We have a little fun with glowsticks while celebrating the high school graduation of our niece, Shannon, on June 14 at Mallard Park in Brentwood. The sundown party with our families included pictures with the grad in her cap and gown.

Cooking up a kitchen overhaul

June 29, 2018: No matter how hard we may try to avoid them, projects inevitably seem to find us, and we are about to embark on a doozy: the remodeling of our kitchen. If you remember the work we did on our guest bathroom this past winter, that all came about because we wanted to replace the kitchen floor and needed a somewhat inconspicuous location to test out our vinyl flooring material of choice. It has been several months since then, and we are reasonably pleased with the LifeProof Luxury Vinyl Planks we used. So much so, that we are ready to use them on a larger project.

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

It's Memorial Day and we're getting in the patriotic spirit for an afternoon barbecue at our house. Photo by Glenn.

We've been working on getting the backyard into shape for the party. This is our cleaned back patio, now devoid of expired wisteria pods, sand and leaves. We can actually see the concrete. Photo by Glenn.

Ben's grandma made this incredible Japanese quilt for Ben's birthday. She gave it to him during our Memorial Day gathering. Ben holds it so we can all admire the craftsmanship. Photo by Glenn.

Roni baked a cake for the party, decorating it with blueberries and strawberries to resemble an American flag. We did our patriotic duty and enjoyed feasting on it. Photo by Glenn.

We decided to grill up some of the sausages we picked up in Lockeford last month as appetizers during the party. We had several different flavors to try. Roni cut them up into slices and served them as hors d'oeuvres. Photo by Glenn.

Glenn kept the sausages coming during the party. The main course was these smoked Dakota links that Lockeford Sausage Co. sells at all its festival and street fair booths. They were a hit with our guests. Photo by Roni.

Ben checks out our picnic spread as his grandma helps herself to one of the salads folks brought to our Memorial Day party. It was around 93 degrees, a little hot for eating outdoors. Photo by Glenn.

With so many folks wielding cameras at our party, one more photographer might pass unnoticed — unless she happens to be 300 pounds and made of concrete. Our Fall Season statue makes the perfect spot for Glenn to hang his Canon while he oversees the barbecue. Photo by Roni.

What's a party without ice cream? Our brother-in-law Tom was generous enough to provide us all with a delicious homemade treat straight from his electric churn. Ben and his friends take time out from their video game action to grab dessert. Photo by Glenn.

Our living room TV is commandeered by Ben and his friends for video games while the rest of the party moved outside to the back patio. It may have been hotter outdoors, but it was also quieter. Photo by Glenn.

Phyre has had a hard day. We call this his "dead cat" look. Actually, he's probably just hot. Photo by Glenn.

"What, I'm not animated enough for you? Rub my belly, slave." Photo by Roni.

We have a running joke about this table at Black Bear Diner in Oakley. We go there often for meals, and no matter how busy it is, we always seem to end up at the same booth. We're thinking of asking management to place a "reserved" sign for us on the wall behind Roni. Photo by Glenn.

Is this a bridge too far from home? We are at Hidden Lakes Park in Martinez on June 2 for what turned out to be the hottest day of the year, so far. Roni wanted us to get into hiking, so we picked this spot as a trail we haven't walked before. This part is paved, at least. Photo by Glenn.

Hidden Lakes Park is a good spot to bring a camera if you are a nature lover. Here a honey bee hovers over a blossoming tree along the river bank. Photo by Glenn.

A curious tree squirrel poses for us before resuming its romp through the woods at Hidden Lakes Park. Photo by Glenn.

While parts of the trail were paved, much of the hike at Hidden Lakes Park looked like this. Do you love lush, green meadows dotted with wildflowers? You won't find many of them in California in June. Photo by Glenn.

We're not sure if the lakes at Hidden Lakes Park truly are hidden, given their being surrounded by residential neighborhoods, but this one surely is an oasis amid the otherwise arid landscape. Photo by Glenn.

Something about the fountain in the middle of the lake should be a tipoff that we are looking at a manmade water feature. Hidden Lakes Park did indeed have a few "hidden" features that we uncovered during our hike. Photo by Glenn.

June 14 marked graduation day for our niece Shannon, who chose to have her commencement party at Mallard Park in Brentwood. Her mom and dad went all out on the decorations, including this matted portrait for family members to write congratulatory messages. Photo by Glenn.

