Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Knights on White Horses


When my sister Dale was 21, she was traveling in Europe and met the man of her dreams.  He was British.  Four months later, he flew to New York to marry her and two days after that she returned with him to the UK.  She stayed briefly in Edinburgh, then South Yorkshire before heading to Germany for a couple of years and then back to England for good.  I visited them for the first time when they were married only six months and she had just learned she was pregnant.  The baby was due two weeks after their first anniversary.  I had just turned 19.  I flew to England with no plan except to hang out with my sister and her knight.  I stayed way too long (five weeks, I think), but they never let on and I then flew to Italy to see a friend.  When I returned to New York, I was visiting with a cousin who always surprised me with her insights.  She was five years older than Dale.

My cousin said, "I always worried about Dale.  She lived in this fantasy that a knight in shining armor was going to sweep her off her feet and take her away to a foreign land.  I thought she was going to be heart-broken when she discovered that that just doesn't happen.  Then, it turns out she was right.  Along comes her prince."

I didn't know how to tell my cousin that Dale and I lived in that same world, and if it had been unlikely Dale's prince would arrive, what were the chances I'd ever get one.

Sadly, well heartbreakingly, Dale died of cancer less than nine years after getting  married.  But she died very much in love and very much loved.  Five months later, I met Jerry in Boston.  He was from South Dakota.  Definitely a foreign land.  As a matter of fact, to a New Yorker, South Dakota is more foreign than England.  So, I got my knight in shining armor, too.  And I hope he got his.

By the time Jerry and I met we had both already begun to sweep ourselves away to places less familiar, and we've continued to be swept — together.  It's funny how, after all this time, I can still see the knight.  The armors been in and out of hock and it doesn't fit quite the way it used to, but he's still pretty shiny.

Putting A Ring On It
So, after being together for more than 29 years, and having registered as domestic partners when it became legal in California in 2003, we finally took the step we thought we would never take and we were legally married in 2010.  We thought we would never take the step because: (1) when we met in 1981 it never dawned on us that it was in the realm of possibility, and (2) we were a bit radical in our politics and felt we didn't need conventional validation.  Well, times change.  We still don't need conventional validation, but we do expect to be treated equally.

To be honest, we might never have chosen to legally marry had it not been for our Spanish visa applications.

We wondered if our domestic partnership would be clear enough for Spain — where people like us can legally marry, not just domestically partner.  Since we're applying together for residency visas (if I'm not approved, then Jerry's not going), the marriage certificate is a good idea.

Five states and the District of Columbia have legalized same-sex marriage.  So, our options were four of the New England states (Connecticut, Massachusets, New Hampshire, and Vermont), Washington, D.C., and Iowa.  Iowa!  California — "land of fruit and nuts, and home to all those liberals" — California only briefly allowed gay marriage before special interest groups, primarily from out of state, put an end to that.  We'll see what happens with that legal battle in early 2011, but until then California will not give us a marriage certificate.  So, we chose Iowa.  Close to our South Dakota family who could celebrate with us.  And tremendously ironic we thought.  Leaving liberal California to get married in Iowa.  Yep, you really ought to give Iowa a try.

For weeks we discussed the logistics of our Iowa wedding.  As far as we were concerned, it was simply a piece of paper.  After some conversations with staff at the county courthouse in Sioux City, Jerry made the arrangements and then connected with a wonderful minister.  Her first question:  "Will you be writing your own vows?"

Vows?  Who said anything about vows?  Do we need vows?  I don't want to do vows.  I don't want everything getting all sappy.  It's not necessary.  This is just a piece of paper.  (Besides, I tear up easily.)

Her next question: "What about rings?"

Rings?  Now we need rings?  Who said anything about getting rings?  Come on.  We're not going to need a cake, are we?

So, Jerry and I talked.  Jerry wrote vows and I approved them.  No mention of God.  And an acknowledgment that we were already "married" 29 years.  This is just for a piece of paper and will absolutely not take over as our anniversary.

We agreed to get rings.  That might be fun after all.  We found heavy tungsten steel bands, a combination of brushed and polished.  We had our initials and our real anniversary engraved inside.  It was reassuring to know that if I ever got my ring finger stuck in a car door, the ring would not bend.

Some days later, Jerry suggested we wear our Norwegian sweaters (a generous Christmas gift from Peege in 2009) for the ceremony.  And I thought, 'Crap.  I didn't even think about the fact that we'd have to WEAR something.'  (At least we wouldn't be in the blue paisley brocade tuxedos my brother and I wore for my bar mitzvah.  But, then again...)


I won't go into detail here about the wedding ceremony except to say that we were in wonderful company in a charming park on the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa at sunset.  It took 15 minutes, after which we all drove back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for an excellent and joyful dinner.

OK, I'll admit it was really moving.  It turned out to be a lot more than a piece of paper for us both.  I tried to make jokes during the ceremony to avoid tearing up.  But, after the second joke, I figured I'd get in trouble.  So, I stopped joking and I starting tearing up — a lot.

For a bit of local color:  We spent much of our 1-1/4-hour drive from Sioux Falls to Sioux City behind a truck filled with pigs.  It took us an hour to figure out where the awful smell was coming from.

Progress on our now-17-page spreadsheet:
Our Iowa marriage certificate has been translated into Spanish and is currently with the State Department for the required apostille (in essence, an international notary). 

Most importantly, Jerry told me I had better be serious about staying together.  He read that if we decide to divorce, Iowa law requires us to live there for a year.  No offense, Iowa, but that will never happen.

Thanks Iowa for making our wedding day possible and memorable.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Leaning Tower of ... Kransekake

"I think the kransekake is starting to slide a little bit."

If Siri hadn't glanced over at that very moment, our kransekake would have very shortly looked like one of this holiday season's rain-soaked California hillsides.


From the start, the kransekake looked nothing like last year's.  The rings were much more "cake-like."  They had expanded in their trays while baking and we had to carefully cut them apart.  The taste was wonderful, but they were kind of puffy and had a very rough texture.  They really should be hard and chewy, and smooth.  Miraculously, Jerry was still able to assemble them into their tower.  What we didn't realize was that the tower was immediately irregular and had already begun it's "slide" just a few minutes later.

