Holiday traditions

“And so it is Christmas … and what have you done?”   — John Lennon

One sure sign of the holiday season is that office workers move into slow motion.   We’re seeing lots of sales of magazine subscriptions and stuff from the online store, but behind the scenes it’s almost impossible to get anyone in the office world to move on everything.   December is the mañana season, where all new projects, budgets, and decisions are traditionally put off “until the New Year.”   There’s usually no good reason for this, it’s just tradition. Nobody wants to start anything new when there are holiday office parties and secret Santa gifts to occupy one’s attention.

I’d probably be tempted to fall into this mode too, except that it’s still a constant battle to keep up with the legions of falling advertisers.   Year end is a particularly crucial time, because sales of RVs and RV accessories are traditionally slow, and there are always those year-end expenses to think about.   We lost another advertiser this week, and would have lost two if it weren’t for heroic intervention.   I can’t take my eye off the ball for a minute these days.

chocolate-fondue-night.jpgBut that doesn’t mean we aren’t enjoying the holiday.   Eleanor has bought the first eggnog of the season (actually two, which we taste-tested side-by-side in the kitchen.   Verdict: both were lame; we need to keep searching).   We had “chocolate fondue night” a week ago when my mother was visiting.   We have bought a little evergreen tree to maintain the tradition of pine needles all over the living room, and it has been decorated to nearly an unsafe level, which is also tradition.   If Eleanor can put a hook on it, she’ll hang it from the tree.   Her little tradition is to decorate the tree while eating chocolate-covered cherries.   It’s the only time of year she will eat them.   At the end of the process, the chocolates are gone and the tree is groaning under the weight of massive yet cheerful keepsakes.

According to Emma, our tree even included a live partridge at one time.   I wasn’t aware of that, but today I noticed a smattering of feathers in the branches.   When asked, Emma explained that her stuffed cats ate the bird. The things those stuffed animals do …

One holiday tradition I could do without is the parking-lot demolition derby at every strip mall in town (which basically means all of Tucson).   A few weeks ago we were cruising the local supermarket lot looking for a space, when another driver backed out of her parking space and into our car.   The damage to our car was limited to a dent of about eight inches in diameter, but the repair was over $900.   I got all the insurance information and later discovered something interesting:   I could file a claim but the other driver could prevent her insurance from paying out simply by refusing to cooperate with her own insurance company.   Despite the fact that she was undeniably at fault, her insurance company could not move forward without a voluntary statement by her.

This stretched the process out for two weeks, during which time both my insurer and hers sent multiple vehement letters, reminding the other driver of her contractual obligation to cooperate with claims investigations.   It looked as if I would have to file a claim with my insurance company, pay the deductible, and wait a month or so while lawyers from my insurance company subrogated the claim (in other words, hassled the money out of the other insurance company).   Then I’d get my deductible back.   Fortunately, the other driver was eventually dynamited out of her recalcitrance and we now have a car with a distinct odor of fresh paint.

This evening Emma got a taste of a holiday tradition too.   Eleanor has been shopping for clothes for her, and tonight Emma was allowed to try them on with her eyes closed.   Once satisfied that the clothes would fit, Eleanor would whisk them away to go under the tree.   For some reason this seems very familiar to me.   I can’t point to any particular gift in my past but I’m pretty sure that many times after trying on things as a child, I would hear the fateful words, “Good. That’s going under the tree.”

With my mother, this would reach obsessive levels.   In the home stretch toward Christmas virtually any necessary supply would be wrapped for presentation.   Toothbrushes, soap, a box of tissues, pens, Scotch tape, you name it, and we found it in our stockings.   While it made for lots of presents to unwrap (and still does to this day), it also makes for strange moments on Christmas morning.   Many times I would open a little package to find, say, dental floss, and my mother would say, “Oh, is that where that went?”   I fear that Eleanor may be headed the same way.   I’m pretty sure there’s a package of coffee filters or something like that under our tree.

Having a fire is a big Christmas tradition, as evidenced by many Christmas specials on TV, and songs (“chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” etc.).   We are fortunate to have a fireplace that provides a lovely view of flames without the added nuisance of actually heating the house (remember we are in southern Arizona and still getting most days in the 60s).   So I decided to go out and buy some cordwood to burn over the next few weeks.

