Back to the Future

Although I know you readers like the current format of this blog, it’s just not working for me. The Moveable Type engine behind the scenes is archaic. It’s frustrating to work with. The database is basically dead, drowned beneath a sea of spam. This site is no fun to maintain in its current state.

What am I trying to say? I really am going to move this blog back to WordPress. I made an aborted attempt at this last fall, but this time it’s for real. I’ll see what I can do to maintain the look-and-feel that we’ve all grown to love, but there are certainly going to be some changes. It’s very likely, for example, that the flotch will have to die (sorry, Paul!). I don’t know of any way to replicate the current flotch format in WordPress. (Actually, the new blog may become mostly flotch. Who knows? It’ll probably be a category.)

Also, I’ll be moving to a “multiple posts per page” format. Again, I know you all like to read the comments on the main page without clicking through, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to exercise that mouse finger. I want to be able to have multiple entries on the front page, which is far and away the standard blog format nowadays.

I don’t have a timeline for this change. I want to say “soon”, but in reality it may be the beginning of August before it occurs. Meanwhile, posting around here may be sporadic. I can’t get the damn blog to work half the time, and that frustrates me.

If you have any requests or suggestions as I prepare for this transition, please let me know.

Lost Post

Last night I wrote a long entry about how tired I am, about how I’ve been run ragged the past couple of weeks by nonstop social engagements. I wrote that I wasn’t going to do anything for the next ten days except for two things already scheduled: Writers Guild this Wednesday and book group on Sunday.

I made a list of all the things I’ve had to neglect because I’ve been too busy. I described how I feel like I’m on the edge, not wholly here.

I spent an hour writing this entry, but I did not save it. Obviously, my computer crashed. A hard crash on a Mac is unusual. This is the third time I’ve had one one this machine since I got it six months ago. But they do happen. And they’re never fun.

The computer crashed because while I was writing that lost entry, I was also creating a short video to post on YouTube:

Those are the MNF kids frolicking at our house last night. In the first clip, they’re eating dinner in the library, mere feet from my precious comics. In the second clip, they’re burning off energy. One of the adults suggested they run around the house, so they are. In the next couple clips, they’re descending on our raspberries like a flock of hungry birds. In the penultimate clip, a couple of the kids are digging in the dirt around Kris’ tomatoes with my weedpopper. And in the last clip, Isabel is attempting to climb onto a chair while Jeff and Emily watch.

These clips are from my new camera. It’s probably no surprise that I’m overanalyzing our upcoming trip to Europe. I’m overthinking everything, and I know it. I had grand plans of taking a carry-on suitcase and a backpack, and not checking any luggage, until Rhonda said, “Aren’t you going to shave?” Drat. I’m still going to take just those two bags, but I’ll have to check the suitcase.

I’ve made a list of things to include in the suitcase, and I’ve begun to acquire those that I don’t yet have. I’m going to use my upcoming backpacking trip as a dry run: I want to be sure I’ve learned to pack light.

Anyhow — one of my new purchases for the trip was a digital camera. I decided I don’t want to lug my SLR equipment around England and Ireland, so I researched digital cameras that met my requirements: ultra-compact with wide-angle lens. There were only two cameras from which to choose: Canon Powershot SD800 IS and the Panasonic DMC-FX01.

Both of these get good reviews, but are not without flaws. The Panasonic is well-made and attractive, but its image quality is sub-par. The Canon, on the other hand, has excellent image quality, but feels like a piece of cheap plastic. Ultimately I chose the Canon. I’ve had it for a few days now, and I must say that I’m pleased with the choice. It really does feel poorly made, but it produces great images. Plus, it’s easy to produce short video clips. (I actually think I could take video up to ten minutes in length, but so far I’ve confined myself to short 30-second clips.)

This video ability pleases me more than you know. Look for more YouTube clips in the future!

Why I Applied for a Credit Card (and Why It’s Not the End of the World)

Credit cards ruined my life. Between 1989 and 1998, I accumulated nearly $25,000 in credit card debt. During that time, I added about $2,500 of new debt every year (over $200 each month). I was a compulsive spender. Eventually, the debt load became so great that I was forced to face the problem. I cancelled my credit cards, rolled the debt into a home equity loan, and haven’t carried a personal credit card for the past nine years.

Credit cards have made my wife’s life easier. Kris has been an active credit card user since 1989. She, too, has charged about $200 each month. However, while I carried a balance, she did not. In the past eighteen years, she’s paid interest on a credit card only once. She does not charge anything for which she cannot pay cash.

