The Grinch who sent email

Like many other people, in the past few weeks we’ve been receiving Christmas cards and letters.   But we haven’t sent any.

It’s   not that we are opposed to Christmas spirit, like The Grinch or Scrooge, it’s just that we are terribly conflicted and perhaps somewhat incompetent.   (That’s not better, is it?)   Currently I write this blog, and prior to this I wrote another blog for three years, and prior to that I had even more blogs about various projects.   Considerable aspects of our lives have been well documented on the Internet, and there’s hardly more anyone would care to know about us.   So why be redundant and send out a form letter to everyone?

A Christmas card would be nice, but really, it seems to be beyond my ability.   I can write a blog every day for three years.   I can write, edit, and produce a magazine four times a year and ship out 12,000 copies.   I can maintain multiple websites, manage a staff of 10-15, and write personal responses to over 8,000 emails* every year.   But I can’t manage to buy two dozen Christmas cards, address them, and get them in the mail.   There is clearly some sort of mental block here.

mdm-2008xmas.jpg* Note that this works out to an average of 21 email responses every day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.   That’s with me responding to only about half of the personal emails I get, too.   If you got a note from me in the past year asking you to please remove me from your email joke list, that’s why.   Sending such requests may lead to people thinking perhaps I really am Scrooge, but it’s just me trying not to disappear in a quicksand of electronic messages.

I admire the photo cards that some people manage to get together.   It shows that you’re organized enough to get the family together weeks or even months in advance, order the cards, and get them in the mail.   The card shown at right is a prime example.   (But I have to admit it didn’t come to me.   I found MM’s trailer and hooked him up with GSM Vehicles, and they got the Christmas card.   There’s no justice.)

You’d think that out of the 10,000 or so photos I shoot every year I’d at least get one or two photos of the three of us.   Not so.   A couple of years ago I tried to make up for the lack of photos of us together, by handing my camera to bystanders when we were at scenic spots.   I ended up with a lot of photos of us appearing as badly-lit dots in front of things like Crater Lake and the Grand Canyon.

After several disappointments, I set up my tripod on the beach at St George Island (Florida) and tried to do it myself with the camera’s self-timer. The result was a lovely photo of Eleanor and Emma, with me grimacing in the bright sun.   The wind was so strong that day that on the 14th or 15th take, the tripod blew over and the Nikon got buried in the sand.   The pop-up flash stopped working, and despite repairs, the camera has never been the same since. We didn’t use the pictures, either.

I’m not alone in my Christmas-card-impeded state.   For many years, Eleanor has written long long Christmas letters with complicated tales of our year in review. The letters usually get printed out on fancy colorful paper, stacked in huge heaps, and then neglected until roughly February. At that point, under prodding by me, a few get mailed to elderly relatives who don’t have Internet, and the rest go into recycling.

This year, Eleanor tried a new tactic.   She wrote a rather succinct letter about our 2008.   Those of you who followed the Tour of America would find it very amusing.   It basically says, “We continued traveling in our Airstream,” and “Emma is doing well with homeschooling.”   Succinct, yes … and for details, she provides the URL of our travel blog.

I’m sure some of the relatives who get it will interpret this as:   “We still live in a trailer because we can’t afford better,” and “we’re neglecting our child’s education.” But we realize that the letter would mostly be going to relatives and out-of-touch friends who have little interest in the details.   Reading a Christmas letter from someone you haven’t heard from in a while is an amusing bonus, something to lighten up the dark winter days.   You get a chance to find out how weird people have gotten since you last saw them. We don’t want to disappoint anyone.

I’m always amazed when someone does manage to get cards or letters out, and I appreciate each one very much.   If we ever got a round of cards out I suspect we might shock some people to the point of requiring medical attention.   I can’t say yet that we will do so this year.   Eleanor’s current letter exists only as a draft, with a total of one copy printed, and it’s December 22.   I have a feeling that, given we are two days from Christmas and leaving for an extended trip in five days, the letter may languish until February again.   It may end up as an email.

Perhaps the best move would be to write   next year’s Christmas letter early.   If we started in February 2009 we might actually get it out by Thanksgiving.   All we would need to do is predict what we might do in 2009, which would be far more amusing anyway.   When the letter actually hit the mail, we could compare the prediction to the reality for our own benefit, but for the purposes of people receiving it, it would probably be close enough.

