Tuesday, September 4, 2018


If you inspect the blog archive listed along the left-hand column, you will note that I started with great energy, posting 70 entries in 2011, most of them related to my work on the Farm House. My output plunged in 2012, because of a creeping lack of energy, and occasional balance issues. I was under a doctor's care throughout this period, but they reported my health as excellent. I thus pushed onward.

A crippling right-shoulder tendinitis, brought on by hanging by my left hand from the peak of the north front dormer to work with my right hand on the part I couldn't reach standing on the scaffold, shut me down completely for most of 2013. I rallied somewhat in 2014, but never really got back up to speed; my last work-related post was in March 2016.

Don't worry: all this navel-gazing has a point.

I struggled to get back on the horse until the end of 2017, when Wifey found a new family doctor. I was skeptical at first. Frankly, I was tired of hearing that nothing was wrong with me, and had been made positively gun-shy by a succession of rude doctors with dehumanizing front offices.

Wifey's report of her first visit to this new doctor indicated strongly to me that she was worth taking a flyer on, and so the week after Thanksgiving I had my first appointment with her. We had a delightful visit, and as she proceeded through her examination, she became increasingly pleased by the state of my health.

Then she said, "Well, we're almost done here. Let me just take a listen to your heart." She did so, then said, "Hmm. . . I'm hearing quite a murmur here. Do you know what a heart murmur is?" I said I'd heard of it, but didn't know what caused it. She put her stethoscope on me and had me listen to her heart: "bump-bump, bump-bump."

Then she had me listen to my heart: "bump-FWOOMPH, bump-FWOOMPH."

She told me that she thought I had a bicuspid aortic valve, and subsequent testing confirmed that diagnosis. Briefly, this means that I was born with only two leaflets in my heart's aortic valve; the factory standard is three. It's the most common form of heart disease present at birth, and it affects about 1.3% of adults. It typically doesn't start to make itself known until one's fifties.

After the diagnosis, our efforts turned towards a fix. Traditionally, heart-valve replacement has involved open-heart surgery, but recently alternate options have become available. We spent a great deal of time trying to qualify for a study of a minimally-invasive procedure known as TAVR, where they access the heart through one's groin. It's a lot safer than open-heart surgery and the recovery time is considerably shorter; our doctor was extremely enthusiastic about it and the study's lead doctor, one of the two leading cardiothoracic surgeons hereabouts.

Well, after a lot of testing, and months of waiting with no news, it finally came down that I was rejected for the TAVR study, even though my age and my complete lack of other heart or vascular disease supposedly made me a good candidate. The study doctors provided no reason for my rejection.

So, I resigned myself to the necessity of having an open-heart procedure. This was made much easier by the realization that the TAVR procedure does come with its own risks. I decided that, given my otherwise excellent cardiovascular health, the traditional procedure would give me a greater chance of unconditional recovery.

And so, we investigated the possibility of getting in with the other leading cardiothoracic surgeon in town. That proved, blessedly, to be no problem. We had actually received several personal recommendations for this doctor from former patients, but our family doctor was more enthusiastic about the other one.

This angel of healing looked over all my health records and test results, in conference with his staff, then came into my exam room and said, "How would you feel about a new minimally-invasive procedure where we go in through a relatively short incision on your upper chest to do the work?"

Uh, how do I feel about a miracle? The most munificent answer to a prayer I have ever received? "Yes, that'd be great!" I exploded as calmly as possible (I had learned by that point that I needed to stay calm at all times, in order to keep my pulse below three digits).

Cutting to the present, the operation was last Tuesday. It took a snappy hour and forty-five minutes for my doctor and his associates to bring me up to design specs. I came home on Saturday, after a surprisingly enjoyable hospital stay. Without exception, every doctor, nurse and technician with whom I came in contact treated me with a friendly respect. That is a huge understatement, but it is at least accurate; all seemed to enjoy their job greatly, and showed genuine personal interest in my recovery.

Moreover, I was deeply moved by the attention and concern shown, and help rendered, by my family and friends. I sincerely did not know that I mattered so much in this world. I thank you, Wifey thanks you, and our pets thank you.

I have about a month of closely-monitored recovery in front of me, but even under the dizzying influence of a dozen medicines, I feel much better than I did before the operation.

So soon after my recovery is complete, I hope to debut Otis 2.0: now with increased oxygen content!

And I did eventually learn why I was rejected for the TAVR procedure: my aorta is bigger than their biggest artificial valve! I thus have documentary proof of what I've been saying all along: I'm a big-hearted fellow.

* * *

"Where were you?"

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Death Valley Weekend

Here I am once again, apologizing for the long drought of posts. Rest assured, I have several posts in the pipeline, one of them nearly complete. I have however been distracted from writing by a cascading series of computer disasters that at last culminated in my purchasing of a big new tower computer and its provisioning with a dozen terabytes of storage.

Since then, my time has largely been occupied by the re-assembly of my computing domain, jigsaw-puzzle fashion, from my many far-flung backup locations. In the process, I came upon a treasure-trove of articles from my early days as a writer, when I was doing pretty much nothing but writing whatever was on my mind.

Of course, a writer tends to look upon things he wrote over two decades ago with a certain affectionate loathing, and most of the articles, if they ever see the light of day, will require extensive re-working. But I did find one article that, to my great surprise, is ready to go. It is a narrative of a Memorial Day weekend Wifey and I spent with our good friends, then as now, Nik and Jo. Wifey and I have determined that this occurred in 1995.

It occurred to me that the article would serve as a nice proffer to my blog readers of my intention to return soon to active posting. And so, with Nik and Jo's kind consent, I offer it forthwith, with no changes other than the deletion of a few references to then-current, now-obscure events, the explanation of which would be too painfully laborious to read (and write). This piece is already plenty long. Other than that, I have changed nothing, and you will no doubt notice that back then I used commas as if they cost a quarter each.

There is one obscure reference I did not delete, because it's an integral part of the story: “hell-architecture.” This refers to a place in Montrose that I lived in for several years in the early Eighties that was known among my circle as “Hell House.”

When I took the place over from my good pal—let's call him Lou—who had lived there for several years, it was already legendary for its many distinctive features. I could write an entire post about Hell House, and someday maybe I will, but for the sake of this story you only need to know a few essential facts.

Hell House seemed to have a will of its own. For example, the place was as hot and stuffy as Death Valley itself when it was hot outside, and cold and drafty as the North Pole when it was cold outside. Clearly, the place knew what conditions were the most uncomfortable at any given time, and made adjustments accordingly.

Another curious feature was the many items attached to its walls, the function of which defied explanation. Mostly, these took the general form of randomly-shaped pieces of wood, sometimes stacked upon one another, often with strange pieces of handmade hardware attached. None of us could ever imagine any possible utility any of these items might once have had. We eventually concluded that they were artifacts of some obscure pre-Columbian religion.

Thus, hell-architecture, as I use it in the following, means “a structure that shows evidence of Hell House-like qualities or features.”

Thus fortified, you are now prepared to move forward into the past.

* * *

Nik and Jo like to go camping in Death Valley. Nik loves what he calls its “moonscapes devoid of vegetation,” and has utilized them several times as striking backgrounds for his photographs. Jo, I think, simply enjoys meeting the challenge of camping in style.

Some time ago, Nik and Jo invited Lydia and me to accompany them on a Memorial Day weekend trip there. When Lydia and I agreed, he immediately and with great enthusiasm began to plan the trip. He graciously took care of all the details, including the all-important morning coffee. Virtually all Lydia and I had to do is show up.

At last getaway Friday came. Nik and Jo left very early in order to secure two prime campsites. The plan was for us to come a few hours later; Nik would call us from the campground on our cellular phone en route to give us the exact location.

Unfortunately, Lydia had some last-minute business to attend to, so when Nik’s call came we were still home at the Doll House. We loaded up the car and set out at 2 P.M. We hit a traffic jam in Montebello that did not dissipate until Barstow.

