Monday, December 28, 2009

Conjuring Some Happy Travel Memories: Biscoff Cookies Rule!

Given the frustrations of the knee-jerk security shenanigans going on in the United States at the moment amidst the attempted bombing of an airliner, I wanted to think some "happy travel thoughts." So I dug out a few items from my travel shoebox, like the United p.s. business class menu, 1K drink "chits," boarding passes, and my iPod and the Bose QC2 noise cancelling headphones Beth gave me several years ago for Christmas.

But perhaps the best happy travel memory is evoked by a gift from Beth's mom this year: several packages of Biscoff cookies.  Just about anyone who's flown has to have had one of these crispy, cinnamony crackers at some point, and for me they really put me in the mood for flying.  Thanks to P.A.T.'s thoughtful gift, I can enjoy that bit of travel nostalgia without having to go through the hassles of airport security and weather delays!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Terrorists Have Won: Knee-Jerk Kabuki "Security" Measures and Media Madness

The terrorists have won. Sad but true: the United States has been driven to its collective cowering knees by a mental patient who managed to light his pants on fire in an attempt to blow up a Northwest/Delta flight landing at DTW.

I hate to divert my blog away from the holidays for a post or two, but as a frequent traveler who takes 50 or more flights a year, I feel both the need and the authority to speak on the attempted bombing, or, more particularly, on the reaction by government agencies like the TSA.

We're seeing reports of draconian kabuki "security" which will do nothing but make the travel experience far more miserable than it already is. Things like requiring passengers be seated for the final hour of their flight (with taxi times, that means not going to the lavs for up to two hours--good luck finding a flight where people can hold it that long...). Or during that last hour banning all access to carry-ons. Yes, you heard me: you cannot even read a book for the last hour of a flight, according to Air Canada and American Airlines on their Web sites. (Hey, terrorists: guess that means you have to blow the plane up at 61 minutes from landing...)

Screenshot of travel restrictions posted on Air Canada's Web site
Ostensibly, this is to make air travel "safer." Even a five year old could see through the illusion of the security emperor's new clothes, though. Honestly, no "air show" in-flight map display so that terrorists can't see when they're over the US? You mean terrorists are too dumb to look out the window and see that they've crossed over from water to land, or that they're approaching a city?

Stay in your seats for the last hour? Well, this dude was seated at the time he tried to blow himself up. So how's that supposed to make us safer? I guess Depends made a campaign contribution somewhere for that particular rule.

Of course, the "Ma and Pa Kettles" of the aviation world--those people who travel at most once a year and for whom the entire airline experience is something like a trip to Disney World--are already nodding their heads in typical "ditto" fashion. For example, consider the lunacy of preventing an 18 month old child from playing with toys during the last hour of a flight. Yet the parents afterward said they "understand where it's coming from and wanted to comply." Really? Keeping your 18-month-old from having a toy during the last hour of a long flight made us safer exactly how? Probably raised the chances of a passenger "going postal," if you ask me, given that meant an hour of a screaming toddler in the cabin...

And don't even start with the idiocy that these measures make us safer, that it would be "more annoying / inconvenient / whatever to be blown up." Simple statistics show stupid this knee-jerk "anything for safety" reasoning is: you are four orders of magnitude (roughly 10,000x) more likely to die of a cardiovascular illness than in an air travel disaster of any sort. You are three orders of magnitude (roughly 1000x) more likely to die in a car accident than an air travel disaster. These are pulled from CDC mortality statistics, and though you can juggle the numbers in different ways--such as factoring in distance traveled, time spent in car vs. plane, etc., the raw numbers are still telling. Given the CDC combines "water, air, and space" transportation deaths into the same category, and given that includes deaths which come about due to normal accident--and thus terrorism is a small subset thereof--clearly, your chances of dying from a terrorist attack in the air are far less than your chances of contracting and dying from TB (0.2 instances/100,000 people), much less cars (15.2 instances / 100,000 people), or cardiovascular illness (277.3 instances/100,000 people).

Yet here we are, acting like we have to force everyone to fly stripped naked, sedated, and bound to their seats all to make us "safer" in an activity which is already far safer than many everyday activities like riding in a car!

The terrorists don't even have to successfully carry out a bombing or hijacking any more; they achieve just as much terror and chaos through the abortive actions like the "shoe bomber" Richard Reid and now this moron and self-styled al-Qaeda member and his "pants bomb." Heck, groups like al-Qaeda don't even have to invest the time or effort in any meaningful training any longer, given even a failure drives government authorities and media blowhards into spasms of conniption. Get a guy onto a plane with a "bomb" that stands very little chance of actually detonating, have him light himself on fire, and sit back in some cave in Pakistan and laugh at how the world runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, led by the United States.

Knee-jerk, thy name is TSA.

(Worst thing is: the TSA doesn't deserve the blame for this moron getting on the flight, nor for his getting a potential bomb onboard; they had nothing to do with either. Yet now they're overreacting to the nth degree, and for that, they deserve all the scorn that can possibly be heaped upon them.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Day Is Here (and Cookies, Too!): The Many Days of Christmas, Day Four

John poses with a rather tall gift from his mother-in-law, 'P.A.T.'Christmas Day is here at last--and to be honest, a few days too soon given the state of our holiday preparations (with decorations still unfinished, many a gift yet to be wrapped, and even some family presents sitting unmade and on the proverbial drawing board). But here nonetheless, and in-between visits from friends--Gina and Todd dropped off a bit of holiday cheer and had coffee--and trips over to a couple of the neighbors to deliver some edible gifts, we managed to unwrap a few more of our own presents.

We're very focused on the garden and landscape here at Chateau Papillon (a fact of which if you've read this blog from the springtime onward you're probably quite cognizant), so several of the items on my Amazon "wish list" had a garden theme to them. Books, yes, of course, and those already have Beth and I dreaming of warmer weather and the yard tasks ahead once Old Man Winter passes along his way, but also some practical tools, like the Fiskars hedge shears which filled that tall box I'm pictured with to the left, a gift from Beth's mom which will be put to great use.

I also opened another of the presents from Beth, which was beautifully wrapped in rice paper she'd been saving for years from her grandmother. Inside were many equally-beautiful gifts, all of them brassy little yard implements for the fairy-mansion-to-be, like a little picket fence; watering can; several miniature pots; and a birdhouse, bird bath, and planter all on little stakes to go around the fairies' yard.

Fairy accoutrementsWe also finally got to the making of a batch of Christmas cookies, though using a box of vanilla sugar cookie mix via Costco instead of the scratch recipe in our family cookbook (the latter requires the dough chill for several hours before working). The Costco mix, though very tasty, isn't the best for cutting & baking shapes, but we did end up with several Papillon-shaped cookies (both dogs and butterflies), a Dachshund, Christmas trees, snowflakes, dog bones, and for the daydreams of a more tropical holiday, a palm tree and pink flamingo:

A batch of Christmas cookies hot out of the ovenWe also finally opened the gifts from Beth's brother, sister-in-law, and their kids, Ferris and Amelia, revealing two hand-decorated plates from the kids:

Also, we did at long last sit down to watch It's a Wonderful Life, a holiday tradition we both enjoy (and one which I introduced Beth to; growing up, we typically had it on while baking our cookies on Christmas Eve). I'll have to do a separate post about the film, which despite my non-religious perspective I find to be one of the most inspirational (and in fact, among the best overall) films made.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas Eve & A Minor Camera Disaster: The Many Days of Christmas, Day Four

Beth holds up her presents for inspectionChristmas Eve is here at last, and that means a couple more presents to open for each of us as we draw out our holiday celebrations over a span of several days due to time constraints. On her lap (along with the Papillons and the blanket my parents gave her), in the photo above Beth holds up two more gifts from "her sweet Gibbie-goo." As usual, I tried to craft some interesting labels: I packaged LOST Season 1 on Blu-Ray (reusing wrapping paper and ribbon from earlier gifts!) with a label indicating it was from "philosophers and airlines"--references to the characters John Locke, Danielle Rousseau, Desmond Hume, and so forth, and of course the dramatic airline crash that started the entire series.

