As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022.
Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.
At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.
Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable.
The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own.
Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires.
The Pig War
In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”
The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot.
As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years.
During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands. By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.
When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.
I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.
The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon.
Last winter Sachi and I were invited to a small house party to celebrate Chinese New Year. We knew the hosts, Nik and Natalie, but few other people. Eventually, I made my way into the kitchen and met a friendly guy named Mike who had an interesting story, like so many who end up on Orcas. He is a professional potter who trained in China’s porcelain capital.
Our conversation soon moved to the adjustments we all make in moving and how Orcas differs from other places. Along the way, he mentioned someone he knew who moved up from Seattle and was trying to adapt to island life.
We talked about transitioning to a more rural, small-town environment and how things are generally slower, farther away, and less convenient. Compared to the city, anonymity isn’t as possible and the scuttlebutt travels quickly. These are common observations. But Mike said something that I’d never heard before and it stuck with me. His friend was having a hard time with the dirtiness of island life.
Ever since, I’ve thought about that observation. Is it dirtier? What does that mean?
I remember experiencing this feeling before meeting Mike. Just after we moved, we were eating dinner at a cafe with farm-to-table food and cocktails. I asked the server for recommendations and she pointed to the menu with a fingernail stained with dirt. For a moment I was aghast. That doesn’t happen in Seattle. But on Orcas, it’s nothing. The cafe prides itself on growing their own food and it seemed like she came directly from the garden to our table. The food was delicious and dirt-free.
In discussions about the dirtiness of things, context matters. Dirt, in whatever manifestation, is relative and I saw examples of that in Seattle.
Like many places, Seattle is surrounded by rural farmland. When there are events in the city like concerts or festivals, people arrive from all over. As a city-dweller, it was always easy to tell who had arrived from the small farming towns. They arrived in big trucks and were dressed in a more country fashion, with jeans and work boots. But it wasn’t simply their clothes. Compared to city people, there was a dustiness to their appearance.
I remember noticing how they stuck out against the shiny urbanites and wondering if it was intentional or not. While I was perhaps smug at the time, I now see the contrast from a different perspective.
Orcas Island has nicely paved roads, but most people use dirt or gravel roads on a regular basis. Most houses are surrounded by natural surfaces like rocks, grass, ground cover, etc. This is true for us now and will be true for the new house. By simply stepping outside and driving off the property, you can’t help but collect some pine needles or dirt. In the summer, the gravel roads ensure a fine dust coats everything. In the winter, the consistent rain keeps everything muddy or at least splashy.
The reality of the surface became very real two weeks ago when we visited the construction site. I stepped out of the car and my phone dropped to the ground. Normally, this isn’t a big deal, as most surfaces are flat and a rubbery case protects the back and edges of the phone. But in this case, a rock was perfectly positioned to crack my phone’s screen on impact. Over a decade of having iPhones and this was the first cracked screen, thanks to living around gravel.
The dirtier experience of Orcas has also had a slow, but obvious impact on how I dress. The first time I noticed it was looking for new shoes. I realized that I may never own another pair of shoes with white soles. They are impossible to keep clean on Orcas. The same is true for pants and shirts. My recent selections tend toward the earthy tones. This is mostly a practical consideration because I can live with dirt as long as it’s not so visible.
The same is true for vehicles. In the summer, the dust is so thick on our back window that we have to use the wiper blade to see. It’s an inescapable element of living on a gravel road and we’ve grown used to it. In fact, we’ve come to see it as a strange badge of honor that differentiates us from the tourists who arrive in pristine cars. If you want to find a tourist in the summer, look for a shiny car.
This observation also works the other way around.
At the end of last summer, Sachi and I rode the ferry to the mainland and made some stops at places like Costco. When we returned to the car, I noticed that it stuck out like a powdered doughnut among a dozen glazed. Dust covered every inch of its exterior. Then, I looked down. My shoes were dusty and dirty. My fingernails weren’t clean. I realized I was now the person arriving in the city from a rural location and making a subtle statement. My former self might have wondered: Why is he so dirty looking?
This made me think back to the country guys in Seattle. They were arriving from an environment I didn’t fully understand. They were wearing what they wear every day and it’s the most practical choice for them. They didn’t need to put on new clothes (or airs) for the city people. The thought may not have even occurred to them.
