The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
One of the things I missed in our multi-year transition to Orcas Island was having a sense of permanence. As I wrote at the time, everything felt temporary; too temporary to exert effort to establish or beautify. I couldn’t wait to finally move to Flattop and begin a life with years of permanence.
Now that we’ve lived in the house for about a year, we’ve developed a good sense of our daily rituals and patterns. I make coffee the same way every day. The same bowls go in the same drawers. The books, blankets, and other accoutrements now have homes. In the months after we moved in, it felt new and transformational to identify these permanent homes. We could finally take advantage of the design choices we made with great deliberation.
Now, when I put a bowl in the drawer, I sometimes think, “This is it. I may use this drawer in the same way for the rest of my life. Bowls live here, perhaps forever.” We can always change the contents of shelves and drawers, but in reality, we won’t. The drawer was designed for bowls and that’s where they’ll remain.
I’m a little torn about this new reality. On one hand, I never have to think about where to put bowls. On the other, there’s seemingly nothing left to optimize. The problem has been solved and I take comfort in that. My brain can move on. The question is: to what? There will always be things to redesign and optimize in small tinkers. The garage is one. But soon, I will have achieved what I desired for so long: a mostly permanent feeling of consistency and completeness. The platform is built and the stage is being set.
And now, a new feeling is creeping in. Completeness and consistency are both comforting and… boring. I’m starting to miss the design process and having a productive place for my mind to wander when it comes to home. The satisfaction completeness produces is fleeting and spread across a lifetime of slightly more convenience. Soon enough, it fades into the background.
We are both happier with a problem to solve or an idea to be brainstormed. While the interior of Flattop is coming together, the exterior has a long way to go and that, too, was by design. We chose not to think about landscaping so we could think about bowls. We wanted to live on the property and take our time with planting because it’s a project that is never truly complete. The design problem changes every day and persists through years of seasons and weather and pests.
A year ago, we moved into Flattop with the exterior being a blank slate. We rushed to build a few garden beds so we could participate in the growing season. We were late, but still had a productive year for vegetables.
This year, we’ve added vegetable beds close to the warming black siding with hopes of growing tomatoes, peppers, squash, and more.
Sachi has been working on starts in our garage, which, I’m learning, becomes a greenhouse this time of year. She’s our vegetable gardener and has things mostly under control, or as much control as nature allows.
The ornamental side of the garden is a very different kind of problem and that’s my focus. We added six raised beds for beauty this year and unlike vegetables, their contents will be mostly permanent.
I want to turn the blank slate into a lush, colorful, and fragrant garden, full of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. I want to plant things that are remarkable and uncommon. I want them to start small and grow into something amazing over many years.
That’s the magic of permanence applied to living things. Discovering the perfect spot for a plant is the beginning and not the end. It may never move, but it will change and develop. It will require attention, care, and maintenance. It will be a part of a much bigger canvas that is also evolving. These plants offer a lifetime of projects to optimize and problems to solve.
We recently made a trip to the nearby Bullocks nursery and came home with a plant called a stag horn sumac. There is perhaps no better example of how we’re thinking about the garden. As a mature plant (below), it can get 15 feet high and wide, with big bright leaves and cone-shaped flowers.
Today, our sumac looks like someone stuck a dead branch in the ground. It may be years until we see its full glory and that’s the idea. We can wait. We want to wait.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
We didn’t always plan to have a wood-burning fireplace. Coming from the city, where people often have sleek natural gas fireplaces, wood seemed dirty and cumbersome, which it is. After living on Orcas Island for a while, it became clear that wood is a very common form of heat and one that’s as sustainable on the island as it is abundant. It is a very wooded place.
During the design phase of Flattop, we took great pains to design wood-burning fireplaces as the heart of our home along with propane gas connections, just in case. This cold and dark winter was our first chance to learn how we’d use wood and fire.
We knew the indoor fireplace wouldn’t be a primary heat source. We have very efficient in-floor radiant heat that keeps the house warm and comfortable. The fireplace is more like a hobby, or a muse. It warms us, but not only on the skin. When the fire is roaring on a stormy winter night, it’s a feast for the senses. There is nothing like the sound and smell of a wood fire. When the warmth it produces touches the skin, it seems to penetrate all the way to bone. I like to think that we all evolved to feel this connection. Something deep inside us is naturally drawn to the light and warmth of fire.
I sometimes marvel that this wild and destructive force can be alive right in our living room; a tiny bit of the sun, safely tucked into a fireproof box. It could kill us and take away our most prized possessions. But we tame it. We keep it near, but not too near. We feed it, but not too much. We allow it to breathe but in only one direction. We benefit from thousands of years of practice and experiments. Yet, each fire still feels like a challenge. The perfect fire is not something you ever achieve. It is only an aspiration.
And I do aspire. You might assume that millennia of building fires would have taught us exactly how to build and maintain a fire. The basics are pretty simple and most people can build a successful fire. But I want more. I want to maximize and design. I want to experiment and learn the nuances that make a fire great. For most, including me, this means a hot fire that uses wood efficiently and burns more cleanly.
Most people on Orcas Island, and especially those who use wood as a primary source of heat, use wood-burning stoves. Because they enclose the fire in a metal box and feed it oxygen, it burns more cleanly and efficiently. It’s still a hobby for many, but one that errs on the side of productivity versus aesthetics. The toasty feeling of a home warmed by a stove is a special feeling. It can quickly become too hot, but the heat is variable and fleeting.
What we all have in common is our woodpile, which also has all manner of nuance and challenge. There are two major sources of wood on the island. First, there are wood processors with large machines that cut and split wood with great efficiency. Anyone on the island can order firewood that is delivered in a pile, cut to the desired length. Second is the homeowners who process their own wood. When trees fall or are felled, they process them using a chainsaw and wood splitter. I aspire to this, too, but am firmly in the delivery camp for now.
