The Blog

At a Crossroads ⤲

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

My friend Tony asked, when we had just purchased property on Orcas, “What’s next? You’ll build a house and move in… then what?” Sometimes Tony’s questions seem like challenges, but I think he’s mostly looking for ideas. He was asking about something years into the future and I didn’t have an answer. I suppose I’m in the “then what?” phase now.

There is a common perception that completing a project like a house leads to a period of doldrums. The excitement of the project wanes and leaves a hole in the day-to-day that feels like something is missing. I expected to feel it by now, but it hasn’t arrived. If anything, I’m feeling better than I have in a long time. The excitement of the house project came with a healthy dose of stress and anxiety for us both. The space it left in our lives is one we’re not eager to fill. Plus, there are years of house projects ahead of us, mostly in landscaping. 

Projects on the professional side of life seem equally complete. This week marks the one-year anniversary of Big Enough being published and it no longer demands a lot of attention. Common Craft, the Explainer Academy, and The Art of Explanation book are all stable.

This all begs the answer to Tony’s question: what’s next? 

A few months ago, we had a call with our friend, Dave, who now lives in rural New Hampshire. He’s a regular RFR reader who is planning a significant home remodel. He said something that had been in the back of my mind for a while, but I hadn’t fully considered it. In preparing for his house project, he looked for books and resources for people like him. He wanted to understand the construction process, what to expect, how to overcome the challenges, make decisions, etc. In his experience, there was a dearth of materials along these lines. 

Dave encouraged me to take what we had learned in building Flattop and transform it into a book or something similar for people like him. That chat with Dave lit a fire under me. I’ve always been passionate about home design and the construction process. I have years of real-world experience across multiple projects. I have connections with builders, architects, and multiple homeowners who are in-process now. 

So, I started writing. Through 2021, I’ve written about 70,000 words, all focused on explaining the process of building a custom home, phase by phase. Sachi has been my editor and brainstormer. Through it all, I was never sure where it would lead. 

My initial thought was to make it a book and it’s currently written in that form. But that didn’t feel like the right medium. It’s not a story as much as a reference work or guide. It’s the resource you turn to when a new phase of construction is on the horizon. 

I asked a couple of friends who are currently building homes about the potential they see. Our friend, James, was enthusiastic about the idea and had a suggestion. He said, “This feels more digital than a book. You’d want downloadable documents, videos, and visuals.” Yes. Yes. Yes.

Once again, a friend suggested a direction that helped us see the opportunity more clearly. All the writing could be turned into multimedia content that lives on a website instead of in a book. It could be easily updated and priced like an online course.  People could access it on any device at any time.

For the last couple of months, this has been the dominant idea in my day-to-day life. When the workday is done and I’m ready to relax, this is where my mind wanders. I have to resist not working on it and I take that as a good sign. Passion, is a necessary ingredient, along with time. Best of all, in true Big Enough fashion, we can make this idea happen ourselves.

So, dear reader, this is the next thing. Many of you have been with me through the entire house project and your ideas and input have been invaluable. For this next project, I hope we can continue what we’ve started. More soon!

Designing for Dogs 🦮

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

When building a house, it’s easy to assume that the builder and architect will account for what’s needed. You’ll surely have the desired number of bathrooms and a roof that keeps you dry. There are also things that are unique to you and your lifestyle. Daily rituals and long-standing annoyances could be improved with a bit of forethought, but only if they are communicated to the team. This is an important lesson we learned in building Flattop: Be diligent in accounting for ways the house can be designed to improve your day-to-day life. Communicate what you want and the pros will find ways to make it work.

Once the house was mostly complete, attention turned to the fencing. We shared our ideas for a small fenced area that aligned with the side of our garage. Gates flank it on the short sides of the rectangle. One gate leads to the driveway. The other leads to a larger fenced area that wraps around the house and contains our garden and back deck. 

This system of fences was designed with great intention and not without a bit of confusion. You could see the questions wash over the builders as they tried to understand what we wanted. “So you want a fenced area that leads to a second fenced area? With a gate in between?” Yes. Exactly. But only four feet high.

