Worthy Stove

TomsWe have been living in the house now for four months and there are still many things undone. It reminds me of when we were having one of the several disagreements with our next door neighbor about where exactly was the property line and we had to have the surveyor back to resurvey after the City had resurfaced the street thereby covering over the rather low-tech survey markers, otherwise known as nails. He is a tall, well-built, handsome older man who had to come several times to get the job done and shared with me once as we were walking down the street talking, “You know it will never be done?” “Really?” I asked, “Why’s that?” “They just never are.” I figured he knew whereof he spoke.

We are making progress, however. Like when they came and took away the bright yellow Tom’s porta potty out of the driveway right before Thanksgiving.

rain barrelThe thing that held us up the longest was the final inspection because on their first walk through they ruled that our rain barrel was a structure and, therefore, required a five-foot setback from the fence. That meant it had to be moved to the patio, which is where it sits still. After testifying before the Planning Commission and contemplating the weekly newspaper coming out to do an article on us, I was beginning to despair. I could imagine the article, “the poor homeowners, trying to do the right thing by conserving rainwater have ended up with their rain barrel smack dab in the middle of the backyard!” I worried that this was like waving a red flag at the City and its building codes. I finally called a halt after talking with our architect, Terry Latasa, who is also the Chair of the Architectural Review Committee. I asked him if they could make an exception in our case. “No,” he said, “local code will prevail.” He told me that when he had seen the Hoover Dam of rain barrels in our backyard he immediately thought it was too big. “You’ve done your part for water conservation with the grey water. Just get rid of it!” “But,” I whined “we have all the gutters slanted so they all drain into the rain barrel. I will ask for a smaller rain barrel.” So that’s where we stand now, waiting for the switch.

On the brighter side, we have had lots of rain so far this winter and the succulents are starting to bloom and show their beautiful colors. At my window after the rain when there are pools of water, the goldfinch flocks fall out of the sky, and the hummingbirds come to drink nectar from our striking fan aloe plants now in bloom.

front doorThings have been completed one by one. We now have a door bell! And you can download different door chimes like the Darth Vader theme song for everyday greetings, or Jingle Bells at Christmas. The door is brightly painted in International Orange, the iconic color of the Golden Gate Bridge. Also, at our front door was an item saved from my mother’s house right before the demolition. I really had not wanted to go in the house beforehand. Somehow it was too sad, or weird, or spooky. But Allan Aasen, our builder, prevailed that I should take a look and make sure there wasn’t anything and, sure enough, I did find a little monarch butterfly light that my mother had in the garden, and a block of polished stones that my father had made and my brother and sister and I had signed the back of, which now is embedded in our front porch.

DiningRoomOf course, a big addition has been the furniture. For example, the dining room table, plans for which were drawn by Laura Michaelides, our interior designer, and which was built by our cabinet maker Carlos Paniagua.

loftThe cushions for the banquettes arrived, and the loft ladder. And the first two children we had to visit, ages four and seven, scampered right up and they slept handily in sleeping bags on the banquette and the carpeted floor with camp air mattresses to provide a bit of cushion. She, the most charming, of guests, opined that she would love to come again because the house was an “absolutely lovely place to visit.”

kitchenThe ultimate test for our happy home was the holidays. Our college friends from Germany asked if we were “buying that big stove just for Thanksgiving?” Obviously, she thought it would be a little crazy to have a whole stove purchased with just one meal in mind. “But of course,” I replied, “because that’s the one time when everyone in the family is sure to come home!” The stove proved worthy of the test. Not only that but unlike our home in Houston, here there is plenty of room for a crew of helpers.

We had some love issues over the holidays. Harry and I had had our share of disagreements just getting settled in the new house, but, since the girls now bring their loved ones too, the air is fraught with potential for the long term relationship. So, we try to be on our best behavior—no criticism allowed. At Thanksgiving, we always do the bit where you clasp hands before the meal even though your plates are laden with food that your mouth is watering to taste and instead you must go round and say why you are thankful. Harry looked so proud when I credited him with the vision to build the house. I said I would never have even thought about doing it on my own, but that we had done it together every step of the way. Even though now, with the decline in the stock market, we wonder if we should have spent quite so much money, we do love it.

recliner and sofaLove prevails! The other day I was sitting in the signature recliner looking out at the ocean and who should walk by, but this tall handsome man, with a dog I know very well. The handsome man, walking and talking with a woman was Harry. The women peeled off to go home and he and Charlie trailed down to the beach and I watched them walk so far I could barely see them until they walked out of sight over the dunes, down to the beach. It caught my heart by surprise how much I love him and how destroyed I would be if he never came back? But he did return and I told him my epiphany and he beamed to hear I still think he’s handsome and how much I love him.

So, dear reader, I believe we have come to the end of this tale. Thank you for sticking with me these past 18 months. I cannot say I’m retired yet as the Third International Convocation of Unitarian Universalist Women is scheduled for February 16-19 at the Asilomar Conference Center here on the Monterey Peninsula. Until then I need to focus all of my attention on making that happen. But, I’m in the place succulentwhere ultimately we will both be retired. We have already made a good start settling here and finding a new church home at the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula where I started on the church board earlier this month. Thank you all for reading and commenting on this
blog and being such wonderful friends!

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The Listening Jar

We have been in the house for two weeks now and it has been crazy, but also wonderful. There are so many things left to do that I have not been able to glance anywhere for more than a second without focusing on something else left undone. But there have been wonderful moments too, like when the piano arrived although I couldn’t play much at first because I do not play by ear and there are only a few pieces of music I have memorized. But, when I did find some music, I immediately sat down to play. In kicked muscle memory, after a year of not playing, and away I went from the frustration of the move.

It certainly has helped now that the packers label the boxes by room and contents. Still, I could not locate the knives and forks. How do they always manage to get those in the very bottom of the last dish carton? Oh my aching back!

hydraulic crane

Hydraulic crane lifting furniture onto the second floor.

I missed one of the most exciting moments on move-in day because, of course, I couldn’t miss my writers’ group. It was the hydraulic crane that lifted our appliances and sectional sofa from the street, up and over the deck railing onto the second floor. But then again, there were things undone:  out of eight appliances, on order for months, one still has not arrived and three others were not working after the crane had hoisted them and then gone back to the land of cranes. We had to schedule an appliance repairman to come out a week later and repair them. Most annoying was the stove where the installers couldn’t get the door to open. Allan muttered under his breath it was on a cleaning cycle and, sure enough, when the repairman came last week, he set it to clean and then quickly turned it off and voila! Open, says me, and out the door came, to reveal a shiny new broiler pan without any grease inside.

This brings up another worry for me, the cleaning. Yes, already the new house must be cleaned. As a former hotel maid in my high school years (and I could still visit those motel rooms today and hear them cry out for my hospital corners, learned while a candy striper), I can tell you I don’t mind cleaning a bit, in fact I like it. However, when I trail around my dear husband who has never had to clean a thing in his life (thank you, dear departed mother-in-law), it sets up a knot of fear in my stomach for the slow deterioration of these beautiful new things all about us. The sectional sofa is my particular concern. It only cost about a million dollars and was made especially to fit Harry who loves to lounge upon it, because for the first time he feels normally sized. But, he puts his dirty feet up–for he refuses to wear slippers and there is still plenty of sand and debris in a beach house!

18-year old Alice

18-year old Alice

Then there is Alice, our 18 year old cat, just out of the Kitty Hotel, where she has been living for the past six weeks. We have had no caterwauling, no hair balls, and no kitty litter box in all of that time, sigh. But we needed to get her home because she was down to only four pounds. I am happy to say she is eating well, seems to have put on weight, quit screaming and now has the run of the house which of course includes her favorite place, the sectional sofa. After I sat on it last night, the back of my black pants was covered in downy, white cat hair. She has become venerable in my book, however, so I have to relax about it. Still I am ever vigilant in the hunt for how we can keep up the cleanliness lest everything be stained before the parties we are planning for our contractors, neighbors and church friends.

I don’t want to wait too long for this because Allan has already disappeared, gone to a new job in Pebble Beach, damn his two-timing heart! I thought it was so sweet when he called the evening that we moved in to ask us if he should bring us a space heater, since the heating system isn’t yet working. He has been back too to install a temporary handrail when he saw I had fallen on the metal brackets that are waiting for the permanent hand rails. But, other than that he’s pretty much gone although his handsome sons are still here working on the back porch and fence. When he stopped by once we told him we had a list of things that weren’t yet finished and he put his hands up. He said, “Don’t even start. I know full well all the things that still need to be done. I can’t sleep at night for thinking about all of them. Wait until I get those done and then present me with your list.” “But,”  Harry said, “do you know about the split in the glulam beam.” “You mean the second one from the kitchen on the window side? Yes, I know about that and so does the painter. We’ll get to it. Don’t you worry.” And then he was off again to his new job in Pebble Beach. Sniff, sniff…He was over this past weekend to install the front door lock and fix the fan that was clicking in my study.

