June 25, 2014: This month's newsletter comes to you from the Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley, where summer is on the way and the crowds of people we'd been hoping for at Roni's Delta Science Center booth are not. The occasion of today's visit (Sunday, June 8) is the "Healthy Parks, Healthy People" campfire by the Delta that is being put on by the East Bay Regional Park District. The DSC was invited to participate, along with the cities of Oakley and Brentwood, and so far in the two hours we've been sitting out here in 95-degree heat, the number of booth vendors outnumbers visitors by about 10-to-1. In all fairness, the event runs from 4 to 8 p.m., and we showed up about 2:30 to set up the booth — a process Roni just about has down to a science, but that we always seem to find a way to make take longer than it should. On a hot day like this one, everything seems to take longer than it needs to.
To see any of these photos larger, or as a slideshow, view our Flickr gallery.
A handful of folks have stopped by to check out the collection of mostly bluegill fish we have put on display in a couple of tanks and to make bead necklaces, an activity that Roni introduced to the booth during the recent Oakley Science Week that has been a hit with the kids. The campfire is supposed to begin about 6:30, so maybe we'll see more people start to wander in by then as the sun begins to set and the temperature begins to drop. We'll cross our fingers.
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IN ALL HONESTY, the place we'd probably rather be right now, on an otherwise lazy school graduation weekend with the sun blazing down, is sitting in the relative cool of our living room where access to cold drinks and Popsicles is no more that a few steps to the kitchen, and where finding entertainment is as simple as a click of the remote control on our 70-inch flat screen or queuing up the music on our iTunes account on the computer. We have a much deeper appreciation for such simple pleasures now that the roof over our heads is finally ours.
When we signed the papers to purchase our home 17 years ago, we knew we were embarking on a long journey that we didn't expect to finish until our sixties. Like many first-time home buyers, we were happy just to get in the door and didn't worry too much about the prevailing 7.5 percent interest rate or the 30-year term. We figured that we were still in the budding stages of our careers and so long as we could afford the initial monthly payments, things would only get easier as we went along.
A couple of mortgage refinances, a home equity line of credit and one economic recession later, we were questioning the value of hanging on to a home loan any longer than we had to. Although we had both been fortunate in dodging a major job loss, the financial downturn brought wave upon wave of uncertainty to Glenn's job at the newspaper and caused us to lose plenty of sleep while we pondered the dreaded question: what will we do next if we find ourselves out of work? So in late 2008 we embarked on a mission to pay off the bank as soon as possible. We dumped as much cash on the loan as we could, whittling the principal down to the point where as of this May there was light at the end of the mortgage tunnel; we were just nine months away from our goal.
Then something unexpected happened. Glenn received news that his grandmother had decided to make monetary gifts to all her grandchildren and that the amount he received would be almost exactly enough to retire the home loan. It was incredibly good timing, and although we spent a couple of days talking at length about how we wanted to invest this small windfall, the decision to pay off the mortgage seemed the right answer.
So on June 11, Roni called up the Wells Fargo customer service department and got the figure for the payoff balance. It wasn't as simple as writing a check, because the money had to be in the bank's hands by the end of the business day to avoid additional interest charges, so we elected to wire the amount from our bank to avoid additional delays. Our nearest Bank of the West branch is conveniently located about a block away from our house, but on this morning it was inconveniently closed when we arrived; an employee guarding the door explained that the branch was having technical difficulties and had lost use of its teller terminals and ATM machines. What a bummer. We'd have to go to the next nearest location, which is several miles away in Brentwood.
Was this a sign that maybe we shouldn't be closing out the loan? Or maybe it was a sign when, while we were navigating the backroads of Brentwood, we encountered road construction work and were forced to detour through one of the neighborhoods, getting ourselves lost for a few minutes until we rediscovered the main thoroughfare. We shrugged it all off and eventually found the Brentwood Bank of the West, thankfully open for business.