On Saturday I mentioned that I have applied for my first credit card in nearly a decade. This worries some of you — you are concerned that I’m setting myself up for failure. I understand, but let me assure you that I don’t believe this is the case. This was not a choice I made lightly.

Here are a few of the reasons that I decided to get a credit card:

  • I am making excellent progress paying off my home equity loan, which represents my former credit card debt. I’m still on course to have all my non-mortgage debt paid off by the end of next March. It is my intention to never carry consumer debt again. Consumer debt is a fool’s game.
  • Though I haven’t carried a personal credit card in nearly a decade, I have carried business cards. For several years, I carried a balance on my computer consulting credit card, and that worried me. It demonstrated that I still had not learned to use credit wisely. But over the past two years, I’ve used them responsibly.
  • If I were to travel using only my debit card, I would be dinged with various “currency conversion” and “foreign transaction” fees whenever I made a purchase. The card I chose has no fees for use overseas, and carries no annual fee. It also grants 1.25% cash back on all purchases. Used wisely, this card will save me money.
  • I’ve worked hard during the past six months to save money for this trip. I’ve accumulated $2,000, which gives me $100 per day for sightseeing and food. Even with a credit card, I will not spend more than this amount. When I receive my credit card bill, I will pay it in full. I already have the cash to do so.

I appreciate your concerns, and I’m not trying to minimize them, but I want to make it clear that this was a careful, reasoned decision, and not a whim. I debated the idea for two months. If it seems for even a second that this is going to cost me money in any way — through annual fees or poor behavior on my part — I will destroy the card and cancel the account.

When I started this site, I was just as opposed to credit cards as many recent commenters. I still believe they’re a trap for those who are unprepared to use them. But it’s actually you, the readers, that have convinced me credit cards are not inherently evil. Over the past year, I’ve read many stories from people who use credit responsibly, for whom a credit card is a convenience and not a burden.

I’m still not a fan of credit cards, but I’ve come to recognize their potential utility. The important thing is to know yourself — to do what works for you. If you believe that owning a credit card might tempt you to spend more than you earn, then do not use one. But if you are in control of your finances, and if you can trust yourself to do the right thing, then consider a credit card as an option.

The old me could no be trusted with credit. The new me can.

Simple Homemade Chicken Stock Using a Supermarket Rotisserie Chicken

In our house, rotisserie chickens from the grocery store are a time- and effort-saver. A whole fryer chicken usually sells for less than $1/pound. A typical rotisserie chicken is about double the cost, but we often get three weekday meals off it, so it’s worth it to me. The chicken meat is used in salads, pasta dishes, quesadillas, sandwiches, pot pies and stews and, when the carcass is picked clean, it’s time to make chicken stock. (Of course, you can also do this with a chicken you’ve roasted yourself.)

Chicken stock from scratch couldn’t be easier. It allows you to control the flavor and salt content, and it freezes well. You will need:

  • 1 chicken carcass with some skin/meat left on the bones
  • 1 yellow onion with skin
  • 2 carrots, ends trimmed off but not peeled
  • 1-2 ribs celery, preferably with the leaves
  • 1 bay leaf

Put the carcass in a 4-quart pot. Cut the onions, carrots and celery into a few large pieces and add to the pot. Cover with cool water. Bring the pot to a boil and then reduce heat to a slow simmer. Let it simmer away until you have about 1 quart of liquid left (about 90 minutes or so). Then cool slightly (for safety) and strain the stock into a freezer-safe container (be sure to leave room for expansion as it freezes). You can also let the broth to cool in the fridge so you can skim off the fat. Discard bones and vegetables.

A few tips:

  • The onion skin adds a rich brown color to the stock as well as flavor. The celery leaves add a depth of flavor too. I sometimes keep a Ziploc bag of onion skins and celery leaves in the freezer so I will be sure to have them when I’m making stock.
  • The holy trifecta of carrots, onion and celery is what the French call mirepoix (pronounced “meer-pwah”), but feel free to experiment. If I have leftover scallions, parsley, shallots, turnips or other vegetables handy, in they go. There are no real rules for making stock — only guidelines.
  • Carrots add sweetness; reduce them if you like an even more savory stock.
  • Play with herbs and spices. Add a few peppercorns if you like a bit of spice. Thyme goes well if you’re using turkey bones. Think of what you’ll make with the stock and season accordingly.
  • I prefer to make my stock without adding salt (although there is some in the store’s spice mix) and then salt to taste later when I am using the stock in a recipe.
  • Set a timer to remind you to check the stock periodically.
  • If you’re in a climate where you can grow your own bay leaves, this recipe is even cheaper to make.

