Saturday, April 30, 2011

Renovations, Inside and Out

First thing on our Saturday 'to do' list is almost always to not set the alarm and sleep until we wake up.  This Saturday was no exception but since our alarms goes off at 4:45am on work days, 'sleeping in' generally means we roll out of bed by 7:00am.   Still plenty of daylight to do whatever needs to be done.  We had a mix of indoor and outdoor chores on today's list.  The main chore inside was to get the mattress back into the bedroom.  Then the bedroom and the living room needed to be straightened up.  A week of 'camping' in the living room made it impossible to keep things tidy in there and there were still a lot of tools and such scattered around the bedroom from last weekend's painting project.  The big chores outside were to snake-proof the chicken coop and rebuild all the nest boxes for the hens.   There were a few other things on both of our lists but those were the main goals to be accomplished today. 

During the work week, Yeoldfurt takes care of the morning chores like feeding the dog and outside cats, tending to the chickens and turning the horses out.  I leave for work an hour or two before the sun comes up, so it makes sense for him to take care of those chores Monday through Friday.  But on Saturday and Sunday, I'm off so I usually do the morning chores and let him enjoy his coffee.   When I finished with the chores this morning and came back in the house, I figured I would start the laundry and get him to help me move the mattress back into the bedroom.  Silly me ...he had already moved the mattress by himself while I was outside.  He's always doing sneaky things like that.

By 8:30, he was headed down to the chicken coop to start on his projects and I got busy with the laundry and straightening up the house.  I carried him a big mug of iced tea an hour or so after he started and helped him hold a board here and there.  But mostly, he worked outside and I worked inside.

He used plastic coated chicken wire to make a barrier on the floor of the chicken coop.  The three or four snakes we've caught in there so far seemed to be entering and exiting under the edge of the corrugated tin wall at the back of the coop.  The tin is rusted pretty bad at the bottom and I'm sure there's a lot of give for a big snake to push it's way through.  He buried the edge of the chicken wire several inches into the dirt at the base of the wall, then came a foot of so up the wall and tacked it down with a 2x4 rail that extends the full length of the wall.  We have lots of flat concrete stepping stones left here by the original owners and he used some of those to butt up against the wall at the bottom.  Those concrete stepping stones are very heavy would take something a lot bigger than a snake to push them anywhere. 

While he was busy with the coop renovations, I spent most of my time putting the new shelves up in the bathroom.  It's kind of scary to start drilling holes in walls you just spent three days re-painting ...but after the first hole, I was okay.  The shelves are up and the bubble on my little torpedo level is dead center.  Just like I like it.  I also had to drill holes and hang hardware for several decorative pieces in the bedroom but it all went smoothly.  The only thing that's left now is to hang the new curtain rods.  That will be the main project on tomorrow's list.

On a side note, I think I found a source for some new laying hens for us.  The guy has Americanas and Rhode Island Reds and most of the chicks are a cross of the two breeds.  He has chicks for sale from three days to three months old for $3 to $5 each.   He even has some six month old hens that are just starting to lay that's he'll sell for $7 to $10, depending on the breed.  He seems to be very knowledgeable and said he would be happy to show us how to tell the males from the females on the really young chicks.  That will be useful if we're ever raising our own and selling chicks.  He guarantees what you buy from him too.  If you want only females and end up with a male, he will take it back and give you hen of the same breed and age.  Sounds like a good deal to me.  He lives about 40 miles south of us.  He was out of town for a funeral this weekend but we were already too busy to run down there today anyway.  We'll probably go see him next Saturday and buy four more chicks.  We'll buy chicks about the same age as the three we have in the brood box now so they can learn to like each other while they're still small.  Another few weeks and they'll all be out in the big coop anyway. 

We're both tired tonight, but happy with how much we accomplished this week and especially how much we accomplished today.  I don't know if I can talk Yeoldfurt into it or not, but I think we are due for a 'no projects' weekend now.  Everybody needs one of those once in a while.  If we end up driving the 40 miles south next Saturday to pick up those new chicks, maybe we can take our time on the way down and relax a little. 

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Friday, April 29, 2011

Deluxe Compost Box ...Free!

One of the perks to Yeoldfurt's job is access to a lot of free material.  Every week, the company discards several heavy wooden crates and pallets.  The materials to be thrown away are left in a designated area near the loading dock and anyone who wants them is welcome to take them.  Yeoldfurt hauls something useful home almost every week. 

He has been disassembling the crates and pallets and stacking the lumber according to size and thickness.  A couple of weeks ago, he used some of this free material to build us a really nice compost box.  Before he started building it, we talked about what size it should be and where we should put it.  We've had it for about two weeks now and, so far, I think we made some good choices.  It's four feet square and the sides are about three feet tall.  He set it up against the chainlink fence between the garden and the chicken coop.  We figured that would be a convenient location both for putting new material in the box, and for getting material out of the box when it was time to build up the garden.  

This is what it looks like.  Notice that the four corner posts extend about two feet higher than the walls.  He did that on purpose so that it would be easily expandable.  If we run out of room, more boards can be added to the walls without him having to disassemble and reconstruct the whole box. 

