Showing posts with label Home/Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Home/Life. Show all posts

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Water Main Leak Repair

Two weekends ago, Ian came up from doing laundry (with our new used washing machine) in the basement and mentioned that there was water on one of the pipes down there.  I had just been running the cold water (trying to make wine bottle planters, but not having too much success), so I made the hopeful assumption that he was seeing condensation on one of the drain pipes down there.

But, as you will have already guessed, I was wrong.  When I went downstairs a couple of days later to start brewing our first batch of compost tea, I saw the long trickle of water that Ian had been talking about.  It was coming from a rusted plug nut on the top of the main water line coming into the house.  BIG BUMMER.  

First of all, someone had used a steel plug in a water system, which is incredibly lazy, stupid, or both, because water makes steel rust.  Second of all, that plug had started letting a slow trickle of water leak into the basement, which wasn't great for the basement floor, and it certainly wasn't great for water conservation.  And lastly, it wasn't hard to imagine that leak getting worse some day soon and essentially letting a geyser of full-pressure water erupt into the middle of the basement while we were all at work and unaware.  It was obvious that I had to embark upon another plumbing project ASAP.

I managed to get all the parts I needed while on a break from work last Thursday.  The guy at the plumbing store very sweetly saved me some money by having me buy fittings that could be sweated (soldered) together, rather than threaded fittings.  Threaded fittings require thicker metal and more machining to produce, so they're much more expensive than sweat fittings.  He also took a guess at why a T fitting was used here where an elbow would have worked just as well: a place to drain the plumbing system for maintenance?

Since someone had used that steel plug, I doubt the T fitting had been used for any other reason than it's what the plumber had on hand.  But I did like the idea of a place to drain the system, so we kept the T fitting and added a spigot.

While waiting for Ian to finish showering and getting ready to depart on Sunday morning, I sweated all the pieces together that I could:

And after both upstairs tenants were gone for the day, I shut off the water, and went around the house, turning on a couple of faucets on each floor so that air could get into the pipes and allow the water to drain out the open garden hose spigot in the basement faster.

I cut the 3/4" horizontal pipe coming off the T fitting, and I disconnected the main pipe just above the water meter at a union fitting.  That allowed me to take that section of pipe with the rusty T fitting, put it in my work bench vise, and unscrew the T fitting with a plumber's wrench and my giant muscles.  Once I had it off, it was obvious that someone had tried to cover the steel plug with some putty from the inside to prevent rust.  There you have it: that plumber was too lazy to get a proper brass plug.  Jerk.

I cleaned up the threads of the pipe end.

And with some plumber's putty, I assembled all the pieces and put the pipe with the new T fitting into place.  I'm using a spare washing machine hose to guide water down to a bucket next time I have to drain the pipes.  This spigot is probably 7 feet off the floor.

It took some finagling and a little teflon tape to get the union joint to stop dripping.  In my experience, those union joints are always a little finicky.  But if I ever have problems with this section of plumbing again, I won't have to cut any pipes; I can just disconnect at the union.

After about an hour and a half, the water was turned on, I had chased down the one drip that was occurring with the new pieces, and a potential plumbing crisis was averted.  It cost me $55 in new parts and my own time.  If you think you always have to call a professional plumber, but you like taking on challenges and working with your hands, think again.  If I can do this, you can too.  Neat, right?

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Washing Machine Saga

In non-gardening-related news, our washing machine (a freebie from 2008, when Blue Man Group closed its costume shop in Red Hook, Brooklyn) committed hara-kiri.  See the huge hole in the outer drum?  That shouldn't be there...

I took the washer apart to try to fix it, but replacement parts would cost $750.  

Seven Hundred and Fifty American Dollars.

So I went down the rabbit hole of researching new washing machines, versus used washing machines, versus home made, pedal-powered washing machines, versus old fashioned electric and hand activated washing machines...  According to my own comparisons between reviews and Consumer Reports reviews, it seems machines can be found these days that are quiet and work well, but it also seems no one is making good and quiet machines that are also built to last.  The same machines that got the highest Consumer Reports ratings also had high volumes of customer complaints about the machines quickly breaking down or never working well in the first place.

I took a house-hold survey.  I was starting to get excited about pedal powered and hand washers, but Cindy and our upstairs tenant and friend, Ian, brought my head out of the clouds and overruled my hippie washing machine dreams on the grounds of time management.  Fair enough.

Cindy and I bought a used washer from a guy on e-bay for $200 plus the cost of a zipcar to go get it.  It makes a knocking sound when it agitates, which seemed to get better when I leveled the washer, but the knocking has come back again.  I've opened the front cover and can't see anything actually wrong with things as it's operating, so I'm going to hope for the best.  Plus, I really like this washer.  It's a top loader.  The old kaput one was a front loader.  As my grandmother used to say, "We shall see..."

Still, you should check out this video of a home-made pedal powered washing machine.  The couple who made it seem sweet:

I also stumbled on this video, which basically got me all excited about the possibilities of life:

Inspired by the above video, and wanting to salvage what we can, I'm keeping the old washing machine motor (for unknown future projects), I've turned the stainless steel drum into a fire pit for the back yard (we haven't tried it yet), and I took the glass out of the door for a mixing bowl.  I think I'm going to dismantle and keep the metal sides of the washer, too.  You never know when you might need some sturdy sheet metal.  Good materials are expensive and hard to get.  The rest (computer controls, all the plastic bits, the pumps, etc) is getting recycled, because it doesn't seem like there's a market for used parts for this machine.

In case you're curious, we don't have an electric dryer.  We hang-dry everything in the basement on two racks I made with a bunch of dowels and some scrap wood a few years ago.  Here's one of them:

By the way, that's the old washer (in pieces) on the left, and the new washer (under Ian's laundry basket) on the right.  I keep a dehumidifier running in the basement, because I don't want my tools to get rusty.  It also helps the clothes dry faster in the humid, Summer months.  And, with the top-loading washer, I can use the dehumidifier water in the washing machine.  Neat, eh?

