December 30, 2018: It’s December, the month in which we try to cram 30 days worth of activity into the final week of the year. Or so it seems. But our calendar says we’re down to a few dozen hours left until the ball drops and this newsletter is nowhere close to being done, so we’ll do our best to plow through the highlights like Santa cutting trails through fresh snow drifts. How’s that for a Christmas-themed simile? We promise no more of them, starting now…
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Photo by Glenn.
Photo by Glenn.
Photo by Glenn.
Photo by Roni.
Photo by Glenn.
The kitchen is really starting to look like a kitchen once more — at least half of it. We hadn’t planned in any new appliances with this remodeling job, but we saved so much money doing the tile counters over the granite slabs that we had a bit left in the budget for a new stove, which was high on Roni’s wish list. Our trusty GE Spectra XL44 had been with us for… we can’t remember exactly how long, but it was perhaps 20 years. It was down to one burner of the four that worked with any sort of regularity, and while it still performed well enough to keep, the allure of shiny new things right now is pretty powerful. Particularly when they are on sale.
November, it turns out, is one of the best times to purchase appliances, as manufacturers clear out old models and retailers gear up for Black Friday and Christmas season deals. Roni had been looking for a while at different models and set her sights on a Samsung gas range that has a center burner that can be used for a griddle. It normally sells for around $1,000, but several places had it down to $550, which is what we found it for at Home Depot in early November. Black Friday runs almost the entire month nowadays, so we just had to figure out if we wanted to buy it before the 25th.
We had batted around the idea of getting a stove in the new year, figuring we would wait until the kitchen remodel was completed. The last thing you want to do is get a new appliance and then have to move it again or risk banging into it with ladders and tools amid an ongoing construction zone. But given that we have no idea when the remodel will actually be finished, Roni decided we should go ahead now while the sale was on. So we ordered the stove and set delivery as late as we possibly could, Dec. 18, which Glenn hoped would be enough time to finish the all-important but messy task of completing the new tile backsplash.
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LL THE WORK we had done to date to extend the old cabinets and reface them with new doors had updated the look of our kitchen, but we were still stuck with the ugly textured yellow walls we have grown to loathe. Now that the cabinetry was mostly done, we could turn our attention to covering up the rest of the old surfaces. Glenn knew he had to get to tiling the backsplash quickly, given the pending arrival of the new stove, but we also planned to cover the top half of the walls with painted shiplap, and he knew this part of the job would be easiest to start with.
We bought several packages of cedar planks weeks ago and had been storing them above the cabinets. Now we got to take them down and spread them out on a table on the front porch to first prime, then paint. We have invested a lot of money in paint samples during this project, never quite finding the colors we liked, so finally we decided that whatever we chose now for the shiplap would be the be-all, end-all color. We liked “Dark Pewter” when we saw a swatch of it at Home Depot, so we bought a quart of it in Behr Marquee satin and never looked back. The color is the perfect complement to the white tile backsplash and the lighter gray cabinets.
Glenn drew lines on the walls as a guide for the planks, then he cut sections to fit the small wall next to the coffee cabinet and the large wall surrounding the laundry room door. Where the hole for the heating duct is, we purchased a decorative nickel faceplate that really makes the room pop. Now there were no excuses left to delay the tiling. Honestly, Glenn didn’t put that part off because he was worried about the work required, having already done the granite tiles for the countertop, but because he was concerned about it looking right. Because of the uneven wall surface and varying heights of the counters, Glenn didn’t want to place a bunch of subway tiles and discover too late that they were crooked or poorly aligned. Those are easy mistakes to make on wall tile.
Fortunately the job went more smoothly than anticipated. We started in the corner of the wall beneath the coffee cabinet, making sure everything was level beforehand. There were some odd cuts involved around the outlets and the corner behind the dishwasher, but at the end of the afternoon we had the first section finished and ready for grout. Encouraged by that success, Glenn moved on to the longest section of backsplash between the sink and the laundry room. We pulled the old stove away from the wall so it would be easier to work back there. Rain had arrived, so we brought in the tile saw and set it up on the floor in the vacated stove area. It took a couple of days of sawing, measuring, mortaring and grouting, but by the morning of Dec. 18 we were finished with the part required for installing the new stove.
It was a good thing, too, because the delivery guys came early that day. They were supposed to call us before showing up between 2 and 6 p.m., but instead they knocked on the door before 11 a.m., just as we had finished cleaning up the counters and vacuuming tile dust off the floor around the stove area. They were in and out quickly, taking away our old GE Spectra and leaving us with a shiny new Samsung.