Homemade chicken stock beats even the best canned/cartoned stocks. I haven’t experimented with making beef, vegetable or seafood stock, but it’s on my list of things to learn. Maybe somebody has a recipe to share?

As a frequent beneficiary of this chicken stock, I can vouch for its quality. It’s darned handy to have a couple batches in the freezer. This is a fun and tasty recipe to use for stew, pasta, and more!

They’ll give a credit card to anyone these days

Because of Opt-Out Prescreen, I no longer get credit card offers at home. From time-to-time, though, I get them at work. A few weeks ago, I received an offer that puzzles me:

Seems pretty normal, huh? Well, let’s look more closely. Here’s the address:

And the fake card:

(Why do they include fake cards, anyhow? Do they really induce more people to apply?)

I have no idea how anyone found a database in which my name was listed as “Roth Dohn” instead of “John Roth”. And “Custom Boc Service”? What exactly does that company do?

All I can come up with is that maybe person A, who had a heavy accent of some sort, read information from an existing database to person B over the phone. But then why didn’t they mess up the street address? The street address is difficult, even when I’m giving it, and I’ve been repeating it for nearly forty years.

If I were more mischievous, I’d fill out the application and send it in. I have no doubt that Roth Dohn would get a credit card.

In related news: Today I submitted an application for my first personal credit in many years. (Under my real name — not as Roth Dohn.) It was a tough decision. My inability to handle credit responsibly got me into debt problems to begin with. But I’m a different person now. I’ll be fine.

After many people recommended a Capital One card for overseas travel — there are no fees on purchases made outside the U.S. — and after realizing this could save me money and provide convenience, I decided to apply on-line. Unfortunately, the web-based application hung. It wouldn’t accept my birthdate.

I called Capital One instead. “I’d like to apply for a Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards card,” I told the man who handled my call.

He was very eager to help me. “No problem, sir. We can help you out. We’ve got a wide variety of cards with great mileage programs,” he said.

“I don’t want a card with a mileage program,” I said. “I want the Capital One No Hassle Cash Rewards card. I already researched it online.”

“I understand, sir,” the man said. “But you can use miles just like cash. For example, with this card…” He rambled on and on. Eventually I convinced him to let me apply for the card I wanted, though he kept trying to talk me out of it. (Do these folks get commissions for selling certain cards?) Also, the APR he quoted me over the phone was 15.88% instead of 13.88%, but I didn’t fuss about it. I will not carry a balance on this card. This card is simply a convenience. The APR is irrelevant.

I spent twenty minutes on the phone completing the application, increasingly frustrated with the customer service rep trying to steer me toward choices I did not want. And then, when the application was finished, he announced, “Thank you, Mr. Roth. If your application is approved, you will receive your card in two or three weeks.”

Oops. I may have cut the timing too close. I’ve got my fingers crossed — we leave for Europe three weeks from today!

Allergies

Kris has been complaining about her allergies for the past couple of weeks. “They’re terrible this year,” she says. “It’s the worse they’ve ever been. Aren’t yours bothering you?”

No, they’re not. In fact, I’ve quietly been skeptical that this a bad allergy season. Kris talks about it a lot, though. “All the people at work say their allergies are really bad this year. Mine are really bad, too.” When we get together with people, she talks about it. “My allergies are really bad this year.”

Last night she erupted into a prolonged sneezing fit. I feel for her — I’ve had bad allergies in the past — but still, I wasn’t sure this seasons was especially noxious.

Then I woke up this morning.

As sometimes happens, my allergies came on overnight. I always expect them to hit around July 1st, but their onset is actually variable. One year they didn’t hit til August. Apparently the date this year is June 21st. Ugh.

This may be a bad year for allergies.

Splat Action!

It’s Monday morning, and I’m exhausted. I haven’t been sleeping well, though I can’t put my finger on why this might be the case. My allergies aren’t bothering me. My diet’s fine. I’m getting plenty of exercise. Regardless, I’ve been waking exhausted. I had hoped to get up at 4am today, as I’ve been trying to do most mornings, but opted for 5:30 instead.

