Six months to bend the curve…

I managed to sneak away from the homestead the Saturday before last to do a bit of old school book shopping. It felt good to be back on the hunt through towering stacks of warehoused volumes. I knew I didn’t find anything wildly rare or collectable. That’s the trouble with buying from book people. Even those who trade at the wholesale level, despite the massive number of items on their shelves, know what they have… and have probably paid someone to cull the stock for things that shouldn’t be sold off at half of their marked price. Still, filling a basket or two at Second Story Books is among one of life’s great pleasures. Their stock is unpredictable, but I never fail to walk away with items that close gaps in my collection or that will simply be a pleasure to read.

The real shock to my bookish system came when it was time to catalog my new finds and get them loaded up onto the to be read shelves. Thanks to the requisite poking around on Goodreads and LibraryThing, I learned that I’ve fallen significantly off the pace. By the mid-point of 2020 and 2021, I’d read about 40 books. This year, I’ve notched only 25. Those were Plague Years, of course, so it’s possible I’m simply reverting to the mean now that the world has stumbled along being open for business again. In 2018 and ’19 I was reading about 60 books a year so I’m on track to get close to those numbers.

In any case, I’m feeling that I’ve inexplicably let myself get distracted and not at all happy with the meager numbers I’m putting up. The to be read stack grows far too quickly to let the number of books being read slip too far. The solution, I think, is obvious… I’m going to have to quit being a post-plague social butterfly and get back to the ease and comfort of the days of “safer at home.” I’ve got six months left to bend the curve in the right direction.

The Bathroom Report: Day 5

When I looked in on the work yesterday, most of the walls had been stripped back to the studs, there we gaping holes in the floor, and materials were stacked across every open foot of my bedroom floor. The whole thing looked a lot more like destruction than construction. 

Today, though, something magical happened. The crew arrived this morning and started framing. I’m ok at reading the big sweeps of a floorplan, but I’m also notoriously bad at spatial awareness. This is the first time I could start really getting a feel for how things might look when all this is over.

It was also the first time I got a sense of how absurdly large the shower I asked for is actually going to be. I’ve always smacked shoulders and elbows into the sides of every shower I’ve ever been in, so I told the designed that was the number one thing I didn’t want in this new layout. She delivered on that request in spades. In my defense it also had to be pretty damned big so that I could get away with not having to deal with water getting all over the place since I also didn’t want a shower door or curtain. Giving up a linen closet and a foot off the walk-in closet finally feels like it might have been a good idea.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I used to have to walk through the bathroom to get anything out of my closet. It was a design I hated with an irrational level of ferocity. That issue is gone now with the new door cut in and framed. It’s seven square feet smaller than it was when this project started, but still would be room for me to double the amount of clothes I have and still have plenty of empty space left over. Making that trade off was a no-brainer.

We’re all taking a breather for the long weekend, but next up will be the plumbing and electrical rough in. Then we’re off to the races with wallboard and what feels like absolute acres of tilework. 

As week one closes, I know we’re nowhere near the beginning of the end, but I feel confident we’ve at the very least reached the end of the beginning.

Well, well, well…

The bullshit of homeownership continues at pace. I’ve often thought whoever coined the notion of finding joy in owning your own home probably never owned one himself. Or maybe he had staff and an unlimited sinking fund for doing maintenance and repairs. In any case, unbridled joy is rarely my first thought when I consider what goes into keeping the roof over my head.

Maybe that’s because every damn time I turn around something needs fixing or replacing. You regrade the back yard because the basement leaks, then replace a water heater, then a furnace, then get the gutters tinkered with every few months, then you’re due for a new clothes dryer before replacing the faucet on the kitchen sink. That’s all before you take on more basic general maintenance tasks that need done weekly, monthly, or quarterly. Don’t get me wrong, I like the place well enough, but it’s all a labor of necessity rather than one of love.

It’s possible that my view of the whole things is currently jaundiced because the ants that I thought we cast out last summer and now comfortably (for them) back in my well casing. I know this because teeny tiny ant parts are getting sucked into the well, passing through my fancy filter system, and showing up in the sink, the shower, and every other place water is piped through the house. It’s almost equal parts disgusting and infuriating.

