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The House Is Ours!

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Finally.

I offer you this photo, the first of us standing in front of our new front door. Taken by Elva Weissmann, Realtor Extraordinaire, without whom I doubt we would have found it at all.

And now the real work starts. First task: Free our new gargoyles from the deadly embrace of the catsclaw vines. That should happen tomorrow.

I have other things of some importance to write about. Nobody has yet written about the true and lasting legacy of the Sad Puppies, so I guess I’ll just have to do it. Give me a couple of days and all will become clear.

Tripwander

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I’ve been away a long time. Sorry about that. We bought a house…at least three months earlier than we expected to.

As you may recall, Carol and I drove down to Phoenix back in May for two weeks in order to interview neighborhoods for a winter place. We hadn’t intended to look at individual properties, but after meeting a local real estate agent during a walk through one of Phoenix’s parks, we decided to accelelerate the process, and saw ten or twelve homes before we ran out of time.

Elva Weissman (who is perhaps the single most expert and energetic agent we’ve ever worked with) plugged our parameters into her MLS portal as a sort of stored query, and the system has been emailing us listings for a couple of months now. We jotted down a short list of properties we wanted to look at during our planned August trip, including a couple that stood out, one in particular in the NE corner of Phoenix that checked more of our boxes than nearly any other. It was about $50K too expensive by my reckoning, but it was at the top of our list as the closest match so far. We figured if it was still listed in August we’d arrange a showing. We were also following another strange and wondrous house that had a patio and a swimming pool right smack in the middle, with the rooms arranged in a rough pentagon all around them. That one sold about a month ago, but it was very cool.

Then, on July 7, the seller cut the price by…$50K. Suddenly the house was dead-center in the crosshairs. Carol and I looked at one another, ground our teeth for a minute, and then got on the phone to arrange a trip in record time. By that Saturday morning we were on a plane, and on Sunday morning we were walking through a 3000 ft2 one-level Southwestern midcentury ranch, which had been gutted to the walls and rebuilt in 2003. I gulped. This was a winner. I took some notes and some pictures, and we walked through another three or four properties that same day. All those other houses just pointed up how close we had already come to a perfect match. By the end of the day we had submitted an offer. 24 hours later, the seller accepted it. We were both nervous wrecks. But hey, do the math with us:

Pros:

  • It’s all on one level, and (like all of north Phoenix) over a mile lower in altitude than Phage House here in Colorado Springs. My lowest blood oxygen reading there was higher than my highest here.
  • It’s on over 5/8 of an acre, with 75″ block walls on two of three sides of the backyard.
  • It has a separate one-car garage to serve as a workshop. I may build a bigger shop later on, but for the time being, as soon as I have an AC unit installed, it will do.
  • There is no homeowner’s association, and having been built in 1966, the deed restrictions are simple and mostly concern setbacks. There is no mention of antennas whatsoever, and there are guys within a block or two with 50′ towers and rotatable beams.
  • The back yard has a great deal of vegetation (including several ginormous palm trees) but nothing with thorns. Carol and I did thorns when we lived near Cave Creek in the ’90s, thank you very much. No more.
  • It has a small walled courtyard with a newish 6-person hot tub.
  • It has a gorgeous PebbleTec pool with a gas heater and a granite-rock waterfall. There is room for a solar pool heater, which is in our five-year plan.
  • It has a nice 25-bottle wine fridge and a huge standalone freezer.
  • It has a dedicated fenced dog run, with a doggie door into the laundry room.
  • It has a huge tiled great room spanning 40 feet at its greatest extent. Good party house.
  • It has a pair of gargoyles to either side of the front courtyard gate. Or at least there will be when we cut enough of the vines down so you can actually see them.
  • The leaded glass design in the front door looks like it has a little Space Invaders guy at the center.

Cons:

  • The walk-in closets (like all the ceilings) are ten feet high, with three ranks of clothes bars, one right at the top. They’ll hold a great deal, but you have to fish your less-often-worn shirts down with a hookie thing on a long wooden handle.
  • The pool still needs a fence, to keep doggies out of it.
  • The walls around the yard and front courtyard are covered with some as-yet-unidentified thornless (whew) creeper vines that shed foot-long bean-ish seed pods.
  • It’s no longer $50K overpriced, but it was still $50K more than we had hoped to spend. Ahh, well.
  • There’s a grapefruit tree. I like grapefruit a lot, but I can’t eat them on one of the meds I’m now taking. Bummer. Maybe someday.
  • It has a gigantic wet bar in the corner of the great room with an icemaker, a fridge, and a two-keg beer keg cooler and taps.
  • It’s painted dark gray.

