Monday, September 22, 2014

The House: Of Moss and Men

This weekend's house story is one of me winning against nature -- and by "nature," I mean "the moss that's growing all over my back patio."

The moss itself isn't a problem.  In fact, after seeing moss gardens like this one . . . 

Zen garden at Tofoku-ji shrine
. . . in Japan this summer, I actually want to try growing it on purpose.  The challenge is keeping it under control.  The appeal of the Zen garden lies in its juxtaposition of soft amorphous moss against the hard square stones -- too much of either and the effect would be lost. 

My back patio is no Zen garden, but it does have moss and stone-colored bricks.  It also had been neglected long enough by the previous owner that the moss was taking over. 

The green stuff is obviously moss, but so is the dark muddy-looking stuff that's
creeping out over the face of the bricks.
Figuring out how to tame the moss had been one of those things that I'd planned to do someday in the medium term -- you know, after more important things like actually moving into the house were taken care of.  But those things are taking FOREVER and I was in desperate need of whatever endorphin it is that's triggered when you cross something off a list of things to do.  Plus, when I told my friend Brad that I had ambitions for the moss, his hesitation over whether Seattle moss could ever be tamed made it feel more like a competition:  Who's going to win, me or the moss?   

First step was to plan.  I needed a strategy that would get rid of the unwanted moss on the face of the bricks, but leave all the moss that's growing in the cracks.  Here's what I came up with:

I began with a few things from the kitchen:  a butter knife, a dish scrubber, and a plastic cup.  I used the knife to cut around the edges of the bricks, removing the overgrowth of moss.  I also used the knife to scrape off the moss that was growing on the surface of the bricks, away from the edges.  Whatever didn't come away with the knife got a good scrubbing with the hard bristles on the brush.  Throughout the process I scooped up all the moss shavings into the cup for transplanting into cracks that don't already have moss.

Once I had removed the bulk of the unwanted moss, I went back with a moss-killing cleaning agent that I got from the Home Depot garden center.  Instead of spraying and risk killing the moss in the cracks, I poured the chemical into a little paint tray and then painted it onto the bricks using the cheapest paintbrush I could find.  It was basically an exercise in painting between the lines.

It took me a couple of hours to do the whole patio, and by the end all my joint ached from squatting that long.  But let's be honest, there's something incredibly therapeutic about meticulous manual labor that produces lovely results.  By the end of the evening, my bricks looked amazing:

And my patio has lost its dumpy neglected look in favor of a more intentional, groomed look that I love so well.  

(Now I just hope that by the time it rains the moss-killer will be sufficiently dry that it won't run off into the cracks and kill the stuff that I want to keep.  Fingers crossed!)

Friday, September 19, 2014

Angels, Part 2

The second part of Angels in America, which I saw last night, was generally better than the first part.  There was a different energy -- less despair; more anger, hope, reconciliation -- and some of the characters changed in interesting ways.  The depiction of Mormonism was slightly more nuanced, and I appreciated that, whatever else the playwright may think of Mormonism, he clearly felt that you should never underestimate of a Mormon woman.  The play may ostensibly have been "about" gay men and the AIDS crisis, but to my mind the most interesting characters were the two Mormon women who were constantly being judged and circumscribed by the men around them; they always managed to prove themselves greater than the limitations projected onto them by the men.

But this part was also still really weird.  Hermaphroditic angels swooped about, and there was a brightly colored heaven with old transistor radios that foretold the future.  I think the ambition was prophetic, but the achievement felt more like a sort of manic cynicism.  And the ultimate refrain, "I want more life", struck me as obvious.

The play (both parts) also felt very historically and geographically specific to me.  Like the musical Rent, the play expresses and reflects a very particular moment and mood in U.S. history.  The angst and drama is so enmeshed with Reaganism, the end of the Cold War, and the AIDS crisis -- all as seen through the eyes of New Yorkers -- that it felt more like an artifact than a universal work of art.

So I'm going to put the play into the same category as the novel Les Miserables: a significant cultural work that I'm glad I've experienced, but which ultimately failed to move me in the way that other works of art have done.


