Text Trail. 2008 - 2010. ~mike gradziel.
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Tossed onto an enormous heap of debris, the bag of asbestos duct insulation that I collected in my attic met its end at the landfill Friday morning. I had contractors remove most of the material, but I found more as I cleaned the attic. Getting rid of it has been quite an adventure. Forms were filed, fees were paid, and I drove two hours out to a place in the delta where asbestos probably should not be disposed of: at the very top of a landfill mound, out in the flat farmlands where wind scours the soil away. In a few hundred years, if it is not maintained, the very first thing freed from this heap of trash will be asbestos. When I called for an appointment no one asked what sort of vehicle I would be driving, but I was glad to have my truck because the way up to the to the dump site was a winding path of mud four inches deep, slick in the rain and churned in deep ruts by large hauling trucks that looked even less capable than my pickup of climbing the incline without getting stuck. I was genuinely worried that I would sink to my axles in trash-studded mud, and then the huge yellow bulldozer idling nearby would come over and push me out of the way with its bit toothy blade, at the cost of my tailgate and pride. Most people never go to these places - they put their trash in pretty little white bags with red handles, and a truck comes by and takes it all away. They never see the landfill where trash is stuffed into the ground and the air smells like decay (mainly from the adjacent compost facility ovverrun by machines with spinning knives that slash the soil into a fermented black fluff). Flocks of birds wheel around in the sky searching for food among the refuse, and in fields nearby cows much grass unaware of the secrets we are trying to hide away undergound. The noise and mud and big trucks waiting in line at the scales with me remind me of the scrap metal yard and other places that fashionable society has completely forgotten. I can partly see the appeal in that - so on the way home I cut west through Napa and bought some wine, dined at a gourmet eatery, and stopped in San Francisco to do some shopping in the city.
Flying from Reno to San Jose I saw blue lake Tahoe as small as a puddle, its neighboring mountains just rumpled hills. Emerald Bay and its picturesque island were plainly visible, stripped of the magic one might feel upon rounding a bend to discover the scene. Minutes later, there was Cherry Lake and the area I hiked at the north border of Yosemite, just drab brown hills dusted with snow. A distance which took more than an hour to cover on rough roads by jeep looked insignificant, and the yawning void beyond steep granite cliffs where wind whipped in our faces appeared just a scrape in the earth. I got to thinking how acquiring a wide perspective robs one of enjoyment. Actually, it probably had more to do with being strapped to a seat inside a pressurized, insulated flying aluminum can. After all there is always an easier, less satisfying way to do something.
Mushroom season is arriving in Northern California as evidenced at the farmers market by the reduced price and excellent quality of my favorite varieties, for which I had specially purchased a bottle of chardonnay that we tasted last weekend in Napa. It paired so well with chanterelles sauteed in butter and served on toasted slices of ciabatta! I am becoming a foodie, it seems. So early Sunday morning Joy and I drove down to Santa Cruz to meet up with a mushroom club for a hunt through the woods in search of early season mushrooms, mainly big brown-and-white delicious things that are this region's version of Italy's porcini. It is good to have experts along to say which ones are safe to eat. Some things we must each judge for ourselves, though, such as determining that a certain kind of yellow-fleshed mushroom is way too slimy, once cooked, for human consumption. Our guides had merely said, "yes, it is edible, but not very good." While we were down there, we took a drive through Santa Cruz. what a nice little town, with a great view from the hills nearby looking out across Monterey Bay.
Wine Country in early November is tinted red and gold; yellow-green vineyards begin to drop their leaves as the last deep blue clusters of grapes are harvested and glowing green grass pokes through the tan straw on every square inch of hill and furrow. Joy and I went up to Sonoma, Napa, and Santa Rosa a fourth time on Saturday for tastings of both wines and food for the wedding party. I had intended the trip to be all business and was pleasantly surprised by the stunning scenery further enhanced by the low rays of the November sun, which make noon feel like mid-afternoon and casts a feeling of sleepiness over everything. I have noticed this before - the waning sunlight seems to encourage me to hurry home to build up a fire, prepare a hot meal, clear leaves out of the gutters and provision for a winter storm; to gather close with my companions and tread lightly through the land which is no longer the bold bright place of summer opportunity but rather a wild place not necessarily accepting of my presence. Coastal California is certainly not a difficult place to spend the winter, however. It's raining now and everything is springing to life. We have another half-case of wine and a large portion of gourmet Mexican food from a pricey little taco shop in the next town north of Sonoma, where they soak organic dry corn from Nebraska in lime water overnight then grind it into masa every day in the restaurant, making the most silky-smooth tamales and succulent tortillas ever.
I bought an old wooden extension ladder on Friday from a guy two towns north of here. It has a missing rung and some encrusted life forms that I'll have to wire-brush off, but for $19 I now can get onto my roof. Previously, my only option was to put my 6-foot stepladder on some wood blocks and climb onto the porch roof in a most ungraceful, inchworm-like manner completely visible to neighbors and passers-by. I have only done this once. Fortunately, the roof is in good condition and I have little need to be up there. On Saturday evening we went out to Half Moon Bay to meet Josh and Parish who were visiting for the weekend having moved to San Luis last month. I like being on the coast in a rain storm - it is the perfect fishing village atmosphere, a good environment for sitting in a restaurant eating fish. There was a loud crowd cheering on the Giants, who are doing remarkably well. I don't watch the games, though; too many projects to work on. Part of the garden is ready for the next planting, again fortified by seven hundred pounds of fresh grass-processed-by-Chewy-the-horse who lives in Clayton. It's nice to have a truck. In the attic, I connected more duct to the epic home heating project and we used it for the first time. It's almost done. Lest I think of taking a break, I have procured supplies for the next couple projects: new copper wire for the electrical ground system, four big boxes of ventilation fan equipment, and thirty child-resistant electrical outlet covers - the kind with sliding doors that also keep drafts out - for the future possibility of little critters running around the house weilding keys and paper clips. I even seeded bare spots in the lawn and attempted to aerate the clay. On Sunday, we went up to Sonoma and signed some papers. Wedding phase three is officially happening!
