Foreign Meeting

Laura Oberbeck

Monterey High School Yearbook, 1967

I have joined the UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula and am back singing in the choir and loving it all. I’m alone most of the week so going to church to be with people boosts my spirits. The church is located in the hills below Jacks Peak, the highest point on the peninsula in the woods where I grew up. Only there was no church then. I have delighted to see the names of so many of my friends growing up on the roster of members. The first Sunday I attended this summer, I sat in front of a woman who, after the service, complimented me on my singing (I have a very loud voice). I turned around and it was an old high school friend. “You should remember me from the high school choir! But the last time we met was our tenth high school reunion.” We have renewed our acquaintance since then, especially at the church’s annual fall campout in Big Sur.

It was several weeks later that I went to the church rummage sale and had a blast from the past, a foreign meeting. The rummage sale was in several areas of the church and they encouraged you to go downstairs too. After I had perused the upper level, I went downstairs, which was really outside in an area destined someday to be the new sanctuary, but now serving as a sort of large patio area. There were not many things there, but I saw some art work and that was one of the main things I was looking for. I was waylaid by a box of pillows and saw several I liked and the woman who I took to be in charge announced to her companion, a young man, “Look she’s got a matching set!”

I was immediately drawn to three photographs of the Salinas valley. And the woman said they were by a well-known woman photographer from the area. I estimated they were taken in the 1950’s. Black and white images, the one in the worst shape with mildew on the matte, was of migrant workers in the Salinas Valley lettuce fields. The one I liked the best was of the sea and the hills, but I noticed it had moisture beaded up inside the frame directly over the photograph. When I mentioned it, the woman quickly grabbed the photo and moved it to the shade saying it was caused by being in the heat of sun, and that she had feared that would happen as she had kept them in the basement of her house where it was dank. The young man said it would be $75 for the three of them, she said they would take off because of the damage and I noted that the sticker price for the three photographs was $30. At that price, the deal was sealed. I said I had to pay for purchases I had made upstairs and then I would swing my car down to pay for and pick up the photographs and pillows.

When I came back to pay, the woman said I should make the checkout, not to the church, but to her, and she gave me her name. She was a member of the adjoining property owners she told me, and the church had allowed them to do this sale at the same time because they always cooperated closely with the church. I remarked that there are so many pine tree stumps in the surrounding hills that it must distress the property owners. To this she remarked that the pines only looked good in a group, individually they were scraggily and not much to look at. I explained it was because they were so stressed and that when I had grown up here they were all much greener and healthier looking like one young one I pointed out to her that was a beautiful soft and shiny green.

I said that I had been close to families in this area. When I mentioned a name, she and the young man said, “Well that’s us!” Of course the minute it was out of my mouth the quicker side of my brain realized it was the same family name I had written on my check. The slow side that was still talking a tumble of things had completely forgotten to whom I had made the check out. I asked if they were the family of the father whose name I remembered, and the young man said that was his grandfather. And I said the name of the youngest of the four boys in the family, and the woman said that was her husband and the young man’s father.  I said his grandmother had probably been the reason I was admitted to Barnard College since she was a graduate of the college herself and had been on the board at the time I applied, and had given me a recommendation (I’m sure I did not deserve). Both of the parents are dead now although the mother had died only recently and now they lived in the house.  I assumed these were their photographs I was purchasing.

I told them that I had spent a lot of very fun times in their house because I had been the girlfriend of a boy whose family lived next door in these forests. (Slow brain, why didn’t you say that he had been my boyfriend?) The woman said that he still lived in the same house and was president of the property owners association under whose auspices she was raising money. She asked my name and I said my maiden name, Laura Oberbeck. When her son urged her to write it down she assured him that she would remember the name. (Slow brain, you talk too much!) She said I probably had had good times in the playroom at their house. To which I said that I could remember as if it were yesterday when the parents had both been away and the entire house had been our playroom while Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit blasted over the speakers, and the rest of their quite large compound. “Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall…”

Vernal Equinox Festival, Limekiln Creek, March, 1968

Vernal Equinox Festival, Limekiln Creek, March, 1968

I said I was particularly close to one of the older brothers. I recounted for them the time we had all gone together with my younger brother and hundreds of other people to Limekiln Creek for a Vernal Equinox Festival. I will never forget driving down Highway 1 in his little vintage MG with the top down and the sun shining. I don’t recall wearing a scarf, but these were definitely my Isadora Duncan days. “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom and your mind is moving slow…”

We arrived at the Creek to find people camped up the gorge in the redwoods, and down at the rocky beach, under a Bixby Creek-style bridge. They were doing a most favorite Big Sur activity, slow roasting a pig on a spit over an open fire. I never actually ate one of these pigs but invariably there was one being roasted and then, you would smoke some dope, and shit would happen and you would never actually get any of the pig meat. In this case things were going along really well and we were dancing around the fire (I think my brother misremembers that I had my bra off at this point, although I will confess to the dope and perhaps my memory is not crystal clear on this point). But I do remember a large group of us circling around the fire and singing when the Hells Angels arrived. They must have been constantly traversing the state looking for towns or small encampments to ride herd on, a la Marlon Brando, all the while singing “Born to Be Wild.” They stopped at the bridge above us and decided that they would pick up a car and hoist it over the bridge on us. We just stared, slack jawed not imagining it would be possible until at once we all espied the little VW bug which they set to rocking. I cannot honestly remember if they dropped the car or I only imagined it, but I know I never did have any roast pig.

My reverie over back on the patio, suddenly the conversation was over and I suspect we were both embarrassed at having said too much. I felt good about the fact that she had not asked me very many questions and therefore would have little to tell others about me. As if I hadn’t said enough. I quickly looked at my check book when I got home and was reassured that my cell number is not printed there, just the Houston address. But the rest of the day I was flooded with memories of those slightly crazy, fun times. I put on my most colorful scarf and took Charlie to Carmel where we sashayed on Mission and Delores and looked at the galleries and rocked out to the blues band and then went to fully celebrate yappy hour at the Forge in the Forest and had a gin and tonic (Charlie had a water) and I contemplated going to the piano bar at the Mission Ranch and bumping into Clint Eastwood, aka Rowdy, while I was there.

Bernie the Bull

Bernie the Bull

But, instead we went home and had a shrimp Louie salad and I dreamt last night of all those boys in love with me. I am resolved to lose weight in case I run into them. Oh, I am probably doomed to run into them one of these days. It’s like being back in high school all over again when I thought I was so over it.

“Feed your head!”

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Rough Glass

The house is emerging, or as one of my new neighbors likes to say, “growing up out of the sand.” Recently, on my drive to the site, I looked up at the top of the dunes and could see a sliver of our roof rafters above the other houses. The scale of the house is confounding. Sometimes it seems small, now it seems quite tall in reference to the surrounding homes. They and we are squeezed on all sides, though that is very much the norm for living on the peninsula, and for this beach community in particular.

The best news so far has been the beautiful views from the house, especially from the second floor. We can see all of the harbor and the beach and even the waves. Although our architect had taken pictures using a camera mounted at what he estimated was eye level, still it was a question until we could see with our own eyes, and it was a thrill, because it was not less, but more than we had imagined. To be sure there are houses in front of us. It is easy to become a pig about it. The more you have, the more you want? I know we are extremely lucky to have such a view, and I am very grateful for it. It’s the kind of view that requires a special chair so that you can simply sit and gaze at the beauty and be happy to be alive, a perfect activity for retirement!

