Friday, March 29, 2019

Our Universe Is Expanding

Wifey and I are a formidable team. We’ve tangled with malefactors more than a few times, and with very few exceptions we’ve always come out on top.

So it was with the two skirmishes with the City that occurred in rapid succession in 2017. Nevertheless, we were left quite angry by the experience. We were fed up with our being repeatedly put on the defensive by an overweening bureaucracy, and by the prospect of its possibly happening again.

And so, as much as we love the Farm House, we began to feel the need to establish a foothold somewhere else, in case the City really began to put on the heat.

We had in mind a place far enough away to provide a significantly different environment, but close enough to be suitable for day trips. We wanted a place large enough for us all to be able to stretch our legs, but modest enough to be affordable.

Early in June 2017, we began to look for such a place. Miraculously, by the ides of June we had found it, and by the end of September it was ours.

You’ll be hearing all about the place in due course, so I’ll just provide a sketch of the place here. It’s on one and five-sixteenths of an acre 5500 feet up, on the slopes of Mt. PiƱos in the San Emigidio Mountains. It is within the boundaries of the Los Padres National Forest, just inside Kern County, 82 miles from the Farm House.

The house is a fairly large, rambling affair, built by the original owner (from whom we purchased it). He started with an A-frame kit cabin, and over the course of the next forty years kept adding rooms periodically. It is solidly, if quirkily, built.

The camera is at eye level here.

The place is indelibly imprinted with the lively personality of the man who built it, about whom you will hear much more in the coming months. He is a remarkable man, energetic and full of whimsy, evidence of which one is liable to find in unexpected places.

He has his own unique way of doing things.

My favorite aspect of the construction is a 1000-square-foot second garage, known as “the Barn,” although it doesn’t look anything like a barn. It is in fact just a very long garage. But what a garage! Its possibilities as a work space, and as a play space, are virtually unlimited. I mean, we could hold a barn dance in there!

The house is bordered on the north and west by a vast meadow that requires a small tractor to mow. Happily, the house came with one, and a nice snowblower as well. Beyond the north meadow is a forested area that slopes down to a creek on the northern border of the property.

The back yard overlooks the Cuddy Valley, which for a long time was cattle country. Even now, cattle graze there during the temperate months of the year.

And speaking of climate, the summers there are much like those in Pasadena, although it is generally somewhat cooler up there. The winters, on the other hand, are much colder. It is liable to snow there at any time from early November to early May.

We christened the place El Rancho Grande, after the song of the same name. For reference, here’s Bing’s hit version of the song:

The name occurred to both Wifey and me simultaneously. It just seems to fit.

[April 2, 2020: I have updated the above link, the first of which had succumbed to a DMCA takedown order. Interestingly, the Foursome, the vocal group assisting Bing here, got its start with Smith Ballew's excellent touring band in the early Thirties, although they never recorded with him. Ballew is my main collecting interest, but I hadn't previously noted the connection.

And since I'm here revising and extending my remarks, let me add that the words of this song reflect exactly how we feel about the place.]

For Wifey, El Rancho Grande was just what the doctor ordered. From the first, she positively thrived up there. She would always leave the place feeling renewed in body and spirit.

My reaction to the place was quite the opposite. Although I fell in love with the place at first sight, once the place was ours the name we had given it began to take on for me an ironic and sinister meaning.

As it happened, the acronym of the name, ERG, is also the name of a unit of work or energy. I soon discovered that the place was so large and complex that it required a considerable amount of work to maintain. The scope of the work grew exponentially in my mind once I realized that I knew virtually nothing about the particular maintenance needs of a place situated in a snowy winter environment.

I would thus get to work the second we arrived at the place, but ten minutes later I found myself completely drained of energy and gasping for breath, done for the day. After a few weeks of this, I figured out that I was experiencing altitude sickness up there. I had never gotten it before unless I was up above 10,000 feet, and even then the symptoms were mild and of brief duration.

