November 26, 2014: The wheels of progress turn slowly sometimes, especially when it comes to our home improvement projects. You may recall that several years ago we dismantled the spa that had occupied our rear patio so that we could make room for construction of what affectionately came to be known as the Big-Ass Pergola (BAP). Although the pergola was completed and stands to this day, the fate of its predecessor has never been settled. The old redwood deck made its way into our side yard where it awaits sanding and a fresh coat of paint for its planned reuse. The lattice panels that were not otherwise in disrepair were leaned against a fence in hopes they might be repurposed as garden trellises. Most of the spa's innards — its heater, foam insulation, jets and tubing — wound up buried under piles of sand before we at last shipped them off to the dump, one garbage can at a time.
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That left the spa liner, an 8x8-foot fiberglass behemoth that was too heavy to move, too awkward to dismantle, and too large to hide. We stripped it of all the extra weight we could before wrestling it onto its side and propping it against the outside wall of our master bedroom, where it remained three long years collecting spiders and wasp nests. Glenn decided the old spa was the perfect shape for an in-ground pond we wanted to build, so in early 2011 he dug a large hole in the side yard with good intentions to fit the spa liner into it. When he realized it would be too difficult to move the spa into the hole without the pit's sandy sides collapsing under the weight, he constructed a temporary frame from 2x4 lumber with the idea that the spa might be guided into position on wood rails. It was a fine idea, except that he never figured out a good way to move the weighty spa, and so the project came to a standstill for years while he sought an answer. That answer never materialized, and eventually the hole began refilling as the buckets of sand Glenn had moved slipped from their artificial mountain and settled back to the bottom of the pit.
This might have been the end of the story if not for Ben and his friend Aaron, who have taken to using our backyard as a shortcut when they go out to eat late in the evening at the fast food restaurants near our home. Our back gate that borders the railroad tracks saves them a 10-minute trip around the block, but unfortunately the path to the gate is not the safest route to take in the dark. Despite the addition of solar lights along the brick path through the side yard, the guys had managed on more than one occasion to nearly slip into the unfinished pond hole. Clearly this was not a safe situation. So in early October, Glenn got a burst of inspiration and decided it was time to finish the pond project one way or another.
He took a couple days to scoop out the few hundred shovelfuls of sand that had returned to the hole, then it was time to decide how to move the spa liner. With no simple option having made itself apparent, we decided to just wing it. We laid some old boards between the house and the edge of the hole, tipped the liner onto them, then shimmied the heavy fiberglass until it sat approximately lined up with the wood frame Glenn had constructed years ago. The hope was that we'd tip it in and the liner's edges would be supported by the frame. The reality was, the spa tipped in at an angle and pushed the frame out of alignment in the process, so now we had a crooked pond liner and a busted frame. What now?
The situation seemed hopeless, but we discovered that all it took was a little leverage to set things right — leverage in the form of 2x4s and garden shovels that we used in tandem to lift the liner at its corners and turn it a few inches at a time until it was mostly straight and level. Turns out the ancient Egyptians really did know what they were doing.
We had grown used to having giant sand piles in our side yard these past few years, but now we needed every last grain to backfill the hole we'd just planted the spa into. It turned out that Glenn had dug the hole deeper than it needed to be, so many hours were spent shoveling sand back into it, tamping it down, and leveling the rest of the yard. When he was finished the spa was neatly embedded and there were no awkward holes or sand piles left to fall into or trip over. All we needed now was a plan to complete the rest of the pond.
Glenn's original idea was to plug all the holes in the spa liner with expanding foam and swatches of pool fabric that would be glued down with marine adhesive. This now seemed like more trouble than it was worth, so we decided instead to purchase a black plastic pond liner that we would form around the contours of the fiberglass spa. We haven't ordered that yet and probably won't before next spring, so for now we're stuck with an ugly blue spa tub buried up to its lip in the side yard sand, where it manages to trap fence lizards and Jerusalem crickets. We added some makeshift escape ladders so the lizards won't drown down there. Because the pond hole is now backfilled, Ben and Aaron no longer are in peril of slipping off the path like they were, so all is well for now.
