Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Course for Adventure

We are on our last At Sea day and will be home tomorrow. I had thought about finally breaking out my swimming suit today and lounging around on the Sun Deck. But we woke up to really cool lightning and thunder. And by cool, I mean both fun to watch and the need to pull out some pants for the first time in a week.

It’s been very strange these past several days to be so dang hot and wearing all my summer clothes again while people make reference to The Holidays being just around the corner (so, you know, I should buy all sorts of souvenirs, they make me deal!).

In Puerto Vallarta, we docked near a shopping mall that had “Feliz Navidad” and pine wreaths and reindeer decorating the building. With 86 degree temps and high humidity, the image was just plain wrong.

I can tell I am finally relaxing. I have gotten lots of glorious and much-needed rest over the past week. Something about being rocked (mostly gently – I’m down 2 Dramamine) to sleep each night has induced much slumber.

I also got hit by a cold yesterday. Historically, my body seems to know when I am running on empty and it can finally let its guard down to give into the sniffles and sneezes. Yesterday was our last port before home and sure enough, just hours after returning to our cabin, I was pawing around in our medicine stash for Sudafed.

Today I am trying very hard to stay away from public spaces so as not to infect anyone else (yay for the highly unpopular Skywalkers Lounge!). I’m not thrilled about having a cold, but I am grateful it’s a head thing and not a tummy thing. Rob is actually pleased I am sick because he knows that means I finally stopped fighting. So in a very weird way, my sea of Kleenex wads is a sign of a vacation much-needed and well-done.

Our three ports this cruise were the main ones that The Love Boat typically visited. Occasionally they went to Ensenada and/or Acapulco, but the primary ones tended to be Puerto Vallarta, Mazatlan, and Cabo San Lucas. I am here to tell you, every one of them looks quite different now than in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Especially Cabo San Lucas. Yikes! The growth is mind-blowing!

When we booked the cruise, we fully anticipated never leaving the ship. Did I mention we don’t like Mexico? But as we perused the excursions offered by the cruise line, we decided that it might not be too awful if we stuck with a tour and were lead around like sheep by fully vetted and accredited tour guides. And thus we bravely got off the ship each day and tentatively explored a little of what each town had to offer.

Puerto Vallarta
Our tour was billed as a walking tour of the town’s newish boardwalk, a visit to a church (no shorts allowed, poor overheated Rob), a stop at a tile factory (in reality more gift shop than factory), and then a final stop at a tequila distillery about 45 minutes outside of town for lunch and learn-how-they-make-stuff instruction. Free samples were also promised. Ole!

The highlight of the walking tour was going into the City Hall and seeing a mural on the wall. David, our tour guide, was quite proud to show it to us.

As nice as the mural was, what made the visit memorable was that there was a reporter from the local newspaper there and she asked to take our group’s picture for a front-page tourism article for the next day’s paper. David was VERY excited.

Rob and I smiled at each other, silently remembering the trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico several years ago when we ended up on the front page of the newspaper watching a beautiful wildfire-induced sunset. It remains one of my favorite pictures of us. And it was our first brush with paparazzi.

Back in Puerto Vallarta’s City Hall, all us little tour ducklings lined up, with a few people shamelessly angling to be right next to David so that they would be front and center in the photo. Even though Rob and I ended up in the middle of the photo, it was mostly because we got bumped into that position.

With some anticipation, I finally got online this morning to search for the lengthy tourism article and the accompanying professional photo of our tour proudly in front of the mural. If you want to check it out yourself, here’s the link. Because I like to be a full-service blogger, though, here is the photo:

And here is the full and complete translation of the extensive article: “The national and international tourism, is very important for our city, because besides the economic benefit they generate, in the end each one of those visitors become promoters of our beautiful Puerto Vallarta.”

I hope David is still proud and excited. Me, I am highly amused.

The other highlight of the day was the visit to the tequila factory. It was quite a ways out of town, past the prison.

Once there, we had a fantastic beef taco lunch and the very best habanero salsa I have ever tasted. Tummies full, we then learned about how tequila is made and got to sample 6 different versions (Rob and I maturely split the shots. Yeah, we’re wimps. But sober ones!). Here’s what I learned:

-- Real tequila is made from 100% blue agave. If it is made from green agave, it is called mezcal. Mezcal is apparently sort of nasty and it is the stuff with the worm in it. So, worm = no bueno.

That pine cone thing is the heart of a blue agave plant.

-- The process of making tequila is more similar to making whiskey than making wine. Lots of distilling and high alcohol content. Nevertheless, Rob had a fascinating yet rather technical side conversation with the head tequila maker. The factory was family-run and the maker was the founder’s grandson. The family sent him to France to learn wine making and sort of earn some credibility. Interesting tactic that apparently was successful.

-- Much like champagne, tequila can only be legally called that if it is made in the Tequila region of Mexico.

-- The delicious limey citrus smell of a margarita is actually the tequila, not the mix. Having not had straight tequila since the bachelorette bar-hopping party my co-workers threw for me 25 years ago (I remember the first 5 shots – oy), I had no idea how wonderful tequila smells. This was dangerous insight.

-- The real way you are supposed to drink a margarita is without lime or salt. Mexicans started adding lime and salt to cover up bad tequila. Since I love salt, this information is unlikely to change the way I order my margaritas. Call me inauthentic.

-- Some people make flavored tequilas. We tried a peach one, an almond one, and a coffee one. Later, in a touristy market place, we sampled a mango one and a hibiscus one.

-- Relatedly, we now know the process for bringing hard alcohol on board a cruise ship. You have to check it in immediately and they stash it away until the last day of the cruise. Then you get it back, pack it, and take it home with you.

-- For a limited time only, free samples of peach and hibiscus flavored tequilas at Woodhaven!

Our tour was an “off-the-beaten-path” boat ride through an estuary to see birds and mangroves. Although neither of us is really into birds, Rob and I remembered having quite enjoyed seeing new-to-us wildlife on different trips. So this sounded like a relaxing, soothing, educational way to avoid the city of Mazatlan itself.

Instead, we got to experience Mexico tourism at its authentic best. Or worst? Either way, it was a decidedly we’re-not-in-the-US day. Some entertaining highlights:

As I stepped into the small boat we toured around in, I was alarmed and then amused that the boat’s floor was rather squishy. It was freshly painted, though, so at least it looked in operable condition.

Each seat sported an uninflatable faded orange life jacket. As I eyed mine, I surmised that the best it could do would be to indicate where I was flailing about in the water trying to stay afloat. No matter, though. Hugo, our tour guide, announced that it was too hot to wear the life jackets and assured us that Carlos the Driver would not capsize the boat. None of us felt very confident but none of us put on the life jackets either.

The bird watching wasn’t terribly exotic. We mostly saw buzzards, blue herons, and pelicans. We did get to see the pelicans up close though, thanks to some smelly fish Hugo brought on board for photo ops. He was adorably confused why nobody was volunteering to feed the pelicans the stinky treats.

After our boat ride, we were to be taken to a restaurant on the beach for lunch and then an hour of free time playing in the water. I assumed we would be transported via another tour bus lacking functional AC. Instead, we got to take what Hugo kept calling a “Mexican limo.”

The “limo” was a large rickety wooden cart with boards nailed across for benches. The cart had an awning, so at least it was shady. And it had lots of organic AC (yay for a breeze!). We entered the limo from the back by scrambling up two very high, rotted-wood steps.

Once inside, we had to hurdle over the benches to find a seat. Well, my knee wasn’t having any of that, so I snagged a seat in the far back that required no track and fielding. I was the youngest on the tour and by far not the only one with knee issues, so that back area filled up quickly.

Did I mention that the cart was pulled by a tractor? Oh, and Chester the Chihuahua rode along up front. It was quite hard not to notice that he was all boy.

Once we got going, the limo took us off-roading through the jungle and sand dunes for a good half-hour until we came to the beach. Then it drove us right along the water’s edge, running over a cormorant along the way (yeah, it squawked quite loudly, hobbled about afterwards, and quite upset a number of passengers. Rather unwise form to run over a bird with a vehicle carrying a bunch of bird-lovers. Oops.).  It was a very looooong 6 miles.

I took a few blurry pictures but decided a video tells the story best. Please note that my camera has a motion stabilizer and I was doing everything I could to keep my hands steady. And yes, my back was NOT happy with this adventure. And yes, I have passed along to people who should know that the tour’s description needs to be amended a bit.


Finally at the restaurant, we spent the next couple of hours commiserating with other sore tourists and fending off musicians and vendors selling beaded jewelry and iron wood turtles.

I had brought along my swimsuit to go play in the uncommonly warm water (it was reportedly about 84 degrees), but I just couldn’t muster the courage to change my clothes in the restaurant’s rustic bathroom. The fact that the ocean water was an icky brown didn’t help entice me either. I did go put my feet in it, though. And then killed the rest of the time trying to figure out how to clean them off.

Cabo San Lucas
Our tour in Cabo San Lucas was our favorite. It took us about an hour north of the increasingly large and touristy town to a little colonial village called Todos Santos.

