rental backyard: temporary fire pit (part 8)

hand-me-down fire pit

One of Jeff's must-haves for the backyard was a fire pit. I have mixed feelings about them myself because of ending up smelling like campfire smoke each night, but I do love the warmth and aesthetics of a glowing fire on a chilly evening.

What we want is a modernist fire pit made from a washing-machine drum as concocted by a very clever DIY-er. (First we'll need to source a free broken-down washing machine on Craigslist and buy some black high-temperature spray paint.)

What we have for now is a rusty moon-and-stars-themed fire pit handed down by one of Jeff's home-owning friends. Jeff built a fire in it one night last weekend for the first time, after five straight hours of working together on the backyard. I took my laptop out there to the picnic table, feeding wood scraps to the fire and keeping an eye out for stray sparks, my back toasty warm, while Jeff was in the house making pizzas. Then we ate hot mushroom pizza by candlelight and firelight on our new hand-built deck, table, and benches.

It was the inaugural night of using the backyard for anything social. After dinner and my bedtime, he invited a couple friends over, and they stayed up talking by the fire into the wee hours. Soon, whenever we find pavers and can figure out how to hide all the cords needed back there for electric illumination, we'll have a party.

secondhand fire pit at night

(And so it should come as no surprise that he also wants to build himself a wood-fired pizza oven.)

Missed the earlier posts in the Rental Backyard series documenting our backyard fix-up? Check out . . .

Part 1: The Tangled Mess
Part 2: Down to Dirt
Part 3: New Old Deck
Part 4: The Old Fence
Part 5: The New Fence
Part 6: Clean Slate
Part 7: Discount Plantings


rental backyard: discount plantings (part 7)

repotted gift mums

Last weekend, after we had cleared out all that extra wood from the backyard, we finally had room to plant several items of flora collected for free or on the cheap over the last few months. Jeff's dad, who as a pensioned retiree drives truck part-time for a nursery owned by a family cousin, had donated several large bags of compost a while back. We would dig a hole large enough for whatever plant we were installing. Then in a large plastic planter we'd mix compost with the loosened soil in a 1:1 ratio, adding full-strength compost to the bottom of the hole, placing the plant in, filling in the remainder of the hole with composted soil, and then tamping everything down firmly and finally watering.

First we planted the potted lilac bush our former duplex neighbor had left behind. The lilac is a bit scraggly from being stuck in a pot for who knows how long on the shaded east side of the house but should do better now planted in our backyard corner between the neighbor's garage and the back fence. I doubt it will bloom next spring, but maybe it will surprise us. I love the scent of lilacs, and it was free, so it was worth the gamble, even though the bush without leaves will look like a bag of sticks.

hand-me-down lilac bush, planted

Next we planted the three ferns we'd bought from Fred Meyer in the discount garden section sometime in mid-summer. I suspect they'd gotten sunburned during the June heat wave. Kept in a cardboard box for months, they seem to be doing fine, if a bit pale, and will likely thrive in the deep shade of the mystery tree growing in the east corner of the backyard.

discount fern, planted

discount ferns and hostas planted behind skeleton vintage dining set

discount hosta, planted

Sadly, the four hostas we'd bought along with the ferns hadn't fared as well over the summer in the cardboard box. Their leaves had kept yellowing and going sickly. We're thinking only two of the plants will survive, though it might be just as well, since hostas like to spread out. They should have plenty of dappled shade under the mystery tree in the northeast corner. And if they don't live, we'll simply buy more ferns.

tattered English ivy survivors

To our surprise, the English ivy that had climbed the old fence has survived both deconstruction and construction. This is one hardy plant! Leaves now tattered, it may yet climb the new fence. In any case, I'm keeping it; ivy gets a bad invasive-plant rap here in the Pacific Northwest, but we're not living in the forest, and we could use some vertical plant growth here in the backyard.

The hardest placement to decide on was the hydrangea gifted to me by Jeff's mom during my September surgery. We weren't certain of the best planting location because hydrangeas need lots of room and light, neither of which the backyard has much of. But the front yard has even less space right now for plants, so into the backyard it went, right next to the new deck. I'd read that foil-wrapped hydrangeas, rather than nursery hydrangeas, are a planting risk regardless, having been greenhouse-grown and forced to bloom. So we'll see how it does.

gift hydrangea, planted

For a little more color back there, I also repotted a couple of gifted fall mums, though I'm not sure how they'll fare through winter. At least one of them was a deep burgundy originally, now faded to pink. Having almost no budget for landscaping requires creativity and flexibility. This is still early landscaping stages, but it's a start—and a cheap one at that.

repotted mums

As we head into the rainy season, the need to mulch around these new plantings for insulation and to limit weed growth and then place some kind of pavers for pathways becomes more urgent—before the backyard turns into a muddy mess.

