The Blog

The Blackout ⚡️

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


The growl of the generator, just twenty yards away, was the first thing I noticed before the sun came up. It powers a nearby cell tower and the moment the power goes out, it kicks on. This wasn’t a surprise as the wind was fierce overnight and trees were surely down. The infrastructure of Orcas Island is improving, but outages still happen a few times a year. The question always becomes: how long will it last?

I took my phone off the charger and saw it still had about 20% left. Strange. The one thing I needed to take advantage of the functioning cell tower didn’t charge overnight. Hmmm. Then I stared at the coffee maker before realizing it, too, needed electricity.

Sachi said the power had been out since about midnight, when it interrupted her TV show and sent her to bed. This meant the effects of the outage were well underway by the time dawn broke. With every minute that passed, the freezer was becoming less frozen, the guest house was becoming less warm and our devices less charged. Precious resources all trickling away. Just in case, we went into conservation mode. Sachi had learned from past experience, and dutifully posted a sticky note on the door of the fridge that said "No!". It stopped me more than once.

Power outages are like snow days; a novelty, or perhaps an excuse. As long as the power was out, we could claim that normal work was not a priority and we should probably just focus on building our fat reserves for the potential of a long winter night ahead.

We dug a camp stove out of a closet along with a bottle of propane that seemed to be about 25% full. Another precious resource. We got started by heating water on the porch for instant coffee in the form of Starbucks Via, a single serving powdered coffee that we use for backpacking. Coffee was done and the day could truly begin.

The lack of power was both an inconvenience and an interesting challenge. We could get by with very little effort. But that’s no fun. It’s a snow day, sort of, and a reason to maximize. We both started to brainstorm.

We found a couple of rechargeable battery packs we could use to charge the phones and stay connected. They were both about half full, but more than enough to get us through the day. The extra power was particularly helpful in understanding our plight in terms of news about the outage. The power company on Orcas is OPALCO (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative) and their outage map showed the entire island was without power and about 500k homes were dark on the mainland as well. This was bad news. Without mainland power, we had nothing, and as a county, were probably last on the repair list.

I ate a handful of granola while Sachi looked around the kitchen. We had leftover rice, a couple of strips of cooked bacon, tortillas and unopened bottles of artichoke hearts and red peppers in the pantry. These were the makings of breakfast and Sachi had an idea. She arranged our toaster oven pan on top of two bowls and placed candles under the pan to create a surface for sizzling the leftovers. Before long, our breakfast burritos were in-hand and like anything by a campfire, they were impossibly good. At the same time, the storm passed and light came through the windows and added extra warmth.

Candle Warmer

After breakfast, we sat in silence and worked with what power was left on our laptops. Normally, music plays in the background and without it, the guesthouse seemed lonely. We could play music from our phones, but it would drain them quickly. Then, I remembered that we had recently adopted a new device that was perfect for this situation. It’s called a Sonos Move. The Move is a portable speaker that has a ten hour battery life. We could connect to it via Bluetooth and listen all day. I’m a huge fan of the Move.

candle light

OPALCO updates came in every couple of hours. The island’s power system was repaired and ready to go. All that we needed was the mainland to come back online. This highlighted one of the risks of living where we do. Our island of a few thousand people depends on the mainland for both power and internet. If the connection fails, or is cut, we have no other options outside of our own self-sufficiency.

Many permanent residents have wood burning stoves, reserves of water, and generators for getting through the outages, which used to last for days. People have encouraged us to invest in a built-in propane generator that will keep us going in the new house. They’re very expensive and a pain to maintain and I think we can do better. Soon enough, we may have a big battery in our garage that will serve as our backup electricity. In the future, the battery can be fed by solar panels. I believe that’s the new, more sustainable version of island self-sufficiency.

As the day wore on, work stopped and we switched to a snow day orientation. We took a nap and listened to an episode of Smartless, the podcast hosted by Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes. We thought through the albums we have stored away and what we’ll listen to once we have the record player set up again. We chose the loungy sound of Koop.

In January, the sun seems to hang just above the horizon throughout the day. Sunlight dwindled with each passing minute and I wanted it to happen more quickly. What fun is a blackout during the day? I wanted to live by candle light.

The OPALCO afternoon updates started to broach a sensitive subject: it was not too early to start gathering candles and flashlights. I appreciated the kindness in their status updates. Opalco update

In the last bits of sunlight, we hatched a plan for a decadent dinner. The previous night, Sachi thawed 1.5 pounds of Dungeness crab from our summer fishing and made crab mac and cheese which resided in the no-go refrigerator. We decided it was worth opening the fridge for dinner.

