Monday, 22 December 2014

Should you renovate a house?

We've now been renovating our house for more than a year. At least it is now functional, and we are living inside of it instead of in a trailer in the yard. We have two bedrooms, a kitchen, and a bathroom that all work. The living room and dining room are also more or less functional, though they are also used to store construction materials so aren't all that welcoming. We have no heat, and there are so many holes in the walls and subfloor that cold wind and spiders rush in when they like. But, we have new windows and the outside of the house has just recently been finished so we can make it through the rainy season without the inside being destroyed. 

Before we bought the "house" (maybe a better term would be "roof" or "skeleton of a shelter"), lots of people warned us that we didn't know what we were getting in to. But we thought: we can finally afford to buy a place in a nice neighborhood, and by putting in sweat equity, we'll be sitting pretty in no time. How hard can it be?
All surfaces will become coated in to-do lists and receipts
Are you also considering buying a fixer upper? Do you envision yourself renovating the house with your own two hands? Before you go ahead, consider these questions:

1. Are you a contractor, or do you desire to become one? Do you even know what a contractor is?

2. Do you have a burning desire to spend most of your time and money at Home Depot? 

3. Are you afraid of power tools?

4. How do you feel about going shopping for supplies wearing your pajamas, tattered rags completely covered in paint, and/or with a healthy sprinkling of drywall dust in your hair?

5. Do you have a small child? Is that child technically trained in power tool use yet?

6. Do you prefer to spend your weekends relaxing at the beach, or shoveling raccoon nests out from the crawl space before tiling the shower?

7. Are you good at making decisions? For example, do you confidently order food at a restaurant, shop for clothing, and book your vacation flights without constantly changing your mind and second-guessing your decision? Or do you waver until the last moment, at which point you ask someone else to decide for you, and then immediately veto whatever option they chose? 

8. Do you have enough savings to spend 1.5 times what you predict on your renovations? 

9. Do you have enough funds to throw in the towel and hire a contractor?

10. Are you afraid of heights?
I credit my time at Circus WOW in Wollongong for (thankfully!) alleviating my fear of heights
11. Do you have a day job?

12. After a typical day working at said day job, do you typically feel like drywalling a ceiling, or watching football and drinking beer?

13. Are you considering entering into this fixer-upper purchase with another human being who is not your clone? Do they sometimes have opinions that differ from your own?

14. Do you have lots of handy family members who are willing to spend their hard-earned time and money helping you fix your house?

No matter what you answer to any of these questions, let me sum it up for you: run away now. As fun and romantic as it sounds to buy a house and renovate it just to your liking, it's too much! There are too many inane and also difficult choices (square or rounded corners on the electrical plates? what color for the stucco, which will last 30 freaking years?), it is too expensive, and it takes too long. And, life is just too short.

Though, it's pretty satisfying when things go from (left) to (above)

Friday, 14 November 2014

Are you a resource-destroying nutball? A short quiz

   1. Do you turn on the kitchen faucet for ambience while cooking?

  2Do you light the burners on your stove and then go for a run?

  3. Do you irrigate a yard comprised entirely of concrete?

  4. Do you run the laundry machine while empty?
  5. Do you leave all the lights on and turn the thermostat to 80˚F when you go on vacation?
  6. Do you buy things at the store and then throw them directly in the garbage?

If you answered “no, of course not!” to all of these questions, congratulations! You are probably not intentionally destroying the planet. Let me introduce you, however, to a person who might think differently.

This has nothing to do with the story, but don't get me started on these puppies
A few days ago, I stopped with my 3-yr old at a shopping center nearby and popped in to get an ice cream. It was a nice sunny day, so we sat on the tailgate of our truck while R. enjoyed his rainbow sherbet. In the row of cars behind us, I kept being distracted by a man pacing around behind his car and having an animated phone conversation. The conversation was punctuated now and then by mild swearing and energetic gesticulation, usually followed by a quick pivot before the speaker stomped off in the other direction. From what I could overhear, the conversation consisted of one long rant about something work-related. I felt sorry for his colleagues. 

We had been sitting and enjoying the sun and ice cream for about 10 minutes when I realized that this guy had his car running the entire time we had been sitting there. My eavesdropping suggested that the conversation was not going to be wrapped up anytime soon, so I did what any normal conservation-minded person might: I picked R. up on my hip, stomped over to the guy, and interrupted his phone call.

Me: There is no point polluting the air by running your car when you aren’t using it.