So as you can tell, the pros win by a Phoenix mile. Most of the cons can be fixed. In fact, we’ve already talked to Keith’s handyman, who says he can get rid of the mirrors behind the wet bar without much trouble. Whether we should keep the wet bar itself is something I won’t know until we throw a couple of parties. Such a thing might well be handy for buffet dinners. The beer taps will have to go, though. I have a reputation to maintain.

As I’ve already told my inner circle, the real work starts now. We’re going from 4400 ft2 to 3000. I will have nothing like my 12 foot high library wall with rolling ladder. We will have to manage two houses for at least a year, while we get Phage House ready to sell. I’m already throwing stuff in boxes to give Rescued Hearts, and our trash can is getting a workout every week.

We may well keep a (small) place here in Colorado, but what and where we just can’t know yet.

As for everything else, stay tuned. I had hoped to mount several ebooks (including The Cunning Blood) before the end of July. Not going to happen, sigh. May not happen in August, either. We’ll see. But the cover art for Ten Gentle Opportunities is going to be spectacular. A novella I’m calling Fire Drill is growing in the back of my head and starting to hammer on the inside of my skull to be let out. I really really want to be a writer again. The word “triage” looms large in my near future.

Whatever. With Carol by my side and an extra-large economy-size jar of Aleve on the shelf, we can do it. Gonna be a wild ride but a good one, trust me.

Tripwander

Carol and I just got back from two weeks in Phoenix, in a house rented through VRBO. We had intended to scout out neighborhoods as part of a long-term project to buy a winter place down there. We had a daily routine: After breakfast, we threw QBit and Aero in the car and headed over to one of the local parks. (Jack and Dash don’t travel as well, so we boarded them with Grandma Jimi.) After the dogs had had enough, we got back in the car and cruised the surrounding neighborhood, noting details we would otherwise have breezed past, including For Sale signs. That night we looked up all the For Sale signs on Zillow. The next day we looked at the map and chose a different park. Lather, rinse, repeat.

On Day 2 we paused to watch a ball game of some sort, played by a crew of East Indian guys. It almost looked like baseball, and then it hit me: Cricket! I had never seen a cricket game before. I have no idea what the rules are, and I wasn’t used to seeing the pitcher bounce balls off the ground on the way to the batter. Maybe it was just that they were on a deadline or something, but the game went a great deal faster than baseball. (I’m not alone in thinking that baseball is too slow to be interesting.) So is there sandlot cricket? I’d even be willing to try that.

On Day 3 we ran into a woman walking her little dog (which I think is a dashuahua) and after talking briefly about dogs we asked her if she lived in the neighborhood and what she thought of it. She did, and told us about it, and when we said we were interviewing neighborhoods for a winter place, she let slip that she was a realtor. So although we hadn’t really intended to look at individual properties this trip, she clearly knew what she was talking about, and we spent much of the rest of our two weeks touring homes on large lots in a rectangle bounded by Hayden, Greenway, Tatum, and Shea.

One of them truly called to us, and we looked it over carefully. It has a PV solar array that can put out 5000 watts in peak sun, a fenced pool, and (critically) no stairs. A little pricier than we’d like, but then again, what isn’t? So we’re still researching it and chasing down financing. Besides, I’d have to have another workshop scratchbuilt. Have done that twice now, so a third time would be no big deal. Or so I hope.

We’ll be back there later this year and will pick up the quest again.

A marksman friend of mine drove out from California so we could punch some holes in calibrated cardboard up at the Ben Avery Shooting Range near Cave Creek. We pumped about 150 rounds total, first at 25 yards (with a .22 rifle) and then at 100 yards, with his AR-15. I did a reasonably good job, and got ten rounds into a 3 1/2″ circle at 100 yards with the AR-15, including two in the 1 1/4″ bullseye circle. The range was so crowded that several .38 rounds from other people hit our targets. (They probably struck the ground and got turned to one side or the other by hitting a rock.) There was a miserable crosswind, and I’m far from a marksman, so I’m satisfied with what I did.

It was the first long trip we took in our new 2014 Durango. That car is so comfortable that I could credibly describe it as a Barcalounger with a V8. It’s about 840 Interstate miles, and we split the run at Grants, New Mexico. I forgot to write down the average mileage for the trip down, but for the trip back it was 24.5 MPG, which I thought was pretty good for a thing this size cruising at 75-80 MPH.

Why do I want a place in Phoenix? We lived there for 13 years and considered the weather good for nine months out of the year. Then we moved to Colorado, and consider the weather good about six months out of the year. Colorado winters are getting worse, and (sorry, Certain People) based on my research I’m betting against global warming. Besides, I miss swimming pools.

I found something interesting in the pile of held mail that I brought home yesterday. More on that tomorrow.

Carol and Dash Get Back to the Show Circuit

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It’s been a tough three years for Carol. Her mom’s final year and passing, and then three foot surgeries that took literally a year to fully recover from; well, things like that would slow me down too. So it was with some celebration and a little apprehension that we took off for something we haven’t done in almost three years: a dog show.

