Preparing Drywall for Paint ??

Preparing Drywall for Paint ??

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

Friends, if anyone tells you that painting a house with fresh drywall is a pain, believe them.

A Return to Dust

When we volunteered to paint our house, I realized that I had no idea what that meant. We’ve done a lot of interior painting, but never starting with new drywall. I pictured a couple of days of rolling nice white paint onto walls as the sun shines in and birds chirp in the background. We’d be like happy people in a movie, with jaunty painter’s hats and hilarious splashes of paint on our faces, dancing to our favorite songs. Oh, the joy!

I’m not sure I’ve been more wrong about anything in my life. To understand why, take just a moment to look around the room you’re in, or imagine your bedroom, for instance. There is a strong possibility that you’re surrounded by drywall on walls and ceilings. In a majority of houses it covers every room, including the ceiling. It probably looks nice and consistent, if you’ve ever noticed it at all.

Those easy-to-ignore walls, at some point in the past, went through a process that I didn’t know existed. Getting them ready for paint was more work than I ever imagined and I will never look at a wall the same way again.

Ceilings are the WORST

The initial challenge we faced was dust. After the drywall was hung, the final step for the drywall team was something called “skim coating”, which means applying a thin layer of compound to every surface in the house. That layer is then sanded to create a “level 5” finish.

When we entered the house to start the paint project, it became clear that it was actually a multi-day dust removal project. It was piled up on the floors of every room and caked onto every wall. It turns out that skim coating is actually dust with a bit of moisture. All you had to do was blow on it and see the cloud that appeared. Before we could paint, every wall and ceiling in the house had to be dust-free. Part of me didn’t think it was possible. Had there been a mistake?

dust removal project

Over the course of the first day, we used respirators and leaf blowers to blow out the dust in huge clouds. Once it settled to the floor, we swept or vacuumed it up. I assumed a couple of passes and we’d be done. I was so very wrong. The entire house ended up requiring multiple passes using multiple tools.

Once we had the bulk of the dust removed, we started to brush the walls and ceilings. For me, that meant using a soft hand brush to remove the more stubborn dust without scratching the drywall. I developed open wounds on my knuckles from hitting the wall so often. Those wounds left streaks and gashes on the uncured drywall that didn’t escape Sachi’s attention. I was causing problems.

stubborn dust

After hours of blowing, vacuuming, and brushing we made headway that was marked by not needing the respirators. That was a relief. But the real work was about to begin in the form of wiping dust from every wall and window frame with damp cloths. Again, think about your home and what it would take to touch every surface multiple times. The cloths had to constantly be cleaned in Home Depot buckets of water that burned the wounds on my knuckles.

By the time the sun set on our second day, after nearly 10 hours of work, we were down to the final room and I was so very tired. It felt like gravity had become more powerful and was pulling my limbs to my side. The cloths became weights as we both stood on ladders and wiped tall ceilings.

wiped tall ceilings

This situation had the potential to become volatile as we both felt the strain. I started to anticipate how we might end the evening, or rather, how I could prevent us from working deep into the night.

Dust removal was not the end of our work. The next phase was masking the windows and doors and that would be a whole new project. I assumed we were reaching a stopping point and would resume the project the following day, but hesitated to ask. By 6pm, I had to bring it up. My worst fears were realized when Sachi said she was just about to start the masking process next, that night. I was incredulous. She offered to stay for awhile if I wanted to go home. I could “make dinner”, she said. Right.

I was not about to surrender. In my mind, I was standing up for a reasonable path, but to Sachi, I was just tired and feeling deflated. Either way, I resolved to change her mind. At the root of the issue was an expectation we set with Drew that on Monday, the windows would be masked so we could start painting. It was Sunday night and Sachi keeps her promises. Not being able to deliver on our work was a personal affront. My perspective was that there were no promises. The instructions we received didn’t come with a timeline. The work takes how long the work takes. The fact that I was hungry and exhausted might have added some extra spice.

Sachi relented with a requirement: we would continue the work at 7am. “Sure”, I said. Anything to go home. I thought to myself, having won a small victory, “We’ll talk about that later.”