Last spring, we had two cords of wood (Douglas fir) delivered and we quickly stacked them in the back corner of our property for the summer. The wood needed to dry or “season” before the fall and that happens by being open to the elements.
The wood needs to release moisture and the wind is an essential part of the process. Some day we will have a proper woodshed, but for now, a tarp over the top will have to do.
Thoreau wrote, “Every man looks upon his woodpile with a sort of affection.” I know what he means. Our first pile was a practice run. Like the fire it produces, there is no perfect pile, only the aspiration. We did well to keep the wood off the ground and stack it for maximum airflow. I’m sure many island residents would have constructive criticisms. There is always next year.
As the first fall approached, we learned a valuable lesson. Our wood is split into rather large pieces that burn slowly. With the right combination of kindling and other fuel, they could be productive, but it soon became clear that we’d need to intervene. We’ve had a hatchet or two, but for the first time ever, I bought a proper ax and couldn’t help feeling like a lumberjack turning big wood into small wood.
Splitting wood has become part of my exercise regimen and one that I enjoy. There is something meditative about the process and the concentration it requires. There is no room for extraneous thought when wielding a sharp piece of heavy metal in the direction of your feet. And man, is it satisfying to feel, see, and hear the wood shatter into pieces from gravity, a bit of muscle and decent aim. The smell of freshly cut wood is like nothing else. Another feast.
To feed my wood fire aspirations, I’ve been reading books. I loved the book Norwegian Wood: Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way by Lars Mytting. The book is cultural as much as practical and also contains research about wood and the wood lifestyle. This book was where I first learned of The Wood Age.
Elderly Scandinavian men with a passion for firewood are often told that they have entered something called the “wood age,” or that they have been bitten by something called the “wood bug.” The anthropology surrounding a passionate concern for firewood has not been the subject of much study in Norway, but research carried out by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in 2007 appeared to confirm that a “wood age” does indeed exist as a distinct and measurable state. Nine hundred families living in Sweden were studied-the criterion was that all used woodburning stoves-and the results were unequivocal: It is men more than sixty years of age who spend the most time dealing with wood. Only 29 percent of the women in the study took any interest in firewood.
Once again, I aspire.
We will soon order more wood and stack it as we did before. This time, I may split a lot of it, which makes for easier stacking and better drying. This summer or next, we plan to create a more permanent home for the wood, perhaps under a shelter more permanent than a tarp. For now, we have enough wood to burn in the evenings and for the occasional bonfire this spring. Soon, the dry summer will arrive along with its seasonal burn bans. Our wood will be dormant for many months, safely seasoning in the back of the garden. Then, once summer turns to autumn, we’ll once again eye the woodpile with anticipation. The first fires of fall are the sweetest.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
During my high school years, the YMCA was the place for pickup basketball games. When I arrived one afternoon, a game was finishing up and I sat along the sidewall of the gym to wait. I had recently made it a goal to dunk a volleyball and took every chance I could to practice my jumping. Once the game ended, I eyed the rim and tried to summon my strength to reach it.
After a quick stutter step, I took a few long strides and planted my left foot for take-off. At that moment, the full weight of my body and downward momentum caused my left ankle to roll to the inside. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. Within a few minutes, my ankle was the size of a softball and I called my mom to take me to the ER. It was a very bad sprain, but nothing was broken. The nurses were very impressed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the start of a lifetime of joint problems that I eventually discovered are connected to my DNA.
My left ankle was never the same and I’ve sprained it innumerable times since then. In fact, it no longer hurts for more than a few minutes when I roll it. It’s like the ligaments are so stretched they can no longer be injured. It helps, too, that I’ve become so used to the feeling of it starting to roll that I can often prevent it by voluntarily crumpling onto the ground when I sense it happening. I’m not sure which is worse, the flailing or the fleeting pain.
As an adult, my right shoulder started to dislocate, or pop in and out quickly, causing pain and the indelible grind of irregular joint movement. It happened at unpredictable times, like rolling over in bed or reaching to a top shelf. Soon, I learned that any time I raised my right arm over my head, it could easily dislocate momentarily. I never had the skill to play competitive basketball, but this and my ankle were decisively career-ending. Volleyball, rock-climbing, etc. were now also out.
Eventually, I had surgery on my right shoulder to prevent the dislocations. In fact, the surgery happened just as I started dating Sachi. Our first few weeks together saw me in a sling and consistent pain. It was a bonding experience for us both.
I’m grateful my shoulder recovered and has not been a problem since. I can’t say the same for my other joints. In the years after the surgery, I developed occasional lower back pain. When it hit, I walked with a limp and felt shooting pain in my hip. I saw specialists and did physical therapy. I had a cortisone injection and nothing seemed to help. For years, it was a mystery.
In 2010, I discussed it with my doctor and he suggested something I didn’t expect: a DNA test. A few days after a blood draw, I received an email from the hospital saying that the test showed I may have a disease called Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is severe arthritis that causes lower back vertebrae to fuse together. The prognosis was terrifying.
I met with a rheumatologist, who fully reviewed my condition and ordered an MRI. It was time to learn my fate. Turns out, I didn’t have the terrible disease but did have arthritis and inflammation in my SI joints.
The most fascinating part of this scenario is the DNA test. It showed I had a genetic marker that is highly correlated with a number of disorders. Along with arthritis, people with this marker have problems related to eyes, heart valves, bowels, and skin. The research says about 8% of Caucasians have the marker. I only have the arthritis side, thankfully.
On my next visit, he tested my movement and noticed the looseness of my joints, which he said could be connected to the genetic marker. He asked if I practiced yoga, and I said no. He then said something I’ll never forget. “Well, if you start, don’t get a superiority complex, because your joints don’t work like other peoples’.” Noted.
