Cars 2017: The Mercury in Retrograde Edition

Stop sign

This has been a rough year for us and cars.

The leases on our Toyota Priuses (yes, we owned two) were set to expire in October 2016. We were in the midst of buying our first house and doing anything that could negatively affect our credit rating and jeopardize the mortgage approval process was forbidden so we requested a six-month extension. Once that extension finally ended last Spring, M and I made the decision to purchase those cars rather than turn them in for newer versions.

Our reasons were sound. Since I work from home, I had racked up less than 20,000 miles on my 2013 Prius. In my mind, it was still new and clean. Plus, it was reliable, fun to drive and fuel-efficient (I only spend about $20 for a tank of gas each month and that lasts for about 500 miles). M also liked his car, even though it had more miles than mine. However, due to a new job in Massachusetts, his daily commute was going to be significant enough to make the 12,000-mile a year limit on another lease untenable.

Things were going fine until several weeks later when some guy plowed into M’s car. M was a little banged up and his Prius was totaled.

Although insurance paid for most of the loan, we still had to come up with two more months of payments before everything was even steven, so basically we were down to one car. This situation continued until M leased a brand new Honda that got decent gas mileage (albeit not as good as the Prius) and provided enough miles in the contract to see him to and from work without requiring another major payment when he turned in the vehicle in 2020.

Over the summer, we decided to drive my Prius through a quick car-washing service. We emerged from the drive-thru with a clean car and a missing back windshield wiper.

In the fall, we drove to a local farm and filled my trunk with pumpkins. When I tried to remove the gourds two days later, I found myself locked out. Turns out the car had been accidentally left on and the battery was dead. A driver from AAA gave it a jump, and after testing the battery informed me that I would need a new one soon.

I was planning to get this done next week during the car’s annual inspection. Now meteorologists are forecasting that a blizzard will hit the area that day.

Of course.

And then yesterday, M left for work as usual. A little while later, he returned home with a flat tire. Which means, yet another car-related expense.

I’m sensing we need to find a new way to get around.

Quote of the week

christmas carolers

“‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’ is the most demanding song ever. It starts off all nice and a second later you have an angry mob at your door scream-singing, ‘Now bring us some figgy pudding and bring it RIGHT HERE. WE WON’T GO UNTIL WE GET SOME SO BRING IT RIGHT HERE.’ Also they’re rhyming ‘here’ with ‘here.’ That’s just sloppy. I’m not rewarding unrequested lazy singers with their aggressive pudding demands.” —Jenny Lawson

How to have a stress-free Thanksgiving


I’m here to let you off the hook.

With all of the natural disasters, political strife and mass shootings, 2017 has been stressful enough. There’s no reason Thanksgiving should fill you with additional dread. This can be the easiest of holidays; all you have to do is eat, drink and be grateful. I’m going to show you how to make that happen.

First, avoid any article or tweet or Facebook post that refers to the holiday as Thankspocalypse or #Stressgiving. There are serious issues in the world, my friends, but Thanksgiving isn’t one of them.

Expect the occasional hiccup. Of course traffic will be bad (enjoy the ride by listening to some great podcasts). Oh no, that lady snagged the last can of cranberry sauce (well, perhaps you could try making your own). Yes, your turkey might be a bit dry (that’s what gravy is for). Hell, one year, we got hit with a blizzard on Thanksgiving and lost power for the entire day. There will always be events you can’t control. As the Brits say, just keep calm and carry on.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time for appreciating family and friends so invite the people you want to see at your table. Open your home to those in need if you can, but there’s no reason to invite 90 people to dinner when half of them will drink too much or start fights over politics.

Present a relatively clean house, but don’t freak out if it’s not spotless. Simply greet guests with a smile, a beverage and a snack to tide them over until the big meal. They’ll appreciate any efforts you’ve made, particularly since visiting your house means they don’t have to host guests at their own.

If you’re visiting a friend or relative’s house for Thanksgiving, be gracious. Don’t point out flaws or instigate arguments. Call in advance and offer your assistance. Be willing to provide items like extra ice, forks or Tupperware. If you’re told to just come as you are, then bring along a small token of your appreciation like a bottle of wine or a bouquet of flowers.

Alone on Thanksgiving this year? That’s perfectly fine, too. Spend the day eating what you want and relishing the fact that your life is relatively drama-free. Or, volunteer to serve the needy. The best way to count your blessings is to serve those who are struggling.

