IMG_7072We love travelling in our motorhome and staying at scenic, out-of-the-way camping places. Over the years we’ve camped in a variety of tents, trailers, and motorhomes. We currently travel in a 37-foot Safari motorhome. It’s pleasant to be able to take our home with us. Wherever we are, our immediate surroundings are familiar and we can enjoy our little conveniences wherever we may be.

Like most people, we’ve become accustomed – spoiled, actually – with our modern conveniences. We flip a switch and the lights come on. We turn a faucet and endless hot water comes out. We nudge the thermostat and the furnace (or air conditioner, if it’s hot outside) kicks in and we feel more comfortable. We haven’t opted for satellite TV, but we do watch our DVD’s with 5.1 surround sound. (I just love that subwoofer.) Now, as we travel, we have all these conveniences as part of our motorhome lifestyle. Camping is not nearly as rustic as it used to be. (Oh, good. The icemaker just kicked out another batch.)IMG_7085

Where we haven’t caught up is in the area of communications – and our need to be in touch, right now! The ability to have blazing fast Internet whenever and wherever we may be. What I miss most is good Internet.

Cell phones and Internet are urban services. They also work quite well along major transportation routes. If we are close to an Interstate highway, we do just fine. Our phone works and our trusty hotspot gives us all the Internet we need or want.  However, if we wander into more remote areas, these services fade away. And we don’t  have to wander too far off the beaten path. If we’re tucked away in the middle of nowhere, we’re hooped. If we’re staying at an RV park, we may have a fighting chance.

Most RV parks these days provide Internet to their guests. Not the fast kind we’re used to. Usually it’s wi-fi – available throughout most of the park if we’re staying at one of the more deluxe places, or more often, at a central location somewhere: you carry your computer to the wi-fi area of the lodge. Typically it’s a shared service, throttled down in speed and reduced in coverage, sometimes erratic, and, if a lot of people are using it, agonizingly slow. No streaming movies here. Not ideal, but, still, I can read my email and post my selfie with the scenic background onto Facebook.IMG_7082

Sometimes, if we’re camped close to the wi-fi signal, we don’t actually have to go into the lodge. This is very nice. The prime sites in a campground these days are the ones that have a clear view of the sky for satellite TV reception, and the ones close enough to the wi-fi signal to be able to use it inside the motorhome. Not usually too many of these – if any.

At best, I always seem to be camped at the fringe.

So, how can I improve the signal that I’m almost getting?

IMG_7055Getting in the right position helps. I can move my computer up closer to the windshield or, maybe, by the bedroom window, the one that looks toward the lodge. Or height. Getting up higher usually improves the signal.

So does having a better antenna. Most of our technology is not very efficient at picking up wi-fi. After all, it is designed for an environment in which we are all being slow-roasted by all the wi-fi and cell signals around us. It is not optimized for fringe reception.

So what can people do?

IMG_7059There is usually a way to connect some kind of external antenna – something higher and outside. These little omnis are popping up on more and more RV’s. There are also boosters that don’t need an antenna connection on the device. There! We just improved our coverage area.

And for the ultimate, there’s the high-gain directional antenna. (It is based on the theory that if you have a big enough dish, you can pick up anything, anywhere.)

IMG_7057In addition to the antenna, this guy had a network in his 5th-wheel trailer that would put a small high-tech company system to shame. You needed binoculars to see the lodge that had the wi-fi lounge and he had a solid enough signal to stream video – if the wi-fi system in the lodge didn’t constantly keep dropping him. Sometimes you just can’t win.

As for me, I’m still muddling along on the trailing edge of technology, looking for the ideal solution (effective but cheap). Look for only an occasional Facebook post from me.

IMG_7061I’ll bet I could pick up the wi-fi just fine from here if it weren’t for those power lines up on that hill.

***

Where does Vello travel and what does he see and do on the road? Visit his travel blog: Heading Down the Road

IMG_6932“You couldn’t buy a dinner like this for a hundred bucks.”

Margaret sliced a thin sliver from her bacon-wrapped tenderloin, pushed on some mushrooms (there must have been a quarter pound of them on her plate alone) and then went fishing for some fresh green beans and cauliflower, followed by a forkful of potatoes a la russe (Nicholas would approve – thanks for the the recipe, Armando).