Special thanks to Ian for helping us bring the replacement washing machine down into the basement.  And when I say "helping," I mean he did most of the work.

Friday, May 30, 2014

43 Years Old

I'm not sure if it's a function of being 43 years old, or if it's a function of having brothers and sisters-in-law who are in their 60's, or if it's a function of spending time with our godson* Axel, who is not yet one year old, but I'm finding myself thinking about the spectrum of life these days.

When I was little, I thought things were stagnant.  I thought if things were a certain way one day, they would be that way every day.  My mother and grandmother would always look the same.  My school would always stand right where it was when I attended it... I might change (I tracked my own growth by periodically inspecting my opened-flat hand and noticing it was larger than the last time I'd looked), but my experience with life was too short to see how everything around me was changing too.

My 20's and a certain amount of my 30's were spent frantically trying to keep things still.  I could see the houses and resorts being built all over Carmel Valley where nothing but wilderness and ranches had been when I was little - the most painful example of change for me at the time.  I constantly felt this breathless, tight, desperate drive to gather up everything about which I cared and put it some place where it could not be moved.  I wanted to protect everything from alteration - either by natural deterioration or some other person's idea of "progress" with which I did not agree (tacky people with money - a terrible blight).

I can't say that I've overcome this feeling of desperation yet, although I'm actively working on it.  I now see myself within that ever-changing span of time, and I've come more and more to see my time as limited - sometimes inspirationally, motivationally so, but sometimes limited in a way that leads through hopelessness to eventual quiet acceptance.

We live in a 100+ year old house.  One can say that I own it, but I know enough to know that I truly only steward this house and hope to treat it well enough so that its next residents (perhaps after Cindy and I have ended our days) might rest a little bit - not have so much to repair or restore as I have had.  But, of course, life teaches me that this house's next owners might not care about my handy-work.  They might, in fact, tear the whole thing down and do something else with this postage stamp piece of Brooklyn.

Everything changes.

Lately, I've begun to notice that the crook of my arm, when I bend my elbow, is starting to look like my grandmother's did when I was little.  I'm getting a farmer's tan - not as dark as hers, but similar.  And the skin on my arms is getting just a little more delicate, a tiny bit wrinkled.  I don't care too much about wrinkles.  If anything, they sort of fascinate me - the way time and my frequented expressions make their permanent marks on me.  I'm pretty proud of my laugh lines, come to think of it.  I see them as a sign of a life well lived and something to which everyone should aspire.  But beyond those things, I recognize myself anew by my wrinkles.  I see my grandmother when I was a little girl.

And I occasionally do math problems to orient and place myself in the spectrum of my mother's life.  She had me a couple of months before her 25th birthday.  I was 15 years old when I tee-pee'd her house in Phoenix for her 40th birthday.  I'm 43 now.  If I had lived my mom's life, I'd have an 18 year old daughter.  Etcetera.

It seems cliche to think some of the thoughts I've started thinking.  I'm noticing things about "kids today".  Large groups of college aged people seem to expect privilege, be shockingly wasteful, or to preen and display themselves in a manner that assumes everyone cares.  I'd like to go on a rant about new adults who don't see the value in real work, but that would be self-indulgent and inaccurate; I also see lots of people making innovations with next to nothing - the maker crowd is surging, and boutique businesses teaching people how to use materials to make things (nearly-forgotten arts like woodworking, boat building, sewing, leather tooling, welding, glass blowing, weaving, gardening) are growing in popularity.

So it seems once again that the best course is the middle path.  I must recognize the fact of my own aging, the fact that I and everything else around me changes (either quickly or slowly or both).  And I must remember that things (and people) are rarely all-good or all-bad, and if they are, of course, they won't always be so.  That is the truth of the matter.

That is the truth.

Sage blossoms.

*I only use "godson" as a shorthand term to convey our special relationship to Axel - there's not really a god involved, since I'm a Buddhist and Axel's father, Arsenio in particular is an atheist.  Cindy and Axel's mother, Bernadette, have more of a take-it-as-it-comes approach.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Green Roof Two Step

Hello, pals!  Here's a mid-May update on the green roof.

The last couple of weeks have been what I like to call, a "green roof two-step."  In other words, we've been going two steps forward, one step back.  Is there such a thing as a project without successes and disappointments?  I doubt it.

The first and most stress-inducing problem is that the roof hatch is letting in a slow leak when we have hard rain.  I'm pretty sure it doesn't have anything to do with the green roof system and is more related to the way the hatch was built and installed.  But I'm trying to get a hold of the contractor we used to re-roof the house so he can come and take care of it.  We're within the 10-year warrantee on the work.  I left him a phone message a couple of days ago (without answer), and I sent him an email last night after going up and taping some plastic around the outside of the hatch to see if I can prevent the leak in today's rain storm.  We'll see.  Here's a picture of that bummer from the last rain storm:

There are two other leaking issues that need to be addressed.  One has to do with moisture somehow coming in between our side wall and our neighbor's side wall (our two houses abut each other - I'll take a picture of that some other time).  The third issue has to do with water finding its way into the upstairs apartment's kitchen ceiling through a vent pipe boot when the silt from the drainage rock on the green roof gets washed down to the roof drain and slows the flow of the water off the roof.  For more depression, here's a picture of what that kitchen ceiling looked like in the last storm as well:

Luckily, I can prevent this leak by keeping the drainage rock cleared from the roof drain.  If you ignore the loops of cable (which is for our home-made digital TV antenna), that's the vent pipe on the left, and the water flows down to the roof drain on the right hand side of this photo.  I want to have the contractor look at this issue, because we need a more permanent fix than this.

Come to think of it. I'd say those roof leaks are more than one step back.  Let's say that's two steps back.

But, a few days later, we got some un-related good news!

