Bright Shiny Things

Stores have their holiday decorations up and our mailbox is bursting with ads full of come-ons and must-haves. I haven’t heard piped-in Christmas music yet, but I know that it’s only a matter of time.

In the U.S., the day after Thanksgiving – Black Friday – has long been considered the start of the holiday buying frenzy, but most of us have noticed the creep of Christmas earlier and earlier each year. It’s not unusual for pumpkin patches to be cleared out the day after Halloween to make way for tree lots.

Catalogs full of bright shiny things… that I don’t need.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Consumermas.

The good news is the holidays don’t have to be a time of stress and over-spending. It’s possible to enjoy the sights and sounds, and partake in the magic of the season, all without purchasing a single gift.

It’s true.  

My husband and I haven’t exchanged newly purchased Christmas gifts in ages. Not with each other and not with friends or family. Before you think we are a couple of Scrouge McGrinches, we aren’t. It’s just that, at this point in our lives, we are trying to shovel stuff out the door, not add to the pile. If there were young children in our family, it would be different. but we are all adults now. If we want something, we buy it. If we don’t want something, we’d rather someone didn’t spend their money buying it for us.   

That’s not to say we don’t give gifts at all, we do, although our holiday gift list is much smaller than it used to be. And, since what we give can’t be found at a mall or online, we no longer rush from store to website looking for the perfect gift.  Breaking out of the holiday consumer ritual allows us to slow down and smell the pine trees. 

Have you considered cutting down on holiday gift-giving? Maybe this is the year to have that conversation with friends and family. You could point to the global supply chain disruption, your reluctance to join the masses at the mall, your concern for the environment, your desire to reduce stress – theirs and yours, or all the above.

Whether you agree not to exchange gifts at all or just to tweak things a bit is up to you. Fortunately, for those who still want to give gifts but also tap the brakes on crazy consumerism, there are many alternatives to traditional gifts that will bring you – and your recipient – joy.

  1. Give consumables. Tasty treats and/or a nice bottle of wine are almost always appreciated and don’t add to the clutter.
  2. Give experiences. Consider theater tickets, museum passes, restaurant gift cards, or spa treatments.
  3. Give your time. Is there something special you could do with your friend or family member? Would they love to spend the day with you antiquing or visiting a local park? Or, conversely, maybe gifting them a full day of freedom might be just the thing. Entertain their kids or pet sit their dog while they are out enjoying their “me time.”
  4. Offer your talents. Would your friend like to learn how to knit? Is your uncle struggling with a tech issue you can help him with? Does your sister have boxes full of old photos that you could help her organize?
  5. If you love to shop, agree to purchase only second-hand items. You and your friends can still enjoy hunting for the perfect gift while not spending a lot of money or adding to the supply chain woes. If what you receive is a keeper, great! If not, donate it back to the shop and let them sell it again. (A friend and her sister have an annual quest to find the weirdest thing they can for each other at a thrift shop or yard sale. Little money, lots of laughter… perfect.)
  6. If you still want to purchase new gifts, shop at locally owned stores. They probably have been struggling over the last year and a half and will welcome the boost. Believe me, Jeff Bezos doesn’t need more business.

If celebrating a more environmentally sustainable and less stressful holiday season sounds good to you, talk to your friends and family early to get their buy-in. Even though some might not be receptive to the idea, it doesn’t mean that you can’t make the switch yourself. You can decide not to feel guilty if they give you a gift anyway, or you can always have few bottles of wine in gift bags on hand just in case.

If you’ve already cut back on your holiday gift purchases, has it made a difference in your enjoyment of the season? What favorite homemade or second hand gifts have you given or received? Do you have any funny, inexpensive, gift exchange traditions with friends or family?

Welcoming the Spirits Home

At this time in 2019, my husband and I traveled to Oaxaca City, Mexico to experience the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.

We’ve never been very good at taking selfies.

Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday where the souls of deceased relatives join their families for a brief reunion. From October 31 through November 2, the border between the spirit world and the living world opens, allowing the spirits to cross over. The holiday is filled with beautiful symbols, traditions, and imagery. It is a joyful time: the spirits are treated as honored guests as they feast, drink, dance, and play music with their families. Many believe that if you remember them, they never cease to exist.

