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Wednesday, 31 March 2010

What's in a vacuum?

One of the first things we bought when we arrived in the US was a vacuum cleaner. Admittedly we don't use it as often as we should, but it gets at least a bi-weekly workout, especially since we now have two cats depositing fluffs of black fur on the tan carpet, plus bark chips from the flowerbeds outside, and Beth's long dark brown hair seems to drop out everywhere but never gets any thinner. The cats are scared of the noise it makes, so we try to time our uses for when they're having an outing, usually after dark.

After a little market research we invested $150 in a Bissell upright bagless model, with (allegedly) special  pet hair attachment. We had a bagless Dyson in London for our last year and it was great, but we had to leave it with the house as it wouldn't work on the different power supply here. After having a bagless unit once, I can't imagine going back to the nightmare of bags. The Bissell has a lift out section, so it can be hand carried for use on stairs, and the usual long sucky attachment thing for getting into edges and corners. Overall it's doing a good job. Until yesterday when it sucked half a plastic bag round the floor roller. Beth took the roller out and cleaned it, but we (i.e. I) had apparently burnt out the motor.

Beth immediately found the receipt and checked the warranty, then got online to check both  the manufacturer's and retailer's sites. Better still, she didn't once say I was a doofus for sucking up the plastic bag and then pulling it out without turning the machine off first.

Today we were loading the machine into the car prior to taking it to the retailer, when, on checking the instructions one last time, we discovered that the roller doesn't turn if the handle is locked in the upright position. We tried it one last time and bingo, it worked fine. No need to take it back to the retailer then, and we set off on on our outing to the cinema, followed by an early supper at Sizzler (unlimited salad bar). We also visited Sears, a large department store, and an anchor store of the Gateway Mall in Springfield, where I looked at the possibility of a second vacuum for my den. After examining several, it was plain that nothing suited my needs more than the unit we already had, so I'll stick with that and suffer the minor inconvenience of carrying across from the house when I need to use it.

Back home, cats out, so we do a thorough vacuum of the whole floor. The cats are in the habit of chasing each other around and leave little tufts of black and grey fur everywhere, so there was quite a lot to vacuum, but the Bissell did the job admirably.

Durn, my garage shrunk

I don't think I can overstate how much Eugenians love their pickup trucks, and their garages. Unfortunately the vehicles have frequently outgrown the boxes designed to house them at night, so they live on the driveway instead.

However most houses also have an abundance of driveway, so that's no real hardship, and frees up the garage space for other uses: workshop, table-tennis court, or collecting skis, boats, kayaks, and any other leisure equipment that has to go somewhere.

Garages feature prominenly in the front view of most houses, and I guess it's hard not to when you need road access, and sufficient driveway for at least two vehicles. Many houses have a double and a single garage, giving over even more frontage to the vehicles.

I was hoping to avoid the "garage with house attached" image with our house, and I think we more or less succeeded.

The double garage door takes up about 1/4 of the frontage, so hopefully doesn't dominate in quite the same way. Meantime we still beneft from having a LOT of driveway, off to the right of the house, where we could park an RV should it be required. The detached second garage is also a double inside, but being set back and angled does not draw one's gaze. The garage door is not double, because there's a regular sized door beside it, but that garage was never, and is still not, really intended for parking vehicles.

New Plates

My car license plates are due for renewal the same date we move into the new house, so today I popped along to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

For UK readers, in the US, and Oregon in particular, you renew your car number plates every two years, for a small fee which is equivalent to the car license in the UK (but a lot cheaper). At this time it is also possible to change your number plate, which I did because the old back plate had been damaged by the previous owner. You can also order customised plates, a lot cheaper than the UK equivalent, but I couldn't think of a six number/letter combination that was pertinent, safe and witty that I was willing to spend an extra $100 for, so I just got regular plates.

At the same time I applied for new address labels for my own driving license, which will be mailed to the new house. I stick these over my old address on my driver's license, and voila.

Yesterday we went along to an insurance agent to work out insurance for the new house. At present we have our auto insurance with Progressive, but the house was insured by the previous owners with State Farm, so we went to see what their rates were like. We were pleased with their quotes, so we'll be using them, and in June we'll switch our auto insurance over to get a discount.