They built it exactly as we wanted and today, the system of gates and fences is emblematic of our efforts in making the house work specifically for our lifestyle. Builders and architects can work wonders, but they won’t live in the house. They won’t use it every day. They don’t have access to the daily rituals and events that fill the day. That information is the domain of the homeowner, who must explain what is needed, a few times, to make sure the house fits with these routines. 

We have dogs. We wanted Flattop to be a house that minimized the impact of PNW wet dogs and dirty feet on our nice new floors. We imagined waking up on a wet December morning and needing to let the dogs out to do their business. We could let them into the large garden area and watch them return happy and covered in mulchy mud. Or, we could leash them and walk in the rain, careful to avoid muddy areas. Or, we could design the house for this daily routine. We chose design. This meant thinking ahead about how to handle rainy days and wet dogs. 

When we were in the guesthouse, we built a small enclosure that connected to the entry. In the winter rain, the dogs could go out while we stayed dry on the porch. I used a nearby pile of wood chips to cover the surface and the system worked. The dogs still got wet, but their paws remained mostly clean. This was our inspiration. Could we do the same at Flattop? Instead of releasing them into the garden, could we create a clean place for them to use every day?

Soon, a plan came together. On the garage side of the house, a door opens to the exterior. We decided to enclose it and make it a dog run that would be our primary way to let them out. Like the guesthouse, we could stay warm and dry by the door while they take care of business. The cedar chips keep their feet clean and naturally repel pests. The gates in the dog run only swing inward so the dogs can’t push them open. As an added bonus, their waste is contained in a small area for easy pickup.

If the dogs do end up muddy from walks or garden play, we have that covered, too. We added a groomer-style dog shower to the garage that makes cleaning dirty paws a breeze. It also serves as a great washbasin for crabbing gear and garden veggies.

The system is almost perfect, but there is one minor hiccup. Maybe, our oldest dog at seven years, has developed a distaste for rain and wet ground. If she looks outside and sees rain, she’ll resist going out at all. When she does venture out, she carefully steps along the wall where the overhang keeps the ground dry. As much as I want to think of our dogs as PNW rain dogs, Maybe is still too civilized. We won’t tell the other dogs on the island.

Another Man’s Treasure 🏴‍☠️

I’m sure that my first reaction was a subtle roll of my eyes or at least an imagined one. Two twin-size box springs had sat in our garage for a while and Sachi was formulating a plan. She asked around and no one needed them and she didn’t want to just take them to the dump, so she decided to try converting them into something useful. I fully support this as an idea, but I wasn’t sure a box spring could actually become anything much. With a box cutter and pliers, she got to work. 

When we demolished the yurt-shaped house, we tried to salvage what we could. Anything we could give away or use was something that didn’t end up in the landfill. Being new to island culture, we hadn’t yet developed a strong sense of salvage, but we were able to do a lot. We saved many of the windows and gave away the Blaze King wood stove, cedar roof shingles, ceiling panels and more. In addition, we saved at least fourteen panels of hog wire railing material for some future project or new island owner. We had no idea how handy they would be.

Hog wire railing at the yurt

Once Sachi’s vegetable garden got going, it quickly needed support, both vertically and around the edges, as squash plants spilled out over the side of the raised beds. The hog wire came to the rescue on both counts.

hog wire supporting squash

The hog wire also served as a moveable fence we can use to keep the dogs out of the temporary and dusty pile of dirt. 

Aside from what we could salvage from the yurt, the construction project produced its own scrap and we told the crew to save everything that seemed useful. Today a pile of wood and materials lives under our house and is slowly being put to use. 

A few brackets helped turn leftover trim into shelves in our garage.

Steel concrete form stakes became the weight that keeps our shrimp traps in place on the bottom. The holes are perfect for cable ties to keep the stakes in place. 