Being in the midst of the Sonoran Desert, we aren’t exactly surrounded by hardwood forests.   Most cordwood is imported from up north somewhere, but my neighbor Mike had a line on a local place that sold pecan wood.   About 20 miles south of Tucson there are vast pecan groves, and each year the excess pecan branches are cut into firewood lengths and stacked up to dry.   On a few weekends in December, you can pick through the pile and take as much as you want for $1.80 per cubic foot.   Checks only, no cash, no credit cards.

These special restrictions make it seem like a special deal, although the price came to $230 per cord.   And it was pecan wood, something I never saw before.   It seemed mysterious and intriguing to someone who has traditionally burned only northern species like oak, ash, maple, cherry, birch, pine, and hemlock.   The more we thought about it, the more we had to get some.   So Mike and I drove down, climbed the giant pile of pecan and picked a peck (actually about 1/3 of a cord).   I can’t speak for all pecan wood, but this stuff is pretty hard, very dry, and burns nice and slow.     It may have been worth the effort.   Even if it wasn’t, I bet we’ll do it again next year.

I don’t think any of our odd little traditions are going to become fodder for   TV Christmas specials, but these are undoubtedly some of the elements that will form our memories of the season. In years past I might have hesitated to admit some of the things we do at holiday time, but I’ve come to realize that it doesn’t matter what your traditions are, it only matters that you have a few.

So I’ve got my ukulele out again, and I’m practicing Christmas songs that Eleanor can sing with me.   (Those of you coming to meet us at Anza-Borrego for New Year’s … get ready for a serenade.) We’ll be transplanting cactus in the front yard next week.   It may not make sense but it feels fine.   Happy holidays.

Christmas gifts for travelin’ folk

Over the past few years, I’ve asked friends and family not to get us much of anything as Christmas gifts.   We had the excuse of living in a 30-foot Airstream, where space was at a premium, so for the most part everyone understood.   We asked for edible gifts, if people felt a gift was necessary, and small lightweight things that would be useful in our traveling life.   This tended to stymie people, so the volume of things we received dropped to a bare minimum (except to Emma).

In reality, our intention was to keep our lives simple and our overhead low.   While we enjoy giving and receiving as much as anyone, it just wasn’t part of our lifestyle.  Now that we are in a house, the excuse of limited space has gone away, and so we find ourselves back on the slippery slope toward a commodity-filled holiday.

But we still don’t want much.  I asked Santa for a 120-volt air compressor because the 12-volt one I carry around is pretty anemic at filling our trailer tires to 65 psi.  I also asked for a Garmin GPS to replace the absolutely awful “Navigon” GPS that we got free (with a set of four Continental tires).  We tried the Navigon for a few weeks but decided we’d rather be lost than keep fighting with it.  Fortunately, I’ve been good this year, so I think I’ll get what I asked for.

Eleanor wants a couple of kitchen tools and some clothes.   She’s keeping her favorite clothing in the Airstream for travel, and so all she has in the house are the clothes she really doesn’t like.   (You can see where her priorities are.) Santa has sent her off to go shopping for clothes today, with the only stipulation being that she has to spend 99.9% less than Sarah Palin.

Emma has written a charming letter to Santa asking for various art supplies, which she will get. A few other surprises are coming her way, too.

Even though we have a house, we still try to act as if we might go back to full-timing at any moment, at least when it comes to acquiring things.   For example, DVDs are always stripped from their cases and put into multi-disc sleeves so they take up less space and are easily portable.   Before we bought a Christmas tree this week, we figured out how we would dispose of it on the 27th so we could hit the road on the 28th.   It’s all about retaining our mobility, but the added benefit is that this practice also keeps our “house overhead” low.

Because we still plan to travel, and many of you do too, I’m going to bring back a feature that I wrote last year on the Tour of America blog:   Gifts for full-timers and frequent travelers.   If you’re wondering what to get for that crazy nomad in your life, check this list.