But then he got fancy.  He built the front so that only the bottom board on that wall is permanently affixed.  All the boards above it can be removed to lower the side.  That will make shoveling material out of the box a whole lot easier on our backs. 

Fire ants are a constant problem here, so the first thing we put in the bin was a thick layer of cedar mulch.  Most bugs, including fire ants, don't like cedar.  I don't think it's poisonous but it's not inviting to them either, so hopefully it will minimize their presence.  After the layer of cedar mulch was in, Yeoldfurt pulled all of the old hay out of the chicken coop and piled it on top of the cedar.  We put the hay in the coop in December to help the chickens stay warm through the winter.  It was 'well-seasoned' and should be a bonus to our composting efforts. 

My next problem was figuring out how to easily and efficiently gather household scraps on a daily basis to add to the compost.  It's only the two of us and we only eat one meal at home on week days, so there isn't much to gather on a day to day basis.  I didn't want to make too much of a chore out of  'feeding' the compost.  I'm not looking for any new chores and if it's not convenient, it might not happen regularly.  I also didn't want to deal with odors or a potential accidental spill if I accumulated too much before dumping the scraps.  So here's what  I came up with ...

I got one of the plastic coffee containers out of storage, the kind with the handle molded into one corner and a tight-fitting lid.  I labeled it on the handle and the front and the lid 'COMPOST' and I keep it under the sink in my kitchen.  Every night when I wash the coffee pot, I dump the old grounds in the can.  When I crack an egg, the shell goes in the can.  When I trim vegetables, the trimmings go in the can.  Left over vegetables go in the can.  Pretty much everything except meat goes in the can. 

The coffee can is heavy plastic, very sturdy and easy to handle and has a tight-fitting lid so I don't have to worry about odor or spills.  A bonus that I realized after the first week is that coffee grounds are a natural odor deterrent.  I guess I knew that at one time but now it has real relevance.  The last time I emptied the can, it had four days worth of coffee grounds, some bell pepper and onion trimmings, leftover corn and green beans and three egg shells.  But the only thing I could smell when I opened the lid was the coffee grounds.  What a plus! 

Since keeping a compost pile wet is necessary for it to do it's job, I also started adding a little water to the can each time I put something in it.  When I empty the can, I add water to within two inches of the top before I take it out to the compost bin.  I give it a good swirl before I dump it which helps rinse the can.  The added water with each deposit of scraps is good for the composting process so it's a win-win. 

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Camping Has Been Fun

But I'm ready to move back into the bedroom.  We've been sleeping in the living room for the past week while I painted our bedroom and bathroom.  It only took me three days to do the painting which was actually one day less than I expected.  What has taken a lot longer than I expected is putting-it-all-back-together.  It's a good thing I took Thursday and Friday off from work last week.  I needed those two days plus Saturday just to get all the painting done.  Thankfully, I had some help on the weekend because my sister drove up from Houston.  By the time she went home Sunday night, all that was left was to mount a couple of shelves in the bathroom and install the hardware for two wall hangings in the bedroom.  But since I had to go back to work Monday morning, progress on the clean up and final touches has been much slower.

Everything turned out really nice.  Nothing like fresh paint and new window coverings to freshen up a room.  The color on the walls in that room when we bought this house was sort of a 'mongrel' shade of green if several partial buckets of leftover paint were mixed and then slapped on the walls.  Nearly all the windows had the old metal venetian blinds in them.  Not the contemporary plantation shutters ...old, ugly, impossible-to-keep-clean venetian blinds.  Ugh!  This house was built in 1985 by a retired couple that moved up here from Houston.  I'm pretty sure those blinds have been on the windows since this place was built.  Repainting that room has been a project we've both been anxious to do since we moved here almost five years ago.  I don't want to tackle another while, but it was worth all the hard work and inconvenience. 

Yeoldfurt has been a such good sport through all this.  He helped me drag our mattress out to the living room and has cheerfully dealt with the inconvenience of having most of the house disheveled for a whole week now.  But tomorrow is a day off for both of us and can drag the mattress back into the bedroom in the morning.   Then Yeoldfurt can concentrate on his own list of projects, like snake-proofing the chicken coop and building new nesting boxes for the hens.  While he's busy outside, I'll get the shelves hung in the bathroom and finish straightening up the bedroom.  If I finish before he's back in the house, there's plenty of housework to catch up on around here and I'm actually looking forward to doing it.

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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

It's About Time

I'm taking two days off this weekend to concentrate on a project here at home.  We moved here almost five years ago and I am finally getting around to painting the master bedroom.  Oh, the walls are painted's just that they are not a particularly attractive color.  Neither of us like them and I bought the paint to re-do the room the second year we were here.  But, well gets in the way sometimes.  So now, almost five years after we moved here and almost four years after the new paint was purchased, I'm finally going to 'get 'er done.' 

