaiian islands are a good place to get ideas) and shopping around ahead of time for the best deal–a lot of places will offer online or advanced booking discounts.  Also consider signing up for the Honolulu Groupon and/or LivingSocial for deals on activities (though 90% of the time, the deals will be for auto detailing or canvas photo prints).
  5. Know what kind of traveler you are.  As discussed before, Lance and I are very different in how we approach traveling/vacationing.  Like with basically anything you do in life, this might be your one and only shot at experiencing Hawaii, so do what you want–NO REGRETS!
  6. 90% of luaus are crap.  Do your homework. The Hilton Hawaiian Village luau is held on the top of a parking garage.  If that doesn’t sound like something you’d want to spend $100 on, don’t.  So many of these are tourist traps and aren’t terribly authentic.  If you’re on O’ahu, you should probably considering the luau/show combination at the Polynesian Cultural Center, which is owned and operated by Bringham Young University’s Hawaii campus.  We went with this luau because it’s supposed to be the most authentic on O’ahu, though I felt dirty giving my money to an organization tangentially related to a religion that’s trying to suppress my freedom to marry (but really, which religion isn’t? Ba-ZING!)
  7. Read up on Hawai’i.  Hawai’i is paradise to a lot of people, but like pretty much everywhere else in America, it has a tumultuous history, especially regarding how the West basically destroyed the culture of the native Hawaiians in the name of religion and capitalism.  You owe it to yourself and the Hawaiian people to learn about the island’s traditions, history, and beliefs–and do it honestly and respectfully; don’t come off as a patronizing jag.
  8. The best travel guides out there are, without question, the Hawaii Revealed books by Andrew Doughton.  Full color, brutally honest and pretty funny all at the same time, these books are broken down by island and are incredibly thorough.  There are also smartphone apps for each island, which Lance and I haven’t tried but get really great reviews.
  9. If you’re used to Manhattan prices, you won’t be shocked by the cost of being in Hawaii. With the exception of the $10 gallon of milk (which is totally for real), prices for food are pretty much on par with what you’d pay in any metropolitan area…or Disney World.  Rental cars are actually pretty reasonably priced given that there’s so much competition.
  10. Don’t worry about the “rain.”  Lance and I do this dance every trip, where the forecast says it’s going to rain and Lance is supremely bummed and lets it ruin his whole vacation before it even starts.  It’s a tropical island; it’s gonna rain, but oftentimes the rain is fleeting (think Florida afternoon rains, but quicker).  It may rain overnight or briefly in the afternoon, but 95% of the time it’s sunny as hell and you’ll probably burn like a lobster, just like me.

In six days, Lance and I will be enjoying mai tais on the beach on Kauai.  Until then, aloha and mahalo for reading, friends! We’ll be back tomorrow sharing how we got to Hawaii on a (relative) shoe-string budget.

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Travel Tuesday: The Cost of Magic

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I’ve had a couple of conversations recently about the importance of staying “on property” at a Disney Parks resort.  For those not in the know, Disney owns and operates a ton of their own hotels at their resorts in the U.S.: three in California and, like, 45 or something down in Walt Disney World.  The phrase “on property” means you’re staying at one of these hotels and not, say, the Best Western in Downtown Disney or the Holiday Inn in Kissimmee.

There are several tangible benefits to staying “on property,” including the very significant free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport and Extra Magic Hours (where on-property guests have access to the Disney parks a few extra hours longer than off-property guests).  The Mighty Men of Mouse podcast did a good job at boiling some of these costs down by the hour in one of their most recent episodes, demonstrating how much money you’re saving/losing with these features.

Disney resorts’ theming is also tangible (most off-site resorts are not going to have an extensive Pacific Northwest theme, for example), though not quite as quantifiable.

Now, before I continue, I want to preface by saying that this is my opinion, based on my own biases, budgets, and preferences. Lord knows I spend money on extravagance in different ways, so believe me, this is all about how I perceive the value of Disney resorts.

A lot of people prefer Disney resorts over off-site because of the above, quantifiable factors.  Many people (just read TripAdvisor reviews) also believe that on-site, particularly Moderate- and Deluxe-tier Disney hotels, offer a level of service and dedication to theme that creates an enveloping sense of magic (not so quantifiable).  And that’s great!  Who wouldn’t want an experience, particularly with a company built on pixie dust, to feel magical?

But how much is that magic worth to you?  I personally struggle to justify spending $200+ a night for something as immeasurable as “magic.”

Full disclosure: the only time I’ve even stayed on Disney property was at the Boardwalk Inn, a wonderfully themed hotel and one of Disney’s deluxe resorts.  We were able to stay there because of a very reasonable conference rate.  Without that, we could never have afforded to spend the $450+/night a Standard View room goes for.  The lobby was great, the music, the smells, the surrounding boardwalk area.  Fantastic, don’t get me wrong.  But, in my opinion, the room and the bathroom were small (and Lance and I are not big people).  And, I’m just gonna lay this out there: regardless of how thematically appropriate it is, I want a standing (not tub) shower in a $450+ hotel room.

Effectively, Lance and I are shut out of the deluxe resorts for budget reasons.  Even if we could afford $400+ night hotel rooms, I couldn’t justify the expense to myself. It’s not worth it to me.

