June 29, 2017: There's nothing like a wedding to make you feel older, especially when it's your 30-year-old nephew tying the knot. Suddenly you are reunited with family and friends you haven't seen in years, and you realize that they've been aging too. So as much as it is a celebration of two families coming together, of the start of a new union with its own traditions, it is also an affirmation of your own place in the family hierarchy and in the world in general.
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That might be a philosophical way to begin this month's newsletter, but it's hard not to be a bit philosophical when you are engaged in the traditions of a marriage ritual while surrounded by centuries-old forest in one of the most picturesque settings the West Coast has to offer — Calaveras Big Trees. That was the venue for the June 3 nuptials of our nephew Robert Coughlin and his fiance of five years, Rebecca Cox.
Our role in the event was blessedly simple. We basically just had to show up and have a good time, which is so unlike all the other weddings we have attended through the years in which one or the other of us was part of the wedding party, including our own. We planned to make the most of the opportunity. Even though Calaveras Big Trees is a bit more than a two-hour drive from our home and it would have been easy to drive up in the morning and then come back to the Bay Area by night, Roni saw it as an opportunity for us to have a rare weekend getaway, so she booked a room for two nights in nearby Arnold, literally a five-minute commute to the park entrance.
We headed out on Friday morning, June 2, which just also happened to be National Doughnut Day. Our plan was… well, we didn't really have a plan, except to reach our hotel before nightfall. We had several choices for roads to get us to the Sierra, so we settled on Highway 120 and began making our way there with plans to drive on Highway 4 until we hit Stockton, where we would then take Interstate 5 south to connect with our chosen route. But then there was that doughnut thing… Mmmmm, doughnuts.
You see, we've basically been on a sugar-free diet for the month of May, making an exception here or there in situations where we needed to. We had planned to "detox" ourselves until the wedding weekend, knowing full well that the offerings for the rehearsal dinner and reception, not to mention restaurants along the way, wouldn't be diet-friendly. We just figured we'd splurge on the trip, and then go back to behaving well until the next excuse not to. Doughnuts would be our first consciously chosen "bad" meal in a month. But being bad is oh-so-good when it comes to doughnuts, because we have this great bakery across the street from our home called Giant Donuts, run for more than 20 years by a nice Asian couple and their family. Roni had to run to the grocery store before we left home at 9 a.m., and she promised to pick up a few doughnuts for the road.
But who could have guessed that "Ming's," as we've come to call it, would be out of the tasty pastries by the time we got there? Not a single doughnut. Maybe this was trying to tell us something. We noshed on our bananas and considered our options as Roni drove us east toward Stockton. Then she suddenly had a notion: isn't there a Dunkin' Donuts nearby? Um, yes, in Tracy, which wasn't where we were headed. That was until we reached Tracy Boulevard and Roni made an abrupt right turn off the highway, proving that when you are the driver there is no destination too far from the chosen route. Fifteen miles or so later, we were parked outside the only Dunkin' Donuts anywhere close to us.
The thing that makes Dunkin' Donuts special — to us, anyhow — is that until recently there hadn't been any in California. Sure, in Massachusetts when we visited a decade ago, you could find one on every corner. There's a reason why they are one of the most popular doughnut chains in America. It's still a novelty to us, however, so we were happy to have found one. Extra happy because they were giving away a free doughnut with the purchase of a beverage. But who can eat just one? We each got three doughnuts and a chai iced tea, just so we could have our freebie. Bavarian cream and chocolate and strawberry glazed. They all looked so good. We scarfed them down and… ahhhh, the sugar rush.
Well, we left there buzzed and feeling alert for a few minutes until the inevitable crash. Simple carbs are rarely enough to sustain one for long. We'd definitely need a substantial lunch soon.
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IVERTING TO TRACY changed our route plan slightly. Instead of going to Stockton, we took the backroads through town until we connected with I-5, then it was a quick jog onto Highway 120 through Manteca, our one-time home nearly three decades ago. The city hasn't gotten any more charming over the years, so we weren't nostalgic for a visit. We proceeded east through Escalon, past dozens of orchards and fruit stands selling cherries, until we came upon a roadside statuary business called Perez Imports. Of course we had to check it out.
