Thursday, December 22, 2016

Sunshine and stairs

The dog stairs are done and they are a qualified success. If cheese is placed at the top, Ada the dog is happy to run up and down the steps all day. I was worried that she'd be scared of the quite narrow steps, so I'm relieved. The main hangup is that she hasn't figured out that there's a window up there, so she never goes up on her own.  I think a few more sessions of cheese and peanut butter will help her with this.
My church held a solstice service last night, which was just lovely. As a gardener, dog owner, and bicyclist, I spend more time outside than I used to in days of yore. As a consequence, I notice the seasons and weather more. I always welcome winter solstice; it means I've already survived the darkest days of the year. Solstice also reminded me how much I appreciate having seasons again. I know I've said it before, but living in Miami with its two hot and not-quite-as-hot seasons has made me forever appreciate four seasons. It's cold now, but in one month I'll be able to bicycle again, and in three months I'll be planting.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Trifle and introverts

     The results of the fruitcake research were, sadly, inconclusive. People did NOT notice the two plates contained the same thing - if you have food scattered over a few tables, no one keeps track of things. A bit more of the "fruitcake" was consumed than the "brandied spice cake", but there wasn't a large enough difference to say anything. Nonetheless, it was delicious, boozy, and vegan. I'd definitely make it again.
     Guests were impressed by the trifle. I suspect this was mainly because no one ever makes it in the U.S. It was a standard component of my UK Christmases, so I was a bit more critical. It turns out that you can't use too-dense leftover cake in place of ladyfingers. But add enough custard and fruit and hardly anyone notices.
     I am the odd introvert who enjoys throwing parties. I love planning for weeks, cooking, and decorating. I love dressing up, turning on the music, and lighting the candles. I want my friends to have a delightful time, and I work the room, introducing people and make sure that all the different friend groups are mingling and no one is left alone. But after the conversations are going strong, and the plates are loaded with snacks, I wish I could just slip away for the rest of the evening. For me, the creation of the party is the achievement and I don't actually need to participate in it. Fortunately I have enough social savvy to know this would be frowned upon.

Thursday, December 08, 2016

Party Prep

     It's been full-on party preparation this week. The tree is decorated, the snowflakes are hung, and the house is clean. I even dusted my baseboards - I keep my house very neat and fairly minimal so there's not too much to clean, but I still don't think to dust very often. I hope my guests appreciate it. Perhaps when I'm giving them the tour of the house (which ALWAYS includes a stop in the basement to see the awesome plumbing) I can casually point out the cleanliness of the baseboards.
      One new addition to the menu this year is a fruitcake. I didn't quite follow the recipe, because I had to substitute brandy for rum and lots of fresh citrus zest for the candied citrus. Since I always label all my food at parties, I've been debating whether to name it "fruitcake" and trigger all the negative associations with that name or choose something like "brandied spice cake with figs and cherries." Probably the best idea is to have two separate plates, one with each label, and measure at the end of the evening which one has been consumed more.

Monday, December 05, 2016


     I get lightheaded sometimes. When I realized that I was avoiding strenuous exercise as a result, I decided to check it out. My cardiologist (Doesn't that sound impressive? I thought I'd have to wait another four decades to have my own cardiologist.) did a bunch of tests. This eventually led to the past July, when I was strapped to a table while standing up. (It looked like this.) We waited twenty minutes, and BOOM, I passed out, which I most definitely did not expect. This means that my blood pressure is poorly regulated, and explains why I feel dizzy when I get up from my office chair sometimes, and why I can't climb more than two flight of stairs without taking a break. Actually, it doesn't explain it at all to me, because I don't understand why my brain can't regulate my blood pressure.
     The good news is that the danger comes primarily from fainting, because people tend to injure themselves when they faint. The other good news is that I'm very good at not fainting. Whenever I feel dizzy, I lean against a wall, or sit down, or lay down. (Happily I've never needed to lay down at work.) The best news is that it has never happened when I'm driving, so I'm not in any danger there.
     I don't need medicine now, but I'm glad to know it's an option if it gets worse. In the meantime, the doctor is trying to raise my blood pressure the old-fashioned way, with salt. I am the only person I know who got an official directive to eat more salt. Pretzels and potato chips (and salt tablets), here I come.

Thursday, November 24, 2016


I am becoming my father.

     I extended my Seattle trip so I could visit my old college friend, A. We've known each other for twenty years and I because I've spent so much time in the city previously, we agreed that we didn't need to do a lot of touristy things around Seattle, just needed a chance to catch up. A's suggestion was a relaxed day of a taking a ferry to a nearby island or just doing a hike plus a visit to a local pub. Instead, I suggested we spend the day doing home repairs. A's handy, but usually hires out all of this kind of work.
     Two trips to Home Depot, a morning of DIY YouTube videos, and an afternoon of work later, and we had repaired a leaky shower, diagnosed a faulty motion-activated light fixture, and replaced five exterior door locks so that they all use the same key. It's not quite how A was expecting the day to unfold, but I think he was pleased with the result.
Medea the dog offers moral support during the faucet cartridge replacement.
I am now REALLY good at replacing door locks. Locksmithing is my new back-up job if physics doesn't work out.
Also, I am nothing like my father.
     Yesterday my dad helped me install a hitch on my car. It was pretty easy because he has a car lift. But first my parents and I spent six hours cleaning off all of the stuff piled up on the car lift. I am such a minimalist that I simply can't even conceive of owning so much stuff. But amongst all the junk metal and bolts, you find little historical treasures like this vintage cardboard milk carton. We think it has been holding sandpaper since about 1975, because the milk supplier is from the town where I was born in Minnesota.