Soil Compaction

August 18th Excavation for Soil Compaction

I have been here for five months and we have gotten a lot done even though we started a month later than planned because of delays caused in getting the construction loan. The old house was demolished on August 13th, after the asbestos was removed, which took about a week or two. Then began sand compaction began, a requirement for all construction on the beach. You have to have a soils survey and the sand is removed and a large hole the size of the house perimeter is carved down, about 8 feet in our case, until it measures a strength that the soils engineer approves and then the soil is put back in 8-inch lifts compacted to support a two-story, single family house and the concrete and steel foundation that will next be laid.

Foundation Footer

Sep 5th Foundation Footer Is Poured

The foundation was in two stages. First trenches were dug, forms built and rebar cut and tied into the forms before the concrete was poured for the footer that goes into the ground. The second installment of the foundation is the stem wall which actually lifts the house up off the sand and provides a “crawl space,” an important element of the house detailed in the architectural plans.

Foundation Stem Wall

Sep 19th Stem Wall Poured

This stem wall outlines the walls of every room on the first floor and rises up 16″ from the footer. As well, there were piers poured at mid-points in the main rooms to support the floor joists. Before the stem wall was poured, the plumber came to lay the basic sewer lines through the wall. On September 19th, the foundation was completed, one month after we had begun. Concrete was poured quickly into frames, over rebar, rods and pipes that had taken weeks to construct. It set in less than 24 hours and then all the surrounding lumber was removed to be recycled for use in the construction of the house.

Then the framing began. Allan, our contractor, had told me enough to know this is a high point of their work partly because it moves so quickly. However, last week plan changes forced a slowdown, just as the rains arrived. I could tell Allan was perturbed. The house is built in a certain order and you cannot proceed out of order. He is driving to get the roof on and the house dried in.

Framing the Second Floor

Nov 12th, Framing the Second Floor

The primary change came when we decided that we did not want the exterior siding to be Hardie board, a cement product often made to look like wood. This was one decision I didn’t have to make because it was Harry’s–although I completely agreed with him. There were townhomes being built next to ours in Houston that had Hardie board siding and he did not like the look at all. It was at that same time that our landscaper, Dan Finklea began to talk to us about making the outside deck flooring of Ipe (pronounced EE’-pay), an exceptionally hard and beautiful wood grown sustainably in the South American rainforest. Once we had this in mind, we thought to extend it to the portions of the house exterior that called for siding. Changes began to snowball from that to a new plan for the siding and both the front and rear decks which, in both cases, are over the roof of the first floor which cannot be permeated in any way. Add to this the deck railing system changes that we made since the plans were approved, and it had sent us back to the structural engineer. While I had not met the structural engineer, Alex Ott, I had certainly heard tales of him in high dudgeon. Reportedly he has people lined up, awaiting their plan changes, all wanting them today. I had even taken a drive through Seaside, like Lil Red Riding Hood, with a basket of pink lady apples from the Farmers’ Market for the big bad wolf, hoping to induce him to speed things along for us.

But, we are still waiting, and it is raining, and I am worrying, and promising myself not to make any other changes that will delay us again. I rented a house for a year through the end of March, but it’s clear now we won’t be finished by then. I have asked Allan when he thinks it will be done, but I don’t yet have a firm answer, and I can see why given the unknowns. Even the known and important items, like the windows were delayed in the ordering.

Dining Room Barrel-Vaulted Ceiling

Dec 3rd View of Dining Room Barrel-Vaulted Ceiling

The windows were specified at the outset by the architect to be Kolbe Ultra Clad or better, a very highly rated window. We ended up with a slightly better line, the Kolbe Vistaluxe with extruded clad aluminum for the exterior, a wood interior, and a 30-year warranty which we need living so close to the salty air. These are largely casement windows which means they have a crank to open out and, in our case, they have the advantage of no bars within the window to mar the view. The reason for the change to VistaLuxe was the slimmer frame allowing substantially more glass pane to maximize the view. But, the order for all the windows also includes awning windows that open from the bottom, and there is one particularly complex set of six windows with an arched transom to correspond to the barrel-vaulted ceiling in the dining room—talk about measurement complexity. As many times as we thought we had the order completed, we would meet to finalize it only to end up making slight changes. Allan pressed that we needed to get the order in or it would hold up construction. We had an expert salesperson in John Phillips from the Visions Design Center in Pacific Grove. He was meticulous and extremely knowledgeable. The delay was not all his doing; first he would find errors and then we would. In one of our most relaxed conversations, after the order was done and I had paid the 50% installment of $17,000, he explained that in the past there were few choices about windows which only came in standard sizes. But new manufacturing procedures allow infinite detailing. John, measurer extraordinaire, actually calculated for me the million permutations these windows might take. This is why they are individually manufactured to specification. He had earlier made clear there could be no changes once the manufacturing process had begun. They will be built in a factory in Wisconsin with Low-E 270 insulated glass to meet the latest in Federal Title 24 regulations, some of it tempered, but none of it tinted or rough glass blocks to interfere with the view either in or out.

Before I left that day, John was enjoying telling me he thought we had the best windows in the industry. He told the story of an especially large picture window that had been designed for a home in Pebble Beach and made in Europe. The problems with it were legend until it was finally replaced. Nevertheless, as I was walking out the door, John followed me to explain that, the story was not over yet. Once our windows are constructed, they will be put on a truck and driven over the Rocky Mountains probably mid-winter, the time of posting for this blog, and, he hoped, they would make it here just after the New Year when they would go to a warehouse to be unpacked and inspected for damage before they are delivered to the construction site. We placed the order in mid-October. I wonder if they are done now and started on their journey west.

View of Monterey Harbor

View of the Harbor from the Second Floor

The house, is a dream come true. Yet it consumes so much money, it is a constant worry too. I find it difficult to say “no” to any improvement. We would like to strike a balance between good quality on the one hand, and luxury on the other. My guilt at having so much interferes with the ability to appreciate it. My poor irascible side is hardly allowed to come out any longer and dust up her feathers. For the holidays, I resolve to do a better job of giving generously not just of money, but time, to be of good cheer and spread it around!

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2014 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 900 times in 2014. If it were a cable car, it would take about 15 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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Euphoric Stone

It had turned into one of those days when things were not going right. It did not portend well for the weekend getaway I had so carefully been planning for months to visit my sister, and my daughter, and friends visiting San Francisco. The day began with vertigo that I waited out and it finally passed. Then I could not get Quickbooks Online to record deposits correctly. I was in my second hour of trying to get phone help when I had to give up on the quarterly treasurer’s report for the board meeting because of an issue at the construction site.

Foundation Stem Wall

Foundation Stem Wall

The master bathroom turned out to be four inches shorter than planned when we had drawn the cabinets. This is one of these measurement things going on constantly in construction that is a lot like the hardest part of science. It really must be exact, never mind uncertainty principles. Having spent most of my career in government work, I can say this is not my forte. Here ¼” makes a difference, so 4” was definitely noteworthy in its implications for the cabinets designed for the room.  An even more immediate need were specifications for a soaker tub in the bath which was to be partially counter sunk to allow for ease of entry, but not set so deeply that there would not be sufficient “fall” to the grey water outlet at ground level. The plumber was on site laying in basic plumbing and sewer lines before the framing began. I could tell Allan was very frustrated. He was doing that thing where he ruminates over the plans off in the corner, then  takes off his ball cap and runs both hands through his very short hair and then, if it is really bad, he puts his head down and rubs his eyes. He was doing all that and more. He was asking me his favorite question when he gets frustrated, “Who is in charge here?” A question I always hesitate to answer.  He quickly adds, “If I’m in charge, this will be easy, because I can work it out. But, if we have to satisfy the designer, or the landscaper, then we got a problem, because I can’t get in touch with them. You have to do that and you have to make a decision. Unless you don’t want this house built this year.”