News 12 Brooklyn sent a reporter, Kena Vernon, out to do a little story on the green roof!  They found us through this blog, which was really pretty neat.  If you'd like to see the story Kena did, you should be able to watch it by following this link to the News 12 Brooklyn site.  Or, here's a copy of the video right here:

Let's hear it for Cindy Keiter wearing her pink pants, ladies and gentlemen!  Also, in case you're wondering what's up with my shirt, I was wearing my roof garden shirt.  See?  There are vegetables flying off the rooftops...

But before we get too happy, and since this is a good news/bad news post, we've got more to talk about.

Now, I've been working on the wooden hand rail that goes along the top of the metal railing on the roof, and after some amount of visiting hardware stores in the area (does no one carry anything better than drywall screws these days?!), I found some self-tapping screws that I decided to use to screw the wood to the steel railing.  After a certain amount of trial and error, I finally got a little system working, and I managed to get all the pieces cut and installed for the back railing.  I'll do a full blog post about the hand rail install process later, but here's the bummer:

Went I went  up to the roof to check it out before the reporter came, I found a piece of the railing section laying on the roof - totally broken off from where I had attached it!  

Well!  At first, I thought, "Who came up here and broke this off?  Were there vandals on the roof?  Did a neighbor come up and stand on this section to look at the chimney?  What the hell happened?!"

But then I noticed that another smaller piece of wood which had been firmly screwed down was completely un-attached, but it was still resting in place.  Did someone break that too and put it back?  I ran around the roof, checking all the pots, looking in my tool bin to see if anything was stolen.  Everything was just as I had left it.  No vandals.

So I went back and looked at all the sections of wood.  A couple of the other small pieces had one of their two screws broken off - all of them broken off right at the top of the steel where the screws enter the wood.  The only answer is wood movement caused by the rain had sheared the screws off.  

I realized all the broken screw ends would have to be drilled out, and I'd have to replace the screws with something stronger, and drill wider holes in the steel to allow for more wood movement.  I calmed down, but was a little wary the whole time that the reporter was going to go to the back of the roof and see my mistake.  While I'm happy to share it with you, I was too embarrassed to have it broadcast on TV.

Luckily, she never wanted to see the back of the roof - probably because the poor dear had to lug her own camera around (I brought it up and down the ladder for her), and she didn't want to navigate the stepping stone path with it.

Then there was another Unfortunate Situation on the roof.  

A couple of days after the news story, while chatting on the phone with my mom (hi, Mom!), I was putting in some drip irrigation fittings to keep these big pots watered.  The main drip line runs behind the pots, and I was trying to keep the little individual lines to the pots semi-concealed, so it was tight quarters.

I was squatting down to do the work, and I was right in front of the first of the four pots - the one on the right.  See that?  The one right next to the skylight...?

Yup.  I cracked a pane of glass in the skylight with my butt!  Such a bummer.  I made a crack - a butt crack - in the skylight.  I put some duct-tape on my butt crack to keep it from leaking...  There's a new glass shop in the neighborhood, and they made us a replacement piece, but it took them a week.  It was a real pane!

A few days after that incident, I came up on the roof to check how the potted plants were doing.  I had moved last year's sage and lavender to two of the fabric pots, and I sewed seeds in the self-irrigating planters and the rest of the fabric pots.  I had gotten drip irrigation fittings installed on all the pots near the sitting area, and I was eager to see if any seedlings were sprouting.

The sage was busy making blossoms (wonderful news!), but the squirrels had dug holes in the soil of all the pots (boo!).  I filled all the depressing squirrel holes (squirrel depression?) before I took a picture, but at least here are the nice sage blossoms.

Ignoring the squirrels for a moment, there were a couple of other nice things.  These hairy hens-and-chicks in the back are making little satellite babies.

And here's Cindy, hand-modeling a little green strawberry:

But, the ding-dang squirrels are a problem.  So I made some chicken-wire basket things to go over the tops of the pots.  I also got some organically raised seedlings from the excellent Silver Heights Farm Nursery at the farmer's market in Union Square last weekend, and our friend Robin (hi, Robin!) came over to help me do some gardening.  I don't have enough dirt to fill all my pots yet, so we stuck some of the seedlings in with seeds I had sewed previously - I wasn't sure if the squirrels had eaten all the squash seeds I planted anyway...

As I said, I was up on the roof last night putting some plastic around the roof hatch to see if that prevents leaking when it rains today, and I took the opportunity to check all the plants with my little flashlight.  The watermelon and squash seeds I thought the squirrels had gotten are now starting to sprout.  They weren't eaten after all!  And the rest of the plants look great.  In fact, the green roof sedum are starting to bloom, and for me, that makes all our little set-backs completely wash away.

Well, not completely, but you know what I mean.

P.S. Special thanks to my dear friend Dave for the pane of glass pun.  The butt crack was entirely my own.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paleo update

If you're wondering how our whole "paleo diet" thing is going, I'll tell ya.  It's still going.  I absolutely love it.  I can see in the mirror that I've traded some fat for some muscle.  And my clothes are fitting better.  I wouldn't mind dropping a bit more weight, but I'm not in any rush, and I don't care about it enough to make a big push (such as experimenting with intermittent fasting).  I'm staying the course.  The biggest difference for me is that my thought and hunger patterns have changed.  I rarely find myself mentally eating stuff I shouldn't have, like bread or desserts.  And I'm not negotiating with myself for permission to eat stuff I had told myself I wasn't going to have anymore.  It feels like a strange sort of freedom, and I'm learning what it's like for people who can stop eating when they're full - even if there's more food on their plate.  I am learning what it feels like to be clear of addiction thinking and to listen to my body.

Furthermore, I had a visit with my chiropractor this morning - Dr. Christopher Mango of Mango Chiropractic.  I've been seeing Dr. Mango for a while.  He is the last in a long line of doctors, physical therapists, etc. to whom I had been visiting to treat nerve pain and numbness I had in my hand and arm (history here).   I started out seeing him once a week, and there were times when I would have been happy to see him more than that.  But since getting my sugar levels under control, I can feel the difference in my arms and shoulders as my inflammation reduces.  I'm now down to visits every three months, and my joints feel progressively more oily and flexible.  I've also noticed that my recovery time from hard work is unexpectedly faster.  If you're in New York and have some stuff to work out with your health, I highly recommend visiting Dr. Mango.

