Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Heat Is On

The heat is on. And it costs $4.99 a gallon. We heat our house with oil, which is really diesel gasoline with dye added, which means in a pinch, we could syphon some from our underground tank for the UPS driver if s/he ever ran out of gas delivering our Amazon Prime orders. But in a temblor, it means our fifty-sixty year-old underground oil tank could leak, contaminating soil, and possibly groundwater.

Our oil heater

 We live on an island so it makes sense we can’t heat with natural gas: propane, oil, and electricity are the local options. We’re fortunate to have central heat, and our oil burning forced air unit is not quite ten years old, but we still use more than a gallon a day. Heat is one thing the former owners didn’t skimp on. We also have a pellet stove upstairs, and a wood stove downstairs.

The pellet stove upstairs

The wood stove downstairs

Hot air rises, and the vents in our ground floor are in the ceiling, so it’s about fifty-eight degrees near our windows (by the windows on both floors actually, they’re old, and made double pane simply by the addition of a storm window over a glass pane). I know this isn't really cold, but to be comfortable indoors without wearing a robe over my clothes, drinking hot tea, and running the vacuum to stay warm, I prefer sixty-eight.

We also are in the process of making a master bedroom down below, combining unheated basement with an existing bedroom.

All this has brought heat to mind. How best to warm our new room, and if we’re adding heat to one room, how hard is it to re-think the rest of the house? Why not stop heating the house with dead dinosaurs and use cheap clean electricity only?

The answer: money.

Back when we had money, we invested in a hundred thousand dollars of solar panels to heat and cool the new home we built in California, sure that we would live there long enough for our investment to pay for itself. It didn’t. In fact we lost everything we put into infrastructure: bringing water and electricity to the property, installing a non-standard septic system, building special earthquake fencing to stop falling boulders.  There’s more to that story, but we’ve taken from it a moral:

Be careful how much we invest.

We were careful to choose our fixer upper in a desirable/waterfront neighborhood so that if we sunk a hundred thousand dollars improving the house, we still wouldn’t overbuild or overdesign for the neighborhood like we did before. We also thought Kevin would have a job by now to fund our remodeling.

He keeps looking for paid employment and we factor square-foot costs and resale value in the decisions we make daily, tackling deferred maintenance, and making improvements that suit the home’s original design as well as our preferences.

Budgets are always good restraints in building. And, it turns out there are others equally as effective as money in our decision-making:

Hazard mitigation for one: We can’t just stop using our oil heater, we would need to have our 500 gallon oil tank drained, dug up from the front yard, and officially decommissioned.  Ka-ching!

Unconditioned living space (no heating or flooring other than cement) for another; we didn’t have enough of it to install the super efficient (and super pricey) ductless heat pumps that are the current heating modality of choice in this region.

Wall space being another. Where can you get forty-eight or seventy-two inches along a baseboard for a Cadet hydronic heater—which we used in our writers studio—four or six feet of wall that can’t also have a bed, dresser, or bookcase against it? That sort of interior real estate is more difficult to obtain than cash.
Cadet hydronic baseboard heater in writers studio

For now, we’ve settled on becoming a hybrid house, combining oil heat—thermostat set to sixty degrees—with supplemental electric heaters in each room, that we will turn on for comfort as we are using them.

Kevin contemplated building platforms in the master bedroom to house our closets and dressers above the heaters. But I didn’t relish the idea of standing on a stepstool to reach my heaters. So we’ve been testing out options.

By testing I mean that Kevin does hours of internet research—checking watts, dimensions, operating manuals—places orders online for heaters not in-stock at Home Depot, buys several at Home Depot, and we open boxes, inspect the contents, test them out in various locations.

I feel like Goldilocks. The great bargain from Groupon, although small and square enough to fit nearly anywhere and double as an end table, was too noisy, on par with our pellet stove, which though warm, is loud.
Noisy Groupon heaters

The Cadet hydronic series was too long to fit our walls. The Smal can be mounted high on the wall, but then I can’t reach the controls.

I can't operate the control when this heater is wall mounted

A second Cadet model is shorter, could fit it on our floor-to-ceiling windows upstairs.
Another, sleek and black, that looks like a flat-screen TV is coming and Kevin imagines engraving eagles, orcas, and Mount Rainier on its glass panel. I say this will void the warranty, but he disagrees and offers to email the company to find out.