Trombone Shorty at Monterey Jazz Festival 2015

Trombone Shorty at Monterey Jazz Festival 2015

Instead of going into a frenzied cleaning at the end of that first week, Harry had purchased tickets to the Jazz Festival which takes place over a weekend. So instead we went to the Fairgrounds, just a half mile away and the next hill over to hear Trombone Shorty who held one note forever through circular breathing using the air stored in his huge cheeks (photo); Diane Reeves with her mighty voice that spans three octaves; Chick Corea on piano playing a 16th Century Scarlatti piece with Bela Fleck on the banjo; and Nikki Hill in her tight black jeans with her band and lead guitarist husband, dressed in high heeled boots and shaking her large afro to the beat of Sam Cooke’s Twisting the Night Away. I had my water bottle with me that afternoon and it was resonating with the sounds, like a listening jar.

Sunset Over Monterey Bay

Sunset Over Monterey Bay

We came home that night to appreciate the beauteous things about the house– there are so many. The view, the view, the view especially at sunset. On the day we moved in the window cleaners arrived before I got there and had stripped off all the milky translucent coating from both sides of the windows that had been there since they were installed nearly nine months earlier. When I first walked into the house, it was like walking into a glass jar even with the lightly tinted Low-E glass blocking the sun’s UV rays still the views from all sides were crystal clear and each one unique and breathtaking. For Harry’s study windows that face the neighbor’s house, Dan, our landscaper, has even arranged that the vertical gardens were inset into the rock-faced side wall just outside his windows.

And the smell! You have heard of new car smell but let me tell you there is a new house smell as well! It smells of wood! And, at the same time it is particularly absent of those old funky smells, the kind that you get in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, part sewer gas and the other part smell from grime and grit and grease built up over centuries. The house is also especially quiet partly because everything is so solid and nothing creaks or squeaks, but also because every built in cabinet drawer and door is fixed with some type of pressure gauge that doesn’t allow it to slam. All of the careful planning has indeed paid off.

But then again, there are the boxes! Full of lanyards, and old papers, and my umpteenth staple remover. It’s the landfill issue again. So box by box we sort through the stuff.

Artisan Burlwood Furniture Factory, in Berkeley, with owner Jim Parodi

Artisan Burlwood Furniture Factory, in Berkeley, with owner Jim Parodi

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We went to San Francisco again and spent the night. We met Erica for dinner and the next day traveled over to Berkeley to the Burlwood Furniture Shop on Ashby where we met the owner Jim Parodi who, with his partner, has been making burl furniture for 43 years. The shop/factory is in a part of town with other building supply stores right across the street from a place called Urban Ore, full of used things where I had been with Erica on my trip to visit her and bought her a desk. This workshop, only half under roof, is where the trees are brought, cut into slabs, and then made into custom tables, furniture, and carvings and where they even forge metal trim pieces, such as the legs. We listened to Jim’s story about how he got started in the business which has now become an institution in the East Bay. He was recently interviewed by CBS in a story I had heard about even before we knew about this factory. The article was about vandals who had been discovered chopping burl wood out of live trees in the forests. Jim said the reporters came for his expertise, but that he had not wanted his name to be even associated with such a story since his factory uses only fallen trees, most of them street trees from the local area. We came away convinced that this is where we would purchase a coffee table for the living room, it will be beautiful and a perfect use of fallen trees. It will be a rugged piece where Harry can put his feet, or I can rest my glass of red wine without worry that we are harming it.

Things were getting sorted at the house. The washing machine seemed to heal itself so we could wash clothes again, Erica borrowed a truck and drove down to pick up her things that had arrived on the moving van from Houston and suddenly there started to be some space between the boxes in the garage. The Streamlife techies were there for days and finally we had TV, and internet, and Harry’s music streaming from the cloud. The back deck is nearly done, the fence is going up, and we purchased planters and boulders for finishing touches to the landscape.

Philip Glass Plays at Concert Program of His Etudes at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur

Philip Glass Plays at Concert Program of His Etudes at Henry Miller Library in Big Sur

Taking a break again from unpacking the boxes last weekend, again Harry had purchased tickets this time to hear Philip Glass, himself, and two other pianists play all 20 of his etudes. We took a bus down to the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur and there, under the redwood trees we had lunch, sipped wine, and listened to three hours of music that was sublime. My mind was empty save for the music which filled me to the brim, while colored lights played in my mind. It was a glorious afternoon and we went home prepared for the next week of painters, and roofers, appliance repairs, guard rails, and most importantly, the final inspection!

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Empty Fountain

University of California San Francisco at Mission Bay

University of California San Francisco Medical Center at Mission Bay

When I told our builder Allan that we would be gone for a day to San Francisco where Harry is being treated for prostate cancer, he said, “Oh,” a little wide-eyed, but then with a jerk of his head he said, “everybody’s got that.” We laughed about that often afterward. Harry fortunately seems to have the low grade, slow growing version of this cancer. He had a referral from MD Anderson in Houston to see an oncologist Dr. Porten at UC San Francisco medical center now located in a brand new facility in Mission Bay. It is down by the old docks in an area of the city that is being completely transformed by growth in all sectors including residential and retail but primarily driven by this new state-of-the-art facility that opened early this year. They have new treatments including one radiation treatment for prostate cancer which is done in only one day. So, it looks like we’ll be travelling up there every month for the next several months. And, we had a lovely time minus the driving part. (Is traffic every American city’s dirty little secret?)

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigis, Sunrise

J.M.W. Turner, The Blue Rigis, Sunrise

After leaving the medical center GPS took us on highways I’d never been on before and then led us over Portola Hill to the Sunset District where we had Korean lunch of bulgogi and bibimbap. Yummy! Then we went to see a special exhibit of J.M.W. Turner’s paintings at the de Young Museum of Art in Golden Gate Park (open thru Sep). Turner is one of Harry’s favorites. We had seen his oils and water colors at the Tate in London. Turner bequeathed most of his work to the nation. PaintingSetFree is a collection of his work mostly from the Tate but also from museums across the U.S. and from private collections. You could get lost in the depths of his water colors the multi-layered washes and details so sketchy and artful and yet so clear like this one of The Rigi at Lake Lucerne in Switzerland where he scratched in Jupiter, the Evening Star, with his fingernail.

We headed back toward Monterey for a most anticipated stop in San Jose at the Yamaha Peninsula Music Center, which hosts a complete line of Yamaha hybrid pianos, next on our shopping list for the house. We had decided early on that we would replace our grand piano with a much smaller piano, called a hybrid and made by Yamaha, about which we had read very good things in The New York Times several years ago. It’s called a hybrid because it has all the action of a normal acoustic piano, but instead of hitting strings, the action, like that in other electronic instruments, releases previously recorded sounds from speakers. In this case Yamaha got special credit for recording sound from “one of the world’s finest pianos.”[i]

Yamaha N2

Yamaha N2

We walked in thinking we would buy the NU1, the least expensive of the four hybrid models ($5,400). But, as the article had suggested we were prepared to listen to them all and compare the sounds because they felt the NU1 was not quite up to the tone of the first three. The manager let us try all of them and left us alone so that we could have time trying out each of the pianos. We were still comparing when he returned. He turned all of the pianos to the same settings and compared them for us. He gave us plenty of time to think it over. He was very knowledgeable about the pianos and knew musicians who love them because they are easy to move, impervious to climate, never need tuning and can be plugged into larger sound systems directly without fear of microphone reverberations. We left having bought more piano than we anticipated but the tone for us was by far and away the most important concern. Because of its deep and rich tone we decided on the N2 at $12,349 (including shipping and taxes). In exchange for the pricier piano (still considerably less than the Bosendorfer at $250,000, dear reader), Harry made me promise to take lessons which I am happy to do after not having played for the year that I have been in California.

We headed home over the coastal range, stopping in Watsonville for a couple of beers and lovely shrimp fajitas at a Mexican seafood restaurant and home and to bed by 9 o’clock. A very good day!

20150820_075436Things have been really hectic at the house. Allan is pushing hard to finish. At the beginning of this month it was officially one year of construction. Subcontractors are there every day practically stepping on one another:  tiles, floors, cabinets. Allan himself is doing all of the lights and he is there seven days a week. On Saturday and Sunday he says he doesn’t even bring his cell phone out of the truck because he has to concentrate utterly to install various light fixtures, plug molds, fans, switches and rheostats. He is an amazing guy. I shake my head at having to hold so many rules and regulations and so much know how in one brain.

He is now estimating that we could move in at the end of August. Harry has gotten fully into the swing of things and now both he and I work all day every day calling subcontractors, asking when we can expect delivery, paying off our final bills, and still making finishing plans.

The biggest finishing job right now is the landscaping because I figured out at one point that until Dan Finklea and his crew had laid down the pavers for the driveway, the movers would not be able to carry in our furniture without sinking into the sand under foot.