Speaking of struggles, the holidays are often difficult for those who are ill or caring for sick family members. Others have experienced deep loss (death, jobs, homes, etc.) this year and won’t be in the mood to celebrate. Do invite these folks to your parties; just understand if they take a pass or are unable to muster up much cheer. And if they can’t visit, drop off a pie. Pie is always a comfort.

Some people will have to work on Thanksgiving. When you encounter them during your travels, take a moment to thank them and share your bounty. Leave fresh stacks of magazines in hospital waiting rooms. Drop off boxes of cookies at the local firehouse or police station. Double your server’s tip after a good meal. It’s always nice to be noticed, particularly when you feel invisible.

For my fellow cooks and bakers tackling the Thanksgiving feast, make what you want. Seriously. There is no need to suffer through turkey trauma. Try new recipes or stick to the old tried and true favorites, but dinner is your domain. Cook a turkey — or don’t. Maybe you’re not a fan of the bird or can’t afford one. No worries. Thanksgiving spaghetti is yummy, too. Anyone who demands a specific dish is more than welcome to make it. But if you’re in the kitchen, you’re the boss.

Cooking for people with dietary restrictions? Feel free to have a go at creating something that will suit their palates. Light knows they’ll appreciate your efforts. Or, suggest they bring a dish that everyone can try. No preaching is necessary when a gluten-free or vegetarian dish rocks the taste buds.

Also, serve the food any way you like, be it at a large table or buffet style. And toss any thought of Martha Stewart right out the window. Your table should be laden with good food and surrounded by people you love. It does not need to be Instagram-worthy. Sure, pull out the nice china or the gravy boat you received at your wedding and rarely use. Just don’t freak out if your tablecloth is looking a bit worn or your centerpiece is a bowl of fruit. No one is going to hop on Facebook after dinner and write: “That was the best meal of my life but those place cards were so 1987.” If they are the type who do so, unfriend ’em immediately.

As for technology, have a ban bowl or basket ready. During the meal, no one should be checking their news feeds or searching for the latest football scores. You can connect virtually anytime of the year; on Thanksgiving, you have the opportunity to be with the people you love. Worried that guests will freak about this one-hour restriction? Then up the ante. Anyone who reaches for their phone during dinner must donate $50 to a charity on the spot.

Lastly, ignore all marketing related to Black Friday sales. Black Friday is the day AFTER Thanksgiving, not the day of or the week before. Let’s focus on one holiday at a time, shall we?

As for M and I, we’re having an uncomplicated and stress-free feast for two. Dinner will include turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, corn, biscuits, stuffing, cranberry sauce, deviled eggs, cherries jubilee and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. We’ll watch the Macy’s parade and a couple of holiday movies, eat like kings, then celebrate my 44th birthday, which happens to land on Thanksgiving this year. I will be with the person I love most in the world — along with our feline and canine brood — in our new home. There is much to be grateful for.

“I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” –G.K. CHESTERTON

I have failed the birds

Dany and the squirrel

I began teaching myself how to cook when I was about 8 years old. I read cookbooks, climbed on top of the counters to reach ingredients that were hidden on high shelves and toiled in the kitchen for hours, trying out new recipes. Since I was careful to not deviate from the ingredients list and instructions, my food usually came out pretty good and I reveled in the pleasure of being able to feed my friends and family.

This desire to experiment with food and the joy I felt in feeding others did not come from my parents. I’ve often felt a small pang of longing when I’ve heard famous chefs/bakers talk about learning how to cook from their grandmother or using “family” recipes that were handed down for generations. My mother wasn’t interested in spending all afternoon making dinner from scratch nor did she have the time to bake up treats for Girl Scouts meetings. And my father frequently worked two or three jobs, which meant he only cooked breakfasts on rare Sundays or occasionally grilled dinners in the summer. So most of our meals came from boxes, cans and the freezer.

Nor did I learn these things from my friends. When I’d spend the night at a friend’s house, I’d get up early (or not sleep at all) and head into their kitchen to make pancakes for everyone. Often, my friends’ parents were less than thrilled at my efforts — mostly because they feared my using things like knives and stoves — but they tried to be supportive because I took such great pleasure in offering them my creations.

In junior high, my friends and I took home economics, but they did much better in the sewing portion. While I struggled to thread the machine and make an even seam, they created pillows and stuffed animals and shirts that could actually be worn in public. When we moved into the cooking portion of the class, however, I earned an easy A. No matter what recipe the teacher assigned — pizza, cupcakes, omelets — I could make it with ease.