I hope you noticed that I've included myself in the making of the kransekake.  I don't deserve much credit or, again, blame, but I did help skin the almonds after Jerry blanched them.  And I did remove most of the rings from the pans.  As a matter of fact, I did more than just help "cook" the kransekake.  After dinner, I also "cooked" tea for our friend Mark.  I placed the mug in the microwave and placed the teabag in the cup.  I did so twice.  Of course, when I made the first cup, I heard the microwave beep and asked Jerry what he had the timer set for.  It was very stressful.


By the time Siri made her comment about the kransekake's sideways momentum, it already resembled the shape of the Christmas tree in Whoville.  But we had all had a few glasses of Siri's Swedish Christmas glögg, so everything in the house had that same basic look. 


Jerry carefully carried the kransekake back into the kitchen.  It continued to change it's shape.  So, he  separated it into two sections that we proceeded to pick apart and enjoy.  It wasn't pretty but it still tasted good.


So, Christmas cookies and kransekake were not successes this year.  But, Jerry's famous lemon meringue pie and Norwegian Christmas bread (Bergensk julevørterbrød) were both perfect.  Next year, we'll start some of our own Andalusian traditions.

Most importantly, thanks to Siri, we now know that everything looks better after a glass of glögg.


Saturday, December 25, 2010

King Kong's Christmas Kransekake

This requires a bit of explaining.  First, Jerry is heavily into genealogy.  He's 13th-generation Lowell in America.  His 10-greats grandfather arrived in the colonies from Bristol England in 1639; he had four ancestors on the Mayflower; another 9-greats grandfather (George Jacobs) was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692.


I had always been very impressed with this fascinating history until Jerry was able to dig even deeper and discovered royal lineage going way back.  Much of this traces through his Norwegian ancestry and I, wanting to know how His Royal Highness King Jerry should be properly addressed, looked up the word "king" in Norwegian.  I was surprised to discover that the Norwegian word for "king" is "kong."  (So, the film title "King Kong" is redundant.)

I have a fondness for nicknames and at the time I learned about kong, I was partnering on some accounts at my then-job with a wonderful woman who also had a fondness for nicknames.  I had become known to her as MK (I'll tell that story another day) and she had become known to me as Peege (and I can't for the life of me remember why except that it evolved from the initials "PG," which are not her initials).

Where was I?  Oh... as soon as I told Peege the Norwegian word for king, Jerry was blessed with a new name:  Kong.  But, I don't call Jerry "Kong" very often — really only when Peege and I are talking about him.  Peege, on the other hand, now only thinks of Jerry as "Kong."

So, that explains Kong and also King in the title of this post.  You have probably figured out the word Christmas entirely on your own.  Now for Kransekake (pronounced "krahn-seh kah-keh").


In Norwegian, kransekake means literally ring (or wreath) cake.  It's served on special occasions, like weddings and baptisms, Christmas and New Year's Eve.  The first time we had it (or heard of it) was during the Christmas we spent with family in Bergen, Norway in 2004.  As you can see in the pictures, kransekake is created from a series of concentric rings that form a steep cone.  We've seen it decorated with little Norwegian flags and Christmas poppers.  But, since we did not plan in advance — last Christmas or this — Jerry's kransekake is more simply adorned.


I'll post photos of Jerry's 2010 kransekake once he's made it.  I'll also post the recipe for the serious bakers out there.  This is not for the novice.  If you believe you can make a vanilla cake by buying a box of chocolate cake mix and just omitting the packet of chocolate powder, this recipe is not for you.  If you see no reason to separate yolks from whites when you discover they're all going to be mixed together at the end anyway, this recipe is not for you.  And if you believe you can cut baking time in half by doubling oven temperature, this recipe is absolutely not for you.  (This recipe is not for me.)

In the meantime, Kong is busy right now kneading the dough for his Bergensk julevørterbrød.  And he bought a really fine bottle of Andalusian sherry to help us get in practice for next year in Seville.

Wishing you god jul; feliz navidad; and merry Christmas.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cookie Tulip, Social Security Cards, and the Pineapple Express

In 1969, I knew a person by the name of Cookie Tulip.  She was not the daughter of hippies; she was herself a hippie.  As far as I can remember, that was her name by birth.  I do clearly remember that her parents' names were Saul and Bess Tulip.

The only reason I mention Cookie Tulip is because I wanted to use her name in the title of this post.  Other than that, she has nothing whatsoever to do with this post, except for the fact that her first name was Cookie and Jerry and I just baked cookies.

Initially, I thought I was going to write about this, the last time Jerry and I would bake Christmas cookies for our last Christmas in the USA.  Then, I thought, 'Well, that's depressing.'  I don't like the idea of "last times."  There are, of course, exceptions.  I was very pleased that the first time I had my wisdom teeth pulled was also the last time I would ever have them pulled.  It was a relief to know that George W. Bush's last state of the union address was his LAST state of the union address.  But, in general, I like to leave the door open.  So instead of writing about our last time to bake Christmas cookies in the USA, I decided instead to write about the FIRST time Jerry and I would bake Christmas cookies in Irvine since we didn't bake cookies our previous Christmas here.

The cookies turned out to be such a laughable disaster that we've decided we'll be baking another batch this week to redeem our Christmas cookie integrity.  So, after all my "last" issues, they didn't end up being possibly the last cookies we would bake here anyway.

Since I don't cook (and baking falls under that blanket category for me — as does nuking a bowl of instant oatmeal), I don't really have to take the blame for the "spritz" cookies that wouldn't spritz out of the manual cookie press I bought for Jerry (at his request) from Williams Sonoma a couple of years ago.  But I do enjoy decorating cookies.  And since, after about two hours, we managed to produce only about three dozen almost passable little cookies that I then proceeded to make even more hideous with my trimmings, I finally do have to share some responsibility.

Jerry thinks he figured out what went wrong with the cookie press.  So, ginger bread spritz cookies are still to come.  Keep a good thought for us... and the cookies.