We rolled into the Terry-All Kennel Club Dog Show up in Brighton, Colorado on Friday afternoon. Dog shows require a sort of “home base” where you can set up a grooming table and get the contestants in shape for the show ring. Grooming space can be either paid or unpaid. At the Adams County fairgrounds, the difference between paid and free grooming space is whether or not you have walls. Unpaid grooming space is in the cattle pens, which are just that: A roofed area divided into pens by pipe railings. Paid grooming space gets you walls, in an arena building used for showing and auctioning cattle.

What you don’t get either way is a floor. This is cattle country. You get good Colorado brown dirt, liberally mixed with grass and hay preprocessed by various large animals. Eat your lunch carefully: The Five-Second Rule does not apply.

Carol paid for grooming space in the arena building, and we were right by one of the building’s six doors. The light was good; power was available. Alas, we had a howling wind most of the weekend that was not named Mariah (maybe Manure-ah?) which blew in through the rear doors, picked up brown dust as it went, and deposited it upon all and sundry before exiting out the front doors. Breathing second-hand smoke in my youth was bad enough. Meditate for a moment on breathing second-hand cattle feed.

Oh, and we have blinding-white dogs. The challenge should be obvious.

Carol met that challenge in high style, granted that all of us came home crunching dust between our teeth. Dash never set foot in the dirt, nor did the rest of the Pack, all of whom were with us and three of whom were entered.

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Friday night was an AKC-sanctioned B match for Bichons, which our club organized. (Many thanks to Tammy Singer for doing most of the legwork!) A “B match” is a sort of practice match for dog handlers, basically identical to a real AKC show ring (including an AKC registered judge) except that points are not awarded. In a B match, dogs older than 7 years may be entered in the Veterans class whether they’re neutered or not. QBit, now ten, and Jack, now eight, were both elegible. Carol got their coats in shape, and QBit took first in the class. Jack has a much better coat and looked quite sharp, but QBit (above) has the confident personality preferred by judges, which Jack simply lacks.

Saturday and Sunday were the real show, in which only Dash may compete. (He still has the family jewels, irrespective of regular threats from both Carol and myself.) This was a biggish show for Bichons, with 16 entered, though several did not show and at most I counted 13 Bichons at one time.

Some of them were spectacular, like Lorrie Carlton‘s Flynn, who pretty much swept the field on Saturday and went on to take first place in the Non-Sporting Group. It was a good weekend for Bichons: The breed won Best in Group for both Saturday and Sunday.

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Where Dash beat all Bichon comers was in the Owner / Handler class, which means dogs presented in the ring (“handled”) by their registered owners. Dog showing is a competitive business, and there are a fair number of dogs shown by professional handlers who are paid to take dogs around the country on the show circuit to gather wins. Flynn is one of these. To keep professional handlers from sweeping all awards, there is a separate class for people (like us) who do their own handling. Dash won best in the Owner / Handler class on Sunday, which means Carol could show him against other Best of Breeds in the Non-Sporting Group also shown by their owners. After a little touch-up by the formidable Bichon groomer / handler Ellen Perry, Dash went around the ring and landed third place in the Non-Sporting Group. This was the biggest win Carol and I have ever nailed in showing our Bichons, and made the whole windy, dusty, exhausting outing worthwhile.

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I was in my grubbies in the photo above (taken by Patrina Walters Odette) because I was not doing any handling on Sunday, and schlepping equipment around at this particular show is always a pretty dusty business.

Dust notwithstanding, it was great time and we had a chance to catch up with members of the club we don’t see very often. We also got to meet a couple of new puppy contenders worth watching in coming years. Our next show is in Longmont in mid-May, but we’re likely to leave most of the Pack with Jimi. There will be no B match, and QBit, Aero, and Jack will not be competing. So it will be a simpler project in many ways, as well as a cleaner one.

It took us all day to wash the dust out of everything…except the dogs. That’s another day entirely. Maybe two.

Boxes, Staging, and the Miraculous Irishman

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I know. I’ve been gone almost three weeks, which for Contra is a long time. Where have I been? Well, c’mon, where do I usually go?

We had a serious and difficult mission this time. Carol and I co-own a condo in Chicago suburb Des Plaines with our older nephew Brian, and have since 2007. Brian needed a place to live, and Carol needed a place to stay while she was looking after her mom’s needs during Delores’ last years. Carol’s mom is now Home, and Brian is married and has his own place down in the city. So it was time to sell the condo. Long past time, in fact.