The teller we worked with was almost as excited as we were when we told her why we were there. "Wow, that must be a great feeling paying off your house." She didn't know the half of it. She quickly drew up the paperwork, explained there would be a $35 fee for the wire transfer — yeah, just like a bank to gouge you for a few keystrokes on the computer — and then we were done. Just like that, 17 years of home mortgage payments finalized in about 10 minutes. Now all we have to do is wait for Wells Fargo to send us the paperwork and refund our remaining escrow balance. There is almost enough in there for the first property tax bill due in November, and since our insurance policy was just renewed, we're good to go on that until next May. We plan to set up a money market fund to deduct the approximately $325 a month we'll need to cover all the annual house bills. That's less than what we spent in rent on our first apartment 26 years ago!
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BEING HOME OWNERS as opposed to merely home owners will take awhile to sink in, but already our thoughts have turned to what we'll do with our newfound cash flow. There is a lot of deferred maintenance on the property that needs attention, and while most of it is fairly routine, there are still some things that are going to require larger investments. We definitely see a new paint job in the near future, but we are also keeping an eye of the roof and gutters, as well as relandscaping the front yard. The other biggie will be buying a new vehicle sometime in the next year, and we have been seriously considering getting a Toyota Tacoma for its hauling capacity if not for its mediocre gas mileage.
The other thing we have been working on in cleaning up the backyard, an extension of the Great Garage Cleanup of 2014 we undertook in March. So far that has meant trying to throw away as much junk as will fit comfortably in the regular weekly garbage pickup, but we are nearing the end of that collection and now have to contemplate our next run to the dump in Pittsburg to get rid of a bunch of old wood leftover from the removal of our spa and gazebo several years ago, as well as the old retaining fence that was replaced with non-termite friendlty concrete blocks. Glenn has been sorting boards and removing nails, separating wood that is worth saving from the stuff that clearly is ready for the chipper. He also took a reciprocating saw to the giant slab of foam that had been the spa cover, reducing it to about four dozen conveniently sized blocks. Even so, there is no good way to get rid of expandable foam via the garbage, so only a couple of blocks a week will fit. We may try to save some for use as filler material in the next barrel planter we make for our garden.
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WE'VE BEEN TRYING to be more health conscious lately, and for her part Roni thought it would be a good idea to get back into water aerobics and walking — not all at once, but you get the idea. So eager was she to begin her healthy walking regimen that she even encouraged Glenn to get up early with her June 10 for her first of what she planned to be many neighborhood walks. Nothing too strenuous, but a good solid pace around the block, through Big Break Regional Shoreline, and home.
Things were pretty routine until the last leg of our 2-mile jaunt. Walking along the sidewalk on Big Break Road, Roni misjudged her step and stumbled to the pavement, saving her face from hitting the concrete by using her hands to break the fall. Unfortunately, she hit hard enough that her wrist was still in pain hours later. Fearing she might have broken her left hand, she went to the doctor for x-rays and discovered she had a torn tendon. Not bad enough to warrant a cast, but serious enough that she was prescribed a wrist brace and advised to let it rest for several days.
The wrist brace sometimes seems worse than the injury itself, and Roni finds she has to will herself to wear it at night. Forget about resting it, as she uses her left hand to write and type, and that's how she makes a living. It has been a couple of weeks with a lot of ice and aspirin used in addition to the brace, but she says she's starting to mend. We'll just try to keep her away from other alleged health-inducing activities.
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THINGS ARE MOVING right along at the Delta Science Center's rice greenhouse on Jersey Island. In May we managed to construct a new frame that we hoped would be strong enough to withstand the strong winds that whip up off the Delta and which last year nearly destroyed the tender young plants. The larger, single greenhouse was reinforced using 2-foot rebar stakes to help hold the PVC hoops in place, and with a wood frame at the door end nailed to the base constructed from discarded redwood 2-by-6s.
For most of the first three weeks there had been few issues of concern, other than adding more water to the peat-soil field every few days when Roni went out to check on things, and tapping the top of the wood frame back into place after it worked itself loose from the constant wind action. The inside temperature was always warm and humid, and the rice seedlings were starting to emerge, creating a soft green carpet in the mud.