We finally got things sorted out. I offered to run to Fed Ex where I could print out the specifications for the tub for Allan. Then I called Laura to tell her about the missing four inches, and she promised to get a redraft of the plans to me in the morning. Finally problems solved for the moment, I headed home to start packing.

I finally had time to return my daughter’s calls. She had called me three times by this point, twice since I told her I would get back to her within the hour. She was calling to tell me she didn’t think I could stay at her place with her this weekend. She had decided the situation wasn’t safe enough for me because of her new house mate who had moved in recently to cohabitate with her roommate.  When she relayed to me how the situation, which had been festering for months, was rapidly deteriorating into something I felt was dangerous for her as well, things shifted for me into another gear. I spent a long night gnashing my teeth, making phone calls, and generally kicking up quite a ruckus. I finally decided to call the police with whom I have worked closely in my earlier career as a city planner. I knew that contrary to my daughter’s firmly held conviction that it would do no good whatsoever to call them unless there was a criminal situation, they could be more helpful. In fact they offered on my call to do “a well check.” While I wasn’t precisely sure what that meant, it certainly sounded in the neighborhood of just what a mother wants to hear. I think my daughter and her friend felt better after talking to the police as well, and probably enjoyed listening to the cops talk to the problem guy. It ultimately moved everyone to meet my demands for not maintaining the status quo ante, which was good, however, ultimately I was ostracized by my daughter because I had intruded instead of trusting her to work it out.

My excuse is that something just clicked in my head and I could no longer keep going along, as in situation normal. It was akin to the morning I decided I had to take myself to the Emergency Room. Because I don’t have anyone else here to help me, I feel as if I’m walking close to the edge. I suppose I’m afraid. But fear for your children is something else again. I will confess that I do not do well in fearful situations. I know my motor runs very high and I am prone to gear slippage and not firing on all cylinders. Not quite sure why I have slipped into car language except that these situations do frequently occur in automobiles, but that’s another story.

Perhaps too it’s because the next day I set off in the car for my weekend getaway, which I did not find very relaxing. When you have no one else to help you plan and prepare, it’s easy to get caught up in doing and fretting about the details. I finally decided to get a hotel room in San Francisco so that I would have a place to stay after meeting my friends who had come all the way from Texas to babysit their newly adopted grandson. They were staying in the freaky Mission District where I believe we might have been the only people over 35 in the entire densely populated zone, now reserved for techies. I am exaggerating of course, I did see two other older women. They were walking on the sidewalk in their housecoats, holding hands, clinging to each other, as they looked about the teeming streets, bicyclists whizzing by, skateboarders gyrating in and out with their tattooed colors and pierced out ear lobes. My friends and I did manage to find refuge in a splendid local restaurant. One of the luxuries of being old is you can afford a quiet restaurant away from the madding crowd. We enjoyed great food, and a relaxed and delightful Saturday evening exchanging stories about putting the hammer down on adult children.

I was very thankful I had a hotel bed to crawl into and did not have to face a three-hour drive home that night–even with the $62 additional parking fee that I had not factored into the cost when I made the last-minute arrangements. I had a good night’s sleep and though I had texted my daughter several times, I no longer expected that she was going to see me that weekend. In addition to working nights, I was sure she was still angry with me.

I kept getting Beach Hazard signals on my phone warning me to be careful walking on the beach or even near the ocean because of “Sneaker” waves that roll in unexpectedly and snag unsuspecting tourists (and wayward moms) and drag them out into the rip currents. Waves were forecast to be especially high. I had recently seen a movie, “Chasing Mavericks” about a famous daredevil surfer from Santa Cruz who trained to surf very large waves called mavericks at a particular point just north of Half Moon Bay. I decided I would go there. I have never taken Hwy 1 south from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. You just follow Market Street up to the top of Twin Peaks for a 360 degree view of the bay area. It’s a straight shot from there down the coast.

Twin Peaks View of Golden Gate

Twin Peaks View of Golden Gate

Along the way I could see from the road that the surf was phenomenal. You could hear it booming and see a fine mist like a fog except the sun was shining, the sky was blue, and it was unseasonably warm in the high 80s. The mist cast a white refracted light to an overexposed landscape. I stopped at a couple of pullouts along the way just to get out of the car.

Only because I had researched it ahead of time and plotted my course carefully was I able to find the unmarked cutoff to get to the place where I thought the Mavericks were. When I finally arrived into a little seaside community north of Half Moon Bay, I began to see signs referring to Maverick Events, surfing contests that let me know I was in the right place. The mavericks only occur in unusual weather systems and storms that swoop down from Alaska via the Pineapple Express. On this day, the surfers knew this was the place to be and the off-road parking areas were jammed. Since I couldn’t park anywhere close to the beach, and I wasn’t exactly sure this was the right place, I thought about turning around and getting back on the highway. On second thought, this was something I really wanted to do, perhaps I needed to do. I found a parking space in town and walked the extra distance at what looked to me to be just a couple of mile hike around the end of the point.

After I had changed my shoes and set off for the walk out to the point, my phone rang. It was Erica reconnecting to tell me she was safe and the roommate was gone and the locks changed so he couldn’t return. Suddenly the day turned and I could feel the sunshine on my face. We talked hesitatingly at first. She was still angry. She asked me where I was and I replied, “Chasing mavericks,” thinking to myself it sounded rather silly at my age. We talked for a while and then agreed that I would call her back in a couple of hours when I had a more reliable signal.

But first, I headed off down the beach with other picnickers who seemed content to stay in the harbor. I wasn’t quite sure where I was headed, but recalling visuals from the movie as my guide I kept walking out around the bend below an Air Force facility up on the bluff that had not been part of the film. When I rounded the corner, there it was, Sail Rock. It is the southern terminus of the mavericks. The Rock is a point jutting about 400 yards out to sea. There were boats there at the western terminus of the point. I supposed they were there to rescue any surfers who needed help. But the waves come in north of the point, headed south to crash on these rocks. I couldn’t figure out how a surfer could escape crashing into the rocks. Beyond the waves I suddenly had a glimpse of them, these little dots in the water, surfers’ heads so far out you could barely make them out.  They were waiting to catch one of these behemoth waves which were coming in sets about 16 seconds apart and looked to be 15-20 feet high. Suddenly I saw a surfer get up and catch a wave. It was so far away I could barely make him out, but he would emerge out of the froth of the wave which then consumed him until out again he raced ahead of the curl of the wave, over and over as he rode the wave west out into the ocean, avoiding the rocks. The wave seemed to go on forever, all the way to the boats. He had a terrific ride! Me, I was just standing on the shore, but feeling exhilarated by his daring do, feat of strength.

Sail Rock, Half Moon Bay

Sail Rock, Half Moon Bay, boats at western terminus, tiny surfer heads at sea on right.

Why had I always sat on the beach and watched the surfers? Why hadn’t I taken it up?  But, I could hear my mother’s admonitions about sharks and rip tides. There were just a few people at the point, friends and family of surfers I supposed. One woman sat with a girl who painted upon a tiny easel a picture of green waves perfectly curled around a little surfer in a black wet suit on a beautifully colored board.

There was still the fine mist in the air as I turned and headed back, away from the action. I felt suddenly relaxed in the heat of the day, like a euphoric stone high. My affect of late has been rather flat, punctuated only by dinners with friends, adventures to the sea. I was feeling very appreciative now of family and friends, but also for my small bursts of courage. I doubted the next step would be riding mavericks, but I can’t cower in fear for myself or my children. I think courage takes practice if only in small bursts.

