Work camping, Take II: This time, everybody wins

We’re doing more work camping!

No, no. Not for Amazon again. That was… memorable… but not worthy of a repeat. Here’s why.

This time, some friends who live and work in Kerrville, TX, made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, and to make a long story short, we’re spending 2 months helping with spring maintenance at one of our favorite parks in Texas.

It’s a city park now, but until 2004 it was a state park, with the acreage, trails, riverfront and wildlife to show for it.
We think it’s a perfect camping destination for those who want the feel of a state park while exploring the Texas Hill Country. Yes, longer RVs can fit here (I’ve seen several with 3 AC units on top, which is a big clue), but spots that big are limited, as are spots with full hook-ups. Call the park to check availability.

Our camping fees are waived, in exchange for volunteering our time for various maintenance and upkeep tasks. The park did do background checks on each one of us, but there’s been no strict accounting of our hours. Rather, we’ve proven by example that we are willing to do what needs to be done, and to complete jobs as assigned.

Those jobs have been very reasonable in the level of effort and skill required, and we find it exceptionally rewarding that our work has offered immediately visible results. Plus, it’s a great feeling to know that everything we do improves visitors’ experiences at the park.

We usually work together, but there have been a few blocks of time that Tim has gone out on his own. Both of us have battled upper respiratory crud over the past month, and the weather has often been wet and uncooperative, so unfortunately, there have been stretches of several days when we were unable to work at all.

We hope that the tasks we have completed make up in quality and value for those missed days, if not in actual accrued hours. Here’s a quick photo essay of some of the jobs we’ve done.

We spent our first couple of weeks replacing picnic table tops and benches.
See what I mean about immediately visible results?
What a difference!

And hey, look at the view we had from our “office.”
Hello, Guadalupe River.

We have access to the park’s maintenance compound for tools, supplies, and equipment, including golf carts, so that we don’t have to use our truck.
No cats were harmed in the use of this golf cart. That’s one of the park’s many feral kitties under there.

We’ve swept out cabins, to make sure they’re free of bugs, grit, and cobwebs for incoming guests.

We’ve helped clean out fire rings, which are used depressingly often as trash receptacles, and in the process of doing that one day, we encountered a mysterious ring of raw broccoli.
I have no explanation.

The scourge of Texas: fire ants.
For those unfamiliar, this is a fire ant hill, and if you’ve ever experienced fire ant bites, you know to steer clear.
Which is why…

… one of Tim’s jobs was to sprinkle killer crystals on as many fire ant hills as he could find. And there were lots.
See all those little pests running for their lives?
We are not sad.

We’ve also swept and mopped the rec hall between rentals.

Swept off the porch too…

… and wiped down the kitchen and serving areas.

And yes, we’ve done this too.
Cleaning public bath houses is not my top choice of tasks, but it needed to be done, and we were available, so we pulled on rubber gloves, and we did it.

Oh, and did I mention that our work is often closely monitored?
Our supervisors tend to show up for a drink at happy hour, and they never tell us we’re doing a poor job, so I guess it ain’t so bad.

And now that spring has arrived in the Hill Country, we are starting to make plans for our next move. We’ve been in Texas for nearly 3 months, which was about 2 months longer than planned. No regrets, but we’re feeling a little twitchy…

So where to next?

Nothing’s firm yet, but after spending so much time here in Texas, near our younger son and my side of the family, we’re thinking it’s time to make our way toward Washington, to hang out with our older son and Tim’s side of the family. So convenient of all of them to confine themselves to only two states, yes?

We expect to be rolling again by the end of this month.

He ain’t heavy, but his new shed is: helping my brother with a build, after Hurricane Harvey

Let me start by telling you what we didn’t do.

I don’t want anybody to get the wrong idea: We did not go rolling into Port Aransas like white knights on horseback to help rebuild the town — although that was kind of my original intent in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. See?

