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.
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.
There is an unwritten rule about home building projects on Orcas Island: well-behaved dogs are welcome. On any given day there is at least one dog on-site and we’ve grown to love them all.
The true house dog is Koda and we see her almost every day. She greets us in the driveway and when we reach down, she submissively puts her ears back and she curls into crescent with a wagging tail and whines as if to say “oooooh, you’re here please touch me, ooohhhh.” Her fur is as soft as she is sweet. Koda has the unique luxury of an on-site bed, but sometimes prefers a nice pile of sawdust in the sunshine. Koda belongs to the site foreman, Casey.
A dog we don’t see as often but consider a house dog is Beaudry, who belongs to Jorgen, the blacksmith. Beaudry is a cuddler if you give him the chance, and very dedicated to fetching. There is an orange rubber toy in the shape of a pig at the house that has to be hidden from him because once he has it, it constantly ends up on your feet.
Beauregard arrives with Kevin, the electrician. Beau sees so many job sites and people that he moves around the house like an inspector, unconcerned with the humans. Once you get his attention, though, he’s sweet and friendly. One weekend we were staining cedar and had placed boards on the floor to dry. Kevin arrived to check-in and before we knew it, Beauregard added a few nice paw prints to the newly stained cedar. We fixed them with ease.
Coco was one of the first dogs on site because she belongs to Tyler, the excavator. She’s also a dedicated fetcher and will drop any stick she can find at your feet for as long as you want to keep throwing it, and then some. Coco now has a little sister named Clover.
Some dogs arrive at the site and wait patiently in their vehicle. One of those is this handsome puppy, Douglas, who is owned by Niles, one of the plumbers. Douglas is exactly what you’d expect: amazingly sweet and soft to the touch.
I’ll throw a deer in for good measure. When we started cutting down risky trees to make room for the house, the deer had a buffet for a while.
Also, not a real dog, and not on Orcas Island, but check out this driftwood Boxer in Anacortes, Washington.
With so many friendly dogs around, I think about them being a physical part of the project. No doubt, their hair is now under the floor and in the walls. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
This morning I donned a puffy jacket and took the dogs out to our little ramshackle dog run on the side of the guesthouse. Once we were outside, I noticed something odd. The little area of concrete where I stand and wait for the dogs was dry and lightly colored. There was no drip from the roof onto the top of my head. It was chilly and windy, but dry.
That sounds unremarkable. But for this time of year in the pacific northwest, dry concrete is hard to come by. I noticed the same thing when we lived in Seattle. We get so used to wet roads and sidewalks that we notice when they’re dry. They seem so fresh and clean.
I’ve always looked forward to the arrival of the rain in October of each year. After a long, sunny summer, I’m ready for a more interior lifestyle. I want to build fires and light candles and finish the evening with a thumb of whisky. It’s the season of hygge, the Danish tradition of coziness and togetherness in winter.
This winter is different for most people, but not because of the weather. Usually, the refuge from the rain is not only the warmth of home, but people. I have such fond memories of dinner parties and game nights that felt extra cozy with rain beating on the skylights and fire in the fireplace. We will surely return to those days, but for now, they seem far away.
We recently had a spontaneous evening beer on the porch of a local brewery. We hadn’t been there since the pandemic started and purchased beer from a walk-up window into what was formerly a small indoor bar. It was pleasantly dark and we sat on cold wooden benches, between puddles and drank a pint that remained cold and refreshing from top to bottom. It felt like a treat. Just doing something, even in the cold and without friends, felt like a step in the right direction. Look at us! We’re not at home!
When we returned, the dogs greeted us and we settled in, just like any other night, snug in our chairs. I’ve started to think about our little guest house as a den, where we wait out the winter, the pandemic, and the house project. 20 months in, it feels like home, but I’m sure we’ll look back on these days with a sense of wonder. It’s one thing to be quarantining. It’s yet another to be quarantining in a tiny apartment set on 18 isolated acres, on a rural island, during a PNW winter, while building a house.
We’ll hibernate for a bit longer and then emerge ready for spring, which can’t arrive soon enough. My only concern is emerging with thicker insulation than when it started. We won’t be alone.
For now, from our den, we can anticipate a spring spent living in the house we’ve thought about for so long. It’s hard not to imagine quarantining there instead of the guest house. Part of what’s missing today is a place to be outside that’s comfortable and dry. It would be the only way we could have had friends over this winter. Of course, that space exists just down the road, but it’s not quite ready.
Now is the season of anticipation for us all. No matter what happens with public health, the days will get longer, the temperature will slowly creep up and the flowers will bloom. We can always count on the change of seasons to change us, too. When we finally emerge from the winter, we’ll have lived through a dark period of history that will serve as a contrast to the light. This hibernation is one for the ages.