Todos Santos has a beautiful mission founded by the Jesuits – that’s pretty much what started the town several centuries ago. More recently, The Eagles and Don Henley wrote a very famous song about a hotel there and fans often stop by as a sort of a pilgrimage.

Todos Santos got hit a bit hard by a hurricane a few years ago, so some of it is still being repaired while other parts are newly renovated. From the looks of things, Todos Santos aims to be the Carmel (California) or Cannon Beach (Oregon) of Baja. There were a number of artsy stores and studios, and the souvenirs were much more authentic and handcrafted than all the mass-produced pottery and beadwork and silver jewelry we saw in the other ports.

The town was named by the Mexican government as an historic place (officially called a Magic Town). As such, Todos Santos is getting some additional funding and is the first to get some improvements like a desalinization plant (adequate supplies of water are a big issue on this desert peninsula of Baja California).

Overall, the town just felt more real and less touristy that where we visited in Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan. It wasn’t crowded at all. In fact, our tour of 20 caused many locals to stare for a bit. This has a lot to do with why it was our favorite tour.

After walking around town and visiting the mission, we settled in for lunch at the cantina inside the Hotel California. Yep, THAT Hotel California. It was a very pleasant, comfortable, welcoming place. The food was delicious, the margarita was fantastic, and they were kind enough to play The Song twice while we were there.

As I listened to the song in the place that inspired it, I thought a lot about a friend of mine who traveled all over the world for about 3 years. Andi she said she heard “Hotel California” played at least once in every single country she visited – Germany, Jordan, China, you name it, they played it. I’m not sure if Andi has ever been to Todos Santos. If not, she definitely needs to add it to her travel list. They even have t-shirts for when she marks the occasion (yeah, touristy but still not as touristy as the other ports).


We still need to pack and I still have about a half-hour left of internet minutes I can use. Oh, right! This is my first official cruise with free wifi! Well, 150 minutes of free wifi. Which has been plenty to check email, get fantasy football teams situated, check in for our flights, and upload 13 photos and 2 videos to my blog. My loyalty to Princess has paid off! And rest assured, soon we’ll be making another run. Well, at least soonish.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Welcome Aboard, It’s Loooo-oooo-oove!

Rob and I have a favorite way to unwind from a busy day. Yes, it’s exactly what you are thinking. We watch old reruns of “The Love Boat.”

We started watching them on Netflix several years ago after returning home from a Princess cruise. We had had such a fantastic time, we basically wanted to relive it.

Recently, the POP cable channel started dedicating every Thursday to back-to-back-to-back episodes of the star-studded goofery of the classic ‘70s television show. We have quite a collection recorded and ready for end-of-the-day mind-candy. I can tell you that in Season 1, they didn’t have the guest star’s pictures in the wheel icon. After Season 2, Captain Stubing stops saluting you. During Season 4, Vicky joins the crew. Yep, lots of unwinding going on at Woodhaven.

Over the summer, several months into our rather prolonged reconstruction from our Water Leak Mold Issue, Rob and I got a little punchy and decided we needed to go on a Love Boat cruise. Not just a Princess cruise, a Princess cruise to Mexico.

This was quite a surprising decision since neither of us particularly like Mexico. To point, Rob refused to join me and my mom at my grandparents’ time share in Mazatlan 20 years ago. And 15 years later, we both literally ran back to the safety and familiarity of our Panama Canal cruise ship when we stopped in Acapulco along the way, we hated it so much. We agreed that day, while enjoying free cookies on the Lido Deck and gazing out over the total ick that was Acapulco, that we would never ever return to it – nor likely Mexico – again.

But, well, television is magical. And we watch a lot of “The Love Boat.” So for the past week, we have been on the Ruby Princess cruising the Mexican Riviera. Ole!

We (ok, mostly I but Rob has graciously indulged my goofiness) have worked very hard to create our very own Love Boat Experience.

As we arrived at the Port terminal in San Pedro, I got very excited to discover that the parking lot and drop-off area is largely unchanged from the opening scenes of the ‘70s. I was sort of bummed, though, that we were arriving on a shuttle bus instead of a ‘50s style yellow checkered taxi like in the show. It would have been even better if Jimmy JJ Walker had been our driver.

We approached the gangway to board the ship and I started heading to the “priority boarding” shorter line that had a modern-day switch-back ramp. Rob grabbed me by the shoulder and pointed at the longer line. It was using the same metal submarine-ship-like archway that is used in the show. OMG!!

“Even though you have that special card, do you want to wait in line to go through the arch?” Rob asked fully knowing the answer.

About 10 minutes later, I got to confuse everyone except Rob by taking this picture.

Finding our way to our cabin on the Caribe Deck (Deck 10), my iPod announced our arrival with several repeated plays of “The Love Boat” theme song. I tried not to sing along too loudly. Oddly, none of the crew members we passed seemed fazed by our musical accompaniment. Perhaps that song fills the hallways more often than I think?

We got settled, started unpacking, and noted how the port looks totally different now than in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Tons more cranes and container ships and general busy-ness in the enormous port now.

An announcement was made that we were about to set sail. It didn’t work exactly like I was planning (they are a lot harder to throw than I expected), but I nevertheless surprised Rob by throwing some confetti streamers at him on our balcony. In my head, he was going to be covered in streamers like Silly String by the time we pulled out into the ocean. Sadly, not so much.

Instead, we decided to tie a few of the streamers to our railing in an effort to be festive. Soon after, some Canadians below us deemed us “party people.” I’m pretty sure they are relieved that our partying began and ended with railing streamers at the departure from each of our four ports.

Several “Love Boat” episodes refer to Puerto Vallarta as having “the best margaritas.” I gave my best effort to confirm this. We even went to a tequila factory! (I’m very dedicated.) However, I must report that the best margarita I had in Mexico was in Todos Santos (about an hour north of Cabo San Lucas). More on that in a blog to come.

I did, however, quite enjoy a signature drink on board our ship. Personally invented by Ted Lange to commemorate 2015 being Princess’s 50th birthday, “The Isaac” is white rum, lime juice, 7-Up, and grenadine to make it red like his bartender jacket. According to the very effective “commercial” showing on our in-cabin TV, the bartender was supposed to serve “The Isaac” to me properly by doing the double-fingered double pointy thing. He didn’t. So I did it instead.

We also spent some of our At Sea days in search of iconic locations around the ship, fully aware that the ship we are actually sailing on is much larger and much younger than the original Pacific Princess. In fact, the original vessel star of the show no longer exists. Yes, I almost cried when I learned that. All that groovy wood paneling and nubby upholstery, wasted.

Anyway, with that in mind, I give you The Couch at The Window on which many difficult conversations happen. You know, like when that guy had to tell his girlfriend that he was falling in love with her mother? Or when that other guy had to tell his new love interest that he was actually hired by her suspicious husband to trap her for divorce court? Yeah, that couch. This couch.

We also found The Railing at The Back of the Ship By the Flag Pole where many moonlight conversations and first kisses happen. I am happy to report that much like the show, nobody was anywhere around when we hung out there for a spell. Love – life’s sweetest reward.

Sadly, we could only go so far to have the Total Love Boat Experience. I think you have to be some sort of really fancy person – or pay lots extra – to get to sit at The Captain’s Table. And actually, I’m not sure where his table is cuz I never saw it. But he must eat, somewhere.

We also stopped short of buying a piñata to bring home or carrying around an enormous sombrero. However, the nice people at the ship’s gift shop were very kind to let us use their inventory for props, so at least we have this. If you are on our Christmas card list, you will very likely see this photo again in a month or so.

Stayed tuned for one more report of Rob and Toni’s Mexico Adventures! Hint: tequila, The Eagles, and a “Mexican limo” are involved.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Some assembly required

Yesterday it dawned on me that our Total Home Office Make-Over project has entered a new realm: I found myself asking a dear group of church ladies to pray for us. Thanks a lot, IKEA.

Later, it was with a touch of resignation, defeat, and wistfulness in his voice that Rob peered behind sweat-streaked glasses and proclaimed, “I managed to live 49 years without ever having to build IKEA furniture.” I don’t think this was an answer to the prayers.

The words came while standing in our freshly painted home office amongst so much cardboard and wordless instruction sheets and tiny little metal crowbar screwdriver thingys. Rob was knee-deep in a 16 cubbied Kallax shelving unit that apparently only weighs about 160lbs. Me, I was observing from the comfort of the futon I had just cleaned of all the cat fuzz. I’m doing my part, by request.

Photo taken from the futon

You see, the day before I had tried so very hard to help. We had a 4 cubbied shelving unit that I was certain I could master all on my own while Rob busied himself dominating two desks. I now view my naively optimistic undertaking as an admirable effort to understand and appreciate Rob’s pain and agony. With some time and distance and a cold beverage, he eventually thanked me.

It really did look tantalizingly easy, the small shelving unit assembly. The instructions were all of 4 pages and were filled with large drawings of arrows and hands. Because IKEA sells their fine Swedish pressed board all over the world, they save a lot of time, paper, and clarity by not including any words with their instructions. It’s basically a DIY Pictionary game.