When I broach the subject of dirtiness among friends, the discussion usually turns to the definition of “dirty” and “clean” and I think it leads to the right perspective. Orcas Island and other rural places have fewer paved surfaces than cities. More people work with their hands than with computers. There are very different expectations about clothes and general cleanliness. But is it really dirty?
Visibly, the answer is almost certainly yes. But that’s not the whole story. In Seattle, we could walk the dogs for miles and miles and never step off a paved surface. We’d come home wet, but not visibly dirty. Clothes stayed clean more easily and white shoes worked. Yet, the city, like any city, has its problems with cleanliness. There might not be dust and gravel roads, but there is pollution, litter, and detritus. In the winter, the wet muck from traffic is far dirtier, oilier, muckier than you’re likely to find on Orcas. There is pollution in the air from millions of vehicles that drip all sorts of things into the water, eventually. And I can’t help but think of the noise. Planes, sirens, cars, industry, people. It’s another kind of pollution, but not dirt. It’s a city, after all.
I’ve started to see that Seattle is dirty on a more invisible or microscopic level that’s easy to ignore. It is there, however, and now I am seeing an incontrovertible truth: everything is dirty all the time, everywhere. Sometimes it’s harmful and easy to ignore. Sometimes it’s harmless but visible. But we all live in a dirtier environment than we like to believe.
So, I think Mike’s friend has a point. Orcas can appear to be a dirtier place compared to the city. But the dirt is different. It’s more visible and washes away after a long day of work. It returns to the ground just as it was before. Being one with the dirt is part of the transition and how you become part of the island itself.
Shauna Swerland is the CEO of Fuel Talent, podcast host, and a very well connected entrepreneur, especially in Seattle. I loved being interviewed by her because it felt so personal. She asked questions I didn’t expect that led places never guessed we’d discuss.
The interview was more about me on a personal level than my books and I think you’ll learn about me from a different perspective on this episode.
Moving away from Seattle has shown us the wide variety of things we took for granted. It’s been a full year, and they seem to become clearer each day. In the city, trucks and sanitation workers arrived every week at our house and took away our garbage, recycling, and yard waste. The water from our taps seemed as infinite as the hole into which it disappeared. Natural gas was piped directly into our homes from a city-wide network that I never really understood. Is there a giant tank somewhere?
These features are not unique to Seattle, or any city really. These services (and taking them for granted) are a standard part of American life. It’s easy not to pay attention to garbage when a truck reliably takes it away.
Moving to Orcas Island was a stark reminder of how one lives without the services of a city. While there are waste, water, and gas systems on the island, they are mostly limited to more densely populated areas around Eastsound, the island’s main commercial area. Living where we do, twenty minutes from town, means we’re on our own for the most part. We use the same electricity and internet networks as everyone else, but that’s about it.
This means that managing garbage, for example, is something that has become a bigger part of our lives. Because no truck arrives to whisk it away, we transport it ourselves. There is probably no better way to get acquainted with the waste you and your family produce than collecting it, loading it into your vehicle, and driving it to a transfer station (or what some call “the dump”). It works like this for us today…
We have a couple of small trash cans outside the guest house for garbage and pet waste. The status of these cans is our indication that a trip to the transfer station may be required. Inside, we collect recycling in large dog food bags and store them in a downstairs closet the dogs can’t access.
We don’t buy beer in bottles anymore because they are big and heavy. Instead, most of our beer comes from refillable growlers or cans that are rinsed, crushed, and collected in a paper grocery bag. We could just throw them in with the recycling, but we recently learned that separating them is more cost-effective for the organization that runs the recycling service.
Like most people, we usually wait until the last possible moment to take the trash away. The closet where we collect dog food bags of recycling is tiny and used for other storage, including our little chest freezer. Three or four bags can make fetching chops for dinner a bit more difficult. Five or six become a problem.
Yesterday, we packed the car full of trash and recycling for the trip. This was the first trip with new waterproof floorboards and a cargo liner that protects the back. The carpet ones were not going to fare well in this situation. This will be even more important when crabbing season comes around.
On the way, I asked Sachi, “How often do you think we do these runs?” She said probably every two months or so. An SUV’s worth of trash and recycling every two months didn’t seem too bad.
