Haunted house-sitting

Mention the phrase “haunted house,” and immediately, people start thinking of an old, deserted place with rotten floors and boarded-up windows. Then, just add a resident ghost to rattle the window panes and rearrange the dust covers.

If the ghost is fond of actually disturbing people, though, he or she would probably prefer a huge, funky old mansion, like a B&B where we once stayed. The owner of the place was really proud of her ghost. “I’d like some more coffee” was likely to get a response of, “Did I tell you about the ghost?” If you asked, “May I have an extra towel?” she’d say, “Did I tell you about the ghost?” The woman not only obsessed on the existence of the ghost, she thought that every person who came to her inn was fascinated by it. We were not.

In this life, most people have a penchant for getting ahead, having the nicer things in life. So why not ghosts, too? Why stick with abandoned houses or inns run by crazy ladies, when you could have satellite TV and high-speed internet?

That’s the kind of place where Barry and I are house-sitting right now. The house is in a very suburban neighborhood, a cul-de-sac kind of place. I was afraid to take a walk in the neighborhood yesterday without a trail of bread crumbs, or at least, my pet GPS, because the streets are not laid out in a logical grid. I thought I might get lost, return to the wrong house, and be mistaken for a burglar. I can picture the headline: “Seattle burglar mauled by 200-pound Redmond mastiff.”

Most of the houses around here date back to the 1980’s or 90’s, They have two-car attached garages, soaring ceilings, at least three bedrooms, and many bathrooms. The interiors are beautiful; through the windows I see leather sofas, antique end tables, and breakfronts full of sparkling glassware and china.

Walking along, I found myself wondering: How many of these houses are haunted? Or at least, how many others, besides the one where we’re staying?

We were having dinner the other night with Geoff, the high-school senior who lives here, and he brought it up. He told us the front door opens spontaneously, when it’s tightly locked. There have been unexplained footsteps, cold chills, and strange shadows. Things fall over when nobody is touching them.

I was politely incredulous. Why would a ghost bother haunting such a normal, average suburban house? And if it really was true, why hadn’t Geoff’s parents mentioned it when they gave us the key? A simple warning would have sufficed, something like, “Trash pickup is Thursdays, and don’t mind the ghost.”

Two nights ago, I was getting ready to go to bed around 1 am, but I could hear water running. It was awfully late for Geoff to be awake on a school night, but Barry was sitting next to me, so it had to be Geoff. Barry thought maybe a toilet was stuck running, so he went downstairs to see.

He walked into the half-bath and found the hot water tap on, full blast. It had been on for long enough to steam up the mirror. I asked the logical question: “Was there a message written on the mirror?” Barry shook his head. “I did not see one. I, uh, did not look carefully.” By which I think he means he was freaked out by his first encounter with the supernatural, and he turned off the water and came upstairs as fast as his little feet would carry him.

It could only have been the ghost. I know this family is famous for their humor and their practical jokes — things like putting Kool-aid in the showerhead so the water comes out green. But turning the hot water tap on at 1 am isn’t particularly scary, or funny. It’s just weird, and that’s the kind of stuff ghosts do.

Since I don’t know what weird things the ghost will do next, I’ve been a little less keen on walking around this house in the dark. I don’t know what I’m scared of. I just don’t want to bump into something I can’t see. Not that I could see the ghost if the light was on, either!

I finally had a chance to ask Pat, Geoff’s mother, about the ghost. She ticked off a number of things they’d attributed to it — mostly things her son had mentioned, but also a creepy incident that happened in the bed Barry and I are sleeping in. Still, she added, “It doesn’t freak out the cat or the dog, so I’m sure it’s OK.”

The cat’s sleeping on our bed as I write this. He’s purring loudly, either oblivious to the ghost, or merely unperturbed by it. I’ll take a page out of his book, and not let it bother me. And if I see any signs of the ghost, I’ll let him know he’s welcome to surf the internet on my computer. That’s as long as he — or she, or it — waits until I’m done writing this article. In the meantime, he can sit in the comfy leather chair, put up his feet, and watch some satellite TV.

The Life of the Party

Once upon a time, Barry and I threw a party and nobody came. Actually, two people showed up, but we had invited over fifty. It was a crushing blow. For weeks, we ate the leftover food and drank coconut-rum punch and wondered what went wrong.

Part of the problem is that parties have become so casual, with huge blind-copied e-mail invitations, that nobody takes them seriously. Most parties we’re invited to are potlucks or barbecues, with the food served buffet-style. More people? More paper plates and plastic forks. Fewer? Save the plates and forks for the next party.