Since then, I’ve been fascinated by the genetic dimension of this. My oldest brother has problems with his shoulders dislocating and so does his son. I recently reconnected with a first cousin who explained his family suffers from debilitating back pain. The genetic marker has probably been a part of our family for generations without anyone recognizing it.
Today, my right shoulder is still in great shape, but my left one continues to be an occasional problem. I dislocated it a couple of years ago while indoor skydiving and had to go to the emergency room to have it reset. It was the first time my shoulder remained out of joint for more than a moment. I was amazed at how easily the doctor returned it to its socket and I made a mental note for future reference.
Unfortunately, an opportunity arose a few days ago. We had friends coming over in the evening and I was casually cleaning a mirror backsplash under a shelf. To reach the top of the mirror, I raised my left arm in a weird position. Before I knew it, my shoulder was out of socket. I gasped a string of profanity as Sachi came to help. My arm drooped off my shoulder and the slightest movement shot pain through my arm.
I immediately broke into a cold sweat and tried to stay calm. I sat down and worked with Sachi to remove layers of sweaty clothes. She draped a cool wet towel across my neck that felt like such a relief. Then my ears lost fidelity, my vision blurred a bit and I decided to move to the floor before the floor moved to me.
As long as I was still, the pain was minimal. Suddenly, the whole day looked different. Neither of us wanted to get on a ferry to get it reset. Would we have to cancel our dinner plans?
Sachi searched the web for the doctor’s method of resetting the joint and eventually found videos that matched my experience in the ER. It’s called the Cunningham Technique. I sat across from her and put my dislocated arm on her shoulder. Relaxation is key, so I took deep breaths and she massaged my shoulder muscles. She then put a little weight on my elbow and started to pivot it back. I felt it slip right back into the joint with almost no pain, like magnets pulling it into place. The joint wanted to be there. What a relief!
Within a few minutes, it was like nothing had happened. Dinner was back on and no one needed to board a ferry. The biggest lesson here is that I can’t clean those mirrors anymore. It’s simply too dangerous. At least that’s what I told Sachi.
Like my ankles, the pain from this shoulder injury was fleeting. Within days, I was back on the rowing machine and splitting wood. I’m not sure it classifies as a silver lining, but I’m thankful that my body allows me to recover easily. As I get older, I assume this superpower will wane.
If you’re curious about the clinical side of this, the genetic marker is called HLA-B27. The current research is showing a connection between the marker and hypermobility syndromes like Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome.
Now that the Olympics are in full swing, I’ve been thinking about when Sachi and I spent about a month in China in 2006.
At the time, China was in the process of becoming more open to western tourists. We were mostly free to move about without chaperones or keepers watching our moves. According to people we met along the way, this was not the case only a few years prior. Still, I’m sure we were watched in ways we didn’t know.
We stayed in a large and unremarkable hotel in Beijing, which is a common jumping-off point for seeing the Great Wall. There were multiple locations for seeing the wall and we decided to make the Simatai portion of the wall a priority as it featured more of the original wall intact, even though it was farther – 100 miles from Beijing. We had no idea what we were getting into.
Getting there was possible via hiring a driver independently or planning it through the hotel. Having been on the road in Asia for months, the details of figuring it out independently seemed like a heavy lift. So, we signed up for the trip offered by the hotel and hoped for the best.
We had been in China for a few weeks, and we knew the trip would be an experience one way or another. We came to relish these weird tourist events and find the humor in them instead of the problems. This is a key lesson in making long-term travel work.
The next morning, we met a nice mini-bus outside the hotel and quickly found a row to ourselves. The other people on the bus were abuzz with conversation. It was obvious they were traveling together and it was a pretty fun and raucous scene. We quietly tried to decode the discussion and animated hand gestures. Soon, it became clear we were on a day-long tour with eight Italians, a driver, and a young Chinese tour guide named Prudence.
Prudence was a standard-issue Chinese tour guide. She was well trained, prepared, and really wanted everything to go as planned. Tour guides like her were everywhere in China, often seen guiding tourists with ever-present flags.
Watching the Italian conversations made two hours of terrible Beijing traffic more entertaining. There were disagreements, apparently. As we sat in traffic, hawkers were selling all kinds of goods and I saw something I didn’t expect: a car-to-car turtle salesman.
We all became a little frustrated with the traffic. Just as we were finally getting out of the city, the bus pulled into a gravel parking lot and Prudence grabbed the microphone to make her first announcement to the group.
This kind of tour frequently includes an event where a busload of tourists are led through a “factory” where crafts are made by hand: pottery, woodcarvings, rugs, etc. Then the tourists are presented with a giant shiny gift shop. The tour operator likely gets a kickback for every person who visits, so the traveler is a pawn in the competition for the tourist dollar. For the disinterested, it’s basically a stop at a gift shop with a bathroom that seems to waste time.
This is a pearl jewelry factory from another excursion:
This tour was no different. Prudence announced that the group would now exit the bus for 40 minutes and tour a jade factory. This stop was not on the itinerary and came as a surprise to everyone, especially after losing so much time in traffic.
Our group was clearly disinterested and the seeds of mutiny were sown. Prudence was a nice and gentle tour guide and it was hard to conspire against her. By this time, we had developed some rapport with the Italians who were engaged in a debate that required consensus. Their leader, Stephania, was checking in with each person. Then, she came to us and asked if we wanted to do the tour. We said no. She smiled, turned back to her group, and said, “They’re in!”
Stephania is the woman in red pants:
The fate of the factory tour was sealed. We were unified and Stephania told Prudence that we were NOT getting off the bus and NOT going into the factory. The only thing we wanted was to go to the Great Wall. Prudence was clearly flummoxed and started making calls. Her next offer was to reduce the amount of time we’d spend at the factory. 30 minutes? NO. Just 20 short minutes? NO. OK, maybe just 10 minutes? NO. Arms were crossed. Stephania was our rock.