One of the most recognizable symbols are the alters or “ofrendas” (offerings) that can be found in public places and private homes. Although each colorful alter is unique, they all are decorated with specific components that honor loved ones and provide what they need on the journey to rejoin their families.

Every ofrenda includes the four elements: water, air, earth, and fire. Water is provided so the spirits can quench their thirst after their journey. Air is represented by colorful paper banners.  Earth is represented by food, especially bread. The light from candles helps the spirits find their way. In addition, alters are decorated with pictures of the departed, their favorite foods and drinks, sugar skulls, and marigolds (whose scent and bright orange color help attract souls to the alter).

All of these pictures were taken of ofrendas in public places. The alters created in private homes tend to be much less elaborate, but equally beautiful.

I’m sharing these images from our trip as part of Terri’s Sunday Stills photo challenge, whose theme this week is Indoor/Outdoor Decorations.

Sunday Stills: The Pink Side of Muertos  

Two years ago this month, my husband and I were in Oaxaca, Mexico. It was our second visit to this vibrant and colorful city, but this time we were there to experience the celebration of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Although the official holiday spans just three days (October 31 – November 2), Oaxaca starts to prepare for the big event early. By arriving in mid-October and staying until the end of November we had plenty of time to not only enjoy the celebration but to experience Oaxaca before and after the crowds descended.

Templo de Santo Domingo under a sky blue pink sunset.

Images of skeletons could be found all over the city, many of them adorned in pink.

Some were whimsically pink.

Some were a worrisome pink.

Some were cute-as-a-button pink.

Speaking of pink, the City Centro Hotel located in the barrio of Jalatlaco, is all about pink. Because we weren’t paying guests, I was only able to access the ground floor, but I had so much fun poking around and taking pictures. The next time we visit Oaxaca, I would be tickled pink to book a room for at least a night so we can explore more of the hotel, including its colorful rooftop pool.   

This week’s Sunday Stills challenge is The Pink Side of Life. Click here to enjoy Terri’s photos and see how others responded to the theme.

Traveling in the Time of COVID

When my husband mentioned to a friend that we were traveling to Canada this summer, his friend said, “Wow, that’s brave” (and, by “brave,” I think he meant “crazy”). While any amount of traveling – whether to a foreign country, another state, or another county – could be considered brave (or crazy) during a pandemic, this trip felt like a pretty safe bet for us.

As this chart from the New York Times indicates, our journey would take us from a country with relatively high infection rates to a country that, for the most part, appeared to be taking the pandemic seriously. When we learned in July that the Canadian border would open August 9th to fully vaccinated U.S. tourists, we started to finalize plans for our trip north.

In normal times, a road trip up the length of California, then through Oregon and Washington, would be a wonderful opportunity to visit friends and favorite spots along the way. But because we knew that we would have to get COVID tests within 72 hours of crossing the border, we decided to play it safe and take the most direct route with the fewest number of stops. Long days of driving and eating mostly at fast food establishments (where it is possible to get fresh salads) isn’t our favorite way to travel but we didn’t want to get within miles of our destination and find out that we had contracted COVID somewhere along the way.

Even with hours and hours of driving, we found that arriving at our carefully selected overnight stops in the late afternoon gave us great opportunities to stroll around their historic districts and discover lower risk outdoor dining opportunities. That turned out to be more fun than expected.

We had arranged to have our COVID tests two days before we were to cross the border at a facility that guaranteed results in 24 hours. The following day, we had our (negative!) test results and just one more overnight stay before queueing up early to be among the first American tourists to cross the border.

Because of other blogs you follow, some of you already know a main focus of our trip to Vancouver Island was to meet up with a group of bloggers who have become dear friends. We are all fully vaccinated and we knew that most of our activities would be outdoors enjoying the island’s amazing natural beauty. We hiked through forests, explored beaches, ate in some lovely outdoor restaurants (including some excellent food trucks), and partied on the patios of our friends’ homes.

During our almost month-long stay, we managed to pack in a ton of fun, miles of hiking, lots of laughter and maybe a little too much eating, all while staying safe and COVID-free. Since several of the bloggers have already written about the fabulous time we had (Donna, Retirement Reflections and another post; Erica, Behind the Scenery; Kathy, SMART Living 365), I will let their posts tell that part of the story.

