Roni just loves her new library that we constructed from a few brackets and pine boards in our Writing Sanctuary. The shelves almost hold all of her collection of romance novels, and there's even a little room left over for Glenn's books. Photo by Glenn.

Making a clean start

January 29, 2015: When Roni gets in one of her moods to clean things — really clean things — the best thing to do is get out of her way. Unless one wants to get swept up with the clutter or make sure some treasured item doesn't get tossed out with the trash. While some people were busy making their idle New Year's resolutions, Roni was busily plotting and planning how to reduce the clutter in our home. By clutter, we mean the natural accretion of stuff that makes its way into a home over months and years. You don't always realize how it takes over, and the problem with a lot of it is that you don't want to just toss it away because, occasionally, it still gets used. We're talking about kitchen gadgets, tools, and books. In our case, lots and lots and lots of books.

To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.

3... 2... 1... Happy New Year! Glenn does his best to time the popping of the champagne cork for the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve. Photo by Roni.

The three of us gather for a celebratory toast just moments after midnight on Jan. 1. We get champagne, Ben is drinking sparkling apple cider. But next year.... Photo by Glenn.

We kept our New Year's Eve snacks pretty simple. A few crackers, cheese, salami, and of course the all important sour cream herring. Photo by Glenn.

I may not know my champagne, but I am a sparkling cider connoisseur. Let's get this party started. Photo by Ben.

We usually enjoy our fondue on New Year's Day, but we waited until the weekend because Glenn had to work on New Year's Day. Photo by Glenn.

2015 began with a cold snap. How cold? Cold enough to freeze the water in the fountain in Summer's Garden. Roni displays one of the larger pieces the morning of Jan. 2. Photo by Glenn.

Our orange tree doesn't seem to mind the cold at all. In fact, the oranges thrive on cold weather. Photo by Glenn.

Our lone Bartlett pear this season was a late bloomer. Good thing we got this photo on the day we did, because it had vanished by the following morning. Some hungry critter enjoyed a winter fruit salad. Photo by Glenn.

Could this be our pear thief? Mr. Squirrel was such a ravenous eater that we finally tired of his presence around our bird feeders and trapped him for relocation. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn prepares to introduce Mr. Squirrel to his new home — a sprawling grape vineyard in east Antioch. Hopefully he'll find lots of other squirrels to keep him company. Photo by Roni.

With the squirrel gone from our yard, the sparrows can one more enjoy their seed in peace. They love these seed bells we frequently put out for them. Photo by Roni.

Water hyacinths are a major problem on the Delta, so volunteers got together Jan. 11 to clean up a bunch of them that were clogging the kayak launch at Big Break Regional Shoreline. Two days after this photo was taken, the weeds had reinvaded this area. Photo by Glenn.

Not even a mass of water hyacinths can stop the Panamanian chemical tanker Cypress Galaxy as it powers its way west on the San Joaquin River. Photo by Glenn.

We took a drive up foggy Highway 160 on Jan. 12 to deliver Delta Science Center calendars to the river schools, stopping briefly in our favorite town, Walnut Grove. Roni is down on the dock trying to get a panorama of the bridge on her iPhone. Photo by Glenn.

January found us making home repairs minor and major. We installed this fancy new handle on our front door to replace the old one that hadn't worked for years since the latch broke. We still aren't used to having to press the handle latch in addition to unlocking the deadbolt. Photo by Glenn.

New handles were also on the menu for the kitchen cabinets. Here Roni adds some new hardware to the sink cabinet. Photo by Glenn.

The drawers got matching pull knobs as well as a thorough cleaning with a good degreaser. Photo by Glenn.

Our home makeover included building bookshelves in the Writing Sanctuary. Roni is in the process of organizing her collection on Jan. 21. Photo by Glenn.

We liked the first bookshelves so much that we decided to build a second set of them along the adjacent wall two days later. The chain for the overhead lamp runs behind the boards. Photo by Glenn.

We took the quadcopter out for several flights this month, including at Freedom High School in Oakley. This shot of the school's football field was taken from about 150 feet up. Photo by Roni.