And then there’s E-vite. It’s sort of nice to be able to see the whole party list — who’s invited, who’s responded. But by the same token, it engenders a kind of rudeness. Instead of taking the invitation at face value, as a gift from the hosts, you analyze the list to see if it’s worth your while to attend. You respond with a “maybe,” then change your mind based on other people’s responses. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I think that’s impolite.

The truth is, even a casual party requires setup and planning. That’s a real nightmare if none of your guests will commit.

Thinking back on memorable parties, the smaller, more intimate ones come to mind. A going-away party for our friend Doug was especially memorable — Michelle cooked a beautiful multi-course meal and served it on matching china to twelve lucky guests, all seated at the same table. Invitations to special parties like that come by telephone or handwritten note, not by e-mail. Such invitations are highly prized, and you wouldn’t think of blowing them off, or failing to RSVP.

When we started entertaining in Seattle, we started small. At our first dinner party, we invited two friends to share some Maine lobsters that we’d ordered. When the lobsters failed to materialize, we made homemade pizza, then rescheduled and had a second party, with lobster, two weeks later. Later, we tried having a generic party, but it was blah. We needed a fun activity to give it some pizzazz.

That’s how the White Elephant parties began, and they ran for many years. Each year, they got crazier and bigger. Barry discovered how easy it was to throw a turkey on the barbecue grill, so that became the central menu item. He’d take it off the grill as the party was getting in full swing and plop it on a platter in the middle of the table, next to a carving fork and knife. Then he’d walk away.

The guests would stand around, looking puzzled. “Who’s going to carve the turkey?” they’d ask. Finally, someone who couldn’t stand to wait any longer would just pick up the knife and start carving away. And Barry and I would give each other a high-five, since we knew how to cook a turkey, but didn’t want to admit that carving it was beyond us.

We don’t have our huge party space any more, but we still love to entertain. That’s where the smaller gatherings come in. Barry’s parents cohosted several gatherings with us at their house, which is the perfect place for parties, with an open living room, dining room, and kitchen. We even hosted a tiny party in our 30-foot trailer. (It works fine, as long as all the guests stay seated and don’t move.) When the weather gets nice, I’m looking forward to hosting a picnic at some pretty park. We even have friends who will let us co-host a party at their Seattle home.

The key, for me, it to make each gathering small and unique. Let people know that they are the special invitees for this party. I won’t ask them to bring anything — I like to cook for my friends. It’s not even a time issue: I once got home from work at 5:30, threw the ingredients for minestrone into the pressure cooker, and served dinner to eight people an hour later.

There are lots of wonderful big parties with huge crowds and groaning tables covered with potluck dishes. I hope my friends continue to invite me to them! But for now, I will return their generosity with invitations to smaller, more intimate gatherings. I hope we all have a good time. And I sincerely hope to never again throw a party where nobody comes.


For ideas on what to feed your friends, read Tips for Feeding Your Friends, in Meps’ Foodie Gazette.

Tracking the trackers

Sunday afternoon was sunny and warm. I was tired of working away in the basement, so I popped upstairs to the kitchen for a cup of tea and ran into Barry’s father, Dave.

“I just shot a deer,” he said, calmly rolling himself a cigarette.

“You WHAT?” I squealed, my jaw dropping. For as long as I’ve known Dave, he has hunted deer with a bow. In Ohio, he used to drive out to the country on the weekends, but for as long as I’ve known him, he’s always returned empty-handed. Here in Washington, he just walks out into his own wooded backyard, where he’s built a lovely tree house that he calls a “tree stand.” He’s an excellent shot, and I’ve seen enough deer in the neighborhood to know they’re out there. But for some reason, they avoid Dave when he has his bow.

There’s a carving in the family room that illustrates the scene of Dave’s last successful bow hunt, several decades ago. Although it has the feeling of a family legend, it’s decorated with real antlers from the buck he got. It’s proof that he can kill a deer with a bow, he just hasn’t done it in the years I’ve known him.

Now he was telling me he’d just shot a deer, no drama, no excitement. Where was it? I looked out in the backyard, expecting to see a dead deer. Dave explained that the deer was still out in the woods someplace. If it doesn’t just drop dead when you shoot it, it’s no good to chase it immediately. It will run that much farther and faster. It’s better to wait a half hour, then track it. I was practically jumping up and down with excitement, while he calmly waited out the half hour.

He and Sharon put on their boots and headed out to the woods to find it. “I’ll help you drag it back, if you need help,” I offered. Barry and I went back to our own projects and waited for the deer trackers to return.