Speaking of hard work, I mentioned in my 40 Paleo Days and Nights post that I don't like "working out."  I thought I'd say a couple of further words on the subject.  In my opinion, our lives are full of too much luxury.  We have machines that do almost everything for us, and that's good.  But much of the time, it's TOO good; we're getting flabby.  So then people go to the gym and lift heavy things or climb staircases that aren't there... I say we should do more real work instead.  Take walks.  Do stuff around your house.  Better yet, do favors for people!  When my neighbor's giant fallen tree branch needed to be cut up for our little backyard fire pit this weekend, I spent an hour or two breaking and sawing it into pieces by hand.  It was great!  It was also hard, but what's wrong with hard?  When you're doing hard things, you can always take breaks.  And, then, if you're like me, you can practice the art of determination, because the Sirens always come singing their Song of Lazy, trying to convince you to quit before you're done.  If you persevere, you can make a pretty little wood pile like this:

Besides using mostly hand tools around the house, I cycle commute in dry weather.  Both avenues present ample opportunities to practice patience, focus, and perseverance while allowing me to avoid the gym.  That's Buddhism on the go!

Anyway, it was a lot of sawing this weekend.  Before I started getting my sugar levels and such in order, it would have taken me days to recover.  But I woke up the morning after my sawing project pain free.  Proper diet... exercise in a way that makes the world better... this shit is starting to come together.

Cindy's also still eating mostly paleo, although she bought a box of matzoh for Passover, and she occasionally buys a sandwich or sushi for lunch.  Cindy has never had troubles with food addiction, so she is free of some of the "slippery slope" problems I have, and she can adopt a more "80% - 20%" approach.  She is also keen to lose a little weight, so she's putting a bit of effort into it and restricting her calories.  Cindy is down about 8 pounds from where she started, and she seems to be having a lot of fun.   In addition to challenges, Keiter really likes counting and keeping track of things.

There are a lot of opinions about the Paleo Diet out there - both positive and negative.  As I've said before, we got our start with and Mark Sisson's book, The Primal Blueprint.  But if you're interested in learning more about what we're doing specifically, feel free to ask us questions in the comments below.

P.S. My sincere thanks go to Bernadette, who found and recommended Dr. Mango to me a couple of years ago.  Thanks, sister.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Quick Project - Sprucing up the Tree Pit

Here's a quicky, "Look What I Did" sort of post.

Last year, when I cut the sedum mat out to place bluestone slabs on the roof to make a sitting area, I didn't throw the sedum mat pieces away.  Here's the only photo I have of that process.

I tossed all the sedum mat chunks overboard (aka - into the backyard) and laid them out on the cement in the back yard for the winter.  I wasn't sure what I was going to do with them, but I didn't want them to be wasted.

Well, a few months ago, the city put these new railing things around the tree pits on our block, and they removed the old cobblestones that were in there since long before I moved in to this house.  They also made the tree pits wider, presumably so more water could get to the trees.  But the barren dirt sort of gave the impression of a wasteland, and it was a magnet for trash.  Here's a shot of what it looked like after I picked the trash out.

For context, here's my little front yard full of ephemerals that are almost done blooming.  I hope to replace our chain link fence with something that mimics the green roof railing one day.

Anyway, back to the tree pit.  I decided to make that my target for the left over sedum mats.  But I didn't want the plants to get squashed by people getting in and out of their cars.  So, first I carved out a strip of dirt along the curb to make a landing spot for people's feet.  The tree roots were too close to the curb in the middle, though, so I didn't carry my strip of bricks all the way across.

I found a MONSTER earth worm under the sedum mats in the back yard.  I'm sure you want to see a video of it, so I'll oblige:

Out front, I watered the dirt, tried to push as much of the fine stuff in between the bricks as I could, stomped it all down, and laid the sedum mat pieces in place.  It turns out, I had the exact right amount to do the whole tree pit.  Once I had them all in place, I watered them some more.  

So, there you have it.  A nice, spruced-up tree pit (even though it's a maple tree that's growing there) for our neighborhood to enjoy.  The sedum are native to this area, and they shouldn't need me to water them once they're established.  They'll also send up really pretty flowers within a month or two.

Ta da!

Friday, April 11, 2014

That Whole "Gay Marriage" Thing...

I'm not sure if you've noticed, but Cindy and I are both women... and we're gay... and we are married... to each other.

Let's establish an important distinction: There are weddings - that's the actual ceremony.  And there are marriages - that's everything that comes after a couple is pronounced married.  As a society, we talk a lot about "same-sex marriage", but when we hear that phrase, it's normally about the right for a same-sex couple to marry.  It isn't really about the actual marriage that follows.

If you were to google around the internet, you will find plenty of blogs and articles about the struggle for (and against) marriage equality.  You'll even easily find a handful of same-sex wedding blogs - with pictures of traditional and non traditional brides and grooms... and groom-ettes... and Mr. brides... and on and on.  But what I can't seem to find are articles or blogs about same-sex marriage.

I generally reject the whole "men are from mars, women are from venus" thing as issues related to upbringing and cultural influences on a person, rather than inherent differences between the sexes.  People like to perpetuate some notion of men being macho or women being shop-a-holics, because they think it's funny.  Personally, I think it's mostly inaccurate.

And from what I've seen, marriage is pretty much marriage.  Once you're in it, your problems and triumphs are probably similar to most everyone else's.  The only thing that makes my marriage different from my best friend's marriage is that she is married to a man, and I'm married to a woman.

Maybe that's why it isn't easy to find same-sex marriage blogs.

Or maybe we (as a whole) haven't gotten comfortable with the legal right vs. wedding vs. marriage distinction yet.  So maybe finding gay marriage blogs is a semantic/search-term issue.