Guy: [To me] Huh?
[To phone] Hold On.
[To me, after looking up] The sky looks pretty damn clean to me. Besides, this is an eco car.

Me: Ok, but it doesn’t run on nothing. It’s called climate change.
[Side note: I am not, apparently, very eloquent when confronting someone]

Guy: Oh. Well, whatever. Would it make you happy if I turned it off?

Me: Yes.

Guy: Ok… [complete with a “you-are-a-psycho” eye roll]

Me:  Thank you very much.

Guy: Are you married?

Me: Yes, and I have a kid. [Obviously, considering the creature eating ice cream on my hip]

Guy: Wow, lucky him!

I assume this last part of the exchange was meant to be sarcastic – perhaps he was hoping I would say “no” so that he could say something like “well, duh. You are a meddling bee-atch, guys don’t like that.” Oh well.

So, perhaps this person wasn’t intentionally burning fossil fuels for no good reason, he just didn’t think about it. But there is no good reason to waste resources – we use enough of them living our lives (yes, I do turn the lights on at night, and take showers and heat my home occasionally).
What a fantastic use of fossil fuels! Heat up the planet more quickly by directly burning fuel when no one is around to be warmed by outdoor heaters; just use them to up the ambience at your pool! Woohoo.

I regularly see similar incredibly wasteful activities all around – restaurants that burn outdoor heaters out on the sidewalk to attract customers, although no one is sitting outside; seemingly thoughtful parents idling their cars for 20 minutes outside the school waiting for their kids; businesses that blast air conditioning or heat yet leave the doors wide open (I’m looking at you, Home Depot). Must people really have a Styrofoam cup on top of their plastic cup full of iced coffee, complete with plastic top and plastic straw, Dunkin’ Donuts? Could they not, if they really need it, use one of those stupid paper sleeves to protect their precious fingertips from getting too cold?

Usually these days, I don’t say anything when I see egregious planet-destroying activities – perhaps I had enough old dudes yelling at me to mind my own business, the Bible says we are allowed to destroy everything, etc. when I was younger and more vocal (I still remember two such interactions very distinctly – one with a diver obsessed with getting as many “bugs” as possible, and one with a cattle rancher who thought the planet was created specifically for us to use up). But I think this must stop. We have to start pointing out ridiculously wasteful activities when we see them, or they will continue and this planet will not sustain us for any longer.

End of rant.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Go Outside

I’m now in my second month of the job I’ve spent about 11 years training for: I’m an assistant professor at UMass Boston (I'm only counting the years after which I'd decided I wanted to be a professor - not the preceding decades). I’m completely thrilled and also terrified (do I really know whatI’m doing?). These competing emotions have driven me to spend practically every possible moment hunched over my computer, reading and writing and thinking and reacquainting myself with old data and looking for grant opportunities and figuring out what I need to buy to set up my lab and planning new projects and choosing a textbook for next semester and planning upcoming classes, and…phew. It’s exhilarating and wonderful, but also dizzying.

The one thing I haven’t done enough of is be outside, looking at the study system I care most about: the ocean. Today on my way to the office, I was making lists in my head of what today will entail, when the view from the bus stopped me. Boston harbor is a calm sheet of molten metal reflecting the sun hiding behind wisps of thin clouds. The harbor islands look almost surreally shrouded in mist, like something from a fairytale movie. Instead of walking to my temporary office, facing a cinderblock wall with no natural light filtering into the cubicle, I came down to the Harbor Walk ringing the school.
I think I'll just make a little office right here, thank you.

 Here, I can see gulls lazily drifting on imperceptible currents, wading birds looking for snacks on a sandbar slowly being exposed by a falling tide. Tiny waves from boat wakes jostle dark and glistening kelp fronds that cling to the steep rip-rap wall of granite buttressing the fill material on which the University is built. I can see through the water closest to the edge, shallow dark sediment with white shapes dotting the surface – shells? On top of a granite block holding a safety chain along the edge of the rip-rap wall, the remains of a crab are strewn; evidence of what those birds are looking for on the sandbar.

It’s surprisingly warm for a place that by some accounts will be covered over by a glacier 37 feet thick in a few months (I think New Englanders thrill in trying to scare people like me, with no real experience living in snow, away from here). Being outside in the sun and the fresh air is not just uplifting – it also reminds me why I care about this thing called the “environment.” And why I got into this career in the first place – to help other people understand what they are looking at when they go outside, with the hope that this will spark them to care deeply enough to help protect it. I also try to do my part to protect the environment through better understanding how the natural world works, and how humans are unraveling the normal mechanisms.

