Posts

backyard garden

Before and after

Recently I found a 2020 photo of our backyard prior to our garden revamp. Crappy lawn, no plants, no wildlife.

Today, it’s a veritable jungle with birds flitting about and bees bumbling flower to flower. A complete transformation…thanks to untold hours spent working our butts off.

Testing out planter bed height in April 2020.
A few (hundred?) hours of work later…

That got me thinking about before/afters from other projects. All required time, energy, and commitment. Some also required sweat and swearing at inanimate objects.

Eyeing the rearview mirror, they all feel worth it.

A few of them:

  1. Building out our empty Sprinter van into a mobile adventure rig.
  2. Starting a blog in 2013 at the start of our van trip, now up to 200 posts (plus another 100 newsletters to boot).
  3. Physical adventures like bike tours with Chelsea, mile by mile. In total, almost a year of fond (and hard!) memories of bicycle journeying together.
  4. Toiling away on a business that allows us lots of freedom.
  5. My studious phase the past two years: Learning to speak Italian. Hundreds of hours of piano practice. Notebooks full of drawings…

So many times where I was tired or unmotivated, but did it anyway. My current self thanks that tired-but-doing-it past self!

Blank van slate in 2013…gulp.
Enroute to Idaho in August with all the gear.

I see three common threads for all these before/afters:

1.   They involved creating something via perseverance and effort (memories included) vs. one-off enjoyment.

2.  All of them are experiences or facilitate future experiences (e.g. van trips, hanging in our garden, playing music).

3.  All involved building a skill.

Also, in no way were they fun all the time. Sifting rocks from free top soil during our garden project comes to mind…sigh.

All these goals took on a life of their own. I didn’t intend to befriend blog readers or fall in love with piano and bikepacking… It’s all blossomed from having enough fun (and being stubborn) long enough to create a habit.

A reminder that we often become passionate about something after we’ve invested energy in it.

Similar to asking, “what are the decisions that most positively affected my life,” I think looking at the traits of our most satisfying before and afters is a useful lens for guiding our lives.

Pretending there isn’t another giant climb right around the bend in Spain, 2019.

Sewer Trenches Versus Carpal Tunnel

The project! My brother provided me with an Official Construction Sweatshirt, though clearly what I needed was a haircut.

Most weeks of my life yield few concrete results. Phone calls and piano practice, emails and payroll approval, bike rides and socializing leave a scant real-world trace.

When the results of our work hours are digital detritus, carpal tunnel and bad posture, tackling physical projects is even more valuable!

Two weeks in October delivered on said physical labor. While helping my brother build a second dwelling on my parents’ property, I did the following:

  • Dug a deep 200’ sewer trench with a backhoe, plus lots of (cough too much) hand digging.
  • Laid sewer pipe in the trench (hopefully the closest I’ll get to WWI-style warfare).
  • Cut out downed tree branches after a windy ice storm.
  • Installed a door to keep skunks out of a barn utility room.
  • Scraped off kiln shelves for a pottery firing.
  • Ran electrical wiring for the building, sank 8’ grounding rods, and installed an electrical panel.
  • Put up siding, cut and installed trim, installed a heat pump, moved four pallets of hardwood flooring in a snowstorm.
  • Somehow convinced two city inspectors the above quality was good enough to sign off on. (No bribes were paid.)
WAY more fun than mountain biking!

That non-comprehensive list is off the top of my head. At each day’s end, I’d drag my exhausted ass up the stairs, practice piano for 12 minutes, call Chelsea to say goodnight, and faceplant into bed.

I don’t share this list to brag. (HA, some of you are probably pitying me!) Instead, looking back, I’m amazed by the sheer volume of tangible work we accomplished in two weeks.

Doing Real Stuff

Laying pipe in a muddy trench is certainly not on my bucket list. But you know what? Chunks of labor with physical results are SO satisfying. From building out our van to installing solar panels on our house to my recent efforts, I love a good project.

Our backyard garden remodel is a prime example of this. Rather than spinning out this spring with the quarantine in effect, Chelsea and I launched headlong into creating her dream garden.

Yegads did we labor, converting a fugly backyard lawn into planter boxes, paths, and ornamental plantings! Our reward: voluminous quantities of vegetables and a relaxing sanctuary for us. Totally worth it.

Hard work on my parents’ property felt even more transformative.

My 1870s miner father and brother as a snowstorm rolled in.

Short-Term Pain, Long-Term Gain

My efforts on the building will help my parents age in place. When my brother and his family move into the main house, my nieces and nephews can grow up with Grandma and Grandpa around. As a bonus, my brother receives childcare support and a beautiful property for the kids to rampage on. How can I not feel good about contributing my sweat (and occasional swear words) to that?

Sure, I missed a few bike rides and my piano playing suffered. Yeah, my body is tired. WHAT.EVER.

From changing out a light fixture to full-scale home construction, the sense of accomplishment and satisfying glow from a solid DIY project pays dividends far down the road. Rather than a sense of dread, I see it as an opportunity for well-rounded living and feeling capable.

While I don’t want to work nonstop on DIY house projects – this effort wore me out – the results fire me up and balance out my cushy life. Nothing like contrast to make me appreciate what I’ve got!

Even if contrast is provided by hours in a muddy sewer trench.

****

Pictures!

The reason I was scraping kiln shelves: My mom made these beautiful new planter pots for Chelsea’s indoor jungle.
My brother getting it done.
18 degrees, but finished the electrical!
Excavators: 128x more fun than a shovel!
Parting shot: In case you’ve always wondered what the inside of a sewer pipe looks like…