TV on left. Heater on right. Clearly no one lives in this room.

Attention to detail is one of the many qualities I love in my husband. Nothing is too mundane for his full mental acuity and consideration. He loves to research, collect options, and mull them over. This might lead a person to think he can’t make up his mind. But that’s not so.

Thirty years ago when we were dating and couldn’t decide what to do one evening, I asked, “Will we always be this indecisive.” His answer was swift and emphatic: “Yes.” 

And so it is. We spend tens of hours contemplating how to heat our home, as if making a decision on par with buying the home itself. And it just might be. The options we select will become part of this home, impacting not only us (and by extension the environment) but all those who will warm themselves under this roof—whether it is ours or not—for the foreseeable future.

A big responsibility. No wonder we have trouble choosing.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

I'll Cut You Up, Buttercup

The sky is pinking, a sunset when there has been no sun. It’s time to return indoors from my two-hour gardening foray.

I step into the laundry room and begin to doff the layers I donned to enjoy the outdoors: waterlogged supposedly waterproof gardening gloves, thin nitrile gloves underneath them, rain jacket, sweatshirt with hood, bandana tied on my head, waterproof hiking boots, rain pants. I still wear: long-sleeved thermal top, short-sleeved undershirt, sweatpants, winter-silk bottoms, and thick knee-high socks.

It’s the third week of January, the weather is gray, it’s forty degrees, and it hasn’t rained in a week, but already the buttercup has thrust perky green stems with toothy leaflets inches above the soil in dozens of clumps in the garden bed next to the garage, even sending out stolons (runners) to root in an ever expanding arc.

Last year, when I was new to the island and the Pacific Northwest, I’d never seen buttercup, and even though a neighbor told me it was a weed I should eradicate (not terrible enough to be classified as noxious in Washington, but rather a weed of concern), I didn’t heed her advice.

Creeping Buttercup

I welcomed the first signs of green in a new-to-me deciduous and dormant garden and wanted to see what this new-to-me plant would become.

And I thought, rightly, that buttercup had to be cute, because of that 1950s song. It is cute, but invasive, like the common cold. Buttercup and bindweed (the morning glory that I blogged about this summer) are my garden nemeses. And like the best comic book hero, now that I know who they are and what they’re capable of, I’m out to destroy them.

My raspberry bed overrun with blooming buttercup and bindweed

Maybe not in the rain, but on a regular winter day, why not bundle up, set aside my computer—editing blog posts for Image’s “Good Letters,” editing my first book for a Good Letters blogger, updating my writers retreat listing in airbnb.com—and kick some plant?

I walk in the house a little dirty, but feeling successful, until I decide to read about buttercup. Even though I’m supposed to be the hero in this story, vanquisher of non-native-conquistador species, I lack the superpowers needed to win the war against an enemy whose seeds can remain viable in the soil at least twenty years, and up to eighty, and can grow new plants with tiny root-bits left in the soil.

Given those stats, I should give up, but this is what people do: undertake crazy and ridiculous endeavors with little or no guarantee of long-term success. We call it vision, or having a dream, or being stubborn.

And so you will find me gardening in and out of season, attempting like centuries of men and women before me, to assert my limited knowledge and prideful will against nature’s wily and superior ways.

I tell myself I am restoring what was meant to be, or it least clearing the soil for what is—the foxglove, azaleas, and wisteria that Mr. Nunamaker (the former owner of my house) planted—to live without buttercup strangling it.

 But as in so many other instances, people began this problem. Buttercup is a European plant, and some immigrant tucked a happy yellow flower in a hatband and boarded a ship to America, and another one wrapped a plant in burlap and slid it on a covered wagon: seemingly innocent actions still rippling with repercussions.  

For I am “man” and I exercise my dominion: my plan, my scheme, my idea of a garden or a life, believing I know best what should occupy a place, believing that my desires are more legitimate than the actions of seeds, birds, wind, and circumstance.

How little I know.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A New Year's Cup of Kindness

Until I moved to Puget Sound the Christmas before this one, I’d spent fifty years as a Californian ringing in the new year with images from someone else’s past.