For the first time in months we are seeing light at the end of this tunnel. Glenn is taking a break from the kitchen project during the holidays, but he plans to get back at it in January with a goal to be done by February. With the rest of the walls, the pantry and the floor still to go, we’ll see if that happens. But at least he seems optimistic.
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EEDLESS TO SAY, the kitchen project has dominated our lives for much of this year. It has also dominated our living room, as tools and materials with no place to call home have ended up piled on tables, around the fireplace, and in the middle of the floor. Ladders and boards have been leaned against walls. Our entryway has been a storage spot for table saws and sink basins and boxes of tile. Because of this, there was little room for Christmas decorations.
Roni put up some solar lights and a few other things in the front yard, but she waited until after the stove delivery to erect the Christmas tree, just a week before the big day. It is easily the latest we have ever installed our tree, and it came as we were debating whether to have one at all this year. Glenn was looking for alternatives to having to drag the faux tree out of the garage again, but eventually he caved when he realized those alternatives would be more costly and time consuming than just braving the clutter and using the decorations we already have.
Roni gets the credit for the decorating duties after Glenn assembled the tree sections. We decided to move the display to the entryway across from the kitchen this year because it was faster and easier than putting it up in the usual space near the window behind the sofa. Although we kept the display sparse, the cats still had no problem finding the tree and romping through it as their own festive playground.
Online shopping has radically altered the way we hunt for gifts, so it was somewhat of a miracle that any of us hit the brick-and-mortar stores at all. Ben, empowered to purchase gifts for everyone in the family as well as his coworkers, went out once with Dad and again with Mom to check out the offerings at Barnes & Noble, Cost Plus World Market and Bed Bath & Beyond. We were all surprised, after Christmas had come and gone, that not once this season did we set foot in Target, Walmart or Best Buy.
Which is not to say that we didn’t get to any of those places after Christmas. In fact, Roni was quite eager to hit up Best Buy where she purchased a new iPad and digital pencil to go with it, ostensibly to take notes at her outreach meetings for work. This came in addition to the 35mm lens she received for her Nikon and a new living room furniture set we picked up at Costco (more on that next month), so Santa treated her pretty well.
Santa also smiled on Glenn, who went so far as to declare this Christmas the Year of the Calendar. He received no less than eight of them under our tree, and then added more when we went to visit his family in Hayward later on Christmas Day. Roni also received calendars, so in one day we went from wondering if we would have enough to fill all our walls to wishing we had more walls to hold them all.
Aside from the calendars, Glenn’s other major gift category included items for his pickup truck. Roni and Ben got him new floor mats, a steering wheel cover, replacement cables for the tailgate, and a heavy duty rubber bed liner to protect all the items we might want to haul. Tom and Jenny also gave him a huge bungee cargo net to secure stuff in the payload.
Ben got his usual collection of anime and manga items, as well as a few things he wasn’t expecting for his car. The cats also made out, taking turns romping and playing with fuzzy, furry and feathered toys while the rest of us opened gifts. Cats are easily entertained, so a few empty boxes, ribbons and wrapping paper provided tons of fun once all their stocking stuffers had been dispersed.
With the new stove online, we were eager to do some holiday baking that mostly didn’t happen. Glenn got his first taste of it when he prepared his annual bread recipe on Christmas Eve, also becoming the first to use our new bread board as he rolled out the dough. The preparation went fairly well until it came time to bake the loaves. He preheated the oven to 350 degrees as required, but somehow failed to get the oven to stay at that temperature. After 25 minutes the timer went off, but the oven was only warm and the bread was barely brown. It was after a few more failed attempts that we realized he had been using the convection oven function and not the main oven. He got the bread to finish baking, but it resulted in a less than perfect product.
Roni put together a Greek feta and olive hors d’oeuvres tray to take with us when we went to visit Glenn’s folks later in the day. The offering was a hit at the gathering. Our mom has been missing Dad while he continues to care for our grandma down in Hemet, so she was happy to have the rest of the family around her table to share in Christmas dinner. Afterward we went around the room opening gifts. This year we got Sean a Dremel tool set, Jenny and Tom a Keurig coffee machine, and Mom a pretty green sweater to match the color of her eyes. For Shannon, always difficult to shop for, we got a gift certificate to Urban Plates organic restaurant in Dublin. We designed a special handmade sign for our nephew Allen, who enjoys collecting old garage sale signs he finds in the neighborhood. The sign, which Glenn painted on wood, proclaims him the mayor of Allentown. Ben gave him a color-changing strobe light, similar to a disco ball, and so it was party time in Allentown once the mayor got back home.