First, Sachi opened the chest freezer and grabbed a steak and two ice packs. Then, working as a team, we listed what we needed from the fridge and discussed how to open and close it as quickly as possible. I held the door and used my phone’s flashlight to light the shelves for Sachi to quickly grab the items and place an ice pack under the milk. On a whim, I thought it would be fun to capture the moment in a video. When I hit "record" the flashlight went off, leaving Sachi in the dark. As she scrambled to recover, all she could say was "SERIOUSLY!!!". I had one job. I’m not proud.

I put on a headlamp, fired up the Smokey Joe with charcoal and got ready for dinner. Grilled rib-eye and a pan of warm crab mac and cheese came off the grill in the dark. Off-the-grid surf and turf, served by candlelight. After dinner drinks of whisky and a serenade by Lionel Richie. It was perfect.

Crab mac and cheese

We chatted about our pleasurable predicament with our island friends online. In referencing the power line from the mainland, I wrote, "We are but dogs on a collar". Our friend, Paul, asked if I was writing a haiku and I took it as a challenge:

We are but a dog Leashed from land over there And always at risk

Then, at 7:30pm, nearly 20 hours from the blackout, our friends reported getting power. It seemed like the electrons were making their way across the island to us at less than light speed. Two minutes later the gadgets beeped, the fridge hummed, and the cell tower generator outside finally quieted. And honestly, it was a disappointment. I immediately turned off the lights and tried to savor the last bit of our candlelit night.

I Can Recommend – January 19, 2021

In my weekly newsletter, Ready for Rain, I usually share recommendations for media, products, and ideas that I find interesting or useful. Today I’m sharing the my recommendations in separate blog posts for easy consumption.

The recommendations below were included in issue #89 – The Blackout

  • DEVS(Hulu) – I have a soft spot for stories about evil corporations and the people who run them. On that front and many others, DEVS delivers. It’s is a futuristic limited series starring Nick Offerman and Sonoya Mizuno that involved high tech, murder, and intrigue.

  • Ben Folds Interview (Broken Record Podcast) I’ve always been a fan of Ben and appreciated his connection to North Carolina (he grew up in Chapel Hill). Part music, part personal stories, part regret, it’s an interesting listen.

  • Sonos Move (Gadget) – We recently adopted a new smart speaker and I’m a big fan. The Move comes with a base that serves as a charger for a big battery. When you want to go outside, you can just grab it and the battery lasts 10 hours. It’s weather resistant and sounds great.

  • Smartless Podcast Interview with Conan O’Brien. Image Conan, Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes just hanging out. That’s what this is and it’s such great entertainment.

You can get my recommendations in your inbox each week by subscribing to Ready for Rain, below:

“Big Stuff” and House Flooring Decisions 🏡

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


A few days ago, I was standing on the deck of the house with Casey, the foreman of the construction crew. At the moment, just feet away, sheets of blackened steel were being applied to our fireplace and decking was being screwed into hidden fasteners. More work was being done inside. We both marveled at all that was happening and he said, “All the big stuff is happening now… Well, outside of the framing, windows and roof, I guess.”

His words stuck with me. All the big stuff. When we saw beefy, 3000lb steel beams being put into place, it felt pretty big. When walls appeared, the house seemed to become three dimensional overnight. In terms of square feet, the roof is one of the biggest parts of the house. Bigness as measured by mass and scale is not new.

But Casey has a point. Many big things are happening right now. The finishes are being applied and more than any of the structure, they will be a part of our day-to-day lives because they are the surfaces we’ll see and feel for years to come. I think of the finishes like the exterior of a car with style and color that obscures the essential machinery inside. Likewise, the style and color of our house obscures the steel and wood framing that holds everything together.

Much of the work that went into the house, up to now, is slowly being hidden as it’s covered with wood, granite and tile. And to be honest, it’s a glorious and stressful thing to behold. After years of anticipation and decision making, our aesthetic decisions all become real in a matter of days and with a strong sense of permanence.

Our friend James, who is working on his own house, described finishes that felt “precious” and how he didn’t want anything to feel that way. Since hearing that word, it has become a guiding principle. Our house will not have precious finishes that must be overly protected and treated with an abundance of care. In fact, we have erred on the side of bulletproof.

The Floors

Our hardwood floors are 6” wide boards of white oak that cover about 80% of the house. When we chose the flooring, we used photos on websites and a 2’X2’ section in a flooring store to make the final decision. You hope for the best, but there is always a lingering worry that you chose wrong or that the flooring that’s been purchased and delivered won’t meet your expectations in the expanse of an entire house.

Packs of flooring ready for installation

The problem is that your decision can only be evaluated as the flooring is being permanently installed. By the time you see it, there is no going back and that’s a source of stress for me.