In order to cross the border into Canada, my husband and I were required to present our passports, proof of vaccination, and documented negative COVID test results. To cross the border back into the United States, all we had to do is show the border guard our passports and assure him that we didn’t have any fruit in our car.

Crossing back into the U.S. felt a lot braver – and perhaps crazier – then traveling to Canada.  

Sunday Stills: Summer Bugs

We’re lucky to live in an area that doesn’t have too many bugs… at least the type of bugs that bug us.

We have insects:

… and we have arachnids:

But buggy bugs? Not so much.

I was at a loss when I saw that this week’s Sunday Still photo prompt was Summer Bugs, until I thought of my first car: a 1972, chartreuse, Volkswagen Super Beetle. I loved that car, not only because it was as cute as a bug, but because of the sense of freedom it gave me.

Cool car, unfortunate perm

Although that car is long gone, I still love VW Bugs, as my photo archives will attest. Here are just a few pictures of VDubs that I have taken over the years while traveling.  

Bugs found along Route 66

The Bug Farm in Conway, Texas has a permanent crop of five Volkswagen beetles planted nose-down in the ground. It is a parody of the more famous Cadillac Ranch in nearby Amarillo.

In Holbrook, Arizona, just down the street from the Wigwam Motel (yes, each “room” is shaped like a teepee, and, yes, we stayed there), is Kester’s Bug Shop. where they have bugs of unique shapes and sizes.

Bugs of Mexico

Vintage VW Bugs are everywhere on the streets of Mexico… some are in better shape than others.

Hometown Bugs

These bugs were discovered in our neighborhood.

A shy bug hiding behind a plumeria bush
A neighbor is restoring a 1971 Super Beetle

This week’s theme for Terri Webster Schrandt’s Sunday Stills photo prompt is Summer Bugs. See Terri’s photographs on her blog, Second Wind Leisure. If you have some favorite bug images, please join in!

Sunday Stills: A Change of Altitude

It’s almost as if Terri (Second Wind Leisure) knew that my husband and I would be spending a few days up in the mountains when she came up with The Great Outdoors as this week’s Sunday Stills photo topic. Although I often have to search my files for images when I join in on one of her photo challenges, this time all I did was walk out the door of our little cabin and there it was… the great outdoors!

We were delighted when our friends, Kathy (Smart Living 365) and Thom, invited us to join them for a few days at their mountain retreat in nearby Idyllwild. The cabin they have rented for a number of years has a mini-cabin situated just a few steps away. It’s perfect for the hosts and the guests – lots of opportunities to connect, but enough separation so that everyone can have some privacy and alone time.

We hiked:

We hugged trees (and each other):

Kathy and Thom showing a tree some love.

We moved boulders:

Full disclosure: it didn’t budge (thank goodness!).

We watched the sunset… :

A fire a couple of years ago left these trees bare, but still beautiful.

… just before the full strawberry moon rose:

We enjoyed great conversations:

There may have been some adult beverages involved.

And, we marveled at nature’s artistry:

I loved how the bark’s texture changed closer to the soil.

The red bark of the Manzanita starts to peel, reveling the new growth below.
I think I saw a mountain gorilla on the trail… or not.

The few days that we were able to enjoy the clear mountain air and expansive vistas were just what we needed. There is nothing quite like spending time in the great outdoors to reduce stress, encourage reflection, and help us appreciate the gifts of Mother Nature.

What’s On Your Plate? Good Question

First, let me apologize to my friends, Donna and Deb, the co-hosts of the monthly What’s On Your Plate? virtual potluck party. I am going to misappropriate their gathering shamelessly and use it as a way to generate meal ideas – specifically lunch ideas – for myself.

Breakfast is easy around our house… and usually not overly imaginative. My husband and I often fend for ourselves – pancakes, French toast, or cereal for him; oatmeal, a poached egg, or toast for me (and coffee… always coffee). Dinner is more involved and requires longer prep time, but we almost never seem to run out of inspiration (and, when we do, there is always pizza).