As I mentioned, exercise hasn’t been a problem for me lately. In fact, for the first time in a long time I’m sore.

On Saturday, we joined Celeste and Nikki and ten other people in the woods outside Molalla for some paintball action. It’s been five years (!!!) since we last played with Joel and Aimee and Mac and Pam. I’d forgotten how much fun I had last time, and how harrowing the experience can be. It gives me some small understanding of what combat must be like.

Though it seems odd even to me, I’m actually fairly aggressive as a paintball player. I know I’d do better working with my teammates, but I usually play the maverick, striking out on my own, boldly stabbing deep into the heart of enemy territory. Sometimes this yields great success — as in the game that I mowed down four of the other team’s six players — but other times I die a foolish death, pinned behind a narrow tree, unable to retreat.

Nikki was my nemesis. I took her out in the second game with a nice shot to the gut. In the third game we came to a point-blank face-off draw, John Woo style. In game four, Dan and I teamed up to pin her behind a barrier until he could pick her off. But in every game thereafter, she pegged the hell out of me. I shall have my revenge!

Four hours of charging back and forth is plenty of exercise, especially when cloaked in heavy clothes. But what really made me sore was the diving and rolling. My knees are sore, but from scrapes, not from strain. My quads, on the other hand, are sore from strain.

To make matters worse, I went biking yesterday. Matt and I took a casual ride from Rosings Park into Portland along the Springwater Trail. We didn’t really push ourselves (it wasn’t the intent), but even so: with quads that already hurt from paintball, the result is a stiff and sore J.D. on Monday morning.

Not to mention a J.D. that is so tired that he just wants to crawl back into bed!

Jarhead

This entry was written by Kris.

I’ll admit it: I’m obsessed with jars. I’m not a collector or anything, but I have a strange attraction to smooth glass objects, especially those I can fill with pickles or salsa, jams, tomato soup or summer fruit. Of course, canning jars are reusable, and J.D. and I have emptied many during our winter and spring meals, but I also gave about a hundred away last Christmas for various gifts and I wanted to replace them — cheap.

When our street had its annual garage sale last Thursday though Sunday, that was my quest: canning jars. I found a couple nice ones for $1 apiece up the road but they were “for pretty”, too old and irregular for actual use. I was still in need of jars for canning this year’s batches of goods when Amy Jo forwarded a Craiglist posting for jars for sale. I glanced through the ad — very detailed, lots of jars, decent prices — but it was farther than I wanted to drive. After deliberating, I decided to call anyway and see what was up.


“Hi,” I say “I’m calling about the jars you’re selling through Craiglist. I’m interested in buying some and wondered if I could come out today.”

“What kind of jars do you want?” asks a powerful male voice.

I explain that I want wide-mouth pints and half-pints.

“Fat chance,” he laughs, I’ve only got about nine cases of those — you better come today or there won’t be any left. How many do you want?”

Well, I want four or five cases, so it seems like there is plenty for me, but it makes me wonder: Are people thronging to this jar sale? Am I going to be left out?

Then he proceeds to quiz me on what I’m going to use the jars for. My answers (pickles, jams, salsas) meet only halfway approval. He is skeptical. I try to laugh it off and explain I also am interested in seeing some of his more decorative vintage jars. Again, I get the third degree.

“I won’t sell ’em to you if you’re using them for wedding candles or something and are just going to throw them away. You’ve got to understand, these are jars of quality.”

I reassure him. I get long and very detailed directions to his house.

Then he tells me to bring boxes. And he tells me exactly what kind of boxes to bring: whiskey bottle boxes and chardonnay boxes — with dividers. “Stop at the liquor store on your way,” he orders. “I won’t sell you any jars if you don’t have the right kind of boxes. And if your boxes are dirty, you’re not getting any jars.” Wow. Okay, now I want more than ever to meet this guy with the jars. I tell him I’ll be there around noon. J.D.’s up for the adventure and we pick up Rhonda, who actually knows a lot about jars and has a varied collection of her own, and head east. [J.D.’s note: Rhonda actually has a book about jars, a price guide. She’s the one who is obsessed.]

Upon arrival, I ring the doorbell. The three of us look up at a voice coming from the upstairs window and see a bearded face peering down. “I’m Kris,” I say, “I called about the jars.”

“Oh! You’re early! Let me put some pants on!” The time is exactly 11:53. We are seven minutes early.