Perez Imports is gigantic. It sits on what must be about 10 acres, and most of that is filled with concrete statues, fountains and outdoor furniture. They make a few of the items themselves, but as their name suggests, most of the goods are imported from Mexico or elsewhere and are then hand-painted on site. The prices on most of the concrete items were ridiculously cheap, and it was tempting to walk out of there with a few more things for our ever-growing collection. The owner even encouraged us by offering use of his pickup truck to get our purchases home. "Your wife said it's OK," he said to Glenn, and we all got a good laugh out of that — because of course she would have had no problem with us buying up the store and taking it home.
Inside one huge warehouse was a quarter acre of nothing but pots — the sort you can find at Lowe's or Home Depot for about twice the price, including a few unique designs that don't show up in the home improvement stores. Next to the warehouse was a separate shop full of pottery, ceramics and furniture intended mainly for indoor use. This was higher-end stuff, most of it of Mexico origin, and some quite beautiful. Roni picked out some pretty vases and we bought a star-shaped metal ornament that will look good with a light string on the back patio — once we get the electricity on again.
We spent too long at Perez Imports, so by the time we finally got back on the road and reached Jamestown, it was way past lunchtime and we were well ready for some. It was bordering on 100 degrees as we made a quick walk through the historic Gold Rush town's Main Street, peeking in the windows of antique shops and checking out menus as we looked for a spot to eat. We figured if we were going to break our diet on this trip then we should make every calorie a tasty one, so we decided on Morelia Mexican Restaurant, which served up generous portions of the nachos and chile rellenos that we ordered. Our eyes were larger than our appetites, so we had enough left over to feed us at dinner too.
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T WAS AROUND 5 p.m. when we finally got to our hotel in Arnold, an unexciting place called the Arnold Meadowmont Lodge. Unexciting not because it wasn't a perfectly fine place to spend the night, but because it looked like any roadside motel straight out of the 1940s, a simple one-story complex of rooms surrounding a car court right off the Ebbetts Pass Highway. We had Room 19, just across from the office. Roni's sister Jacki and her husband Kevin had also booked a room here. Roni asked the clerk if they had arrived yet and was told they hadn't, but they'd be in Room 15, just a few doors down from us. We knew that Robert and Rebecca were already at their campsite in Big Trees, so we thought that maybe Jacki and Kevin might show up there first for the evening rehearsal dinner.
Our plan was to go to the park to "check in" before the ranger station closed before sundown, so we kicked back in the room for a few minutes to enjoy the air conditioning and catch up on our social media accounts. Arnold might be conveniently close to Calaveras Big Trees, but one thing it doesn't have is good internet service. Anywhere. All those 300-foot-tall trees do a fine job of blocking cellular signals, and about the only way you can log on is when you happen to be in a place that offers a free wifi connection. Our hotel was one of those places, but for whatever reason we had a devil of a time connecting to it, despite the desk manager giving us passwords for both the guest and staff network connections. Sometimes they worked, sometimes not.
We made our way up to the park, which is about a five-minute drive from the hotel. The wedding party was located in the group campground on the opposite side of the highway. Robert met us as we pulled into the parking lot and we kidded him about being ready for the big day. He looked happy and relaxed, not at all like the nervous groom, despite all the commotion in the campground as other family members went about setting up the wedding decorations. It looked like great fun. There were casual pictures of the bride and groom tacked up to tree trunks, a canoe filled with cold drinks, homemade signs and floral arrangements on all the picnic tables, and perhaps best of all, giant versions of popular parlor games designed by Robert and Rebecca. They had made a giant Jenga game from scraps of 2x4s, and a Yahtzee game (redubbed Yardzee) with 4-inch dice that had to be rolled from a 5-gallon bucket. They had also manufactured a beanbag-toss game, also known as cornhole, that was set up in one corner of the campground.
The group campsite is divided into two parcels. On Friday night, the other half was in use by another family, but Robert explained that he and Becca had reserved both parcels for the wedding day and would have the place all to themselves Saturday night, assuring that no one would be disturbed when the partying went on into the late hours. A few folks indeed had shown up for "Camping with the Coughlins," as the wedding event had been titled. At least a half-dozen tents were scattered about the site, and Robert (he'll always be "Bobby" to us, despite the fact that he switched to the more formal name in adulthood) told us that others would be camping there Saturday night. We were just slightly regretful that we'd chosen not to camp — but just slightly.
