I once heard an anecdote about travel that said you’ll always fill whatever size bag you choose to take with you. A good first step to traveling light is selecting a smaller bag.
Having just moved to the new house, our forever house, I’m reminded that we’ve made a very permanent decision about the size of our bag. We set out to build an efficient home and now that we’ve moved, it’s obvious that some things are not going to fit and I take it as a good sign.
On Saturday morning, when the move began, I was optimistic. The first couple of trips were quick and I was feeling strong. We used our two SUVs and our landlord’s pickup truck to ferry it all from the guesthouse to the new place. We’ve always moved ourselves and this was no different. We moved it all and I’m more thankful than ever that our moving days are over. Saturday saw us take 26k steps and 100 flights of stairs, with box in tow.
The guesthouse is deceptive: It’s a small place, but there is amazing storage tucked into closets and overhead spaces. As the day wore on, our stuff seemed to multiply like wet gremlins. We’d clear the floor of boxes and then dive into another cavern of a closet to find office supplies, sweaters, and shoes we hadn’t seen since we moved from Seattle.
Over two days it was complete and we said goodbye to the guesthouse, our home since June of 2019. We are so thankful to have had the opportunity. Phew.
A few sticky notes remained, mainly representing projects that are 99% done and only missing parts.
Moving without the dogs getting outside was a challenge, so we built a wall to keep them away. It worked for about 30 minutes.
Once we got everything into the house, the sorting project began. Big piles became small piles and small piles were organized by category. Today we’re close, but the pod from Seattle won’t arrive until Monday and it has furniture for holding categories of piles.
Last night we dumped everything bedroom-related into a big pile on the floor. Every piece of clothing we own along with wooden coat hangers. I took on the job of organizing the hangers and it was stressful for a couple of reasons.
In 2019, we made the ill-fated choice to move them in kitchen trash bags. That might work, if coat hangers were not triangular and covered in hooks. Over time the bags ripped apart and any attempt to remove a coat hanger required dislodging a triangle with a hook from the bag full of triangles and hooks. The only path that worked reliably was to open the bag like the sharks belly in JAWS and let them leak out onto the floor. Still, some remained.
The coat hangers were a reminder of how much stuff we once owned. Presumably, we had enough clothes for all the hangers, yet only about one-third of them fit in our new closet. This bothered me for a while, but then I remembered that we used to live in a bigger house with more closets and in a city where a wider variety of clothes were helpful. Today, on Orcas Island, I don’t have a need for more than a few dress shirts. Truthfully, I’d could get by with a few shirts of any kind.
If nothing else, the process of moving three times in two years has helped us winnow down our possessions. Each time a box crosses a threshold, like the front door, it is examined and unwanted items are culled. This is what we’re doing today. There are now multiple piles of items that are going to other homes because we’ve made a choice about the size of ours.
The growl of the generator, just twenty yards away, was the first thing I noticed before the sun came up. It powers a nearby cell tower and the moment the power goes out, it kicks on. This wasn’t a surprise as the wind was fierce overnight and trees were surely down. The infrastructure of Orcas Island is improving, but outages still happen a few times a year. The question always becomes: how long will it last?
I took my phone off the charger and saw it still had about 20% left. Strange. The one thing I needed to take advantage of the functioning cell tower didn’t charge overnight. Hmmm. Then I stared at the coffee maker before realizing it, too, needed electricity.
Sachi said the power had been out since about midnight, when it interrupted her TV show and sent her to bed. This meant the effects of the outage were well underway by the time dawn broke. With every minute that passed, the freezer was becoming less frozen, the guest house was becoming less warm and our devices less charged. Precious resources all trickling away. Just in case, we went into conservation mode. Sachi had learned from past experience, and dutifully posted a sticky note on the door of the fridge that said "No!". It stopped me more than once.