Missed the earlier posts in the Rental Backyard series documenting our backyard fix-up? Check out . . .

Part 1: The Tangled Mess
Part 2: Down to Dirt
Part 3: New Old Deck
Part 4: The Old Fence
Part 5: The New Fence
Part 6: Clean Slate


rental backyard: clean slate (part 6)

backyard deck with potted discount foliage 

Jeff took a month's hiatus from working on the backyard to remodel his brother's bathroom and whatnot. But that project is (mostly) done now, so the last few days he has refocused on our yard. First he needed to finish the fence. Our side was already almost done, not including the gap between us and the duplex neighbor which still existed only because he'd committed to rebuilding the back part of their own falling-down fence and didn't want to have to walk all the way around.

Then when that was done, he walled in the divider and adjusted the fence hangers on our side, which were placed too far back (see here) because he was originally going to do a good-neighbor fence (even though I'd told him I hate that style of fence because of reduced privacy). So now the new fence is all done. He even shored up the old side-yard fence (not pictured), which was only starting to fall down.

completed backyard fence adjoining the neighbor's garage

Next we argued about what to do with all the extra wood he'd collected, including some shipping pallets and old fence panels being used as pallets holding his wood, still lined up along the fence. The new young neighbor couple took a few pallets and half the scrap-wood burn pile. Jeff then cut up and stacked neatly the rest of the scrap wood along the back of the house, using pallets as raised platforms for the burn pile and his three (!) grills (one not pictured). His old pale-green dirt bike changed places with his hippo-heavy meat smoker over at his mom's place, the smoker now sitting at the side of our house in the backyard, where at least it's mostly out of sight (see photo above). (He's never used the motorcycle once in the five years we've been friends and so should sell it, anyway. Right, Jeffrey?)

burn pile and grills on shipping pallets

potted pine, new fence, back neighbor's house

backyard pathway, cleared of stored wood

The rest of the reclaimed wood, leftover from building the deck and its huge table and benches, we carried, back and forth, trip after trip, from the backyard out to his trailer in the front yard, where it was dumped. The wood will be stored over at his mom's for future projects—along with the dirt bike—under a protected overhang.

What a difference it made getting that extra wood out of the backyard! The dirt was visible again, under a thin layer of pine needles fallen from the neighbor's huge tree where the raccoons live. Since then, we keep trawling Craigslist, searching for free pavers for the paths, cedar bark dust for soil cover, and more plants for landscaping—basically the outside equivalent of tile and carpet.

Missed the earlier posts in the Rental Backyard series documenting our backyard fix-up? Check out . . .

Part 1: The Tangled Mess
Part 2: Down to Dirt
Part 3: New Old Deck
Part 4: The Old Fence
Part 5: The New Fence


on 3-D mammograms

pink cosmos in canning jar

Okay, so my big news is that I don't have to have chemo after all, only a course of radiation and a lifetime of extreme hormone therapy, which in case anyone is wondering isn't for breast cancer patients about adding hormones but subtracting them because some of us have the kind of breast tumors that feed on estrogen and progesterone. Thank goodness for the latest European cancer studies wending their way across the Atlantic. So even though I don't carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations, I'll still be having another surgery soon, a prophylactic laparoscopic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, which means they'll be cutting out my ovaries and fallopian tubes. I never wanted children, anyway. Early sudden menopause, here I come. This may put me at other health risks, them cancelling out my body's hormones well ahead of time, but cancer is pretty much the biggest trump-risk of them all. The oncologist has also put me on a hormone blocker for extra protection, since the ovaries are the main but not the only producers of girly hormones. But why should random strangers happening upon the blog care about my cancer treatment saga, you might ask? Because no one would ever want to go through any of this, if it could be prevented.

So in light of October being Breast Cancer Awareness Month, for which I am personally right on time as a fresh "survivor," here's my big pitch: Get a 3-D mammogram every year, no excuses! Women who die of breast cancer are typically the ones who did not get regularly screened. And don't bother with the old 2-D ones. Tell any behind-the-times doctor or insurance company to stuff it and find a clinic, preferably a women's clinic, that offers 3-D mammograms as the standard breast diagnostic.