US house and car insurance are cheaper than in the UK, or at least they are here in Eugene. On the house front, I think it's probably because it's a lot cheaper to rebuild a woodframe house than a brick one. We will have insurance against earhquakes and civil riots amongst other things, and for medical bills for people who manage to injure themselves on our property. On the car front, it may be because traffic is lighter and theft less likely, and of course we have garages to park in at night (though very few people seem to use their garages for their vehicles).

Today and tomorrow are my "weekend", so by the time I'm back at work it'll be less than two weeks until we move. Beth and I are off to see a movie at lunchtime, "How to Train Your Dragon". One benefit of working weekends and having days off midweek is that the movies are cheaper and the theaters less crowded. Tomorrow I plan to see "Hot Tub Time Machine".

Friday, 19 March 2010

The New House (Beth's Facebook Album)

The link above should take you to an album of photos of our new house in Eugene. It's a Facebook album, but you don't have to be a member of Facebook to look at the pictures, just click on the link. You can navigate through the album using the arrow keys on your computer and read the comments, but you cannot leave comments if you are not a member of Facebook.

We officially owned this as of Monday, but won't be moving in until 15th April as the previous owners needed extra time to move out. We are renting it back to them for a month. Now that we legally own it we're getting very excited, and I'm glad I have a job to occupy my time or I'd going nuts waiting to move it.

Some of these pictures were taken by the previous owners before we saw the house, and some are taken by Beth during visits. Pretty much anything you can remove will have been removed when we move in, so bear in mind this is not our furniture.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Clothes Washing

One of the myriad conveniences we enjoy in the US is simpler and quicker clothes washing.

In London our washing machine took about 2 hours to complete a wash cycle, and the dryer about the same. That made starting a wash before work unlikely, and staring one after arriving home from work an evening long event. If we could we'd hang clothes out to dry in the garden, but often in the winter months they'd come in wetter than they went out and have to go through the dryer anyway.

The other London inconvenience was that both machines lived in the kitchen, which was not separated from the dining and living areas even by a door, and the machines were noisy. It made watching TV or even just being in the room a less than satisfying event.

In the apartment we have a toploading washer that does a load in about 45 minutes. The dryer has a setting for "optimum dry" and we just set that and wait for it to stop automatically. The machines are in the bathroom, and have their own separating doors, so we can have two closed doors between us and the machines to cut down the noise.

For the new house we've invested in a high efficiency washer that uses less water and electricity than the one in the apartment, but the system will be much the same. The house has a laundry chute on the landing so we can just dump dirty clothes straight down the chute into the utility room, where they will land in a basket on top of the dryer. There we will sort into darks, colors and whites, and do cycles as appropriate. The utility room is again separated from the kitchen by a door, but the machines are also supposed to be quieter than standard.

One cost of drying everything electrically is lint. Every load builds up wodge of lint in the lint trap, which comprises all the fibre particles knocked out of the clothes, so the clothes are wearing out faster. We may try a clothes line, but the convenience of the dryer will probably keep me using it as much as possible. There is also a vent hose to the fresh air, and we know that the finer lint particles get through the trap and escape to land near the house in a fluffy pile.

Like many things in America there are conveniences, and an associated cost. Our feelign is the convenience outweighs the cost.


About once a week as skies permit, Beth and I like to drive out after dark to a remote location to look at the stars.

Our efforts at stargazing in London were circumscribed by light pollution, which is about as bad in London as it can get. Add to that the high horizon due to tall buildings, and you get a chance at maybe 90 degrees of clear sky to gaze at.

In Eugene things are a bit different. Even on the outskirts of the city (e.g. where our new house is located) there are nearly 180 degree horizons, with skyglow from city lights polluting about 20 degrees all around, so you can see stars in about a 140 degree arc.

The picture above is a little small, so I recommend you look at for a better image. On the US west coast there are two strips of light, one along the coast, the other running the length of the I5. Eugene sits right on the I5, but our house is a few miles west, and even that small difference reduces the light pollution considerably. Then compare the US west of the Rockies to the Eastern half, and you'll see how much less light there is.

Round the Sweetwater neighbourhood there are no standing streetlights. Light after dark is provided solely by the houses, with outside lights either side of most garages. This may be a ploy by the city to save money on lighting, but for our purposes it brings the local light pollution down to a tolerable level.