I’m happy to report that we are very satisfied with the flooring, which was completed just hours ago. We had a few goals going into the decisions. At the Hunter House we had dark “espresso” colored floors and learned a valuable lesson: don’t choose a dark floor if your life is filled with dog hair. This time around, we wanted something on the light side that wouldn’t show dirt, held up well to dogs, and felt timeless. 

Overall, we are inspired by Scandinavian design and the floors seemed to fit nicely with our other finishes, which are white, black and natural tones. The ceilings, which are western red cedar, are quite dark and we wanted to balance the darkness. The flooring we chose was Mirage White Oak.

The mostly-finished floor

Last week, the final layer of our floors was applied, covering floor joists, subfloor, and radiant heating floor, which no one will see again. Hopefully. 

Deck

At the same time, the deck was finally being finished. For many months it existed as joists covered in a patchwork of plywood. Over a few days, the joists disappeared under the deck’s surface and we could finally take in the results of another big, expensive, and practically permanent decision. 

Decking in the Pacific Northwest must be able to take a beating. The most common material is cedar and it works well, but requires consistent maintenance and has a more limited lifespan. There are synthetic options like Trex, which last a long time, but don’t look or feel natural. The most bulletproof natural decking is Ipe or Ironwood, which is Brazilian hardwood. It’s heavy, strong, and looks great, but also comes with its own issues. Recently, it’s been difficult to verify if the wood is being sustainably harvested and I wasn’t excited about supporting questionable forestry from Brazilian rainforests. 

Early on, we discovered a new kind of decking that is 100% hardwood, chemical free,  extremely durable, and sustainably forested in the US. It’s made of ash that has been thermally modified, which means the boards are heated with steam for 24 hours at over 400 degrees Fahrenheit. This process steams out the carbs and moisture and makes the wood more weather and bug resistant. 

We were so impressed with this option, we’re using it as both window trim and decking. As a result of the processing, it starts with a milk chocolate color and “silvers” over time if you don’t oil it. We will let it silver. The decking and trim material we chose is Americana by Bingham.

Window trim that matches the decking

Tile

As the decking and floors went in, tile was also being installed in bathrooms and the laundry room. Once again, a decision, based on a small sample, could only be evaluated as it was being permanently installed. In the bathrooms, our tile decision included both the floor and walls of the shower and tub. It defines those rooms more than any other finish and we selected it almost a year ago.

How we picked grout color

The last time we were in Seattle was at the end of February 2020. The first COVID death in the US had just happened just outside the city and no one knew what was to come. In talking to the tile companies, they said it was unknown if tile supply chains, which often originate in China and Italy, would be disrupted. Feeling anxious, we decided to choose the tile early, along with the granite for countertops, just in case. Since then, the tile had been stored at the construction site. In the months that followed, we made many decisions hoping the tile would work with the other finishes. 

A few weeks ago we met with the mason and discussed grout colors and finalized the design. Within a week, we saw the first glimpse of the tile covering the laundry room floor and breathed a sigh of relief. It looked perfect and complimented the color of the hardwood flooring. 

Onward

Soon, all the floors will be complete and the goal becomes protecting them as the project finishes. For us, that means adding one more layer to the floor in the form of thick paper that catches scuffs and spills. In this way, the finished floors will, again, be hidden from view. Thankfully, the paper floor is temporary and one that represents an event in the future we can anticipate: the big reveal of the floors as a part of moving in. Big stuff indeed. 

Explaining Narcissism and Trump

In 2016 I started to learn about narcissism and personality disorders and it changed how I think about humanity. I now believe that our personalities are innate and don’t often change. We are who we are, for better or for worse and some people, through no fault of their own, have personalities that are problematic.

When the 2016 Trump campaign started to gain steam, I couldn’t help but apply what I was learning to his personality and became convinced that he was not normal, that he would never change, and would probably cause serious problems as a president. It seemed obvious to me and I felt a great need to share what I had learned.

So I made an apolitical video in Common Craft style that explains Narcissistic Personality Disorder in an effort to warn people about leaders who put themselves above everything else. It’s now our most viewed YouTube video on a daily basis and I continue to believe that, at the heart of our problems is a leader’s destructive personality that cannot and will not change.

Further, I believe some people are innately unfit for positions like the presidency and we need safeguards that, in the future, can prevent them from attaining positions of power. Shouldn’t we demand leaders who are capable of feeling empathy, at the very least?

Choosing Recessed LED “Can” Lights

A friend who is a few months behind us in their home project reached out to ask a few questions about choosing recessed can lights for their new home. Below is an edited version of my response.