We finally closed up shop and made it back to the guesthouse late for dog dinner. They barked at us more than normal. Our clothes were so drenched in dust that we disrobed at the entry.

drenched in dust

We fed the dogs, showered, stuffed our faces and had a drink. As I melted into my chair, Sachi turned to me and said, “I’m setting the alarm for 6:30 in the morning.” Ugh. I sank an extra inch. I wasn’t sure I could get out of the chair, much less the bed. Not knowing what to say, I was silent for an awkward moment as I collected my thoughts.

We had put in two long and exhausting days and achieved a lot. Getting up at 6:30 was not required because we still had so much work to do. No one would even notice if we were there early. I wanted to get a long night’s sleep. Did we really need to?

Sachi’s response, as usual, was well-reasoned and this time, I relented. Her point was that the earlier we got started, the earlier we could finish. She reminded me of a quote we often share from Lawrence of Arabia, “The trick is not minding that it hurts.” The alarm stood. I hoped for multiple snoozes. 

In what seemed like minutes, Monday morning arrived in the dark and we kept pushing. We arrived at the site by 7:30 and started masking the windows. The bulk of the hard work was complete and we were on the road to painting.

That day, I thought about spending our time on the house being a kind of strange vacation. We were working on the house for a number of days and doing very little of our normal work. Yet, it was still in service of the same goal. We might not be focusing on Common Craft, but we are applying our time to a project that we would otherwise pay others to do. We were taking on a challenge that we could celebrate and learning about the process. We were part of the construction team. Sweat equity pays in unconventional ways. 

Through the sweat and blood and strained emotions, I’m left with a couple of thoughts. First, if someone asks you to help them paint a house starting with fresh drywall, ask many questions. Painting is the easy part.

Second, I’m left with a deep appreciation for the people who do this work every day. Not only is it hard work, but it’s work that requires skill, precision, and dedication. More than ever, we appreciate the work of tradespeople, whose work is bringing our house to life. For the framers, drywallers, plumbers, electricians, roofers, and the team of carpenters who are there every day, I have new respect and admiration. What looks easy is often more work that you can imagine.

I Can Recommend

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix). If someone suggested watching a limited series about a female chess prodigy, I might not have taken that advice. I don’t think of chess and TV making compelling companions. Yet, I loved this show.

Amazing Race (Amazon) We’ve watched the Amazing Race for years and recently discovered that there are 29(!) seasons of the show on Amazon.

Fall of Civilizations (Podcast) I love a good history story and award bonus points for stories about collapse. This is a well produced podcast that takes deep dives into fascinating collapses from the Han Dynasty to Easter Island. One of my favorite episodes was the first one, about Roman Britain.

Dog Time…

Piper knows how I felt after dusting for two days.

Dog Time

That’s what I have for now. Thanks for reading! If you’d like to support my writing, pick up one of my books. Cheers!

The Grinch on the Hill ??

The Grinch on the Hill ??

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

The Grinch on the Hill

Walking distance from our property on Orcas, there are a few roads that lead up into the hills. When we were new to the island and still understanding how things worked, we decided to drive up into the these hidden neighborhoods, see what the properties were like and get the lay of the land.

Like many neighborhoods on the island, the first one we explored had a nice sign with a creative and slightly pretentious name along with a small sign, that said “Private Road – Residents Only”. These signs are everywhere on the island, including on our road, but we had been told to ignore them in the past when looking at vacant land. Being bona fide property owners from just down the road, I figured we could do a little exploring.

The neighborhood on the hill is small, with maybe fifteen homes in all. Some are on the roadside, some have long driveways that lead back to unknown quarters. Just off the main road, we saw a small, moss covered sign that said “Wetland Trail” that had clearly been created by a neighborhood resident. This was the kind of thing we’d hoped to find; a new place to explore.

Just after noticing the sign, we came upon a man and woman doing yard work and I asked Sachi to stop the car. Being a neighbor, I thought I would introduce myself and ask about the trail and if we might be able to walk through it. Surely this nice couple would be open to helping a neighbor.

I knew something was off as soon as I made my way up the yard and got close enough to see their faces, which were glum and cold. I said, in my friendliest small town tone, that my name is Lee and I’m a neighbor. Still no smiles or waves. Not knowing what else to say, I started to ask about the trail and before I could finish my sentence, the woman said sternly, “Where do you live?”