The landscaping plan remains a work in progress. In addition to the normal plantings, Dan’s contract includes the driveway, walkways, and patio in the back, a complex masonry wall outside our front door that includes vertical gardens, and an irrigation system. An issue arose in the last month about whether in addition to the grey water we had already captured on the first floor from baths, showers, and laundry, we would harvest rain water as well. And further how we could most efficiently deliver this water to all the areas of the yard. It turns out, even after adding a couple of rain barrels and pumps, we might still have to use potable water for plants on the second floor deck. This is not so much a cost issue as just a desire to use water most efficiently. But it has been a difficult calculation to estimate how much water we will need in a climate that is getting dryer. We estimate from grey water alone we will have a pretty reliable source of approximately 200 gallons per week or about 10,000 gallons of water per year. We have already plumbed for this and it will go to both sides of the house and, with the help of two inexpensive pumps, will efficiently move water to all corners of the lot.

vertical garden

Vertical Garden

By happenstance, our next door neighbor called me over recently, when we were in the midst of sorting out these plans, to show me a new 500 gallon rain barrel she had just installed herself, which was listing like the Tower of Pizza despite that she had laid down pavers in the sand as foundation. I was wondering to myself why she needed much water given what looked like xeriscape plants in her yard. She explained that the issue is the cypress trees on her lot which, in the year, before she had not watered and which a local arborist blamed for the tree contracting termites. This year she resolved to install the rain barrels collecting runoff from the roof, even though she had a new bug that the arborist explained came as a result of having watered. It’s a puzzlement.

Harry figured that if we had captured all of the rain from the one 4” rainfall we had last year in December, we could have harvested another 2500 gallons of rain water from our roof. So, after considering our options the most expensive of which was to install a huge tank in the ground for something over $10,000, we opted instead for a 2,800 gallon rain barrel in the corner of the backyard (est. $1,600). It will be above ground and we will landscape around it.

We had always planned to have a fountain in the backyard. We had seen one on a trip that we particularly liked made of small stones and we thought what a great way to collect stones from our journeys and bring them back to place in the fountain, or to ask our guests to bring a stone for the fountain. I have begun to think that because of the drought it would not be possible, but Dan assures us that the water will be recycled when we turn it on and it will make a nice addition to the backyard patio.

[i] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/05/technology/personaltech/a-stringless-piano-from-yamaha-even-van-cliburn-could-love.html

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Vanity Mirror

1434082811115In June after the sale of our house, I returned to Houston to move our furniture and things. Our daughter Erica kindly offered to help and, in the bargain, have a final farewell with her friends. This project had my name written all over it:  getting things sorted, cleaned, and organized. I had always loved the fable of the Three Little Pigs building tidy homes; even better was the cartoon of a cleanup crew that came in after the wolf. I can see these genes run in the family too, but it’s odd just where each person might start such a task. Our eldest for example cleaned her room by first dumping all the contents into a massive pile in the middle of the floor and taking from it only those things she wanted to put carefully back in place, the remaining heap destined for the trash. This is not generally how I start but rather, like my mother, with a massive sorting that involves endless trips down the hall. Erica had a plan for our moveout  with a precept that WE should not have to move anything at all. First we would have the movers take everything we had tagged, second we would sell the larger remaining pieces, and finally,what was left in the house, would be for the estate sale.  I was happy to defer to her as my ultimate goal was simply to keep things out of the landfill, although at the end of the day, I did have the number for 1-800-Got-JUNK.

20150611_143507With a few exceptions, it went smoothly. We even had some choice moments like when Harry discovered his 30-year old Macintosh in the furthest reaches of our baked dry attic closet under the roof rafters on the third floor. “Oh, he said those are selling like hotcakes on EBay.” I rolled my eyes at him, “Surely you are kidding! It’s 30 years old and hasn’t been turned on for the past 15 years that we’ve lived in this house, at least.” He wiped it off, plugged it in and up it started. Even the printer fired up to print on yellowed paper—the type with the little holes on the side.

20150613_115902We did not sell much furniture on Craig’s List and it dawned on me after the first day of the estate sale, when buyers quibbled over whether a candle should be $1 or $2, that when Harry and Erica left in just two days I could be there by myself trying to roll the marble wrought iron dinette set down the stairs for the junk truck. “Let’s rent a truck and take it all to Goodwill,” Erica suggested. She asked her friends to help and we were done in just a few hours. The best part was when her friend, a computer science teacher, said her kids would get such a kick out of that vintage Macintosh. She also took our most favorite piece of furniture, an antique oak dresser with a lovely vanity mirror.

Sunday, when Harry and Erica were set to leave, he noted there was a hurricane coming to town! I pinched myself for having saved $10 on Hotels.com by making a nonrefundable reservation for the next night, when the last mattress would be gone from the house. It was a slow-travelling storm system forecast to sit over Houston for days with the potential to trap me in flooding and stop air traffic all together. At the last minute the next morning, I decided to change my reservation, put the pedal to the metal and got the hell out of Dodge. I still had to take the computer equipment for recycling, stop at UPS to return cable equipment, and ship our eldest daughter her high school sports medals and memorabilia (that I trust will not end up in the dregs in the middle of the room some day). I had driven my husband’s car to the airport loaded with stuff he would drive out to California when he returned from his final business trip before retirement. I pulled into the airport bar with a couple of hours to spare and decided I owed myself a martini!ipe siding

Back in Monterey, however, we were stalled. When I returned the bank called about the construction loan set to close at the end of the month. “What are your reasons for the delay?” the loan officer asked. Out of a million possibilities, I came up with solar panels and changing the deck guard rails which required approval by the structural engineer. “That’s a very good answer,” he said, “we will grant you a two month extension through August.”

counter and tilesI hadn’t told him that the real delay was the cabinets, which has made Allan quite wild-eyed at times as we have had to express ship paint and stain samples half way across the country to our designer. This isn’t so bad when the answer comes back, “It’s a go!” But when it doesn’t, you cannot try again for a match until the one floor sample can be returned. Allan says the cabinets have delayed us five weeks. The good news is they are being installed now and they are beautiful as are the tiling and kitchen countertops and the Ipe siding.

Ahead is a commitment that will not come as easily as sorting out and straightening up. This week I return to Romania to be with my dear friend, Enikö, who is battling with cancer for her life. I wrote about her in a post last year, Sweet Spot. She is the wife of the retired minister of our partner church (of First UU Church in Houston) in Arkos, Romania. We have visited them almost every year for the past 15 years, and three of those visits were with our choir of nearly 40 persons. These have been highlights of my life and none of it would have been possible without Enikö’s careful arrangements and welcoming spirit. Even now, brought low by cancer, she says to me, “We wait your visit to Arkos.”

Eniko and JanosThis will be a difficult visit in part because Romania does not have hospice care or supports for cancer patients and their families. Doctors there are still inclined to decide “what is best” to tell a patient, while closest family members are advised not to say anything that might cause upset. Enikö is very smart, and from our phone calls she seems to have all of her faculties and still speaks English beautifully. I believe she knows that she is terminal and perhaps that is why she has asked me to come.

She has refused any pain medication to help her cope with the breast cancer that has metastasized to her brain. She can no longer walk. Her friend, Eva, from the village takes care of her during the day, along with her husband Janos, and her two sons and their wives who live in the village and help with home care. Janos and Enikö have asked me to stay with them for the four days that I am there. I wonder of what use I can be.

I will simply be present and try to be a comfort. Why is this such a challenge? It’s more than I did for my father when he died alone because I was too afraid to face his weakness and pain in the hospital. Ironically, a Navy veteran from WWII, he was always drilling me that there was nothing in life of which I should be afraid. Perhaps I can do better this time just by being there, and holding Enikö’s hand, so that together we might fathom the great beyond.

Trying to comprehend that void as a child so terrified me it first brought me to prayer. Again it was my father, a mathematician, who introduced the concept of infinity, perhaps prompted by some question of mine on one of our long walks. This was how I pictured death then, my little body hurtling through space. If my reticence to think about it now is any indication, I still cannot bear the thought. In preparation for the trip, I am trying to contemplate my own final moments, encouraged in my Buddhist studies by the maxim of Carlos Castaneda that, “death is our eternal companion.” As I exhale, each breath can be seen as a type of death, that moment gone forever. I hope when that moment comes for me there will be someone there to hold my hand; I am honored that Enikö has asked me to be there with her now.

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Hot Piano

As I sit here on a Saturday morning looking out the window at the fog that has rolled in blanketing the hills, and at the birds chasing each other in and around the dripping trees, I am content, and peaceful, and looking forward to a quiet day at home alone. I have work to do of course: writing, and cleaning, and laundry–the usual stuff, but I also have music to work on for church tomorrow, including practicing my recorder for the new recorder ensemble, and listening to Hillary’s Hard Choices on CD while I launch a new knitting project. I am a lucky woman. I struggle with feelings of unworthiness for such a rich life. Who am I to deserve so much, and why am I not a better, kinder person? Gotta keep working on that part!

Greg and Arek install Ipe siding.

Greg and Arek install Ipe siding.

I am looking back over the past 10 months since I moved here to Pacific Grove for the purpose of overseeing construction of our retirement home. You could call me an itinerant worker, moving for the work. But my original plan was that this would be transitioning step into retirement. I had planned to work on this blog chronicling the construction of the house and then I would continue to serve as Program Director of the International Women’s Convocation, my part-time volunteer job. Still I was leaving some of my Houston jobs as President of the Homeowners’ Association and my various volunteer jobs at church. I was supposed to be lightening my workload. Though, as you can see, I was busy filling my time with my hobbies, and agreeing to new volunteer jobs at church.