Once he meets us at the garage, the jar-man’s first words are, “Let me see your boxes.” I cringe.

We have two boxes with dividers from my basement, but the boxes from the liquor store (which we were amazed was even open on a Sunday) are divider-less. For a moment, all hangs in the balance, and I fear he will turn us away. I hold my breath. But hurray, the boxes are at least clean and he permits us to stay and buy his jars.

For the next two hours, we hear more than we ever wanted to know about jars, lids to jars, boxes for jars, where to find old jars, how to clean jars, how to protect jars, what to use certain types of jars for, and so on. The jar-man knows jars. He is seemingly torn between the necessity of selling the jars (this appears to be his livelihood) and the overwhelming desire to keep every jar currently in his garage (which he numbers at 4000). We learn that Oregon is a much better source of old jars than his previous state of residence, California. And we learn why.

Boxes of jars and loose jars fill the garage. To show us the contents of any particular box involves moving the loose jars stacked on top of the boxes. When Rhonda and I try to help, he takes the jars from our hands. Wisely, J.D. (who is not clumsy), gets out of the way and assumes the task of carefully packing our purchased jars into our boxes according to the jar-man’s instructions (involving newspaper, strips of corrugated and brown paper sacks). We are not allowed to take the jar-man’s boxes, which are of a type that is not longer produced. I don’t really blame him, but it makes the purchasing and packing process very long.

Rhonda and I both choose some modern jars for canning and take a look at various types of run-of-the-mill vintage jars. The jar-man keeps a handwritten tally of our purchases.

After a while, the jar-man decides we are okay. He takes us inside to see the “good jars”. This is what Rhonda was hoping for. It appears he does actually have some rare collectible jars, but as he proudly shows them to us, one by one, he seems to decide they cannot be sold. Each jar is special and precious, and cannot be parted with. In the end, he does sell Rhonda two nice jars, not especially rare, but for a good price.

Time drags on and now I have seen enough to know which jars I want, but getting them is another story. It takes me almost another hour to wheedle and cajole him into releasing the jars. It is while he is tallying my purchases that I notice he is wearing two different shoes, both repaired. I can barely keep from laughing. Also, I keep noticing that for such an odd man, he appears to have surprisingly good teeth. I think at this point I am delirious for lack of lunch.

We make our way to the car but the jar-man follows, telling the tale of an old woman who has a monster load of jars, but she won’t sell them to him. “She thinks they’re worth way too much,” he sneers, “but wait till she drops dead. Her people will sell me the jars for cheap.” J.D. starts the engine, but the jar-man is still clinging to my open door. I make a move for the handle and he gets the message. I shout, “Thanks! Thanks for the great jars.” And I’m not kidding.

I am very happy with my jars; they are just what I was looking for, at a reasonable price, clean and in good shape. And although jar-man was odd, I sort of admire him. What a passion for jars! I imagine his frugal lifestyle, completely supported by jar commerce. Not a bad way to live. Now I really know what it’s like to be obsessed with jars.

[J.D.’s note: Two hours at the jar-man’s house was far too long for me, especially since I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I zoned out by taking in my surroundings. He had amazing tomato plants. And peppers. And nine eggplants. His home was sparesely furnished. The living room had red shag carpet, a seldom-used sectional, a stack of vinyl records, and boxes filled with rare jars. On the side of his fridge he kept a calendar on which he recorded the temperature three times each day, as well as the overall weather conditions and the amount of rainfall. The jar-man apparently did a lot of canning himself; his shelves were full of jams and jellies and pickles. His lawn needed to be mowed.]

What Do Teachers Really Make?

It’s been a long time now since Kris taught high school. Back then I used to joke that her students muttered behind her back, “Ms. Gates is such a bitch.” The truth is I was proud of her. She did a damn fine job, and I could tell.

A few months ago I took a phone call at Custom Box Service form a young man in Chicago. We got to talking, and it turns out he grew up in Canby, and graduated from high school during the late 1990s. “Oh,” I said. “Did you have Ms. Gates for chemistry or physics?”

“Yes,” he said.

“She’s my wife,” I said. “I’m her husband.”

He went from business-like to gushing in the space of a breath. “Omigosh,” he said. “Ms. Gates was awesome. She was the best teacher I ever had.” He raved about her, as do all of her students when I encounter them in real-life.

This video reminds me of Kris and her years as a teacher:

It also reminds me of a certain band teacher I know.