RV Economics Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, RVs are cheaper than say, a second home, but not as cheap as, say, a tent-camping vacation. I love tent camping, but for right now, communal bathrooms and showers are a nonstarter. I look forward to a time when we can take the tent out. Maybe the backyard first.

Another thing too – tents are, at this point in our life, great for a night or two, but it begins to get a little old after a few days, as I haul dishes to communal sinks for washing or hope I dropped enough quarters into the shower to get all the soap out of my hair. Maybe someday we’ll do more back country camping again rather than drive up sites, but for our child rearing years, we’re bound to some conveniences.

For longer vacations, we’ve typically rented homes through VRBO.com, interspersed with a night here and there at hotels with a water park.

In lodging terms for a week, this tended to range from $1600-$3500 for about 6 nights on our annual trip to the White Mountains, depending on where we rented and what amenities it had. Food, transportation, and other costs are on top of that lodging-only fee.

Since 2016, that lodging alone amounted to well over 1/3 of the purchase price of the RV. So in this particular case, the RV costs are replacing at least one trip’s worth of lodging.

Now, that’s based on purchase price. We still have to keep the battery charged (electricity bill at home), buy propane, and we’ve had to stock and furnish it with some kitchen items, bedding and other basics – ok, we didn’t HAVE to. But honestly it’s easier, and I recommend it. Even after a few years, the cost of ownership won’t be zero. But it will be far, far less than our vacations have cost us.

This year, for 5 nights in New Hampshire, we’re paying $362.50. That includes water, sewer and electric hookups for all nights. Eli and I also have a long weekend planned in Rhode Island, where the total cost is about $170. So this year, for 8 nights in the RV, we’re paying about $66.56 a night to stay in it, plus the cost of gas, propane and anything else we need. We’re not going to get a ton of use out of it this summer because once adoptive kids arrive, we’re home bound for a while. We might take it out to see my older Sister and her family in the fall, but that’s uncertain, and wholly kid-dependent. By next year we can start to think about more intensive use.

So we knew this going in – that we were purchasing something with significant up-front cost and limited use the first 2 seasons. Last year because we picked it up in the fall, and this year because we have other life things going on. So why do it last year, long before we could really start to use it to our fullest benefit?

Because this is a long-game purchase. Right now, before we adopt, we have more time than after. The learning curve on the RV is reasonably steep – Eli spent long hours learning how to navigate, back up and park it. We had to invest our time, in stabilizer blocks, winterizing gear and the basics for making it usable. And now, while we’re not exactly experienced, it, we now know things like if we don’t remember to switch off the water pump switches in the bathroom the battery will die, and what we need to do to get it usable.

By trip 2 last year, Eli and I had figured out how to get us up and living quickly after we arrive at a destination. I take the inside, he unhooks the Pathfinder and gets our water/sewer and electric set. On Thanksgiving night in 2020, we were sitting down to dinner probably 35 minutes after we parked, in large part because we did 95% of the food preparation before we left home.

When we take it out this year, we’ll have those lessons and experience under our belt, and finally be able to spend time using the little outdoor grill and awning as well, things that it was a little chilly to manage last fall. We already learned that bringing the RV literally anywhere for less than 3 nights isn’t worth the effort to set up, and to bring at least twice as many dish towels as we think we’ll need.

We also learned that in this case, the relatively small size of the RV was a good decision. The 24DBS we bought really fits us well. It’s roomy enough to be content to hang out in, and small enough so that getting out for walks and hikes and swims and to explore don’t get lost with the amenities. We’re hoping this remains true as we adopt. We looked at larger RVs that were larger than most apartments, which private rooms and all that but at the end of the day, that would have required us purchasing a truck to pull, was substantially more money and it just wasn’t worth it. Could we live in it? Probably not. But for vacations and other uses (it served as our homeschool classroom for a chunk of the fall) it’s brilliant.

All this accumulation of experience and knowledge will allow us to use our mental and physical energy to ensure our family is happy and that our stress is minimal, and our enjoyment maximized. This is going to be especially important as the children that come to us and augment our family will likely be dealing with significant trauma, and the kinds of disruptions to routine that vacations cause can be tough. Easing the adults into vacation mode will ease them as well.

In addition to site rentals and electricity here at home, insurance and registration runs us about $250 annually for our little tow-behind travel trailer. It’s my estimate that by Season 3 in 2022 our we’ll get about 3- 3 1/2 weeks of use of it and it will cost us less than $80/month including site rentals.

The other component is that when it’s not in use for our vacations, it will be our guest house. While it won’t have running water, we can host guests to sleep May-October. And while we don’t intend to rent it out for others to use on their vacations at this point, we may loan it occasionally.

Still, when you add the purchase price, operating costs, our pending plans for a solar rig and composting toilet so we can go boondocking, It’s going to take about 7 years to pay for itself. We intend to have it for at least 20. For me, that 13 years of almost-free vacations is the ultimate frugal win. We’re not super frugal, but we are super practical, and this is truly going to be both.

In 20 years, we’ll be 67 and 70, and at that point I suspect our needs will be a bit different. If we still have an RV, it would need to have an engine at that point, and we’ll just tow a small car or figure out alternatives. But what we’re going to want when we’re that age is hard to know, so for now we’re focused on the life we have.