Last weekend Joy and I went out to Livermore to see a party venue (we are planning wedding phase three now) and on the way back we stopped at Chouinard, a winery in a rural wooded valley that feels very much like old California. What a great find! All fifteen or so wines they make are out for tasting, at no charge, poured by friendly and unpretentious staff beside the barrel room in an old barn. Shakespeare the dog was napping on the floor under the countertop. Outside, Roger Kardinal was singing classic rock songs and playing his guitars for a few groups of people sitting out by the vineyard in the shade of some oak trees. We bought a bunch of wine for the party. Still loooking for a suitable place, we're off to Sonoma again this weekend. Around the house, I have launched into the re-wiring project of necessity because of wires and a receptacle blocked in behind the new duct return run. I continue to be impressed by the workmanship of this 1939 structure. The wires are so carefully laid out, soldered, taped, and mounted to porcelain insulators. These days a crew just punches wire through the walls and staples it down wherever it happens to fall. The old wire insulation is dangerously brittle though and there are too few circuits, plus without ground wires it's impossible to protect electronics from surges and to ground appliances for safety. I am charging ahead with the duct return run through the attic, which looks so natural it might as well have been planned by the original architect. Finally it seems that we might actually have heat this winter.
In March when forty tomato plants sprouted I said "let them grow; all they need is water." Now I cannot bear to let perfectly good tomatoes go unused, so while we have given many away dealing with the rest has consumed every weekend recently. I bought a canner and we made spaghetti sauce. Joy bought a food mill that looks like a meat grinder, for separating seeds and skins from pulp, and we made really good sauce for future pizzas and barbecues. I made ketchup - which tastes like a cross between Heinz and cocktail sauce. I made yellow tomato sauce, red tomato sauce, and tomato juice. And soup, of course. And there are cucumbers too - great for making pickles. The raspberries have achieved an incredible amount of growth since May and we have picked many quarts. From seven plants the entire 14x4 foot bed is packed with canes! We can pick these berries when they are very ripe with best flavor, unlike what you can buy at the grocery store. Finally at the end of September the tomatoes are slowing down and I have resumed the never-ending heat duct project, now with new urgency as winter approaches. New plans call for running the cold air return into the back of the bathroom closet, up to the attic, and across to the furnace. Accordingly this weekend I removed several cubic feet of lath and plaster and am ready to frame up a new wall and set the new duct - a sculptural s-bend piece that needs to be custom made.
With the tomato harvest passing more than 100 pounds in the last two weeks and still going strong, Joy and I have been feeling overwhelmed. Finally we went out and bought a canner to ease the crowding in our freezer. Joy also bought a hand-crank food mill that separates seeds and skins from pulp, which is quite convenient for processing thousands of little yellow cherry tomatoes once they are cooked down. It sure is nice having really, really good tomatoes but they take up all my time. We made some pickles too; the cucumbers have been productive as well. Tending the plants seems to take all my time but I did manage to finish cleaning out the crawlspace. What an unpleasant job, crawling around in that cramped space wearing a respirator and sweeping up 70 years of dust, decaying concrete, and remnants of rodents and their nests. Now the place is clean, vermin-free, and ready for the next projects: nailing steel ties to secure the piers in case of earthquakes, and replacing old galvanized steel plumbing.
It was six weeks since I last wrote - just after my wedding, in July. I've been busy working under my house on various repairs, keeping after the lawn and the garden, installing a new sprinkler loop, and traveling. This year's long trip was to Taiwan, land of tasty food and beautiful landscapes and the most orderly subway systems I have ever seen. Of their own accord, people form long single-file lines to board escalators - separate lines for walking up on the left, and standing still on the right. Mall food courts serve meals as good as anything you would expect from a restaurant; everything is excellent, even when it is really cheap, and so for occasions demanding something special Taiwanese chefs must go in a different direction - working with exotic ingredients like frog extract and shark fin which are neither tasty nor ecologically wise. Wandering the night markets is my dinner preference: They are the natural product of sweltering daytime temperatures which cause people to go out in the much more pleasant evenings, whereupon fantastic street food can be sold, along with tons of cheap clothes and other goods from China. Some things that surprised me: There are high mountains with autumn leaves and winter snow. Head-hunters lived there, Pacific Islanders, before the Japanese came and took command. The Chinese and Europeans actually arrived around the same time, in the 1600s, and overran the place much like what happened in the Americas. From such diverse beginnings a colorful place as arisen.
We are married! Friday 23 July, at City Hall in San Francisco with our families we exchanged vows and rings and then went out to lunch. Joy stayed with her sister in San Francisco Thursday night, while I drove up Friday morning and parked my truck with the valet at our hotel. I hired a towncar and went to meet Joy along with Jomay and Adrian, and we continued to City Hall where our parents and my sister joined us. The short ceremony was perfect, conducted at the top of the grand staircase, and after taking hundreds of photos (expertly composed by Adrian, accomplished photographer) we went outside and boarded a vintage trolley that I chartered to drive us to Chaya for lunch. There we enjoyed tasty Cal-French-Asian food and a beautiful view of the sunny bay, bridge, and waterfront from our table by the windows. Afterward we walked out on the pier across from the resturant. Joy and I had a room at Vitale, a charming boutique hotel half a block away. We retreated there late in the afternoon and played a game of scrabble, supplemented by dark chocolate and red wine, before venturing out to a nearby favorite source of Peruvian ceviche where we ate far too much delicious fish. Saturday morning we went across the street to the Ferry Building farmers' market, where tasty hot breakfasts are prepared and sold. Then it was time to collect my truck from the valet and return home.