A couple of hours later, there was no sign of them. We couldn’t stand it, so we followed them into the woods. Near the rear of the property, we saw a square of white toilet paper on the ground. Next to it was a patch of deer blood. We followed the toilet paper squares for a while, eventually coming to a forbidding bramble. “Who knows how far they had to go,” I said. “Maybe a couple of miles,” said Barry.

We turned back, not wanting to obliterate the trail or crawl through the thorns, and then heard their voices. They appeared from the thicket, disheveled and dejected. They’d followed the deer a long way, but eventually the blood stopped, and they could track it no further. “We spent an hour searching around the last spot, but there was nothing to follow,” Dave said.

I was in the lead as the four of us headed back down the trail to the house. As I approached the spot where Dave had shot the deer, I saw movement. Standing on the path, right at that very spot, was a doe. She looked at me reproachfully, then turned and ran through the woods.

A shiver went down my spine. Why was she standing right where the first piece of paper marked the trail of her fleeing friend? Did she know? Was it a coincidence? Are deer telepathic?

I know the deer population has to be controlled, and if we humans don’t act as predators, they’ll starve. But it’s hard for this soft-hearted former vegetarian to reconcile that with the look on the doe’s face. Still, I hope one of these days Dave manages to get a deer. The one that got away just doesn’t make much of a family legend, and it doesn’t make much venison steak, either.

That's me in the monkey mask

New Orleans is a city known for parades. They pack hundreds of parades into Mardi Gras season, lining the streets to catch plastic beads and a glimpse of a bare breast.

Here in Seattle, we do it differently. We have a few bare breasts, but without as much alcohol, the spontaneous ones are more rare. Our summertime is a parade of parades, one in a different neighborhood every weekend.

For me, the best one kicks it off: Opening Day, the so-called opening day of boating season. Although we “open” the season, we’ve actually never “close” it — we sail year round!

Our first years in Seattle, we sat on shore with family members, munching on picnic fare. After the crew races came a parade of boats through the narrow Montlake Cut. There were classic powerboats with yachties on them, standing at attention in white pants and blue blazers. There were sailboats, flying huge beautiful spinnakers. But why were the sailboats motoring backwards? Oh – the wind was from the wrong direction! Barry loved the little floating Shriner cars, complete with round headlights. We all oohed at the fireboat, all hoses going, like an enormous red fountain.

My favorite were the decorated boats, true parade “floats.” Just like a land parade, there were people in costume on boats that were decorated to look like something other than boats. Gigantic umbrellas one year, coffee puns the next — there was always a theme to spark creativity.

Once we got involved in sailing, we started recognizing our friends in the parade. I grew envious, sitting on shore. What fun it would be to sail in the parade, waving and grinning at the crowd!

Last week, that’s where I was, aboard the sternwheeler Banjo. I wore long gloves and a garden hat, throwing kisses to the fellows onshore and waving at the children. Barry, in ascot, sleeve garters, and spats, waved at the ladies. The weather was perfect, the potluck was fun, and the boat’s owner, Sam Garvin, got a third-place trophy. It was my dream come true. My friends ashore probably wondered why I was frolicking, showing an inordinate amount of bosom, aboard a boat with a huge banner reading “Seattle Singles Yacht Club!”

Sam Garvin and Banjo
A gal and her sternwheeler: Sam Garvin and Banjo

Barry with Meps and Sam
Barry has his hands full!

The crew with the SSYC banner
Don’t tell ’em we’re married!

Our Banjo invitation had come, not from Sam, but from Craig, a man with an amazing wealth of boating friends and connections. A few years ago, coming back to the lake aboard the Northern Crow, our engine died. Judging by the number of boats hurrying past us to the locks, Labor Day was the unofficial “closing day” for powerboats. I anxiously scanned the vapid faces on the Tupperware powerboats going past, and finally decided to hail an intelligent-looking fellow on a classic Chris Craft. Little did I know what an excellent choice I’d made.

I had the good fortune to choose, as our rescuer, none other than the infamous Captain Craig, Scourge of Lake Union and Environs. Tying alongside for the trip through the locks, he cast a practiced eye on our boat and asked us, “What have you got to drink?”

I was embarrassed by the question, because we’d been dieting. “Uh, water,” I stammered, “and a little soymilk, I think.”

“That simply will not do!” said Captain Craig. “Sara, fix these folks a gin and tonic.”