So I propose: whatever the weather and whatever the location, go outside today and look for something that startles you or intrigues you or otherwise makes you care a little more about this beautiful planet. 

And then go vote


Thursday, 9 October 2014

Plane travel with an almost-3-yr-old

For the past 3 months, I have a lot of flying with my little guy (not unlike other months, really…but these were relatively long trips) – now just a week shy of 3 years old. Some parts of plane travel are getting easier as he gets older: he understands and respects (most of the time) the concept of the seatbelt sign; he knows to anticipate juice (a treat for him) and other goodies like the candy I freely dispense when he starts going nuts; his attention span has grown seemingly exponentially. He is, of course, still not fully cognizant of why it’s not Ok to throw things over the back of the seat in front of him, scream at the top of his lungs when he’s frustrated, or why he doesn’t instantly receive said juice when he gets to his seat.

Here are some new tips I’ve learned for traveling with this-age kid.

Balloons become crazy-static-electricity-fied on an airplane = magic! Before he started going completely nuts and throwing them at everyone in the vicinity (at least they don’t hurt), a few small balloons lasted quite some time as we explored what they would stick to and the best way to get them fully statically charged.


Boys love cars/trains/vehicles in general. I had no idea this would be such a hit, but on our cross-US flight Ryder was amused for almost 3 hours total with a box of small cars and a 4-panel “roadmap.” Extra happily for me, he also didn’t particularly care whether I joined him in playing with the cars (something I find I am not that good at – or, let’s be honest, I find somewhat boring), and proceeded to make up little stories with the various cars and keep fully engaged for long chunks of time. I was therefore free to read snatches of a book or the inflight magazine while periodically listening to him narrating for his cars (“Oh look, you got hurt. I’ll take you to the doctor.”).

There are lots and lots of websites that will give you ideas for “busy bags.” The concept is that you put together a little activity in a small bag which will keep your child busy in boring situations like waiting in line at the bank, or waiting for mom to finish the weekly dreadlock-banishment she has decided to tackle on herself. I took the time during a few naps prior to our trip to put some of these together…and they were essentially all a total disaster. Either too easy, too hard, too boring, or too difficult to do in a cramped space. So, maybe don’t waste your time unless color-coding clothespins and punching holes in cardboard and gathering shoelaces is your idea of a good time.

You must have snacks; as many varieties as you can anticipate him wanting to eat. Of course, your child will not want any of them, and will instead demand something that does not exist on the airplane. He will only be appeased when you break down and spend $8 on a few crappy crackers and two pieces of cheese after you make up a story about how his special car loves that particular type of dried up cheese and of which he will take one bite and then say that he is full.
These car track "maps" came with a bunch of cars with non-turning wheels, which he now hates and made me donate at the Goodwill (sorry, other kids), but the maps were a hit
His special metal water bottle will become pressurized and spray water all over him, you, your neighbor, and all of the seats when you open it. This will then become an activity he wishes to repeat on all subsequent plane flights, so you’d be wise to bring along some napkins. Also they’ll be helpful for the juice he will pour all over his lap when he decides his special car would like a bath.

My child is, sometimes I think unfortunately, not that into watching movies (yet?). Even on planes that had built-in movie screens and lots of choices of kids movies and shows, he will become quickly bored. This is inconvenient to me, because I love being able to watch a movie on a plane I would never watch in normal life. So, I’ll usually resort to handing him my phone – he is entranced by the camera/video and flashlight features. Thank goodness for a decent battery life and seemingly endless storage for the 634 close-up nose photos/2 second videos of my thigh that he will take, which keeps him busy for about 30 minutes at a time. Also I think the people behind us really enjoy being intermittently blinded by the flashlight.
We have a lot of these photos now
Don’t forget books!

Playdoh and tools with which to chop up and poke holes in said playdoh are also super useful at this age. Potential playdoh tools available on planes include plastic cutlery and stabby stir-sticks.

At home, Ryder likes to draw; but not on trips, apparently. I bring paper and pens and crayons every damn time and they are immediately swatted to the floor if I bring them out. He will, however, play with glue and/or paint on a plane. The cabin attendants and adjacent well-dressed flyers love this.