There was a time that I could paint an average sized room in about half a day.  Barring cathedral ceilings or intricate wood trim molding, I was really quick and fairly tidy.  Knock on wood, I've never had an all out paint catastrophe knocking a gallon bucket over or anything.  But I've had the occasional drips and spatters and oops's that just go with the territory.  I always keep a dampened old terry washcloth handy, and clean up any accidents immediately ...damage control.   Yet in spite of tying my hair back and wearing old rag-bag clothes ...I usually end up with quite a bit of paint on my person.  But that only further justifies the long hot shower after the job is done, right?  As long as the floors and furnishings are unscathed, I'm happy.  

I haven't painted a room in a long time.  I painted our kitchen the year after we moved here, but it's more of a small hallway than a room ...not very big at all.  I painted two big rooms at our last house and it took me almost ten days.  That was about three times longer than I had been expecting.  Yeoldfurt was out of town for two weeks at the time and I remember thinking it was a good thing I started right after he left because after the painting was done, I still had three or four days to recuperate before he got home. 

The rooms I'm painting this time are not large and there are no vaulted ceilings, but there are other hindrances.  The master bath has custom pine cabinets in a light honey finish.  Even a few specks of paint will stand out like a neon sign.  There's an alcove outside the bathroom with a vanity in the same pine cabinetry and a walk-in closet.  A bathroom door, a closet door and a fancy vanity to paint around in an area that's probably six to seven feet square. My edging will have to be razor straight where the wall meets the wood or, again will be a neon sign flashing 'ROOKIE PAINTER WAS HERE.'  I know I'm not as fast as I used to be and I'm pretty sure I'm not as steady as I used to be, so I'm tackling that bathroom and vanity area first ...while I'm fresh. 

I'm starting at 7:00am tomorrow.  If I can get one coat on the bathroom and the whole vanity area edged by mid-afternoon tomorrow,  I'll be happy.  I'll take a break for an hour and get supper lined out before Yeoldfurt gets home.  I'll paint for another hour or two tomorrow night too and hope to have the bathroom and vanity completely done before we call it a night.

In my younger years, I used to just attack a painting project.  I usually covered the big areas first, then went back and edged.  Now that I'm older and slower and wear out quicker, I'm changing my strategy.   I'm kind of like those cordless tools that are so handy for the quick and dirty jobs.  I put the battery in my cordless drill and the minute I press the trigger, that battery begins to drain.  It may be good for a couple dozen screws before the torque and speed start to be noticeably less.  But once it's noticeable, it will be downhill from there.  My energy is that way these days too.  I used to be able to go all day for days on end.  Now I am good for an hour maybe two ...depending on how much 'torque' and 'speed' is attempted ...and then I need to recharge.  So, my strategy now it to tackle the intricate, time consuming tasks like edging first thing and save the easier stuff for last when I'm at the one foot in front of the other stage of the game. 

The bathroom and vanity area comprise less than a fourth of the entire space to be painted, but with the cabinets and tight spaces to be maneuvered, I'm figuring a full day to get them painted.  The second day, I will begin by edging and trimming the bedroom.  There are only two windows, another closet and the bedroom door to be taped and edged around in that room ...and the baseboards, of course.  Because I'm so much slower than I used to be and get slower as the day wears on, I figure the taping and trimming and edging in the bedroom will take half of the second day.  If I'm right about that, I'll try to get one wall ...probably the smallest wall ...painted before I stop to make supper Friday night.  My sister is driving up Friday night to spend the weekend with us, but won't be here until about 9:00pm.  By then I'll be done painting for the day but she will help me finish the rest of the painting Saturday.  Since all the tedious edging and trimming will be done before Saturday, I'll let her start on the bedroom walls and I'll try to get a second coat on the walls in the bathroom.  The second coat should go faster because I won't have to edge anything. When I'm done, I can help her finish in the bedroom.  We're a good team and just having company makes the work go faster.  Sunday we will have the fun job of getting all the furniture set back up.

That really IS the fun part for us female types.  Men don't seem to care about rearranging furniture, at least not just for the sake or rearranging.  Cats definitely don't like it.  The one cat we have in the house is beside herself at the moment because we moved our mattress out to the living room last night in preparation for this painting project.  We are 'camping' (sleeping) in the living room until the room is put back together.  This cat is a little neurotic anyway.  She absolutely adores me and finally, after 12 years, has decided Yeoldfurt is okay too.  But she likes us to stick to a routine and not MOVE anything.  If we stay up past our usual bedtime, she sits in the hallway and lets out pitiful yowls to tell us we're keeping her up too late.  If one of us goes to bed and the other stays up, she wanders back and forth between us uttering the same pitiful protests until we are both in bed for the night.  Well, when we wrangled the mattress out to the living room last night, she was wide eyed and anxious.  When we actually laid down on the mattress and settled in for the night, she was beside herself.  By the time the painting is done, she'll have gotten used to the mattress in the living room ...and then we'll put it back in the bedroom.  She'll be traumatized all over again.  I don't dare tell her I'm planning to rearrange the dressers in the room when we put it back together.  Poor kitty ....

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Saturday, April 9, 2011

Oh, What a Great Day!

