Recently I have been listening to the M.O.N.E.Y. show which inspired me to re-read the Total Money Makeover.  All this information has me wanting to jump straight into action.  The problem is I get paid once a month.  While I can plan, budget and scheme, I can’t really do much which leads to the downtime and me wondering what I can do.  I reached out to J Money…the comedy of the MONEY show, who also runs and asked his advice.  His suggestion was blog.  Find something you love and write about it.  As it happens, I have had a blog for a long time now.  It’s never really had a focus, hence the “James the Generalist”.  This has always been more like an online journal with all of three people who might read it. :^)  However, this also has its benefits since I can chronicle what I’m doing, get some of the thoughts out of my head and maybe…finally…define my goals enough to start making some solid plans.

My current interests are:
  1. Traveling.  I like traveling alone, but now that I have an amazing travel partner (my hot wife Kelly) it’s way more fun.
  2. Travel points.  With travel, I have tried really hard to travel cheaply.  Using points, flying Spirit, etc.  The obvious problem with this is you usually have to use credit cards which is always a slippery slope.
  3. Travel writing.  Sort of.  I use Tripadvisor anytime I hit a town, even one I am familiar with.  You generally get both good and bad reviews of a place from travelers and locals.  I take the time to rate and review places I find, have been recommended or that I frequent at home.
  4. Camping. I have purchased some great gear from REI, much to my wife’s chagrin, but it makes being outdoors all that more fun.  She doesn’t camp much, but I have friends that do and my daughters also love it.
  5. Real Estate.  I have always had a fascination with buying and selling homes.  I worked for Dream Homes, a build on your lot builder, before they were purchased by Jim Walter Homes.  That sparked my interest and I read all kinds of books, attended seminars and did precisely nothing with that knowledge.  Now that I have a solid career, I am revisiting that interest.
  6. Eliminating debt.  I’m not sure if this is an interest or obsession.  I have tried more than a few times to dig out of the hole, but it seems like there is always something to pull you back in.  Travel, camping gear, points collection…:^}  This one is usually in conflict with the others because I’m impatient.
That seems like a pretty good list to get started working on.  We’ll see what catches on.

That time in Las Vegas

I met this beautiful woman online.  After that first meeting, we saw each other almost ever day after.  We took a few trips, including one with the entire family, on the road, to Florida.  While we were there, I knew I wanted her to be my partner always.  I asked her to marry me and she said yes.  What a lucky guy!   We discussed a few options for getting married and finally decided we wanted it simple, small and fun, so we chose…

A couple of our closest friends were able to make it.

Including my childhood bear.

We chose something…classy.

The wedding was…entertaining.

And now I have this amazing woman with me always.

There and back again…with kids.


This past weekend 9/13-9/14 I surprised my daughters with a trip to Disney World.  It was quite a surprise, even though Kassidy had found a Disney vacation disk I had laying around.  I was fretting about the trip since it was going to be my first solo parent flight and long weekend in a crowded park.  While there were a couple of snags and was certainly more expensive than I’d planned, the overall vacation was a resounding success.

The flight.  We flew Spirit airlines from DFW to Orlando.  If you are unfamiliar, they are the no frills airline that charges for every little thing.  That being said, they post all their fees all over their website.  When you buy your ticket and check in, they give you multiple opportunities to purchase carry-ons, reserve seats, etc.  You get one free “personal item”.  I have used my largest backpack that can hold up to four days of clothing and never been questioned.  If it can fit under the seat ahead of you, you’re golden.  They have a place where you can test the size of the bag if you are still unsure.  Spirit will not hold your hand and they are not for luxurious travel.  If you are a parent on a budget, I really don’t know how you could fly any other way.  Having flown with them a couple of times, I have not had any trouble personally.  I have heard of poor customer service and delayed flights, but from personal experience that is all airlines, so just be prepared.  One note about the airport, traveling with the kids seems to get you into the TSA pre-screened line, so there’s a little bonus for flying with the little ones.  The girls did remarkably well on the flight.  The first lift off had them all holding hands and white knuckled.  Once we were in the air they were fine and even got bored.  The flight back was a breeze with them being only a little tense at lift off.  Each girl was in charge of her own backpack, so I did not have to manage carrying a bunch of gear.  My oldest was also invaluable as a second pair of hands and eyes to help with her younger siblings.