We pulled into the campground in a somewhat crazed state at about 10 P.M. I was afraid Nik and Jo would already be asleep. Not only were they still awake, but Jo had an excellent dinner of game hen and grilled vegetables waiting for us. After Nik helped me set up our tent, we dined in style.

The next day dawned overcast and muggy. It took four pots of Nik’s strong but excellent coffee to revive us. We spent the day exploring the valley floor. Death Valley, like all of California, saw record rainfall this past winter, so Nik’s beloved moonscapes were uncharacteristically scarred with vegetation.

We drove by a marvelous old huge stone lodge called the Furnace Creek Inn. Nik suggested we give it a look-see later in the day, but I noticed as we passed a sign saying “Closed for the Season.” I asked Jo whether there really were seasons in Death Valley; she replied that there were but two: Too Cold and Too Hot.

We drove first to Dante’s View, which overlooks a massive salt flat called Badwater. Looking down at the view, I began to understand what Nik had been talking about: the place was perhaps a bit more colorful than the Moon, but it certainly did not look like a Class M planet. The only things marring the effect were occasional clumps of beautiful little desert wildflowers, which seemed to annoy Nik with their presence.

We then descended down to Badwater itself, which at its lowest is 282 feet below sea level—the lowest point in the United States. The place was very crowded. Oddly enough, most of the people seemed to be German. We walked out on the salt flats themselves, which were still moist from the winter rains.

To my great horror, Lydia picked up a bit of the well-trampled, dirty white earth and tasted it. “Hey, this really is salt!” she declared triumphantly.

I snapped, “Great! Now you have Teutonic hoof-and-mouth disease!”

“But I walked all the way out here to a clean area!” Lydia protested.

Nik grinned. “Now, Rob, Lydia was merely conducting a scientific experiment.”

Jo added, “Yeah—taste is a perfectly valid way to assess the composition of something.”

Alone among the sane, I remained unconvinced. “Well, I still think that you’d better gargle with some Liebfraumilch later.”

We then drove to the Devil’s Golf Course, a part of Badwater so named because gases rising from below the salt cause little spherical formations that resemble golf balls. Unfortunately, the winter rains had destroyed this effect, and the place looked more like the Devil’s Sand Trap.

As we drove away, it began to drizzle, which Nik said was a fairly rare occurrence on the valley floor. Lydia was unimpressed nonetheless; she said that it always rains when she goes to the golf course.

We next visited Artist’s Palette, which is aptly named. It consists of a small outcropping of hills forming a natural amphitheater, featuring scattered patches of muted pink, blue, green, yellow and purple earth. It looked like a giant chalk painting funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

After this was Zabriskie Point, which is supposed to be of great interest but was to me quite unremarkable. From it, one looks out upon a tiny valley-ette, perhaps a tenth of a mile across at its widest, which looked to me like a Caltrans excavation minus the lounging workers.

At this point we headed back to camp for lunch. We returned to find ourselves surrounded by even more Germans. It was quite astonishing to us that so many of them had traveled so far to camp in such an inhospitable place. After some discussion, we concluded that it is wise to view bargain package tours with circumspection.

After lunch, we were all in need of a good lie-down. Bouncing along dirt roads in muggy 92-degree air had taken its toll. Fortunately, the sky cleared in the late afternoon, and we spent a pleasant evening star-gazing through Nik’s powerful yet compact new telescope.

The next day dawned clear and very hot, so we decided to leave the valley floor and explore the higher (and cooler) elevations. As the mercury rose to an eventual 110 degrees at our campsite, our intrepid guide Nik pointed his trusty Tracker south to gold-mine country.

As we left, we stopped off at the Furnace Creek Resort, a small concession area that has guest bungalows, a golf course, a store, two restaurants and a saloon. Lydia and I took particular note of this last item.

On our way southward, we passed through the Devil’s Cornfield, so named because the creosote bushes there had arranged themselves in a remarkably even-spaced configuration that resembled rows of hellish corn. Nik commented, “You'll find that the Devil owns a lot of real estate here.”

After a time, we left the glass-smooth surface of California 190 for a rude dirt road. Its washboard surface was pitched at just the right frequency to induce harmonic resonance in the Tracker’s chassis. We hummed along like a 64-foot organ pipe for about nine miles until we reached the site of Skiddoo, a gold-mining town that existed from about 1907 to 1915, then disappeared without a trace.

Once there, we stopped to stretch our legs. It was oddly beautiful up there. Nik was right when he said that this was a desert unlike any other. The sky was a clear, deep blue, the temperature was in the mid-70s, and everywhere one looked there were clumps of charmingly beautiful little wildflowers, some of which are evidently found only in Death Valley. It was astonishing to see vibrant orange poppies and pastel-hued daisies springing from otherwise barren earth. Lydia found this an image heavy with meaning.

Nik had brought along a book on ghost towns, and as we took in the spectacle he read us the story of Skiddoo. After he was done, I looked at the book, and read that a few miles further on stood the remains of the Skiddoo stamping mill. I was surprised, considering how assiduously the Forest Service had demolished all such structures in the Angeles National Forest.

Evidently the National Park Service is less concerned than the Forest Service about idiots hurting themselves, because there the mill stood, just as the book said, a few miles further on. It had deteriorated noticeably from when the picture in the book was taken, but it was still spectacular: well over 100 feet long, it was composed of several levels built down a steep incline.

It reminded me of one of those cable cars that used to ascend the incline to Echo Mountain House above Pasadena, except that it was fifty times bigger. There were obvious signs of a recently-begun trussing of the structure, but otherwise the site looked as if it had lain untouched for the eighty years since its last use.

It seemed as if the workers had simply laid down their tools, walked away, and forgotten all about the place. There were implements, now nothing more than lumps of rust suggesting their former shape, strewn all about. An ore car still rested on its tracks, awaiting its next load. Towering above everything, the four stamping mills stood in a row, silhouetted by the sun, still seemingly complete.

The fact that all this had remained evidently unvandalized for so many years by all but Mother Nature improved my assessment of human nature just a bit.

Curious as to what other treasures these mountains held, I picked up the book again. I saw that a few miles further up the paved road was another dirt road leading to another collection of promising sites, all bearing the rather odd name of Aguereberry. We went to investigate.

I will omit much of the historical detail for brevity’s sake, but perhaps a little background is in order here. Aguereberry was a Basque who came to Death Valley in search of gold. He found it—or so he thought: a vein that initially assayed out very promisingly. As it turned out, there was little actual gold in his claim.

Nonetheless, after securing sole rights he began to mine the vein in earnest, establishing a little compound nearby. His best efforts yielded scarcely enough gold to live on, so to augment his income he hired himself out to tourists as a guide. To provide an attraction, he graded and paved a road up to a mountaintop from which one could take in a view of much of the valley and the surrounding mountains.

We hummed up that road, long since stripped of its pavement, and took in Aguereberry Point. It was a restful place, miles away from the nearest German. In fact, the only other person up there was an aging hippie sitting on a rock in front of a view camera. His hardy Bug, which I reckoned he had owned since his youth, stood faithfully nearby. I anticipated that the presence of a fellow large-format photographer would pique Nik’s interest, but he quickly walked off in another direction.

I expect this was because the fellow’s appearance was rather off-putting. He was shirtless, and his skin, tanned cancerously dark, draped over his midriff like a leather muu-muu. He was otherwise quite inoffensive, however; spying my Angels cap, he initiated a friendly chat about their performance and prospects this season.

After this fellow and I had managed the Halos to a pennant, Lydia and I hiked up to the very top of the mountain. Badwater lay 7000 feet below us, and Mt. Whitney stood over on the horizon. I realized suddenly that our gaze was taking in the lowest and highest spots in the continental U. S. simultaneously.

Again, wildflowers were everywhere, and we became quite enchanted with one species that sported a plume of cheerful scarlet flowers. Subsequent investigation revealed the name of this plant to be “Indian Paintbrush.” Sadly, Home Depot does not stock these seeds.