John examines the fairy window Beth gave himContinuing the theme she started with the fairy house book she gave me on our first day of Christmas, Beth gave me a set of fairy house windows--we're going to be busy in the springtime building a miniature fairy mansion out in the backyard, that's for sure! (This does make some sense, really; we're trying to build a "fairy path" in the garden, and Beth gave me a little planter and several alpine plants to create a "fairy garden" for our anniversary this past year, too.)

Amidst the Yuletide cheer, I did discover an unfortunately expensive habit from Mr. Parker, though. When I went to pick up my camera and flash, the power pack was no longer connected to the flash. That's right: Mr. Parker chewed through the cord that connects my Canon CP-E4 flash power pack to the flash, and unfortunately chewed through it right at the cord strain reliever on the side of the power pack (so no chance of soldering the cord back together for temporary use). That's a pricey piece of equipment even from big photo equipment wholesalers like Adorama and B&H, running in the neighborhood of $150 (the power pack was itself originally a Christmas gift two years ago from my mother-in-law).

The local camera shop, Penn Camera, fortunately had a replacement in stock and was open until 6:00pm despite it being Christmas Eve, but it set me back over $180 (ouch!). Problem is that I really needed that power pack to do my holiday photo shoots over the next few days, and there was no way it would get here from Amazon or any of the wholesalers in time. I'll probably order a replacement cord from Canon and repair the original, then e-Bay it to recoup some of the cost (I should be able to get $120 or so on e-Bay; used professional-grade camera gear sells for nearly the new cost most of the time--minus whatever Canon charges for the replacement cable, of course).

Mr. Parker has also apparently partially chewed through a couple of laptop power cords; he must like the low voltage shock on his gums or something (he's never tried to chew on a 120V cable, fortunately--and that's something we've got to nip in the bud right now!).

Good thing I got the replacement power pack, though, or I'd have missed this incredibly cute photo of Chance as he "breakdanced" on his pink bed with his "early," a small pink squeaky toy. I managed to get four or five photos in sequence, all of them keepers--without that flash power pack, I'd have gotten one, maybe two, as I'd have had to wait for the flash to recharge much longer between shots.

Chance breakdances with his pink face toy (right)While I was out driving Beth to one of her petsitting appointments, I had time to pick up the flash power pack and even drop off a few holiday gifts for friends (Bon Bon du Papillon--I'll have to blog about those confections later...). Unfortunately, no time this evening to make Christmas cookies (sorry, Santa!), nor to watch our holiday favorite It's a Wonderful Life, but given we're spreading the holidays out, I suppose that's okay, too.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Enjoying the Gifts One At a Time: The Many Days of Christmas, Day Three

We're not yet even to Christmas Eve, but Beth and I have had three days now of opening a couple of gifts each night as we simply won't have much free time on Christmas itself. Don't get me wrong: it's not like we had truckloads of gifts which we're flaunting at the less-fortunate; we did have some overly-generous family members--you know who you are--but have been opening and savoring our gifts one at a time, rather than tearing through them all in a matter of minutes as children seem so wont to do.

John opens a bluebird house from BethToday's gifts brought a bluebird house from Beth, along with several CDs, books, and DVDs from our families. Not to mention the plush blanket from my parents to Beth, which the Papillons are certainly enjoying.

Beth and the Papillons enjoy a blanket from John's parents

Green Is a Christmas Color: Recycling and Reusing the Wrapping

Presents John wrapped for Beth in the Bahamas, December, 2002
For those of us with an environmental bent, the Christmas season can pose something of a serious challenge: how to deal with the waste generated by all that pretty wrapping paper! According to this article, Americans generate 4 million tons of trash annually from shopping bags and wrapping paper. That's some serious trash! I can recall when growing up, the whole family would open gifts, and we'd fill up two large trash bags or more just with our wrapping cast-offs.

For someone like me who tries to recycle every scrap of paper--from reusing pages from the printer by virtue of the second side for things like printed coupons to tearing the plastic address windows out of junk mail and adding the envelopes to the recycling bin--all that gift wrapping does amount to a green conundrum. I love wrapping gifts, putting together just the right combination of color and accents to make the packaging as nice as the present itself--but I don't like waste, either.

We've kept ribbons and other decorations for several years now; in fact, we had two entire moving boxes full of saved (and at least once-used) ribbons in the basement, and I found another box when we cleaned out our storage unit. We also have saved away scraps of some of our favorite wrapping papers each year.

This holiday season, we've both put our saved paper and ribbon to good use, using it to wrap many of the gifts we're giving each other and our friends and families. I found several bins of decorative accoutrements like boughs of imitation holly and frost-rimed winter "berries" that we'd picked up at Boxing Day clearances at Michael's and other crafty shops--bins I want to empty out and be done with! (We've much better things to store away, after all.)

Too, spreading out our Christmas over a period of several days has allowed us to reuse the same wrapping paper on several gifts, as some are opened and others wrapped: for example, I reused the same metallic red paper (which would be tough to recycle in the bin, too) on three separate packages for Beth--a smaller one each time, yes. Scraps which are too small, are ripped, or which have too many creases end up wadded up as surrogate tissue paper to pad other presents.

Though it makes it easier to guess the contents of wrapped packages, we've also gone with more "direct wrapping," where the gift itself is wrapped without being placed into a larger box. Oddly-shaped items can be fun this way, like the Vanilla Bean Noel lotion from Bath & Body: directly wrapped, it looks a bit like a piece of cylindrical candy. For those items requiring a box, we've saved Amazon and other small cardboard boxes expressly for that purpose.

So, we're able to enjoy the holidays and keep them green; so far, I think we've filled less than 1/10th of a trash can despite unwrapping about a dozen gifts each.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas Dinner (Three Days Early): The Many Days of Christmas, Day Two

Beth with a fimo clay owlDay Two of the Christmas cheer at Chateau Papillon kicked off with more presents and our traditional Christmas dinner, only three days ahead of schedule.

Since Beth is a vegetarian and I do most of the cooking at Chateau Papillon, it's not that often that I get to enjoy a holiday treat like turkey, stuffing, and gravy, so understandably I look forward to the holiday feast-days, and with them the scent of turkey in the air and dreams of days of turkey salad, turkey soup, reheated turkey and gravy, and so forth. I'm like the dad in A Christmas Story, and we even have our own "Bumpus Hounds," albeit pint-sized versions of them--Didi did manage to snag a chunk of turkey breast two years ago (she got to the turkey even though it was sitting at counter-height!).

When it comes to cooking at Chateau Papillon, Beth is my she's my sous-chef, if one who can't be trusted with typical sous-cheffery like prepping the vegetables due to my fears she'd lop off a fingertip with her knife "skills." Nonetheless, she's invaluable in providing an extra set of hands--don't let me sell her short.

Together, then, we prepared our feast. Actually, I started the day before, brining the turkey by a method based on Alton Brown's recipe. Believe me, brining makes for the absolute best turkey by far, much better (and safer) than methods like deep frying. After defrosting the bird, it goes in a cooler with a mixture of salt, vegetable broth, sugar, several seasonings (allspice, ginger, peppercorn, etc.), and this year, apple cider. This stands overnight (at a minimum!), kept well-refrigerated, then after rinsing off the brine, I stuff the turkey's cavity with apples, onions, rosemary, thyme, sage, and a cinnamon stick or two, and into the oven it goes.

