When a lot happens, little gets written

Is that how it is? Well, last year, very little happened on the house, but a lot of other things did happen: Multiple trips. Marathons. But I’ll have to write about them another time. Just wanted to try to catch up on the house a bit here.

I decided to remove some more concrete, and plant a tree:

This soil has been below concrete, and compacted for so long that it can’t be healthy. I dug out quite deep, then threw in some compost: that’s some of the buggy apples from the ground (I guess it wasn’t quite rotten yet.) I layered compost and soil all the way to the top, then planted the tree.

And here is our new little Japanese maple. I hope it thrives here.

So the pile of concrete and dirt from my earlier post sat in our driveway for about 3 months. I had it covered in plastic to prevent a mud slick when it rained. My initial plan was to stockpile it so that I’d get a dumpster and fill it in one go. Well, I just got tired of having a huge pile in the driveway (it was in the way when I took out the garbage, it was difficult to get out of the car, etc.) And life was filling in a lot more of the weekends than I’d expected.

So I used a service called yellowsack. It’s quite a bit more expensive than a dumpster per ton, but if I’m just hauling out 9,000 lb at a time, that fits into three sacks, and they come pick them up with a truck that has a crane on it. No need to reserve street space.

OK, so there’s another project that’s been keeping me busy. I spent a few months reinforcing floor joists. Remember this phot? This one notch, even though it’s about 2″ deep, has probably halved the strength of this 10″ floor joist, because the edge fibers are the most important:

So one by one, I sistered on new joists to the old ones to try to strengthen them back up. I need the joists to be strong for when I’m shoring up the side of the house to replace the foundation.

Had to move some electrical wiring, and removed some rotten wood also.

It’s quite a pain trying to get a full length joist into that space. Actually, I made them a bit short, turned them on their side and pushed one side up high, while the other side I pushed up. Once it was in the space, I could flip it up and push it against the joist. Quite a workout. Don’t ever let an electrician notch a joist.

Oh, I just liked this photo: It’s the bag on my dust collector that’s connected to my table saw and thickness planer. I like how the different wood I was working put different colored stripes.


Years ago, on an impulse I bought a rose plant from the sale bin outside Lowes for about $3. I planted it against the post for our deck, and it’s loved the location. We get flowers almost all year round. Mole took a photo:

We also did a bit of gardening in the neglected corner of the garden that gets the greywater. It’s a bit of a tricky corner, because it’s the south side, so it gets shaded by the fence on two sides, although in the past tomatoes have grown well here. We decided to get some blueberry bushes. Didn’t realize until after we got them that greywater is not ideal for blueberries, because they are so acid loving. We’ll see how it goes.

More demolition

Oh, and in between the rain storms, we did continue working on the foundation project. More destruction first:

Oh, this was painful:

A view from below as things were coming apart. I was thinking I’d try to save the tile above because it was still in such good condition – but it would have been difficult to get the waterproofing right, and the slopes. Plus I’d have to support it while working under it.

Here you can see straight into the garage.

Mole is taking out the concrete anchors that were at the bottom of the steps. You can see the steps all piled up on the right.

As it started getting dark, we were still working to get a temporary wall and roof in place to close off the garage.

Here we have the temporary roof, supported off the wall on the left, and you can see the marks of the steps on our neighbors wall on the right. The paint was in really bad shape, and some of the wood quite rotten.

I spent a weekend stripping the old paint off their wall so I could repaint it. This will get permanently hidden behind a new wall, so at least it should have a decent coat of paint.

That bottom row of siding will need to be replaced. They poured concrete against the side of the house, so the wood just rotted away behind it. Even thousand-year-old redwood cannot withstand that.

I sanded and filled all the holes. Ready for paint:

You can see the finished paint on the wall. The photo below I took on a Saturday afternoon, right after I’d removed the concrete and hurt my back. I spent a week barely able to walk. After this, the project sat for a month while my back recovered.

… time goes by …

Mole helped me finish excavating down the soil. I think I’m going to need to hire some people to help me on this.

But there is something I _can_ do: Repair the damaged floor joists. Who would do this to a floor joist?

Feeling much better after getting some reinforcing in. It’s pretty slow going, because it’s hard to get the joist in there over all the conduit and wires.

