Gone Fishin'


I'm not actively blogging here anymore. But if you got here because you were searching for something about bikes, you might want to check out my latest project, Vermont Goldsprints. In summer of 2014, I bought a used goldsprints racing setup and have made it a mission to get more bikes in more people's faces by putting on fun races in unexpected places. Come join me!


Home improvement: Programmable Thermostat

This one was easy.  We went down to Home Depot and bought a programmable thermostat.  The one we bought has a program for the week and a different program for the weekend.  No more sitting at the office wondering if we turned the heat down when we left!  We also can wake up to a nice warm (61 degree) house in the mornings, come home to a nice warm (60 degree) house after work, and don't have to remember to knock the heat down at night. Other options that we did not go for included the ability to set Saturday and Sunday to different programs, the ability to have a different program for each of the seven days of the week, and a backlight. (I have enough little LEDs illuminating the house at night already, thank you!)

In our case, we have an oil furnace that was controlled by an old mercury-switch thermostat, connected by two wires.  These two wire setups are pretty easy to deal with: just follow the connection diagram in the box.  The whole thing was done in about 20 minutes, and all we have left to do is repaint around it. (NOTE: this and any home improvement information I post on this blog serves as a project journal only and should not be construed as instructions or advice if you kill or maim yourself working on your house because you read about me working on my house, I assume NO responsibility. Thermostats use electricity, usually low voltage but sometimes high voltage.  When in doubt, have a professional do the work.)

The experience of having a programmable thermostat is good and the added bonus of being able to tell what the interior temperature is all the time is nice too.  At 60-61 degrees, it's sweatshirt or blanket territory, but comfortable.  On a sunny weekend, we get good exposure through our picture window and the furnace doesn't come on more than once in the morning until the sun goes down.   


Home Improvement: The Basement Organization Project

I've always wanted some basement shop space, and now I have it. The basement ceiling in our new house is low, but the only place I really hit my head is where the sewer pipe follows one of the floor joists.  I only hit my head on that pipe if I am wearing a baseball cap, which obscures my view of said pipe.  Then I wake up on the cold concrete, realizing that I should have some sort of WARNING:REMOVE HAT sign on the basement stairs.

The basement also provides storage space. Kate and I have lived in a combined 9-10 apartments since we've known each other, and of course, that generates a number of moves and a number of purges and reorganizations of stuff.  So there's little redundancy in our lives and less stuff to store.  Still, it's really nice to have it all on a couple of shelves along one wall of the basement, all easily accessible without moving any three things to get at one other thing, like in our last three apartments.

Another wall is dedicated to bicycles and outdoor gear. There are two unicycles and six (!) complete bicycles in our basement (my project bike adds one more), and they all fit side by side on hooks against the wall.  Any one bike can be taken out without disturbing any of the others, and this is far superior to any system we've had before.  Our outdoor gear is another story.  I don't quite have that down to much more than a disorganized pile of skis, camping gear, helmets, goggles, etc, but we'll get there.

The last corner of the basement is dedicated to workout space.  My road bike lives on the trainer for now, and various dumbbells and other implements of torture line the wall.

We all need "basements." In my brief time as a planner and my longer time of being interested in space and place type issues, the dearth of storage available at most rental properties, condominiums, and affordable housing developments has always bothered me.  We toured an award winning project in Missoula once, and while the buildings were attractive and the common green between them was nice, the alleys were stuffed with junk.  Not junk in the sense of trash, but junk in the sense that these homeowners had no place to put the utilitarian objects of life that everybody tends to accumulate (especially when one wishes to be self sufficient and do most of one's own property maintenance).  The apartments we lived in were worse. 

Our first place in Missoula was a typical multi-unit mass-managed complex.  You know the type: four buildings, three stories each, lot lines ringed with single-story three-sided garage bays, pool, gym and rental office in the middle. There was a little storage space at the back of the garages, but not much.  And for bicycles?  Your choice was to "secure" your bike in a rack on the ground floor, try to cram it into the space behind your car, or flaunt the rules in your lease and bring the bike inside. Bikes were not allowed on the symbolic "decks" that protruded out of the units at the backs of the buildings.  Gigantic explosive gas grills, elk heads, piles of beer cans and other detritus, however, was not covered by this provision in the lease.  Our next place in Missoula had attic space, and our place in Burlington had an odd sort of separate room that I made into a combined shop/storage area, but none of these were really adequate. 