I said that I’m just one road away and that we recently bought property and her immediate reaction was “So you’re NOT a neighbor. This is a private neighborhood and you need to have permission to be here.” Her words had the air of a mean school teacher. Needless to say, this put me on my heels.

I started to make nice and try to salvage some pride from the situation. But then I stopped. It was clear that this was a dead end. I was on her private property. My attitude changed in an instant.

Before she could finish the next sentence, I said “I see. Thank you and have a nice day.” and walked away with a stunned look on my face. As I did, I noticed that the man with her, who didn’t say a word, had a sly smile. It was like he had seen this all before. I ran face first into the buzz saw and he couldn’t help but marvel at the awkwardness of the situation.

As I turned around, she immediately switched into neighbor mode, probably sensing that I was offended. She started to tell me about the history of the wetland trail. Neighbors built it in… whatever. To me, the conversation was over and I couldn’t get to the car fast enough. Before getting in, I waved and said “thank you” and “have a good day” as if we’d just shared tea and told stories. It felt like the only thing I could do was be an opposing force. I could be nice, even if I knew that my every word dripped with sarcasm.

Once the car door closed, I sat back and took a deep breath as I recounted the event to Sachi. The experience was so far from what I expected that I didn’t know how to process it. Did I just stumble upon the grinch of Orcas Island?

This ended up being an important lesson for us both. First, we learned never to go into that neighborhood. I now consider it haunted. More than that, we’ve come to understand how private roads work on Orcas and what could have made that person so protective.

It starts with Orcas Island having a mix of public and private roads. The public roads are managed by the county and virtually everything else is managed by citizens in the form of homeowners associations. When we bought our property, we became members of a “road and park” association, which has a board, annual dues, etc.

Our association has about twenty members who live on a few contiguous roads owned by the association and not the county. They are private property and it’s up to the association to maintain them. That’s a big reason we pay dues: to have nice roads and a means to make collective decisions about the neighborhood.

It’s this issue of private property, associations and dues that caused the problem with the woman on the hill. She was right. We should not have been on private property. We were using roads she paid to maintain and if I fell and broke my leg on it, her association could have some liability.

The same is true for our road, which has only a handful of houses. There is a very clear “Private Road – No Trespassing” sign at the beginning of it. My dues paid for that road and now, I’ve become protective. When a stranger is spotted on the road, emails start flying. Who was that? Do Lee and Sachi have friends in town? There is no reason a stranger should be there.

While private roads close the island to many, their forbidden nature does add a bit of mystery to the island experience. As we’ve made friends, we’ve been able to discover, bit-by-bit, parts of the island that are intentionally hidden. With them as our hosts, we get glimpses of neighborhoods and roads that few tourists ever get to see. A ramshackle sign and gravel driveway can become a portal into a labyrinth of waterfront properties or houses perched on the top of mountains. That’s part of the fun. A house party can be an opportunity to explore, with permission.

Today, I can empathize with the grinch on the hill. She had a point. My experience with her reminded me that there are people who want to make friends and there are people who just want to be left alone. Apparently, I chose poorly. In recounting this story to our neighbors we learned that she has a reputation among those in the area.

They said, “Oh, you went up that road? Most of them are really nice, but don’t go as far as HER house. Yikes.”

From this event, I do take inspiration. If a friendly island resident shows up on my road asking questions, I’m quite sure I would explain the situation and why roads are private. But I’d also be nice about it. Is that so difficult?

Sharing a Brain ?

Sharing a Brain ?

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

I have a memory that seems inconsequential, but meant a lot to me at the time. We had just finished the Hunter House renovation and had friends over as a small house warming. After a quick tour, a handful of people were sitting on the couch in the living area. Our friend, Kate, who had visited the house before the renovation, looked around the room and said, “Like, how does this happen? How do you even start this kind of project?”

Having just lived through it, we didn’t have a ready answer.

Thinking about that question today, I think the answer is something like, “Outside of the resources, it happens by having a big idea of what you want and then making thousands of decisions to make it happen.”