We can check off another couple of items on our to-do list.  We drove over to the Social Security office in Mission Viejo today.  When the Social Security Administration went electronic some years ago, a data entry error was made and the spelling of Jerry's name was changed.  We can't have any confusion when we submit our visa applications, so Jerry had that corrected today.  At the same time, I thought it might be a good idea to order a new card for myself since my existing card was issued when my parents opened my first savings account.  The split goatskin has yellowed and the corners are frayed — not to mention that when I was in college I wrote a girl's phone number on the back.  OK, it's not really goatskin, but it is yellowed and dog-eared.  And by the way, Claudia Harfenist, I tried your number and it's been disconnected.


OK.  The rain has become a bit boring... not to mention extremely depressing.  We saw a break in the nearest layer of clouds today.  Sadly, all it revealed was the next layer of clouds.  That's as much "sun" as we've had in a very long time.  I think we've had half our annual allotment of rain this past week.  I may be exaggerating, but not by much.  Apparently, there's what is described as a "conveyor belt of moisture stretching all the way to Hawaii."  It's called the Pineapple Express.  It sounds so much sweeter than it is.  Well, from my perspective, at least it's not snow.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Careful. We Wouldn't Want to Learn From This.


If you've read my earlier posts "Why We Will Never Live in a Tent," parts 1 and 2, you know that Jerry and I were both well and poorly prepared for our first camping adventure in the lush and verdant (i.e, soaking wet) Green Mountains of Vermont.

Returning home damp, tired, and somehow still happy, we determined that our next camping trip would be a complete success.  We were confident that Jerry would actually sleep in the tent.

We began looking for a larger tent.  Did you know that you can get a tent with three rooms?  Imagine.  Jerry and I could each have our own room.  Overnight guests.  Endless possibilities.  But we finally decided to stick with our 3-person tent — as long as it was just the two of us.  If we were going to share with anyone else, we would then buy a larger tent.  We did however pick up a battery operated table lamp for Jerry.  It would double as a bedside reading lamp and a nightlight.

So, we made plans with Blair and Marie, avid campers and fully equipped themselves, to head up to Maine (they from Boston, we from Guilford) where they reserved adjoining campsites at campgrounds right on the Saco River.  They had been there before and loved it.


We met in town and drove over to the campgrounds together.  The owners lived in a little house right on the property.  It was a charming place and much less wooded than our digs in Vermont, which meant Jerry would feel much less claustrophobic and stressed.  Our campsites were large and perfectly located.  We could walk our canoe down to the river in minutes and be peacefully away.

Marie and Blair knew the perfect local place to hit to pick up our fresh steamers (clams) and lobster.  So, we planned out our meals.  Steamers the first night.  Lobster the next.  After that, it really didn't matter what we had.  The weather was perfect.  Comfortable.  Not hot.  The mosquitoes were healthy. But we had a 10 x 15-foot screen house and I had about a dozen cans of Deep Woods OFF.  This time, we knew we were ready for anything.


Blair and  Marie were also extremely well prepared.  They couldn't take any chances.  The last time they were there, Marie had put a bit of a fright into the owners of the campgrounds.

Marie is Boston born and raised.  And sometimes – just sometimes – her way of pronouncing things can be a little confusing to non-Bostonians.  During their first stay on the Saco River, she and Blair had purchased fresh lobsters and prepared the perfect meal.  They thought they had brought everything they needed, including all the side dishes.  To their dismay, just as they sat down to eat, they discovered they had forgotten one very important element; and they couldn't possibly enjoy the meal without it.  So, Marie, headed over to the owners' house to see if they had what was needed.

When the woman answered the door, the effervescent and ever-charming Marie, quickly explained about their beautiful meal of "lawbstuh and drahn buttah" and wine and everything else.  "We remembahed everything except the fox," she said.  The woman took a step back and just stared dumbly at Marie.  Marie noticed that the woman seemed confused, so she tried to explain again.  "Imagine, we planned it all.  We even baked potatahs and vegetables on the fiyah."  How can you have lobstah and vegetables without any fox?"  This time the woman took another step back and looked toward the other room, obviously trying to find her husband.  They had fox-eating lunatics from Boston staying at their campgrounds.  Then Marie thought, 'this woman doesn't appeah to undahstand what I'm saying.'

She tried again, very slowly, while acting it out with her hands, "You know, like KNIVES and FOX."

This time around we had plenty of knives and FORKS for anyone who should happen to drop by and Marie was happy to slip by the owners' house without being recognized.


Blair and Marie also warned us about the animals that wandered the campgrounds.  We needed to be vigilant and keep our food securely stowed.  There was a donkey that made the rounds during the day.  He and Marie were of course good friends.  And she didn't even have to give him any food for him to like her.  She just has that way about her.  But the raccoons were voracious and extremely clever.  We assured Marie that she didn't need to worry about us, we would keep everything safely locked inside the car (the one with the matching canoe on the roof).

We set up camp, pitched our two tents and our screen house, and we headed to the local clam shack to buy a load of what turned out to be the best steamers we had ever had.  We had a perfectly relaxing evening and then at around 11 p.m., we settled down to sleep.

Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Zip.

I was in my sleeping bag with my back to Jerry — to avoid the glare of the battery-operated nightlight.  But I couldn't ignore the constant zip and unzip.

Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Some muttered curses.  Zip.  Zip.

Then he unzipped his sleeping bag completely and I heard him make his way to the tent flap.

Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Zip.  Some more loudly muttered curses and back to the sleeping bag.

Zip.  Zip.  Mutter.

A very noisy stumble to the tent flap again.  Zip. Zip.

Back to the sleeping bag.

Zip.  Mutter.

"Are you having a problem?" I sarcastically queried.

And then Jerry sat up, stared right at me, and let fly with a litany of profanity.  'How could anyone be this...!  "I'm not a mummy!"  "What the...!"  "There's not enough room in this ... bag!" "Why in..."  "I'm either too hot with the bag zipped up or too cold with it zipped down."  "I can't bend my legs!"   "There's no air in this... tent!"