Or maybe we (gays) are so focused on the big, bold, exciting fight for the right to marry that our quiet little married lives don't quite hold our attention.  So we don't write about that part.

Or maybe we're afraid to talk about marriage once we have it - fearing the haters will find a way to take it back.

Or maybe (and this is the most personally frightening of all), if we write about our marriages, some ill-intentioned, anti-gay person will find us in our homes, or recognize us on the street, and physically come to attack us.

Whatever the reason behind the blog scarcity, there's this hole in the blog-o-sphere, and it's vacuum forces are drawing me into it.

So here we are!  Not ignoring the extraordinary work so many people have done to afford every couple the right to marry in 17 states (and Washington D.C.), as well as the work they continue to do for the rest of the country, these are the early days of life on the other side.  It's like marriage equality is the big bang, and we're still feeling the effects of the cosmic background radiation as its ramifications ripple outward, but those effects will normalize and decay over time, to the eventual point of hardly being noticed anymore.

Or, on a personal level, having marriage equality is like attaining enlightenment.  Paraphrasing Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield: first enlightenment, then the laundry.  This giant and important, life-altering thing happens.  And then you carry that thing back to your work-a-day life.  Project Happy Life - a little blog about a little married couple, living their little lives.  And we happen to be gay.

On the occasion of receiving our marriage license from the State of New York.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Green Roof and Garden Update. Early April 2014

Hi Everybody!  It's time for an update on the Green Roof, but stuff is starting to happen in the terrestrial gardens too, so you get 3 for the price of one.  Here's Cindy in her down jacket and flip-flops (that's "slippahz" to you Hawaiians).  In one hand, she's holding a jar of dried rosemary that we pulled off last year's plant, and she's pointing out the new greenery in the sedum with the other!

On the advice of my cousin-in-law, Michelle, and because I don't have enough time to build all the planter boxes I hope to have in the future, I'm experimenting with fabric pots this year.  I got the cheap, biodegradable kind.  They're supposedly only good for 3-5 years, so I'm considering it built-in "inspiration" to force me to make the permanent planters before too many years pass me by.

I've got 4 of the big ones lain out along the sitting area.  I have to go to the nursery and get some potting soil to round out the left over "engineered growing medium" I put in the bottoms of the pots to keep them from blowing away.

 Here's a shot of how the strawberries in the Woolly Pocket have survived the Winter.  Not bad, I'd say!  There was a mishap with the automatic drip timer and some of the related fittings (I didn't bring them indoors before the frost came), so I'm replacing the broken stuff and making some improvements.  I'll write about that when I have it connected, the errant leaks stopped, and the timer programed and working.  Anyway, you can see the ½" main water line and the ¼" drip feeder lines on the right of the Woolly Pocket.

Cindy's favorite: the creepy owl.  I only wish it scared the squirrels as much as it does me.

Speaking of squirrels, I think I'm going to have a lot of work to do this year to keep them out of my crops.  They seem to have undergone a population explosion.  The garlic I planted last Fall hasn't sprouted much (if at all), and I found one dried and chewed clove on the top of the soil.  I wonder if they all got pulled.  It was too disappointing to photograph.

Instead, here's the greening sedum with the little stone path.  You can see more fabric pots lined up on the parapet wall in the background. 

Now, downstairs in the front yard, things are starting to look like Spring.  We've got purple crocuses popping up.  Or is it "croci"?

Don't you just love how the crocus leaves sometimes spear straight through the dead tree leaves?

And then there are these things.  If you look carefully, you can see the left one has a dingy little white flower dangling above the leaves.  I think they're a native ephemeral plant, but I'm not sure what kind.    Solomon's Something-OIf you know for sure, please leave me a comment.

By the way, are you impressed that I know the horticultural term "ephemeral"?  I learned it last weekend in my two gardening classes from The Brooklyn Botanic Garden: Growing Food in the Shade; and Native Trees for Small Spaces.  It was a great way to spend the day.

One more Crocus glamour shot:

As for the back yard, I turned the compost today.  I'm eager to get as much finished compost out of the bin as possible, so I can take it up to the roof and put it in the fabric pots.  But it's too moist and not quite ready.  The good news is that it won't take long, because the worms have been more prolific than I have ever seen them!  Crocuses and red wigglers.  It's a yin/yang sort of thing, don't you think? 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Three Fathers. One Me.

If there is a person born on this earth who doesn't have a biological father, I've never heard of them.  Everyone has a father.  The thing is, I didn't know that I had one until I was four or five years old.  On a typical, sunny afternoon in Phoenix, Arizona, my mother took me into one of the bedrooms of the small, 3-bedroom ranch-style house we shared with my grandparents and cousin, Samantha, and she showed me a picture of herself in a wedding dress with a man whom I didn't know.

It says on the back of this photo that my mother was 23 years old, so she would have been around 28 at the time she first showed it to me.  Charles (Charlie) Skouson was his name.  And, she explained that I was born with the name "Lory Anne Henning Skouson".  They were divorced before I was born, so alone in the hospital, my mother had written "Lory Anne" as my first name, "Henning" my middle, and "Skouson" my last name on my birth certificate, figuring I could make my own decision later about what last name I wanted to use.  In that small act of my mother's, I see now a well of generosity to my father and bravery for herself.  It was April 1st, 1971 - no joke.

My four year old self, I must admit, found this whole thing exhilarating yet slightly confusing.  As far as I was concerned, the men in my life were my Grandpa Dave (with whom, as I said, we lived - so much as he was home), and Daron Dustin.  

Daron was my mother's second husband, and I learned later that he had been a friend of the family for many years.  During their short marriage, we lived at his house in California City, CA.  Although I was only 2 or 3 years old at the time, I remember my room there, and I have some faded memories of Daron's dogs, a tortoise I named "Mama Tortoise", a stuffed orangutan, a flowery orange suitcase-style phonograph, my friends Too Sweet and Sweet Pea (actual girls' actual names), an incident involving me not wanting to eat green beans, and the long, hot drive in the middle of the night from California City to Phoenix when my mother left Daron.