RV Economics Part 1

Chilling Out

The last several weeks have been cool – it’s still quite chilly in the mornings and evenings, and there’s been a lot of rain. I like the rain, and I love that everything is green around me, but I would love just a bit more sunshine. Fortunately it’s coming, as is summer.

And that means we’ll take the cover off of the RV and begin to use it. We bought it last year, but it’s a purchase that we’ve both thought about for years both individually before we were together and afterwards, jointly. Once we decided to do it, we moved fairly quickly, but only after significant research. As RV sales are booming and it’s a way cheaper investment than a second home (bonus: you can take it anywhere there’s a road) I wanted to talk about how we decided on ours, what the cost were, and how we’re thinking about it one year in. If you’ve been thinking about diving in to the RV world, I hope this is helpful.

First, what we bought. We own a Prime Time Tracer 24DBS travel trailer that can sleep 8. After looking around for a used Airstream – new not really being in the budget – and day-tripping to Vermont to drool over a 1960 model with stained glass windows that would need a completely new interior, we realized that with our current and growing family, plus our time limits, the time to refurbish an Airstream wasn’t now. Once we made that decision, our options shrank. We have a Nissan Pathfinder that can tow a maximum of 6000 pounds, and we knew we needed the ability to sleep a lot of us comfortably. And I wanted a u-shaped dining area so we could all sit and eat together. At the end of the day, only one make and model fit exactly the kind of layout we needed, the 24DBS.

Then we set out to find it. Last year the RV market went crazy in the pandemic, and finding this one model was a challenge. There just wasn’t any within 500 miles on the used market, and the ones that were out there weren’t much – if at all – cheaper than new. but we did find a new one about 90 minutes away from us. One. We went to look at it, and noting the folks lining up to look at it after we went in, we bought it on the spot. While new vehicles aren’t normally what we want, I’m totally comfortable with our decision for a few reasons:

  1. We bought from a nationwide dealer, RV Camping World. This means that there’s likely to be a service shop within a reasonable distance from wherever we go, and as newbies, that’s nice to know
  2. Because we were new to this, the hours Eli spent with their folks going through the details of how to hook it up to the Pathfinder and all the features stem to stern were invaluable.
  3. They installed our tow hookup as well, so we only had to go to a single place

This decision isn’t for everyone, but for us, with limited time and zero knowledge, it was absolutely the right decision. We have no regrets, and expect to enjoy our RV for many years. While new isn’t necessarily right for everyone, spending months looking and long road trips during a pandemic weren’t the right things at the time.

After doing a bunch of research, we decided if we were all in, there were some things that would make our lives easier that were worth the upfront costs.

  • Beddys. These things are great, and in the tiny, cramped spaces around the beds, make everyone’s life easier. They have regular BoGo sales and are super cute and easy to maintain. After reading rave reviews by every RVer that has invested, we went all in. Plus the kids got to pick theirs.
  • A completely automated hook up with backup camera and secondary electronic brake in the car. This makes navigating so much easier for Eli, and was worth every dime.
  • The Camping World roadside service plan. While this is not a necessity, it gives me a ton of peace of mind, and it’s also good for the vehicle pulling our new vacation digs.
  • An inexpensive set of knives, bowls, flatware and plastic drinking glasses that live in the RV
  • A percolator coffee pot that doubles as as backup to our house coffee pot
  • A covered bamboo bowl set (well, my big sister bought me one of them, because she’s wonderful) for salads and serving

All in, the ‘extras, were about $3900 on top of the $28,985 purchase price, but I will say that after having made many ‘pennywise, pound foolish’ decisions over my life, these up front adds have been worth it.

For the rest, we repurpose extras pans and dishes from our kitchen to cook with. This year, I may buy a cheap stick vacuum for the interior, as well as a towel rack, and Eli bought a toilet paper holder (please note that this is not something built in, and to avoid soggy toilet paper in a super small RV bathroom, you’ll want to invest) eventually we’d love to move away from the heavily brown interior and do a bit of slipcovering and redecorating, but generally we’re set.

So let’s talk about using it. So far, we have not added solar or a composting toilet, which will allow us to move away from RV parks and into the backcountry, what RVers call ‘boondocking’. It’s in the plan, but by the time we bought it, had the hookups installed and got it home, it was September of 2020, so we used it a couple of times and then winterized it.

We used it twice for a total of 5 nights last year. The first was a weekend in New Hampshire in October to try it out. We stayed in an RV campground with a wonderful staff, and when we realized we also didn’t have a sewer hose, another thing that doesn’t come standard, they got us set right up. We learned from this trip how much gas the Pathfinder uses hauling it (a lot, we now carry a gas canister at all times) and how to use it. The kids really loved it, and so did we, a not-insignificant outcome for something we’d bought without ever so much as renting a camper in our lives.

Eli and I then took it to Maine in November and spent Thanksgiving weekend. We learned a lot that weekend as well – such how quickly the propane tanks empty when you need the heat on, which we learned by waking up and being able to see our breath, to be grateful I’d brought extra blankets, and a much-needed reminder that advance meal prep is a great way to ensure you don’t eat out when you are starving after a long hike.