Jerry, who always said, "Oh fudge" when he was annoyed was using words I didn't think he even knew the meaning of.

Amazingly, he didn't jump in the car.  We talked a bit about what we would go out and buy the next day.  Jerry had a brilliant idea.  He could zip our two mummy bags together and then he'd have a really nice sleeping bag that would allow him to sleep in any position he liked.  We would then just have to get a new sleeping bag for me.  And I wasn't picky (well, everything is relative).

We talked for a few hours and finally fell asleep.  We know we fell asleep because we were awakened some time later — it was still dark — to the clattering of pots and pans.  It sounded like a rowdy group was having a party.  There was a lot more noise.  We heard Marie's raised voice and a bunch of scurrying.  "It's OK, Blair," she called, "I got it fixed."  So we went back to sleep.


The next morning, we were entertained by Marie's story of the raccoons' late-night raid of our screen house.  Jerry and I had kept all our food locked in the car.  Marie and Blair had left their huge cooler in the screen house.  But, they figured it was safe because they had stacked on top of the cooler the heavy boxes filled with pots and pans and other cooking gear.  The raccoons wouldn't be able to move all that.

Maine grows strong and robust raccoons.

The gang knocked over the boxes and threw pots and pans everywhere.  It looked like they had used the Tupperware lids for frisbees.  They then easily lifted the lid of the cooler and had a party.  Marie found empty containers of gourmet dip scattered all over the woods.  The chips were gone too, but it didn't look like they had been eaten together.  What a waste; the pairings had been so carefully planned.

We had one of those amazing camping breakfasts, eggs, bacon, muffins.  We went into town and bought me a really ugly, rectangular, cotton flannel sleeping bag — it was all we could find.  We had lunch in town.  When we got back, Jerry zipped the two mummy bags together and modeled for us.  He looked like the Michelin Man (or a blue Pillsbury Doughboy).  But he felt comfortable and knew he would sleep well that night. We canoed in the afternoon.  It was a perfect day that culminated with the best lobster dinner (no fox).  And s'mores.

We headed off to bed just as it started to rain. We hadn't been expecting that. Oh crap!  But, our campsite was level and clear.  No puddles formed.  No mud trails.

Jerry, however, had had enough.  The rain made him feel even more claustrophobic.  He remained calm, but said he just couldn't do it.  He was going to find a hotel for the night and come back in the morning.  I could handle that.  He was behaving rationally.  The weather wasn't that bad.  The roads were wide open out here and there were plenty of places to stay.  So I wished him well as he drove off and I went back to a very comfortable night's sleep.

Now, I haven't mentioned this, but for a few years at that point, I  had been having a problem with bursitis.  It was worst in my hips.  It was just one of those things I developed young and struggled with for a number of years until I learned how to exercise it into abeyance.  This camping trip was during the time the flare-ups were at their most annoying.  Damp ground could be a problem.  Well, I woke that morning and could barely walk.  I moved like I needed both hips replaced.

Jerry returned happy and refreshed.  He pronounced, "I've decided I am going to sleep here tonight no matter what."

I said, "Well, I was about to tell you that my hips are killing me. I had planned on joining you in the hotel tonight."

"Oh, good!" he said.  He didn't even try to hide his relief.

Thanks to Jerry, I have at times over the years appeared to others to be "the calm one, the sane one, the one who doesn't sleep with a nightlight."  (Yes, I am actually quoting here.)  That is one of the reasons — among so many better reasons — that I stay with Jerry.  He can make me look calm, sane, and in no need of a nightlight when, in reality, he has been my nightlight for more than 29 years.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

I Have Not Failed

I've just found several hundred ways that won't work.

I have closed up shop.  For good.  We are applying for retirement visas, so I need to retire.  I had, however, imagined myself selling ToldemArt (the business) for millions and retiring in style.  Instead, I will save some jewelry samples as souvenirs and mementos and I will donate the rest to charity.  This is my "How Not to Succeed in Business" post.


Although under-capitalized, ToldemArt was off to a rousing start in 2008.  Early in the year, I was working with a trendy retailer in L.A. who thought ToldemArt was the greatest idea she had seen.  She was affiliated and — to my eventual dismay — enamored with the Hollywood tabloid set and was convinced they'd all wear (and give to their mothers) inexpensive gold-plate enamel jewelry with fake gemstones.  (OK, the concept is unique — designs created using the letters of the words they illustrate — but it is what it is... good-quality, inexpensive jewelry; not something the tabloid princesses have been known to fancy.)  We finally had a parting of the ways after the mother of a tabloid-princess bride decided that the jewelry she loved a day earlier wasn't expensive enough to remain in the gift bags for the bridesmaids the day of the wedding.  The mother was everything she was reputed to be in the tabloids.  My day job was giving me no pleasure.  My trendy retailer was giving me no pleasure.  Solid gold and real gemstones might have made all the difference, but that wasn't a possibility.  Besides, my trendy retailer had already cost me enough money.


Later in 2008, I got my Good Luck Collection placed at MGM Grand and Bellagio with the potential of expanding to all MGM Mirage properties in Las Vegas.  The jewelry sold like hotcakes (not that I've ever sold a hotcake) for the first four weeks.  A solid future was "guaranteed."  Then, the economy tanked.  Everything stopped selling.  No new orders could be placed.  Two months later, the corporate buyers left the corporation.  When the economy finally recovers in Las Vegas, we'll have been living our Spanish adventure for a good long time.

I spent part of 2009 creating The ToldemArt Zoo.  I had a a great time.  The doodling of designs remains a complete joy for me.  I sold the collection retail while developing wholesale opportunities.  Finally, in 2010, The Zoo was placed in two large venues, again with the potential of expanding to many properties — this time, around the country.  But, the economy continued to be uncooperative.  The corporate buyer remained confident, but the orders are not pouring in, and that visa application awaits.

Another Great Idea
I have an idea for my next career.  I will become a business consultant specializing in start-ups.  If you need to know if it's a bad time to start a business, you can check with me.  If I've just started one, it's a bad time.  (Well, so much for that.  I just gave away the entire premise of my business consultancy.)

