Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Friday, November 26, 2010

What is it with Black Friday?

This was the first Thanksgiving during which we took an RV trip.  We pulled Homer from Ft. Worth to Houston on Wednesday and set up at the Lake View RV Park on South Main, a very nice park with modern facilities and friendly hosts.  The trip down here was uneventful, except when I turned on the rig’s running lights, I noticed the trailer lights worked only intermittently.  I checked the cannon plug in the bed of the pickup and didn’t notice any play, so I’m not sure what the problem might be.  Fortunately, we don’t find ourselves on the road that often after sunset, so the fix is not urgent.

On Thursday, Sandy and I met her sister, Brenda, and our daughter, Mindy, and son-in-law, Tyler, and our grandson, Mason, at Brenda’s new apartment in River Oaks.  This place is beautiful, with great views from floor-to- ceiling windows—high rise living at its best.  Brenda had gone all out in providing a Thanksgiving feast for us, all of which was acquired from gourmet venues in her local area.  We had smoked turkey with all the trimmings and scads of appetizers, imaginative sides and desserts that clearly showed the pride of the professional chefs who prepared them.  Frankly, this was a first for all of us; never before had we cooked, well, nothing, for Thanksgiving dinner.  However, this could signal an ominous trend, as the womenfolk all agreed this was an idea whose time had come.  The men looked at each other with worried faces, as if to say, “What have we done?” 

As much as we would like for our wives to be freed somewhat from kitchen chores, I think I can speak for the other guys in saying that we missed all the homemade goodies that  have become synonymous with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners.   I allowed my good judgment to lapse for a moment and mentioned to Sandy how much I missed her homemade cornbread dressing, sweet potato casserole and pecan pie and, without missing a single bite of smoked turkey, she pointed to a three ring binder, yellowed with age and stained from its proximity to hundreds of episodes of meal preparation, and said something like, “The recipes are in there.” 

It wasn’t clear why she had brought her personal recipe book with her on this trip; I suppose she would have cooked something if asked by our hostess.  I took this as an indication that a paradigm had shifted, at least for now.  I'll approach this minefield from another direction in the future.

After an obligatory nap, enabled because cleanup was such a breeze (we ate on paper plates) the ladies began planning a Black Friday frontal assault on certain of their favorite stores that was set for a zero hour of 9 p.m. this very evening!  Yes, Toys ‘R Us was planning to open for Black Friday sales at 9:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving day!  What’s up with that?  This is just not Biblical, at all!  Sure enough, they all piled into Brenda’s BMW SUV around 8:00 p.m. and roared off, waving purses, credit cards and singing some kind of shopper’s battle cry like a bunch of drunks.  These women had obviously done a mind-meld with the bargain flyers sent by the stores to lure them in for a shopping spree.  Never let it be said that advertising doesn’t work!

Around 11:30 p.m., there was a knock on Homer’s door, and there they were, having returned to unload into Homer the spoils of their crusade.  As I type this, I’m looking at a giant box containing a Little Tykes Prep ‘n Serve Kitchen that is occupying most of the area where guests normally sit.  The rest of the haul, hopefully, will fit into the cargo bays.  I still don’t know how they stuffed it all into the Beamer when they left Toys 'R Us.

This was not to be the last of the Black Friday battle plan, however.  Brenda found herself at a Gap store at 5:30 a.m. the next day, hopped up on a pot of coffee and eyes dilated by Red Bull energy drinks.  Sandy and Mindy didn’t join her, however, perhaps having had a moment of clarity.  Even so, that didn’t keep them from supplying Brenda with their credit cards and a list, so that they could engage in Black Friday by proxy!

I will confess that these ladies were able to get a good deal of their Christmas shopping done at big reductions in price, but I just know that guys would never put up with the hassle.  I haven’t seen the newspapers yet today, but I’m sure there is probably mention of some casualties from the melee.  This Black Friday thing has gotten completely out of hand, the womenfolk having left earth orbit and clearer heads (guys) behind.  These gals are headed into uncharted territory, and it’s a place none of us guys wishes to go.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Preparing for Thanksgiving Trip

It has been a balmy weekend here in Fort Worth, but an arctic front is due on Thanksgiving day.  We're going to try to outrun it by dragging Homer down to Houston on Wednesday.  Sandy's sister, Brenda, lives there, and we're planning to have Thanksgiving dinner with her and her family.