What's next for us? This screen cap of a text I sent back in August helps tell the story. In short: More hard work, but it'll be more personally meaningful. In long: It's now been just over four months since Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas coast. My brother's family lives in one of those coastal towns. Their house sustained minor damage. Their business, quite a bit. Their hometown of Port Aransas was devastated and faces many more months of recovery. So in lieu of a traditional Christmas celebration, we're gathering the family — including our two sons who are both skilled in construction — for a New Year's working party in Port Aransas. Our caravan of 7 departs San Antonio tomorrow, and we'll spend a week building a replacement fence and shed at my brother's house, and might be able to help some other folks out if time allows. We did not exchange traditional wrapped-in-a-box gifts this year. We chose to spend our money on this experience. And that's how we like to roll. #thebestgiftscantbewrapped #familyworkparty #bestchristmasgiftever #hurricaneharvey #harveyrelief #portaransas #portastrong #ownlessdomore

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We didn’t even rebuild anything at my brother’s house, which survived comparatively unscathed after the Category 4 hurricane came through on August 25, 2017, leaving 75-85% of the town’s homes damaged or destroyed. (Source: Port Aransas Mayor Charles Bujan, in this article from

Although we thought we were going to be rebuilding his fence, which had been damaged by the hurricane, needs dictated a storage shed as top priority. While he and my sister-in-law continue to search for a new location for their shop, some of the shop’s contents are taking up a significant chunk of their garage space — space they need for supplies to rebuild the fence and fix other damage. Make sense now?

So here’s what we did do.

We cleaned and repainted some siding on the house, which looked pretty dinged up after having who-knows-what-all hurled at it during Harvey’s 110-132 mph winds.

And with the help of several construction/renovation experts in the family — including our 20-year-old son who drove down from Austin, and our 22-year-old son who flew in from Washington — we built a shed over four days, to the point that my brother and sister-in-law can handle the finishing touches themselves.

It was our family Christmas Vacation, just delayed to January because of our jobs at Amazon.

It was the first time all of us had been together in more than two years.

(And by “all” I mean the two of us, our older son and his girlfriend, our younger son, my parents, my brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew, my sister-in-law’s mom and her husband, and the 9 cats, 2 Great Danes, 1 bearded dragon, and handful of exotic fish that rule my brother’s house.)

And it was exactly what we wanted.

For those who’ve never heard of Port Aransas, Texas, it’s a quirky little beach town just east of Corpus Christi, on a barrier island along the Gulf coast.

Population of Port Aransas: about 3400 (before the hurricane, anyway)

RV parks in town have reopened, and seemed to be doing booming business, with what we surmised to be a combination of regular Winter Texans, temporarily displaced Port A residents, and workers who have been hired or are volunteering for rebuilding efforts.

And what do I mean by quirky?

Well, scenes like this weren’t unusual even before the hurricane.

Yes, you can drive on the beach, and also camp overnight in an RV or a tent.
But don’t just show up. An inexpensive permit is required, and there are restrictions on location and length of stay.
You can find all that information right here.

How bad was the damage from Harvey?

Here are some numbers from the Island Moon, in an issue published just over a month after the hurricane hit.

Further statistics, including a staggering amount of debris removed from the island, are in Mayor Bujan’s Facebook post dated October 2, 2017.

What’s Port A like now?

It is a town with an already strong identity, in the process of repairing itself. The sights and sounds of renovation, regrowth, and rebuilding were unmistakeable, unavoidable — and encouraging. Some of our old favorite places like the San Juan Restaurant, Gratitude, Irie’s, Stingray’s, and Winton’s Island Candy have reopened, and more businesses will reopen as repairs are completed.

But as mentioned in the graphic above, some will not return at all. We have no doubt that new friends — and just about everyone in Port A is your friend — will bring fresh ideas and establishments to take their place, and we look forward to our next visit!

Scenes like this are still common on sidewalks, although my brother assures me that this is nothing compared to the debris piles that lined the streets in September.

And if the town didn’t have an official flag before, it does now, at least temporarily: the blue tarp.
They’re festooning buildings all over town, because as you might imagine, roofers are in high demand and hard to find at the moment.

But you’ll also be greeted by scenes like this in Port A…

… and this …

… and this.

What can you do to help?

Visit, and spend money. Many hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and shops have reopened, and Port Aransas needs your business!

Or use your internet search skills to find ways to donate your time, skills, money, and/or supplies. As ever, research any charitable entity before you commit your dough, although I will help get you started by pointing you toward the Rebuild Port Aransas Facebook Page, which seems to be a locally run clearinghouse for relief efforts.