I'm not finished having fun with my word-play designs.  They've been floating in my head for as long as I can remember.  I've kept a few sites at zazzle.com where I can see what the art looks like on a variety of products.  They are zazzle.com/ToldemArt, zazzle.com/BlockLetters, and Zazzle.com/TalkTrashy.

Oh... TalkTrashy.  I didn't mention that I had a less wholesome line of designs.  Since my blog is G-rated, you'll have to figure out these last two images for yourself... although I have included hints-like-bricks in the captions.  Wearing one or the other of these discreetly beneath my shirt and tie — during my last miserable year or two working for someone else — helped me make it through the worst days.  And looking around in meetings to see one or another of my colleagues wearing the same was definitely reassuring.

But now, no regrets about the many careers that never had enough meaning or the businesses that didn't make me rich.  You have to move on.


Saturday, December 11, 2010

Why We Will Never Live in a Tent — Part 2

Jerry was lost in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  Judy was sound asleep.  And I was being swamped by a mini mudflow.  I grabbed everything around me and made a quick dash for the screen house.  We had dropped the plastic side panels before we went to bed.  The inside, although damp, remained clean and dry.  I spread my wet belongings around the interior.  In the damp, there was no hope of their drying, but it seemed to make sense at the time.  We had a little clock in the screen house.  It was 5:30 a.m.

I decided I would make a nice hot pot of coffee.  I grabbed the pot and filled it from the water jug.  Smart campers don't leave their food stores out at night to attract wild animals.  So, I realized I'd need to make a quick dash to the car to get the coffee...  The car.  Jerry had the car.  I was really worried about him and hoped he was alright.

OK.  I will boil myself some water and pretend it's coffee, I thought.  I just needed to light up the cook stove.  We were smart and had kept the matches safe and dry...  In the car.  Jerry had the car.  He had me worried.  I hoped he wasn't in a ditch.

Judy continued to sleep.  Well, at least I could take a nice hot shower.  That would make everything seem better.  I took a large green trash bag and cut a whole in the bottom.  I grabbed a slightly damp towel, popped the trash bag over my head like a poncho, threw on my baseball cap and ran down the muddy hill in the driving rain to the little building containing the showers and toilets.  I was worried about Jerry, but we weren't far from Bennington.  He should be fine.

I stripped down and stepped under the shower head.  That was when I remembered the slot and the knob.  The slot was where you inserted the quarter that would enable you to turn the knob that would produce the hot water.  Crap.  I didn't have any change.  I would have to get dressed, throw on my trash bag poncho and baseball cap, and get some change.  From the car...  Jerry had the car.  I worried.

The jerk had better not be in a ditch.

I got dressed, put on my trash bag and cap, and went back to the screen house.  For the next two hours, I drank cold water from a brand new enamel cup and pretended it was hot coffee.  It continued to pour.  The campground was slick mud.  At 7:45, Judy arose.  She came running in refreshed and smiling.  Then she noticed the car was gone, "Where's Jerry?" she asked.  I told her.  She said a hot cup of coffee would be great.  Had I made any.  I told her.  Oh. She sighed,  a hot shower would feel so good.  I told her about the quarters.  Finally, I poured her a cup of pretend coffee and we both sat staring through the screen at the pouring rain.  We worried about Jerry.

We agreed that if he hadn't gone into a ditch, he was going to wish he had. 

At 8:20, the rain miraculously stopped.  The sun burned through the remaining clouds.  We sat in a warm mist.  We lifted the rest of the panels on the screen house and peered through the trees at the deserted campground.  Around the curve appeared the Trooper, canoe on its roof, with Jerry behind the wheel.  He pulled up in front of our tent and hopped out wearing fresh clothes and a glowing smile, the obvious result of a good night's sleep.  He had shaved.  His hair was perfectly combed.  He was beaming with contentment.

Judy and I sat calmly, both imagining what we were going to do with the body.

But, Jerry then produced a paper bag from behind his back.  Hot coffee and a dozen donuts.  "Hey," he said.  "I have a great idea.  There's a motel just up the road.  Let's go check in.  You can take showers and we can go out for a nice breakfast.  We can come back here and 'play-camp' for lunch and dinner, and then we can get a dry night's sleep at the motel tonight."  He said he hadn't noticed the motel last night when he drove into Bennington but had spotted it on his way back this morning.  He had stayed at a very upscale place in town, but this would be "just fine" for us.

Well, he was right.  It was definitely fine.  The rains returned that evening right after dinner.  We left everything at our campsite (except for the food, the matches, and the money) and spent the next two nights eating Fig Newtons and watching TV. 

Although the canoe had never left the top of the car, we were proud of what good campers we were.  We may not have slept in the tent after the first night (Jerry, at all).  But we cooked our meals, washed up, managed to build a campfire before the rains started again (I can't for the life of me remember where we found wood dry enough to burn), and enjoyed Smores before heading to our motel.

For the next time — there would, of course, be a next time — Jerry and I just needed to consider getting ourselves a bigger tent and a battery operated nightlight.

The story of our camping adventure with Blair and Marie on the Saco River in Maine during the 1992 Democratic National Convention, well-fed raccoons, and why we never bought a six-person tent.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Why We Will Never Live in a Tent — Part 1

When I was in college, I had a friend named Jean who had plans to go skiing for the first time in her life.  The week before the event, Jean was so excited that, like many first-time skiers, she went shopping.  She returned with a spectacular pair of skis, boots, bindings, poles, goggles; and a beautiful snow bunny outfit all in white, including a parka with fake fur around the hood.  She added a dash of color in the form of a sky blue six-foot-long wool scarf that she imagined trailing in the wind as she schussed the black diamond trails.  Jean was going to be amazing.  She unpacked all her goods and, to the delight of her roommates, modeled every last thing, including the skis.

Small living rooms are not designed for skis.  Jean got her skis crossed, tripped over the coffee table, and broke her leg.  She spent the next two months in a cast and gave her ski gear and snow bunny outfit to her sister Mary.