What can you tell me about recessed “can” lights and what I need to consider?

We think of recessed can lights as general/standard illumination; the thing that always works across the house. I think the key is to think about what other lighting will also work in each room. For example, we may use the can lights while making dinner or entertaining, but turn on lamps for movies, etc. LED strip lights can highlight a countertop. Can lights can be all-purpose, but we like having options that provide ambient/diffused light.

We use can lights every day, but usually keep them dimmed. All LED lights are dimmable. What you need is dimmable switches and/or an app that allows you to dim them. I recently wrote about smart switches and lights.

I’m not sure if we need gimbal lights or not.

In some cases, you don’t want a light that only points straight down. Imagine having beautiful art on the wall that you want to illuminate. To highlight the art, you need a light that points at angle so that it “washes” the wall with light from the ceiling. Instead of having a light that only points in one direction, you can fixtures that include a gimbal, which means the light is on a swivel that makes it directional. We chose to use gimbal lights on all sloped ceilings so the lights can still point straight down.

There are so many LED options to consider. What should we consider in terms of the warmth of the light?

Led temperature is measured in Kelvin and the warmest you see for homes is 2700 Kelvin. It’s nice and warm, but does come off a little yellow. Multiple electricians have said that 3000 Kelvin is the standard for most modern homes. Some people use 2700 in bedroom and 3000 for living areas and kitchens. We’re using 3000 as our standard. This guide might help.

Our can lights will be on a high ceiling and I don’t want to have to change them. Are there any options here?

A lot of the new LED can lights (like the Lotus LED lights we chose) do not have removable bulbs. The bulb is built into the fixture and should last over 50k hours. Some can last a lifetime, they say. If a bulb goes out, you have to replace the fixture.

Also lighting in general, sconces. What should we consider?

Again, think of having the option to use a sconce light along with something else. I think of sconces as a desk lamp for the wall. It usually reflects light through a material that makes it softer. We’re using sconces in bedrooms, as they feel more welcoming and homey. One thing to note – a scone disrupts the flow of a wall. Once they go in, they define the usable space. If you hang art in the future, for example, the scones will be part of the placement decision.

Designing a Network for New Home Construction

In building a new house, there are pivotal windows of time where it’s possible to make a change or add a feature at a huge discount. Perhaps the most pivotal is just before drywall is installed. When that happens, the price of making systemic changes, like plumbing and electrical, goes up.

When we did our electrical plan, we added little icons for network connections around the house as placeholders. We knew we’d have good wifi and figured that we’d decide about the wired network later. As the electrical rough-in was almost complete we had to make a decision: wired network or not? Wifi would probably be enough. But adding a network, at that moment, was priced at a discount that would soon disappear forever.

Before pulling the trigger, we considered using a mesh wifi system with plug-in satellites that extend the range from a primary access point. We’re currently using Orbi and it works fine. Something like Eero or Nest Wi-fi could do the job. But would we regret not having taken the opportunity to build network infrastructure?

I talked to some of my geekier friends who said I wasn’t likely to regret having ethernet built-into the house. We’ll have a fiber optic internet connection for a house that’s under 2,500 sq/ft and a single story. We work from home and most of our evening entertainment will be web-based. We decided to add the wired network and I started to learn how it all fits together.

Designing the Network

First, we had to think about the overall design of the network. We’d need a home base where everything connects and then ethernet cables that extend the internet to locations of our choosing. For example, we want our TV to have a wired connection to the internet via the network. This means an ethernet cable had to go from the wall behind the TV to the home base where it connects to the internet. The same is true with the network connections in our kitchen and garage. This was the basic idea of our network and it was an empty vessel without an internet connection.

The Basic Network

The property had a fiber connection when we purchased it and once the construction started, an orange tube stuck out of the ground, waiting for a house to appear. Our future network would be powered by the wire inside that tube. To do that, it needed to make a few jumps.

First, we needed the fiber optic cable in the tube outside to breach an exterior wall and connect to our office. Our service provider did this work and left behind a modem that connects to the internet and makes wifi available. This was the first jump: into the house. The blue tube at the bottom of the box below is the fiber arriving in our office and home base. At the top are ethernet cables arriving from across the house.

Our Network Box

Getting Connected To The Internet

By connecting the modem to the fiber connection, we could have wifi. This is the second jump: into the room. We could stop there, but we have a network and want to put it to work.

Our modem/router (above) has ports on the back that can be used for connecting the ethernet cables for our network. But it’s the most basic version possible and there only a few ports. If we’re investing in a network, I want it to be useful, powerful, and manageable.