Although the weather was kinda inappropriate for it, I decided to make a pot of chicken chili, using a recipe that I had been kicking around in my head.  We have a small farmer's market in our neighborhood that carries Hatch chiles (roasted and frozen), and I had been wanting to use those in chicken chili.  If I say so myself, it was wonderful!  Now, I'm not convinced that the Hatch chiles had anything to do with it, but these chiles, grown in Hatch, New Mexico, have quite a following.  Their cachet may be justified, but I'm always suspicious that such notoriety is more likely an opportunity to inflate prices.  I mean, really!  Could there possibly be that much difference in a chile grown in Hatch and one grown elsewhere?  On the other hand, I'm sort of okay with it, because I like the fact that it puts Hatch on the map, complete with a festival.  I think every town should have a claim to fame.

The recipe?  Okay, here goes:

1 large onion, chopped
6 medium tomatillos, chopped
6 Hatch green chilies, roasted, peeled, seeded and chopped  (Note: Use mild variety if you're not a fan of very spicy chili.)
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 T. butter (oil or bacon fat can be substituted)
2 cans chicken broth
1 can cream of chicken soup, undiluted
6 chicken thighs, deboned and chopped slightly in food processor
1 can white hominy or white beans (great northern or navy), drained  (Note: the flavor of the hominy will be more distinctive than the flavor of the beans.  I sometimes add a drained can of white beans along with the hominy.)
1 T. cumin 
1 T. McCormick Montreal chicken seasoning
1 T. Badia Complete Seasoning (found in many Latino markets)
1 T. Los Chileros Salsa Santa Fe Seasoning (; this is a favorite mixture of dried New Mexico chilies that I use in all Mexican dishes.)

Note about dry seasonings:  I like bold and spicy flavors in Mexican food, so I use plenty of seasoning.  Consider using teaspoons of these seasonings if you are not so inclined.  Warning: The Los Chileros seasoning is VERY spicy; one tablespoon gives a hefty burn to this dish.  You may want to moderate this a bit.

In a medium pot, saute' the first four ingredients in butter until softened.  Add one can of chicken broth and bring to a low boil.  Add the processed chicken thighs, cream of chicken soup and the dry seasonings.   Add chicken broth from the second can to the desired consistency, if needed.  Simmer, covered, for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add the hominy or beans during last 10 minutes.  Serves 4-6.

Well, let's're probably thinking about President Franklin Pierce, aren't you?  You should, because his birthday is coming up on November 23.  What?  You're not exactly up to speed on President Pierce?  Neither was I, until I did a little research after I happened upon a reference to him.  After reading his bio, I was struck by the similarity between Pierce's presidency and that of our current president.  In an effort to suppress political partisanship in this main blog, I have included a comparison on a separate page that you can find here.  If you don't want to get into politics, don't go there.

194 days to retirement!

Monday, November 15, 2010

Countdown to Retirement

Feeling the need to accomplish some profound preparation activity today, I added Sandy to the insurance plan that I will retain after retiring as a federal employee.  We’ll be dropping the separate coverage she has had since she retired from teaching.  That change will save us about $140 per month in premiums, which I’m sure she will let me use to buy more toys…uh, for Mason, our grandson.  Yeah--that’s it--for Mason...not for me.  Really.