On Step 1 I managed to strip some screws and Rob had to rescue me.

On Step 3, I first realized the Pictionary drawings are very precise and one must pay close attention to the location of all the tiny dots representing screw holes. The dots aren’t just there for decoration, people. I was screwed. Rob had to rescue me.

Later on Step 3, it was confirmed that I do not do arms at the gym. Rob and his manly strength came to my rescue.

This was also the step at which I learned that a palm does not a good hammer make. At least my palm. My left one is now sporting a purple bruise with blue undertones (much like our new walls) from where I pounded it against the support piece to get the shelf pieces to slide into place. The little tool summary didn’t include a hammer so I recklessly assumed I didn’t need one. I should have used a hammer. Instead, I used Rob. He’s very handy.

He looks so happy because he still believes this is all he will need

On Step 6, I learned that size matters in those drawings. Little screw hole dots are very different than little screw hole zeroes. So much unscrewing.

On Step 8, I discovered that I had made a fatal error back on Step 2 and needed to rotate a board. More unscrewing. And a few choice words. Rob wisely abandoned his file cabinet assembly and hovered lovingly as I insisted I am a smart person and could do this.

There were only 8 steps. I had only managed to get half of them right the first time. I pride myself on being very detail oriented and an accomplished puzzle-put-er-together-er. Yet in 4 easy steps IKEA managed to crush my ego and spirit of Badass Instruction Follower.

I tried to look at the finished shelves with pride of a job well-done, but the truth is that Rob put it together. I was the toddler who insisted on “I DO IT!” and instead created a wake of work and fixes for the grown-up following behind me. Rob is an incredibly patient man. Have I mentioned that?

The shelving unit "I" built.  Please note the crowbar tool collection on the futon armrest.
Also please note that Rob added the drawer inserts for me.  I know

I spent the rest of the assembly project doing laundry, making dinner, toting cardboard to the recycling bin, and otherwise admiring Rob’s engineering studliness from the futon. Because, thankfully, Rob and I managed to have a very open, honest, loving conversation in which he safely told me that my “helping” was making things worse and he’d really rather play Pictionary all by himself.

I am very proud of us, actually, especially in light of the wise words of an IKEA-savvy friend, Eileen, who mused, “IKEA should sell supplemental insurance for divorces caused by their furniture. Always a challenge.” Oddly, that makes me feel better.

As do these words of experience from Byron: "Once you figure it out, the instructions make perfect sense. Unfortunately, that is invariably too late."

I have decided that IKEA stands for "I Know Everything Afterwards."

I suddenly felt like I was officially a member of a vex-filled club when one friend immediately identified my new Facebook profile picture as being from the IKEA Pictionary Playbook.  Others chimed in to commiserate and wish us luck. Apparently the frustration and challenge of Swedish Pressboard Assembly is well-known amongst those who have dared to try.

Wait a minute!  He has a hammer!  No fair!  Cheater McCheaterpants!
Wait, he doesn't have pants. No wonder he's confused.

As of this morning, I have two shelving units, two desks, and three filing cabinets all assembled and ready to go. Rob is an IKEA STUD!

I am especially impressed by the filing cabinets. Although I was there when we bought them in heavy flat boxes, it didn’t occur to me until yesterday that I didn’t really know you could assemble a file cabinet. I thought you just bought them. You know, all in one piece already. IKEA continues to take what I thought I knew and turn it upside down and around with arrows and disembodied hands.

See?  Heavy.

Because we are apparently masochists, Rob and I are heading back to IKEA today for more punishment. We need to return a couple of items and buy one more little shelving unit which I am quite certain I am not smart enough to assemble. I shall instead make brownies. Because that's safer. And given my history of kitchen disasters, that's saying something.

Monday, October 26, 2015

A little behind-the-scenes experience

As a once-regular viewer of “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” I had the sneaking suspicion that reality TV isn’t necessarily real. I mean, really, how likely would it be for Mama June to really take her Forklift Foot to get a pedicure? The foot so named because it got munched by heavy equipment and was thus banished to being covered by a sock at all times? Mama June’s “decision” to go to a nail salon could only have come from the show’s producer.

With that wise-to-the-ways-of-the-world enlightenment, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by yesterday’s outing to Roloff Farms, but I was.

For those not in the know, Roloff Farms is a somewhat famous pumpkin patch in a Portland suburb that is the backdrop to a very popular reality TV series called “Little People, Big World.” It has been on the air for 9 years and follows a family of little people (older generations…like mine…used to call them midgets but political correctness has made that term a no-no. Yay PC Police.).

I have to confess: I have never watched an episode of “Little People, Big World.” But I watch enough shows on that cable channel (see “Boo Boo”) that I have seen endless promos for it so I have a vague understanding of who the people are. Plus, the family are local celebrities so they are in the Portland news at times. For instance, somehow I knew that the husband and wife are getting divorced (Wikipedia says it was announced this past June), and that one of their sons recently got married on the farm (Wiki says September 2014).

So when my most favorite llama in the world got invited to hang out at Roloff Farms yesterday, I jumped at the chance to join him. I was curious what the pumpkin patch was like and wondered if I might catch a small glimpse of reality greatness. Pre-visit conversations suggested the show wouldn’t be filming while we were there, so I prepared myself for a relaxed, mostly predictable llama outing.

And so it was.

Lots of happy people excited to get to pet and hug and kiss Rojo and his buddy Smokey. Pictures, laughter, hesitation, fears conquered. One woman exploded with giddiness as she breathlessly explained she has been a Facebook fan of Rojo’s “foreverrrr!” and had never met him before and got off work early just to come meet him and OMG he’s so fluffy and it’s like meeting a celebrity and yesyesyes please take our picture on my phone!

You know, relaxed and predictable.

Note the clenched hands. She was jumping up and down and was a bundle of excitement.

About 20 minutes before we were set to pack it all up and head home, the Farm’s event planner person came over and asked if Matt, the little family’s patriarch and star of the show, had come by yet. He hadn’t, so she said she would be back in a few minutes with him. There was a general buzz of excitement as we watched for his customized jeep thing to motor over. So nice of him to want to come by to say hi!

Matt did eventually show up, perhaps 40 minutes later. But he was preceded by people with cameras and microphones and walkie talkies and one of those scene clapper board thingies. Apparently they were filming after all! Cue mad dash to purses for hair brushes and lipstick.

And so began what ended up being almost 2 hours of learning what filming a reality TV show looks like. Spoiler alert: not much of it is real.

There ended up being two scenes involving Rojo. The first had Matt and his son (Jeremy) and daughter-in-law (Audrey) riding in on the jeep thingy and Shannon (Rojo’s best girl and handler) bringing Rojo over to meet them. They chatted, laughed, took some photos to make it real, etc.

The second scene involved Jeremy bringing Rojo into his dad’s office because Matt suddenly wasn’t feeling well. And when you aren’t feeling good, what better remedy is there than a therapy llama? How convenient that one just happened to be on the premises!

In between these two short scenes was a lot of standing around and waiting for…something. I think we were all waiting for the director. He (Patrick – I know his name because the ex-wife, Amy, called out to him not to let her dog go into the office) was the only one who seemed to be working at a fast pace. Everyone else was mostly standing around talking, adjusting headbands, drinking water, waiting for Patrick to tell them what to do.

My first glimpse into the scriptedness of “reality” TV was watching Patrick chat with Matt, Shannon, and Lori (Shannon’s mom) about the first scene and what they were supposed to say and do.

What they were supposed to SAY and DO?!? You mean this stuff isn’t live and spontaneous? You mean it’s planned?!?


Right down to doing a couple of takes because either words were flubbed or Rojo’s fluffy head blocked a face. The reality was crushing.

As the jeep thingy rolled out of the scene, we thought we were done and I was sort of sad not having had the opportunity to actually say hi to Matt and thank him for having us (cuz, you know, I wasn’t in the live, spontaneous, impromptu scene). But then there was buzz about the second scene, the one in the office. Whoo hoo!

The office was a nice walk through the Roloff’s property. I followed along with my camera while Rob helped Lori’s husband pack up the llama gear and try to keep Smokey entertained with some hay.

Walking through the property, I had a hunch it was all very iconic to the fans of the show. Indeed, all the barns and houses and rolling hills looked something like a movie set with everything very well-manicured and tidy and camera-ready. Even the vintage cars parked outside were gleaming despite the rainstorm that had accompanied us most of the day.

We stationed ourselves outside of the office and…waited. While we waited, Lori hurriedly wiped Rojo’s feet off, not knowing she had plenty of time to even give him a pedicure had she been so inclined (no forklift feet on Rojo).

The scene revealed itself to be one in which Jeremey calls his dad on a walkie talkie and they chat before Jeremy brings Rojo in to see him. Rojo…all by himself without Shannon or Lori helping out or giving guidance to Jeremy. While we were pretty confident Rojo would be just fine, it was also Hour 5 of an unexpectedly long day and we could tell Rojo was ready to head home.