Now that's done and we can get serious about wedding Phase II (Taiwan) and Phase III (big party for friends and family, this fall or next spring).
Seven months and two days after buying my building permit, after countless hours of demolition, cleaning, cutting-in, plastering, and running duct, after a thorough design effort drawing on the best of my engineering education, the new heat ducts are finally installed and tested! Luxuriously quiet, they billow fresh warm air into the rooms at what seems to be a balanced and appropriate rate - more air for those rooms with a larger exterior wall area or more windows, less for the kitchen and bath, all calculated precisely considering dimensions, heat conduction coefficients, and flow path friction. Up in the attic, there is not even the faintest whisper of a leak. The old system, which interestingly enough two different home inspectors said was ok, was a nightmare of huge leaks, inch-thick black fuzz, asbestos insulation, and a generous portion of air sucked in from the crawlspace. Plus it had been improperly modified so air would not be distributed for even heating. Ugh. When my excitement passes, I will have to face the reality that my permit has expired, the new crawlspace cold air return is yet to be installed, and the electric circuit feeding the blower motor needs to be switched out for a properly grounded new one. Good thing there are still four months before cold weather comes to San Mateo.
Off we went to the north side of Yosemite, a vast area of granite and lakes and mosquitoes where the stars shine brightly and campfires are permitted. Pine smoke quells the onslaught of biting insects, coals glow red, and the starry splash of the galaxy rotates almost imperceptibly in the sky. It was not all idyllic, however, for we elected to go off-trail five or six miles from Boundary Lake to Many Islands and on to Kibbie Lake; this involved scrambling down many hundreds of feet of brush-choked steep gullies and mosquito-infested swamps. Except for the mosquiteoes, this is my thing. orion writes on the yosemite forum "i've done this several times, though i noticed that it tends to make my fellow hikers pretty grumpy. boulders, bushwack, and mosquitoes, if you're into that..." Exactly how it was. Sure was nice to be out in the high country again, though,
Pinnacles National Monument is an unusual heap of rocky crags and canyons in the hills south of San Francisco Bay. There are caves with bats, grassy meadows, creeks, and a crystal-clear dark night sky full of stars. We went there with friends Saturday through Monday. It is hot this time of year, during the day, and the grass has turned brown. I prefer the green season, before the flies and mosquitoes are out. Tuesday I flew to Washington DC again, my fourth trip across the continent since the end of April. I have really had enough of airports and airplanes for a while.
Long weekend: cooked a good dinner, watched a movie. Got caught up on banking, bills, and other computer things. Ate tacos. Installed an 800-volt electric critter fence around the vegetable garden. Haven't seen any critters; got zapped several times myself already. Set out beer traps to catch slugs - except it is such a shame to waste beer, and brown sugar, water, and baking yeast works even better. The hapless slugs have no future but to plunge into the pool. So critters and slugs beware, but there is nothing I can do about the leaf miners in the beet leaves except man-on-bug combat. Tedious work. Cut the grass, transported a 7-foot tall flowering vine across town from a friend's house (so nice to have a truck), went into San Francisco for superb ceviche at a Peruvian restaurant. Drinks at Rickhouse, ice cream in the Mission. Picked two gallons of cherries in Clayton. Ate one gallon of cherries. Went to the farmers market, bought strawberries. Decided to try raw cream. Wondered why raw milk and cream are yellow. Turns out black and white cows make white milk, and brown cows make less-white milk. Also, just like chicken egg yolks turn bright yellow-orange when the birds get to eat grass, so too does milk when cows get to eat fresh green grass. Made butter from the raw cream, did taste comparison with grocery store butter. Did same with whipping cream. Definitely tastes different, sort of grassy actually, both the butter and the cream. Had a barbecue, grilled chicken and sausage and corn. Ate more cherries.
Went out to Washington DC a month ago, then hiked in Pt Reyes; back to DC the next week, then again to Pt Reyes for another low tide trek. Flew back to New York for the next weekend, for rafting and camping with Mitch and the RPI guys. Decided I like cruising down class 1-2 water in my own boat better than going with the flow in class 3 rapids in a raft full of people. Finally, a 4-day weekend and I'll be home the whole time! It is time to renovate the crawlspace.
Saturday morning at sunrise, an hour before low tide, Joy and I set out from the beach going south on a second attempt at crossing the unknown coast, this time without Chilean tsunamis or storm surges. It made a difference, and the tide was extra-low - one of the few times a year that a crossing is reasonably safe during daylight hours on a weekend. The lack of human impact has a sobering effect on the coastline: nowhere had we seen so many anemones encrusting the rocks, or sea stars or shells or diverse critters scurrying into crevices as we approached. I am undecided whether it was a good thing to have made this passage through two miles of rocky beach, tunnel-like caves, and flat sandy expanses blasted by fierce wind. It was thrilling, and I like finding shells and sea creatures among the rocks (Joy was so proud of me: I did not collect a single shell or pebble!), but we could not take a single step over rocks without crunching on a snail or squishing over anemones and plants. Enough foot traffic and it would all be gone, like every other beach. The tide rushed in while we snapped photos and we made the last passage, around a headland and then through a keyhole barely larger than my backpack, narrowly hurrying across knee-deep in water, between waves. Memories of last time, of being underwater clinging to a rock as a big wave washed over and stole my favorite hat, made me more anxious about the water than I might otherwise have been. I had stashed a bicycle in the weeds and rode that a couple miles back to the truck when we emerged at the southern take-out point. The wind was blowing so hard that in some places, up on the hilltops where the Tule elk roam, I had to pedal hard going downhill to make any progress.
