You can’t go home again…

When I go home for Christmas, I always make a point of searching out the favorite foods of my youth – unique flavors that live in my mind as essential elements of growing up in Allegany County. Across the years, savoring those tastes has become as much a part of my holiday tradition as a presents or a tree.

Sheetz coffee was a mainstay of my caffeine habit from the time I started driving. I’d go out of my way to get their standard drip brew over any other competitor. Now they’ve installed some fancy looking grind-on-demand “coffee system.” It looks pretty sitting on the counter, but what comes out of it doesn’t taste like Sheetz coffee. It might even be a decent cup of joe under other circumstances, but it’s not the flavor I wanted. For my money, Wawa or Royal Farms now offer up a better tasting selection of old-fashioned drip coffee.

For years, Snyder of Berlin (not to be confused with Snyder of Hanover) made what was packaged as “British style salt and vinegar” potato chips. As a connoisseur of salt and vinegar chips, Snyder’s was my favorite. It was an intensity of flavor not replicated anywhere as far as I can tell. Their packaging has lost the “British style” imagery… and their chips, it seems, retain only the barest hint of salt or vinegar flavoring. Herr’s and Utz now blow them away on all counts. 

The D’Atri’s cheesesteak sub has, for me, always been the definitive taste of western Maryland. That’s why I was horrified to find it something unrecognizable. Yes, it was a sub made with cheese and steak and their proprietary lettuce concoction… but the flavor profile was all wrong. Even the bread was different. It’s like walking into McDonald’s and finding that they’ve replaced their fries with tater tots. Sure, they’re made out of the same stuff, but it’s just not right. This is the one that really breaks my heart. 

Nearly all of my favorite foods from back home and back when now seem to exist only in memory. I’ve managed to recreate a few of them in my own kitchen, but most, I expect, are gone and will never return. The bright spot, in an otherwise disappointing food experience, was M&M Bakery. Their peanut butter frosted cinnamon roll doughnuts were exactly as I remember them… and that means they were possibly the finest doughnut ever devised or concocted by the mind of man. I’m wildly thankful they haven’t tried to improve upon it.

I guess old Tom Wolfe was right. You really can’t go home again. That won’t stop me from spending the next 40 years pining away for tastes and flavors I can still conjure immediately in my mind.

On trumping festivity…

Last year was the first time in 42 years that I wasn’t in western Maryland for Christmas. It was different and decidedly subdued, but I didn’t particularly hate it. Now, here we are in December again and I’m starting to put together the plan for this year… even though it feels like we just did Christmas about seven weeks ago. 

Barring any significant Great Plague related issues, I’m more comfortable with the idea of making the trip this year… even if I’m not thrilled with the idea of driving into an area where every other Facebook post seems to mention friends, friends of friends, or family members who are militantly anti-vax or who are being throttled by the bug. 

Assuming I do go home for Christmas this year, it’s going to be another different experience. Excursions to the local watering holes, the casino, or restaurants are probably right out. I’ve avoided those things for the last eighteen months and making a Christmas exception probably doesn’t exactly pass the common sense test in the current environment. That alone opens up expanses of time I’m not use to having during these flying trips. Historically they’re a mad dash to see everyone I’ve promised to drop in on while I’m in the area. I don’t expect to make many of those promises this time around.

In all reality, what Christmas could mean this year is a change in where I’ll be tucked in with a dog and a few good books… and the need to potentially recruit a cat and tortoise sitter for a few days. It doesn’t feel particularly festive, but for the time being prudence continues to trump festivity.

A 90% solution…

Since moving into this house, I’ve spent a decent amount of time pondering home automation, or more specifically how the home’s systems can work for me rather than me working for them. Some things are fairly straight forward – like heating and cooling. Even there, though, I’m using my fancy wifi-enabled, sensing thermostat as a simple programmable controller. It turns out the location of my thermostat in the main hallway didn’t get enough passing traffic for the thing to ever get a proper sense of when I’m home versus when I’m not. It also never really grasped my version of what constitutes a comfortable indoor temperature. It ended up being more useful to build my preferences directly into the program and then lock it in rather than hope the smart system would smarten up. My phone gives me a reminder on Sunday evenings to tweak the plan to account for planned schedule changes in the week ahead. The trend leaders would roll their eyes at this version of “automation,” but it works for me.