We always have a 'To Do' list for Saturdays and today, we got it all done.  That in itself made it a good day but what made it even better was that the first thing on the list was a fun thing ...riding.  That's something we don't do enough of these days and that we haven't done together in a long time. 

I think we enjoyed today so much partly because last week was tough for both of us at our respective jobs.  In both cases, it was your typical work-related, boss-engineered fiasco exacerbated with a healthy dose of office politics.  Total nonsense and so not productive in the work place.  By Thursday evening, it had taken it's toll on both our moods.  But Friday, as I drove in to the office, I decided I was going to do everything I could when I got home to make it an easy stress-free evening for Yeoldfurt.  Saturday is the one day out of the week when we are both off so we try to make it count. 

I had to do the grocery shopping on the way home, but I hurried through the aisles and didn't waste any time getting everything put away and dinner started as soon as I got home.  While dinner was on autopilot, I went out and took care of all the critter chores whic is a 30-45 minute ritual every evening.  By the time Yeoldfurt rolled in, all he had to do was get comfortable and meet me on the patio.  I had his favorite beverage on ice and waiting for him.  We always spend an hour or so on the patio in the evenings this time of year.  The temperatures are bearable and the sunset is spectacular.  This is our time to catch up on the happenings of each other's day and make plans for the days ahead.  When we had our session last night, we decided there were three things we wanted to get done this Saturday ... RIDE the horses, FINISH the electric fence (minor tweaks) and one town errand.

When we first started talking about it last night, Yeoldfurt suggested we go into town first and get that out of the way.  But the place we needed to go doesn't open up until 10:00 a.m. and I knew we should probably get our day started long before then.  So reminding him that since the first thing on our list was the one thing we could count on accomplishing, I suggested that we ride first.   We are always up with the chickens, so to speak, and it's always coolest in the morning so that's the best time to ride.  The horses are also already right here by the house until we turn them out in the morning so it's also the most convenient time to ride. 

Plans are just plans.  Sometimes life gets in the way and plans have to change.  But today, everything fell into place perfectly.  We were both up an hour before sunrise and I had started my experimental batch of 'Leather Cookies' in the Excalibur.  By 8:30, we were dressed and out the door to feed the little critters and gather the horses.  We brought the two horses in that we were going to ride and turned all the others out to the pasture.  By 9:00, we were saddled up and riding.   Yeoldfurt's mare is the buckskin named Lucy.  She's half-mustang and can be highly opinionated.  She hadn't carried a saddle, let alone a rider, for about a year so she was a little more opinionated than usual this morning.  But after she lost the first argument or two, she settled down to business.  By the time Yeoldfurt stepped off of her, she was willing and even enjoying the attention.  He had only been on her about 30 minutes but it was a good ride and a good refresher since she'd had so much time off.  I stayed in the saddle a little bit longer, working on some fancy stuff with my mare.  She's neck reining now and her sidepasses are getting better and better.  I guess her sidepasses have always been fine.  She knows what to do's really me who is getting better and better with my cues.  If I get my cues right, she does great.  If she's sloppy or hesitant, it's because my cues were off.  She probably appreciates me finally figuring it all out! 

We spent a while grooming them after the ride and gave them both a handful of sweet feed for a treat.  By that time, the 'Leather Cookies' were ready, so we let them sample those too.  Lucy will eat anything you offer her but my mare tends to be skeptical of anything new.  They both LOVED the leather cookies though.  They ate three a piece and were looking for more, but we had to draw the line somewhere.  We turned them out with the other horses and got ready to run our town errand.  Even the town errand went smoother than we expected and we were back home in an hour.  I fixed us a light lunch, we took a short break, and then we were ready to start on the fence work.

Fencing is a never-ending chore when you have livestock.  Setting posts and stretching wire is slow and back breaking unless you have a crew and a tractor or bobcat to run an auger.  But today's chore only involved replacing and repairing fasteners on the electric fence.  Yeoldfurt started at one end and I started at the other.  The poor dog is used to tagging along with us whenever we work around the property, but we're usually working side by side.  With us heading off in opposite directions, she didn't know who to follow.  It didn't take long though and we met in the middle to finish up the job.  It was about 5:00 in the evening when we were done and we sat down on the patio with some cold drinks, taking a break to reflect on what a good day it had been.

Just when I couldn't imagine how the day could get better, we got an email from our tax consultant that we're getting a nice refund this year.  That means we can fund some of the goals we set for ourselves in January, like buying a freezer and getting a couple of calves.  There will probably even be a little 'mad money' left over for each of us.  I think Yeoldfurt has some ideas on how he'd like to spend his and I know I have ideas on how I'd like to spend mine.  Yup, today has truly been a great day!

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Leather Cookies!

No, not the rawhide variety.  Today had my first experiment adventure with making fruit leather.  I cheated a little ...bought a jar of all natural applesauce, no sugar added.  I know, I know ...much cheaper to buy the apples and make my own sauce.  But my time is limited and at $1.29 for the jar, I think I made a wise decision.  Until homesteading and prepping are my fulltime and only occupation, I have to make these choices sometimes. 