Just as Prudence was about to capitulate completely, one of the Italians noticed what must have seemed like a mirage in the distance. A small building across the large parking lot had a little red sign that said “Espresso”. At that point, the clouds lifted and a small celebration ensued.
Stephania, having been the victor, now announced that we would all be getting espresso. Prudence had no choice but to agree. So the people who demanded to stay on the bus now disembarked and marched to the small building that promised espresso.
In the building, there was no real barista or coffee shop. We were met with a man who was ready to make espresso for the group from a small home-style machine. As he hesitantly picked up a paper cup, one of the Italians threw up his hands in frustration. He then grabbed the paper cups and tore off the tops to make them espresso-sized. Then, he took control of the machine and proceeded to make us all espresso.
After slurping down the espresso, we all boarded the bus and finally got back on the road. There was much rejoicing and we were now honorary Italian travelers who worked together on a mutiny.
We finally made it to Simatai and it was damn impressive.
Prudence was a knowledgeable tour guide and seemed to loosen up on the trip. It was like she smiled, threw up her hands, and just went with the flow.
By the time it was all over, we were all friends, including Prudence, who regaled us with translations of Chinese jokes and tongue twisters. The group taught her a few Italian words and how to roll her “R”s. Part of me wanted to stick with the Italians for the rest of our time in Beijing.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I hate exercise.
Maybe that statement is a bit extreme. I love feeling healthy and being active, but I’ve always struggled to maintain the kind of exercise that I need: regular, full-body, and sustainable for years. The closest I came was working with a personal trainer for a few years in Seattle. It was twice a week and I dreaded it every time. What kept me going was the standing appointment, the feeling that I was doing something good for my body, and friendship with my trainer, who sometimes brought me pork belly he smoked over the weekend.
We had an elliptical trainer at home in Seattle that came close to being the right thing, but it didn’t stick. My body doesn’t react well to regular running and biking (road or stationary) isn’t my favorite either. I’ve realized that one of the culprits in this struggle is boredom.
As Flattop was being completed, we wanted to use the move as a reason to establish new habits. New house, new routines, we’d say. Sachi’s doctor said the best scenario was to find an exercise you can do every day for the rest of your life. Rain or shine, young or old. Then, make that a part of your day. Even for 10-20 minutes. This was the goal. One of the reasons I’m sharing this review is because I know many people have a similar goal.
I started looking at home exercise equipment and rowing machines seemed to check a lot of boxes. Rowing is one of the best full-body workouts, working legs, core, and arms in a style that’s low impact and high cardio. But the question remained: would a rowing machine end up being another way to collect dust?
What I found is that rowing machines, like exercise bikes, are innovating. Peloton exercise bikes have become popular, in part, because they come with a touchscreen that is internet-connected and offers a library of workouts with real trainers guiding you. Your account tracks your progress and allows you to compete with others.
Rowing machines are learning from Peloton’s success. A new class of machines now comes with built-in touchscreens and a library of workouts. These options are relatively expensive and often come with a monthly subscription fee for access to the library. We wondered: does the library of workouts matter? Will we end up watching a TV show instead?
It was impossible to know without giving it a shot. We looked at NordicTrack, Echelon, and Hydrow, which all do similar things. We ordered a Hydrow because the reviews said it had the best workouts and a money-back guarantee.
NOTE: I do not earn money or have formal relationships with Hydrow or any other exercise equipment. This is just my personal experience.
The Hydrow machine arrived eleven weeks ago and the results are in: I’ve found my exercise. Since it arrived, I’ve used the rowing machine at least 5 days a week and the Hydrow app even more. For the first time in my life, I actually look forward to workouts and feel confident that I’ll continue to do so. It’s become a habit.
Why has this worked for me? A few reasons:
The Workout Library
I cannot imagine rowing without the workouts. There are about 3,000 rowing workouts that are filmed on the water, in a beautiful location, with an athlete rowing a boat along with you. The system is designed to create a rhythm where you match the rowing strokes of the trainer. As long as you keep up with them, you’ll get the workout you want, whether it’s a slow jog, a sprint, or a marathon.
Most of the workouts I do are twenty minutes long and are organized into intervals. Rowing along with a person in a boat creates an immersive experience that feels like you’re training with them in Miami or Lake Lucerne. The commentary during the row is part reminders of proper form, part location information and part personal stories. This does a lot to prevent boredom.
The training team matters more than I expected, too. It’s about a dozen athletes and you get to know them over time and see them as individuals. They pick the music for each workout and fill the spaces with stories and anecdotes from their lives. They are world-class athletes, including Olympians, who are leaders of the community and chief motivators. Like personal trainers, they are positive, encouraging, and enthusiastic. They celebrate that each day you row is a win.
Space, Time, Noise
We keep the rower in the office, where it’s out of the way and takes up little space. It uses magnetic resistance, which is smooth and quiet. There’s no prep to get started, you just sit down and start rowing. In and out, including a shower, in thirty minutes. Rain or shine.
Because Hydrow is internet-connected and each person has an account, it tracks your workouts: how many, how far, how many calories, average strokes per minute, etc. This matters more to me than I expected. As my form has improved, I’ve seen it in the data and that improvement keeps me pushing.
The Other Workouts
In addition to rowing, Hydrow has yoga, pilates, and strength + mobility libraries, all of which are filmed in the same fashion: outside in beautiful locations. I now do yoga 5-6 mornings a week.
You can choose to be competitive, or not. During each row, there is an on-screen leaderboard that you can show or hide. It compares your rowing speed to everyone else who has completed that row. As you row faster, you overtake other rowers in the leaderboard, and I pay attention.