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Lifeless Rain

California is experiencing one of the severest droughts on record.[i] For the past several years, the State has received only a small fraction of its normal rain and snowfall. Everyone is being asked to cut back, wash their own dishes, and give leftover dishwater to the plants. We are now entering the rainy season (October through April) but even at my church of the rational thinkers, all intone, “Pray for rain.” So you might ask how in good conscience one builds a new house in such an environment. To begin with it’s not a new, new house, but a new house in place of an existing one. Further, local codes limit us to no more water usage than in the original house, mitigated by more efficient plumbing fixtures. (I now have encyclopedic knowledge of toilets: gallons per flush, gravity vs. pressure assisted, and other details of the old crapper named for its inventor, Sir John of the same name and pretty much the same machine, except for major efficiencies in its use of water.)

One new innovation that we are installing to conserve usage is a grey water system in which the washing machine, sinks, baths and shower drains are all diverted to water the landscape. We will be using Xeriscape to select drought tolerant plants, but with the help of the grey water system we should not need potable water for irrigation. We are not capturing storm runoff because of storage issues and the energy needed to take it from storage. The grey water system is passive and goes immediately to the yard.

This has caused a bit of anxiety on the part of the builder, but it was introduced to us by our landscape designer, Dan Finklea from whom we have had several good ideas. I call Dan an artiste because I have been to several of his projects where he does all of the gritty work himself. The yard is his palette and into the soil he plants live pictures. He is a handsome guyDan Finklea Baja Fishing 2008 with a strong build, closely trimmed hair except for a swag of black curls on top, a gift of his Armenian ancestors. He grew up in California working on a factory assembly line, all the while keeping his hands in what he truly loved, his grandparents’ raisin farm. It was when he went to college that he thought to merge the technical and political with his love of landscaping. Voilà, now he is a grey water expert and advisor on such matters to the Monterey Water Conservation Authority. I have been to hear him speak and listened to him being interviewed on the radio. He even teaches classes on this topic for the Monterey Peninsula Water Management District. I think we are lucky to have him working on our job because he is very busy.

The grey water system is enough different from the normal building procedures that Dan has to work up and down the line both with the plumbers, who install the extra pipes and switches in case you ever want to turn the system off (when the 50-year rains come), but also with the constant cast of inspectors who can and do stop work for something they don’t understand. There was a bit of a kerfuffle the other day when Dan arranged with the plumber to add the second floor to the grey water system when we had originally talked only about the downstairs laundry and bathrooms. Harry said, “No way;” the architect said, “I vote no;” but I said, “Let’s wait and see what Dan has to say.” He and I met at the site on the most beautiful morning just as the sun was rising. Dan greeted me as he always does with a hug and a big smile, “Isn’t this a glorious sunrise?” And indeed it was. He explained that because we were able to install the system literally on the ground floor, the costs would be insignificant and the savings immediate. He wanted to add one of the two kitchen sinks to the system, not the sink connected to the disposal or dishwasher. I asked if soapsuds would be a problem and he said, just the opposite, it actually helps in the irrigation plan.

Monterey is under a State of California Cease and Desist Order to greatly reduce pumping from the Carmel River, our primary source of potable water. Complex negotiations are underway between all Peninsula jurisdictions to provide for water needs although there are still many unanswered questions about funding and projections for future growth[ii]. The role of grey water looms large as we begin to consider expensive alternatives for water supply including desalination (see diagram below for proposed slant well design of salt water intake) and replenishing groundwater aquifers with treated wastewater (aka black water). Orange County is now using advanced treatment methods to reclaim wastewater for drinking. Using treated wastewater for drinking has the potential to increase water supply by as much as 27%.[iii]

Desalination Plan xsection Slant Well

I kept running across the initials CWP. That stands for the California Water Plan, a primary tool to manage the state’s water resources broken down by water regions across the state and updated every five years. Our Central Coast region is more or less independent in this plan, unlike the Central Valley of California, the San Joaquin, which is the source of nearly all of the nation’s tomatoes and a major source of many other crops. In 1935 the Federal government built the Central Valley Project harnessing the State’s major water resources to provide water for the vally. But if you drive it today, you can see the situation is clearly desperate. It looks as bad as pictures of Oklahoma in the Dirty Thirties.

I would say the best news on the horizon is that Gov. Jerry Brown has brought together all of the experts and decision-makers to craft, as part of the California Water Plan, a long-term solution to the State’s water conflicts between the south and the north; agricultural and residential uses, and  environmentalists and developers. It is a hugely expensive $14 Billion plan, but one that the Federal Secretary of the Interior has endorsed.[iv] It is a far cry from being resolved, but at least there is a proposal. It would take water from the State’s largest fresh water source, the Sacramento River, and ship it south via a new canal or pipeline instead of taking water from the river’s more fragile delta close to the San Francisco Bay. It all makes you wonder if there is ultimately enough water here for such a rapidly growing population.

Living in Pacific Grove so named for the Monterey pine trees, the distress is visible all around you. They ooze sap from pitch cankers and new growth falls off in a big wind. The air is scented with the smell of dried wood and pine needles, and everywhere trees are diseased and look as though a squirrel might topple them. I especially love the pine trees. The tallest are over 50 feet and their needles a bright verdant green. The first time I was ever totally enraptured with the essence of the Great Spirit I was looking at a Monterey pine, shiny green, branches waving in an azure sky.

In the meanwhile we’ll just pray for rain. Not a lifeless, weak rain, but a drenching, rain. We’ll not complain if it comes with wind-whipped storms, downed trees, or mud slides. It won’t be like the one coming down outside my window now. I go out walking in it. The dry earth has a musky smell as it is coated with the first sprinkles of a rain so fine that it creates stratus you can see on the ground.  It’s blown in on a slight ocean breeze that moves the Spanish moss’s tendrils out from under cover of the California live oak she lives upon and she too is soaking in the mist.

Central Valley Plan


[ii] Monterey Peninsula Regional Water Authority

[iii] “As ‘Yuck Factor’ Subsides, Treated Wastewater Flows From Taps,” Felicity Barringer, New York Times, February 9, 2012

[iv] California Envisions Fix to Water Distribution, Felicity Barringer and Jennifer Medina, The New York Times, July 25, 2012

Posted in CA, Monterey, New Home Design | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Sudden Heart

Allan Aasen Construction, Pacific Grove since 1983_4

Allan Aasen, General Contractor since 1883

I have been suffering terrible dizzy spells of late and have not been able to figure out what the problem is despite repeated trips to the doctor. I finally decided to stop having my nightly glass—or two—of wine. Then I decided I better eliminate coffee too. Gradually I have been feeling better.  One of the things that has helped me in this new stoicism is being around our builder, Allan Aasen.

I try to visit the site every day. He is a stern man, and a very hard working person, not someone who seems easy to get to know either. But, he was the builder I liked best after we spent quite a bit of time going over bids with several builders and interviewing three of them twice. In thinking back I now credit Allan with having been somewhat sly in what he chose to focus on and recount in those interviews. It was actually quite good salesmanship on his part though none of it dishonest, just a way to highlight his strengths.

Allan Aasen Construction, Pacific Grove since 1983_3

Demolition begins after asbestos removal.