I am turning 29 years of age, a milestone year, and in addition the decade has rolled over to 2010. I'm calling the past ten years the "lost decade." If you asked me to describe popular music of the 2000s or clothing and fashion styles that defined the period, or to list prominent movies and actors, television shows, and trendy consumer products, I would pause in confused thought. How did ten years go by? Much time has passed, for sure; in 2000 I was just starting college, I had not yet moved to California, bought my first car or saved enough money to buy a car, traveled all over the world, held a real job, or rented an apartment of my own. In the progression of years that brought lots of work, a fair amount of money, far-flung adventures, and finally a fiance and a house, I don't think I ever got into the latest cutting-edge side of anything. I will have to learn what defined the 2000s from history books.
It's been a while since last I wrote. Items of note: went to Pasadena last weekend, first time back since I moved 15 months ago. Not homesick, thankfully; rather I am assured more than ever that the SF Bay area is more my style. Los Angeles has its color in the nightlife, the beach scenes, the nice cars and restaurants and web of freeways jammed with tens of thousands of cars. And it is always hot - it's a desert all year. I like having some color in the land too, and I really like the sunlight fading in our cool evening fog, the redwood trees and big waves, and a little more green in the hills up here.
Saturday afternoon Doug and Joy and I made an attempt at crossing a section of coast accessible only at extra-low tides which occur during daylight only a handful of times each year, most not on weekends. But Pacific storms last week brought huge waves and we couldn't get around the first headland. Beyond there is impressive sea life and untouched beaches and sea caves - you actually go through some tunnels to gain access to farther beaches, and you must round the final point before the tide comes in. Both Doug and I got washed in by big waves and I had to escape by climbing a 30-foot cliff and descending by a climbing rope and gear that I was carrying in my pack. It probably didn't help that tsunami-echoes were coming in from Chile (the main wave passed an hour before we got to the beach). I love watching massive, gigantic, absolutely huge waves. There were beautiful clouds in the sky and sunlight on the green hills; we saw a herd of elk too.
Dwarfed by forty-foot tractor trailers hauling tons of mangled steel, my pickup with its thirty pounds of scrap metal still had to go through radiation detectors Friday morning at the Redwood City yard. All around me huge machines were rumbling past carrying smashed, twisted junk. Just up the road, pieces of houses were being ground up and sifted into piles. Heavy industry is both fascinating and terrifying. Later in the morning Joy and I drove to Petaluma where I loaded up the truck with another thousand pounds of compost from a farm. I've never seen so many earthworms. There were chickens running around catching worms as fast as they could, and a terretorial goose kept attacking my wheelbarrow. I unloaded the truck as darkness fell, then packed for a weekend in Yosemite where it turned out to be the perfect time of year to see evening sunlight shine on a narrow band of gray granite wall where water cascades off the valley rim glowing gold as if on fire. We went snowshoeing too, and ate lots of great food and relaxed in our cabin where Zuma, a living teddy bear, provided endless entertainment.
The house is gradually getting less cluttered as we unpack, and time-sensitive yard work (planting dormant trees and shrubs) is done. I even chopped out some concrete sidewalk in the back yard to put a tree in just the right place, an eco-friendly gesture to the world. Let's unpave the planet where we can. Last weekend I tried my luck with another "free manure compost" advertisement and got a truckload of rather fresh manure from some stables. I warned the neighbors; fortunately they are ok with an occasional whiff of the farm. It's jump-started the compost pile in a big way but won't be ready for a couple months. This weekend I'll make another compost run to another stable - hope it yields more earthy results. This clay soil can use as much compost as I have time to truck in.
I am master of about three thousand square feet of wildlife habitat and I find the position much more distressing than expected. I thought I bought a grass lawn and a gravel back yard; in reality I bought an ecosystem teeming with earthworms, salamanders, and songbirds. The worms keep getting chopped up when I work on the garden beds. We uprooted a family of tiny salamanders while moving some rocks and I accidentally cut a big salamander in half while pulling out an overgrown yucca plant. And a little goldfinch broke its neck flying into a window last week. I've promised to put up birdfeeders and birdhouses, set up new rock piles for amphibians to live under, and leave the garden beds undisturbed once they are established so the earthworms can thrive and multiply, but good intentions haven't erased my feelings of guilt at upsetting the balance of the back yard. Well they are just worms, and there are plenty of survivors. Is it even possible to improve something without destroying part of it first?
In the last month my writings here have been infrequent and my days busy. Everything must be perfect in my house - that is how it seems when one owns the place and is just moving in. The plaster walls must be patched so no one - not even me - can tell where patch lines are. The new heat duct system must be engineered perfectly, so no louver adjustments are needed to choke the flow of air in one room or another. I wrote a detailed Excel workbook to calculate how many watts are lost out every wall and window, and how much pressure is required to force air through every duct bend and inlet, and I almost have a design ready to build. It is a true test of my sophomore year thermodynamics lessons, and it will be very embarassing if all the air mistakenly ends up in the dining room while the bedroom freezes! In the back yard, garden beds are now ready for raspberry and blueberry plants which should arrive this week. We know someone with a horse and brought a truckload of composted hay-processed-via-horse to augment the backyard soil which though relatively light and free of stones is completely devoid of earthworms or other life. At work, the new year has brought new company internal funding of which I have a small portion allocated to a proposal I wrote last fall. It's so nice to make up one's own work assignment.
Thirty cubic yards of old mineral wool and cellulose insulation peppered with nails, sawdust, roof grit, splintered shingles, coffee cups, and other trash was lurking above my ceiling and I didn't like it. Even after contractors took out the old ductwork with its asbestos-paper covering there were still fragments of asbestos left, and all that trash. I bought 100 large trash bags and a respirator and set to work packing everything up. The job has turned out to be larger than I anticipated, but I am two-thirds done! It isn't just about cleaning, but also about gaining access to run new ducts and heat registers, new electrical wiring, ventilation, and structural reinforcements. I have plans to make a 200 square foot addition with a master bath and a third bedroom, so all the wiring and ductwork and remodeling must now accommodate those future changes. There is so much to do in addition to moving!