Power outages are like snow days; a novelty, or perhaps an excuse. As long as the power was out, we could claim that normal work was not a priority and we should probably just focus on building our fat reserves for the potential of a long winter night ahead.
We dug a camp stove out of a closet along with a bottle of propane that seemed to be about 25% full. Another precious resource. We got started by heating water on the porch for instant coffee in the form of Starbucks Via, a single serving powdered coffee that we use for backpacking. Coffee was done and the day could truly begin.
The lack of power was both an inconvenience and an interesting challenge. We could get by with very little effort. But that’s no fun. It’s a snow day, sort of, and a reason to maximize. We both started to brainstorm.
We found a couple of rechargeable battery packs we could use to charge the phones and stay connected. They were both about half full, but more than enough to get us through the day. The extra power was particularly helpful in understanding our plight in terms of news about the outage. The power company on Orcas is OPALCO (Orcas Power and Light Cooperative) and their outage map showed the entire island was without power and about 500k homes were dark on the mainland as well. This was bad news. Without mainland power, we had nothing, and as a county, were probably last on the repair list.
I ate a handful of granola while Sachi looked around the kitchen. We had leftover rice, a couple of strips of cooked bacon, tortillas and unopened bottles of artichoke hearts and red peppers in the pantry. These were the makings of breakfast and Sachi had an idea. She arranged our toaster oven pan on top of two bowls and placed candles under the pan to create a surface for sizzling the leftovers. Before long, our breakfast burritos were in-hand and like anything by a campfire, they were impossibly good. At the same time, the storm passed and light came through the windows and added extra warmth.
After breakfast, we sat in silence and worked with what power was left on our laptops. Normally, music plays in the background and without it, the guesthouse seemed lonely. We could play music from our phones, but it would drain them quickly. Then, I remembered that we had recently adopted a new device that was perfect for this situation. It’s called a Sonos Move. The Move is a portable speaker that has a ten hour battery life. We could connect to it via Bluetooth and listen all day. I’m a huge fan of the Move.
OPALCO updates came in every couple of hours. The island’s power system was repaired and ready to go. All that we needed was the mainland to come back online. This highlighted one of the risks of living where we do. Our island of a few thousand people depends on the mainland for both power and internet. If the connection fails, or is cut, we have no other options outside of our own self-sufficiency.
Many permanent residents have wood burning stoves, reserves of water, and generators for getting through the outages, which used to last for days. People have encouraged us to invest in a built-in propane generator that will keep us going in the new house. They’re very expensive and a pain to maintain and I think we can do better. Soon enough, we may have a big battery in our garage that will serve as our backup electricity. In the future, the battery can be fed by solar panels. I believe that’s the new, more sustainable version of island self-sufficiency.
As the day wore on, work stopped and we switched to a snow day orientation. We took a nap and listened to an episode of Smartless, the podcast hosted by Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, and Sean Hayes. We thought through the albums we have stored away and what we’ll listen to once we have the record player set up again. We chose the loungy sound of Koop.
In January, the sun seems to hang just above the horizon throughout the day. Sunlight dwindled with each passing minute and I wanted it to happen more quickly. What fun is a blackout during the day? I wanted to live by candle light.
The OPALCO afternoon updates started to broach a sensitive subject: it was not too early to start gathering candles and flashlights. I appreciated the kindness in their status updates.
In the last bits of sunlight, we hatched a plan for a decadent dinner. The previous night, Sachi thawed 1.5 pounds of Dungeness crab from our summer fishing and made crab mac and cheese which resided in the no-go refrigerator. We decided it was worth opening the fridge for dinner.
First, Sachi opened the chest freezer and grabbed a steak and two ice packs. Then, working as a team, we listed what we needed from the fridge and discussed how to open and close it as quickly as possible. I held the door and used my phone’s flashlight to light the shelves for Sachi to quickly grab the items and place an ice pack under the milk. On a whim, I thought it would be fun to capture the moment in a video. When I hit "record" the flashlight went off, leaving Sachi in the dark. As she scrambled to recover, all she could say was "SERIOUSLY!!!". I had one job. I’m not proud.