That and one of the camera crew had expressed some concern that there was a stuffed cougar mounted in Matt’s office, sort of up high, in pouncing formation, and wondered if that might distress Rojo.

Just your typical, relaxed, predictable llama outing.

Director Patrick finally showed up all abuzz and things finally started happening just as a wagon of tourists bounced by on a farm tour.

The walkie talkie conversation between Jeremy and Matt was apparently only audio – or Matt was being filmed inside the office – so Jeremey just walked around outside while Patrick fed him lines.

Fed him lines?!?


There was no script, nothing written down, nothing to memorize. But it seemed as if the director had a storyline in his head and had a vision how to make it happen, and thus certain lines were necessary.

So much for reality.

When Jeremy entered the office with Rojo, Matt had been told to say, “GET THAT THING OUT OF HERE!” Then the office door closed and apparently a beautiful interaction happened with the unfazed-by-the-taxidermy Rojo. Matt felt much better.

Cut! And done.

Jeremy came out and gushed about how well-behaved Rojo was and how Rojo had let him lead him around the office and kissed Matt without using carrots. Lori, Shannon, and I were beaming. And relieved.

Then Matt came out. Matt, who had actually been feeling fine the entire time. He thanked us for being there and then said, “I hope they don’t cut the scene at ‘GET THAT THING OUT OF HERE.’ Rojo is really a great animal.”

And right there I understood why he and the entire family seemed sort of…resigned. Here was a show about them and their lives, but very little of it seemed real and very little of it was seemingly in their control. They were told where to be, what to say, situations were contrived for story lines, and an editor could change the tone and meaning of everything. The cost of reality fame appeared startlingly high.

On our way home, I tried to figure out what exactly is real about reality TV. I decided it must be more real for the film crew. Since there are no scripts…and the people they are dealing with are not professional actors…the film crew and director probably feel like they are dealing with reality much more than a sitcom or movie crew does.

I am pretty sure the whole story line about Matt not feeling well was conjured on-the-spot when the production people learned about the therapy work Rojo does. So that sudden storyline probably felt spontaneous to the crew, and they had to react in “real time” to make it happen.

But watching the stars of the show, well, it’s not what I always assumed it was. I thought reality TV was largely people going about their real lives with a camera crew nearby just capturing the action. I mean, the couple of other times people have filmed Rojo and his buddies, that’s what has happened.

Obviously, from Honey Boo Boo, I knew that the reality families are often thrown into unfamiliar situations to make for good TV, but I figured that’s where the puppet mastering stopped. It didn’t occur to me that lines were being fed and problems being manufactured in the interest of keeping things “real.” I knew it wasn’t the highest brow of television, but I thought there was still some integrity left. Oh, naïve innocence. Dashed.

And what about Piglet, some of you stalwart readers might be asking? He was safely tucked in my purse all day just waiting for the opportunity to be photographed with Matt. But I never got the vibe that my asking for a photo would be met with the same play-along acceptance that Ted Danson offered so long ago. Did I mention resignation? Yeah. So Piglet went all the way to the farm and came all the way home, only to be photographed with pumpkins. Sigh.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

I'm listening

I have been listening to Dr. Laura on the radio for over 20 years. When I first discovered her, I didn’t agree with most of what she said, but she was a very lone voice echoing my decidedly untrendy viewpoint about not wanting to put any future children of mine in day care. So I kept listening.

For the past several years, I have subscribed to her 3-hour daily podcasts. So walks in the park have often been to the beat of Dr. Laura preaching, teaching, and nagging callers to do the right thing (as she sees it. And increasingly as I see it, too). I have actually learned a lot from her over the years about what it really means to make children a priority and the raw courage it can sometimes take to stand up for your values.

But when my subscription came up for renewal in June, I let it lapse. I had about 6 months of unplayed podcasts chewing up space on my iPod. I had stopped listening to them during all the hormonal weirdness following my hysterectomy in January. I just didn’t have the energy to listen to or care about other people’s problems. But I am enough of a tightwad that I couldn’t bear to erase the podcasts unplayed. I paid for them, gosh darn it I was going to listen to them.

So over the summer, with a better mind set and a renewed interest in struggles beyond my own, I started plugging through my podcast playlist. Many hours of walking and power washing and other futzing around outside have resulted in me being on the May 4th podcast as of today. Whoo hoo! Just 32 more hours to go!

But something interesting happened several weeks ago.

I discovered this very quirky, very funny, very honest guy on the radio in the mornings. I caught his commentary between songs a couple of times and each time I actually laughed out loud in the car, all by myself. I laughed especially hard as he was lamenting how annoying it is when people have their Facebook profiles locked down with all sorts of privacy settings. How is one supposed to stalk people if they are all privatey? This man was my people.  I kept listening.

He mentioned his show has a podcast. I finally went looking for it and started listening last week.

Brant Hansen’s daily podcast is only about 25 minutes long. It’s basically a compilation of the chatter he and his producer, Sherri, do each day in between the songs they introduce on a syndicated radio station. So during my daily walks recently, I have been listening to both Brant and Dr. Laura. And I’ve noticed something very obvious yet subtle: my mood, my perspective, my optimism, even my walking pace…all are impacted by which show I am listening to.

When I am listening to Dr. Laura, I trudge a bit. I walk slower and I tend to look down and around. I rarely smile or laugh. I am not uplifted, I am not encouraged. Instead, listening to other people’s problems has been making me sad. Dr. Laura often raises her voice and interrupts people and uses bold words to get people’s attention to loudly proclaim the advice they have called seeking.  This volume and energy has been leaving me feeling a bit agitated and edgy.

Brant is just a guy. He is about my age. He is a dad. He has Aspergers. He is a Christian. His voice is soft and his pace is slow. He likes robots and World War I history. He is very weary of the pervasiveness of pumpkin spice. He is introverted and doesn’t like crowds of people. His humor is dry. He has a way with words that makes me ponder and makes me laugh and makes me wish I were just half as clever. I’m disappointed that his plan to send every listener a baby moose was scuttled by FedEx, Amazon, Amnesty International, and OPEC. Last night he took a homeless guy from his neighborhood out to dinner because he wanted to get to know him. He will be reporting on his experience today.

Did I mention quirky?

When I am listening to Brant, I smile. I laugh. I think. I examine my faith and my purpose. I walk a little faster, more bouncy. I look up and around. I notice the trees and the clouds. I am not agitated and my ears and spirit don’t hurt from the yelling.  In fact, they are instead filled with some hope and lightness.

This is all rather fascinating to me. I mean, I’ve heard that what you listen to, what you invite into your life and your head, really does make a difference and can impact you in sneaky ways. But I never really gave the idea much weight. What music to listen to or what radio chatter to follow are such benign decisions, right? As seemingly benign as deciding what toothpaste to buy. It’s just stuff in the background. Or even if it’s in the foreground, it’s just entertainment. And who analyzes and discerns entertainment?

And yet, I am finding I listen to a Brant podcast as a reward for knocking another Dr. Laura hour off my list. Apparently without meaning to, I have been analyzing and discerning.

Rob has been telling me for months that it really is OK to delete all the Dr. Laura podcasts without listening to them. The fact I paid for them shouldn’t dictate I have to listen to each and every one of them, especially when doing so is obviously dragging down my mood and view of the world. Of course he’s right.

And so with a deep breath and a release of tightwaddiness, I am deleting the trudge and inviting the bounce.

I feel better already.

Going........                       going.......                    GONE!

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

File this one under “U” for Unexpected

Last December, Rob and I decided that our one and only home improvement project for 2015 would be to finally update our home office. New furniture, new layout, new paint, better storage. We targeted “Fall” and figured we would be eager to get started on a fun DIY project after a quiet, relaxing, uneventful summer.

I’m proud to say that we have decided to stick to our plan despite being so very done with contractors and insurance companies and people with tool belts and quirky ringtones disrupting our space.

It’s been about a month now that our house has been back to normal following our Water Leak Mold Issue. I think the only reason we are willing to forge ahead with the Home Office Redo adventure is because it doesn’t involve anyone else. All DIY all the way. No contractors allowed.

In preparation for all the fun of new, I decided I first needed to do a big old fashioned purge and cleaning of shelves and drawers and files. And thus has been my laser focus for the past several days. I honestly feel like I am playing hooky laying here typing about it.

I pride myself on keeping clutter minimized and not holding onto stuff past its utility. Exhibit A would be the copious Goodwill receipts I include in each year’s tax file. So I thought going through our four drawers of files would be maybe two afternoon’s worth of busy work.

I am on Day 4 and just finished Drawer 3 tonight. Apparently I keep my clutter in hanging folders.

So far I have filled 5 paper grocery bags with shredded paper, with at least 3 more yet to go. I have overheated the shredder twice. We had to take one of our cats to the vet yesterday morning because he spent all night apparently trying to throw up some shredded paper bits he ate when I wasn’t looking. Lots of spot cleaning of carpet still to do. Tonight I had to fashion a wire coat hanger into a poker thingy so I could unclog one of the central vacuum tubes. It was filled with, you guessed it, shredded paper. It’s like the opening scene of every Love Boat episode – confetti everywhere.

