Young Dog, Good Dog, Old Dog

I married my husband later in life when children had already come and gone. It must explain why we have adopted so many dogs.

I’m aware of the stages of a dog’s life from puppy to senior, and that each dog moves through each stage at their own pace. But maybe it’s possible that all these life stages could be narrowed down to just three. A young dog becomes a good dog (usually), and a good dog unfortunately becomes an old dog as time goes along.

We’ve had one dog in each of these stages for the past 2-1/2 years. Bentley is a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, and our youngest dog. Mr. Boggs is a Great Pyrenees/Mastiff mix and Dudley, a Standard Poodle, is the oldest.

Bentley joined our family with the sole purpose of promoting recovery after the loss of our last oldest dog. It’s as if he understood and accepted this job immediately. He still plays with toys, chews sticks on our best rug, attacks my feet when I walk around the house in socks, and dusting the furniture invokes the very worst of his wrath for whatever reason.

He is the definition of dramatic, which means I can’t help but smile whenever I look into his little face. And he instantly found a friend in our next oldest dog, despite their obvious differences.

Mr. Boggs left his adorable puppy phase to become this oversized teddy bear. True to his breed(s), he’s territorial, protective, fearless, patient, loyal, and stubborn. He’s also a really good dog.

Dudley is one of the most stunning of all dogs, and at 16 years old he’s our oldest dog. This perfectly coiffed exterior, however, belies his inner strength and resolve. He’s fought a bear, a Great Dane, killed countless rodents, and spent days at a time roaming the mountains where we live. I wouldn’t say he’s ever lost a fight, but he has come home slightly ruffled from time to time. Nothing has ever intimidated him.

He went to guard dog school for six months when my husband decided he should stand guard over the back door of my store. He was just six months old at the time. The trainer assured us it wouldn’t change his personality, but warned it could make him more intense. That was true, and it also meant he grew up fast.

We learned to talk to him in German, and he went to work with me for the first few years of his life. Then he retired to the life he loved most.

Sometimes I’d sleep on the sofa waiting for him to come home from his latest adventure – like a wayward teenager. In the wee hours of the morning I’d find him waiting patiently on the porch exhausted, thirsty, and sometimes wounded. He could ruin a $100 haircut in a few short hours, and he did so often.

He was my running partner when I trained for my first marathon, and my hiking partner in his later years. All he ever wanted was to be outside. I could relate. We were kindred souls.

Dudley went to heaven a few weeks ago. His body had traveled as far as this earth would allow him to go. You’d think losing a four-legged child would get easier after all this time, but it never has.

Whether it was the training or how he was born, Dudley was certainly intense – I couldn’t imagine him any other way. He was aloof, but not unloveable. He was passionate about being on the hunt – his sport, and nothing distracted him from doing what he loved. There was much to learn from this child. I think he would tell us to always be brave, follow your heart, and don’t back down.

There was a sign in the room at the Vet’s office: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” It takes some time to get past the don’t cry part. Dudley’s hips got weak and he started losing his balance. This past year he couldn’t stand up long enough to be groomed and he started looking scraggly. Getting old is not always pretty, but he was the same wonderful guy we loved and I’m so glad he happened into our life.

Continuations of Thought on Arbitrary Topics (writing a blog)

Artificial Intelligence has been newsworthy for some time, but never before has my curiosity been more piqued than when Jeremy Kahn (Bloomberg) published a story this week in Fortune: “This Article Is Fake News. But It’s Also The Work of AI”.

The story explains that OpenAI, a non-profit artificial intelligence research group in San Francisco, has unveiled a machine learning algorithm that generates synthetic text, or fake text, after being prompted with arbitrary input. The program even adapts to the style of the input – chameleon-like in generating realistic and coherent continuations about a topic of the user’s choosing.

In Kahn’s example, only two lines became the input: “A train carriage containing controlled nuclear materials was stolen in Cincinnati today. Its whereabouts are unknown.”