I did not know what to expect when I moved here last July. At some point soon after I arrived, I realized I had never lived alone before, even though this is now how the majority of adults live in the USA, and in this we lag behind other countries. [i] It would be the first time I had lived apart from my husband in 44 years. Harry and I had made plans to visit often and phone daily, but I don’t think either of us were completely sure how this would work for either of us.

I know I had visions of myself sashaying on shopping sprees down Carmel’s Ocean Blvd, but that happened just once. Instead, I have done so much walking with Charlie I’m now on my third set of walking shoes for which I have to have special insoles.

The surprise for me has been how much I have enjoyed being alone. It was originally what I had worried about the most because I thought I would be frightened and lonely. But I have not been either. Instead I have been peaceful and discovered things about myself that I had not known, or gotten in touch with things about myself that I had forgotten. For example, I have been able to do so much reading, something I loved to do as a child, but from which I can be easily distracted as an adult. In Houston, I used to joke when folks asked me how I was doing that I didn’t know because I hadn’t any time to check. But now I do have time and check in with myself and feel I know myself better for it and perhaps am more sure footed—though it might be the insoles. While daily meditation has not worked very well for me, I do give credit for being more focused, aware, and mindful to my foray into Buddhism these past three months which has included sitting weekly in a Sangha, or community. Through this I have found a new sense of compassion for others, and also a joy in living that I have missed over the past years and feared I had lost.

But in truth I have not lived like Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond. First off, I haven’t had my mother to cook for me as he did. But, like Thoreau, I have made new friends (through church though and not at the local pub)[ii]. But I have wheedled and cajoled my two walking buddies into going over to my favorite pub for a glass of wine and a quick dinner a few Friday’s ago after a walk on the beach. I could feel my anticipation growing as the day approached. And when we were together we had the best time. In fact I could hardly stop cracking jokes and we all laughed and stumbled home in the dark late. So, I have found new friends! What a joy! And then I was having so much fun laughing in choir practice a week or so ago that another gal I really am fond of said she would like to go out drinking with me too and go to the hot piano bar there at Mission Ranch! And this is all since I gave up my nightly glass of wine…there’s a message in there somewhere.

I think the experience for Harry has been quite the opposite. He has been lonely although in very different circumstances since he is not beginning life in a new place, but preparing to take his leave of friends in Houston. Unlike me he never seems to stand still. He is always going places, out to shows and concerts by himself. In truth he did give me both of our pets who keep me on a short leash.

5202 Crawford St, Houston, TX for sale

5202 Crawford St, Houston, TX for sale

Back to the story of the house, we have been going through some rather tense times since putting our house in Houston on the market, which we did in early April. There were so many decisions that were linked to that, one of which was Harry’s retirement. We decided it would make sense for various reasons for him to retire and move out here at the end of June, this month. But then, to our chagrin, the house didn’t sell. We have come to expect that a house will sell at internet speed, like a couch on Craig’s List. So, when a month passed and still it hadn’t sold even after we had dropped the price, we started to worry. Was this the one thing we had just assumed would happen so easily, that would now foil all of our well laid plans? I wanted to run my “worst case scenarios,” as I am prone to do when things are not working out as planned. Harry, ever steady, kept assuring me it would sell if we just kept lowering the price, as we were talking about doing a second time. But, I insisted that he get with Luke, aka Skywalker, our financial manager, who did find more of our money that he apparently keeps in places we don’t know about for just such times as this. That provided us a little breathing room in the knowledge that we could finish the house without having to sell stock which at this point in the year would mean paying half the proceeds in taxes.

When Harry came for a visit over Memorial Day weekend we had a great time together here in Pacific Grove. Erica came down too to pick up her friends who were in a sailing race from San Francisco to Monterey Bay.

Harry, 1985

Harry, 1985

I chose this as an opportunity to finally put together a scrapbook of her baby and childhood photos. She had asked me for this since I had made one for our eldest daughter, Samantha, when she moved away from home, but I had not yet gotten around to doing it for Erica. It was close to her birthday so I thought this would be a perfect excuse, not that I needed one. It was a wonderful experience putting it together. It is of her first 18 years (since, after that, digital photos took over and we quit developing rolls of film). To see her through the photos grow and change from a newborn to being a high school graduate not only buoyed my spirits, it awakened many, sometimes conflicting memories of good times and periods of stress in the life of our family. Overall it gave me a view of this sweep of time that showed Harry’s and my constancy and of that I was proud because that’s a large part of what parenting takes—just being there. But it also showed to me all the years when I had been so busy I could hardly look up to notice my very handsome husband captured in these photos. I watched myself in the photos age, and grey, and tire. Still we had shared many wonderful times together as a family.

Split king adjustable icomfort bed

Split king adjustable icomfort bed

On Saturday, Erica scooted off home with her scrapbook, and Harry and I turned to shopping for remaining pieces of furniture. To start with we would need a new bed. Our 15 year-old mattress at home had served us well, but it was time for us to send it on its way. The world of beds has changed for sure. Memory foam has arrived and promises you a stable platform so you will never be disturbed when your partner rolls over in the middle of the night. You can also buy the kind that keeps you cool so you won’t have to tear off the covers in the wee hours after you have heated the bed from freezing to sweltering, and it promises that you can lie on your side without putting your arm to sleep. But wait, there’s more. What about a bed that raises your knees, tilts you up to read, sits you up for TV, all the while massaging your lumbar? Oh you say, that’s too much in a bed. Suppose my partner wants to rumble when I want to meander off? Not to worry, get two twin beds that fit together with separate remotes and you can tango while he/she tumbles off. Never mind that we went out for the $1,000 Serta Perfect Sleeper and moved to the icomfort Serta Series for $5,000. We will definitely be spending a lot of time in these beds, no need to go to the hospital, just stay right at home where you have the better bed.

Ekornes Spirit Recliner

Ekornes Spirit Recliner

And then we found the perfect recliner to fit my husband’s large frame. When we first dated he used to tell me he was part Viking. Only later did I realize that’s not part of his DNA, it’s part of his Avatar. But, perhaps there is more to it because the chair we finally found is Norwegian, Ekornes, which comes in small, medium, and large and even has another plastic ring you can fit under the chair to make it a little higher off the ground. It fit him to a tee and I love the look of it, and so does the designer, who exercised her veto power over several other recliner models.

With the cladding of the garage door in Ipe details worked out, our house construction chores were finished for the moment and we met with new friends from church to show them the house and they congratulated us earnestly. It is looking pretty darn fine I must say.

But the best news came when Harry arrived back in Houston that Monday to find an offer on the house waiting for him. It was low, but when we countered, they came up and now we have a contract set, and we have since set a date for the movers to come. I am scheduled to arrive a few days before that to attend Harry’s retirement party in The Woodlands, and our daughters have both offered to come help us move and hold a garage sale.

So I won’t be by myself much longer, but I hope to keep with me the things I have learned about peacefulness and compassion and also finding more time for self-care on my road to retirement.

[i] Going Solo, Eric Klinenberg (Penguin Press, 2012), p. 5.

[ii] Ibid., pp. 7-9.

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Broken Idea

7 Dunecrest, MontereyWhen you tell people you are flying your designer half way around the country for a visit, they think you have money to burn. Truly, just building a house opens you up to a whole new spending league that I really didn’t want to be part of. While I cannot take credit for being especially frugal, it’s also true that I hate to spend money. We have been on a tight budget most of our married life, until about a year ago when my husband announced that, all on his own, he had saved a small fortune and I could now buy a Rolls Royce if I wanted to. Well, guess what, years of his glowering at me any time I got anywhere close to a store other than for groceries, worked so well that I can hardly take any pleasure in shopping now. Particularly as the prices have shot up since I’ve been away these past few decades. I now take pride in driving around my old car, which has plenty of nicks to prove it’s been on the road these past 14 years, and I count it a good week when I haven’t spent any money except for food though I can hear the meters ticking for gas, electricity, water, etc.

To her credit, the designer, also Laura, has always been clear with me that there would have to be a trip out to the site if she were to complete the project. (Could she possibly be suggesting I hire another designer in California?)  In truth, I have tried to make as many decisions without her as I could to keep my bill at a minimum. But, I will also say the project has been proof positive this is not my area of expertise.

Del Monte Beach

Del Monte Beach

She has given me a few tests along the way to see if I might be set off on my own. Like the time we went into this football field-sized plumbing store to pick out fixtures. We went to the faucets department and she asked if there was any one that particularly called to me. When I pointed to a massive farm like implement of unidentifiable metal with lots of twists and turns and joints on it, something akin to a water pump, she said simply, “No, that would be completely wrong for a contemporary house.” A few times since when I have tested out ideas it’s actually been a little like therapy. For example, while she was here, I divulged my secret plan for lighting that others in my entourage, who shall go nameless, had endorsed as a very fun idea. She replied dryly that she was familiar with LED colored light shows that she found to be completely “…over the top. However, if you want to spend $1,684 on that, far be it from me to stop you.” This conjured a scary glimpse of myself, wine glass in hand, at the living room window singing to all of the gawking neighbors “Let’s Give ‘em Something to Talk About,” while the light show played in the background–a truly broken idea. And finally there was the time I mentioned to her that a large overstuffed La-Z-Boy chair was awfully comfortable. She did play her trump card at that, “If you purchase that, please do not tell anyone that I designed your house.”