We have been more successful
at camping than Jean was at skiing.
We have not broken any bones.

One spring day in Guilford, Connecticut, we were visiting a friend at her cottage on Lake Quonnipaug when she asked us if we needed a tent.  Until that moment, we had absolutely no need for a tent.  But, now that she mentioned it, we did already have a canoe and a matching Isuzu Trooper.

I had been a boy scout and my father had been the scout master.  (It's a good thing I was too young to understand I was gay or the Boy Scouts of America would have kicked me out and I might never have learned how to make hunter's stew or use a compass.)  I had been camping on the Sacandaga River when I was in college.  Jerry had gone camping when he was in grad school and after.  We had both enjoyed it.

Anyway, our friend had a 3-man dome tent she was looking to sell.  It was like new and the price was right, so we bought it.  We then began planning our first camping trip.  We already had a great camping cook stove from Jerry's father (I don't know why), so we went out and bought sleeping bags, pots and pans, glazed enamel dinnerware, a huge water jug, lanterns, canteens, a couple of coolers, a folding shovel, and everything else of interest at our local camping supply store.  We practiced setting up the tent in our backyard.  We were ready to camp.  Being from the prairies, Jerry prefers open spaces and is not at home in deep, dark woods.  Being who I am, I do not like latrines or cold showers.  So, we carefully researched campgrounds and found the perfect place in the Green Mountains of Vermont.  Large campsites, flush toilets, hot showers.  Lakes and rivers nearby for the canoe.  And 10 minutes from Bennington.

Judy, the intrepid adventurer, flew in from Seattle and we made preparations for our first camping trip.  We watched the weather forecasts with concern.  Heavy rains were predicted for New England.  Judy said we shouldn't worry.  The morning our adventure was to start, it was raining in Guilford.  Jerry and I were hesitant but Judy said, you never know what the weather will actually be doing in Vermont,  What was a little rain?

So, we loaded up the Trooper, strapped the canoe to the roof, and headed out in the rain.  The rain continued at a steady pace until we reached Amherst, about half-way there.  It cleared a bit for the rest of the drive.  We arrived under threatening skies at a spectacular and entirely deserted campground.  So, we quickly set up camp and drove into Bennington to buy a 10 x 15-foot screen house with drop-down plastic panels to enclose it from the elements.  In a steadily increasing drizzle, we erected the screen house; no small task — nothing seemed to fit the way it was supposed to.  We finished just ahead of the downpour.  Inside our dry and safe enclosure, we cooked a delicious spaghetti dinner, we then took hot showers, and settled in for the night.

I don't know who does the ratings, but three-man tents are not designed for three men — unless those three men are little people.  Nor are they designed for two men and a woman, no matter how petite that woman may be.  Or maybe three-man tents are just not the best idea when two of the men are Jerry and me.  Judy immediately fell contentedly asleep.  Being from Seattle, the damp was her familiar friend.  Jerry and I tossed and turned trying to find places for our legs in the cramped quarters as we listened to the rain pound the nylon tent and we felt the damp settle into our bones.  Finally, at 11:30, Jerry had a meltdown.  He muttered furiously that this was impossible and he couldn't take it anymore.  He unzipped his mummy bag, unzipped the tent flap, and took off in the car.  I had no idea where he was going or when/if he was coming back.  Nor, clearly, did he.  The headlights of the car flooded the tent with daylight as he backed away from the campsite.  Judy slept.

I spent the rest of the night worrying.  The rain had become a constant torrent.  Where had Jerry gone?  Why did my sleeping bag feel wet?  Why had the ground beneath the tent gone soft?  Was Jerry coming back?  Had he gone off the road?  Had the car been washed into a river?  How could Judy possibly sleep through all this?

And was it my imagination or was that a river of mud to the left of my sleeping bag?


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"FOR SALE: Antique desk suitable for lady with thick legs and large drawers."

On Sunday, we donated the contents of our Las Vegas storage unit to Goodwill.  We kept the antique desk for ourselves (not the one in the picture suitable for a thick-legged, large-drawered lady) along with several other antiques and family heirlooms.  It was a very satisfying start to getting rid of "stuff."  Goodwill of Henderson made it easy.  And they were gracious, efficient, and professional from start to finish. 

There's a reason people are paid to move furniture.  Case in point: the 9-foot-long wall unit that Jerry and I struggled with last year trying to fit it through the entrance in the storage unit.  After some unsuccessful maneuvering, we took a moment to compose ourselves and consolidate our formidable brain power.  We figured out the correct angle of incline, precise vertical and horizontal pitch, width/height of furniture to width/height of door and narrow hallway outside door, subtracted by the avoidance of damage to hallway fire extinguisher and ceiling fluorescents, multiplied by the number of fingers and toes we preferred to keep, and we finally squeezed all 10 pounds of mud (the wall unit) into the 5-pound sack (the storage unit).  In using the mud/sack analogy, I'm paraphrasing Dollie Parton here who made the comment a long, long time ago at an award ceremony when her "dress busted open."

As we began to explain to the driver the perils of fitting that 9-foot-long monstrosity through the doorway and what worked best from our careful mathematical calculations, he smiled, gave it a sharp tap with one hand, and popped it into the hallway in a single smooth move.

If I still had a day job, I wouldn't quit it.

A trash hauler came and carted away the like-new mattresses that Goodwill could not accept.

The best part was that all this great furniture went to charity.  And, when the trash hauler saw the quality and condition of the mattresses, he said he would give them to a friend who had hit really hard times.  So, we feel great about what we accomplished.  And we're well on our way to lightening our load.