For example, he told the story of a young builder he knew, a guy he said who reminded him of when he was younger, running multiple building sites simultaneously. This builder was installing radiant flooring, which is what we are intending to do, and it is one of the more costly aspects of our building plan but also recommended by our architect. The heat is delivered via hot water pipes, but instead of coming through old radiators like the apartment buildings where I used to live in New York, the pipes run under the floor, so the floor is heated. (In Breaking Bad, one of the reasons Walter White’s wife has an affair with her boss is because she is so attracted to his radiantly heated bathroom floor.) The heating system actually caused the early demise of one builder who we thought would bid on the project. He arrived a little late on the scene and announced, quickly after swinging down from his extra high pickup when he got to the site that, in his opinion, radiant flooring was a waste of money in a house as small as ours. Our architect, without blinking an eye, told him without emotion, that this project was a team approach and there would be no room for individual egos. At the time, I wondered if this was exactly on point, but in retrospect, it was and we never saw or heard from that contractor again.

Allan Aasen Construction, Pacific Grove since 1983_2

The plans are never far away and consulted often.

But back to the story that Allan told…He said that the young builder (Allan took out his red pencil and began to draw on paper to illustrate as he talked, something I’ve learned since that he’s inclined to since he seems to think in terms of drawings and pictures), drew a map for his crew of the water lines beneath the floor so that they would have a map of where not to put any nails lest they pierce the plastic pipe carrying the hot water. After drawing the map, the young builder promptly drove off to get to his other site. But, while he was gone, one of his workers, took up the plan, misinterpreted it, and pounded nails in all the wrong places along the path of the pipe. After this story I looked up at Allan and asked in dismay, “How many jobs will you be working on?” He replied smoothly, “Just one…yours.” Though he didn’t have the job yet.

Allan was my choice, but he was not Harry’s, because his bid was the highest. But it was also the most thorough and he broke out what were fixed costs and what were the “allowances,” which could go up or down depending upon how much we ultimately spent on such things as light fixtures, carpeting, appliances, etc. All three of the builders from whom we were getting bids were recommended by Terry, our architect, who assured us that, in his experience, Allan was scrupulously honest with his costs and not an expensive builder. Terry said that perhaps his costs were somewhat higher because he works with his two adult sons.

Arek Aasen Construction Pacific Grove

Arek centers rebar for the stem wall.

I have since learned that theirs is a family business and Karen, Allan’s wife keeps the books. That’s just one of her jobs, she also works at our favorite hotel in town, the Best Western on the Beach.

Greg Aasen, Aasen Construction

Greg puts the finishing touches on the foundation forms.

We asked Allan to pare down his prices for the final bid and he did. But he also told us something that he said he feared would cost him the job. He said that he was afraid there was asbestos in the old house, slated for demolition, and that if he failed to get that inspected and removed properly he knew a builder who had been fined $80,000. That did it for me. He was our guy! At the time, our next door neighbor had been opposed to our building project, testifying against it at the Planning Commission twice despite Terry’s efforts to redesign our front door in response to her concerns that we would make noise and bother her. She has since moved away perhaps because she feared the noise of construction even more than our living there. I knew that, in any case, we would not want to risk such an incident and I appreciated his expertise in pointing out this potential pitfall despite the fact that it added another $10,000 to our costs to the abatement firm. He had been right, there was asbestos.

Now, daily I go to watch and photograph as the building begins to emerge from the sand. There are three of them, Allan, Arek and Greg. They are Norwegian and they rarely talk on the job though it’s clear they communicate because it is getting built and the job site is immaculate. They work together measuring and leveling at each turn. I can see how proud Allan is of the boys and the quality of work they do.

Allan is in his mid-60s, about my age, and the boys, twins, are probably in their 30s. Allan is lean and trim. His fare skin has reddened with exposure though I know they are all carful to use sun screen. It’s been a little hot at the site, upwards of 75 degrees but they all stay fully covered, maybe short sleeves once in a while. They play their radio and listen to news, a lot about sports. Allan grew up on the peninsula in Pacific Grove where he lives with his wife in a house for which Terry designed a new master suite. They bought there when the boys were younger so they could walk to school. Allan has been building on the Peninsula for 30 years. He started out working for the father of one of his friends in high school, Herman Hass, who taught Allan more than carpentry, but an approach to life that was about working hard.

Allan takes pride in being old school. He says it’s not about the money, it’s about doing things right, paying your dues. He uses a hammer instead of a nail gun except for a few special aspects of the job. “Nope,” he says, “No nail guns. We’re building your house the old-fashioned way.”

I thought the first couple of times that I met him that he walked with a limp or perhaps had a bad back. I asked him about it recently because I explained I don’t notice it anymore, but I still thought he might have been injured on the job. He said, “No, I guess I just walk funny. That’s what people say to me and I tell them I can walk any damn way I please. It’s just the way I walk.” He is sort of cantankerous too, you see. But he’s very kind also, and he says theAllan Aasen Construction, Pacific Grove since 1983 secret to his success is that he just works very hard to keep his clients happy. He told me he gets up every morning at 5:30 AM, and at 6 AM he goes running on the beach for two miles. He says it’s sort of a boring life, all he does is work, but he doesn’t ever have an ache or a pain!

He’s been an inspiration! I am not quite sure at what point the tables turned for me and I began to feel better and suddenly to take heart. It’s been a slow steady climb uphill since so that I can say I feel better than I can recall feeling in quite some time.

Posted in Monterey, New Home Design | 6 Comments

Paper Windows

When I was growing up in Monterey, it was like traveling abroad to go to the adjacent towns of Seaside, Pacific Grove, Carmel or Pebble Beach, the other towns on the peninsula. Each town has its own high school except for Pebble Beach (probably the snootiest of the lot) and this no doubt added to the rivalry between the places.

Map of the Monterey PeninsulaThe peninsula is shaped sort of like a cat with an arched back that is looking west out to sea with the arch of its neck and reverse arch of its back forming the southern mouth and beach of the bay as it sweeps north for nearly forty miles to Santa Cruz. If you can picture this cat’s head jutting out into the water, Pacific Grove would be the top of the head with its ears the rocks at the furthest point out to sea, Pebble Beach has the cat’s eyes and the chin is right about at the Lone Cypress, and Carmel sits on the southernmost tip at the throat. Monterey is at the nape of the neck and makes up most of the central part of the peninsula.

Carmel and Pebble Beach are probably the most famous of all the towns and the most popular tourist destinations; Pebble Beach for its four golf courses though golfing at any one of them costs a small fortune. And Carmel-By-Sea has a beautiful beach and all the shoppes you could ever hope for: art galleries, cheese stores, wine bars, and restaurants including the Hog’s Breath Inn owned by former Mayor Clint Eastwood.

Seaside the one town of the four with no beach or oceanfront to speak of, was always the poorest of all the towns. It had the largest non white population and was also shaped by its history of being adjacent to Fort Ord which, while it had beaches, was using them for artillery practice. Closed in 1994, the fort, for most of its history, served as the Army’s largest basic training facility. Thanks in large part to former Congressman and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s influence, it was reborn recently as California State University at Monterey Bay. I suspect he also had a hand in cleaning up the Superfund site as it had been designated because of the unexploded ordnance on the training fields. It has now been converted into a park though when I go there, I’m going to be especially careful to stay on the designated walkways.

Monterey BayIn between all these towns is Monterey, my home town, the largest of the four in terms of area and population and probably the most diverse as well. It is the site of the only harbor on the peninsula with two wharves because fishing remains a primary business. Recently I found a new mural that Pacific Grove had installed by their sea walk. It was dedicated to the Chinese community that had come here to build a railroad extension from Salinas to Monterey in the 19th Century and then stayed on to make their livings by fishing in a shantytown wharf they built on the water that burned in 1906 killing many and wiping out the community. But the mural also referenced the other communities on the peninsula. They said they were known as Carmel-By-the-Sea, Pacific Grove by God (because it was started as a Methodist summer camp), and Monterey by the smell—no doubt for the fishing—still it made me wish for Friday night football where we always trounced PG.