RV sites with full hookups, i.e. water, sewer and electric range from about $46 a night to about $90, infinitely cheaper than your average hotel room. Given that we had been spending about $200/night on hotel rooms and house rentals on vacation, this is a substantive savings. But it will still take a long while to amortize those savings against the cost of the RV.

I can tell you though, it was worth every dime.

Next time: The cost of RV vacations and getting it to pay for itself

Spring Cleaning

Visiting some neighbors

I’ve written a lot in the last month or so, but none of it was publish-worthy. In large part that’s been because I don’t sleep enough. I go to bed just fine, but I wake up at ungodly hours on a regular basis, and find myself brewing coffee, and sitting down to write. I accomplish drinking the coffee successfully, the writing not so much lately. It isn’t that I don’t write at all, but what I do put down doesn’t seem worthy of keeping. Which, given the abysmally low standard I have set in writing about the day to day of my life here on the farmlet, indicates that some of what I’ve recorded has passed the line into the truly boring.

I can’t quite form a description of this weird set of feelings – waiting-for-vaccination eagerly, coupled with lack of desire to return to ‘normal life’ plus – and this is hard for my homebody self to admit – boredom at doing the same things each day. This year, starting seeds, something that generally fills me with great joy, felt sort of ho-hum initially. I’m glad I did it, because I love my garden, but it didn’t spark joy in the least. Part of it is just being crabby about waiting to be vaccinated, I’ll be honest. Vaccine selfies abound, both making me happy for my community and frustrating me simulaneously, because we still wait – Eli is finally eligible and I will be tomorrow, but our children aren’t. My excitement is tempered because my job is to protect them, and from this, I cannot.

No matter how the adults grow safer, until my children are as well our life can’t change much.

Except life is changing a little. We are in the final stretch of getting approved to adopt, the home study. At some point, the infinity of paperwork and interviews and gates will come to an end, and then the real work begins. And because we’ve hit a lot of our financial milestone goals, we were able to put a deposit down to start our kitchen renovation next year. Add to that my career being as busy as ever some new and interesting opportunities opening up for Eli, so we’re busy as ever, if not more so.

Still, we find time to celebrate, be it Eli’s 50th or the occasional random event, and our world has recently opened up to include vaccinated parents. For us, these interactions, lost for a year, are celebrations in and of themselves.

And better weather is coming, although the chill has been hanging on. Yesterday it stormed and even snowed a little. Today is sunny, and I look forward to being out in the yard weeding for a few hours. For now, we’ll continue to work on the house and yard, and our goals, waiting to re-emerge to the world.

Winter’s End

Another round of fluffy snow fell the other night, and the landscape is all whites and grays, cold loveliness. Despite what any groundhogs may or may not have seen earlier this month, winter’s grip remains and won’t loosen for at least another few weeks. Still, it’s time to start thinking about spring, with things to plant being ordered and the potting bench migrating it’s way under the living room window. My Meyer Lemon tree has begun to bloom, a tiny sign of hope for and warmth.

This year we’ll add blueberries, more mulberry trees, and replace a few of the baby trees that have not made it over the years. My son is lobbying for walnut trees as well, although I don’t really know where to put them. And with our parents starting to be vaccinated, hope of a different sort is taking root as well.

In between daydreams of flowers and sunshine though, pandemic reality continues to warp at Sithean. My 8 year old has begun to chart his speed and success rates at levels (worlds?) in Mario Odyssey with notes on paper, like a stockbroker from nineteen tickety-two. If he begins dressing like a Newsie I will find it only mildly odd, and would mostly wonder where he found brown knickers in a child’s size 10 and whose credit card he swiped to get them. The possibility that he’s founded a gaming platform since November and now is a multi-billionaire who can buy his own knickers is just the sort of thing that would turn out to be true.

Honey Locust in the Snow

Additionally mind bending is that my tiny baby daughter who only yesterday was dressed in a giant pink-and-purple fleece onesie, is now twelve and educating me on Cottagecore, which seems to primarily be about wearing floaty floral dresses and eating banana bread in fields of wildflowers. That the potential wildflowers are currently covered in several inches of ice and snow does not dissuade her, nor does the fact that she doesn’t even like floral prints. Or dresses.

Suggestions to add a thatched roof to Sithean do not go unheard so much as the general upkeep, lack of expertise, total lack of thatch material locally, and the fact that the current roof is only 2 years old leave me no choice but to reject her plan out of hand, with the counter-offer of a t-shirt with some fancily sketched mushrooms on it and some banana bread for breakfast paling in comparison, but deemed potentially acceptable. Maybe.

And so our pandemic winter treks onward. My brief fit of rejoining the world with Museums and cheese and outdoor brunch under patio heaters while a cold February rain misted in for my daughter’s birthday has passed, and I find myself content to return to my natural state of sweatpanted isolation. My web conference colleagues got excited about being ‘on video’ for a while, but that trend seems to be slowly trailing off somewhat. June sounds like a good time to get out again.