I put on a headlamp, fired up the Smokey Joe with charcoal and got ready for dinner. Grilled rib-eye and a pan of warm crab mac and cheese came off the grill in the dark. Off-the-grid surf and turf, served by candlelight. After dinner drinks of whisky and a serenade by Lionel Richie. It was perfect.
We chatted about our pleasurable predicament with our island friends online. In referencing the power line from the mainland, I wrote, "We are but dogs on a collar". Our friend, Paul, asked if I was writing a haiku and I took it as a challenge:
We are but a dog
Leashed from land over there
And always at risk
Then, at 7:30pm, nearly 20 hours from the blackout, our friends reported getting power. It seemed like the electrons were making their way across the island to us at less than light speed. Two minutes later the gadgets beeped, the fridge hummed, and the cell tower generator outside finally quieted. And honestly, it was a disappointment. I immediately turned off the lights and tried to savor the last bit of our candlelit night.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Everyone knows the feeling of apathy that comes with the end of a commitment. In school we called it “senioritis”. As the end of a semester nears, the daily rituals and responsibilities that once kept everything on track take on a more onerous feel as motivation fades. A bare minimum of effort will suffice.
We are probably a couple of months from moving into the new house and a significant part of that excitement is not simply moving into the new house, but moving out of the guesthouse, which will have been our home for over 18 months. A feeling of senioritis is real and growing.
At the heart of this feeling is the contrast. For this phase of our lives, the guesthouse has been perfect and I don’t say that flippantly. I could not imagine a better situation for waiting out the construction. It’s comfortable, well-built, and close to the construction site. The owners are kind people and we are fortunate to have the opportunity.
That being said, we are both itching to get the hell out. As the new house gets closer to completion, it’s difficult not to fantasize about the future that we’ve so carefully designed. This is the contrast. Knowing that a new experience awaits, the guesthouse lifestyle grows more cumbersome every day.
There is probably no clearer picture of this than washing dishes. We don’t have a dishwasher in the guesthouse and it’s clear that I’ve been taking dishwashers for granted for too long. If I never have to wash another piece of individual silverware in my life, I’ll be just fine.
But you know what? For most of our time here, washing dishes by hand didn’t feel like an inconvenience. It was just part of our day, like homework, that needed to be done and we adapted. I am a believer that we humans are more adaptable than we realize. Time and repetition make almost any situation feel normal. Within a couple of months after moving in, we settled into the guesthouse lifestyle and never looked back, until now, when we look forward.
This quainter version has highlighted the value of the things we use every day. Our current version of a TV is an iMac computer that is so old it can’t be updated. Sometimes, the fan runs so loud we can’t have a conversation. Other times, it just stops connecting to wifi and requires a reboot. We treat it nicely and say encouraging things as we caress the top of the monitor, “just a couple of months and you can retire.”
For audio, we use USB speakers about the size of softballs. And they work amazingly well. We’ve enjoyed countless movies and shows and rarely want for more. This forces me to wonder: Is TV size or speaker fidelity proportionate to happiness or enjoyment?
We spend a lot of time in the kitchen, where Sachi is the chef and I’m the sous chef and meat cooker. The guesthouse kitchen is not one with a great deal of finery. The electric stove is apartment-sized with an oven that sports an unreliable thermostat, which means baking is done in a toaster oven. Our drawer of tongs and spatulas is full of equipment that is becoming less useful by the day. Yet, I feel that we eat like royalty. Nearly every evening I finish dinner with a smile and remind myself how lucky I am to eat such amazing food. Do the appliances really matter? A nice oven and gas stove will be convenient and beautiful. But will the food be that much better?