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WE HAD NO sooner gotten the old spa in the ground than the weather finally took a wet turn and filled portions of the spa with dew and later rain. Now there is a lot of mud in there and a bunch of dead insects we have to clean out. We had been enjoying our typical Indian summer through most of October, and then right on schedule Mother Nature let loose with a torrential downpour on Halloween morning. That sucked, because Halloween is one of our favorite days of the year and Roni loves to decorate the front yard in anticipation of the trick-or-treaters we get. At least the weatherman promised the rain would let up before evening, so we crossed our fingers and went about preparations as usual.
With Glenn off work for the day, we drove into Brentwood to check out Party City. The place was closing out on what was left of its Halloween merchandise, so we scored a cemetery display complete with creepy tombstones along with some disembodied heads and some other sundry supplies. These were to go with our new fog machine that we bought a couple of weeks earlier from the Spirit store, where we usually try to go once every year so we can try on goofy masks and check out the latest overpriced Halloween props. By the time we got done with the shopping trip and other errands, it was already pushing 3 o'clock and we needed to put our display together before the sun set and the kids began showing up.
While Glenn cleared a circle on our appropriately dead front lawn to set up the cemetery, Roni worked to decorate the front porch and string a few plastic pumpkin lights along the path near the driveway. Her style tends to favor the cheery decorations aimed more at younger kids, while Glenn goes in for the grotesque and gore. It's an eclectic mix to be sure, and one that was perhaps too intense for some of our younger visitors, especially once we added the fog machine and Martha Stewart's haunted house soundtrack, which we blasted over the speakers of our dining room computer. A couple of the younger kids were too afraid to step up onto our porch, while some of the older ones loved the effect of walking through a fog bank to reach the front door. Timid or not, we made sure to pass out candy to all 100-plus trick-or-treaters we saw — easily the largest crowd we've had in years.
The fog machine has a remote control on it so that you can set off a fog burst when you hear someone coming to the door. The problem is it doesn't always shut off when you want it to, so we often just let it blow until it overheated and shut off on its own for a cool-down period. The hope was that we could keep the mist contained to the front porch, but if we couldn't then it would look neat wafting over the foam graveyard. In the end, much of the fog escaped the porch and headed skyward, or else it blew through the open screen door into the house, where we sat in almost total darkness in an effort not to spoil the creepy mood.
Glenn even decided to crawl into the attic and resurrect the decoration resembling chained mummified remains we'd put up there about six years ago to peek out the attic window. He doesn't usually like climbing around the roof rafters with the real spiders and clouds of dust, but it is the rare occasion when we can turn on the light up there and do something useful with the otherwise non-functional window. We were a bit pressed for time during the yard decorating phase, so our jack-o-lantern carving efforts were somewhat lackluster. Roni had found some battery powered eyeballs at the store that you insert in the pumpkin instead of carving eye sockets, so we used those along with carving out the mouth and nose so there'd be something for the candles to shine through.
Usually we buy tons of candy to be sure we'll have enough to hand out at the door and are left with lots of leftovers that we wind up eating ourselves. So this year Roni made sure to buy a few less bags, and wouldn't you know that on a Friday night we'd get more kids than usual? We started with handing out a couple chocolate bars to each kid, but by 9 p.m. we were cutting the offerings down to a single piece of candy per customer, afraid that we would run out before the night was done. Roni came close to having to send Ben out to the store for another bag, but we managed to stretch the stash to the end, digging into our personal reserves of M&M's to meet the demand. The sacrifices we make!
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IT WAS IN taking down the Halloween decorations the following morning that we had a chance to get a good look at how one day of steady rainfall had affected our property. The rain gutters over our garage and front porch have been rusting for the past few years and are finally at the point where mere patching won't help the leaks. We were lucky the rain let up for the trick-or-treaters, or else they would have gotten a free shower trying to walk onto our porch. Replacing the gutters is a high priority item on our backlogged home improvement list, but just cleaning them out for now seemed a prudent thing to do.