It’s time to turn inward again anyway. With impending spring comes the start to rush, and to finish the inside projects before the outdoors calls us to clean up and prepare for the next season. Before us is the final large stack of paperwork to initiate our home study and launch into adoptive parenthood, alone with our continued reorganization projects. Our decluttering efforts are showing their fruits in spaces that got- and remained – without piles of stuff on them. But there’s still more to do.

So today, in and around a short run, projects and lots of laundry, we’ll prep chicken parmesan, potstickers, and lots of other delicious foods for the week, as we do most Sundays. And tonight, as the 4 of us settle in for a simple evening with hamburgers, roasted potatoes and a movie before the week begins we’ll count our blessings.

Because while our ever-so-slightly-bent-reality pandemic winter treks on, we know spring is coming.

YOLO French Onion Soup

The deep, freezing cold that had been lingering for over a week finally went away, if for a few days. While 28 degree mornings are still chilly, they are a marked improvement over 5 degrees. Spots of bitter cold will return here and there, but we may be past the worst stretch of it for this year. February marches on, and soon enough it will be March and April, still cold but filled with crocuses and signs of spring.

Deciding we needed to occasionally get out and be actual humans, Eli and I we decided to spend a quite literal 40 minutes in the Peabody Essex Museum yesterday afternoon (remember museums? One of my most-loved trappings of before times, I had almost forgotten. The PEM and I have been friends since I was a child, so it was especially poignant), followed by shopping for some fancy cheese and edible accoutrements for Valentine’s day, a holiday I normally shun but this year we’re celebrating with some level of gusto. Celebrations make pandemic-ing more fun, so I’ll take whatever. And this week we will also celebrate my daughter’s birthday, so my party hat is going on and it’s not coming off for a little while, no matter what happens in the world around us.

So when Valentine’s Day did roll around, we sat in front of a fire, watching a Star Wars movie, and eating really good cheese and French Onion Soup. As days go, pretty good.

Despite worry about variants and a large variety of other political, social and environmental crises, I’ve decided to feel hopeful about vaccines and the future.

We’ve started planning some summer trips, and for a point in time when we can be with people again. I don’t expect life to get back to normal for a while yet, and I do suspect that we’ll be getting vaccinated on the regular for new variants of Covid-19, much like a flu shot, but I also think there will be a point in which we can go use up all the hotel, airline and car rental points that I accumulated in the before times when I traveled for work. We are also picking through the various home improvement/maintenance options to settle on what projects we try to take on before kids arrive, which should be any time after August 1, our artificially selected ‘we’re open for children’ date.

I’m sure it will be a good idea to gut the kitchen between now and then. What could possibly go wrong?

In short, I’ve decided that optimism, despite all the things to worry about, is the only way to go. It is cadenced optimism though – we’re deeply invested in our food supply, in financial security, in a more sustainable living model. Balancing all of those things plus all the small notebooks, unnecessary but lovely smelling candles and additional fleece sweatpants I want to buy, along with the 2 1/2 weeks in Greece I fully intend to spend at some point in the next 5 years so I can wear giant floppy hats and bandeau-style swimwear while pretending to be carefree and as if there won’t be a huge pile of laundry waiting for me when we return won’t be easy, but I’m going for it.

Can one have cadenced optimism and still toss in a big bucket of oh-what-the-hell decisions? I think that latter thing arrived between the squirrel event I last blogged about and the point at which, deciding it was late enough in the afternoon for wine this weekend, I mindlessly started pouring it into my coffee mug. Which, if you think about it, is just damn efficient. I can go straight from caffeine to booze without breaking stride or wasting dishes.

It might have been in some part due to the soup as well. I tried out a new French Onion Soup for Valentine’s Day, and while i can affirm it was delicious, and the fresh thyme a perfect flavor addition, it was accompanied by a very loud SNORT as I read how I should first make bone broth. “Oh Epicurious, how I love you, I thought, but really – just eff off. I have enough to do these days.” and proceeded to dump in some lovely boxes of beef broth from the store in it’s place. Last Week Me would have run out to buy some soup bones, and probably Epicurious is right, it would have been better if I did. Yesterday Me can’t be bothered.

Because Yesterday Me, like Today Me…is.just.over.it.

Today me wants to regularly eat meals other people prepare, go shopping for some useless things and generally forget about pandemics, civil unrest and our disastrous climate future in exchange for some new really soft pants with drawstrings and a total lack of obligation to everyone and everything.

Except not really. I mean, yes to the soft pants and restaurants again someday. It’s just that the world has been a teensy bit relentless lately but I still want to generally be the kind of person who makes my soup from homemade bone broth. To put effort into my amazing husband and beloved children and my home. And it’s almost time to start seedlings again. But with pandemic-ing and winter is a touch of ‘oh fuck it’ too.

So if you find me with a glass of wine on a beach on some island this summer while some lovely human is taking a sledgehammer to the kitchen, don’t be shocked. And in the meantime, try the soup. And make the broth from scratch, because it’s probably better that way.

Radical Acceptance

I’ve started writing and stopped on multiple blog posts in the last couple weeks. The dark and cold of a pandemic winter overcame my generally positive mindset. My daughter was struggling in school, bad things kept happening to those around us, and the pandemic was spreading, and spreading some more. New variants, vaccines but not for us, even my walks, oases of time to think and breathe, were given over in service to ice and cold and dark and school schedules.