Sunday, November 20, 2016


     I've been in Seattle for work this weekend. My former thesis advisor is now a colleague and we are working on a project related to diversity in undergraduate physics education. I spent the first night in the U District, which is the neighborhood next to the University of Washington, crammed full of cheap noodle restaurants, E-cigarette retailers, and hip clothing shops. I wandered around the neighborhood and was reminded of my first stay in Seattle, which was also in the winter. After I graduated from college, I took a two-month course in teaching English as a Second Language in Portland, Oregon. When I was done, I didn't really have any definite plans, so I hopped a bus north to Seattle and got a temp job in human resources at a very posh law firm. (If you are from Seattle, the Seattle Symphony plays in a Hall named for this same law firm.)
     I subletted someone's dining room in a one-bedroom apartment and slept on an air mattress on the floor. I was poor, but had a few friends in the area so I wasn't lonely. I was basically killing time, trying to figure out what my next step was. In mid-December, my temp position wasn't renewed and there weren't any other prospects, so I headed back to my parents. My earliest memories of Seattle are fond, but colored by the indecision and lack of funds that were my constant companions during that time.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Thoughts from the road

     On Sunday I began a convoluted two-week trip involving Maryland, Ohio, Pittsburgh, Seattle, multiple dog sitters, and Thanksgiving with my parents. The first leg involved dropping Ada off in Ohio and then heading to Pittsburgh for a two-day conference. For most of the trip, Ada remembered that she doesn’t need to bark in the car, but whenever I get of the highway and make a lot of turns or stops, she forgets. (For my physics friends, my dog is essentially a well-tuned accelerometer.)
     I think the dog would enjoy car trips more if I could figure out how to keep her crate cooler. A thick blanket most be draped over her crate at all times; if she can see any movement through a window, even through a thinner blanket, she goes crazy. As a result, the crate gets pretty warm. I need a way to keep her cool but in the dark. In the past, I tried a blindfold, attached to her harness, but she was highly motivated to get it off and wriggled out of the blindfold, her collar, and her harness. Suggestions are appreciated.
     While I was in Pittsburgh, I met a friend for dinner. I had two foods I had never eaten before - Philly cheesesteaks and buckwheat tea. I had never had the former because I hadn't come across a a restaurant that made them with seitan, and I hadn't even heard of the latter. It's kind of rare in my life that I get to try utterly new foods, and they were both delicious. I'm already researching how to roast my buckwheat for tea, since that seems much cheaper.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016


     Saturday was another project day. We added another family to project day last year, so now there are 3-5 adults working, depending on how many small children need attention at any given moment. As a result, many of us plan multiple simultaneous projects for the day.
     I was originally assigned to scraping and painting duty - a few parts of the house exterior needed a new coat before winter came. I'm quite comfortable working on ladders, but my arms are so short that my reach is quite limited. Soon, I defected to the door team. The exterior of the back door was worn, so S&N had decided to sand it down and refinish it. The two months I spent refinishing my bedroom floor gave me lots sanding experience, and I made myself somewhat insufferable complaining about the equipment. I used the little oscillating sander sitting on the bench in the picture, but I had two more appropriate sanders, and better sandpaper, at my house that I could have brought with me. The rest of the team was fine with doing a lot of hand sanding, but I was raised by a man who would spend ten hours building a machine to do a two-hour job* and don't take well to hand tools.
     Two days later I found myself in another somewhat impromptu project. I'd like to build a set of three steps for Ada the dog**. She can't see out of any of the house windows, and with steps she could amuse herself watching the neighborhood, as she used to do at the old house. I couldn't find any steps of appropriate height, and of course I'm too frugal to buy anything new anyway, so I decided to make them. It seemed crazy to spend a lot of money on good wood for dog furniture, but N said he could get me some used plywood. His university lab often receives equipment and materials on pallets that are lined with wood. But we needed to move quickly, because free plywood is snapped up by his coworkers. So I drove to his lab straight after work on Monday. Three of us worked to cut down the wood to a size that would fit in my car. We were in the loading dock, after dark, working by the light of a single fixture and a phone flashlight, cutting the wood down with a circular law while it balanced on barrels. I hadn't changed clothes after work, so I was still wearing my wool skirt and heels. By the time we were done, I and my work clothes were covered in sawdust, but I had the makings of dog furniture loaded in my little hatchback. I felt like I turned the 50's stereotype on it's head - instead of wearing my pearls and heels while vacuuming, I did so while ripping plywood.

*Because then you'd have the machine for the next job, and the saved time would be cumulative.
**It's her Christmas gift, so don't mention a word of this to her...

Thursday, November 03, 2016


     The cottage I rented came with a little kitchenette, so I stopped and bought groceries before my arrive at the place where I was doing my retreat. I wanted to minimize the time I spent cooking, so I had simple meals, like yogurt and granola for breakfast, and canned soup for lunch. As a result, I can say that I like everything about my retreat except for the canned soup. That stuff is awful.
     I didn't have a really good plan going into this thing, except that I had brought a notebook and turned off all my electronic devices. A friend's wife loaned me two books, one written by a minister and one by a psychotherapist, which were full of stories, poems, and exercises for the reader on the purpose of life. They turned out to be though-provoking and a great structure to my thinking.
     I walked a five-mile trail every day, which took four hours. That is incredibly slow, but on the first day, when I tried to walk it faster, my hands swelled up and turned blue, and I was utterly exhausted. I blame the altitude.
     After three days, I came out with a list of ways I wanted to change my life. Some of them are mundane: I realized that my kitchen table is uncomfortable for all who sit at it and should be replaced. Others are much larger, about how I want to live. If I shared them, though, I think they would not be impressive. If, for example, I said that I wanted to be nicer to people, I think you'd say, "Yup, sure, that's a good thing." But if you've sat in the woods and thought for three days about your life and why you're alive, and realized that you want to live your life to be nice to people, it's deeply moving.
     One thing that stuck with me was a quote in one of the books along the lines of, "Man is an absurd creature. He can watch people dying all around him and still presume death will never happen to him." I know that when I can grasp that I will die, even if I only grasp it a little bit, I live my life in a way that is better - better for me, and better for other people.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Early fall