We’ve also found that we are simplifying our meals and cooking less.  That isn’t the result of retirement planning, it just sort of happened, but it’ll be a good thing when we’re on the road.  When we became empty nesters, the need to prepare multi-course meals diminished greatly, and we discovered that abandoning the practice freed up a lot of time and effort, not to mention avoiding making a mess in the kitchen, something for which I am notorious.  (I should mention here that I generally cook the meals at our house, and Sandy generally cooks the desserts; she is very good at desserts, and I am very good at eating them.)
We’ve found that it is often cheaper to eat out, if we are careful, than it is to buy groceries and cook for two.  Because most restaurants seem to go overboard on their servings, Sandy and I often split entrees.  We tend to choose modestly-priced mom and pop joints where we know the food is good.  One of our favorite places offers a fajita dinner with all the extras for $9.99, and the serving is ample for two.  It’s hard to fix a complete fajita dinner at home for that price.
When we’re traveling in Homer, we almost always cook a hot breakfast and sometimes one other light meal or snack in the coach, but we typically eat out for at least one meal at a restaurant favored by locals that we’ve researched beforehand (the Internet is a wonderful thing).  It wasn’t always that way; when we acquired our first RV and prepared for our first trip, we stocked its kitchen in much the same manner as the kitchen in the house was stocked.  We loaded the same staples, canned goods, spices, meats and vegetables that we were accustomed to having on hand, spending a great deal of time and effort finding places for everything and filling up the refrigerator.  Imagine our surprise when we found that almost all of it came back home with us, unused!  One would think that we knew ourselves a little better than that, but I guess we didn’t.  One thing we’ve learned about RVing is that after you get one, your likes, dislikes and habits don’t automatically change. If you really enjoy eating out before you get an RV, you’ll still really enjoy eating out afterward.

After traveling by RV for five years now, we think we have the food thing figured out.  Homer’s kitchen is stocked with a limited supply of cookware—among which an electric skillet and Crockpot are essential--and a few basic condiments that don't require refrigeration.  We use unbreakable dishes, glasses and cups, and we carry a portable icemaker.  (Thanks to Gordon, again, for this idea.)  Just before departing on a trip, I carry a large Igloo-style cooler into the house, empty the icemaker bins into it and then load it up with any refrigerated items that might spoil during our absence—like deli meats, eggs, bacon, milk, etc.  Then I put in any refrigerated condiments that we’ll be using, along with a few soft drinks.  That’s it!  To save time stocking the fridge (we are notoriously late on departure day), I load the cooler into the trailer’s cargo bay, and when we reach our first stop, I turn on the refrigerator and unload into it the items from the cooler.  The fridge stays on for the rest of the trip, then we unload everything when we get back home.  Anything else we want to eat, we buy as we go.  It’s quick, simple and, most importantly, low impact. 

I mentioned toys while ago.  I have learned to try to be thoughtful (to the degree possible) when buying “toys” for me, as I am sometimes suckered into purchasing something whose usefulness may not be as compelling as first thought.  Well, I ran across this thing, which I think could actually be useful for those of us who spend a lot of time on wireless connections to computers.  This may be my next toy.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

At Home and Counting the Days

I’ve read numerous blog posts about the experiences of folks during their last year before retirement as they prepared for full- or part-time RV living.  Most appear to make the transition in a fairly well-ordered way, having decided on their goal and exhibiting little indecision as they moved forward.

I don’t think I like those people.

Yes, I’m jealous.  Jealous, because I’m not doing this as gracefully as they did.  I am, at the same time, excited and apprehensive, euphoric and depressed, focused and distracted, self-confident and paranoid.  Having had a long career requiring good judgment, focus, logic and responsibility—even for the very lives of other people—I am not comfortable in this state of being.   

The notion of not working at a job, as I have done for, let’s see, 43 years, seems strangely incomprehensible.  I’ve been trying to imagine what it will be like to start out on an RV trip without any consideration given to the need to race back home and go to work.  That’s got to be a little like Heaven.

The hardest part has been deciding what retirement would look like—full timing or part timing.  This is probably the principal source of the uncertainty that has been hanging around.  The fulltime lifestyle is incredibly attractive, as the bondage of owning and maintaining a stick and brick house evaporates, allowing the freedom to roam from place to place, staying as long as desired and doing whatever we want.

On the other hand, we have some pretty deep roots here with our church, family and friends, not to mention the house we built specifically to accommodate an RV. 

