Becoming those people…

Six years ago today the spot where I’m sitting to write this was covered by a stack of boxes freshly hauled inside by three guys from Allied Van Lines. If you find yourself in a position to move your entire household after the age of about 30, I promise you hiring the job out is absolutely worth the money. You’ll have plenty of time to throw out your back moving furniture into just the right spot or lugging boxes once they’re already in the house. Moving is chaotic enough without personally schlepping every item you own in from the curb.

For most of these last six years, every spring has involved a minor crusade against the green algae that appears inevitably on the north and east sides of the house. Usually, it was a minor annoyance that could be beaten back with a good scrub brush, a hose, a few helpful chemicals, and half an afternoon of concerted effort. It’s not the kind of yard work that’s particularly fun, but necessary for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Over the last year or two, the algae has been creeping higher than can comfortably be reached, even with a ladder. Worse yet, the roof is now showing undeniable signs that good growth of moss is starting to take hold. I love my woods full of old oaks and poplar, but this is one of the inevitable inconveniences – and not one of those that can be remedied by ignoring it until it goes away on its own. 

I’ve long since gotten too old and fat to risk falling off my own roof… a result that feels almost inevitable if I were fool enough to take on the job myself. Since I’m going to have the roof done, I might as well let them take on the gutters while there here. The fascia and soffit are filthy too. The algae needs taken care of. Since there’s a spot of it up towards the gable end, they might as well deal with that while the equipment’s already going to be here.

Yeah. I’ve apparently become one of those people… but at least the exterior of the old place will look better than it has since I took over the management here. Even if that means I’ve got to pay someone to scrub the place from roof peak to foundation.

The plastic doohickey…

I inherited all the major appliances here when I bought the house. They’re all 20 years old and serviceable, so I haven’t been in a wild rush to replace anything. That said, though, I’ve hated the refrigerator from the day I moved in. The damned thing looks huge, but interior space is cut up and awkward. There have always been drawers that never seemed to sit level, shelves that were supposed to slide but didn’t, and an inexplicable missing piece of glass shelving that I replaced early on with a thick piece of plexiglass (because I’m too cheap to pay Maytag prices for a panel of tempered glass). 

The whole contraption went to pieces last week. The crisper drawers wouldn’t push in all the way, two shelves were wildly askew, and you could forget about anything sitting level. It was at some point during the great unpacking of the fridge that I discovered there was very clearly a missing piece somewhere in the middle of the mess. Whatever this missing bit was, it was obviously the lynchpin on which all of the slides and drawers depended to operate correctly.

The manuals for all these appliances are long gone, but thanks to the power of the interwebs, I was able to pull up some schematics and identify the missing bit through the process of elimination. So, after ordering up a $26 plastic doohickey, a couple of days shipping time, and once again pulling 75% of my refrigerated items out of the refrigerator, it’s all now working the way it should have done from the beginning. Reaching in for George’s spring mix is no longer an exercise in playing early morning Jenga, so that’s a thing I’ve got going for me now.

Mostly, the saga of the refrigerator leaves me wondering how the geriatrics I bought the house from lost both the oversized glass shelf and this particular bit of plastic in the first place. Alas, that will remain an unsolved mystery unless the ghost of the previous lady of the house starts leaving me spectral clues as to what tragedy befell them here.

Library….

Sometimes the most dangerous thing I can tell you is “I’ve got a plan.”

I’ve always wanted a library of my own. A place just for books. Space, money, and the knowledge that I’d be moving again soon always conspired to make it impractical. Now that I’ve settled in to a house I plan on being in for the next 15 years, that calculus changed a little.

I’ve got the old bookcases rearranged and freed up space for two new additions.  I’ve also stumbled into the first of what I’m assuming will be multiple problems as the room comes together.

It started life as a dining room and has doors on two walls and a triple window on another wall. Proper built ins would be better, but I’m going to want to sell this place one day. As much as I’d like to imagine otherwise, an operational dining room is likely to be a better highlight than a full library for the average buyer. Sure, I’d like to imagine selling the place someday who shares my slavish love of books, but I’m a practical home seller with far more concern about ending up with the biggest pile of cash possible once all the paperwork is signed.