The basic premise is that people who travel a lot via RV live in small spaces, and they need to travel light.   So the ideal gift is very useful, lightweight, small, and requires no maintenance. Even better are consumable gifts. Here are a few things your traveling friends might love:

  • Gift cards to places that RV’ers frequent: Camping World, Cracker Barrel, Wal-Mart, Home Depot. Or, if you prefer, get a gift card for services RV’ers commonly use: fuel or other travels needs, or cell phone.   Just be sure that you check the fine print on gift cards, to make sure they don’t expire and don’t have “maintenance fees”.   You could also get a KOA Value Kard Rewards (good for a 10% discount at over 450 campgrounds)
  • Entertainment: CDs, DVDs, Netflix gift subscriptions, or for that digitally-savvy traveler an iTunes gift card.   (Yes, you can receive Netflix on the road if you use mail forwarding.)
  • A National Parks Pass, or for someone with children, an ASTC museum Passport. Both are great money-savers and valid nationwide.
  • If you have an in-person visit, consider a nice rosemary bush as a miniature Christmas tree.
  • Food. You just can’t go wrong there unless you ship them a giant crate of pineapples. Food is great because it doesn’t take up space for long. Homemade goodies like popcorn treats are especially appreciated, at least by us. Or if you want something themed, you could get Silver Joe’s coffee, or Happy Camper wine.
  • Photos. Most RVs I see have photos mounted on the walls somewhere to remind them of the people they plan to visit.   A gift certificate for photo printing and mounting might be just the thing.
  • A cool Airstream shirt, sweatshirt, hat, poster, slippers, or a set of aluminum tumblers from the Airstream Life store (shameless plug #1)
  • A subscription to Airstream Life. (Shameless plug #2) If you don’t like them that much, get them a subscription to Trailer Life instead.
  • A useful book that might inspire some new travel, like this book about camping in America’s Southwest.

Any other gift ideas?   Post ’em as a comment.   Thanks!

Building a new Thanksgiving tradition

It is Thanksgiving Day, and for the first time in three years, we are not in our Airstream.   We’re in a house, trying to build a new tradition.

With fuel prices collapsing below any level we saw during our full-timing years ($1.75 a gallon for unleaded is easy to find here in Tucson), it seems a lost opportunity not to be wandering off for Thanksgiving.   The Airstream is completely packed and ready to go at any time, but for some reason we don’t feel compelled to go anywhere.   Our preceding three holidays are all easily remembered for their differing locations: one in the California redwoods, one with a group of similarly homeless Airstreamers in Tampa, the last in Riverside CA with an old friend.   This one will be remembered for being the first in our Tucson home.

Along with building new family traditions, we are preparing for the desert winter.   As you might guess, there’s not much preparation needed.   I won’t be mounting a snow plow to my truck or stocking up on home heating oil.   Our preparations involve trying to get this completely uninsulated house to be a little warmer.   The house is basically a stack of adobe bricks on a concrete slab, with a flat roof.   It’s wonderfully cool even on 100 degree days, but in the 40s, 50s, and 60-degree days we get in December and January, it is completely unheatable.

silver-travel-trailer-slippers-from-front.jpgBeing Tucson, where nobody wants to invest much in heating, the heating system uses the same ceiling-height air ducts as the air conditioning.   So when we turn on the heat, we get a blast of hot air up around the ceiling while the floor remains chilled to the ideal comfort level of penguins.   I did not think when we moved southwest that I’d still need my Airstream slippers in the winter.

Our fireplace in particular is a disaster, from a heating perspective.   It is pleasant to look at and practically in new condition (the first owners of the house never used it in over 40 years of ownership), but as Shakespeare wrote, when lit with a raging fire it provides “sound and fury, signifying nothing,” especially not heat.

There are various home improvements we could install (ceiling fans, better windows, fireplace insert, etc) but for now we are being cheap about it and simply buying a few rugs and extra blankets.   It’s a good excuse to pick up a couple of the Pendletons we’ve been eyeing. (On eBay you can often find bargains on them.)   I’m not particularly motivated to start piling more money into this house.   If things go as planned, we won’t even be here in January.

The other winter preparation, if you can call it that, will be to pick the grapefruit. I have been reading about citrus cultivation and care for the past few weeks, because later I hope to install one or two more citrus when we finally get to re-designing the back yard.   The one grapefruit tree we have has responded nicely to the emergency care I gave it last year, and has rewarded us with a heavy load of over 90 fruit. They’ll be ready for picking in December.   I may wait until we get a freeze because people say the fruit sweetens after a light freeze.   It never freezes here for more than a few hours, but there’s a good chance we’ll get a short one overnight in late December.