When our friend, Jon, moved to Hawaii, he gave us a roll of flexible deer fence that worked perfectly to keep bird beaks out of the beets.

The more we looked around, the more it seemed everything we’d saved would someday become useful. This is the salvage sense that took time to develop. We told our contractor, Drew, about some of what we were doing and he said something that stuck with me… “If you don’t watch it, your garden can start to look like a junkyard.” Point taken. The island has plenty of these “gardens”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and it can be a slippery slope. 

With the squash supported with hog wire, Sachi turned her attention to tomatoes and peas, which needed support as they grew. The tomato cages we had from Seattle were not enough to do the job. We considered buying more, but our salvage sense started to tingle. 

Off in a far corner of the property was a handful of hog wire strips from building the top part of our fence. These were small and destined for the dump until Sachi had an idea. Over the course of an afternoon, she used the scraps and garden tape to assemble frames for supporting the plants without having to buy new cages. I thought it was brilliant, if not slightly junky. 

The frames needed a bit more to support the plants and that’s when the box springs started to look more useful. Sachi stripped off the fabric and noticed the bent metal springs stapled to the wooden frame. They were not easy to remove, but that was part of the fun.

In an hour or two, the box frames were disassembled and flattened, leaving us with a pile of springs and an idea. If we could attach them to the frames, they could support tomatoes and peas just like a tomato cage. And that’s exactly what happened. The frames have a beauty borne of utility and a reduction of waste. They most likely will not become permanent parts of the garden, but for a season or two while we figure out the long term plan for the garden, they will do just fine.

Before moving to Orcas, I might have questioned the reasoning of putting so much effort into using leftover material. Are tomato cages that expensive? Could time be used more productively? Of course buying cages is logical, but it’s not about that. We can calculate savings and waste reduction all day and still not account for the satisfaction we get from putting scraps to work. It takes time, but it’s fun and useful in a way that can’t be counted in dollars. 

Now that the house is complete and we’re setting up our new lifestyle, we’re both motivated to see what makes sense in terms of reducing waste and reusing what we can. In the past, we had never considered washing and reusing Ziploc bags, but today it’s normal for us. Again, it’s not about the money or even trying to save the planet. If you strip that away, what’s left, I believe, is a smarter, more practical, thoughtful way to live.

The Westward Wind

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

Back in 2017, when we lived in the yurt-shaped house, we noticed something interesting about warm summer evenings. Just before dusk, a cool and consistent wind blew out toward the water where it created subtle waves as it landed. The wind would last into the night and be gone by morning. When we moved to the guest house during construction, it happened there too. Summer evenings ended with a cool wind whipping to the west.

The Westward Wind Hitting the Water (timelapse)

The wind didn’t seem connected to weather patterns. It was smaller than that; a phenomenon that was too localized to be in a weather report. I asked our neighbors about it and they shrugged their shoulders. It’s just something that happens and always has. The more I watched the westward wind, the more evidence I saw that it was shaping the landscape around us. The tall trees on the south side of our property were bent toward the water. 

Whatever the cause, the wind was reliable enough to influence the design of Flattop. A cool and reliable evening breeze at the end of a warm day should not be wasted, so we looked for ways to use it. The big idea was to use the wind to flush out the warm summer air out of the house and replace it with cool evening air. To make that happen, we added operable windows on the east and west sides. Today, I’m happy to report that the system is working. The westward wind is like an air conditioner that kicks on after sunset. All we have to do is open the windows. 

This is a prime example of why it helps to live in a location before building there. Wind, sun, and rain are free resources that can be put to work. Observing them for a couple of seasons before breaking ground can be helpful in making a design more efficient.

Despite all the watching and planning, we still didn’t know why the westward wind was happening. That all changed a couple of weeks ago when we hosted a small dinner party that included a retired Coast Guard officer. We talked about the wind and he said, “Oh, that’s a land breeze”. I had heard of a sea breeze before, but never a land breeze. I had to learn more.

