That time I embraced my Kentucky heritage and visited Jane’s Saddlebag

14 Apr

Whenever someone (with knowledge of US geography) asks me where I’m from, I usually say “Cincinnati.” (If they have no US geography knowledge, it’s “Chicago,” where I spent most of my young adult life.) It’s mostly because Cincinnati is the nearest metropolis to northern Kentucky, but also because, let’s face it, Kentucky has some stigma attached to it — hillbillies, rednecks, cousin-marrying, barefoot hicks… you get the gist.

Most of the time I shun my old Kentucky home — I’m wasn’t born here, majority of the time I live and have lived elsewhere, and do not care about college basketball whatsoever — but sometimes — sometimes — I choose to embrace it. Like this past Saturday.

We started our Kentucky appreciation day with a walk with Squirt at Big Bone Lick State Park — yes, that is the actual name of the park. According to Wikipedia, “The name of the park comes from the Pleistocene megafauna fossils found there.” Apparently mammoths liked to hang out there because of the natural salt lick. Nowadays there are only bison hanging out there.

big bone bison
Squirt was ready to go!

Squirt hike

Although he promptly crapped out once we reached the bison and had to be carried. The old man is not a good hiker anymore (not that he ever really was).

squirt picked up

Bison! They actually do not do anything or move in the slightest. Maybe because it was starting to get uncomfortably hot for April.

big bone lick bison

chihuahua bison

Squirt was overheating a tad.

old hot chihuahua

He was also tired… or bored.

tired chihuahua

squirt car
After hiking back to the car, we drove further down the road until we officially hit the boonies.

welcome to the boonies
Jane’s Saddlebag.

“What is it?” I asked my mom when she suggested we visit. “Is it a town?”

“You’ll have to see,” she said. “There’s no way to describe it.”

When we pulled into the parking lot I knew exactly what she meant — Jane’s Saddlebag cannot be defined with simple words, or even photos. It’s everything that’s wrong and right with Kentucky.

wyatts general store
Upon exiting our vehicle we were met by a friendly big dog whom Squirt had no interest in, and were greeted by the ::whatever Jane’s Saddlebag is::’s creator? founder? owner?’s grandson, who welcomed us and encouraged us to walk around, try some wine at the Whine Shoppe, visit the petting zoo or check out the replica 1700s flat boat. He told us to let him know if we needed anything or had any questions, but I figured “What is this place?” and “Why?…” were too loaded questions for a sunny Saturday afternoon, so we set off to explore whatever-this-is:

janes saddlebag auto

janes saddlebag buildings

big bone chapel

Squirt did not know what to think. Neither did I.

squirt chapel

text if you want to meet him

national sarcasm society

“Hate is never a family value” — surprisingly progressive for the boonies. Right on, Jane’s Saddlebag!

janes saddlebag barn

I neglected to photograph the petting zoo, restaurant and replica flatboat, but that’s Jane’s Saddlebag. I learned “Saddlebag” refers to an old style of house on the property and is unrelated to thunder thighs. I had no idea such a place existed, yet alone within 20 minutes of my parents’ house. calls it “a heritage tourism family destination,” which is probably the best way to describe it. I’ll admit a part of me is a little sad I won’t be in the country for their annual wine festival, as such a place as Jane’s Saddlebag may be best experienced after three glasses of vino.

I’ll just leave this here now:

wanted squirt


wanted squirt zoom


wanted squirt super zoom

Why I decided to get LASIK… and then backed out

9 Apr

homer lasik

I feel like every good LASIK post begins with “I’ve worn glasses since I was ::insert age here::.” I never wore glasses as a child. I used to brag about my perfect vision… until I was in high school and had to squint to read the orange ink on the overhead. Then after about an hour of tearing up at the eye doctor because I was trying to insert a polymer sphere onto my eyeball, then some actual crying because I couldn’t get the polymer sphere to stay on my eyeball, suddenly I saw the world in HD. We immediately went to Burger King so I could marvel at the menu and a Whopper in HD.