I began resting for a half-hour after arrival at El Rancho Grande before I did anything else, and that worked for a time. But it caused me some concern nonetheless, and when in time the altitude sickness worsened, both Wifey and I knew something was wrong with me.

This led us to seek out a new doctor, the one who quickly and accurately diagnosed my heart condition.

Thus, while El Rancho Grande was for Wifey just what the doctor ordered, for me it was just what ordered the doctor.

As 2018 wore on, I eventually had to give up the idea of doing any work up at ERG for the time being, and after mid-July I had to stay away completely for a time. We tried again in mid-November, but it was too soon.

After my encouraging physical in early February, we felt that it was safe to try again.  And so, the next Saturday, we went up there. It was a nice sunny day, but there was a blanket of snow on the ground.

That, however, diminished no one’s spirits.

Everything was beautiful,

and a grand time was had by all.

Oh, and the altitude sickness was completely absent. At last, El Rancho Grande is just what the doctor ordered for me as well, because she has ordered me to get plenty of exercise.

* * *

You all are now brought more or less up to date regarding Otis, Wifey & Co. There are still a few blank spaces to fill regarding past events, which I will do as soon as I fill them in for myself, but for the most part I will now be returning to current business.

"Uh. . . hello?"

Oh, wait. I just remembered one small event I failed to mention. On February 4, 2018, Wifey let the dogs out in the morning, as usual, and instead of their going about their business, they made a beeline to the north side of the house and set up an enormous din.

Wifey ran out, and saw the dogs gathered around the base of the big Eastern oak alongside the driveway. She followed their gaze upward and saw a raccoon in the tree.

There is nothing very odd about raccoons in our trees at night, but we haven’t had one there in the daytime since we moved in. Apparently, the raccoon had fallen asleep up there, and failed to wake up in time to get to a dog-free zone.

Although we brought the dogs right back in, and kept them in all day, that poor raccoon stayed there until it was good and dark, although after a while he relaxed and made himself comfortable.

Okay, now it’s back to current business.

* * *

"Thank you."

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Civics Lesson, Part 2

One day in June 2017, we received a certified letter from our good friend, Robespierre Corday. We didn’t need to open it to know that it was another code violation. Our postman advised us he had been delivering many such letters that day on our block, all from the same source.

This code violation concerned our driveway approach. That’s the civil-engineer term for the ramp that gets you from the street, across the parkway and sidewalk, to your driveway. They considered it substandard.

This approach was probably installed when they subdivided the neighborhood in 1911, or not long after. It was originally six feet wide, and was designed to accommodate vehicles weighing a ton or so at the most. It’s only about two inches thick. At some point, it was widened to eight feet, as you can see along the right side. 

Okay, they had a point. The approach had been disintegrating ever since concrete trucks crossed it repeatedly during the heavy construction phase, and since our contractor bailed early, they never got around to fixing it. As we discovered later, the roots of the big pine tree had something to do with the damage as well.

We called Corday, who as before was sincerely sorry to have to cite us, but they had received a complaint and had to investigate it. We didn’t tell him that the postman had outed him, and that we knew that he had gone up and down our block and noted everything citable.

In this part of town, you can’t get a policeman to come unless a violent crime is in progress, but you get to know the code compliance officers by name. Of course, the compliance officers never seem to notice the City’s own code violations, which are legion.

It would in fact have been imprudent for us to tell him that we knew the truth of the matter. No need to get his back up. Not that you can’t fight City Hall, but this fight would be so messy and expensive that any victory would be a Pyrrhic one. Forget it, Otis; it’s Pasadena.

Besides, we did clearly need a new approach. This citation at least had a valid basis, irrespective of its origin. And so, we immediately set out to correct the violation with all due speed.

The first contractor we auditioned was a referral from a landscape-architect friend, so we knew that he was qualified to do the work. He gave us a quote that did not include the acquisition of permits, advising us that it was considerably cheaper for us to get them.

He didn't know, as we were soon to learn, that as of 2017 the City requires that the contractor obtain the permits. Because, you know, the City just hates to deal with actual taxpayers face-to-face. Plus, contractors are such generous campaign donors. In Pasadena, you can represent yourself in court, but not at the planning office.

