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Blowing the Dough

Jeffrey K. Actor

MY WIFE RECENTLY traveled to Connecticut for a week to help with loose ends following her brother-in-law’s unexpected heart surgery. I was left to fend for myself, with only three hard-boiled eggs, two ounces of nearly expired low-fat milk, half a jar of gourmet salsa and a moldy cucumber to keep me company.

Boredom quickly set in. For some inexplicable reason, I had an uncontrollable urge to spend money. The first activity that entered my forebrain was visiting a casino. But I know from experience that, while enjoyable, this isn’t a particularly profitable choice of entertainment. Besides, the nearest casino is three hours away. The gas alone would cost more than I wished to spend.

On top of that, now that I’m officially retired, the amount I had in mind to gamble was not a justifiable cost. Sure, I budget some “blow the dough” funds for fun. But giving money to a large for-profit gambling establishment isn’t how I want my dough blown.

Instead, I willed my mind to envision what I could purchase—and permanently own—with the equivalent amount of dollars. Yes, I know, this simply transfers the guilt of spending from an experience to a hedonistic purchase.

I had my eye on woodworking tools, and had recently discovered a new-to-me tool supply outlet just a couple of miles away. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I bought a few tools—not particularly expensive—but ones that still made me feel pampered by the purchase.

My consumeristic urges were momentarily dampened. To make sure I squashed them completely, I stopped at the local dollar store on the way home and bought a fistful of frivolous items that were also in the tool-like category: some slightly dulled disposable knife blades, almost expired batteries and brightly colored duct tape. Oh yes, and coconut water. Everyone needs coconut water in their man-cave workshop, right?

Alas, I awoke the next day with the same urge to spend. I needed a diversion. My solution was to hop in the car and drive in the opposite direction of any shopping mall or big box store. Just drive west, then turn south when the road curves. Leave the big city and follow the mostly paved farm-to-market narrow roads. Just keep driving until I see billboards spouting ideas and products that are unique to smaller towns and counties, like tractor sales and hybrid corn.

Two hours into my trip, I serendipitously spotted a sign for the local county’s birding preserve. Being a biologist, I figured this would be a great adventure to get my mind off spending gobs of money. It was only 15 minutes away, or three miles as the crow flies, in the next county over. Off I went.

The placid drive between towns was itself worth the price of the excursion, which I can only describe as a real-life Norman Rockwell painting of bygone America. I passed farmlands, gorgeous with crops pushing through recently plowed soil. The smell of freshly spread manure was palpable, yet also wonderful for opening up the sinuses.

The neatly planted fields stood in stark contrast to unkempt yards, where weathered paint peeled gently away from wooden framed homes. Inviting porches stood at a five-degree tilt, bending to the gravity of time and weather. Each house had a small vegetable garden and a dog of unknown breed, as well as an RV, this prized possession gleaming from under a shaded awning. At times, a rusted Chevy with deflated tires could be seen peeking from the side yard.

I’ve learned two things from my experiences driving through little towns with populations smaller than my high school. The first is to always obey the speed limit. A speeding ticket in rural Texas is vastly higher than the day’s blow-the-dough budget. The second rule is to remember the first.

I arrived at the nature center and gladly paid the $5 entrance fee, since I was eager to hike the trails. For such occasions, I keep hiking boots and a bright red long-sleeved shirt in the car’s trunk, just in case I get hit with the hiking urge.

I parked my SUV, ducked behind the raised trunk gate and quickly changed shirts—only to notice a few indigenous townsfolk watching me dress. Gee, it’s a good thing I completed that one set of sit-ups during the pandemic. No matter. The birding was unique, the highlight being a sighting of cardinals whose plumage was a brighter shade of red than my shirt. Priceless.

My retirement goals include trying eateries in unlikely places. Taking a chance, and always on the lookout for good fish and a slightly tangy margarita, I stopped at a colorful Tex-Mex restaurant. The place was a genuine find. Chips and salsa were fantastic, and the prices suggested I could feast to my heart’s content at a reasonable price compared to my usual haunts.

I had hoped to engage the waiter in conversation and learn more about the town, but he wasn’t keen on small talk. Or perhaps I should have changed shirts after my birdwatching workout. When I inquired about the fish tacos, he simply shrugged and said, “Lefty only brought us catfish this morning.”

I pictured Lefty as an outdoorsman, scouring the nearby bayou for today’s catch. Perhaps his nickname was born from being a phenom southpaw pitcher in high school. More likely it stemmed from his using an old-fashioned noodling technique for bare-handed catching of catfish. Or perhaps he owned that year-round fireworks shanty I passed on the way into town. Best not to dwell.

By then, I was exhausted and ready to return home. I took another circuitous route, only to come across acres of cotton fields now converted to solar and wind energy. The sight was jaw-dropping. I was especially awed by the graceful nature of the wind turbine’s rotor blades, majestic in size and physical form. It was inspiring to witness the contrast of old and new, juxtaposed in the most unlikely of places.

The experience was memorable, and my urge to blow the dough was completely vanquished. The total cost of the trip was under $100, and that included fuel, a great meal and some local honey purchased on a whim.

Jeffrey K. Actor, PhD, was a professor at a major medical school in Houston for more than 25 years, serving as an academic researcher with interests in how immune responses function to fight pathogenic diseases. Jeff’s retirement goals are to write short science fiction stories, volunteer in the community and spend time in his garden. Check out his earlier articles.

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