Even the Moderates (your Port Orleans, your Coronado Springs and such) are often over $200 a night (and might drop down to around $150 with a discount at the right time of year), and these are for hotels that have exterior entrance to the rooms.  Yes, these are basically well-themed motels.  Granted, they have food courts and gift shops and many of the services you’d expect of a hotel, but if I can’t access my hotel room from an interior hallway, then it’s still a motel (this all goes for the Values as well, which are usually very reasonably priced at about $85-125 a night, but with a balanced dip in amenities/services).  You can put lipstick on a pig…

Part of what I struggle with regarding Disney hotels is knowing that I can get more of what I’m looking for at off-site hotels for the same rate or cheaper.  And if I can’t get it for cheaper elsewhere, I can usually play the points/best rate guarantee games with chains like Hilton or Sheraton and get similar accommodations off-site for a much cheaper price.  For example, if I were to book for this upcoming Saturday, Port Orleans–Riverside, a Disney Moderate hotel, would be $190 before tax.  The Doubletree Lake Buena Vista, with the same TripAdvisor score, is $96 before tax (and if you use Priceline or Hotwire, you can get a rental car in Orlando for less than $50 a day).  And with Hilton, Hyatt, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, and more, I could save a significant amount more via their loyalty points programs.  (And thankfully, I can redeem Sheraton’s Starwood Points for stays at the Swan or Dolphin hotels located on Disney property.)

Probably the only way to “play the game” to really get bang for your buck at Disney itself is by renting Disney Vacation Club points from a DVC member, meaning you can stay at the villas at some of the Disney Deluxe resorts for a great savings compared to the rack rates (say, $125 for an Animal Kingdom value room versus $200+).  You can rent points through more established companies (usually at a higher price per point) or, if you know a DVC member, you might be able to negotiate a lower price.  We’re looking into renting DVC points, even through a broker website, for a one-night stay on the tail-end of our Disney cruise next year, but the process is a little messy and it seems like you give up a lot of flexibility as a renter.

This all basically comes down to: how much am I willing to spend for that “magical” component, that Disney Difference?  Each person has to answer that question for themselves.  I’m not arguing for Disney to lower their prices–they’re a business, after all, and they can charge as much as they think the public is willing to spend (they aren’t gouging you if you agree to spend that amount, regardless of what my cartoon above suggests), but for me, as a Disney fan, the extra hours in the parks, the transportation, the theming, is not worth the extra hundreds of dollars per night.  The magic of their hotels is not a make-or-break for me in visiting the parks.

So, that’s me.  What about you?  Am I crazy?  If I really want the magic, should I just suck it up and stay at the Disney Value resorts I am willing to pay for, regardless of amenity disparity between those and off-site hotels for the same price?  Am I really saving any money after rental car costs?  Am I undervaluing immersive magic just for a standing shower? (This might be true.)  Obviously, Disney fans are passionate and I’m sure there are a lot of opinions about the value of the Disney resorts.

If you’ve got thoughts, please share in the comments!

[Tip of the hat to Estelle from This Happy Place Blog for sharing her thoughts on this topic and post.]

Animals In The Bedroom

That sneaky jerk.  He totally knew what he was doing.

It started in the early morning hours, probably 4:30 or 5:00, just a few hours off of when Lance and I would normally wake up.  They weren’t long, drawn out, high-pitched whines, just these little squeaky sighs.

“Aww, Dads,” they would suggest. “Can’t you, uh, just let me sleep in the bed? C’mon.”

Ripley had been sleeping in his crate his house, after a few rambunctious overnight incidents in his youth, which included eating $70 worth of Dolly Parton merchandise.  And due to the petite quality of our apartment, Ripley’s house is in the bedroom (already something of a mood killer.)  For months, he’d been a “good boy,” heading into his house at bedtime and sleeping through until 6:30 in the morning.

Then something must have happened.  It began right around the time that we started allowing him up on the living room furniture (basically because we’re lazy).

He’d start quietly whimpering at 5:00, then 4:00, then 2:00 AM, and since (again) we’re lazy, we’d reach over, unlatch the door to his house, and Ripley’d curl up at the foot of the bed.

“Should we just let him sleep in the bed? He’s over a year old now,” Lance and I would ask aloud, both thinking the same thing but wanting the other to validate it.

So we let Ripley the smelly old dog in the bed.  And he was quick to take advantage of the situation.  Let me diagram this for you:

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Once he was able to sleep in the bed full-time, Ripley sauntered his furry ass up to the head of the bed and plopped down right in between the pillows.  “Aww, cute!” we said at first, until he’d start scratching himself in the middle of the night, or pressing his back paws into the small of your back.

blog 8.12.13bRipley loves to sleep on his side with all legs extended, effectively pushing both of us out of the bed.  His 40-plus pounds of goldendoodle are also effing rock-solid.  Unlike the cat, who’s a malleable ball of fat who just shifts with you as you move throughout the night, Ripley is just a lump who does not budge, weighing down the covers as the same time.

blog 8.12.13cAnd just recently, our bedroom A/C unit has been on the fritz (is this a derogatory term for Germans?), so we’ve had to leave the bedroom door open to get some circulation from the living room.  This means that now both the dog and the cat have free reign over the bed.  Kitty, who’s been on mouse duty in the living room for weeks, just can’t get over being back in the bed: she cries loudly at night while sitting right on top of our chests, then proceeds to launch herself from the bed onto the windowsill.  Repeatedly. “MRORRWWW. MROOW?  MRRROOOWWW ROOW ROOW!”

Last week, I had to basically apologize to my boss for being so worthless at work.  “I’m so sorry,” I’d mumble, the dark circles I inherited from my father just bolder and blacker.  “There aren’t enough K-Cups in the world to wake me up right now.”

Lance and I have given up restful sleeping for two animals. ANIMALS.

I can’t imagine how you people with kids do it.