Despite our own lack of baking, we still managed to leave the Hayward gathering with enough cookies to last us a week. Thanks, Mom!
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HEN WE SAID goodbye to our 1998 Toyota Corolla last month, we weren’t sure if it would be the last time this year one of our cars might make it to the donation bin. There was still the matter of getting Glenn’s 2001 Corolla to pass its biennial smog inspection, and the prospects weren’t looking good after he realized that there would be no finessing the check engine light this time. After buying the BlueDriver diagnostic tool to troubleshoot the problem, he thought he had a good idea it was a vacuum leak somewhere in the engine. But where?
Not wanting to shell out hundreds of dollars for a mechanic and more diagnostic equipment, Glenn decided to build his own smoke tester machine that could ferret out any leaks. The idea is simple: create some smoke and then pump it into one of the hoses in the engine’s air intake system. If you see smoke, trace it to the source and seal up the leak. Problem solved.
Except that it turned out not to be so simple. Glenn repurposed an old fog machine we had stored away with our Halloween decorations. He adapted the nozzle where the fog comes out by using plumber’s putty to attach some PVC pipe around the opening. To this he connected a plastic tube, which in turn was attached to the hose feeding the car’s brake booster cylinder. He heated up the fog machine and then sprayed the “smoke” into the hose. He knew the device was working when he saw it inflate a rubber surgical glove that had been placed over the air intake manifold at the front of the engine (necessary to prevent the smoke from escaping.) But where was the leak? There was no wayward smoke curling up from the engine compartment. Could he have done it wrong?
He stuffed the hose up the car’s tailpipe to check for exhaust leaks — another possible culprit of the car’s lean fuel condition — but found nothing. Either the smoke tester wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, or there was no leak. The engine light remained on. Glenn assumed that if there was no air leak in the engine then it meant the air intake was normal, but not enough fuel was being delivered to the engine. The BlueDriver’s long-term fuel trim data supported this hypothesis, so the next logical step was to focus on engine parts that could easily be serviced by a shade tree mechanic. This led Glenn to inspect the fuel injectors.
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CCESSING THE FUEL injectors in the Corolla is about a 10-minute job. You loosen a few bolts, remove some wiring connectors, then pull off the fuel rail to reveal the injectors beneath. Of course it is a good idea to depressurize the fuel system before doing this, which Glenn failed to do. The result was about a quart of gasoline spraying all over the engine compartment. Once that was done, Glenn removed each injector from the rail and immediately saw how clogged they were — 18 years of carbon deposits and varnish that had never been removed. He gave them each a bath in brake cleaner and used the point of a pin to unclog all the holes until the tips shone like new. Then he reassembled everything and tried to start the engine.
The car fired up immediately and the engine sounded strong. Glenn plugged in the BlueDriver and discovered what he wanted to see — the long-term fuel trim had dropped from +25 percent down to zero, exactly where it should be. Things sure smelled gassy, but that was probably a result of the fuel that had spilled earlier. The problem appeared to be solved. All he needed to confirm the repair was to take it for a test drive. But first, he decided to pop the hood and share his success with Roni. It was at that moment we realized why there was such a strong odor of fuel — the fuel rail was leaking and gasoline was flowing down the driveway. “Shut it off! Shut it off!”
Well, the 18-year-old fuel injectors may have been cleaned, but the 18-year-old O-rings sealing them started crumbling when we tried to reuse them and needed to be replaced. So Glenn ran over to Auto Zone and got a $5 package of washers and a tube of silicone grease. Within an hour he had replaced all the O-rings and reassembled the fuel rail, ready to try again as night started to descend. Roni poked her cell phone flashlight into the engine compartment to watch for leaks. It took just a second to find them. For whatever reason, the new O-rings weren’t working and fuel was still gushing out of the top of the fuel rail. Dejected, Glenn closed up shop for the night and hit the message boards online in search of answers.
The only advice offered by others he hadn’t tried was to use genuine Toyota parts for the repair. You would think that one 10-cent washer is as good as the next if it is the right size, but some believed otherwise. So on a Saturday morning we headed to Antioch Toyota to buy four “genuine” O-rings and four gaskets to make a third attempt at the repair. This time we decided that if the old O-rings were bad then the gaskets might be too, so better to replace everything at once rather than have to do the job yet again.
