Month: September 2020

My Pandemic Patio

Near the end of June I was in dire need of a project. I needed something physical to do which didn’t require much thinking. So I decided it was time to tackle my long-intended patio project. Back in 2014 we demolished a rotting deck, leaving a dirt patch.

I decided to tackle the project in pieces. Dig out a section, lay pavers, dig the next section, etc. Doing the project this way had some benefits in spreading out the cost of supplies. It also let us see finished sections much sooner than we otherwise would have, which was important encouragement and motivation to continue. I don’t regret our process even though I can see how construction would be simplified by digging everything first then laying each layer all at once. Instead we muddled our way forward, finding tree roots, and fixing leaky sprinkler pipes as we went.

They layers are: fairly level dirt, landscape fabric, gravel, sand, pavers.

We used a level when laying the pavers so we could push around the gravel and sand to make sure each paver was set correctly. I’m certain we would have gotten a more even result by leveling each layer completely and tamping it down before adding the next layer.

In fact, toward the end I had to pull up pavers and re-level because I discovered that a whole corner of the patio had developed a slant. The end result still has un-eveness and a slight dip in the middle.

The final step was sweeping polymer sand into the cracks between the pavers. You sweep the sand on dry and then wet it down so that the polymers bond and set into a mortar.

So now our patio is set into place and ready for use. I just need to save up enough money for some patio furniture. The thing I’d really love is a fire pit table that runs on propane. It’ll probably have to wait for another year though. I’m really grateful I had this project. I’m glad to have an outdoor space where I can invite a friend for a socially distanced visit. And hopefully in the future I can gather friends in a group. The patio will outlive the pandemic, and that is reassuring.

Looking at the Covid-19 Numbers and Pressures in Utah

I’ve been watching the Covid-19 numbers in my state pretty closely. At times it has felt like I was watching much more closely than my state leaders. They were being so very pleased about how the statewide numbers were going down while I was watching Utah County numbers hit new highs week after week. Until suddenly the Utah County numbers were high enough to drive up the statewide numbers. Which is how we land in this week. The governor moved Provo and Orem back to Orange alert level, and the Utah County Commissioners issued a mask mandate. Both steps toward quelling the increase in cases. But we still have to watch the spike play out for another two weeks before we can determine if enough has been done. For today, we hit another record high.

I would like for Orange status and more mask wearing to be sufficient. However I have concerns that this won’t be the case because I watch the news articles as well as the numbers. In just the past two weeks there have been two news articles about high school events which attempted to circumvent restrictions. Provo high attempted to move their football game one town south so they could have spectators in the stands (not allowed under the new Orange restrictions) The move was blocked, but the fact that it was attempted shows a mis-comprehension or denial of the need for restrictions.

Then a cheerleading fundraiser was run in opposition to guidelines one day after the school was shut down for two weeks because of a case spike. The spike was in part because of exposures in the cheerleading squad.

These two events are certainly not the only ones. The hard part is that I don’t think any of the people involved meant to do harm. Yet when a planned event collides with a pandemic restriction, it can be hugely difficult for the people involved in that event to change to meet the restriction. Any time an organizer changes an event, even when they are legally obligated to, they will have people angry at them. Also people become coaches or teachers because they want to provide opportunities for kids. It is very hard to ask them to disappoint those kids, hence the desire to somehow still deliver something, often a something that skirts the restrictions. The (admirable) desire to provide opportunities for kids is going to drive infection rates up as long as extra-curricular activities are allowed to meet in person.

Let’s go back to that “people will get mad” piece, because we have actual lawsuits where college students are suing their schools because of sub-par educational offerings. I saw a similar article a month ago featuring a different student and school.

I’m not sure what the student hopes to achieve. A refund maybe? Because I know that the school and teachers have delivered the best they possibly could under bad circumstances. I think the best response from the school would be a full tuition refund accompanied by revoking the credits the student earned during the semester. Unfortunately I don’t think that is a solution that universities can afford to apply often. In fact the economics of universities already mean that they lose money when students aren’t on campus. Having lawsuits just increases the financial pressure to bring students back to campus, and college students are a proven driver of infection.

So are prisons, and Utah has a problem there too.

Public health officials are trying to get the message out.

After all, when SLC issued a mask mandate in July, cases started declining. This leads officials to be hopeful that people wearing masks is all that is needed. Perhaps it was when kids weren’t in school, but now they are. And every day little Betsy sees her friend in class and begs for a play date. There are only so many times that Mom will say no before beginning to rationalize that they’re together at school anyway…

The thing is, Utah cases started to decline exactly when cases started declining nationwide. But right now cases are on the rise nationwide.

And the CDC thinks that 90% of the US population is still susceptible.

And locally, people are wrestling with whether to open things back up or shut them down. We’ve got some school districts returning to in person while others are going hybrid or going fully online.