Instead of making one big sheet of leather, I made 'cookies' approximately three inches in diameter.  I used a tablespoon to dip the applesauce out of the jar, then spread it as evenly as possible with the back of the spoon.   This is the before picture.  I'll post an after picture this evening ...along with a taste test review.

They look a little uneven in thickness here, but the applesauce was cold from the refrigerator when I spooned it onto the tray.  The thicker parts will flatten a little as it warms up in the dehydrator, just as cookies flatten and spread in the oven.  The instructions in the book that came with my dehydrator said to aim for 1/8-inch thickness in the center and 1/4-inch thickness on the edges when making fruit leathers.  This is my first try, so we'll see how it turns out.  The 'cookie' in the top right corner has a bit of homemade plum jelly stirred in.  This is, after all, an experiment ...might as well try a couple variations!  They should be ready in 4-6 hours.  I set the timer for 5 hours and we'll see how they turn out. 

In the meantime,  Yeoldfurt and I have some saddle time planned for this morning.  We've learned from experience to prioritize carefully on our days off.  The first thing on the to-do list always gets accomplished ...the second thing usually gets accomplished.  Anything further down the list has a fifty-fifty chance of not happening for one reason or another.  Number One on the list today is some long overdue time in the saddle.  Number Two (not as much fun) is the never-ending chore of fence maintenance.  The leather cookies were just a wild hair I had while I was waiting for the sun to come up.  It took five minutes to set them up in the dehydrator and now they're on auto-pilot.  An easy bonus to whatever else we manage to accomplish today.

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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Warm Fuzzies

These are the four newest members of the flock.  
Yes, there are really four of them.  
One is being shy and hiding behind the others.  

We currently have three Rhode Island Reds that we bought in the spring of 2009.  Their first eighteen months of production was great.  They barely even slacked off during winter, producing 18 to 20 eggs every week.  But for the past three or four months, we've been lucky to get 12 eggs in a week.  

So we decided to try a different breed this time and bought these four Barred Plymouth Rock chicks.  They are a dual purpose breed and have an excellent reputation for producing large brown eggs.  
The chicks are staying cozy in the brood box in the garage for the next several weeks, 
until they feather out and the nights get warmer.

In the meantime down at the coop, the rumor is slowly spreading that there are some new chicks in town.
So far, none of the incumbents seem to feel threatened least they're not letting on if they are.
Do they look worried to you? 


If hens can be cocky, these three surely qualify.  
As far as they're concerned, the good life they're enjoying will go on forever. 

Gee, that sounds like most of the politicians 
we have these days!

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Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Second Day Went Much Better ... (Only Four Days, conclusion)

At least it started out much better.  The hotel provides an awesome breakfast buffet from 6:00 to 8:00, Monday through Friday.  Everything from hot or cold cereal to bagels or fresh baked waffles and scrambled eggs.  There is usually link sausage, patty sausage, bacon and sometimes even grilled ham slices.  They also always have a large assortment of fresh fruit.  That's what I usually go for.  I grab a bagel and some orange juice to eat for breakfast while I'm checking email, then grab some fruit to take with me for lunch.  A very no hassle way to take care of lunch when out of town on travel. 

I was well-rested from having slept in an extra two hours and could take my time getting ready since it was an easy fifteen minute commute to the training class.  The class didn't start until 8:30 but I left at 7:45 so I could work on some of the cases I brought with me.  By the time the other students and the instructor arrived, the case I started the day before was finished and I had a good start on the next case.  I knew I would work through lunch each day and was feeling pretty optimistic that I would easily be able to keep my real workload in check even with a four day absence this week. It was going to be a good week. 

Class was dismissed at 4:30 and I had accomplished even more than I hoped during the lunch hour, so I headed for the hotel.  It's only about four miles from the class site to the hotel but the route takes me through a fairly busy retail section of town, lights every other block or so.  I was stopped at a light and decided to turn on the radio.  Since I was out of range for my usual stations, I glanced down to press the Seek button and that's when I noticed the brake light on my dash was lit.  Hmmm.  I didn't recall having set the parking brake any time recently, but I reached down and pulled the release just in case.  The light was still on.  I'm thinking it's got to be something simple. 

The traffic light changed and I started to move with the traffic, leaving maybe just a wee bit more 'stopping space' in front ...just in case.  The next light was a block away and had just turned green.  I'm not familiar with the timing on these lights and have no idea what my odds are that it would still be green when I get there ...but I did notice it's on a hill.  A rather steep hill.  I was still not convinced I had a true brake problem but really didn't want to stop on an incline to find out.  The light turned red long before I got there and I was the third car back from the light ...still very much on the hill.  My brakes felt normal but that red brake light was still staring at me, unrelenting.  I was only a mile or so from the hotel by then.  I figured I could make it that far even if I had to walk. 