In any event, the quote was so insanely high that it was clear that the contractor did not want the job. So we got more quotes, and chose one that seemed the most qualified. They set up an initial meeting with the Public Works inspector, who has charge of such work.

Now, the City is supposed to vet the contractor to ensure he is qualified to perform the work in the City. That is their justification for requiring the contractor to obtain the permits; this is supposed to protect the homeowner, ensuring that the work is done professionally and ethically, in a timely manner.

But the City, ever disingenuous, doesn’t really bother to vet the contractor. They just send the inspector out. The contractor and a few of his men arrived early for the meeting, and were already demolishing the old approach before I even knew they were there.

I considered myself fully prepared to deal with the inspector. I was already quite familiar with the particular code requirements for new driveway approaches in Bungalow Heaven, having discussed them at length with the head of the Cultural Heritage Commission in the early days of the heavy construction phase.

The design of our new driveway approach had to match the appearance of the original. The curb on each side must curve at the same level to meet the sidewalk, the ramp must be divided into roughly-equilateral rectangles, and the surface of the concrete must be washed when still wet to blend in with the weathered appearance of the existing century-old concrete work. This was precisely what we wanted, so I expected no controversy in the matter.

In the event, when the inspector arrived he got right to business, and dictated in no uncertain terms an approach thoroughly modern in appearance. When I brought up, gently, the particular requirements for our nieghborhood, he emphatically disagreed, stating flatly that every new approach in the City must be constructed precisely as he described.

What followed next was the most intense hour of negotiation I have yet endured. Now, we do happen to have a professional negotiator in our household, but I am decidedly not that person. Nevertheless, I had the facts of the matter at hand, and my cause was righteous, so I jumped right in with both feet.

Happily, I kept my righteous anger well in check, and the inspector was a reasonable man, so in the end I got just what I and the Commission wanted. By the time our negotiation was completed, so was the demolition of the old approach, and the meeting ended with cordiality all around. The contractor departed with the promise that he’d get started in a day or two.

Now, you all just know that he didn’t, right? Well, you are correct. I won’t sport with your patience by giving you a blow-by-blow account of the next few months. Let it suffice to say that the contractor was in fact not approved by the City, for the simple reason that he was apparently not certified by the State to do concrete work.

And for all that time, getting in and out of our driveway was something of an expedition.

After this photo was taken, I re-graded the approach, taking out the rocks and adding some dirt from our ample supply in the back yard, because the tires on Wifey’s car are expensive.

We did eventually get the work done to our satisfaction:

It’s a luxurious ten feet wide (the inspector had wanted twelve!), and it’s six inches thick, strong enough to take concrete trucks. Plus, it’s a huge upgrade in appearance.

So once again, all’s well that ends well, and it’s now a lot less of an adventure to get in and out of the driveway.

* * *

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Civics Lesson, Part 1

A few years after we moved into the Farm House, Wifey and I formulated a plan for the front landscaping. We hoped to install a nice lawn in the front, with a row of hybrid tea roses along the south side and a row of lavender bushes in front of the veranda. Someday.

But we were waiting until the exterior restoration was done, and the long drought was over. Until such a time, we felt it was both prudent and civically responsible to maintain the front yard in a natural state, with a weed-free, neatly-groomed, thick blanket of pine straw over everything. In other words, we had a xeriscape. All the cool kids were doing it, and the City actively encouraged it in their bi-monthly propaganda mailing.

Apart from our front landscaping’s being congruent with the City’s oft-expressed desires, it was inarguably appropriate historically in this historical district, having been a nicely-groomed version of what the Farm House has had as far back as living memory goes around here. The thick blanket of pine straw kept the soil cool, well-nourished, and at the proper pH for the giant pine tree in our yard to maintain optimal health. No additional water was required, which is the ideal xeriscape.

We did what was necessary to keep the yard neat. We kept it free of weeds and debris. We kept the area around the tree clear of pine straw. We kept the walkways swept. We kept the parkway strip, which has a Bermuda-grass lawn, mowed and edged.