By the time we reached our marina, the experience seemed hilarious, and we were fast friends with Craig and Sara. We exchanged phone numbers and e-mail addresses, and that spring, I got a call. “Craig here,” said the deep voice on the phone. “Would you and Barry like to go on my boat for Opening Day?”

The theme was “Jungle Party.” When we arrived aboard Flagrante Delicto, our hosts produced animal masks, and we produced food and beverages. For about an hour, we milled around Portage bay with hundreds of other boats, waiting. A yacht club boat passed by, and a woman in a blue blazer and white pants called out, with a slight accent, “That’s a nice boat! What does the name mean?” We all turned to stare at our skipper, to see how he would respond. Meanwhile, the lady’s boat drifted farther away, and Craig had to shout. “IT MEANS ‘CAUGHT IN THE ACT!'” She called back, puzzled, “OF WHAT?” We were rolling in laughter. “OF SEX!” he hollered, loudly, because they were quite far now. “OF SEX?” she repeated back, then realized what she’d shouted. She clapped her hands over her mouth, aghast, and quickly disappeared below.

We did not win a prize for our animal act, which mostly consisted of seven people scratching themselves and hooting like monkeys. We should have won a prize for chutzpah, because just when we passed the judges’ float, the engine died. Craig tried gamely to restart it, then gave up, produced a battered bugle and played the most pathetic version of “Taps” I’ve ever heard. His monkeys were doubled over, laughing.

Unfortunately, as we were drifting, powerless, we were blocking the parade route. A police boat came out, grabbed our line, and towed us out of the way. “Can you fix it?” asked the officer. “Sure, I can try,” said Craig, looking as smart and efficient as that day I’d picked him out of the powerboat lineup for a rescue.

To my shock, the police officer took us to a navigational aid, the number 15 green can, and told us to tie up.

One of the first things you learn in any Coast Guard class is: Do not ever, ever, ever tie up to an aid to navigation. Who were we to argue with a police officer? I looked nervously over at Craig, expecting him to dive into the engine, fix the problem, and untie the boat. To my surprise, he poured himself a drink. “I, for one, am not going to disturb the food,” he said. It was true, the engine compartment was completely covered with salads, chips, cookies, and beverages. “Besides, we have the best seats in the house!”

Tied up to number 15
Do not try this unless a) a policeman says it’s OK and b) you are wearing a mask. Craig and Sara are in the rear. Barry’s the lion, and I’m the monkey with sunglasses.

We were literally across from the judges’ boat, alone on our buoy, not jockeying for space or tied to a bunch of other boats. Craig was right: It didn’t get any better than this.

At the end of the day, a friend towed us back to the marina entrance. Craig turned the key, saying, “Let’s see how this works,” and miraculously, the engine started! Was it really a fuel starvation problem, as he claimed, or a ruse to get the best seat in the house for the Opening Day parade? I’ll never know, and I don’t think I’ll ask.

Living on Tiptoe

When I was 11 years old, my parents put our New Jersey house up for sale. The agent hammered a sign into the ground and the rounds of showings began. My mother, always a meticulous housekeeper, set even higher standards for our home.

One Sunday afternoon, my parents left me in the care of my teenaged sister and took off for the day. When the real estate agent called to show the house, we knew the drill. No dishes on the counter, floors swept and vacuumed, all toys put away. When Mom and Dad came home, we told them someone had looked at the house, and that we’d made it look really nice.

Standing in the living room, Mom’s eagle eye fell on the one thing we missed: A pair of dirty socks. She read us the riot act! But when that very couple bought the house, I secretly thought of the socks as a sort of magic talisman.

When Barry and I put our house on the market, we staged it, so the standards were even higher. We wanted to eradicate all evidence that we were living in the house, yet be able to show the house on five minutes notice.

We had a drill, and before advertising the house, we executed the drill and timed ourselves. We had to take the trash out, turn on every light, put away the laptop, and fluff the pillows. The recycling container needed to be closed, dishes put in the dishwasher, and the quiet piano CD started on the stereo. Finally, all remaining laundry, bills, library books, and junk had to be pushed under the bed.

Buyers would open every cupboard and peek in every closet, but under the bed was sacred. That was where the evidence of our daily lives went. When we were alone in the house, I lifted the bedspread and rummaged through the piles dozens of times a day.

I went on a rampage against odors, decreeing that no onions or garlic would be allowed until the house was sold. When we came back from a bar with jackets smelling of cigarette smoke, I despaired. Maybe the jackets should be banished to the van? I ended up airing them in the furnace room and running the exhaust fan for hours.