The gutter that runs past our front bedrooms and turns to continue along the roof in our side yard is in much better shape than the front porch one, but it was so clogged with wind-blown sand that the water was overflowing the gutter and spilling onto the ground near the porch, rotting out one of the fascia boards from the constant exposure to moisture. Add another item to the eventual repair list. So Glenn got up on the ladder to scoop out the accumulated sand with his bare hands. It was nearly 6 inches deep, but the sand was not the true cause of the clogged gutters. It turned out that ancient small toys from Ben's youth had found their way onto the roof, into the gutters, and had blocked both downspouts. There was no way water could get through even if the gutters themselves were spotless. Glenn wound up having to take a screwdriver, hammer, closet auger and other tools up to the roof to break through the clogs, after which he hosed down the gutters to remove most of the sand that still remained.
We don't know how much sand actually came out of the gutters that day, but we are estimating it would have filled a 5-gallon bucket at least four times. Glenn scraped up his hands pretty bad — the price of not wearing gloves — but it seems a small price to pay for not having to listen to waterfalls in the front planter box this winter.
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IT'S BEEN A busy few weeks for us with not enough time to do half of the things we've wanted — such as writing this newsletter — so we'll end this one with a quick recap of other highlights and lowlights:
* The day we brought home Roni's new car from the dealership we took bets as to how long it would be before it suffered its first mishap. The answer: 5 weeks and 2 days. Roni was driving back from a conference in Sacramento the evening of Oct. 29 when she ran over some large object on the Antioch Bridge that made her fear something had fallen off the car. She was just a couple miles from home and didn't notice anything amiss after she got there and inspected the undercarriage in the dark, so she assumed that was the end of it. Unfortunately she went outside the next afternoon to discover one of the rear tires flat as a pancake.
A quick call to AAA and a drive over to our local Les Schwab Tire Center got the problem resolved the same day. Not only were they able to repair the tire, but they did it free of charge. We were so happy with the service that we took Glenn's car there on Halloween to have its wheels aligned. They called us up while we were at the party supply store to say that a cheaper wheel balance might be all he needed to get his lumpy ride smoothed out. So we spent $27 instead of $86 and the car works fine now. Not sure how Les Schwab makes its money, but it wasn't off of us that week.
* Ben is probably the only person we've ever known who was actually excited to be summoned for jury duty. Still searching for a paying job, he viewed his notice to serve in San Francisco U.S. District Court as an opportunity rather than an albatross, enticed by its promises of reimbursement for travel expenses and time spent hearing whatever case he might be assigned. This being the first time he has been called to jury duty, we wondered why it couldn't have been somewhere closer to home that didn't involve an arduous commute by public bus and BART, but he didn't let the mileage discourage him.
Ben called the court as directed the evening of Nov. 9 and learned that he would be "on call" for 10 days. He never got called, which was probably for the best since he got a horrible cold just a few days later and didn't want to stray far from his NyQuil and a comfortable bed in which to curl up. His dream of getting to experience real live courtroom drama a la Ace Attorney will have to wait for another day, as will another chance to earn some spending loot.
* Roni has been dealing with her own health issues this past month, but hopefully she is now on the mend. She developed a nasty ear infection in mid-October that brought her to the doctor for antibiotics. She took the meds and the symptoms disappeared for a couple of weeks, but then they returned with a vengeance. She woke up the morning of Sunday, Nov. 16, in so much pain that we feared she might have to go to the emergency room. Fortunately she was able to get a regular appointment for a new course of meds, then on Nov. 18 she went to see a specialist who drained the stubborn infection from her right ear. She's got yet another prescription — horse pills, we like to joke — and hopes that this will be the last time for a long time that she has to deal with swollen ears. At least now she says she has greater empathy for young babies who scream in murderous rage when they have ear infections.