We never received a hint of a complaint about our front landscape, from any quarter. As a matter of fact, we expected to have a big fight on our hands with the City when we finally undertook to install a lawn.

And then, after a wet winter, the drought was officially over in the state, at least for the time being. On the very day of Governor Brown’s declaration to that effect, the City swooped down on us in the form of a code-compliance officer—let’s call him Robespierre Corday—who served us with a citation for inadequate landscaping, giving us a month to correct the violation, and threatening us with a steep fine if we failed to comply. This was in March 2017.

This Mr. Corday was very apologetic, but despite our most eloquent pleas in favor of continued environmental responsibility, he claimed that there was nothing he could do, that a complaint had been made, we were found to be in violation of City code, and his hands were thus tied. When we asked him who had made the complaint, he said he was unable to give us that information. You see, in the rugged regulatory forest of Pasadena, one is not allowed to face his accuser.

I was greatly concerned by this development, because I was just preparing to get back to work on the house now that the rains were over, and I was afraid that the demands of maintaining a landscaped front yard would severely impact the restoration work.

And so, in consultation with our excellent arborist and horticultural consultant Javier, we came up with a plan that would satisfy the technical requirements of the code with minimum impact on the environment, our water bill, and my time. It was a simple plan that would provide both green foliage and colorful, plentiful blooms, watered entirely by highly-efficient drip irrigation.

When we outlined the plan with Corday, however, he advised that in our best interests he could not recommend it. You see, he had no authority to approve such a plan, and if executed, it stood an even chance of not being approved by the City, in which case we’d have to tear it out and start over.

We would thus as a practical matter have to write up the plan in detail, with scaled drawings, and present it before some committee for approval before we did it. This would take a great deal of time and effort, and even then we stood nothing better than the same even chance of approval.

Corday’s strong suggestion was to install a lawn. That he had the authority to approve on his own. A lawn and some nice plants in front of the house, and he would go happily on his way.

Now, it is possible that our good friend Robespierre truly did have our best interests at heart. And it is quite plausible that he was being straight with us regarding the fate of our plan. But let’s take a step back and get a wider view of this situation.

Ever since we moved here, Wifey and I have received official exhortations from the City regarding the civic virtue of water-wise landscaping. They even offered incentives to install a xeriscape. Skeptical as we are about such things, after a decade or so of this messaging we came to believe that the City meant what it said.

It was thus natural, when the City pressed us for a landscaping plan, to offer in good faith a manifestly water-wise one. Corday’s response revealed that, whatever his personal intentions were, the City was not acting in good faith. If they were serious about encouraging water-wise landscapes, they wouldn’t have put up such high bureaucratic hurdles in the way of our installing one.

And there is more to it than just that. Again, irrespective of Corday’s personal intent, he as the official representative of the City, acting under color of its authority, was essentially threatening us with costly bureaucratic sanctions if we did not install the landscape he dictated.

We had acted in good faith and against our wishes. In response, the City had reflexively shown us its middle finger. Because, you know, it can.

On the one hand, I was white-hot with righteous rage at this unjust and unjustifiable exercise of raw bureaucratic power. I felt an obligation of honor to all the signers of the Declaration of Independence and all the brave men who stormed Normandy on D-Day to fight, and between Wifey and me, I knew we had what it takes to win.

On the other hand, Corday was bullying us into installing precisely the landscape we wanted. Despite my moral outrage, I in the final analysis could not believe our good fortune. There is no honor in the refusal to take an own-goal by the other team.

You see, what I had long feared was that we would actually be forced to install the typical depression-inducing, beige-and-khaki thanascape consisting of “native plants” that render the land beneath them useless. The water-wise landscape we suggested was rather a sacrificial offering intended to arrive at something with the same impact on the water supply as a thanascape while avoiding one.

And by the way, the claim that such plants are native is thoroughly risible; I have seen many pictures of this land before development, and judging from them, the only plant truly native to this area is crabgrass. All we had to do to get that was to stop pulling it out.