Needless to say, I’m a fan of Hydrow and the new class of smart exercise systems. For the first time in my life, I feel like I have an exercise option that I can do for many years. I can’t imagine going back to exercising alone.
In most issues of my newsletter, Ready for Rain, I include recommendations for shows, movies, books, podcasts, etc. Below you’ll find everything I recommended to readers in 2021.
Letterkenny (Hulu) This show makes me laugh a lot. I think of it as a cross between Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Workaholics. It takes place in small town Canada with a host of problems that must be solved. Absurd, hilarious and strangely educational.
Fargo (Hulu) It’s been a while since I’ve been more into binging a show. Much like the Coen Brothers movie that inspired it, it takes place in the rural northern reaches of the US and tells a dark story each season. We’ve finished season one and queuing up number two.
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 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 is wireless and sits on a base that keeps it charged. When it’s time to go outside, you can just grab it and the battery lasts 10 hours. It’s weather-resistant, works on both wifi and Bluetooth, and sounds great.
Smartless Interview with Conan O’Brien (Podcast Episode ) Imagine Conan, Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes just hanging out. That’s what this is and it’s such fun entertainment.
Hotel Mumbai (Hulu) – A gripping and action-packed film that recounts the true story of terrorists who took over the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel in Mumbai for three days in 2008. Stars Dev Patel.
James May: Our Man in Japan (Amazon) – A charming look at Japan from the eyes of James May, who is known for being the co-host of Top Gear. Easy and fun.
Jungle (Amazon) – Harry Potter gets lost… wait. Daniel Radcliffe plays a young adventurer who follows a supposed guide into the Bolivian jungle with two friends. Based on the memoir of Yossi Ghinsberg. It’s a little bit like Deliverance, without the hillbillies.
Me Mail (Apple iOS App) – I collect information that I need to remember in my inbox. I send myself emails that include things like blog posts ideas, things to get at the store, etc. Me Mail is an app that makes sending an email to yourself as simple as possible – just open the app, write a message and tap a button. It lives on my home screen.
Lost in Translation (Amazon) – A top ten movie for me. Scarlett Johansson (who was 17 at the time) and Bill Murray connect in Tokyo. Director Sofia Coppola beautifully captures the strange experience of being a famous American in a strange land.
Swingers (HBO Max) – Classic 90s L.A. comedy with Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. I can’t see Favreau today without thinking he’s a grown-up version of Mikey.
Intolerable Cruelty (Amazon) – A lesser-known and lesser-loved Coen Brother movie that we both have seen many times. Such great writing and hilarious characters. Catherine Zeta-Jones and George Clooney star.
Derry Girls (Netflix) – A comedy about Catholic school teenagers in Northern Ireland during the peak of the IRA in the 80s. It’s an odd mix of history, family drama, and hilariously off-color dialogue.
Pen15 (Hulu) – Forgive me, but I’m recommending another comedy about school girls. This time it’s the story of two best friends in 7th grade, played by adults Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. It’s cringy and hilarious. It gets extra points in our house because Maya is half-Japanese, like Sachi, and it’s a large part of the story.
Chameleon (10 episode podcast) – I love stories about con artists and this one is fascinating and easily binge-able. It follows the story of someone preying on Hollywood strivers in odd and mysterious ways.
The Confidence Game (Book) Speaking of con artists, I enjoyed this book by Maria Konnikova which dissects all the ways con artists take advantage of others.
Alone (Hulu) – We’ve watched six seasons of this show and look forward to more. It’s a reality show where ten survivalists are dropped off in a remote, and often cold location with a selection of supplies and camera gear. Then, they do their best to survive the longest while constantly creating videos of their lives.
The Chef Show (Netflix) – My first impression was “oh boy, another celebrity cooking show, no thanks” but a friend suggested giving it a try and we’ve enjoyed it. Jon Favreau, Chef Roy Choi and special guests cook a wide variety of dishes while Jon plays the inquisitive beginner. It’s not often about fancy food, but everyday food, done well. I also love the stop-motion sequences.
Chef (Amazon) This movie, starring Jon Favreau as a chef, inspired the TV show above. Roy Choi consulted on the movie and the story is inspired by Roy quitting a high profile job to start a food truck. Worth a watch. Food is love.
Nomadland (Hulu) This movie just won a Golden Globe for best picture (drama) and I can see why. What I love is the immersive style of production. It feels like you’re seeing life through the eyes and ears of Fern, the main character, played by Francis McDormand, as she becomes a member of a community of nomads who live out of vehicles. It’s directed by Chloé Zhao and has amazing performances by actual community members who were found as the film was being made. Zhao also won Best Director, a first for a woman of color. We’ll be hearing more about her, I’m sure.
Behind Her Eyes (Netflix Limited Series) First, let me say that I love the limited series format because it usually has a satisfying ending. This is the case with Behind Her Eyes. It’s a psychological drama that you have to watch it to the end. Also, the two female leads, Simona Brown and Eve Hewson, are amazing and distractingly attractive. Hewson is Bono’s daughter, FWIW.
Midnight Diner – Tokyo Stories (Netflix Series, subtitled) If you have any affinity for Japan, this is fun to watch. Most of the stories happen in a tiny Tokyo diner that is open from midnight to 7 am. Entertaining characters come and go, but the show is also about Japanese food. Each episode ends with a quick lesson on how to cook the dish that was served in that episode. Sachi watches it before bed because it’s so soothing. Charming, funny, and VERY Japanese.
The Biggest Little Farm (Hulu) A charming film about a couple who builds a farm that’s designed to work with nature and create a self-sustaining system. Along with a good story full of ups and downs, the nature photography is beautiful. John Chester, the co-creator of the film, is a professional videographer.
Triggered (Hulu) – Triggered is not a good movie in terms of minor things like acting. However, the premise is great: a group of campers awake from a night of partying with time bombs strapped to their chests that soon start counting down. Soon, they learn that each time someone dies, that person’s remaining time is transferred to another member of the group. This creates a Hunger Games scenario with all sorts of dark motivations. The director, Alastair Orr, was inspired by the SAW series.