I'd venture to guess that most renters and owners of affordable multifamily housing do not find that they have adequate space to store the things they need to be self-sufficient. Garden tools, hand tools and the like. The tools and space you need to fix the stuff you have so you don't need to go out and buy new stuff. Affordable housing in Vermont is no different.  Decks and porches are full of tools, bikes, even furniture.  I think about bike commuting as a matter or removing barriers.  I think of self-sufficiency and getting off the treadmill of buying new plastic junk when the old plastic junk breaks in the same way.  Not being able to fix your stuff is a barrier, not having the space to work in and the place to keep the tools to do the job are a barrier. We have community gardens, some places have tool libraries, there are communal bike shops (all three present in Missoula), but what about community wood shops- community space to fix and refinish furniture? 

In the mean time, I'll be glad to have my basement and to be lucky enough not to have those barriers to self sufficiency, but there has to be a way to make what I have accessible to more people and to people who can't afford to buy a house.


The House-Buying Experience: Closing, Part II- Meeting the Sellers

We arrived in front of the lawyers office a half-hour later, having traversed a distance that can usually be made within a ten minutes.  The new snow glowed orange under the streetlights and flashed yellow under the winter parking ban signs.  We sat at the big table in the big old brick building with our Realtor and the lawyer and waited for the seller and his Realtor to arrive.  They arrived. More paper passes, lots of signatures.  Our check floats away to the downstairs, where the lawyer's assistant processes it into a set of pre-printed checks for the Realtors, for the seller, for us.  We pass the plumber's estimate across the table.  Tentatively.  At least I felt tentative.  the seller looked surprised.  I immediately felt bad- you could tell he was embaraassed and wanted to be sure that everything was in order.  Checks were re-printed to adjust for the estimate amount. Everybody took a breath, everybody smiled.  Keys were handed over.  We had signed our names so many times, i had to ask the lawyer if we were done.  Yes, we were done.  He congratulated us. He asked if he could have the old harvest gold rotary phone from the wall in the dining room.  So many memories, he said.  Of course he could have the phone.

The snow was really coming down, and cars were bumper-to-bumper on every uphill street going out of Burlington.  The lawyer invited us all over for a drink at the club next door.  we went, we had a glass of wine, ate some crackers and nuts.  Then we drove home in the snow on the now-emptying streets, back to our little apartment. 

(One week passes)

The dust had cleared.  The moving was complete, the holidays had been survived more than celebrated, but here we were, reflecting on the whole experience.

Although buying a house was stressful, there were bright spots. We didn't have much time to think about it during the process, but as we sat in our new dining room, I thought a lot about the man who we bought the house from.

He was 84, I think, and his wife had passed away some years before.  He bought the house in 1952, only five years after it had been built. He and his wife raised three kids in the house.  In fact, it was the arrival of their second and third children (fraternal twins) that occasioned the conversion of the garage into a kitchen and dining area, so the original kitchen could be made into a third bedroom. He wore a checked shirt and a blue cardigan.  He shook my hand firmly and looked me in the eye when he congratulated us on the new house.  

By now, I've been through the house and over every inch of it I can reach.  It has been impeccably maintained.  Nothing is too extravagant, but everything shipshape, clean, organized.  The seller left the records for all of the appliances.  The envelope for the stove says "replaced 1952 frigidaire- we were sad "  There's a frowning face drawn on the envelope. Inside is the receipt for the 1952 stove.  less than 200 dollars.  Twenty-six dollars down. seven dollars a month.  It lasted 42 years.  He lived in the house for 56 years. I can't imagine leaving a place after all that. Will we be in the house 56 years from now? That's 2064.

Who knows? 
Big snow today. Looks like we will see over a foot.
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The House-Buying Experience: Closing, Part I

This post would more accurately be titled:

 "The Very Long Day During Which the Projected Amount of Money We Needed to Bring to the Closing Doubled, Halved, Doubled Again and Then Got a Little Bigger"

But that seems too wordy and gives away the punch line. Oh well.