Having been mostly vacant for over a year, the place was dusty and cluttered. So for two weeks we sifted and sorted and dusted and scrubbed and re-polished the oak cabinets. Brian and Alexis took trunks full of stuff home, and Carol and I shipped five biggish boxes back here, loaded to bulging with clothes, kitchen gadgets, towels, plastic hangers, stuffed animals, books, odd computer parts, and much else. (The boxes arrived yesterday, and my initial reaction to the pile on the front porch was: What the hell is all this stuff?)

One subtask was to sell the bedroom set in the second bedroom. It was a nice, rugged item, bought in 1977 and used by Carol’s parents for a long time. Carol figured out Craigslist, and listed it. Then the weirdness began. Many people inquired about it, some of them clearly on the far slopes of the sanity bell curve. A few came to see it. Some thought we were giving it away. Sorry, folks. “$100” is not a computer backplane. Several more seemed willing to pay for it, but had no idea how to get it home and broadly hinted that we should deliver.

Time was running out. We tried to give it to the Salvation Army, but they were unable to get a truck out for it any time soon. Getting the place ready to sell meant rearranging furniture, but until the bedroom set was gone we couldn’t even begin. Not quite three days before we had to hop a plane home, Carol got a text from an Irish chap who said he loved the photos and would bring his pickup over to get it. When he arrived with a hand-cart, he handed me $100, scratched his chin, and then got it out the door, down the elevator, and into his Dodge pickup truck all by himself. He was chatty, and all the time that he was strongarming dressers while talking about growing up near Ulster and encouraging me to indeed visit County Mayo, from which my Irish forbears fled bad harvests in the 1880s, I was boggling at the main force he was exerting, he who was barely my height and 47 years old. It’s not like he looked like a linebacker. Then again, my father didn’t either, as certain North Side toughs learned to their sorrow in 1939.

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With the bedroom set gone, Brian and I shifted some desks and things around to make the now-vacant second bedroom look like an office, while Carol and Ali staged the condo. “Staging” means making it look like a model home. Some of this involves removing personal items and photos of relatives, and the rest getting the towels to hang just so in the bathrooms. Carol set the table as elegantly as Corelle would allow. Ali directed Brian and me in shifting the livingroom furniture here and there to get a balanced look. Four hours before our flight back, we looked around and said, Damn, is this our condo?

The unit is now listed on MLS, and our Realtor lady is actively showing it.

We’ll miss the condo. It served us well during a difficult time in our lives. Freeing up our equity will making certain things possible, like a winter place in Scottsdale. We’ll be exceedingly thankful when it sells. (I am already thankful to my late, beloved, and very Irish godmother Aunt Kathleen for sending us a muscular Irishman just when we needed him the most.)

And now, boy, is there some work to do, work that (huzzah!) has nothing whatsoever to do with real estate. More on this tomorrow.

Review: T-Bob’s Barbecue

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Carol and I are planning another of our canonical nerd parties for later this month, which requires a fair pile of food. We’re tolerable cooks but we’re not foodies, and the skill of putting together enough chow for thirty-odd highly educated and culturally sophisticated eccentrics was not a gene we received. So once again, we’re looking at catering.

Which means we’re thinking about T-Bob’s Barbecue. I’d have Ted (the “T;” Bob has been gone for some time) cater the party like a shot. Only snag: He’s at Algonquin and Elmhurst Roads, which is…1,100 miles away. So it goes.

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When Carol and I are in Chicago, we have an emerging ritual of piling over to T-Bob’s with my sister and Bill after they drop the girls off at school, for a late (or for us, often second) breakfast. Wonderful place, the sort of one-off eatery we don’t have many of here in the Springs. It’s got deli-style blackboards and daily specials and…egad…Diet Mountain Dew. Better still, the guy who owns the place is, as often as not, the guy you see behind the counter.

Much good stuff here. Obviously, the barbecue, which comes highly recommended from afionados whom I trust, like Bill. (For still-unknown reasons, nearly all barbecue sauce from all sources disagrees with me, as much as I enjoy it.) I’ll personally vouch for the pulled pork, which you can get as a conventional sandwich or a wrap. Ditto the fried catfish, which is about as good as catfish gets, and swims rings around any other fast-food fish I’ve ever tried. Excellent fries and cornbread.

Given that we’re there mostly in the morning, I generally have scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash-browns, and although it’s easy to say you can’t do those badly, trust me, you can. Not here. The eggs are done and the bacon is crisp, the hash browns just brown enough. Coffee’s very good, though in truth, I generally cave to temptation and have Diet Mountain Dew, even with breakfast. (I don’t drink it at home anymore, so having it at all is a bit of an event, given that Carol and I eat out maybe three times a month.) Bob’s got a number of other things you won’t see in fast food contexts very often, like pulled chicken, cane-sugar sodas from Mexico and baked sweet potato.

Open 8:30 AM to 8PM, 9PM on weekends. Caters (sigh.) Highly recommended.