     Fall and spring last a long time in Maryland. It's just starting to get cool at night here, but Ada and I can still sit out in the garden each morning, as long as I wear a coat. For reference, it's 6C/ 43F right now.
     This is my morning view. I sit on the Adirondack chair that N and I built, Ada keeps watch for Evil Squirrels, and I drink my coffee. In the distance, you can see the pink cosmos, blooming near the back fence. I planted them far too late, but they've managed to bloom like crazy starting in late September.
     The leaves are just starting to come down. I have no trees in my yard, so I only get a few leaves from the neighbors' trees. Since I'm a gardener, I'd actually like to have more leaves than that, to cover my beds and fill my compost pile. This year, I plan to "liberate" many paper bags of leaves that neighbors have left to be picked up be the city, and shred them with my mower. Yesterday, in fact, I found three bags of pine needles, which will be a great mulch for the front garden beds.
     When I get back from Denver, I think it may have turned to cold to keep spending my early mornings outside. But that's all right, because I'll be back in just four or five months. Having relatives in Minnesota, with its six months of winter, makes me extra appreciative of the comparatively balmy seasons here.

Thursday, October 20, 2016


     Several friends have asked a polite version of this question: "You live with a silent a dog and a silent roommate. Why do you need to go somewhere to have a silent retreat?" And this is an excellent question. It is true that on a non-workday I could easily go the whole day without talking. However, I never do so. I phone friends or family, I listen to podcasts, I run errands and talk to the checkout woman. A key part of the silent retreat, for me, is cutting myself off from all electronic devices, people, and music.
     In my planning for this trip, I realized that people retreat for many different reasons. Some people want to meditate, or to practice yoga. I want the chance to think about the direction of my life, and make sure that it continues to be aligned with my values. By sequestering myself in a cottage in the Colorado mountains for three days, I hope to cut off all the distractions that I turn to when I face a hard question. There will be no chores around the house, or extensive cooking. I cannot quickly search for something online, or go have lunch with a friend. My choices will be: think while sitting, or think while hiking. That's it.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Old-fashioned laundry

The highlight of my weekend.
     I am just nerdy enough that the best part of my weekend was hanging out my clothes on my new clothesline. During the last project day, whenever folks were worrying about heatstroke, I sent them down to the basement to work on the secondary project - building clothesline posts. 
     Since I moved in, I've been hanging my wet laundry on a rack, and spreading sheets out on the grass. I really love air-dried laundry: it's cheaper, it's old-fashioned, and it makes the laundry smell nicer. But I just didn't have the time to install proper clotheslines until this fall. My friend N and his boys came over a week ago to help me concrete them into the ground, and now I have 120' (that's 37 meters for my metric friends) of plastic-coated lines to hold all my wet laundry. I'm so pleased.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Happy Ada Lovelace Day

In honor of Ada Lovelace Day (Tuesday, Oct. 11), here's a picture of her namesake. The day is an international celebration of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). So, you know, go cheer on a female scientist. Or help your kid learn about how electricity makes light bulbs turn on or how to program a loop.
Ada's favorite activity, right after eating doggy bacon.

Monday, October 03, 2016

My days, in numbers

     I have always been prone to introspection, but in the past few years I have become more serious about it. One of the books I was reading on the science of what makes us happy suggested tracking activities. I loved this idea. I already consider whether, in general, what I do aligns with what I value, but this lets me examine things on a more fine-grained detail.
     I tracked all of my time for roughly two weeks, one in the spring and one in the fall, down to the nearest 15-minute interval. I categorized them and made this pretty graph. The only things not displayed are sleep and work, which I felt I could safely remove from analysis: I am almost always well-rested and I almost always limit my work week to the 37.5 hours workweek my company keeps.

Hours logged during 14 days
     A few things I notice right away- I'm spending the most time on things I really love - DIY and friends. Also, since I hate to clean, I have streamlined my household to minimize cleaning and I'm really pleased with that number. I'm outside a lot, because being outside is captured in half of the DIY, most of the pets (walking Ada), and "Outside", which is what I call my morning routine of drinking coffee and reading comics outside every morning. I am sort of astounded at how much time I'm spending on laundry for one person.
     This graph is really just preparation for a silent retreat I'll be taking this fall. I'm planning the retreat myself, and I knew I wanted to head in with a good understanding of how I spend my time and how I spend my money. I'm not quite sure what I'll be doing with my time when I get there, though, so if anyone has good suggestions on how to examine your life in three days, please send suggestions my way.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Low key weekend

     I had a rough week, with Phi's demise and some other difficulties (which can't be explained on the blog right now), so I tried to take it easy on the weekend.
     On Saturday I had the perfect frugal day. First, there was a neighborhood-wide garage sale nearby. I didn't find anything I wanted to buy, but on my way out of the area, I drove by some stuff on the side of the road with a "free sign" and scored three things I really wanted - a wheelbarrow (for hauling compost), a bucket, and some very high quality hoses for watering the garden. Next, my friend D and I went to a new museum to take advantage of the annual free museum day held in DC. This museum is the perfectly-preserved 60's era home of some philanthropists, filled with their personal art collection. I felt a bit awed by people who could afford to decorate their personal living area with Renoirs, Van Goghs, and Picassos. I had brought some apples and what turned out to be perfectly-toasted walnuts as a snack, so we drove to the grounds of the nearby National Cathedral and listened to a whole series of songs played on their bells while we snacked.
     Sunday I made apple butter and pesto. This turned out to be more work than I expected, but it feels like the perfect fall activity to be stockpiling foods for the winter. My enthusiasm for the pesto was aided by my personal dislike of purchased jarred pesto, and my friend E's contribution of her extra basil. In a few cold months, it will be a nice taste of summer.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Goodbye to Phi the Cat