Bella wanted to say “hi”:

Running, rain, hike

Two weeks before CIM (California International Marathon in Sacramento) in December, Aja texted me saying that she and Misha were sick. Misha tested positive for Covid. We’d all been training hard for this marathon, and Misha had missed it last year due to injury, after multiple missed Boston marathons due to the Covid pandemic. So this was supposed to be the comback, but it was not to be. We all cancelled. “Besides”, I told myself, “it’s forecast to rain on the morning of the marathon”. (It did not rain, and I continued training through the rainiest winter I remember in California.)

Instead, we ran the Mesa marathon. For me, while I did not run as fast as I’d hoped I would, I did get to run with Misha for the first half. If anyone had suggested, ten years ago, that I would run even a mile in a marathon with Misha, I’d have laughed at their ignorance. Yet, here I was running alongside my athletically far superior sibling. Most of this was due to Misha’s misfortune at catching Covid right before CIM.

Here we are the day before, posing in front of the only growing thing in Phoenix. The rest is concrete and asphalt.

That the US has made the utterly ridiculous transportation pattern of Phoenix the dominant one in the whole country speaks to the power of money in this country. Here we are, stuck in traffic trying to get to a running race. Madness. But at least we were smiling.

We started in the dark, so the photos were not great, but here it is: Evidence. I ran with Misha! Yes, and every photo of Misha shows them floating in the air:

I managed to keep a grin on my face to the end, even though it was a hard marathon for me. It got so much hotter than I thought it would, and I just felt like I could barely move at the end.

Here we are at the end – that was a tough race. Even though the organizers and volunteers were fantastic, I don’t want to do this one again.

And that’s it for the marathon stuff. On to more interesting things: Janeen and I on a huge (13 mile!) hike around San Francisco:


I just realized that my thinking on electric cars changed dramatically over the last two years. Two years ago, we had to buy a new car, and at the time I was perfectly happy with buying another gas car. In fact, if it hadn’t been for mole’s veto, I’d have even bought a non-hybrid Honda Fit. At the time, my thinking was: Most electricity is generated by CO2 emitting technology (and I include Nuclear in that, because the mining, transportation, storage, safety backup systems, etc all rely on fossil fuel) – therefore it is more efficient to just use the energy source directly. Two years later and it feels almost absurd to think that someone now would go out and buy a vehicle that’s not electric. I was missing the point.

I think a few things have happened to push me that way:

  • One was the morning in September 2020 when we woke up to a burned, dark sky and no sun. This hit me at a much deeper emotional level than even Greta Thunberg’s speeches and Friday strikes, and left me feeling hopeless and depressed.
  • On top of this came the dramatic demonstration by Russia that reliance on fossil fuel is an ongoing security issue for the world. One despot in control of the oil-drug we rely on and we’re lost.
  • Talking to people who own electric cars it became clear that electric cars are so simple mechanically that they are inevitably more reliable and require much less maintenance.
  • And also the general noise and stink of internal combustion engines became very obvious after the brief hiatus we had from them during the pandemic.
  • And, and, and we got solar panels! I now see first hand the layers of self-serving inertia in our electricity monopoly. They cause delays to the installation, delays to allowing us to connect, and constantly (successfully) lobby the state regulator to reduce the amount they pay, even as they cause wildfires that burn down whole communities. But much of the inefficiency and weakness in the electric grid is that it relies on single point generation of electricity. Electricity is distributed over many miles to many different places, wasting energy for every mile it travels. Distributed solar could change that – in California the electricity could be mostly generated and stored near where it’s needed. The loss of one electric plant, or power line, could be negligible.

I think electric cars are most certainly not the answer to our environmental crisis. They do not address urban sprawl, or the massive waste of money and energy building huge roads. But they are so much better than gasoline cars, that I now compare them to the steam engine: Clever technology for the time, but now very dated.

It was a bit of a process to get solar installed: When the garage was dug out in the 1960’s, they put a post in front of the electric panel. This violates code, so the building inspector would not approve any work until it was moved. Besides, it was completely full with no available locations to connect the solar electric system. Contractors were so extremely busy that I could only get two bids – one of which I had to pay them for. And the prices were twice what the solar company had estimated for the cheaper bid. But now that it’s all installed, we’ve become obsessed with trying to time our electricity usage with the middle of the day when we make the most. Better to try to use it here than get pennies on the dollar from PG&E.

But I digress: I mentioned in the last post that I made a door and a new temporary wall. This door I made out of old wood that was wall paneling. The mistake I made on this door is that the two stiles (the thicker pieces on sides of the door) are too narrow to install a lock. Maybe I can find an old surface mounted lock.