This is where things get interesting. We have relatively simple needs and the challenge was cutting through all the complexity and identifying what products would be best for us.

Learning About Ubiquiti and Unifi

I saw a couple of friends recommend a company called Ubiquiti and the company’s line of products called Unifi for people in my position. As expected, I went to the website to learn more and quickly felt buried in confusing terms and acronyms. There are just so many options. After a couple of research sessions, I started to get a handle on what we might need.

One of the reasons people like Ubiquiti is that it’s an ecosystem of devices that work together seamlessly across internet, security, and entry access. You can start with a device or two and then build-out if needed. The more I learned, the more I liked the products and started to formulate a plan.

One of the most interesting discoveries was PoE (power over ethernet) devices. PoE means you can add devices to the network that don’t require a separate AC electrical connection. The power comes through the ethernet cable. I had no idea!

This was a pivotal because it meant we could add access points throughout the house that could make our wifi more bulletproof. The key is understanding the difference between wired and wireless access points. Wireless products like Orbi or Eero have a router and wireless “satellite” access point that plug into AC wall outlets. These devices extend the network from a single source.

Wireless Mesh Network

PoE devices are wired and create multiple sources and better coverage.

Wired Network of PoE Devices

This kind of product represents the third jump – across the house. Using PoE devices, meant the network could be modular and grow as needed. In fact, I found that Ubiquiti makes access points that fit nicely into outlet boxes and have their own ethernet ports for connecting another device.

Wired Network of PoE Devices Extending the Network

For us, this means the network connection behind our TV can be a wifi access point and a wired connection to the TV. If we need more wifi coverage, we could always use a wireless access point that plugs into the wall.

Home Base

With the internet connection in place and the network set up, I was confident that we’d have the wifi coverage we’d need. Next was figuring out how to manage and monitor the network. Until recently, this often meant using separate devices that serve as gateways, switches, etc. I dreaded this phase.

Eventually I discovered the Unifi Dream Machine, which is an all-in-one product that’s designed for people like me. It has a gateway, switch, and a wifi access point in one device. It also has ports for connecting the ethernet cables. This is what brought everything together; the home base of the network. The Dream Machine comes with software that provides for setup and network monitoring via a free app. We’d still need the modem, but the Dream Machine would be our router.

So that is our plan. The fiber connection will connect to our modem, then the Dream Machine. The Dream machine will serve as our wifi and wired network controller, including access points that are powered over the ethernet connection. My plan is to start with the Dream Machine and test the coverage, then add access points as needed. Easy scalability FTW.

In learning about how this works, I used the Ubiquiti design center to get a feel for how the devices would perform. This version is probably overkill, but shows how the signals work with our floor plan and multiple access points.

Note: I have no relationship with Ubiquiti or any other company mentioned in this post.

This Was 2020

2020 will be a year students read about in history books for generations. The COVID-19 pandemic, the end of the Trump presidency and a long list of mostly terrible news will add up to a year that people will remember as being particularly bad. And it was bad. As of today, 338,000 Americans have died of the virus. But even within the scary headlines, there has been joy and hope.

I don’t usually publish year-in-review posts, but I feel the need to assess my own 2020 and try to extricate it from the macro version that we see on the news. Like many people, my 2020 has been mixed and yesterday (Christmas Day, 2020) provides a handy backdrop for thinking the year through.

A Look Back

Long before the virus became an issue, 2020 got off to a terrible start for my family. My mother, after years of poor health, passed away on January 5th at the age of 80. The last time I saw her was Christmas Day 2019. When I left home that afternoon for the airport, I had no idea she would be gone so soon. But yesterday, and probably on Christmas Days going forward, I will think of her and feel grateful that I was able to be there for her last Christmas along with the rest of my family. We had no idea how special it was to be safe in the same room together.

A few weeks after I returned to Orcas Island, the first case of COVID-19 was reported in Washington State. We were concerned, but it wasn’t yet a public health issue. Our friend, Tony, was leaving Seattle and had a going-away party we attended at the end of February. The next day, the first death in the US occurred, again in Washington, and we found ourselves in Costco, fighting huge crowds for toilet paper among other things. That afternoon, Sachi left for Hawaii for about a week and I returned to Orcas. It was the last time either of us stepped foot in Seattle in 2020 or attended an indoor event of any size.

By the time Sachi returned to Orcas Island, lockdowns were going into place around the country. Within a week, we were ordered to stay at home by the governor. Businesses closed, events were cancelled, and uncertainty reigned.

From the beginning, Sachi and I became dedicated to treating the virus with great care, as we do today. Starting in March, we assumed we’d spend most of 2020 alone and in the guesthouse with our two dogs, Maybe and Piper, and try to make the best of it.

