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.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Hurry up (and wait). Hurry up and wait is an idiom that I personally suspect is at least as old as the first band of hunter gatherers who went to war to protect their wildlife and berries from a neighboring tribe. If there’s anything I’ve found consistent over the last decade and a half it’s that the preponderance of things that need doing arrive on my desk with some designation as “hot rocks” or “mission critical” or “for immediate action.” Setting aside the fact that almost none of these issues have ever dealt with actual life or death situation, it becomes a simple matter of people simply expecting things should be done in the double quick. It’s been my experience that you can do analysis well or you can do it quickly. You can even find a middle ground of acceptability between the two, but you cannot under any normal circumstance have both simultaneously. In reality no matter how “hot” the issue, you’re going to find yourself waiting for further guidance, waiting for questions to be answered by others, or waiting for your own chain of command to get around to feeling any actual sense of urgency. Until those things happen, it’s fine to hurry up, but you’d better be sure to have some entertaining apps loaded so the wait is tolerable.

2. Social history. The great man theory of history was out of fashion for at least a century before I picked up my formal study of the craft. Contemporary popular historians busy themselves crafting social history narratives that feel more like professional pandering to racial, gender, or whatever current cause célèbre group has captured the spotlight temporarily and then judging the deeds of long dead actors against whatever utopian dream they’ve concocted. Give me great men and heroic actions any day over that kind of tripe. Call me old fashioned, but I like my historical deeds to be set within the context of their times, rather than measured by whatever half assed yard stick someone just developed so everyone can feel included and not get their feelings hurt. Context is king, which is why judging historical figures as if they just suddenly walked out of the local galleria with a chi tea and $500 sunglasses makes absolutely no sense to me at all.

3. Landscaping. In my pursuit of domestic tranquility I’ve lain my head in all manner of places. From an efficiency apartment, to a condo, through a succession of apartments, to a new-built house, to a rental house, and finally, now, to what I consider a more permanent Fortress Jeff. What most of those places have in common is that I didn’t have to spend a lot of time concerned with landscaping. The condo and apartments obviously took care of themselves. The rental house could be serviced by a regular cut and trim of the yard. The landscaping around the Memphis house was so new that it mostly took care of itself. Now at Fortress Jeff, I’ve inherited a mature landscape in place when I arrived – and one that hadn’t received much attention in at least several growing seasons. In the last year I’ve taken down four full grown trees, sliced out half a dozen shrubs and plants that didn’t fit my “artistic vision,” raised parts of the back yard by almost two feet and set new grass to grow on it. This spring I launched into what I hope will be a mid-term solution for controlling run-off in the front yard and improving drainage. I’ve added the first cubic yard of mulch and have two or three more to go. A former flower bed next to the driveway needs prepped and sodded and then it’s time to tackle the challenge of a bare dirt bank where it seems nothing can take root. All of that’s on the list before I turn my eyes again to the back yard – where the list of want-to-dos is at least as long. Fortunately, I like tinkering with these kinds of projects. The hell of it is, they all take time and cost money and need to be laid in along with all the other tasks and chores that keep the homestead running… so now that spring has arrived, please forgive whatever messes pile up indoors. I’ll be getting back to them when the weather again drives me under cover.

Under construction (again)…

It’s springtime here at the homestead and that means the year’s big improvement projects are about to kick off. Fortunately this year’s points of main effort don’t involve the evisceration of the back yard as I’ve opted for two smaller and slightly less invasive projects this year.

Phase 1, getting underway at or around 8AM calls for removing and disposing of three relatively large white pines that are encroaching a bit too far towards the house and front yard. Bringing these guys down should improve some soggy yard issues on that corner of the house, but mostly getting rid of them was an esthetic decision. Opening up that side of the yard will dramatically improve the house’s “presence” as seen from the street. More importantly, perhaps, it will give the front two bedrooms an unobstructed view out to the stand of oaks currently hidden behind the pines. It’s nice to see that not every project on my list has to involve major feats of engineering.

In Phase 2, we move inside to brick over the basement window that has been the source of constant consternation and aggravation since I moved in. A little excavation, a little block cutting, half a dozen new cinder blocks, and a whole lot of exterior waterproofing and backfill should at least get me to the point where there isn’t a readymade pit for the water to build up in. In theory, removing the pooling water should go a long way towards remedying the problem. There are a lot of other ways we could have gone after it, but doing away with a below grade window that served absolutely no purpose felt like a no brainer. Once the basement is closed off and the window well filled in, whatever water falls should follow the new path of least resistance which is out towards the back yard instead of down towards the place where a window use to be. Not being a hydraulic engineer, that’s my operating theory anyway. Once we get the first good rain, we’ll see how well that theory pans out under real world conditions.

So that’s it. I’ll have contractors crawling all over the place tomorrow and then have two of the three big projects for the year finished. After almost a year in residence, it’s starting to feel like I’m putting my own stamp on the place.

The stuff of dreams…

Since before we bothered with something as trifling as writing down our great deeds, human beings have made a point of moving stupefyingly large amounts of earth to build their monuments. There are pyramids in Egypt and Central America. Stone circles dot the European continent. We’ve excavated a highway of water to connect the Atlantic and Pacific – and then sent buildings racing a thousand feet into the sky. Historically speaking, we’re monument builders.