But it looks nice, and now the bikes are completely hidden from view when the garage door is open.

I also got the new steel moment frame delivered. The main beam weighs over 800lb. I couldn’t figure out how to lift it off the truck: Even if we got four people, it would be over 200lb per person, and it’s very difficult to share that load among all those people. It would have been a disaster. Luckily Beronio – where I ordered the moment frame – agreed to have the frame delivered to them, then they drove it to my house on their truck that has a mobile forklift. Now it’s sitting in my garage, waiting for the next stage.

It rolled around quite nicely on a couple of moving dollies. I got it tucked in under my workbench, so it’s not too much in the way while I work.

Oh, but there’s still something else: The space where the new steel beam needs to go is a spaghetti jumble of wires. They all need to be moved.

So the last few weeks I have been identifying which circuit the wires belong to, and figuring out how to re-route them so that they don’t interfere with the new beam.

I’m going to have to repair a lot of floor joists that were notched by the previous owners.

I started removing the old siding in the space under the stairs. But I need to take these stairs out completely before I can get the rest of the siding off. I’ve been delaying on it though, because it’s been raining non-stop. I’ll need to build a temporary wall where the steps are right now, and maybe a temporary roof.

When mole and I were out walking, we saw this fun mural on someone’s garage door. Made me think of my brother!

And look at this security gate. Instead of an uglification of the house, as most of them are, it’s a piece of art. Even the vertical bars represent kelp. I love it so much.

How about this for public art sculpture? My nephew riding a sand dragon.

Oh, and when Misha was in town, we managed to get friends together to go for a run on one of my favorite trails.


One step back

I’m no zen master. For me, the end result is at least as satisfying as the process of getting there. With the house, I often find myself standing staring at some piece of work I’ve finished working on, just enjoying that it’s _done_ (and done right, hopefully).

It took quite a while for the plaque to be made. But I wanted to get a solid brass one, with raised lettering, not the cheap engraved plaques that are easy to make. I like that the cheeky grin remains (caused by rusting of the pin I originally put here).

So here’s some of the satisfaction of a completed project: Our neighbor enjoying the bench in memory of his son.

It’s been quite difficult for me to take a step back and undo a lot of the work I did over the past few years so that I can build the seismic strengthening at the front. This is something that I’d been procrastinating on, and with a comment from an electrician, realized that I needed to stop dancing around the edges and get into it. I put together structural drawings. I got them through the planning and building department. And I even got a bid on it: Wow! More than $0.25 million just for a small portion of it: I guess that means I need to do it.

I built a wall between the work area and the rest of the garage so that bikes would be hidden from view when the garage door is open. I also built a door – but that’s another post (maybe).

The problem I have is that to do this work, I need to tear out the workbench, the electrical work, the gyp board, the plywood – everything. All that satisfaction gone. And then I can get to digging a new foundation, and rebuild everything. Misha came to visit in October and sensed my hesitation so helped me get to tearing things apart.

The old window looking under the stairs. I plan to save this window and reuse it. It’s going to take a lot of repair to make it nice again. But I’ve done it before.

So a major hint that something has gone wrong is that the sill plate on this side of the building has crushed – this has dropped the height on this side of the house by about 2 inches. Maybe rot, maybe something else.

Here is a photo looking at the end of a piece of the wood taken out of the wall here. Any guesses who was living here?

Termites have almost completely eaten the sill plate, and left this behind. We found no termites, so this damage must have happened a long time ago.

It’s always fun to find things in hidden in the walls from a hundred years ago: Japalac (laquer), a picture for Sperry’s flour, someone’s painting of flowers.

And we tore out the gyp board on the ceiling, and the insulation too. Insulation is such nasty stuff – can’t we come up with something that’s not hazardous? We rolled it up tightly and stuffed it in plastic bags for re-use. Whoever did the electrical work really made a mess of these floor joists: It’s not okay to chop into the bottom of joists to fit conduit in there. Bad electrician.

Cleanup time! OK, turtle got a jump start.

Photos while running

Sometimes I just have to stop and take a photo.

Another type of bench

Well, I did one more thing in the garage first: There was a wall around the back of the workshop area that prevented me from putting long pieces of wood through the table saw.

The only tricky part was that there was a concrete curb I had to chip out. No this wasn’t a load bearing wall – but I think it was the edge of where they excavated to when they put in the Garage in the 1960’s.