In addition to my defensive war on odors, I went on the offensive. Trying not to be too offensive, I put vanilla on my stove burners, but it smelled “burnt” instead of “baked.” I saved orange peels to run through the disposer, but we forgot about them, and the used orange peels in the sink were an embarrassment. Finally, I settled for tea. Drinking a cup of spice tea while people were looking at the house smelled nice and gave me something to do with my hands.

A week after the house went on the market, we thought we had the drill perfected. A woman came to look at the house in the morning, and she was smitten. She made an appointment to come back later with her agent, then another appointment for her husband. By the third appointment, I was wondering if I should put a pair of dirty socks in the living room, just to make sure.

There was no need. A few days later, we signed the papers accepting their offer on the house. But in my haste to turn on all the lights for the showing, I had overlooked something. I went downstairs afterwards and was mortified to find a dirty bra, dangling from a hook in plain sight. More embarrassing than socks, but just as magical.

Bread crumb trail from 1939 to 2005

Most people who own a house leave evidence of their occupancy. From the minor things, like paint and carpeting, to major renovations that move walls and doors, we leave a bread crumb trail for future owners to puzzle out. As Barry and I have fixed up this house, the remnants of carpet, paint, and fixtures make me stop and wonder about the people who lived here, and what their lives were like.

A few weeks ago, in the process of remodeling her bathrooms, our friend Margaret found a 1904 newspaper in the wall of her house. I tried to imagine her house when it was built. Was her mile-and-a-half distance to town considered “sub-urban?” Did the residents walk to work, or ride a streetcar, or even a horse? What did they do in their free time, before radio and TV and computers? Seattle was a boom town, flush with money from the Yukon gold rush. Were the people who lived in her house wealthy?

Our house, built in 1939, doesn’t stretch the imagination quite as much. It was built at the end of the Depression, a time when money was scarce but labor was cheap. Seven years later, our next door neighbor moved into his house, and has stayed there for 59 years. Barry and I have changed greatly since we bought this house, but nothing has changed next door. Through Dean’s window, we can see that one of the kitchen cupboard doors has stood open the whole ten years we’ve lived here.

He’s fairly reticent, so rather than ask him what our house was like back then, we’ve tried to figure it out ourselves. What was the neighborhood like? I was outside, weeding, when a fellow about my age stopped to chat. He was from Yakima, he said, but had grown up in a house a half block from ours. He told me about the Catholic families that had filled the big houses. “There were 8 kids in our family,” he said. He pointed across the street, to a 1911 house with four bedrooms and (still) one bathroom. “That family had 6 kids, and that one,” pointing at a dramatic three-story half-Tudor “had 14 children.”

He told me about games they played in the street and how they would jump off the neighbor’s garage into our yard. Back then, our house was owned by an old lady who yelled at the kids when they did that. The biggest surprise, though, was that he remembered our house being completely pink. It made sense, given what the prior owners had told us. The woman’s name was Rose, and when her heirs sold the house, it had pink carpet, pink walls and ceilings, and a pink refrigerator. I wonder what the house would have been like had her name been Olive or Blanche?

One unsolved mystery is the mezuzah on the front door jamb. A mezuzah is a Jewish religious article, a holder for a religious scroll that you touch as you pass through the doorway. So in this neighborhood of huge Catholic families, was Rose Jewish? Given that the house only had two bedrooms at the time, she probably didn’t have a big family. The brass mezuzah looks pretty ancient, but maybe that’s deceptive. After all, the fellow who remodeled the house in the 1990’s was named Steiner.

In addition to a fantastic master suite, laundry room, and kitchen, the Steiner era left us with a lot of “interesting” wallpaper. When we bought it, the house had languished on the market for months, in part because of the sandpipers, fake burlap, flowering red-and-green tropical vines (guaranteed to give anyone nightmares, since it was in the bedroom), and pink, lavender, and green textured moirĂ©. Barry and I were too busy sailing to take it down. Finally, this winter, we’ve gotten rid of the offensive stuff.

For years, Barry and I studied the mystery of the kitchen stoop. When we moved in, there was a sliding glass door with a concrete stoop to the backyard. Around the corner from that was an ugly patio, with brown timbers holding up one of those green fiberglass roofs you usually see on Forest Service outhouses. Since a concrete step stuck out of the blank wall, we decided there’d once been a door from the kitchen to the patio. We moved it back where it belonged, painted the patio, and replaced its roof. When it was done, we’d transformed the whole kitchen, gaining a view, light streaming in on three sides, and access to the now-lovely patio. In the process, we created our own mystery, that old concrete stoop where the sliding glass door used to be. It’s under a window now, and everyone asks about it.