I started thinking about escape to somewhere warm and near the ocean, with a pool and where, just for a while, we could ignore the pandemic. Pretend it wasn’t. Since Covid-19 washed up on our shores I’ve been worried but calm about it, other than ensuring that every bit of pantry and freezer space is filled at all times. Did we need 4 bottles of lemon juice? No, no we didn’t, but it, and all the other things filling the cabinets staved off some of the stress. Finally I took a day and reorganized things, so I could stop the overbuying and easily see what we have.

But facing down another year without our people was maybe more than my always optimistic mindset could manage, and all the things, combined with the sheer relentlessness of work for me lately, I reached the tipping point. Even the Sweet Potato Gnocchi, Parmesan Tater Tots and other cooking I was doing, normally therapeutic, wasn’t helping.

Then the TV started having issues, and out the window went family movie night. Our Friday night homemade-pizza-and-movie is something that the kids participate in only some of the time, but I hold out as always there, a connection point that holds us together.

Of course, none of these things are particularly huge problems. We are warm, fed and housed. We have enough and then some. But I was tired and overwhelmed, and nothing felt quite right.

Nonetheless, despair and I are not friends, I’m deeply programmed with a little too much of ‘put on your big girl pants and deal with it-itis. So I did, a little at a time, after first, wallowing in feeling sorry for myself for a few days.

First, my daughter, putting in place tools to help her with her schoolwork and a lot of listening. Then, acknowledgement that winter in 2022 might include a warm-weather vacation away, but not this year, so alternative plans for some days off at home. Our de-cluttering and tidying continues, this time as much for mindset purposes as anything else. Normally I don’t get much of it done on weeknights, but this past Thursday I sat down and slogged away at a corner of the living room that was piled up with puzzles games and the last few things from Christmas that we forgot to put in the attic and started on it. There’s still more to do, but every little bit helps.

Eli and I planned our summer RV trip to the mountains, and a random day off later this month when we will drop the kids off at school and take some time to connect and walk and be together.

My daughter and I took the dog for a walk. Eli and our son took a quick trip to the Art Store and Target, a rare and tiny burst of normalcy, carefully timed to limit exposure. We cooked homemade Indian food, something I’ve been trying to master. Eli fixed the TV.

Homemade Onion Pakora, Palak Paneer and chicken Tikka Masala with Naan and some homemade tamarind and yogurt sauces.

But it wasn’t any of those things that truly made the weight of the world leave my shoulders, although at one point Eli offering to literally take it from me did leave me laughing.

It was a squirrel.

We have this one determined squirrel, whom we have semi-affectionately named Stinker, who loves to clean out the bird feeders. Some of our feeders are more squirrel resistant than others, but the one just outside the living room window is an easy access point for him (her?). Birds eat from it too, the birds of my grandmother’s house – chickadees and goldfinches and robins and Bluejays. And even some rarer birds like bluebirds show up. This week it got emptied, as it always does, and sure enough, when I woke up, there was Stinker, trying to glean the last few crumbs before another snowstorm arrives.

And I remembered. My job here is to tend this place and it’s denizens. Eli and I are both providers here, each with our critical and respective jobs in caring for animals, children and home, but even before him I took on the role of Provider, first when I became a mom, and then when we arrived here, promising leave this place only when my time on earth is over and in better shape than I found it. I had, amidst piles of laundry and long hours at work and worry about all the everything, completely lost perspective. I chose this work, and some days it’s harder and more than I can manage. But this the long game, and Sithean and I belong together. I will almost certainly get lost in the day to day again, but at least for today I know where I need to be.

The Long Pandemic Teatime of the Soul

I drink a lot of tea in the winter time. I do not like my tea very strong, and after I drink the first cup until it has cooled down – I do like it very hot – I often top it with water and reheat, sometimes over and over again. An old friend once referred to it as me liking ‘scent of tea’ and she definitely nailed it. I’ve never reverted to drinking hot water with lemon slices, but that probably would be fine with me too. It’s warmth from the inside, which is helpful because our house isn’t well insulated, and cranking up the heat isn’t a constant option.

Last week, after watching and reading about how new strains of Covid-19 are spreading and far more infectious, we decided to accelerate our big grocery stock up and so on Friday and Saturday, shopped like food and household goods were going out of style. We have some bulk items coming from Azure Standard – a test run of their co-op – in early February, and will continue our Misfits Market and Walden local meat deliveries, but the intention here is to have enough of our core needs to last about 60 days. Things like bulk pasta, dried beans and flour will last much longer.

And now that we have the storage space, it’s feasible to buy 5 lbs of Parmesan cheese at a time and freeze it in bags until we need it. And yes, we use it.

Associated, as it is intended to be, with desperately needed pantry and freezer inventory and organization, it offers us a chance to mostly take ourselves out of circulation other than school for the kids and occasional runs for fruit and milk.