Extraction (Netflix) Chris Hemsworth plays a mercenary who is hired by a drug lord to extract his son from kidnappers. Action-packed, lots of shooting and fighting. What I enjoyed most were the high production values and camera work. There are a few really impressive continuous shots.
Boss Level (Hulu) This movie is packed with action and stars Frank Grillo, who lives the same day over and over, complete with multiple attempts on his life. As Sachi pointed out, it’s a video game in movie form and the audience gets to see the character learn to play it. Hence, the name.
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix) – This film won a well-deserved Oscar. It’s the story of a filmmaker who befriends an octopus over a year. But it’s so much more. The filmmaker, Craig Foster, free-dives in frigid water off the coast of South Africa and captures the world and drama of octopus life in beautiful form.
Octomom (Radiolab Podcast) – A team of researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium discover, via a robotic submersible, a deep-water octopus who is protecting 160 eggs a mile beneath the surface. They visit her each month for four years and document her unbelievable process of hatching the eggs over time.
The Soul of an Octopus (Book by Sy Montgomery) – Sy is a nature writer who became fascinated with octopuses. This book is her story of learning about and getting to know a handful of giant pacific octopuses behind-the-scenes at aquariums and in the wild. It’s a little woo-woo in spots and I wish it had more science, but was a fun read, if you don’t mind the idea of animals in captivity.
Stowaway (Netflix) A team of three is on a mission to Mars and discovers that someone else is on the ship. I enjoyed this movie because it’s well-made, futuristic, and centers on ethical dilemmas more than action. I didn’t expect Anna Kendrick as an astronaut, but it works.
Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) A heavy metal drummer in a band with his girlfriend loses his hearing and quickly transitions to a new life. This is a great film that’s raw, human, and well-acted. I came away with a new perspective on deafness. Riz Ahmed was great in The Night Of (HBO) and he delivered in this film as well. Paul Raci was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance.
Booksmart (Hulu) Booksmart made me LOL. Two high school seniors realize they’ve wasted time being focused on grades and decide to start partying before college. This, of course, leads them on myriad adventures. Fun and easy; a modern Superbad with female leads and a female director, Olivia Wilde. The soundtrack makes it even better.
Derek DelGaudio’s In and Of Itself (HULU) – I went into this show with low expectations. A one-man show isn’t something that naturally appeals to me. And who is this guy anyway? Now that I’ve watched it a couple of times and understand it better, I’m entranced by it. He performed the show on a stage in New York every day for 552 days. The TV special is made from excerpts from multiple performances that feature live audience members. In it, he mixes storytelling, visuals, sleight of hand tricks, philosophy, and a number of things I can’t explain.
Sun Protection: If you’re serious about blocking the sun, look for clothes that have a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating that works like SPF. 20 UPF is good. 50 UPF is great. This article from REI has good info and a handy chart.
Sun Protection: I’ve found that Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Shade line has a wide variety of high UPF clothes that are affordable and high quality. This shirt is similar to two I have that are great for hot days when sun protection is essential.
Billions (Amazon) – A hedge fund billionaire (played by Damian Lewis) locks horns with a US Attorney in New York City (played by Paul Giamatti). We binged three seasons and enjoyed the strategy on both sides.
The Windsors (Netflix) – A hilarious and absurd send-up of the royal family based on tabloid rumors and innuendo. From Wills and Kate to Camilla and Pippa, no one is spared.
Meat Thermometer: I use meat thermometers near the end of the cooking process and place the probe into the meat and leave it there until it reaches temperature. I don’t need an app, or settings for different meats. All I want is an accurate reading and a simple alarm for when the meat reaches the temperature I set. The best thermometer I’ve found for this use is the ThermoWorks Dot.
Infrared Thermometer: I’ve also started to use a ThermoPro Infrared Thermometer, which you can point to any surface and get a temperature reading. It’s perfect for getting a pan the perfect temperature for eggs.
Gardener’s World (Amazon Prime) – You can’t talk about British gardening without mentioning Monty Don and Gardener’s World. It’s a British institution that’s been going for 165 episodes. We also enjoyed Monty in Big Dreams, Small Spaces.
Clarkson’s Farm (Amazon Prime) Like Monty Don, Jeremy Clarkson is a British legend, mostly due to his long-running and much-loved show, Top Gear. This one-season show is about him buying a huge farm and learning to make it productive with the help of local farmers in the Cotswolds. His ornery sense of humor along with the colorful locals make this show very entertaining. I now know much more about the challenges of “real” farming.
Grow, Cook, Eat (Amazon Prime) This isn’t British, but Irish, and features a master vegetable gardener and charming sidekick who sticks up for the amateur gardener. The couple focuses on one vegetable per episode and the viewer gets to see it grow from seed to harvest to being cooked by a chef. Very practical and easy to watch, especially if your climate is like theirs.
Fredrick Law Olmstead: Designing America (Amazon Prime) – This documentary is about Mr. Olmstead, but also the evolution of Central Park in New York. Our neighborhood parks in Seattle, including the boulevard in front of our house, were designed by his son and nephew and I always wanted to know more about the family and their approach to landscape architecture.
- Sit up straight
- Relax your shoulders
- Unclench your jaw
- Close your eyes
- Takes a few deep breathes
Cold Brew Coffee Recipe: Cold-brewed coffee is a staple for us in hot weather. Because it’s brewed without heat, it has lower acid and a smoother feel. Here’s how we make cold-brewed coffee:
- Add 2 cups of ground coffee to large pitcher
- Add 2 liters of water
- Stir a few times and cover
- Let sit for 12-24 hours at room temperature
- Pour coffee through a cheesecloth or coffee filter into another pitcher. Don’t try to pour out the grounds at the bottom.