The transfer station on Orcas Island is called The Exchange and has a beloved on-site thrift store where a bit of bartering is sometimes required. On my first visit, fresh from Seattle, I was not aware of this fact. I was interested in something and asked about the price. The attendant said, “How much do you think it’s worth?” I stuttered. While a colored sticker gave me a price range, I had no idea what to say and threw out a number designed to seem respectful and fair: $20. The person smiled patronizingly and said, “You don’t know how this works, do you?” Apparently, I had unknowingly high-balled in a situation where a low-ball was expected. Islanders cherish the idea that at The Exchange, you can pay what you can afford.
Using the trash facilities is based on the honor system. We pulled up to a small, portable office that had recently been retrofitted to include the now-ubiquitous plexiglass sneeze guard as protection for the worker inside. The smiling woman inside said, “Whatcha got?” and our reply was, “Two trash, one recycling”. This meant that we had approximately two 32 gallon containers of trash, and one of recycling. Our total was $31, which is about one-third of what the average Seattle household pays in two months. We paid by credit card and backed up to one of the multiple 48 foot long dumpsters placed below ground level for trash and recycling. After two months of collecting, it all goes away in less than a minute.
The whole operation is run by a non-profit called Orcas Recycling Service. The trash leaves the island by boat, is then transferred onto rail cars and transported to a landfill in Eastern Washington. We pay the highest rates in the state to get rid of our trash, so it’s no surprise that there is a huge emphasis on recycling and reuse.
All-in-all, it’s not a bad or expensive process, as long as you don’t mind being in the same car as your garbage every once in a while. Open windows help. So do pick-up trucks, which I can imagine being in our future. For us, it’s another form of self-sufficiency. We are our own sanitation workers.
This has been on our minds as the new house is coming together. For over a year now, our main trash can has lived under the kitchen sink. In the guest house, it’s in a corner cabinet with an awkward double-swing door. It’s fine, but the idea of a pull-out trash can seems like the pinnacle of luxury. Having a dedicated place for recycling sounds dreamy. We spend a lot of time dreaming these days.
The past week has seen the infrastructure of remote living take shape at the house. A 1000 gallon propane tank is now buried just outside the house that will help us cook and stay warm even if the power goes out.
Beside it is a big hole containing a 1750 gallon water storage tank which will fill with well water and give us a buffer if the well can’t produce for some reason. Yet another hole will soon be filled by a septic tank. As always, these holes were created with a noisy excavator. Our poor neighbors.
Between on-site propane, a well, a septic system, and our trash runs, we’ll be pretty self-sufficient in terms of utilities. Eventually, we’ll also have solar and start to eat away at the electricity delivered to the house. The fiber-optic internet connection will prevail.
Over the many years we expect to live on Orcas, one reality will remain. No truck will ever arrive to carry our trash away. We will always have to load it into a vehicle and take it to the transfer station every couple of months. I don’t mind. For us, it’s a game. We want to produce less trash and those runs are the metric. It feels like we’re doing our part as islanders to learn and experiment with ways to produce less of it.
It helps that today, taking the trash away feels like a field trip and a chance to be out in the world during a quarantine. There are friendly people there. And our masks… they help with odor too.
Less than a year ago, I left Seattle, a city that had been my home since 1998. I always loved the city and especially the feeling that I was a part of a big, bustling place that constantly changed. Just being outside meant being among people and vehicles and busses. There were always things to do and it sometimes felt like a race when a new bar or restaurant appeared. If you discovered it early enough or knew the secret time to go, you could beat the inevitable crowds. FOMO was a constant part of my city life.
In recent years the city seemed to change, and more than that, I changed. I suppose it has to do with growing older, but I came to see that another kind of life was possible for me and that I could be happy in a different context. I loved the bustle, but it grew less attractive over time.
This change in attitude manifested in a number of ways, including a decision to leave Seattle and move to an island off the coast of Washington State in 2019. Along with the personal side of this change, I started to think differently as a professional. In Seattle, I have many friends in the tech industry who worked for big companies like Microsoft and Amazon along with start-ups of various stripes. In the city, success is usually valued traditionally. Executives earn promotions and shares vest over time. Startups attract VC funding, a growing number of employees and the potential to make it big. Some friends have seen big exits, some are still working at it, others have moved on. This, too, creates a sense of FOMO. I sometimes felt that, despite owning a company since 2003, I might be missing out on this traditional version of success because we chose to remain a small, home-based business. An IPO was never something we saw happening.