But Antioch, being a small dealership, did not have the parts in stock and wouldn’t be able to get them until Tuesday. Ben needed the car for work Sunday, so we needed a faster solution. The guy at the parts counter found what we needed in stock at Livermore Toyota, about 30 miles away, so we had him hold the parts for us and then went for a scenic drive over the Altamont. Toyota being Toyota, we paid $53 for what amounted to eight 10-cent washers. But if it got the job done right, we could hardly complain.
It was already approaching dusk when we arrived home. Glenn expertly (by now, this being the third time) disassembled the fuel rail, popped out the injectors, and replaced the generic O-rings with the new genuine ones. Somehow two of the generic washers had been damaged during installation, so that was the reason for the latest leak. Glenn was very careful not to twist the new washers or force them into the fuel rail this time. Once everything was reassembled, we held our breath and started the engine. No leaks!
On Sunday morning, after he was sure the spilled gasoline had evaporated from the engine compartment, Glenn took the car out for a test drive and was pleased that the engine light remained off. He was equally pleased that no fires erupted from beneath the hood — confirmation that there were no leaks. Not wanting to chance that the repair might not hold, he eagerly drove the car to Firehouse Smog in Antioch and was out in less than 20 minutes with the smog certificate.
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ETTING THE COROLLA smogged was the final hurdle before transferring its title to Ben. This had been our plan all along, once he earned his driver’s license and could handle the insurance payments. The three of us headed to AAA in Antioch the week before Christmas with high hopes of completing the paperwork. But we walked out empty-handed after they ran some numbers on the insurance that showed Ben would have to pay substantially more per month than he was on our existing policy. We decided it would be in his best interest to wait until his birthday in May, when he would be 25 and some other things would happen to get his premium lowered.
Ben was disappointed, but at least he now had a properly working vehicle to drive. He also had Mom, who remained hard at work on the insurance issue and put in a call to AAA’s customer service department. The phone clerk was more helpful than the woman we’d talked with in Antioch, and we were able to get Ben’s policy knocked down to about $100 per month. Much more reasonable. The transfer was back on!
So the day after Christmas and with a shiny new insurance policy in hand, Ben and Dad drove back to AAA and filled out the papers to make Ben the sole owner of the car. We swapped Glenn’s vanity plates for new generic ones, and Dad paid the $137 registration as a belated Christmas gift. Ben wasted no time personalizing it, installing a new stereo adapter he received for Christmas along with some window decals and a scented deodorizer to hang from the mirror. Nearly 180,000 miles and just shy of 18 years to the day since it arrived in our driveway, the 2001 Corolla has passed to the next generation and is still running strong. It still takes some getting used to not calling it Glenn’s car anymore, but we feel glad knowing Ben will continue to get use from it.
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LL GOOD THINGS eventually come to an end, and that appears to be the case for our photo collections on Flickr. After many years of posting larger versions of our newsletter photos there, the website notified us that beginning next month free accounts will be limited to 1,000 images, and anything beyond that will be deleted, starting with the oldest content first. Once you hit the limit, you won’t be able to post new material without deleting something else to make room.
Unfortunately, we have amassed a collection of more than 2,300 images. Not wanting to shell out the premium for a paid account, we are faced with the tedious business of regularly deleting older posts or abandoning the site altogether, so we have decided that this will be the last newsletter (for now) with links to larger images. If we come up with a suitable alternative we will let you know.
As we head into 2019 we are looking forward with both optimism and uncertainty for what the new year may bring. Roni is gearing up for some big speaking engagements in Monterey, Newport Beach and Palm Springs as she becomes more involved with the California Water Environment Association (CWEA) and its public outreach efforts. This year was a big one for her as her major client, Ironhouse Sanitary District, won numerous awards and Roni herself was honored as California’s Outreach Coordinator of the Year. When you are having success, everyone wants to know what you’re doing, which is how the speaking opportunities arose.
Glenn is setting goals for taking control of his finances, and despite an unforgiving December that saw his stock positions sink more than 20 percent, he plans to take heed of the investing books he received over the holidays to get his portfolio back on track. He took the first step in that direction the Friday before Christmas, rolling over his old 401[k] from Prudential into an IRA plan so he can start making contributions once more. He will also be waiting anxiously by the phone on New Year’s Day to find out if and when he has to report for jury duty in Martinez the following day. A superior court case 25 miles from home to kick off the new year? We all hope not!
That’s about it for this month. We wish you all a safe and healthy start to 2019.