We drove back down to Aguereberry’s mine, expecting to find more ruins. These we found, similar to but less elaborate than those at Skiddoo. There were more rusted remains of tools, and an ore-crusher built down the side of a hill in a similar fashion to the Skiddoo stamping mill.

What we didn't expect was to find that we were able to enter the mine itself. Generally these are fenced off and forbidden, but evidently this mine was judged to be safe to explore. There was a plaque at the entrance explaining that the mine served as a hibernation spot for some endangered species of bat, and that they did not take kindly to being disturbed.

The feeling was mutual, so I was glad it was almost Summer, and the little disease-carriers were out frolicking elsewhere. The plaque also warned against entering the mine without a good light-source. Fortunately, we had brought along a lantern, and so we went in to investigate: single-file, Nik in the front with the lantern, I in the back banging my head on the ceiling. “I hope no one here is claustrophobic,” Nik said cheerfully.

The tunnel branched off after a short distance, and at the fork rose a chute, evidently used to haul ore to the crusher directly above us. The air was cool and surprisingly fresh. We were able to go in about a tenth of a mile before the inevitable fence prohibited further progress. I had never seen the inside of a real mine before, and it was impressive to see how surgically Aguereberry had cut his passageway. It’s amazing what one man and some dynamite can do.

We then made our way around to Aguereberry’s little compound. This consisted of three buildings assembled around a fire ring. The center building had been the residence; to one side was a galley, to the other a supply shed. Again, it was fascinating to see how unmolested these buildings were. The galley still had its refrigerator and a full-size kitchen stove (made by Coleman, just like Nik’s camp stove) that ran on gasoline.

The residence was hell-architecture at its most assertive. How else could it have stood for so many years in this hellish place? It did have indoor plumbing after a fashion, but as there was also an outhouse out back, I assume the toilet was a later improvement. The wiring, all external, probably was also.

The most telling hell-feature was the presence of a number of mysterious wooden appurtenances nailed to the walls. I wonder if Aguereberry’s travels ever took him through Montrose? What a cool bachelor pad the place must have been in its heyday.

With time now pressing, we made our way hastily around the rim of the valley to Scotty’s Castle, near the Nevada border.

Death Valley Scotty was a yarn-spinner and small-time con artist, just one of the many odd creatures an odd place like Death Valley naturally attracts. His one honest asset was an encyclopedic knowledge of Valley topography, which he used to spin a convincing tale of a “secret gold mine,” the location of which was known among the living only to him. This story managed to hook a big fish from the Midwest: Albert Johnson, an insurance tycoon looking for a good speculative investment.

Johnson was no fool, and he soon spotted Scotty for the charismatic huckster he was. He and his wife were nonetheless quite charmed by Scotty, and the three soon became fast friends. The Johnsons were also charmed by the Valley itself, and decided to build a vacation home there.

Scotty found them a prime location in Grapevine Canyon, which among other attributes contained a spring providing ample water for the elaborate compound they quickly began to construct, a compound complete with a power-generating water wheel, huge solar water heater, and even a clock tower.

Eager to avoid the scrutiny of a public naturally curious to see such a prodigious effort underway in this remote location, they used their friend Scotty as an able front man, encouraging him to represent himself as the owner of the spread. Scotty had finally found how to make an honest living out of dishonesty.

Mrs. Johnson was a devout Christian of a Protestant evangelical sect, and when the Depression hit, the Johnsons ceased construction, by then only about 85 per cent complete, in order to use their funds to help the needy.

The three of them lived out the rest of their days in this unfinished oasis, which when they passed was bequeathed to their church. This church conducted tours of the estate to raise money for their missionary efforts for over twenty years, finally cashing out to the National Park Service in 1970.

While it was fascinating to see how ingeniously Johnson’s architects had met the challenge of building a palatial estate in such a hostile environment, I found myself becoming increasingly saddened by the significant deterioration the Feds had obviously allowed to occur.

By then evening was approaching, and we decided to brave a return to the valley floor. It was still devilishly hot, however; despite the best efforts of the Tracker’s air conditioning, we could feel the temperature rise uncomfortably as we descended. Lydia, quick on her feet as always, suggested we take refuge for a while in the air-conditioned comfort of the saloon we had seen that morning.

At this point in my story I am reminded of a line from the John Wayne film Angel and the Badman: a doctor, ruminating on the inherent limitations of the physician’s craft, says to the Duke: “It’s amazing, the varied uses to which men put alcohol. To each different individual, it’s either a stimulant, a depressant or an anodyne. Just now, I’m using it as an anodyne.”

Just then, we four were in grave need of an anodyne ourselves. Nik and Jo had gone to great lengths to ensure us of an enjoyable stay in the Valley, and while they had been enormously successful at this, still we were hard pressed so to convince them. After all, Death Valley is widely known as one of the harshest environments on Earth, and a weekend of exposure to it had rather blunted our social skills.

Even Nik and Jo, experienced Valley-dwellers as they were, had felt the effects of what Nik called afterwards “the hottest weather I have ever experienced.” A round of frosty Margaritas, silly but festive, was under these conditions exactly what the doctor ordered.

Our spirits (if not our bodies) restored, we chatted amiably while munching the complimentary popcorn and watching the Dodgers drop another one to the Phillies. At last Lydia and I were able to show our gracious hosts that we were indeed enjoying the Death Valley experience.

After yet another fabulous dinner, as we relaxed in the relative cool of the evening, Lydia remarked: “You know, I feel like heck, but I feel great.” I felt this to be a remarkably apt description of the camping experience in general.

Dawn came especially early and hot, and we quickly struck camp so that we could skedaddle before our brains shut down entirely from the heat. After bidding farewell to Nik and Jo, we departed.

Unwilling to face another Brobdingnagian traffic jam, we left Interstate 15 at the first Barstow exit in order to pick up old U. S. 66. This turned out to be fortunate timing on our part, for as we looked back at the freeway we had just left, we saw cars at a standstill approaching the junction with I-40. There but for the grace of God… .

We stopped at the Barstow Bun Boy for a delicious repast, then continued along old Route 66 through Victorville, eventually joining up with the Pearblossom Highway. We had originally planned to take Angeles Forest Highway, but on a whim I turned early and headed almost straight up the mountain to Big Pines, in the heart of the Angeles National Forest.

Up there in the cool fragrant mountain air, surrounded by tall pine trees, our spirits soared. Now that the ski runs had closed for the season, we had the place to ourselves. Under the command of yet another whim, we parked the car and took a walk among the trees.

We realized that, fascinating as Death Valley was, it was here in the forest that we felt truly elevated. Invigorated, we returned to the car and followed Angeles Crest Highway down into the smoke and haze of civilization.

The first thing an Angeleno does upon returning to the city is turn on the radio to catch the traffic report. It is a time-honored rite of re-entry. The big news was a miles-long traffic jam on the south I-15 stretching from the I-40 junction to San Bernardino. It’s so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s oh so nice to come home.

Looking back on the experience, it occurs to me how lucky we are to live in California. I have lived here all my life, and still the state continues to surprise and delight me with its seemingly endless scenic variety. Within striking distance, we have inviting beaches, rugged mountains, fertile farmland, and—Death Valley.

Surely Death Valley is unlike any other place on Earth. There one may see Mother Nature at her least accommodating. Parts of it are not just uninhabitable, but positively malevolent: one way or another, it is always trying to kill you.

And yet, I find myself oddly attracted to the place: if you can survive it, it rewards you by expanding your understanding of what is beautiful. My mind keeps returning to the image of the beautiful little poppy poking defiantly out of the gray earth. It seems Lydia saw immediately what occurs to me only now: even when life seems quite barren, still there is hope that good may spring forth.

But let’s not forget about the malevolence. Camping in Death Valley is not for the faint of heart, which is why I’m glad Lydia and I had Nik and Jo with us. Not only are they able campers, but good companions as well, with a gracious sense of humor that helped us take the full force of Death Valley’s assault in stride. We look forward to camping with them again—but next time, in some more habitable spot, preferably with trees and grass and perhaps a nice stream.