My younger sister, who lives in a small town in Idaho and who is now considered at heightened risk because she suddenly has a first-degree relation with breast cancer (i.e., me), had to spend a whole morning this week calling around her region trying to find some clinic offering 3-D mammograms. (Her doctor had already wanted her to have a baseline mammogram at age 37 this year, even prior to my own breast cancer diagnosis this summer.)

She finally happened upon a hospital in the Sun Valley resort area promoting their new 3-D mammogram system; insurance companies would be billed at the 2-D mammogram rate and then the hospital foundation would pay the difference between the 2-D and 3-D rates for the first 3,000 patients. Sadly, my sister will have a three-hour drive each way to and from her 3-D mammogram appointment, but at least she'll have it done. (Having the latest technology locally available is a huge benefit of living in a city compared to rural areas.)

Legacy Health 3-D mammogram promotional poster

Here in Portland, I consulted a billing specialist at the mammography center at my own hospital, Legacy Health, who suggested that women shop around for clinics who will split the difference like that. At my hospital, for example, the difference currently is only $82, well worth the extra cost for better screening technology. Mammograms may need to be followed up immediately, as in my case, with additional testing procedures like ultrasounds, biopsies, and MRIs, but mammograms are where diagnosis starts.

Please help spread the word. Breast cancer is increasing in younger women (below age 40), and one in eight women will be diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Unfortunately, scientists can only list risk factors, still unable to explain what causes cancer—other than the general statement that environmental factors affect gene expression. So could the factors be excess stress or unresolved emotions? Is it a population increasingly delaying and reducing years of childbirth and breastfeeding? Might it be widened exposure to bovine growth hormones, hormones in certain birth control methods, or parabens or other estrogen-mimicking chemicals? Science may better piece together the cancer puzzle someday. Till then, all we have to hold onto are healthy diet, regular exercise, stress reduction, and early diagnostics.


Sauvie beach day

upside-down tree, Collins Beach, Sauvie Island

Sometimes an afternoon at a nudie beach is just what's needed. My friend M and I giggled at all the hairless, mostly retiree-age maleness parading back and forth along the beach, especially at the bald guy wearing only his Keens and his Bluetooth and even more so at a tall, well endowed youngish hunk who stopped to check his phone further down the beach, one leg perched high on a log, his back to us while we joked about Sasquatch having gotten a full-body wax job. (Hey, objectification should swing both ways.)

cloud face

Of the handful of women we saw on the beach, most were walking hand-in-hand with male partners, as if for protection, though two solo women stood out, one who looked quite high while frolicking with a long stick, drawing what turned out to be large, precise curlicues in the sand, and another slim woman with large breasts who was walking ankle-deep in the river, picking up shells and stones. A tanned Latino man with a rounded belly and even longer hair than mine told us she was out on the beach almost every day collecting objects with which to build small memorials along the beach—for her cats.

sun hat

Collins Beach pier, Sauvie Island

The sun high, I pulled up my top and showed my friend my new scars. This act sparked a conversation with a naked older man who approached us some minutes later, saying he'd seen my mastectomy scar and mentioning his niece's breast cancer and asking a few respectful questions about the reconstruction process, wishing me luck with chemo. Strangely enough, being at a nude beach with a bunch of old men made me feel even more accepting of my poor scarred body. We're all flawed people, clothed or not.

sand toes

M and I lay on blankets for hours talking, our toes digging down into the cool damp sand. Growing hotter, even under hats, we waded into the Columbia up to our waists, the water clear, the river bottom smooth and dotted with frond-waving plants, little fish darting around our legs. Back on the beach, I snapped a few photos of the sand and sky because I didn't want to forget.


homegrown horror

homegrown sunflower

I surfaced from a busy week to read details of the latest school shooting in Oregon—how embarrassing (and tragic and infuriating and all that). You can read my thoughts on gun control here and here. I'm too distracted with battling cancer at the moment to be saying much more on the topic of mass shootings.

But I was in a local sportsman's shop a few weekends ago while my friend Jeff was buying a seasonal fishing license. We were planning to spend a few hours out on the Willamette River in a borrowed boat, and I was just going along for the ride, a potential accessory to fish murder. Fortunately, nobody caught anything other than an old anchor. But even more impressive to me that day than the sunny, tree-lined river were the store's glass cases of handguns, racks of rifles, and boxes of ammo stacked up on the shelves opposite, the heads of diverse forest animals lining the walls, their black glass eyes blank. The store was an ode to death, and watching customers—mostly men—trying out guns looked more than a little like women shopping for handbags.

P.S. Now go watch Australian comic Jim Jefferies' standup routine on gun control from his 2014 Netflix special Bare, about the best argument I've seen against the American impulse for more guns.

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