Shannon's uncle Sean uses his phone to show a collage to our Grandma Sorenson, who phoned in from Hemet via video chat so she could congratulate her great granddaughter on her graduation day. The collage included class pictures from most of Shannon's grade school years. Photo by Glenn.

Our nephew Allen thinks this graduation party thing is pretty cool. He's got reason to celebrate himself, as he looks forward to fifth grade in the fall. Just another seven years and we get to do the high school sendoff for him, too. Photo by Glenn.

Shannon dons her cap and gown for the cameras as the sun sinks on the western horizon. That's her official diploma she's holding. Photo by Roni.

Make no mistake about Shannon's feelings on her graduation day. It's been a long road for her, and for her family. High school fades into the rear view mirror and full speed ahead onto the super highway of adulthood. Photo by Roni.

It's getting too dark for photos, but don't tell that to Shannon. Cell phones provide plenty of light for night photography — and some eerie special effects. Photo by Glenn.

That's Ben behind the wheel of Dad's trusty old Toyota as he rolls out of the parking lot at the Pittsburg DMV for his third crack at the driving test. Visitors are supposed to wait inside. What, with that crowd? Heck no! Photo by Glenn.

Ben is all smiles after passing his test on June 27. It was a long road to reach this day, and we're all excited and relieved that he finally has his license. Photo by Glenn.

Dad promised Ben that when he passed his driving test he could eat wherever he wanted as a reward. He chose Dairy Queen, and we bought a round of Blizzards to celebrate. Photo by Glenn.

And because we never do anything simply, we quickly realized that replacing the kitchen floor actually entails many other things if we want to do it right, so this month’s tale is mostly about preparation and planning. And dreaming, but that’s beyond the scope of our budget and this newsletter.

Sticking to the basics, we want to transform our 30-year-old sheet linoleum floor into something other than the worn-down, scuffed-up mess that it has become. Roni wants to be able to run a mop over it and see it actually come clean, which isn’t easy in its current state. Add to the everyday spills the heavy foot traffic and ground-in kitty litter this floor sees and we knew we wanted something tough that would give us many years of reliable service. So the LifeProof LVP flooring seems like a good fit for us. We already had more than a dozen samples from our bathroom project, so we just needed to settle on a color choice and pattern we wanted for the kitchen. But which one?

The LVP strips come in a variety of colors and widths. We thought we would stick with the Seasoned Wood pattern we used in the bathroom, but then got to thinking that might be too busy for the kitchen. Perhaps a choice that offers a little more color uniformity? There are too many options. The question we got stuck on was how any choice might look with our cabinets and countertops, which we weren’t planning to replace. Or were we?

Roni has long dreamed of a larger kitchen with an island. We have a small galley kitchen, so short of moving to a larger house, we are stuck with what we’ve got. That doesn’t mean we can’t give it a facelift. Roni settled on the idea of painting the old cabinets, as we’ve seen done successfully in other kitchen projects. It’s a cheap solution that doesn’t involve a lot of demolition work. You can reface an existing cabinet with new doors and hardware, if you want. We decided that our floor color should probably work in harmony with the cabinet color choice — in this case, gray.

But now that we were talking cabinets, better address that dated countertop attached to them. This was another thing on Roni’s wishlist. The ceramic tiles that came with the house have served us well, but a few have been chipped and the grout is eroding from years of wear. She really wants to remove them so we can get to the sink mounted underneath them. Oh, did we mention that she wants a farm sink with a huge basin instead of the crappy ceramic double-basin sink we currently have? We didn’t? Well, she does. And if you have to remove the tile countertop to install a new sink, then you will definitely need a new countertop — preferably not made of tile.

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O WHAT STARTED as a kitchen floor replacement project has turned into a partially remodeled guest bathroom, repainted kitchen cabinets, a new farm sink and a countertop. Now if you’re doing all that, might as well repaint the walls. The kitchen was last painted in… we can’t remember. It is yellow. We now hate yellow. We can change that easily enough. The walls are textured with a knockdown plaster finish. We hate textured walls. We can’t easily change that and probably won’t, but that doesn’t mean we can’t hide them more than they currently are.

One way to hide ugly walls is to enlarge the cabinets. We need more storage space in the kitchen anyhow. So we plan to extend the cabinets along the outside wall up about a foot to reach the ceiling. Glenn plans to add some framing along the front and edges and construct doors that might, sort of, perhaps, match the existing cabinetry. We talked about making them barn door-style, like the barn door we created for our front hallway, but have since reconsidered because of the cost involved. Did we say we are on a budget? Yeah, we are.