For the first time in, well, forever, I am committed to opening each and every file neatly housed in our file cabinet. It became obvious rather quickly that there are some files I haven’t looked in in years.

I have ditched about half a dozen files for loyalty programs back from when I used to travel a lot for work. Funny how I rarely stay in Hiltons or Hyatts anymore now that someone else isn’t paying for it.

I also got rid of files for stores that no longer exist (remember Mervyns?) and for credit cards I cancelled long ago (I cancelled my JC Penney’s card over 10 years ago. Yesterday I deemed it safe to shred the letter closing the account.). And the Arbor Day Foundation. Really? I had a file for that? Yep, back from when we first moved to Woodhaven and we signed up for free trees since we had so much room and so little experience.

But then there have been other files. The ones I didn’t expect to take me on an emotional journey of my adulthood.

There was a file for our beloved and departed cat, Brad. We adopted him 3 years after we got married and he moved with us to Woodhaven 11 years later. He was with us for nearly 15 years and was my comfort and buddy through two major back surgeries. I couldn’t bear to part with the entire file so I just saved a few of the mementoes. Like his adoption papers and the notes I took when I consulted a pet psychic on his behalf (hey, don’t judge me. I won it at a charity auction and only believed most of it. Good Lord, that cat had a sense of humor. And an attitude.).

There was the file for the car I had to give up before it was paid off because it was killing my back.

And the file with all the letters and check lists when I finally decided to change my last name to Rob’s after ten years of marriage.

I smiled at the file for the super fun wine club we were members of when we lived in California and were just starting to get really excited by the world of wine. It was just in front of the file I started ten years later when we bought 54 grapevines to plant our own vineyard in our front yard at Woodhaven. Cheers to estate wine!

Blessedly untouched for nearly 15 years, I found the file of so much research I did when my grandma was diagnosed with breast cancer (she’s fine now – turned 90 this past May and is still working. Go Grandma!).

And then there was the file of our move to Woodhaven and evidence of the great deal we got since the moving company underestimated how much all of our treasures weighed. But the joke was on us since they lost a not-made-anymore contractor’s ladder a neighbor had given us. Lots of paper to shred regarding the eventually-approved the claim.

Key for my colored dot coding system on moving boxes

The hardest files, though, have been the ones related to my last job and my applications for long term disability.

A few days ago, I sifted through all the notes and letters and forms I filled out after it became clear that my back surgeries weren’t going to give me my life back after all. Social Security isn’t the easiest system to figure out. Private disability insurance isn’t much better. So many rules and hoops and forms and clarifications and letters. Denials and appeals and approvals. And then, eventually, autopilot. All resulting in reams of paper. And now lots of confetti.

I relived some of the stress of that time as I carefully pulled out the pertinent letters and added others to the shred pile. As I remembered the past it made me so very grateful for the present. And for insurance.

Today I went through the files from the last job of my career. I was only there a year but it was an intense year. I found a handful of very nice emails people copied me on when complimenting my work to my boss. I came across my company bio with accompanying photo and tried to remember the young, smiling, professional woman who was “adept at working with multivariate analysis to enhance the meaning of the management information provided” (yeah, I didn’t write that but it sure sounds fancy. I wonder what it means?).

And then there were the get well cards signed by everyone in the office while I recuperated from Surgery 1 and then a year later, Surgery 2. And the emails giving my boss updates after doctor appointments, forever hopeful that I would return to full speed in record time. And my failed attempt to return to the office after 9 months. One week later I was back working from home. One month later I was not working at all. Five months later I was told my career and working days were officially over. Resignation letter. Company announcement email. Nice “sorry to see you go” emails. Sigh.

So I’ve been sort of oddly emotional and reflective the past few days. I wasn’t prepared to delve into The End of My Career and dead cats and cancelled life insurance policies. I thought I was just cleaning out files and tidying things up.

The final drawer untouched is mostly bank statements. I am very grateful that there isn’t much drama in those files. Then I can move on to drawers filled with pens and photo paper and envelopes. God willing, I won’t get sentimental and wistful over Sharpies and binder clips.

And then, finally then, we can close the drawers on the past and greet the future with 830lb of IKEA office furniture and soothing Silverado walls.

(It's a dark purple with blue undertones. Rob is suitably concerned, both by the color and my description.)

Monday, September 21, 2015

OK, Canada!

Well, with just two days left of Summer 2015, I can officially say it wasn’t my favorite. Between the house reconstruction and my wobbly knee, it had its challenges and disruptions. But I am very pleased to announce that both the knee and the house are almost entirely back to the way they once were. Hallelujah!

On September 3, we declared Woodhaven back with the ceremonial removal of the FL

We decided to celebrate the return of our house to its normally dry, unmoldy state by leaving it. A long-discussed road trip finally became a reality. With a mostly empty trunk, passports, and a salivating curiosity about ice wine, Rob and I recently trekked up to the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. It was delicious.

We were a little wary as we made our travel plans, as the area we wanted to travel through had been in the news quite a bit. Fires. Lots of them. By the time we hit the road, the fires were all at least 80% contained. And hotel room rates were really cheap.

As we drove over some mountain roads, the evidence of massive forest fires was heartbreaking. Deep black terrain, charred matchsticks that had once been trees, the occasional chimney or heap of twisted metal sheeting that had once been a home or car.

We drove through several small towns that still had tent cities occupying their local parks or school fields. Probably both for displaced residents as well as fire crews.

And signs. I saw so many signs. Many of them handmade, some professionally made in bulk, some in front of businesses that would otherwise be advertising a lunch special or sale. Each one thanking the firefighters for their dedication and bravery.

The most touching signs were the handmade ones along the road. In almost every case, a home could be seen in the distance. Probably once hidden by trees but now sitting with unobstructed views of black landscape. It was sobering to see the houses with maybe ten feet worth of unburnt grass around the perimeter, showing where the firefighters had taken a stand to save the home or barn.

It was a reminder from when my parents had a house fire in 2007 of how fire fighters innately understand that while their job is to contain and extinguish the flames, the fire can also threaten people’s homes and livelihoods. They understand the personal impact of their foe and it continues to astound me that they work hard to protect other people’s property in the midst of risking their lives.

Thank you, indeed, fire fighters.

And then we entered Canada and all seemed to be forgotten.

Although we could see trails of white smoke on the mountains, there was hardly any sign of fire across the border. It was rather weird.

We spent the next two days exploring what some say is Canada’s best wine region. Having never explored any wine regions that far north, I can’t confirm or deny that moniker. But I can tell you the Okanagan Valley is beautiful, friendly, and produces some fantastic wines.

All we really knew about the OK Valley before we left Woodhaven was that the area is known for this thing called ice wine.

Ice wine is a tricky beverage because weather conditions have to be just right to produce it. Basically, the grapes grow and ripen like any grape would. But then, if you are lucky, at some point in November-ish, the temperature drops to between -8 and -10 degrees Celsius and the grapes freeze. And if they stay frozen for six hours, you then gather every willing hand you know and pick the grapes as fast as you can.

With these conditions, the water in the grapes freezes and what is left and extracted is very concentrated, very ripe grape juice. Each grape might only have literally one or two drops of liquid to offer, so it can take 30 pounds of grapes to produce one small bottle of ice wine (regular wine typically takes 3-4 pounds to make a bottle). But oh my, that wine is AMAZING.

Ice wine is sweet and thick. It is fruity and desserty. It is heavenly and can last in your fridge for weeks after you open it. Personally, I can’t imagine taking that long to finish a bottle.

Ice wines are typically made from Riesling grapes – in large part because that is a grape that grows happily in areas that get cold enough where ice wine is a possibility. However, we tasted and brought home ice wines made from Syrah and Merlot and Viognier and Tempranillo, as well as grapes we had never heard of like Verglas and Ehrenfelser.

So we went in search of ice wines but found so much more!

The OK Valley is stunning. It is bounded by tall, rugged mountains and there is a long lake in the middle of the valley. Wineries and vineyards dot and climb up both sides of the lake. We drove the length of the lake over two days; it is a 3 hour drive one way. It’s a long lake.

Taken out the car window, not doing justice to the beauty

We were hoping to find wines made from grapes we had never heard of. And indeed we did (ever hear of Blaufrankisch or Zweigelt? Yeah, me neither.). But for the most part we were familiar with the varietals we were tasting. But even some we are VERY familiar with – like Pinot Noir (so much Pinot Noir in Oregon…) – they tasted very different up north.

While Pinot Noirs from Oregon’s Willamette Valley are typically light and delicate and demand food to bring out flavors, the Pinots in the Canada’s Okanagan Valley were bold and full of flavor and could be thoroughly enjoyed without food’s help. Much to our surprise, we bought a few Pinot Noirs to add to our collection at home. I thought we were set for Pinots for yeaaarrrrs.

We also found really friendly people. Every single person we encountered in the tasting rooms (called “Wine Shops”) was easy going, friendly, and completely unassuming. We got one of our best winery tips from our waitress at breakfast as she was serving us omelets. No winetude anywhere!