I also think about our grill. For two years now, I’ve used a Weber Smokey Joe charcoal grill. It’s tiny, cheap, and the best grill I’ve ever had. It taught me how to cook with charcoal, which has given me a great deal of satisfaction. Our new grill will have multiple burners, lights, an electric starter and more. It will feel luxurious. But will it make grilled fish taste better than the Smokey Joe?
Of course, this idea is more complicated than simply boiling everything down to outcomes. We can’t discount the experience that comes with a new kitchen, especially in contrast to the guesthouse. Having a full-sized sink that’s not installed in a corner cabinet will be a revelation. The potential to have two or more people in the kitchen at the same time will feel liberating. An oven with a working thermostat, a miracle. It’s the everyday things that we will appreciate the most.
On most nights, I go to bed before Sachi, who likes to stay up and watch TV. Because our bedroom shares the same space as the iMac TV, this means I usually go to sleep hearing the audio from the Great British Baking Show. I’ve grown accustomed to the situation and Sachi turns the volume low. But man, the idea that I could go to another room, close the door, and fall asleep in silence? It feels like a dream.
There are also a host of small annoyances that seem to grow more annoying the closer we get to moving. We have a small Ikea drawer that holds our socks and underwear. It lives inside a small, unlit closet by our bed because we have no other place for it. Outside the closet door is a dog bed. This means that getting ready for a shower entails stepping onto the dog bed, opening the closet door into the dog bed and reaching blindly into a dark closet to retrieve underwear. It’s a small inconvenience, but I think about it every single time.
Speaking of the bedroom. The space we have to move around is the defining characteristic of the room. To get to the bathroom (which thankfully has a pocket door), we must walk around the bed. But there is only room for almost one person at a time. This means that the entire bedroom side of the guesthouse, including the bathroom, is blocked if someone is there. We’ learned to move through it like passengers passing in an airplane aisle.
I now see that space, the ability to move freely in a room, is a kind of luxury that is worth its weight in gold. I look forward to adapting to it.
Looking around the guesthouse as I write this, it’s clear that we’ve made a number of decisions that were always meant to be temporary. The guesthouse has only four drawers in the entire living space and most are full of silverware and other kitchen tools. In this way, our storage for everyday items is mostly made of the finest material of all: cardboard.
While the impossible skyscraper is made of cardboard, it abounds in other places. My “office” requires cords, headphones, thumb drives, and general office paraphernalia. Because I have no drawers, these currently live in a cardboard box with an Amazon logo. Little did I know, when we moved in, that the random box I put on the desk would become so useful. The same is true for boxes that hold dog toys, hats, keys, and more. Cardboard does the job just fine, for now.
We were always at a loss for coat storage, in part because our current pantry was placed in front of the only coat hooks. So, we decided to use disposable hooks that adhere to the wall. It turns out that these hooks can only hold so many coats before breaking. We started with three and are now down to one. There is some chance, by January, that our coats will live in a pile on the floor. Then, soon after, coat hook camelot!
As the move approaches, we’re trying to make old, worn-out items last just a bit longer. One of our pillow cases is ripping in two places. Most of our towels are over ten years old and look it. Our hand vacuum only works in short 2-second bursts because the battery has issues. We wear the same few clothes every day. These things have made it sixteen months, what’s two more? Soon they will be gone, perhaps in a ceremonial fire.
Another class of senioritis is true apathy. When we moved in, we used carpet squares from the Hunter House to cover the linoleum floor. The squares will not make the jump to the new house and you know what that means? Those carpet squares don’t matter anymore. Two weeks ago, the dogs found a printer cartridge and spilled printer ink on one of the squares. We shrugged. It was liberating not to care.
I’m thankful to have had the guesthouse experience, with its eccentricities and all, because it serves as contrast. In the beginning it challenged us to find new and temporary ways to live. Now, some of those things are becoming more grating by the minute.
Just as we’re ready to throw our hands up and refuse to do homework, we’ll move and be able to appreciate the luxury of space, convenience, and quality from a healthier perspective.