Javier graciously offered to install the landscaping himself, which offer we accepted gladly because we knew that he would do it in such a way that there would be no negative impact on the pine tree’s health. Javier has always been very good to us, and I think he took on the job because he wanted to make sure that the pine tree would continue to thrive. He is truly a tree doctor, and he cares deeply about every one of his patients.

And of course, Javier did a marvelous job with the lawn. While the soil needed no amendment, he made sure to remove the many rocks, and to contour the soil so it would retain its historical rolling character without being so hilly that uniform watering and mowing would be difficult.

He in fact was very enthusiastic about the job. “You’re going to have a very lovely lawn,” he told me. “You did a great job laying out the walkways, with the nice undulation in the approach and the radiused junctions. Most people have square, flat, boring postage stamps of green. You are going to have a nice rolling meadow.”

As it turned out, he was right: we did have a nice rolling meadow.

The result was astoundingly transformative.

The vast expanse of lush greenness instantly pulled the house firmly into its environment, creating an organic whole of the house and yard that will only be intensified once I complete the exterior restoration, and plant lavender around the front of the house.

But I was right, too: the maintenance demands of the new landscape, especially the lawn, immediately ate up most of my time and energy. During the summer, the lawn grows so vigorously that it needs mowing twice a week.

This became a serious matter once my heart condition surfaced. My cardiologist cautioned me to avoid undue exertion, saying, “You don’t want to have your first heart episode in your current condition. It may prove to be your last one.”

Fortunately, by that time I had greatly streamlined the maintenance process, and had exchanged my old push mower for a swell self-propelled electric one, so all I really had to do was walk leisurely behind it, and Wifey took over the more strenuous tasks such as sweeping and raking. Even so, just the mowing took virtually all the energy I had available in the months before my operation, which is why I find myself in such a deep hole now.

Still, to paraphrase the late, great Chick Hearn: no episode, no foul. I came out okay, plus we have the front landscape we always wanted. Winning!

Of course, the City was not through with us yet….

* * *

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Room for Two More

Enter Simon

In the wee small hours of August 27, 2016, Wifey and I headed north for Santa Rosa. Seventeen hours later, we returned home with a tiny orange furball, whom we named Simon.

Simon is a Maine coon, and as you can see here, he’s got something extra: opposable thumbs. Well, to be scrupulously accurate, they’re partially opposable. He in fact has seven digits on each front paw, and his thumb can’t reach them all.

As was our dear Adam, Simon is fully in touch with his inner lion.

But he’s an awfully sweet lion.

Enter Chase

On May 7, 2017, Wifey and I headed upstate once again, this time to wine-country Paso Robles to fetch our new puppy, whom we named Chase.

Chase is an Australian shepherd, and he immediately began trying to herd us, our guests, the other dogs, the cats, and all the wild creatures in the back yard. In retrospect, we probably should have named him Behave.

The Boys Today

Simon was closing in on his first birthday when Chase made the scene, but a male Maine coon is in practical terms still a kitten at that age, so it’s accurate to say that the two boys have grown up together.

And both have grown well. Just as with Adam, Simon’s personality blossomed after his second birthday. He has become quite interactive and affectionate. Benny has undoubtedly served as a positive role model in this regard.

Also, since my surgery Simon has become very talkative. Several times a day, he’ll burst into the room and start monologizing energetically in his expressive, trilling voice.

I haven’t quite learned his vocabulary yet, but I get the impression that he’s telling me what he’s been doing since he saw me last.

"There's like a million squirrels in the back yard! Oh, and I ate a bug and a Milk-Bone."

And when I start a conversation, he will answer me. I especially love that.

"I'm fine, pal. How are you?"

Chase’s personality, on the other hand, was already in full bloom when we first met him. He is energetic, affectionate, highly interactive, and startlingly intelligent.

Everybody who knows Chase loves him. That includes all the other pets, especially Sally and Rosalie.

He and Sally love to romp and tussle together.

Rosalie will groom him just as Evangeline used to groom Travis.