Calaveras Big Trees is a remarkably beautiful place, and even though we were in the group campground, away from the park's main attractions — the centuries-old sequoias and pines that are among the few to be found in the entire world — we were still surrounded by towering forest. And mosquitoes. Lots of them. The day had been hot, and as the sun set and the stars emerged in a clear, dark sky, it was still comfortably warm for T-shirts and shorts in our shady grove. But the mosquitoes were ravenous. Robert and Rebecca had come well prepared, and there was a huge basket of Off bug spray for everyone's convenience, next to a homemade sign that read, "Be smitten, not bitten." The spray helped a lot, but we still found ourselves swatting at insects as the evening went on.
The rehearsal dinner, such that it was, consisted of fajitas that Rebecca's family prepared on a camp stove, served with marinated pork and chicken, jalapenos, cheese sauce, olives, onions, lime and some other fixins. We hadn't planned to eat there, seeing as we still had leftovers with us back at the hotel, but the food smelled so good and we were having a good time, so we indulged. Man, those were the best fajitas we'd had in a long time. Jacki and Kevin still hadn't been heard from, and we weren't even sure they planned to be at the park that evening, so Roni felt it her duty to rep for the Coughlin side of the family, seeing as most of the other guests were all with Rebecca's side. Robert's aunt Margie and uncle Dave had also come out to camp, so we sat together at one of the tables to visit while we ate our fajitas, swatted bugs, and listened to the music on Pandora that Robert had blasting out of a large bluetooth speaker he'd picked up for a song (no pun intended) at a flea market.
We checked out of the festivities before 10 p.m. and returned to our hotel along the pitch-black road, nearly striking a deer that darted in front of Roni's car. Dark really is dark when you're in the woods. Jacki and Kevin still had not checked in at the hotel by the time we returned, so we wondered if they had decided to spend the night at home and come up Saturday morning for the wedding.
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T TURNED OUT that was exactly what they decided to do, as we learned the following morning. Jacki, who isn't in the best of health these days, had gone to the hospital on Friday for some pain medication, so she and Kevin came up Saturday with Robert's sister Kristi and her friend Crystal, her husband and their two young daughters. Meanwhile, we were up early with a few hours to kill before the wedding ceremony started at 3. The day's itinerary called for a morning group hike, but being the individualists we tend to be, we elected to do our own sightseeing at Calaveras Big Trees.
We drove into the main park about 9:30 a.m., too soon to check out the visitor center, so instead we decided to take a drive south along Big Trees Parkway and see some of the sights we weren't sure if we'd get to otherwise. We knew we'd be in Arnold still Sunday morning, but we didn't know if we'd be up to a second day at Calaveras Big Trees or decide instead to head toward home and check out other places. This might be our only day here. We crossed the north fork of the Stanislaus River and decided to stop on the opposite side where there was a foot path leading down to the water so we could take some pictures. We'd chosen the perfect time, because this early on a Saturday morning the park was still relatively devoid of other tourists and we had uninterrupted views of the river except for a couple of fishermen doing their bit nearby. The river was a raging torrent, fueled by runoff from the heavy winter snowpack. It would have been great to be in a raft and sailing down those rapids, but far too dangerous to get much closer on foot, as we were.
We drove on, going as far as the road would take us until we wound up at the Beaver Creek picnic grounds and its network of small hiking trails that led to its namesake creek. We took one of the trails as far as the creek, where we walked down to it for a closer peek. The water was a lot calmer here than on the Stanislaus River, so Glenn dipped his hand in to check it out. Brrrrrr! We surmised this would be a great spot to pan for gold, as the pioneers surely did in the 1850s. Alas, we had other plans for the day.
We made our way back to the visitor center, which was open by the time we returned. Now the parking lot was packed, and it made us glad we had chosen to get an early start. We picked up some souvenirs, assuming we might not be back later, and headed back to town for some lunch before we returned to our room to prepare for the wedding. We ate at a place called JJ's Dive Bar & Grill.