And finally, watch this 3-minute video. It shows the extent of Harvey’s destruction, and says a lot about the strength of the people who call Port Aransas home.

Author’s note: This post was unsolicited, and I was not compensated in any way by any entities mentioned above. I do not represent Rebuild Port Aransas or (appears at end of video in link above), nor should my mention of them be considered endorsements. All opinions are my own.

WheRVe we been? Our travels, 3rd quarter 2017

Here’s a summary of our third quarter travels for 2017, mapped with a little help from Google. (Want to review the others? Here’s the first quarter, and here’s the second.)

The map’s a bit misleading, because we did some doubling back on parts of I-81, from northern Virginia to just northwest of Nashville, TN, then to southwestern Virginia, followed by the southeast side of Nashville.

RV miles traveled this quarter: about 2565. RV miles traveled this year: about 7665.

Fond du Lac, WI, June 30 – July 5: What an all-American 4th of July experience we had in Fond du Lac! Not only were there fireworks over Lake Winnebago on a perfect summer night, but the local symphonic band played patriotic tunes in the lakeside bandstand, which has been home to these concerts since 1901. It was like going back in time to a much simpler era, when entire communities showed up to make the most of holiday celebrations. We also took in the weekly farmer’s market, and I got to visit with an old friend in her new life on a small farm. She’s got chickens, horses, acreage, and hay bales, and I got to meet Olive, the turkey. He’s a very patriotic looking fellow himself!St. Ignace, MI, July 5-9: Ohhhhh. The upper peninsula. Now we get it. Summertime in northern Michigan is indeed worth singing about (see Kid Rock video) and although we crammed a lot of sight-seeing into our 4-day stay, it didn’t feel long enough. We took the ferry from St. Ignace to Lake Huron’s Mackinac Island — home to the Grand Hotel (remember the movie “Somewhere in Time“?), famous fudge, fantastic bike riding, and no motorized vehicles.

That’s the famous Mackinac Bridge on the lower left, which we crossed under on the ferry, and over in the RV. Luckily, we had a wind-free day for that!
On the lower right is our reward for hiking 9.2 miles at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.

Erie, PA, July 10-24: The youngest cousin at our kids’ level on Tim’s side of the family tree graduated from high school this year, so we rolled to Pennsylvania to help celebrate, with more family members than we could count. Let’s hear it for reunions! We also took advantage of our first “mooch docking” opportunity, and parked for free in a cousin’s driveway for a week. Other celebrations included Tim’s birthday, and a milestone wedding anniversary for us. Can ya guess which one?

Upper right: a map of Presque Isle State Park.
We biked the 14-mile perimeter, and checked off our third Great Lake for the summer. In June and July, we hit points on Lakes Michigan, Huron and Erie!

Haymarket, VA, July 24 – Aug 8: Here’s the deal. Tim’s parents wanted to take him on a birthday trip to the Netherlands. And since we could pick any airport for his embarkation point, we chose one in a part of the country where I had lots of friends to play with. And play I did — with Army, Navy and Air Force friends from several of our prior duty stations, as well as with a fair number of high school friends. Some live in the MD/DC/VA area, and others showed up at my 30th high school reunion in Frostburg, MD. I didn’t ask any of them for permission to share their photos here on the blog, so you get two of my photos from my day exploring part of Manassas National Battlefield Park, and one that Tim’s dad took in the Netherlands.

That’s General Stonewall Jackson up there on the right, rendered in, ummmm…, stone.

Ashland City, TN, August 9-22: One of us was very, very excited about the total solar eclipse on August 21, and insisted on booking a campground as close to the path of totality as possible. The other was just along for the ride. But an old shipmate of Tim’s drove down from Boston to view the spectacle with us, so I had the pleasure of watching those two 50+ men act like little boys on Christmas morning, as we stood in the middle of a cornfield in Springfield, TN, waiting for it to go from light, to dark, and back to light again. All they lacked were feetie pajamas.

Is it time yet? Is it time yet?

Damascus, VA, August 23 – Sept 18: We spent almost a month in Trail Town USA, so that Tim and a friend from Norfolk could tackle a 7-day hike together on the Appalachian Trail. I used the first week to fly to San Antonio for my regular round of 6-month cancer appointments, and plenty of check-in time with family. This also happened to be when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, and we watched, horrified, as my brother’s hometown of Port Aransas was nearly wiped off the map. His family, their pets, and their house made it through, and their town will too, but it’s going to take a years-long, arduous effort of cleaning, restoring, and rebuilding.