As for Death Valley, I am sure we will return for further exploration, but next time we’ll stay at the Furnace Creek Inn.

* * *

Postscript: At the end of scheduled play, the Angels and Dodgers had identical 78-66 records in the strike-shortened 1995 season. That won the Dodgers their division; they went on to meet Cincinnati in the National League Divisional Series, which they lost, 0-3. 

The Angels found themselves tied with Seattle for first place, and had to play them the next day in an elimination game, which the Angels lost. 

Nik still has the Tracker, and that swell telescope.

"But we won it all in 2002."

Friday, August 25, 2017

Happy Birthday, Morning!

Today, August 25th, is an important day in Farm House history. On this day in 1865, Anne K. Johnson was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Of course, we know her better as Anne J. Wilson, who moved to the Farm House with her two sons in 1902, and lived here until her passing in 1969 at 104 years old.

I have a great deal to relate to you all. Let me give you a small preview by telling you that one of Anne's grandsons, Christian Gerard, visited some time back with his family. It was a red-letter day for the Farm House, and I promise to tell you all about it when I get my notes together. But let me give you one tid-bit right now.

Christian, whose family lived in the bay area, visited here one day in 1955, en route with his family to a new local attraction, Disneyland. He tells me that the family knew Anne as "Morning."

So Happy Birthday, Morning! It is very nice to get to know you better.

Friday, January 6, 2017

We Are One Fewer

I apologize for the long season of sadness in these pages.

In this new year, I would like to go forward in a more cheerful frame of mind. I do have a few happy things to report that I have held in abeyance for several months, simply because one of the happy things has taken up the majority of my time.

But before we move forward, I am sorry to have to tell you all that I have more sad news.

I am grieved to report that our beloved Travis has passed away. He was eleven years old. He was truly the straw that stirred the drink here at the Farm House, and as such, his absence is felt palpably--keenly--by all of us, every waking hour. Everyone loved Travis.

I will write more about Travis later.

August 12, 2005–December 18, 2016

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Adam, My Star

I realize that most of my subject matter in these pages is terribly dry and prosaic. It consists, after all, mostly of matters such as digging holes and patching wood. These are not things that readily stir the heart or fire the imagination.

I of course do my best to present this subject matter in an entertaining way, but even the most adroit wordsmithing can only go so far towards making silk purses out of these sow's ears.

And so, to bridge the remaining gulf between informative and entertaining, I have long relied upon our Pet Division. I'm always snapping pictures of our dogs and cats, and very early in the blog's history I started trying to work them into my posts as a way to provide some visual relief.

The pet I have most relied upon for this function is Adam. This has not been a matter of favoritism, really; it's just a practical result of his having been my constant companion (with time out for litter box breaks, of course), combined with my always having a camera on my hip or within reach. Well, one must also consider his wild good looks and expressive face. 

Let's face it: the camera loved Adam. Adam was the star of this blog.

With your kind indulgence, I'd like this post to serve as a commemoration of Adam's significant contribution to these pages, and also, for the time being, as a token of his significant contribution to my life.

Adam's first appearance was actually in a video, a wrasslin' match with Benny shot when he was nine months old: "It's Movie Night!" Adam and Benny's fights were always quite entertaining and often quite epic.

Adam's first photographic appearance in these pages was on May 8, 2011, in the post "Better Living in Two Parts, Part Two."

I was describing how before I got to work on the house that morning, I brought Adam, Benny and Travis out to get some sun; I included a photograph of each to illuminate the text. It's one of my favorite pictures of him, because it looks for all the world as if a small wild lynx had somehow wandered into the back yard looking for prey.

It not only captures his relentlessly inquisitive nature, but also his impressive stature. Adam was a long cat: nearly 45 inches from the tip of his nose to the end of his tail, once he finished growing. They simply don't come much longer than that. In point of fact, the Guinness Book of World Records Longest Cat in The World is also a Maine coon, and he is 48 1/2 inches long. It is thus verifiably not hyperbole to say that they don't come much longer than Adam.

Adam was long, lean and stronger than most dogs three times his size, and you can see all that in this picture. And he hadn't finished growing when this picture was taken. He was only a petite 3 feet long at this point.

Adam was the subject, and the inspiration, of the first coda picture I ever posted: May 27, 2011, in the post "No Snickers, Please":

No rinsing needed.

I recall coming into the kitchen, seeing Adam sitting there looking so nonchalant, suppressing my laughter, and having the good fortune to find my camera right there on the kitchen table. The caption came to me immediately when I looked at the photo, and it occurred to me that this would be a great thing to put at the end of my next post. I was so pleased with the result that I resolved to make a concluding photo of our pets--what I now call a coda picture--a regular feature. Since then, there have been few posts without one, and it all started with Adam.

The next post, two days later, was of another Adam/Benny combat video ("Million Dollar Movie"), this time with the two battling for possession of the love seat in the den. It is one of the top four posts in the blog's history. A coda picture seemed duplicative here, so I left it out.

But I was back at it the next day ("Breezin' Along with The Breeze"):

"Nobody here but us dogs."

This shows another distinct character trait of Adam's: he was quite democratic. As long as you were of a predator species, he was willing to take you as you were. He was as likely to hang out with the dogs as with his fellow cats. As you can see in dear Nellie's face, this made the dogs a bit uneasy at first, but they tolerated it, and in time became comfortable with it. Nowadays, our dogs and cats form a unified pack and mingle comfortably, although Adam's little cousin Rosalie is the only one who actually will cuddle up with the dogs. Perhaps it's a Maine coon thing.

I have a great number of photos with Adam hanging out with the dogs, but only two others made it into these pages. Here's the next one:

Absit invidia.
(from "A Posse Ad Esse", 7-20-11)

Adam has made himself so completely at home that he is grooming himself, and practically leaning on Travis while he does it. Travis' "what the---?" expression bespeaks an offended sense of propriety, but it's really just a karmic payback, because as a puppy he did the same thing to our first Maine coon, dear Roger:

Judging from the look on Roger's face, his forbearance here in not smiting Travis on the sconce is masterful.

I should explain all the Latin I'm throwing around here. Absit invidia means "let there be no ill will;" it's a phrase that is customarily used, similarly to "no offense intended," to smooth over small offenses before they become big ones. The phrase in the post title, A posse ad esse, translates most accurately (I think) as "from potentiality to actuality," but I like to translate it in this case as "I finally figured out how to do it, so I done went and did it." The post was a review of several difficult tasks that I had somehow managed to complete successfully. The Latin title induced me to provide Latin captions for each photo, and I naturally carried that theme through to the coda picture.

Here's the third Adam + Dog coda picture, again with Travis, who's a pretty photogenic fellow himself:

"You missed a spot."
(from "Reunion", 11-9-11)

Travis' unruffled "really, dude?" expression here reflects his and Nellie's gradual acceptance of the fact of Adam's frequent propinquity.

As I said, Adam was just as likely to hang out with his fellow felines:

Must be dinnertime.
(from "Unpacking A Mess", 6-19-12)

Oh, look! There's our dear CEO Emeritus, Evangeline! She and Adam had a sweet mother-son relationship.

"Kenneth, what is the frequency?"
(from "A Rather Irksome Revelation", 9-18-11)

"Our minds are one: I feel what you feel; I know what you know."