- Leave in the fridge until ready to drink
Gadget: The days of fumbling with phone cords in the dark are over. Most smartphones (including iPhones) can now be charged wirelessly and all you need is a charging pad that uses the “Qi” (pronounced CHEE) standard. Simply place the phone on the pad and it will start charging immediately. We have this model ($12.99 on Amazon) all over the house and on bedside tables. I’ll never go back to cords.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) – Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez play tenants in the same NY building who are fascinated with true crime. Then, a neighbor suspiciously dies and they see an opportunity to create a podcast. Funny and easy. I had no idea Selena Gomez was so good as an actress.
Nine Perfect Strangers (Hulu) – Nicole Kidman stars as the leader/guru of a self-help retreat that’s not what the guests expect. The cast is great and it’s entertaining to watch.
Kate (Netflix) Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays an assassin in Tokyo who is poisoned and goes on a rampage to get revenge. Not super original, but stylish and fun to watch, if you like the John Wick movies.
Squid Game (Netflix) – This Korean series is about a game of survival, not unlike The Hunger Games. A group of desperate people compete for a $40m prize by playing children’s games where the losers are killed. It’s a dystopian and original look at how people react in dire situations.
House Shoes: For many years, I’ve had “house shoes” which I only wear inside. They keep my feet warm and supported. I’ve tried 3-4 different kinds and recently, over the past couple of years, I found a winner: The Moloā Hulu slipper by OluKai. They aren’t cheap but are high quality.
Podcast: I’d like to share one of my all-time favorite podcast episodes. It’s by Radiolab and called “Parasites“, originally published in 2009. In particular, I think you’d enjoy the segment called “Sculptors of Monumental Narrative” but don’t let that turn you away. 🙂
Album: My friend Justin Cox is a talented musician that performs under the name Routine Layup. He lives on Orcas and wrote a song that might just get stuck in your head: Not Everyone Has to be a Permaculture Gardener.
Maid (Netflix) – There are a few reasons I’m recommending this series:
- Setting – The series is written by Stephanie Land, who lived nearby, and the series feels like home. It was filmed just across the border in BC, but is set in our corner of the Salish Sea. If you’re curious about the scenery and lifestyle that surrounds us, it will paint a vivid picture.
- Story – This isn’t the kind of series I’d pick off a shelf, but it’s a good one that follows the life of a poor young mom facing one struggle after another, including an abusive relationship. It’s a bleak story that feels real and serves as a reminder of how hard life can be for people in her situation.
- Acting – Nearly everyone in the cast should get an award, but especially the real-world mother and daughter team of Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley. The 3-year old daughter was played by Rylea Neveah Whittet and was the best child performance I’ve seen in a while.
The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix) – This is a ten-part series that came out in 2018 by director Mike Flanagan, who recently directed Midnight Mass. It’s full of jump scares and ominous music, but the story is also scary and well-acted.
Follow: This recommendation involves shameless self-promotion. Here’s the deal… My goal is to help people learn about custom home construction. Starting now, I’ll be sharing a daily tip, idea, or story about custom home construction on social media. These tips will be shared via a new Instagram account. I highly recommend that you follow along and tell all your friends. 🙂
Follow Build Livable on Instagram.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Last night, I sent myself three emails while watching a movie. My mind was wandering and I needed to get them out of my mind and into a place where I could review them later. These days my mind only wanders in one direction and I’m mostly happy about that. It’s always focused on Build Livable and all that’s left to do.
Over the weekend, we had our GC, Drew, and his partner and wife, Michelle, over for a casual dinner, and afterward, I interviewed them both for a couple of hours and we recorded it all. Their advice and stories were really insightful and now, we’ll summarize it and highlight some of the great quotes.
Drew and Michelle’s interview was the most recent of those I’ve conducted so far, along with architects, designers and homeowners. The interviews help me to continue learning and to gather useful quotes and advice from experts and people with experience. I often say that I’m writing the play-by-play and the experts are confirming and adding color commentary. This is an important part of the bigger project, which is, indeed, big for the two of us. It feels all-consuming at times.
Right now, I’m taking a deep breath. Yesterday, another draft of the Complete Guide was completed. This is the version that includes most of the media, like hundreds of photos and dozens of original diagrams.
Change in Perspective
This latest version of the guide is one that changed our perception of how to teach the construction process. Originally, I organized it chronologically, by phase. It made sense at the time, but Sachi pointed out a flaw in my thinking: We’re trying to help people save time and money largely through planning. We can’t talk about countertops, for example, when they’re being installed. By then, it’s too late. We needed to frontload the guide to cover most of the process before the first wall is built.
So that’s what we did. The Complete Guide is about preparation, understanding what to expect, and how to approach each phase. That’s the foundation for helping a construction project stay on time and on budget.
This is where the curriculum stands today (subject to change).
Over the holidays, my goal is to build awareness for Build Livable. That means contacting my network, posting daily on the Build.Livable Instagram account and creating a lot of fun videos and media. I continue to believe homeowners are going to love this!
I’d Love Your Help
Education is the key to saving time and money on construction projects. When homeowners understand the process, they can plan effectively and optimize. Build Livable develops that understanding in the form of an always-on online course.
A few days ago, we decided to cancel Hulu, one of our favorite streaming services. When I went to make the change, there was an option to pause the service for 12 weeks with no fees, so that’s what I did. The same night, I went to HBO Max, a favorite we canceled in May and cranked it up again after six months. Going into the holidays, we have months of HBO shows and movies that built up over the summer.
I call this The Streaming Shuffle and going forward, it’s how we’ll save a bit of money and always have entertainment options accumulating in the background.