With no human guidance, the language model finishes the story by explaining in great detail that the incident had occurred on the downtown train line, which runs from Covington and Ashland stations, and that the U.S.Department of Energy was working with the Federal Railroad Administration to find the thief. It claimed the stolen material was taken from the University of Cincinnati’s Research Triangle Park nuclear research site, according to a news release from Department officials, and ended with a quote from the U.S. Energy Secretary, “We will get to the bottom of this and make no excuses.”

OpenAI’s company website reveals other fake news examples generated by the program, including reporting on a war of the orcs, Miley Cyrus caught shoplifting on Hollywood Boulevard, a remote herd of unicorns discovered that spoke perfect English, and JFK has just been elected President after rising from the grave.

In every case, the language model finishes the thought with a completely unexpected, relative and captivating narrative – sometimes on its first try. The implications and potential abuse of this new technology are frightful, but I can’t help being intrigued by the program’s ability to create such colorful stories from a random thought – perhaps because this is also the most compelling challenge of your everyday blogger.

In six years of writing to this blog I don’t think I’ve ever created a cohesive narrative on the first try, no matter how unexpected or captivating the topic. And while it seems like writing a big, fat, fake narrative would be fun, fiction seems to be the most difficult of all writing endeavors. I realized early on that my writing would be limited to reality.

Fortunately even the most mundane ’real’ topics seem fascinating material in those early years of blogging – and they flowed like water.

I had only published 30 posts when I decided to write about my foot. A quick search revealed the Statue of Liberty had been designed with toes just like mine. I named the post, ‘The Normal Variation: A Lesson On Morton’s Toe,’ and the rest is history. That post was the number one read post on this blog for the first five years. Bloggers everywhere will probably understand when I say, who knew?

But you never really know which topic will interest readers. I’ve written two poems – they were both about a day in the life of one or all of my dogs, and I’ve written extensively about my personal running adventures. When there was nothing of interest to write about within those topics, I’d go fishing for a topic.

On one such occasion my searching uncovered comments made at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports Medicine in June of 1999 by Dr. Stephen Seiler. He had coined the phrase, the “black hole” of training, which, in the athletic world, meant the no-man’s land of mediocrity — a place where an athlete’s high-intensity effort is performed too slow, and the low-intensity effort is performed too fast, resulting in every training effort being performed at medium-intensity…. which accomplishes nothing. I could completely relate to this newfound advice, and wrote a passionate study on how to avoid the moderate middle of training. ‘Training’ became the topic of choice for several years as I explored the depths of distance running myself.

I became enthralled with Arthur Lydiard’s base building philosophy after a Kung Fu classmate had mentioned it in class one week. I spent months working through the program and writing about each phase. That’s about the same time I began to realize just how many runners across the World are also interested in all things running. Readers have visited from over 100 countries, and I love that no matter where we live, we have things in common.

When I went back to school in 2014 I wrote about kayaking, hiking and climbing, but I also learned about Hans Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome that year, and wrote how that theory, and our response or adaptation to stress, can help athletes in their training. Life provided the blog topics, and for awhile it seemed they’d never dry up. Eventually they do, even if only temporarily.

This is where I imagine the OpenAI language model could have stepped in and turned this little blog of mine on its head. I could provide dozens of arbitrary thoughts, and AI could create a captivating post; although the easy answer is not always the right answer.

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Eventually I had a crazy idea to write an entire series about runner’s injuries – taking them one body part at a time, and ‘The Anatomy of a Runner’ was born. The first post I wrote was loosely titled after Meghan Trainor’s song, “It’s All About That Bass,” and it took over the number one spot last year for the most read post. I was nervous about taking on human anatomy, but it has been the most challenging and rewarding writing I’ve done so far.

Beginning this blog has changed my life most unexpectedly. I love to write. To tell a story. And it doesn’t really matter the subject. I’ve risked alienating my fellow runners by writing about my garden, the dogs, our life, or my interior design adventures. It is always a tough decision to do that, but every topic requires that you adapt your style of writing somewhat, and I like that challenge.

I’ve wondered lately how blogs end. Do you plan that last post, or maybe you write a post one day and never return. Maybe the problem is that we run out of ideas, or life no longer seems exciting enough to write about. Maybe life gets too busy to write, or the reason you started blogging in the first place isn’t going so well. Who wants to write about something they no longer do or enjoy.