On March 8th, we will have been in our new normal for a year. While Covid-19 just passed it’s 1-year anniversary as a human disease, it took a little longer for us. As I look back, in mid-February I started stocking up. At first, I, and others thought I was a little nuts. On the evening of March 8th I flew home from my last work trip, unmasked as we all were, as I chatted with a fellow passenger. No one was talking about aerosol transmission then. He shared his Lysol wipes with me, something that was already in short supply. I had a reservation to return to my office in Michigan in 2 weeks, but I was pretty sure by that time I wouldn’t be going.

By the end of the following week we were all in lock down. The schools closed for ‘deep cleaning’ never to reopen, at least for the rest of the school year. Stores were running out of absolutely everything, and toilet paper was the new hot commodity.

A year and more than 400,o00 deaths later, we are preparing for a potential lock down and shortages again. While I think that things will begin to turn a corner in the spring, we are mindful that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Whether we will see similar food supply shortages as we did in the spring is unclear, but we know that the pandemic is running unchecked globally except in a few select places, so I have to assume this will be an ongoing issue. While everywhere there seems to be the idea that we will be back to normal by summer, I hope so while planning for another year of plague.

So how to get through that if it comes, and what to do to keep you and us safe and sound and well is on my mind. We are taking a very conservative approach to exposure, and I don’t intend to change that. So here are the things we are doing to get through this endless dusk, when the lights are dimmer and the weather is colder and our days are filled with our missed connections.

  1. Routine is your friend. If you know what to expect of each day it’s much easier. If every Saturday morning it’s bacon and pancakes for breakfast, hold that line and make sure there is bacon and all the things. Routine brings relief and clear expectations. And that translates to activities – my son has an Outschool Roblox class on Thursdays while my daughter has a horseback riding lesson (well ventilated – actually freezing cold – barn, good social distancing), and knowing that Thursdays host ‘their’ activities helps.
  2. Nourish your body. Cook good, healthy food as much as possible. Generate excitement and ask for participation in food preparation with your household. As you have time and money, now is a time to experiment with new foods and to refine others.
  3. Get outside. As cold as it is here in the north, I still make a point to walk and run as frequently as I can. My son practices his bike riding skills. My daughter hangs with her chickens, Eli plays fetch with Teddy the Doggleby and he and I try to walk together whenever we can get out for an hour.
  4. Create some holidays. We celebrate Surprise Day here once a year – a day off for everyone where we go do fun things, and pre-Covid, we would celebrate Mama Pajama Day, a day where everyone stays in pajamas all day and we eat ice cream sundaes for lunch. During Covid, there has been a lot more pajama-filled days, but now that the kids are back in school we plan to spin it up again. And it’s probably about time to bring back France Day, created in response to our cancelled trip to Paris last April, in which we eat french food and do activities related to France. Last year it was a 3D Eiffel Tower puzzle, croissants and a french chicken dish. In the end it doesn’t really matter what you do (give your dog a birthday party? Celebrate the color blue?), just do a something.
  5. Make the everyday fun. For nights the kids are with their Dad, Eli and I often make a nice dinner, light a fire in the wood stove, and snuggle up for a movie. We don’t really care what movie, but having a thing that we look forward to makes it fun, and while we always miss the kids, we look forward to time together. If you live alone, maybe pick a night where you do something indulgent, like a glass of wine while in the bathtub.
  6. Give yourself a break. We are human beings, not human doings. If it all gets to be too much, it’s okay to shut down for a while.
Homemade Chicken Massaman Curry

How are you getting through?

Home Food

It was raining yesterday morning, so the sun didn’t rise for the last day of 2020. It went from black to grey and unsettled in the early hours, which seems fitting for this year. When the sun set, we were feasting on our tradition of homemade Chinese food, all from scratch, with a movie to accompany. It was simple, but it was home, and traditions are comfort. For all that we love to travel, home is the nicest word, and everyone deserves that feeling.

A lot of people don’t have it, and may never. When someone tells me that they aren’t political, I become puzzled. 40 million people sit on the brink of eviction due to job losses and economic instability from the pandemic, through no fault of their own. The only thing that is saving them, that can, is policy. We will in 2021 potentially be 8 billion meals short of feeding all our citizens without direct intervention.

Feeding and housing people shouldn’t be something of politics, but it is policy, and it is the basics. Think of the things that make you feel safe when life is uncertain. Food. This is why breadbaking became a thing this year. Bread is literally the staff -and the stuff – of life. That feeling of warmth, safety, and being fed and nourished. Family. ‘I just want to hug my people’ is something I heard over and over. And home. If we could all come together and agree on one thing, I would hope it is that everyone deserves a safe place to sleep and food.

Maybe someday we will get there.

2020 saw so many things, but what was interesting to me in these unstable times is how very much things like stocked pantries, vegetable gardens, and food security became important. The mass exodus from cities to find a home somewhere. I suspect one of the lasting effects of the pandemic is that people will be more rooted. Multi-generational households will be more common.

That sense of place, a touchstone in the madness is important. It’s why when I arrived here 4 years and 10 days ago, there was a clear decision involved – for me, and then Eli and I, Sithean is forever. We plan to be able to pass it to our children, whether they want it or not is their decision. We will leave the land better than we found it, with the soil enriched, fruit trees producing, a place for our beloved chickens intact. What happens after we leave this earth, hopefully a long time from now, isn’t up to us. But what we do with our time is.