It might read like this:   “In 2009, we enjoyed a few months in Tucson before getting antsy and heading out in May for several months of travel.   We visited some parts of the northwest US that we hadn’t seen before, and then met friends in Montana and Wisconsin before settling in New England.   Over the summer, Rich finished our 1968 Caravel project so now we have that as a smaller trailer for weekends.   We went to Newfoundland for two weeks, then zipped back to Arizona to hike the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim. Back in Arizona we adopted a desert tortoise who we named Fluffy, and Emma achieved her green belt in karate.   Later this winter we plan to take an extended trip through Mexico.”

But that might be too boring.  As Emeril might say, why not kick it up a notch?

“2009 has been a spectacular year for us.  Airstream Life took off like gangbusters when Honda introduced a small car that could tow 8,000 lbs and still get 25 MPG.   With the extra money from the business, we added a second story to our Airstream.   Rich had Lasik so he doesn’t wear glasses anymore, and Eleanor got augmented to a D-cup.   Emma suddenly took an interest in science and is applying for her first biotechnology patent this year.   Our tortoise had babies and they all won ribbons at the country fair. Next week we are scheduled to appear on the Tonight Show, and Microsoft has asked us to start a new magazine called ‘Windows Life’.   We hope you are doing well also.”

It’s always healthy to set goals for yourself.   If any of those things happen, you’ll read about it here.   I think you’ve figured out by now that you shouldn’t wait for the Christmas card.

The secret to successfully staying home

 Adam and Susan have been visiting Tucson in their Airstream for the past week.   They are becoming, with our constant encouragement, full-timers in spirit.   They arrived here without a rigid schedule and have been just taking every day as it comes.     That’s the right frame of mind — just “be” in the moment and don’t worry about tomorrow.

Since I was between issues of the magazine without a lot else going on, I took a few days to go hiking with them.   I’m trying to retain some of the lessons I learned while full-timing, and one of them is to take the vacation opportunities whenever you can.   We hiked the Sabino Canyon Trail up to Hutch’s Pond (8 miles roundtrip), a little of the Mt Lemmon Trail at the height of the Santa Catalina Mountains (about two miles), and a little of the Romero Canyon Trail from Catalina State Park (about three miles).

Our choice of trails wasn’t random; I’ve been scouting various route ends in the Santa Catalina mountains so that we can put together a long day hike from the peak of Mt Lemmon at 8600 feet to Tucson’s base elevation of about 2400 feet.   The total hike will be about 14.5 miles, all downhill.

There’s a hidden goal in this hike.   We are planning a rim-to-rim Grand Canyon hike with Adam and Susan next fall.   Starting from the north rim, we’ll hike from about 8200 feet elevation to the canyon floor, and then back up the south rim.   It just happens that hiking down from Mt Lemmon to Tucson almost exactly duplicates the weather conditions, distance, and geography of a hike down from the Grand Canyon’s north rim.   Then we’ll hike up another trail (on another day) to simulate the steep hike back up the south rim.   This will help us test our gear, stamina, and mental gumption before we get to the real thing.

emma-wizard.jpgWe’re also thinking about other roadtrips.   We are definitely going out to California after Christmas, and the only question is how long we’ll be out.   Eleanor is already talking about “a month or so.”   She wants to visit Death Valley, and I’ve already scheduled four stops in southern California.   I can also see stops in Las Vegas and Quartzsite. We clearly aren’t ready to just “settle down” and stay home.

I don’t know why, exactly.   Life at home has been very pleasant.   The “fall” weather in Tucson is amazingly nice.   The house is comfortable, and Tucson has provided us with all the diversions you can expect from a mid-sized city.   We’ve met people.   Halloween was a great success (30-odd kids at the door, good trick-or-treating for Emma in her wizard costume).   But undeniably we still like life with a regular mix of new scenery.

Adam and Susan have left for California and won’t be back for a few weeks.   In the meantime, I may haul the Airstream off to the Los Angeles area to have an axle issue dealt with.   It’s a good excuse to check out a few spots in California that I’ve been meaning to visit. And being recent “homebodies,” any excuse to travel is a good one.