And now, the most important tip: a light scarf (or actually, maybe an eye mask would work!) to block out all of the exciting visual stimulation was incredibly helpful to get R to sleep on the plane. He’s outgrown being rocked or walked to sleep, so making it boring to keep his eyes open was the only way to get him to sleep (usually after an episode of kicking me/pulling my hair/screaming or something else horrible to indicate it was beyond time).

Enjoy your travels!
The other upside of letting the kid take pictures is that you will end up with many keepsake photos for your family album

Monday, 28 July 2014

The importance of reading, writing, and creativity

One reason I took a long hiatus in writing earlier in the year was because a colleague chastised me for wasting precious time on what that person considered a frivolous exercise (this blog). I was similarly chastised in my own brain, and out loud by others important to me for this same thing. These past months I have felt rather constantly frazzled, without enough minutes free in the day to accomplish even small tasks like emptying the dishwasher – let alone larger tasks like completing a grant application, or finishing a piece of work I had agreed to complete. So, to try to make peace between my complaints that I don’t have enough free time and the seeming way that I “waste” time writing blog posts, or responding with some alacrity to personal emails, or checking up on friends through Facebook, I mostly signed off of these things and devoted all spare minutes to keeping the house under control and higher-priority work-related-tasks.
Wasting time looking for birds hiding in the Australian bush

Why do I feel I don’t have enough time these days to put the laundry away? Because I am primarily a mom, and my child is wonderful and fun and very social, and not interested in playing quietly by himself while I organize my finances or do the dishes. And I find playing with him and going on outings together much more rewarding than keeping the house clean. And our finances have been such that hiring a person to take care of our child while I work essentially for free has not exactly been an option. But, at the same time, my brain begins to revolt a little after the hundreth time singing Five Little Monkeys, or the 16th minute pushing the swing, and I feel the need for some intellectual stimulation or adult interaction. So, though I have established I would not spend nap-times or those one or two hours I can eek in between waking up at 5 and when mothering begins for the day doing “superfluous” things, I find it almost impossible not to read the news or respond to emails on my phone while Ryder swings happily engrossed in watching other kids at the playground. And I found that while ostensibly I should have felt less frazzled because I was prioritizing better and I was getting real honest work done in those slivers of time, my life was starting to feel monotonous and devoid of the richness that makes it enjoyable (and that richness was only garnered in stolen moments here and there when I thought the kid wouldn’t notice).
Wasting time looking at rocks and nature and stuff

So I decided to forgo additional sleep and start reading again; a few minutes each evening before bed. I haven’t really read books for fun since the early days of nursing for hours in the middle of the night, when it was still awkward and I had to be upright and awake to properly feed my child. Then a friend gave me Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. At first I almost cried – when on earth will I read this book, I thought? But I made the time and it refreshed my soul. That book in particular was exactly what I needed to read at this time. It speaks exactly of what I was going through – while taking care of day-to-day needs of my family I had lost the ability to just sit and think. Perhaps this is not just why I feel drained sometimes as a mother of a small child, but why humans as a culture are sometimes drained of intelligence and we rush headlong into wars, or ravage a tract of wilderness to obtain a precious resource; we just don’t give ourselves the time to sit and think about it first.
Wasting time being silly

Since then I’ve dived into Mark Twain’s Roughing It, a hilarious and fascinating look into the world before cars during the Nevada silver rush. Now I’m reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder, a book of essays of thoughts about the world inspired by the September 11 attacks, which is making me cry with every page and reminding me of this need to be still and alone sometimes, and just think.

And now that I am back to wasting time reading (what a frivolous thing it really is, producing nothing but new thoughts in my mind), I fear I must also begin wasting my time writing again. I have too many thoughts banging around in my brain to keep them in, and writing simply makes me incredibly happy. So this is a warning in advance that I anticipate the blog filling up again with new posts, many of which may be a waste of your time to read. But I have a small hope that perhaps this one will inspire you to waste some more of your time doing things that matter to you in life, even if they don’t bring you closer to your more immediate and tangible life goals: getting that promotion, making the perfect cupcakes for your son’s birthday, or maybe for 5 minutes being on top of the incessant laundry. If we don’t take the time to enrich our lives with superfluous activities, social connections, and learning, then really What is the Point?

p.s. I’m sure most of you already know all of this, but I keep having to get wake-up calls to remind myself what matters before I die of a thousand tiny stresses.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Coral Cores for Science

I spent last week in St. John, US Virgin Islands, on what my friend Lauren called a “Mama Science Vacation.” That was a great term for it – a vacation from our overwhelming house renovations, and from Southern California traffic, and spending 90% of my brain capacity calculating when Ryder might next need to eat or sleep or use the toilet, and feeling guilty I didn’t have enough enriching activities planned for him. 