Our focus for our property is a combination of making it more beautiful and doing critical infrastructure work. And continuing traditions as well as making new ones, so that the other humans in our little tribe, our pod, our family, associate it with the things that make home.

Last night that was homemade Chinese and Thai food. Some people grow up going out for brunch on Sundays, but not us. My father would take us for Dim Sum in Boston’s Chinatown. We would hold a handwritten number, with a chop on one side and number on the other, and they would call diners, seemingly at random but really based on table availability. If you were a small group, you would be seated with others at a large round table, and then the carts would start coming by. Bao, deep fried crab claws, shrimp-stuffed eggplant, Ha Gow, and my favorites, chive dumplings and turnip cakes. Of course, every kind of dumpling available. We would eat and eat and eat until we could fit no more.

And still to this day, these foods are comfort foods to me. With no Asian family history to speak of, I’m as comfortable with how to use Wonton wrappers as I am with making Sunday bacon. My kids don’t have the same childhood of enforced wandering around Boston’s historic sites every weekend, but the food is one I am determined they will grow up with. Which is why yesterday afternoon you might have found Eli and my daughter cheerfully making scallion pancakes from start to finish. Usually Connor is my dumpling maker, but yesterday he punted, so it was just me.

Early phases of pad thai

The thing about this food is that once you get the right ingredients, it’s not hard. Stunningly easy, actually. My dumpling recipe comes from a really excellent cookbook called Dim Sum by Ellen Leong Blonder, and between the detailed illustrations and the simplicity, it’s one of my favorites.

You will need:
1 package wonton wrappers (I use the round ones, but square is fine)
8 oz ground pork
8 oz finely shredded napa cabbage
2 tablespoons crushed ginger
1 (or 2 small) scallions, finely chopped
Salt
2 teaspoons soy sauce or tamari
1/2 teaspoon sugar
2 teaspoons rice wine
1 tablespoon sesame oil

Add the chopped napa cabbage (it has to be napa, regular cabbage is a little too thick) to a bowl with about a tablespoon of salt and let sit for an hour. After the hour is up the cabbage will be heavily wilted. Rinse it in a colander and squeeze out as much water as you can with your hands.

Meanwhile, make the dumpling mixture. Take all the other ingredients other than the wontons and mix well in a bowl. Mix in the drained cabbage. Lay out the wonton wrappers on a cookie sheet 5-6 at a time, and wet the edges with water (it helps to keep a small bowl of warm water for this purpose at hand). place a scant teaspoon of the mixture at the center of each wrapper and fold in half. Create 3 folds, or pleats in the top if you like.

Once you are finished with putting all of the dumplings together, you can start to cook in batches, or you can freeze them in baggies, being careful to keep each dumpling separated or they will thaw together in a giant lump – I tell you this from experience, not the cookbook.

To cook, coat a nonstick pan or wok in oil, and fry on medium heat for 2 minutes per side, then add 1/2 cup of water and let it cook off. Once the water is cooked off, let the dumplings sear for about 45 seconds on each side and then remove. Cook in batches of about 10 per batch. Serve immediately.

Dumplings Cooking in the pan

The warmth you feel in your stomach will spread quickly through your soul.
Happy New Year to you and yours.

Holiday Lights

The last few weeks have rushed by. Work continued to be busy straight up until I closed my laptop on the 23rd, long after everyone else in the house had eaten dinner.

Other than a single day next week scheduled to play catch up, I’m on vacation until the new year, and so is my family. Christmas Eve, which would normally be centered around visits to family and friends, dinner with my parents, and food preparation for a big Christmas dinner, is even quieter than we thought it would be, while we wait for someone who has potentially exposed us to Covid-19 to get test results back. We’re all fine, just waiting.

My son has started talking about the things he doesn’t want to end after the pandemic does. Mostly he wishes I could be home like I am now. I do too, and I’m working to limit my travel after this ends. We know we have months ahead of us yet, but everyone seems to instinctively also know that this, too, shall pass.

Today is for baking – my friend Claire’s gingerbread cookie recipe is a requirement for Christmas for more than 20 years now, maybe a few more sugar cookies too. And Eli will try his hand at Pierogies, a warm reminder for both of us of our childhoods. That, combined with homemade apple sauce, kielbasa from a polish shop nearby and a few other items will be a fun meal and homage to our shared Polish ancestry. Even in our quarantine, we will celebrate.

I hope all of you have a warm and merry holiday filled with love. From our home to yours, happy holidays.

Taking Stock

Early mornings are my favorite time. Before everyone is up, there I am, with a book or my computer and my cup of coffee, enjoying the quiet of being alone before the world starts up around me.

Yesterday morning after I put a pot of eggs to hard boil on the stove, I sat in the living room, which was still cozy warm from the previous night’s fire in the wood stove, and illuminated by the lights on the Christmas tree. With just a few days to my favorite holiday, we are starting to slow down. There’s still much to do – I am late to getting the last few packages in the mail (this is true every year), we still haven’t gotten much wrapped and there’s some baking to be done. But all of our shopping is complete, Eli continues to create Elf on the Shelf magic with our house elf, Elphidelphia, most nights and other than a lot of wrapping still to do, which I actually enjoy, there’s just not a ton left to manage.