(“Winetude” is a term a few us of coined one day years ago while wine tasting in Napa. It refers to the snobbish attitude that can sometimes (often?) accompany wine tasting where one is made to feel stupid and unworthy and that perhaps $15 is far too little to pay for the privilege of tasting the handcrafted, artisanal wine that just happens to be mass produced. Oh, and please don’t think that logo glass is yours to keep. Hand it over, missy.)

Something else I loved about the Okanagan Valley was that it wasn’t just about grapes. The soil there is apparently really fertile so there is all sorts of stuff growing in the valley. In amongst the vineyards were orchards. The wineries shared the road with produce stands. People were harvesting grapes alongside people picking apples. It was actually a great communal feeling. Everyone seemed to be working hard and there wasn’t a sense of one crop or job being more important than any other.

Oh, and yes, by what I thought was a coincidence but Rob tells me he hoped it would be true, we were in the valley while grapes were being picked. I hesitate to say it was The Harvest because their harvest season lasts for a few months depending on what they are picking since there are so many varietals, not to mention the ice wine.

Nevertheless, people were busybusybusy and the valley had a distinctive grapey aroma. All of that plus the sunshine and short-sleeves weather, well, I liked it even more than some of my favorite visits to Napa and Sonoma way back when. Yes, the Okanagan Valley is that fun!

Another nice find about Canadian wine: the prices. Man, for the quality of the stuff we were drinking, that stuff is cheap! And that doesn’t even count the currently very favorable exchange rate at the moment. Thanks to a strong US dollar, everything in Canada is on sale right now. WHOO HOO!! Buying wine in Canada was more fun than a big sale at BevMo!

Speaking of bringing wine home, that was an interesting experience, too.

Before we left Woodhaven, we did our due diligence and discovered that we could each bring one bottle of wine home duty-free. After that, each bottle was going to cost us a whopping 25 cents in duties. That’s when we decided to bring the car with the bigger trunk.

As we chatted with folks in the Wine Shops, we found out that American winos have it really good. Canadians who want to bring back wine from the US have to pay $10-15 per bottle. Yep, in some cases the duty is almost as much as the wine itself. So needless to say, we were very pleased to have our American accents and Washington license plates.

We also heard that often the US border patrol people aren’t so interested in filling out all the paperwork for just a few buck’s worth of wine duties. Reportedly people are often just waved through. But we weren’t sure where the break-even point was. How many bottles of wine is enough to justify paperwork? Well, we were about to find out.

As we approached the border station, there were four guys in intimidating uniforms hanging out and gabbing. Which is to say they weren’t very busy. Which is also to say, they had plenty of time to do paperwork.

Rob handed the guy our passports and the questions began.

Where are you from? Where are you headed? Where were you in Canada? How long were you there? Why did you go to Canada?

To that last question Rob answered, “We came to taste the wine.”

“Do you have any alcohol to declare?”

“Yes sir.”

“How much?”

“Seventy-two bottles.”

The guy then looked into the car at me in the passenger seat. Not sure why us being wine lushes is my fault but whatever.

“Seventy….two…bottles. Can you please open the trunk?”

Rob popped the hatch as the border guy asked us if we had a business or orchard or some other commercial reason to be bringing back so much wine.

“No sir, it’s all for us.” I helpfully added that we wouldn’t be back for years. Mr. Border Patrol didn’t smile like I thought he should.

With our $20 bill ready to pay our duties and receive change, both Rob and I tried to hide our surprise and confusion when our passports were returned and we were told to have a nice day.

So we still don’t know how many bottles of wine it takes to justify duty paperwork, but it is apparently some number greater than 72. God bless America.

So long, Canada, and thanks for all the wine!

Friday, August 21, 2015

The Stressed Chef

It sounded like a great idea back in July. Surely I would be recovered from the Fair after four days of rest. And be interested in food again. And it truly did sound like a great way to “stock my freezer full of delicious meals!” And preparing meals with a bunch of like-minded gals would provide lots of girl bonding, right?

All that delusion is how I ended up at a Pampered Chef party last night. And how I am even more achy and tired today. Oy.

The party was a bit different from other Pampered Chef parties. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have expertly avoided them until now. Because, well, I don’t cook. I don’t like to cook. The only reason I have a kitchen is because it came with the house. The best thing I make is reservations. We have pizza places on speed dial. All that.

So people know it’s rather futile to invite me to cooking-oriented demonstrations. Especially after that one Cutco knife in-home demo in which I showed the young sales person the scars on three fingers from having used knives that were too sharp. I’m a disaster in the kitchen. It’s a proven fact.

The cold hard facts
But THIS party wasn’t a typical Pampered Chef party. THIS party involved handing over $80, getting a shopping list, going to the grocery store, and hauling all my ingredients to Gretchen’s house in a large cooler and four shopping totes. There would be recipes provided and we would spend the evening happily assembling meals that are stored in the freezer until I am ready to make dinner.

This Freezer Party thing is billed as a great way to fit delicious home cooked food into your busy life! Let's meet up and prep meals to freeze and cook later! WHOO HOO!!

I was sure this would be easy shmeasy. Especially since I have done exactly this type of thing at those meal prep places like Dinner’s Ready and Dream Dinners. At those places, I show up, throw some prepared ingredients in a freezer bag, make maybe 15-20 meals in less than 2 hours, and I’m outta there pretending all the while that I can cook.

With Gretchen’s party, I wasn’t exactly sure how Pampered Chef was involved, other than they might try to sell me a spatula or a knife or something. Also $80 sounds like a HUGE bargain for 10 meals. Even more of a mindblower when I realized the meals served 4 so I could split them in half and have 20 meals for me and Rob for just $80. $2 a serving? Seriously? See why I signed up??

Somewhere in the midst of the Fair, Gretchen mailed out the shopping list. She warned it would add maybe another $60 to our $80, based on the last time she did one of the parties. Even so, $140 for 20 2-person meals that I could pretend I had slaved over was still a steal at just $3.50 per serving.

“I think I might need help grocery shopping,” I warned Rob two days ago as I finally reviewed the 2-page list of assorted ingredients. I often ask him to tag along for the heavy lifting.

“Is there a lot of stuff?”

“Well, no, it’s not really that bad. It’s the meat.”

Assistance needed in the meat department, please
This is where I need to explain that buying meat terrifies me. I don’t understand it. Recipes will say something benign like “4 lb pot roast” but then there is nothing in the meat case that is labeled “pot roast.” Apparently it is universally assumed that everyone knows that a “pot roast” is actually called a “chuck roast.” Why don’t we just call a pot a chuck then? Why the double speak? It’s like talking to someone in IT, this whole meat thing. It’s its own language and I’m convinced it’s designed to make cook-friendly carnivores feel smarter and fancypants somehow.

Rob looked at the list. Chicken breasts, stew meat, diced ham. We agreed I could handle those. The sirloin steak made me a bit nervous, though. And then the pork loin chops. Are those with or without bones? And how thick should they be because we’ve gotten some from Costco that were like an entire 4-H hog show's worth of loins.

But I really started to get twitchy with the required beef chuck roast and beef short ribs. Yes, I know a chuck is a pot but I’ve been deceived before. And ribs. “Beef short ribs” sounds so temptingly simple but bones or no bones? Rack or individual? And golly, 4-5 pounds of them sure sounded like a lot.

Rob smiled at me and assured me I would be fine. He could stay home and tend to the languishing mostly-ignored-for-10-days garden.

Off to the store, I had confidently crossed off all the produce items and the 8oz block of cheese from my list when I found myself face to face with the meat department.

Taking a deep breath, I started easy and grabbed the stew meat. Then the diced ham. Except, grrr, there wasn’t the size bag I needed. They only had small bags. I started feeling that itchiness of frustration rise. I calmed myself and resolutely put two of the bags in my cart.

OK, now chicken breasts. Let’s see, I need…16-24 chicken breasts?!!? That’s like an entire coop of chickens! I have never bought that many chicken boobs at once in my life!

Scratching around the poultry section, I only found packages of 2 or 4 breasts. I then started eyeing some frozen packages but, not clear on how I would be preparing my breasts, I decided that might not be a good option.

As the itchiness returned, I concluded that I would stop by a different store on the way home. There is a religious group here that has BIG families and they all shop at that other store. That store MUST have large quantities of chicken breasts at value prices, I assured myself as I circled “16-24 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (min 8 lbs)” on my list and moved on.

And then got stuck again. The pot chuck roast things were all too big. The sirloin steaks were $13 each and I needed 2 of them. The pork loins came in too many different thicknesses. But it was the beef short ribs that sent me to the brink of my composure.

“What the HELL is ‘flanken’ style ribs?!?” (Fun Fact: spell check doesn’t know either)

I paced the meat cases as my anxiety rose. I started to have flashbacks to that time I was shopping in Babies R Us for a shower gift and had absolutely no clue what I was looking at or for. None of the words were familiar. Sling seat. Nasal aspirator. Boppy pillow. Butt Paste. It was a foreign language. And much like that time, I started to try to give myself a pep talk next to the ground hamburger (with the shower, I think it was the burp rags).