Since doing the full conversion is out, I’ve accepted the idea that IKEA makes serviceable shelving at a price that’s not cripplingly expensive. My room will hold a lot of their units, but being fixed width, there will be some gaps and a bit of downright weird spacing. Add in the just confirmed fact that the floor is half an inch out of level in places and some of the things I need to do to make the shelves look level is downright wonky. This room seems determined to teach me the art of the compromise.

Before I started the “great rejigger” of furniture this week, I thought I’d be able to squeeze a good comfy reading chair into the corner of the room that gets the best evening light in the summer. A quick look now with everything in place shows that was a pipe dream. So the options are either keep the shelf space as planned and lose the corner with the good light, lose the shelf space completely to keep the good light, or shoehorn the bookcase back into the plan on one of the “short” walls to keep both self space and the ideal spot for reading. Right now, the leading contender is adding the chair and skipping the extra shelf. Books and direct sunlight are poison, anyway, so I’d probably be doing my future self a favor.

The next time I move there’s going to be a room designed specifically for this, but even making do with slightly odd spacing and what fits where, I think this new incarnation of the old room will be well enjoyed when it’s finished. Come to think if it, I’m pretty pleased as it’s sitting now at a touch less than half the final plan. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

Taking care of #2…

There are whole books written about the “joy of home ownership.” Depending on the day you ask me, I’ll probably question whether the person talking about that has actually ever owned a home. The joy of having a roof over your head is surely tempered by the random bullshit of air conditioner repairs, flooded basements, trees falling, clogged drains, and the myriad other everyday problems that come along with owning a house. More than once I’ve thought wistfully about the ease of apartment living. File a work order with the office and things got fixed – eventually – although the “eventually” added its own degree of aggravation.

Today’s adventure in home ownership is the semi-regular pumping of the septic tank. It’s a necessity, of course, but there’s something disheartening about paying good money to haul your own feces out of a hole in the back yard. Then again, it may be best not to spend much time pondering on the fact that there is, in fact, a hole filled with feces in your back yard to begin with. Probably something that’s not worth dwelling on until it’s absolutely necessary.

Whether you’ve running your own waste disposal site or you’re on town water and sewer, you end up paying for the ability to poop indoors one way or another. If you’re lucky the basic maintenance won’t lead to needing to throw even more money literally down the sewer. The number of basic home maintenance projects I’ve undertaken that haven’t resulted in sprawling mission creep you can probably count on one hand.

I’ll be the first to admit that indoor plumbing is one of the most undercelebrated features of the modern world, but making sure it all stays in working order feels like the polar opposite of the joy of home ownership. 

I spend more time pondering shelving than is strictly reasonable…

I had one of those awkward moments this weekend. It was triggered by trying to add a book to the case and finding that particular shelf of one of my favorite authors was filled. That’s where I realized that the new bookshelves I bought for the dining room 18 months ago probably have no more than 18 months worth of space left on them. Same with the shelves in the living room. The non-fiction section in the office is all but full. No more than a years worth of space left there. So maybe 3 years of storage left between the lot of them. It’s likely less because if my habit of always having one fiction and one non-fiction title going simultaneously. None of this even takes into account the dearth of space now available on the recently installed “to be read” shelves.

I know it won’t seem like it, but I really have already curtailed the pace with which I’m adding new books to the collection. Sure, cutting that number to zero and de-accessioning some of what’s already there would resolve the ongoing issues with storage… but I’m trying to come up with solutions that I can actually live with, and not some kind of ridiculous, pie in the sky plan that has no hope of getting off the ground.

I’m left considering two long term options. Both involve, not surprisingly, adding extensive new shelving – either replacing and expanding what’s currently in the dining room or along the wall where my couch is currently situated. There’s enough space in either spot to buy a decade or more of storage at the rate I’ve been working through the collection in the last few years – about sixty books a year, or three individual shelves worth of reading material.