Thursday, September 18, 2014

Angels, Part 1

Hey, hey -- midweek theatre debauchery two weeks in a row!  Tonight's performance:  Part 1 of the Intiman Theatre's production of Tony Kushner's Angels In America

The play is long (3 hours) and complicated (the reviews in the Seattle Times and Seattle Met lay it out pretty well, with at least one typo) and I'm not sure what I think of it -- both substantively, in terms of the themes it addresses, and technically, as a piece of theatre.  I know it's a darling of the critics and won lots of awards, and so the artsy-fartsy in me wants to like it.  

But I didn't.  At least not quite.  It's ambitious and full of colorful characters, and there's a fair amount of humor to balance the heavy stuff.  But nothing in the depiction of Mormonism in the play rings true to me, and in terms of dialogue around complicated issues/relationships, I think I'd rather see a play by Neil Simon or David Ives or Noel Coward or Harold Pinter.  Plus, the director had made some poor blocking decisions that detracted from some scenes that otherwise could have been pretty strong.

In any event, I'm seeing Part 2 tomorrow night (3.5 more hours!), and rumor has it that's the better half.  So I'm curious to see if they win me over in the end.  

Thursday, September 11, 2014

You know what fall means . . .

Theatre season is back!!!

To kick it off, we caught tonight's performance of A Chorus Line at the Fifth Avenue Theatre.  

Nothing more decadent than leaving work at 5pm to meet friends for dinner and a play ON A WEEKNIGHT!!

Such a great show.  I saw the Broadway revival in New York several years ago, and I loved seeing it again and discovering which parts I remembered well and which parts I'd missed before.  It's the sort of show where you walk out of the theatre all inspired and happy and dancy inside.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The House: Lightbulbs and yard work

At 4:14pm on Friday, my realtor called to congratulate me:  The closing was complete; I was officially Seattle's newest homeowner.  Wahoo!

Not surprisingly, I ditched work immediately to go get the keys and savor my entree into the landed class.  Not that there's all that much land involved here (just the fraction of an acre beneath my townhouse and a tiny patch in the back -- this isn't Tara), but the feeling that comes from knowing that the place is mine is pretty special.  It's certainly the most expensive thing I've ever bought; also the most permanent.  For the first time in my adult life, I have a place where I can stay forever and do what I want with it.

That last part -- the "do what I want with it" part -- is exciting.  If the laws of physics and finances (a.k.a my savings account) didn't apply, I'd spend the next 72 hours redecorating the place top to bottom, moving in, and settling down.  But the law of physics and finances do apply, so I started with the lightbulbs.

That's right:  lightbulbs.  Because as much as I loved this house, I hated every single one of its lightbulbs with a red-hot passion.  There's nothing worse (except maybe Doritos) than bad lighting, and these lightbulbs were dishing it out in spades.  Flip a switch and the rooms were bathed in dim, yellowy light more reminiscent of a prison cell than your grandmother's kitchen.  Welcome to the world of energy efficient, compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

The first step in solving the lightbulb problem was to get a sample of all the lightbulbs in the house.  I took my stepladder and gathered them all up -- from the ceiling cans to the vanities to the little spotlights over the kitchen -- and took them to an expert.

My expert of choice was Rejuvenation, a high quality lighting shop that sells beautiful, classic light fixtures.  I figured that if anyone could help me, they could.  I walked in with my bagful of lightbulbs, spread them on the counter in front of the first salesperson I could find and, "Okay, I need you to solve all my problems.  Go!"

Funny thing is, he didn't.  He was super friendly and gave me some good information about lightbulbs generally, and the transition from traditional incandescent lightbulbs to more efficient products specifically, but he didn't carry most of the types of bulbs I needed.  So I left and went to Home Depot.

Home Depot is where most of you probably thought I should have started, and it turns out you were right.  It's huge and overwhelming, but they've got everything you need in terms of housing basics, and their staff is super helpful.  I stood in lightbulb aisle for all of thirty seconds before a guy came up and asked if I needed help finding the right bulb to match.  I said, "No, I hate all of these bulbs, so definitely no matching.  What I need are bulbs that will fit in the same fixtures but look pretty and not suck my will to live."