In 2013 I created a document on my iPad that I named ‘Draft.’ I write my entire post into that document, and edit it several times before I paste it into WordPress (where it undergoes another several gazillion edits). Sometimes my draft document also contains random thoughts or ideas I’ve found to use in other posts.

At the top of the document right now is a quote from Nordstrom’s co-president, a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, and an idea for the title of a future post. There’s also a reference from a study about the known predictors and injury rates of recreational runners who steadily train in long-distances, and the remnants of a post I started last week about our living room, but then deleted out of frustration. Sometimes my draft document is completely empty – correctly reflecting the number of ideas in my head at that time. As my husband says, “Close your eyes.”

There’s dozens of potential topics left to explore though, even if only the first two lines of thought have been generated. As the saying goes, the only way to get better at writing is to write – to encourage yourself to go ahead and write about that arbitrary topic that came to mind in the middle of the night. After all, practice is the only way to get good enough to write an unexpected and captivating story on the first try – without artificial intelligence, of course.

A Tumultuous Downsizing Project

By late October our life had taken a nose-dive toward the uninhabitable center of the earth. We decided to put our house on the market for only the month of October to let fate determine whether we’d finally downsize to our little cottage. Fate decided. We downsized.

For three weeks in November we were betwixt and between two houses; not fully settled into one, not fully moved out of the other. Some people find the whole process invigorating (me) while others find it quite miserable (my husband).

It’s difficult to describe the amount of purging required to fit ourselves into 975 square feet of space. To make matters worse, those 975 square feet had already been furnished for the vacation rental market so there were two houses to clear out instead of just one. We dealt with the furniture first.

My sister was fortunately in the position to take several entire rooms – accessories, art and furniture. Julie, our friend and dearest of all realtors, took another significant portion of furniture and a variety of other things for the very extraordinary vacation rental properties she’s renovating. The two of them saved the day. We kept four rooms of furniture and sent the rest to consignment stores all across town. Then for the next two weeks we dealt with stuff.

For almost everyone I know (except maybe our friends the Markham’s), we accumulate stuff we don’t need. We had buckets of old photos, candles of every color and size, four hammers, three ladders, too many bottles of glue. I had several dozen pairs of shoes, purses I didn’t use, and a matching robe for every pair of pajamas.

Our gym upstairs housed three different types of stationary bikes, a treadmill and a full set of free weights. There were towels in every bathroom, multiple sets of linens for every bedroom, 25-year old Christmas ornaments, a music box my parents gave me 50 years ago, and every medal, racing bib and trophy from the past 11 years of road racing.

There was no chance I would throw everything down to the curb for it to end up in a landfill, so I sorted everything and tried to find the appropriate home for all of it. More than likely I’ve touched everything I own a half-dozen times each.

Eventually the purge ended, and we left our house with barely a whispered goodbye. We were exhausted.

The first week that we lived in the cottage our neighbor across the street walked out of his house and had a massive heart attack right there in the middle of the road. Another neighbor and I reached him about the same time while my husband dialed 911. The neighbor and I performed CPR until the paramedics arrived, and then they worked on him for some time before he was pronounced dead at the scene. It was upsetting for the neighborhood as a whole. I had trouble sleeping for several weeks.

Sunday before last was a beautiful warm day. I spent the afternoon working in the yard and decorating the cottage for Christmas. The man’s widow was out walking their two dogs so I worked my way across the street to offer condolences. The dogs were on especially long leashes and reached me first. Still wearing my gardening gloves, I reached out to let them smell my hands and instinctively bent over to say hello. One of the dogs jumped up and bit right through my nose. A trip to the E.R., a visit to a plastic surgeon, and eleven stitches later I was glad to still have something that resembled a nose on my face. Three days later my son arrived from Texas with his new wife and their two dogs.

We had planned their trip months before we sold the house that had extra bedrooms and plenty of bathrooms, so we booked them into an Airbnb down the street and kept their two dogs at the cottage – along with our three. It was a full house: five dogs, four people, and also love and fun all around. Their trip ended with a freak snow storm that hit Western North Carolina over the weekend leaving us with oodles of snow and only a generator for power.

