A Dispatch from the Covid Quarantine ?

A Dispatch from the Covid Quarantine ?

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

In writing this issue, I wondered to myself what I could say at a moment with so much uncertainty and anxiety.

The warnings are stark. The US government said all Americans should avoid crowds of over ten people just as the Dow closed down over 13% in a single day. That day, Canada closed its borders. We are living through an event, right now, that future students will learn about in history books.

It’s startling. But at the same time, this has been such a high-intensity event that I’ve grown accustomed to the daily shock. Perhaps the best that I can do is record what’s on my mind as we live through a historic event. Maybe in five or ten years, I’ll look back with a sense of wonder.

Sachi and I consider ourselves quarantined for the next few weeks and I admit to finding some comfort in that. We will go to the store when needed, but we won’t be socializing in person, traveling or, by state mandate, eating out. Our day-to-day work, which has been home-based since 2007, continues with a strange sense of normalcy. Our plan is to live affordably and indulge in home-based activities for the next few weeks, at least.

Smells like home
Smells like home

I find myself thinking about all the people whose lives and livelihoods are thrown into disarray. We have friends and neighbors who own businesses that are closed for the foreseeable future. We’re close to people in the service industry who don’t have a backup for the income they’re losing every day that restaurants and bars are closed. We work with people who are trying to juggle work and childcare. It’s a huge, frustrating, and sad reality that I hope will come and go quickly. It’s a small gesture, but today I bought a growler of beer from our local brewery, who can’t legally sell anything else.

Looking outward, I now consider everyone I meet to be a potential virus carrier. Everyone. Today we met with our building contractor and we all tried to keep about six feet between us. Tomorrow our architect arrives and we will do the same with him. No one has symptoms that we can see, but it’s just not worth the risk, especially because Sachi has asthma, which puts her squarely in a higher risk group. We may be overreacting and that’s fine. There is no risk in it.

There is risk, however, for my Dad in North Carolina who is in his mid-80s and has respiratory issues. I’ve been working with my brothers and my Aunt Pat to make sure they understand the risk and how to stay safe. I worry that too many people are assuming it won’t impact them and are not taking precautions. I hope you, dear reader, will overreact like us and consider every person you encounter to be a potential carrier.

When the virus first hit the news, I was fascinated but didn’t worry at a personal level. Then, Washington became the location of the first case of coronavirus and the first death. That was a wake-up call. As we converted to a quarantined lifestyle, we started to take stock of how the virus could impact the economy along with our business and projects. 

On the day the first death was reported, we were visiting Seattle and looking at tile for the bathrooms of the new house. One of the tile reps said, referencing a design we liked, “We don’t have a lot of this one and it’s not clear how much we’ll be able to get from overseas if the virus gets worse.”

That got our attention. What if supply chains break down and we couldn’t finish the house? It wouldn’t be a disaster, but it did cause us to think ahead. Starting then, we made final decisions on materials and put in orders to reserve what we need to finish.

We also came to see that, despite other disruptions, our house project would likely serve as reliable employment for multiple people on the island throughout the pandemic.

My book, Big Enough, is scheduled to hit the shelves in May and represents one of the biggest projects in my professional life. Initially, the book release was scheduled for spring because business book sales traditionally decline in summer. Now it’s timed to go right along with a global pandemic. Super. 

This forced me to ask some worrying questions: What if the virus puts everyone on a limited budget and no one buys books? What if everyone is so consumed with the news that it’s impossible to break through the noise? What if I look tone-deaf trying to market a book in the middle of a catastrophe?

My first book was published by Wiley & Sons, which is a major publisher and we had a traditional relationship. I wrote the book and they invested in editing, design, printing, distribution, etc. Their money was on the line and they were betting the book could sell enough for them to break even. In this case, I was insulated from financial risk. 

Big Enough is different. I choose to self-publish it with the help of industry pros at a company called Page Two who specializes in helping authors self-publish books that are done professionally. In this situation, I invested in all the phases of production and publishing. My money is on the line and in return, I get more creative freedom and earn a greater percentage of the returns. In this situation, the financial risk is all mine

It quickly became clear that my investment in the book, in both the time it took to write it and the money we’ve invested to publish and market it, could be seriously threatened by the coronavirus or the changes in perspective that come from it. Super-duper.