The day we closed on our house felt like a full day of work on top of the actual workday.  Our closing was scheduled for 4:30 in the afternoon, but I planned on leaving the office at 2:00 so we could meet the Realtor for one final walk-through before heading to the law office where we would finally meet the seller and become homeowners.  I planned on that, and I did that, but in the middle of the process we had to go to the bank to get the Very Big Check that we would hand over at closing.  The thing was, we weren't sure how much that check was supposed to be for.

Modern technology means that our whole loan application was online for us to view, and that included a cell on a table somewhere in there with an estimated amount we needed to bring to the closing.  I'll refer to that amount as X.  There was plenty of money in the account to cover X, and X hadn't really changed over the week leading up to the closing.  Things were looking good.  On the morning of the closing, Kate called the broker just to make sure.  Suddenly, the amount was 1.5X  Ok, we could still do that.

As I cleared my desk for the day and got ready to go pick Kate up, I got a call from her. She had been in touch with the broker.  There had been a BIG mistake at the law office where we would be closing.  The amount we needed to bring was .75X.  Awesome!  We could eat the very next week!   I got on the road and picked Kate up outside her office and we headed toward the bank.  She turned to me:

"I've been on the phone with (our broker) again since I called you."


"Yeah, there's some property tax prebate/rebate thing and the oil in the oil tank at the house and really we need 2X for the closing."

So much for anything other than steel cut oats, soy sauce and a half grapefruit for next week's dinners.  Luckily, we still had 2X and a little bit more in the bank, but it was a shock.   

Trembling, we went up to the bank teller's window and asked for a cashier's check bigger than either of us had ever written at once.  It was done in half a minute, and we were on our way around the corner to the house for one final look-see.

The plumber's van was out front, and he had just finished.  He found one little leak and left us a slip with an estimate for a few dollars less than what the seller wanted for the fuel oil left in the oil tank. I didn't want to be the one generating surprises at the closing table, but so be it. We verified the amount of oil in the tank, took one last look at the house that was about to be ours (not enough of a loo for that to actually sink in) and we were off to downtown Burlington to the lawyers office to sign the final papers.     

Did I mention that this all happened as a massive snowstorm bore down on Burlington, and that by the time we were headed for Downtown, there was six inches of beautiful fresh powder on the ground?  Because there was. We fishtailed on to Williston Road, barely making the green arrow, and away we went...


State of the Shop: Initial Setup

My favorite corner of our new basement is the shop area. I wrestled my workbench down there a few weeks ago. The green shelves came with the house, and were salvaged from the original kitchen which is now the back bedroom I'm writing from tonight. There is more space here than I've ever had before, and the luxury of keeping a couple of projects going at a time is much appreciated. Previous workspaces operated like those little sliding puzzles with 8 squares and nine spaces. Anyway, this is a pretty cluttered photo, so I've taken the liberty (and massive mspaint skillz) to produce an edited version: There you have it, all my tools, all my projects and space in between to move about. Sometimes I just go down there to bask in all the cold, concrete glory, and sometimes I get some actual work done.
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The House-Buying Experience- Financing and Details

With the offer accepted and the financing a go, it was time to put our whole lives down on paper and send that pile of paper off the the mortgage broker for processing. I couldn't believe the amount of paper we had to generate in order to prove we were who we said we were, that we really were married despite having our own last names, that we really did make the incomes we had already sent pay stubs in showing we made, etc, etc. Our most trying moments saw me getting our payroll person to put the town's return address stamp and a little note explaining that yes, it was a real pay stub on my pay stub, Kate digging our marriage certificate from Chatham out of the fireproof box (the first time I had even seen this particular piece of paper), and then me sending a mass email to the broker, Realtor, loan processor, seller's agent etc explaining that yes, we really did intend to close as schedule and no, there really was no good reason for the processor to take "an extra couple of days" to process the loan. I think that generated a couple of emails from the other parties involved to the processor. (Who also was saying he hadn't gotten certain pieces of information from us when he really had.) A quick re-forwarding of emails with attachments and time/date stamps cleared that right up. Whatever I did or they did, it worked and suddenly we were on schedule again. In the midst of all this, there was the stress of being forced to make an unexpected financial move. A credit card I paid off some time ago with a significant line of credit was cancelled out from under me. As the loan neared processing time, I got to worry about whether that change in my debt-to-credit ratio would make a difference. Thankfully it didn't, but I guess in addition to the standard advice of "don't cancel any credit cards before your loan goes through" I'd add: "do what you can to keep those lines of credit open. One small purchase per month per card, paid off right away, would be a decent bet.