Ever since we retired, lunch has been a conundrum. Coming up with meals that are tasty, healthy, and relatively quick – the meal trifecta, as far as I’m concerned – hasn’t been easy. Too many times, we look at what is available in the fridge and/or pantry, find nothing inspiring, and decide to go out for lunch. As much as I enjoy a change of scenery with my meals, eating out can get expensive, and most menu choices tend to be calorie dense.

So, before the What’s On Your Plate? co-hosts notice that I’ve hijacked their topic, can you help me out? What do you typically make for lunch in your home? Do you put together a different lunch every day? Do you make a big bowl of something yummy and eat it throughout the week? Are there lunches that are tasty, healthy, and quick that you love to eat? Are there ingredients that you always have on hand so that lunch is never an issue? I would be very grateful if you shared some favorites.

And, to avoid Donna and Deb kicking me out when my ruse is discovered, here is a recipe for a lunch we have now and then when we are desperate:

Bread

Peanut Butter

Jelly

Please check out Deb’s (The Widow Badass) and Donna’s (Retirement Reflections) blogs for their What’s On Your Plate? monthly dinner – or breakfast, lunch, or midnight snack – party. Get inspired by the various dishes they and other bloggers feature and share one of your own (a lunch dish would be nice 😊).

Just Passing Through

The picture in the Airbnb ad was the first thing that caught his attention. While most hosts feature the home they have for rent, this ad only pictured a dry desert landscape. Perfect, Greg thought. As he scrolled through the reviews, he become even more intrigued. Many were in a language he didn’t recognize but the reviews in English were positive. “This place is out of the world!” one gushed. “You’ll never want to leave!” said another. The review that finally convinced Greg to book the house read, “If you are looking for an environment that is both peaceful and life-changing, this is it.”

There had been little peace in Greg’s life since he and Lydia had broken up three weeks prior. After four years of living together, she told him it was over. No yelling, no tears: just, “I don’t love you anymore and you have to leave.” Even as Greg felt his heart being squeezed between her well-manicured fingers, he couldn’t help admiring her calm composure. Lydia dumped him as if he was one of her underperforming employees.

There was no question about who got to stay in the apartment and who had to leave. Lydia’s name was on the rental agreement and, ever since he lost his job back in August, Greg hadn’t contributed to the rent.

As he gathered his things under her watchful eyes, he was shocked at how little he actually owned. The furniture, TV, and kitchen appliances were all hers. Everything he had thought of as “ours,” really belonged to Lydia. When he had taken what was his, the apartment looked the same, as if he had never been there.

Now that he was essentially homeless and had to rely on friends to put him up, Greg tried to convince himself that being able to travel light was a good thing. He only needed his beater car and a small backpack to carry his possessions from sofa to sofa. Even so, he couldn’t help but think a man his age should have more to show for himself. 

Greg knew that he would have to find a job and more permanent housing soon – two things that weren’t easy to come by in the current economy. He also knew that he needed to have a clear idea of what he wanted his new, post-Lydia life to look like. As much as he appreciated his friends’ generosity, he had very little privacy and craved quiet and solitude so he could figure things out.

A few days in the high desert was just what he needed. While many people sought vacation rentals at the beach, Greg longed for the peace and quiet of the desert. He also knew that he could afford to rent a house there for a few days. Unlike at the coast, the prices in Morongo and Yucca Valley wouldn’t make too much of a dent in his meager savings. Ignoring Lydia’s voice in his head telling him how irresponsible he was being, Greg booked the desert house for a three-night stay.


As Greg drove out of town, the lush green lawns, imposing security gates, and faux lakes of Palm Springs started to give way to natural desert landscape without the injection of imported water. He could feel his shoulders relax more with each mile, and the pain of Lydia’s rejection began to ease. He knew that he was spending money that he should be saving, but he also knew what he was doing was the right thing for him.

A half-hour later, Greg’s GPS indicated that he was close to the address of the rental. He carefully followed the prompts up a narrow, dusty road, doing his best to avoid the large ruts on either side. When the GPS told him that he had arrived, Greg slowed to a crawl and started to look to his left and right. No house. Crap, Greg thought, I hope I haven’t been taken. Not willing to give up and hear the Lydia living in his head tell him what an idiot he was, he considered his next move. He remembered passing a small convenience store a few miles back. Maybe they knew something about the house or owner.