Ours has been a tumultuous transition, but we do enjoy life at our little cottage – and for the first time since October, there’s nothing to pack, move or get rid of, nothing on our schedule, and enough time in every day for a run. Life is good.

Testing Trauma Naked and the Medical Touch

A little known fact of my life is that I am (still) a National Registry and Wilderness EMT. It was one of those things that seemed interesting to do at the time, four years ago, and I never gave much thought as to how or if it might become a permanent part of life.

Six months prior I had gone back to school. I spent months backpacking through the mountains, climbing the 50-ft Alpine Tower, and navigating high/low ropes courses, which, to my surprise, included jumping off the top of a 45-foot telephone pole.

Another semester was devoted to paddling rafts, kayaks and canoes in the cold, fast waters of the Nantahala. One of our early assignments was to capsize our kayaks and see how long we could force ourselves to hang upside down under water. Just before my instructor flipped my kayak, he told me the secret was to not let my mind convince me to tap out – not to panic. We could survive much longer, he warned, than our mind would lead us to believe. The point of every class was to push ourselves to our personal physical or emotional limit.

When my late teenage/early twenty-something classmates ventured out to find summer jobs that year, I wandered into my instructor’s office to decide what I would be when I grew up. I had taken the 9-day Wilderness First Responder class during spring break, so he suggested I might take the 3-week EMT class during summer break.

I’m not nearly so comfortable in a classroom. If it had been more common in the 60s and 70s, I’m pretty sure I would have been diagnosed ADHD. My mind wanders, and short-term memory is not my best attribute. I passed the class, and discovered I loved emergency medicine. Not doing, mind you, but the learning of it.

There’s a process to follow in quickly identifying life-threatening issues and stabilizing a person for transport. When testing this process, we divide the topics into three areas.

There’s a pediatric test where the students must realize that little Bobby is having an allergic reaction, safely administer an EPI pen, and the appropriate oxygen treatment. The medical test involves a patient that is having chest pain, who inevitably has a heart attack right in front of your eyes causing you to administer CPR. The third test is trauma related where students must assess a patient involved in a major and near fatal incident. There’s major bleeding to remedy, severe head trauma to diagnose and mitigate, and a requirement to immediately transport the patient correctly attached to a backboard.

I’ve been a proctor for these tests for about three years. The students come in one by one racked with nerves. I remember the feeling well. They’re overly conscious of the time limit of each test, and it cripples some of them. We keep the rooms cool. They sweat profusely. We’re not allowed to show an ounce of emotion. Their eyes beg us to encourage them, or reassure. One student out of every class will come right out and ask if they’ve passed the test. We still don’t answer, although I admit that sometimes I look deep into their eyes and attempt to pass along a smile. Some of them notice I think.

We use life-size dummies with fake blood and sort of real-to-life looking props in class and for the tests. Sometimes we use real people as patients. Students are encouraged to show respect as we ‘dress down’ the patients, searching their body for signs and symptoms. My instructors called it learning to perfect trauma naked and the medical touch. In other words, don’t be creepy.

Sometimes I think of these things I’ve learned.

Show respect if you find it necessary to ‘dress down’ another person; don’t be creepy; find a way to pass along a smile; and, if you capsize, remember that you can survive much longer than your mind would lead you to believe.

Cottage Life

We’ve lived life in 975 square feet for about four months. I expected to give cottage life a definitive thumbs up or down within the first few weeks, but surprised myself when I couldn’t muster a decision. My husband was decisive early on, but only because he didn’t want to move again. So it’s up to me I guess to tell the truth.

There’s not a level floor-wall-door-surface in all 975 square feet. In past years that would have made me nuts. Maybe it’s age, or acceptance, but I actually coached the workers to hang some of the doors out of level so they appeared level to the eye. We’ve done the same thing to shelves, pictures, mirrors. . . you name it. I hardly notice anymore.

The size of the rooms were an adjustment, but there’s a full stop choke point in the center hallway. It’s bad enough if my husband and I happen to be there at the same time, but add Mr. Boggs to the mix and it’s a total impasse.