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E GOT TO the group camp just before 3, where preparations for the wedding ceremony were in full swing. Robert was already in his tux, looking perhaps a bit less relaxed than we'd seen him the night before. Members of the bridal party were still getting made up over at the camp bathroom. The wedding venue was set up in a clearing at the end of the service road, across from the other group camp that was now unoccupied. Someone had constructed a wedding arch from PVC pipe and decorated it with flowers, the forest providing a natural backdrop for the nuptials. Several small rows of folding chairs were set up for the audience, and we were impressed that as much planning had gone into the setup as had, given that everything was being coordinated by the families, right down to the couple using a friend as their minister.
Jacki and Kevin had shown up on time, and a spot had been saved in the front row for Jacki and her motorized wheelchair. Kevin was in his tuxedo not just because he was the father of the groom, but because he was also a member of the wedding party. We had come prepared to dress formally if we needed to, but given that we weren't in the ceremony and that the campground was more casual and it was looking like another hot day, we thought better of dressing up too much and opted instead for comfort.
The ceremony itself was very nice. Robert and Rebecca prepared their own vows, and together they planted a small redwood tree in a container symbolizing the joining together of their families. Then it was back to the campground where everyone went to play games, drink, socialize and wait for dinner and the cutting of the wedding cake. There was a meal of barbecued chicken, ribs and tri-tip, along with pasta salads, rolls and homemade chili. Plenty more for seconds for those who wanted them. We signed the guest "book," which was actually a slice of a tree that friends were invited to sign with inspirational messages for the newlyweds.
There were close to 50 guests gathered for the wedding, although we never did take an official head count. Most folks stayed well into the evening, and again we found ourselves visiting with Kevin's family. Three of his four sisters, as well as their elderly parents, had come out to spend the day. Jacki was still a bit loopy from her pain medication, but she was still able to join Robert for a mother-son dance beneath the small canopy that had been set up near the parking area. When the sun went down, a few of us gathered around the fire pit to toast marshmallows and watch as Margie's husband Dave prepared flaming sake for everyone's entertainment.
It was one of the best weddings we have been invited to, simple yet fun, in a place that reflected the passions of a couple who love their outdoor adventures. We wish the newlyweds a long and happy marriage.
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UR COMMITMENTS FOR the weekend done, we had Sunday to ourselves to see the sights before heading home. We skipped the farewell breakfast at the campground, deciding instead to beat the crowds and take in the attractions at Calaveras Big Trees one more time. Although we had seen much of the park's beauty on our Saturday morning drive, we had missed the most iconic of its namesake big trees that grow along the North Grove Trail, a 1.5-mile loop that is situated near the visitor center.
The trail features 26 numbered attractions, each with a story to tell about the park's history. We wanted to pick up a trail guide to take with us, but they were 50 cents and, alas, we didn't have anything smaller than a $5 bill. So we decided to wing it and appreciate the trees for what they are: huge remnants of an ancient world that existed in the days of the dinosaurs. There are actually only three places on the planet where one can see these towering, living giants. Two are in California, and the other is in China. The tallest of the giant sequoias measures over 300 feet tall, with a girth of some 30 feet across.
The story of Calaveras Big Trees is mostly a sad one about man's effect on the environment. Throughout the trail are examples of trees that were either cut down or mutilated in the name of exhibitionism and greed, including the famed Discovery Tree whose stump is still a major tourist attraction here. A set of wooden steps leads visitors to its plateau, where one can stand in the center of its rings, view a segment of the one of its logs and marvel at its sheer size. The tree is so named because it was "discovered" by a hunter in 1852, then subsequently cut down and sliced into logs that were then sent on tour and reassembled so others could see for themselves that the legend of the monster-sized sequoias was true. The tree was so huge that there wasn't a saw large enough to cut it down, so lumberjacks used hydraulic drills over a period of several months, boring holes into the trunk until the tree collapsed under its own weight. Those huge trees that weren't destroyed outright were in some cases mutilated, as with the now-collapsed Pioneer Cabin Tree through which a tunnel was carved, or stripped of their bark like the Mother of the Forest, whose denuded remains still stand in a grove midway along the trail.
Rest assured, there are still plenty of the large trees that were preserved and still stand as they have since, in some instances, before the birth of Christ. We spent more than an hour on the trail, walking slowly despite the mosquitoes and wondering at the beauty of it all. Photos — our photos, anyway — will never do it justice. We just feel blessed to live so close to places like this where we can visit within a day's drive.
