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?

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: 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 😊).

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.

Like a Natural Woman

I, of course, had no idea that the hair and nail appointments I made one year ago would be the last ones for a long, long time. I imagine that, as I left each of these establishments, my parting words were something along the lines of “I’ll see you in six weeks” (or two, in the case of my nail tech). I was newly highlighted (hair) and gelled (nails) and had little reason to think that I was about to enter the twilight zone of…

I started lightening my hair in the 1970s, almost as soon as my naturally light blond tresses began to turn the dreaded “dirty blond.”

Proof that I come by my blond (and fine) hair naturally… also, apparently, my taste for cookies.

At first, I used Sun-In lightening spray that worked with the sun to produce dry, hay-like light golden locks. After several weeks of baking my skin and hair, I achieved the natural, surfer girl looks I was going for. Fortunately, my hair survived this assault but, unfortunately, my skin is still paying the price for my vanity.

As I got older and had more discretionary income, professional haircuts and highlights became part of my routine upkeep. At about the same time, I determined that my thin, perpetually-chipped nails didn’t support the professional look I was going for, so regular manicure appointments were added.

Before Covid, I hadn’t given serious thought to letting nature take its course. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I continued to think of myself as a blond. The highlights I was getting were merely augmenting my natural color (sure they were). My nails were a different story. I knew that, under the polish and gel coating, lurked a peeling, splitting mess. I had no desire to let my natural nails go free.

I remember canceling my first standing appointments after our state started to close things down. Like many, I assumed that this would be a short, temporary situation. I could certainly go a month – maybe even two – without my usual upkeep. After all, we’ve traveled out of the country for close to two months and somehow I survived—knowing, of course, that my appointments were set and waiting for me on my return.

Then a funny thing happened. Four weeks turned to eight. Eight to twelve. Twelve to twenty. At week 21, I called my stylist and asked her if she made house calls. Since then she’s made three more, but only for trims.

Day 141.

My last color was one year ago and I’m okay with that. I don’t have a lot of gray in my mostly light brown hair but, what’s there looks amazingly like the highlights I used to pay the big bucks for.

Day 367.

My nails have also been a pleasant surprise. Once what had been damaged by the gel grew out, I have discovered that my natural nails aren’t bad at all. As long as I keep them fairly short, they look just fine.

I don’t know if my new natural look is here to stay or not. I doubt that I will go back to regular manicures, but I reserve my right to become an ash blond again if I decide that I prefer that look. Right now, though, I’m happy to embrace the real me. Oh, and my stylist no longer needs to make house calls… my husband and I have learned to cut each other’s hair.

Hitting the Medicare Milestone

Just some of my fan mail.

The flood of mail started around September and hasn’t let up yet. I will turn 65 – the magical age for Medicare – in January and I’ve received at least two… or three… or more letters, brochures, and flyers a day begging me to sign up for this Medicare plan or the other.

Those of you who live in a country that considers healthcare a right for every citizen no matter what age, feel free to shake your head in pity and not read the rest of this post.

As I was perusing the various plans—and the options within each—I thought about how my upcoming birthday changes my appeal to the insurance companies. At 64, healthcare coverage on the open market is somewhat limited and very expensive. Even in good health, someone that age is viewed as a potential drain on their bottom line. But, as soon as my odometer clicks over to 65, I’m desirable again.

As far as I know, I will continue to get older and, as far as I know, the natural aging process can will eventually bring health challenges. Yet, they all want me to sign up for their plan.

I’m pretty sure the insurance companies aren’t offering me reasonably priced healthcare coverage out of the kindness of their hearts. Whatever agreement they’ve worked out with the government must benefit them financially.

Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful for Medicare and the comfort having good coverage brings. I just have a sneaky suspicion that it isn’t as cost-effective as it could be. Insurance companies rarely lose when negotiating with our government.

Anyway, after looking through all the options—and wondering why the heck this needs to be so complicated—we’ve made the decision that we think is best for us now. Next year, and every year going forward, we will have to reevaluate, based on our current circumstances. As we get older, I imagine this annual reevaluation will become more difficult. Call me crazy but it seems that having one plan that covers everyone would be easier to manage and less expensive.

If you, or a loved one, will turn 65 in 2021, I encourage you to start doing your homework now. There are many decisions to make and missing certain deadlines can be costly. You might feel overwhelmed and/or confused enough to want to just ignore it all together. Don’t.

Attend a few seminars if you can. Talk to your friends, family members, and colleagues. Ask how they made their decision and if they’ve found any helpful resources. One company you might want to check out is Boomer Benefits. They have a great website that contains a lot of information, answers to common questions, videos, and webinars. In addition, most areas have local Medicare insurance advisers who might be able to help you sort through the various options (at no cost to you).

Good luck and stay as healthy as you can. The best healthcare plan is the one you don’t have to use.

I won’t be queuing up just yet

Recently, the New York Times ran an article, Find Your Place in the Line, where you could, by entering a few bits of information, find out when you might expect to get the Covid-19 vaccine in the United States. After indicating my age, general health, and the county I live in, I discovered that I probably should tamp down my enthusiasm a bit.

There are 118.5 million people ahead of me.

Although a final sequence hasn’t been determined yet, whatever it turns out to be, I know that I will have a wait. Healthcare workers, people in nursing homes, first responders, the elderly, and those with health risks will undoubtedly be vaccinated before me.

And that’s how it should be.