Our temporary home (second floor, over a garage)

In the spring, watching the virus provided a slightly macabre form of entertainment. We were both fascinated with the science of it, how it spreads, and how governments react. It felt like every day history was being written, both good and bad.

Sachi and I both welcomed the lockdown and felt a real sense of security being holed-up in the little guesthouse on an island. Having worked together from home for so many years, it wasn’t a big change. Our spending went down and we adjusted to a low-intensity lifestyle with fewer interactions. We felt a sense of relief in not having engagements or travel.

I might even say that, outside of the public health issues at large, we were happier being stuck at home and I don’t think we were alone. Sometimes mandated change has a way of revealing new opportunities and perspectives.

The Book

Big Enough Final Cover

As the economic reality of the virus became clear, I started to see a direct line between that uncertainty and a big project: writing and publishing my second book: BIG ENOUGH. The book was scheduled to publish on May 5, 2020. That spring, the projections of COVID deaths were expected to peak at that time and we decided to move the publish date to September. I had to adjust my expectations for the reality of publishing and promoting a book during a pandemic and near a presidential election. What happens to the book market when bookstores are closed?

The House Project

The defining factor of our personal 2020 was a house project, which started in the summer of 2019. We’re building our forever home on Orcas Island. It is, by far, our largest and most complex project.

The House Project, Christmas, 2020

I often say that happiness lives in anticipation and that sense of anticipation has grown stronger as the house has come together. Big projects like this are stressful and time consuming, and that’s expected. In fact, it now feels normal and makes me wonder how it will feel not to have the stress or anticipation in my life. 

Along with other minor duties, we have been the painters and stainers and that is a much bigger job than I imagined. We stained over 3000 sq/ft of cedar ceiling boards that required three coats each. We sanded and painted the fascia around the roof multiple times, and we dusted, masked, painted, sanded, repaired, and cleaned the entire interior of the house. We saved money, learned a lot, and became a small part of the construction crew.

Third coat of paint
Sachi Painting the Fascia

There have been minor hiccups and delays, like any large project, but overall it has gone smoothly. We visited the site on most days in 2020 and continue to be constantly engaged with decision-making. We are thankful to have great relationships with both our contractor, Drew Reed, and architect, John Stoeck. We feel like we’re working with the best people possible.

As summer arrived, it became crabbing season and we found that boating was the perfect pandemic activity. Our old 90s boat motor started to fail and we invested in a little 60hp Honda that made being on the water quieter, cleaner, and more worry-free. We crabbed almost every day we could and brought home over 150 Dungeness crab. On a few occasions we met friends with boats on the water and tied up on-anchor for across-the-bow socializing. 

A Big 'Un

BIG ENOUGH launched on September 15th. It’s hard to know if the change of publish date made any difference, but it was a relief to get it behind me. I love seeing it out in the world and hearing from readers for whom it was helpful. 

In 2019 I started a newsletter called Ready for Rain that has become one of my favorite personal projects through 2020. I usually publish every Tuesday and share a story along with recommendations for media and products I like. It takes time, but has become a way for me to practice writing and connect with people.

The year ended much like it began, with a new round of lock-downs and restrictions. We knew it was coming and met it with mostly open arms. 

Christmas Day 2020

On Christmas Day 2020, we saw no friends or family in person and that is perhaps the perfect encapsulation of the year. Instead, we made delicious food and connected with our loved ones via the internet.

The pandemic news was all about the winter wave of infections, hospitals being overrun, and the huge (and disappointing) number of people traveling for the holidays. I believe that history will show that America failed this test by not listening to the guidelines of scientists and turning away from facts. I hope that’s the real lesson from all of this. It didn’t have to be this way.

But there is also hope in the news. Two vaccines have been approved and are currently being administered to those most in need. Our friend, Nicole, a nurse in Seattle, is the first person I know who received a dose. Being in good health, working from home, and living in an isolated location means we’re likely to be near the back of the line and that’s fine. After a year, we know how to stay safe and can certainly do it for a few more months.

BIG ENOUGH is available in paperback, ebook, and audiobook and has 4.9 stars with nearly 50 ratings. Given the circumstances, I’m proud of the book and where it is right now. It’s not a bestseller, but it was never destined to be one. I’ve spoken on dozens of podcasts and put untold hours into promoting it. As hope returns to our collective psyche, I believe the book will be even more relevant. It gives me joy to imagine people opening gifts this morning and finding my book.

The house is very close to completion. It has heat, electricity and running water. The roof and 95% of the exterior is complete. Tile is being installed and along with wood floors, the countertops will go in within a week. Next month, the fiber internet connection will be in place and appliances will be delivered. There’s a chance we’ll be sleeping there by the Superbowl.