A couple of days were spent flying at the Ironhouse Sanitary District property in Oakley. This is the district's administrative and maintenance facility from about 100 feet up. Photo by Glenn.

The Ironhouse Water Recycling Facility is in the distance as we prepare to land our drone after a flight over the plant on Jan. 5. It was our first flight outside of a park. Photo by Glenn.

One of the hazards of shooting video in a big muddy field is the potential to become stuck in it, as we both did on the Ironhouse shoot. Glenn makes use of some farm machinery to scrape the goo off his shoes. Photo by Roni.

It's cuddle time. Katy isn't the most dependable lap cat we've ever had, but she loves Roni's warm blanket on a cold January evening. Photo by Glenn.


Roni’s latest mission might be discounted as a cleaning frenzy, but it appears to be much more serious. It started even before the last of our Christmas decorations was put away. Left on her own to start our traditional Jan. 1 cleanup while Glenn had to work on New Year’s Day, she began to appreciate how much roomier the living room felt as she packed away the boxes of Santa gear and ornaments. Then she decided that the giant open space where the Christmas tree once stood would make an ideal place for the bookcase that had been in our entryway for years. She moved it, and the space she now saw in the entryway inspired her further. By the end of the day she had most of the living room holiday items packed away and was already considering what she would tackle next: the kitchen.

The kitchen has always been sort of a neutral zone for a deep cleaning. After all, can you really throw away plates and glasses and cookware that you use every day? No, but you can empty the drawers of all the old plastic sporks and outdated packets of ketchup and soy sauce that you’ve been hoarding for decades. We had one drawer filled with instruction manuals for products we no longer owned. We had another drawer, perhaps two of them, filled with nothing but tools, nails and screws. Another one was filled with plastic lids, just in case we needed a spare on a container of leftovers. The truth is, most of the stuff that was sitting on counters in our kitchen wasn’t in drawers because the drawers were full of other stuff. So Roni took care of that. Ben complained that he had just taken the garbage out and the can was already full. That’s how much stuff Roni tossed from the kitchen alone.

Short of getting the remodeled and expanded kitchen she has long dreamed of, Roni knew she would have to start more simply if she wanted a less cluttered kitchen. She looked at the tired cabinets with their grease streaks and tarnished handles and decided that a bit of refurbishing was in order. So she bought a good degreaser and scrubbed all the doors and drawers. Then we took a jaunt to Home Depot and picked out all new drawer handles and knobs — 16 of the former and seven of the latter, which is a lot more hardware than we realized a small galley kitchen could support, but there it was.

Glenn griped that the changing of the knobs was purely a cosmetic move — like putting a tiny bandage on a gaping chest wound. But there was no arguing that it was cheaper than enlisting a contractor and knocking down walls. If we weren’t going to alter the size of our kitchen, the best thing to do was give it a thorough cleaning. That included rearranging the counter space, so that now the microwave is where the bread and toaster used to be, and the toaster and bread are where the microwave once sat, and the pile of things (whatever they were, we haven’t quite figured it out) that had been beside the laundry room door has been redistributed to some of the space we freed up in the cabinets. All the extra wineglasses we kept on the back of the sink now have homes in the cupboard that once held our fancy plates for special occasions, and the fancy plates have been moved to where our crappy everyday dishes were kept. And all those collector glasses we had from 25 years ago from Domino’s Pizza and one of the first Star Trek movies? They have been relegated to an out of the way cabinet above the refrigerator. It is like a giant game of musical chairs — without the music or the chairs.

* * * * *

IT WAS WHILE Roni was happily changing the handles on the cabinet under the sink that the first unexpected complication reared its ugly head. A couple of years ago we had stopped using our dishwasher one day when we saw a huge puddle forming on the floor next to the machine and then discovered a minor flood in our sink cabinet. We assumed the washer drain hose had a bad leak, but we kept the machine out of service for more than 18 months before we attempted to fix the problem. Last summer we ran some tests and were satisfied that things were working properly, so we put the washer back in use on a regular basis. But when Roni started pulling out stuff from under the counter during her handle replacement project, she discovered that the cabinet bottom was still soaked. Not good.