But things changed dramatically the week of June 9, when we got a cruel reminder of nature's awesome power. That was the week in which temperatures spiked into the triple-digits. We visited the greenhouse June 9, just to be sure there would be enough water for the next few days – nothing worse than thirsty plants when the outside temperature hits 105 degrees. Everything seemed to be in order, so we closed the wood frame door and latched it with the eye hook we'd added to make sure it remained closed. We had already discovered that without the hook even a light wind would grab hold of the door and slap it back on its hinges with considerable force. It was later that afternoon Roni received a call from a friend who had just happened to get their first look at the greenhouse and had peeked inside to check on the progress. They mentioned the door was a little hard to close, but Roni didn't think anything of it until our next trip to the island four days later.
June 13 was the day before Father's Day weekend, and because the island (which is owned by the sanitary district) would be closed until Monday we wanted to be sure the rice field had enough water to last through the weekend. As we bumped our way along Jersey Island Road and the greenhouse slowly came into view, we thought it looked somehow different. Maybe our eyes were playing tricks, but it looked like the back end was sagging. As we discovered, our eyes were working just fine. It was the greenhouse that indeed was having problems. It didn't take long to guess what had happened: the visitor four days earlier had struggled with the door and the latch didn't get hooked up correctly. The wind had done what it always does to the door and blew it open, so for four days the greenhouse had nothing to keep the wind currents out and the strength of the front frame was weakened because the door wasn't helping to support it. The result was a disaster.
When we arrived to survey the damage it was clear we'd need more than a staple gun and some duct tape. The hot weather had suddenly given way to cooler temperatures midweek, which meant the wind currents were likely much stronger than usual. They had blown through the wide open door and battered the plastic sheeting from both outside and inside, shifting the PVC ribs in the process and poking holes in the plastic. A giant rip had formed in the 10 mil plastic running across the back third of the roof. A 2x3 we'd used to prop up a PVC brace on the back wall had slipped from its position and poked a huge hole at the back end. The front door had fared no better; the plastic covering the door had ripped from its staples, and the nails in the top support beam had pulled free after rocking from side to side in the wind. What had just days before seemed solid enough to last through the growing season was now being shredded, all for the failure of a 50-cent eye hook to do its job.
Facing the prospect of having to do all the repairs on her own with her injured wrist, Roni was thankful Glenn was able to take the day off work to help put things back together. We went home for lunch first, then returned armed with our arsenal of tools and supplies. Using some of the leftover 2x3 wood we'd bought for the front frame, Glenn constructed a partial wall to help reinforce the back plastic. Wearing rubber concrete shoes to keep the mud off his feet, he worked inside to readjust the hoops while Roni handed him nails and boards from the dry land outside. It was necessary to work quickly, because the inside temperature was stifling and dehydration was an enemy. The humidity enjoyed by the rice was definitely bad news for people. We used a spare roll of sheet plastic we had on hand to patch as much of the giant rip as possible, but there was no way to climb up on the roof to tape it off, so we crossed our fingers that the temporary repairs would hold until Monday.
On June 16 we returned to the field that morning to discover our friend Dr. Mike already at work patching the holes we couldn't get to on Friday. He'd brought his groundskeeper friend and the man's son to help till the transplant field while Mike made the rest of the repairs. He'd brought more plastic and enough rolls of thick silver duct tape to make a NASCAR pit crew blush. The holes patched and the frame repaired, the rice is just about done "cooking" and should be ready to transplant in the next few days. Hopefully we'll have more to share in July.
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WELL, TURNED OUT that a fair number of folks showed up for the campfire, which apparently was the first one in a monthly series that will run on second Sundays through September. The fire — driven by a propane tank in the park's fire pit — was in reality just a convenient way to do introductions by the park district ranger before he split up the audience into groups for other activities going on around the park. It wasn't like anyone was really in the mood to sit around a fire pit on a hot day anyhow, and as Ben astutely pointed out as we were preparing for the event, it seemed odd having a campfire at that time at all when the sun doesn't set until 9 p.m. The only thing we wondered is who came up with the "Healthy Parks, Healthy People" slogan when they were serving up s'mores? Nothing says health like toasted marshmallows and chocolate bars on graham crackers, we guess. But if this wasn't healthy then what a decadent way to go!
Enjoy your Fourth of July weekend and we'll be back with more next month.