“Toni, get a grip. You are a grown woman. You are an intelligent woman. You can figure this out. You WILL NOT be taken down by beef ribs, short or otherwise. Now hold it together. You can cry in the car later. YOU WILL NOT CRY in front of the cow parts.”

It was here that I called Rob, desperately hoping he might be running an errand or grabbing lunch somewhere nearby. Disastrously, he was at home.

“Ask the butcher for help.”

Yes, that was also his manly, meat-savvy advice with the Dead Bird Pot Roast Incident of 2011. And still 4 years later, I could not muster the self-confidence to admit defeat by short ribs to the guy in the white coat and hair net.

“I think I need to regroup. I’m going to move on to another section of my list. There are a lot of cans listed. I understand cans. I like cans. I’m going to go buy some cans.”

Almost suppressing his amusement, Rob told me he loved me and assured me I could handle grocery shopping.

I ended up at that other store. That other store spoke in Basic Meat, not the graduate level flanken that the other store did. They also had many many many Value Right packages of chicken breasts. Score!

Relieved and no longer fearing a public meltdown, I hoisted my 20 lbs of meat onto the conveyor belt.  Much to my disappointment, there was no commentary from the cashier. I had conquered the meat department!!!  I was buying more meat...all by myself!...than I ever have in my life!!!! I wanted to talk about it! Aaaaand….nothing.

So grateful I have a blog.

The Party
Ok, so we’ve established that am confused by meat and I hate to cook.

Also, I should note, I am an easily distracted cook. I must concentrate when I am measuring or determining ingredients or cutting something. I can submit as proof numerous baking disasters including similarly white ingredients, and those knife cut scars I mentioned earlier. I need quiet and calm and no talking when I am cooking. In fact, please don’t hang out with me in my kitchen and talk to me if I am cooking you dinner. It only distracts me and it might mean moving the dinner party to Urgent Care.

So given this, why I thought a cooking party was a good idea, I have no freakin’ idea.

I guess it hadn’t really occurred to me that we would be cutting stuff up. Those meal prep places have that all done for you. You just match the ingredients with color-coded spoons representing measurements and dump it in your baggie. It’s cooking Garanimals style. It’s cooking Toni style.

If I had put two brain cells together, it would have been obvious that I would be doing all the prep myself. All the prep using all the fabulous products and gadgets offered by Pampered Chef. It’s a product demo party – DUH!!

But somehow I missed that (Fair head) so I found myself having to cook last night. I had to chop and dice and measure. And worry about contaminating Gretchen's kitchen with salmonella with my 17 chicken breasts.

Since I was splitting the 4-person recipes in half, I also got to do math. I believe I will forever remember than half of a tablespoon is equal to 1.5 teaspoons. And that 1/6 of a cup equals 3 tablespoons.

That last one was amusing to figure out. I needed half of a third of a cup. I was talking out loud, confirming my math.

“OK, so a half of a third is a sixth, right? Does anyone have a one-sixth cup measuring cup? Oh, wait, here’s a big one that has one-fourth and one-eighth marked, so I could just measure half-way between those, right?”

At this point, Gretchen was consulting her measurement conversion chart and murmuring, “This is why I teach first grade.”

A pinch of this, a dash of that
The measuring thing was a bit of an adventure, too. It turns out that my $80 up front bought me a whole bunch of special Pampered Chef spices that were critical to the recipes. Nine bottles of stuff like Asian Seasoning Mix, and Crushed Peppercorn and Garlic Rub, and Lemon Rosemary Rub, and Three Onion Rub. So many rubs!

You’ll notice that they are in alphabetical order. Because now that I am home, they are. But at Gretchen’s house, I resisted the urgent need to be efficient and organized. Because well, I’m publicly quirky enough as it is.

I was told that the caps of the rubs had little lines in them to serve as measuring spoons. But with having to halve, I determined that using the fancy Pampered Chef multi-measuring spoon was more precise. Except that all of its fanciness didn’t fit into any of the bottles.

Now if you are in the business of making things handy in the kitchen...and you have your own line of $8 spice bottles AND your own line of measuring spoons...wouldn’t you think it would be an obvious conclusion to design your spoons to fit inside your expensive bottles? Wouldn’t that convenience be a point of differentiation? Don’t you suppose cooks might pay extra for that “isn’t that clever” timesaver? Ummm, hello?

So yeah, I kinda wasn’t sold on the Pampered Chef gadgetry. Now mind you, I don’t enjoy cooking so maybe I’m missing something. On the other hand, I might very well be one of their key targets – the Reluctant Cook who needs expensive tools and implements to make the kitchen experience fun and exciting. If that’s the case, they missed their mark.

Like, for example the can openers that nobody could figure out how to use so we all felt stupid. Once the cans were opened – typically by the Consultant’s helper – we then had to use a special tool on the opener itself to take the lid off. The little grabber tool was so tiny and hard to see, I had to take my glasses off, too. Gretchen eventually rescued us by sneaking us her old-fashioned opener when the Pampered Consultant wasn’t looking.

Or the guillotine-like chopper for the bell peppers that looked like one of those apple corer things but with even sharper blades and a base that required precision. I had been chopping along just fine the old fashioned way, but the Consultant showed me how I could lose about 2 minutes and a finger if I used the Veggie Wedger instead.

I had made a little pile of chopped peppers and zucchini and was scooping it up with my hands to dump in my freezer bag when the Consultant showed me a fancier way. Instead of having to wash my hands, I could wash my hands AND a fancy little scraper thing to push the veggies into a pile. Then I could add the table and floor to my clean-up duties when about 10% of my veggies went sideways while trying to transfer them to the bag. Yay, thanks Pampered Chef!

The fast chopper thing that worked by pounding on a plunger to chop was pretty cool. I worked out a lot of stress on that. In other news, I think I might have over-chopped the onions. And the carrots. And the celery. But I was in a better mood afterwards.

I was working on grating an 8oz block cheese with a fancy gadget when the Consultant happened by.

“How are you liking that grater? Pretty handy, huh?”

At this point I was unfortunately past the point of pretending I was feeling pampered. I looked at her with a weary smile and said, “Honestly, I usually buy cheese that’s already grated. This is a lot more work than I would put in at home.”

That then led to a discussion about how the pre-grated stuff has added cornstarch to keep the cheese from clumping, all the while I was thinking, “Other than the fact that it is white, I like cornstarch. Cornstarch is not a problem for me. Am I supposed to be anti-cornstarch? Why is cornstarch bad?”

Did I mention I hate cooking?
I did my best to enjoy the party, I really did. It was a fun group of women and I enjoyed their teen kids. And the sample meal we had as a snack was pretty tasty.

But eventually, after I had completed 12 of my 20 baggies, I sort of hit a wall. I was tired, my body hurt from standing, my head hurt from the helpers' toddler and his baby sister just doing what kids do.

I had danced around the kitchen quite a bit, moving from my small work station near the Scentsy candle to the cutting station to the grating station to the trash bag to the recycling box to the sink. All the while trying not to bump into one of the other dancing cooks. Gretchen’s mom and I are pretty chummy now even though we didn’t say much to each other besides “So sorry! Excuse me! Whoops!”

In all fairness, I did sort of enjoy the first 6-8 meals. I was zipping along and enjoying listening to the chatter in the kitchen.  After that, though, I was singularly focused on using up all my $139.17 worth of groceries and stuffing them in my freezer for some eventually use. I really hope they end up being edible and that I actually put in approximately the right amounts of the right ingredients. I really have no idea. I’m just relieved nothing was white.

My other options were some scrapers or a recipe book. Obvious choice.
When I got home about 3.5 hours later, I hobbled into the house smelling of assorted rubs.

“How did it go?”

“So much cooking. So much cooking. I’m never doing that again. So much cooking.”

I shared with Rob some of the highlights of the evening, including the fact that I had won a prize.

“Cool! What did you win?”

“A brush thing. I don’t know what it’s for. She said she uses hers for everything.”

Evident that we are still in the midst of our master shower reconstruction, I added, “It looks like it’s for grout.”

Rob burst into laughter. Because really, why would a kitchen gadget company give away a grout brush as a prize?

Well, the joke’s on him.

I fished out the brush this morning to take a closer look. It is officially a “Dual-Sided Cleaning Brush” that is “...the ultimate cleaning tool for areas...around faucets, sinks, drains, and grout lines.”

HA! I'm good at cleaning. I like to clean. Maybe I do have a future in the kitchen after all!

The fruit of my loins...sort of

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Final Fair Post ~ Behind the Scenes

Well, I am munching on vitamin-rich sweet mini peppers and am sipping on my third bottle of water of the day. Breakfast was a homemade fruit smoothie predominantly featuring Greek yogurt. I think I inadvertently skipped lunch, unless an apple and peanut butter counts.

I have gotten my hair cut, had my final physical therapy appointment for my knee, and grabbed a great nap during my monthly acupuncture appointment. I haven’t walked any distance worth measuring because the couch is too inviting.

And this, friends, is what Post-Fair Recovery and Detox looks like.