Tripwander

Carol and I were away for three weeks, of which two and change were spent in Scottsdale, where we lived from 1990-2003. Rumors are circulating that we’re moving back there, which (like so much else) is complicated. It may be getting warmer somewhere in the world, but here in the US, winters are getting worse. By mid-November our nightly lows here in Colorado will probably be in single digits, and we’ve seen one scary forecast of nightly lows below zero–five weeks before winter actually begins.

Uggh.

So we would certainly like to have a place in Phoenix metro, where we could spend as many months as Colorado weather is inhuman. Can’t happen for awhile still, for a number of reasons, but we came away from our trip with a much clearer picture of what we’d like. More on this as happens.

We did manage to see a few of our old friends. Carol and I had dinner with my Coriolis co-founder Keith Weiskamp and his wife Cynthia, whom we haven’t seen since the early-mid oughts. Keith has his own glass studio, with furnace, and produces art glass for local galleries. I had breakfast with the gang from the New Church of Phoenix like I did regularly fifteen years ago. (Many thanks to Vic Odhner for pulling the group together.) The Arizona Book Publishing Association (for which I served as president in 1999 and 2000) no longer exists, but Gwen Henson arranged a small group dinner for ABPA veterans at the Bluewater Grill in Phoenix, including Alan Korwin, Rob Rosenwald, Bill and Amanda Fessler, and others whom I hadn’t yet met but came out to visit anyway. We saw Jan Marvin and Sue Thurman and realized how much we had both missed the whole bunch.

The weather was more September than October, with temps hitting the low 90s until the day before we left. Imagine slopping around in the pool until November 1. I’m thinking with a decent solar heater we could keep a smallish pool swimmable year-round or pretty damned close to it.

I didn’t do a lot of online stuff during the trip because my laptop was crashing and sending the cursor all over the place and generally being unusable. Multiple scans have shown that it isn’t malware, so I guess something just started growing mold somewhere in Windows’ eleventh sub-basement. I suppose I could reinstall Win7, but this may be an opportunity to buy a new slab and learn Windows 8. Still shopping.

As we are for a number of other things. Our phones are three years old and also getting cranky. I’m looking closely at the Galaxy Note 4, and wondering when (if ever) we’ll see Lollipop for it. My current phone (a Droid X2) is stuck at Gingerbread. Android’s come a long way since then. The Note 4 has (of all things) a heart-rate monitor, which I tried at Best Buy and found that it actually works, though it’s fussy about how you position a finger over the sensor. And that display! 515 ppi is boggling, and higher res than Apple’s Retina display. I’d consider the Nexus 6 if there actually were a Nexus 6. And even if it shows up next week, there’s always that old saw about pioneers getting arrows.

We need a new car to replace our 19 1/2 year old Plymouth Voyager. I’d go shopping if our last dealer experience (in April of 2001) hadn’t been so unutterly horrible. Doesn’t Detroit understand that being dogpiled under half a dozen greasy salesmen doesn’t inspire love and kisses? Clearly, the franchise dealer model still exists only because the dealers have bought laws locking out competing models, like Tesla’s. This is what I call a brittle business model. When it fails, it will fail very badly.

I broke my 2001-era titanium frames a few days ago, and now need to find a usable replacement. Larger frames are coming back, so maybe humanity’s long hipster romance with teeny tiny glasses is over. I won’t ask to go back to what I wore in the 80s, which gave my cheeks 20-20 vision. I’d settle for, well, something the size of what I had until Wednesday.

I had the crazy notion while driving through western New Mexico that I should incorporate the Voynich Manuscript into my Neanderthals novel, The Gathering Ice. In the story, it’s a secret plan, written in the Neanderthal language, for ending a looming ice age. The Neanderthals are ace genetic engineers, and have been for a hundred thousand years. They created soccer-ball sized GMO grapefruit that grow in Montana. They created something else, too, that got a little out of hand. You can get some nice Voynich Manuscript fonts online, and I’m tempted to write some encrypted Neanderthal text for the book and see if anyone can figure it out.

I also got an insight about the recent election that I haven’t seen elsewhere, and I’m trying to decide whether to write up here. I probably will, even though I ration my coverage of politics for obvious reasons. Politics isn’t show business for ugly people, as Jay Leno said. Politics is hate in an evening gown.

There’s your clue. You’ll read it when I write it.

Tripwander

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Carol and I just got back from a month-long driving trek to Chicago. I generally don’t talk much about my travels until I get back home, hence my silence here for the last few weeks. As usual with Tripwanders, this entry will be a sort of long-form Odd Lots, and not a coherent essay leading toward any particular point, beyond the epiphany that there are many different colors of bugsplat.