     Today was the last day of Phi's life. She lived 17 good years. By the end, she was blind and deaf, but until yesterday she was still walking around and enjoying the good life in between increasing numbers of naps. Last night it was clear that her body was just shutting down, so today I had her put to sleep and I buried her under the fig tree.
     I've never had a cat who liked people so much. She was tolerant of all people, kids, and dogs but felt that the best defense was a good offense when it came to other cats; she made many a cat twice her size retreat in fear. I'm pretty sure that Andrew fell in love with Phi before he fell in love with me. She and I lived in eight houses during our 15 years together, and that's a big chunk of my life.
     I will miss her.

Thursday, September 15, 2016


     Last week was one of celebrations. First, I turned 41. I celebrated by baking not one, but two, unpalatable cakes. The first was a steamed chocolate pudding (i.e. the type that is common in England). I haven't made one in years, but I remembered them as very moist and flavorful, since they are steamed in a closed mold instead of baked. When I unmolded it, I found a dry and dense, but tasty, cake. It was clearly inedible as is, so I froze it* and made a back-up cake. Unfortunately, I was pressed for time and ingredients, and learned the hard way that you can't use 25-grain whole wheat bread for bread pudding. Even a large ladle of custard sauce won't cover the fact that the bread is too healthy to be used in a dessert. 
I am, well, extremely self-confident about my ability to cook, and was almost shocked that I could bake two inedible things in a row. I will have to make a lot of ice cream to build up my self confidence again...
     I also celebrated by planting two blueberry bushes, gifts from my in-laws. This is a gamble, because by friend S, an exemplary and highly knowledgeable gardener, has told me that blueberries don't grow well in Maryland. I decided to pretend I didn't hear her, and planted them anyway. I will risk two bushes, some soil acidifier, and two years' effort of watering. It's a bet I'm willing to take.

And, of course, last Thursday was the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek airing on television. I was invited to a showing of the first episode at the Smithsonian Air & Space museum. I went with two friends who can remember watching the original series with their parents, which was pretty cool. Gene Roddenberry's son was there to answer questions, along with the two fans that organized the letter writing campaign that saved Star Trek. Watching the episode, I was amazed by several things: There are many elements that became "canon" already present in the first episode. They were telling excellent stories using the cheesiest of props and special effects. Also, the way that women were treated in the 60's BLOWS MY MIND. I knew they stood around in miniskirts, but their main role seemed to be to carry trays of food to the officers, flirt, and be openly leered at by the men. We really have come a long way.

*I think the dry cake can be rehabilitated with much sherry in a Christmas trifle.

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Growing things

     The summer garden is nearly done and the fall garden is just starting to sprout, so I figured it was a good time to take stock of how things went this year. This post is partly for all the armchair gardeners out there (I'm talking to you AinA) and partly for me, so I can remember what I need to work on next year.
     After my three years of growing stuff at the Pink House apartment, I figured I was a whiz. This year I had mixed results, so I guess I'm not an expert yet. I can probably blame this on my two-week absence in July, or my attention being focused on house updates, or not knowing the sun and soil in my new place. Next year I hope to have more time for gardening, and then we'll found out who's really to blame.
     First, the successes:
Eggplant. It's sort of hard to see, but there are probably a dozen eggplant growing on those bushes right now. Whatever I don't eat immediately, I saute in olive oil and freeze for easy additions to meals.
Black-eyed Susans. I didn't plant them, and in fact I actively tried to wipe out that bed, but they provided a huge patch of color in the backyard and are clearly here to stay.
Herbs. Here you can see lavender, rosemary, and garlic chives, but I have half a dozen more. Those herbs moved twice in the last year  - once from the Pink House and once to a new bed - but in spite of that they all look great.
Watermelon and squash. At last count I had four watermelon in my fridge, and the squash just don't  (won't?) stop ripening. Alas, both of these vegetables don't freeze well, but they have been delicious eating.
Other successes: garlic, carrots, arugula, peas, and lemon grass.
     And now for the failures:
Beans (aka pole beans). They grew great and have tons of leaves, but few beans. That means they might not get enough sun, or someone may have previously fed that bed with a high-nitrogen fertilizer. They'll be in a new location next year.
Tomatoes. I ate lots of cherry tomatoes, but almost no Romas. There's no picture because I've already ripped out all the dead plants. I bought a special hybrid that was supposed to be resistant to blight. They did resist blight, but died in July of something else. I'm going to ask my gardener friend S for recommendations, because this is the second year in a row I had bad tomatoes.
Zucchini. It died after it grew a single zucchini. I blame a zucchini vine borer, but now I know how to stop them. Next year all my zucchini plants will sport medical gauze wraps at earth level.
Other failures: leeks, fennel, cosmos, bachelor buttons, cucumbers and kale.
     Lastly, the future successes:
The asparagus came up well, and is a big tangled mess o plants. That's exactly what they should look like, and hopefully all the ferny leaves are busy storing lots of nutrition in the roots so that in 2018 I can harvest the early sprouts. Several garden visitors have been surprised to see my asparagus, because they don't know that you let the plant get strong, the harvest the early shoots the following spring.
But when I show them a close-up of a newer sprout, then they believe me. The raspberries and the fig tree filled out a bit, so I hope to be enjoying those in 2017.
If you want, gardening can be almost a year-round hobby. I've put in fall crops that I can harvest until October, and then the serious gardeners start buying seeds and laying out their garden plans in January. In just six months, I'll be planting the spring garden again. I've got to say, growing things really keeps me aware of how cyclical nature is.