Lighting is the other bit of the puzzle that I’ve opted to keep dead easy basic. The new automated lighting systems can let you manage “scenes” throughout the house. It looks slick as hell on HGTV or YouTube. It’s also a thousand miles beyond what I need my lights to do. My favor of simplicity is driven by a single factor – I’m fanatically committed to my routine. That means most of my needs are met by old fashioned mechanical timers rather than connected fixtures. It doesn’t cover a few things like the task lighting in the kitchen or the overhead lights in the bathroom, but overall lights start turning on five or ten minutes before I get out of bed in the morning and then proceed, switching on and off room by room, as I go though the day. True automation, would gain me the ability to fine tune things a bit – and control light sources other than lamps – but I can’t see how that additional utility would be worth the cost of making the transition.

When it comes down to it, I don’t generally need fully connected, internet of things home automation. I’ve survived 43 years of my toaster not talking to my refrigerator and I don’t see much gain for enabling them to do so… and I’m old enough to be absolutely horrified at the thought of my front door lock being controlled from somewhere in the cloud. Maybe if I get the chance to build a last and final house, I’ll bring in more automation – things that make sense when built in from the ground up. For now, I’m leaning hard into my routine – and accepting the 90% solution priced out at $25 opposed to an “automation” solution that could easily have run to the thousands of dollars. I might never have a properly automated home, but I’ll have one that operates “just so,” and that feels like the real goal here.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. A week full of suck. The work I do to pay the bills is, by necessity, somewhat unpredictable. There’s very little way of knowing from day to day or week to week how high or fast the tide of work might be running. This week, all week, the tide was running high and fast and shoving every damned thing towards the rocks at every opportunity. Some weeks are like that. Still, I’ll be awfully glad to see the backside of this one… on the off chance that next week will contain less suck.

2. The good old days. I miss the good old days of the Great Plague – when the masses were all running scared and staying home. The commute into the office was an absolute dream back then. I imagine it’s how the leaders of the old Soviet Union felt, with lanes down the center of each highway reserved exclusively for them. Now it seems every schmuck with four wheels is back on the road. Good for the economy, I suppose, but I’m just not sure I’m in favor of it.

3. Allegany County. I couldn’t help but notice yesterday that my old home county is now sitting firmly atop the list as having the highest case rate of the Great Plague in the state of Maryland. I also noted, perhaps obviously, that for a while there the local hospital was so overrun with patients they were diverting sickies elsewhere… when and if they could find a bed. Now, I’m not saying all of these things could have been entirely avoided, but there’s an awfully simple way a lot of the troubles could have been minimized or mitigated… but that would depend on not getting your medical advice from talk radio and YouTube, so it’s a pretty big ask.

Three days, three appointments…

It’s going to be a busy and unavoidably expensive week.

Tuesday: Should be appliance repair day. Hopefully they can tell me why the washing machine is throwing periodic errors and if it’s reasonably economical to repair. Otherwise, I’ll have to add appliance shopping to the list of things to do that I don’t want to do.

Wednesday: The bank has, at long last, funded my bathroom renovation loan. All that’s left to do is sign the paper work and hand over a ponderously large down payment for the work… and then we can get properly started in approximately 3-4 months… assuming the backlog in materials doesn’t get any worse.

Thursday: The last estimate on repairing and resurfacing the driveway… and shortly thereafter cutting another unpleasantly large check.

It’s fun that no matter when I start planning for projects they all eventually seem to tend towards a bottleneck.

Perhaps the one true up side of the parade of home repair projects over the last 18 months has been that I’ve mostly been here. Whether it’s getting estimates or needing to let people in to do the actual work, it’s all been sorted with minimal time off required. I’m very much going to miss that part when we get back to the new, new, new normal.

Grinding gears…

One of the ways I know I’m still in a bit of a brain fog is that it wasn’t until trying to jam some things onto my calendar this morning and discovered that Monday is, in fact, a federal holiday. Huzzah, three-day weekend. It was unintentionally unexpected, but I’ll take it. I have no idea what I’ll do with it, but I’ll take it gladly.

Meanwhile, the trials and tribulations of home ownership continue. 