Wearing contacts during the day and glasses at night soon became just part of my daily routine. I vaguely remember my eye doctor saying I’d be a good candidate for LASIK once my prescription stabilized, but I tabled that decision for when I became an adult. Flash forward to three months ago. Likely due to a combination of wearing daily contacts for more than one day, wearing too much eye makeup and consistently rubbing and itching, my eyes became very irritated. One day I even had to go without contacts or makeup, and I really hate wearing glasses and really like wearing makeup. That’s when a little voice spoke up in the back of my head — “LASIK?” Maybe I wouldn’t have to deal with the yearly costs of more polymer spheres and the irritation that comes with trying to milk a pricy six-month supply of daily contacts over two years.

So since I’m back in Cincinnati, I made a free consultation appointment at LasikPlus last week. Dr. Marino there has performed more than 81,000 procedures, so I knew I’d be in good hands. I wasn’t really thinking that far in advance, though — my prescription has changed a little bit each year, so I figured the consult would just tell me whether I’d be a good candidate down the road. They performed a variety of tests, then the tech slid a piece of paper in front of me with the final cost of the procedure.

“Should we schedule it for later this week?” He asked. I told him I needed some time to think about it. I knew my mom was off the next week and could drive me to the appointment, but was I really ready to have such a permanent, expensive, life-changing procedure?

“We can just book a date to hold it, you can always call to cancel or change it,” the tech suggested. So I did it. I booked the surgery. My reasoning was that if I was going to have the surgery, I should have it now before I waste any more money on contacts or glasses.

I left my consult bright-eyed (or rather dilated-eyed) and bushy tailed — they said I was a perfect candidate! I was approved for the 12-month, no interest payment plan! In one week I wouldn’t need contacts anymore!

I went home and started doing more research. First I read thorough first-person accounts of the procedure, which made it seem like a piece of cake. And then “LASIK ruined my life” came up, so I went back to “LASIK was the best decision I ever made!” Then I found a story about a guy whose eyes were so dry and painful after LASIK that he eventually committed suicide. I immediately switched tabs to “I wish I had gotten LASIK sooner!” I convinced myself that every botched surgery was because the person wasn’t a “perfect candidate” like me. I read success story after success story, feeling confident in my decision, until I read this sentence by Joe Tye in his “Before You Have Lasik Eye Surgery” guide:

“If you knew there was a one-in-twenty chance that an operation you don’t need except to not have to wear glasses would permanently impair your eyesight and cause you serious and ongoing physical and mental distress — would you take that risk?”

Everyone — LASIK doctors included — tells you to do your research and understand the risks. (Patients must sign a waiver that basically says “I won’t sue, even if you completely ruin my vision.”) Most people who are happy with their LASIK procedures say they weighed the risks and benefits and the benefits won, even if they have to battle dry eyes and nighttime halos for a while. That’s when it finally hit me:

What makes me a perfect candidate for LASIK actually makes me a bad one: my prescription isn’t severe. I didn’t require corrective lenses until I was 13. I can easily read my alarm clock at night without fumbling for my glasses, and if I somehow broke my glasses or lost a contact, I would not die trying to exit a burning building (hopefully). I already see in HD thanks to contacts. I merely wanted LASIK because I thought it might save me money over years of contacts (which is unlikely, as LASIK is pricy and still requires yearly eye exams. Plus I’ll still likely need reading glasses when I hit 40, regardless of LASIK). Most people, even those happy with their surgery, say they suffer from dry eye and need to regularly use eye drops. One of the reasons I was considering the surgery was because I was tired of dry contacts, but it seems I’d merely be trading in popping in contacts once a day to dropping in eye drops several times daily.

In short (although this post has been anything but), LASIK seems to have worked for many people, and probably would have worked for me, but it’s the “what if” that made me eventually cancel my appointment and instead book an appointment with my regular ophthalmologist to try out a new brand of contacts. You only get one pair of eyeballs in your life, and there’s no undoing cutting a flap in your eye (which never fully heals) and lasering off some of your cornea. For some, the thought of waking up with 20/20 vision outweighs any risk, but for me, contacts are just not that bad.

The great American surprise

2 Apr

For the past two weeks I’ve been working on a secret covert mission.