But then, we both started to take another look. As people became more home-bound, they started to read more. Twitter became filled with people sharing book recommendations and requests for books to read. Could it be that the book industry could thrive in the midst of a pandemic? It’s too early to say, but the idea buoyed my spirits.

I imagined all those people at home reading fantasy books or romance novels. Where would Big Enough fit? The more we looked at it, the more we saw that the timing could actually be on our side.

Big Enough is, to some degree, about the beauty and efficiency of being an intentionally small, home-based business. That sense of normalcy we’re feeling in the midst of the quarantine is by design and the book is a guide to building a business that can weather a storm like this one.

So, all things considered, we’re hopeful the book may not be a casualty. Of course, things are moving quickly and no one knows what to expect in two days, much less two months. As long as we both stay healthy and can help others, that’s all that matters.

For now, we have a good internet connection, plenty of food in the freezer, a growler in the fridge and plans to take many dog walks down empty gravel roads.

I hope that you and yours are staying home and staying safe!

A Return to Herb’s ???

A Return to Herb’s ???

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

The Tillikum Arrives at Orcas Island
The Tillikum Arrives at Orcas Island

I suppose it’s possible to never leave Orcas Island. With good health and tolerance for mild isolation, one could live on the island indefinitely. For most, however, leaving is required from time to time, and that means boarding a ferry for an hour-long trip to the mainland where family, Costco and other forms of abundance await.

Along with trips to the mainland, there is another popular ferry route that is limited to the San Juan Islands; an “inter-island” route. This route is serviced by a sixty-year-old ferry named Tillikum, or affectionately “Tilly”, that runs all-day-everyday among four of the most populated islands. She is the closest we have to a road that links the islands, both socially and commercially.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Jesse, on a neighboring island asked if I could help him with a house project and I jumped at the chance to see him and ride the ferry on a nice autumn day. Jesse’s house is on San Juan Island, which is home to Friday Harbor, the county’s seaside commercial center and tourist trap.

When the morning arrived, I carefully packed a backpack with snacks, sunglasses and my drone so that I could take overhead photos of his house. As I packed, I thought the backpack would be easy to forget and that I had to be careful; it had precious cargo. Maybe that was on my mind when I left the house without two things that I looked forward to using on the 45-minute ferry ride: a full flask of coffee and my headphones.

I drove to the Orcas ferry terminal, parked the car at its free parking lot and walked down the hill to the terminal to catch the 10:30 ferry. Riding the inter-island ferry is always free to walk-on passengers and that was my plan. I’d walk-on and disembark at Friday Harbor where Jesse would pick me up and drive to his house.

By the terminal, there is a petite, but mighty, grocery store that makes espresso and delicious homemade pastries and I never miss a chance to grab a scone before boarding. Usually, the store is a hive of activity and a place where locals cross paths. When we first started coming to the island, I wanted to be someone who knew other locals in the store. It seemed like a rite of passage. On this trip, I got to be that person when I saw Allie, one of our first island friends. She and her partner, RJ, hosted the party that eventually connected us with Drew, our builder. Allie and I ended up sharing a ferry booth on the ride to Friday Harbor and both delighted in seeing harbor seals frolic along the way. The thought of missing headphones never crossed my mind. 

After we docked at 11:15, I disembarked and met Jesse for the short drive to his house. He’s currently renovating it and we spent the day cutting holes in walls, installing appliances and assembling furniture. As the day drew to a close, we planned to get a beer and early dinner in town before my 5:30 ferry and never made time to fly the drone, which sat safely in my backpack.

We parked in Friday Harbor and I decided to take my bag with me, knowing that I’d probably go straight to the ferry and that if someone stole it from the car, I’d never live it down. We ended up at a dive bar called Herb’s Tavern. And as we sat down, I put the bag in the seat next to me and noted that it was easy for me to see and remember to grab when leaving.