As the idea of moving away from Seattle became a daily conversation, I felt my perspective change and with it, my perception of what represented success to me. Instead of judging my accomplishments based on peers in Seattle, I started to see that I had a choice. What if, instead of a growing startup and/or the potential of an IPO, I had the freedom to choose how I spent my time? What if I could devote myself to a healthy and sustainable lifestyle? What if I only needed a fraction of my city income to be satisfied and lead a fulfilling life?
Now that we’ve moved and my life has changed in fundamental ways, I can’t help but see that there is beauty in stepping off the treadmill of traditional measurements of success and professional expectations, and reevaluating what success means to me. This feeling is still relatively new to me and it’s not been easy to put into words. That’s why I’ve included the video below. The last part of the video (set to start toward the end) from The School of Life does a good job of presenting this alternative way of thinking. The first time I saw it, it spoke to me. Maybe it will speak to you, too.
We thought this day might come, but didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Last week the Hunter House in Seattle went up for sale. After 20+ years in the city, and over 15 years in that house, we are now permanent residents of Orcas Island with the Yurt as our home.
I realize this might come as a surprise and honestly, we’re surprised to be in this position. We didn’t set out to move to Orcas permanently, and we surely didn’t plan to sell the Hunter House. But here we are.
Getting to this point happened behind the scenes because the path was not clear until recently. In fact, it has been a long strange trip full of ambiguity, hope, worry and in some cases, despair. And we’ll get to that in future issues. But, right now we are taking our first breaths as bona fide Orcas Island residents and looking back with a bit of wonder.
When we first bought the Yurt in the fall of 2016, it seemed like a great second place and for a while, it was. We were lucky to have stumbled onto the property and quickly fell in love. But it didn’t seem like it could be our only home. Compared to our house in Seattle, it felt shabby and incomplete, at least initially. The bedrooms don’t have ceilings. The 1977 fridge, with its duct-taped shelf, could die any day. In winter, cold air seeps through the uninsulated floor. It has a smell. The list goes on.
As we stayed longer and longer with each visit, our perception changed. We’d been comparing the Yurt to the Hunter House and in that comparison, the Yurt could never measure up. It’s not and will never be a nice house in the city. What changed was our perspective regarding what we needed to be content. For example, in Seattle we had a 60” TV and built-in speakers that made movies an experience. At the Yurt, we use a 27” iMac from 2012 as our TV. We had to ask: does the size of the screen or quality of the speakers really matter? For us, the answer was no. What matters is the movie and who’s there when you watch it.
In the first year, I started to notice an unexpected feeling when the time would come to leave Orcas Island. It was a feeling akin to dread or at least a longing to stay put. As the date approached to pack the car, I’d feel myself wishing we’d planned to stay a little longer. In Seattle, it was just the opposite. I counted the days until we’d go back to the island. This feeling was the first indication, for me, that the island was pulling me in. Sachi says she felt this way from the very beginning. A friend on the island recently told us she used to cry when it came time to leave.
Slowly, we started to question the reasoning of having two houses. In the beginning, it was a luxurious feeling to leave Seattle and have another place to go. That luxury came with a price that put a strain on our finances. To make it work, we tightened our belts and lived as cheaply as we could on Orcas. We limited travel except for family events, cooked almost every meal at home and entertained ourselves as inexpensively as possible.
The real change in my personal perspective came when Sachi shared a spreadsheet that calculated the cost of our life in Seattle compared to the island. It was breathtaking. Until that moment, I was only thinking about the additional cost of island life, where things like groceries and gas are more expensive. These numbers told a different story by comparing two different lifestyles: city life vs. island life.
Aside from the obvious and significant cost of having two houses, it was clear that simply living in the city came with expenses that weren’t obvious when it was our only home. For example, we constantly spent money on transportation and parking in the city. A night out in Seattle could pay for a week or more of entertainment on Orcas. And the relative bounty of the city inevitably led to more purchases.
The message was clear. We could save thousands of dollars a month if we sold our house and moved to the island. It would be like having another income source in the form of reduced expenses. We both started to see that moving made financial sense.
For the first time, we got serious about changing our lives in fundamental ways and to be honest, the scale of the change made me nervous. Were we really going to sell our house and leave the city we’ve known for over 20 years? It just seemed so…big.