After our morning hike we hit the road for home, stopping for lunch in the historic mining town of Murphys that was once the haunt of Mark Twain. Pretty much every Sierra foothills town claims some connection to Twain, leading one to wonder how he ever found time to write, since he seemed to always be traveling somewhere. Today most of these towns have been taken over by Bay Area escapees or rejects, who have transformed the tired communities into thriving tourist traps featuring antique stores, wineries, vegan restaurants and New Age gift shops.
The Twain connection also exists in Copperopolis, a reborn mining town of about 4,000 people that sits along Highway 4 about 30 miles east of Stockton, where we stopped to grab something to drink on the long, hot drive home. Copperopolis has turned into something of a retirement destination for many, so the clash between old-timers and the new guard is alive and well here. We stopped in the glittering Town Square and walked around the plaza where a farmers market was just closing up shop for the day. We took in the elaborate town hall, with its second story balcony and clock tower, and chuckled over how the community obviously has big plans for its future, building such an ostentatious display in the middle of nowhere.
Our day concluded with yet another diversion through Tracy, this time for dinner at a small chain restaurant called the Squeeze Inn that we learned about on "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives." The restaurant's gimmick is its hamburgers that are served with a large "skirt" of fried cheese that oozes off the patty and outside the bun. We had to try this, of course, along with what turned out to be some of the best garlic fries we've ever tasted. Mind and diet both blown. A great way to end a very enjoyable weekend getaway.
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UMMER WEATHER HAS descended upon us, as we knew it eventually would, and we once again find ourselves trying to cope. In past years we have done without air conditioning fairly well, willing to sweat through the few truly hot days in the interest of saving on our electric bill, which is still quite low compared to our neighbors. But willingness to make such sacrifices has limits, especially as we get older and each passing summer seems hotter than the ones before.
We weren't even officially into summer when our first major heat wave gripped us over Father's Day weekend, and just like that, our usually tolerable living room was transformed into a toaster oven. Not even the new ceiling fans we've been enjoying since last year are powerful enough to combat 104-degree temperatures, especially when the house only cools down to about 82 degrees at night before the mercury starts ramping up again at sunrise. We made it through Friday and Saturday, but by Sunday afternoon we were desperate. After many years doing without, we decided it was time to break down and get ourselves some air conditioning.
We do actually have central air and heating, but it has been so long since we used it regularly that we aren't even sure it works anymore. The compressor is outdoors and very loud when it runs. It probably needs to be serviced, and even when it was fully functional it rarely seemed to keep the house cool. We just stopped using it, as it was expensive to run and it never shut off automatically, even when the house was cool or warm enough. We were mostly content living without it. Until this week.
On Sunday the 18th, the temperature was already 103 by the time Ben left in the early afternoon for work. We gave him a ride to Grocery Outlet, then went across the street to Black Bear Restaurant and had a couple of large hamburger salads for lunch, lingering afterward to soak in the cool of the restaurant. We walked outside about an hour later and were hit by the blast furnace. Instead of going right home, we stopped by Raley's to pick up groceries, again luxuriating in the store's air-conditioned aisles. And then we finally went home, stepping out of the now-105-degree heat into the relatively cool 92 degrees of our house. There was no outside breeze. No point in opening the doors or windows. The cats, all three of them, looked miserable. Our normally rambunctious kittens Phoenix and Phyre were sprawled out on the bathroom tile floor, the coolest spot in the house. The fan on Glenn's computer was on overdrive, whirring loudly but doing nothing to lower the machine's temperature. Roni put away the groceries and in less than five minutes was drenched in sweat.
"This is ridiculous," Glenn said. "Maybe it's finally time to get one of those portable air conditioners." Roni wasn't going to argue, especially since she'd been agitating for such a device for years. She had purchased one a couple of years ago for the small office of the recycled water fill station at the sanitary district and it seemed to work pretty well. We thought that same LG unit, which we found at Home Depot, would work for us too. Roni looked it up online, and their website said there was one in stock at the Pittsburg store. "We could buy it now and go to pick it up," she said. But Glenn thought it would be better to just drive there and take a look at the selection, given that there might be other models to choose from and you never know when there's one left in stock if the inventory count is accurate or what condition that one item might be in. "With our luck somebody else will buy it before we get there," Roni said. Perhaps, but at $400 it's not like such items go flying out the door when there are cheaper options available. We hopped back in the car and headed to the home improvement stores.