After another thirty seconds, the man had shown me a bunch of different options.  Between what he taught me, the stuff I read on the boxes, and a few rounds of trial and error, here's what I learned:
LED bulbs are the way to go.  They're energy efficient, but they don't have the flaws that make the fluorescent bulbs so awful:  The light is brighter, cleaner and more pleasant.  They don't have to warm up to full brightness.  They look normal; not those weird curlicue shapes.
The diameter of a lightbulb is expressed as a number that you would never know was the size unless someone pointed it out to you.  For example, I needed a 20.  This saved me a lot of hassle opening up boxes and measuring across the tops to see if they'd fit.
The color of the light is super important, and there's a better way of gauging it than just focusing on the "bright white" or "soft white" or "daylight" labels on the box.  Each lightbulb will have a warmth value expressed as a number that ends with a "k" (e.g., 2700k), and most of the time there will be a little graph plotting that number on a timeline from warm to cool.  I wasn't sure which color value I wanted, so I bought four different bulbs with four different values and tried them all out at home.  Turns out 3000k was too cool for my taste, and 2700 was too warm -- but like Baby Bear's porridge, the bulbs in the 2800-2900k range were just right.  So I went back to Home Depot and bought all my bulbs in that range.
The winner!  I ended up buying 15 of these puppies.
Wattage is just as important as color.  You can get the right color, but if the wattage is too low for what you need, it still won't be right.  I like bright light, so I looked for ways to get the most bang for my buck.  The key is to know that the big wattage number on the package of energy efficient bulbs is the replacement wattage, not the actual wattage (which is much lower and written in much smaller print).  So if you're replacing a 40 watt incandescent lightbulb, you can look for a 40 watt replacement energy efficient bulb and have the same brightness.  Or, if 40 watts is too dim for you, you can get an energy efficient bulb with as much as 75 watts -- since the actual wattage use is much lower, you won't fry your fixture.
Light bulbs are expensive!  My purchases were spread out over several trips to Home Depot (including a few returns and exchanges), but to change out all 25+ lightbulbs in my house, I'm pretty sure I spent over 200 dollars (that's what happens when you need fifteen of the $8.00 bulbs).  Seems like a lot, but I think it's worth it:  The look of the place is transformed (I can see real colors!) and the efficiency gains promise to save money over time and last for many years longer than the traditional incandescent bulbs.  So ask me in seven years if the savings has paid out...
After the success of my lightbulb project, I wanted to move right on to paint selection.  I'll tell you more about that later, but the basic gist is that I spent a lot of time looking at paint chips and spreading sample pints on the walls, all to discover that nothing I'd picked out was quite right.  So dead-end on that front until next week when I can get back to the paint store for more samples.

The paint chips looked so good lying there on the stove.
Why couldn't they have worked on the wall?

Rather than waste a day doing non house-related things (like grocery shopping or exercising), I left my paint chips and went outside.  The back yard is small and already well planted.  But the plantings were a little overgrown for my taste, and there were a bunch of weeds and random tree saplings coming up where they shouldn't.  I took my shears and trowel (and in the case of the saplings, which turned out to be runners from a hidden tree stump, a hacksaw) to the intruders and eventually had the place looking more under control.  (I'm enough of a newby to this house-fixing business that I only took befores -- I'll have to post some afters later.  Sorry!)

Even as a "before" shot, this photo isn't great.  The worst offenders
of the weeds/saplings were all off to the left, behind the branches
in the foreground.  But you do get a good shot of the dry fountain.
Weeding and pruning are rewarding enough (four garbage bags full!), but the real cherry on top was discovering that my fountain works!!  There's a rock in my garden with a hole through which water is supposed to bubble to create a serene water element to the overall design.  Throughout the entire buying process, the fountain hadn't been working and the builder said I'd probably need to replace the pump.  Only this afternoon, when I started digging around to find the pump, I discovered not only the pump, but also the power cord running from the ground, under the bushes, to an outlet in the back wall.  Lo and behold, the dang thing wasn't plugged in!  I plugged it in and within seconds the fountain sputtered to life.  Perfect working condition!

Can you see it?  The dark part is where the water runs.
Having a pretty fountain and the sound of running water just outside my kitchen window makes me as happy as can be.  Delighted, I made my way to the roof to enjoy the evening light and views of the lake, city and mountain.  Love it!

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Labor Day weekend on the shore

As you know from my last couple of posts, I spent Labor Day weekend on the East Coast, catching up with DC friends and enjoying a few more days of summer at the beach.

I arrived on Saturday afternoon and met up with a few friends from the firm for dinner and dessert.  On Sunday morning I was lucky enough to have brunch with Jennifer and Mark, who just returned from a long vacation in South Carolina and were willing to skip out on the last half of church to see me.  We talked jobs and baby names and new houses houses and cars -- you'd have thought we were all grown-ups for sure!