I guess we’d both agree it’s the bedroom, or more specifically the bed that was the biggest change. Having spent decades in king quarters, a queen’s bed is just shy of enough, especially when one of us is in the middle of menopause. Of course, we’d be fine if not for Bentley (the dog). There’s not enough muscle in the world to move a dog that doesn’t want to move over – no matter how small he may be.

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Our long-term plan is to add a garage, a guest suite, and a proper driveway. We want to paint the dark wood in the living room, upgrade the refrigerator, and bring over our own furniture, including my piano. Every day I debated whether to trade the baby grand piano for an upright so we’d have room for a dining table, or forego a dining table altogether. It was a brutal decision.

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This was the only room in the cottage that could hold my piano, or a dining table. That’s Bentley in the center hall above, and Mr. Boggs in the picture below.

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There’s lots of things that make this little cottage wonderful. It’s cozy, and full of character. When you settle in for the night, or wake up in the morning, it’s almost cocooning. Cleaning is a breeze instead of a chore, and there’s some amount of time spent every day rocking on the front porch. Folks walk by and stop to say hello. They tell us what a transformation the little place has gone through, or how they grew up with the original owner’s kids. And we won’t forget, it sits beside a native garden. It’s like walking into another world.

Then summer arrived.

Lake Junaluska is a beautiful resort that comes to life in the summer. The lake is at the end of our street where there’s canoeing and kayaking, a 3-mile trail around the lake, a gym, fishing, tennis, swimming pool, shuffle board, mini-golf, ice cream stand, coffee shop, a playground for the kids, and a labyrinth for contemplation. Once a week there’s a community bonfire, an outdoor movie, and concerts.

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It’s a pretty nice place to go kayaking.
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A view from the treadmill inside the gym.

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The 4th of July parade shut down Lake Shore Drive followed by a picnic for just $5, and fireworks after dark. There’s half a dozen gardens throughout the resort with guided tours every Tuesday. Bands played in front of the gardens on the 3rd of July tours. Forty-nine people toured the native garden next door to our cottage that day.

I went back to our larger home one morning to water the plants. It was quiet and peaceful. The neighbors are separated by nearly an acre of land. There’s no pending construction, no further renovations, all the furniture is in its rightful place. There’s room for my piano, and a dining table.

I realized I couldn’t bear the thought of living through the construction, and the little cottage couldn’t be perfect without it. I wasn’t sure about the crowds, or whether the entire neighborhood would hear me play the piano, and every wrong note that might ensue.

We moved back home a couple of weeks ago.

I wrote in a previous post that this little cottage has tormented me every day since we met. The torment continues. My husband was ready to live out his days there, “snug as a bug” as he would say. In the end, I was the one that panicked.

When we were settled back comfortably in our larger home, he (once again) declared he would never move again.

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The cottage. That’s Dudley on the porch and Bentley is barely visible at the far left. There were always plants on the porch waiting to be planted, but the rocking chairs were our favorite pastime.

The Strategy of Staging

Our downsizing experiment has lasted almost four weeks, and we’re still married – although there was that meltdown near the end of week one.

We had furnished our cottage for the vacation rental market, so we really only needed to bring clothes and a toothbrush. He forgot his toothbrush.

The plan was to bring the bare minimum; no need to move too much until we were sure this downsizing experiment was successful. Except that every day of the first week we had to make an emergency trip back home to fetch something critical to our survival. After a few days of this routine, my husband announced he would not move back home – even if we hated living in this little cottage. It would be the understatement of all time to say he hates to move.

With the gauntlet thrown, we turned our attention to getting our house ready for market. The only thing my husband hates more than moving is getting a house ready for market.

I’ve spent a month of days removing anything from the house that would identify us: family pictures, pictures of the dogs, my running memorabilia. The garage, closets, kitchen cabinets, and even the refrigerator have been re-organized. Then we cleaned everything like there was no tomorrow. The last step was to edit, edit, edit: accessories, books, artwork, plants, and even the area rugs. Staging is the part that sends my husband over the edge. With every house we sell, he swears our house doesn’t even look like our house by the time I’m done staging. It’s wasted time to tell him, that’s the point.