Transport.  At first, I thought I would use public transport while I was there, taxis, buses, etc.  This idea was quickly quashed when I realized the cost and lack of convenience.  It would have cost $50 just to get us from the airport to the hotel.  I also needed to make it to the sales pitch and back then back to the airport.  All totaled, it would have cost me about $130.  I’m a AAA member which is just discounts on all sorts of things, car rentals among them.  You log onto the website and you can see all the companies, side by side with vehicle type, cost and if they are in the terminal.  I’m not certain if it’s an added perk, but each time I have used the service to book a car, I get unlimited mileage.  The day of the flight, I got online and picked Thrifty which was $11 a day for four days.  Taxes and fees had me at $56 total.  I got a hybrid, and spent an additional $5 for fuel before I turned it in even though the gauge had not moved.  All total, $61.  Parking at the hotel was $15 a day for three days for a total transport cost of $106.  We did use the bust and tram to get to the theme parks, but that was included in the room.

The Hotel.  I used a timeshare promotion to get an incredible rate on the room.  We stayed in Hilton near downtown Disney (not the Magic Kingdom) for $201.38 for four days and three nights.  You can book cheap rooms at 1 star hotels for about $30 a night.  That’s not bad especially because you won’t spend much time in the room if you’re there for the theme parks.  The room may be questionable and the bed like a rock, but it’ll be cheap.  We stayed at the Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista in the Walt Disney World Resort which is rated 4 stars.  The beds were ultra comfy, the room was quiet and the view was spectacular.  It should be noted that I am a Hilton Honors member with lots of points.  Because of this, I get upgraded anytime I check in, breakfast is usually included as is wifi.  It’s the little things that just make the experience better.  We had three king size beds, chairs and a desk to use.  While we were not in the room much, the time we were was amazing.  Personal note. This location is older.  You need to pay for parking since they don’t actually own the land around the hotel.  There are three pools, with one being a wading pool for the toddlers.  Our room had a double door and an old, non-working doorbell.  It was all updated, but you could feel the 60s vibe just under the surface.  Finally, the water pressure.  That glorious water pressure.  This shower pounds you with water.  I loved it.

The Parks.  I purchased two day passes to the Disney Parks for $780.  I could not find any way to get cheaper tickets, though I have not given up hope.  It allows entry into any of the Disney owned properties.  I didn’t know this until later.  I got confused about the “park hopper” option which allows you to go to different parks on the same day. Otherwise, your ticket can only be used at one park for each day and expires 14 days after you first use it.  The girls were really excited to see the Magic Kingdom.  It is all built to be amazing to kids even if they think they are too old for it. We got to ride the Mine Train, the Log Ride, Jungle Adventure, Little Mermaid, Haunted Mansion and train around the park.  A few notes. You know it’s expensive, but you really have no idea until you are there.  Whatever you think you’ll spend, double it unless you are really disciplined.  I had to say no a lot, but I did this by giving the girls options.  I told them I would definitely buy the ears, whichever they wanted.  Pins, keychains and postcards were always good choices and I would even splurge on one major item as long as it was not something I could definitely get online later for much less, specifically non-park items.  Case in point, we ended up at Epcot in Japan and the girls found themselves faced with more choices than they knew what to do with.  There was stuff from a show they loved, but it’s double what you’d spend elsewhere.  I did get them some postcards from the show.

