30 November 2003 - 15 January 2004

I stayed close to home until Dec 13th when I once again drove "over the hill" to Placerville, CA for the 11th Annual Bicycling Friends Dinner at John and Janis's. The road conditions per the Nevada Department of Transportation (NVDOT) web site on the morning of the 13th were not promising because of a new storm with snow - I 80 over Donner Pass was "mandatory chains" but US 50 was shown as "no chain controls". This did not seem correct; if I 80 has controls then US 50 almost always does also. On my way to get gas and breakfast before leaving Reno I heard on the radio that there were controls on both US 50 and I 80. If I needed to chain up I would rather do so on I 80 so therefore elected to go via Auburn, CA and then CA 49 to Placerville. I had a light rain almost from the time I left Reno but when I arrived at Donner Interchange (Truckee, CA), the announced beginning of chain controls, they had been lifted and I was able to complete the trip without chaining up. We had another great Dinner and a lot of good "catching up", except for John & Janis I usually see the others only at the Dinner and I wasn't able to attend last year. It rained almost all night and when I checked road conditions, again on the NVDOT site, the morning of the 14th, I got a report that chains were mandatory on both US 50 and I 80. However, this time the "controls" extended from Gold Run, CA on I 80 or Pollack Pine, CA on US 50 all the way to Reno. This meant that I was looking at a 70-80 mile drive in the snow with chains on - probably a 5 or 6-hour trip home versus the 2 hours in dry summer conditions. I once again elected to go back via I 80. When I got to Auburn, CA the road condition radio channel was broadcasting that all trucks must stop at Appelgate, CA for a chain check, those not carrying chains would be returned to Auburn to park at the Fair Grounds until controls were lifted. The next two radio broadcasts, about 20 miles apart, that I heard as I was driving east continued to announce mandatory chains from Kingvale, CA to Donner Interchange. However, at Cisco Grove, CA the broadcast announced that the controls were lifted and I was able to make it over Donner Summit without chaining up. Dodged the bullet going both ways!

To prepare for this trip and any others that I might do in the winter across the Sierra I bought a set of Dunlop Winter Sport M2s in 175/65-15. This is the stock size for the MINI Cooper with 15" wheels and is also the MINI recommended size for chains. Because CA requires two-wheel drive vehicles to use chains when "chain controls" are in place I wanted a tire that I could chain up if I had to. The snow tires are probably all I would need but CA law is what it is; if you want to cross the Sierra you need to be able to chain up. The Dunlop tires are mounted on my stock white rims and give me a better winter tire for Reno's icy and sometimes snow covered streets. The next challenge was to find a set of chains that would fit the 175/65-15s, this is a very unusual size in the US and I found only one web site (tirechains.com) that claimed to have a set. However, upon receiving them I tried to pre-fit them and found them to be much to big. I took them to my local Big O Tire shop to see if they could modify them and found that they had a set of chains in stock to fit the 175/65-15 (they had none when I had the snow tires mounted). So, I bought the Big O set, returned the Internet purchase and waited for the refund. After waiting 3 weeks from the time that I sent them back from the UPS Store (formerly Mail Boxes Etc), I sent an e-mail expressing my displeasure in not receiving a refund. I got a very prompt reply that said they had not received the chains but would certainly give me credit if I would prove that they had received them. I then made a trip back to the UPS Store and got the tracking number, which let me access the record of delivery date and the name of the receiver. I sent this information to tirechains.com who apologized and promised a credit was forthcoming less the shipping. So, within the week I got back the cost of the ill-fitting chains but paid shipping both ways - the price I pay for buying over the Internet I guess.