Even though I never called him anything but "Daron", Daron was as close to a father as I had known.  I loved (and continue to love) him dearly.  He is something of a delightful, maniacal genius.  I remember one story in particular about how he blew a huge pothole in the street in front of his house when he lit half a stick of dynamite off to celebrate the 4th of July.  In fact, I can't publicly discuss Daron without posting this excellent illustration of the kind of man he was/is.  Here we are in his motorized bathtub:

However, divorce always comes with a story - usually complicated - and my young self was not burdened by the details of why we suddenly lived with my grandparents.

After learning about Charlie Skouson's existence, I became confused - what was a dad?  And was I supposed to take his name?  Upon entering Kindergarden, I was almost proud to have "a father", but I suspect I was even prouder to be unique among my classmates due to my confusing little father situation.  I remember proudly trying to explain to a teacher that my last name was Henning, but it could have also been Skouson.  I'm sure she was flummoxed.

Time passed, and thoughts of Charlie Skouson and the wedding photograph faded from prevalence in my life.  Daron drove up from Cal City (usually in a fantastic old Jeep) to see me when we visited my great grandmother (Nana) in Salinas on holiday's.  My cousin Samantha (by then my grandparents' legally adopted daughter) was, at the time, as good as a sister to me.  And, after my grandfather decided to divorce my grandmother so he could live full-time in Santa Ana where he had a produce business (and continue his tryst with a nice lady he met in Japan), my mother and grandmother were my only true, daily parents.  We were a foursome: Grandma, Mom, Sam, and me.

Until, that is, Grandma and Samantha moved to Salinas to care for my great grandmother, leaving my mother and me in Phoenix to sort ourselves out.  It was the summer before my 3rd Grade school year, and the breakup of our little family left me (and my mother, I suppose) deeply traumatized.

I'll gloss over the intervening years for now.  They, too, were complicated.  Suffice it to say, without consciously knowing what was happening to me at the time (I now know I was consumed with grief for the loss of the little foursome we were, and for the "normal" family I'd never had), I watched Eight Is Enough to the point of obsession - wanting to have that sort of life so badly, I consumed - practically ate - that TV show.  Now that I mention it, as I've written in an earlier post, it was at that time, watching those TV shows after school, that I learned the problematic habit of emotional eating.  But that's neither here nor there.

Since my mother was single and working, and I was a latch-key kid, I spent my Summers with my great-grandmother, grandmother, and cousin Samantha in Salinas.  When I was 15, in the Summer before my Sophomore year of high school, I decided I wasn't going to go back to Phoenix for the school year any more.  I decided to stay and finish high school in Salinas.  And, still glossing over the fraught details of that transition, my move to Salinas is what lined me up to land at Monterey Peninsula College, where I met my third father:

My Chosen Father.

Dan Beck
Dan is the technical director for Monterey Peninsula College's Theatre Department.  He, Patrick McEvoy, Edmund Row Reed, Craig Dunbar, and Steve Retsky took my love of theatre and my need to belong, and they shepherded me into becoming a confident theatre artisan.  But Dan, in particular, took the time to teach me any skill I wanted to learn.  And it was that gentle, guiding attention and confidence that drew me to him.  

In thinking back about it now, Dan was 39 years old when we met.  And having a 19 year old female student slowly latching on to him and wanting to make him proud of her might have been... awkward.  Good thing I'm tremendously gay.

In the 24 years since I fell in paternal love with Dan, he has patiently, quietly allowed me to maintain my adoption of him.  And he has reciprocated in kind.  I tell my mother nearly everything.  We have an excellent telephone relationship, and in my adult years, we've learned how to have wonderful in-person visits with each other too.  By contrast, Dan and I rarely speak on the phone.  But when we're together (as we were for nearly a week solid back in January), we easily chat a lot.  And we are easily quiet a lot.  I tell him everything I can think of that might interest him, and I gently grill him about his life and how he feels about this and that (as is my habit).  He tells me things he knows - how things work, what he's building and doing, and we see the sights.  And sometimes, I hardly know what to do with myself - feeling overwhelmed with love and at a loss for how to express what a gift Dan has given me by allowing me to choose him.

In case you had any doubt, fathers are important.

Charlie Skouson died in 2000.  I spoke to him a handful of times on the phone, but never met him in person.  Daron continues to write to me every year for my birthday without fail, as he has done my entire life, and we visit each other whenever we are within reasonable driving distance of one another.   I see Dan whenever I can - usually at least once a year.

I continue to learn about fathers and what they mean to this day.  Cindy's love of her father (even though he passed away a few years ago) is palpable.  The Spencer Family is like my second family.  Michael is the father of that clan.  And I find myself paying attention to our friend, Arsenio - watching him parent his son (our godson), Axel.  I sometimes babysit Axel, and Arsenio teaches me a lot about how to do it.  I'm not jealous of Cindy or Axel.  I feel rich!  You see, I have three fathers of my own.  And there are all these other gorgeous ones around to see.

Arsenio and Axel Castro

Friday, March 21, 2014

PHL Update Soup! March 2014

It's time for an update on how Cindy's and my Project Happy Life is going.

First, we've made two pacts:
1. No more watching videos during dinner!  We weren't quite prepared to give up watching news and political talk shows over breakfast, but making sure we're giving each other our full attention over dinner was an easy choice that is totally contributing to our happiness.

2. No more eating after 11pm.  As I wrote in my 40 Paleo Days and Nights post, Cindy and I have been eating according to Mark Sisson's Primal Blueprint Paleo diet (we're up over 50 days now).  While we feel great - clearer heads, clearer skin, no more blood sugar spikes and crashes, etc - we weren't really losing any weight, which we'd both like to do.  I've been a little anxious about this pact - fearing that if I ate my dinner too early, I would end up going to bed hungry, which would make me miserable all night.  However, something about eliminating processed food and foods that are high on the glycemic index has really muted my hunger.  If anything, I've felt slightly empty when going to bed (rather than stuffed full, which was my habit), but not at all uncomfortable.  After instituting this rule over a week ago, and without changing anything else, our weight has started going down.