Looking forward to next summer, I’m also working on plans to get our 1968 Caravel back on the road, if not entirely restored.   Those of you who read the Tour of America blog might recall that last July I built most of the interior furniture and delivered it up to GSM Vehicles in Plattsburgh NY for storage and eventual installation.   The list of things the Caravel needs seems to be getting longer rather than shorter as I approach the supposed end of the project.   Last night I was tipped off to a good deal on a replacement refrigerator on eBay (a slightly scratched unit being sold off by Airstream), so that was purchased and will soon be freighted up to GSM Vehicles as well.

With the refrigerator in place, we can finalize the kitchen cabinetry and start installing.   I’ll get back up to Vermont in July and finish the remaining interior parts before it’s time for the Vintage Trailer Jam.   I may start a mini-blog just on that topic later, to document the last phases of the Caravel’s restoration project.   By the way, the Vintage Trailer Jam 2009 is likely to happen in August — bigger & better —   but we are currently negotiating with venues, so an official announcement is still several weeks away.

That’s all far away stuff.   Right now our consideration is simply Thanksgiving Day, but looking at all these things I see that we have much to be thankful for. We still have the freedom to travel, happy things coming in the near future, a fun place to live, good family life, health, and even a few interesting challenges to solve.   The concerns we have can be shelved today, and the things we might view as negative can be turned into positives.

thanksgiving-cooking.jpgIn addition to being the first in this house, this Thanksgiving may also be notable for the thunderstorms.   All night it poured hard, a rare event in southern Arizona this time of year.   The humidity this morning is an astounding 89%.   All the dust has been washed away, and for one day it feels like we are in Houston.   It’s a novelty here, since we have not seen anything but sunshine in the last six weeks.

Eleanor’s major goal today is to make the house feel like a home by spending the entire day cooking a massive meal for six people.   We are not expecting any guests, so that means we’ll be having Thanksgiving for two days.   Emma has been recruited to help on the pie.   My job is technical support, which means making appropriate playlists for the iPod (you need a certain type of music to cook by, says Eleanor), looking up technical turkey details on the Internet, hauling off vegetable scraps to the compost bin, and answering the phone on Eleanor’s behalf while her hands are deep in various mixtures.

I had thought that ideally we would have hosted some guests for Thanksgiving, as we usually did when we lived in a house in Vermont.   Eleanor loves cooking for large groups, especially when they are known “eaters,” meaning people who will appreciate everything she puts on the table.   But as Thanksgiving approached it became clear that we wanted to just be together.   Friends would have been welcome, but being new to this house and this town, we are just as happy to spend the time with just each other.

Together we can live completely in this moment and think of nothing else.   That’s where the most memorable days come from, when you are completely absorbed in the moment and letting all the other things go.   To my mind, Thanksgiving is not a day of obligation but a day for self.   The outside world has gone away.   It can come back some other time.

De-regulated toilet paper

We had the first visitors to stay in the Airstream in its new role as occasional guest house. A family of five came down from Vermont on a bargain airfare and four of them inhabited the Airstream for a long weekend.  Being in the Airstream as it sits in the dark carport is not nearly as interesting as camping somewhere scenic, but it does have certain advantages for both hosts and guests.

I know this because the visit was successful despite four small children.  I generally am leery of situations where the children are equal or greater in number than the adults (you never know when they might band together and take over), but these were good kids.  Giving them their own space in the Airstream was instrumental to my perception, I’m sure, since they were out of sight and mind late at night and early in the morning.  Regardless, a good time was had.  In gratitude, they left Emma with the traditional Vermonter’s present: a cold.

So Emma is sniffling and honking all over the house now.  I’m trying to avoid that cold because I have to fly next week to the major RV industry trade show in Louisville KY.  If I get a cold, I can’t fly. In this case, I am somewhat split on the prospect.  If I get the cold, I miss an important opportunity to sell advertising and meet our current clients.  On the other hand, if I get the cold, I don’t have to go to Louisville in December.  (“Second Prize: A Trip To Louisville in December!  First Prize: You Get to Stay Home!”)

I don’t have anything against Louisville per se, but I do hate flying this time of year.  Flights tend to be crowded, winter storms are always a threat, and if I don’t get a cold from some visiting Vermont child I can be virtually guaranteed of getting one from a sneezing Rhinovirus Ronald on the airplane.