Planning trips is part of the same pathology.   I hate not having a trip in mind, even if it is only a rough plan.   So without even meaning to, I’ve sketched out the next year of travel, much like I have sketched out the next year of Airstream Life magazine.   Most of it is entirely speculative, but it’s fun to consider nonetheless.

The Grand Canyon rim-to-rim hike is logistically challenging.   Our hike will be about 24 miles, but the drive from one rim to the other is about 250 miles.   That means we need overnight lodging at both ends of the hike, as well as tenting in the middle while we are in the canyon.   The temperatures will range from near-freezing at the north rim when we start hiking, to mid-90s at the bottom of the canyon in the afternoon.   Reservations are needed far in advance for lodges, campground, the hiker shuttle from one rim to the other, a backcountry camping permit, meals at Phantom Ranch, and “duffle service” (mules can be hired to haul your pack up the south rim).

We’re also working on getting our gear in order, like new hiking boots for everyone.   They’ve got to be well broken-in before we hike 24 miles, so there’s another reason to find some local hikes.   It all works, and it makes the little things we do to fill the time into really meaningful things.   I like the complexity of the rim-to-rim plan because it keeps me occupied when we are not traveling.   Everything we do now helps get us closer to the big event.   So it turns out that the secret to successfully staying home may be in the planning and preparation we do in anticipation of the next time we go away.

The “Grass Solutions Tour”

The hardest thing in the world, apparently, is getting rid of a lawn.

This is something I cannot fathom.   I have known many a lawn-lover to moan over the large brown patches that afflict his treasured grass, caused by grubs or drought or incorrect pH balance or some other such thing.   A lawn seems a delicate thing when you want it to be just right, and it drives owners to outdoor centers to buy enormous bags of fertilizers and pesticides.   Green perfection is expensive and time-consuming.

And yet, when you decide you’ve had enough of grass, just try to kill the stuff.   It’s impossible.   The roots, say landscape professionals, go down deep. Grass has amazing ability to go dormant, survive frosts and droughts, and shrug off even brutal chemical assaults of glyphosate. Or so I’m told.

Our house in Tucson had a lawn, once upon a time.   Being neglected since the death of the prior owner, the lawn has become a mess of weeds that carry thorns and provide cover for critters. Our departure for six months certainly didn’t help things.   Now, instead of a lawn, we have a sort of jungle.

In Tucson, having a backyard lawn is strangely common, despite the high cost of water.   The rate Tucsonians pay for water more than triples after they use 11,220 gallons in a month.   It goes up again (140%) if you hit 22,440 gallons per month.   Plus there’s the widespread knowledge that we are in a desert, and thus flagrant use of water is akin to antisocial behavior.   (We use about 2,000 gallons per month according to our meter, or about 66 gallons per day.   In the Airstream we can make 39 gallons last for four days.   Modern houses are designed to waste water.)

Still, many times when we saw a house during our search,   the realtor would slide open the patio door to the back yard, take a peek, and announce with a sigh, “And yes, there’s a lawn.”   He knew how much I hated to hear that. These “lawns” would typically be little 12×12 patches of carefully tended grass in the midst of a lot of gravel.   They were usually just large enough for the kids to play on, like little putting greens without holes for the golf ball.

When I saw these I always imagined some desperate northerner trying to keep a tiny bit of his home landscape alive in the backyard.   Turns out that in reality they are put in by life-long desert dwellers who think a patch of green grass is a status symbol. That’s like northerners keeping a gila monster in a backyard cage.   It doesn’t make much sense to me but it makes some people happy.

The preferred landscape today — and the one mandated by current codes for multifamily and commercial buildings —   is xeriscape, which means a combination of gravel, rocks, and desert-adapted plants that don’t need much water.   Xeriscaping is also conveniently low-maintenance, perfect for our lifestyle since we will be gone a lot.   So our goal from the minute we agreed to buy this place has been to utterly eliminate the grass and restore the backyard to a more natural desert landscape.

If all we were facing was a 12×12 foot patch of grass, this would be a trivial exercise.   But the previous owner of our house had a full-on, wall-to-wall carpet of grass in the backyard.   From archive images from the satellite photos, it looks like he took care of it with plenty of water.

That means we have about 2,000 square feet of grass to eradicate.   (There is no middle ground.   Grass does not negotiate. It’s kill or be killed.)   You’d think that in the desert it would be easy: just stop watering and watch the grass die.   Unfortunately, we have a fairly well-adapted version of grass that bides its time until the rain comes, and thus survives on the mere 12 inches of rain that Tucson gets annually.