Monterey is also the site of the Naval Post Graduate School where Annapolis graduates go for advanced degrees and the Defense Language Institute which employs 1,700 instructors to teach two dozen languages to 3,500 military personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps who are housed there at the Presidio.

Feast of Lanterns, Pacific GroveNow I’m living in Pacific Grove, also known as Butterfly Town, because the monarch butterflies winter here on their annual migrations from the north. All of the monarchs west of the Rocky Mountains come through here because it is the home of the Monterey pine which is where they rest after their long trek stirring only to feed on nearby Eucalyptus trees which are at the same height as the pine and in bloom at the time the butterflies migrate. They need to eat because they must do one last thing before they expire—procreate. It’s a fascinating story about these insects.

Right now I feel a special affinity with the monarch because of my return migration to the peninsula. And here I too feel like I am hanging upside down, exhausted from the long migration, trying to regain my strength. I feel very strange. At first I thought I might even have caught something on the journey out, but all the tests have come back negative. Oddly I feel sort of nothing, drained, in suspended animation. I’m short of emotional energy too: not as quick to cry, to laugh, even to smile. Perhaps it is because I have so rarely been alone? Now all of the time leading up to this moment, when I feared being by myself, I find it’s just the opposite and that I want to hibernate. Maybe it’s because I have been too busy for too long? Though I am not completely idle now. I am still working to finish a website, keeping the books for a nonprofit, meeting with builders on the house. So, it’s not a vacation, or even a retreat. But now when I have callers, or visitors, or friends reaching out to talk I have strangely little patience.Lighthouse Ave Pacific GrovePacific Grove, in addition to being the foggiest place on the peninsula, shrouded in mist most days, is also the quietest place I have ever been. There are cars in front of most of the houses, but they are parked. You rarely see one driving around. I suspect most of the inhabitants are retired, like me, and they go out mainly to walk their dogs. I take Charlie on long walks several times a day. We walk to Asilomar and the beach and to Pacific Grove’s cute little downtown where they let dogs go shopping at the hardware store, our favorite place. We rarely even meet other walkers though. It’s like the streets are deserted.

When I arrived Chinese lanterns were hanging everywhere in the town, with golden tassels glittering in the breeze, these folded creations were paper windows to a different world. They are hung in anticipation of the Feast of Lanterns, Butterfly Town’s annual celebration of an ancient Chinese myth in which a beautiful princess is in love with a poor young scholar who her father, the emperor, has forbidden her to see. He has arranged instead for her to marry a wealthy old potentate who could enrich his realm. The princess is driven to despair and suicide. She leaves the palace confines and walks toward the sea at dusk. The emperor calls for the people to light lanterns on their boats and go out to search for her. They find her and her lover reunited, but in a final burst of light the two are transformed into monarch butterflies who fly off together into the night sky.

Spruce Ave Pacific Grove









I finally bought a lantern and it is hanging outside my house, dancing in the fog, waiting for me to get busy and start my creative challenge, building our retirement house. Demolition of the old house starts today!

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Special Game

“Let’s Go Shopping!” exclaimed Laura Michaelides, our interior designer. What fun! There were two sets of things she needed from us:  appliances and countertops. Since we had decided that we would have the cabinets built on site, Laura needed to prepare the cabinet drawings so we could locate a finish carpenter to build them. As we prepared for a trip out to Monterey to meet with our architect and potential builders, she was working to complete the cabinet plans, but before she could draw them, she needed to know the size and numbers of appliances that we would have.

The countertops, particularly for the kitchen, she said would be the foundation upon which we would build our “color palette.” I sighed with great relief! A color palette was music to my ears. This was why you hired a professional designer. I feel much attuned to colors. If I connect with the design of a room or a house it is often the colors to which I am responding. Harry also has a strong aesthetic sense when he’s focused on something. Sometimes I think he should have been an artist instead of an engineer. I was also grateful to have Laura as an arbiter in these matters.

We began stovewith appliances. After pouring over Consumer Reports for ratings on key factors and reading up on new designs, we selected a showroom in Houston, K&N Builder, which had a large floor area with enough room for lots of brands including European models and all types of appliances. Laura had advised us to look for a counter depth refrigerator, which would not jut out beyond the counters since our space is limited (and I had observed, too, that Laura likes things to be aligned). We knew we needed a dishwasher of course, and we wanted to splurge on a wine cooler. We probably would have a small counter top microwave/toaster because of our limited space. The big question was the size of the stove and I had decided that we needed a 48” professional range with two ovens. I honestly felt I was arguing this for Harry’s benefit since he loves to cook. I could envision myself feeling really fine, as I sipped my wine while hubs worked away on his professional stove making my dinner. He had gotten the short end of the stick when it came to our offices on the first floor of the new home, since he kindly gave me the corner office with a view while he took the middle room with the view of our neighbor’s fence.

But, Harry took one look at the 48” professional range and said it was too big for our small house. Actually, I kind of agreed with him. It did look kind of massive, but it was only with a 48” stove that we could have the second oven.  Professional stoves come with two types of power:  gas for the stove and electric for the oven; two types of baking: convection and conventional; six burners some with an extremely high heat of 15,000 BTUs and others with a low of 500 BTUs for when you want to make a beurre blanc sauce; and a griddle in the middle for hotcakes. Harry did find a salesman there with whom he bonded and they ended up with their heads together talking about an outdoor combination grill and smoker, while I wandered about and strategized to bide my time on the 48”stove. The salesman suggested we try Best Buy, which had an even bigger showroom promising he could match any of their prices.

From there we had to go straight home because I was exhausted from our first shopping exercise. Loaded with pamphlets of different models and features. I had honestly ceased caring about third racks in dishwashers and subzero refrigerators that can keep blueberries for up to four weeks.

Before looking at appliances again, we went with Laura to look for countertops. She advised that this was the place to start because it would be the focus of the Great Room and once we had the stone, we could best decide about the color of the cabinets, backsplash tiles, and flooring, which we needed to complete the building specifications and cost estimates. I worried about mining the earth’s beautiful rock for these stone counters. She reassured me saying the stone had already been quarried and was just sitting on the showroom floor, waiting for us to have some of it. I certainly agreed that stone countertops would be very beautiful. In Houston, we had our first stone countertops and they proved very functional indeed:  cold so you could work with dough directly on the service, they take the heat well too, and even with the highly polished stone never showed stains.

We met Laura at Walker Zanger where you have to shop with a “building professional.” This is an old company that specializes in world-class stone and tiles with showrooms in major cities across the country. The warehouse was enormous with huge heavy stone slabs standing up like slices of toast on a rack so buyers could walk through and examine each slab up close. The slabs magnificently portray geologic time in metamorphosis and sedimentation and volcanic eruption. They were granite, quartzite, marble, and onyx; much of it fascinatingly detailed as you looked at it up close, and others painted sweeping panoramas as well when you stepped back for the broad view. I was reminded of Van Gogh’s Starry Night; or Monet’s water-lily pond, shaded with light and darker greens. You can get lost in these, each one unique and interesting in its own right.