Last year, I tried the advice of the well and pump experts. This year I’m starting off seeking a fix from a local exterminator. I think I was very clear with him on the phone that I was going to insist on a solution that didn’t involve pouring poison directly down my own well. I like to think that would go without saying, but life experience tells me sometimes you need to say that obvious out loud.

I have no idea what the next step is if there’s not an effective way to kill these little bastards without killing myself in the process. I wonder if I need to pull a county permit to dig up the front yard, bury a cistern, and have potable water trucked in once a month.

Sometimes good things happen…

I went to the office today. That’s rarely the start of a good news story. As often as not, it’s the lead off line to some mind bending bureaucratic asshattery that’s driven my blood pressure up by 20 or 30 points. Plenty of that happened today, of course, but that’s not what I’m choosing to focus on today – lest anyone begin to think that I don’t see a bright side to anything.

The good part of having been in the office today was that I missed all four hours of landscape contractors attacking the front of my house. Instead of watching, obsessively, through the front window, I returned home to sleek edges, four cubic yards of fresh mulch already spread, and bushes trimmed.

In short, I got to miss all of the work and now get to enjoy all of the benefits. There’s the small matter of the $800 dollar check I still need to cut, but I’m choosing not to think about that at the moment. For now I’ll be happy that at least the front side of the house is properly ready for spring and that I didn’t completely destroy my back to make it so.

As it turns out, sometimes good things do happen while you’re at the office.

A dream of spring…

As the days lengthen, the household is beginning to shake itself loose from four months of winter inaction and beginning to lay out the list of things that need done as spring arrives.

This week, I’ve got a repair scheduled for a garage door that’s badly needed adjustment for months. I’ve also made calls to get the yearly generator service put on the books and to get a date for the spring mulching, two other annual expenses I’m perfectly happy to incur. Sure, I could do both of those things myself, but once I figure in the value of my own time (and half a dozen trips to Lowe’s), letting the professionals handle it in 1/3 of the time just makes sense.

Still to come projects are having the windows recalked and the angle iron lintels and a few other bits of trim scraped and repainted. I’ll farm those out too. I’m too old and too fat to fall off ladders. Heading out to pick up a new battery for the lawn tractor is at least one item on the list I’m competent to manage without direct supervision. Judging by how green some parts of the yard have started looking, we’re nearly to the time of year where being able to cut and trim is important. That also means “summarizing” the snowblower and de-winterizing my venerable Echo string trimmer. By the time that gets done and the garage is reset for warm weather operations, it’ll be time to clear off a winter’s worth of grime from the back porch and get the planters ready for a bit of color.

That leaves the wildcard… the master bathroom renovation that I expected to start around the end of January is still pending. There was a 16-week lead time just for the damned vanity, but now we’re past the half-year mark from the date I signed off on the final plan. With a third of the price already paid out to purchase supplies, I feel like I’ve been reasonably patient to this point, but now I just want to get things started so it might actually end someday… though I’ll admit the heated floor felt like a much more reasonable expense in the fall than it does with summer just over the horizon. 

I just made my bi-weekly call to the contractor to check in and remind them I’m still here. I’m not sure it does any good, but it makes me feel slightly better in hoping I won’t be marking a one-year anniversary of starting the design/build process before demo even starts… though I won’t pretend that it’s outside the realm of what’s possible at this point.

It turns out any house can be a money pit if you’re obsessive enough about things being just so.

Ice, gas, and appreciation…

Early last week there was rumbling of an impending ice storm. Having been seasoned by 21 winters in Western Maryland, most versions of frozen precipitation don’t phase me. I mean if I have the option, I don’t want to drive around in any of it, but with snow or sleet, you’d need to see some pretty biblical amounts before I’d be concerned about not being able to get the Jeep through it if I absolutely needed to leave the house for some reason.

Freezing rain, in my estimation, has always been something of a different animal. Good 4-wheel drive and all the torque in the world might let you get going, but with one little slip it’s hard to tell exactly where you might end up. 

Fortunately, my schedule last week called for me to mostly be home, so driving around in anything wasn’t going to be an issue. The catch for me was the propane tank buried in the back yard being only just a hair north of 25% full. Under most circumstances that wouldn’t be low enough to worry about. 100 gallons is plenty to run the furnace and water heater for a good long while. 