The first landscaper who visited us suggested the most reliable solution: “simply” remove the top four inches of soil and truck it away.   I would “simply” write a check for $2,000 for this service — and then we’d talk about replacing that giant expensive divot with something else.

My problem with that solution is that I don’t want to spend a lot of money to get rid of something as dumb as grass. My whole purpose in getting rid of the grass is to avoid spending money to take care of it, and it seems counter-productive to start the process by spending a big pile of money.

There’s the real challenge.   It’s not that getting rid of the lawn is going to be hard.   It’s just going to be expensive.   Since I’m inherently disinterested in taking care of a lawn (that’s code for “lazy”),   it makes sense that I’m also disinterested in spending money to make it go away.   It’s as if the house came with a rusting World War II tank in the backyard.   “Yes, it’s ugly,” we’d say to each other, “But towing it away would cost too much, and it’s not doing any harm, so let’s just leave it.   Maybe we can paint it.”

I suspect the best way to get rid of the lawn is simply to act as if we care about it.   We could buy a nice riding lawn mower, several bags of chemicals (fertilizer, pre-emergent grub control, dandelion inhibitor), a few manual tools like rakes, an aerator, and some sprinklers.   The grass would detect this and promptly go brown.   But who am I kidding.   The lawn would probably know I was bluffing.

It’s decisions like this that make me wish for a quick escape into the Airstream, where such problems are always somebody else’s to manage.   I always appreciated beautiful green lawns when we lived in the trailer, because I could dip my bare toes into them knowing that I wouldn’t be the one mowing later. It’s a real temptation to just skip the decisions and start planning a getaway instead. And there’s a justification there, too: with some time off to think and recreate, a brilliant solution may come to me.

So it’s settled.   I’ll start planning the “Grass Solutions Tour 2008” as soon as possible.   Folks, this could be a real phenomenon if it works.   Imagine the justifications you can make if it turns out that a simple getaway allows you to solve life’s problems.   Our motto will be this:   “For every problem that comes up, there shall be a trip.”   And the trip length can be a factor of the difficulty of the problem.   For the grass problem alone, we may be on the road again for quite a while.

The unfinished house

When we were traveling full-time, one of the questions I got often about life in the Airstream regarded maintenance.   People were concerned that routine service and repairs of the trailer would be an onerous burden.   Typically this question came from someone who was considering going “full-time” in an RV.   They expected that moving from a fixed house to one that was mobile would greatly increase their obligation to clean, lubricate, adjust, and repair things.

Actually, the opposite is true. While full-timing, we averaged a few hours a month maintaining (or watching the repair of)   one thing or another, which amounted to an annual expenditure of about $2,000 – $3,000 and a few days.   It was never burdensome.   Once we moved out of the house, it was amazing how much free time we had.

Of course, now the situation has flipped on us again.   We’re in a house, and despite our best efforts to make it low-maintenance, it has surprised us with a seemingly endless list of fittings it requires in order to be usable. In the past week I’ve purchased chairs, toilet paper and toothbrush holders, bookcases, drawer organizers, nightstands, knobs,   and various bits of hardware.   We still need shades in one window, rugs, storage bins, end tables, and a dozen other things.

This feels very odd to us. We bought a house but it came with no place to put things.   We’re used to the Airstream, which came to us completely ready for living, fully furnished and organized.   We didn’t have to go shopping for appliances, check for mattress sales, or measure the windows for curtains.   The Airstream came with everything, right down to the storage bins.

By comparison, houses are just shells that need a ton of accessories to be usable.   The price you pay for the house is just the start.   This focuses your attention on the house, and you of course immediately start running errands to get stuff to line the nest, which is what we’ve been doing lately.

Being 98% fully functional right out of the lot, the Airstream allowed us to focus on doing things and going places.   We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about which stove to buy.   We just hitched up and went.   Now that we are in the house-furnishing mode, I think wistfully back to that and realize what a good deal it was.