I glanced down at the dash again just as the light turned green.  The brake light was still on and now the ABS light was on too.  Ruh-roh ...definitely not good.  I still couldn't detect any oddities in the feel of the brakes but obviously the truck thought something serious was amiss.  I decided I would get on the Internet as soon as I got to the hotel and google some answers ...and maybe the location of the closest Mazda dealership.  I parked, went to my room to change clothes and headed back down to the Business Center.  The Internet was down.  The computers were functional if you just needed a spreadsheet or a wordprocessor but there was no Internet.  Great.  Access to the Control Panel had been disabled (typical on these hotel computers) so I couldn't even troubleshoot anything myself. 

I went to the front desk and asked if there was a problem with the Internet.  They were not aware of it until I told them, but called tech support for their provider right away and offered to let me use a computer behind the desk in the meantime.  If I just wanted to check email or read some blogs, I would have just gone back to my room.  But under the circumstances, I was very grateful they offered.  I'm telling you, this hotel is top notch. 

The information I found on the various forums and Mazda tech sites was less than helpful but I did find a dealership one exit south of my training location.  So I printed their contact page and went to my room.  It was a few minutes after 6:00 by then but I called anyway thinking at least a salesman would still be there and be able to tell me what time the Service Department opened in the morning.  A switchboard receptionist answered and said sometimes the service writers are there for a while after closing so she would put my call through. 

Sure enough, Angel Martinez was working late that night and picked up on the second ring.  I explained the symptoms my truck was having and described my predicament with being out of town and no alternate transportation.  He gave me some safety pointers on deciding whether it was safe to dive if it was safe to drive the four miles to the shop in the morning and told me the doors open at 7:00am.  When Yeoldfurt called me that evening, I filled him in on the situation.  He told me to just use my judgment but not to take any chances ...if I needed to have it towed, have it towed.  

I decided the less traffic there was, the safer we would all be I set my alarm for 4:30am with the intention of driving to the dealership at 6:00am..  I was dressed and in the parking lot by 5:30am.  The master cylinder was low but not empty and I made a couple of test runs through the parking lot to see if I could feel any difference.  The brakes were a little mushy but still there.  So I headed out and was at the shop by 6:15am.  When the doors opened, I was the first one checked in.  The mechanic I'd spoken to the night before told me that if the parts were in stock, they could get it in and out that day.  If not, they should be able to get it out by close of business the next day.  A shuttle driver took me to my class and I tried to put it out of my mind and concentrate on the class.  One of the ladies from that office gave me her direct line and said she'd drive me to the shop to get my truck or to the hotel if it wasn't ready, or anywhere else I needed to go that afternoon.  Very sweet lady!

Unfortunately, I did end up having to rent a car because a couple of the the parts did not come in that morning.  I was promised that my truck would be first in line the next morning and they would get it done the next day even if they had to stay late.  The rental car only cost me $30 which was a drop in the bucket compared to the repair bill I was expecting on the truck. 

Class was over at 4:20 on Thursday and I was at the dealership by 4:30.  My truck was not finished but they assured me they would be done that day, probably within the hour.  Keep in mind the shop closes at 6:00pm.  When I sat down int he customer waiting area, there were about four other customers waiting with me.  One by one, they left with their vehicles.  By 5:45, I was getting nervous.  Finally, a few minutes after 6:00, my mechanic came through the door.  He wasn't smiling and I was really expecting him to say they found something else wrong ...or they were just quitting for the day.  I admit it, I was expecting the worst.  The lenses on my Pollyanna glasses were cracked had been that kind of week.  But he was just coming to tell me that they were almost done and that he wanted to test drive it on the side road by the dealership because he knew I had a long drive home.  He said he and his mechanic helper were staying late because they knew I was in a bind.  As grateful as I was for their willingness to stay late, I sure was anxious to get back on the road.  If you're ever in Austin and need a Mazda shop, call Mazda South and ask for Angel Martinez.  He will go over and above for you. 

Finally, at 7:15pm, my truck was ready.  I paid the bill, thanked Angel profusely for staying late to finish, transferred all my luggage from the rental car to the truck and turned the rental car keys over to the shop manager.  I called Yeoldfurt and let him know I (finally) on my way.  I was very cautious with the brakes for the first hour or so, but honestly, they felt fine to me.  When I pulled into the driveway, Yeoldfurt met me at the door and helped me get everything into the house.  I had only been gone four days, but it felt like an eternity. 

I learned two important lessons from this trip: 

Make sure the corporate credit card is working before I leave
If the State wants me to travel, they can sure enough provide me a rental car

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Silly Me, the Day Wasn't Over Yet ... (Only Four Days, Part II)

Class was over at 4:30 but I ended up staying until 5:00, working on some real cases I'd brought with me from the office.  My job is to review and assess new applications and I have a 20-day deadline to get them routed on to wherever they need to go.  Does 20 days sound like more than enough time to assess a ten page application?  It might be except for the sheer volume of applications that come through.  I receive an average of 30 new cases every day, even weekends because in addition to paper applications, they can be submitted online 24/7.  That 20-day clock starts the day the application is date stamped as Received and doesn't stop for anything ...not for weekends, not for holidays, and certainly not for four day training trips.  So I'd brought the four applications with me that would have been older than 20 days when I got back from trip.  The class was from 8:30 to 4:30 with an hour break for lunch.  I figured I could come in at 8:00, bring a sack lunch and work until 5:00 each day to get these four cases done before the deadline.  It sounded like a good plan...