Stephen told me he would be traveling on business for most of April and the end of March.

“Do you want to use my United miles to go back to the US while I’m gone?” he asked.

I didn’t know what to say. While I enjoy my time in my old Kentucky home, I was mentally prepared not to go back for a year — I had only been back in the UK for two months. But then a little voice in the back of my head whispered “Over the Rhine. Live. With the Cincinnati Ballet.” I missed their joint performance in 2011 and it killed me. I could also be back for my mom’s birthday. I could give her tickets to the ballet for her birthday. I could be there for Easter. I could buy more PB2 (yes, this was seriously one of my first thoughts. Powdered peanut butter is ridiculously expensive on Amazon UK). I could have a LASIK consultation (more on that in another post).

I was sold. I booked my ticket less than a week before my travel date, and was struck with a dilemma — how should I tell my mom? Email her my flight with the subject line “Surprise! Happy birthday!” Tell her over Skype? …Or just show up and surprise her?

I knew what I had to do.

I crafted an elaborate back story about my mom’s “birthday gift.” I told her I bought her something online and it would not be ready until after 6 p.m. on Sunday, March 23 (the day before her birthday) and my dad would have to go pick it up. I texted her this information because I am horrible at lying face to face and it already took all I had to contain my secret when we Skyped three days before my intended arrival. I was so excited about my secret plan that I literally had trouble sleeping. I had never attempted a surprise of this magnitude before. I emailed my dad the plan and my flight schedule. He could not have done a better job executing it. Thankfully my flight was on time. My dad told my mom to count to 10 before she came out since he had to “set up” the present in the garage. I hid in the backseat and shouted “Surprise!” when she came out to look at her gift in the trunk. I believe there were tears of joy.

The thrill of the surprise was so great I knew I had to do it again — with my 38-week pregnant best friend. This was her first week off work, so we scheduled a Skype chat for Monday. For a week I had to keep the fact that I was in town a secret — no Instagram, blog or Facebook posts. I even went so far as to not like her statuses too late that would seem unreasonable for being on UK time. On Monday instead of Skyping from London, I downloaded Skype onto my phone, drove to her house and answered her call from her front lawn.

“Are you at home?” I asked her, then immediately rang the doorbell. She didn’t put the two together.

“Someone’s at my door, I think it’s this annoying election lady.” She said. I told her it was OK to answer it.

“No, I’m going to ignore her, she keeps bothering us!” she said.

Uh oh. I rang the doorbell again. And again.

“Maybe you can peak through the curtain to see who it is,” I suggested.

“No, then they’ll see me!” she replied.

Just as I was about to give my presence away, I saw her appear in the window with the biggest smile on her face. (Let me say here that I actually googled “Can surprise induce labor?” before I arrived because this was a genuine concern of mine. Apparently it can’t.)

After the initial shock and “I can’t believe you’re here!” wore off, we went out to lunch and a movie. I was lucky she had the rest of the day free, you never know when you just show up on someone’s doorstep instead of calling them from across the pond. Both of my secret covert missions could not have gone better and so far it’s been a lovely trip back. Here’s hoping the good vibes continue if I decide to have lasers cut open my eyeballs next week.

And now a gratuitous photo of Old Man Squirt:

breakfast butthead buddy

I sent this to my parents while they were at work the other day with the caption “breakfast butthead buddy.” He came into the kitchen still covered in his blanket from his crate so that he could bark at me while I was eating.


Lausanne, home of the IOC and a lot of stairs

20 Mar

Since we knocked out the auto show the day we arrived in Geneva, we had a free day on Thursday, so we took a day trip to Lausanne. It was only a 40-minute train ride from Geneva along the lake. Lausanne is home to the International Olympic Committee, so the first thing we did was head to the newly renovated Olympic Museum.

le musee olympique

In recent years I’ve become an Olympics nerd, so I enjoyed learning about the history of the games. Back in the day you could win a sweet trophy bowl thingy instead of a medal.

olympic trophy

Making use of my prime lens!

olympic museum wall

All the Olympic torches:

olympic torches

I love all the Olympic mascots! (Except London’s one-eyed monster. Why?!!)