In addition to the ongoing saga of keeping the house in fresh and potable drinking water, this morning’s hard rain showed a number of spots where the gutter seams appear to be leaking – and one place where a small stretch of gutter could be blocked entirely. I’m still waiting to hear back from my go to gutter repair/service folks. Their office voicemail said estimates were being scheduled five weeks out – but perhaps regular customers can jump the line for service appointments. We’ll see.

Last week, the fancy washing machine that came along with the house started sporadically throwing an error code. A quick look around Google shows conflicting reports of what the code means. Could be the motor could be the water supply. It feels like those two things should be indicated by different trouble codes, but the nice people at Bosch didn’t ask me when they designed the system. Hopefully there will be an answer to that question on Tuesday.

I’m also waiting for a call back from a local paving company. I’d like to get a few cracks repaired before another winter makes them even worse and get the whole thing sealed in an effort to buy a few more years before having the whole thing replaced. We’re playing phone tag on scheduling an estimate.

Finally, there’s the bathroom. The loan closed Friday. Funds were supposed to be distributed and ready for use yesterday – which was convenient because I was scheduled to sign off on the final plans and hand over the deposit this afternoon. I pushed that to next week since the cash has, for reasons no one has been able to satisfactorily explain, not been deposited yet.

I’m not going to lie, it feels like a lot of moving gears that aren’t quite meshing at the moment. I’ll all get managed, but rest assured I’ll be swearing and cursing the whole time. 

The ghost of plumbers past…

The fact that there are now ants and ant pieces flowing through my home’s water system amps up the need to find someone qualified to service the system to a pretty high degree of urgency. I was willing to make due with a little fine sediment from time to time. Mostly that meant just clearing the filter more often than I had been previously. Now that fiddling with the filter and draining off the pressure tank a few times doesn’t seem to have satisfactorily resolved the issue, I’m just going to have to accept that the problem is now well beyond my level of competence.

So far, I’ve been wildly unimpressed with the various well drilling/service companies I’ve talked to. Most admitted they were weeks or months behind schedule and promised to call back when they were ready to come have a look with whatever tests, tools, and people they thought they’d need. Over the last quarter of a year, it’s resulted in a lot of phone calls, but no actual action.

While I was fiddling with the pressure tank last night, I stumbled on the original installer’s name and had a blinding flash of the obvious. Thanks to meticulous records from the pervious owner and the internet, I discovered his company is still in business. They’re not drillers, but starting out with someone to look over the pumps and tanks looks like a reasonable place to start. I left a voicemail for him this afternoon in hopes that the draw of revisiting old work might be enough to get more than just a call back. So far I like him better than the rest because thirty minutes later he gave me a firm date and time he’d be there to give the system a good going through.

According to his records, the last time they were on the property was in 2010, after installing the system originally in 2006. I eagerly await the arrival of the ghost of plumbers past with my fingers firmly crossed in hopes that the answer will be something other than, “Nope, drill another one.”

On planning ahead…

It’s possible I spend more time pondering the idea of retirement than is really reasonable for someone who has, at a bare minimum, 13 years, 9 months, 20 days, and a wake up left to go. I’ll make no apologies. The idea of waking up with no mandatory training, creaking inbox, meetings without end, or goofy assed conferences, is just about the happiest place I can imagine. A lot of my retirement-era day dreams center on where I want to land when it comes time to strike my tents here at the top of the Bay.

At one time I harbored thoughts of going west in retirement. Decades ago, I spent some time wandering where the high desert and Cascades slam together. It was a part of the country marked with open land and big skies, making it almost ideal for the kind of hermiting I enjoy. That is to say it’s possible to get far enough away from people so that they’re not a constant source of annoyance, but close enough to civilization to keep a few good book shops within an easy drive. The prevailing political situation in those states coupled with persistent drought and fire threat make the region significantly less attractive.

The lower Eastern Shore of Maryland or Virginia had its own appeal – Particularly somewhere well south of the bridge and tourists that swarm across Kent Island on their way to the beaches. With an elevation no higher than 100 feet much of the Shore could be increasingly problematic. It doesn’t take much, either from storm surge or sea level rise, to swamp a lot of the most attractive bits of land on the Eastern Shore. Add in the idea of saltwater intrusion into freshwater sources and Maryland’s determination to build yet another bridge to bring even more people across the water, and anywhere on the Shore looks less and less like an ideal choice. Better under these circumstances to stay where I am and enjoy the proximity to the Bay and a fairly safe 138-foot elevation. In all likelihood, Maryland won’t make the final cut for a whole host of reasons anyway so the discussion here is a bit academic.