And now, here's a braggy photo of how well the orchid I found on top of a trash pile outside a hotel in Manhattan is doing.  Four blossoms, and 3 buds.  I think it likes this window.

Beyond the two pacts, we've really been working on The Spring Purge.  Getting rid of excess stuff is a key component in our Project Happy Life.  We have so much work that needs to be done on this house, so being able to see it more clearly (without the bones of the place being obscured by a bunch of clutter) helps us make design choices for furniture, kitchen cabinets, etc.  Also, it's easier to focus on finishing all the projects I have in process (aka started, but not finished) when the place isn't full of all this stuff in my way.  Re-wiring the house is a good example of this.  I'll have to make a post about that in the future.  But I'm also working on stripping the paint off the woodwork, the plaster needs to be repaired in many places, and the whole house needs a proper paint job... I could go on and on.

But, one loooooong project with which I'm almost finished is digitizing all of our tapes.  A few years ago, my mom finally forced me to take back all my cassette tapes from high school, which have been in big cassette drawers (remember those things?  With fake wood veneer?  You'd get them at the music store in the mall).  Those things take up a whole lot more physical space than they do computer space.

SO, in case you're interested, I'm finding great success with a nice used tape deck (bought from a street vendor in Brooklyn for $11).  I plugged it into the computer through a thing called iMic (which offers a line-in jack and theoretically provides a cleaner sound than the computer's built in line-in jack), and I captured the sound with the included Final Vinyl software.  Final Vinyl records each tape as one long track.  It has the ability to separate the track into individual songs, but I've found greater success doing that through Audacity (free audio editing software), and then exporting the music to iTunes.

Tape deck.  Remember these?

Meanwhile, Cindy is still hard at work at putting piles of DVD's we inherited into big binders in alphabetical order.  We're freeing up a lot of space by getting rid of the DVD cases, but doing so was a hard decision for us.  Those cases are designed to make the movies look good, and, well, they work!  Plain old disks simply don't look as interesting as big fancy boxes with pictures and quotes all over them.  So, we made a judgement call.  We're parting with the pretty boxes in favor of having more space in which to live our lives.

You might wonder what we're doing with those tape cassettes and empty DVD cases when we're done with them.  

Putting all of our stuff in the trash is not an option.

The DVD boxes are easy.  The ones that have printed cardboard covers get separated into the plastic and cardboard recycling bins for city pick-up.  The all-plastic DVD cases get given to a guy around the corner who uses them to sell other DVD's in.

The tape cassettes are easy, too, but we have to pay a little money to have them properly recycled.  A few years ago, I used for recycling a bunch of CD's and our old VHS collection (after I finished digitizing that too).  We'll use their service again.  The research I've done on Greendisk leads me to believe they are legitimately environmentally responsible in their recycling practices.  That's important, because there are a lot of charlatans out there who send their stuff overseas where there are no protections for the recycling workers or the local environment.

On this first day of Spring, I've probably said almost enough about The Spring Purge.  Here's a giant balloon bunny sculpture.  Enjoy.

In the lobby of the new building at Astor Place, NYC

P.S. Special thanks goes to our friends, Dave and Stephanie, for helping us haul a bunch of stuff into the city for give-away and recycling this morning.  They have a car.

Friday, March 14, 2014

PHL Work Session: The Spring Purge

It's been a long winter, and like nearly everyone else in this big city, we've been busy.  I'm pretty opinionated about over-consumption, and we don't tend to buy a lot of stuff we don't need.  But we are a bit slow with getting rid of stuff when it is worn out or no longer necessary.

When a thing is going down hill, my first approach is always to try to fix it.  I sew patches on holes in my pants, I've taken apart and tinkered with almost every electronic device I've ever owned, I've re-caned chairs, and bought or made replacement parts for many of my power tools (which are almost all hand-me-downs).  For me, making attempts to repair things is a fun (and sometimes frustrating) challenge.  It gives me a way to learn how things work, it keeps things out of landfills, and it helps me treat my possessions with respect and care.

But, I've have a hard time learning when to give up and let go.  I suspect it's that little hitch in one's mind that turns into hoarding if you let yourself get carried away.  I shan't.  The older I get, the more I realize that life is short, and you don't want to spend time bogged down with things that don't make your life better.  Letting go of my emotional attachment to things (and learning how to avoid seeing my identity as interwoven with my possessions) is something I focus on in my Buddhist practice.  Whoops!  There's the tip of a whole different iceberg: Buddhism.

Let's go back to getting rid of surplus stuff.

Once I have determined to let something go, there's the question of what's the most responsible method of disposal?  I'm a reduce, reuse, recycle girl.  Cindy will tell you that I've got her thinking about that stuff now too.  A convert!

Anyway, if a thing still has some life left in it, and we've determined we simply don't need it, the best thing to do is to pass it along to someone else.  In the past, I've sold some things on ebay.  But that's a bit of a hassle for me (making the listings, tracking bids, answering questions, taking care of shipping... none of these things make my life better).  These days, I'm thinking I shouldn't be so keen to sell stuff.  The thought of going through the ebay process is so tedious in my mind's eye, I get lazy, and the get-rid-of pile starts growing.  Besides, shouldn't we give things away when we can afford to?

So this morning, Cindy and I had a PHL work session to purge our closets.  We're also getting rid of the vast majority of our reusable bags that seem to effortlessly pile up.  Does this happen to everyone, or just us enviro-hippie people?  It seems like someone is giving me or Cindy a new reusable bag almost every month.

Here's our pile of stuff to give away from this morning.

Don't be alarmed, I'm not giving away my bike panniers.  I've decided to take as much as I can carry to Housing Works in Manhattan on my way to work each day until I'm done, so those two bags are already packed for today.  Actually, to be more specific, the clothes are going to Housing Works, and the bags are going to the theatre where I work.  Our theatre's Green Team just hung some hooks by the door so that people can snag and return bags when they go out for lunch, etc.