After roasting, the turkey drippings come out and form the basis of a fantastic gravy--and if you know how, gravy is incredibly easy to make: you simply start with a roux of melted butter stirred and lightly cooked with an equal portion of sifted flour, then gradually whisk in the turkey drippings and cook until thickened. I like to finish the gravy with a splash of good cream sherry or perhaps some Irish whiskey, but the drippings themselves are so flavorful there's no need to add additional seasoning.

For Beth, I prepared a fillet of Chilean Sea Bass (MSC certified for the sustainable fishing folks amongst us) by pan-frying it after crusting with some panko and Parmesan cheese, then finishing it in the oven until cooked through. Yes, the vegetarian eats fish... though it took me years of wheedling and a Faustian bargain to myself eschew fois gras to accomplish that culinary upgrading. As sides, we had goat cheese and garlic mashed potatoes, fresh French-style green beans with a splash of olive oil and pepper, a sweet potato casserole I made up on the fly, and stove-top (not the brand, but the method) stuffing. Normally, I'd bake up some rolls from scratch, but due to time constraints, we went with a loaf of ciabatta from Whole Foods.

A nice muscadette from California (a fairly sweet white wine) finished things off.

John and Mr. Parker open a present from BethBefore I get into Round Two of presents, let me pause to point out the photo opening this post, which shows Beth enjoying the fimo clay owl figurine I brought back from Denver International Airport earlier this fall. Now, onto a second night of presents being unwrapped: above, you'll see me and Mr. Parker with a big, heavy package from Beth, which turned out to be a laptop stand--basically, a tray table designed for use with a laptop; quite a nice and very thoughtful gift indeed!

Beth with presents and doggies!
Beth's presents from me included an aged brass night light cut with a butterfly (or Papillon, if you will) design, which I picked up at the Elkhorn Slough gift shop out in the Monterey area earlier this year while birding. I also gave her a DVD of Point Break, a film Beth had mentioned as a favorite every time she watched Hot Fuzz (recall the many scenes where Nick Frost's character quotes American action-cop films, even reenacting the shooting-into-the-air scene from Point Break at one point...).

Onward the holidays march--what gifts might we unwrap next?

Monday, December 21, 2009

Ringing in the Yuletide: The Many Days of Christmas, Day One

Beth, Didi, and Mr. Parker Hold Up a PresentFor several years, we've toyed with the idea of juggling the holidays a bit and celebrating our Christmas on a date other than 12/25. When you have relatives living in three different states, that can make enjoying the holidays with each group--as well as having time for ourselves--a daunting bit of scheduling wizardry.

Because we have young nieces and nephews on each side of the family, too, that means we're almost certainly on the road come Christmas Day itself--and now that Beth is working her petsitting business, she's of course got many a booking for the most traditional of celebratory dates.

One date that always appealed to both of us was the Winter Solstice. Our wedding anniversary is exactly six months earlier, on the Summer Solstice (most years, anyway), and after all, the holiday season predates Christian times significantly: most civilizations throughout history have marked the longest night of the year and the coming of longer days with celebration. (Don't forget that based on the Bible, Jesus' birth would not have been remotely near December 25th--all Bill O'Reilly's protests aside, it's a historical fact that the Christian church set the date of Christmas deliberately to coincide with existing "pagan" celebrations like Yule and Saturnalia, so how about we put the Saturn back in Saturnalia for a change?)

So we made 12/21 our day of "Collation," which is a ritual Beth's family brought to the holidays based in some sort of Catholic tradition. Collation includes an evening (usually Christmas Eve) of feasting, for us usually hors d'oeuvres such as my Carta di Musica crispy flatbread and various cheeses accompanied by some wine and a few snackable sweets. Both my family and Beth's also have a practice of getting a Christmas Eve present (an "early" in the Foutz/Bottom family canon) or two, so we decided to exchange a few of our gifts on the Winter Solstice in addition to the meal.

John and Didi hold a presentOf course, the Papillons always love gifts and couldn't quite understand that the presents exchanged were for us and not them; they were understandably interested in each package we chose to open.

The evening's gifts included a new burr coffee grinder for Beth (the "coffee slut" if you believe the t-shirt I gave her a couple of Christmases ago), along with a beautiful handmade clay owl I bought from one of my favorite stores in the Denver airport, Colorado Collection--the latter in and of itself a holiday tradition going on five or six years now for me. (In fact, I made a trip connecting through Denver in November entirely so that I could visit the shop for this year's gifts!) Beth gave me a book on fairy houses for our garden, along with a more practical gift in the form of a pocket-lined bedskirt to get our shoes and the like in order.

We've left plenty more gifts for each other for the days to come, as we do indeed expect to celebrate the many days (if not twelve) of Christmas this year.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Nightmares of a White Christmas (Or: John's Mad Winter Driving Skills Save Some Kitties)

As I mentioned in my previous post, our area got hammered by snow yesterday: over a 24 hour period, Mother Nature and Jack Frost dumped on us to the tune of 21 inches. Normally, that would have been a great time to hunker down and just enjoy some hot chili, a cup of 'nog, and perhaps a Hot Buttered Rum or two. Unfortunately, Beth had a petsitting appointment, and her client was a diabetic cat who needed insulin injections. Thus began a day of adventuring and nightmares of a White (pre-)Christmas.

So I got up at the unholy hour of 5:00am and helped Beth shovel out her car for her morning visit, when we had "only" about eight inches of snow on the ground. Her Mini seemed to drive okay on our cul-de-sac, so expecting the main roads to have been plowed, Beth headed out to the kitty's house without further incident.

Beth shovels the driveway for her pre-dawn petsitting outing
This "winter wonderland" quickly turned into a nightmare for anyone traveling in the Washington, D.C., area as another 8-10 inches of snow fell between Beth's morning and evening visits. In my sleep-deprived state in the pre-dawn gloom (with thoughts of the warm, toasty bed awaiting me), I didn't think to tell Beth not to park behind me when she came back...

That led to much shoveling, and not just of the driveway itself this time, as we had to shovel out a space for her to back her car into so that I could pull out around her and switch the order of our cars. Beth thought I was getting a bit of an early start when I went out at 3:00 pm to start digging us out (for the third time that day, I might add--I can't imagine how awful the shoveling would have been had we not invested time and effort earlier in the day each time our tracks and trenches filled in).

Oh, those oh-so-clever Germans; Beth's Mini (a brand owned by BMW) wouldn't engage power to the wheels at all, since their "we know BETTER than YOU!" computers (intoned in a decent Sgt. Schultz impression--and probably should have echoed the Hogan's Heroes patsy's infamous words disclaiming all knowledge as well, if you ask me...) decided the tires wouldn't have traction. I took over behind the wheel and imposed my will on the Mini and got it to at last back out of our driveway, then got my car out of the way and hers back into the drive before it could ice up and the temporarily-cowed German Engineering would reassert its authority.

Beth helps shovel the driveway and dig out my car for our afternoon trip outIt's now almost dark, by the way, and closing in on 5:00pm. It took an hour and a half to dig out the cars (and this was after I'd cleared the driveway twice already in the day) and transpose their positions. I turned on my fog lights just to be able to see the snow drifts, because from watching a hapless Ford Explorer try to make it out of the cul-de-sac once already only to fail and fetch up on the curb about 50 feet away, I knew we had to stick to Beth's set of tracks from her morning excursion if we were to have any hope.