Over a beer and a Reuben sandwich, Jesse and I reviewed the day’s work and talked about Seattle life versus island life. We used to be neighbors and I enjoyed having time to reconnect. In fact, I was probably so engaged that time got away from me. With the ferry departure time approaching quickly, we paid the bill and just before leaving the table, I looked back and said words that I hear consistently from Sachi, “Do you have everything… phone, wallet, keys?” Everything seemed in order as we rushed out the door.

In minutes, I was alone on the Tillikum wishing I had my headphones when I realized that I’d made a huge mistake. My backpack, with my drone, was still sitting in the chair at Herb’s Tavern. Shit. It was the one thing I needed to remember. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I could only think about Sachi rolling her eyes. Sadly, this is not out of character for me. I called Herb’s and had them store the backpack until I could return. The bartender said he’d place it in the locked “liquor room” and asked if I’d be back that night. Heh. No, I would not be back that night. I was was on the last ferry to Orcas Island.

Most people have left something at a bar or restaurant that required retrieval. Usually it involves a u-turn or a short drive. But this was different. I left something on another island. I’d have to spend hours taking a ferry to retrieve it. What a mess. I arrived home that night with a sheepish grin and a plan. The next morning, I would repeat the entire ferry process, with one exception. I would attempt to disembark in Friday Harbor, grab my backpack and board the same ferry, bound for Orcas. 

The next morning I left home with nothing but headphones, a full flask of coffee and a bit of stress that I could get off and back onto the ferry in time. Like the day before, I went to the store for a scone, but they were out. But I did see Ezra, someone I knew from the island. I told him about my plan and he shrugged as he said: “Well, there are worse ways to spend the day than on a boat.” I had to agree.

Once again, I was on the 10:30 ferry to Friday Harbor. In our region this time of year, the sun never gets very high and it seemed to follow me around the ferry as it wound its way through the islands. I switched from one side of the boat to the other to escape the glare as walkers circled the deck to get in a bit of exercise. I recognized a few people but talked to no one. I was on a mission.

As Tilly approached the terminal at Friday Harbor I called Herb’s to ask them to have the bag ready and they were happy to oblige. Perhaps I was not the first person to attempt the ferry gambit. I waited with a few dozen walk-on passengers for the gate to open and rushed to Herb’s to get the backpack. Thanks to my call, the bartender had my bag ready and handed it off like a relay as I rushed back to the boat. If I missed it, I’d have to wait three hours for the next one.

The waiting area at the terminal was empty when I arrived because the other passengers had already boarded. Would they still let me on? As I made my way down the loading dock with the vehicles, a ferry worker motioned me on and I breathed a sigh of relief.

Once I made it to the passenger deck, I accounted for everything. I had my backpack, my coffee flask and my headphones for my fourth ferry voyage in two days. I sat listening to music and watched as the islands passed by my window like a movie. This trip was a result of a careless error and was a waste of time, but I didn’t mind. There are worse ways to spend a day than on a boat.

the passenger deck

If you’d like to read about another ferry ride, check out Aboard the Elwha.

Why Orcas Island? Why now? ???

Why Orcas Island? Why now? ???

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

Why Orcas Island

Answering the question, “Why Orcas Island?” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Within that question are bigger questions like, “Why move?” and “Why move to an island?” along with smaller ones like, “Why Orcas, specifically?”

We’ll start with the former.

I think a lot about where our happiness originates and what we can do to keep it flowing. Over our many years together, Sachi and I have become accustomed to changing our lives (and our business) to support what matters to us and what we believe will make us happy. At heart, our move to Orcas Island is a change that we hope sets the stage for future happiness.

While acquiring property and eventually moving to Orcas seemed to happen quickly, it felt like it was a long time coming. As we both approached our forties, our perception of city living started to change in ways large and small. 

Access to nature and the great outdoors is one of the reasons people move to Seattle and it was something we valued. We love being able to drive a short distance and find ourselves floating in the ocean or a lake, climbing a mountain peak or stepping deep into the forest.

In recent years, we’d spend a few days without leaving our home office and say, “Let’s go for a hike!”, which seemed simple enough. But then, we’d think about rush hour traffic leaving town and how to avoid it. We’d choose times and locations to avoid crowds.