So Glenn is getting psyched to build cabinetry and watching YouTube videos about how to do this. All he needs is his table saw and a pocket hole jig and a router and some pocket screws and bar clamps and a palm sander and… okay, we’re still making the list. We did say we are on a budget, right? Our brains don’t know what budget means. Yet. They are still exploring the possibilities for this adventure.

Another idea for hiding an ugly wall is to construct a utility closet in the kitchen entryway across from the pantry. This is an ingenious plan Roni found online while she was researching cabinet paint jobs. The idea is to cut a space between the studs of an interior wall and insert hooks or shelves to turn it into a storage area, similar to what you find in a bathroom medicine cabinet, only much taller. We plan to build one of these mini closets in the wall and make the doors on the closet and pantry match. Details on that are still very hazy.

And then there is tile. Didn’t we say we wanted to get away from tile? Well, yes, for the counters, but not necessarily on the wall. Roni has fallen in love with subway tile and likes the idea of using a bunch of them to build the backsplash for the counter. They are 3x6 inches and come in shades of white and gray — both our colors. We fell in love with “crackle” tiles that have an antique finish and were available at Home Depot. Keyword there is “were.” They have apparently been discontinued since we purchased our samples, so now we are back to plain old white and gray tiles that we can get at Lowe’s. We need about 24 square feet of tile to do our tiny kitchen. This should be fairly easy to do. Should be.

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Y FAR THE largest expense in this project will be the countertop. We waffled back and forth about whether to do it, knowing that we could stick with what we have and save a lot of money. But in the end we would still be stuck with outdated counters and a sink that badly needs to be replaced. And until we settle on our counters, we can’t (or shouldn’t) do the floor. So it was off to the home improvement stores to do research.

We walked into Lowe’s completely clueless as to the process. We spoke with a slightly less clueless sales associate (full disclosure: she admitted to us up front that she was somewhat clueless) and got a lot of useful information. We found out that all the quoted product prices include installation, so suddenly $70 per square foot doesn’t seem quite as expensive. We also learned that the installers Lowe’s works with won’t take a job smaller than 25 square feet. Um, our counters are about 23 square feet, 24 if we fudge it. Size concerns aside, we also quickly narrowed our search down to quartz and granite materials, the latter being more difficult to maintain because it is actual rock and needs to be sealed annually. Quartz has the benefit that it is manufactured from composite materials and comes in a wider variety of styles.

Another thing we learned is that granite/quartz counters come in 2 centimeter and 3 centimeter thicknesses. The 2 cm size is cheaper, and to make it appear thicker the edge is usually built up by laminating a strip of identical material underneath. This adds to the cost, so ultimately the 2 cm and 3 cm products are about the same price. It’s more a preference of how you like your counter edges. They all come with an “eased” bevel included at no cost. That means they just round off the edge so it is smooth. If you want something fancier, you can go with a bullnose edge that is rounded on the top and bottom. There are many other edge styles, but they add considerably to the cost — as much as $17 a linear foot. The reason for this is that an installer has to rout the edges by hand on site, which is difficult and time-consuming.

We weren’t totally happy with the choices at either of the big-box stores — or the estimated $1,700-$2,000 it might cost us to go with those products — and searched for another option. This is when we discovered Granite Expo. The company has a showroom near us in Pittsburg, so we went there on a Saturday to investigate. We were blown away by the selection and the prices. Basically they have hundreds of uncut countertops that you can purchase in 8- to 10-foot lengths. All of them are finished on at least one edge, so you just need to figure out how much you need and fit the pieces together. Oh yeah, you also have to figure out how to get them home. Nothing like trying to move a couple of 250-pound slabs of granite around with two people. Three, if we drafted Ben.

And then there is the not-so-minor detail of cutting an opening for the sink. The pros make this look easy, using angle grinders with special diamond cutting wheels to accomplish the task of carving and polishing the stone. Make one mistake and you can easily transform a beautiful countertop into a $300 paperweight. Granite Expo gives you the option of doing it all yourself, for those so inclined, or you can have one of their installers do it all for you. Oh yeah, there goes your savings.