A storm from the arctic brought snow to places around San Francisco that hadn't seen it for thirty-three years! It is still freezing cold with more rain on the way, which I absolutely love especially since I am done working up in the hills east of here at a remote test range where snow is a serious inconvenience. My first big assignment at the new job is finished - I'd been working it since February - and everything has happened just as I said it would. This is excellent for building a reputation up here. It's all company proprietary military technology - mainly focused on gathering information these days - but I can say that in the process of testing out my equipment, a 16-pound pumpkin got launched 400 feet into the sky. I've been fortunate to work on such fun things. Other news: the house is ours!
I baked two pumpkin pies, carved three turkeys, and ate a considerable amount of food during the last four days. And, there is still another turkey in my freezer. It's been nice having time off, or should I say time not at work because it has been anything but free. When most bargain hunters were out on Black Friday hunting for deals in clothes or electronics, I was at the hardware store packing a cart full to the gills with things for our house, at a 9.5% markdown. Saturday afternoon I cut a 4x8 foot sheet of styrene foam into eight circular disks and glued them together. It sure made a mess, working on my tailgate out in back of the house, but I managed to sweep up all the pieces and I am quite proud of my reciprocating-saw-circle-cutting-jig. It was a project for work.
Joy and I are engaged! 8 November 2009. Sometimes life happens all at once: two weeks ago everything was normal; we were unpacking from our travels and settling back into work. Then the jewelry studio finished my ring, a perfect little house across town went up for sale with an offer date one week later (we've been looking at houses for 6 months), and on what I supposed would be the last calm, relaxing morning we might have for quite a while, I proposed over breakfast - blueberry pancakes, hot cider, sun streaming in the windows, some classical music playing softly, both of us wearing pajamas still. I wanted the setting to be comfortably normal, a testament to the way things will be always rather than a burst of excitement that might fade. Then later in the day our realtor called and we signed a contract for the house! Chaos reigned. Writing and calling all one's friends and family is an arduous task, and I hadn't really considered that. We spent much of the day preparing in an announcement and making calls, and stayed up late all week trying to get individually written messages out first before friends talked to friends or saw posts online. I'm actually not quite done yet. Plus this week at work I moved to a new office - twice as large, huge actually - 96 square feet, and it's a cubicle! - with more windows, and I can see trees and hills not just buildings like before. The whole world is suddenly different.
Seeking a glimpse of legends from the Days of Sail when great men built boats of Nova Scotia timber and rode out to the Atlantic on huge Fundy tides, we went twenty-six-hundred miles in a little rental chevy with a leaky tire and a full load of camping gear, from Boston up to Yarmouth and around through New Hampshire and New York to visit family and friends. The colors were nice, there was snow, apple cider and donuts, maple syrup, Digby scallops and fresh Maine lobsters pulled from the sea just hours earlier, tender sweet things despite their appearance as spiny slimy giant sea insects. Pumpkin pie and hot cider herald the coming of winter but the chill in the air practically shuts down the towns to tourists. In another week or two, almost everything will be closed.
Joy and I haven't been on vacataion in fifteen months. There have been many weekend trips but nothing like our usual two- or three-week long journeys through other countries, so we're excited about the next trip through Maine and Nova Scotia and New Hampshire. Lobster an leaves, we hope. I caught a cold flying out to Rhode Island last week for work, so lately I've done little but stay home and work on things. I finished the bookshelf, finally! Photos are on the projects page. That started out a year ago in September when I bought lumber while driving to San Diego. I parked at the beach along the way and designed the shelf, sitting on the tailgate watching the Pacific surf crashing on the sand. The lumber sat out in my truck overnight at the Wild Animal Park where Joy and I stayed overnight in their safari-style tents. It's a bit odd seeing herds of antelope and giraffe running among palm trees. Anyway, it's taken a while to finish the detail chisel work but now we have a new shelf.
Four hundred years ago lava flows formed in Lassen National Park and a multi-colored cinder cone rose hundreds of feet above the surrounding hills. We climbed it, sliding backwards in the soft crumbly gravel with every step. It was (barely) warm enough to swim in the lakes, there were no mosquitoes, and the rain held off until we returned home though some thunderstorms passed and brought blustery weather around dinner time on Saturday. Other things I've been doing: hiking on Mt Diablo, harvesting zucchini, eating big juicy wild blackberries growing in the Presidio, visiting friends, working on projects around the house.
Somehow Doug managed to stay entirely dry when our fifteen foot long sailboat flipped over following a problem with the rudder. Joy and I bobbed around in the surprisingly warm water, Doug righted the boat, and we tumbled back in. That was two and a half weeks ago! Time flies. We were sailing at a marina across the bay from the city, where a brisk wind had pushed up big swells that were great fun in a small boat. Then we went wine tasting in Napa, a place where people pretend that they actually eat roasted lamb and braised duck on a regular basis, because the wine bottles suggest these pairings. Some day I hope to read on the back of a bottle "good with spaghetti" or enjoy with hamburgers or bbq chicken tenders". Wineries dress themselves up with fantastic gardens and splendid architecture, and tuck gourmet restaurants back behind stacks of empty wine barrels made to look like they're real. Maybe there are some high-class folks about who demand caviar and pate, but I'll say almost everyone was there merely imagining a lifestyle that the wine industry wants them to think they should live. It keeps prices high.
This weekend's accomplishments include making fresh boiled peanuts (buy peanuts at farmers market, soak in salt water, then boil until soft, a few hours), shopping in Petaluma which eventually brought us to the Seed Bank, an heirloom seed company in an old bank building. Too bad it was closed on Saturday. Also in Petaluma, we stopped at a cheese factory store for some excellent ice cream and cheeses. Along Tomales Bay at Tony's Seafood we ate the most tender calamari ever, and later did a short hike past ripe blackberries and a pond full of huge bullfrogs. It was hot and hazy but a short drive south at the Golden Gate chilly fog blew past and people hurried on the sidewalk tightly wrapped in jackets.