Beth clears a spot to move her car out of the way
Let me pause for a moment to say that I know how to drive in icy, wintry conditions. That puts me in the distinct minority, I'll have you know. From growing up in mountainous southern West Virginia to going to college in the Appalachian plateau in Blacksburg, I had plenty of practice. Winter driving is something that I enjoy, so long as all the idiots who don't know how to drive stay out of my way and off the roads. I drove my '93 Chevy Cavalier home through a blizzard on more than one occasion, so my Subaru Forester XT and its all-wheel drive (and more ground clearance than a Ford Explorer, or so the commercials say in a bit of real truth in advertising) would be a pleasure in comparison.

Pre-driving prep, beyond shoveling, included me packing a set of dry clothes and socks (shoveling in knee-deep snow will tend to soak you a bit), loading some food in a box of Town House crackers (we hadn't time to pause for dinner), and loading the bags of concrete mix which had sat sheltered on our stoop since Halloween--the latter for the added weight of a couple hundred pounds and some thus-improved traction--and our snow shovel. One thing we missed, though: the jumper cables I'd pulled out of storage. More on that in a bit.

Getting out of the cul-de-sac was definitely an adventure. I got stuck at least three times--largely due to the Explorer having messed up the ruts I'd planned to drive through and then fetching up to create a narrow funnel I had to navigate through without sliding into it or the car directly across from it, and we had to get out and shovel free the wheels (followed by much "rocking" on my part: shifting to drive, moving up a bit, then shifting to reverse, and moving back a bit, until we worked free). On one occasion, our neighbors gave us a good push as well to surmount one of the humps of snow the hapless Explorer had made across Beth's morning tracks. Byrd Drive wasn't that much better, but Beth's morning ruts had been widened by at least a few more cars, and from there, it was simply a matter of slow-but-steady in 2nd gear to clear the neighborhood and get to the main roads. As we neared the neighborhood entrance, things improved as more cars had been out and about.

We decided to take the same roundabout course I'd suggested to Beth that morning: 29 (Lee Highway) to 123 (Chain Bridge Road) to 7 (Lessburg Pike) and into her client's neighborhood out near Wolf Trap via the back way--but thus taking major roads the whole way and staying off such perils as Hunter Mill Road. The ramp from Main St. in Fairfax over to Lee Highway had not been plowed, and we got stuck there, too, as we had to yield to a passing plow and thus lose all momentum to push through. A truck had come up right on my tail, making rocking free a bit of a chore, but we did manage to make it onto the relatively-plowed Lee without having to get out and dig.

What I found amazing at 5:30pm was how many other cars were out and about--many driven by total idiots who figured putting on their hazards and going 3 mph would suffice to get them through the mess. What was more amazing, though, were the pedestrians.

Yes, pedestrians. Walking in the middle of a main highway.

And not out because their cars were stranded and stuck, no. Not out because of a life-or-death emergency. Some were out clearly just to see the sights...

... and others were out for a BEER RUN. Indeed, one group walking three astride in the smack-dab center of Chain Bridge Road (123) were carrying a case of Budweiser, mission accomplished from a trip to the convenience store at the foot of the hill.

Three astride pedestrians who refused to get out of my way as I had to drive up a hill in the snow. I was about to lay into them with the horn when I was finally able to get around on one side without losing traction and without plowing down these moronic dopes out for no better reason than to get sloshed. I wish I had time to grab my camera and document this moment for posterity--but I was more concerned with focusing on my driving and not plowing down these goobers.

The pedestrians continued the whole way up 123 as it became Maple Avenue in Vienna; I had to slow and squint and swerve as many folks apparently thought it a good idea to be out after dark in a dark blue coat and black snow pants and walk in the middle of a main road. As I finally got to the ramp onto Route 7 out near Tyson's Corner, I breathed a sigh of relief: surely there would be less pedestrians to encounter on that highway.

And, indeed, I was right: getting to the kitties' house took us a good 45 more minutes of me driving 25-30 mph tops (some morons in pickup trucks whizzed by me at 45 or more--fishtail central, eh?; some morons lazed along at 5 mph and refused to pull toward the side to let us pass). But no more pedestrians. Just windows that at full blast from the heat managed to fog up, wipers whose blades picked started to ice and lose their effectiveness...

Arriving at the kitties' house found the neighborhood road plowed, but only narrowly, and with the driveway 30" deep in snow--it came up over my knees when I got out, and almost to Beth's waist as she furrowed up the front walk--so I stayed in the car in case I needed to move out of someone's way. Mission accomplished, we set out back out of the neighborhood and for home, with my executive decision to head farther west on Rt. 7 to pick up the Fairfax County Parkway and then US 50 for the trip home instead of chancing another bevy of drunk and wanna-be-drunk pedestrians in Vienna.

As I pulled up to the intersection with the Leesburg Pike, my antilock brake light came on. Knowing I needed my brakes to function and hoping it was merely a fault brought on by snow buildup around the tires (the sculpted "mud flap" area behind the tires which looks so nice serves quite poorly in trapping snow thrown up by the wheels), I made a terrible mistake: I turned off the ignition to see if restarting would reset the brakes.

Here's where things took a turn for the worse: my battery is nearly 6 years old, and I'd been intending to replace it at Costco or Sam's Club several times already leading into winter--but had not had time to stop at either. Running the front & rear wipers, the wiper deicers, the rear window defogger, the fog lights, the head lamps, and the mirror defoggers had taxed the battery's reserves, and my car engine turned over once and started clicking.

Dead battery! I turned everything off (should have to begin with, in retrospect) and gave it a minute, then tried again. The engine turned over twice but didn't start. Great.

Several people stopped to ask if we needed help; one clearly Muslim family in a SUV (I only mention this due to all the negative press Muslims get) offered me a hat and gloves (my hat was in the car; I'd gotten out for just a moment without it, and I'd taken off my gloves to be able to use my cell phone)--what great holiday spirit! Unfortunately, no one had jumper cables with them, and as I said earlier, though I prepared by packing a change of clothes, shovels, and extra weight in the car, I had left the jumpers at home.

Worse, our curbside assistance with our insurance and with Subaru both said it would be 2-3 hours before they could get anyone out to give us a jump. Beth walked back to the kitties' house to look for jumper cables there while I stayed with the car and used Google to track down and call several tow companies, and had to argue with several receptionists that no, all I needed was a jump, and my alternator was fine, my charging system A-OK, that it was just an old battery and my stupidity of running all the electrical systems, until I at last found one who said they'd be able to make it in 45 minutes, for the low, low price of $65.

This is when I discovered I had left my wallet at home.

Beth had fortunately left her purse in the car, so I read off the credit card # to the company and settled in to wait.

About 30 minutes later, a young man in a compact car stopped to ask if everything was OK; I explained (as I had already about 6 or 7 times to others) that I had a dead battery and needed a jump--and this time, unlike the rest, the kid said, "Sure thing!" He pulled up beside me and in short order, the Exerda was up and running again.

MAJOR thanks to this unknown Virginia Tech senior (I noticed his commuter pass; he noticed my plates, and we chatted shop a bit about school) who had jumpers with him and stopped to help a stranded driver. If you're out there: THANK YOU! (As an interesting aside, this senior with a minor in chemistry had the same thing to say about "German Engineering" as I did, mentioning out of the blue that such cars simply wouldn't drive in this weather due to the electronics deciding they know better...).

A quick call to cancel the tow truck and a drive back to the kitties' house (about a quarter of a mile or so) to pick up Beth, and we were on our way again, delayed only an hour and a half or so in total.