What I found is a simple idea. The westward wind is caused by a difference in the air temperature over the land and the sea. When the sun goes down in the summer, the air over the ground cools relatively quickly as heat rises upward. The air over the water cools more slowly. This difference in temperature (and pressure) is what causes the wind. Cool air flows out to the water at a low elevation as warm air rises and circulates back to the land.

What I’ve been calling the “westward wind” was not specifically westward at all. I just happen to live in a place with a large body of water to the west. Maybe it’s really the “waterward wind?” That doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? Still, it’s probably better than “land breeze” which is rather unremarkable sounding. I’m sticking with the “westward wind” for now. 

The sea breeze, which we don’t notice as much, is the opposite. Sea breezes happen during the day and blow from the sea toward the land. This is because the air over the land warms more quickly than the air over the water when the sun is out. It’s also the name of a cranberry, grapefruit, and vodka cocktail that was popular in the 80s. It’s not surprising that there is no “land breeze” cocktail, because who would order that? Does it come with a garnish of dead leaves? 

For now, rest assured that the mystery is solved and we’ve all learned a bit more about the weather.

Lee Night 🥃 🛳 🦮

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

Sachi’s parents arrived on the red-eye from Hawaii and she went down for a quick overnight trip to pick them up. This set me up for my first “Lee” night (a night alone) in the new house. This may not seem that remarkable, but it’s exceedingly rare. I sometimes go more than a year without being alone in our home for more than a few hours. 

Leading up to nights like this, I always joke about all the fun I’m going to have and what debauchery will ensue. It will be an all-night party with all the music Sachi doesn’t prefer. I may not even be awake when she returns. Like so many things, much of the fun lies in the anticipation.   

To prepare for her parents’ arrival, we washed the dogs in their dog shower and they became clean fluffy balls. My challenge was to keep them dust-free until the family arrived. This meant no rambunctious playing in the garden. Weeks of drought plus eight dog paws equals our own little dust bowl. I even debated if we should go outside at all. But the nice summer evenings are fleeting and I couldn’t imagine a better way to spend it than on the deck.

I grabbed our moveable speaker, binoculars, a Rainier beer, and an adapter that allows me to connect my iPhone camera to one side of the binoculars. During the summer, a parade of boats goes by our house and I’ve become fascinated and sometimes enamored. “Oooh, look at that one.” Photos give me an opportunity to catalog what I see and feel a bit of aspiration. Someday, I’ll have a big boat too, right? I suppose I’m talking about yachts when I say “big boat”, but I can’t bring myself to aspire to something with that label. It evokes Thurston Howell III slumming it on a three-hour tour. I’ll stick with “boat”. 

My friend, Mike, is well-versed in boats and is frequently trying to convince us to get a boat that we can take out for multiple days. He’s said on multiple occasions that when we’re ready, he’ll help us find the perfect boat and recently sent me links to ones I might like. It was obvious he’d been browsing and I understand. The allure is undeniable. 

As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways. If I identify a boat I like, I soon end up down the rabbit hole of boat websites and sales listings. It’s captivating. Someday, we may take Mike up on the offer to be a matchmaker, but for now, we’re happy with little Short Story and watching the parade. 

I had sat down with my supplies for no longer than a minute before Piper leapt from the deck and took off around the corner of our house toward the garden. I protested, but she was silent aside from the footsteps. No bark, no foul. I shrugged it off.

The can of Rainier soon became a dram of bourbon. Then a Toronto cocktail, which features Fernet Branca and rye. These, among other things, are my favorite libations for a night like that one. 

As I got lost sipping the cocktail and watching the boats, a thought hit: Where’s Piper? I shrugged it off. The dogs are in a fenced area. She has a history, as an adolescent, of disappearing into the forest for an hour hunting deer. I don’t think she’d do that now, but the fear lingers. 

Like a child, Piper’s silence and absence were suspicious. Eventually, I had to investigate, which meant walking along the house and peering around the corner toward the garden. What did I see? Piper digging under a woodpile. She was covered in dust up to her front elbows and sticking her nose into the freshly dug hole as far as she could. Because, of course. Damn dogs.