olympic mascots

One of the famous drums from Beijing’s opening ceremonies

beijing olympics drum

A 1920 Swiss two-man bobsled

bobsled 1920

Kerry Shrug’s leotard signed by the 1996 women’s US gymnastics team. Watching those girls made me fall in love with the Olympics, gymnastics in particular. I sadly gave up my hopes of making the US team when I still couldn’t do a back handspring without a spotter after two years of lessons.

kerry shrug leo

Fun fact: from 1900 to 1920 Olympic tug of war was a thing. (And apparently the US, Great Britain and Sweden dominated. Obviously.)

olympic tug of war

We ate lunch at the museum’s cafe, which had cute names for everything. The British women sitting near us were amused that there is no French translation for “fish and chips.”

olympic cafe menu

After lunch we decided to walk to the cathedral on the hill to take in the view. We passed a lot of pretty buildings.

lausanne building

And some interesting graffiti

lausanne graffiti

We saw these kids across from the church — good way to keep them all together!

lausanne kids

We decided to climb the church’s bell tower to get an even better view. So. many. windy. stairs! (I just realized “windy” stairs and “windy” city are spelled the same. I assure you the stairs followed a twisting course and were not breezy.) Across Lake Geneva is the city of Evian, France, where the bottled water comes from. You can just barely make out the mountains in the distance. If you remember from my last visit to Switzerland, I enjoy seeing snow-capped mountains very much.

evian mountains

We then walked down more stairs to visit the old town, where this lady and her dog unintentionally became the focal point of my photo.

lausanne old town

We saw this black cat just hanging out outside the library, like he was waiting for it to open.

lausanne black cat

I had some fun editing it.

lausanne black and white

Although I wish it would have been a clearer day to see more mountains, we enjoyed our time in Lausanne. I think I burned off my “for long-distance races” risotto climbing the bell tower alone.

Swiss holiday part deux: Geneva cars and Lausanne stairs

19 Mar

I came home on Friday and immediately put on my new compression socks. I’m still not entirely sure they do anything, but the placebo effect of soothing my sore calves seems to work enough.  This is my Fitbit data from Thursday, the day before, and you can clearly see the reason my calves were killing me:

fitbit 77 floors

77 flights of stairs. No, I did not climb a sky scraper. We went to Lausanne, Switzerland, a city built on hills and stairs, to which we added a visit to the cathedral tower, accessible only by an incredibly narrow spiraling staircase.

lausanne stairs

Stairs on the way to the cathedral in Lausanne

My legs were shaking by the time we got back on the train to Geneva.

Even though my last getaway resulted in a bus fire that I’m finally just now getting over, I was feeling the travel bug again, so when Stephen suggested we visit the Geneva Auto Show again, I was excited for another Swiss holiday. It’s always nice to go somewhere that makes London seem pleasantly affordable. Switzerland also always makes me feel like a monolingual moron — the ability of majority of its citizens to flawlessly switch from French to German to English never ceases to amaze me. I guess if I grew up in a country with FIVE official languages I’d be polylingual as well. Although I will say there’s no greater triumph as an American tourist than to have a native approach you and start conversing in a foreign tongue as if you live there and can give them directions. Of course the jig is immediately up when their French is met with wide eyes and an “Um… sorry, I don’t…” But still, it feels good for a second before it becomes incredibly awkward.

We arrived in the late morning on Wednesday last week and decided to immediately check out the cars, cars, cars. So many cars. It’s hard to capture the sheer size of the Geneva Palexpo, but it’s BIG. According to the show’s press release, there were 250 exhibitors and over 900 cars.

Geneva Auto show

Continue reading

Fun times dealing with Sky… again

10 Mar

(Disclaimer: I need to vent, so this might not be the most fun read, unless you also hate dealing with cable companies and can relate.)

Ever since we moved into this flat we’ve been having off and on problems with our HD channels. In January it got to a point where some channels, like BBC 2 HD, just flat out wouldn’t work. It was a major first world problem.

first world problem hd

So I eventually broke down and called Sky, our cable company. I can think of few things more dreadful then calling the cable company. I explained to the man what my problem was and he walked me through steps he thought might fix it, including the always helpful “turn the box off and then turn it back on.” I told him we tried that many times, but he wasn’t having it. He had to follow all the steps in his protocol. After a good half hour I asked if he could just send someone out to look at it. He scheduled the appointment for early February.