Thursday, September 01, 2016


Next Thursday is the 50th anniversary of the first episode of Star Trek airing on TV. I will celebrate by watching said episode on an IMAX screen at the Smithsonian Air and Space  museum. I also found this book at the library yesterday. It's a little amazing to me that someone wrote an 800 page book on the oral history of Star Trek and even more amazing that my working class neighborhood library bought a copy. Either the library purchasing department bought this book just for me or there is a whole subgroup of nerds hiding in my city that I don't know about.

Monday, August 29, 2016


     It was a weekend of puttering around the house. I had almost nothing planned the entire weekend, so I decided to enjoy the solitude and work on odds and ends. I've noticed that when I "finish" a project, there are always a handful of things left undone, sometimes for an embarrassingly long time. Since painting my bedroom in February, there have been no covers on any of the electrical outlets. I started to change them out (since every outlet in the house is either dark brown or painted a bright color) but got stuck when a screw in an outlet box broke, leaving me with a head-less screw and unable to go further. If I had small kids, it would be a problem to have wires capped with a bit of electrical tape hanging out of the wall for six months. Since it's just me and two non-curious animals, it just sat there. But now all the outlets are changed and it's looking pretty finished up there.
     I also fixed the toilet. It's had a tiny leak, just filling up the tank for a few seconds every now and then. Fixing the flapper (a rubber piece that can grow old and fail) was the first thing to try. The internet assured me this was a five-minute job. And it is, as long as you don't call the phone call to your dad, the 25 minutes of informational YouTube videos, and the 30 minute trip to Home Depot to get the part. After that, it's really only five minutes.
     I had a chat with one of my neighbors while I was doing yard work. I've mentioned before that I really like my neighborhood. My next-door neighbors have been quite welcoming, and I like them a lot. They do regularly play super-loud music, but it's almost always on the weekends and never goes very late. They've helped me shovel out the drive during an epic snowfall, and diagnose a car problem. I've now figured out why they like me. Remember the loud Latin music? It turns out that dear old Bill, the previous owner, called the police regularly about them. So I think I get points just for not being Bill.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Project day

Once again, it was my turn to host project day. Because I had just taken project management training at work, I whipped out a project plan laying out goals, resources needed, timeline, people involved, and, of course, menus. Luckily, all this planning did not scare off my friends and they arrived, shovels and extra clothes in hand, for we were... de-gardening!
It may come as a shock that I wanted to rip out existing gardens in the yard, considering my love of all things growing. But it turns out that my love only extends to edibles, and despite my best efforts these gardens mainly grew weeds. I think the previous owner may have put them in decades ago, when the trees behind them were much smaller. I considered putting in shade-loving perennials, but then I'd spend a lot of time weeding shrubs that I didn't want in the first place. Instead, I decided to rip everything out and replace it with lawn. And since cool-season lawns are best planted in fall, the de-gardening needed to happen now, in the heat of the summer.
I'm not sure those pictures do our work justice, so let me elaborate. In 31C/88F weather, we relocated an herb garden, removed a small shed, pulled up pressure-treated wood dividers, removed armloads of bricks and rebar, and tore up ivy. We pulled out shrubs (So. Many. Shrubs), relocated the compost heap and the wood pile, and sawed out metal piping that protruded into the air. 
The only thing left in the space is a pile of brush to have picked up by the city, and then I can till and seed the lawn. This is not insignificant work, but it *is* achievable by me without any help in the next few weeks. Whereas when we stared this morning, I doubted whether even five adults together could clear the space. 
I had hoped to relax with a glass of wine tonight, but it turns out that I just want to drink two quarts of water and go to bed. But tomorrow morning you can trust that I'll be outside with my coffee, enjoying the hard-earned view of plain dirt.

Friday, August 19, 2016


     August was an unpleasant month for me throughout my childhood. As I've mentioned, I was a very shy child. Late August always meant returning to school, and returning to school meant a month of morning stomachaches. I didn't have a problem with doing schoolwork or learning, but meeting new people was hard. In addition, we moved around a lot. I attended seven schools before I turned eighteen – not an outrageous number, but definitely something that didn't help the matter.
     Leading up to the start of school was the never-ending stream of back-to-school advertising, all of which reminded me of my impending doom. To this day I have to suppress a fleeting moment of panic when I hear a back-to-school commercial. It only takes a moment to remind myself of that I'm not the kid I was and that I only go new places if I choose to, but it sort of amazes me that the feeling persists after twenty years.
     As a gardener, I both love and hate August. There's produce coming in quickly, and fruits and vegetables at the market are also cheap, so there's lots of things that need to be picked or frozen or stored. This week alone I froze ten pounds of peaches, made a gallon of applesauce and a gallon of summer squash chowder, and dried a few pounds of tomatoes.
     A little part of me is ready for everything to quit growing. I guess that's a good thing - when fall arrives, I'll be grateful that the lawn and "volunteer" (i.e. no one planted them and no one wants them there) shrubs aren't getting bigger, and I may finally win a battle, if not the war, against the weeds. Also, it will be nice to do yard work in 20 C days instead of 30 C days.*

*I make an effort never to complain about the weather. First, what is it going to help? Second, I moved north to have seasons and I still love them. But that doesn't mean I can't love some weather more than other weather.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016


I went to Ohio last weekend with my friend D and Ada. Ada emitted one lone bark on the whole trip. Sure, she whined every time we slowed down, but this is SO MUCH BETTER than the constant barking.
I ate the very first fig off my tree. It was delightful! There are only six tiny fruit on the tree, and this was the only one that was purple. It’s proof of concept that I can grow delicious fruit.
The doctor asked me to cut back on caffeine to see if it would help with a minor medical issue. I have been drinking only one cup of coffee each morning and not a drop of tea or afternoon coffee. Today I had a decaffeinated black tea, something I normally despise, but it tasted marvelous. Deprivation does make the heart grow fonder.