There is no cohesive strategy for the state. And that is a problem because infection does not pay attention to county lines or district boundaries. A spike in cases leaks outward in unpredictable ways. Also as much as I believe it is important to prioritize lives over money, my state leaders tend to lean toward making sure the economy is healthy. They respond to economic decline by loosening restrictions, and now the jobs reports are saying that Utah unemployment is headed up.

I’m not surprised about that news either, because I notice my own behavior. As case counts rise, I begin mentally and emotionally hunkering down. I go fewer places and I spend less money. If others respond as I do, then high case counts will drive up unemployment even without government restrictions. This conclusion is supported in an analysis done by Chicago Booth Review. Though I argue that framing it as fear instead of public health awareness is a bit biased.

There are so many pressures on so many people from so many angles. I will be surprised if all we need is Orange status and a mask mandate. I think those can slow the spike, but not turn it around. We really need to turn it around before Halloween tempts people to trick or treat and Thanksgiving tempts families to gather for dinner.

9/27/2020 Edited to add: Saw an article about outbreaks at homeless shelters. Today’s numbers were steady with Saturday numbers when Sunday usually has a drop. If Monday stays steady too, we’re aimed for yet another new high. And I’m afraid that any gain made by the mask mandate and Orange restrictions will be offset by the fact that local LDS congregations are moving back to meeting weekly in a single session instead of once per month in two sessions. Meetings will be streamed for those who stay at home, but that still puts a group of people together every week on a schedule perfectly timed for transmission. Nope, mask mandate isn’t going to be enough.

Long Slow Remodel: Pantry Wall (nearly) Complete

When last I did a Long Slow Remodel update, we had just laid a bit of the new flooring and set the base cabinets into place so we could start visualizing.

Once we had the cabinets fastened into place, we were ready for the countertop company to come and measure things. We waited two weeks for the appointment. During the wait we lay planks across the top so that the cats wouldn’t jump into the drawers and break them. We also put up papers to visualize where the upper cabinets would go.

The counter top people measured, then we waited another two weeks for the counter to be fabricated. Then they installed it. Yay!

Except we discovered a problem. The sink was larger than we had pictured, which meant our cabinet plan had a cupboard on the very edge of the sink. This didn’t seem ideal, so we re-thought our plan by taking the cabinet boxes and shuffling them around.

I then used one of the boxes as a prop to hold up the cabinets which wouldn’t be sitting directly on the counter while I attached them to the wall. The end result was a cabinet arrangement that really pleased us.

We have a nice open space around the sink and some artistic asymmetry. All that remains is fixing the back splash which is now too short, installing handles, installing the sink, and paying a plumber to install the faucet. One thing that is fun is to look at how our plans evolved from the first sketches to the end result.

We’re happy with this new pantry and we’ve already moved our food into the cupboards. Because the next goal is to make the old pantry wall be gone. The fridge will move so that its back is against the wall with the door, and an island will go where the fridge currently sits.

I’m really looking forward to being able to sit in this front space and talk to people who are in the kitchen without shouting around the wall.

Bit by bit the kitchen is inching closer to where we need it to be.

Preserving Food

Years ago we planted fruit trees and grape vines. The person who planted those things was one who did lots of home canning both for personal enjoyment and as part of a frugal lifestyle. Then I became a person who did not have time for canning. I was too busy with piles of other things to can more than occasionally. One of the unexpected things that 2020 has brought is the return of food preservation. It isn’t surprising really since I’ve spent significantly more time managing food resources since the beginning of quarantimes. We’ve been rotating our food stocks and making sure things are replaced as they are used. Noticing that the grapes are ripe and making plans to store them for later falls right into that food management process. So far we’ve put up two batches of grape juice, one batch of home made raisins, and one batch of pear butter. I’ve got some cooking pumpkins waiting to be turned into puree for making pies and pumpkin bread. The grape vines are still covered, so I’ve looked up a recipe for a savory compote. It is a cherry compote, but I’m going to see if it works with grapes.

I am not the only one with a renewed interest in home canning. The shelves were bare when I went looking for more mason jars. I was fortunate enough to grab some quart jars, which I’m going to need because the grape vines are still loaded. The reason I have time to delve back into home canning is that much of the actual labor of it has been off-loaded onto my in-house assistants. Two young adults with a vested interest in getting a paycheck are much better at getting the work done than they were as younger children whose Mom just asked them to work. Is all this home canning economical? Am I saving money? Probably not. In my very frugal years I did the math and home canning saved money only if I already had the jars and equipment and if the fruit was free. Also, you have to squint hard at the fruit being “free” because owning grape vines or fruit trees means vine/tree related chores. There are hours spend pruning and tending. Time-spent is a cost, even if it isn’t measured in dollars. However it does deliver flavors and foods that simply aren’t available in commercially produced products.