Last night there was a cloudless sky, so we took a drive to a dark neighbourhood and spent ten minutes gazing at the stars. We're both out of practise and can only recognise a handful of constellations at present, but we did enjoy a few shooting stars, and the glow of the Milky Way was visible. We're looking forward to summer nights lying on a blanket in the back yard and gazing at the stars, while listening to the frog chorus.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

Daylight Saving Time - clocked by the change

That twice annual curse of confusion and annoyance is upon us. Allegedly invented by a New Zealander so he had more daylight to go bug hunting after his day's work (or was it so Scottish farmers could milk their dairy cows in daylight during WW1?), nobody can seem to agree on why we do it, what the benefits are, or why we can't just chuck the whole thing as a stupid inconvenience.

I have to go to work for 8am today, so I set an alarm on my phone for 5:15am, thinking this would be 6:15am after I adjusted for DST, giving me an hour and a half to shower, dress, eat, remember which way is up, and generally get ready and decent to leave the house.

Alas, alack, in this modern world of "convenience" my phone, bless its electronic heart, reset itself for DST, so I got up an hour earlier than intended. At least that's better than discovering than I got up an hour late, but I know I'll be tired before my shift ends at 5pm. Our two cats were no help at all, being delighted as usual to see a human moving at any time in the morning they insisted it really was time to get up and feed and entertain them.

Since not all clocks are self-adjusting, so we still have to go round checking every device that includes a clock, resetting some (the microwave), ignoring others (the stove!?!). By the second Sunday in November when the clocks go back, I'll have forgotten which devices are "smart" and which aren't, and no doubt I will be late to work as a result.

To add to the fun, not all of the United States observe DST (Arizona and Hawaii don't, and some counties in Indiana, which itself straddles two time zones), and the date on which the clocks change changed in 2007, so current experiment to try to save electricity will probably all change once I've got used to it.

In the USA the current dates of change are the 2nd Sunday in March, and the 1st Sunday in November. In the UK it's the last Sunday of March and the last Sunday in October, so my Skype video calls to my parents in the UK will be messed up for a while. The UK is forced to observe whatever the European Union decides, until it decides otherwise.

I accept that having longer hours of evening daylight in the Summer helps to save electricity, but how does setting the clock back for the Winter do the same? Why can't we just stay with the advanced hour forever?

Friday, 12 March 2010

Eight Days a Week

In the last eight days we've sold a house, bought a house, and bought all the necessary furniture for the new house. We're looking to add a couple of big screen TVs (around 55") and odds and ends like table lamps, but we're pretty much there for all the big stuff. I've also worked five of the last eight days, and about to start another four day stint tomorrow.

I ought to be utterly exhausted, but somehow the adrenaline is still flowing. My job at Wal*Mart is novel and fun enough that, though physically tiring, I enjoy it and in ways look forward to going in. We have been looking at furniture for a few weeks in various stores, and finally settled on Riley's Real Wood Furniture for, well, all the wooden stuff. That's the bedroom set (bedframe, dresser, chest of drawers, night stands) and dining room furniture (table and six chairs), two coffee tables and matching end tables. It's all very nice quality and built to last with a pricetag to match, but hey, we hope to be still using it all fifty years from now. The 15% discount for a big purchase didn't hurt either.

Appliances we haven't been looking so long because, frankly, we don't get that excited by washers (washing machines) and dryers. We went to Sears today and picked out an Energy Star high efficiency washer from GE (General Electric) that uses 50% of the water and 40% of the electricity of a normal washer, cost about the same due to the sale price, and we get a $70 rebate from our Electricity supplier for buying one, so in the end works out cheaper even before we've plugged it in. The matching dryer isn't "energy efficient" because dryers are by nature big electricity suckers, but with a big load capacity it is more efficient within its class. At Sears we also bought a 14 cu ft chest freezer to keep in the garage, and a nifty black fridge with icebox for my den. The kitchen fridge/freezer, hob/stove and microwave we are buying with the house.