We were in our motorhome, toasting each other and watching the waves rollIMG_6985 in just north of Ventura, California.

It all started several months ago when our friends, Ann and Gary, took us for a wine tasting at the Monte de Oro winery in Temecula, California. Ann and Gary are members there, part of that group of people who have first call at the fabulous wines produced at the winery. When we go for a tasting with them, we get to experience wines not offered to the hoi poloi. There was one in particular, a 2008 Estate grown Cabernet Sauvignon that danced on my tongue and then reached into my soul.

Ann saw the look on my face, leaned over and whispered in my ear. “You should buy a bottle of this for Margaret. For a special occasion.”

Margaret and I both like Cabernets. This one, you could taste the black currant and all those other subtle flavours wineries like to list on their labels. The lingering echo was that deep, dusky sensation, like Diana Krall when she sings, I’ve Got You Under My Skin. I had to get a bottle. For a special occasion.

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If you’re going to let it breathe, let it be good air.

That was months ago. We ‘imported’ the wine into Canada several times as we travelled up and down the coast. (There’s got to be a better way to do this.) And every special occasion – birthday, anniversary – seemed to be accompanied by enough of life’s pressing issues that we knew we couldn’t really enjoy it.

Fortunately, wine waits for the right moment.

Which ended up being today. We are camped right on the edge of the ocean. The weather is perfect. Time has slowed to a crawl. All is right with the world. A sumptuous dinner with a remarkable wine. Perfect!

IMG_6938So here at our beachfront campsite we enjoyed the perfect camping meal. And a bottle of wine that enhanced the experience: the meal, the view, the company.

Life is good!

I’m a sucker for mechanical things. Things that move, jiggle, whir, spin, and clatter. They don’t have to do anything or be useful although practicality does add a certain  level of elegance to an otherwise purely entertaining device.

A long time ago (in the early ‘60s) during a family vacation to Yellowstone Park, we passed through Virginia City, Montana. There, I discovered the world of mechanical musical instruments. A whole building full of coin-operated devices: wind-up music boxes, pump organs, player pianos, nickelodeons, player banjos and violins. And my favourite: the player trumpet. Awfully out of tune, breathy and wheezy, and so wonderfully loud. I plugged a lot of coins into that beast.

We just made another visit to the Nethercutt Collection, in Sylmar, California (at the northern edge of greater Los Angeles). It’s known mainly for its restored vintage cars, but the collection has so much more. It’s also known for its mechanical musical instrument collection, lovingly restored, kept in perfect operating condition, and played every day.

From tiny music boxes right up to the featured mighty Wurlitzer theater pipe organ, the tour is accompanied every step of the way by whirring spinning musical machines.

I was taken back in time. I was serenaded. I was in heaven

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Sometime around the middle of December I received an email from a long-time friend. Usually, we look forward to getting a pre-Christmas missive in the mail from him and his wife. It’s a summary of the interesting things they did over the year interspersed with photos highlighting their projects and activities, acquaintances and visitors, and excursions to new places they’ve discovered.

Now I find out we won’t be getting one this year.

Is it because the post office has upped the cost of a mailed letter to a dollar?

Or maybe that they don’t have our current address? Quite possibly true. We’ve been moving around a lot over the last year and it can be a real challenge for our friends and family to keep track of our whereabouts. Greater Vancouver, southern California, northern BC – we’ve been to those places this year. And points in between.

What was a little disturbing, though, was that they won’t even be composing a letter this year because they didn’t feel they accomplished enough. I find this a little difficult to believe in light of the short-list of projects outlined in the email. Or when I think back to all the photos posted on Facebook over the last year: the vistas from their rural home and the wildlife that comes to visit it, the projects being built around the home and yards, the bounties from their orchards and gardens, the delight on the faces of the visitors that stopped by.

Are they having a tough year? I can understand that. It’s not surprising – I have a sense that everyone I know is having a tough year.

20141219_152930Other friends, members of the family and extended family also appear to be having a tough time. Even our dog wants to sleep all day. Not that anything terrible has happened to any of them or even that anyone is complaining. I just a sense it.

We’re having a tough year. No, nothing catastrophic. Just a succession of draining events. Possibly exacerbated by dismal weather or short daylight hours?