Top left: Yet another visit to the mammography clinic’s changing room. All clear!
Top center: My parents taking our younger son grocery shopping the day before fall semester classes started at UT-Austin.
Top right: Tim & Greg starting their hike.
Bottom: just a tiny part of the scenic Virginia Creeper Trail. It took us two visits, two years apart, but we’ve now biked the entire 34 miles — some of them twice. I wrote about the first half here and the second half here.

Manchester, TN, Sept. 18 – Christmastime: I’d say “here we sit” in Tennessee again, but we’re really not doing all that much sitting. We’ve taken on seasonal jobs as pickers at the Amazon fulfillment center in nearby Murfreesboro, and after two weeks of work, I’ve walked 65 miles! I blogged two weeks ago about why we did it and what we expect from this adventure with the CamperForce program, and I’ll post an update on how it’s going when we reach the halfway point.

My typical “work hair” style channels my inner Rosie the Riveter.
That’s the official t-shirt on the upper right, and our back yard for pretty much the rest of the year on the bottom.

For now, here we don’t sit, and the current plan is to make our way back to San Antonio after we’re done working. Not sure we’ll make it before Santa Claus arrives, but we’ll definitely have done our job as elves this year!

3 True Trail Tales from Our Trip to Trail Town USA

1st Tale: Tim & Greg Spend 7 Days Hiking the Appalachian Trail

Tim and Greg: Day 1, Minute 1

Tim and Greg: Day 1, Minute 2
Things got colder, wetter, dirtier, more strenuous, and a whole lot stinkier after that.

This tale gets top billing because it’s the reason we returned to this area (I’ve linked to posts from our 2015 visit below). We wanted a location with easy trail access, that was also within a day’s drive from our next stop, which is just south of Nashville, TN, and from Greg’s hometown, which is Norfolk, VA.

Hello, Damascus, VA, halfway point and trail town extraordinaire!

From Damascus is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the Virginia Creeper Trail, the Trans-America National Bicycle Trail, the Iron Mountain Trail, the Daniel Boone Heritage Trail, the Crooked Road Musical Heritage Trail, Virginia’s Birding and Wildlife Trail, and lies within a short distance of hundreds of miles of other hiking, horse, and biking trails.

That red line is the Appalachian Trail. The boys hiked sections in this area, between Roan Mountain, TN, near the lower left, and Troutdale, VA, near the upper right.
(map source)

Since I didn’t go (other than accompanying them on a quick 2.5 miles in, then back out to the car after a gear replacement delivery on Day 2), I’ll let Tim finish up the tale with his stats and photos.

  • We hiked 76.7 miles, tracked using Greg’s GPS watch.
  • Our highest point was Mount Rogers at 5,728’.
  • Experienced grassy highlands and dense humid forests.
  • Our longest day was 16.9 miles; our shortest was 6.6 miles.
  • Night-time temps were in the 40’s; day-time probably 60’s.
  • We saw four thru-hikers. All were working hikes known as flip-flops or MOBOs, where they started somewhere in the middle and hiked north to the Maine end, then reset to where they started and hiked to the southern end in Georgia. They had roughly 400 miles of their 2,180+ mile journey remaining.
  • Met a father/son team (both named Tim!) at the summit of Mount Rogers. They’d just completed their 21st “Highest point in a state” hike, and were planning to do all 50.
  • One deer
  • Many wild ponies
  • Several longhorns (not the UT kind, like our younger son)
  • Zero actual bears, but we saw some pretty fresh scat and heard/saw a tree being worked over nearby, in addition to the honey-grabbing evidence below
  • No raccoons (remember this for later)

Random summit view 1

Random summit view 2

Laurel Fork Falls
A couple of thru-hikers said it was in the top two of the best things they’d seen on the entire Appalachian Trail.

What can I say? I have a thing for log cabins.

A freshly dug hole, probably by a bear going after honey in the hive.
Unfortunately the bees don’t show up in the picture, and we did not see Winnie-the-Pooh.