This is when things got more interesting.

Tabitha, my GPS, wanted to route us on several back roads which I'd traveled before and knew would absolutely not work--so I drove past them on Route 7 and kept heading northwest, out of my way a bit but with the goal of a main road. We turned down one which was slated to take us onto the Reston Parkway and thus down to Route 50 about two miles from home... and came upon two cars parked side-by-side in the middle of the road, blocking it, and a third parked behind them with his hazards on.

Now, why would you park next to another car on a plowed street, blocking the whole road, when there was enough room to park on one side and only one side and still let people by? We got out to check on the cars and see what the deal was; that's how we found out the one gent had been waiting 30 minutes. He claimed we should go over the median--even said, "I'm a teacher; follow me and see how it's done..." and then proceeded to sit in place, confusing us as to whether we should try going around him, too, or whether he did intend to lead & "teach."

(My mad winter driving skills need no tutelage, let me just pause to say.)

In the meantime, a pickup came up behind, passed us, laid into his horn at the parked cars (one of which had people in it--and was running idly there, oblivious to the traffic building behind him). This truck cut between the parked cars, somehow, and then made tracks cutting over the median to head back the other way. Before we could follow, another pickup pulled up, this one blocking the path we'd been about to take. Cursing the idiocy afoot, we got ready to hit the horn, when finally the new arrival moved on, and we were able to slowly mount the tracks the first truck had made.

We decided to go back to Route 7 and head a bit farther west yet, to get to the Fairfax County Parkway (as I'd originally thought to do, Tabitha be damned). That turned out to be a good decision, as there were few cars to be encountered, no pedestrians, and no one stopped in the middle of the road--though several had fetched up in the median earlier in the day from what we could tell!

As we came back around to our neighborhood--50 is a straight shot onto Main Street at the 50 & 29 intersection, saving us having to cross any berms of snow piled across intersections due to plowing--we found the adventure still not yet complete.

Byrd was blocked by a tow truck working to free a stuck car. Fine, we'll just back up to go down Del Rio and come up San Carlos, then, to get to our cul-de-sac that way. Problem was, someone had parked their car in the dead center of Del Rio, right between two other parked cars on the sides of the street, put on their hazards, and disappeared. Totally blocking the street: all they had to do was pull up 15 feet, and we (and other traffic) could have gone around.

We started to take another side road, but the ruts of earlier traffic didn't look passable, and I sure as heck wasn't going to contribute my car to the street-blocking idiots who'd abandoned theirs, stuck. Fortunately, by the time I backed up Del Rio, the tow truck had gotten free, though all the pedestrians who'd been out to help now walked in the same tracks we needed to be driving in. Argh!

At last, we reached our cul-de-sac at the back of the neighborhood, and started into it. My car slid a little, so I had to let up on the gas to avoid driving right into the cars parked at the mouth of the street. That meant digging and more rocking, as of course I was then stuck.

Finally, then, at 9:30pm and a good 5.5 hours after we'd left, we were home, safe and sound.

A long-exposure shot of the back yard at 11:00pm on day 2 of the snowstorm
I'm just glad I (1) have a car which can drive in this weather; (2) have mad winter driving skills honed by much practice; (3) was able to drive Beth to her appointment--there's no way she'd have been able to do it on her own, even in my car.

It was an exhilarating, frustrating, fun, worrisome trip out and back, and quite the adventure when all was said and done.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Winter Wonderland: The D.C. Area's Record-Setting Snow

I'm pretty used to calls for incredible snow and winter weather going off like a wet firecracker--a fairly common occurrence for the Washington, D.C., area--so when forecasters initially projected the potential for record-setting snow this weekend, I took their claims with more than the FDA's daily recommended dose of salt.

The onset of the blizzard: Long-exposure shot from the night before the stormI took the afternoon of the 18th off from work so that I could get some handmade presents finished up in time to deliver to family in Lynchburg. Imagine my shock that apparently everyone else in the Washington area had also taken off early: in stopping at Safeway for some groceries for our planned Yuletide feast, I had to search the parking lot for a cart (even the cart returns were empty), and lines for checkout stretched almost to the back of the store. Seeing as how I wanted milk to make some homemade Nolly 'Nog, I was happy to discover the frantic pre-blizzard shoppers had not cleaned out all the proverbial bread and milk yet.

So fast forward to 11:00pm on the 18th; the snow had started around nine, and after two hours, didn't look like all that much. The long-exposure photo (above) taken from my home office window shows the back yard shortly before I went to bed.

I got up with Beth at 5:00am on the 19th; she had a diabetic cat petsitting client who needed an insulin shot, and I went outside to help dig out her car. At that point, we had about 6-7 inches of snow on the ground, but Beth tried her car and found it drivable, so once we got the drive and walk shoveled clear, I bid her a safe trip and went back to bed for a couple more hours (cell phone at the bedside in case I would be needed to rescue her).

The snowfall as of 5:40am on 12/19Another long-exposure photo (above) taken in the pre-dawn cold and gloom shows my car still covered in snow, with Beth on her way to her kitty client--whose owners were due to fly back to National later in the day.

A week or so ago we got the first snow of the season, an incredibly wet and heavy batch which wreaked a merry path of havoc over the plants we'd interred in our yard with such care over the spring and into the fall. That snow bent one trunk of our river birch all the way to the ground (the tree had yet to shed all of its leaves, leaving that trunk vulnerable to collecting snow and ice); I think it pulled through once I rescued it. Our front yard hollies likewise had been weighed down and then frozen to the ground by the treacherous, wet slush.

Poor plants buried under the snow!You can imagine my dismay then when I spoke to my sister Erika (in Lynchburg, VA) before our snow even started and took her report of "huge, wet snowflakes." After digging Beth's car out on Saturday morning, then, I spent a while rescuing the hollies from the weight of so much snow. A few branches and stems had been broken, but I am hopeful the plants pulled through on the whole--though several are still completely buried beneath the snowfall, like the little male pollinator holly.

Didi says, 'Throw my ball, Daddi!'The doggies absolutely loved the snow, as they always do. Even th0ugh it was deeper than the Papillons are tall, they bounded out the side door into the yard, and Didi made a beeline (or a bunny-hop line?) straight for where her ball lay buried beneath several inches of snow. Beth followed behind with the snow shovel, clearing a deeper trench for the boys to follow. I don't know how Didi knew so accurately where in all that mess of white her ball was, but it was hilarious watching her furiously excavate around it. (Yes, she can actually carry that big yellow ball around, too.) Above, you can see her proudly demanding her Daddi throw her ball.

The back yard birds weren't as thrilled by the weather, though they did put in such appearances in abundance that we had to refill the feeders twice during the day. We had avian visitors from the normal flocks of juncos and sparrows of various ilk to Pileated Woodpeckers, crows, and jays.

Beth clears snow for an evening petsitting visitFor Beth's evening petsitting visit, I knew she wouldn't even make it out of the neighborhood in her car. Problem was, she'd parked behind me when she got home in the morning. So that meant shoveling enough space to back her car out of the way--as well as clearing a path for mine, too; the snow was so deep it left even SUVs designed for offroading struggling to make it up our cul-de-sac. The snow had continued all day, leaving an additional 8 inches or so of snow atop Beth's car, and we had to go out for the third time that day to clear the walk (no mail ever came though--I don't blame the mail for not running, though don't they say something about "Neither rain nor snow..." and all that?) and the driveway.

The trip out to petsit for the diabetic kitty client was an adventure in and of itself, which I'll post about shortly in another entry.