I Can Recommend…
Peaky Blinders (Netflix) – An all-time favorite on our house. Cillian Murphy plays the badass leader of the Shelby family gang (the Peaky Blinders) in Birmingham, England, just after WWI. Awesome style, great storytelling, and fitting music. Turn on subtitles if you can’t understand the dialog.
The Crown – Season 4 (Netflix) The new season just arrived and covers the Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher period. It’s hard to believe a show can be so good retelling stories we’ve all heard so many times.
Dawes (band) – Sometimes we get stuck on a band and play them over and over. Dawes has been that for us lately. They have a folk rock sound and great songwriting that feels easy and nostalgic to me. A couple of good songs to get started: When My Time Comes and All Your Favorite bands.
Everything is Alive (podcast) – If you’re looking for a very odd and sometimes hilarious podcast series, take a listen. The show is unscripted interviews with inanimate objects, often voiced by comedians. It’s as weird as it sounds and you should listen.
In the corner of the guesthouse stands a plastic fold-out table that is the closest we’ve had to a dining room table in two years. At the Yurt, it hosted crab feasts, laptop work, building plans, and puzzles. Most recently, it was the only table in the guesthouse and like many tables, it collected inconvenient things. When something like a camping mug, that needed to be storedwith the camping supplies, but neededan interim home, the table was it. And it performed admirably.
Today, just a couple of months from when we expect (hope?) to move in, I can barely see the table thanks to dull cardboard boxes, stacked like impossible skyscrapers. Under the table are boxes of Big Enough, samples of stained fir, and a box of dog toys at dog level. But what constitutes the cityscape is shipped boxes of fixtures and accouterments that will someday make the jump to our walls, doors, floors, and more.
Over the past six months, we have collected a large amount of temporarily inconvenient things. This is, in part, because we are the designers. We enjoy the responsibility of discovering and selecting the exact products we want, without someone in the middle. We order it all ourselves and become the warehouse until the move.
The box closest to me, according to the marker message scrawled on its side, is “Front Door Deadbolt and Handle”. Inside is a Baldwin Minneapolis Handle Set and with keypad entry, in satin black.
When the door handle arrived I took it out of the packaging and held it in my hand. It felt strong and well-built. The latch mechanism was smooth and sounded like a precision instrument. It was heavy, too. When mounted on a door, you won’t feel the weight directly, but there’s still part of you that knows, just by how it feels, that it has weight and strength.
Over a year ago, I shared our building plans with our architect friend, Alonso, and we talked about some of the themes he had learned in architecture school. Alonso made a point that I’ll never forget. He said to think about the features of the house that people will touch and how it will feel to them; the surface of countertops, the floor under bare feet, door handles, and sink hardware. The sense of touch is easy to overlook and one of the only ways to relate a sense of quality.
When I held the door handle for the first time, I imagined how it would feel on the door when someone visits for the first time. To me, it felt solid and well-built, the way a front door handle should. It is a security feature, after all.
The skyline of boxes have come to represent, in my mind, a vision of how the house will look and how we’ll use it. At best, they are a collection of educated guesses. At worst, something marked off a never-ending to-do list.
On top of the door handle box is a box marked “Floor Outlets” and it, too, is the product of guessing. One of the biggest guesses of all is where to install outlets, or what electricians call “receptacles”, throughout the house. Building codes require them every eight feet, so most of the decision making is easy and we err on the side of having too many. But there is a difference between what is required and what we want and in this, we worked hard to anticipate how we would use the house.
A large portion of our daily lives will be spent in the “great room”, which is essentially a box that holds the kitchen and living/dining areas. We will have a fireplace and TV on one wall, which means our seating areas will be close to the middle of the room. In thinking about using this space, something became very clear. We would need to power devices in the center of the room. Instead of stretching cords from some far off outlet, we decided to put two of them in boxes recessed into the floor. We chose these.