Well, more precisely, this is what it looks like:

With a couple day’s distance and rest, I can sincerely say I had many moments of enormous fun and unrestrained happiness during the Fair. (FAIR COURT!!! And LLAMAS!! TOGETHER!!!)

Posting it one more time because I can.  Best Day at the Fair!!!

But to be honest, it was a bit of a rough go this year.

A few distractions
As I kept trying to figure out why I was so tired so early into the 10 Fabulous Days of Fair, Rob repeatedly reminded me that I had a cranky knee I didn’t entirely trust and a house full of disruption from that annoying mold water leak thing from May (yes, it is still a part of our lives. Here’s hoping for a return to normal by Sept 1!). So I started out at something of a weary disadvantage.

My knee actually ended up surprising me. It was a champ! It let me walk an average of 3.35 miles per day, and it managed going up the stairs in the Grandstands just fine. Even when I wasn’t holding the railing because I was carrying food. Imagine that, me carrying food. At the Fair.

I still hobbled down the stairs, though, and had to contort to safely navigate the ridiculously high bleachers in the horse arena. But aside from one wiggly jiggly moment getting out of the car on the first day, my knee did great. My physical therapist told me yesterday that I still have a little ways to go but we agreed that I can get there myself with a return to my daily exercises and stretches. YAY!!!

As for the re-construction of our bathroom and game room, it was more of a distraction than I realized. There were several mornings we had contractors in our house serenading me with air compressors and Russian talk radio while I was trying to write and rejuvenate.

Other mornings we were sort of hanging around waiting for workers to come and go so that we didn’t have to sequester the cats in some guest bedrooms all day.  And then there were the morning when the cats were exasperatingly aware of our plan and insisted on taunting us from under the middle of our bed.  Nicely played, Zak and Sarah (mostly Sarah).

One day we entered the Fair while on the phone with our contractor discussing the pros and cons of epoxy grout. A critical decision at that moment, but it really wasn’t where I wanted my head to be while trying to bask in the glory of The Fair.

So yeah, it was sort of hard to be All Fair All the Time with all that fun swirling about.

It’s not supposed to be a job
I also had a bit of a roller coaster with the blogging this year. I enjoy it immensely, but at times it started to lose its joy and instead sort of felt like an obligation. I’m talking about the newspaper gig.

Because I didn’t want to write about the same stuff as last year, I found myself working hard to find new stories or different angles on old ones. I had a blast learning about the Mounted Patrol (thanks again, Pam and Larissa!). And about how a bunch of local contractors volunteered to build a schmancy new office for the Junior Livestock Auction (thanks for the tip and the tour, Martti!). But as I was searching out new things to write about, I found myself thinking more like a reporter than a blogger. And I don’t want to be a reporter. Nor am I trained to be one.

There were also several times when I wasn’t enjoying or watching the Fair in front of me because I had my nose in my laptop trying to get a story or photo to load. This made me grumpy. The Fair and writing about it are both such joys for me. I don’t want it to be work and I don’t want to miss moments of happy because of some self-assigned sense of newspaper blogger duty.

And so, unless I change my mind drastically in the months to come, I think this was my last year blogging for the newspaper. That was actually a source of some of the tears as we left the Fair on the last night. In the midst of the tears, I handed myself my resignation and said good-bye to a hoot of a run with the local news source. They have been very kind and supportive and generous, and I have so appreciated the opportunity to share my love of the Fair with a wider audience. But my bloated, gurgling gut is telling me it’s time to close the gates and call it a day.

It was worth a shot
In an attempt to get more sleep this year, I decided I would write in the mornings AFTER sleeping... instead of my past Fairs approach of writing and then crawling into bed at 3:00am or 4:00am. It seemed so logical, this sleep then write thing, that I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

Well, it’s because it doesn’t work.

I gave it a shot the first few nights. I almost felt like I was playing hooky when I came home, took a shower, and then went to bed.

I woke up at a decent hour, with 6 or 7 glorious, previously unheard of hours of sleep behind me, and settled in to write and….blank.

I quickly discovered that the energy of the day’s activities got muted with sleep. I found myself having to consult my notes and my photos the next morning to remember what had thrilled me the day before. It just took a little more effort and the words didn’t come as easily.

There were also a few nights when I went to bed without writing and I just couldn’t not write. I was laying there in bed, composing sentences and descriptions and captions for the Feast Parade. So I gave up, got out of bed, and started typing.

I eventually settled into a very good compromise that allowed for both energetic words and meaningful sleep. I would come home and write and then deal with the photos and the captions in the morning. The photos always take a chunk of time, both to select and to upload (yay slow DSL in the boonies!). So this actually worked very well.

I am mostly telling you this so I can read it next year and remind myself how to do it right. (Hi, Toni in 2016!)

Let’s face it, you are what you eat
The whole food thing this year fascinated me. I was dumbfounded that I had so many issues early on! No, seriously, I was truly surprised.

Now, in retrospect, I’m not sure why I thought I could jump in on Day 1 and follow up grilled cheese, corn on the cob, a snow cone, and a frozen banana with some fried chicken and deep fried cookie dough and not have “issues.” But issues I did have. Oh, boy did I have. Without going into gory details, I will just say that the wee hours of that first night can best be described with three words: “dry heaves” and “Gas-X.”

I have long said that one of the reasons I ask Rob to take pictures of me eating all of this crappy food is because I know my day will come when for whatever reason (diabetes, clogged arteries, no teeth) I will no longer be able to eat junk like this. So when that day comes, I shall have many many MANY photographic memories of the good ‘ol eatin’ days.

I will admit I am starting to wonder if that day is closer than I think.

Another interesting development this year was my skin. After several days of inhaling sugar and grease and fat, I started to notice that the skin on my face looked different. It was sort of leathery and saggy and grey-ish. Not in any dramatic way, but enough that I took note of it.

With just two days now of pounding water and a return to dietary sanity, I can already see signs of improvement. My skin has better color and it just looks more…hydrated?

I still have several days to go, I suspect, before everything returns to normal. And I am thankful that things will return to normal because eating all that crap really did make me feel and look sort of crappy.

Say cheese!
A few friends have very generously commented that the pictures of me eating are attractive given the subject matter. That is a huge compliment and an even bigger relief. Because I gotta tell you, it takes work to get a photo of someone eating and not have it be gross or unappealing or offensive in some way.

Eating, as I have found, is a surprisingly personal and somewhat intimate activity. So having a photo taken while engaged in this activity is actually somewhat nerve-wracking. It can be a vulnerable moment, as well as a self-conscious one if people happen to be watching.

Note observer in plastic apron.  At least she looks amused and
not all judgmental like that woman when I was eating
the hot dog.

This is one of the very many reasons why I am so grateful for Rob. He has become quite adept at taking appropriate Fair Food Feast photos and doing it quickly so I am not too embarrassed. Or maybe he just wants to get the photo shoot over with so he can eat his own food. Whichever. I'm still grateful.

For every photo I post of me eating something, it is safe to assume there were about a dozen photos taken and at least 9 of them deleted for various reasons. Eyes closed, chewed food visible, too much teeth, should be rated at least PG-13 if not higher. For that last one, I will just say that corn dogs and frozen bananas pose their own brand of challenge.

All the really bad ones were deleted before we got home
but here's one that I kept for some unknown reason.
Lovely, right?  At least isn't not a corn dog.

I don’t like me right now either
Ok, so I promised I would share how much weight I gained with all the ridiculous eating I did during the Fair. I have tracked both my weight and my mileage for the past three years. I am astounded by the results.


In 2013, I walked an average of 3.59 miles per day and gained 2.6 pounds.
In 2014, I walked an average of 3.65 miles per day and gained 2.6 pounds.
This year, I walked an average of 3.35 miles per day and gained 2.6 pounds.

There are so many reasons this makes me shake my head. And I agree with you, it is just plain wrong and it isn’t fair.

So because the results are freakishly consistent…and because I know I have some friends right now who are trying really hard not to hate me…I think this might be the last year I track my poundage. I will continue to wear my pedometer, though, because “what gets measured gets done” and walking is very good for my back.  Among other things it seems.

In conclusion...
So that's that. I guess Fair 2015 is officially over. And I truly am sad despite some of the bumps and rough spots this year. When I was crying in the car on Sunday night, Rob wisely assured me that the exhaustion and bloating behind some of the tears would soon give way to reveal the true delight and joy and blast-and-a-half I had at my beloved Fair. Just two days later, he's right. Again.

Woodhaven Ramblings will now return to the odd and quirky topics that I am desperate to write about the rest of the year. Rest assured that I will be back next August in some capacity writing about my Fair. Maybe with the newspaper, maybe not. Maybe daily, maybe not. But definitely with joy and enthusiasm. And hopefully all body parts and rooms in the house in proper working order.

Thanks so much to all of you who came along for the Fair ride. I am so grateful for your comments and encouragement and shared laughter. There is no bigger compliment than when you tell me, "I felt like I was there. And next year I want to come, too!" Because the Clark County Fair truly is the Summer's Best Party and I want all my friends to party with me.