The bottom of the cabinet was ruined from the earlier leak, but it had been months since we’d “fixed” the washer, and if it had been wet all this time then mold was an almost certain outcome. But where was the source of the leak? It took just a bit of sleuthing with a plastic garbage bag and some empty butter containers to locate the culprit. It wasn’t the dishwasher at all, but the hot water valve connecting the sink and washer to the supply line in the wall. In less than a day the butter tub collected enough water to prove that there was more than enough to saturate the cabinet. So it was back to Home Depot to get a replacement valve.

Unfortunately our kitchen plumbing is more than 25 years old, and the defective valve was hardwired to the sink. We didn’t think we could replace the valve without having to call in a plumber or replace the sink faucet, so we decided this would be a good time for a faucet upgrade. That meant in addition to the hot water valve, we now also had to update the cold water shutoff. Then we got ideas for some shelving we wanted to build in the writing sanctuary, and before you know it out our simple quest for a $15 hot water valve turned into a $330 shopping spree. Ah, the joys of homeownership.

There is a dizzying array of faucets to choose from in the plumbing aisle at the home improvement centers. And of course with so many to chose from, it would figure that the models we liked the best weren’t actually in stock. Oh well. After calling in a clerk to search the inventory in the nosebleed section of the stock shelves, we managed to find a tall, modern-looking brushed nickel faucet that included a handheld spray attachment. We’d never had one of those and thought it would come in handy to rinse off plates in our chipped enamel sink. Yes, we briefly entertained the notion of replacing the sink, too. But then we sobered up when we contemplated the difficulty involved with first chipping out our old tile countertop and then having to install the new basin along with all its attached hardware. It was a task we — or more specifically, Glenn — weren’t up for this time.

The faucet installation went about as one might expect. Glenn decided not even to attempt it until the weekend, and as it was he set aside Sunday, Jan. 25, and the task took all day. Pulling off the leaky old hot water valve wasn’t too bad, even as it took a bit of force to remove the old compression ring from the copper inlet pipe. But after spending more time attempting to unhook the dishwasher and replace its compression ring, then having finally to grind it off the tubing with a Dremel tool cutoff disk, Glenn discovered that the replacement hot water valve we had purchased was the wrong size.

And that wasn’t all. The old sink faucet had been installed using plumbers putty, so the plastic lock nuts that should have been no more than hand-tight wouldn’t budge a millimeter, and because the faucet was recessed between the sink basin and the cabinet wall, there wasn’t any room to get a wrench up there to work on the stuck rings. Glenn spent all afternoon contorted like Harry Houdini trying to work inside the damp, musty sink cabinet, prompting him to remark that he wished his middle-aged body were as flexible as it had been in his 20s.

We took a run to ACE Hardware in the late afternoon to purchase the correct pipe fitting and a couple of wrenches that we hoped would make it easier to reach the faucet lock nuts. But alas, even our new basin wrench and needlenose vice pliers failed to do the trick. There was only one thing left to do if we wanted our new faucet installed that night, which was to saw through the old plastic nuts and force them to come off. The task wasn’t easy and took nearly an hour, but Glenn finally wrestled off the old faucet and the drain overflow thingy (yes, that is its technical term) and for the first time in a quarter century our sink would have a new faucet.

Installing the new hardware was a breeze compared to the ordeal of taking the old rusty faucet off. And better yet, Glenn’s plumbing job didn’t immediately spring leaks once he turned the water back on. That’s a good thing, because we have yet to investigate replacing the rotten floor of the sink cabinet. Hopefully we can dry it out a bit before that task begins.

* * * * *

NOW BACK TO those shelves we mentioned. Part of Roni’s cleanup idea was to tackle the mess in what had been the Writing Sanctuary — a small underused bedroom at the back of the house that has mostly been a repository for junk since the day we moved in nearly 24 years ago. The hope is to one day use it as a functional office. In the meantime it has accumulated many boxes of hard- and softcover books, to the point where we could no longer move in it, so we both thought it would be useful to put up floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on one wall to at least get the books out of box storage.