While the primary purpose of the visit was to select paint colors it would also entail meeting with all of the trades’ people to work out finishing details. Laura said early on that this is a small enough house it’s a little like a boat designed down to the smallest details, however, the biggest challenge is to create a sense of space where there really isn’t any.

Harley DavidsonSo the time was at hand and we identified days when she could fly out on the weekend so we were set to make the most of a day and a half on Monday and Tuesday before she flew back late that afternoon. I had set back-to-back appointments first with Terry Latasa, the architect, and Allan Aasen, the builder; but also the cabinet guy, the painter, the lighting guy, the floor guy, the granite counter tops guy and the tile guy, who came on his brand new Harley—I think to make Allan jealous, though there was some suggestion that I get on the back of it and go for a ride. I’m sure they were having a laugh at the thought of me trying to hang on, shrieking, as he gunned it down the street. Take heart dear reader, I declined the offer.

Things were going along pretty much as planned and we had most of the major meetings accomplished, when late Monday Laura said that she was going to have to come back for a second trip because there were just too many paint colors that she had not yet selected and too many pieces of the puzzle yet undecided! I called for an immediate cocktail break and a couple of large martinis at the most picturesque Mission Ranch (Clint Eastwood didn’t show again), and we reconnoitered.

I suggested we cancel all of the next day’s appointments so she could work exclusively on the paint selections. I promised to stand guard and not let anyone interfere with her thought processes and, voilà, at last she had it, with a full hour to spare for a nap before her long flight home.

Color Palette

Color palette: paint, backsplash, counter, wood floors, upholstery

I was really no help in any of this. I kept saying that all the colors looked the same to me and I could tell that only annoyed her. “No, no, no! Can’t you see the pink tones in that?” I said it looked grey like the others…”Can’t you see the green overtones in this?” she inquired. “Oh sure,” I lied.

But, it’s all a part of the larger color palette that she has been compiling since the beginning, which I must say is quite beautiful. It began with the countertops to which she added tiles and upholstery, floors and now paint.

I suspect that many in the all-male crew think designers are all about pillows and curtains. Laura has had to put them straight on things, while being nice about it. I have learned a great deal about her skills since we first hired her when I could not understand why our architect was asking me whether we would still be ordering our cabinets from a store in Monterey that sells factory-built cabinets. The price for just a few of those was the equivalent to a small addition on the house and they weren’t even of wood but of something called MDF, aka particle board. In the end Laura designed all of the cabinets, turns out this is her specialty, for every room in the house, all scratch built, on site, of wood “…precisely as I have drawn them in AutoCAD, please.”

She has also designed much of the furniture in the house, the signature piece of which is a sectional sofa, custom built in Houston to Harry’s comfort, upholstered in a fabric she selected as part of the palette. In the end she will have designed the dining room table, all of the desks and cabinets and three banquettes that will provide seating and storage in the dining room, sleeping loft, and master bedroom.

During the visit she made lots of decisions as planned and then many changes that had not been planned. And in between there were mind-numbingly complex conversations about construction details in which I was very much on the perimeter. I likened it to a finished edge in sewing. Keep in mind, I nearly flunked the eighth grade over a dress I had to make. My choice in material, like a bad pin cushion, showed every seam the teacher had had me rip out over the course of the semester. If you don’t know how a dress is put together, it is very difficult to understand the finishing touches that will leave you with enough selvage to make a finished edge, instead of a ravel of threads that will ultimately, I’m sorry to say, lead to the final undoing of all seams.

At the airport on Tuesday I gave Laura a hug and a kiss and waved good bye before heading back home for a quick walk on the beach with Charlie and then crawling into bed for a long night of much needed sleep. In truth I had been tired before she arrived just preparing for the visit. But, this has been true for most of my visitors for whom I spend days preparing.

I have been running something akin to a boutique hotel since moving here, now nearly a year ago. I actually had no idea I had so many friends or was so well liked. By my rough calculation, I have had a week of visitors for every one of the eleven months that I’ve been here, not including my husband’s visits. They have been immensely enjoyable, don’t get me wrong, but it does take preparation and organizing on my part. I have gotten it down to a rough science of breakfasts I can do easily; places that are good for views, cocktails, meals, etc.; in addition to honing my tour guide skills: routes in my head, park hours, basic history, rudimentary geology, etc. When my husband complained recently he was getting a little tired of going to the same places over and over, I reminded him that having to go to Big Sur again is not really a hardship.

EricaA word here about houseguests. Why did my mother never teach me how to be a good houseguest? I had one couple stay for 10 days, but, they were the easiest of all, because they knew how to be good houseguests. She took over the cooking and food shopping! She took me places I had never been before! And, even over my wimpy protestations to the contrary, she insisted that her husband would vacuum up their room on the evening before they left, which he did with a smile. He also led nightly discussions on church politics that were great fun. So, my longest visitors were in fact my favorites and they topped it off with a gift of binoculars (not the hugely expensive variety) that I dearly love.

For Mother’s Day this past month my lovely daughter came down. She is an easy visitor to have, and I can buy her gifts just as we do when she comes for Father’s Day. Perhaps it is another sign of old age when it really is more fun to give than to receive.

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Frightening Miracle

A few weeks ago when Charlie and I were out for our daily jaunt along Asilomar, “refuge by the sea,”[i] we passed a young man and woman wrapped together in the cradle of a jagged out rock, staring at the sea. Later, we met them on the trail, and the young man told me they had been watching a mother otter and her young, noisy pup for over an hour. I knew right away that I must hike back to my car and get the new binoculars. (Thank you house guests! Note to self: always take these with you.) We went back down where they had been sitting and, sure enough, there were the mother and baby.

The Monterey Bay has been reborn in the course of my lifetime.[ii] We humans had brought both fish and mammals to near extinction by the early 20th C. The very first to go were the otter that were hunted in the 18th Century for their fur, the densest of any animal. They were followed by the whale, hunted in the 19th C, then came the abalone, and finally the sardine. Infamous Cannery Row hauled in 250,000 tons a day at its peak.[iii] But each one of these near extinctions had a cascading impact on the ecology of the Bay. The fishing and hunting reached its apotheosis in the early part of 20th C when the sardine were fished to “commercial extinction,”[iv] and their remains dumped directly into the bay. That period has been likened to a Dust Bowl for the ocean. This is when the city earned the saying, “Monterey by the smell.”

Harbor Seals at Hopkins Marine Station

Harbor Seals at Hopkins Marine Station

It was Dr. Julia Platt, one of the first American women to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman mayor of Pacific Grove, who began the long journey of restoration by setting up a protected area in the bay at the Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. This was the first in a series of important changes instrumental in bringing back the bay and the sea otters, whales, sea lions, harbor seals, ocean birds and finally, even, the sardines.

The discovery of a sea otter colony at the mouth of Bixby Creek in 1938 was a secret kept closely guarded by naturalists who were fearful for them. Slowly over the next several decades the otter multiplied and moved north and finally back to Monterey Bay. The otter have been found by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to be essential in maintaining the kelp forests of the bay, which are home to a vast array of fish and other species.[v]

That day at the beach, when I looked out in awe at the mother and baby otter, I could not see the pup moving. It seemed to be lying like dead weight on the mother’s chest until she finally cast it aside and began doing somersaults over and over (a maneuver to trap air in their dense fur, as a means of keeping warm). The baby seemed cast adrift, floating lifelessly on the water. I had recently seen a Nova program on the Monterey Bay Aquarium in which they pair orphaned baby otters with foster otter mothers. From this, I knew how vulnerable both mother and pup are in the first hours after birth. So I high-tailed it back to get my cell phone in the car and call for help, only to discover I was out of range. I quickly drove home to call the aquarium’s otter rescue hotline. I thought it might be too late in the day, but the volunteer who picked up said the supervisor had not yet left and promised she would ask him to go by the address I gave. I intoned that I was a card-carrying member of the aquarium and that I was counting on them to do their level best. Perhaps that is why they called back about an hour later to say that the supervisor had found both mother and baby were doing fine. It was a frightening miracle that buoyed my spirits for many days afterward.

Electric Panel

Electric Panel

But later that same week I had another frightening experience though of a different sort, threatening to stop progress on our new house construction project. It happened just as our builder Allan was preparing for what he described as the largest inspection of the entire project just before they insulate and sheet rock the walls. It’s about wall guts:  wiring, plumbing, structural supports, etc.

When I offered to help, Allan suggested I might go to the City Building Department and inquire if all of our building plan changes had been approved. I blithely drove off in blue skies to City Hall downtown, secure in the knowledge that our trusty architect, Terry Latasa, chair of the City’s Architectural Review Committee, would have had matters well in hand., before he left the country that morning. As I waited at the counter of the Building Department, the plans inspector searched the files, and finally drew up out of the drawer an ominous looking yellow carbon copy. He knit his eyebrows together, looked at me without expression, and said the sheet indicated we would need another hearing before the Architectural Review Committee to approve plan changes.