The bell over the door announced his arrival but the man behind the counter continued to stare at his phone. Greg picked up a bag of chips, hoping a purchase would help break the screen’s spell.

“Hi. I’m looking for a house up the road, but I can’t seem to find it,” Greg said as he slid the chips and a piece of paper with the handwritten address towards the clerk.

The clerk looked at the address and smirked. “Yeah, that’s the Martin place. It’s not visible from the road; you have to park and walk up the dirt path. Once you clear the hill, you’ll see it.”

Feeling much better, Greg thanked the man and paid for his chips. As he walked out of the store, the clerk called out, “Look for the blue door.”

Greg carefully retraced his route and, once again, found himself where the GPS insisted there was a house. He parked in a little dirt lot he hadn’t noticed the first time and looked around until he saw the path the clerk had mentioned. He opened the trunk to retrieve his backpack and, as he slung it over his shoulder, wondered again how he got to the point where most of his worldly possessions could fit in such a small bag.  

The path leading up the hill was partially overgrown by shrubs and covered in loose rock and dust. When Greg reached the top, he looked around for the house. Still nothing. Then, over to the right, nestled among some trees, he saw a door. No house, just a door.

Greg walked over to get a closer look. The door was set inside a frame and stood straight up with no visible signs of support. The robin’s egg blue paint looked new, but the brass doorknob was tarnished and showed signs of wear. As he slowly circled around the frame, he could see that it was no thicker than a typical door that might be found in a normal home. But, there was nothing normal about it. At all. Feeling a little ridiculous, he cautiously knocked. When he heard footsteps approaching from the other side, his first instinct was to run.

Before Greg could turn away, the door was opened by a small man whose bald head barely reached the middle of Greg’s chest. Although the man’s unnaturally small mouth held no hint of a smile, his large eyes looked friendly.

“Are you Mr. Martin?” Greg asked cautiously. “I’m Greg Trent. I have reservations for your Airbnb.”  

“Oh, yes! I have been expecting you. Come in.” The little man opened the door fully to reveal black and white tile covering the floor of what appeared to be a large room. Greg quickly stepped back from the door and looked behind it. Nothing. He looked inside the room again and saw that the space was so vast no walls were visible; he could only see the checkerboard floor stretching off into the distance.  

Greg hesitated to step inside and tried to stall for time as his mind worked to find the logic of what he was seeing. “Um… my reservation is for three nights. What is the check-out time on Wednesday?” he asked, even though he knew the answer.

“Oh, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” the man replied.

As Greg drew a startled breath, Mr. Martin let out a laugh. “Oh, I’m sorry,” he said, “I couldn’t resist. It just cracks me up to see people’s expressions when I say that. Check out time is 10 a.m.” Then, he added, “But, really, you may not want to leave. Many have chosen to stay. Let’s see how you feel on Wednesday.”    

As the man spoke, Greg noticed a wave of peace flowing throughout his body and he realized that his stress from the last few weeks had disappeared. He had sudden clarity that there was nothing behind him to lose and endless possibilities ahead. He hitched up his backpack and, after taking one last look over his shoulder, crossed the door’s threshold and followed the odd little man towards wherever the black and white tiles led.  


This story was written for Dan Antion’s (No Facilities) Thursday Doors Writing Challenge. The door that inspired my story can be found here.

Thursday Doors: Interplanetary Portal

I have had a photograph sitting in my archives for a few years, with vague plans to share it in some future Thursday Doors post. When I read that Dan Antion (No Facilities) had created a Writing Challenge based on door images, I figured this would be a good time.  

Writing Challenge, you ask? Yes – Dan, the keeper of all things Thursday Doors, came up with the brilliant idea of having door photographers provide inspiration for writers.  

I found this door about three years ago while on an artists’ studio tour in Southern California’s high desert, not too far from Joshua Tree National Park. It was on property owned by artist Snake Jagger, who often includes a door very much like this – standing slightly ajar, alone in the distance – in his whimsical surreal landscapes. I love that he built a three-dimensional door that looks just like the doors in his paintings. The structure is no deeper than a sheet of wood. The illusion of depth is created with perspective.   

Please join in!

If you want to participate as a photographer: create your own Thursday Doors post and share your images. Be sure to link to Dan’s post.