Chase is a strong alpha. He considers me to be the pack leader, with himself second in command. We know this because I am the only one he consistently obeys, and the only one he does not try to herd.

Of course, Peter begs to differ regarding this pecking order, because he too is a strong alpha. But he and Chase worked this out pretty quickly, because Peter is more than twice Chase’s size, and as I said Chase is very smart. While Chase is fearless, and nearly as strong as Peter, Chase is also no fool. Besides, Peter loves Chase, and Chase loves his pack.

And Chase loves no one as much as he loves Wifey. He may not obey her much, and he may try to herd her, and he certainly loves me. Still, he is absolutely devoted to Wifey, and is with her constantly, unless he is off on some caper.

Chase is a thoroughly sweet guy, and is rarely in anything but a very sunny mood. This is true of Simon as well.

Partners in Crime

Simon and Chase have something else in common: they are both juvenile delinquents. Actually, I’ll go beyond that to say that they are kindred spirits, and fast friends.

They even play together.

But mostly, they are juvenile delinquents.

It’s not that they are bad seeds or anything like that. There’s not a molecule of malice in either of them. Let’s just say that they like to stir the pot.

Simon, King of The Jungle, likes to monitor his domain from on high.

As a result, there is quite literally no horizontal surface anywhere in the house that he can’t get to, no matter how inaccessible it may seem.

"Nobody here but us audio-animatronic stuffed animals."

And if there’s no room for him, then he makes room.

"You'll find your Simple Green on the floor behind the dryer."

This is where Chase enters the picture. He is a firm believer in the old aphorism: “If it’s on the ground, it belongs to the hound.” Yes, I know he’s not a hound, but don’t tell him that. He’s definitely in touch with his inner Travis. Anything that Simon knocks down, Chase claims as his by natural right.

When this behavior first appeared, the typical scenario was as follows: Wifey and I are in the den, relaxing and watching TV after dinner. A quorum of the pack is in the room with us. Chase trots in, his head held high, with something in his mouth. That something is some cherished keepsake of Wifey’s.

Wifey sees this. She jumps up and starts chasing Chase throughout the house, saying “Chase! Drop it now!” in a stern voice. Chase thinks this is great sport, and fails to comply. Eventually, Wifey gives up, and makes the proffer of a treat. Chase drops the cherished contraband to take the treat. Wifey recovers the contraband.

This was obviously something that we had to put a stop to, so Wifey and I formulated a plan. First, I became the one who would engage Chase when he brought something in, because me he will obey; I would follow him through the house, closing doors as I went, until he was cornered and had to relinquish the item. Then, I would praise him, pet him, and walk away. No punishment, and no treat.

Second, Wifey did what she could to Simon-proof the house, moving all her tchotchkes, gewgaws and other assorted knick-knacks to safety behind closed doors.

Sounds like a good, sensible plan, doesn’t it? Well, sure it was. And it worked perfectly—for a few weeks. Then, one evening Chase came into the den carrying one of Wifey’s best athletic shoes, and just stood there in front of her. When she reached to take it out of his mouth, Chase backed up just out of her reach. When she then got up to get closer to him, Chase turned around and trotted to the kitchen. When we got there, we found him standing in front of the treat jar on the counter.

I looked at Wifey and said to her, “You truly are a gifted dog trainer. You’ve actually taught him the fundamentals of a barter economy!” Chase had learned that items Wifey values could be traded for items he values. When his initial source dried up, he simply found another. I told you he’s smart!

And just in case you don’t think Simon was in on this, wait until you hear about their latest caper, which happened just last week.

Wifey was preparing dinner, and had left some asparagus spears draining in a colander over the sink while she fried up some salmon filets (I’m on a strict diet right now). She looked down, and saw Chase munching on an asparagus spear; she figured she must have dropped one inadvertently.

A minute or so later, she turned to retrieve the asparagus from the sink, and saw Simon standing over the colander. He grabbed an asparagus spear and tossed it to Chase, who was waiting below.

I told you Simon has partially-opposable thumbs!

* * *

Road trip!