Mostly I know that there is something deeply soothing in preserving food for later use. It speaks to the panicky portions of my brain that want to be assured that no matter what happens we’ll be able to eat. It may not make sense financially, but I’ll take small reassurances and happiness where I can find them.

A Study in Contrasts

The world is a strange contrast to my house these days. Today Utah was declared to be in a severe drought. The Covid-19 case rates in my state and county hit new highs. Supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died thus launching a massive political fight over her replacement. The election hangs over us like Damocles sword and no matter what the outcome a portion of the American public will be distraught and panicked. Wildfires are still burning all over the west and we’re having an incredibly active hurricane season; both signs of climate change. Racial injustice persists. The economy is in recession and, with all of the pandemic job loss and supply chain disruption, may be headed for a depression. Arguments flare over all of the above with people speaking as if everyone who disagrees with them is awful, evil, deluded, or stupid. All of these things swirl in a cloud of stress that shrieks of potential disaster.

Yet in my house things are finally reaching completion. I laid the last bricks for my pandemic patio. All that remains is to sweep polymeric sand into all the cracks and seal it. I may hang the last of the cabinets on the pantry wall tomorrow so we can call that portion of the kitchen project complete. We finally got someone to cut all the dead branches off of our trees so they won’t hit the house in wind. My kids helped me harvest grapes and turn them into bottled juice. I’ve hired my youngest two as assistants in my business and set them up with accounts so that they can get paychecks to learn about budgeting, saving, and paying bills. My son is enjoying learning how to drive and has his first of four GED tests scheduled for Monday. I managed to figure out how to update my websites so they’re presentable again. I figured out some back end tech things for our mailing lists. I’ve managed to catch up with friends I haven’t seen since before the pandemic. Howard only has to draft two more page spreads for the Big Dumb Objects bonus story. All of these things were causing me stress while they were incomplete, but are now either on the edge of completion or done.

Today the things of my house are filling me up more than the things out in the world. This is good. It is important to recognize the good things and the important connections we have especially when so many larger things are completely outside my control. Build joy where you can and don’t let it be stolen away.

The Pace Speeds Up

September seems to be skittering away from me. I’m not exactly sure how. Somehow my lists and thoughts have returned to pre-pandemic levels of activity. I don’t know yet whether this is an enduring shift or if I’m simply seeing a natural spike of activity around the onset of school season. I do know that I’m not being pulled up several times per day to process the experience of living through a pandemic. All of that just folds into my life right along with grocery shopping and making sure that my kid has a ride to their appointment. I’m having trouble figuring out what caused the slowdown in events and what has caused things to speed up again. Why did life feel paused for five months and why has that feeling of pause gone away?

We’re still limiting our social interactions. My daughter and her husband are the only visitors at our house. We’ve had workmen in wearing masks on a couple of occasions. We’re still doing our church worship at home with just the residents of our house. Groceries happen once per week, though I do confess that trips to home improvement stores happened more often this past month. I ship packages twice per week. We’ve gone to the doctor for necessary appointments. All the rest is still canceled. No conferences, no movies, no eating out, no social gatherings. So the physical movements of our lives are only a little bit different from the first shutdowns in March.

I think the difference is in the deadlines. I’ve got a list of gardening and house tasks I need to accomplish before the weather gets cold. I can feel the weight of our overdue Kickstarter that Howard is working to complete. I can see the edge of our financial resources and the work we need to do in order to make sure that funds continue to arrive before bills. I’ve a list of tasks for me to do in order to set up my consulting business. (Consultant for creator-owned small businesses, with an emphasis on writers and artists.) For several months all the deadlines were paused, everyone understood when things were late and that we were all adapting to a new situation. Now it feels like we’re all expected to just get on with things and find ways to hit the deadlines, because businesses have opened back up and life can’t be paused forever.

Or maybe the difference is just in me. But I’m back to feeling like I need to slow life down. At least I managed to hit one deadline only a little bit late. I sent out my monthly newsletter today. Tomorrow I have to start work on the Hypernode media (Schlock Mercenary) newsletter.

Fires and Embers

I grew up in the California Bay area. My parents still live there. I’ve seen photos from today and I know the sky is not supposed to be red like Mars. Fires have filled the sky with ash. My parent’s home is safe because they live in the middle of a town. It isn’t likely to burn, though there was a period where they were on alert to be evacuated for air quality issues. But as I was reading about fires and locations, I recognized another set of landmarks. I looked at the fire maps and my Grandma’s house is inside the “affected area.” Grandma is five years gone, and we sold the house more than a year ago. We have no legal tie to that property anymore. In fact it’s likely that the house no longer exists as the buyer probably intended to demolish it. Yet my heart twinges that a fire might have gone through there. I quick search doesn’t clarify if “affected area” means smoke, evacuation, or flames. It could be any or all. I am glad that we never had to help Grandma evacuate from her home. I am glad that my loved ones can feel sad twinges from places of safety. Yet I am reminded of how much I love that house and how I continue to be sad that it (needfully) passed from our hands and is gone. Fire burning through the area reminds me of the loss and adds a new layer to it because the trees, stores, and neighborhood may also be gone now.