* We took an impromptu Sunday morning — or rather afternoon — drive to Berkeley Oct. 26 to check out Saul's Restaurant and Delicatessen after Roni discovered it online and got a hankering for some real New York-style cuisine. Saul's, on Shattuck Avenue, is known for its authentic Jewish food, and the line was out the door by the time we arrived there. They start you out with free deli pickles in three flavors for appetizers. We of course had to order pastrami on rye and the knishes, which was what Roni most wanted to try. The food was very good, if a little pricey. We couldn't get out of there before making a stop at the deli counter to take home some bakery goods including macaroons and s slice of cheesecake, plus a few more of the pickles that Roni had fallen in love with during lunch.
Next it was a stop at Urban Ore, which is Berkeley's version of a Home Depot for antique collectors. Glenn wanted to check it out because he had heard it is a good place to go for recycled building materials, and considering that he is thinking of doing some building in the near future, he was curious to see what they had in stock. The warehouse has a huge collection of trash and treasures, ranging from common flea market items such as clothing, books, furniture and old records, to reclaimed doors, windows, bathtubs, sinks and toilets. If you need a particular style of door that hasn't been manufactured in the past 50 years, there is a good chance you'll find it there. The stuff may have been of flea market quality, but much of it was priced as if it were priceless antiques. We liked the concept behind the place — of sustainable construction materials — but we'll probably stick to buying our building supplies from Lowe's.
* The Delta Science Center had its last big fundraiser for the year Oct. 18 when Roni and her crew presented the second annual Fish Tales event at Big Break Regional Shoreline in Oakley. Although this was the second year and lots of planning went into booking speakers and promoting the show through social media channels, in the newspaper and on the radio, ticket sales were disappointingly sparse. Because there had been so much publicity, we expected some people would just show up at the door the afternoon of the event and try to buy tickets, even though they were advertised as advance purchase only. Just to be prepared, we picked up about 10 large party trays from Safeway to be sure there would be enough hors d'oeuvres to feed everyone that might arrive. In the end, two ticket holders showed up, and they were outnumbered about 5-to-1 by our volunteer crew. We wound up pulling folks in off the street for free food, just so our two storytellers wouldn't have to perform to an empty house. It wasn't the huge turnout we had hoped for, but those who were in attendance had a good time, and there was so much leftover food that we spent the following week living off crackers and cheese, veggies and dip. We also gained about 10 pounds each, but that's a different story.
* Speaking of food, our backyard bird feeders have been overrun lately by the newest resident of our yard: a feisty, bushy-tailed ground squirrel. Mr. Squirrel showed up in late summer and moved himself in to what had been a gopher hole beneath the bird feeders. Doing what ground squirrels do, he enlarged the hole and has literally dug himself in for the winter, taking advantage of our daily avian offerings to line his den with peanuts and fresh bird seed. He has become an almost daily attraction on our webcam photos, or at least he appears whenever there is free food to be had. His antics, while annoying because they keep the birds at bay, are nonetheless humorous to observe.
We watched one morning while he tried desperately to find a way into the plastic bird bath where we had put peanuts for the Steller's jay — specifically because it was the one place we knew Mr. Squirrel couldn't reach, or so we thought. After running around the yard and climbing just about every raised surface he could, looking in vain for one that would provide a path to the goodies, he finally got on closest feeder platform, raised up on hind legs, then launched himself at the bird bath. The flimsy stand immediately toppled, spilling its contents into Summer's Garden. The squirrel looked shocked initially, but after ducking into his hole for a few minutes, he resurfaced to enjoy the smorgasbord he'd left for himself.
We've taken to putting the bird food in the hanging feeder that you see on the cam, but even that hasn't been much of a deterrent. The squirrel has piled his sand mounds so high that he is able to jump up and grab onto the edge of the feeder, hoisting himself up to stuff his cheeks while the rest of his body dangles in space. He's entertaining, yes, but unfortunately we'll need to trap him and transport him somewhere else if we want our birds to return.