2nd Tale: Emily Does 6 Miles, and Gives Her Boots the Boot

While they were out, I went out too. Gathered my gear, packed water and snacks, and hoped my old boots would see me through one more hike. They did, but it wasn’t comfortable. My next “hike” was into town for a new pair!

My hike on the trail started here, up these steps.
My hike to the trail started on the steps of our RV, which was parked only half a mile away.
Location, location, location!

It ain’t much, but it’s mine.
But then, I’m a day hiker, so I don’t carry a tent, sleeping bag, cooking supplies, or multiple days worth of food.

When I reached this sign at the top, I turned around and hiked the 3 miles back down into Damascus.
Took me about 3 hours, including my 20-minute lunch break.

New boots!
This is my second pair of KEEN hikers; the first pair lasted a good 3-4 years. I like them because they are comfortable from Day 1, and they are nice and wide at the toe, just like my feet. I’ve managed to purchase both pairs during end-of-season clearance sales, taking their cost down to less than $100.00!

3rd Tale: The Half of the Virginia Creeper Trail We Didn’t Do in 2015, but Twice This Time, Because we Foolishly Skipped Booking a Shuttle

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Sure, we can ride 17 miles from Damascus to Abingdon for lunch, I thought.

I know we’re not serious cyclists, and that our longest ride together has been only 15 miles, but this is on an old rail bed with only a 5% grade, I thought.

Riding 34 miles can’t be that hard, I thought.

I was wrong.

And 24 hours later, I am still in pain.

In 2015, we took a bike shuttle to White Top Station (1), and rode the trail downhill 17 miles to Damascus (5).
Yesterday, we rode 17 miles from Damascus (5) to Abingdon (8), ate lunch, and then rode all 17 miles back.
I thought it would be maybe a 4-hour outing, but it took 7.
Yeah, ouch.
(Map source)

Don’t let that subtle bowl shape between Abingdon and Damascus fool you. Up is up, and I was one hangry chick by the time we got to Abingdon.
(Map source)

Our reward: scenic wooden trestles, rustic farmland, majestic rivers, lots of cows, and one final, magical, adorable sighting.

There were cows in the woods…

… and cows by the river…

… and cows in my selfie …

… and wow, that cow is reallyreally close! Wait. Close enCOWnter. HAAAAHAHAHAHA!

This part of the Virginia Creeper Trail cuts through quite a bit of private land, so there are several gates along the way.
Tim rode ahead to hold them open for me.
What a prince!

And then, just as I was thinking there was no way I could pedal the last 6 or 7 miles home, because everything hurt, and I’d run out of swear words to describe it, a bit of rustling on my right caught my attention.
It was not one…

… not two…

… but THREE BABY RACCOONS that were tumbling all over each other in the leaves, and making the most adorable pippity-purring noises I’ve ever heard.
I wanted to snuggle them. Bad.
But we didn’t get too close (I zoomed in for these photos), because nature.
Mama raccoon was probably nearby, and we definitely did not want to deal with the likes of her.

Those fuzzy little bandits were my good omen, my powerful talisman, the image that sustained me for the rest of the ride home.

Best. Wildlife sighting. Ever.

Posts from our 2015 visit


10 Ways I Stay Fit on the Road

Let’s start this off with what you need to know about me:

I’m not a fitness fanatic or expert, and I don’t have a perfect body. In fact, you could say that my desire is not to stay in shape, but more to stay out of a certain shape category.

The round one.

I fight really hard to keep my waistline narrower than what’s above and below it.

At 48, I’m a curvy size 8, 5’4” tall, and my weight hovers around 145. A few pounds less, and I rejoice. A few pounds more, and I extend my middle finger at my scale — and then spend several weeks counting calories to get back on track. This is what’s normal for me.

See? I’ve got curves.
And on that day, I also had new shoes, and they coordinated with both my outfit and the RV park’s fitness room. Winning!

So that covers Vanity, the first tenet in my holy trinity of fitness motivation. Ready for the other two?

Sanity. Activity that works my body gets me out of the RV and my own head, and just generally makes me feel better about myself, my day, and whatever I need to face during the course of it.

Survival. Exercise is widely known to be effective in reducing the risk of breast cancer recurrence. I’ve had that shit. I don’t want it back.