What it isn’t enough to do, however, is keep the generator running for more than a day without manually powering it on and off to conserve fuel. The whole point of putting the genny in was to avoid needing to do that sort of thing during a power failure. I want the heat on. I want George’s sun lamps on. I want the well and sump pumps running. I want light in every room. What I told the guy who calculated the size generator I needed was that I wanted to be able to still host Thanksgiving dinner even Delmarva Power suddenly went out of business. 

All the utility cables in my neighborhood are underground. It means we don’t get too many local outages. The outages we do get, though, tend to be because the larger transmission lines stretching through wood and dale have somehow gotten smacked. When they go down, they tend to stay down for half a day or longer.

All of the long power outages I’ve experienced since moving in here have been the result of freezing rain. Since it looked like there was a good chance we’d be getting iced over, I called my propane delivery company hoping they could pull me ahead on the delivery schedule. Sure enough, the next day Tri-Gas and Oil backed up the driveway and pumped off 300 more gallons for me. The ice ended up bypassing us here at Fortress Jeff, but it’s a decided comfort knowing that our local run time is now measured in days rather than in hours.

As much as my teeth grind when it comes time to pay the fuel bill, it’s hard to be too mad at a company that makes an effort to come when you call rather than making excuses about why it’s too hard to do. I appreciate the hell out of them for that.

You can’t go home again…

When I go home for Christmas, I always make a point of searching out the favorite foods of my youth – unique flavors that live in my mind as essential elements of growing up in Allegany County. Across the years, savoring those tastes has become as much a part of my holiday tradition as a presents or a tree.

Sheetz coffee was a mainstay of my caffeine habit from the time I started driving. I’d go out of my way to get their standard drip brew over any other competitor. Now they’ve installed some fancy looking grind-on-demand “coffee system.” It looks pretty sitting on the counter, but what comes out of it doesn’t taste like Sheetz coffee. It might even be a decent cup of joe under other circumstances, but it’s not the flavor I wanted. For my money, Wawa or Royal Farms now offer up a better tasting selection of old-fashioned drip coffee.

For years, Snyder of Berlin (not to be confused with Snyder of Hanover) made what was packaged as “British style salt and vinegar” potato chips. As a connoisseur of salt and vinegar chips, Snyder’s was my favorite. It was an intensity of flavor not replicated anywhere as far as I can tell. Their packaging has lost the “British style” imagery… and their chips, it seems, retain only the barest hint of salt or vinegar flavoring. Herr’s and Utz now blow them away on all counts. 

The D’Atri’s cheesesteak sub has, for me, always been the definitive taste of western Maryland. That’s why I was horrified to find it something unrecognizable. Yes, it was a sub made with cheese and steak and their proprietary lettuce concoction… but the flavor profile was all wrong. Even the bread was different. It’s like walking into McDonald’s and finding that they’ve replaced their fries with tater tots. Sure, they’re made out of the same stuff, but it’s just not right. This is the one that really breaks my heart. 

Nearly all of my favorite foods from back home and back when now seem to exist only in memory. I’ve managed to recreate a few of them in my own kitchen, but most, I expect, are gone and will never return. The bright spot, in an otherwise disappointing food experience, was M&M Bakery. Their peanut butter frosted cinnamon roll doughnuts were exactly as I remember them… and that means they were possibly the finest doughnut ever devised or concocted by the mind of man. I’m wildly thankful they haven’t tried to improve upon it.

I guess old Tom Wolfe was right. You really can’t go home again. That won’t stop me from spending the next 40 years pining away for tastes and flavors I can still conjure immediately in my mind.

On trumping festivity…

Last year was the first time in 42 years that I wasn’t in western Maryland for Christmas. It was different and decidedly subdued, but I didn’t particularly hate it. Now, here we are in December again and I’m starting to put together the plan for this year… even though it feels like we just did Christmas about seven weeks ago. 

Barring any significant Great Plague related issues, I’m more comfortable with the idea of making the trip this year… even if I’m not thrilled with the idea of driving into an area where every other Facebook post seems to mention friends, friends of friends, or family members who are militantly anti-vax or who are being throttled by the bug. 