“But,” I whimpered, “What would you have done if I hadn’t wandered in here today?” Unwilling to consider there might be a flaw in the system, he went to the back and produced a set of the rolled up plans that he said I needed to walk down to the Planning Department (about 20 feet down the hall), after they returned from the Noon break during which the office is closed. I dutifully arrived an hour later at the Planning Department where the yellow carbon copy initiated a frenzied, yet unproductive, search for the project file with the changes. By then I was having visions of it having slipped between filing cabinets never to be found again, when suddenly one of the planners noticed the signature on the yellow carbon. “Oh this is Terry Latasa’s job! We know that has been approved.” Voilá the paper was found in a remote special basket. It had been approved, and, more importantly, determined that we would not have to have another public hearing.  Sigh…

We were not yet ready to call for the super inspection either. Allan was nearly finished with the massive wiring job on the house. As a last step, I was tasked with videotaping each portion of the wall to mark the locations of wire for the audio and computer network; the alarm system, thermostat, high voltage, low voltage, and the sprinkler systems. We were almost finished when, once again, my husband threw in a monkey wrench. “Suppose someday,” he asked, “we get an electric car?” We would need a high voltage plug for that in the garage. Allan was ahead of us, however, and was just finishing up that special hookup of his own volition. But then came the real stumper, what about wiring for solar? Harry insisted he had always wanted that foundation laid for the future though we were not yet ready to install solar panels. After a very high-cost estimate and inconclusive deliberations, we had decided to put off the decision to the future.

Zac Judkins

Zac Judkins

Allan said he could not install wiring for a system for which he had no particulars. I suddenly had an idea that we should ask our daughter’s friend, Zac Judkins, a managing engineer for SunPower, one of the two largest US solar companies, and the industry’s efficiency leader.[vi] SunPower has been in existence since the mid-80s, although its largest profits are now driven by utility-scale projects, on which Zac works. For example, they are constructing the largest photovoltaic generating center in the world. Called Solar Star and in southern California, it is a project of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.[vii] I thought perhaps Zac could move us ahead in our decision-making. SunPower also produces panels for residential installations.

Solar is an area that is growing so fast it is predicted to overtake fossil fuels and coal as the leading world energy producer.[viii] Investment in residential solar in the USA has increased by at least 50% in each of the last three years. The USA is now the fastest growing market according to Wikipedia.[ix] The fact that utility installations and roof-top installations are ultimately linked on the grid means this generating capacity is ultimately pooled.[x] Solar by one estimate could climb from a $1 Billion to a $9 Billion worldwide market by 2020.[xi]

Harry has studied energy deregulation in Texas where he monitors our electric usage and takes pleasure every year in checking prices and switching our provider to get the lowest rate. Yet, our electric bill, driven by air conditioning, was still about $2,500 last year and our average annual consumption about 22 megawatt hours.

Solar had not been an easy decision for us. Even armed with good information about our current electric usage, it was difficult to estimate what our usage would be in a new house and a different state. We kept eliminating things from the list in our new house:  no air conditioning, our radiant floor heating is powered by a gas hot water heater as are the stove and dryer. There are a few electrical appliances but also many items that are low voltage. It was good to ask Zac because he owns a home in California and therefore could tell us his average usage. Because of the new technology and building standards, we assume our house will be more efficient and use a fraction of what we used in Houston.

20150410_103452Further complicating matters, solar panels are not all the same. Even with roof plan drawings, we had to have installers come out to take measurements and locate where the panels would fit and be best situated to catch the sun’s rays. Between bidders we found there was substantial variation in the power generating capacity of the panels and this is where SunPower stood out generating more power with fewer panels. There were also substantial differences in the cost of the panels, and the warranties offered.

Before we solicited bids we had estimated the cost of the panels would be close to $20,000 and perhaps only save us $1,000 a year in our energy bill, thus it would take 20 years to recoup our investment. By that time we would probably be at the end of the useful life of the panels. Thus there was no economic gain to be had which is why we had postponed the decision.

What we failed to calculate in our original estimate were the substantial Federal tax credits available for 30% of the cost in the year you install it. In addition, we have since found there may be additional Federal tax credits of $2,000-4,000 if we meet the latest California Building Energy Standards for new construction. (To see if we qualify for this last credit we had to enlist the help of the energy planner who completed Title 24 calculations required for our building permit.) It seems the final value of the tax credits will be $6,000-$10,000, a 30-50% reduction in cost.  In return we will not have any electric costs in coming years which we estimated would otherwise have been $1,600 per year. This means we will recoup our investment in just four to seven years.  The new solar system will generate 5.259 megawatt hours per year.

A word here too about the technology. Solar panels produce direct current which, through a gizmo called an Inverter, is changed to alternating current which we can use as it is produced. The installer told me that even in a power outage at PG&E, we could still have power at our house—“just go to the inverter and plug-in your hair dryer.” Any power that we generate and don’t use goes on the power grid of Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) and is recorded by our “smart meter”. The smart meter will also record peak and off-peak usage. The pricing varies during a work day when most usage is before and after work. We will generate power while the sun is out but, because we are retirees whose use is not dictated by daily work hours, our usage will be more evenly spread over the course of the day allowing us to sell back to the grid during peak pricing times. We will no longer get a monthly bill, but only a bill at the end of the year saying whether we owe money, or have credits that do not carry over to future years. We are installing a bit more capacity than we currently need in the event that an electric car is in our future.

After we signed the contract with SunPower, I was so excited to be part of this fast growing and fascinating technology all of which takes place via quantum mechanics without burning carbon fuels.

Mother and Baby Otter at Asilomar

Mother and Baby Otter at Asilomar

So it’s been a very busy month! Last week, a month since my last sighting of the mother and baby sea otters, I spotted a little blob floating on the surface of the kelp beds in the same cove where I had last seen them. With my binoc’s bra keeping my viewer close at hand, I quickly scanned the cove and there they were! The baby was bigger and stronger now, but still lying on Mom’s chest, fast asleep. Charlie and I have found a little sandy perch overlooking the cove where I can watch them snoozing in the afternoon sun. I have seen them there both afternoons since, when the tides were in. Once the baby was sleeping and the other time jumping around without stop. When they are resting on their backs, soaking up the afternoon sun, heads close together, the mother, ever alert, cradling the baby in her arm on her stomach, the affection is almost palpable.  As evening approaches, I look up across the bay to the purple chain of mountains and the sky beyond to the glow of the future ahead.

[i] http://www.visitasilomar.com/history/asilomar-the-complete-story.aspx

[ii] The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, Stephen Palumbi

[iii] Op cit, p.

[iv] http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/animal-guide/fishes/pacific-sardine

[v] http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/about/ecosystems/kelpdesc.html

[vi] http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2015/03/09/better-buy-now-first-solar-vs-sunpower.aspx

[vii] http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/2015/02/18/business/18reuters-citigroup-environment.html

[viii] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/01/business/energy-environment/li-hejun-chairman-of-hanergy-holding-group-on-the-energy-source.html

[ix] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photovoltaics

[x] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-03-10/first-solar-sunpower-joint-venture-will-own-rooftop-systems

[xi] http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/solar-farms-threaten-birds/

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Blue Handbag

Menzies' Wallflower

Menzies’ Wallflower

Spring is here. The grey whales have migrated through on their way to calve in the warm waters off Mexico. The golden-crowned sparrow, only here for the winter, has headed back to the tundra of Western Canada, and one of the rarest plants in the world, Menzies’ wallflower, now festoons the beach. The heavy fog of summer has begun to visit us in the morning and afternoon, so dense you cannot see through it as it moistens plants and animals on its path.

But, I am feeling older, almost retired, and worrying about money. Will we have enough when all is said and done? The calculations seem endless. We have social security, but it was bonuses of company stock that made it possible for us to build our retirement house in Monterey. We work with a financial analyst at Merrill Lynch who juggles and re-juggles our retirement plan. He jokes that we should have enough to carry us through our dotage and perhaps enough to tip the hearse driver at the very end. I’m sure our children don’t want to hear this scenario as I was definitely hoping we would leave them a nest egg of their own. The trouble is building the house while also controlling costs–that’s my job. Just thinking about spending all of this money makes me fret.

I have not been doing a very good job of tracking where we are in terms of cost overruns. Everything seems a moving target, though I have a general sense of the overages at this point. A major one is the Ipe decking and siding that we are contemplating. Allan has promised to get me a complete estimate of these costs next week.

Ipe Siding

Ipe Siding

We had a $48,000 item for steel cable deck railings that we knew we would never install because of the expense. Nevertheless this was in the final construction bid we submitted as part of the package for the construction loan and we kept it in as a cushion. Bit by bit that cushion has been taken over by Ipe decking, Ipe siding and now Ipe stair rails inside. This has become the house of Ipe. In addition to being beautiful, the hardwood’s estimated life is at least 30 years; it requires no maintenance; and it can stand up to the salty sea air.