Monday, August 08, 2016

High summer

     I have returned to a season I would term high summer, and it is delightful. There is so much life happening. When I step out in the evening, the sound of the crickets and cicadas is almost deafening. I can't keep up with the pace of the ripening cherry tomatoes and squash.  A huge patch of black-eyed susans has taken over a corner of the garden.
     My friend E and I had a wonderful day trip to the beach on Saturday. Her husband dislikes the beach and its blinding sun and heat, so we decided that I would go with her and her two kids. Three hours to the beach with a three-year-old and a two-year-old is more manageable if the adults at least equal the number of the kids. I didn't go deep enough to immerse my waist, but the waves were so powerful that I was still knocked down by the waves a few times and lost my sunglasses. The kids wisely and carefully would not venture past ankle-depth, but the oldest still found his first experience with the ocean captivating.
     Next weekend I head to Ohio for the annual pig roast. As always, it's a bit odd that a pig roast makes the annual social calendar for a vegetarian. But I get to see my folks and there's always a subset of half a dozen physicists who specially come to hang out. And when else what I get my fix of Midwestern classics like Jello and ramen salad?

Friday, August 05, 2016

This and that

Re-entry into normal life after vacation was a bit more difficult than usual. I had failed to make proper sacrifices to the travel god, and I arrived home six hours later than scheduled. Since the plan called for me to get home at 10pm, that meant I fell into bed at 4am. And I am still part of the great unwashed labor class, so I hauled myself out of bed for seven hours of meetings. I did allow myself to miss the first hour of meeting, and apparently looked bad enough that my co-workers were impressed that I showed up at all.
As a result, I felt out of whack all week, trying to catch up on sleep, lawn mowing, and laundry. I finally bought groceries on Thursday, which meant I lived on peanut butter, pasta, and vegetables from the garden until that point.
I had a terrific garden sitter, but leaving a garden in the vigorous growing period of July means that the weeds were taller than some of the plants. I think it will take me another several weeks to catch up. As per cousin request, I will put more garden pictures up soon.
Every time I leave my cat to go on a trip, I sort of say a permanent goodbye, and I'm always a little surprised and delighted that she's still around when I get back. Phi is now almost completely blind and deaf. She walks into walls, but luckily whiskers help her to stop before she hits her head. She sleeps oven more than she used to, which I didn't think was possible.  Nonetheless, she can find her food and litter box, she can go up and down the basement stairs, and she doesn't appear to be in any pain. As long as she looks like she's still enjoying life, I'm awfully glad to have her around.

Sunday, July 31, 2016


One of the highlights of my vacation was a kayak trip that my brother and I took across Tomales Bay. In that bay live particular plankton, that bioluminesce when they are disturbed. A colleague had done the trip a few years earlier and recommended it. It was quite an ordeal to even get out there - a two-hour drive, a one-hour safety lesson, a three-hour kayak trip, and then a hour drive home after midnight. (Luckily, my brother did almost all the driving, so still-on-East-Coast-Time me got to sleep on the way home.)
Pictures can't capture what it looks like, although this video gives a rough idea. Shawn would make sweeping arcs with his paddle, and light-filled ripples shot out. I dragged my hand in the water, and when I'd pick it up, just for a second, I'd be holding sparks of gold. It's important to be far from other lights, although it wasn't clear to me if that was so that our eyes would adjust to better see the bioluminescence, or because the plankton won't light up around other light sources.  
I have never particularly desired to be a Disney princess, but running my hands through the water made me feel like I was in a Disney movie, with magical light just pouring off my hands. 
The two of us halfway through the trip, sporting our stylish sea kayak skirts.
Cormarants. There is a small island in the middle of the bay. Many, many birds rest there, making a terrible racket.
Some kind of non-poisonous jellyfish, included in the pictures simply because it was so interesting.

Thursday, July 28, 2016


I extended my work trip in California so that I could spend some time with my brother and his family. It's been like a foreign exchange trip, where the country is the Land with Kids. I've attended swim meets, gone on trips to the candy store, and played at playgrounds. I have learned about Pokémon Go, but thankfully haven't had to learn much about the preteen pop artists my niece favors.

Since I'm an introvert, though, I also appreciate the quiet times a vacation provides. Every morning I sit out with my coffee in their front yard, which is dominated by a giant redwood whose branches form a canopy over the entire yard. It's a lovely way to start the day.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Not talking

Every year, since 2006, I have attended a conference in July run by the American Association of Physics Teachers. When I was a student and postdoc, I would present a poster and talk every time, and often I would moderate a session or run a committee meeting. Once I started my present job, I wasn't doing research any more, but there were still workshops to run and presentations to do.

A few years ago, I asked if we could change some of my responsibilities at work, because I had realized that I really, truly do not like being in front of people. I don't like giving talks. I don't like running workshops. I don't even like standing up to give announcements at meetings. It was quite a realization, because I did these things for many years and thought that doing them was a fundamental part of academia and of my current job. Moreover, I was fairly good at them. At some point, though, I wasn't willing to do things I that made me utterly miserable anymore.