Place: The Des Moines Sheraton. Time: 5:38 AM. I awaken from my usual dream of trying to teach evil cosmic forces how to use their silverware correctly to find a xenon strobe flashing in my face, one pulse per second. WTF? The room is utterly dark. There is no fire alarm, nor any sound at all beyond that puissant pop! of the triggered strobe. I am on my back, and the damned thing is centered in my field of view. I began counting pulses while waiting for some sort of hell to break loose, or at least try to push peas onto a fork with its fingers. 26 pulses, and then darkness again.

So much for that particular Saturday night. I lay there and fumed until Carol woke about an hour later. There were in fact three strobes in the ceiling of our room, two attached to fire alarms of some sort, and one solo. The solo strobe was the one I had been staring at. I went down to the desk a little later to complain, or at least ask for an explanation. The clerk told me that the strobe I’d seen was…the doorbell. Sure enough, there was a doorbell button to one side of our door. If you’re hearing-impaired and order room service, how else would you know your dinner had arrived?

We were in a handicapped room because that was what there was, and we’d gotten the room for $88 in a hotel where most of the rooms went for $150 and up. My only hesitation in getting handicapped rooms is that some handicapped person might come to the hotel an hour later and want it. I never quite understood why they were so cheap. Now I do. As the clerk explained that they’d had a very large and rowdy wedding that night (which we’d seen as we checked in) with drunks wandering the walls until dawn, I could see some staggering fool noticing the button and pressing it. Works as designed.


Other odd things we saw in the middle of the night included little red LED smiles on the front edges of LG TVs in hotels. I never noticed them until our first night out, when I reached for the switch on the nightstand light at a Holiday Inn Express, and saw something grinning at me in the darkness. I discovered that I’m a little apprehensive about glow-in-the-dark smiles (I’m sure there’s a technical term for the psychological condition somewhere) and parked my briefcase in front of it.


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Part of the challenge of summer road trips taken with dogs is that you can’t leave them in the car while you catch a meal. This means that we eat fast food a lot. This isn’t a health hazard, though Southern Style Chicken meals can get old after a few days. One lunchtime at a McDonald’s drive-through (in Nebraska, I think) I got a penny in change with two footprints punched all the way through it.

Defacing currency is a crime, which is why I always wondered if the Where’s George site would get into trouble. The same guys who protect the President are also tasked with going after penny-punchers, which says something about something, albeit nothing coherent. As it happens, coin art is legal as long as you don’t try to pass off a coin as a different coin. I was told in grade school that you can sand a penny down on the sidewalk until it would pass as a dime in a payphone, but it seemed like a lot of work to earn nine cents, when the local empty lots were lousy with returnable Coke bottles.

It didn’t take much Googling to find out that the penny had been sold as a sort of inspirational good-luck token based on the well-known Christian fable “Footprints in the Sand.” I’m going to toss it in my weird coins cup, though I do wonder where all the little copper-coated zinc footprints ended up.


Dog & Suds - 350 wide.jpgOne of my goals this trip was to trek out to Third Lake, Illinois, to see what (if anything) was left of the summer place our family had owned there from 1965-1991. I knew the cottage itself was gone, after a tree fell on it in the mid-1990s, and I was more interested in the neighborhood itself, which had been a constant summer haunt in my young teen years. Telescopes and dark skies, model rockets, slopping around in the slightly green lake, my first attempt at target shooting–it was formative in ways I didn’t realize for decades.

I had gotten in touch with a couple of the “kids” I used to hang out with there, and spent a little time with Rob and Tim Smyth, walking around the area while they pointed to things that used to be there. The garage Uncle Louie built in 1977 still stands, but after that it was slim pickins. The adjoining Picket Fence Farm, where we would chase Angus steers while stepping smartly around cowpies, is now a forest preserve, with grass as high as my nose. I’m guessing that launching model rockets there would now be a felony.

I did find, to my delight, that the Dog ‘N’ Suds drive-in is still there in nearby Grayslake, essentially unchanged since the 1950s. I had a coney dog and a bag full of sumptuously greasy fries, and for a moment it was 1968 all over again.


The trip, of course, was centered around the wedding of our younger nephew Matt and his high-school sweetheart Justine. They met as sophomores, which means that they have Carol and me beat by almost two years. As I would expect, the ceremony at St. Thomas church was beautiful, and the reception (at the tony Boulder Ridge Country Club) spectacular. The open bar included Chicago’s infamous Jeppson’s Malört, and whereas I toyed with the idea of trying it, I went for the pinot noir instead. After eating all that McDonald’s on the trip out, I figured my tongue had suffered enough. Besides, my camera was conked and there was no way to get a picture of my inevitable Malört face.