Assuming I do go home for Christmas this year, it’s going to be another different experience. Excursions to the local watering holes, the casino, or restaurants are probably right out. I’ve avoided those things for the last eighteen months and making a Christmas exception probably doesn’t exactly pass the common sense test in the current environment. That alone opens up expanses of time I’m not use to having during these flying trips. Historically they’re a mad dash to see everyone I’ve promised to drop in on while I’m in the area. I don’t expect to make many of those promises this time around.

In all reality, what Christmas could mean this year is a change in where I’ll be tucked in with a dog and a few good books… and the need to potentially recruit a cat and tortoise sitter for a few days. It doesn’t feel particularly festive, but for the time being prudence continues to trump festivity.

A 90% solution…

Since moving into this house, I’ve spent a decent amount of time pondering home automation, or more specifically how the home’s systems can work for me rather than me working for them. Some things are fairly straight forward – like heating and cooling. Even there, though, I’m using my fancy wifi-enabled, sensing thermostat as a simple programmable controller. It turns out the location of my thermostat in the main hallway didn’t get enough passing traffic for the thing to ever get a proper sense of when I’m home versus when I’m not. It also never really grasped my version of what constitutes a comfortable indoor temperature. It ended up being more useful to build my preferences directly into the program and then lock it in rather than hope the smart system would smarten up. My phone gives me a reminder on Sunday evenings to tweak the plan to account for planned schedule changes in the week ahead. The trend leaders would roll their eyes at this version of “automation,” but it works for me.

Lighting is the other bit of the puzzle that I’ve opted to keep dead easy basic. The new automated lighting systems can let you manage “scenes” throughout the house. It looks slick as hell on HGTV or YouTube. It’s also a thousand miles beyond what I need my lights to do. My favor of simplicity is driven by a single factor – I’m fanatically committed to my routine. That means most of my needs are met by old fashioned mechanical timers rather than connected fixtures. It doesn’t cover a few things like the task lighting in the kitchen or the overhead lights in the bathroom, but overall lights start turning on five or ten minutes before I get out of bed in the morning and then proceed, switching on and off room by room, as I go though the day. True automation, would gain me the ability to fine tune things a bit – and control light sources other than lamps – but I can’t see how that additional utility would be worth the cost of making the transition.

When it comes down to it, I don’t generally need fully connected, internet of things home automation. I’ve survived 43 years of my toaster not talking to my refrigerator and I don’t see much gain for enabling them to do so… and I’m old enough to be absolutely horrified at the thought of my front door lock being controlled from somewhere in the cloud. Maybe if I get the chance to build a last and final house, I’ll bring in more automation – things that make sense when built in from the ground up. For now, I’m leaning hard into my routine – and accepting the 90% solution priced out at $25 opposed to an “automation” solution that could easily have run to the thousands of dollars. I might never have a properly automated home, but I’ll have one that operates “just so,” and that feels like the real goal here.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. A week full of suck. The work I do to pay the bills is, by necessity, somewhat unpredictable. There’s very little way of knowing from day to day or week to week how high or fast the tide of work might be running. This week, all week, the tide was running high and fast and shoving every damned thing towards the rocks at every opportunity. Some weeks are like that. Still, I’ll be awfully glad to see the backside of this one… on the off chance that next week will contain less suck.

2. The good old days. I miss the good old days of the Great Plague – when the masses were all running scared and staying home. The commute into the office was an absolute dream back then. I imagine it’s how the leaders of the old Soviet Union felt, with lanes down the center of each highway reserved exclusively for them. Now it seems every schmuck with four wheels is back on the road. Good for the economy, I suppose, but I’m just not sure I’m in favor of it.

3. Allegany County. I couldn’t help but notice yesterday that my old home county is now sitting firmly atop the list as having the highest case rate of the Great Plague in the state of Maryland. I also noted, perhaps obviously, that for a while there the local hospital was so overrun with patients they were diverting sickies elsewhere… when and if they could find a bed. Now, I’m not saying all of these things could have been entirely avoided, but there’s an awfully simple way a lot of the troubles could have been minimized or mitigated… but that would depend on not getting your medical advice from talk radio and YouTube, so it’s a pretty big ask.