OK, on to the main topic: My neighbor’s son died in February of 2021 and at the time I decided to make a bench to commemorate him. Something solid (strong and heavy) would both represent him well, and prevent someone walking off with it. Here’s my initial sketch.

I made the whole bench out of old wood that had come out of the house when Nick and I demolished that strange room on the back of the house. The seat and the posts I made by laminating smaller pieces together with glue. The seat back is one of the shelves that had been in the garage; it is a single piece of redwood measuring 2 inches thick, and over 14 inches wide – I doubt I could find another piece of redwood like that these days. The strongest connections are mortise and tenon – so that’s what this bench must have. I had a lot of fun carving these connections.

Oh, and while I was making this bench, mole was working on a piece of furniture too. She’d sanded and urethaned the wood parts, and now was on to the part she actually enjoys:

The most tricky connection was the front to the posts, because the posts are skewed. The tenon enters the post at approximately 7 degrees off perpendicular. Once I’d got that all fitted, I cut the mortises for the sides as square tenons – one of which goes through the front mortise, locking it in.

Here’s a test fit of all the connections – don’t mind the compression socks 😉 The seat attaches at the front with tenons from the front posts.

Even that large piece of redwood wasn’t quite wide enough for the back rest, so I glued another piece to the bottom. I didn’t come up with an elegant way to attach the back rest, so I’ll just screw it in from the back. The screws will have oversize holes to allow the wood to move.

Final glue-up:

I used a clear stain on the seat and the back rest, but the frame I stained a bit darker. Some of the wood on that is pressure-treated, so has a green color. The stain made things look better.

Here I am putting the bench in the front. I placed it on four bricks, and added some anchor straps to the wall, just to make sure it doesn’t walk off somewhere.

The only remaining part is a nice solid cast brass plaque to attach to the seat rest. I’ve ordered it, but it takes about 5 weeks to make. I love how the tree shades this bench during the hottest part of the day.


Yet again, I didn’t plan on this being a permanent change, but once I get into it, I can’t help myself: I built in a bench, shelves, cabinets, electrical…

But before all that, I ran a really tough half marathon in September – “Bear Creek Half”.

At the beginning of the race, I noticed that nobody else seems to wear bright colors. So it’s pretty easy to spot me in photographs. After the first climb, the view at the top was incredible – and there were cows everywhere. I started wondering if it was really true that red makes cows angry? Or is that bulls? Either way, they didn’t seem to care. It was an incredibly strenuous race, and the 80+ degree weather didn’t help. But I finished in the top ten overall (6th) – and my fancy new Garmin watch suggested I rest for 66 hours. The girls were quite happy to rest with me.

So back to the point of the post. I’m still trying to reuse wood, so just to start making the cabinets I had to glue a lot of smaller pieces together. Then I used the special cabinet jigs Misha gave me years ago to drill all the holes for adjustable shelving.

OK first base cabinets going in – because the floor slopes in every direction, and the wall isn’t square, it took a while to get this all lined up.

These cabinets we’ve had in the garage for a long time. Finally they are in a good place – I’ll fill them up with things that don’t do well getting dusty.

Now I need some shelves…

I decided to make the work top stepped down so that I can use my miter saw here. The height of the step is exactly the same as the height of the miter saw base, so that wood can be supported on the bench top at the left side. But first the old bench top is too short, and has a piece cut out of it. Need to fix that.

A bit hard to see here, but this is how it works. I still need to use spacers to support the wood on the right side of the saw.

Oh, and there was a lot of wiring to do – it all got pulled out when I was putting the plywood up.

Shelves for all the paint cans I’ve accumulated.

On the right of the photo below is where I plan to put my dust collector. When I re-wired, I added a three-way switch so I can turn the dust collector on or off from different places in the garage…

… and dust collection means I have to put together all the ducting for it. This is turning into a major project.

So here’s the problem with doing all this:

The electrical panel is currently partially hidden behind that wood post. I had some electricians come over to look at moving it (because it’s not to code here). One of the electricians said “why don’t you just get the post moved?” Exactly.

These stupid wood posts are at best a temporary structural solution that I should fix, and I have been planning to (for years). They support beams that are undersized and sag, and they are not properly braced for earthquakes. But to fix them – which I absolutely should – I need to get the foundations replaced here… Which would involve tearing out all the work I just wrote about.