We spent a couple of hours on Christmas Day doing something that has become normal for us: working on the house project. Like so many others, our work is impacted by the pandemic. We prefer to work on the house while others are not there, which means working on weekends and holidays. On Christmas Day, Sachi rolled the first coat of paint on a bedroom accent wall and I cleaned overspray off of window sills. 

Sachi and I don’t often exchange gifts and this year was no different. Our work and dedication to the house is plenty. But there will be a moment when a gift arrives that means we’ve actually moved in. That gift is a steel container full of furniture, garden tools, boxes and more that has been in a warehouse for nearly two years. Someday in late January or early February, the container will arrive and it will feel like Christmas.

Looking back, I feel grateful and fortunate for the people and events of 2020. We stayed healthy, our big projects went well and above all, our relationship remains strong. I feel so fortunate to be stuck in our tiny home with Sachi, who makes everything better.

Looking forward, I’m feeling hopeful that we’ll all start to see the path to recovery more clearly. Surely 2021 will be better than 2020, right?

Smart Lights, Smart Home 💡🏡

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.


When we renovated our house in Seattle in 2010, I learned about home automation and the idea of a “smart” home. A renovation seemed like the perfect time to consider a system that would make the house “smart” and more automated. We ended up choosing a complex and powerful home automation system called Control4. It was state of the art and I completely geeked-out on all the things you could do. It was just what I wanted at the time.

That was 2010 and my perspective has changed. For our Orcas house, we are not using Control4 or anything like it. I’m still fascinated by home automation but today I have to consider living on an island along with all the new products that have since appeared.

The Reality of Island Living

Let’s start with living on an island. Unlike Seattle, Orcas Island doesn’t have large companies and teams of technicians that can drop by to fix something that breaks. A technician would have to spend most of a day traveling and taking the ferries to fix a problem in our house. For this reason, we’re opting for the most reliable systems and products we can find.

The best example is roller shades in our great room. In the summer, the sun shines directly into the room and shades will be required. In Seattle, we had electronic shades that were automated. They would roll up and down on a schedule of our choosing and it was pretty darn sexy. We considered using a similar system on Orcas, but came around to seeing a reliable alternative that’s been proven for thousands of years: a pulley. Instead of relying on an electric motor that could fail, I will pull a cord.

Controlling It All

The system we had in Seattle was complex because you could configure it in so many ways. We could program it so that unlocking the front door would automatically turn on lights, play specific music, open the shades, and more. Again, pretty sexy. But it also seemed fragile. Being a single system, a small problem could have a ripple effect that meant our TV might stop working. A technician seemed to arrive every year to fix something or update the system software.

There were things we loved about the system. For example, the lighting was programmable, so you could set up custom scenes that work with a push of a button. “Movie Time” was a scene where the lights would dim to 15% and light a path to the kitchen. We could also say “Alexa turn on the movie time scene” and it would work without buttons or phone apps at all. Because Control4 was connected to the internet, it knew the time of day. This meant we could program the lights to slowly turn on as the sun set or turn all lights off at a specific time.

One promise of these kinds of “smart” systems is efficiency. And it’s true, they save some energy and effort. But after having it for ten years, I don’t think that’s an important consideration. Switching to LED lights is an energy saver, but the savings from dimming and scheduling seem marginal to me.

More than anything, lighting control is a very convenient and pleasing feature to have. We like low, soft lighting and electronic dimmers make it simple to get it exactly right. Once you get used to it, it’s difficult to go back.

Smart Switches

To have the control we wanted, we needed to think about the switches. Unlike standard switches or dimmers that are mechanical, these have electronic dimmers and are connected to one another. Once you have a “smart” switch in place, it becomes controllable through an app or voice command. If you have multiple, you can control them together.

Again, for the new house, we had to consider the overall costs, including maintenance and upkeep. We realized that we didn’t need control of the lights for about half of the house. Like a pulley, we can flip a simple switch in the laundry room. But, we did want to control the lights in entertainment and living spaces like the great room and outdoor room.

In considering the options, we thought a lot about modularity and systems that can be removed, built-out, and reconfigured as needed. This way, we can get started with a set of switches, and always have the option to replace them ourselves. No ferry rides, no technicians. Thankfully, this is how most home automation is done today. Instead of one big system, there are now multiple systems that can talk to one another and be replaced more easily.