My hope is that there is still time to salvage the 2020’s. After a rough start, I’m hoping that all the uncertainty and fear will be replaced by a widespread sense of hope and optimism that’s been pent-up for too long. Once it’s released, the 20s may roar, just as they did a century ago. I, for one, will be ready.
Since 2007, I’ve been a very specific kind of video producer. Namely, an indoor one. Common Craft videos are animated and mostly created on a computer. Despite making my living with videos, I have relatively little experience with live-action, outdoor video.
Leading up to the launch of BIG ENOUGH, I decided I would try making a live-action book trailer and do it 100% by myself. That’s part of the Common Craft way. I love learning by doing. The idea was to go on a hike at a nearby preserve with a tripod and drone and capture footage of me walking our two dogs, Maybe and Piper.
That probably sounds fairly simple, but it was far from it. Despite being a sweet, cuddly dog, who always seems to appear on your lap indoors, Piper is a hunter outdoors. If she gets off the leash, she will disappear into the woods. So, in order to keep both dogs safe, I tied their leashes to my leather belt. This meant that everything I did that day happened with over one hundred pounds of canine at my feet.
This would be a challenge without photography, in part because of the place where I hiked. Turtleback Mountain, is, well… a mountain. The loop I hiked is three miles and about 850 feet in elevation. This is where being alone became a challenge.
I wanted a few shots that featured me and the dogs walking through the frame from left to right. To get this footage, I had to hike up a hill, set up the tripod, then hike down the hill, and walk up it again as the camera rolled, then come back down to stop the recording and then up to the next stop. All with two large dogs tied to my waist. The three-mile hike surely went to five miles.
Then, of course, I was carrying a drone with batteries and a remote. Operating the drone is always stressful because I’m worried that it will crash or fly away. I’ve had it abruptly lose control and fly into a tree in the past. What if that happened on a mountain?
I have two drone batteries that each last for about 10 minutes of flight time and it goes quickly. I had a number of locations where I wanted to get footage and this created anxiety about using up the batteries before I could get to the next location. So, I was very cautious about wasting the precious energy and tried to keep the drone in a recoverable range, should something go off the rails.
Turtleback is a popular hiking trail and I was self conscious about other hikers noticing me behaving in a strange way. I imagined them wondering why I kept walking back and forth at the same spot on the trail with my dogs. Why does he have all that equipment? And maybe, why does he look so stressed out?
At the summit of Turtleback, there is a large rock outcropping called Ship Peak and I had been saving batteries for that location. Just before reaching the summit, I dropped my backpack on the side of the trail, something I never do. I think I was overheated and just wanted it gone. I grabbed the drone and made my way to the peak.
Soon after, an older couple appeared with a worried look on their faces. That’s when it hit me. A couple of years ago, someone found a pack on the trail with homemade explosives in it. Nothing ever came of it, but all the locals heard about it and everyone was warned – do not approach random backpacks on Turtleback. I, of course, had just dropped a suspicious-looking backpack, which the couple had found.
The first thing they said was, “Is that your backpack down there?”
I replied, “Yes, I’m sorry…” and before I could get more words out, the woman said, “You know there was a problem with a backpack here?”
“Yes, I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t thinking.”
They moved on, but got comfortable on another part of the summit, which left me with a dilemma. They already seemed annoyed, but I was there to fly the drone around and take videos. How long would they stay? Eventually, I just told them, “Hey, I’m just going to fly this around for a couple of minutes.” They nodded and that’s what I did.
On the way out, I looked over at them with a quick wave of acknowledgement. With a smile, the woman said, “Don’t forget your backpack!” I could only laugh and feel a bit embarrassed. I was that guy.
Thankfully, it all worked out beautifully. The weather was perfect, the drone stayed in my control and the dogs… they had no choice. Despite the effort, stress, and awkwardness, I loved every minute of making that video and I’m really proud of how it turned out.
With so much going on between the book and house, Sachi and I often relax in front of the TV in the evenings. Lately a few shows have been keeping us entertained and I’m now realizing that these are all kind of dark and on Amazon. I guess that’s our style right now.
Here are my quick reviews of each:
Patriot (Amazon) – It sounds like a Tom Clancy novel and it has some elements of espionage, but it’s not your average spy thriller. It’s stylish, dark, unexpectedly funny, and has musical interludes, sung by the main character, that advance the story. We loved both seasons. This video captures an enduring part of the show that cracks me up.
Counterpart (Amazon) – I love the science fiction premise of this show, starring J.K. Simmons. It takes place decades after scientists discover a portal to an identical world, or parallel universe, where everyone has an “other”. The show is mostly about interactions and schemes between the two worlds. Complex, dark, and well-made.