The day of the appointment came, the Sky engineer arrived, pushed some buttons on our box, plugged something into our wall, then said, “Sorry, can’t help you.” He was here five minutes, max. I had to contact the porter who contacted the guy who wired our flat, and he adjusted something behind the face plate, and now we can watch Jeremy Clarkson in HD. But Sky was absolutely no help.

Which is why I was shocked when I looked at my bill for February and saw they charged us £65 for the engineer appointment. That’s over $100 US dollars! For a guy who came out for five minutes and didn’t fix anything.

I reluctantly picked up the phone, dreading the inevitable want-to-bash-your-head-on-the-wall conversation with the cable company, but was told all the operators were assisting other customers and it would be quite a long wait. So I hung up and tried the next best option: live online chat.

“This might even be better!” I thought. “I’m much better at writing than talking! I’ll get my money refunded in no time!”

Flash forward 90 minutes. 90 MINUTES. An hour and a half. That’s how long it took to finally get the agent to refund me.

Now I’ve heard horror stories about Comcast and other cable companies, but allow me to show you British customer service at its best (no really, Sky was rated best cable customer service in the UK, that’s how bad everyone else is!) (This is not an exact transcript):

Me: Hello, I was looking at my bill and saw a £65 charge for an engineer visit. I was not told there would be a charge when I scheduled the appointment and I was still under my 12-month warranty. I would like the fee waived and credited to my next bill please.

Sky: Hello, Renee, I can certainly help you with that. Just let me pull up your account details.

::10 minutes pass as she pulls up my account. Meanwhile the agent tries to make small talk about my favorite TV shows. We share a mutual love of The Walking Dead::

Sky: I see your box was installed by Spectrum somethingsomething so unfortunately I cannot authorise a free engineer visit.

Me: I have no idea what Spectrum is, but can’t you please just credit me £65? I should have been told about the cost upfront and my box was under warranty.

Throughout the 90-minute conversation I tried different tactics. I tried being angry, but I knew that wasn’t going to work. I even tried begging, actually using the phrase “If you did this for me, you would make my day!” I said “Pleaseeee” (with multiple E’s). I used emoticon smilies. I tried being rational, explaining that I pay Sky to provide a service for me, and when that service doesn’t work, it is Sky’s responsibility to pay to fix it, not mine. She was having none of that. I needed a new plan of attack. I had three talking points:

1. I should have been told when making the appointment that it would cost £65.
2. I was still under the 12-month warranty.
3. The engineer stayed for 5 minutes and did jack squat.

Of these I realized No. 2 was my strongest defense, so I focused on that.

Sky: I see your viewing card was activated on 22/02/13. Your engineer appointment was on 07/02/14.

Me: [Yes! We're getting somewhere!] Yes, see, it was within 12 months.

Sky: Spectrum did the installation so I cannot give you a refund without confirmation from them of the date of installation.

Me: Isn’t the viewing card activation date, 22/02/13, the installation date?

Sky: You need to call Spectrum, I can’t give you a refund without their confirmation.

Me: Can’t you just contact them? Do we really need to make this needlessly complicated?

Sky: Yes.

Me: Ok fine, what’s Spectrum’s number?

Sky: ::gives phone number:: Do you mind answering some questions to make sure you’re getting the best value from Sky?

Me: Seriously? Sure, I’ll humor you, but the best value would obviously be not charging me £65 for a 5-minute engineer visit! [Yes, I actually said this]

So I called Spectrum, still unsure what company they were, until someone answered “Love Digital” and I realized it was the authorized Sky reseller that represented our old flat. I had a hard time explaining what I needed from the representative, but after giving her my old address she eventually told me my box was installed 22/02/13. I asked her how I could confirm this information with Sky.
“Um, Sky could call us?” she said with hesitation. I still had the chat box open so I told the Sky representative I called Love Digital and they confirmed that my box was installed on Feb. 22. I had no confirmation code, no way whatsoever to prove that I actually spoke to someone from Love Digital, but suddenly it was OK. The Sky representative got confirmation from her manager and credited me the £65 off my next bill. I never felt so simultaneously victorious with a burning desire to bang my head against a wall before.