Yesterday’s big errand was 100 miles up to Tempe, where IKEA sits in a giant blue-gold box by the Interstate highway.   I know, a few blog readers are wincing because they despise IKEA.   But hear me out.   We made a conscious choice even before we bought the house that we would not put anything really worthwhile in it.   Our last house was furnished with antiques and a few really nice (expensive) pieces of furniture that would certainly last a lifetime.   When time came to move, we had to sell most of that furniture at a fraction of what it cost us (or give it away) because there was no real market for it.   The cost of moving it across the country almost equalled the cost of the furniture in the first place. We moved only a bed frame and the dining room table.

When we got here, knowing that this would not be a “dream house” and that we’d probably spend very little time in the house, we decided not to repeat that mistake.   Who knows if we’ll be here five years or 50 years?   Thus, we are buying essentially disposable furniture at extremely modest cost.   That means IKEA.   Seventy bucks gets me a veneered particle-board bookcase that can be disassembled later if needed. Honestly, the furniture in the Airstream is more durable than the IKEA stuff, but on the other hand, we furnished the entire house with IKEA for about $2,000.   Heck, just the dining room table that we moved from Vermont cost more than that.

The real problem with IKEA is that in its constant effort to emphasize its Swedish roots, all the products are given bizarre and confusing names.   The BILLY bookcases we bought are easy for a North America tongue to handle but things quickly degenerate from there.   The optional doors are called BYOM, for reasons fathomable only to Swedes, I suppose.   We have chests of drawers called MALM, and if we’d dared to shop the bedding we’d be looking at MYSA and GOSA.

The mirror is called MONGSTAD, which is bad enough, but the EKTORP couch just makes me laugh.   Reminds me of “ectoplasm.”   Pair it with a lovely LEKSVIK coffee table and a TULLSTA chair and you’ve got a tongue-twisting living room for under $1,000.

For undercabinet lighting in the kitchen we bought the GRUNDTAL light.   That seemed easy enough until we realized it needed to be paired with the ANSLUTA cord system.   What’s an ANSLUTA?   You don’t really know until you find it on the shelf.   (Turns out, it’s just a cord.)

Not only is it hard to tell by the name what something is, it makes for strange conversations.   It’s like we are speaking a combination of English and Swedish.   “What do you think of the BESTA ENON for the TV?”   “Do you prefer APPLAD or LIDINGO for the doors?”   “How about a ALSVIK with the DOMSJO drain board?”

No, I’m not making these up.   The names make me wonder if they are (a) really Swedish; (b) made-up for the US market, like Haagen Dazs; (c) randomly generated by computer or a cat walking across the keyboard.   I mean, honestly, is DOMSJO a word or a typo?

Along with assembling furniture and trying to find places to store all the stuff we haven’t yet managed to get rid of, Eleanor is trying to figure out her kitchen.   This means that nearly every day she moves things from cabinet to cabinet, drawer to drawer, to try out the most functional spot for everything.   The other residents of the house (Emma and me) get to go on a daily hunt for the things we need, since they are not usually in the same place twice.   Lately I’ve just given up and will call out, “Eleanor, where are the spoons today?”

In various places she’s also hung sticky notes with hints to herself about where things might go in the future.   One by an empty cabinet says “Spices & baking needs.”   There’s another one on the cabinet near my computer that says, “Coffee station,” but the coffee maker is still on the other side of the kitchen.   I could ask why but I’m afraid to know.   I think she’s waiting for me to find some place other than her kitchen to keep my office.

Today I have to assemble some BILLYs, attach the BYOM doors, and then install a few GRUNDTAL pegs for hanging kitchen towels, and two SAGAN toilet paper holders (named for Carl Sagan?)   Eleanor is attaching KORREKT handles, correctly I hope.   In between, there’s the hunt for everything that we remember owning but can’t find, including things that are still in boxes back in our “storage” room, and roving items in the kitchen.   It’s all very confusing.     We do this in the hopes that at the end of this process (which currently has no end in sight) we will have a house that is finally furnished for living.   So, in answer to anyone who is still wondering, yes, the Airstream was definitely simpler.

Curiouser and Curiouser

alice-and-the-mushroom.jpgWe spent three years exploring this great huge country, and yet I am lost in a 2,000 square foot house.