We purchased the metal brackets and slotted rails they attach to from Home Depot, along with enough 6-foot 1x8s to make eight shelves. Then we disassembled an old computer desk that had been against the wall we wanted to use. We were so eager to get the shelves built that we plowed through that part of the cleanup in less than a day. And no sooner did we get the shelves up than they were filled with Glenn’s thriller novels and Roni’s romances. Roni is a more voracious reader than Glenn, so she got five shelves to Glenn’s two. And we still had enough books remaining for more shelves.

We hadn’t planned to build shelves along the long back wall of the room, but the space was available and we were on a roll, so we trekked back to the home improvement centers and picked up materials to add six 8-foot 1x8s above our sofa. As strange as it might sound, we didn’t quite fill these. Oh sure, we could have pulled in books from elsewhere in the house, but all the boxes were emptied and Roni thought it would be a good idea to have some room for future expansion.

With the books shelved and the old desk out of the room, there was a lot more space. Glenn rearranged some of his stuff and boxed up a few old trinkets he no longer wanted on his shelves. We cleaned all sorts of things out of the closet. There is still work left to do, including putting up more closet shelves and figuring out what to do with the things that have now made their way into the garage. Yes, the same garage we cleaned from top to bottom last March. It’s a neverending battle, but at least we are making progress inside the house. As a side benefit, the rows of books lining the walls help insulate the room from outside noise. Too bad it doesn’t help with the noise inside the house.

* * * * *

OUR CLEANUP DOESN'T stop at the interior of our home. Outside we have seen plenty of problems thanks to the presence of a ground squirrel that took up residence beneath our bird feeders. His digging created a giant, unsightly sand mound under the feeders and paved the way for him to climb on our feeders, much to the dismay of the birds that always seemed to arrive too late to partake in the meals we’d leave for them. We finally decided that Mr. Squirrel had to leave.

We ordered a live trap from Amazon and baited it with peanuts in the shell, his favorite. This we parked with its door open right outside his hole and then took bets on how long it would be until he got curious enough to venture into the cage. It was almost exactly 24 hours late when, on Jan. 9, we looked out and noticed that the trap door was closed. Sure enough, Mr. Squirrel was inside chomping away on the peanuts, oblivious to what had happened until we moved in to collect the cage. He wasn’t too happy about that part of it.

We put the cage in the car and transported the squirrel a couple of miles west to a grape vineyard where we thought he could make himself at home. The door was opened and Mr. Squirrel bolted for the middle of the field, where he paused to look back at us accusingly before scampering away for good. The birds might have thanked us for our squirrel relocation services, but if they were appreciative they didn’t let on, busily scarfing down the new seed we put out for them.

We spent part of that weekend repairing the damage that the squirrel had done, filling in his holes and realigning the retaining wall blocks he had undermined. We also took the opportunity to repaint the boards we use as feeding platforms, and we cleaned the lens of our webcam housing, which had gotten very dirty from nearly a year outside in the elements.

There is still lots more to do, especially when it comes to raking fallen leaves, but that will likely wait until our spring cleaning commences sometime in the next month or two.

* * * * *

LAST MONTH WE took to the air for the first time with our DJI Phantom quadcopter we received for Christmas. We learned some things on those initial test flights at Vintage Park in Oakley: first, flying one of these drones is not so simple as switching on the transmitter and taking off toward the heavens; second, two batteries that provide barely 18 minutes total of flight time isn’t nearly enough.

We solved the latter problem by purchasing two more batteries through Amazon, and unless we suddenly start traveling hundreds of miles from home and take multiple flights every day, we’ve got all the batteries we’ll probably need for a while. The former issue — the learning curve — was only solvable by spending more time flying the darn thing. We’ve had tougher challenges.

Given our interest in the quadcopter as a platform for shooting GoPro photos and videos, we quickly tired of taking the drone to Vintage Park, seeking views other than the San Joaquin River shoreline and the skyline of our own neighborhood. Our first “real” flight beyond those safe but familiar confines came a week later, Jan. 9, when we took the copter to Ironhouse Sanitary District on a quiet Friday morning. Our goal was to take some aerial video of ISD’s Water Recycling Facility — not as picturesque as the Delta, but challenging enough for this pair of rookie pilots. We had received permission from the district staff and chosen a day that was free of rain and fog, so all we needed was to pick our launch point.