Like my friend, I can see the accomplishments and good times I’ve had. I shouldn’t discount them – but look back and highlight the positives to balance out the negatives. Be OK with where I am. Look forward to new projects and new directions in the new year.

Maybe put an a Tony Robbins CD. Or better yet, crank up some music.

And call up my friends and tell them I’ll be expecting the annual letter from them next Christmas. They might even have my new address by them.

Margaret squinted at the temperature readout. “It’s 85.3 degrees out there.”

We were in Palm Desert, California, in our motorhome, vegging. (I’m still not quite sure how to spell that.) Having driven down from Canada less that a week ago, we were enjoying the warmth and sunshine, but the warm weather was still a bit of a shock to the system.

“I don’t know that the point 3 really makes much of a difference,” I offered.

Sure it does. Every little bit makes a difference.”

I’m not big on too many decimal points. I prefer the broad brush approach to life. You know, “That’s close enough.”

IMG_6560What I was really thinking about was dinner. What to make. Margaret had suggested a peanut chicken stew. I haven’t made that… forever, and it sounded great. Inspired by traditional west African groundnut stews, it sounded perfect for dinner today. A dish with a little heat for this warm day.

Easy to make, rich chicken flavour laced with a spicy peanut sauce full of tomato and veggie goodness, smothered over rice. How could it not be the right choice for dinner.

Problem is, I haven’t made it for a while and my recipe notes are packed away somewhere in a storage unit 1500 miles north of here. Thank goodness for the Internet. Ideas galore. (I never really follow recipes exactly. I use them to get a general idea of proportions and to get ideas and inspiration.)

IMG_6555Spicy is the key here. But just how spicy? A little tingle on the tongue? I like my spicy dishes to bring out just a little bit of sweat on my cheekbones. (Suck a little air over my tongue, then hit it with a little splash of chilled white wine. Ahhhh, perfect!) Maybe that’s too much for today.

Some recipes called for cayenne, some for freshly ground black pepper, and one for a whole habanero. Ooh, scary! I take one look at a bin of those spicy little terrors and I run. I settled for a serrano (seeds taken out) and some cayenne.

“More cayenne,” said Margaret as she sampled a spoonful dipped from the bubbling Dutch oven. “Maybe we should have used a scotch bonnet.” (Scotch bonnet is an alias for a habanero pepper.) Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a wimp. I could have at least left in the serrano’s seeds.

Margaret launched into remedial action. “I think that cayenne is bogus. Too domesticated in any case.” She sighed. The sambal oolek came out hiding from the fridge. She glanced over at me as she stirred in ingredients. “Every little bit makes a difference.”

Mix, mix. Stir, stir.

IMG_6558The end result? Here we are.

A fabulously rich (not too spicy)chicken-y vegetable infused stew with cauliflower flowerets served over a fluffy heap of rice with a side of broccoli slaw drizzled with Asian dressing. Heavenly!

I know that the leftovers are even better the next day. (I can hardly wait.)

 

Here’s the recipe that inspired me today: http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/african_chicken_peanut_stew/

There’s this old saying that goes,

Ya can’t live with ‘em;   Ya can’t live without ‘em.

If I’m not mistaken, it refers to plastic containers. Plastic containers are the bane of my existence.

IMG_6364First of all, you have to have them. Where else are you going to put all your left over stuff? Without them, all those little plastic clips, buttons, screws, washers and other thingies you toss in the drawer would roll around and get lost in the corners and under the all the other things you put in the drawer. (I mean, how else do you keep extra SIM cards organized?)

Or, especially, leftover food. There’s always some left over and it seems so wasteful to throw it away. Ever since they invented microwaves, leftovers are so easy to make up into another meal, and, hey, put an egg next to it and you have breakfast.

IMG_6378I’ve tried other solutions. There’s plastic wrap over bowls. It’ll do in a pinch but you can’t press all your bowls into storage service. Besides, there’s the thing with the wrap: who designed those plastic wrap boxes anyway. I’m always fighting with them. You can’t find the end of the roll. The cutter never cuts – if it hasn’t bent or fallen off. It’s on the wrong corner of the box, anyway.