The House-Buying Experience- Inspections and Testing

I mentioned before about getting the radon test done before paying the bigger bucks for the inspection. Assuming you get through that stage, you get to spend a morning of afternoon with a home inspector. We used a guy our Realtor recommended. I enjoyed following him around the house, into the guts of the basement, the rafters of the attic and everywhere in between. I guess you could hire an inspector and have them go out and generate a report for you, but what fun would that be? I'd highly recommend going with the inspector. Our guy talked about what he was doing and what he was looking at the whole time, and it was a good education. In our case, he noted a few cracked window panes and some pipes that might be leaking. The roof looked good, the foundation looked good, etc. On the basis of the inspector's report, we did ask the seller to have a plumber come out and look at the pipes and the bathroom. The seller had a plumber out and the plumber's report was that he re-seated the toilet on a new wax seal and that everything "looked fine." Kate inquired further a few days later and we found out that the plumber had not gone into the basement at all. You know, the pace where 95% of all the pipes in the house are? The addendum to our offer that asked the seller to have a plumber come in was pretty broad, but had been slightly misinterpreted. This led to the plumber coming back out to the house on the morning of the closing. He estimated a few hundred dollars for some minor repairs and we took that estimate with us to the closing. That was less than ideal, but I felt much better about the whole thing knowing that a plumber had actually been into the house to check out the pipes. My only advice from this part of the experience is that if you find things in the inspection that you want the seller to remedy, make sure that your Realtor prepares a specific list of those things and ask yourself if you would understand that list if you had never seen the house before. I wish we had looked at the addendum more closely before we signed it, but things were rushed. Guess what? Things will always be rushed. It's your house you're buying. Read stuff carefully, but especially the stuff where you are asking the seller to do stuff before you close. It will save time and aggravation later.


The House-Buying Experience- Offers

Ok, so eventually, we found a house we liked, took a look, and decided to make an offer. This was the scary part, or at least it was the first part of the scary part. We got to go through this part twice, due an offer we made contingent on a good radon test. (The house didn't "pass," more on that later.) I'm glad we went through twice though, because I felt much better about the second time through. There's a whole flurry of activity that happened each time we told our Realtor we wanted to make an offer. Although we had a pre-approval letter from a mortgage broker stating that they were probably willing to loan us up to X amount of money, once you decide to make an offer, the broker generates another letter specific to that house and your offer amount, or thereabouts. The Realtor packs that in with the offer along with some language about contingencies and when the offer expires. Then the signing, scanning, sending, and re-sending begins. I imagine there was a time this was all done by fax or that Realtors spent a lot of their time driving around with papers for signature, but in our case Kate and I each had a scanner at hand, so Kate would print, sign and scan a document, which i would then print, sign and scan to send back to the Realtor. A couple of things we ran into with offers: Contingencies: We made our offers contingent on a satisfactory home inspection, among the other usual things related to obtaining financing etc. "Satisfactory" is a pretty broad term to have show up in an offer, and I was surprised that ur offer documents didn't have more specific metrics in them. Value to the seller: Since offers include information about who will pay for which closing costs and who might pay whom some cash back, it sure is nice to know how much money you are actually offering for the house! Seriously, there were times i looked at offer documents and wasn't sure how much we were offering to pay. Don't be afraid to ask. Expiration: We trusted our Realtor on this, but she didn't give either seller we dealt with much time to think about our offer, just 24 hours. I was a little surprised at that but it worked out just fine. Inspection Period: Our offers were contingent on getting a good inspection, including a satisfactory radon test. The thing is, they also included very tight timelines about when those inspections could occur, and radon tests take time (the little cartridge has to sit in the basement for about five days, if I remeber correctly). On the first house we looked at, we had a Home Inspector set the radon test on the day he came to do the inspection. We paid about 100 dollars for the radon test and 400 for the inspection. Things were looking good until the test came back higher than we wanted to deal with. On the house we ended up buying, we had the radon test done first, and only had the inspection done after the radon test came back clean. Had the house failed on radon, we would have still had our inspection money. I guess my recommendation here is to try to get somebody who will sequence things like this. Finally, the day you are waiting for the word to come in on your offer, don't expect to be able to concentrate on much else. It was exciting to get that call. I tried to keep a zen-like state of consciousness about the whole thing until all was said and done, but it is tough when you start thinking, after seeing so many dogs on the market, that you have found a house you want.