And it wasn’t just the outdoors. An evening out might include more traffic, finding (and paying for) parking, shuffling through elevators and escalators, crowded trains, standing in lines, etc. These things aren’t new, or unique to Seattle, but our perception of them was changing. We found ourselves choosing to tune out and stay in more and more.

As much as we love the city, we longed for something different. We imagined living in a smaller place, with fewer people, that still offered access to the outdoors, good food and some of the amenities we enjoy. We imagined being more self-sufficient and finding happiness in simpler pleasures on a day-to-day basis.

Further, aside from connections to our friends and neighbors, we had no formal ties to Seattle, like corporate jobs or kids in school. We started to ask: what’s next?

Looking back, there was never a time when one of us said, “We should move to an island!” but I now believe it was inevitable. Sachi, having grown up in Hawaii, has island living in her DNA and has always imagined a return to that life.

In fact, on our first weekend trip away together, we went to Orcas Island. There, by a beachside fire pit, she told me that she would someday live on Orcas. At the time, I’m sure I just smiled. Sure you will. That was nearly twenty years ago.

Below is what Sachi posted to Instagram the day we officially moved to the island.

Sachi posted to Instagram

Living on an island has always been a romantic notion in my mind, but not one I thought would become a reality. It was never even real enough for me to consider, before the move, the trade-offs and consequences.

For example, Orcas is not big enough to be fully self-sustaining. Most of the island’s population depends on boats that bring supplies like fuel and groceries. This begs the question: what happens if the boats stop coming? You can’t just drive to the next town. This reality has bred a culture of preparation and self sufficiency into Orcas that wasn’t obvious early on.

The price of this isolation is also true for healthcare. The island has family doctors, a dentist, optometrist, vet, etc. But if you need anything specialized, or if something serious happens, getting to a hospital can be a trial. That’s why many people, including us, have airlift insurance.

And some of the retail conveniences of city life are scarce. In Seattle, we could walk to grocery stores and coffee shops. We now drive at least 15 minutes to reach them, when they’re open.

In the winter, much of the island has limited hours or shuts down along with the tourist industry. When the long, wet winter arrives, residents convert to a cozy interior lifestyle. As they say… in summer, it’s Orcapulco, in winter, it’s Orcatraz.

But, it’s a trade-off. We were prepared to deal with whatever came our way because we were seeking change. We knew it wouldn’t be all rainbows and unicorns and that’s part of the fun

Within months of getting the Yurt, we were driving back from a hike with our friend, Tony, who asked, “Why Orcas Island, not another island?” It was a perfectly reasonable question, but not one that I had actually considered myself. To us, Orcas seemed like a given. 

Today, two years later, I stand by most of my response. I told him that we had always loved the island and that Orcas checked more boxes than any island we’d found.

loved the island

It has a combination of natural beauty that is spread across mountain peaks, hiking trails, lazy lakes, rural farms and rocky coastlines that are just a few minutes away.

The View from Mount Constitution (2,400ft)
The View from Mount Constitution (2,400ft)
Moran State Park
Moran State Park

There are no chain stores (aside from a bank), no stoplights and traffic only appears when the ferry arrives. Most businesses are owned and run by people who live on the island.

Buck Bay Shellfish
Buck Bay Shellfish

It sometimes seems like there are more boats than cars and thankfully, the waterways stay traffic free.

Deer Harbor
Deer Harbor

And seeing wild animals is as easy as taking a walk by the water or paddling into the Salish Sea.

An upside down harbor seal
An upside down harbor seal

Orcas has four airports (one on land), and remarkable restaurants and bars that rival any in the city. All in 55 square miles and a few thousand people.

But there is something else about the island that is difficult to define. Over and over, a single word appears on social media in reference to the island: magical. Our friend (and Ready for Rain reader) Carter recently used it to describe his visit.

Soon after we moved, we had a short conversation with a friendly server over lunch and she said something I think about often. She said, “Something I love about Orcas is that it’s a small, rural place, but it has an open mind.”

Coming from Seattle, that felt like what we wanted. And she was right. A few nights ago, we attended a Dolly Parton-themed drag show in a tiny craft cocktail bar called The Barnacle. That kind of event doesn’t happen in many small towns. Maybe that’s part of the magic?