In these situations, Sachi and I have different perspectives. She is incredibly pragmatic and rational. In the context of big decisions, she sees emotion as a liability and a recipe for unintended consequences. I suppose it is her rationality that allows her to be free from worry or fear of the unknown when it comes to the future. Once she rationalizes an idea, she dives in head first and never looks back. Case in point: her belief that we could find a way to pay for the Hunter House renovation despite evidence to the contrary. Her always-forward perspective is a superpower and we’re both better off for it.
Oddly, there was never a specific moment when we said, “Let’s sell our house and move to Orcas!” and high-fived. It happened much more slowly and lived in the world of “probably” for months as I waded into the idea. It was in this phase that Sachi started packing in earnest. Every trip from Seattle to Orcas moved a bit more of our lives to the island. A box of dishes from the kitchen, a few tools, and a living room chair. Before I knew it, the assumption that we’d probably move had done much of the heavy lifting, both physically and for me, emotionally. My default setting is overly optimistic, but I needed the help for this load.
As I waded deeper and deeper into the idea, the ripples from Sachi’s dives helped me adjust to the new temperature. Eventually, I grew comfortable enough to dive right along with her and soon changed my perspective from nostalgia about Seattle to anticipation of a future life on Orcas Island. Always forward.
Once we both understood we were fully committed, all sorts of wheels started to turn. The to-do list we share via our phones seemed to be endless as we prepared the Hunter House for the market. After expanding to outfit a second place, we faced the task of contracting into a single, much smaller, yurt-shaped home. It was a blur of activity that didn’t seem to stop until a few days ago when we officially arrived at Orcas Island as full time residents. What a feeling.
For now, we’re both still adjusting to the idea that, for the first time since we’ve been together, we no longer live in Seattle. And it’s nice to know that Sachi, after 25 years away from Hawaii, is once again an island girl.
Ready for Rain is the title of a popular essay I wrote a few years back (included below). To me, the name relates to the season changes of the Pacific Northwest and a perspective Sachi and I share. Below is the original essay:
Ready for Rain – Why Seattleites Crave the End of Summer
It’s raining in Seattle today and tomorrow. This should come as no surprise to those who know the reputation of this part of the world. But in fact, this rain is special. It’s the first storm of the year; a harbinger for a change of season that strikes at the core of how it feels to live in the Pacific Northwest.
You see, this time of year, I want it to rain for days. I want an atmospheric river to roll off the Pacific and slam Seattle with precipitation. I want to look at the weather map and see greens, yellows and oranges. Thankfully, I live in a place that makes the timely arrival of rain an absolute certainty.
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.
This is my 15th Seattle winter and I anticipate the return of rain more each year. For me, it provides a sense of relief, a return to normalcy, a time to get back to real life and get things done.
To understand why this is the case for so many Seattleites, it helps to understand the reality of Seattle weather.
Our summer really begins on July 5th when, like clockwork, the darkness is replaced by remarkably consistent sunshine and warmth. Our average high in July and August is around 75 degrees and the sun persists for weeks.
Seattle is often drier than Phoenix in this period because we don’t get hot or humid enough to have many thunderstorms. It’s glorious.
All that comes to an end around October 15th, when after three months, the sun yields, once again, to clouds and rain. This season brings with it a constant state of dank mossiness. Precipitation falls, but it often seems less like rain and more like a cool mist that surrounds you. Perhaps it’s for this reason that Seattleites rarely use umbrellas (it’s how we spot visitors). A good Gore-tex jacket is the standard.
Between the misty days, winter storms can produce inches of rain in the city and feet of snow in the Cascade mountains. Mount Baker Ski Area, less than three hours from Seattle, holds the world record for annual snowfall with 95 feet of snow over 1998–1999. Accordingly, Seattleites adopt a more indoor and/or ski-mountain lifestyle that lasts into spring.
April and May bring warmth and longer days, but the cloudy darkness often seeps into June.
Relief — Sweet But Fleeting
After months and months of darkness and rain, it’s no surprise that the arrival of summer sunshine is a huge relief for everyone in Seattle. We’ve earned it and a whole new lifestyle can begin again.
But the arrival of summer sun comes with an obligation, a duty to make up for lost time, a need to squeeze every drop of fun from a few months of long warm days. It’s a feeling of pressure, pressure to make the most of a fleeting resource.
In some ways, summer in Seattle is like a romantic long-distance relationship. Think about it this way:
Two lovebirds, separated by geography and time, plan a glorious weekend together. For weeks, they plan diligently for making the absolute most of their limited time together. It will be nirvana.