I tried re-using Chinese food delivery containers. No, not the foil ones with the cardboard lids. The classy plastic kind. Well made. It’s a shame to just toss them. They ‘sort of’ work, but in the end, they’re not that well made – at least not for continued use. They should recycle but I find that the embossed number in that little recycle triangle never matches the numbers approved for our recycling program. *sigh*

Next, there’s no good way to store plastic containers. You need to able to quickly find the right size container and the lid that matches it. To begin with, there are four million sizes and shapes, all with non-matching lids.

IMG_6375And they don’t stay put. I’m sure I stacked them neatly (as far as is humanly possible) when I put them in the cupboard. The next time I open the door, they’re all jumbled about and half of them fall out before I can slam the cupboard shut.

Then there’s the lids. Do you store them attached to the containers, wasting valuable cupboard space, or do you stack them separately, assuring that you can never find the right one as you shuffle awkwardly through pile? I tried the ones ‘available only on TV’, with the one-size-fits-all lids and the spinning lazy-Susan storage tray. Well, the storage tray immediately fell to pieces and while I still use some of the containers from that set, they have a certain alien strangeness to them that I find common to all ‘made for TV’ products.

Also, why is a stack of containers always a little bit too tall to fit the space on the fridge shelf? Do I take one out, leaving a big gap and one extra container with no place to go? Do I try to bend up the shelf a tiny bit so the stack will slip in (and hopefully come back out)?

I’ve come to the conclusion that, as in many aspects of my life, there is no single simple solution to plastic containers. I may prefer glass, I will continue to stretch plastic wrap around weirdly-shaped objects, and I am resigned to meeting plastic containers at some level below a perfectly harmonious relationship.

Or I could just eat out all the time.

IMG_6359It’s morning and I am looking out the window of the farmhouse. My coffee mug is soothingly warm in my hands. There is nothing better than savouring your first coffee of the morning. Except maybe watching the rising sun turn morning into day over the fields outside. The forest on the other side is shrouded this morning but you can tell the sun is determined to work its way through the mists.

I have two family members who, during the last few years of their lives, changed from being ‘collectors of things that might be useful one day’ to compulsive hoarders. That they lived on large rural and semi-rural properties only exacerbated things.

We are trying to help with the aftermath of one of these situations. A trip to the family farm has turned into a work project. During the very short time we will be here, we can only begin to scratch the surface.

The farm is situated in a pristine, though not isolated, part of northern BC. The area is a scenic treasure. A large family lived and grew up here. Land was farmed, animals raised, and timber cut and milled. I remember huge family get-togethers on holidays, meals in shifts, trekking through the snow to chop down the Christmas tree, tractors rumbling over the fields, helping butcher a steer (I was a little out of my depth as a city kid), and the whine of the sawmill that operated on the property just over the hill from the house. Over the years, farming didn’t pay, the forest industry slumped, and the family scattered to other parts to start new lives. The place is now essentially abandoned. We would like to see the homestead move up the scale from being barely usable, to habitable, to comfortable and even desirable.

IMG_6312Building up an inventory of potentially useful things is part of the rural lifestyle. New items are expensive and difficult to source locally. Used and broken equipment becomes a repository of parts with which to repair other failing items. Over the years, the parts store at this place became clutter and finally an overgrown collection of abandoned detritus.

One of the family members, always obsessed with his health and well-being, became even more so as time progressed. He collected anything and everything: books, appliances, tools, equipment, gadgets, spare parts, foodstuffs and alternate medications that might even remotely relate to his deteriorating health, make his life more convenient, or might in any way appear ‘useful’ (however he might have conceived that term) – even if those things were incomplete, didn’t work, or he already owned several of them. Closets spilled their contents to fill rooms with piles of boxes and barely-identifiable items until there was no space left and stuff spilled out into the halls.

IMG_6303When we got here, the hallways, which at one time were packed so tightly that only narrow passageways remained, had already been opened up so that rooms cluttered with junk were somewhat accessible again. Since arriving, our days have become a series of sorting projects, trips to the local thrift store, to the paper recycle bins (I have found two of them in the area – good thing, too, for I don’t believe the man ever threw out a piece of paper during his life), and for most of the collection, hauls to the landfill. I believe that we will be saved from financial ruin only because this region has a landfill site that doesn’t yet collect tipping fees.

I am finding the clean-up physically tiring and emotionally draining.  With every load I carry out I become more resentful of this intolerable situation and the person who created  it.