This week gave me a chance to reconnect with my adult self, think deeply about science, and see wild coral reefs again in person for the first time in more than a year. It’s amazing how enriching it is to be physically immersed in the environment I’ve been studying mostly remotely for the past decade. Today I saw the most extensive stand of Acropora cervicornis,  the endangered “Staghorn coral,” that I have ever witnessed. These corals used to dominate shallow Caribbean reefs, along with their relatives Acropora palmata, or “Elkhorn coral.” But both species of Acropora all but totally died off decades ago from a disease that swept through the Caribbean. Today, we saw not only thriving large colonies of adult Acroporids but also lots of juveniles – and interestingly these were often growing on dead colonies of the same species. This recalled a study I read (which of course I can't find, now) that found coral larvae of particular species preferentially settle on dead colonies of their own kind – perhaps because of some lingering chemical cues those skeletons exude?

This doesn’t have any particular bearing that I can think of right now towards my own work, but I find it really fascinating.

So, what have we been doing here in St. John? The short of it is that I’m starting a new project in collaboration with colleagues at the University of San Diego, where I’m aiming to tie records of past water quality based on coral skeletal chemistry to data they have been collecting using sediment traps and other instruments. You might remember that corals build their skeletons from chemicals in seawater, and slowly grow larger over time—thus, their skeletons record changes in water quality. Annual changes in skeletal density also provide a lovely chronometer for these chemical records. If we can tie these recent records together, I can extend records of runoff farther into the past (perhaps a century or more) using core samples from large old corals. To see if this idea will work, the first step is to collect short cores from living corals to tie to the sedimentology datasets. Hence, this trip.

Coral cores are collected using an underwater drill by divers using SCUBA equipment. Scientists either use a hydraulic drill driven by a hydraulic engine in a boat at the surface, and long hoses that deliver the hydraulic fluid down to the drill. These rigs tend to be giant, heavy, and awkward. I helped collect cores from fossil corals on land using a hydraulic drilling system at Tabuaeran Atoll way back in the dark ages of 2005, and quickly learned that unless I was going to bring along a bevy of much stronger people as field assistants, this wasn’t something little me could handle. I opted for a pneumatic drill, driven by compressed air – these drills are much smaller though less powerful (so it takes longer to collect an equivalent core length).

The cool thing about pneumatic drills is that they can be driven by an on-ship, gasoline-powered air compressor (ideally), but if this is unfeasible, they can also be driven by SCUBA tanks. Theoretically this shouldn’t be a big problem—if you have gotten to a place set up for SCUBA, there should also be a supply of tanks available to use to drive the drill. Shipping around 200-lb air compressors is, on the other hand, rather difficult and expensive. So for this trip, I opted for the SCUBA tank option.

The trip was thrown together somewhat last-minute, though it had been in the wings of planning for more than a year. Suddenly, various logistical issues came together and made it necessary to jump and get the trip organized. I was able to gather two worthy field assistants – my friend Lauren Freeman who I knew at Scripps, and a grad student at USD named Whitney who had spent at least part of the past 7 years at the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station (VIERS), where we were headed.

We converged in St. Thomas, where we rented much-too-large of a car and drove across the island, stopped to stock up on groceries and then get WD40 at Home Depot (how civilized), took the car ferry to St. John, and again drove across that island to VIERS. There, we settled into a 2-bedroom ensuite cabin with open, screened sides, a small kitchen, and an open air shower out back. Multiple cabins sat in the jungle encircling a large open area with picnic tables and a fire pit, all connected by elevated boardwalks ready for the rainy season. We slept to the sounds of tree frogs and insects, and the intermittent heart-stopping crash of mangos falling on the corrugated metal roof.