For one who grew up watching Star Trek, the above caption wrote itself. It was during a period where Adam was putting out Trek vibes. At first he was doing Spock:

"Live long and prosper."
(from "Writing Stories", 8-29-11)

But he soon switched to doing Kirk, which I think is perfect casting:

(from "Inch by Inch, Step by Step", 9-7-11)

One day when I was working on rehabilitating the north windows, I left one open, and soon Adam appeared, standing on the sill majestically like the Lion King looking out upon his domain. He was six and a half months old, just starting a massive growth spurt, and it was the first time I saw the bold, majestic, royal bearing that was to become his hallmark. Our little kitten was growing up. It gave me an idea, and I assembled a story arc of coda pictures that ran with the next five posts:

Space: the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. . .
. . .its ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds. . .
. . .to seek out new life and new civilizations. . .
. . .to boldly go where no man has gone before.
(starting from "Regaining Focus", 10-22-11)

I love every picture in this sequence. The second one, with Adam and Benny on top of the cat stand, accurately captures the character of each, right down to their bling: Adam the star, of course, and always-impeccably-groomed wing man Benny with his bow tie. Benny still has his bow tie, but all the information has worn off of it. He needs new bling.

The three middle ones taken together remind me that much of the time, Adam, Benny and I were the Three Musketeers--or, perhaps more accurately, the Three Stooges. The last picture is easily the edgiest one I've posted here, but I had to use it: it fit the caption perfectly. I hasten to add that I shooed Adam down from there right after I took the picture.

* * *

Looking back reminds me how easy it was to write captions for Adam's photos: they were all dictated by the expression on his face, which always seemed to convey a distinct mood, thought or sentiment:

I. Am. Awesome.
(from "Overnight Thread", 8-6-11)

Of course, this brought an immediate rebuttal from Evangeline:

I invented awesome.
(from "Epoxy Revelations", 8-10-11)

Which begat this response from Adam:

"Thirteen pounds, nine and a half ounces of wild feline awesomeness."

Later, his niece did this homage:

"I. Am. Fabulous."
(from "Board Surfing", 8-5-12)

She has since only become more fabulous, I assure you.

More of the many moods of Adam:

"You want cute? I can do cute."
(from "Vision Quest", 10-4-11)

"Your nail set's stuck in your hair."
(from "Furnace Gap, 1943-2011", 11-17-11)

"Shouldn't there be a big pointy tree with lots of prey on it here by now?"

"Let's see. . .f/5.6 at 1/125 sec. That should work. Now where's the danged shutter button?"
(from "Rendezvous at Furnace Gap", 11-10-11)

"Words fail me."
(from "Aftermath", 12-16-11)

He who controls the remote, controls the future.
(from "Goofus And Gallant", 6-19-14)

There are some stories only cats can hear.
(from "CSI: House", 5-4-2015)

Occasionally, I was smart enough simply to allow the photograph to speak for itself.

I've been doing pretty well so far, but I have to admit that this last photo chokes me up a bit. It captures his spirit so very well: sweet, forthright, fearless.

These next two are my favorite Adam coda pictures, because each has a significant story behind it.

The wily Forest Cat returns to his lair with the day's catch.

I love this photo because some of my fondest memories of Adam involve his carrying this big dog toy throughout the house as if it were fresh-killed prey, looking for a safe place to put it. Someday I'll tell you all about this remarkable, endearing and at times hilarious aspect of Adam's character, but it's too long and involved a story for this already Brobdingnagian post.

We had a set of these dog toys, and although the crocodile was far and away his favorite, he at times used all of them as prey, as we see in the next photo:

"I bring you this offering of fresh-killed prey in token of my appreciation for your fealty."
(from "Well, How 'Bout That", 3-17-12)

Despite the slight astringency of the caption, this was quite a tender moment, one that marked a turning point in our relationship. While Adam was from the first my constant companion, up to the time of this picture (he was then a few weeks past his second birthday) he was not particularly affectionate. Not that he wasn't friendly, but he was not terribly interactive unless we were playing. He always seemed preoccupied, as if he were listening to the call of the wild.

Then one day, as I sat in the den working at my laptop, he walked in, laid his prey gently on the floor before him, then sat down and gazed at me with solemn significance for quite a long moment, just as you see above. Before this, Adam and I were packmates. From this moment on, we were soulmates. He was more engaged, more interactive, more in the moment. He became quite talkative. Most importantly, on every remaining day we had together he became more and more affectionate, and more and more happy.

I can't offer any explanation for the seemingly sudden transformation other than it was a natural part of Adam's maturation. Maine coons grow up very gradually, typically continuing to grow until they are five years old. Such was the case with Adam; his little cousin actually grew visibly after her fifth birthday. Remarkably, this last growth spurt resulted in her resembling Adam, whereas before she had no particular physical resemblance other than her markings. I can't explain that at all.

* * *

The last coda picture in which Adam appeared was posted on December 15, 2015, in the post "For the Birds, Part 1":

The Wily Forest Cat lies in wait for his prey, after having hidden all the remotes.

Adam could be found here quite regularly at this time whenever the whole pack was together in the den; he had a habit of adopting a place as his base of operations, and then sticking to it for some time. In this, he was just like Roger. In this photo, Adam is looking down at Peter, which puts me in mind of another photograph, taken the night the two met:

Adam was utterly baffled regarding what sort of creatures we had brought into the house, and he spent the next several days surveilling them until he determined at last that they were, in fact, dogs.

Adam's last appearance in these pages before his passing was in "The Big Pedagogy", just two posts ago on March 7, 2016:

Loungers lounging in the Lounge.

This represented my first attempt to bring the idea of the coda picture right smack dab into the middle of the narrative, to leaven an especially-dry subject with a little humor and a lot of personality and charm. And these are---were---my go-to guys for that.

* * *

I thank you all from the deepest part of me for your kind indulgence of my reverie.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Good-Night, Sweet Prince

It grieves me profoundly to report that my constant companion, my wing man, my second-biggest fan, my Wily Forest Cat Adam, passed away early last Mother's Day of a terrifyingly vicious cancer that first showed its symptoms the Wednesday before. He was but six years old.

I'd like to tell his story in full, but I'm afraid I am not yet prepared to do this. It happened with such horrible suddenness that I was in shock for months. I am only now starting to deal with the fact that he is no longer here in the room with me, just hanging out, waiting to follow me to my next destination once I get up and leave the room.

Still, Adam was such a constant presence in these pages that I cannot let his passing go any longer unmentioned here. I have received so many kind comments from you all, both here and in person, regarding his photographs that I feel I owe it to you to let you know what has happened. 

Please forgive me, Dear Reader. I thought I'd be able at least to say a few words and share some happy memories by this point, but I have been trying for weeks, and I simply can't do more than this right now. It still hurts far too much.

February 21, 2010–May 8, 2016

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Big Pedagogy

The fifth of January dawned cold, dark and threatening, and by the time I saw Wifey off to work, the rain began to come down gently. I scurried back into the house, confident I was ready for the serious downpour that was coming. The roofs were all clear, and the gutters all clean.

I spent the whole morning upstairs bringing order to the inchoate mass of last year's financial records, dreary work for a dreary day. Soon enough, the storm hit full stride, and though it was only of middling intensity compared to what these skies are capable of, it didn't let up until after one o'clock, at which time I went downstairs to fix lunch.

I looked out the kitchen door at the backyard, and was startled to see this:

I'd expected to see some flooding, because the turnout at the top of the driveway has always backed up in anything more than a light rain ever since the driveway was built. My surprise was at the extent of the flooding. This was easily twice as bad as I had ever seen it. I was afraid that if the skies really opened up, the water would back up into the garage.

Before I ran out and started filling sandbags, I checked Weather Underground, and saw only very light rain forecast for the rest of the storm. So I went on with lunch as previously scheduled.

As I ate, I thought back over the history of the turnout. It came into being in December 2004 with the completion of the driveway. This was just in time for the winter of 2004-05. As it happens, this was the wettest one on record here in Pasadena. Don’t take my word for it, you could look it up.

We weren't living here then, but I remember it well because at that time I spent most of my waking hours here working. I remember that our contractor's foreman—let’s call him “Rudy”—was very concerned that the turnout area would flood in a storm. He said it was because he'd noticed that patch of ground was especially slow-draining.