Although the weekend trip went just fine I had very bad news at the end of the day on Monday. As I approached Cousin Mini in the parking lot I could see a dent in the front left fender/bonnet (that's a hood on most cars) at about the center of the wheel arch and maybe 2" above it. Although it was dark I could see by the parking lot lights that the paint didn't seem to be scratched and it had probably been done by a thrown "ice ball"/snowball. The remaining snow in the parking lot was more ice than snow and any snowball would have been more like a rock. The result is also what a rock about the size and shape of a baseball would have inflicted. The guy that did the Paint-less Dent Repair at Dent Doctor said that it looked like a fist punch to him because of some indentations that he could see. Either way, I can only hope that whoever did it will get their just reward and if it was a punch I hope they broke their fist! I reported the vandalism to Baldini's Security but I know that I'll get nothing from Baldini's and the chances of catching whoever did it are practically nil. More bad news on Tuesday morning when I found a 3" crack, it subsequently grew to about 7" on Thursday, in my windscreen (that's a windshield for most cars). The MINIs have a reputation for stress fractures of the windscreen but I thought that after having mine for almost a year with no problem that I might be one of the lucky ones. Not to be. The Mini Internet Forums are full of windscreen cracking threads and stories about dealers disallowing warranty replacement because of very tiny rock pits that they claim induced the crack. I haven't been to the dealer yet but unfortunately I found a very small pit about 1/2" from the molding so I'm reasonably sure they will find it also and disallow any warranty replacement. Either way, be it stress crack or very small rock pit induced, the cracking windscreens are a problem. One guy, who has replaced 6, has been in contact with MINI USA Customer Relations and they are telling him that an improved tensile strength glass is coming in February. I'll believe it when I hear favorable reports about it. MINI USA's normal approach to any problem is 1) deny that there is one 2) assert that the problem is limited to only your car 3) say the problem is being studied 4) then they will actually work on fixing the problem but with as little public disclosure as possible. I'll probably try to limit future cracking by using PPG glass, which is thicker than the original factory windscreen unless the improved tensile strength glass becomes available. However, I'm not going to replace it until the dealer disallows the replacement, probably in March when I go in for my 1st "Free" oil change and to fix two other warranty issues. Meanwhile, I'm knocking on wood, crossing fingers and hoping that "bad news comes in threes" is not true.

There isn't much to say about work except there seems to be a lot of it. I became an employee of Baldini's on March 3, 2003 and as an employee became eligible for Holiday Pay for Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas during 2003 and New Years Day 2004; if required to work those days then I get paid time and a half. I have worked all of those Holidays except Independence Day. In addition to working the Holidays during Christmas and New Years I also worked both Saturdays after Christmas and New Years. The other guy in the office that normally works Saturday was sick with flu like symptoms after Christmas and had severe chest pains and very high blood pressure the Saturday after New Years. He went to Sparks Hospital emergency and they kept him for two days while running tests. Therefore, during the Holiday Season from December 22nd to January 9th I had 2 days off. It was probably a good thing - the time and a half for the Holidays and overtime can go to pay for the vandalism and cracked windscreen on my car.

Unrelated to the extra work, it was early December, I went to my boss and told him that I had reached a decision that I was going to quit. However, he didn't need to find a replacement for me right away if he didn't want to because my quit date was to be March 31, 2005. I have decided to start drawing my Social Security benefits at age 62. I will probably take some time off after I quit Baldini's and do some bicycle tours and some traveling with Cousin MINI. Then when I either get tired of doing that, or can't afford it any more, I'll see if I can work part time with Accountemps again. The decision to take Social Security at 62 is a "no-brainer" if I were to work part time and earn the maximum allowed before my benefits were reduced. If I were to do that, I would end up with more money after taxes than what I'm making now working full time. The other very important unknown when considering to take benefits at 62 versus 65 is: How long will I live? Life expectancy tables based on year of birth give me until age 74. It also works out that if I take the reduced benefits at 62 rather than full retirement at age 66, and I live to age 74, the total amount received would be almost the same. However, there is good and bad news from "Life Expectancy Calculators". Since I have already managed to live for almost 61 years my birth date is not so important anymore and "life style" becomes so. Based on my semi-healthy way of living the "Calculators" give me until maybe 84. That means I'll receive less total benefits if I elect to start at age 62 and make it to the "Calculators" age. However, we Americans have an "enjoy it now" culture, as evidenced by our purchase of "things" on the installment plan, so I'll go with the early enjoyment of the lesser benefits. Let's just call it "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" decision.