While I'm on the subject of work and saving the environment, here's an article I wrote on the topic for  the New York Innovative Theatre Foundation's focus on Green Resources for Theatre Artist.  It has a lot of my thoughts on where things can be recycled when they're unfit for donation.

Getting rid of unnecessary things that are cluttering up our house is liberating.  After all, there's too much stuff in the world.  Cindy and I want to spend our time cooking and eating good food, doing our projects, and horsing around together.  We don't want to spend our time managing our stuff - cleaning it, organizing it, storing it...

Speaking of storage, it's amazing to me that so many of us spend so much money to keep a bunch of stuff we don't need in self-storage facilities.  Of course, some short-term stints in storage are useful and legitimate.  But so many people just leave their stuff there and pay their storage bill for months or years because they are either emotionally attached to owning that stuff, they're too lazy/busy to deal with their stuff, or both.  My personal recommendation is we should all get rid of that excess stuff and spend our money on things that make our lives better.  Don't you agree?

Check out this excellent New York Times article for all the gory details on the self-storage industry.

And if you need any more inspiration to do your own Project Happy Life Spring Purge, have a look at this fine video called The Story of Stuff.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Fixing the Upstairs Bathtub Faucet

Cindy and I were out of town two weekends ago to see some friends.  And when we came home, I noticed I could hear the sound of a small amount of water running in the bathroom upstair.  We have a 2-family home, so I checked with our upstairs tenant and friend, Ian, and went up to have a look.  The bathtub faucet was trickling, and no matter how tight the knobs were, the water kept running.  Like this:

The trick is, this house was built in 1910.  There are a few parts of the original faucets, and some things that aren't original.  The cross-shaped handles, for example, are not original.  But I do think the original hot handle is on the diverter in the upstairs bathroom (we have an original diverter handle in the downstairs bathroom - all clues pointing towards eventually finding matches).  
The escutcheons are all chipped except one (those are the porcelain things that surround where the faucet handles come out of the wall), and the nickel has nearly worn off everything from a hundred years of polishing.  I'm always keeping an eye out for proper replacement parts so I can restore them to their original state.  The last thing I want to do is to make a mistake that ruins the faucet, because I neither want to replace the faucet (if I could find one), nor do I want to rip out the old tiles.

Here's the set up as it currently stands.  

Yesterday, I turned off the water, took the stems out of the faucets, and replaced the washers on both the hot and cold.  But the drip persisted.  I noticed that the dripping water was cold, so I knew something had to be wrong with the cold water and not the hot, but to be sure, I closed the cold water shut-off valve.  Sure enough, the leak stopped.  So I took the cold water stem out again, and took a good look inside the faucet.  In the photo, in the back of the hole, you can see a brass circle.  That's called the seat.  There's a dark spot on the left hand side of the seat, and when I reached back in there with a screwdriver and felt around that edge, I found that dark spot was actually a divot in the metal, probably 1/16" deep.  That's where the water was getting through!

So we're clear on what I'm talking about, these shiny brass thingies are the replacement seats.  The top edge is the bit that's damaged inside the faucet.  I included the end of a spare faucet stem with an old rubber washer on it to help illustrate the idea.  When you turn the faucet handle, it pushes that end with the rubber washer down over the end seat, and the water is shut off.  But if you can't get a good seal between the two, you'll have drips.  Or, in my case, a trickle.

I needed to get the old seat out of the wall.  Yesterday, I tried the two L-shaped "seat wrenches", but the seat was so stuck, I couldn't budge it, and I stripped the inside of it.  Bummer.  I thought perhaps I needed some chemical help, so off I rode to an auto parts store on Utica Avenue where I got some Liquid Wrench Penetrating Oil.  I squirted the oil around the seat, tapped it, and tried loosening it with a seat wrench on a repeating loop.  It didn't budge.  It was getting late, and I had to put it back together and leave it leaking for another night.

Today, I babysat our godson, then went to the hardware store for some straight seat wrenches (hoping they would work better than the L-shaped ones, since they could be tapped into the center hole in the seat with a hammer), and a seat dresser tool for use if the wrenches failed me.  I also decided to try heat, to see if the temperature change would expand the metal enough to crack the corrosion that is holding the seat in place.  Here's my assortment of tools on the bathroom floor:

Well, more Liquid Wrench, more tapping, and more attempts to dislodge the seat with the new wrenches failed.  In fact, the new straight wrenches came with a ratchet with which to apply torque, and it wasn't strong enough to withstand the torque I applied to it.  It broke. Muscles failed?  How about fire?!  I tried applying the torch to the seat, and it was sort of neat to see how the water in the hole boiled off, but the seat didn't move.
My only option left was to grind the divot out of the rim of the seat with the seat dresser tool.  I tried it by hand (as directed on the package) at first, but the divot was far too deep, and Cindy was making dinner.  Time was running out.  So I chucked it up in my drill and did my best to keep it in proper alignment and check my progress often.  Here's the dresser tool in my drill with the grinder end at the bottom of the frame.  The white cone is to keep the shaft centered in the hole so you don't grind your stem down at an angle.  It sort of helped, but I had to be really careful anyway.

Here's some progress on the seat.  You can see the dark spot on the left is not as pronounced as it was originally.  I could feel with the end of my screwdriver that it was getting more shallow.

 And here it is after the divot was finally ground out!  I find something about this photo oddly hypnotic.

 But more importantly, once I got everything put back together and the water turned on, the leak had stopped!  Now, I'll have to figure out how to get that blue staining off the tub someday.  Or maybe I'll call it character and be done with it. 

P.S.  Here's a picture from Cindy's and my trip.  It's the sunset as seen from the steps of the Stonewall Jackson Shrine, Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park on February 16th, 2014.  Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own men during the Civil War, and he died in this house (thus the "shrine" thing).
A thousand thanks to Michael Spencer for being a wonderful tour guide, as usual.