The little project I have getting underway this week isn’t monumental in any way. In fact by the time it’s finished and the grass sprouts telling the difference between before and after would give you trouble if you weren’t intimately familiar with the ground we’re covering. Even so, in my own little way I’ll be cutting into the earth in an effort to make my surroundings more hospitable… and by that I mean I’m writing a ridiculously large check to someone else who will actually do that while I stand in the kitchen drinking coffee and watching the work in progress.

As long as it means I can be a little less twitchy every time the rain falls, I’ll at least be monumentally happy with the result, even if there isn’t much to see for the effort. New hardscape, underground drainage for the back yard, and a slope that means water isn’t naturally inclined to flow directly into the basement and garage… be still my middle aged, suburban heart. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Five years and another $60 or $70,000 and we might just have this old homestead properly beaten into shape. In retrospect it may have been more cost effective to just knock down some trees and build my own henge…

The must haves…

Because I like lists and I’m feeling much more lazy than usual this evening, you’re getting a brief glimpse into the things I’m thinking about while I’m laying out my ideas for the back yard. Since they’re going to be shoving around a respectable amount of dirt I thought it would be helpful to go ahead and spell out exactly what I’m expecting out of this little project – especially since I’m looking for bids from three or four different companies. It’s only fair that I evaluate them using the same basic list of must haves versus wants. It’s certainly helped clarify my own goals… especially since I haven’t started assigning a dollar value to anything yet.

So far, the list looks a little like this:

Must haves:
1. Re-grade yard to drain away from house in the garage/porch area – add piped drainage if sufficient negative slope can’t be achieved
2. Remove mulched bed around a/c condenser – replace with sod/grass. Note this is a future zone for placing a backup generator so finish will need to support eventual placement of poured concrete pad
3. Remove boxwood shrubs at back porch steps, transplant to empty bed in front of house if feasible
4. Remove and dispose of “sticker bush” shrub at rear of house
5. Reinstall/replace sidewalk in existing area – all hardscape to be flush with surrounding ground/crossable with riding mower

Nice to haves:
1. Hardscape patio in current location of step down from porch – approximately same size as existing porch
2. Ramp/shallow steps from porch to ground level
3. Cut and haul away pine tree nearest house in front yard
4. Install privacy screen/surround for a/c condenser unit and similar screen for trash and recycling containers

The must have list is the bare minimum that’s going to have to be done regardless of cost… the rest, well, I’ll stretch the budget to allow for as many of them as possible… if there’s any budget left once the main effort is accounted for that is.

I’ll get to it when I get to it…

Sunday afternoon I spent a not insignificant amount of time shoveling mulch off the sidewalk and driveway and back into it’s rightful place around the front flower beds. With a little raking it looked reasonably presentable and not at all like last weekend’s rain had washed a goodly portion of it into places it had no business being. It stayed there for approximately 30 hours before last night’s torrential rain promptly washed even more of it down the driveway and out into the street.

Sigh. I won’t even start on the volume of water laying against the back side of the house, ever willing to probe for a weak spot in the masonry. Funny how that sort of thing didn’t bother me when it was someone else’s foundation soaking for hours at a time. Paranoia is possibly one of the joys of home ownership.

The good news is I think we’ll start to have some of those issues addressed this weekend – with a little gutter cleaning to help resolve the issues out front and hopefully enough time to get some risers under the air condenser. As next week marches on, I’m getting some initial estimates from landscaping companies on reworking the drainage and slope of the back yard… and maybe a few other little projects that would be awfully easy to deal with while they have a bobcat running around the premises.

The thing that’s constantly surprising me about this house is that the little stuff is squared away… which only leaves the big things to do when time and funding allow. It’s safe to say that the master bathroom renovation budget is officially busted and that project is now on the “I’ll get to it when I get to it” list. That one hurt a bit, but the part of my head ruled by logic and reason tells me the mechanicals and drainage systems aren’t working right, all the other projects are purely academic.

Yep. The joy of home ownership indeed.

A good dream…

Aside from a couple of spots that are going to have to be backfilled once they settle, the great fence build of 2015 is mission complete. I’m well satisfied, the dogs (even Winston) are doing their best to chase off the rabbits, squirrels, and birds, and for the moment all is right with the world. I won’t go into the vast number of new and interesting landscape projects that this opening effort of the spring fighting season has brought to mind. There’s no end to the brush that needs cut, stumps to grind, and nature that generally needs to be beaten into submission at every turn. This week has already been a damned good start, but I’m all too aware that what I want to get done is likely a project of years and not of weeks or even months.

The up side is that I’m pretty sure I can now, at least in my own mind, justify the cost of a chain saw and maybe even a pole saw if I want to really push the limits of belief. See, all I wanted was a fence… but in the best traditions of home ownership one expense finds a way to bleed seamlessly into the next. That’s the dirty secret of the American Dream that no one ever mentions.

It’s a good dream. A happy dream. But the little bastard will nickel and dime you to death.