Now that the house is fixed up and on the market, I thought I’d stop finding evidence of its history. But just a few days ago, I was mopping the floor behind the furnace, and I noticed, for the first time, a square of hideous green and brown checkered linoleum. Aha, I thought, the whole basement was probably covered in it! Only 15 years ago, this was a true basement, not a peaceful retreat with tasteful neutral carpeting, parquet floors, and off-white walls.

A few weeks ago, we received the Rosetta Stone of our house research. The tax assessor dropped by and caught us at home. Normally, that’s not a good thing, since nobody wants the tax man to see their improvements and raise their taxes. But hey, we’re moving anyway.

I looked down at his clipboard, and suddenly I got all excited. His printout included an original photo of the house, which I’d never seen, and he let me cut it out and keep it. In September, 1939, the house looked just like it does today, except for the landscaping and a porthole window that was removed from the living room.

I’m ready to move on, and I’ve left my bread crumb trail for the next owners. In their eyes, I’m not so different from the folks who lived here sixty-six years ago, after all.

our house in 1939
Our house in 1939

our house in 2005
Our house in 2005

Up on the rooooooof

Who would have thought it would be so fun? Getting a new roof, I mean.

I’ve been embarrassed by our roof for years. It never leaked, but it was surely the ugliest roof in Seattle. The brick red clashed with our purple door, and the top layer of shingles was curled and disintegrating. The north side was speckled with green moss.

If we were going to sell the house, a new roof was in order. We got bids, then made our decision half on cost, and half on gut feel. Instead of the huge corporation with many crews, we chose a sole-proprietor. The owner of Marmot Roofing, Darrell Bednark, seemed reliable and trustworthy. He’d originally been in business with his father, so I figured he had roofing in his blood.

Our next task was picking out a color. Since shingles don’t come in colors we think are cool (like plum, goldenrod, or teal), we narrowed our choices to three shades of gray and one of blue. We took photographs of houses with those colors, then used Photoshop to put them on a photo of our house. It was like watching an old lady try on different hats!
Our house with a silly roof
A few days before the job started, stacks of materials started appearing in our driveway. Rolls of black felt, trashcans, buckets, and … shovels? Were they planning on landscaping the yard when they were finished?

On Monday morning, I was too excited to sleep in. Barry and I were cooking breakfast when the roofers arrived and started unloading a 4-foot high stack of plywood. At first, I was mortified that this army of workers — all men — could see right in our kitchen windows, and I toyed with eating breakfast in the living room. Then I decided, what the heck, we were paying almost ten thousand dollars for this work. We deserved to watch!

We climbed onto tall stools at the breakfast bar, our noses against the window, eagerly watching the activity in the yard. Since the first part of the job was tearing off the old roof, the roofers were laying tarps over the grass and landscaping. Then they leaned huge sheets of plywood against the house to protect the siding from the falling bits of old roof. Just as I lifted the first forkful to my mouth, enjoying the breakfast entertainment, someone leaned a sheet of plywood over the outside of our window. Poof! Instant darkness, and no more show.

For the next half hour, we listened to the various noises, trying to figure them out. First there was the activity in the yard, punctuated by thumping noises against the walls. Next, the characteristic twang of an aluminum ladder, right next to the breakfast bar window. Then, booted feet climbing the ladder. This was followed by herds of elephants on the roof.

There were four guys, but one of them just did cleanup on the ground. So all that noise was coming from three guys! At first, they just walked around, distributing tools and evaluating the job. Suddenly, right over my head, a cacophony of scraping and banging started. I couldn’t stand it, I had to go out and see what they were doing to my poor house.

Aha! That’s what the shovels were for! They used them to scrape off the three old layers of roof. In a short time, they’d exposed the rafters and layers of old lath that covered them. I took a few photos of our naked roof and went back inside. (that plywood on the bottom right is covering my breakfast bar window!)
Tearing off the old roof
After a while, it was possible to ignore the hideous noises coming from the roof-shovelers. Eventually, though, they stopped shoveling, and the noise got even worse. Bang! BANG! BANGITY BANGITY BANG!

Back out I went, camera in hand. The shoveling had removed all the old shingles, but it hadn’t removed the nails holding those shingles on. Rather than remove the old nails, they hammered them into the lath. Every single nail on our roof was represented by one of those maddening “bangs.”