Like many people, I have battled clutter myself but this is in an entirely different order of magnitude. Every once in awhile I will pick up something and think, “Ooh, this might be useful, someday,” but I keep myself in check: “Is this something I need right now.” I place it in the box.

The last thing I want is my kids to be resentful of me as they carry out endless boxes of my useless stuff, abandoned to the world by me.

20140709_191804It’s a beautiful summer day. We are camped at Cultus Lake, a forested lake resort nestled in a ring of mountains less than 2 hours east of Vancouver, BC. My kids (all grown up now) have dropped by to visit. Now that I have a captive audience, I was going to give them a talk about personal finances – something I have been planning to do for awhile – but as we were all sitting around the campfire, laughing, reminiscing about camping trips from years gone by, roasting hot dogs, it just seemed like too heavy a topic. “I’m still going to do it,” I warned. “Maybe I’ll make it a blog post.” So here we are.

So why bring the topic up at this late stage? Shouldn’t this discussion have taken place a long time ago – like when they got their first piggy bank? And what makes me the expert, anyway?

*     *     *

When I was working, every two weeks, like clockwork, a chunk of money would land in my bank account. Ker-chunk! Now I could pay my bills, buy things, and go out for sushi. Life was good.

Ker-chunk! Spend. Repeat.

I never thought about it too much. I was one of the lucky ones. I had a pretty good sense of where I stood. I had a frugal streak (possibly genetic) and managed to stay out of the bigger whirlpools, eddies, and rocks in the white-water rapids of financial waters.

Then, earlier this year, I retired. All of a sudden, the ker-chunks stopped. Now there is only silence. And I have become self-conscious about my spending habits and personal financial resources.

20140710_115957Most people don’t like to think or talk about their personal finances. Like sex, finance is a trendy, even over-hyped, topic – but only in the abstract, or where other people, especially celebrities, are the focus of the discussion. But when it gets close to home, people get defensive, evasive or launch into elaborate fiction.

*     *     *

Back in the days when we still wrote cheques, maybe 25 years or so ago, I religiously mailed off my mortgage payment at the beginning of the month, and recorded the info in the appropriate place. But I never balanced my cheque-book when my bank statement came. If I needed to write a cheque, I would just peek at my bank balance to make sure there was enough money in there to cover it, and send it off.

Then, one day, I was taken by surprise. The employee at the mortgage company who opened the envelopes and credited the mortgage account (a good thing for me) then simply stuffed the cheques that came in into the bottom drawer of her desk (not so good).

The mortgage company, who did balance their accounts on a regular basis noticed something wrong, traced it to the errant  envelope-opener, replaced her, and deposited the entire drawer-load of cheques into their account. Six months of mortgage payment cheques went through all at once. The next time I peeked at my account balance my heart almost stopped.

I said earlier that I had a good sense of where I stood. Maybe it wasn’t all that good. I could tell you about my larger, regular expenditures. Where the rest of my money went, I wasn’t so sure. I think that’s how it works for most people.

“I don’t know where it goes. I never added it up. My whole life has been cash.”

Which brings me to my first two rules:

1.   Spend less than you earn.

This is a good general principle. Keeps you out of trouble. Most people will agree that, yes, this is a good rule to follow. (Its corollary is that any use of credit should be done very carefully and only after great consideration.)

2.   Know where it goes.

You have to know the value of the things you have and how much you owe other people. The first is usually pretty easy to determine (not very much). The second is pretty easy to avoid thinking about (more than I should – I get a headache if I even try to think about it).

You also have to know how much you take home every month and how much you spend.

 

Assets

$ in   ——–>                           ——–>  $ out

Debts

 

If you were a business, that would be your Balance Sheet and your Income Statement. I can see your eyes rolling. (“I never signed up to be an accountant.”)

So you can’t know if you are following rule 1 of you don’t follow rule 2. As you can see, the system breaks down very fast.

20140710_115722The last few months I’ve been tracking every dollar I spend. It’s been interesting. I may not approve of all my spending but I’ve found it fascinating to see where it all goes. How much it costs me to live. (OK, I admit, I miss a few dollars here and there, but it doesn’t matter. I catch most of them.)