The idea of outlets in the floor is easy. What’s a real challenge is deciding where to put them. The goal is for them to be hidden under furniture or a rug so that electrical things like computers and lamps can magically be powered where we need them.
The problem is that, through all our planning, we’re still not sure where the furniture will be. We have ideas, but the reality is that the furniture arrangement will evolve. The great room is a blank canvas, capable of morphing into whatever we want over time. How, in this context, do you decide where to put the floor outlets? You guess and hope for the best. We tried to imagine where each of us would sit in the living room and put the outlets there.
Beside the floor outlets is a box labeled “deck step lighting”. These are lights that will be recessed into the vertical of “riser” steps of our deck, making the floor easy to see. In talking to the electrician, he said to consider how the lights would look from the water and pick lights that reflect down and not out, or up. This put me on a path of learning about light pollution and the “Dark-sky” movement.
One thing I love about living on the island is the incredible darkness at night. After years in the city, it’s remarkable how clear the stars appear at night. The electrician’s recommendation is smart all the way around. By being deliberate about our exterior lighting, we can reduce light pollution and achieve a soft, elegant look that comes from indirect or reflected light.
The table has many more boxes, and each one represents hours of research and a healthy dose of guess work. Maybe someday, we’ll get the table back and resume the feasting and puzzling. Seeing the surface of it again will be a sure sign we’re in transition.
I Can Recommend…
Book: The post above inspired by the writing of Bill Bryson and especially his book At Home. In it, he steps through the rooms of his house and tells entertaining and historical stories inspired by objects and the rooms themselves. I also enjoyed his latest book The Body.
Quiz: The Upshot at the NYT created a fun quiz and map based on American dialects. You answer 25 questions about the language you use, like, “Do you pronounce cot and caught the same?” At the end, it guesses where you’re from. One of the three cities it guessed for me was Winston-Salem, NC, my birth city.
Wikipedia Page: Wikipedia has a page that contains a list of lists. That sounds boring, but it’s a useful resource with a long tail of interesting lists. Perhaps you’re curious about a list of beers and breweries in Nigeria? Or maybe a list of lists of hills? My friend Newley pointed out this note: “List of lists of lists: This article itself is a list of lists, so it contains itself.[a]”
Podcast: My friend, Justin Cox, is a fantastic musician and lifelong fan of Jackson Browne. Over the past year he created and produced a podcast series about the Jackson Browne discography called After the Deluge. 12 episodes, special guests, and lots of great music. If you’re into Jackson Browne or JB-curious, you should give it a listen.
Photo: We hiked up Turtleback Mountain in the fog. Piper was into it.
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.
Seattle’s 1998 winter was record-breaking in its wetness. It rained 90 days out of 120 and Mount Baker Ski Area received over 1,000 inches of snow, a world record. That winter made quite an impression on me as a new arrival and I remember thinking that Seattle’s reputation was well earned.
While it’s true that Seattle and the pacific northwest are wet in the winter, the rain isn’t much of a burden. It’s typically a light and misty kind of rain that never seems to soak into clothes. What is burdensome is the persistent darkness. The sun hides behind clouds and the horizon, only peeking out in what local meteorologists call “sun breaks”.
Today, December 10th, the sun sets at 4:17 on Orcas Island and it’s the earliest sunset of the year. This isn’t that remarkable, as most people in the northern part of the U.S. experience short winter days. What’s different is the combination of short days and cloud cover that can last for weeks and seem to seal the moisture into the atmosphere. Even without rain, there is a feeling of dankness that lingers. Every surface, given enough time, becomes covered in moss. Yards, vehicles, and houses, if left alone, will eventually be eaten by it. There’s even a name for pacific northwest old-timers: mossbacks.