We ended the day around 9:30pm with flurries still falling and the yard clocking in at 21 inches of snow in the flat areas, and drifts well over 30 inches deep in several places.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Another Welcome Return Visitor: The Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker at a Suet FeederAfter multiple visits per day last spring, our resident Pileated Woodpecker vanished. We couldn't imagine a hawk or cat had gotten him; Pileateds are, after all, the size of a crow and pretty intimidating birds (secretly, I feared a kid with a BB gun or even a McMansion owner on the other side of the park had mistakenly taken a shotgun to him, blaming the big woodpecker for damage to homes and trees). But we neither saw nor heard the Pileated or the female we'd seen with him a couple of times after May.

A couple of days ago, I thought I might have heard a Pileated back in the woods; I wasn't sure at first and decided it could have been a Northern Flicker. However, today we got confirmation that the Pileated had returned when I spotted first a female sitting atop a seed feeder (and that is a bit odd--the woodpecker was actually eating seeds), then the male on the big suet feeder across the yard.

We're really happy to see that the Pileateds made it through the summer and fall okay and are looking forward to having them back in the yard at Chateau Papillon again!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

One Step Forward--Hopefully NO Steps Back

Washington, D.C., joined the list of states which have legalized same-sex marriage with a council vote (please, no quibbling over the fact D.C. is a district and not a state) and the assured signature of Mayor Fenty. The District, which had previously authorized recognition of gay marriages performed elsewhere, now only has to wait out a 30-day Congressional review period--and fend off court challenges from the bigots who are demanding another shot at tyranny of the masses via a referendum (did they all flunk Civics 101 and the fact we have a representational democracy?).

Fortunately, it does not seem likely that Congress and the President will get involved; beyond the fact that Democrats control both, the matter is one of self-determination for the District. (Before we celebrate too much, do consider that Congress unanimously voted to override the dignity of that poor woman in Florida, a silly, unconstitutional cause which stirred President Bush into taking an emergency flight back to Washington from his Crawford ranch.) Court challenges are likely, but given that this was a legitimate act by an elected, representative government--and an act which has been upheld by the courts at every stage so far--it also seems unlikely the bigots will win via an appeal to the judiciary.

Speaking of bigots, check out "activist" Bob King from the article linked above:
"God's war has just started," Bob King, a community activist who lives in Northeast, said a few minutes after the vote. "Shame on them. We're going to get to the ballot box through either the courts or the Congress. So tell everyone: Don't let the marriage licenses start flowing."
"God's war?" I'm sorry, but like so many of the American Taliban, not only did Mr. King sit out the part of Civics class that taught about representation, he missed the whole First Amendment bit about not mixing church and state.

If there is a god (or goddess, or pantheon of deities), surely he or she has something better to do than keep two loving people apart. And those who would worship under the aegis of religion most assuredly should have higher priorities for a holy war: things like achieving world peace, stemming hunger and poverty, and working to ease suffering and illness. From a Christian perspective, there are far more--I'd wager an order of magnitude, at least!--commandments and guidances to do good and sacrifice one's earthly possessions for the betterment of one's brothers and even sworn enemies than there are condemnations of homosexuality. (The strongest Biblical basis for being anti-gay aren't even strictly scriptural; they're in St. Paul's various epistolary books.)

Yet while it's apparently a primary mission in life for many of these bigots to shout about homosexuality, stomping around and waving signs at protests and bringing wasteful lawsuits and demanding ballot initiatives, they don't seem to be much bothered by wearing clothes of two fabrics, working on Sunday, people playing football (yes, this violates Leviticus 11:7-8--a football is a pigskin, after all) or building up worldly wealth. I suggest a look at the Rev. Mel White's take on what the Bible says about homosexuality, as well as a thorough reading of the Bible itself for those who claim they have God on their side here. What it comes down to is that their religion is used as a crutch to justify their prejudices, not as a real basis for those beliefs.

It still amazes me that there are people who do not see the parallel between the bigotry of the civil rights era--say, opposing interracial marriage, which was in fact illegal at the time!--and what is happening today. Or (and perhaps I'm being a bit unfair) opponents of gay marriage also oppose interracial marriage.

It also amazes me to hear people talk about the "sanctity of marriage" somehow being damaged. Although this is not surprisingly ignorant of most of world history--during which polygamy was the norm, not "one man, one woman"--as well as the Christian Bible itself (explain Solomon, I ask you), what gets me is that no one seems able to really explain how they would be harmed by someone else's marriage. Are their own relationships so weak and flawed that they cower in complete fear of their own marriage collapsing around them? Sad, little minds, I have to say. As a heterosexual, married male, neither someone else's sexuality nor their chance at wedding someone they love bothers me in the least, and certainly doesn't threaten my own marriage.

Fortunately, though, for the moment there is a bit of good news on the fight for equality. With all the setbacks seen over the past couple of years, supporters of gay rights will take what victories they can get.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Decking the Halls, Part 2: The White Tree

Though the week after Thanksgiving kept both Beth and me pretty busy with the gifts we were making (one of which I'd sworn to finish early enough to avoid having to pay expedited processing and express shipping fees on...), we did get back into the holiday decorating mood come the weekend.

For our second Christmas tree, we pulled out one which we hadn't gotten a chance to use since either 2003 or 2004: the white tree. I'd picked this one up several years ago at Wal-Mart on Boxing Day (when I used to brave the crowds to snatch up deeply-discounted wrapping paper, light sets, and other leftover holiday goodies), and it's been a family favorite ever since. Even our kitties loved the tree; I have photos somewhere of Moon and Neptune both perched within its branches at my townhouse in Blacksburg.

Problem is, it's massive. Though "only" a 6.5' tall tree, it's really rather wide at the base, and in our pre-decluttered days at Chateau Papillon, we simply didn't have the space to put it up. We started to put this one in our library, where the colors would work well with the teal walls and natural-tone bookshelves, but after playing the game of matching branch tip colors to the sockets on the pole, it was pretty clear the tree just wouldn't fit in the Libris Lepidoptera. Even moving it up into one of the corners and thus blocking access to several shelves of books didn't do much good; the tree simply dominated the space, with its size seeming to halve the room.

We debated several alternate locations for the tree before settling on the dining room, where we'd placed an even older (and much more slender) tree last year in one corner. After rearranging the dining room table and cleaning up several boxes of junk that had been piled next to the china cupboard for an entire year, we had the space we needed.

A few years ago, I had picked up several sets of blue LED lights after Christmas, intended for this tree but used for the first time this year. Like the Hokie Tree, several sets of colored C7s and C9s gave way to energy-efficient LEDs, and personally, I like the intense blue and white colors better than the blue incandescents we'd used previously (though that leaves us with an entire box of blue lights in need of new homes... Goodwill or Freecycle, anyone?).

Next up: a tree for the library; I found a nice, skinny black tree on Wal-Mart's Web site which we're trying to track down in stores.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Spreading Goodwill to All (Or, How to De-clutter and Clean Out Storage)

Way back in November--the weekend of the VT-NC State game, in fact--Beth and I traveled down to Blacksburg and cleaned out our storage unit, which I'd had in some way, shape, or form since about 1996. For one, we didn't really want to pay the nearly-$50/month in rent any more. For another, we wanted several items in storage, including my dryer (since the one that came with Chateau Papillon has a bad habit of eating clothes, you can probably see why) and some of our Christmas decorations, among other things.

One problem: Chateau Papillon is chock full of our stuff already! We make many donations to Goodwill every year, and despite a genetic heritage of packratism (you should have seen my grandmother's "utility room"), in recent years I had really moved toward de-cluttering. Most of that stuff had been in storage for at least five years, after all; if we could do without it for that long, ought we not be able to do without it entirely?