High meadows and lakes in the Sierra Nevada are a five hour drive from San Mateo, a little farther than it was from southern California despite us being technically closer here. The eastern escarpment rises sharply from flat desert where cars cruise hundreds of miles at great speed, while to the west the roads wind their way up forested slopes where great cattle drives of yesteryear still continue in a few places, horsemen and farm dogs taking herds up from parched lowlands to lush green mountain grass. We hiked in seven miles to a stunning campsite on the shoulder of a ridge where golden late evening sunlight washed across the rocks and a gentle breeze kept most of the mosquitoes away. For an entire afternoon through the night we saw absolutely no one, but the next day we hiked onward and found the next lake jammed with campers. Storm clouds loomed to the east but shifted north a little before pouring down rain, leaving us to watch for meteors while lying around the campfire.
Finally finding time for projects this weekend I have finished making two of the four legs on our new bookshelf. The shelf assembles with no fasteners - it's all joinery, and the legs must be trimmed to fit exactly into square sockets, all by hand since I moved away from my wood shop. In Berkeley last weekend I checked out a couple more lumber stores but still I've found no place like Reel Lumber in southern California. We were in Berekely after doing a hike in the Huckleberry Preserve in the Oakland Hills. There are berry bushes there, lots of them with berries too. We had lunch at the Cheese Board, where they make one kind of pizza each day and sell the pies like fast food, ready within seconds of your order. We ate ours in the grassy street median beside a sign that said "keep off median". There were dozens of people eating there - traditions aren't easily changed by new city ordinances.
Blueberries ripen early in the hot dusty valley 90 minutes east of the Bay. Joy and I picked ten pounds of berries, stocking up the fridge for the next few weeks of snacking. Fresh berries have to stay fresh - no freezing permitted, I say, so every day I have a generous handful on my morning cereal. We picked apricots too, and green vegetables, from Joy's parents yard. Later in the evening we went out in San Francisco to a new bar called Rickhouse. It was like stepping through the door to old California, where coca-cola and other soft drinks did not exist and bartenders dressed for an era long gone made everything from fresh citrus and berries, bottled liqueurs, and fine spirits. I chose a good Kentucky bourbon, straight up. The decor was all rough wood paneling and there was a fireplace and a pile of old whiskey barrels in the back. Aside from the crush of people it was really nice. Saturday we hiked Montara Mtn on the peninsula where views extend from Half Moon Bay all the way around to the City and the whole bay. It was windy, and every bit of shrubbery was sculpted by the fog streaming over the hilltop. Someone should install wind turbines up there. Back in San Mateo, the weather was clear for 4th-of-July fireworks which we watched from the back of my truck, warm and cozy with blankets and pillows. Our perfect parking spot was busted by private security at a condo complex, but another space around the block worked well enough.
I went home for the weekend, just days before the solstice when the sun rises in its proper place behind a particular hill, when the wild strawberries are ripe and the land is alive, untamed, and pressing close against the house clamoring to reclaim the lawn. I imagine my weekend tucked among the pages of a Thomas Hardy novel. In the old barn we sifted through things that hadn't been moved in sixty years, set in place by a farmer who remembered the days before electricity. People I've known for three fourths of my life are still around just like always; we got together to catch up on conversation ten years after high school. It's nice that some things stay the same, even if I'm a world away across the continent.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park is a tract of hilly land north of Santa Cruz, reached by miles of narrow winding roads from the east. Big trees there are one or two thousand years old and hundreds of feet tall, rising from fern-covered valleys. Redwood trees are the last survivors of once widespread forests that flourished tens of millions years ago, so while some trees themselves sprouted before half of recorded human history, walking among them is like going back even further in time to an era when the Grand Canyon didn't yet exist! We camped among the giants, ate great quantities of food around the campfire, and played a type of bowling called molkky - a game from Finland which dispenses with all the dull formalities of an English bowling green and lets you hurl a stick of wood across forest clearings in an escalating competition of numbers and accuracy.
Some people get married in ballrooms, and others at churches or country clubs or spacious back yards. Other people commandeer a patch of rolling green hills overlooking the ocean to say their vows, then hike back to a beach and throw a huge barbecue complete with gourmet sandwiches, freshly grilled sausages, floral arrangements, cupcakes, and a vocal octet dressed in suits and ties performing a show, occasionally joined by the groom who leads from the center of the group. They plan everything including the weather, which is cloudless, warm, and calm in a place usually blasted by wind and fog, and hundreds of fellow beachgoers have no idea what to make of it. I would wholeheartedly endorse any repeat attempts at pulling off such an event, but this takes an unusual sort of good fortune reserved for very special people. One thing's for sure, though: next beach party I'm bringing tables, lots of them, because sand-free food is a world above standard seaside fare.
Out on Mount Diablo the fields of grass are starting to turn gold; at their full height, topped with heavy seeds, the stalks bend in a light breeze and the fields shimmer like water. There are purple flowers and wild turkeys among the oak trees. That was last weekend; this one was rainy and in the mornings the neighborhood smelled of warm earth and new leaves. Joy and I went up to Marin to hike at Muir Beach in the rain; we saw dozens of salamanders and rabbits and some deer. Soaked through and returning south very hungry, we steered west to Louise's cafe overlooking the Cliff House and the rain-lashed San Francisco coast. Stormy weather is a perfect companion for a burger and fries, and I'd wanted to have a meal at this classis establishment that hasn't moved since it was founded in the 1920s. The ambiance is worth going for.