If you want to participate as a writer: plan to post your door-inspired writing on your blog anytime between now and May 29th. (I’d be thrilled if you used my door as inspiration but, if space aliens or portals to other worlds aren’t your thing and you’d like to select another door, there will be plenty of others to choose from.) Include a link to Dan’s site and attribute the door image to the photographer.

If you want to participate both as a photographer and a writer: get busy!

For more specific information about how to participate in the challenge, please read Dan’s original announcement.

Hello Dinner

Last year, when my husband and I realized that life as usual wasn’t going to be usual for a while, we started looking for alternatives to our normal foodie ways. Pre-pandemic, we made most of our meals at home but, soon, even simple trips to the grocery store became troublesome due to empty shelves and unwanted crowding. To help keep the trips infrequent, we signed up for a boxed meal delivery service.

One of the two meals we received for the week.

Several years ago, we subscribed to Blue Apron’s meal kit service (read my impressions here). This time, based on online reviews, we went with Hello Fresh. We started with their Veggie meal plan (they offer several different plans) to introduce more plant-based meals into our repertoire and expand our cooking experiences. After a few months, we switched to their Meat & Veggies plan for greater meal variety.

Our chosen two-recipe plan provided enough ingredients to make four meals a week, two for each recipe option. Every recipe comes with its own large, four-color instruction card and perfectly portioned ingredients. Most recipes require a few common pantry items that are not included; like cooking oils, butter, and salt and pepper. We received our first box last September and continued the weekly service until recently.

All the ingredients to make dinner for two.

What we liked

We were able to select meals in advance from a large variety of options. Our selections arrived on our porch in an insulated box every Monday. Each box contained food for two night’s worth of meals. This took a huge load off menu planning and shopping.

Meal prep was something we did together. There were always several components to the meals (protein, starch, vegetable), and a fair amount of prep, so we divided the duties to best assure everything was done on time.

The meals were, for the most part, interesting and varied, and not overly complicated. The flavors were good and the portions were reasonable. Hello Fresh provided some unfamiliar spice and sauce blends, which were fun to try.

Because the ingredients came in pre-measured portions, we weren’t left with partially-used jars of things that go to waste.  

Several of the recipes were “keepers” that we will make again on our own. The recipe cards list the ingredients, amounts, and step-by-step instructions so they are easy to replicate. Hello Fresh even provides the ingredients for their special spice and sauce blends on their website.

What we didn’t like

Most of the recipes called for oven roasting. We don’t like heating the oven – and the house – unnecessarily. When we could – which was often – we used an alternative cooking method (e.g., rather than bake string beans for 15 minutes in a 450 degree oven, we just pan-roasted them).

We chose to pan-roast our string beans rather than heat up the oven.

Some of the recipes called for ingredients that we didn’t deem necessary. This is a personal preference but I, for example, chose not to add a tablespoon of butter – and the calories – to rice that will be covered with a sauce.   

A few times, the supplied produce wasn’t very fresh and so we substituted our own.   

Although Hello Fresh tries to be eco-friendly, it’s challenging when sending out thousands of boxes of individually packaged items. One scallion wrapped in plastic or two tablespoons of sour cream in a pouch seems wasteful.

We are big fans of leftovers and we didn’t like doing a lot of work for one night’s meal. Fortunately, we found that by supplementing the provided produce with some of our own, we could stretch many of the meals to cover two nights (or at least one dinner and a lunch).

Dinner is served.

Boxed meal services are becoming more and more popular and there are a lot of options to pick from. There are a host of websites that compare the different offerings to help you pick the right one, based on your budget and eating preferences. Because of the competition, most (all?) run promotional pricing on your initial order(s) to help entice you. Pro tip: if you know someone who subscribes to one of these services, ask them if it offers free boxes to friends they refer. I was able to pass on this offer to a few of my friends.          

Although we have paused Hello Fresh for a while, we are likely to start it up again in the future, or maybe try another service for comparison. It’s a convenient – although not cheap – way to add more variety to your meals.

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Please click over to Deb’s (The Widow Badass) and Donna’s (Retirement Reflections) blogs for their new What’s on Your Plate? monthly dinner (or breakfast, lunch, or midnight snack) party. Check out the various meal inspirations found there and share one of your own.