Harry spotted a stone he liked right away when we walked into the showroom. I was into the details searching for some element of green or, rarer still, a sea green, one of my favorite Monterey colors.  Harry’s stone was one of those with a sweeping panorama, as well as fascinating detail and, though I liked it, I did not find much green in it. Laura said we could do green countertops in the bathrooms. The name of the stone that Harry liked was Crema Oniciata, a quartzite. Laura said she really wanted me to be thrilled with the stone as well, and that we should look at another showroom. We spent more time in another part of the store looking at tiles that could go on the floor, in the bath, and on backsplashes in the kitchen and baths.  Once again, after two hours of this shopping, I was overwhelmed by all of the choices which at the end seemed fused together in a giant blur of pink granite porphyry, white phenocrysts, and labradorite adularescence.

Our second trip searching for appliances was to Best Buy where there was an enormous selection. There, suddenly, the stoves no longer looked so massive to Harry. They didn’t to me either, unless I am becoming merely his cipher. By this time he also had spoken to his sister on the phone. She had just remodeled her kitchen and, she too a fantastic cook, encouraged him in no uncertain terms to get the larger stove, particularly for the two ovens. Our eldest daughter was also encouraging him. I could see that the full court press was eventually winning the day. (Note to self for future campaigns—Go Girlfriends!)

We tried again looking for countertops at another showroom, even bigger than the last one. I tried taking photos of the slabs as a way to help me remember them, but without a map of where they stood on the lot, it was not much help in locating them afterward. On the second walk around the lot Laura began talking against having a peachy background to the stone. This was not a color she wanted in the color palette. Suddenly it seemed to me I could not find anything green, and everything seemed peachy keen. Finally I did find a beautiful piece that was sea green that I quite liked though still I was not enamored of it and it lacked that sweeping drama of Crema Oniciata (shown below).

crema oniciata We were so tired we decided to go for a cup of coffee and mull over our choices. Laura said that the two of us would have to fight it out and decide between the two slabs we had found. I said that I liked the slab that Harry had selected well enough and that perhaps she should cast the tie-breaking vote. She said that though she liked both, she thought Harry’s slab was more dramatic and that the color palate would work well for us.

So, Harry won! I tried not to think of it in this way, but there it was in my very competitive heart. Even when I would chide myself that he was, after all, a geologist and that it was fitting that he should select the stone, particularly after he had capitulated to the 48” stove, still I felt I had lost. I decided to be amenable to his selection of the countertop. Even though I wasn’t wild about it, truth was, it was beginning to grow on me. One of those things that the more you see it, the better you like it.

It’s a game we play I guess. Each one has to get some and give some. You wouldn’t want a partner who was indifferent. And the teeter totter does come to balance, not with both partners’ feet suspended in air, but when each one is pushing off with their strength while the other rides down, cushioning the fall and then pushing back to keep the game going forward. If only it were as simple as teeter totter. I cannot help keeping score; I want things my way to be sure, but I also want my partner’s ideas to come to life. In this way it’s a special game we play that seems always in transition, which keeps it very interesting.

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Probable Cause

At the beginning of the year, I thought I would really plunge into working on the design of the new house, but suddenly I came down with a severe case of the dreads. One problem was church which was becoming very difficult for me to go to on Sundays. I was uncomfortable while I was there, and took a full day or two to recover my spirits afterward. Many people were saying goodbye even though I hadn’t left yet. Some people had said goodbye to me already for the third and fourth time.

Then too, I felt I had come to a standstill with the house design and felt locked up with worry. The money in particular was worrying me and I could tell it was worrying Harry as well who is my “canary” on such matters. Harry is planning to work on at his job in Houston until his retirement in the spring.

I had been looking for a place to live in Monterey so that I could oversee the construction. The latter was beginning to sound like a bad joke to me, particularly after our washer dryer suddenly died. We set out to replace it: first consulting Consumer Reports, then out shopping for deals at the local stores. We thought we ought to buy something that would fit in the new house as well. When the new machine arrived and after I had thanked the installation crew and waved them merrily on their way, I put a load in. The machine immediately got so loud, the dog began to cringe. As I was sure it was about to explode, I ran to close the laundry room door, only to find I could not because I hadn’t measured correctly! At least I still had the number of the guys who installed it and they came right back to remove a shipping belt they had inadvertently left in the machine, which hummed quietly when they restarted it, and after they jammed it into the corner so I could shut the door. My future as a construction overseer was definitely in question.

Interior Designer Laura Michaelides

Interior Designer Laura Michaelides

At a party over the holidays I had met my friend from church, Laura Michaelides, an interior designer, and we agreed that we would meet for lunch in the new year and talk about my building project. So we did. Our friendship at church has deepened especially since our younger daughter worked for Laura’s firm, Four Square Design Studio. Her firm has grown significantly since then and Laura now has a staff of two, and a new office in a building she renovated in an inner-city Houston neighborhood that she is working to have declared a historic district. I had secretly been wishing to hire her for months, researching work chronicled on her website where her design talents are well demonstrated. I finally convinced Harry that hiring the professionals we need to help us is well worth the extra cost.

When Laura and I met for lunch at a local eatery, we sat outside on a beautifully warm, breezy day, and munched our salmon salads. I had brought along plans to give to her and was able to explain that I could not get the living room arranged in the way I wanted. I recounted that my most recent furniture shopping exercise had not gone particularly well. I incline toward room stores where you buy a whole suite of furniture (that’s pronounced suit in Texas), and the matter is finished. Except of course if you discover flaws as I had a couple of weeks after delivery of the last suite I had purchased, whereupon the store informed me the repair would not be covered under the extra warranty I had purchased. I explained to Laura that my solution to this had been to shop via catalogue at one of the more expensive furniture stores on the planet with outlets only in New York, Paris and Miami. She took one look at the house plans and said the mega scale of furniture in that store would never fit in the room, my measuring skills once again were clearly lacking.

She said that she had encountered house designs that were nearly impossible to furnish and that we should begin with a description of the look and feel and functions that Harry and I were trying to achieve in the house design. At last I had something I could do. She said she could help me layout a critical path for moving forward with the plans. That was also a great relief since I could feel the days ticking by and I had counted up and realized I had only four months left until my move out date. Time to get busy.

She also made sense of the difficulties my friend Karen was having rehabilitating her kitchen in Phoenix–even after she had employed an architect to draw up the plans. Karen described how every day the contractor would arrive at her door with choices she needed to make that day. Then she would run off to the store. On the day we last talked it had been to select a kitchen sink and faucet, but when she got to the store there were a thousand sinks ranging in price from $99 to $999, and she had no basis for making a decision. Perhaps it was not such a crazy idea to work with a designer in Houston when we are building a house half a continent away. I could keep busy in the months before I moved working with Harry to make selections here in Houston where there are infinitely more stores to choose from and where we could shop together for materials, fixtures, etc.

Original Design of Great Room

Original Design of Great Room

I explained to Laura that I had a problem with the great room on the second floor and until I had it settled I could hardly think about other design issues. Perhaps the problem was that I had a picture in my mind of how I wanted it to work, and I just could not see how to make it happen. I knew it was a small house yet I wanted to be able to fit 10 people in the living room. As the plans stood, we might be able to squeeze in only six. Laura said that she had an idea about how she might make this possible. She recommended that we carve this off as a first design job for her and see if she could help with this and she was very excited to begin. So she set to work, and we arranged that in a couple of weeks Harry and I would meet in her office.