When the day finally comes, it’s amazing. They are so relieved to finally, at long last, be together. Over delicious meals, long walks and private time together, their enjoyment becomes mixed with anxious feeling that gnaws at them.
A kind of pressure builds. The tick-tock of the weekend clock gets louder. Every minute they both feel the need to do more, to make the weekend that much more memorable. They ask:
Is this what we should be doing? Is he/she having fun? Are we making the most of our limited time together?
The pressure has a way of adding stress to what is supposed to be a glorious, carefree experience together. By the time the weekend is over, tearful goodbyes lead to a bit of relief. The pressure goes away. What’s done is done.
And so it is with summers in Seattle.
Seattle’s short summer is a kind of long distance relationship we have with the sun. We spend months anticipating its return and all the time apart creates a real sense of urgency. Every summer day, bright sun arrives around 5:30am and whispers to me “I won’t be around for long, make today count!”
In July and August the whole city comes alive. Sundresses appear in parks along with the lilies. Instagram becomes full of wilderness hikes, boats and BBQs. It is glorious… and the pressure starts to build.
We Ask: Am I taking advantage of this time I’m given? What can I do to truly make this summer special?
By September, the shine of the sun isn’t new but the pressure remains. Grass turns brown, trees droop and something becomes clear. Like a weekend with a distant lover, no amount of planning or activities will actually be enough to truly take advantage of the time we have with the sun. Nirvana is always just out of reach. But we try and try.
For me, the pressure is really a feeling of guilt. When the sun is out, I feel guilty about being indoors because a summer day indoors is a summer day wasted. By the end of September, I just want to sit on the couch and watch a movie and not feel guilty about it. I want to wake up without the pressure.
Let the clock tick — I am ready for rain.
Thankfully in October the rain returns and with it, a sense of relief. I can finally relax. I can feel better about being indoors. I can wake up and feel warm at home in front of the fire on cold wet days.
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.
Each Better Than the Last
The long, dark Seattle winters do something to me. They make me forget what it’s like when the days are long and warm. The bare trees make it hard to imagine the lush Seattle spring.
And then, just as it becomes too dark for too long, the promise of a sun-kissed rendezvous returns and the great maximization begins again — along with the pressure. It’s a cycle I’ve come to love.
I do look forward to the sun, but it ends just in time, because in my heart, I also love the rain.
[Part one of a three part series. Read parts two (destruction) or three (finishing)]
In 2003, Sachi and I bought the smallest house on Hunter Boulevard, the street where we now live in Seattle. It was a craftsman style house, with the main floor and a finished basement courtesy of the previous owners. We soon considered it our long-term home and got married in the back yard. We planted trees we hoped to see grow to adulthood.
That house, or the version we knew in 2003, is no more and this is the story of what happened to it… and to us.
At first, we just wanted a better bedroom. At the time, it had room for a queen sized bed in the corner and a tiny 1920-sized closet. It was sufficient, but we imagined the luxury of having an attached bathroom and closet — a master suite. This could be a relatively small project, we thought, just a small addition.
Our first step was contacting John, an independent architect we knew through close friends and another small project. John was the first to alert us of the realities of our plans. In Seattle, a structure can only cover one-third of a property. Our house already covered most of that area and prevented us from adding any more area to the house’s footprint. In words that we would come to remember as a turning point, John said, “Well, you can always go up!”
This idea set off months of discussion between Sachi and me. It was 2009, a couple of years after Common Craft videos had become popular and our little business was doing better than ever. We were constantly working with clients to make custom videos and had as much work as we could handle. We were in a position to make an investment in our future. It had to make sense financially but also needed to contribute to our long term happiness. Because our home was also our workplace, it made sense to invest more than we initially anticipated.
Having justified a bigger investment, we had to figure out the scale of the potential project and the logic went like this… If we wanted to “go up”, it would mean taking off part of the roof. If you take off part of the roof, you probably can’t live there during construction. If you’re going to move out, then why don’t you take off the whole roof and make it all worthwhile?
It seemed big, but rational. As long as we could devote ourselves to completing enough Common Craft projects, we could cover the costs of a construction project. It also helped that the Great Recession was in full swing and contractors were more affordable than they’d been in years.