Once the nails were all hammered flush, they began to cut plywood to cover the roof. Brian and Brad, on the roof, took measurements and called them down the Darrell. He cut rectangles and triangles with a Skilsaw, handing up the pieces to be nailed into place. They covered half the roof in just a few hours.
Sheathing the roof in plywood
Each time the rhythm changed, I went outside with the camera to capture the beginning of the next phase. There was the shoveling rhythm, the nail-pounding rhythm, the plywood sheathing rhythm, and then the fairly quiet process of stapling down the felt. Then it got almost quiet as they cleaned up the yard.
Stapling down the tarpaper
Heading outside for another photo opportunity, I chatted briefly with Darrell. “When they bring the shingles, where will they put them?” I wondered how the pile of shingles would compare to the pile of plywood. “They have a boom truck,” he replied. “They’ll put them right on the roof.”

The second day, the process continued on the other half of the roof. Barry and I ducked out for some errands, and when we returned, the amazing boom truck was parked in the street.

An enormous crane hung over our house, and the roofers were unloading a pallet of shingles up there. There was no one in the cab of the truck, and no sign of a control panel on the truck. Barry and I walked around the truck, trying to figure out how they were maneuvering the crane with its thousands of pounds of payload.
The boomtruck dropping shingles on the house
The answer was a young fellow wearing a complex remote slung over his shoulder. He looked to be in his early 20’s. I was certain his qualifications for the job included a lifetime of video games. How else would you develop that kind of manual dexterity?

The installation of the new roof was anticlimactic. The tear-off had gone so quickly that the roofers had already driven to the store and picked up a couple packages of shingles, and several rows of them were down when the boom truck arrived.

Up on the roof, the guys were having a good time, joking around with each other while they worked. Sometime on the second day, when I headed out to take a photo of the progress, they started hamming it up. After that, I couldn’t get a photo of Brian and Brad actually working, because every time they saw me come out with the camera, they would stop work and strike a pose.
Brian and Brad hamming it up
It was one of the most cheerful, efficient work crews I’ve ever witnessed. There wasn’t any complaining or swearing, not even any frowning! They just worked swiftly and competently, each one contributing to the team effort. No sidewalk supervisors, either — Darrell did as much of the work and the cleanup as anyone else.

The whole job took three short days, practically no time at all after what Barry and I had gone through to get bids, compare them, and pick a color. And when Darrell came by the following week, invoice in hand, we were glad to see him. As I wrote the check, we chatted like old friends about all kinds of things, not just roofing. The experience was such a positive one, I found myself revising my thoughts about work. If it’s as much fun as the Marmot roofing crew indicated, one of these days I’ll have to try it again!

Confession of a Guilty Wal-Mart Shopper

I know I’m not supposed to shop at Wal-Mart. I know I’m not supposed to support a store that uses strong-arm tactics on their suppliers. I know I’m not supposed to give money to a company that discriminates against women and minorities. I know I’m not supposed to take business away from small local retailers that actually take care of their employees.

But sometimes, I can’t help it.

Like today, when I thought I’d drive 15 miles down the freeway to save money on cat food. It’s not my fault the damn cat turns her nose up at anything but premium canned Iams. Talk about fussy! Ocean Fish flavor. One can per day. At 58 cents a can, Wal-Mart’s price is pretty appealing, compared to the inverse, 85 cents, at QFC.

When I arrived at the store today, all the parking lot entrances were blocked off by police cars, their red and blue lights flashing. Puzzled, I made my way to the Home Depot next door and parked. It was drizzling.

As I got out of the car, I could see a huge procession, a bedraggled parade, of blue smocks making their way from the Home Depot to the Wal-Mart. I followed them, about a half block behind. When we arrived at the store, the ragged group of employees went in, but customers were stopped. “Sorry, ma’am, but we’re not ready. It will be about a half hour.” Someone asked what the problem was. “We had a bit of an emergency,” was all the woman would say.

One customer, a tall blonde lady, rolled her eyes and turned back to her car. I asked her what was going on. “Bomb scare. They swept the place with nine dogs…I’m sure it’s fine now, don’t know why they won’t let us inside.”

I wandered back to the car and sat listening to a Keb Mo’ CD for a while. I moved the car near the store entrance, where customers stood, waiting, resigned. I gave it twenty minutes before trying again. A stocky fellow in the doorway was still turning people away. “We had an emergency,” he repeated over and over. I shared a chuckle with another customer, an older lady waiting to go inside and pick up her husband’s pills. “What’s the matter, are they afraid of the ‘b’ word?”