I so enjoyed cooking that when it came time to pick out classes for my freshman year of high school, I almost signed up for the culinary electives. Those students who did so not only learned how to cook and run a small business, they had the opportunity to work in a restaurant setting. While tempted, I opted to take music and foreign language classes instead. I knew cooking was my passion; it just wasn’t going to be my career and I didn’t want to take up a space that someone else might have been able to use.

I never did work in the food industry. The closest I came was landing a job as a cashier and bagger at the local grocery store. I could ring up people’s groceries and stock shelves; I just never had the opportunity to work with the butchers or behind the deli counter or in the bakery. But in my free time, I continued to hone my cooking skills.

Over the years, I upgraded my tools, built up a decent cookbook library, refreshed my spice collection and stocked my kitchen cabinets and pantry with the ingredients needed to make dishes from scratch. If I want a decadent dessert, I rarely buy it. I make it. When the housekeeper comes over, I like to have a small, homemade snack waiting for her. On Friday evenings, after popcorn, I’ll often whip up a sweet treat to counter the salty one. I’ve also picked up a large dining room table so when my friends visit, there’s a place for everyone to gather, eat and chat for hours.

The happiness I get from feeding people extends to animals as well. Our dog eats food that features meat as the first ingredient. My cats also eat the good stuff, both wet and dry; in the case of our eldest cat, Dany, who’s started to have kidney problems in her twilight years, we even buy special cases of food, as prescribed by our vet. When I have extra bits of bread, I enjoy feeding ducks and seagulls. I’m a little more wary of pigeons after the incident in southern France when I was quickly surrounded by a Hitchcockian pack who desperately wanted my croissant, but that was just one time, and hey, I survived.

After moving to our new home, one of my first purchases was a bird feeder. I hung it from a shepherd’s stake right outside the dining room window. That way I could easily refill it and the cats could sit on their condos and enjoy watching the birds fly by. Word about my bird seed offerings quickly spread in the avian community and soon birds of all sorts began visiting the feeder: blue jays, cardinals, sparrows, robins. In the mornings, I could hear them call to each other, meeting at my feeder for a meal and then flying into the nearby tree or perching on the fence for a bit of gossip.

The birds were joined by hungry squirrels and chipmunks, and soon I was refilling the feeder every single day. I’d pour in the seed after my shift ended, and by the time I came downstairs for breakfast around 8 p.m., the feeder would be completely empty again. But I didn’t mind. I loved walking past the window and seeing all the colorful visitors eating from the feeder. The cats were also entertained by the creatures they could see but not harm.

Then, I got sick. Five straight days of migraines exacerbated by a bacterial infection that left me bed-bound and weak. The day before I took ill, I had poured in the last of the bird seed, fully intending to drive to the store and pick up some more. I wouldn’t be able to get behind the wheel again for a week, which meant that every time the birds came by for food there was none waiting for them. Eventually, they stopped coming. Once I was able to return to normal life and refill the feeder, the birds had abandoned me.

I don’t blame them for leaving, of course. I was the one who let them down. M was happy to feed and care for our indoor pets, but he didn’t really have time to worry about the area population. He tried to reassure me that the outdoor contingent had plenty of bugs and worms to eat and were not going to starve, but I still feel guilty. That guilt has only grown now that I’ve refilled the feeder and no one is coming by to eat from it. If anyone has suggestions on how I can woo them back, let me know.

I miss feeding my neighborhood friends.

A tiny glimpse at what life as a journalist is like

Online News

Sit at my desk. Turn on the computer. Take a deep breath and begin.

Read. Investigate. Chat. Write. Add multimedia. Edit. Preview. Publish. Social. Email. Repeat.

Around 3 a.m., take a quick moment to run into the kitchen to turn on the kettle for tea.

News breaks. Remain at my desk and focus on doing 10 things at once.

Read. Investigate. Chat. Write. Add multimedia. Edit. Preview. Publish. Social. Email. Repeat.

Two and a half hours pass and I still haven’t had anything to drink. At that point, I notice my very kind and supportive husband is awake. He turns on the kettle again.

More breaking news.

Read. Investigate. Chat. Write. Add multimedia. Edit. Preview. Publish. Social. Email. Repeat.

Five minutes later, utterly focused on my work, I’m barely able to pull my eyes away from the screen and my fingers from the keyboard when a steaming hot cup of tea appears on my desk. I take a grateful sip.

More breaking news.

Read. Investigate. Chat. Write. Add multimedia. Edit. Preview. Publish. Social. Email. Repeat.

And the tea grows cold.

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