The first day consisted of getting the ladies oriented to the coral drilling gear, getting ourselves oriented to the workings of VIERS, and identifying sites to target via snorkel. We were able to swim around most of Great and also Little Lameshur bays, looking for the right sized colonies of the right coral species at the right depth. After discussions with the folks who oversee permitting for the Virgin Islands National Park, and following preliminary scouting Whitney had completed last year, I had decided to target a coral called Siderastrea siderea, or “Massive Starlet coral,” partly because it is more abundant than the coral I’ve worked with previously, Orbicella (previously Montastraea) faveolata, and partly because it seems a bit hardier than Orbicella. Coral reefs are in bad shape around the world these days, but particularly in the Caribbean. I believe that some collection is Ok for scientific purposes that are justified – but I still would rather minimize my small collection footprint. I aimed to do this by taking samples from corals that have shown evidence they may persist into the future amongst the onslaught of human impacts (sediment and nutrient runoff, overfishing, and climate change are the biggest culprits).

The next day, we got to work. It was—how shall I put this—basically complete underwater chaos. The tanks were lighter underwater than we anticipated and kept trying to escape off into the blue, the 50 foot air hose turned into a bird’s nest and got tangled with the tanks (which we’d daisy-chained together with a rope), nobody had enough dive weights on for this kind of work and couldn’t easily stay put at the target coral, the surge didn’t help things, and we hadn’t yet worked out how to communicate efficiently underwater. Thus we wasted huge chunks of time writing long epics on our dive slates and getting confused by one another. The worst part was that the drill ate up much more air than we anticipated – each tank was only lasting about 6 minutes. Using 6 SCUBA tanks to drive the drill, we collected a measly 2.5cm diameter, 4cm long core over the course of 2 dives, which took in total about 4.5 hours (including loading and unloading the boat at the dock, motoring to the site, mooring, getting geared up, etc.). It was not looking good for my goal of collecting ten 10cm-long cores in the 3 remaining diving days we had that week.
That evening my friend Rich—who had done some dive-tank-driven coral coring the previous year with my gear—gave some suggestions over email for improvement. The major idea was to float the tanks at the surface: because the air metered out of the tanks wouldn’t be under additional pressure from the water, the same volume of air would be delivered at a slower pace, and each tank should drive the drill for a longer time. We also decided to make a bridle with dive weights to hang over the drill; we were using a smaller, lighter core barrel than I had previously used, and we thought that the weights might help the coring move along at a more reasonable pace. The skeleton of Siderastrea was much more dense than Orbicella, so I had expected things to go slowly – but not ten times more slowly, as they had our first day.

Floating the tanks at the surface using a lift bag worked—but it was also chaotic. One person had to corral the tanks together (they were daisy-chained with rope but the currents and waves made them each constantly try to escape) and change the regulator from one tank to the next as they emptied. This turned out to be rather exhausting and caused much skull-banging and seasickness for the tank exchanger, but we were ecstatic to see that each tank now lasted about 12 minutes. With the lead-weight bridle and the tank flotilla, we were able to collect 2 whole cores in the time we’d taken the previous day to collect half a core. Things were looking up.

Each dive, we improved. We next commandeered a small kayak to hold all of the drilling tanks, which made things much easier (except when it capsized close to the rocks). Importantly, our underwater communication improved, and Lauren and Whitney quickly figured out what tasks needed to be done and developed their own drilling techniques to combat the surge while avoiding damage to other parts of the reef.
We finished collecting all ten cores with a day to spare, so were able to go out with a local retiree who knows practically every inch of Coral Bay – the adjacent developed watershed in which I plan to collect future cores to contrast with the runoff history in the undeveloped watersheds of the National Park. He took us snorkeling to identify future collection sites for another trip, plus to see the secret spot where we were staggered by prolific thickets of Acropora corals.

This fall comes the next fun part: geochemical analysis of these precious and hard-won samples at my new lab at UMass Boston. I can’t wait.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Responsible construction practices

I’ve taken an extended break here lately to focus all spare moments (when I’m not engrossed in childcare) on work and house renovations. But now summer is here, classes are over and I can perhaps breathe and blog a little before starting a new full-time job in the fall.

Today’s post is comprised of imagined conversations between the former owners of our house. It was (apparently, based on dates from newspapers we’ve found – there are no official records we can find) built in the late 1940s, then added onto and remodeled sometime in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, we think. We’re going through and updating and repairing again.  

In the 1940s Encinitas was mostly rural, and our house was probably a small 1-bedroom bungalow on several acres of farmland. Now the land has been subdivided into housing and some remnant greenhouses from the farming era are in the process of being converted to housing as well – darned good schools and lovely Pacific Ocean!