We have two recliner armchairs already in the apartment, to which we are adding two 3 seat sofas and two 2 seat "loveseats" (in England we'd just call this a 2 seat sofa). These will be split between the family (TV) room and the living room. After looking round various stores we settled on buying these from Big Lots, a slightly lower end department store, because we liked the material (and price) which is more cat-proof and easier to clean than the suedey feel of our recliners.

While we were at the register paying for the sofas and loveseats, the manager remarked to Beth that we must have a really nice house, and this reminded us once again (though we remind ourselves daily) how very lucky we are. The sofas qualified for a "hold" programme where people can pay fortnightly over a period of six months before they get the goods. We bought all four items, at once, with cash. Moreover, we have a house big enough to fit all the furniture. I'm guessing the average Big Lots customer is not quite so fortunate.

I have been very lucky in life, especially in the last six years. Just meeting Beth was one of those events that sounds like a film script. Being laid off (accepting voluntary redundancy) a year ago from a job I had held for fifteen years, having the means, desire and opportunity to move to America to start a new phase of life. Receiving an offer on our London house on the very day (indeed, almost the same hour) that the house we have chosen here in Eugene would have slipped out of our hands had we not received an offer. Having the means to buy two cars so we can get around without having to rely on irksome public transport. So many things had to come together for Beth and I to get to where we are, and in just over a month we move into our dream home.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

House SOLD

Today we completed the sale of our house in London, and for a few hours we have a massive UK bank balance. A few hours only, as we need to move funds over to the US to pay for the house we are buying here. Sadly the exchange rate has suffered of late due to the poor UK economy, so we're expecting to exchange at a rate of about 1.5 dollars to the pound. The good news is that this is exactly the rate we started our calculations at over a year ago, and we can transfer enough to buy the house and furnish it to a good standard, and leave more savings in London than we started with. Such is the nature of house prices and living costs in the US.

The remaining savings we may transfer later when the rate improves, but I can't see that happening until after the imminent General Election and then some. We'll want to keep some UK funds regardless, as I'm still paying into a UK pension, and it'll be easier and cheaper to use UK funds on visits.

We've been watching the exchange rate for over a year, and it tends to start low each day and then climb towards 5pm, so Beth is watching carefully and will initiate our exchange at the propitious time.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Dry Groceries

After just a month at Wal*Mart I've been moved from Paper Pets & Chemicals to Dry Groceries. It turns out that despite having hired four new part-time staff specifically for the PP&C Departments, they are now overstaffed and to give us enough hours to work at least three of us have been moved to other departments. The fourth new staffer I have yet to meet; I guess our shifts haven't coincided.

I don't mind a bit. In a month I've learnt a lot about the departments I was in, and can usually guide customers to the correct area for their needs. Dry Groceries department covers a wider range of interesting items for me to learn about. Also a Ceral spill is a lot easier to clean up than a bleach or washing liquid spill, and less smelly.

Dry Groceries covers pretty much anything you can safely ingest that isn't fresh, frozen, refrigerated, or candy. That's a broad palette, and there's a lot of stuff on the shelves that I've never seen before and have no idea how to cook and eat. I was amused to discover the Apple Sauce section; I had always thought my wife was odd eating apple sauce rather than eating an apple, but it turns out that in America apple sauce it isn't exclusively for babies and pork chops. The Cereal Aisle, apart from offering an entire wall of boxed and bagged cereals, also includes a Toaster Pastries section, and a Granola Bar section. The "World Foods" Aisle includes Hispanic, not an option one would find in the UK. Tinned tomatoes are kept with the Pizza and Pasta, not the other canned fruits and vegetables.

Actually "working" the department is much the same as before, so the skills I've learnt for bringing new product out on the floor, zoning the shelves and helping customers etc. all apply, and are translatable thoughout most departments. I'm enjoying my job, it's reasonably physically demanding and I've lost a few pounds, but there's still enough mental demand to keep my brain occupied without being overstrained or stressed.

Driving into work a couple of days ago I could see the Cascade Mountains to the east rising out of a sea of mist, and the South Hills wrapped in low clouds, a beautiful sight in the low early morning light. Getting to work in 15 minutes beats the 45 minutes it used to take in London, most of it either on the Underground or walking the litter-strewn streets of Hammersmith, and even the occasional heavy Oregon rain seems less depressing and annoying than London drizzle.