Whatever she chased, it went under the stacked wood and evaded her attack. I called her once and she looked at me with a posture that clearly said, “Dude, this is a serious situation.” I was undeterred, “PIPER, HERE!” [downward point]. I left the scene with my intentions known and her unmoved.

She arrived at my side in a few seconds and I was proud. She clearly deserved a treat for leaving the very serious situation, so we all went inside. One treat per dog, gently accepted. We operate a fair and equitable home when it comes to treat dispensation, even when only one dog performed well. 

Feeling like the woodpile was too much of an attraction, I tried leaving the dogs inside. The plan was to enjoy a worry-free evening on the deck without thinking about the dogs and their fluffy clean fur. I’d listen to an episode of 99% Invisible and chill out. 

Then, just after I sat down, I heard a familiar sound from the other side of the door… Woof.   Woof-woof. WOOF!

I groaned. Piper was not satisfied being inside and wasn’t likely to stop asking. Part of me thought she was having a Piper night and needed to take advantage, like me. At that moment, I realized that there was no training I could do, or maybe wanted to do, that could account for the dogs wanting to be with me. It’s not something that needs correction. If anything, it needs development. The best outcome, I think, is being outside with me, without getting into trouble. 

Meanwhile, something was chirping by the garden. I don’t speak chipmunk, but I’m pretty sure it was mocking Piper…and she knew it. “Chirp-chirp. Good try, muppet.”

This situation was not sustainable, so I had to change course and went inside to get my secret weapon: peanut butter treats shaped like bones, because I’m sure our above-average dogs appreciate that. 

They watched me get the treats and place them in the middle of the coffee table on the deck. This was when the waiting began. All other dog thoughts were moot. The treat was all that mattered. To calm them down, I first asked them to lay down. They did, like good dogs, and received a treat. 

In the moments after that, I decided to write some notes using my phone and ignored the view I had so decisively favored an hour ago. As I wrote, I felt warm, humid air across my face in waves. At first, I ignored it, but then it came in a rhythm and smelled like a dog’s breath.

If you have dogs that are allowed on furniture, you’ve had the experience of noticing a dog in your lap with no knowledge of how it got there. Maybe’s panting felt like that, but not as stealthy. Without noticing, she quietly triangulated her position so she could keep an eye on the treats and be ready by my side if I made any moves.

“Maybe, lay down.” She lied down and one minute passed. After three minutes, my writing was interrupted again by puffs of dog breath. The treats beckoned. “MAYBE. Go. Lay. DOWN.” Piper was tuned into the treats, but not as obstinate. The treats held Piper’s attention over the menace in the woodpile, and in that way, achieved the desired outcome. 

It was a battle of wills and I had had enough. Lee night was becoming more of a dog night. There was no rest, silence, or fresh air as long as the treats were in view. I split up the remaining bones and rid myself of the meddlesome beasts. The chipmunk chirped fruitlessly as the dogs remained at my feet for what was left of the evening. 

At long last, I could finally enjoy the evening writing, photographing, and listening to podcasts. Then, as the sun faded, I watched the Olympic volleyball and went to bed. 

Lee night was not that different from any other night, really. And for that I am thankful. As much as I joke about all the fun I’m going to have with Sachi away, I don’t behave much differently than I ordinarily would. Maybe next time, though, I’ll try to convince her to take the dogs. 

Storytime: Discovering a Better Business Model

Storytime is a series of brief videos focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life.

This is a brief story about discovering a business model that allowed us to remain a two-person company with a product we could make once and sell multiple times. The full version of this story is told in my book Big Enough.

➡️ Go to all Storytime videos

Storytime #3: How a Handshake Deal with Twitter Led to Millions of Video Views

Storytime is a series of videos that are usually brief and focused on a single idea relating to my work and/or personal life. This episode is about how our video “Twitter in Plain English” ended up on the front page of Twitter.com for over a year. The full version of this story in my book Big Enough.