The one wrench in the works:  Budget Car & Truck Rentals of Henderson.  Our plan was to load up the items we kept and drive them back to Irvine to be stowed in our garage.  We, unfortunately, waited until a few days before our trip to make arrangements to rent a small van in Irvine that we would drive round-trip.  So, Jerry was unable to get the vehicle we wanted.  But, he was very pleased to make arrangements with Budget Rentals in Henderson, NV, for a small 10-foot moving truck with low gas mileage.  He arranged a one-way rental and we would caravan the four hours back to Irvine.  So, Monday morning, we headed over to Budget to pick up the truck.  I won't detail here the disturbing limitations of the less-than-customer-service-skilled person behind the counter.  But, charm and professionalism were clearly not words familiar to her.  After processing paperwork, we headed out to the lot to check out the truck.  OK, this truck had definitely been around the block a few times.

While someone was loading up the furniture pads Jerry had rented, I stole a peak at the instrument panel and saw that there were 93,000 miles under this low-mileage hood.  Jerry then looked perplexed and asked, "Is this a 10-foot truck?"  The guy said, "No, it's 16.  We didn't have any 10s."

Nice of them to tell Jerry he wasn't getting what he had requested.  A 16-foot truck is not simply 6 feet longer than a 10-foot truck.  A 10-foot truck holds 400 cubic ft (2,770 lbs) of stuff.  A 16-foot truck holds approximately 850 cubic ft (5,780 lbs).  And a high estimate of the weight of the furniture we had to haul:  200 lbs.

Now, there are two important things to remember.  1)  I am a New Yorker.  2)  Jerry is a Midwesterner.  I have learned over the years that if Jerry is handling something, I need to keep my mouth shut.  If I'm handling something, he stays out of the way.  We have both learned to respect the boundaries and to use the personality types appropriately.

I looked at Jerry and said, "Is this OK?"  He shrugged and said, "Yeah, it's OK."  So, pads loaded, we drove away.  Jerry behind the wheel of the truck.  I behind the wheel of the Honda.  The plan was to drive the 10 minutes back to our storage unit, park the truck, go have a nice breakfast, and then load the truck with our very little bit of furniture for an easy drive home.

When we got back to the storage unit, Jerry got out of the truck and said.  "There is no way I'm driving that over the mountains.  I had to floor it just to make it up the little incline to get here.  Both armrests are broken.  And it will probably brake down on the way home. He said, "Did you see how many miles it has on it?"

So, Jerry phoned Budget and after three attempts got through to the Henderson facility and Miss Congeniality.  We had a quick breakfast at McDonalds and then returned the truck.  Jerry again explained the problem to Miss Congeniality and told her she needed to process a complete refund.  She did not apologize.  She didn't know what code to enter to cancel the rental, so she phoned in for assistance.  I stood in the background and listened.  She listed out the options to the person on the phone saying she didn't know which to select.  Among the options:  rented from a competitor, vehicle not available, dissatisfied with service...  WAIT!!!, screamed the voice inside my head.  DISSATISFIED WITH SERVICE!  DISSATISFIED WITH SERVICE!  IS THAT NOT OBVIOUS TO YOU?

But, the Midwesterner was at the counter.  So, I stepped outside taking the voice with me.  When I returned I heard Jerry calmly say, "We did not rent from UHaul."  Miss Congeniality said, "I know.  I was just kidding."  She then asked, "Do you want to rent something else?"  to which the Midwesterner politely replied, "No, thank you."  But there was that voice inside my head again, "RENT SOMETHING ELSE?  WHY, DO YOU SUDDENLY HAVE THE TRUCK WE RESERVED IN THE FIRST PLACE?"  And, having wasted two hours, we left Budget of Henderson.

When we got back in the car, I asked Jerry what the UHaul reference was about.  He said that, when I stepped outside, Miss Congeniality told the person on the phone, "They probably rented from UHaul."

Just so you know, although the voice inside my head sounds very loud and out of control, the only thing that I usually let out is the "hint" of sarcasm.  I am not cruel.  Also, the Midwesterner has very happily used the New Yorker often over the years, whenever some dirty work needed to be done.

So, the good news:  On the way out of town, we stopped at "M" Resort for a free buffet breakfast (we had received coupons in the mail).  We drove home together, which is a lot more pleasant anyway.  We will be back in Vegas with Linda and Tom at the end of the month, so we now have time to rent from here the vehicle we really want for the trip -- a simple van.  The New Yorker gets to write a letter to Budget.  And, by early January, the Vegas chapter of our lives will officially be over.

Friday, December 3, 2010

You do not need a parachute to skydive. You only need a parachute to skydive twice.

People keep asking me, What if?

What if Seville isn't the right city? What if you don't like the weather?  What if you give away your things and then miss them? What if you just played tourist for a while and then came home?  What if you move to Spain and decide you don't like it? What if it's too different? What if the dollar should weaken even more?

What if something should happen to you?

Regarding the last "what if," there is a much more serious question to be asked.  What if NOTHING should happen to us?

To be honest, the question that weighs on me the most is:  What if my mother or my brother should need us? But, we won't be much further away than we are now (California to New York... Spain to New York). My brother has a wonderful group-home/independent-living situation. The apartment is managed by AHRC, an exceptional organization staffed by exceptional human beings.  He has a good life in NY.  He usually flies out to visit us on his own once a year.  But, he and my mother are now planning their first visit -- together -- to Spain.  She'll give him the help he needs getting through customs and he'll give her the help she needs with her bags.  And they'll have one another's company.  Their first visit is something exciting to look forward to. My brother would prefer to visit us in Vegas (even though we haven't lived there for a year and a half)... or else someplace with a professional baseball team. We'll have to get him hooked on soccer.

As for the rest of the what ifs:
We plan to love Seville. We plan to be very happy living in Spain. We plan to do a lot of train travel. We plan to enjoy our new adventures. We plan to be healthy. If any of these things turn out to not be the case, we will plan what we want or need to do next.

 So many people are worried about our money. I worry about our money, too. I have always worried about our money. I have worried about it when we have had a lot and I have worried about it when we have had a little. But, so the other worriers in our lives will relax a bit, I can tell you we have very carefully planned this move. We have planned and diligently developed a budget (not something we're known for -- budgeting, that is; we're great at developing plans) and we know exactly how much we'll have and very nearly exactly how much we'll need. We have built in a major fudge factor -- sorry for the highly technical financial terminology -- for the ups and downs of the exchange rate. In short, we are financially prepared and will be able to live very comfortable lives.