The House-Buying Experience- Going to See The House

Ok, so after all the photos and web stuff and calling and email, you actually find some houses you want to look at. We often didn't do this, but I'd recommend a no-Realtor drive by first before asking for a showing.  It saves everybody some time.

From my perspective, these showings were shorter than I expected.  A quick walk-through and a "Whaddaya Think?" from the Realtor and that was about it.  It all seemed pretty binary, with not a lot of room to say "Well, I like this and that, but not this..."  I tried to do some of that, especially at the beginning to help educate our Realtor about what our tastes were, but it didn't really seem to matter.

What did matter was if I mentioned wanting to make an offer. Don't say the word offer around your Realtor unless you want the process to start running on rails right from that moment. I'd suggest thinking about it overnight and getting back to them the next day, with an offer amount in mind.  If you just say "I think we should make an offer on this one," and don't mention a number, your Realtor will probably go ahead and set one up for you anyway, with whatever he or she thinks the offer amount and terms ought to be.  You'll have to sign off on everything, but stuff can start to seem really final really fast and emotions start to play.

In fact, I wouldn't talk offer at first, but maybe ask the Realtor to shoot you a couple of comp sales for the neighborhood. Think about the asking price in square footage terms and how that compares to the asking prices of other neighborhoods.  A house we looked at in our neighborhood that was quite a bit smaller (and slammed to the side and rear-yard setbacks, so no additions allowed) priced at almost $100 a square foot more than the house we ended up buying.

I enjoyed looking at houses.  It's easy to get taken in by some particular feature or another, but I liked going down into basements and up into attics as much as the rest of it.  I think that surprised our Realtor a little bit, but when the next action to take is probably to make an offer, it makes sense to be thorough at this stage.

Some telltale signs of issues:

1.  A hot basement. Basements shouldn't seem hotter than the rest of the house, and 9 times out of 10 if they do, it's because there was a dehumidifier chugging away until the last minute before you got there. Those things cost money to run, you know?

2. Pipes wrapped in tape, especially at the joints.  Sure, there's going to be a home inspection, but if the issues look major, just know you'll be pushing for a bunch of contingencies in your offer, including having an estimate done for the work to fix the problem.  Our experience of these kinds of things is that the Realtor would often say "oh, just have the sellergive you $XX cash back at closing to fix that." Sure. Except even the estimate you get is likely to be low, so why go even lower by naming a price up front?

3. Icicles on the eaves. If yopu're looking in winter, this is a sure sign of an inefficient attic/ceiling insulation.

4. Lots of fresh paint and a faint cigarette smoke smell.  If the smoke is in the carpets and walls, the smell of the paint will fade, leaving the cigarette smoke.  We are in the process of removing some 48-year old wallpaper right now and the smoke smell that comes off of it once we wet it down is surprising (moreon that project later).

5. Weird neighbors. Seriously- any junk piles next door, old cars in the yard, creepy kids looking you up and down and wondering when they can get in to steal your stuff? Any shopping carts on the sidewalk?  Curtains closed in the middle of the day?

I'm sure there's others, but the main thing I'd say is that the visit to a house should be all about the reasons you wouldn't want to buy it rather than the reasons you would.  You can go home later and fall in love with the place. call your Realtor the next day and talk offers, whatever.  Oh, and take pictures!  No reason not to.   


The House-Buying Experience: Looking at Houses (Advertising)