Over many months with John, we eventually came up with a much bigger plan than we first envisioned. What started as an idea for a master suite was now a complete second story on top of our existing home. We planned to turn the main floor into an open floor plan entertaining space and build a master suite, two bedrooms and a bathroom on the top floor. We would have to move out of the house for over a year to make it happen.
This was, by far, the biggest and most complicated project we’d ever tackled and it became a second job. We’d go straight from making Common Craft videos to meeting with John and then to research on fixtures and finishes and flooring before bed. It was dizzying and often exhausting.
At first, looking at house plans felt like trying to read another language and it gave me stress to make decisions based on a language I was just starting to understand. John was helpful and with his advice, we made a thousand decisions, all rooted in the basic question: what do we want?
Early in the planning, I wasn’t sure what we wanted or how to go about finding an answer. A question like, “How do you want the cabinet doors to open?” would send me on a quest to learn about the latest innovations in cabinet door hardware. I learned quickly.
Frustration soon turned to fascination. Decisions started to build on one-another and inform other parts of the house. A decision on window trim was connected to decisions about interior doors and door hardware. Door hardware connected to faucets in the bathrooms and on and on. We spent untold hours saving photos from Google Images that represented pieces of a puzzle we were solving together.
Each decision came with long-term, real-world consequences. We would literally have to live with the choices we were making, like the dark color of the wood floors, which we soon learned didn’t match the color of dog hair. The list decisions seemed to go forever. Where should the outlet be? Should the door open to the inside or out? What do the stair railings look like? What kind of fireplace do we want? How wide is the front door?
The process became more and more of an obsession for me. It was like I discovered a passion that was dormant up to that point; a new outlet for being creative and thoughtful. I wanted nothing more than to think through house decisions, learn about the options and design the place in which we’d live. I was consumed by it.
And I wasn’t alone. What was new to me had always existed in Sachi. She grew up with her mother being a realtor and through countless open houses, she developed a strong sense for home design. I saw glimpses of it early in our relationship when we’d go to an open house and she’d say things like, “If it was my house, I’d take down that wall between the kitchen and dining room, move the fridge by the sink and put the oven on the wall opposite the window.” At the time, I’d just nod in agreement. My brain was not yet tuned to that frequency.
The Hunter house project gave me all the tuning I needed and in this project, we became even more of a team. We would lie in bed at night imagining, one day, finally experiencing a three-dimensional version of all the decisions we made. The anticipation of that experience and trying to make it work was a source of anxiety, stress and real happiness. Happiness, for us, lives in precisely that kind of anticipation.
When I wash dishes and look out our kitchen window, I often sneak a peek into our neighbor’s house. It’s hard not to, as our houses are close together and the blinds on their family room are always open. They sometimes see me and wave through the window. It feels a little voyeuristic but is really a factor of city life. We live near people.
Our neighborhood of Mount Baker in Seattle isn’t downtown, but you could walk there. It’s a typical residential neighborhood, organized by blocks and tenth of an acre lots. Having lived at the same address since 2003, we know it well and count many of our neighbors as close friends. We’ve grown used to being, to one degree or another, a part of one another’s lives. We know when they leave for work, forget to put out the trash or are up later than normal. And like looking through our kitchen window, it’s mutual. We all live parts of our lives in public, by default.
The thought of living in public had never occurred to me until we started spending significant time on Orcas Island. Traveling back and forth brought the differences between island and city life into sharp relief. The city began to look different after each visit. People seemed to be everywhere, all the time. And there were so many things to do. New restaurants to try, shows to see, people to meet. What I formerly took for granted suddenly seemed new, and I had to ask myself: is this what I want?
Returning to the island also felt different each time. Island residents often say that when they arrive on the island, they let out a sigh of relief. I know the feeling, but never really understood what, specifically, made us both feel that way.
The best I can tell, it feels like pressure being released. For me, part of that release comes from a feeling that my daily life is more private. We have neighbors on Orcas, but I couldn’t throw a rock to their houses. Their windows don’t face directly into our kitchen. They don’t notice when we come and go, or when our recycling bin is too full. For the most part, my life feels like it happens without watchful eyes, and the pressure is off.