But, also according to the chart, standing behind me in this virtual line are essential workers, teachers, homeless, and prisoners. It seems that at least some of these folks should be able to cut in line.  

Don’t get me wrong, I really, really want this thing to be over. I want to see my friends without distancing or masks, I want to travel, eat in restaurants, attend events, and go about my life without masks or fear. If everyone could magically get the vaccine tomorrow, I’d do it. (OK, I’m lying… I’d probably wait a month or so just to make sure there weren’t any crazy side effects).

One of the drug companies, Pfizer, expects to have about 50 million doses available by the end of 2020. Since the vaccine is administered in two doses, 28 days apart, that’s enough for 25 million people.

Did I mention that there are 118.5 million people in front of me? 

So, I won’t be putting my masks away any time soon nor will we book any non-refundable travel. But just knowing that there is light at the end of the tunnel makes any inconvenience or sacrifice easier to bear. We’ve been at this for almost nine months now. A few—or more—additional months of playing it safe will help us all find our normal again.    

A Dazzling Danse Macabre

OK, I admit that I am the jealous type. Every autumn, pictures of brightly colored foliage flood my blog and Instagram feeds and my internal green-eyed monster comes out in force. Although I enjoy living in a warm climate, those of you who live in areas with enough chill to bring out the fall colors, are showing off and I’m envious. Other than a few liquid ambers here and there, most of our trees are green year-round.  

So, in the spirit of “what about me?” I thought I’d share a few pictures of what’s happening in our front yard right now. It may not match the picturesque pigments some of you are currently enjoying, but I think it’s pretty sensational anyway.  

Our yard’s landscape is made up of mostly low-water, low-maintenance succulents and agaves. Those who may not be familiar with these plants might be picturing:

Common, and ubiquitous, crassula ovata, or jade plant.

But actually, succulents and agaves come in a dazzling array of colors, sizes, shapes, and textures. Often their foliage is multi-hued, and some have blooms that blaze even brighter than their leaves.

One of my favorites is the Blue Glow Agave. It has chalky blue-green leaves that are trimmed with a ribbon of red along its sharp margins and is especially stunning when backlit by the sun.

It’s easy to see how this agave got its name.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and one of our Blue Glows is, sadly, reaching the final chapter of its life… but what an exciting chapter it is. After sitting quietly in our yard for several years, it has suddenly begun its spectacular Danse Macabre.

At first, we noticed what looked like a greenish-blue muskrat with its head buried in the center of the plant.

September 6. What is this in the center of our agave?

As that center growth started to emerge, it began to resemble the head of an exotic bird.

September 10.

Pretty soon, the spike was just a little taller than me. 

September 21.

After reaching what appears to be its final height, a little over 11 feet tall… 

October 17.

…it began to flower along its stalk. These blossoms have become a pollination party bar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.  

October 22.

I don’t know how long the death bloom will last—maybe a month?—but since agaves are monocarpic, eventually the plant will die and will have to be removed.

But look! Just when you might think all is lost, nestled among the plant’s leaves are a whole litter of pups waiting to be removed and replanted.

Each of these pups are waiting to be harvested and begin the cycle again.

It’s the whole circle of life playing out over a few months. The best part is that, pretty soon, I’ll have the perfect spot to plant one of the new baby Blue Glow Agaves.

Let’s see your maples, hawthorns, and aspens do that!

Do your friends know that you blog?

When I started my blog, my husband was the only one outside of the blogosphere to know. I wasn’t sure where this new adventure would take me, so I decided to keep it to myself. As time went on I started to tell a few good friends, unsure of their reaction or interest. Most were receptive and asked for the URL, a few said the equivalent of “oh, that’s nice… let’s talk about something else.” Now, after seven years, no more than ten non-blogging friends read my blog, or are even aware of it.

And that’s just fine.

Who is the woman behind this blog?

I became curious about what others do when I noticed that many of my blogging friends link to their posts on Facebook. Some had blog-specific Facebook accounts, but most just linked from their personal page. I imagine many do the same thing from other social media accounts.  

Most of the friends I have on Facebook are people I’ve known from my childhood or from my work life. Although many of them are actual friends – even close friends – not all are. Many are really just friendly acquaintances in practical terms.

I have made the choice not to link my posts. In fact, just the idea of it makes me very uncomfortable.

So, what gives? Why are some people happy to let anyone and everyone know about their blog, and others are happier keeping the worlds separate?

On a recent Zoom meeting, I asked this question of five blogger friends, and got a variety of answers. Although most of them didn’t share their blogs on social media initially, they now link their posts without hesitation. A few mentioned that their blog helps them keep in touch with friends and family, but all said that they write what they want (with some minor self-censorship if, for example, their mother reads their blog) and share freely.

This discussion made me wonder how other non-monetized, “lifestyle” bloggers feel about sharing with friends and family. Do most keep their worlds separate or are they comfortable sharing their blog… or maybe a little of both?

So, how about you?

  • Do you freely tell your friends and family about your blog? If you do, what has been the general response?
  • Have you ever censored or altered what you have written in a post knowing a specific person reads your blog?
  • Do you link your posts to social media? If so, do you use your personal account, or do you have a blog-specific account? What social media platforms do you use?
  • If you do share on social media, what has been your experience?
  • Has your sharing philosophy changed over the life of your blog?

Obviously, these are decisions that everyone gets to make for themselves, but I find the different approaches so interesting. I hope you’ll join the discussion and share your experiences – good or bad.