The rainy winters are a constant subject of conversation and commiseration in our area. People love to moan about the rain, but not me. From the moment I arrived, I began looking forward to the end of summer and the arrival of rain, which begins reliably in mid-October. As I wrote in an essay called Ready for Rain that is the namesake for this newsletter:
It’s not simply the arrival of rain, but the transition to a different environment and way of life. The drear has a certain dark beauty; a low-contrast softness. There’s no need to squint or close the blinds. Even the sound of the rain on our house is music to my ears, a lullaby.
I think this attitude is, in part, a coping mechanism. Without intention, I found happiness and hope in the darkness. I find the rain soothing and want to see forecasts with days of rain and wind. I want to be in it; to feel the weather and to breathe it in.
When the days are short and wet, home plays a different role and our goal becomes to make it a place that’s built for hunkering down and creating a contrast to the outdoors. Again, from my essay:
The best way to describe the feeling is “coziness”. Home feels like a refuge from the elements; a place to relax and live life more slowly. Coffee seems to taste better when it’s raining.
I always loved this feeling and a few years ago, I heard a name for it that comes from Denmark. They call it Hygge (Hue-GUH). The Danes, who are often listed as the most content people in the world, must be doing something right in the cold dark winter months and many point to their spirit of hygge as a prime example. For them, winter is a cozy time to build fires, light candles, pull on wool socks, eat buttery food, drink warm drinks, and spend time with family and friends. That sounds pretty good to me.
Once we learned more about hygge, we started practicing it with intention. In Seattle, we spent many nights with blankets spread out on the floor in front of the gas fire and along with candles, wine, and dogs. When we moved to the Yurt on Orcas, we built fires in the woodstove and got cozy as the storms rolled through the San Juans. I have fond memories of opening the door at night and hearing the frightening roar of wind in the tall trees. It was a sound I never heard in Seattle and it made me want to curl up in a blanket and appreciate the toasty interior of the house, which smelled like burning wood.
This year is different. The guest house is cozy but has no fireplace or wood stove. There’s not much room to spread a blanket on the floor and even less to entertain friends. We have candles and wool socks and dogs, but it’s just not the same. Even if we turn up the heat and drink wine as the rain beats the roof, it doesn’t feel quite right, perhaps because we are just visitors in this place and not invested in making it feel more like home. Thankfully that homey feeling has a way of appearing almost anywhere we find ourselves. Even if there’s not a fireplace, the guest house is still a nice place to be.
By this time next year, we’ll have moved into the new house and this multi-year adventure will be over. I’m sure we’ll enjoy the long, warm days of summer. But even in July, I’ll be looking forward to October when the weather and our house become something different. Our outdoor lifestyle will transition to focus on an interior hideaway that’s built for taking the full brunt of storms that hit our side of the island. When they do, we’ll be inside, warm and cozy, living a little more slowly.
I usually wake up around 7am and the first thing I see is almost always a dog’s face. They seem to have a natural ability to detect, often before I realize it, that the day has begun. While Maybe, our older dog, has better manners when it comes to humans in bed, Piper is unburdened. She plops down on my chest in an attempt to rouse me with cuteness alone.
Our morning routine is simple and based on needs. I need coffee and head straight for the coffee maker, which I prepared to brew the night before. The guest house, like the Yurt, is a single room and with Sachi sleeping just a few yards away, I try to keep the coffee noise to a minimum.
Handling dog needs has been different in the guest house. For the first time in nearly 20 years, we don’t have a dog fence that allows them to roam without my supervision. One of us has to go with them, every time they need to go out. Now that fall and winter are upon us, these romps are about to get progressively less enjoyable and no less required.
The complicating factor is the ever-present deer who mock and tease the dogs by simply living their wild animal lives. Given the chance, Piper will chase them deep into the woods and through unknown hazards before coming home. We want to keep those instances at a minimum, so she stays on the leash, while Maybe can roam a bit more free. Like so much of our lives right now, this isn’t a big deal because it’s temporary.