From light switch locations to decking materials or the dimensions of a room, nearly everything needed consideration and eventually, a final decision. With the help of an architect and builder, we decided our way through.

It’s these decisions, big and small, that can represent a threat to a house-sized project and the people working to make it happen. If homeowners can make decisions efficiently and without drama, it makes everything easier. The project can stay on track because decisions are what often what breaks through roadblocks. Of course, the opposite is also true. If a couple can’t compromise and make decisions without anger and resentment, the project becomes more difficult. Roadblocks build up and eventually blow out the budget and schedule.

The one thing that gives us confidence in the context of a big, hairy project is our ability to make decisions without drama. We first noticed this when we traveled together in 2006. Travel has a way of amplifying relationships, in directions both good and bad. A day of travel requires decisions about what to do, where to go, what to eat, when to rest, and more. If you’re in a foreign country, it might include stress from not knowing the language, oppressive heat, questionable food and jet lag.

Before we ever made decisions about home design, we learned, via travel, to make decisions without hurt feelings. One of those methods was through understanding who cared more about a specific direction and giving them ownership of the decision. For example, if I was excited to do a hike and Sachi was indifferent, it was up to me to organize and make it happen. She would gladly go along and vice versa.

What makes this method work is a rule we established that keeps things on track. Under no circumstance is the indifferent person to express regret about the decision at hand. If a relationship risks explosion, agreeing on one course and then saying, “I KNEW we should have done the other thing!” is the spark that can set it off. Everyone must go with the flow and keep an open mind.

We also became more aware of situations that provoked one another while traveling. Sachi identified a combination of factors that can turn me into a petulant child that is something like this: hunger, heat, back pain. Knowing this, she worked to anticipate and mitigate those situations. I learned that we have different travel styles and that my need to “do it all” was not shared by Sachi and was making her feel weary and exhausted. So, I got used to slowing down.

Back at home, our decision making process was different because there was so much more consistency. Today, we spend nearly every waking moment with one another doing the same things. We work together, make dinner together, walk the dogs together. This everyday proximity, over a decade, has shown me that we now share a decision making brain.

In moving to Orcas and considering a new house on the property, all these factors come to bear in the myriad decisions required to make it happen. We share a brain, but also methods for getting through the inevitable disagreements. For example, Sachi cares more about kitchen appliances, so I follow her lead. I care more about lighting, so I own that part of the project. A shared brain that is working on different facets of the project means disagreements are relatively rare. We’re both working toward the same outcome.

Of course, it took time to establish the vision of that outcome. At the very beginning, I spent time researching houses on the Houzz website. I searched for modern houses that were designed around a view. I looked up single story construction and houses that were in our region. I learned about energy efficiency, green buildings and trends in architecture. When I found something inspirational, I’d share it with Sachi and explain what I liked about it. Sometimes she’d wave it off, but often, she’d say, “Me too, I love that!” When that happened, I’d save the image. Browse the images we collected.

A handful of images we found inspirational
A handful of images we found inspirational

It was these initial discussions that laid the intellectual foundation for the house on Orcas. We came to early agreement regarding the big picture. The house would be modern, with a lot of glass that focused on the view. It would be single story and have a flat or slightly sloped roof. It would be efficient and use long lasting materials. It would sleep up to six people comfortably.

That was our starting point. We wrote a creative brief for John that outlined, in big swaths, what we envisioned. Using that document, he could start to think about the design and propose ideas. He could help us weed out early ideas that were too expensive or didn’t make sense.

And we needed the help. When a house design is young, the sheer number of options is nearly overwhelming. Something like a simple garage requires a deep dive into how we’d likely use it. Should it be heated? What about running water? Skylights? We had never owned a garage, so we could only guess. I knew I wanted a workbench, but that was about it.

That’s the thing about decisions early in a house project. They come with risks. Until the results of those decisions exist in three dimensions, you’re never sure how it will feel to actually stand in a room or look out a window. All you can do is trust the professionals, listen to one another, and make decisions with the best information you can find.

In the end, if it works as planned, people may one day sit on the couch, look around and wonder how it all came together. And our answer may still be the same. It’s having an idea of what you want and making thousands of decisions that you hope will fit together in the future.

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.