For the controllable dimmers (in-wall switches), we chose Lutron, which is a well-established company known for reliability. Their “Caseta” line is for consumers like us and is modular. With a set of Caseta dimmers in the house, we can set up scenes and control the lights with buttons, an app, or with voice. If we don’t like them, we can try another one. If we love them, we can add more. The non-Caseta switches will be Lutron Maestro which are electronic dimmers, but not “smart” switches.

image of smart switch
Lutron Caseta Smart Switch

The Ceiling Lights

In our county, new construction is required to have 80% high efficiency lighting. This means using mostly LED or CFL bulbs. Most of the lights in the house will be recessed into the ceiling, or what some call “can” lights. Because there are so many, I was concerned about getting them right, in part, because I care about lighting. Maybe too much.

ceiling lights
Kitchen Ceiling

The ceiling of our kitchen looks a little busy because there are so many lights. This is by design and relates to a lesson we learned about outdoor speakers. In Seattle, we had neighbors who we didn’t want to bother with music. I asked the guy who installed our automation system about a good strategy and he said that we could get better and more private sound by having more speakers at a lower volume. The same is true with lights. We find that having more lights at a dimmer setting leads to a nicer feel.

You have probably seen LED lighting that seems severe or piercing. It’s difficult to put your finger on why, but you can tell it’s too much of something. In recent years, LED technology has improved and they now look much more natural. You can get LEDs that are more white or warm and that’s measured on a “kelvin” scale. From what we learned, 3000 Kelvin is a good standard and one that we’re using. If you’d like to learn more about lighting terms, this is a helpful guide.

Part of the complexity in our situation is our ceiling. Some of it is sloped, some flat. Some covered in cedar, some in drywall. For this reason, we needed recessed lights that could handle all those situations, still look uniform, and work with our switches.

Many months back, we learned about a Canadian company called Lotus LED that seemed to offer everything we wanted. Their lights were solidly built and available with trims in black and white and options with gimbals, which means the lens can be pointed in different directions. The decision was made. LotusLED would be our standard.

lotus led light

The Lotus lights are interesting because they don’t have a removable bulb. Everything is built-in and they’ll last at least 50k hours and can last over 20 years. I will be just fine not thinking about that for a very long time.

On top of the system-wide decisions were the choices of fixtures for places like bathrooms, bedsides and hallways. The problem here is the sheer volume of choices. Sites like Lumens.com seem to have a never-ending selection. A lesson we learned was to pick out lights early and then wait for a sale. Often, you could sign up for their newsletter and save, too.

LED Strips

The final challenge was LED strip lighting and boy, was it a challenge. As a consumer, I find most lighting decisions to be a maze of features and terms that I don’t quite understand. This is certainly the case with what is mostly a very simple idea: LEDs on a thin strip of plastic.

LED strip

We love ambient light that reflects off of ceilings and walls. To get this effect, LED strips can be placed under cabinets and shelves or down hallways, for example. I won’t get into all the complexity, but I never imagined there could be so many possibilities. Part of the issue is that LED technology is moving so quickly that manufacturers can’t seem to communicate clearly about what’s possible and what works best for a given situation.

I was excited to find that we could use a “nano” strip in our hallway that’s hidden in the drywall via this little housing.

nano strip

Over the weekend, we got our first looks at the hallway, which is lit with these tiny LEDs. There is still some fine tuning needed, but I think it’s going to look great.

hallway with led lights

Of all the decision-making in this project, the lights were the most time consuming. The big lesson for me was learning to pick up the phone and call the number on the website. Most companies have experts ready to help and if not for these calls, I wouldn’t feel as confident as I do today.

Now, we wait. The electrical rough-in work is done and soon, all the lights will go in. Only then will we see the results of all these decisions. I, for one, anticipate the evening when we can finally experience the results of all the planning.


I Can Recommend…

Industry (HBO) – I wasn’t sure about this based on the first few episodes, but it grew on me. It’s edgy and pretty dark. Sex, drugs and young English bankers?

We Are the Champions (Netflix) – A show about the most accompished participants in fringe sports, like yo-yoing, cheese rolling, and dog dancing. Cheesy and fun. Rainn Wilson is the host.

Klaus (Netflix) – A new Christmas classic in my book. It establishes the origin story of Santa Claus in beautiful animation.

Rick Rubin Interviews Pharrell William (Broken Record – Podcast) I love the Broken Record podcast and this interview is awesome if you’re into Pharrell’s work. I was a huge fan of N.E.R.D. back in 2001 or so.

The Stepford Wives (You’re Wrong About – Podcast) A show where two entertaining journalists pick a subject from the past that has been misrepresented. This episode about the real-life Stepford Wives was fascinating.


Photo

This time of year is often foggy in the morning and I love it when the sun shines through the fog, like it did Monday morning.

Lee LeFever Circle Author Headshot

About Me

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

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