There’s a personal calculus that goes into all this thinking. Taxes need to be favorable. Cost of living needs to be reasonable. Areas prone to natural disaster are right out – Fires, floods, earthquakes are a pass for me. Implications of climate change are absolutely a consideration. Proximity – or at least an easy helicopter flight – to a level one trauma center is almost non-negotiable. Forgive me, please, but if I’m ever faced with something catastrophic, I’d rather not rely entirely on the expertise at Greater East Podunk Community Hospital. 

All of this seems to be carving an area of interest ranging from eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina, bits of Kentucky through portions of Virginia and its Western sibling, and then up the eastern seaboard (skipping over a few tax happy and ultra-restrictive states like Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts). I’m even pondering on options as far north as the Canadian Maritimes, though that would be a part-time situation at best.

I know. That still covers a hell of a lot of geography. That doesn’t really feel like much narrowing of the field. At least as I sit here right now, I seem to know what I don’t like and where I don’t want to be. That feels like a reasonably good start on a grand plan that I probably won’t carry to fruition for at least another decade and a half.

Sales envy…

In the last six months I’ve watched as about 30% of the neighborhood hung out a for sale sign. Each time the home in question was sold in a matter of days – and if internet records can be believed, commanded sales prices that no one would have dreamed of two years ago. Two more just on my far exurban road have “coming soon” signs that went up last weekend.

I’ve seen enough of these boom and bust real estate cycles to know that seller’s markets don’t last forever. Then again, neither do buyer’s markets. Even knowing that, I have to confess to just a touch of jealousy at those cashing out and moving up or on.

By the same token, I’m spectacularly happy that I’m not trying to find a house to buy in the current market. Too many people chasing too few good options. I don’t have the patience for a bidding war or the tolerance for assuming all risks by waiving every contingency.

Part of me would dearly love to put up a for sale sign of my own and unlock the COVID equity built up over the last 18 months. The real trouble is, the house I really want hasn’t been built yet – because I’m still toying around with floor plans and design ideas to somehow hide the contents of a neighborhood library in a traditionally styled house.

I’d very much like my next move to be my last move. With seven of them under my belt since August 2000, I feel like I’ve had my share of packing and unpacking in town to town, up and down the dial already. Changing houses now would be, at best, a change of scenery. Since the scenery I’ve got is pretty damned good, though, it’s not an idea swimming with motivational appeal.

So, yeah, I have a little bit of sales envy, but no intention of doing anything about it for the time being. Barring untimely death or global economic collapse following the Great Mask Wars of the early 21st century, there will be time enough to cash out and have everything put together just so.

Long and lingering…

So we’ve been back to the new, new normal for a few weeks. I’ve never been in love with cube farm life – much less so after demonstrating that 95% of my weekly tasks can be completed from the comfort of my sunroom office at home – but I like getting paid, so I more or less toe the line. It’s something to bitch and complain about, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

While being back in the office is less than ideal, the shift to two day per week telework has been surprisingly helpful during this transition. Adding a mid-week day at home to my traditional Telework Monday at least breaks up the otherwise unpunctuated days of loitering in cubicle hell between Monday and the weekend. The middle of the week reprieve makes the three other days considerably more tolerable. There’s nothing, of course, that would make a week in the office all sunshine and lollipops, so anything that makes it even marginally more endurable is a net good overall. Never let it be said I can’t acknowledge the small mercies when I see them.

There’s still the vague promise of allowance for an additional telework day or two in every pay period working its way through our Byzantine review processes. As of this afternoon it remains spoken of, but un-adopted. I’d optimistically looked for official word on that to reach us by this point, though that’s obviously more a case of my own wishful thinking than the reality of the speed at which the paperwork flows. That more days, even if only an even split between home and office easily qualifies as a win – an opening gambit for future agitation if nothing else… but with each week that passes without it being enshrined into policy, procedure, and guidance there’s more opportunity to get it twisted or for it to become just one of those things we talked about but never put in practice.

Such is life in cubicle hell… where good ideas go to die a long, lingering death.