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UMAN NATURE BEING what it is, the best time to buy something everybody needs is before they realize they need it. Had we been cruising for a new heater to keep us toasty on a cold winter night, we could have had the pick of the lot. But on a sizzling June afternoon with promises of even greater heat for the days ahead, air conditioners — any air conditioners — were in high demand. The now-106 degrees must have gotten to us, because instead of driving to the Pittsburg Home Depot, where we knew there was one air conditioner of the model we wanted available, Roni drove us first to the Brentwood store. No problem, because both stores are basically the same and we'd picked up the sanitary district's unit here. They had a great selection. Emphasis on "had."
As we were walking into the store we passed another couple coming out with their shopping cart filled with the exact same air conditioner model we were looking for. We laughed to each other. "That was probably the last one we saw online and we just missed it," Roni said. Couldn't be, right? Well, unfortunately yes. The air conditioners were all but cleaned out. There were a few of the kind you stick right in your window, but exactly NONE of the floor units we wanted, let alone a specific model. Sure, there were plenty of fans. But everyone knows that fans just circulate the air while doing nothing to actually cool it down. It was time to go to the next store.
We went to the Pittsburg location as we should have done from the beginning, but there too we discovered a serious lack of upright air conditioners. Someone was in the process of buying the last 8,000 BTU model available, and the 12,000 BTU unit we wanted — the one the website said was available — was still there only because its box had been opened and some of its parts appeared to be missing. Roni asked a clerk if they might have more in the warehouse. He shook his head. Everything they had left in stock was out on the display.
Two strikes. We decided to head to HD competitor Lowe's in Antioch, thinking maybe they'd have something the others didn't. Unlike Home Depot, Lowe's didn't bother to put its air conditioners near the front entrance. We had to find them in one of the huge aisles, and when we arrived there were a couple of other shoppers being helped by a clerk. There were displays of some upright air conditioners, but no boxes to be seen. Roni inquired. "If you're looking for air conditioners, we've got some around the corner on a pallet, but they're going fast," he told us.
We hurried over to the pallet, where five other people were clawing at the remaining boxes. One person had two, and someone else was loading three onto a cart. It was like a flat screen TV sale at Walmart during Black Friday. There was one slightly damaged box that hadn't been claimed, so Glenn staked it out while we considered our next step. It was the 12,000 BTU unit we needed, but an unknown brand. Roni tried to look it up on her cell phone and of course had no signal, so she had to wander around the store until she finally found one bar, all the while with Glenn hovering over the last box. And then common sense kicked in. Were we so desperate for cool air that we would take anything? We'd lived all these years without an air conditioner that another day wouldn't make a huge difference. We decided to pass on the unknown brand in the damaged box and try our luck online.
We easily located the LG 12,000 BTU unit we wanted at Amazon, and with Prime shipping had it promised for delivery in two days at the same price as what the home improvement stores wanted. Two excruciatingly hot days. We had always had good luck with Amazon, so Roni placed our order and we started the delivery countdown.
But a check of our order tracking number the following day revealed some disappointing news: the unit had indeed been shipped to us — from Texas. By Monday night it had arrived in Fort Worth. We imagined some UPS employees camped out in their hot Texas shipping facility giving our air conditioner a test run. Just inspecting it, of course. By Tuesday morning it was on the move again, only to turn up later that day in Louisville, Kentucky. Hmm, let's see, Texas is closer to California than Kentucky. This wasn't looking promising. We'd already missed the promised two-day delivery schedule, so now we were just hoping it would show up on our doorstep before the heat wave ended.
On Wednesday morning, Roni checked to see if there had been any progress overnight. Surprisingly, UPS said our package was out for delivery in Oakley at 8:45 that morning. She had barely finished checking the website when the doorbell rang and there it was, in a box that looked as if it had been through the war, our new LG air conditioner. But the machine was safe inside the busted foam, and by noon Glenn had it up and pumping cool air into our living room. The kittens were excited and checking out the whirring mechanism.
Now we are better prepared to face the coming days of triple-digit heat, and hopefully with our new unit installed, cooler heads (and everything else) will prevail.