Then there’s the financial thing.  Are we sufficiently prepared to live on something less than a rather substantial salary?  I think so, but are my calculations too optimistic?  Does the economic climate today place our investments in jeopardy?

See what I mean?  My prognostications have all the reliability of a blind fortune teller, but things seem to be pointing to part-timing until clarity returns.

There’s also Homer; it’s been a good rig, but it is hardly up to snuff for fulltime or even part-time use.  Besides, we think we want a higher-end fiver that will include all the bells and whistles we have grown to covet.  We’ve been looking at Mobile Suites and Carriage products and like them both, except the closest Mobile Suites dealer is in Granbury, some 50 miles away; that pretty well nixes it as a contender.

So, a little sympathy would be in order from those of you who have entered and exited this tunnel with your dignity and reputation intact.  As for me, you may just find me in the same condition as Yossarian in Catch-22—sitting naked in a tree.  

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veteran’s Day

To all the brave military personnel who have served our country without rejoinder to the traitorous politicians who have shamefully denigrated you, I offer my undying respect, admiration and gratitude.  The republic still stands because of you and in spite of them.

This is what our veterans have preserved for us and those who follow.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Blogging, Unwrapped

I was sort of shamed into doing an update to this blog after reading Jay’s blog post from November 3rd. (  He was explaining that he hadn’t been posting daily because there wasn’t much going on but, to put things in perspective, he quickly mentioned other RV bloggers he reads who haven’t posted in a much longer period of time—one of them back to July! 

Now, I’m not sure I am the blogger to whom he referred, but that spitwad certainly found its target, since July 26 was my last post.

If you’ve read my previous posts, you may have noticed that I’ve been struggling with the posting frequency issue, although I’m fully aware of the reader psychology involved.  Reading a daily blog, if it’s written well enough to hold my interest, is much like reading a good book or watching a favorite TV series.  Each episode ties into the next and, after a while, I get to know the characters and get caught up in the story.

I know I enjoy reading a daily blog that’s interestingly written, even when not much is going on with the writer. Oddly enough though, I still find it excruciatingly difficult to write when my day is unremarkable, like those when I’m chained to my desk at work.  And yes, I’m sure that my disdain for the remaining 209 work days could have some bearing on my recalcitrance. This excuse is a little lame, however, as other bloggers mentioned below, like Dee and Jim, Boris and Natasha, John and Bridget, Randy and Pam—it didn’t deter them!  They blogged almost daily before they retired.  (I probably need a good therapist.)

Many of the blogs I read (like Jay’s) reveal the writers’ ability to overcome any pre-retirement writer’s block by, well, writing, I suppose.  Not only writing, mind you, but writing, as in Jay’s case, in a highly personal way.  For example, Jay was very candid about his last months as a police officer, compelling me to read his entire blog—something I do only when I find a favorite.  I found his story engaging and highly revealing of his personality and the way he and Stella handled the big changes for them and their family members as they transitioned into retirement and fulltime RVing.  

Jay, like others I follow, has a natural ability as a writer and knows instinctively that the essence of holding a reader’s interest is not to recount merely what he sees or where he goes or what he experiences, but how he and the other characters feel about those things. Nothing will make me click out of a blog faster than viewing a bunch of photos with the writing amounting to little more than photo captions.  If there is no story and no characters, I’m outta there.  Blogs that are interesting to read don’t require professional writing skills, either.  The ones I mention below show various levels of facility with language, but that doesn’t matter nearly as much as telling the story in a way that causes the reader to feel he or she is there, using all the senses—seeing, talking, hearing, touching, smelling—experiencing it in person.

Besides Jay’s, here are a few other favorite blogs by great storytellers:

There are others, of course, that are very good, but I think these are among the best.  I’m always on the lookout for interesting bloggers. 

So, what does all this analysis have to do with me and (the infrequent posts in) my blog?  Well, just bear with me; I’m working through my fear of being criminally boring, so I am going to start slowly—maybe posting once or twice a week when not traveling. We’ll see how it goes.