Just when I thought we were done, that after more than an hour of needless back and forth I could go grocery shopping, she decided to walk me through my bill. The number she quoted me monthly was £10 more than what the guy said it would be when I upgraded to fibre broadband. I started getting into it with her again, but I just couldn’t. I didn’t have any more anger or begging in me. Not today. So I ended the 90-minute chat victorious over my £65 Sky engineer fee, but knowing I had only won a battle, not the war. Stay tuned for Fun Times Dealing with Sky Part III: Why is My Bill Not What You Told Me It’d Be?

If only my exchange had been something like this.

Hi, my name is Renee and I’m a nut butter addict

7 Mar

I never really got into giving things up for Lent. I remember a lot of my high school classmates did — forgoing candy, pop or swearing for 40 days. I do remember one year I gave up translating Latin homework at home, which if you knew me in high school, was a really bizarre resolution since I was a model student. I think I did it for the challenge — I never showed up to class unprepared, I just made sure I did my translations during free periods or before or after school. It was nothing compared to giving up sweets, something I tried to do for a day last month and thought I was going to die. Yes, I’ve really fallen off the health food wagon since my visit back to the US, and it’s been hard to climb back on. I haven’t been eating many cakes, cookies or candies like I did in America, but I have a new weakness:

Nut butter.

nut butter collection

This is my collection (The PB2 and The Bee’s Knees I smuggled from the US). Two years ago the term “nut butter” was foreign to me — I had a jar of cheap store brand peanut butter and that was it. But somehow over the years I have become a nut butter snob and connoisseur, and that same jar I used to savor now tastes like peanut-flavored sugar oil to me. Once you try the real stuff — just roasted nuts blended, maybe with some salt  — it’s hard to go back. I started collecting nut butters when they went on sale, eager to try different nuts and flavors, telling myself that nut butter is good for me — healthy fats and protein! I’d put a scoop on my oatmeal, dip some fruit or add it to smoothies. Except it evolved to a point where I couldn’t just put a scoop on my oatmeal or spread some on apple slices — I had to repeatedly spoon it from jar to mouth afterward. One tablespoon of nut butter provides healthy fats and protein. Ten consecutive tablespoons of nut butter in your mouth just makes you fat. I realized I truly had an addiction when I found myself shoveling Nutella into my mouth one night when I was sick last week. I could not even taste it! I wasn’t even hungry! I was just doing it out of habit. That’s when it hit me that I wasn’t just jokingly “addicted” to Nutella — I really was.

I’m not going to give up nut butter cold turkey for Lent — that would almost be too easy. The real struggle is in moderation — scooping out one tablespoon and then putting the jar away, no matter how much the crave tells you to get it back out. That’s what I’m going to try to do — not just for 40 days, but for the foreseeable future. All my running is basically fruitless when I come home and eat 1,000 calories in spread. And when my current jar of Nutella runs out, I’m not buying any more. Almond, hazelnut and peanut butters provide real nutrition, but I’m pretty sure Nutella is just sugar and oil — delicious, chocolate-hazelnutty sugar oil. It’s a treat to buy when it’s on sale for Pancake Day, not a dietary staple.

I think the last scene of the South Park episode S09E14 “Bloody Mary,” in which Stan’s dad Randy spends the whole episode believing he’s a powerless alcoholic unless the bleeding statue of Mary can cure him, says it best:

randy stan discipline

Randy: Maybe I can force myself to never drink again.

Stan: No! Dad, you like to drink. So have a drink once in a while! Have two! If you devote your whole life to completely avoiding something you like, then that thing still controls your life and you’ve never learned any discipline at all.

Randy: But maybe I’m just the kind of person who needs to have it all or nothing.

Stan: Naw, all or nothing is easy. But learning to drink a little bit, responsibly, that’s discipline. Discipline come from within.


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