As Beth was booked to the gills with petsitting, she couldn't come down Saturday, whereas I definitely wanted to go to the game and also pay a visit to my favorite wine store, Vintage Cellar. Since we knew we needed a rental truck for the dryer and some other large items, we really couldn't bring two separate cars down--so I indulged in my most-traveled air route, albeit one I hadn't made since 2006 or so: Washington to Roanoke, thanks to a United "e-fare" deal which cost me around $100 total. After watching the Hokies pummel the Wolfpack and catching up with friends, it was time to get to serious work.

Emptying our storage unit did take some time. Beth arrived Sunday morning; I met her in Roanoke, where I returned my rental car and picked up the truck (and had the misfortune of driving past a Sarah Palin book signing, I might add). Once back in Blacksburg, we started loading the truck and . through the various stuff we'd accumulated.

In addition to two entire carloads of stuff we tossed out entirely, we took a half of a U-Haul to Goodwill in Christiansburg, dropping off there my bachelor coffee table and end-table sets along with a large dorm fridge Beth had rounded up "dumpster diving" on campus and which I'd always intended to turn into a "keg-erator" and several large bins of clothes and household goods. That still left us a good half a truckload of stuff to haul back to northern Virginia and Chateau Papillon (a lot of it because we were running short on daylight and time and thus didn't have a chance to sort through it or make another load to Goodwill before they closed for the day).

We have subsequently made three more large carloads of donations to Goodwill, including some really good stuff which we simply didn't need (such as many strands of Christmas lights--we've gone almost entirely LED now), a few interesting museum pieces (an Apple IIe and a Sega Master System console), and admittedly, some junk, too (though one never knows quite what another will consider treasure...).

On top of that, we've filled two 65 gallon recycling bins with scrap paper and cardboard I culled from old boxes of stuff... and unfortunately still filled a few trash cans as well with things I just couldn't justify giving to Goodwill and for which I knew there was no way to freecycle or recycle.

In addition to the tax benefits we receive for the donations, we're glad to keep as many things out of the dumpster and landfills as we can, and in the process provide items which can be sold at low cost by groups like Goodwill in their thrift stores--including a few things I'd have been thrilled to discover hidden amidst the dusty, mothball-scented prom dresses and pajamas of secondhand-shop shelves. So if you find that Apple IIe out there in a Goodwill store, you can thank us for it...

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Decking the Halls, Part 1: Hokie Dreams

The Hokie Christmas Tree!It's that time of year again, and the holiday season means decorations! We got a slightly later start than we'd have liked due to being so busy--I know as a kid that I gave my parents fits pleading to get the tree up earlier and earlier each year, as if somehow that might bring Christmas (and presents) sooner by so doing--but still managed to get the first of our several trees up in line with the family Thanksgiving-weekend tradition.

We started with our "Hokie Tree," a deep maroon tree decorated in orange. Several years ago, Hecht's (and other May's stores) offered a wide variety of funky colors for their Christmas trees. Pink tinsel trees have always been something of a fashionable kitsch, but May's took things to an entirely new level with their lime, lilac, teal, and burgundy lineup. We watched all the local Hecht's for sales (the sticker price of $400+ being more than we could justify), and though our search led us to every mall in northern Virginia, in the end it was my parents who scored the prize at the Kaufmann's in the Charleston Town Center mall. Yes, the normally-priced-$525, seven-and-a-half-foot, pre-lit tree could be had (floor model only) for the Boxing Day bargain of $150.

Our friend Meg Nugent got us a good start on orange ornaments with a selection of "old-world" shapes, and I already had quite a few Virginia Tech ornaments as well. Several years' worth of picking over the post-Christmas deals at Michael's, Target, and every mall department store we could tolerate brought in a bevy of several more orange decorations, and an All Souls' Day (that's November 2) find at Costco added orange LED lights to replace the energy-sucking incandescents on the prelit tree. The orange garland was actually the hardest to track down; eventually, eBay located the stuff as an import from the British Isles and a whopping $7 per 5' strand (ironically, the garland is actually made in the USA).

Beth assisted with tree assemblyPutting up artificial trees has gotten significantly easier since the days when as a child I proudly erected my little four foot tree and decorated it with no less than eight strands of lights (I tried to buy a new set to add each year in the Boxing Day closeouts). No more do you have to match the branch colors to the base and assemble, jigsaw-style, the tree from the bottom up. Trees now come in sections with hinged, drop-down branches, and rather than an evening spent looking for that last yellow-tipped branch hastily stowed during take-downs the year before, the tree itself goes up in ten minutes or less.

Still, at seven and a half feet, the Hokie tree is still enough of a beast that it really takes two, and Beth (in her coordinating pink PJs) lent quite a helping hand. Decorating the tree did take several hours as we fit the different orange, VT, and our special ornaments (mostly pet-themed) on and around the many branches.

In-between seasons, the tree stows in a plastic tote (below), another innovating in holiday decorating technology which, for a display model tree which came with no box, is a necessity. But wow, that's one heavy, bulky tote to drag up the stairs each year, inevitably drawing the joke from one of us that there's a body or two stashed inside.

The Hokie Tree in its storage bag
One tree down, several more to go... last year saw us "only" putting up two: the Hokie tree in the living room and my old green tree in the dining room clad in bird-themed ornaments. I've got a beautiful white tree I picked up years ago when I lived alone which we want to finally put up again, it having stayed in storage since 2005 or so.

'Tis the season, eh? Now, if we only have the time and energy to finish our decorations before January...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Should Health Insurers Cover Paying for Prayers?

That's apparently what the Christian Scientists want, and they're pushing to have language added to the health care bills presently being debated in Congress. I hadn't heard about this before today--most of the coverage seems to be on things like "death panels" (de-spun: covering "end of life" counseling services), abortion coverage, and the way the current health care system is really a hunky-dory Candy Land with chocolate waterfalls and fluffy edible cotton candy clouds of goodness where your employer can't yank your choice of plans from you and insurers can't deny you coverage.*

* If you pay attention to any of the flood of rabidly anti-reform US Chamber of Commerce-sponsored ads, you might be fooled into that belief, insisting we'd lose the "guarantees" we already don't have--things like choice of health care plans (which is already limited and can change without notice from your employer and insurer), keeping your current doctors (when your employer changes the plans it offers, or your doctor changes what plans he or she accepts, there's no guarantee you can keep yours as it is--I've had to change before), etc. But this is all fodder for a separate post.

But according to a NY Times blog piece, the same church whose attitudes toward medical care have led to the deaths of children (Google Rita Swan for one infamous example), want the government to lean on private insurers to cover the costs of what boils down to prayer:

The church’s provision says that any insurer offering health insurance on the exchanges that would be created in the health legislation could not discriminate against a health service “on the basis of its religious or spiritual content.” Such content would be defined as medical expenses for which the Internal Revenue Service now allows deductions. The I.R.S. specifically names Christian Science practitioners, who pray for people at a cost of about $20 a day or care for them in nonmedical ways, as deductible expenses.
That's right: apparently, you can currently write off the cost of paying someone to pray for you on your taxes. Now, making a charitable donation to a church is one thing--but writing it off as a medical expense? Why can't I deduct my gym dues, then? After all, a good exercise regimen has proven health benefits, whereas the most thorough study to date found no health benefit to prayer (and was conducted by the religion-oriented Templeton Foundation, which had the guts and honesty to publish the results despite being sorely disappointed in them).