The weather had not been helpful. As we were milling around Carol’s sister’s house 40 minutes before the ceremony, I went outside and could see a very ugly front glowering its way toward us out of the northwest. The WGN radar on my phone painted it in red and (worse) dark red. I suggested to Carol that we needed to leave right damned now, and although we did, it wasn’t quite soon enough. Just after we pulled into the church parking lot, a thunderstorm the likes of which we rarely see opened on our heads. I took Carol as close to the building as I could, and then tried to wait out the sheeting downpour in the parking lot. As the minutes ticked past, the storm abated only slowly. Finally, just a few minutes before the ceremony was slated to begin, I opened an umbrella and ran for it. It crossed my mind that I was dashing through puddles under a lively thunderstorm carrying a metal spike in one hand. I like ground rods, and have used many in my time, but never felt any desire at all to be one.

Things began a little late but turned out well, with the storm rising and falling and rattling against the skylights in the church ceiling. During the exchange of vows, a second front rolled through, with deafending thunder while Matt declared his love for his bride. People laughed, but I had been through something very like this before, and knew the truth: It was God’s applause, for two young people who had made us all very proud, and would almost certainly continue to do so.


Of course, we both got colds toward the end of our stay, which has happened before, and we made the long trip back amidst coughs and sniffles. The dogs were peevish and unruly; Dash has taken up howling whenever Carol isn’t in his immediate vicinity. So when we rolled back into town on Monday night, both of us were abundantly glad that the trip, as good as it had been, was over.

Much to do here, but I’ll try to post a little more often than in the immediate past.

Another Trip to an Alien Paradise

Jeff and Kite Punta Cana 500 Wide.jpg

Rumors of my abduction by aliens are at least a little exaggerated. My wife, as most of you know well, is an …otherworldly… beauty, and on my 62nd birthday she abducted me for another tropical vacation. Carol’s sister Kathy and our brother-in-law Bob were co-conspirators, and though the Dominican Republic is a bit of an alien environment (especially for white-bread boys like me) it was an alien world well worth visiting.

The east coast of the island is an area called Punta Cana, where the density of resorts approaches a weird sort of recreational singularity. We landed at Secrets Royal Beach and stayed there for a full week. Logistically, the trip was a polar opposite to our second honeymoon on Grand Cayman back in May: In the Caymans, we bought our own food, cooked, and kept house on our own steam in a rented beach condo. At the all-inclusive Secrets, well, they do pretty much everything except throw you in the pool, and I’m guessing that could be arranged.

Our phones didn’t work. Meh. Ask me if I care. We had to pay extra for Internet, which we used a lot less than we expected. (My increasingly cranky Win7 laptop didn’t help.) I gained four pounds, which for one week is close to a personal record. Much of that was due to the neverending pina coladas, I suspect. What wasn’t alcohol was sugar, and in truth (this being an all-inclusive) there wasn’t a great deal of alcohol in the drinks unless you knew how to ask for it. (We learned.)

Carol on Beach Punta Cana.jpg

The beach is spectacular. The white sand was like powder, soft, and for some reason never too hot to walk on, even in the brutal noonday sun. Some sea grass breaks loose from the bottom and washes onto the shore, but the beach tenders were constantly raking it up. The water was upstairs of 85 degrees. The resort has chairs under the palms and under dozens of hand-thatched tiki huts. Granted that this is their off-season, we had no trouble getting a hut when we wanted one.

The Secrets staff were wonderful, with particular mention of two: Angel and Marianny. Angel (a male waiter whose turf included our spot on the “lazy river” pool) was hilarious, and kept the drinks coming. Marianny worked at the beach grill, and she was gracious enough to help me remember my Spanish across the 41-year gulf since my last Spanish course. I wanted to say “bee” (abeja) and almost said “abuela” (grandmother.) Instead, I buzzed. She laughed, and told me the word. I could not for the life of me remember the word for “breakfast” (desayuno) and one word that I could say (conozco) I could not define. (It means “I know.” Heh.)

This was a (mild) problem throughout the week. I was never entirely sure whether the staff understood my questions, and therefore whether their answers reflected reality. Boy, I started wanting a book that would be a sort of second-gen Exam Cram for stuff you learned long ago and recall unevenly. Anybody want to buy a series? The first title will be Take Back Your Spanish. (The second might have been Take Back Your FORTH, but some things are best left forgotten.)

Pool Punta Cana.jpg

Americans at the resort were outnumbered (I’d guess 2 to 1) by Europeans and Canadians, and most of the people we spoke to were British, Irish, or Russian. I had abundant opportunity to play my private game of identifying overheard languages. We heard Russian, Polish, French, and probably Portuguese. Here and there I heard languages I had no clue about, though I think one was Turkish. Peculiar cultural gaps kept appearing. A middle-aged British woman asked me what sort of hat I was wearing (not the hat in the photo above) and seemed poleaxed by the idea of an indestructable terrycloth roll-up beach hat that (granted) looks like something made out of a washcloth. She wanted to know where I got it, but I’ve had it for at least 25 years and no longer recall. Another woman from the UK had never heard of Kaley Cuoco, even though she was a dead ringer. European women evidently wear bikinis well into their seventies, a species of courage that I much admire.