This year we will not spend our Christmas Eve with my parents or Christmas Day with my former in-laws. We can’t – we made the decision a couple weeks ago to put the kids into a school that is open and in-person 5 days a week, and so all semblance of assured safety for those around us is gone. It was the right decision, but it comes tinged with regret. Our cozy 9 month long bubble popped, and now we go out into the world again, just as infections rage all around me. I can’t say it doesn’t worry me, but I also know it’s what the kids needed. So we rolled the dice, and the outcome is now one of crossing our fingers and hoping that the other families there are as careful as ours.

So Christmas will be simple, with a lovely cheese board and a ham and some simple, pre-prepped side dishes for lunch. Eli, I, my ex and the kids are the sum total of the humans we will be with, and for this year that’s just fine.

Our winters are always quiet, but this one will be so much more so. But as much as I miss our people, I intend to enjoy it fully, with long peaceful walks and runs, time spent in the kitchen, Friday nights spent with homemade pizza and movies, and books. My garden seeds – although I need very few this year – are ordered because I know there will likely be shortages again this year, even though I am several months away from the potting bench taking up residence in the living room.

After re-engineering our spaces last summer to make room for more kids to arrive in our lives in 2021, we ended up with a lot of clutter in various places. Little by little, I’m going through and clearing it out. This week I tackled the top of our bureau, which has long been the resting place for unmatched socks, outgrown kid clothes, and various things that we don’t quite know where to put. Now it has just a few items on it, all carefully placed, and it’s a serene view for when I sit propped in bed with my laptop on chilly mornings. Of which there are a lot of these days. Decluttering – it’s what’s for winter.

Yesterday I did all my ordering of groceries from various locations, and stopped off at the Asian grocery store. From now until February 1, or maybe longer, other than milk from the local dairy, which we pick up 2x a month, and our Misfits Market deliveries, we’re on a grocery store & spending freeze. No going, no ordering. I stocked up this weekend because our holiday meals are important and there’s a pandemic on, but at the end of the day it’s time to get some daylight into the pantry and freezer, and one does that by eating it down.

Covid-19 is also spreading really, really fast in Massachusetts and everywhere, and we’re hunkering down for the next few months as much as possible, so having less coming in from the outside world while we eat through our stockpile is a good idea.

This year we have done so very much. As I look at the patched, and still to be painted walls in the bedroom, I think about the gift that new pipes throughout was to us and the house. There’s still more trees to take down, and I get a little sad about each one as they are removed, but the 7 trees we took down posed danger to the house and us, and now we have the start of a clearing that might eventually become something. An orchard? We don’t know yet.

And then there’s the RV, which sounds like a way too big investment until I tell you how very much I love it. It’s like playing fort, only for adults (and the kids, but mostly it’s for us, ha!). The sheer coziness and contentment Eli and I felt in the mountains over Thanksgiving weekend was not something I think you can put a sticker price on, as we lit candles at the little table after a day of hiking, and sat down to a delicious dinner of homemade enchiladas that he had prepped at home. Moments like that, when you realize you have everything you need and then some, are an amazing gift. Twenty years from now I imagine it will feel exactly the same.

And there’s been so much else. The pleasure of knowing that an entire bed of garlic for us and our neighbors is tucked away under the snow in the garden. The freshly painted walls in the living room and a comfy couch that will seat all of us and then some. The fact that we are moving along in our adoption journey. Our kids. One another. 2020 has been a hard year to sit with, with illnesses and mental health issues and job challenges for so many we love, plus a pandemic and so many people at risk and in need. We have been incredibly lucky, despite me getting sick and our work and life load having exploded in intensity. This meant that Eli and I had to team up on a whole new level, ruthlessly prioritizing our time. We’ve settled into most of a routine based around our various strengths and weaknesses, and I think we’ll just continue to refine that over time.

Since this year we tended to some very expensive items, next year will be a little different. Our focus, other than replacing the super crappy electric stove in the kitchen and adding a few needed implements like a leaf blower and chain saw, is savings. We have our RV, which means for us now travel is cheap and awesome and comes with our own private bathroom, which is wonderful in a pandemic (we love tent camping but communal restrooms are a no-fly zone for us right now). We are a few months away from being adoptive-parent certified, we hope. And we’ve been taking steps to get a better handle on expenses, cutting as many as possible. We’re also knee-deep in a refinance, dropping the mortgage down to 20 years at 2.25%. Our target is to pay it off in way less than that, but carving off a full percentage point and dropping the term from 30 to 20 years for effectively the same monthly payment will save us a ton of interest over the life of the loan.

We still have a lot of big goals ahead of us – an eventual renovation, kids to college, and a lot of expenses to evaluate and cut over the next several months. That includes some recurring expenses but also our grocery spending, which is a little uhm….well…never mind. More on that later.

But the name of the game for 2021 is using and enjoying what we have. We have spent the last several years building the life we want, and now it’s time to slow down and live in it for a while.