Julie, our trusted realtor, walked through every inch of the house and gave me advice on my progress. We’ve worked together long enough that I could imagine what she would say about almost every accessory in the house. I have a propensity for decorating with dark bronzes. She would suggest something bright instead. And then there’s a few buyer-distracting accessories, such as the dog door stop that has his leg hiked. One time I took out all the bronzes, including the stampede of horses, and stored them in the garage. This time I’ve brought the dog, the fish coat hooks, and a few others to the cottage. Every surface has finally been re-arranged with an eye toward benign and bright in hopes of appealing to the masses.

Our forever home, the one with nine rooms and a mansard roof, hits the market today. Julie reminds us we can always move back home – if it doesn’t sell, if we don’t get the price we want, if we change our mind about cottage life. . .

It’s safe to say we’re hoping it will sell.

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Photos Courtesy Julie Lapkoff, Keller Williams

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A view of the back patio in full bloom last summer (with Bentley and Mr. Boggs).

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The beginning (before photos): Nine Rooms and a Roof

De-Cluttering My Life

My husband and I bought a small cottage to downsize one last time and live a simple, care-free life by the lake. The decision has tormented me every day since.

There wasn’t an immediate need to downsize, so we’ve spent the last few months readying the cottage for the vacation rental market. We could make a little money while creeping down the path to old age, and then we’d downsize. But it’s such a sweet house, and it has everything we need. Not an ounce too much. We found ourselves daydreaming about the day we’d live there.

Then we’d come home and our house seemed so excessive – and so much work. We started seriously considering downsizing sooner rather than later – maybe within the next year.

A year seemed like enough time to reduce our footprint, but moving into a house that’s a third the size of our current home was overwhelming. A decision looms everywhere: will this fit, will that fit, do I need this many shoes, books, house plants, or flower vases? Sometimes the answer is don’t-even-ask-I-can-not-possibly-part-with-that. The longer I attempt to downsize the more I’d rather toss everything and start over – except I don’t think I have the nerve.

That’s when I set a goal of getting rid of one thing a day. Some days are easy with dozens of things making the cut. Other days I close my eyes and hold my breath as I hand over a solitary pair of shoes at the Goodwill drop-off.

I’m familiar with the guideline that things should either be functional or beautiful, but we don’t need thirty wine glasses in our cupboard or three sets of china – no matter how functional or beautiful, and I won’t even admit to how many decorative pillow covers there are in the linen closet. Those beautiful, silk pants with the side-slit up to nither have been hanging in my closet with the price tag still attached for years. It was a daring purchase at the time, and I realize if you haven’t been brave enough to wear daring by the time you’re 58, chances are good you won’t – or shouldn’t be daring now.

After several weeks of this torture we had a change of heart – or clarity of mind. There’s a better way to find out if we can survive life in a small cottage with three dogs: we’ll move in. Now. Before we downsize.

The vacation rental strategy is on hold.

We met our landscaper at the cottage yesterday, and it was dreadful. Our little sliver of a back yard is filled with mud. The porch isn’t finished, which denies us that final check-off on the last inspection, and our lead carpenter has had the flu for over a week.

Some days are downright discouraging, but nonetheless we are on a path to giving this little cottage a trial residency – and that’s exciting. I guess no matter which house we ultimately live in for the immediate future, I’ve learned some things about the soft under belly of our belongings.

There have been days during this cleansing process that I looked around the room and imagined if I could only take one thing, what would it be? I’m glad I won’t have to only choose one item from each room, but it makes you think hard about what’s most important.

Another thing I realized was how good it feels to free myself from things I felt a responsibility, or an obligation to keep. It’s agonizing to imagine getting rid of mother’s china. She loved that china, but she didn’t use it and we don’t either.

For the life of me I can’t remember the details surrounding the conversation I had with my dad as he drove me to my high school graduation so long ago, but his advice from that day was that you can love something, appreciate its beauty without having to own it. That advice has been more helpful than ever these past few weeks.

The downsizing won’t go away during our trial residency, but there’ll be oodles of time to sort out my strategy. And if things go awry somehow in our tiny house experiment, we’ll just move back home.  🙂

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Almost ready for occupancy.