I break it down into categories: Groceries, Personal Care, Entertainment, Car Expenses,….  Figure out which ones work for you. You know how your life breaks down. And you can always fix them if you don’t get them right the first time around.

I do it in a notebook. By hand. I know, I know, there’s an app for that. Some damn fine apps, too. But I have excuses. Lousy Internet, for one. The point is, I do it. There are not so many items that it’s a chore, but I have to make sure I do it every day – otherwise it’s real easy to miss something. Do it however it works for you, but do it.

3.   Have a budget.

I hate budgets. I’ll bet you do too. I never signed up to be an accountant. But you need something. And something is better than nothing. So, here’s an easy one: the 50/20/30 Budget.

You start with your take home pay (what you actually end up with after all those deductions).

50% of it should go to essential expenses: housing, transportation, utilities, groceries,…

20% of it should go to debt repayment and savings.

30% of it should go to everything else. You lifestyle choices: phone, cable, entertainment, shopping,…

Look at your “where it goes” list and then see how it compares with your “budget”. Ha-ha-ha-ha….!

How does it fit? Not very well? Not surprising – that’s how it is for most people. Do you need to make changes? I mean, you will need to make changes. (No, new party shoes are not an essential expense.)  It usually comes down to “I need more take-home pay” or “I need to spend less”. More likely it’s the latter and that can really cramp your style. Sorry.

Do it!

4.   Develop a plan.

After you’ve been tracking your spending, and working on your budget for awhile, you will actually have some money to pay down your debts and to save for the future. That 20% part of the budget really is important.

Now is the time to look for a longer term plan for your life. There are all kinds of financial plans – some simple, some incredibly complex. You can find them in the library, online, and in brochures in the rack where you bank. Every financial advisor has one to offer. (No, you don’t need all those CD’s, DVD’s, books, and seminars – that 20% is for you.)

There is no one “right” plan.  As you go along, you will get better at deciding what is the right plan for you. But until then, here’s one that will get you started on your way. It will answer the question “what exactly should I do now?” It’s taken from Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover Plan and captures many of the concepts considered important. Here are the basic steps:

1. Save and put aside a $1000 emergency fund – you’ll need this because something always comes up at the worst possible moment. Your transmission will fail. Your computer will fall out of the window. You’ll need a root canal. Your credit card is not your friend – be prepared in advance for contingencies.

2. Reduce your debts to zero (except for your mortgage, if you have one).

3. Increase your emergency fund so that it will cover 3 to 6 months of living expenses – Because you’ve been tracking your spending, you’ll know how much that is. If everything goes wrong in your life, you can survive without financial stress melt-down for a reasonable time and get your life together again.

4. Put 15% of your gross income into a retirement fund. This is the point where you will start to learn about investments. You will be ready for it. It will all begin to make sense. (You’ll also find that this number is just about the 20% of your take-home that you originally allocated to savings and debt repayment – and, hey, you’ve repaid your debts at this point. See how it all fits together?)

5. You will find that your financial planning has paid off. You have more money to invest. Now is the time to save for other important things – like maybe your kids’ education (if you have kids) – and pay off the mortgage on your house. And to enjoy the money you have.

Do these steps in order. Don’t start on a higher one until the earlier ones are done. (If you’re paying off your debts and you have to spend your $1000 contingency fund, then first rebuild that fund and then go back to repaying your debts.)

*     *     *

There are many budgets, many plans. This is one suggested starting point – you have to start somewhere. You can fine tune your plan as you learn. Like going to the gym it will take dedication and perseverance. That means time. And false starts. And disappointments. But when it begins to work, you will be energized and on your way to a more solid financial footing.

Me? I wish I was at the bottom of the list, but I’m somewhere between rule 2 and rule 4. I’m working and learning as I go along,I’m no expert but just someone trying to figure all this out myself and become more organized and consistent. And successful. It’s never too late.

Hey,… I’ll see you at the bottom of the list.

About me…

I'm an occasional writer, a refugee from the technology biz, a family guy, and a curmudgeon. Until recently I was most likely to be seen behind the wheel of a bus. Now you are more likely to find me behind the wheel of my RV.

Click on my picture if you'd like to know a little more about me.

I actually read a lot more blogs than these. (Too many, I think - takes up all my spare time some days.) I just don't have this list up to date yet.
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