Why yes, apparently rain made the news in the 1940s, too. And people also used kid leashes (or a "walking harness," here)
Cast of characters
1940s – 1950s
Merl – 1st homeowner
Ethel – 1st homeowner
Hank – Merl’s buddy

1960s – mid 1980s
Bob – 2nd homeowner
May – 2nd homeowner
Sally – daughter

late 1980s - 2013
Doug – 3rd homeowner
various cats

Scene 1: The original bungalow

Hank: [helping lay hardwood flooring] “Well, Merl, looks like we’re outta building paper.”
Merl: “Dang. Ethel already went to town in the car. Lemme go see what I can wrangle up from the kitchen.” [comes back with stacks of newspapers]
Hank: “Oh sure, those should work for the underlayment. Farmer’s almanac? You got the latest edition? Some pretty good feed deals advertised in there.”

Merl: “Hey Ethel, I had a few leftover slats of wood from tearing down the outhouse that I couldn’t fit in the dump load. So I just threw ‘em out in the front yard. Perhaps you could plant some nice succulents over the top?”
Ethel: “Sure, Merl. How thrifty of you!”
Merl: “Just be wary of the nails, I didn’t bother taking them out.”
Ethel: “Oh, you scoundrel! Well, I’m sure they’ll just rot into the ground after a nice light rain.”

Scene 2: The first remodel

Bob: “Hey look, May – a pile of construction debris is hiding under these succulents! That’s convenient. I’ll just add our leftover concrete from the demolition.”
May: “Great idea, Bob! That would be pricey to take to the dump. I’m sure it’ll just break up and become part of the soil in no time!”

Sally: [having her infant hand and foot smooshed into wet concrete] “huh? wahhhh!”
May: “My gracious, Bob, that is just the cutest remembrance. Don’t forget to scratch in the date. And let’s write our last name over there.”
Bob: “That really completes the walkway. I love how you thought of cementing the beach cobbles into the sides of the entry pad, too.”
May: “And so convenient how the walkway and pad just run straight down the front yard hill and into the door!”
Sally: [thinking] Gee, I wish I could talk and alert them that rain water will also run straight down the hill and into the front door like that. Alas!

In the 1940s, people hosted dinner parties and kids blew out birthday candles! Woah!
Scene 3: The third remodel

Doug: “You know, Scruffy? Cat doors are for sissies. I’m just going to cut a hole in the wall here between this exterior storage closet and the rest of the house, and then take off some of the screening on the outside, and you can go in and out as you please!”
Racoons/possums/etc.: [some time later] It was so nice of Doug to provide direct access to the crawl space under the house, storage area, and even the kitchen when everyone is sleeping! And just look at all this comfy insulation material beneath the floors we can use for bedding. Let’s all move in, kids!

Doug: “Watch out, Rascal! I’m just going to throw this mirror down from the second floor into that dirt pile, better move!”
Rascal: “Meow.”
Doug: “Ya know, it’ll be easier to just throw all of the construction debris off the roof into the dirt in hindsight. Bagging it up and lugging down the stairs is so exhausting. Look out! Here come some broken tiles and nails!”

Doug: “I’ve been thinking, Rascal. What if I feel like welding upstairs as well as downstairs? I might as well run some more 100-amp wiring up to the utility room while I’m at it, just in case!”
Rascal: You’re building an airplane in the living room; what on earth will you build upstairs?! Well, at least it will probably be fun to climb on.

Doug: “Hey  Pumpkin, could you use another broken surfboard for your scratching post? This one seems a bit shot. I’ll just grab one from under the house.”
Pumpkin: “Meow.”
Doug: “Here you go, little guy. I just stuck the old one back under there, too, in case it comes in handy. I did also happen to catch a glimpse of what I think may have been poor Rascal’s remains, too. I always wondered what happened to him. Oh well!”

Doug: “It sure would be terrible to get the house fumigated for termites. They have taken quite a liking to the wood siding, but I just can’t bear to think about those horrible chemicals killing all of our arthropod friends, and what about all of the mice and rats that have taken up residence in the walls? We don’t want to put them out, right Pumpkin?”
Pumpkin: “Meow.”
Doug: “I sure hope one day you learn to chase after them, though – that would seem fair. In the meantime I’ll just let them continue to eat the electrical system and nest in the insulation.”

So, what is the advice I can offer from these made-up reflections? Don't consider the future owners of your house when you do strange things like install a partially-finished low-voltage wiring system that no one else can work with. It's more fun to just let them redo everything again! Yeehaw!

Early version of Skymall?