We drove out a gravel road to one of the district’s fallow hay fields, just a few yards from the treatment plant’s fence line. It was our first time out with four batteries, so the plan was to make four flights and try them all out. Glenn had reread the instructions after our earlier flights and had learned how to program the Phantom’s failsafe mode, which is designed to bring the copter back for a happy landing in the event something unexpected happens in flight. We were confident of our ability to fly now, but the idea of flying over water — whether a natural body such as a river or a manmade source such as the reclamation ponds where we were on this day — still made us nervous.

The first flight went reasonably well. We lifted off, hovered for a moment, then used the controls to fly the drone over the fence and into the sewage treatment plant. Glenn had no problem ascending to avoid the solids handling building with its big, red metal roof that dominates the northeastern edge of Oakley. He continued flying slowly north, rotating the copter to be sure that the camera would capture all the angles we were interested in. Then all of a sudden we realized that we could no longer see the drone. Uh oh. Were we still aloft? The problem with being out of visual range and not having any sort of interactive GPS monitoring device is that you can think you are flying one direction when in fact you are flying another. When a few moments had passed and we hadn’t regained visual contact, Glenn flipped the transmitter into failsafe mode. And we waited nervously.

For what seemed like a minute we heard and saw nothing. Then suddenly we heard the growing drone of our drone, its propellers still propelling it... toward us. It was on autopilot now, and the GPS function did precisely what it was designed to do, setting the quadcopter down on the ground mere inches from where it had departed on its flight. We breathed a sigh of relief and swapped batteries for our second flight. This time we decided to change our launch location to the eastern side of the plant, which required us to walk into the hay field. We were careful to avoid the muddy patches left behind by our recent rains.

We set up on the dirt and changed the GoPro’s settings so that (we thought) it was taking photos at 2-second intervals. The GoPro’s still photos are of better resolution than its videos, and while we can grab still frames from video of images we like, they aren’t of high enough quality to use in print publications, which is how we hoped to use these. We took off for what wound up being a 7-minute flight, again losing sight of the craft and calling it back in failsafe mode, although this time we were more confident of our ability to recover it safely. Only later would we discover that we had set the camera incorrectly and thus had no photos from the flight. Oh well, you live and learn.

What we hadn’t learned, unfortunately, is how to successfully navigate a muddy field in our tennis shoes. For whatever reason, we followed a different path back to the car than the one we’d taken initially and the result was that we waded into almost ankle-deep mud. We could empathize with the poor dinosaurs that strayed too far into the famous La Brea Tar Pits. This effectively doused our plans for a third and fourth flight over the sewage treatment facility, and we scraped off as much mud as we could before leaving our mucky shoes on a plastic bag in the back of Roni’s car.

Back home after we got cleaned up, we watched our video from the first flight over the Water Recycling Facility and learned where our little quadcopter had been while we couldn’t see it. We were far above the plant, almost beyond its perimeter, getting spectacular views of the facility and the Delta. Not that we were complaining, but it wasn’t what we had expected. Obviously we needed to practice some more.

We went flying again a couple of days later in the park basin at Freedom High School in Oakley. This time Roni got to handle the controls a bit more and we got some nice views of the high school’s football field. We also practiced hovering the craft a few feet above us so that we could capture our activities on the ground. Aerial selfie, anyone?

Jan. 13 found us back at Ironhouse Sanitary District for another flight session, this time over ISD’s administrative offices and maintenance facility. We made three flights, experimenting with different controller functions each time. The good news is that we didn’t crash, didn’t get lost, and we remembered to turn on the camera. Hey, we’re making progress. We were ready to attempt a flight over the Delta on a foggy morning later that week, but time got away from us and we never took the quadcopter out of the trunk. Perhaps we’ll try again once the weather improves.

That’s about it for this month. Time to prepare ourselves for Super Bowl Sunday and whatever adventures February holds in store.


Glenn, Roni and Ben