Utah is also smokey today. We have our own fires that are burning, as we do every summer. None of them are particularly bad right now, but they could be. All it takes is a dry wind to whip up the embers and send a fire racing again. We had hurricane-force winds just two days ago which knocked over trees and semi trucks. About 90,000 people are still without power a full two days later. Fortunately the winds don’t seem to have sent any currently burning fires further out of control.

I think about fires and embers as I do my daily check in on the pandemic numbers in my area. The graphs for my state seem fairly steady, but the county-level numbers are telling me a different story. Utah County used to account for about 1/4 of the daily increase in cases. Now it is hovering just below 1/2. My county has two universities which started in person classes in the past two weeks. All of the elementary, junior high, and high schools began in-person classes three weeks ago. Utah county does not have a mask mandate. I’ve been watching carefully, and I think we’re about to see a spike in cases. How high a spike I don’t know. I also don’t know how quickly local officials will take steps to curb the spread or how effectively they’ll do it. (My guesses are not quickly and not effectively.) Suppressing a fire early is the difference between a burned field and a named forest fire. I do not want to have to grieve for people lost and lives permanently altered by out-of-control pandemic.

I can’t stop the forest fires. I can’t stop the embers of pandemic. All I can do is stay in my house and try to distract myself with projects. Yet underneath the satisfaction of working to make my house nicer, is a thread of thought about the impermanence of all things and how anything I create could be taken or destroyed in a way that I’m powerless to prevent. When those thoughts get loud, I remind myself that even if my physical creation is destroyed, the memory of making it will stay with me forever. Making is worthwhile even if the result is impermanent.

Or so I try to remember, when I step out doors and breathe the smell of forest fires in the air.

Instead of Words

Sometimes the words escape me. I sit down feeling that I want to write, knowing I have thoughts to sort into words, yet the words themselves are just outside my reach. I am left with an empty white space on my screen, too tired to chase after the words. So I close my computer and let them go. I’m trying to be better about resting when I am tired rather than pushing to get things done. However I notice the accumulation of days with unwritten words. It is a symptom and the point of symptoms is to provide information about the status of the system. I’ve been a little bit broken this past week. The world felt heavy and I felt a little under the weather. Though, ironically, our weather has been nothing but sunny. We haven’t had a solid rain since mid-July and I find myself longing for one, water to clear the air and my head.

Instead of words, I place bricks in a pattern on top of sand that I smoothed on top of gravel that I poured in a hole that I dug. The pattern is nearly complete, patio finished. The work has been slow because I was making sure I rested when tired. The next pieces for my outdoor space will require funds instead of labor, so they’ll have to wait a while.

Instead of words I watch the inhabitants of my house, holding their moods and needs in my head. They are adults and custodians of their own thoughts, but the habit of tending flows strongly through me. I’m not sure how much of it I should attempt to unlearn. Some definitely, but not all. To stop care-taking would be to stop being myself and the world needs more care-taking not less. Despite that, I still worry that I do too much.

Instead of words I scroll through news feeds and posts. I scroll past the point of being informed, past catching up with people I love who are separated from me. I end my scroll and step away yet an hour, two hours, three hours later I am scrolling again. The day has not changed. There hasn’t been time for news to accumulate, but I check again anyway because somehow I feel like it has been enough time and something new will be there. I formulate plans for stopping the doomscroll, but when I am tired I forget them.

Instead of words I ship packages, fold laundry, answer email, wash dishes, write lists, buy groceries. My mind fills with the administrivia of keeping a household running.

Words are not my whole life, but they are how I make sense of the life that I have. I need to rearrange so that sometimes I am writing words and all those other things land in the “instead of” column.

Considering Before Clicking

I have a new practice that I’m trying out. When I see a link that I want to click on and read the article (or meme, or post) I pause and close my eyes for a moment to consider the following:

Do I really need this information, or am I just chasing input (IE Doomscrolling)

Will reading this thing add value to my day

Am I reading simply to confirm an opinion I already have, to gather evidence for “my side.”

Are there better, non-clickbait, ways for me to learn about this topic

A dozen times today I did the pause and decided not to read the thing. At least a dozen times more I forgot to pause, or I read the thing anyway despite the pause, which is why I deliberately chose the word “practice” to describe this new behavior I’m trying to teach myself. I’m not good at it yet. But I do think that working on this practice, like a meditation practice, will help my brain be less full of noise. It is worth trying.