Knowing the odds were against us, Glenn was still weighing the idea of a self-install. He checked out several YouTube videos to learn from other amateurs’ mistakes, watched how the pros do it, and came to the conclusion that it might be worth the money in this case to let someone else handle it for us. They’ll deliver it and take care of all the necessary cuts and heavy lifting. Yeah, heavy lifting. We’re getting old.

All that remains is for us to choose our counters and decide who we go with. We are balking a bit at the cost and since have also looked into the idea of wood counters — more on that next month — but all the options fit into our budget and we just want to know we’ll be happy with the results once it’s done. If we do granite, we’ll probably save a little money going with the tile backsplash instead of purchasing a matching quartz or granite backsplash.

The next thing is to choose a sink. Roni wants a farm sink with a front that extends beyond the edge of the cabinet and has a single basin. These run the gamut from a couple hundred dollars for thin stainless steel to more than $1,000 for fancy porcelain models. One thing we learned at Granite Expo is they won’t mount countertops over anything but stainless steel. They wouldn’t say why, but we assume it is for reasons of liability, in case your fancy sink gets damaged somehow. We aren’t sure we’re in love with stainless steel, but that’s likely what we’ll choose if we go the farm sink route. A 16- or 18-gauge thickness runs about $300 for the sink Roni wants.

Then to top it all off we’ll be replacing the ceiling light figures, which will probably mean also tinkering with the electricity. Our old fixtures are ugly and greasy, and half the time they don’t work when we flip the wall switch. This could be partly due to the age of the fixtures, but we fear it might be the electrical wiring itself. Another project.

Oh yeah, and all of this (with perhaps the exception of the lights) gets done before the floor can be installed. Piece of cake. We’ll have it finished by August… 2019?

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HE THIRD TIME'S a charm, as goes the saying, and we hoped that would hold true for Ben as he geared up for his third attempt at the driving test June 27 at the Pittsburg DMV. His initial test in April was aborted by the examiner before he even got out of the parking lot. Round two in May went much better until an uncooperative traffic signal tripped him up. So he was understandably nervous heading into his next test.

As with the previous tests, Ben drove with Dad to Pittsburg. They went a half hour earlier than they needed to so Ben could take a couple of practice loops around the test route he had driven before, just to help prepare himself mentally for the real deal.

His appointment was at 1 p.m., and he was first in line. This being summer, the DMV was less crowded than usual. The weather was comfortably warm and there was light traffic on the surrounding streets. All of this added up to favorable conditions for Ben, who was made more uncomfortable the previous two tests because he had to wait more than an hour after his scheduled appointment and traffic was heavier. Still, he had the jitters. Dad did his best to help him relax and kept the mood light while they waited for the test, which began at 1:15.

Ten minutes later, they returned to the parking lot. Ben and the examiner got out of the car quickly. Would this be failure number three? But Ben was in good spirits as he crossed the parking lot, and when he saw Dad his face broke into a big grin. He’d passed! He could barely contain his excitement as they stood in line at the counter to collect his temporary license. No more having to rely on Mom and Dad or coworkers for a late night ride home from the grocery store; now he could legally drive himself there and back. Except for one little detail: insurance.

Roni put in some calls to AAA and managed to get Ben added to our policy for an additional $1,100 for the next nine months. Ouch. There are likely cheaper options for Ben that he’ll get to explore next year, but being that he is a new driver and male and under 25, the deck is stacked against him. For now, Glenn is letting him drive his old car. Ben used it solo for the first time the morning after his test, driving to work for a day shift. Roni followed behind in her car, just to provide some reassurance as he gets used to the idea that no one will be holding his hand now that he is a fully licensed driver.

He’s excited to have achieved his goal, after more than six years of trying, and we are very excited for him. Being able to drive opens up so many opportunities and possibilities in life. Today he is happy just to be able to get back and forth to a job that is less than two miles from home. One day, maybe he’ll be driving on his first cross country road trip. Yes, we’re getting old.

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ND SPEAKING OF things that make you feel old, our niece Shannon is now a high school graduate. We helped her celebrate the momentous day June 14 at a family party in Brentwood.

Shannon was unfortunately not allowed to take part in her school’s commencement ceremony because of an incident that happened this past winter. She completed what few graduation requirements she still needed through homeschooling, and her dad picked up her diploma from the school office. They brought it to Mallard Park the night of the party, treating the event with all the pomp and circumstance befitting a full graduation ceremony.