In fact, we were able to arrange things so that I can avoid much of that. This year was my very first conference where I did not give a workshop, a talk, a poster, or even announcements. And it was the least stressful conference of my life. I still had meetings from 7am to 8pm, and I was pretty tired at the end of every day. But I was no longer exhausted and mainlining Advil. I feel lucky that I could identify what would make my work life better, and that I had a position where we could make that happen. Sometimes happiness is achieved simply by asking for it.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Growing season

     We now interrupt your regularly scheduled update on the house to give you this update on the garden. This year, I knew that my garden would have to be smaller and less tended than last year; since I'm trying to get most of my home updates done in the first year, there's just not that much time left over. That's sometimes hard for me, because I miss the joy of working in the dirt, and I'll definitely harvest fewer vegetables than last year. Hopefully I can make up for it next year.
     I can't fit the entire garden in one picture, but this about two-thirds of it. That bare patch is where I planted leeks and fennel, twice. Both times I got nothing but dirt. I also planted basil three times, from two different sets of seeds, but nothing came up. This is the first time in my garden career that I've planted viable seeds and just had entire crops fail to even sprout.
     The pole beans are starting to work their way up the teepees. Pole beans are long green beans, and they produce more than the bush green beans than most people grow, so I think they are worth the effort. And standing on a stepladder in the middle of the yard and pounding in eight foot stakes with a rubber mallet above your head is some effort, let me tell you. I dropped the mallet on my head twice, and had the bruise to show for it.
      Some of the gardens I inherited are out of control with years-old weeds. After consulting with my mother, I'm solarizing (a fancy way to say "using the sun to kill everything alive") the beds. I covered the ground with sheets of plastic, and in a few weeks or months, I'll pull it up and try planting again.
Happily, the watermelons are a success again this year. I train them up a trellis, making little hammocks to support the fruits.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

House happiness

Tonight I sat outside for a few minutes as it got dark. While Ada kept her post near my chair, the fireflies were flashing all around, and two bats swooped overhead. I feel pretty lucky to have found a place to live that blends city and nature. I live inside the Beltway, and it's only a ten minute walk to the metro. Still, from my yard, I can see birds, bats, and (and every gardener's nemesis) Evil Squirrels.

Then I went inside and moved back into my bedroom. It took me almost two months to complete, but I'm very pleased with the refinished floor. I have a new roommate moving in in two weeks, and it'll be good to be back up on the second floor in my bedroom when she arrives. Sleeping upstairs means that I don't enjoy quite as much air-conditioning, and it's a hike to the only bathroom in the house, but having a bedroom on a separate floor has given me privacy that make house sharing much more manageable.

Friday, June 24, 2016


I'm still not sleeping in my bedroom, but I'm close. The oil-based polyurethane takes days to cure, and you're supposed to wait up to two weeks before you let a dog walk on it. There didn't seem to be much point to me staying in the bedroom if I had to rig up a barrier to prevent the Ada from coming in. This decision was made easier by the fairly comfy guest bed; if I had been sleeping on the floor you can bet the dog would have been banished to a separate room.

I started to put my bed back together tonight but noticed that the frame was scratched and the metal finish a bit worn. "No point in assembling this if I'm just to going to disassemble and paint it in a few months," I said to myself. "Better to repaint it right now." So tomorrow morning I'll nip out to Home Depot, buy a few cans of paint, and paint the frame in the backyard before reassembling it. This may be interpreted as:

  1. Lunacy, because I shouldn't be starting another project when I have to repaint the bathroom and move back into my bedroom before next weekend when my parents arrive.
  2. Brilliance, because I have already unpacked my bedroom THREE TIMES in the short time I've lived here, and I don't want to do it a fourth time.
Possible both labels apply.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Catching up

The big reveal: the floor looks great. I dawdled for a couple of weeks, avoiding starting the finish coats because I was nervous I'd mess it up. Finally I decided I was tired of sleeping in the guest bedroom and dressing in the attic, and I put down three coats.
It looks better than I expected, and I love the color that the oil-based polyurethane imparted. The smell and mess of oil-based is awful, but worth it in this case.
However, once again, I will note that I would never hire me. The floor looks great from afar. But if you look close up, you'll see where I have permanently shellacked cat hair and dust into the floor, and it's not an extremely smooth finish. If I had hired me and paid a thousand dollars to have it done, I would be disappointed. I guess I won't quit the day job yet.
My new town is almost exactly one-third White, one-third Hispanic, and one-third African-American. I really like the people in my neighborhood. Yesterday night, a cool summer Friday evening, I was walking the dog and noticed that it was almost a requirement that at least one family on every block host family and friends and accompany this with loud Latin music. At one house, they had row seating for a hundred and a band, but (if I can trust my limited Spanish skills) that turned out to be a church service/ cookout, and that's not so typical. In the neighborhoods where I grew up, you were supposed to keep your parties rare and quiet, so it's definitely a different vibe.
My parents and in-laws are in the middle of a two-week trip through Ireland. I am truly pleased that they have remained friends and take trips together. Also, I have been to Ireland, so I imagine I'll be a bit jealous once the pictures start getting posted.
Work has been a bit stressful lately. Our department was reorganized, although that didn't affect my job much, and almost everyone in the company moved to a new office. I worked a Saturday meeting in June, and there was a big deadline on a proposal. I'm hoping the next month is calmer, so that I can save energy for the big week-long conference in Sacramento in late July. I love seeing all my work friends at said conference, but the 16-hour days are killer.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Choose your own (floor) adventure

I've come to the point where I need to choose what to do with my bedroom floor. My design sense is failing me, and so I've decided to throw out the question to everyone I know. My bedroom is a large garret bedroom* with now-white walls and low ceilings. The floors will soon be well-sanded plywood subfloor - that's the stuff that's usually there to support your carpet or tile, and it's not usually exposed. The correct flooring choice would probably be to install carpet, because the sound of footfalls carries easily downstairs.** Instead, I plan to keep the plywood exposed and lay down a rug. If necessary for resale, I'll install carpet when I'm moving out.
I'll probably end up choosing an oriental rug, because the only other options for used rugs are super modern, and that just doesn't fit into a 70-year-old-house. So, could you all squint at the pictures below, picture a medium-sized oriental rug, and tell me what color the floor should be?
  1. Painted squares 
  2. Stained dark brown (this will never look like real wood flooring. The most I can hope for is that people don't particularly pay attention to the floor.)
  3. Unstained, but covered with a clear coat. Think industrial/Chipotle aesthetic. Something like this, but without the stencils.
  4. Painted a dark brown

I'll add a caveat about how I know this is not the "right" way to do things. Plywood is soft so it's going to dent easily. I've heard of people having plywood floors for 3-5 years, but nobody keeps them for 20. So this is a "good enough for now" choice for me.