Despite the title of this post, we do have parachutes. So, stop worrying about us. If all else fails, my mother says she can tolerate having us in her apartment for a few weeks. Then, we'll just move into Linda and Tom's basement in South Dakota. They already have a space heater.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Resetting the GPS

Monday night, Jerry and I re-opened another discussion.  And that discussion has brought us back from Jerez de la Frontera to Seville.

We have made great connections in Seville and are learning more and more about the city and its neighborhoods.  And we're loving what we're learning.  We haven't had the same success in our research of Jerez, which I'm sure is still a great place. To make our trip in January and our move in May less complicated, we have decided to return our focus to Seville. 

And that is our final decision... for now.  There is no guarantee we won't change our minds again.  Our minds, after all, were clearly made for changing.  But, as of today... this morning... well, this moment, we are determined to find an apartment in Seville.

We may not make the right choice the first time out, but at least we'll have chosen.

After our first lease is up, and we have a year of local knowledge under our belts, we can move someplace else if we like.  We don't expect we'll need to, but change is always a possibility.

So now we just need to connect with the perfect rental agent and home will be a lot closer.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Up a Hazy River

They have a canoe. (near the Saco River in Maine)
In 1989, Jerry decided he wanted -- no, needed -- a canoe.  We were living in Southern Connecticut on the Long Island Sound at the time.  There were beautiful salt marshes, small and large rivers, idyllic lakes.  What this meant was that everywhere we went we saw cars with canoes strapped to their roofs.  And every time Jerry spotted one of those canoe-carrying cars, he would say, "They have a canoe."

In 1990, we bought a brand-new Isuzu Trooper... because it would look really good with a canoe on top.  One extremely foggy early morning in summer, we went with our good friend Judy -- an avid hiker and camper who was visiting from Seattle -- rented a beat-up aluminum canoe for about $25 for the day, and paddled into the Connecticut River to see how it felt.  The fact that the fog was so thick that we couldn't see more than two-feet in front of us was a bit off-putting.  But, we appeared to be the only ones on the river and it was quiet and serene.  We were able to paddle around some of the small islands and marshes.  We shared the water with birds we had only been able to see from a distance before.  Coming out of the fog, we were stunned to find ourselves face to face with a magnificent pair of mute swans.  When you're down at water-level with a pair of mute swans you're struck by how huge they actually are.  And how much damage they could actually do if they so chose.  Which is why we paddled as fast as we could when the male rose up off the water with his wings spread and his held high and back.  Huge.

We paddled for hours.  The fog had lifted and it was getting warm, so we decided to head back upriver to return the canoe and head home.  We paddled out of a peaceful cove to find that the serenity we had experienced earlier in the day was gone.  Powerboats and cabin cruisers flew by.  The trip was no longer bliss.  Each time a boat whizzed past us, we aimed for the shore to avoid being swamped.  I began to get a bit frantic.  At one point, we shot into a tiny beach, paddling so fast that the front of the canoe wedged into the muddy shore.  A snake sunning on the shore was taken completely by surprise by our sudden arrival.  It coiled and lifted it's head, ready to strike.  To avoid the snake, I leaned my upper body so far back that the back of my head was nearly in Judy's lap.  Jerry burst out laughing when he saw what I was cowering from.  It was nothing but a harmless rat snake, he told me.  Harmless?  Not to the rats.  It was a snake.  It was ready to strike.  And if it could eat a rat, I figured it could do me some damage.

But, except for the rat snake, the attack swan, and the powerboats, I had to admit I had a really good time.  The basic lesson learned was that the Connecticut River wasn't a great place for me to be canoeing. 

So, I finally caved and we bought a canoe.  But, not just any canoe.  We bought a 16-foot Mad River canoe in beige with taupe and wood trim to match our white Isuzu Trooper with its taupe trim and taupe leather interior.  It really looked great on top of the car.   

We had a canoe.

I suddenly became very frugal or, perhaps, penny-wise/pound foolish (well, that really wasn't anything new for me).   Our canoe, top-of-the-line paddles, life jackets, seat cushions, and additional canoeing paraphernalia, to my great consternation, cost us approximately $1,600.

The first time we took our own canoe into the water, we had a very relaxing paddle through some salt marshes.  I have to admit it was bliss.  When we were done, we strapped our canoe to the top of the matching Trooper and I told Jerry, "Well, that trip cost us $1,600."

The following weekend, we took our canoe out on Lake Quonnipaug in our little town of Guilford.  The lake was picturesque and charming.  And boats with motors were not allowed.  It was, again, bliss.  As we paddled at the far end of the lake, away from the few summer cottages and year-round homes, a snapping turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle appeared to our left and swam directly under the canoe.  The tail was still well to our left while the enormous head had already passed to our right.  I was fascinated. Jerry's comment: "Paddle fast!"  Odd.  He wasn't even the least bit concerned when I was nearly eaten by a snake.

The rest of our paddle was uneventful.  When we strapped the canoe back on top of the matching Trooper that day, I told Jerry, "Well, that trip cost us $800."

Over the next couple of years, there were some more blissful trips around Connecticut salt marshes and along the Saco River in Maine, as well as a rained-out camping trip in the Green Mountains of Vermont when the canoe spent the entire time strapped to the top of the matching Trooper.  In early 1993, Jerry was surprised to be offered a new position in San Diego.  A huge moving van arrived and our Mad River canoe, the matching Trooper, and everything else we owned, were loaded and taken on a week-long drive across the country.

When we arrived in San Diego, we were disappointed to discover that, even with all that ocean, we had very limited local options for the blissful canoeing we were used to.  To top it off, the canoe would not fit in the garage of our condo, so we had to pay for storage -- making it even more difficult to get use of the canoe.  We soon sold the canoe and all the paraphernalia for next to nothing.  We kept the matching Isuzu Trooper.

I told Jerry, "Well that cost us about $160 a trip."

About a year later, as we were driving by Mission Bay, Jerry had a revelation.  "They have a kayak," he announced.