Now, the First Church of Christ, Scientist (aka the Christian Scientists) are pushing to incentivise (read: strong-arm) private insurers into covering the same services. They have tried to dodge the constitutional issue of separation of church and state by excluding any coverage from a potential public insurance option (and that would include any insurance with federal funding, it would seem), as well as offering a broad definition nondiscriminatory "spiritual" care.

Under that definition, perhaps I should be able to write off the cost of admission to national and state parks, my mileage driven to/from nature preserves, and so forth, all as medical expenses (and expect my health insurer to cover them!). Clearly, there are health benefits to getting outside, hiking around, and such--as well as spiritual value; to paraphrase a gentleman Beth encountered in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge on a Sunday morning several years ago, "THIS is church for me."

I don't think the Christian Science proposal is going to get much traction in Congress (despite its bipartisan support, which included of all people the late Senator Ted Kennedy). But that IRS deduction already exists, which I do find rather shocking. Seems to me the better way to handle this would be to make a donation to your church if so inclined and write that off as a charitable contribution--though then you're stuck with determining the "less the value of goods/services received in return" component of said donation, I suppose. If you value the "medical" benefits of prayer so highly they're your preferred health care treatment, seems that return value might eat into your donation quickly.

What's next? The Catholic church lobbying for the buying of indulgences to be written off on one's 1040 Schedule A?

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Bluebirds Return!

Male Eastern Bluebird perched atop a bluebird house in the Chateau Papillon back yardReaders of this blog may recall how free-roaming cats killed the pair of Eastern Bluebirds nesting in our back yard earlier this summer, and how we saved a couple of the babies and got them to a wildlife rehabilitator. As we hadn't seen a sign (nor heard a sound) of a bluebird since--and one of our neighbors remarked how it had been "years" since they'd seen bluebirds in the cul-de-sac--Beth and I both feared we'd be without these adorable members of the thrush family for quite some time ahead.

Today, as part of Cornell University's Project Feederwatch, I was giving the back yard a thorough once-over for bird activity when I spied something out of the corner of my eye, something with an orange and white belly. Could it be a bluebird?

I grabbed my camera and carefully opened the window for a closer look, hoping it wasn't a trick of the light or "just" a robin.

Indeed! We had a male Eastern Bluebird on our feeder, looking at the snow-covered mealworm tray, and after a moment, he flew over to land atop one of the bluebird houses in our yard. I called Beth over, and she thinks she saw a female fly off the house just as the male landed on it, so it's possible we could have another pair this spring, and another set of babies!

The return of the bluebirds was really a wonderful sight that absolutely made our weekend. Perhaps the male is young Harry, the sole hatchling of the first clutch our prior pair Nathaniel and Eloise laid, come back to establish a family of his own?

We can only hope!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Memories from Frequent Flying: My First Flight, and, the Return to 1K

Anyone who knows me well is aware how much I enjoy travel.

So I was pretty jazzed by a couple of things this past week. First, in going through a bunch of old magazines (sent to the recycling bin, thank you; these were 18-20 year old computer magazines!), I came across the boarding pass from my first-ever flight.

In 1991, I flew to Chicago to participate in a two-week science seminar sponsored by the Department of Energy at Argonne National Labs. The government-purchased ticket took me on United Airlines from Charleston, WV, (the "USS Kanawha" f0r the takeoff and landing experience on the relatively short runway and the way that while on the taxiway, your plane's wings hang out over the edge of a cliff...), with a stop in Lexington, KY, then onward to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport.

This is a keepsake I'd dug around for previously--like many frequent flier junkies, I've got a shoebox full of almost all my boarding passes and old airline program membership cards--and so it was quite a pleasant surprise to find it quite by accident like that.

My first boarding pass!Check out the retro United color scheme on the ticket jacket. I had seat 6A on an Air Wisconsin-operated BAe 146 jet for my first flight. As an aside, I assume the frequent flier # on the boarding pass is for some government account--it's an American Airlines # to boot--since I had yet to discover the joys of frequent flight at that point in my life. If memory serves, back in the early 90s government employees couldn't earn frequent flier miles personally on taxpayer-funded trips... but that's another story.

Secondly--and more importantly for the present day--I requalified for United's top-tier frequent flier level this week. The "1K" level of the Mileage Plus program is awarded to fliers who accrue over 100,000 miles (or 100 flight segments) in a calendar year, and carries with it higher priority for standby (getting onto a different flight than you booked, usually an earlier one), better upgrades (including six international upgrade certificates, or SWUs), better overall service, some fee waivers, etc. Technically, there's a higher level, Global Services, but it's awarded largely based on spending, and I sure as heck cannot afford the rumored $50,000 in full-fare tickets per year!

I typically have made Premier Executive ("1P") with United by flying 50,000 miles or 60 segments a year since becoming a frequent flier, only landing 1K in 2006 (by segments, no less--you try flying 100 times in a year and tell me your butt isn't tired!). But a generous round of double elite qualifying miles promos put 1K in sight this year, and given I want to go visit my cousin Michael and his wife Sam in Italy this next spring, the international upgrades will be quite appreciated.

I did a couple of insane "mileage runs" to achieve 1K--insane from a flying perspective, not cost (as I obviously found uber-cheap flights!). I capped off the year with a flight from Washington, DC, to Burbank, CA, and back--all in the same day, and for under $200. You may recall some of my other trips aimed primarily at earning miles this year, too: my trip to Montrose, CO, and the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, for example, which cost me under $50 after I used a $150-off voucher I'd earned on a previous trip.

Now that I've reached 1K, I'm going to be pulling my hair out in anticipation of the arrival of my new 1K card. Remember that Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin sends off for a propeller-topped beanie, and checks the mail for it eagerly every, all the while daydreaming through school about the grand adventures he'll have with a flying cap?


Maybe you remember Ralphie in A Christmas Story, then, checking the mail repeatedly for his "Little Orphan Annie Secret Decoder Ring."

That will be me as I await the spiffy new 1K card for 2010 (got my Premier Executive card yesterday, a day before making 1K). It probably won't be here until January or so, but each afternoon will bring sugarplum fairies dancing through my head in the form of that glittering black Mileage Plus card. I only hope that the return to 1K status and the arrival of said membership kit is somewhat less disappointing than both Calvin's and little Ralphie's much-anticipated deliveries (Calvin can't actually fly with his beanie, and of course we know about the "crummy commercial" Ralphie decodes and its reminder to drink more Ovaltine...).

I already know not to expect much of the membership packet compared to years past; for example, the "Going the Extra Mile" certificates we can hand out to airline employees who perform above their expected jobs are cut to three this year, and are attached to the rest of the mailing (instead of as a separate insert). Gone are the inserts with seat maps for the different sorts of planes United flies. At least the ten drink chits good for a bit of booze to ease the long flights in economy class are still there, and fingers-crossed that I end up with a double allotment due to sloppy work by the envelope-stuffers (I've actually heard several reports of just that).

I do hope that the 1K benefits themselves work well this year; one thing that drove me to really strive for 1K over my usual 1P is the way airline program benefits in general seem to be eroding away. But as of right now, I'm looking forward to boarding from the red carpet (I kid you not), no-fee confirmed changes to get on that earlier flight home ($75 for non-1Ks), the systemwide upgrades for a possible European trip, several "confirmed regional upgrades" for domestic travel... we'll see. But in general, the higher your airline status, the better: I can recall several times as a 1K previously being the only person to be cleared onto a standby flight, and one time as a Premier ("2P"), I got stuck in Chicago and watched plane after plane go out full, with me 40th on the standby list to get back to Washington after snow had cancelled my original flight--as a 1K, I'd have likely made the cut on one of the earlier departures and had a much less-aggravating stay in O'Hare.

Good times are here again.