*According to a dictionary, a garret is "a top-floor or attic room, especially a small dismal one (traditionally inhabited by an artist)." I'm trying to avoid the "dismal" part.
**I had planned on new carpeting, until one morning when I was cleaning up dog vomit from my spectacularly ugly existing blue-and-red carpet. I realized that I could not bear to spend hundreds of dollars on new carpet that my animals would most certainly throw up on.

Monday, May 16, 2016


After my mother (aka the unpaid laborer) left, I discovered that I had wrongly discounted my father's advice. During my mother's long days of scraping my bedroom floor, he suggested buying a belt sander and using that to remove the rubber and glue on the floor. (My father's most treasured DIY motto, "Never do it by hand when you could use a machine," closely followed by, "That took longer that I thought it would.") The sander works better than a scraper, which means my mother did more work than she needed to.
However, the sanding is still pretty intense. I can manage about 30 minutes a day, after which the sander gets too hot and my arms are too tired to continue. Using a belt sander is much more difficult than an oscillating sander; since the belt is moving in only one direction, you are continually fighting against a machine that wants to fly away. It's like trying to continually hold back a toddler who wants to dash out into the street. 
It also generates enormous amounts of dust. Here I am, covered in black rubber dust and brandishing my sander. The picture quality is poor, but that's because there's so much junk in the air that it's hard to see.
At this point, I've moved into the spare bedroom downstairs, and it looks like I'll be there for the next month until this project is complete.

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Working Holiday

Here at Styling with Renee Michelle All Inclusive Vacations, we strive to provide our guests with action-packed holidays. Every day is filled strenuous physical activity, destined to make you feel grateful when you finally get to go home and rest.
This is the current state of my bedroom. My mother has spent the last two days pulling up the carpet in my bedroom. It was glued to the plywood subfloor. After much scraping, we can see one-third of the floor. After my mother leaves, the guest room will be open. Which of readers is ready to take her place?

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Culture shock without leaving the country

For the final night of our vacation, we decided to stay in Punta Cana, the resort town on the eastern edge of the island. This gave me an afternoon and morning of beach time and put us conveniently close to our departure airport.

After Santo Domingo, Punta Cana is weirdly artificial. Santo Domingo was loud, dirty, and full of life. Punta Cana is clean, well-groomed, expensive, and full of overseas tourists. I understand that areas like this can be a financial boon to counties like the DR, and I can understand why tourists would want to have a holiday where every care and rough edge of life is removed. Nonetheless, the inequality between the two areas of the country is overwhelming, and I find the perfection creepy. I don't think I am part of their target market.

We AirBnB'd a room in someone's home, which was a great choice. The hosts both spoke English, so we had interesting conversations about our respective countries, as well as research (the husband does academic business research). My mother got to eat a real Dominican breakfast - it was heavily meat-based, of course, so I had cornflakes. The conversation with locals was something I especially appreciated; I had searched fruitlessly for a cultural exchange or a program where we could share a meal with a local, and both my DR contacts and the Internet had failed me. One particular thing that stuck with me was our host assuring us that the Dominican Republic had many traffic laws, it's just that no one follows them...

I'll end with a picture of the beach, taken during the hour when the forecast called for 99% chance of rain.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Thoughts from the road

My mother and I make good travel companions. We both believe in leisurely breakfasts, drinks with lunch, and lots of museums. I'm happy to stop as she takes yet another photo, and she doesn't take it personally that introverted me needs an hour or two of silent time in my room when we come home every afternoon. I can't spend eight straight hours with another person, even when that person is the woman who gave birth to me.
Things that I heard about the Dominican Republic that are, in fact, true: You can hear music almost all the time. The sidewalks are treacherous; if you don't keep your eyes glued to the ground, you will fall into the deep gutter that separates every sidewalk from the gutter or trip over rubble and bags of trash. People dress conservatively- even when it's 30C and 100% humidity, skirts and shorts are below the knee and shoulders are covered. Unless you're at an all-time inclusive hotel, hot water is not a given. The people are very nice; we had strangers help us across the street when they saw us bewildered at a huge intersection. There are no beaches in Santo Domingo - the picture shows the closest we got to the ocean, which was a boulder-strewn fifteen feet below the ledge my mother is sitting on.
The accuracy of the weather predictions is laughably abysmal. In the evening, the forecast would show that tomorrow we'd have 80% chance of rain every hour. The next morning, the skies would often be clear, and the forecast would change to show rain around noon, which would change to later in the afternoon as the day went on. This happened *every* day. We always had some rain, but it was as if the forecasters used darts on a random list of weather icons. Or, you know, their models aren't very good at modeling a small island in a big ocean.
There is a general election on May 15. Over 4000 offices will be filled, which is a huge number for a country of 10 million. Trucks drive through the streets, blaring campaign messages on loudspeakers and there are signs on every building and telephone pole. I can remain neutral on most of the election - if their ads are to be believed, everyone is for peace, prosperity, and the people. But the incumbent president it is favored to win, and this seems a bit suspect to me, as his party forced through a constitutional amendment ending the restriction that presidents can only serve one term.
I need to learn more Spanish verbs. It's amazing how much one can communicate using nouns and about six verbs, but eventually one looks for some verbal variety.