In my Airstream, I knew where everything was.   I knew everything we owned.   There were few surprises lurking in the dark corners (except the occasional mouse turd).   I could reach from my bed and touch my books, the front window, the cabinet containing my clothes, my scanner, and my wife — all without sitting up. Having such a small space bewilders those who have never lived in one, because they equate small with “uncomfortable” and “crowded.”   In reality, a small space can be magnitudes more comfortable than a dramatic Great Room with vaulted ceiling.   I know, we’ve lived in both.

A small space is a control-freak’s ultimate answer to housing.   Everything is within reach, little is hidden, and complete mastery of the entire domain is easily achievable.   You can be a big fish in a small pond.

But now we’re in a house, and it has galaxies of space, entire sectors that we don’t   have a purpose for, and dozens of mystery boxes from our relocation last year still scattered around.   It turns out that our biggest struggle now is to figure out what to do with all the extra space.   We don’t want to buy furniture just to fill it up, but it seems so empty.   Even a “zen” garden needs some gravel. Today we bought six chairs for the dining room table, so we don’t have to ask guests to bring their own.   This sort of splurge is going to empty our bank account quickly if we aren’t careful, so for the most part we are furnishing like college students, with whatever is available.

Being in a house has provided us with endless entertaining novelties.   Water just comes out from the sink endlessly — no worries about running the tank dry.   I still can’t get used to that.   Yesterday Eleanor was rinsing something in the sink and I had to repress the urge to say, “Hey, watch it — we’re not on full hookup!”   Really.   In my mind’s eye I could see the holding tank filling up.

The 25-cubic foot refrigerator is never full because it’s three times the size of the one we lived with for so long.   The freezer that takes full size pizza boxes.   That sort of thing tickles me.   Whoo-hoo, frozen pizza!   It’s the little things in suburbia that make it worthwhile.   How can you not love a land where every kitchen has ice and water on the fridge door?

Ready-made ice is like a miracle.   We never had room for ice in the Airstream, even the kind you make the old-fashioned way, in a tray.   Now it comes out of the door on command, and at night we can hear the refrigerator industriously clanking as it deposits another load of ice in the bucket.   Even though the unfamiliar sounds wakes us up, I find it bemusing.   (After all the years of sleeping in Wal-Marts and near industrial areas, freight trains and street sweepers don’t wake me up, but ice cubes do.)   We are still getting a kick out of putting a glass in the fridge door and getting endless cold water.   I think we’ve all been drinking 20 glasses of water day just for the thrill.

In this way, we are like repatriated refugees.   We haven’t had a dishwasher since 2005.   Our wardrobe has been limited to what can fit in a plastic tub.   High living in our book has been defined as the ability to take a shower longer than three minutes. So you can see why the concept of cable TV with 200 channels is too much to absorb.   I’m afraid if we indulge in everything that suburbia has to offer, we’ll simply tip over from excessive pleasure, like the character in Crichton’s “Terminal Man.”   It’s best to re-enter “normal” life slowly. We still don’t have a TV in the house, and I’m not sure when we are going to get one.

Today Eleanor found that her jar of Cain’s All-Natural Mayonnaise was running low.   It’s a New England product, made in Massachusetts, and you can’t find it out west. In the old days we’d just get make a note to pick up some on the next trip east, but now we don’t know when that will be.

We’ve become accustomed to having most of the Lower 48 available to us.   Back then, it went like this:   “Remember that nice smoked fish we had at Ted Peter’s?   Next time we’re in Tampa, we’ll get some more.”   It was that simple.   Hankering for a Czech pastry?   No problem, we’ll be in Texas soon and we’ll stop at that nice pastry shop we know.   Coffee milk?   That’s easily found in Rhode Island and a few other New England states.   Conch chowder in the Keys, authentic ingredients in Chinatown, crabcakes in Maryland, dry-rub barbecue in east Texas … it was all just somewhere down the road.

But now even little things like Cain’s Mayonnaise are off in a murky haze of possible futures.   (Fortunately, we’re able to have that particular item delivered by friends from New England.)   We’re used to sampling the world as we go, and roaming it as if it were our back yard.

So I am in a strange paradox:   The house is too big, and the world is getting larger too. I feel I have taken a step backwards in the Maze, and I have gotten smaller relative to my surroundings, at least temporarily.

“Curiouser and curiouser,” said Alice.   Now I finally know how she felt. I have to figure out how to start growing again. Alice did it by eating a bit of the mushroom.   If only it were that easy to find your right place in the world.