Revised Plans

Revised Plans

When we arrived two weeks later for our first meeting, I knew the instant I saw the plans that it was right. For me it was what I had in mind all the while. This is not a criticism of our architect’s drawings, but Laura’s expertise is in furnishings and at this point Terry, our architect, was very busy with structural engineers, heating engineers, filing building plans with the City and other matters to get us ready for construction. A few weeks later Terry saw the plans and announced that he liked them as well and said he thought reorienting the kitchen was an improvement. Originally the kitchen had been immediately on the right as you came up the stairs. It opened on to the living room in a u-shape set in the back corner of the room with one counter arm between it and the dining room. Laura’s idea was to turn the kitchen 90 degrees so that instead of opening on to the living room, it opened on to the dining room.

This had a most important impact on the living room. The partition between the living room and the kitchen created a backdrop against which she had designed built-in sectional sofas that together make two sides of a rectangle with fully ten linear feet for sitting bones. This would be enough to accommodate five people easily, and six with a squeeze. In addition she also planned two chairs facing the couch, one of which would be in the corner of the room with the best view. It would be a signature chair, capable or rotating 360 degrees so you could turn and look out at the bay. We could also bring in two more chairs from the dining room to accommodate up to ten people.

Then one weekend, shortly thereafter, I had a breakthrough at church. It was a Saturday chock full of church activities. I decided instead to just lay on the couch and read. I stayed there most of the morning, dozing fitfully, but I stayed gripping the upholstery at times to steady my nerves. As I stayed there all afternoon I began to plot missing church the next morning, which I did. And on the following Monday I felt surprisingly light-headed, nearly festive. When I described this chain of events to one of my friends from church, she said to me that the probable cause was that I had begun to separate in my mind from the church, as a means of preparing for the changes ahead. It was so obvious! Why hadn’t I seen it?

What is ahead for me once I move? In my adult life I have lived in Houston longer than anywhere, and now, as I prepare to leave, to start a new life, I wonder if I will make such close friends, or hole up instead in my new home like a hermit crab, just listening to the sound of the surf.

In a church community there are always new people coming, old members leaving and some people you have always known changing right before your eyes–if you let them. I’ll count myself in this latter category and say I am in transition; into what or whom I do not know. I will be some facsimile of my present self, but also different, launched on a new chapter of my life. I am not trying to be something I am not, but perhaps to let out parts of me that have not yet had a chance to bloom. I don’t think I have multiple personalities, I just feel, like Mary Poppins, the winds of change are in the air. I have only glimpses of a new life; I think of myself exploring the tide pools. I can see myself at the construction site but overseeing it in a way that is better described as appreciative inquiry, a skill we learned at church. I will take my church skills and memories with me and perhaps, with a little distance, a new appreciation of them, and a willingness to start again at the church in Monterey.

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Pale Mountains

We received the first set of plans from our architect, Terry Latasa, in November of 2011. We had first met Terry in Monterey, standing in front of my mother’s old house. He had come highly recommended to us, and been very responsive to our requests to meet. We talked a bit then and he told us that our lot, like all of the others on the street, was substandard in size by 10 feet in either direction, and that this would limit the size of our house. The City had a hard-won Ordinance which limited a house’s floor area to no more than 40% of the area of the lot. Therefore the buildable floor area would be limited to a house of 1,440 sq. feet (not including the 450 Sq. ft. garage, also mandated by ordinance), and the City absolutely would not allow anything larger.

In the same conversation, Terry did reassure us that, we would not have any trouble building on a second story so that we could recapture our view of the bay, since all of the other properties on the block were now at two stories. This would allow us to have a good view of the bay and downtown to Fisherman’s Wharf. After meeting at the site, we went to lunch with Terry and talked more about our hopes and dreams for the house.

November, 2011

November, 2011

That was in the summer of 2011 and, about four months later in November we received our first complete set of drawings. It was the first of six plans that Terry would draw with some major and other more modest changes. His contract allowed us as many revisions in the plans as we liked.

I had a favorite house on the block, friends of my mother had lived there and I had always admired it. Terry had also been their friend and been in the house. Even though that house was on a lot twice the size of ours, it helped to have some places to start. The drawing on the left is from the first plans, which included detailed drawings of the first and second floors as well as the elevation. I liked the design, but Harry felt it was too traditional looking on the outside and in particular he did not like the gabled, dormer window in what was the dining room. He wanted a more contemporary or modern look. We were even willing to look at a flat roof.

I focused on the floor plan and was not quite certain that the layout of the second floor where there was a “Great Room” combining living room, dining room and kitchen, would give us enough room. I had yet to learn about the tiny house movement. While this house would not qualify since it is over 1,000 sq. ft., most everyone in Texas would have said, “It’s pretty damn small!” This was definitely going to mean some adjustments on our part. We began to have serious discussions at that point about how our grand piano was probably going to have to go. Harry thought we should look into getting a hybrid grand pianos that play and sound like acoustic pianos but are the size of a spinet and have come way down in price.

We began to talk too about weeding out our most treasured possessions, our books. Harry began putting all of our music in the cloud. A lot of our larger art pieces would also clearly have to go.

February, 2012

February, 2012

In February of 2012 Terry sent us a new design, more contemporary with a barrel-vaulted roof, cable guard rails at the decks and stucco siding. He said this architectural treatment would take a lot more work but it would give us a nice aesthetic direction for the project. And it has. We felt we were moving in the right direction.

It was at that time that we tried some wild ideas for the layout all most none of which worked including an upside down wedding cake array in which the largest space was on the second floor and the first floor was smaller. Terry particularly hated this as it cast shadows outside all of the first floor space. However, the exercises helped us to finally choose the second floor layout and we ended up back to the very first plans that Terry had drawn with the dining room on the left as you face the house, and the living room is on the right with a view of the water. The kitchen is behind the dining room and there is a straight line between the front deck of the living room to the largest deck which is in the back. The back part of the house has a southern exposure and definitely the warmest part of the house protected from the ocean breeze and getting afternoon sun. We asked Terry to check the views because I thought we could see the hills to the south and the pale mountains to the east, much of the time shrouded in fog or haze, but other times they come clearly into view.  Finally we had our basic floor plan–Rhapsody on a theme of Cabin-teeny.

July, 2012

July, 2012

In July we went out for what has become our annual pilgrimage to California, to visit our daughter and visit Monterey. And while we were there we planned extra days to continue to work with Terry on the plans. We had the basics in place. There were no more drastic rearrangements of rooms or spaces. Now it was all fine tuning. Except that Harry now began to propose a fire engine red garage door, which faced the street. We had decided by this time that either one of us had a right to veto and I was thinking of exercising mine. I worried it would make the house stick out like a flashing red light.

After our visit with Terry and before going home, we made the three-hour drive to San Francisco for a visit with our younger daughter and while we were there we went to an exhibit at the Historical Society on the design and construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, in honor of its 75th anniversary. One of the more distinguishing elements of the bridge’s design is its iconic color. I began to think more about the garage door, perhaps with a Golden Gate red.

November, 2012

November, 2012

In November we finalized the designs that would be sent to the City and subject to public hearings before final approvals were given, which they were in December of that year. In the final stages, the house took on bulk and character as Terry worked to incorporate additional storage areas into the perimeter of the house that, because they were less than ceiling height, would not factor into the Floor Area Ration, but would nonetheless give us the additional storage space that we needed. Facing the house from the street it begins to looks as though the roof has five different levels to it. These are akin to building furniture on the side of the house so you have the benefit of cupboards that don’t intrude into the room but instead sit on the perimeter of the room. We have several of these on the second floor. One adjacent to the dining room will serve as a pantry, one adjacent to the living room will house stereo and media equipment, and one further to back of the house will hold the hybrid grand piano.

Though you can’t see it here, we have agreed to a red garage door and front door, it turns out that in many cultures red is a traditional sign of welcome.

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