Plus there’s that oh-so-fun airline service.  Susan and Adam flew home for the holidays yesterday, and their report from that experience reminded me of the travails of traveling by air these days.  I’ll let Susan’s email speak for itself:

Our tickets to Portland, Maine, via Charlotte, North Carolina, cost $300 apiece.  Leaving Tucson, we asked to check bags to Charlotte where we planned to spend a few days, then go on to Newark.  “Can do,” says [name withheld], and it will cost another $500 apiece to do so.  Despite Charlotte’s closer proximity to Tucson, it costs more to get there.  Or costs more to get our one bag there because we could just get off the plane…

Okay, so Portland it is and that costs us another $15 to check the bag.  For passengers traveling with large overstuffed roller bags and bulging knapsacks and who carry all this stuff on board, luggage is free!

On board there are no services and nothing is free.  No free coke, tea.  Water costs $2.  Flight attendants are now in retail, hawking drinks and snacks at price points ranging from $1 to $7.  Do they get bonused on sales?  Other than than, they don’t seem to have any duties connected with making us feel comfortable and loved.

Oh there is one other duty to perform.  In the last 20 minutes of the flight, we’re subject to a commercial announcement, offering us a great deal on the US Air credit card with Bank of America that earns us great freebies on this self-service airline.  Who says that credit is tightening?  I’m able to obtain it as I’m sitting on a jetliner on its final approach to Charlotte.

I long ago gave up expecting anything but basic transportation from the airlines, but things have sunk below even my low expectations.  I’m usually content when they just leave me alone, but that is too much to ask on many airlines that insist on bombarding me with loud audio-visual messages hawking their junk.  Ever notice how the intrusive announcements always start right when you are drifting off to sleep after takeoff?

But what should I expect?  Today’s domestic air carriers are what you get when government agencies (TSA, FAA, NTSB) intersect with accountants.  Those are the people who really run things now.  The pilots and flight attendants are (excuse the pun) just along for the ride.  I think a few airlines could do better hiring psychologists and Disney “imagineers” to redesign their procedures and policies.  Then they might realize that blaring obnoxious messages above my head, on speakers than cannot be silenced, is what really forms my opinion of the experience of flying their jets.

I don’t care if they serve blue chips or pretzels, Coke or Pepsi.  I just want to get there with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of relaxation.  Leave me alone to read my book.  Tell me how to buckle my seatbelt if you really must, but otherwise please sit down.  They won’t do that, so I bring an arsenal of counter-annoyance equipment:  ear plugs, eye shades, snacks of my own, a distracting book, bottled water.  (An airline that offers complete sedation during the flight, like dentists, might be popular someday.)  For this trip, maybe I’ll add a surgical mask to the kit in case they seat me next to Ronald.

The airline business is just one of many things I don’t understand. Here’s an example of something that should be dead simple, but isn’t: Toilet paper doesn’t come in a standard roll size.

I’m serious.  On our big trip to IKEA last month, Eleanor bought a pair of SAGAN toilet paper roll holders.  Then she discovered that the Scott’s Single-Ply paper we used successfully for three years in our Airstream (because it dissolves nicely in the black tank, don’t ask how we know) doesn’t fit on the roller.  It’s just a tiny bit too wide.

But another version of toilet paper fits just fine.  This was a clear indication that we needed to Google “toilet paper roll size” and find out the story.  Turns out there’s no such thing as a standard toilet paper roll width. It commonly runs from 3.9 inches to 4.5 inches.  Buyer beware.

This is probably because we’re not as big on standards and regulations in the US as they are in other parts of the world.  I’d bet the European Union has very specific guidelines for toilet paper rolls, but here in the US we like to let the free market decide. That’s why wireless LAN technology languished for a decade before manufacturers finally agreed to let their equipment interoperate with other brands.  That’s why Europe had, for many years, a far superior cellular phone system (despite the fact that cell phones were invented here).  That’s why Alan Greenspan had to eat crow in October.  And that’s why we are paying $15 for checked bags and $2 for water after we pay for airline tickets.

I like free markets too, but it sure would be nice if my toilet paper fit and my retirement fund was still intact.  A few boundaries and guidelines are not necessarily a bad thing.  Maybe we could work up one that prohibits hawking credit cards above 10,000 feet, too.