Speaking of Epcot, I found out the tickets I had were good for any park only because I got to the transport over to the Magic Kingdom only to find it was closing in at 7pm for the Halloween event from 7-10.  There was nothing other than a sign outside to tell me that.  The cost to get in was the same as a day pass, so we chose to take the other train to Epcot.  In retrospect, Epcot was much better.  You get the princesses, but also food and drink from every country.  The girls loved all the various cultures and the three hours we had were just not enough.  There are not as many rides of course, but there are still shows and people from the countries they represent.  Disney has great rides, parades and characters.  The price you pay though is the crowds.  We were there in the “off season” and there was barely room to move.  The Mine ride was consistently at an hour wait even up to midnight.  The heat was pretty hard on the girls and there are not many cooling stations.  Bring your own water spraying fan.

The timeshare presentation.  This is a device used in many comedies and dramas about cheap vacations.  I did the tour with Hilton Grand Vacations.  You have to promise them two hours so they can show you the property, give you the presentation and generally make you stew until you buy.  In reality, the sales pitch was not all that high pressure.  The property was lovely and overall the deal was amazing.  The trap is that you start to convince yourself that you can afford such a thing.  Somehow you’ll justify to yourself that it is a good deal, you deserve it and can afford it.  The good news is if you are disciplined, be consistent and just say no, they’ll give you the promised certificates and send you on your way.  Assuming you do give in though, Florida gives you a full 10 days to rescind your contract without any penalty to you.

All in all I had an amazing time in Florida.  It was entirely too short.  Next time, I will pay a touch more and take the earlier flight in and later flight out so I can enjoy the hotel amenities as well as downtown Disney.  I will also have a plan in place to buy food at the grocery store to minimize the food expense.  I learned a lot about traveling with my daughters and how to visit Disney.  I look forward to going back next year.

Memphis, TN

This past weekend I too the Princesses to Memphis, TN.  I had some free nights for Hilton, so I thought it was a good way to end their spring break.  It was a payroll week and their mom was not accommodating, so I was limited on what days and how long we could be gone.  We headed out on Friday and stopped at the place my mom and grandmother are buried in Texarkana.  I had tired to find their graves one other time without success.   I got picks of the markers.  Next we stopped at the Arkansas state capital.  We then passed by the President William Clinton library before betting back on the road.  The capital was really nice, but the roads around there are a nightmare.

We arrived at our hotel about 6pm.  The concierge was very friendly and we got coupons for free breakfast.  The room was on the 23rd floor with an amazing view and two fluffy queen beds.  The only real complaint I had was you could hear the highway noise and guests in another room.  Otherwise, everything was perfect.

We hit Graceland and got to see all the cars, airplanes and the mansion.  The home is modest by today’s standards, but must have been an amazing place in it’s day.  Abby got bored pretty quick and wanted to get to the zoo.  We arrived at the zoo about 2pm and had plenty of time to make it once around before they closed at 5.  It was as large as the one in Fort Worth, but with much fewer people.  They had a huge assortment of animals and all looked well kept.

We ended the day with dinner at the BBQ shop not far from the zoo.  The food was amazing.  There was so much we got full and still had leftovers to take home.

I was glad to have the time with my babies, though my emotions were mixed.  On the one hand, travel was much easier with only one adult to make the plans.  There was much less fighting too.  On the other hand, it was a bit sad since something just felt missing.  I want to spend plenty of time with the girls and give them experiences I didn’t get when I was younger.  I have a big trip planned for September that should get me father of the year status.

There and back again

This year my DW was determined to get the girls out of the state.  She had a window of time between summer classes, so she darted off with all the girls and headed out with her destination to make it to SLC, UT to visit her best friend.  As soon as she was down the road a bit, I bought a ticket to meet them with the intention of being there over the weekend and flying back.  The drive was very challenging for her and once out there, everyone got very homesick, so the decision was made that I would drive back with them.  We had a great time (most of the way).  I loved seeing SLC and having a local beer.  I especially enjoyed seeing Flagstaff, AZ again and some of the great scenery between here and there.