Carol and I remarked to one another that we may be the last people in the Industrialized West without tattoos.

The food was good. We ate most meals at the buffet, which had its quirks but was generally excellent. We had uneven luck with the a la carte restaurants. Language again intervened: I ordered a steak at the resort’s French restaurant, and asked for a glass of red wine. The waiter said there was only white wine. I said ok, I’ll take a glass of white wine. Then he returned with the bottle and poured me a glass of…red wine. The steak was terrific, and the mushroom orzo spectacular. The wine was workmanlike, and hey, however tangled the negotiation, I eventually got what I wanted.

There are all sorts of things to do there, almost none of which we did. People hanging from parasails were going by over the beach constantly. I like kites and brought two, but I don’t think I’d particularly enjoy riding one. You could also get rides on these little ultralight planes with inflatable pontoons, or, for more money, rides in real helicopters. The snorkling was not good unless you went out a lot farther than we wanted to go. (In the Caymans it was right off the beach.) So we bobbed in the ocean and paddled around the pool. I got another 150 pages through Richard Ellmann’s ginormous fine-print biography of Oscar Wilde. I now know that Wilde had a 17-inch neck and a 38 1/2 inch waistline. It’s that kind of biography, and took Ellmann twenty years to write. I hope to finish reading it in less.

Secrets is “adults-only” (which sounds disreputable but just means the kids are in the next resort over) but the definition of “adult” was slippery. There was deafening rappish tech/trance music and much twentysomething horseplay by the big pool all afternoon through mid-evening. Every time I turned around I was hearing Aloe Blacc’s technocountry (yes, I just made that up) hit “Wake Me Up When It’s All Over,” to the point where I was absently humming it over dinner. On Canada Day there was a marching band circling around the pool playing “O Canada,” whereas on the Fourth of July there was a hot dog eating contest and a big machine spraying soap foam all over the revelers in the pool. What this says about us and the Canadians (or how other cultures perceive us) is unclear.

All of this is to say that we had a great time doing exactly what we wanted to (splashing, reading, enjoying the company) and little of what we didn’t want to. The outing cost about a third of what a week in Hawaii would cost us. The plane ride was five hours, not eight or nine. It was hot. So? It was winter in Colorado until fairly recently. Heat still has some novelty value. Overall, I’d call the experience superb. Once the Polar Vortex starts landing on you (and it looks like it’s already begun in parts of the Midwest) we suggest getting a couple of tickets on a Frontier starship and heading to planet Punta Cana. Highly recommended.

Odd Lots

  • This is where we stayed on Grand Cayman last week. Unless I misrecall, it was about $150 a night. Don’t forget that it was not air conditioned.
  • For deep reading, print may be the way to go, for reasons we don’t yet understand. In looking back a year or so, I realize that I generally read fiction on my Transformer Prime, and nonfiction on paper. It wasn’t a conscious decision–and may simply be due to a reluctance of nonfiction publishers to issue ebooks–but it was probably the correct one.
  • Here’s yet another reason why I’ve decided to let the Sun actually reach my skin.
  • It’s starting to look like diet has little or no effect on cancer risk. This has been my suspicion for a long time. Obesity, yes. Diet itself, no. (Thanks to Bruce Baker for the link.)
  • Ohh, Ancel Key’s beautiful wickedness is all starting to unravel. Saturated fat has nothing to do with heart disease. This has also been a suspicion of mine for some time, along with the suspicion that eating fat will make you lose weight more quickly than simply going low-carb. It certainly worked that way for me. I now weigh only eight pounds more than I did when I was 24, and a good deal of that is probably muscle I put on via ten years of weight training. (Thanks to Trevor Tompkins for the link.)
  • Interesting paper on why the Neanderthals died out. They didn’t necessarily die out becausethey were inferior. (Maybe they didn’t die out at all but are still here, pretending to be ugly Saps.) If I had to guess, I’d say their skulls got so big as to make childbirth problematic. But what were they doing with all that gray matter? (Thanks to Erik Hanson for the link.)
  • I stumbled on a year-old article that pretty much captures my reaction to weather.com. I will add, however, that weather.com beats the living hell out of The Weather Channel.
  • I’m still waiting for reports of cataclysmic pwnage on XP machines. The number “2000” comes to mind.
  • Speaking of which, I still need XP because my HP S20 slide scanner has no driver that will run on Windows 7. Haven’t tried the VM trick yet, but ultimately that’s the way I’ll have to go.
  • I knew there was a reason I only lived in Baltimore for 23 months.