Down two thousand feet in just under ten miles, turn around at Highway 1 by the beach, and pedal back up through the redwoods for a couple hours. Tunitas Creek Road is a good ride, nicer going down though and nice only for the chance to see the forest change from seaside to redwood canyons to open ridgetop. Otherwise, I would choose a nice dirt trail instead of the tar-smell pavement. It's all private land and posted so heavily that I actually felt bad stepping ten yards off into a stream bank to photograph some ferns. I guess the parks are all that's left free around here; not that I would want people wandering on my land either. The risk of fire is so high, it's sort of like owning a beautiful tower of cards: one thrown cigarette, and your lovely ancient forest turns to dead black desert. There are trails all over though; I'll have to try some of them.
Steinbeck wrote of the Carmel River "it is all the things that a river should be," playful and bubbling, then swift, later deep and brooding beneath undercut banks where fish lurk, emptying finally into the sea. This was inspiration for a road trip to see such country which turned out to be green and rugged with white rocky cliffs plunging into verdant river bottoms looking like Arkansas rather than California. Carmel-by-the-Sea is a white-sand beach paradise with palm trees exchanged for wind-sculpted cypress and thatched-roof bungalows swapped for shake-roofed Swiss chalets. Trees lined the streets shading high class boutiques; we searched the town and finally found a reasonably priced soup and salad at a coffee shop. Big spenders come for the world famous gold greens at adjacent Pebble Beach and evidently have few qualms about buying $200 shirts and $20 salads. Perhaps this was more true in years past, however; there are dozens of luxury homes in the area listed for sale and many businesses are vacant and closed by hard times. The resorts can still afford, or make appearances to that effect, to have two men ready and waiting to open hotel doors at your approach. I imagined myself to be a yet-unheard of golfing phenomenon, walked confidently into the posh lobby of the Lodge at Pebble Beach where lounge singers crooned at a piano and great windows looked out on manicured greens and sun-painted rocky headlands stretching off into storm clouds down the coast. We slipped down a hallway and peeked at the Bar and Grill menu with its twenty dollar appetizers, eyed the customers relaxing in their neatly pressed polo shirts, and hurried out. A cute little Italian bistro in Pacific Grove with fantastic seafood and a lively atmosphere proved to be more our style.
Dig a pit in the sand at the beach to shelter embers from the wind. Pour in wood shavings and lay out clay pottery that has been burnished with a river rock until shiny, and fired once in a kiln to give it some strength. Between the pots, sprinkle rock salt and copper oxide (which, by the way, isn't food-safe). Add wood and seaweed and whatever other materials suit your artistic senses, and light it up. Topping the fire with dry cowpies is said to encourage formation of nice colors, and give insulation for a slow cooling so the pots don't crack, but we used only wood and some kelp. Four hours later we had impatiently fished out some beautifully colored pieces from the hot ash. This was with Joy's ceramics studio at Ocean Beach in San Francisco, but I suppose you could do it anywhere: combining old and new techniques, you'll get pretty pots that unfortunately can't do much more than sit on a shelf; apart from making the pots and spending hours polishing them the ordeal is merely a half-day's work sitting on the beach watching dogs chase tennis balls into the surf.
On the slopes of Mt Tam there is a little pink orchid that grows solitary among redwood trees with a single leaf and a lone flower. There are other kinds of flowers too, poppies and buttercups and lots of other ones I didn't identify. The waterfalls have water and the grass is green. It was a nice sunny day Sunday, with the spires of downtown San Francisco visible through the haze, and we were out before the crowds arrived. I'm a little surprised that land like this isn't totally overrun with people and buildings so close to the city. Northern california is nice.
Spring is sprouting green plants, colorful flowers and the whirring sound of insects and the raw muddy scent of the earth and pollen and rain. I get so excited when things are alive. On Sunday after the storm I drove at top speed around the bottom of the bay to Fremont beckoned by the shimmering green hills and snowy peaks just beyond. From the Mission Peak trailhead I veered off the main track and walked among the cows where dappled sunlight glowed through young grass. I could just see San Francisco far away in the haze. This is my sort of country - blasted by wind, folded and steep and remote yet just a short way from home.
Point Reyes has a spit of land that hooks east from the tip of the point, sheltering beaches where seals haul out to have pups. It turns out that grizzly bears used to go out there to hunt seals, back when California was wild, but these days the seals have learned that even beaches not rimmed by steep cliffs are safe as can be. There is one overlook with a fantastic view, reminiscent of my coastal favorite on Anacapa Island, with an undulating s-curve parting water to the left, right, and beyond. I guess I like being at the very edge of the continent. Joy and I walked down to the Pt Reyes Light also. There is a lightbulb in the light tower inside the big glass fresnel lenses, but they no longer move. Just down the hill the new lighthouse and fog-horn building looks like a garden shed, and it's smeared in red algae. I guess no one really sees it anyway, unless they're about to shipwreck.
The Company sent me to San Diego for a conference and made me stay in a luxurious waterfront hotel, where outside at night among palm trees out by the pool I sat by a fire and sketched designs in my notebook. For many attendees the gathering may have offered little more than a high-level update to the latest technology, but for me as a newcomer to the field of advanced undersea defense systems it was a fantastic opportunity to soak up information. I took an early flight back to San Francisco and sat on the east side of the plane, watching the coastline slip past from forty thousand feet. First there was Los Angeles, backed by snowy mountains and so absolutely crammed full of red-tiled homes that I was reassured of my move north. I hadn't flown before past LA at altitude. To the right were some favorite restaurants and seaside overlooks; there in the distance my old apartment and some good hiking trails; northwest along the coast I saw the spot where I first tried surfing. Nostalgia crept in. The white crest of Sierra Nevada mountaintops marched along the horizon and eventually faded to haze while green forested hills filled my view north of Santa Cruz as the plane descended to land among grass and orange flowers.