I had a tartine with chicken, Brie cheese, caramelized onions and sun-dried tomatoes,
with arugula salad and a cup of fresh fruit
After bidding Jennifer and Mark fond farewell, I hopped in my rental car and drove the three hours to the beach.  (The trip went smoothly, but I don't recommend that anyone run out and buy a Chevy Spark -- I've ridden lawnmowers that had more power than that thing!  It was, however, nicely equipped with hands-free technology that let me call Amanda and then stream French rap music on Spotify as I drove through the bucolic Maryland countryside.)

I got to Assateague Island National Seashore a little after 5pm and quickly found the site where Amy had set up camp.  Assateague has been a summer favorite of mine since 2005, when Amanda and I spent a weekend clam-digging and biking around the island with her Chincoteague relatives.  It's also a favorite of Amy's, and we've spent time there every summer for the past few years, usually around Labor Day because the holiday coincides with her birthday week.  When she told me that she was planning a trip again this year, I decided that my cross-country move wasn't going to get in the way of a good tradition!


By reserving early, Amy had secured a primo campsite on the lee side of the giant sand dunes thrown up by the waves and wind.  We were out of the mosquito-infested shrubs and well within earshot of the roaring waves.  


I had brought a tent rented from REI, but Amy saved me the hassle of setting it up by offering me a spot in her little orange tent.  So instead of wrestling with unfamiliar tent-poles, we got right to talking -- so much to catch up on after only 4 months apart!!  (For example, we're both buying real estate and just finished binge-watching the phenomenal Orphan Black.)

I've already written about watching the sunrise in the morning, but I'm not going to let that stop me from going there again.  Here are a few more shots of those glorious moments.



The clouds that made for such a spectacular sunrise brought a morning dousing of rain that cooled things off and chased away many of the faint-hearted vacationers.  We used the rain as an excuse to run a few errands and saw a band of the island's famous wild ponies wandering through the parking lot.


The clouds soon cleared and we settled down on the beach for a long day of doing nothing.  The sun was hot, but the ocean breeze was cool -- and if we got bored reading or sleeping, the water was a refreshing 74 degrees.  As perfect a beach day as they come.


Eventually evening fell and we were treated to a spectacular sunset.  We headed back to camp (all of 50 yards away) and started dinner.  I contributed pita bread with hummus, sliced tomatoes and avocados, and sweet bell peppers.  Amy offered sausage and squash, which we roasted over the fire.  Even by non-camping standards, it was a delicious dinner.


And of course, with nightfall comes the promise of another dawn.  This time the sky was nearly cloudless, giving a totally different effect from the day before -- but no less lovely.



Unfortunately dawn meant Tuesday and the end of my trip.  I was on the latest possible flight back to Seattle, so I was able to take my time before leaving.  After watching the sunrise, Amy and I both went on runs (I accidentally ran about 9 miles!) and then caught a good hour or so at the beach before I needed to pack up and shower and head out.  

I guess I could have stayed on the beach a little longer, but I wanted to make sure I had enough time to stop for lunch at Jimmy's Grille.  Because no trip to the beach is complete without a basket of their dinner rolls and a slice of pie!


These dinner rolls will be eaten in heaven.
Jimmy's fried chicken with sides of cucumbers and onions in vinegar, and new potatoes
Chocolate cream pie
(because the waitress wouldn't let me get coconut custard!)

The lunch and the drive and the flight and everything else worked like clockwork on the way home.  I  landed in Seattle without a hitch and made my way home through the chilly driving rain.  Going from the upper 90s in DC to the mid-50s was kind of a shock to the system, but it made the weekend feel all the more like a vacation -- one last hurrah for the summer.  

And, happily, I wasn't really sad about the rain and the cold.  Spending time with good friends in places that I know and love had that grounding effect that I've observed before on family trips -- I come away feeling more grounded and confident in myself, and more excited about the future, than I did before.  Besides, I have house-buying to look forward to, and all the visits from friends and family who will come and stay in my yet-to-be-furnished guest bedroom...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Dawn over the Atlantic

The best part of camping on the beach? Watching the sun rise over the ocean. The world goes from grey to brilliant in a matter of moments, and it's breathtaking.