The relative privacy we feel, of course, comes with a cost. We may not live in public while at the Yurt, but on an island, being watched and judged is inevitable over time. And unlike the city, we’re not one of a million people. We can’t just blend into the crowd. Word travels fast and those who feel they are keepers of the island’s culture soon learn who is doing what, when and where. We’re learning that keeping a low profile and adapting to the island’s ways is best for newcomers like us. Orcas Island is a place that gives us that choice. Unlike in Seattle, we can choose to live in private.
Further, there is a feeling of relief that comes from there being fewer demands on my time on the island. There are festivals and community events every week, but it’s not like Seattle where there are dozens on a single night. By simply being in the city, I feel I’m obligated to take advantage of the bounty. I can’t seem to escape the feeling that I’m missing out, even if I choose to stay in. My FOMO is as real as it is irrational.
I don’t know if it’s my age or purely the experiences on the island, but I’m far more drawn to a life outside the city than I ever imagined. For the first time, I can empathize with people who want to get away and live in the woods. I can imagine a life with less convenience and greater self-sufficiency. I find myself asking: if I had to choose between island and city life, which would I choose?
There are no easy answers, but I know the relief we feel when rolling off the ferry is real and relates to having a choice to live more privately. It’s a choice of adopting a slower, more deliberate pace that depends less on a city’s events and more on an appreciation of nature, a small community, time with friends and honestly, feeling good about not doing much at all.
I was there to take photos of a world record-setting implosion in Seattle. Something much bigger happened instead.
To Seattleites, the Kingdome was a cultural icon. For over 20 years, it was the mostly-beloved home of the Seahawks, Mariners, and SuperSonics. And on this day, March 26th, 2000, it was becoming a pile of concrete rubble.
Thanks to a friend who was working construction on the Newmark building in downtown, I had access to a rooftop with a clear view of the dome. I arrived, set up my camera, and took in the view as people filed in.
Just before the main event, a friend tapped me on the shoulder, pointed toward the door and said, “Is that… Eddie Vedder? Wait, and Chris Cornell?” Sure enough, we were sharing the roof with cultural icons of a different sort; the lead singers of Pearl Jam and Soundgarden, respectively.
After we all had a chance to ogle the gods of grunge, there was a countdown, a crack of dynamite, and a calamitous roar as the world’s largest implosion by volume commenced before our eyes.
After the enormous cloud of dust blanketed the city, I dropped off film to be developed and packed my bags for travel that night to Las Vegas, where I was attending a conference for customers of my employer. At the time, Sachi was a work friend and nothing more.
On the second day of the conference, I found myself with a few hours to kill and asked Sachi if she wanted to join me in touring Las Vegas. She did and I soon learned that she was a more-than-qualified tour guide. Her family, like many in Hawaii, made Las Vegas a common mainland destination and she knew it well. We rode the Tower at the Stratosphere and the roller coaster at New York New York twice, so we could get a good souvenir photo:
Spending time with Sachi outside of work helped me see a more authentic side of her and one that I enjoyed. We didn’t just kill time, we had fun together.
That night, the company had an event that led to a group of conference-goers, Sachi and I included, heading out for a classic night of Vegas over-indulgence. And we did indulge, thanks to a salesman who, in a move that was later deemed controversial, bought drinks all night on a company card. We danced, we drank, we laughed. I remember wanting to dance with Sachi more than anyone else.
Sometime in the wee hours, we grew tired, and Sachi and I broke off from the group for the night. On the way out of the bar, we bid goodnight to our dear friend Sandra, who today claims she could see, at that moment, sparks starting to fly.
Fortuitously, a single elevator serviced both floors where we shared rooms with colleagues. And it was on that short elevator ride that we had our first kiss. Sandra was right. I could barely sleep.
The next day, I flew back to Seattle and met my parents at the airport. I was scheduled for shoulder surgery in two days and they arrived to help me through the process. As we settled into my small apartment, I asked about going out to dinner and an idea occurred to me that, looking back, may have been a bit hasty. I could invite Sachi!
That night, Sachi and I had our first date… with my parents. As we dined on upscale Chinese food at Wild Ginger, I got to know Sachi right along with my parents. My Mom was relieved to hear Sachi likes dogs. I learned Sachi studied microbiology at the University of Washington and liked football. We were off to a good start.
Looking back, those few days in the spring of 2000 were among the most exciting of my life. I was coming off of a difficult start in Seattle and finally feeling at home. My roots in the city were starting to grow and in Sachi, I had rays of sunlight and sparks. Lots and lots of sparks.
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.