In my heart, it’s an easy decision – call a cabinetmaker and order up 70-100 linear feet of built-in shelving for the dining room. The heart’s bill could easily run to $5,000 or more to make it look good. My head, knowing that the current house is most likely temporary (although long-term temporary), would advise just laying on ten more Billy’s from Ikea – a cost that we could reasonably expect to hold under $1,000… although it would never look as nice as having the job done properly.

If you think I don’t have doodles showing the library with a few attached bedrooms and a kitchen I want to build in retirement, you likely haven’t ever heard me talk about books. I’m going to live here in this house for another 16 years, though. As much as I’d love a room filled with built-ins, what losing a dining room to gain a proper library would mean when it comes time to sell weighs on me. More shelving is going to happen, the only question really is whether I can get past my inherent reluctance to tinker permanently with bones of a house that eventually will need to appeal to more than my own sense of what goes where. Fortunately, I’ve still got a little time to consider the options.

Experiments in lawn maintenance…

About a year ago I made the decision to stop hammering the front lawn with weed killer, fertilizer, and most of the other treatment products I had been using to keep it golf course green. The studies showing that chemical treatment for lawns is a large contributor to bee and insect die off and nutrient runoff into the Chesapeake are sufficient to convince me that I could tolerate a slightly less lush look out front in exchange for not contributing unnecessarily to those issues.

I can report now that the yard definitely looks different than it did a year ago. It’s still surprisingly green, though that’s in part due to favorable sun/shade conditions and soil that holds moisture like a sponge. From the street it still looks remarkable “lawn” like – although closer inspection will show it is increasingly going over to clover with a strong presence of dandelions and other groundcover weeds mixed in during the early part of the growing season.

I’m still mowing once a week, which seems to be enough to keep the faux-lawn looking neat and tidy enough to not give off the appearance of having given up on the idea of yard maintenance. I’m helped significantly by the looks of next house up the road, the owner of which apparently does not believe in any kind of lawn care than can’t be achieved with a 42-inch riding mower. The unsurprising result is a landscape edged all over with tall weeds and “missed” patches. I’m a little surprised the HOA is letting him get away with that, really, but it provides ideal cover for launching my own experiments in lawn maintenance so I don’t complain.

I grew up in a house with a plain, old yard and it wasn’t until my adventures in west Tennessee suburbia, with our houses packed in elbow to asshole that I started to develop an obsession with a pure, emerald green lawn… ironic, perhaps, because the Bermuda grass faded to dormant brown three months out of every year.

Over the last fifteen years or so, I’ve come full circle with what elements of the landscape I choose to care about. I’ve gone from craving a proper lawn to enjoying a yard again. It’s straight bonus points that I’ve also noticed an increase in the number of bees and other pollinators I see going about their business on the property. It’s a small win, but one that both the science and I agree is worth having… now if I can just gin up the time and money to rework two large front planting beds with something the local deer are less apt to eat, we’ll be making actual progress.

A day of false alarms…

I was a little weirded out when I welcomed the exciting world of personal surveillance into my home for the first time. Like most other technologies, though, once you get over the initial “newness” it largely fades into the background. I go though my day barely noticing the little pods that keep an eye on the homestead even when I’m not.

Truth be told, I’ve gotten to the point where far from being creeped out by having my own personal surveillance state, I’ve come to enjoy being able to look in on what’s going on periodically – and having a record of it that reaches back days for the inevitable “just in case” moments when that sort of thing proves useful to have around.

As someone who depends on one of these systems as part of a multi-component home security plan, I probably shouldn’t admit that even the most current version of the consumer grade products have their limitations. The issue of the day is the fact that apparently once the wind starts blowing at more than 20 miles per hour the software that runs the outdoor cameras decides that it is constantly seeing motion and throws “warning” messages every 37 seconds. I’ve gotten a constant stream of them all day long.

