The Blog

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.

The Time Capsule 💊

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


I’m ready for spring. I’m ready to be done with 2020, done with the election, done with the pandemic. I’m ready to feel a sense of hope along with longer, warmer days, with friends. And those days will surely come. The arrival of spring is a certainty and in the context of 2020, I’ll take any certainties I can get. 

I can’t help but feel a sense of momentum heading into the next year. It’s going to be a dark and frightening winter. The pandemic is out of control and millions of Americans are unemployed and stuck at home. But this isn’t the new normal. Vaccines look promising and by this time next year, our lives are likely to be back on track. It’s hard to imagine it now, but it may seem inevitable when spring arrives.

I am an optimist at heart. It’s a trait that I’m thankful to have, even if it makes me idealistic and perhaps naive at times. I find that it keeps my focus on the future and what can be learned from times of darkness. I tend to look at change and challenges as opportunities. The psychological term for this is “reframing” and I find myself doing it often; a secret weapon. 

There was a moment in early 2020 when I started to feel the uncertainties mounting. It was early in the pandemic and nearly every aspect of life felt up in the air. My book, Big Enough, was sent to the printer, which meant it could not be changed. Then, the bottom fell out of the economy and the book industry took a hit. We decided to change the release date from May to September, with the hope that the environment would improve. 

On top of all the normal anxiety that comes with a book’s release, I had to accept that I was publishing and promoting a book during a pandemic. All the time and effort I put into the book seemed like it could wash away in the flood of events. What if society changed to a degree that made Big Enough less relevant? 

After the initial shock, I started to reframe. All things considered, the book was complete, still relevant and the core message seemed to fit. I read numerous articles about people who had discovered happiness in a more home-based lifestyle and were looking for opportunities to start a business that would support that happiness. Could the pandemic actually bolster the book’s message? Could this change in perspective, over time, be a net positive? This idea gave me hope. 

Today the book is out in the world and doing fine. Above all, I believe that it’s a book people will find when the time is right. This winter may not be it, but by spring, we could be living in a different environment.

About two years ago, we moved out of our house in Seattle and filled a container with furniture, clothes, boxes and what felt like a million other things. Today, that container sits in a warehouse and I think of it like a time capsule. Our former lives and lifestyle are in that container, waiting to be released. A day will come, probably in January or February, when the container will be delivered to Orcas Island and we can reconnect with our past lives. This feeling of reconnecting and beginning again has become such a rich source of anticipation.

Perhaps we all have our own time capsules. Your belongings may not be sitting in a container, but your version of normal life may be on hold for a while longer. All the togetherness and freedom that we all miss is not gone, it’s just waiting to be opened again.

I, for one, want to believe that the spring of 2021 will be a time for us to open our time capsules and become reacquainted with our former lives. When we do, it won’t be exactly the same as before because we’ve changed. The optimist in me believes it could be better because we will have learned to appreciate what we formerly felt was normal.

That’s the core of this perspective. Bad things happen and change is inevitable, we can’t control it. It’s history. The best we can do is look ahead try to find the opportunity or hope within it, or use the change as a reason to push on something we can control and want to alter or improve.

If you find yourself feeling hopeful about spring, consider how you might use the transition to start on a different footing. There may be no better time than just after a shake-up.

I think about this from the perspective of our dogs, Maybe and Piper. They know nothing of pandemics or politics. They are unburdened by the economy. But they are about to experience a fundamental change in the new house and in that change is an opportunity to establish new behaviors and habits. 

For example, the house will have a large fenced-in yard for keeping dogs in and deer out. It will wrap around two sides of the house, creating space for them to play without our supervision. My hope is to use this change in their environment to begin new practices that start on day one.

For example, I’ve been researching ultrasonic dog whistles that we can use to recall them without neighbors noticing. On the day we move in, the dogs will begin to learn that amazing treats are connected to the sound of that whistle. If it works, it becomes the new normal for us all.

My hope is that Spring 2021 will mark a point in time when we can all start to leave 2020 behind and begin to restart, rethink, and reframe. We’ve been through a lot. Don’t let that change go to waste. Instead, use it to consider what a new normal could look like to you in the next year. 

Moving the Ready for Rain Newsletter

Ready for Rain is a newsletter I started nearly two years ago as a way to practice writing. Each week, I write an article that usually has over 1,000 words and tells a story. These are often personal and focused on events in my life, like publishing books and building a house. It’s a lot of work to publish 1,000 words each week, but it something that gives me great satisfaction. Subscribers seem to like it too!

Early in the process, I started using the Revue newsletter platform. It’s part of a new breed of email newsletter tools that is purpose-built, simple to use, and affordable. It worked OK, but there were things about the situation that bothered me. My words were being archived on someone else’s website. The visitors to the newsletter web page were seeing someone else’s design decisions. I didn’t have control.

For example, Revue’s main call-to-action says “Subscribe to Our Newsletter”. To me, this sets the expectation that the visitor is viewing a blog and that the newsletter is secondary. Also, who is “our”? What about MY newsletter? I suggested changing it and was brushed off.

I wrote about this kind of platform risk in Big Enough. At Common Craft, we’ve made it a priority not to build our empire on someone else’s land (or algorithms). Now it was time to bring this thinking to my personal website.

My goal became to make leelefever.com the home of the newsletter. But there was a challenge. I had written 85 posts on Revue, full of images and links. These posts could be copied into blog posts and the links could be changed, but it would be time-consuming. So, as I’ve done in the past, I found a contractor on UpWork to do the work, which is happening now.

Soon, this blog will be the only home of Ready for Rain posts. All links will point to leelefever.com and all images will be hosted on my server. Then, I will cancel my account on Revue. Liberation!

Going forward, newsletter posts will begin life as blog posts that are also sent as newsletter issues. I plan to use the email marketing platform ConvertKit that we’ve used for years at Common Craft to send the emails. I also plan to learn markdown as a way to draft new posts.

Now and in the future, the home of Ready for Rain is leelefever.com/newsletter. I’d love to have you as a subscriber!

The Thermal Imager for Radiant Heat

Today at the construction site the team was putting down a subfloor over the radiant heating tubes that will warm our house. One of the risks of having tubes of water in your floor is one of them getting punctured when flooring goes down. This is especially true once the floors the tubes are hidden.

The team was adding lines to the floor as they covered it, so that the finished floor installers will have a guide for avoiding the tubes. It’s simple enough, as long as the guide are in the right place.

This is where us got I interesting. They were using a gadget that does thermal imaging and clearly shows where the tubes are under the floor. This one is the Flir E6.

A friend has one of these on his boat so he can tell what parts of his engine are getting hot (or too hot).

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.

My Books

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