Time Off

A few months ago, my boss calls me in and tells me I have quite a bit of vacation left and that it needs to be used before the end of the year or I lose it.  Feeling like Richard Pryor in “Brewster’s Millions”, I start trying to spend a bunch of days.  I took most of them at the end of the year so from 11 am on Thursday December 23 until Jan 2, 2011, I have been off.  It has been weird to have so much time off; however, since I had so much time, we decided to do a family vacation.  Our first choice was to drive 16 hours to Arizona to see some friends and ring in the New Year with them.  Fate being fickle, they had an accident and we had to call that trip off.  I decided there was no reason to stay home since we were all set to jet and anything under 16 hours in the car was doable.  Since bad weather was heading north east, we headed due south.

For our family vacation we ended up in Burnet, TX.  The hotel stay was not great.  Low water pressure, hard bed and ongoing renovations blocking much of the parking lot made staying a drag.  Thankfully, we did not spend much time there.  Our first trip out was to Enchanted Rock.  If you have never heard of it, it is a huge out cropping of Texas pink granite.  I would suggest getting there early since it is very popular.  We arrived just after 10 am and there was a line to get in.  The largest rock goes up about 450 ft with a gentle slope most people can climb.  A few of our party had some vertigo going up, but I had to chase our youngest up since she apparently has no fear.  Once at the top, you can see for miles.  Texas is pretty flat so getting up a bit gives you a view a long way off.  Going down was not much easier.  We went off one of the sides to see a little more and get out money’s worth.  We arrived at a small alcove and had a snack, then heading down we went over an old rock slide with a creek running down.  I’m sure a trip out at night must be amazing.  It would love to be up there near the stars one time.

The monkey shoes made it.

 Life on a rock

The family

The original plan had been to go to the caverns the same day, but we had spent about three hours going up and down that massive rock, so we headed back to the hotel.  On the way back, we stopped at a roadside farm and got some local products, apple cider, honey and soap.  In Llano we got beef jerky, pralines and wine.  I wanted to eat out and go to the park near our hotel, but everyone else was a bit tired, so I went and brought food back.  The local food was not great.  There are signs all over for “Storms Famous Texas Food” which was about the same as a Braums without the ice cream and twice as expensive.  The next day was tex-mex and it was sub-par to the great restaurants we have around here.  

Heart shape in the branches

Later that evening, I took a walk to the town center which was closed up of course since it was a Wednesday after 5 pm.  There was one interesting feature though. There is a city block that is occupied by one or two churches. In between is Main Street Bethlehem.  Think Scarborough Faire meets christmas.  It is a pretty huge production which one would expect since this is Texas where our number one local product is churches.  I made my way to the park where they still had some christmas lights up.  I got a little Dairy Queen and head back to the room.  

 Season’s Greetings from Burnet, TX

 Beware of rabid snowmen!

Abandoned concrete bandstand in the park.

Our Next trip was to Longhorn Caverns.  The caves had been used at least 400 years ago by the local natives but hte park as it is today is available to us thanks to the socialist Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) .  I jest since my grandfather was a part of this project and we have many state parks thanks to the program.  Be aware, the “GPS directions” are a little off.  you need to head further south on Park Road 4 up a huge hill.  The map tries to put you somewhere in Inks Lake State Park.  The cavern was formed by running water, so it is a little different than other formed by water seeping in and dissolving the rock.  There are some unusual features like the Queen’s Watch Dog and Queen’s Throne.  The whole tour was about 1.5 hours and I made much of that carrying one child or another.  Deep in towards the end, it gets a little low and tight and feels a little claustrophobic, but everyone made it through ok.  We also saw a couple of tiny bats.  They used to fill the caverns, but stopped nesting there due to all the people going in and out.

“Queen’s Watchdog”


 Calcite crystals

 More crystals

 Rocky formations

 “Crystal City”

“Indian Counsel Room”

 My family underground.  Colored lights added.

 Entrance to caves

 Coming back out

 Brought to you by “socialist” programs

 Stone compass

View from the tower

So three days and two nights in tight quarters and strenuous conditions with the family. I really enjoyed the time we got to spend together with the mix of roughing it and modern conveniences.  One of the most useful tools we had were our phones with maps and interwebs and only lost service a couple of times in the most remote areas (or deep underground).  I look forward to more trips like this in the future.