A half hour had passed, and the word was still that it would be “a half hour.” I gave up. Nearby, a tall young fellow wore a bright yellow nametag that read “management trainee.” He looked like he enjoyed bossing people around.

“Excuse me, but is there a grocery store nearby?” I asked him. He frowned, offended, then gave me directions to the Fred Meyers across the highway. As I turned away, he added, smugly, “But their prices are really high.”

I burst out laughing. “Yeah, but I bet they’re open!”

So what really is the story about the bomb? Was it a scare, an honest mistake? Or a threat, from someone who feels more anger than guilt about Wal-Mart? I don’t know whether I’ll find out, but one thing is sure: I wasn’t meant to shop at Wal-Mart today. Maybe the gods don’t want me to shop there, ever.

Ghost Dancers

I’m sitting in a cozy warm house on Camano Island, a cup of tea beside me. To my right, the view is blue, looking across the shallow misty waters of Port Susan to the distant Cascade Mountains. To my left, the view is green, a broad expanse of lawn leading to woods, framed by towering evergreens.

This scenery is the best of the Puget Sound area, and one reason why we returned home.

In a little while, we’ll be meeting a very good friend for lunch. The whole year we were traveling, I missed our friends, people we met sailing or dancing or working. Last night, at a meeting of the Puget Sound Cruising Club, I collected hugs from many friends who welcomed us back to the area.

That’s another key reason why we returned.

I’m looking forward to Tuesday, when Barry’s parents, who own this delightful Eden where we are housesitting, return from Hawaii. Their home, where we have stored most of our worldly goods, is full of photos of Barry’s nephews, family artwork, cozy furniture, and support for this crazy lifestyle we’ve chosen. We love hanging out with Sharon and Dave, talking and taking walks in the woods.

Living near them is another reason to come back.

When we arrived a couple of weeks ago, we were bone-weary, exhausted from the long drive across the northern part of the country. We had been moving too fast, trying to see too much, having a hard time staying ahead of the cold weather. We also wanted to make it back in time to celebrate Barry’s Dad’s birthday.

A couple of days after our return, Dave called us all out on the front deck. It was late, and very dark. But the sky was lit with the most amazing thing I’d ever seen: Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Since the four of us had moved to the Northwest, we’d never seen it; I’d never seen it in my life. Barry wisely suggested that we watch it from the hot tub.

We laid our heads back and watched the beautiful moving light show. Soft white streaks, sometimes with a hint of color, appearing and disappearing, with a strange ghostly rhythm. I was reminded of the name the native people gave the phenomenon: Ghost Dancers. It was silent, and then a shiver went down my spine as an owl hooted in the woods.

This was our reward. A true welcome home, from the Ghost Dancers.

Visiting Home

A week or so ago, I sat alone in the hot tub in Barry’s parents’ backyard. A silvery bright half moon shone over the black silhouettes of towering conifers. The only sounds were the soft gurgle of the water and a chorus of distant frogs. I relaxed completely, leaning my head back and wondering about this strange concept of “visiting home.”

To Brian, Cayenne is truly a home where he has invested time, emotion, and blood. Although he didn’t like New Orleans much, he was not terribly interested in returning to Seattle before we began cruising.

But Barry and I were willing to drive for three days straight in exchange for a few days visiting home, family, and friends. Coming over Snoqualmie Pass on I-90 on Wednesday morning, I was exhilarated. The road was lined with pine trees, frosted with snow. The air smelled like wood smoke. In places, there were waterfalls beside the interstate. Even the drivers were better, using turn signals and driving considerately. Their license plates all had Mount Rainier on them.

I am not a native of Seattle. I have only lived there for eight years, far fewer than my twelve years spent in Columbus or nine early years in the New Jersey shadow of the Big Apple. But those places did not fit me, so they’re not my home.

The Northwest is a place apart from the rest of the country. I felt that strongly, viscerally, when we drove the pass. The flat lands of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and eastern Colorado ran together. The mountains of Colorado and Utah and Idaho did, too. But crossing the Cascades was like coming up the front walk of a home that you haven’t been to in a while.

What exactly is “home?” Is it possible to have more than one?

While in New Orleans, we called Seattle “home.” But while visiting Seattle, I said things like, “When we get home, we should…” Which is it? The place where you fit in and your soul feels at rest? Seattle, for me, is this place where I fit in, where the horizon ringed with mountains is like a border around my life. If so, why am I content cruising the rest of the world in a sailboat? There must be another home, one where you spend your days and nights. For me, that’s Cayenne — and like a happy turtle, I love the fact that we take our home from place to place.