That said, I exercised regularly before my diagnosis too — hell, I was even a Jazzercise  instructor for almost 7 years — and now it’s more important than ever.

As I wrote in a Facebook comment earlier this year, it’s not a matter of “Look at her. She was fit and healthy, and got cancer anyway, so why exercise?” To be quite blunt, cancer doesn’t care how fit you are. But being fit and healthy at the time of diagnosis makes a tremendously positive difference in how the body handles and recovers from treatment.

Now you know the why. Here comes the how.

I can take 19 steps from one end of The Toad to the other. That means I’d have to walk it 526 times to reach that ever popular daily recommendation of 10,000 steps.

Not. Happening.

Instead, I’ve developed an arsenal of several alternatives that I rotate, not just to combat workout boredom, but also to be able to get some sort of exercise even when the weather’s uncooperative, or when we don’t have much time, or when the roads aren’t safe for walking or biking, or when I’m sore from pushing myself too hard the day before, etc.

In no particular order:

Walking — I hoof it at a pretty good clip, 3.5 to 4 mph, on urban trails and in parks when possible, and on regular ol’ roads when not, but only if there’s a wide shoulder or sidewalk to keep me safe. Yes, I always walk against traffic.

I walked in cities all over the country wearing these eye-catchers — until they literally fell apart.
I miss them.

Hiking — I’m slower at this, usually averaging only 2 mph, but that’s because the terrain is often uphill and tricky, and I’m wrangling poles and a pack too.

One of my favorite hikes for scenery was this one in California’s High Sierra, July of 2016.

Biking — We carry our bicycles on the back of the RV, and we use them for both fitness rides and for local transportation.

Our October 2015 ride along the Virginia Creeper Trail

Dancing — It’s my favorite exercise method of all time. I’ve made use of empty picnic pavilions, rally halls and all-purpose rooms, laundry rooms, a fairgrounds exhibit hall, and a cousin’s garage. Have tunes, will travel! Forget dancing like nobody’s watching, and dance like somebody’s filming.

I danced up a sweat in here.

Here too.

Resistance Tube — It’s a small, nearly weightless alternative to dumbbells, kettlebells and the like, which are just not practical to store in an RV. I use it primarily for arm exercises, but occasionally I throw in a few leg and abdominal reps too.

Yoga — Sometimes I use the Yoga Studio app on my phone; sometimes I just do my own thing. I’ve taken enough classes over the years that I can put together my own 30-minute sequence of poses for strength, flexibility, and/or relaxation.

My set-up is a little cramped in here, but I can get my yoga on anyway.
If the weather’s nice, I take it outside.

The Fit RV — Unlike me, James & Stef are fitness experts, and they focus on workouts geared toward those of us with nomadic lifestyles. Thanks to them, I’ve learned how to turn a picnic table into a home gym! Those videos are here and here.

Photo source: The Fit RV

Fitness Centers — Not the kind that require paid membership, but the kind that are included as amenities at RV parks and hotels (yes, we stay in hotels from time to time), and the ones we are able to use for free when we’re parked on military bases. Nothing like walking into a gym full of young soldiers, sailors or airmen to get this girl to work harder!

Here’s a generic hotel fitness room, and a view of my armpit scar. It’s a visible reminder of the good news that the cancer hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes, so I guess I’ll keep it.

Fitness Classes — It’s a little pricey to pay on a per class basis, but sometimes it’s worth it. I’ve been to boot camp classes with a cousin, and I return to my old Jazzercise center any time we pass through Norfolk, VA. I’ve not yet participated in a “yoga in the park” session, but several cities offer them, often in conjunction with their farmers market. It’s on my list!

Healthy Eating — I’ve admitted already that I count calories when I’m feeling tubby. Overall, I try to eat right by focusing our meals around reasonable portion sizes of lean meats, fresh produce, and whole grains, while also trying my best to keep splurges to a minimum. We love to try local treats, and I will happily order a low-calorie entree in order to sample guiltlessly a hometown diner’s famous pie.

In conclusion, living in a tiny, rolling space is no excuse for me to slack off. I can and do #ExerciseEverywhere.

Disclaimer: I’ve received no compensation from any brands, apps, or entities mentioned above. I’m just sharing what I like so that maybe you can benefit too!