Time to start knocking off the aforementioned topics for new posts, one at a time: Here are some things I learned about buying a house recently: 1. Your Realtor (yes, I'll bow to pressure and do the capital R thing) is going to want to show you lots of houses you would never want to live in. This is the digital age. You're going to get an email digest from your Realtor just about every day with new listings added based on some search terms your Realtor put into an MLS database. Don't take these emails too personally, because they certainly aren't generated personally. The good thing is, you can look at a lot of places without driving around or actually going into them. 2. Of the houses you get excited to go see, many will be junk. I say this as a first-time home buyer with a moderate budget in Vermont. Maybe there are places with lots of spacious, modern houses in good neighborhoods in a first-time buyer's price range in your market, but there aren't a whole lot of those around Burlington. If you are looking at stand-alone houses, here are some terms you are likely to hear and what they might mean: "Great Condo Alternative" -This means that the house is priced kind of like an average condo in your area. For us, this usually meant that the house was undersize with major compromises.* "As-is, Handyman's Special, Fixer-Upper" -This means don't expect to deal with the Seller on any compensation for things that are wrong with it. If you plan to be relatively poor once you start paying your mortgage (like us), don't go for something that is going to require a large ongoing construction/remodeling budget. There's also a difference between out-of-date decor and basket case structural problems. "Ready for Your Touch" -If by "Touch" you mean "Hours and hours of labor and trips back and forth to Home Depot" "Many Updates" -This means the previous owner is probably trying to flip. They want you to pay their profit margin for the work they did. Most of the time, half of the work they did was work I would have wanted to tear down and start over with. Why pay their profit margins for stuff you either wouldn't have done or would have done better/differently**? "Convenient to shopping, restaurants, and more!" -You'll be sharing your street access with the local MegaMall 3. Photos can be deceiving, but almost never in a negative way. If it looks bad in the pictures, it will almost always look worse in person. It is amazing what can be cropped out just by moving the camera***. I'd think much more about location and desirable attributes and simply ignore the photos. 4. Know your neighborhoods. I wish we had spent more time getting to know the various neighborhoods we were looking in. I really like where we ended up, but we almost bought in a neighborhood I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked as much. I'd suggest driving a practice commute to and from any neighborhood you get serious about, as well as going there at different times of the day and days of the week. **** 5. Finally, set your B.S. detector on "kill" from moment one of the process. Everybody else involved in this transaction wants it to happen as fast as possible with you paying as much as possible. Remember that when you look at ads, when you go to see houses, and when you start second-guessing yourself or trying to rationalize your way into a too-high offer on a house you don't really want all that badly. Nobody you interact with on the marketing, offer and sale of a house is going to be there when the first mortgage payment comes due. *I'm a huge fan of small houses and have heard the Tumbleweed Tiny House guy speak before, but most existing small houses will have come about as a result of major compromises, rather than fabulous design. In our case, a house in our most desireable neighborhood was on the small side, slammed to the setbacks with no hope of adding on, and had bedrooms entering directly into the kitchen with no doors. Oh, and the toilet tank hung over the bathroom doorframe and there was only a smal stand-up shower and dubious room for a tub. This house listed for $95 per square foot more than the house we ended up buying. **What I usually saw was cosmetic updates done to the ignorance of structural or efficiency-related ones. Look for tile board instead of tile in bathrooms, new cheap carpet over bumpy, squeaky floors, or ultra-textured wallpaper (over who-knows what, but there must be a reason they went for that ugly textured stuff). I saw a couple of new kitchens in otherwise basket-case houses. ***A roll of toilet paper on a pedestal dispenser in the bathroom photo, however, is a sure sign of a bathroom that is too small/misconfigured to mount one on the wall! ****Every real estate book in the world tells you to do this, but it's key.


Hiatus and News

The early winter and holidays have been beyond hectic.  Overwhelmed by our obnoxious neighbor situation and presented with the right opportunity, Kate and I bought a house.  This was something we have been planning and dreaming about for some time, but did not think we would get started on until at least this summer, but opportunity and present situation combined to result in a December 19th closing and a move-in just before Christmas.  Our move did take us from Burlington to South Burlington, though, and just out of the comforting embrace of Burlington Telecom and her $30/ month DSL and into the cold, cold clutches of Comcast or its ilk.  With a new committment to mortgage payments in great excess of what we had been paying for rent, there is little room or patience to decipher introductory offers and figure out just how much more than the advertised rate the bill will be when all taxes and fees are figured in. Our decision so far has been to maintain radio silence. 

Thus, a hundred (well, four or five) blog posts are tied up in my head at the moment, including some about the house buying experience, some about the former owner and the home's history, and a whole load of remodeling journal entries to come.  There's non-house related stuff, too, like progress on my commuting/touring bike for the spring, the onset of ski season, my recent dicovery of the perfect biscuit recipe, a few proto-poems I've been thinking about writing, thoughts on Missoula and our western experiences, and much more.  How i get it all out there remains to be seen, but one could do worse than a laptop in the car and the occassional blip of free wifi...