Happy little bacteria

When we lived in Vermont we had a black compost bin behind the house.   Into it we tossed nearly all the food waste (everything but meat, bones, and fish) from our kitchen, as well as regular supplements of grass trimmings, leaves, and sticks.   For six years we put stuff in that bin, and yet it never filled.   The stuff just broke down naturally and decreased in volume as it did.

Once a year I’d open up a little hatch near the bottom of the bin and pull out half a dozen shovels full of rich brown compost.   I’d toss it on the garden in the spring, and as a result we never needed fertilizer.   Between composting and recycling, we also hardly had trash to throw out.   It was a great system.

We became big advocates of composting. I even had a little book that I’d share with people who asked about it.   But you don’t need a book to start composting.   All you have to do is buy or make a bin, and start tossing the biodegradable stuff in it.   You can get fancy and think about layering the materials or worrying about nitrogen levels, or adding moisture, but I never really put any effort into it and still everything broke down just like Mother Nature intended.

While traveling in the Airstream, composting became an impossibility.   You need a certain “critical mass” to get the bacterial process going, and a little jar in the trailer wasn’t going to cut it.   Being compost loonies, we actually looked forward to the day when we’d once again get a pile started in our backyard.

Last weekend Eleanor bought a bin locally from Tucson Organic Gardeners.   They usually cost about $80 but if you hunt around you can often find discount deals through the local municipality or a gardening club.   We paid $40 for ours because it was essentially a recycled plastic trash can, turned upside down and drilled full of holes.   (The Tucson Organic Gardeners call it a “zero carbon footprint” compost bin.)

Installation is easy.   Just plunk it down on earth (not pavement) somewhere convenient, at least ten feet from the house.   Scrape up the soil a bit.   Kick-start it with something yummy.

I’ve started ours with a mixture of Halloween pumpkins and palm fronds.   The fronds provide the “brown” (dry carbon-rich stuff) and the pumpkins provide the “green” (damp nitrogen-rich stuff).    Keep the mix to about 50-50 and your pile should be self-sufficient once it gets big enough.   Being in Arid-zona I might have to add a little moisture to our composter once in a while, but other than that the process is the same.   The bin and the bacteria do all the work. The bin keeps the pile moist while letting in a little oxygen, and the happy little bacteria get busy eating up everything.   As they say, “Compost Happens.”

teva-hangar.jpgWell, most of the time.   Eleanor showed me a clothes hanger that came with a Teva product.   The hanger advertised itself as being “BIODEGRADABLE   polylactide polymer,” and a “compostable corn-based plastic hanger.”   Well, doesn’t that feel nice and green?   Too bad it’s just window dressing.   The hanger won’t go into our heap, because in fact it won’t biodegrade under the conditions found in typical backyard compost. It needs extraordinarily high temperatures, found only in a handful of commercial composting operations nationwide.   So it will end up in the same place as a petroleum-based plastic hanger — the landfill.   There’s a lot of stuff out there pretending to be “green.”

Emma says that composting means “there’s fewer trash heaps in the world.”   (She already gets it, even before we have the homeschooling lessons on bacterial decay.)   But besides doing a small thing to help make our ecology more sustainable, there’s a reward at the end: soft, sweet-smelling brown soil that will go into next year’s garden and help grow tomatoes and herbs for Eleanor’s kitchen.

Eleanor collects her food scraps in a plastic tub under the kitchen sink.   Every 2-3 days, we walk out to the composter and toss ’em in.   This works very well for us, but people sometimes tell me that they don’t want to do this because they are concerned about attracting insects or creating odors in the kitchen.   We’ve never had such problems, probably because we keep the tub sealed, and because we are religious about dumping it regularly.   It’s easier than emptying the trash can.

Since we stopped living in the Airstream, our impact on the earth has gone up.   We use more water, generate more trash, buy more things, and use more electricity. It’s a difficult-to-avoid consequence of being in a house.   Diverting our food scraps, leaves, clippings, and even dryer lint to a closed cycle that turns eventually into more food, is not only a way to compensate for our increased impact, but kind of fun.   It’s not often that we find something that is free, rewarding, green, results in a valuable product (fertilizer), and provides a home science lesson all at once. Give it a try, and let me know how it goes.