I took his word for it without much thought, because at the time I was very busy preparing the upstairs bathroom for the installation of the fixtures, which Rudy was pressuring me to get done, like, yesterday. Funny thing about that: for all the prodding he gave me, it took him a few months to get those fixtures in after I finished my work there.

Rudy cut a small drainage notch in the curbing at the bottom of the turnout, and even went so far as to dig a big trench leading from that notch over to a low spot of the yard as a temporary measure. He told me that eventually I would have to install a catch basin near the notch and tie it into the drainage system to take care of the problem long-term.

The turnout area did back up in heavy rain that winter, but so did every low spot in the yard, and the water would sink into the ground a few hours after the rain stopped. Of course, a lot of water did flow down Rudy’s trench, which gave the excess water a much greater area in which to sink into the ground, but I didn't give that much thought. 

January 10, 2005: Rudy's trench, part 1. . . 
. . .and part 2. 

We were in the house by the next winter, which I seem to recall was about average rain-wise, although my memories of that winter are pretty sketchy because I was sick in bed for most of it. The entire backyard might have been under water at some point that winter, for all I knew.

After that, we went into an extended dry period, capped by an epic four-year drought. During the spring and summer of 2006, I found the trench cutting across the yard to be a hazard to navigation, so I filled it in halfway; subsequent erosion and my leveling of the ground under the gazebo all but obliterated it.

The long succession of dry winters effectively removed the drainage problem as an active concern, and I found myself able to ignore it completely as I focused upon the exterior restoration work. The turnout still backed up in the rain, and I noticed that as the years progressed the backup became larger and slower to recede, but this was never more than a minor nuisance until now.

I did have to dig out the well around the persimmon several times through the years as erosion filled it up, and over time this erosion reached all the way to the curb, creating a new escape route for the turnout overflow directly into the tree well. This did not entirely replace the drainage provided by Rudy’s trench, but it certainly helped.

After I finished lunch, I continued to chew on these recollections as I finished putting our records into tidy piles and filing them away. I came to the conclusion that the backup was so much worse because it hadn't rained that hard for that long for at least a decade, and there was now no trench to carry the water away.

During the next 24 hours or so, it rained lightly and intermittently, and by the time the rain stopped for good, the tree well had drained completely, but the turnout was still quite flooded. The following 24 hours brought little improvement.

That completely baffled me. True, the drainage notch was clogged with dirt and debris, but even after I cleaned it out only a tiny trickle came through it, and at any rate the water should have sunk into the ground in that amount of time.

I dug a narrow trench from the notch over to the low spot, and blew the water down it with my big electric blower, leaving me with this:

It's not visible here, but there is still standing water in all the low spots. The turnout was so saturated that as soon as I blew the water out of a low spot, water would flow in from the surrounding area to fill it again. I decided to wait to investigate matters until it had dried out some.

In the meantime, I turned to the Internet to learn all I could about drainage. I knew something about the subject, but apparently not enough. I read about the importance of proper grading, and the various methods of moving water safely away from flood-prone areas.

I had a lot of time for study, because the turnout took eight days to dry enough to work with it, and it really didn't do much drying out until the sun came out at last on the seventh day and did its thing. Clearly, there was no downward movement of water in that area. It was as if there were a layer of concrete underneath it.

I did pick up a few clues during this time. I noticed that the wet area of the turnout was a darker color than the rest of the driveway. At first I thought that was due to its being wetter than the rest of the driveway, but the dogs were finding great fun in splashing through our little swamp, and I saw that at the bottom of the fresh divots made by their paws I could see the contrasting orangeish-tan color of decomposed granite. I recall now that these paw-divots had no water standing in them, which is what made them stand out from the surrounding muck.

At that point it finally dawned on me that the wet area of the turnout had a layer of dirt over it. That meant that water had all along been running into the turnout from the surrounding soil. Then I remembered that the backup had seemed to get larger and take longer to dry as time passed. That was enough evidence for me to conclude that the layer of dirt was what was causing the severe downward drainage problem in the turnout.

But how could the very dirt that allowed the passage of water right next to the turnout block it in the turnout? Here was a real mystery. After some heavy cogitating in the Lounge over a few pipefuls of black Cavendish, I concluded that the soil on the turnout must be mostly silt.

Loungers lounging in the Lounge.

Silt is the part of soil that is of the smallest particle size, and is thus the lightest; it stood to reason that it would move far more readily than the rest of the soil. Packed silt can be very resistant to water movement. I thus figured that the soil on the turnout was primarily silt.

I went out and looked at the grading of the soil around the turnout. There was a big rise, about six inches, at the bottom of the turnout that had been necessary at the time the driveway was built because there was a big liquidambar tree in that area that stood at that level.

December 2, 2004, completion day for the driveway.

Sadly, the tree died about five years ago of old age. We sure miss that tree. It was beautiful, and it gave us fall color all winter. In the South they call this kind of tree a sweet gum, and they grow like weeds, but here it was exotic and special.

Anyway, there is no further need for the rise.

The rise along the side of the turnout was not apparent to my eye. I had to put down some stakes and stretch a level line across the area and sight across that before the rise became evident. It crested at about two inches beyond the bottom of the turnout before it sank down into a low area that was the vestigial remains of Rudy’s old trench. The rise lessened toward the top of the turnout before it plunged down below level where the soil had eroded into the tree well.

With this information in hand, I had my plan of action: I would correct the soil grading around the turnout so that water flowed off of it instead of onto it, and remove the layer of silt. This would reduce the amount of water entering the turnout, restore the natural downward drainage, and prevent the re-formation of the silt layer. I hoped this would buy me the time I needed to finish the exterior restoration before taking any active measures such as installing that catch basin.

Next came triage. I decided to do the work in this order: remove the rise along the side, then remove the silt layer, then work on the large rise. I also resolved to build a proper well for the persimmon tree this coming summer, when I don’t have to worry about rain complicating the work.

I saved the large rise for last because it was the most complicated procedure, involving the most planning and work. I couldn’t simply remove all that dirt and establish a downward slope away from the turnout, because that would clash with the necessity of having the soil slope downward away from the house, and it would also require my removing the two nearby benches covered with potted plants and then having to re-level them when I put them back in place.

Oh, and I’d have to remove my new feeder pole, empty my new hole, dig it deeper to reflect the new grade level, and replace the pole. I didn’t expect to have nearly enough time before the next storm to get all that work completed, so I put that problem off until the end to give me time to come up with some sort of temporary fix that would prevent water from flowing onto the turnout from that area.

I put the removal of the silt layer from the turnout second because I had the romantic idea that if it were bone-dry, the silt layer would crack and come off like a hard candy shell. And so I started with the smaller rise.

Any soil work at the Farm House is likely to be difficult. It's not the kind of soil you can safely dig right into with a shovel or a spade, because it is hard clay shot full of rocks of varying size. You really have to loosen it up with a pick or mattock first, lest you dislocate your shoulder when your shovel hits a boulder.

The only effective way to establish a new grade in this soil is to dig up the area, screen it to remove all the rocks and the accumulated debris of 130 years, put the screened soil back down, rake and drag it out to the new grade, wet it, and roll it out with a heavy lawn roller. Then, over the following several weeks you have to keep raking it smooth, wetting it and letting it bake in the sun until it sets up.

A piece of buried treasure from the Farm House soil.

I wasn’t going to be doing all that anytime soon. I didn’t have the time, and I didn’t have the weather. It's a summertime job, because until the soil sets up any rain would oversaturate it and turn the path between the house and garage into a treacherous swamp. This would have been a worse problem than the one I was trying to correct.

Because of this, I had to try to loosen only the soil that I needed to remove, being careful to keep the remaining soil as undisturbed as possible. This would have been tricky enough without the many rocks embedded just below the surface. I tried a few different ways to get the job done, but I ended up having to chip the dirt away by chopping at it with a soil scraper. This is a tool with a triangular forged steel blade mounted on the end of a stick with a D-handle at the top.