For most of my adult life, this wasn’t possible. Once a choice was made about which cable or satellite service to use, you were locked in. You had their dishes and set-top boxes, which made it a hassle to switch. And that’s how the services liked it.
Now that TV is quickly transitioning to web-based streaming services, the hardware is mostly gone and so is the lock-in. The options are based on monthly subscriptions that can be turned on and off at any time. Finally, we can choose what works for us.
But it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. What once came with a single service is now spread across multiple. To replicate the selection of cable or satellite you must now subscribe to a number of streaming services, each with its own monthly fee. And it adds up quickly. Here’s a quick run-down of the major players:
Cable Alternatives (local networks, plus cable channels):
- YouTube TV
- Hulu + Live TV
- DirectTV Streaming
Streaming Services (each with its own libraries and licensed content)
- Amazon Prime
- HBO Max
- Apple TV+
Today we have a wide selection of services, but they’re all fragmented and have independent pricing. It’s not reasonable to subscribe to everything, so we have to figure out the right mix for our tastes, which can mean subscribing to five different services, with five log-ins and five bills. What’s a person to do?
Here’s what we did…
We watch a lot of sports and like to have a service like cable/satellite to access local events, news, and sports channels like Fox Sports for soccer. For this, we subscribe to YouTube TV, which is a pretty impressive service. It includes an unlimited DVR service and is about $70 per month. Hulu offers something similar.
In terms of the streaming services, some of our services will stay put. Netflix, for example, is subsidized by our T-Mobile plan. We use Amazon Prime for more than entertainment, so we’ll stick with it, too. But outside those, we’re doing the shuffle between:
- HBO Max
- Apple TV+
Having just restarted HBO, it will carry us through the holidays. Meanwhile, the other services will be introducing new shows that we’ll miss, initially. Maybe in 12 weeks, Hulu will, again, be the darling, or maybe AppleTV+. That’s the beauty of the streaming shuffle: the good stuff accumulates so when you switch, it seems like there are more options and less brainless browsing.
What are you enjoying on HBO Max right now? Reply and let me know.
The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
Every few hours, I get an email that looks like this:
These emails are an indication that someone has signed up for our new project, or at least the free version of it. When I find them in my inbox, I can practically feel the dopamine flowing through my brain. Each email is just a data point, but together they represent a trend, and hopefully a foothold.
The project is called Build Livable and it is currently taking up most of my waking hours. My goal is to help homeowners save time and money by understanding the phases of construction and planning ahead for each phase. Informed homeowners can hopefully help builders and architects, too.
I wake up thinking about this project, work on it throughout the day, and send myself emails about it in the evenings. This is not driven by a deadline or a demanding boss, but a passion for creating it. I want nothing more than to see it come to life and be useful to people. I believe it can.
You might wonder what, exactly, is taking so much of my time, and it’s a good question. Let’s take a look.
At the beginning of this year, I set out to write about the experience of building custom homes and share what I’d learned. Like writing a book, I took it phase by phase and tried to capture all the things I wished I had known in the beginning. That project was mostly completed by summer and was book-length, about 70k words.
The whole idea changed when our friend, James, said he thought it should be digital and have videos, downloadable docs, etc. Of course! A book wouldn’t do. A website could be multimedia, easy to update, always-on, and have an enrollment fee. The project needed to be on a website and when that realization set in, my entire outlook changed. I was no longer limited by the book medium and could create a richer and more useful experience.
Part of what made me excited was the potential to create it in-house, with low overhead. By using a platform designed for online courses, I could design a very basic version of the website in a few days. The early challenge was not technology as much as branding and design. Over time, I picked colors and fonts, developed a logo and overall feel for the website. Web design is not something I consider a specialty, but I deeply enjoy the process.
The new website went online relatively quickly. The bulk of my work now is focused on filling the guides with useful content and filling the custom list with connections.
Getting people to a new website is always an uphill battle. New websites do not attract attention on their own. In the beginning, a reliable way to generate traffic is through advertising. I started to spend $10 a day on Facebook advertising and targeted people interested in construction, architecture, Dwell Magazine, etc. That’s helping a lot, but I’ll need to do more.
Website traffic, by itself, isn’t all that useful. We needed a way to turn visitors into connections we could contact in the future. In my experience, offering access to a free resource is one of the best ways to make that connection. If you invite people to test drive a resource for free, they may be likely to stick around.
For this, I pulled a couple of chapters out of The Complete Guide and created a free mini-guide called, “Start Your Construction Project on the Right Foot”. It has checklists of questions to ask builders and architects before hiring them, along with how to collect and organize ideas. The key was providing a useful and free resource along with nicely designed downloadable documents that could be printed. People love checklists!
The free guide went live a few weeks ago and since then, a few people per day have enrolled and confirmed their email addresses. It’s satisfying to see them choosing to be involved.
I think of the free mini-guide as a machine running in the background that will hopefully make connections with many people over time. With it in place, I could switch my attention back to The Complete Guide and go into full production mode.
And that’s what’s happening right now. My days are currently filled with formatting and editing the text, creating diagrams and downloadable documents, researching materials, and conducting interviews with homeowners and building pros. This is probably the most comprehensive resource I’ve ever developed. Here’s an example of a draft diagram:
I love every minute of it, in part, because I believe in it. I believe it can help homeowners save time and money. I believe I have the skills and experience to help them be prepared and work effectively with construction pros. I believe I can make it easy.
Each time someone enrolls in the free guide, the email in my inbox is a reminder that there is a need for this sort of resource and people are interested. We just have to keep finding them and showing them that we can help. The people who have chosen to be a part of Build Livable will hopefully choose to enroll in the Complete Guide when it’s ready. I believe that they will.
I’d love for you to check out the free guide. My only request is honest feedback about your experience.
I hosted a 30-minute webinar recently that covered 10 lessons from building a company that’s BIG ENOUGH.