Amenities aside, there is one factor that mattered above all others: being a part of a community. One of my biggest worries in moving to Orcas was not finding people like us. This, we knew, was one of the most important sources of our long term happiness and without it, we may not last. I started to ask about it and everyone said the same thing: your community is here. It’s instant. You’ll find it or it will find you. Today, I am amazed at the accuracy of those words. Our social lives are fuller than we ever expected.

Orcas Island continues to feel like a launch pad for the new life we were seeking. The trade-offs seem minor compared to the possibilities. Now that we’re two years into the adventure and knee deep into a house project, I can only say that we have zero regrets. We are more convinced than ever that Orcas is the place for us. 

Once we have the house done, we imagine executing the idea that first drove all the change. We’ll be in a place, both geographically and in our lives, where we can live a new kind of life, at island speed.

Living the Half-Life ? ? ?

Living the Half-Life ? ? ?

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

There is something undeniably romantic about having a second place and that romanticism is not lost on us. We dreamt about having a place on Orcas Island and in purchasing the Yurt, we got to see it happen. We’re fortunate and have no regrets. 

But, in owning the Yurt for over a year and splitting our time between Orcas Island and Seattle, some of the shine has worn. I suppose it was inevitable that the notion of an island getaway would come face-to-face with the realities of owning two homes in two locations. In short, there’s pleasure, but also an unexpected bit of pain unrelated to home maintenance or yards to mow.

Unlike the second place I knew growing up, our time on Orcas Island tends to be longer term. Because we can work from the Yurt, we can stay for weeks at a time. We essentially split our time between Orcas and Seattle in big chunks, which I realize sounds like a dream. But the choice to live in this way has had an impact.

I think about it like this: by splitting our time between Orcas and Seattle, we’ve gone from having one full life to having two half-lives. We are not fully available and invested in either place.

This is most apparent in our social relationships. Going back-and-forth means that our friends can never really count on us being around. They may consider asking us to get dinner, but assume we’re at the other place. And there is a 50% chance they’ll be right. That’s not a great way to carry on a relationship or feel that you’re part of a community. This is something we feel more and more.

The same is true for our own plans. We don’t know, more than a month ahead, where we’ll be. We can technically commit to being in Seattle or Orcas if we need to be, but there’s always a chance that a far-off commitment on the calendar will create a ripple effect with unknown consequences. Should a dinner date with friends in a month be the deciding factor regarding where we’re living at the time? This question causes us to hesitate in making plans too far into the future.

Of course, having a second place comes with more practical concerns. We’ve been able to outfit the Yurt with an impressive assortment of second hand resources and now have two of many things. A phrase that we’ve come to use to describe this situation is “Twice the sheets, half the sleeps”. Put that way, it seems so wasteful. But that’s the reality of having two half-lives.

At a smaller scale, there always seems to be something missing that’s either at the other place or packed in some unknown box. In Seattle, I discovered that we had two staplers and no staples. We had a drill, but no Phillips head drill bit. A brown belt, but no black one. Small things matter, too.

We’ve found that we can pretend we have one life by hauling a number of things with us back and forth every trip. An example is our coffee maker and grinder. It’s expensive and makes really good coffee. We don’t need two, so we bring them with us every time we commute. To ensure that the travel doesn’t limit my productivity, I always travel with the tools of my work: my computer, drawing tablet and pen, a microphone for voice-overs, and cords aplenty. Sachi’s work is all computer related.

Coffee in the car as we wait for a ferry
Coffee in the car as we wait for a ferry

Over time we had to come to terms with an odd question: where is home? With everything being split, we learned to think about it in terms of things that we had chosen not to duplicate. For a while, our printer was in Seattle and it was a part of running our business. Did that make it our primary home? Is home where the printer is?

For a while, home was related to cooking equipment. Sachi kept the stand mixer in Seattle and the food processor at Orcas, so we could try to strike a balance between the two. What we eventually discovered is that it all comes down to knives. Home truly is where the good knives are.