Monday was a long day because I'd worked from 7:00 to 10:00 that morning, then spent three hours on the road to get to class, and another three hours in class.  I was tired.  But by 5:00, I had a good start on the first case so I packed up and headed for the hotel.  I've stayed at this hotel four times in two different towns and it's always a nice place.  The rooms are immaculate, the staff is always courteous and professional and the location is always within a few miles of my class.  Because I normally have a 45 minute commute to work and the class started an hour and a half later than my normal workday, I was even going to get to sleep in a little the next three days.  I was looking forward to it. 

I got checked in, unpacked my suitcase, put on some comfortable clothes, then headed back to the lobby to use one of the computers in the Business Center.  This hotel has a complimentary dinner buffet from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evenings.  Nothing fancy ...fajitas or burgers or spaghetti and meatballs, always salad and fruit on the side.  It's always good and there's always plenty.  It was almost 5:30 by the time I sat down at the computer, so I figured I would catch up on email and read a few blogs until the buffet started.  About 6:15, I looked up from the screen and noticed there wasn't the usual clatter and chatter you hear in a restaurant.  Hmmm.  I went to the front desk and asked and was told that as of January, the complimentary dinner buffet is only offered Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.   Budget cuts, you know. 

I had stayed at this very hotel for a three day training class earlier in the month, but that class had started on Tuesday, so the buffet was on every evening I was there ...I didn't know anything had changed.  By this time, I was really tired.  But as much as I dreaded the thought of going back out to find food, I was hungry enough to talk myself into it.  I went back to the room for my car keys and headed out. 

I detest eating alone in a restaurant. I seldom go to a restaurant that I don't see someone else at a table or booth by themselves and think nothing of it.  It's really no big deal but I just don't want to be that person.  My usual habit on these trips is to go to a grocery store the first evening and buy enough food for however long I'm staying and just cook in my room.  The rooms are really more of a suite ...they have a two burner stove, a microwave oven, a full-size (but small) refrigerator/freezer and even a dishwasher and disposal.  With my aversion to eating alone in restaurants, cooking in the room makes the evenings more relaxing for me.  But that night, I was exceptionally tired and I decided I'd just do fast food.  A drive-through would be quick and I could take my food back to my room.  I would be able to sleep in almost two hours past my normal wake up time the next morning and I could make a grocery run the next evening.  Another good plan.  But you know what they say about plans...

None of the drive-throughs I saw looked good enough to stop at and when I came to the grocery store I usually shop at, I pulled in and parked.  It was 6:30 on a Monday night and the people were thick as flies.  I took a deep breath and waded in.  I got a cart and started in Produce.  I was in the Express Lane twenty minutes later with my purchases and very happy to note there only two people in front of me.  When it was my turn, the cashier rang up my items and I handed her my (new) corporate Mastercard. 

IT      WAS       DECLINED. 

Apparently, I had learned nothing from my Whataburger experience earlier that day and was sure it was just a fluke.  I was actually confident when I said, "That can't be right.  Could you try it again, please?"  She tried it again ...then again ...then she tried entering it manually.  The line behind me was getting longer, so I said, "Nevermind ...use this card" and gave her my personal credit card. 

My personal credit card company is very vigilant about suspected fraudulent use and have been known to decline purchases if they are more than 50 miles from my home address.  So when my corporate card had been declined earlier that day, I had called my own card's Customer Service and informed them I was traveling and where I was and that I did NOT want to have any issues with my card while I was on the road.  But still ...after the day I'd had, I think I held my breath while the cashier swiped my card.   I think the long line behind me held their breath too because when the transaction was approved and she asked me to sign for it, we all let out a sigh of relief. 

My total was only $26.34 for the food and I had enough not to have any other meal expenses on the trip.  I got back to the hotel, carried my food to my room and sat down to call the Customer Service number on the back of the corporate card.  I couldn't wait to find out why the NEW card had been declined.  Again with the seemingly endless number dance on the keypad to get to a real person, I was informed that 'grocery stores are not on the list of approved establishments' for purchases.  WHAT?!  Common sense and minimal scruples would tell you going to a bar or a sporting goods store would not be an 'approved establishment' at which to use your corporate credit card on a business trip.  But this was the first I had heard of a list of 'approved' establishments. 

I was a speechless for a few seconds.  Before I spoke, I reminded myself that the person on the other end of the line was not responsible for the policy or the list or the kind of day I'd had so far.  I took a deep breath and in as reasonable a tone as I could muster said, "Then could you please tell me what establishments are on the approved list?  For instance, if I go to a drive-through eatery and try to pay with my card ...will it be declined?"  He replied with, "There's not really a list ...we can only see a reason code after a card is declined.  So you'd just have to try it and then call us if it's declined to find out why."  Oh that SO did not sound like a good plan to me!  I thanked him for his assistance and hung up.