I loosened the soil in a small area about a half-inch down in this way, which I then dragged into a pile with a hoe and scooped up with a spade. If I encountered a stone, I loosened it carefully with my big iron digger bar and removed it by hand. It was slow, tiring work, but it got easier as I developed the technique. The stones got larger and more plentiful as I moved towards the house, so I ended up having to disturb the soil there more than I liked.

When I was done, I had established a reasonably even slope going downwards from the house to the garage and just slightly downwards from the turnout to the low area across the yard. It wasn’t as much slope as the situation called for, but I wanted to see what happened in the next storm before I did more; there was a chance erosion would increase any slope I put in, and it was far easier to increase the slope later than to decrease it.

Next came the removal of the silt layer from the turnout. As I said, I expected this to be a quick job, but when I began to chip away at it with the scraper, I discovered that the silt layer was even harder than the soil. I took my soil tamper, an 8-inch square piece of heavy cast iron mounted on a stout wood pole, and pounded the silt layer with it in an attempt to loosen it and start to break it up. This had absolutely no effect.

It was really quite imaginative, my envisioning the silt layer’s coming off easily. It must have been the Italian in me. As I mentioned in my last post, "decomposed" granite (“DG”) is in fact crushed granite; it settles so firmly because its individual particles are quite jagged, and tend to interlock firmly when compacted. This same quality naturally caused it to become quite firmly interlocked with the much smaller particles of silt and clay in the dirt above it, once the dirt had dried.

I realized that to get the silt off, I would have to get it wet. I had wanted to avoid this, because when this stuff is wet it becomes quite slippery, and I was afraid that if I worked it when wet it would mix readily with the decomposed granite below it, thus making it necessary to remove a lot of the DG to get rid of all the silt.

That was when I remembered a procedure I had learned in the Doll House days, at our Culver City home, during the time when I first heard the ancestral call of the family green thumb. The soil there is black adobe, which is even harder than the soil here at the Farm House. The adobe, when it was completely dry, was extremely resistant to wetting; I would pour water on it, and the water would just bead up and sit on top as if the soil were tar.

I soon discovered that the only good way to get that soil to take water was to wet it evenly with water in which I had put a little dish detergent, sprinkled gently from a watering can. The detergent lowered the surface tension of the water, defeating its tendency to bead, and it would sink right into the adobe. After this treatment, the soil would then take water readily.

It occurred to me that I might use this same method to soften the silt enough to remove it without getting the DG wet. I filled up the watering can, mixed in a little Joy, and wet a six-foot square area evenly. As I had hoped, the water sunk right in. I waited a few minutes, then started scraping. An eighth of an inch of silt came off, and the rest was still completely dry. I filled the can with hot water this time, and put in a whole ounce of detergent. More or less the same result. Next time I used the same mixture but put down twice as much water, with only slightly better results.

I kept increasing the amount of detergent-spiked water and applying increasing amounts of elbow-grease, and I did manage to get down to the DG, working dry once I got down close to it. It took me several days to work my way stubbornly about a third of the way up the turnout until I finally admitted to myself that what I was doing obviously wasn't working well enough. I needed something that would break up the silt so the water would penetrate further.

I ditched the scraper and got out the dethatching rake, which has very thin, narrowly-spaced semi-circular tines. It's designed to pull thatch out of lawns, but its tines can be pivoted so that they act as tiny little soil-tillers. I didn't use it in leveling the rise because it's too aggressive, but that's just what I needed here.

It wasn't aggressive enough. It just slid back and forth on top of the silt. And with that, I tossed out the cautious, incremental approach. I could no longer afford it. By this time, another big storm had begun to loom in the forecast, and I had to start working more quickly. I realized that I'd have to get this silt good and muddy, and then just scrape it off the DG as carefully as I could. So I flooded the area with water from the hose and started raking vigorously.

After a bit of muddy drama, the water and silt suddenly resolved themselves into crumbly, dark, slightly moist soil, sitting on top of almost completely dry DG.

I had flooded that area, but some unseen force had kept all that water from moving out of the silt layer into the area directly below it—a force stronger than gravity.

Sounds like the Italian kicking up in me again, I know, but that was precisely what was happening. That, or some sort of ancient curse.

I swept all the soil up and got down on my knees for a closer look. Here's what I saw:

I said to myself, "IT BAFFLES SCIENCE!!" I could see that the moistened areas were where I had physically broken into the DG layer slightly; the bone-dry areas seemed to be right at the interface between the two areas. The interface between the two areas. . . .

A voice within me replied contemptuously, "No. No, it doesn't. It doesn't baffle science. It only baffles you."

It was another callback to the Doll House days, when I really had gotten in touch with my inner Oliver Wendell Douglas, when I lived for nurturing young growing things, when my workbench was usually covered with hundreds of tiny little pots full of little seedlings illuminated by grow lights on pulleys so I could adjust their height to account for growth. Back then, everything that I planted in our garden I had raised from seed.

Except for the roses. I tried, but I didn't have the skill to grow roses from seed. Roses I grew either bare-root or from pots. One thing that I learned early on about planting roses in that adobe was that you couldn't just dig a hole and plop the plant in.

Sure, you could do everything to ensure that the soil in the planting hole was perfectly blended, full of good things and well-drained; but once the roots had grown to the extent of that hole and hit that solid adobe, the roots would stop. Moreover, whatever water you put on the plant would stop at the extent of the hole. It was as if you'd planted the rose in a pot in the ground, a pot with no drainage holes.

When I first observed this situation, I consulted my gardening books and learned that this was called texture interface. As they explained it, when you put two types of soil with significantly different textures next to each other, a barrier to water passage occurs where the two soils meet.

I learned that to avoid this situation, you had to dig a hole much larger than the plant needed, and fill the excess with a 50/50 mixture of your prepared soil and the unamended soil from the hole in order to provide a more gradual transition between the two soils.

I was baffled by texture interface, and the gardening books really didn’t help much. They told me what it was and how to avoid it, but they gave no explanation of the science involved. I assumed it had something to do with fluid mechanics, but in what way I had no idea. I just figured that water was very skeptical of change.

What had been happening in the turnout was undeniably texture interface. As it turned out, the dirt on top of it was not all silt, but I'd say it was about 60% silt, and most of the rest was clay. So the dirt was extremely fine-textured, and DG is 100% sand, uniformly coarse-textured, and the result--well, the DG might as well have been concrete.

Here is a perfect illustration of the difference between rote learning and experiential learning, between learning by reading and learning by doing. Previously, I knew of texture interface because I had read about it and seen its effects indirectly, but I didn't really know what it was until I saw it happening with my own eyes.

Not that I'm knocking rote learning. It's how I’ve learned a lot of things like the times tables, the lyrics to the Roger Ramjet theme song, and lots of other useful, fun things like that. Rote learning is how the past prepares the present to face the future.

I was prepared for the hearty face-smack of epiphany by that bit of rote knowledge regarding texture interface that had been languishing in my brain, just waiting to be activated by experience. As Pasteur said, chance favors the prepared mind.

By chance, the very last big caper I had pulled was the installing of the bird feeder. Do you recall how I was able to re-use the sand I removed from the hole before I dug it deeper? I marveled at the time how cleanly that sand came out of the hole.

Down on my knees there in the turnout, bathing in the warm bright light of revelation, I looked over at the feeder, not more than a dozen feet away, and realized that texture interface had a big role in that job as well.

The sand came out of that hole so cleanly because texture interface works horizontally as well as vertically. It keeps the sand in the hole packed firmly together, holding the pole right in its place. Texture interface is in fact the reason why sand works nearly as effectively as concrete when setting poles in the ground. In our soil and climate, it arguably works more effectively than concrete, because it does not allow moisture to become trapped next to the pole, as concrete can.

It was but a small mental hop from that to understanding precisely why one puts a layer of small rocks at the bottom of the hole for the pole: to eliminate texture interface at the bottom. The rocks initially act as a buffer; the relatively large voids between them allow the water to fall out of the sand and then get absorbed by the soil. Soon, the soil and sand mix together in a gradual transition from one to the other to fill the large voids, thus eliminating texture interface.