It’s not that these are real problems, but they do matter. Living two half-lives doesn’t feel sustainable over the long term. It feels like we’d only ever be half-friends to people who matter and half-citizens to places we love. It’s the middle ground that feels so disorienting. We are never fully present or fully absent. It’s like living in a constant state of change where it’s difficult to establish a rhythm.

I know having a second place is a privilege and even if it comes with living a half-life, traveling with a coffee maker and not having the right color belt, we are lucky to have a chance to give these experiences a spin. It’s within this experience that we’re learning not only what’s possible, but what matters to us and how we might make changes in the future.

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ??

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night ??

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

It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

It happened on a Sunday night, just before midnight on Orcas Island. I was watching TV and about to fall asleep when I heard Sachi say, “Lee???” from the bedroom.

I replied, nonchalantly, “Yeah?”

Sachi then said words I didn’t expect to hear, “Someone’s backing up the driveway.”

At first, I was incredulous. Maybe she heard a tree branch fall or the door to the garage blowing in the wind. It didn’t make any sense that someone would be at the Yurt so late on a Sunday. I peered through the blinds in the bathroom to get a better look at the driveway and sure enough, a pickup truck was backing up to the garage. What the hell?

This wasn’t just any night. It was our first winter at the Yurt and on this night, the wind was howling as we’d never seen. It was like a movie scene where people are huddled in a cabin during a storm and when the door opens, the roar of the wind outside drowns out all other sounds until it is closed again. It was the kind of sound that overwhelms the senses.

My mind raced and my heart felt like it would beat out of my chest as I realized my neighbor to the north was out of town and that no one else should be on our driveway. We are one of a small group of homes on a gravel road with a clear “No Trespassing” sign.

I quickly ran through a few scenarios, none of them good. This person was surely backing the truck to make a quick getaway. What did they want? Would they steal something from the garage? Were they going to rob us? Why else would they be outside so late in such bad weather?

Not knowing what else to do, I made up my mind to venture outside to investigate. I would be the first line of defense and try to mitigate whatever they were planning. Before reaching for the door, the thought occurred to me that I might need to protect myself. Earlier that night, I had used a little hatchet to split wood to make kindling for a fire and the hatchet was beside the wood burning stove. I grabbed it, took a deep breath and stepped into the gale.

As I approached the driveway with the hatchet in my hand, I saw the truck door open from the driver’s side. This was the moment of truth. Who was this intruder? Was I about to go into combat?

The first thing that appeared was a long white beard and the wave of a hand. This was an older guy who was saying something I couldn’t hear enough to understand. Seeing him making friendly motions, I quickly stuck the hatchet in the small of my back so he wouldn’t see it and walked closer. We met at our deer fence and had a short conversation in the form of yelling short proclamations over the roar of the wind and rain.

It turned out that he was Arthur, someone we’ve come to know as a friend and fellow potlucker on the island. He was on our road to check on our neighbor’s house while they were out of town. He saw our light on and was coming to check on us, too. He wanted to be sure we had a chainsaw in case a tree fell on the road or our house, and wood for the fire if the power went out. I told him we had everything covered and that I appreciated him checking in.

Relieved, I went back inside and sheepishly put the hatchet back by the stove. Sachi and I laughed at what was clearly an overreaction.

I recently recounted this story to our friend, Boris, who grew up on Bowen Island near Vancouver, BC. Bowen has a lot in common with Orcas and he couldn’t help but give us a hard time. He said that on islands like Bowen and Orcas, the only reason someone would come to your house during a storm is to check on you. This is especially true for people known to be new to the island. It’s how the world works in small, more rural places.

Looking back, it’s obvious to me that we were, and still are, shaking off city life. We were on guard and prepared to assume the worst in a questionable situation. Though I’ve never had a problem or used a weapon of any sort in Seattle, we know people who have had incidents. Anything can happen in the city. You learn to expect the unexpected and think about security every day. After 20 years, I didn’t know any other way to react. So, I went outside with a weapon that now looks a little ridiculous in hindsight.

One day, I will muster the courage to ask Arthur if he saw the hatchet before I stealthily hid it that night. I’m sure he and everyone else on the island would get a big laugh out of that scene. Me assuming the worst, only to find it was Arthur, checking on us with the best possible intentions.

What can I say? We’re learning.