Sure, I check them because I tend a bit towards the obsessive, but someone with a lesser degree of paranoia just might become a little less observant given the sheer volume of false alarms getting tossed around. I suppose there’s a way to dial back that kind of sensitivity, but personally I’d rather have a day of false alarms once a month than run the risk of missing the one that might matter.

Adding to…

It’s been three years since I made my mark on the sales contract taking ownership of Fortress Jeff. The first two years in residence has largely been about taking away – taking away overgrown shrubbery, cutting down encroaching trees, eliminating the basement waterfall, and dismantling the massively over engineered wheelchair ramp in the garage. It was and continues to be a litany of projects left behind by the previous owner who had really “aged out” of an active interest in home maintenance and improvement.

I like to think now that I’m starting the 3rd year, I’m finally reaching the point of adding too the place rather than just taking away. We’ve already tackled the living room, water heater, and furnace. The air conditioning will be next most likely based on age. Most prominently, there’s the long awaited and sought after master bathroom renovation that I’ve wanted from Day 1. Then new carpet for the bedrooms. Kitchen appliances, countertops, washer and dryer all make the list too. By the time that list runs out, the 30-year shingles will probably be reaching the end of their service life.

The think that no one ever tells you about home ownership is that there’s always something lurking in the background waiting to suck giant wads of cash out of your wallet. Still, if you’re doing it right, the place is a home in addition to being “just a roof over your head.” Hard earned experience tells me that’s one of those intangibles that can’t necessarily be measured directly in dollars and cents.

The sideways stink eye…

About once a week I drive past the house I use to rent. To say I have mixed feelings about the place is an understatement. Even with just me, two dogs, and a tortoise living there it felt cramped. The interior was too dark, it was too close to a heavily traveled road, and the mechanicals were all of an age where they just stopped working with little or no notice. Still it had the benefit of having a fence and being available exactly when I needed it. When you’re traveling one day ahead of a tractor trailer filled with your belongings, don’t underestimate just how much availability counts.

Last weekend when I drove past there were at least seven cars in the driveway. Like I said, the place felt cramped with just one of me. I find it hard to imagine what it would feel like inside even if each one of those vehicles represented only one person. It occurs to me that too much togetherness is definitely a real thing. Not my house, though, so not my problem.

The real pain came when I slowed down enough to eyeball the old place. Whoever’s living there now has let the landscaping go. Flower beds are overrun. Fence posts have collapsed. Shrubbery has grown up over the windows. Not one of the trees looks like it’s seen a pruning lopper since mine.

I spent the better part of four years beating what was then an overgrown mess of a landscape into a semblance of neatness and order. Sure, I did it on the cheap – cutting back some things, transplanting others, removing even more and hauling it away or burning it off – but the place was just a rental after all and throwing big money at it didn’t make sense. With a few basic tools and a bit of effort, though, I’d made the place look respectable.

The current residents have apparently given up on all that. It’s probably not entirely right to judge someone by the yard they keep, but I do… especially when it happens to be one that I left in good enough shape that it could be maintained with less than an hour’s work each week. Right or not, that tells me something about these new residents. It tells me all I need to know really.

It’s a damned good thing I’m not the landlord. Fortunately, it’s not my house and not my problem, but that doesn’t keep me from giving the place a sideways stink eye every time I drive past.

Momentary inconvenience…

As I was sitting at my desk this morning going through the usual early Saturday routine of paying bills and administering the other minutia that goes along with running the household, the power cut out briefly. Looking out the window towards the woods, annoyed, I counted the seconds – fifteen of them before the genny cranked over and sent it’s homemade electricity surging down the wire and taking life from the 19th century to the 21st in a matter of no more than 30 seconds. From time to time I regret purchasing a big ticket item that isn’t strictly a need, but I can tell you true that I’ll always consider the cash sunk into that generator money well spent.

It’s probably a good day when the most annoying part of a power failure is having to turn the coffee maker back on and wait for the cable modem to reset. Momentary inconveniences though they are, I suspect I’ll be spending some time this weekend looking at battery backup options for some of those “key systems.” Because once you’ve eliminated the big inconveniences, the small ones somehow become even more obnoxious.