Our construction loan also included paying off the existing mortgage on the property that we took out when we purchased my brother’s and sister’s shares in 2002. The debt on the property is close to $1 million. One compliment I will give to the financial analysts was their insistence that we take out a construction loan which meant we had to detail all of our costs at the outset.  Thus we have at least an estimate of everything allowed as part of the construction: appliances, plumbing, lighting, etc.

The construction loan could not include some other expenses we knew we would incur such as furniture and landscaping. The only unanticipated expense so far has been for the audio video network and equipment and that bid, after several back and forth negotiations, has been finalized at $24,000.

Still costs can go up and they do. For example, even though the windows had been bid at the time of the construction loan application, the final cost for the windows was not $29,000 as in the original bid, but closer to $35,000. It was not one change but many little changes I could not begin to enumerate or even characterize, however, the final cost was 20% over the original estimate. If we take this as an example, we should expect to need over $100,000 more than originally budgeted for the construction loan.

It is nerve-racking to say the least. The other side of the equation of course is income. Harry has been working to review all of our expenses for the past year apart from construction of the house in order to set a reasonable budget for next year after he retires and we take up residence in California. We will not be drawing social security next year either, because he wants to postpone that until he is 70 when he will collect the maximum and I will also put off filing for two years to age 66 when I will be fully vested.  There are changes in health insurance to consider and new California property and state and federal income taxes to factor. The $65,000 question, quite literally, is whether or not to carry the mortgage and keep our capital, or pay it off–another question for the financial analysts.

Octette Bridge Club

“The Octette Bridge Club” by P.J. Barry directed by Nancy Wild. First Unitarian Church of Cleveland Players: (from left) Margaret Magill, Drinda Kiner, Kathryn Jenish, Sandra Reese, Lisa Cohen-Kiraly, Carol Bates, Lois Stone, and Laura Nagel, Nov., 1990. Photo courtesy of Jackie Stimpert.

While on the subject of overwhelming calculations one has to do with life expectancy and the quality of our last years. Even though we have been planning on building a retirement home for over 10 years, now I wonder if we are crazy to spend all this money on a house we may only enjoy for 20 years? Don’t be grim, I tell myself. But all around me is verification of my age. The Peninsula sometimes seems like a large retirement community. Of course I’m still 40-something in my mind. When I look at those in their 80s, I can’t feel myself there yet. I’m in denial! I still want to be the kid in the room with the 70 and 80 year olds.

My friend wrote last week that her mother, Nancy Wild, just passed away at age 96. Nancy had directed me in “The Octette Bridge Club,” about 25 years ago, when she was in her 70s, and I was 40. Nancy was the best director:  visionary, sharp, but also calm and with a droll sense of humor. The play featured eight mid-life and elderly sisters who play bridge together and get wisdom over the 13-year span of the play in which I was aptly cast as the youngest, craving attention, missing the main points of the show and life in general.

It reminds me of my mother who, like Nancy, loved little theater and acted in many plays as she got older. My mother’s blue handbag, she called it her pocketbook, was the last thing she let go of in the nursing home. Losing track of her pocketbook seemed emblematic of that final stay. There would be no more going home, her pocket book with wallet, ID, and her car keys, no longer needed.

I have grown quite maudlin. This has set me to shiver. Best not to tempt the fates too soon by even talking of their visit. Back to the spring. I’m sure I/we have a few more ahead of us. And what better way to spend our years together looking out at the beautiful beach from our Ipe clad deck that we both are so keen on. Still, I am determined next week to shop for furniture sales online. Google, send me those ads! You’ve got my cookies, my GPS coordinates, my preferences, please help me save some money!

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Digging Deeper

Glass-Bottomed Boat at Lovers' Point

Glass-Bottomed Boat at Lovers’ Point

Owning your own mess is humbling. As I watch other people owning theirs perhaps it’s only natural I should face my own shortcomings. It was not purposeful. I just looked in the mirror one morning and there it was out of the blue:  a vision of my less-than-stellar moment. Why did it have to be with my nephew? At the very moment he might have actually been trying to establish a relationship with me. He’s only 10, kind of shy, if you can still be that today. After I first moved here, my sister came for a visit with the twin boys and her husband, their dad. I had suggested we might kayak in the bay at Lovers’ Point in Pacific Grove. The boys were both taken with the idea. When I was growing up this was the site of the glass bottom boat concession. They still have one of the old boats sitting out front with its arched swan’s neck at the prow. There aren’t swans in the ocean, but that’s a minor detail. In those days, you got in the boat with 15 others, the pilot turned on the motor, and you all looked down wide-eyed while the ocean floor in all its splendor passed beneath your feet. Everyone oohed and aahed and ate cotton candy that came with the price of your ticket.

At Robinson Jeffers' Tor House, Carmel

At Robinson Jeffers’ Tor House, Carmel

Today you have to be fit. No cotton candy for kayakers! But, I had been working out at the gym and, after my nephew selected me as his kayaking partner, I immediately challenged his dad to a race. Competition! Why do I love it when it so frequently gets me into trouble? After donning life jackets, and getting a very brief instruction from the concession manager on the basics of rowing (“What about tipping over?” I inquired), we set off from the busy inlet, easily gliding by the bathers. Things were going pretty well there in the little cove, until after 30 yards when we hit the bay and the afternoon tide coming in and the kelp beds. Off my brother-in-law handily maneuvered around to the next inlet while we were completely stuck, or so it seemed. It’s actually hard to tell when all of a sudden you are in the ocean and everything is moving every which way. We had been instructed not to go with the tide or we would find it very difficult getting back home. Best to fight the tide at the outset and then let it bring you back. But at this point, we were not only going contrary to the direction in which I was pulling against the tide, but it seemed we were being pulled further out into the bay, while I, unable to maneuver somehow had turned the boat around to face the opposite direction. It wasn’t until later that I heard the story of a woman kayaker who was lost for hours until she finally washed up ashore in Sand City some 15 miles away. I was in the back of the kayak and struggling with the entire concept of kayaking and how to turn the boat while also moving it forward. My nephew, sat in the boat ahead of me, facing forward so I could not see his expression and frankly I can barely hear what he is saying in a quiet room, let alone on the open sea when he is facing away from me, and I am otherwise occupied. I presumed he was thinking wistfully of his dad and brother, who were now no doubt having a glorious time trolling along with the otters. Was he aware that we were going backward? He seemed relaxed and calm as his oar skimmed the surface. I might have tried to explain the situation, but as my oar was less and less effective as it was caught in the kelp, I just urged him to, “Dig deeper!” with his. Note to self: more talking would have been better at engaging him in the situation even if that description portrayed my own confusion. By hook or by crook we somehow made it back to shore, my brother-in-law beat me to that as well. I just wonder how many times I said “Dig Deeper” to my nephew even when the first dozen failed to have any effect, like the whole mess was his fault. Suffice to say the trip did not get a ringing endorsement when my sister greeted him and inquired, “Did you have lots of fun?” To his credit, I learned that his dad never actually lost sight of us.

In the meanwhile back at the building site, there are so many things going on, I am the one who is having to dig deeper into the intricacies of building a home. I have been focused on the installation of the windows. I would like to get a lawn chair and just sit and watch. Since they were delivered, the guys have been doubly careful to secure the property, and that has been made easier by the fact that before installing the windows, they wrapped the house in this paper called Tyvek, a seemingly ubiquitous construction material. It is a Dupont product that purports to keep moisture like rain out, while also not keeping it in and thus preventing mildew and fungus.

The breathability of a house is an interesting concept I have read about in Dwell magazine. I am not sure there is a science to it as it is a recent concern now since houses are no longer breezy, drafty places as they used to be. Now they are insulated and tightly fit together, which can make a house stuffy. I ran across one illustration involving a professional range vent hood, which exhausts to the outside through a powerful motor. According to the vent hood salesperson, upon turning it on with all of the windows closed, nothing seemed to be happening, however, once the windows were opened the owner’s long hair was sucked straight up standing on end into the vent hood. It’s probably an exaggeration. Nonetheless, it gives one pause about circulation.

Pony Wall between Kitchen and Living Room

Pony Wall between Kitchen and Living Room

We will have radiant heating in the floor instead of forced air, so there will be no built-in house fan. Neither will we have air conditioning. We will have ceiling fans, but we decided for breathability to have the skylight open electrically and to have a screened opening there to draw air through the house.

Just as I was getting set to position my lawn chair, the plumbers were suddenly back installing more pipes to the second floor and vents to the roof and setting the position of faucets and shower heads and other connections into the walls, and I was sent to figure out the exact height and positioning of things.

In addition to shear walls, which have structural significance and any modification of which must be approved by the structural engineer, we also have other walls that seem infinitely changeable to accommodate pipes and wires. We have several short walls, called pony walls that house plumbing and soon electrical lines. One separates the shower from the tub and another the kitchen from the living room. We even have what the architect calls a “nib” wall that projects 6” into the bathroom as part of the shower wall on one side and will house switches on the other.

Tvek Paper Wrap

Tvek Paper Wrap

No time for me to sit, I must take photographs to see where a pocket door stops and plumbing fixtures begin. I hear stories of sheet rockers who might sheet rock over a plug in a wall. When the electrician swears he put it there. The smart owner will have taken a photograph of every wall at every stage, so she can go back and find the plug on the wall that now the sheet rocker must redo.