Shannon wanted to celebrate her graduation by watching the sunset, a symbolic farewell to a difficult four years. The park she selected is a small and beautiful setting on the eastern edge of the city, next to a corn field and surrounded by homes. We all feared the weather might be brutally hot, as it can be in Brentwood this time of year, but we were blessed with a breeze and clear skies.

Parents Jenny and Tom did a great job with the decorations. Jenny made a photo collage of Shannon’s school journey, from kindergarten to her senior year. There was a matted portrait of Shannon that we all signed with messages of congratulations and encouragement. There were also several purple balloons tied to a picnic table that Shannon later discovered, much to her delight, contained various denominations of cash.

Tom went out with Shannon’s grandma to get food from Panera, while Shannon, Jenny, Roni and Allen had to make an emergency run to Starbucks to find the bathroom. Glenn and Sean held down the fort at the park and got to see the sun go down, although the true sunset an hour later was blocked by the trees and houses. We all enjoyed a picnic dinner and the organic orange cake that Grandma Gehlke baked for the occasion.

As it started to get dark, that’s when the fun got rolling. Shannon put on a cap and gown and posed for pictures with her diploma as “Pomp and Circumstance” played on Jenny’s bluetooth speaker. A message on Shannon’s mortarboard said: “I’m done. What’s next?” Pretty much the sentiment of every grad ever. Tom distributed plastic glowsticks, and we all had fun tossing them about and wearing them. The neighbors probably wondered who all the crazy people were invading their pocket park until nearly 10 p.m. on a weeknight.

The most inspiring moment came as Jenny read a handcrafted poem for the new grad entitled “That Is Why I Cried,” beautifully recounting the challenges that confronted Shannon and her family during her high school years and how they all surmounted them. A few of us teared up at the presentation, and we hope that one day Shannon can truly appreciate the heartfelt honesty that went into her mother’s effort. Sometimes the things you take for granted when you’re 17 mean a lot more to you as you travel through life.

There was little time for Shannon and her folks to enjoy the moment, however, as they packed up that Saturday and hit the road for an Oregon vacation in a rented RV. A well-deserved bit of recreation at the end of a long school odyssey.

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E'RE JUST A week into summer, and it looks like it’s going to be a busy one for us with all the projects we have lined up. With the weather warming up, we’re less inclined to head outdoors, although we did do some hiking on June 2 at Hidden Lakes Park in Martinez. It was part of Roni’s new initiative to get us both some exercise — an initiative that lasted precisely one week.

See, we had never been to Hidden Lakes and didn’t know what to expect. Turns out that it is a manmade lake tucked into the hills and surrounded by neighborhoods. There are sports fields, lots of trees, and even a riparian forest you can explore if you don’t mind diverging from the paved trail. But the problem was that we chose the hottest day of the year to that point for our hike. It was nearly 100 degrees and we only had a couple small bottles of water. Roni looked at a map and saw the trail followed a loop around the lake that should have returned us to the parking lot. So we set out with that plan in mind.

California in June isn’t especially beautiful, unless you like brown weeds. There were lots of them around Hidden Lakes, as well as plowed dirt and few trees along the trail. We baked in the heat and quickly depleted our water. Then we got lost. The “loop” that was supposed to take us back to the parking lot turned out to be several different trails, all meandering through dirt fields and along cracked asphalt paths. There were hills to climb, and we hadn’t bargained for a lot of steep grades on a hot day. We got turned around and wound up in a residential neighborhood far from the parking lot. We had to backtrack along the streets until we came back out to the main road and just followed it to the park.

We were thankful when we were back at the car that we’d survived, none too eager the following Saturday to attempt another hiking destination. Perhaps we need to try again in the fall.

After months of struggling with glasses that weren’t working out for her, Roni finally has a couple new pairs. We had both planned to get our eyes checked at Kaiser’s optometry department until we discovered that eye exams aren’t covered on our health plan; it would have cost us each $200 or more just to get new prescriptions. So instead we decided to try Costco, which has basic exams for $60. Roni had her test done there, then selected a pair of bifocals and another set of computer glasses, which got her a discount because she bought them both at the same time. In all, she paid about $400 for the test and new frames. Glenn, meanwhile, has decided to wait until next year for a vision exam, hoping to get a better health plan that doesn’t treat eye exams as a nonessential medical need.

That’s going to do it for June. Enjoy your Independence Day weekend and we’ll provide more kitchen remodeling updates next month.


Glenn, Roni and Ben