➡️ Go to all Storytime videos

Welcome to Cascadia 🌲

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

Photo by SounderBruce

Forget, for just a moment, the lines on a map that separate counties, states, and countries. Without these lines, North America looks fundamentally different. The desert southwest bleeds into Mexico. The Rocky Mountains rise up into Canada. Waterways and rivers flow through huge swaths of the continent. 

If you take a closer look, the soil, geology, wildlife, climate, and biodiversity are the true markers of our regions. These natural factors, which are mostly timeless, represent a valid way to think about where we live, whether that’s in the Great Lakes, Appalachia, the Gulf, or the Pacific Northwest. 

This version of North America is what Native Americans experienced before the arrival of settlers and their neatly drawn maps. From this perspective, maps seem arbitrary because they don’t represent the natural lines of how the continent fits together. Maps are drawn by man, regions are created by nature. 

It’s within this perspective that a movement has been growing in the Pacific Northwest. Like other regions, we share a natural environment or “bioregion” that stretches across state and national boundaries. The bioregion is called “Cascadia” and many are adopting it as a way to think about the true territory of our home.

Cascadia, of course, has boundaries. But unlike our standard maps, Cascadia’s lines are based on the natural world rather than the imaginary lines of longitude and latitude. It encompasses over 500k square miles from southern Alaska to Northern California. 

Map by Lauren Tierney

The purpose and goals of the Cascadia movement depend on whom you ask. The movement started in the 70s and 80s as an environmental movement and it remains environmentally-focused today. By defining and understanding a bioregion, the thinking goes, we can work together to protect and restore it. In the Cascadian context, this means Washington State and British Columbia should be aligned and collaborating as if they were a single region and not two countries.

Recently, the idea has become more mainstream, providing PNW citizens a new identity and way to think about our corner of the world. We are proud Cascadians, even if we’re not yet sure what that means.

Like our friends to the south in Texas, Cascadia does have secessionist tendencies. Some see it as an independence movement and future sovereign state that encompasses parts of Canada and the US. If this happened, it would have a population of over 16 million and an economy producing US$675 billion worth of goods and services annually. While there are zealots in every group, I don’t think succession is on the horizon. Besides, I’m not sure what would compel British Columbia to participate. Most people I know just love the idea of Cascadia as a bioregion. 

Every movement needs a good flag and Cascadia is no different. “The Doug” was designed by Alexander Baretich in 1995 and sports a Douglas fir tree and colors representing blue for water, white for snow, and green forests. These are the unofficial colors of the PNW.

Photo via Whitecaps FC

The Doug has quickly become a cultural icon and has been adopted far and wide. It is flown at MLS soccer matches between PNW rivals in the Cascadia Cup. The Seattle Sounders even have The Doug on their jerseys. 

For me, the flag is a symbol of regional solidarity. In Seattle, we may have feelings about Oregon and their subpar soccer team, the Timbers. But we are all Cascadians. The same is true for British Columbia. Whatever differences our nations have, we are all Cascadians.

I love the idea of Cascadia being an independent state with its own laws and perspectives but I know it’s not reasonable. I also believe a kind of PNW utopia is possible, but we have so many other problems to solve. For now, I’m happy to be a part of the Cascadian bioregion and ready to work for its goals, even if they happen within imaginary lines.

Free Online Event: The Visual Jam

This will be a good time! Two lively Brits, Grant and Paddy, host a live show called The Visual Jam. I will be their guest on July 8th to discuss The Art of Explanation and Common Craft videos. Register for Free

More Info:

Have you ever had a great idea for a product or a service or maybe an improvement to your business, but people just don’t seem to get it? More often than not it is because your idea has an explanation problem.

Well, fear not because Lee LeFever, co-founder of Common Craft and author of The Art of Explanation, is going to join us for a fun, interactive session where he will give us a sneak peek into the process that Common Craft follow to produce their world famous explainer videos – from script to storyboard to final content and animation!

I hope to see you there!

Lee LeFever 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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