When I was a child, we gathered at a neighbor’s home, tuned their color TV to watch Dick Clark and the ball drop in Times Square, then at midnight banged cooking pots with wooden spoons on the front porch, screaming, “Happy New Year!” and were allowed one sip of pink fizzy Cold Duck.

And every December 31 since, it was a broadcast, delayed three hours that marked our midnight welcome of a new year. We stood in family rooms around TV sets, pulled the string on plastic champagne-bottle poppers, toasted with Andre and Cooks, kissed and wished each other Happy New Year, all the while watching old news.

I was surprised and delighted when my new neighbors turned on their TV at midnight to usher in 2012 and I saw the Seattle Space Needle, not New York City on the screen. I’d lived in Washington for less than two weeks, but it was one small thing that made me feel as though I belonged in my new home.

 And the first moments of 2013 were magical. My husband, youngest daughter, and I boarded the 11:35 pm ferry from Bainbridge Island to Seattle along with our dear friends who just moved to this area, and scores of other revelers.

On a clear night, buffeted by wind and red-faced from the cold, we stood at the front of the ferry watching the skyline grow larger and brighter and then at midnight hundreds of passengers shouted “Happy New Year” while the ferry blasted long blast on its horn and fireworks shot from the Space Needle.

We literally sailed into our future, mesmerized by sparks in the sky that no one had yet seen. We, friends and strangers alike, welcomed the unknown and new into our lives together. Someone began singing Auld Lang Syne and most everyone joined in, but we fizzled after the first verse, like Christmas carolers without song-sheets, not even making it through the chorus.

I wiped my eyes, watery from the wind, and posed with my loved ones, the waterfront’s new Ferris Wheel alight in the background. Then we all disembarked only to reboard and ride the ferry back home.

Californians turned Washingtonians on New Year's Eve

A new year is here, nearly two weeks old, and I’m not sure what it holds. My husband has advanced to the next round of interviews for an executive position in San Francisco and I find that I’m not doing too well at living in the moment.

I’m still recovering from surgery, so instead of pouring my energy into our remodel, I find myself getting a little anxious and projecting ahead. The job would be a blessing in so many ways: a socially responsible corporation, a good salary, and we could use a salary after 16 months without one.
But what about this house we’ve devoted our time and vision to? It needs to be finished. And then, do we try and hold on to it, or is there more that I (we) am supposed to learn about letting go?

I imagine letting go by searching Redfin.com, looking for places I could possibly feel at home within reasonable commuting distance of San Francisco.

The view from the fixer upper we tried to buy in Pacifica

It’s disheartening from where I sit now to see the housing stock drop and prices soar in Pacifica where we’d looked before. I always knew housing prices in the Bay Area were astronomical, but I was never trying to come back into that housing market from somewhere where I owned a house in a size and location that would be well over a million dollars in California.

What we paid here for our fixer-upper prices us in Oakland in a home less than half this size, and aside from the media images of gun violence and my reticence to live in a big city, when I think about packing up again and needing to get rid of so much more than I did before, my spirits sag.

I tell myself I’m doing research, or that I’m writing a story in my head, putting characters (my husband and me) in a setting (pick a house from a Redfin listing) and imagining their lives there. But really, what I’m doing is worrying. Unable to sleep, I slip out of bed to check BART routes and passenger ferries in the San Francisco Bay.

My husband photographing San Francisco from the Marin Headlands

Confined to my recliner, I have too much time to imagine/worry/plan/dwell in the future. It’s only a small comfort that I’m not busy picking apart my past (been there, done that). But still, how do I bring myself back to the now?

Being gentle with myself seems the only answer. I’m suffering the consequences of not being gentle with my surgery recovery. My over-activity has prolonged my discomfort, and I can see how continually looking into a murky crystal ball can have the same effect.

I looked up Auld Lang Syne which means “days gone by,” and a line we couldn’t recall on the ferry translates to: “We take a cup of kindness yet for days gone by.”

It definitely has been helpful and healing in my life to look on the past with kindness, to imbue it neither with worship for the wonderful, nor blame for the difficult.

May I extend that kindness to this day as well as each day to come in this year and the next: Welcome what will be.