Allan is always working several steps ahead, which is good. There are lots of small details because it’s a small house at 1500 square feet into which my husband at 6’5” must be able to fit. Harry is excited to have a large four-foot square shower. However, the shower is next to a closet which will have a pocket door, the frame for which, inside the wall, was pushing the plumbing for the shower into the corner of the shower. Even after confirming that the shower head is on a ball joint that will rotate, I still felt it should be in the center of the shower wall. Voilà, Allan fixed it. Also, we wanted a curbless shower in case there’s a wheelchair in our future. To accommodate this, the shower drain will run along the back, across from the shower door. But a problem arose because the floor must be shimmed down to accommodate the drain, and it seemed there would not be sufficient fall from there to the outside to allow us to harvest grey water for the landscaping. Somehow, Allan fixed this too. Ahh, he’s a very smart man, especially when he gets to decide.

The tile installer was out this week. Next comes the electrician for whom we are almost prepared. Last week, just as all of the windows were being finished, the roofers suddenly appeared and began installing panels that would provide for a changing elevation on the roof to allow runoff and I was sent off to select gutters and drain pipes.

Right before that I had been meeting at the site with a wiring subcontractor for the security system:  smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and the sprinkler system required by local codes. Allan was with us when the subcontractor said he thought we had about six months more of construction before the job is completed. Allan muttered something under his breath. “What was that?” I asked quickly. “It’s not gonna be that long,” he replied. “Oh Allan, you have made my day!” I smiled.

It’s been six months since my kayaking adventure. I am still going to the gym to work with weights but now I focus on mending my rotator cuff strained on the kayaking foray. I am thinking that as a final push toward healing I should send my nephew a note to apologize for my ineptness and thank him for his patience and fortitude during our ordeal. Time to model what’s really important:  not winning the race, but being kinder–and having more fun! I am not necessarily ruling out kayaking’s potential for future fun either.

Awakening the Buddha Within joke of the week
Question to the Master:  How did you become enlightened?
Answer from the Zen Master:  One mistake after another.

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Fragile Smile

When you find that being kind to others is just an item to be checked on your to-do list, it’s not a good sign. I had recently returned home from visiting Houston for the holidays to find friends at church in an uproar. My good friend from high school with whom I had a budding friendship sat down with me to say she was moving two states away to be closer to her daughter. Then another friend who moved here the same time I did, took me aside and with a fragile smile told me she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. After hearing that my landlady was not at church because she was home with some dread disease and that her partner was due to have surgery that Tuesday for removal of a basal skin cancer, I decided I had to spring into action. That became my mission:  first the trip to Whole Foods for ingredients, next day cooking, then a trip to the bakery for accompanying bread, packing it all up in a pot with garnishes, and finding a time when one of them would be home so I could drop it. But, when asked if I might stay for a glass of wine and a visit, I had to say, “I don’t have time.” Not to have time for a word with the very people to whom you are trying to do a kindness, shows you something is not quite right…But I was moving too fast for much beyond observation. House guests fast approaching. Got to start cleaning!

Barrel Vaulted Ceiling

Barrel Vaulted Ceiling in the Dining Room

Glulam Beams

Arched glulam beams in the dining room with tongue and groove siding overhead.

Fortunately, Allan and Terry are even more driven to get things done, and the house is making rapid progress. It’s officially dried in, all the roof is on, and electricity has moved to the top of the to-do list. Allan is always thinking several steps ahead. Electricity has jumped slightly ahead because of a change to the finish of the dining room ceiling. This deserves a note because we have been waiting for a couple of weeks now for the arrival of the arched beams for the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the dining room. Glulam is short for a laminated beam the layers of which are held together with a glue refined since these were first invented in the late 19th C. The technology continues to develop and it not only saves large trees, by allowing smaller lumber to be consolidated into beams, but also allows the fabrication of fantastic shapes, such as our roof, not to mention the Pompidou Centre in Metz, France.

I had always thought of the dining room as having a smooth finished ceiling, but after Arek, Greg and Allan had labored painstakingly to expose beams in the roof eaves, and install perpendicular shiplap planking underneath, we decided to carry this theme through in the dining room. Now the arched beams have been mounted, strapped down, and the tongue and groove siding laid over top. Terry pointed out at our last meeting that it has a nautical theme because it’s like looking at the bottom of a boat. Sweet!

Twilight 20 Chandelier

Twilight 20 Chandelier

Because there is no sheet rock to hide the wires, the electricity for the dining room chandelier will have to be run in over the top of the barrel ceiling before the roof is installed, which is happening soon. But then came the classic construction problem, the chandelier we had selected did not exactly fit on the exposed beam. Laura Michaelides, our designer, had suggested a dining room chandelier that we instantly loved, the twilight-20-chandelier. It is so delicate that you hardly see much structure, just the lights that appear like stars. The escutcheon, or canopy, which houses the electronics for these 20 lights is a cylinder that is 6″ in diameter. The plan was for it to be attached to the bottom of one of the glulam arched beams, but they are only 3″ in width. Neither the architect nor I was willing to have the canopy protrude over the edges of the beam. I spent hours looking for other chandeliers, going to light stores to ask if they could alter the little cylindrical box. Finally, we solved the problem—simply. We will hang the light between the two center beams. While this will truncate by a few inches our view of the 50″ drop, the beams also manage to hide the canopy box. A trade off, but a fix at last!

LED Christmas Lights

LED Christmas Lights

Electricity is one of the things I know the least about in this world. It’s akin to magic and a little terrifying since I performed the famous knife-in-the toaster-trick at age eight. But now it is upon me–everything from high voltage to low. There have been many changes recently in lighting. Don’t even talk wattage, the amount of electricity used, speak of lumens, or light emitted. Our Houston house has the ubiquitous canned lights. Their incandescent bulbs give off so much heat they warm the room as well as light it, and that is a clue to their inefficiency. Invented 150 years ago, the incandescent bulb operates like an electric heater and actually produces more energy in heat than in light. The Department of Energy predicts that incandescent bulbs will be replaced by LEDs, which stands for light emitting diodes. That’s truly magical, not just electricity, but physics and quantum mechanics all tied up in a neat little package. This is predicted to save over $265 billion dollars in energy costs over the next 20 years.[i] LEDs are so much more efficient, they do not give off the heat, and the lumens come in all the colors of the rainbow.

Yesterday Allan and Terry and I met for the second time to review every light switch in the house and every light fixture, plug, and switch. It was a four-hour meeting during which I learned that a six-way switch, like the one for the downstairs hall lights, is one set of lights (1) with five different switch locations:  at the front door (2), both ends of the hall (3,4), when you come in the garage (5), and at the bottom of the stairs (6).

The harder part is still ahead of me and it has to do with all of the other wiring, which I have learned to call low-voltage wiring. This is for the internet, the data network, the alarm system, the phone system and the audio system and perhaps some other systems we don’t yet have on wires but that could be pulled in through the IoT, internet of things, now under discussion.

This seemed to be the one aspect of the building project that enticed our daughters to get in the mix so we planned a family outing at Thanksgiving to a high end audio/video store just to see what we could learn. I am surprised the Electrical Engineer, a graduate of Berkeley, didn’t kick us out because we were all talking so quickly and on top of each other. It gave me a headache, but afterward, Harry and our eldest daughter Samantha worked together to make a list of all the components we wanted, a budget (this was not included in our original plans), and extras we wanted to consider, like music on the back deck.

Nest Thermostat

Nest Thermostat–part of the Internet of Things for the house.

With this in hand I could go out to get a couple of bids. In preparing for a discussion with one of the bidders from StreamLife, a Monterey firm recommended by our architect, I noticed that my husband had written down thermostat in the list of items we were looking for. I apologized at the meeting saying I was sure that did not belong in specifications for an audio video bid. But, they assured me it did. Oddly, I happened to be carrying with me at the time a magazine with an article I was reading on the Internet of Things. They said that in drawing up the bid they could include the cost of a universal remote to control and monitor any security system we installed (including cameras), our thermostat when we were away, locking and unlocking the house, as well as our TV and audio systems. This off-budget item seemed to be growing by leaps and bounds. The most expensive elements of this system will be the TV and the audio speakers, which we definitely want, the rest seems like the proverbial pie in the sky at this point. On the other hand, Harry recently did get locked out of the house in Houston and had to break a window. As I sat on the phone with him listening for the shatter of glass panes, which never happened because he knocked out the entire glass panel including the sill (perhaps the glass was laminated), I began to think that an electronic code for remotely locking and unlocking the house, via Z-wave switch might not be such a bad idea after all.

The big news this week is that the windows have finally arrived! Allan noted that though it takes three months to have them manufactured and shipped, if any one of them is found to be missing or damaged it will be replaced within two weeks. Funny about that…

Not because I need more to think about, but less, I enrolled in a class on Buddhism at church. It requires that we each start a meditation practice of our own. Our interim minister Rev. Dennis Hamilton, who has had a meditation practice for decades is leading the class. He began with a quote from Rumi, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

[i] http://www.consumerenergycenter.org/lighting/bulbs.html

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