It all started because I wanted good dirt. Black, loamy stuff with earthworms and some fine grains to hold water, not the light fluffy compost that garden centers sell in plastic bags - and besides, I was not about to buy dirt in plastic bags. Maybe by truckload, but along with water and sunshine I don't like buying dirt in little plastic packages. I put a shovel and a big tub in my truck and set out for wild country where I knew there would be dirt. Some may argue that pilfering scoops of soil from the edge of the forest sets a poor example of civil behavior, but I counter that if the masses took it upon themselves to gather soil and nurture little green sprouts from plastic buckets on their doorsteps, the world would be infinitely better. There are so many lessons to be learned from keeping the little green tendrils alive. Mine will be basil and lettuce and oregano, when they grow up and get eaten. But first, I needed dirt. Crystal Springs Road had rich black loam in stream bottoms, but it was polluted with bits of trash from who knows where. Skyline drive offered a variety of muddy banks, all clay and too busy with passers-by. Miles rolled under my wheels and I was begining to lose hope when Tunitas Creek Road appeared, a patched-up single lane of pavement plunging off the western slope toward the sea. What fantastic country! I clung to steep hillsides and squeezed between big redwood trunks standing close against the broken asphalt. Cyclists churned uphill on a long ten mile ride. At first the forest was open, but lower down it became dense like a jungle and carpeted with ferns; the light was dim even though sun lit the treetops, and there was hardly a sound. There are few bugs, and so few birds, in redwood forests. Ancient trees lay covered in moss where they had toppled across burbling clear streams, and giant yellow banana slugs crept among fallen branches. I found some muddy banks that could spare some soil. And finally, down at the seaside plain, fields opened up dotted with little farms. The idyllic plots of land sell for millions of dollars, yet they seem so quaint and attainable. Perhaps some day I will be a millionaire farmer.
Stormy weather kept most of the fishing boats at the wharf on Friday but Bill went out with his boat and caught 34 crabs, four of which we were able to buy fresh from the boat early Saturday morning at a fantastic price. It's been a poor crab season and we almost came away empty-handed. The morning had started with heavy rain and darkness but sunlight was creeping through bits of blue sky as we drove back across the bright green hills and crossed the bay bound for Joy's parents' house. Yellow flowers are starting to appear on hillsides and new leaves are sprouting on some trees. Jomay brought lemons and I came equipped with grilling tongs, to transfer the fierce 1.5 pound crustaceans one at a time to a steamer pot. Fresh crab is so much better than crab any other way.
I last wrote upon return from the wild green Sonoma coast three weeks ago. Then I started work (long days, a good office - with a window!, an exciting new project, and regular paychecks once again after my month off), went skiing (on hard granular snow above big blue Lake Tahoe, a pleasant experience at the Heavenly resort except for a hard tumble that reminded me how much I prefer backcountry snowsports to crowded machine-groomed runs), drove to Santa Barbara for a birthday party (Berto's 30 now, and the beach is absolutely lovely at this time of year when orange sunsets glimmer across pearly pale blue water streaked with ribbons of dark indigo kicked up by the breeze), attended a wedding in Berkeley, and celebrated Chinese New Year with Joy's family. And Sunday, I baked bread all day.
North of San Francisco, tracts of houses quickly give way to rolling green hills sheltering groves of redwood trees. Bold highway engineers managed to run a narrow strip of asphalt along the coast, paving a precarious road that visits beachside hamlets and meanders through pastures where happy cows graze. On New Years Day, Joy and I set out along this route bound for an inn north of Jenner. We rolled through quaint towns and stopped at wild beaches where pure blue waves curled onto billions of polished colorful pebbles; nearby, curious cows munched sprouting green grass. Our room for the night was top of the line: cozy redwood beams sheltered us from the wind, a fireplace warmed away the evening chill, and wide windows welcomed in the colors of a pastel Pacific sunset on the sea - which we enjoyed from our spa tub, immersed in steaming hot water. To be fair, the Timber Cove Inn is still an unpolished enterprise; recently renovated rooms are nice but they have a hotel feel where a bed-and-breakfast style would be better (imagine, for example, the hotel-standard ice tub being replaced with an antique milk pail). But with a good restaurant on site serving up a fine tasting menu of local foods and local wines, one can easily forgive the shortcomings while sipping a smooth chardonnay and munching on seared sea bass with frizzled leeks. During the night, a heavy rain moved in and drummed on the windows. I love storms, especially when I have a seaside room with a fireplace. Morning brought broken clouds and sunshine to keep us company as we worked our way back south stopping along the way to sample barbecued oysters, fresh crab, and local cheeses.
Half-way into the month of December these weeks of freedom are dwindling as my first day of work at Northrop Grumman looms closer. My moving boxes are mostly unpacked, and the apartment looks more or less lived-in with photos hanging on the walls and most of my furniture reassembled. Back in Pasadena, folks at my old employer JPL are adjusting to a two-year delay of our big Mars lander project; we all suspected it was coming but now NASA has made it official. It was a good time for me to move on! I'm glad my part was all finished before the change. Joy's co-workers enjoyed a windfall of fresh bread last week as I handed out about seventy loaves after my artisan bread class at the San Francisco Baking Institute. I've baked bread sporadically since I was ten years old but without ever having a thorough understanding of dough, my results have been rather dry and deflated. Now that I live a short drive away from one of the nation's best bread and pastry schools, I donned my white chef's jacket and goofy-looking checkered black and white pants (it turns out they actually hide flour dust really well!) and reported for class. Some lessons learned: active dry yeast is a thing of the past that degrades bread; use instant dry yeast. Kneading is unnecessary for home baking; better bread comes from a short mixing followed by a series of dough folds spaced out over several hours. Too much mixing exposes dough to the air and mutes its flavors; on the other hand, letting a portion of the flour and water sit out with yeast for a few hours or overnight will add wonderful aromas to the bread. One more thing: precise measurements are essential, made by mass. An extra pinch of yeast will change everything. Conventional home ovens aren't the best for baking bread, so I'm about to start a retrofit process on mine. I'll let you know how it goes!
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