With their business done, we all come inside and the dogs race up the stairs to pounce on Sachi in bed, which makes Sachi giggle. She has always wanted big dogs and we now have over 100 combined pounds of canine. csx
The small kitchen of the guest house usually becomes a hive of activity in the morning and tests our ability to economize. Because we don’t entertain anymore, our collection of dishes and cookware has been boiled down to the essentials and it reminds me of how little we actually need. We use the same few plates, glasses, bowls and silverware everyday and are rarely inconvenienced.
There are things we miss, of course. I, for one, will never take dishwashers for granted again. The bigger issue, day-to-day, is counter space. Between appliances, we have about four square feet of working room. A month ago, that changed when I discovered a hidden feature of the kitchen. Tucked under the counter, there is a small white refrigerator. In a flash of insight, I pulled it out of the counter and into the kitchen space, revealing a new kitchen work space. It’s been there ever since and I now count this as one of my best innovations for this place.
I love the idea of home appliances and objects, like the little fridge, having multiple purposes and the flexibility to adapt. For example, our TV is currently an aging 21” iMac computer. Rather than placing it on a table across the room, or attaching it to a wall, we put it on a rolling shelf that can be easily moved to a better viewing location and then tucked out of the way when it’s not being used.
The TV setup is a stark change from our home theater in Seattle and adopting a smaller, lower fidelity version of TV might seem like a negative consequence of moving. But it’s not. I enjoy it just as much. A movie is still a movie.
This is true for so many parts of the transition. Our home lifestyle is more compact, with fewer features and more disarray than we’d grown accustomed. But does it matter? Would 30% more counter space make us 10% happier? Doubtful. A dinner made in a toaster oven in a one room guest house can be just as delicious as in any other location.
Living in a relatively small space has its benefits. Cleaning the house is quick and easy. The rent is affordable and the constrained space means our essential belongings are never far away. But there is one thing that drives me crazy. It works like this…
The guest house is filled to the brim with boxes and piles of belongings in closets and a loft area. For the most part, the boxes will remain untouched until we move out.
Just after we moved in, we realized that a few random things were missing. In this case, it was a cocktail shaker. This set up a dilemma. That shaker is in the room, somewhere. Do we start the process of diving into the closets and boxes in search of it? Or, do we throw up our hands and do without? I often choose the latter because lurking within those boxes is the shaker and a high likelihood of serious frustration for me. For now, I mix cocktails in a measuring cup. It will appear, some day.
We both look forward to the day when we can once again have dinner parties and entertain friends over weekends. For now, there is a happy medium. Friends can visit the guest house overnight, but it’s strictly BYOB (bring your own bedroom). Our friends, Tony and Lindsay, recently visited with a teardrop trailer that they parked outside. It worked perfectly.
The temporary nature of this phase of our lives colors our perception of what’s needed, or desired. We will probably be in the guest house for another year and we have chosen not to invest in making it feel more home-like. We’ve hung no art on the walls. There are no plants or decorations. The guest house feels like a quick stop on a long journey and our goal is to get in and out without a trace. We are but visitors.
Living in the guest house is a reminder of how much of our recent lives have revolved around moving. Since acquiring the Yurt two years ago, it feels like we’ve been floating from place to place. First, we split our time between Seattle and Orcas. Then we moved to Orcas and a few months later, to the guest house. In a year, we’ll move to the new house.
Two years of moving means that living in a state of flux has become a kind of lifestyle and something that doesn’t feel like a burden or trial. More than anything, it’s been a reminder of how lucky we are to have this opportunity.
Our friends Chris and Sarah (and their three dogs) lived in a fifth wheel trailer on their property for three years as they finished their house. Their story seems to be closer to the norm on Orcas and we expected to do the same. We owe deep gratitude to the kind family who first offered us the space.
We’re still settling in, but today it feels like the guest house is home. Almost everything has a place, a box, or a pile. And that’s okay. It’s temporary.
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.