The clock said 8:30 but it felt more like 10:30 to me.  So I cooked a little something for supper and crawled into bed.  I remember thinking at least I have enough groceries now for the duration of the trip. There need be no more humiliating moments with my card being declined.  That actually did prove to be the case.  I didn't have any more credit card issues on the trip.  But Tuesday ended up being even more 'interesting' than Monday. be continued

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Only Four Days

That was how long I was supposed to be out of town this week for a class.  When you lead a critter-intensive lifestyle like we do, having one of us away from home even just overnight leaves a lot on the one who stays behind.  But, fortunately, travel is a rare requirement for either of us these days. So when it happens, we just take a deep breath and deal with it.  We can do anything for four days, right?

My class was starting at 1:30 in the afternoon in Austin, a seventy-five mile drive west of where we live.  My office is a forty mile drive east of where we live.  So when they told me about the class a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take comp time in the morning and drive straight to the class from home, leaving around noon.  That was my plan right up to quitting time last Friday. 

Last week had not been very productive because we are short-staffed right now and I had been pulled off my own work to help in some other areas for two whole days.  Everything that crosses my desk is time-sensitive so when I miss two out of five days in a week, it piles up fast.  By 5:00 last Friday, my own workload was out of control.  I knew it would pile up even more this week since I'd be gone four days.  So I decided I would go ahead and drive the forty miles east on Monday and work from 7:00am to 10:00am ...then head to class from the office.  Being that much further east made it a two and a half hour drive to get to the class, so leaving at 10:00 left me enough time to grab lunch somewhere along the way and be at class by 1:30. 

I dreaded the new plan all weekend but I ended up accomplishing a lot Monday morning, so I was in a pretty good mood when I stopped at a drive-through burger joint in Bastrop.  I was about 45 minutes from my destination, still a little over two hours before class started so I was feeling pretty good.  We are supposed to use the corporate credit card for all meals when we travel so I ordered a kiddie burger and drink and whipped out my State of Texas Mastercard. 

IT WAS DECLINED.  I said, "That can't be right.  Try it again please?"  The girl tried it again ...and again ...then tried entering it manually.  Same result each time, it was declined.  By that time, I was more than a little embarrassed and the cars behind me were probably getting annoyed.  So I gave her $5 in cash and paid for my meal. 

I pulled over to a space in the parking lot and called the number on the back of my corporate card.   After the seemingly endless number-punching routine, I finally reached a live person and ...wonder of wonders ...he actually sounded like English might be his first language!  Things were looking up. 

Still convinced it must be a mistake, I explained my predicament to him and asked him if he had any idea why my card was being declined.  He put me on hold for a minute and then came back to say the card had been canceled ...that very morning.  What?!?  I asked him if there were any notes as to why and he put me on hold again to check.  It's frustrating enough when you have to call these customer service lines but it always amuses me when they ask to put you on hold 'so they can check' on something.  They are, after all, a Call Center.  They never leave their cubicles when they're covering phones.  Everything is right in front of them on a computer screen ...complete with scripts of what they're supposed to tell customers in almost any imaginable situation.  If they put you on hold, it's because either they are new enough not to be familiar with the scripts or they are uncomfortable enough with what the scripts are telling them that they want to consult with their co-worker or a coach to confirm.  If they put you on hold twice or three times during the same call, it's the latter.

He came back a minute later and said he was sorry but there were no notes as to why, but he could give me the name and number of a person at the State Office who would know.   I wrote down the name and number and thanked him for his time.  Then I dialed my supervisor at my office, hoping she had not left for lunch yet. 

She answered on the third ring.  "Hi!  Aren't you on your way to Austin?"  I said, "Well ... I stopped for a quick lunch in Bastrop and was just wondering if you might have heard anything ominous through the grapevine like maybe that I'm being FIRED??" 

Brief silence then she laughed, probably thinking I was kidding.  She said, "No, why?"  So I told her about the card.  Thirty minutes had passed by now and I told her that if I didn't get back on the road, I'd end up being  late to class so would she please call the State Office and find out what was going on.  She said of course and not to worry ...she'd straighten it all out and call me back. 

I didn't hear from her again, but when I arrived at my class an hour later, the receptionist gave me an envelope with my NEW corporate card in it.  It seems that someone with Decision Making Power and Authority had determined that our Mastercard through JP Morgan was no longer the best deal and a Mastercard through Citicorp was now the way to go.  This decision had apparently been made several weeks ago because the receptionist told me 'they were supposed to mail this to you at home two weeks ago.'  Nice. 

It was still 30 minutes before the class was due to start so I asked to use a landline so I could activate the card ...a tedious but fairly simple automated process that only took a few minutes.  I was about to go on to my classroom when it occurred to me that I should check on my hotel reservations.  Good thing I did.  I no longer HAD reservations.  It seems that when your room is booked three weeks in advance and guaranteed on a specific credit card, canceling that card also cancels the reservation.  Makes sense. 

I sure am glad I called because it took them a few minutes to finally find a room for me.  I gave them the new credit card number and thought 'well, things can only get better from here.'  

SILLY ME .... to be continued

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