Homecoming (Amazon) – A secretive company is working with soldiers returning home with symptoms of PTSD. Over time, you learn the company’s true intentions and the scale of their efforts. The first season stars Julia Roberts and the second, which I liked even more, stars Janelle Monáe.
This time of year is known for warm weather, being outside, backyard fire pits, and for the last few years at our place, the smell of rotting flesh. Let me explain.
In the Salish Sea waters off Orcas Island there are Dungeness crabs and each summer crab season begins in July, offering a source of fun and delicious protein. We both enjoy the crabbing, but Sachi is the driving force behind it all.
It is said that the challenge of crabbing for some people isn’t the crabs, but the bait. The crustaceans will eat almost anything and most people use raw chicken, turkey, fish and sometimes cans of cat food that serves as an attractant. For us, it comes down to cost-effectiveness. Our local grocery store has a “crab bait” freezer this time of year, often filled with deeply discounted packs of expired meat. When that’s not available, we opt for drumsticks from Costco.
Recently, our contractor, Drew, said that he had a big pack of frozen crab bait on his boat in the form of herring, a bait fish. All we had to do was grab it from his freezer, thaw it, and use it as our crab bait. It’s rare to have fish as bait because of the expense, so this was a treat.
I was out of town for a couple of days, so Sachi left a gift bottle for Drew, grabbed the bait, and came home with a 35lb pack of frozen herring. As she discovered, thawing the herring created a problem. Where do you thaw a huge block of dead fish? If placed outside it would attract critters, so she opted for a spot just inside our front door, which is downstairs from our main living area. It was a solid plan, given the circumstances.
Sachi and the dogs went to bed that evening with dreams of crab dipped in butter. The next morning, Sachi was awakened by the dogs licking her in the face, which isn’t odd. But this time it was different. They had a wild look in their eyes, like it was Christmas morning for dogs. Then she realized that those licks were infused with the unmistakeable stench of dead fish. Within seconds, it all became clear.
Sometime in the early morning, the dogs had discovered the pack of herring by the front door and decided that it was breakfast, nicely laid out for them. Thankfully, it was still frozen, so the bulk of the bait was safe. But they got to lick it for as long as they wanted. And the smell, despite multiple washes, lingered on their muzzles for days. I suppose that smell is what the crabs like, too.
It seems logical that smelly bait would attract crab and this is a strategy we’ve taken to heart in the form of “ripening” the bait. This means leaving it out so that it can get a little funky. While we don’t have empirical proof that it works, we have taken notes from many old timers on the island.
A few days ago, Sachi filled a ziploc bag with 12 frozen drumsticks and placed them on a table in our main living area in a glass container. They were not yet ripe, but on their way. Before leaving home that day, we placed the container on the back corner of the table, surrounded by other containers, to prevent the dogs from getting it. The guest house is essentially one room, so there are few options for hiding anything.
When we arrive home it’s always the same. The dogs come to the door, bark and wag, and run up the stairs before us. When we returned this time, it was obvious that something was amiss and we both noticed. The dogs stayed at the bottom of the stairs as we ascended. We shot a knowing glance at one another. What would we find?
I was the first into the room and was relieved to find a ziploc bag torn to shreds. This happens sometimes. No big deal. Then Sachi arrived in the room and looked closer. What we thought were small pieces of wood from outside were actually shards of bone. Chicken bone. Sachi said, “oh my god” as she turned toward the table where we so carefully placed the chicken. The glass dish was on the floor and the chicken was nowhere to be found. The damn dogs had deftly removed the chicken from the table and devoured a dozen drumsticks between them. That’s why they were at the bottom of the stairs: consciousness of guilt.
After some scolding, I looked up the potential health issues. Raw chicken, I learned, is not often harmful to dogs and reflects what they evolved to eat. It’s the cooked version of chicken bones that can cause problems because the bones can splinter more easily. We were relieved and reminded ourselves not to feed them for the rest of the day. They were fine. We, however, were out of drumsticks.
Thankfully we still had 30lbs of herring, in a sealed box, ripening by our front door. It smells terrible, but it’s a small price to pay for pulling crab out of the Salish Sea. So far, we’ve brought home and shared over 30 of them.
Links from the Blog
I’ve continued to write consistently on the blog at leelefever.com. As you’ll see, I’m focused on the process of publishing Big Enough and all that goes with it.
📖 Pre-order the Big Enough eBook – The paperback and ebook versions of the book are now available for pre-orders. If you’re interested, pre-ordering the book is helpful.
🎙 The Podcast Book Promotion Strategy – In the COVID era, there is probably no better way to do book promotion than being a guest on podcasts. How does one promote themselves as a guest?
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.