This was all a great deal of fun, but it wasn’t enough. I was on a roll. I at last knew exactly what happens at a texture interface, but I still didn’t know how it happened. The mystery of how the silt layer could keep all that water captive until the sun finally set it free had not yet been solved. I got off my knees, went inside to my computer, and looked up a proper scientific explanation of texture interface, expecting it to be perplexingly counter-intuitive to match the actual physical event I had witnessed.

In fact, the explanation is perfectly intuitive and easy to understand. There are two forces involved, cohesion and adhesion, and while the names may be unfamiliar, the phenomena they represent are quite commonplace.

Cohesion is a force that attracts molecules of a liquid to each other. Water has high cohesion, which is what causes its relatively high surface tension.

Picture an icicle hanging off the eave of a house, just starting to melt in the sun. You know how a drop will start to form at the tip of the icicle, but it just hangs on until it finally gets too big, and then the drop falls off all at once, staying together until it hits the ground? That’s cohesion. The cohesion of water is strong enough to put up a good fight against gravity. Cohesion is why water beads up on the dry adobe soil of the Doll House.

Adhesion is the force that occurs when the molecules of two unlike materials have an attraction to each other. Liquids are strongly attracted to solid materials that contain very small voids. The combination of a liquid’s cohesion and its adhesion to such materials is called capillary action.

Picture what happens when you put a paper towel down on some spilled water on a countertop. The water goes upwards into the towel and spreads out until the water is completely absorbed. The water is attracted to the narrow voids between the many small fibers in the towel. Pick up the towel, and the water stays in it, held there by surface tension and capillary action, products of cohesion and adhesion, against the force of gravity.

This is just what was happening with the water in the silt layer. As with the paper towel, the voids between the tiny particles in the silt layer generated adhesion with the water that entered it, and it spread throughout the silt via capillary action until it was saturated.

Where the silt met the DG, at the texture interface, the water stopped moving because the voids in the DG are so much wider than those in the silt that capillary action stopped pulling the water forward at that point, and surface tension held it there. The water in the silt layer was held together by the combination of cohesion and adhesion so strongly that the force of gravity could not overcome it: the water in the silt did not weigh enough for gravity to pull it down.

It was as simple as that.

So I guess I had been right: water really is skeptical of change!

And with this, my spell of smartening-up was complete. It seemed as if I could feel my mind get suddenly less cluttered, as I threw out all the old, dusty, unconnected bits of soil lore that had been lying around in there. I didn’t need them any more, because now I know what texture interface is and why it happens. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, dispatched it with my own hands, made it do my bidding. I’ll recognize this perpetrator when I see it again in some new disguise. And I’m sure I will see it again.

Rote learning is a wonderful preparation for, and enhancement of, living. Experiential learning is living.

* * *

It was now a simple matter to remove the soil from the rest of the turnout, although I did have to remove some of the DG as well, to ensure I had removed all traces of any ancient curse, just in case. By that point I could see that there was a thin layer of soil on the driveway all the way across to the opposite curb and continuing down below the turnout for five feet or so, but I didn't have the time to take care of it, for the rain was coming in two days, and I had to do something about the big rise below the turnout before that.

Happily, by then I had a good plan for this: I dug a trench between the rise and the turnout. I tried to construct it so that water would flow into the trench from both the turnout and the rise, and the overflow from the trench would, if the rain was not coming down too fast, run out the side and down to the low spot on the other side of the yard.

With this, I put all my tools away and waited for the rain to come.

It came on schedule, and it didn't take too long before the turnout was backed up nearly as much as it had been the last time. I went out to watch how the water was flowing. Here's what it looked like:

Yep, I was right about having disturbed that area with all the rocks too much. As I feared, the water sank in there and oversaturated the area. And between this area and the tree well, I hadn’t established quite enough downward slope to move the water across the yard; my hoped-for erosion down to the low area did not occur. Instead, it mostly flowed into the tree well.

It was a mess, but I was happy with it. Sure, the water wasn’t going just where I wanted it to go, but it also wasn’t going where I didn’t want it to go. It wasn’t going from the soil onto the turnout, and that was the important part.

I can tell this is so by the fact that the water in the turnout is a lighter color than the water on the soil, as you can see clearly on the soil side of the drainage notch. Note the small finger of turnout-colored water flowing into the soil-colored water. This makes the distinction between the two colors clear, and confirms that no water is flowing the other way anywhere along the curb.

The swampy patch in the middle is a bit of an annoyance, but at least it is easily avoided, and in any event I can't really fix it until after the rainy season.

24 hours after the rain stopped, the turnout was free of standing water and was well on its way to being dry.

I was happy with this result, because it did allow me safely to postpone further measures until I had the time for them, but I was troubled by the apparent fact that despite my having accomplished essentially what I had set out to do, I had nonetheless failed to decrease the amount of water backing up in the turnout when it rained. This didn’t seem to make sense.

This time, it didn’t take more than about half a pipeful to come up with an answer: when I removed the silt from the turnout, I lowered the level of the turnout surface by over an inch. This caused the curb to act as a dam, holding the water back so that it had nowhere to go but down.

This restored my peace of mind for the other half-pipeful, but then a question popped up to disturb the peace: if I had stopped the flow of water from the soil into the turnout, then where did all that water in the turnout come from? It doesn’t rain more on the turnout than it does in the areas immediately surrounding it. Moreover, under the DG in the turnout, and in all the driveway, is four inches of coarse gravel. The turnout should thus have considerably better drainage than the surrounding soil.

True, Rudy did tell me that the soil under the turnout area was especially slow-draining, but I had finally dismissed this idea weeks earlier as highly implausible. What, was there a giant, turnout-sized boulder that just happened to be in that precise location, eight inches down? I figured the actual answer must be something else.

I looked back over the photos I had taken during the last rain and came upon a short video I took that I’d forgotten about. It showed me just where all that water in the turnout was coming from. I can show that to you here in another photo of the flooding in the last storm:

Look at the turnout below where the curb enters the photo from the right, and then follow along the curb to the left in the turnout. That is a flow of water from further back in the driveway. I didn’t record how far back this flow started, but the driveway continues to slope upwards from the turnout to the front of the house. This naturally creates a small but steady flow of water down that slope into the turnout.

This is why the turnout is a flood-prone area, and Rudy knew it. It was a direct result of errors in the way the contractor had built the driveway. Rudy lied to me because if he had told me the truth, we would have insisted the contractor install the drainage basin himself. It was his responsibility, because his work created the flooding problem. By planting the idea that the flooding problem was not the contractor’s fault in my head, keeping me swamped with work, and digging that big trench to mask how bad the problem really was, Rudy conned me into giving them a pass on it.

Yes, I was a chump. Don’t take my word for it. You could look it up.

Rudy was able to make me a chump because at that point I had not yet learned what a good liar he was. Over the remainder of our interaction with the contractor, I learned this all too well. During this time, it came to light that Rudy had been lying to me all along about crucial matters, and he had gotten the City inspectors and even our own independent inspector to go along with him. A bit of a sociopath, that Rudy.

It’s not as if I had not been paying close attention to the proceedings. I was here almost every day, working alongside Rudy and his men, asking questions, conducting my own inspections, bringing errors to Rudy’s attention. But I could not be here all the time, and I did not know everything about every aspect of the work.

I now know that whenever I was not here, and in every aspect of the work I did not know, Rudy was busy cutting corners and co-opting the very people whom I relied upon to keep him honest. When I caught him dead to rights, he managed to make it look like an honest error when he had no choice but to fix it, but otherwise he just flat-out lied.

It was a thorough and unforgettable lesson in the importance of maintaining a polite but unflagging skepticism in any business relationship. Rudy and water have taught me the power of skepticism.

Experiential learning. It’s the most effective way to learn, if you’re prepared for the lesson.

But it isn’t always pleasant.

* * *

A truly irresistible force.