Sunday, March 6, 2011

A little background on the house and its progress

I own a (approximately) two hundred fifty year old house in an exurb north of Boston. I will have been here seventeen years this month. The house has been in my family since the Civil War, with the exception of a few months when my godfather and a friend owned it. I bought it from them. When I bought it, the house had not been renovated since said war, and had suffered what I've termed 'active delapitation' - as opposed to mere benign neglect- in the decades previous to my purchase.
 I bought the house fully aware of the long road ahead, the work to be done, the constraints of my budget, etc. But I knew I could do it. I was on a roof when I was 3, and had since worked on nearly all aspects of construction, renovation, and home repair with my father. I would have his help, and that of my family and friends. They would work for beer and food- which I not afford, but more than willingly supplied, and continue to. (As you'll see, they also get to laugh at me- A LOT, which I swear is their preferred method of cocompensation.)  I was twenty-two.

 I didn't mind  my bed in my living room - it was fun falling asleep with my Christmas tree lit beside me. (Although the sound of the decorations clinking in the breeze, while lulling, was an additional reminder that there was a windchill factor IN the house.)
 I didn't mind not having heat- I could split my own wood, out of my own backyard (although my godfather immediately forbade me the use of a chainsaw, on the grounds that I'm accident prone. So he cut, I split.)
 I didn't mind that the electrical work hadn't been updated in nearly a century- I bought and was given extension cords, and did not own enough gadgets or appliances to really worry about it.
 I didn't mind the dirt- I cleaned (although only friends who were there often could tell if it was clean or not).
I didn't mind the smell, especially strong at the yearly advent of spring thaw. It was the combined smell of years of animals ( including the chickens the former occupants had for years allowed  in the then living room- to keep them safe from coyotes and hawks), combined with a general old, dingy smell. - It got better over time.
 I didn't mind my belongings'  hasty arrangement, with most in boxes, scattered around the unused and unusable portions of the house- I knew where everything was.
 I didn't mind the hodgepodge of decor  left behind in the previous decades' neglect.  I could see it as it would be, all of it, in my mind's eye.

I moved in a week shy of my 23rd birthday. Myself, my mother, a female cousin, and a close female friend  comprised my moving crew, as my father was busy finishing the renovation on the apartment which would (theoretically) provide half the mortgage each month. On said birthday, Dad and I filed the deed and the mortgage (I was a homeowner!), and purchased a shower set-up for my claw foot tub (only a week, and schlepping down the street to my parents' house @ 5AM daily to shower for work was already old- for all 3 of us). We installed it, and were joined by Mom, brother, cousin, and her two girls, who came bearing gifts for my new home. After 5 minutes, we realised that we shouldn't ALL be in the upstairs bathroom together, as the floor joists might not hold. But it was mine, and they were nearly as proud as I was. But, I digress.

I will be forty in 22 days. Somehow, I still love my house. However, I am, shall we say, not seeing through the same pair of rosy specs I was lo those many years ago. Seventeen years in, I have come a long way. And it's been a long journey.

I have had a bedroom for nearly sixteen years, and I love my faux post and beam cathedral ceiling, the exposed beams, and the light.  It still has no molding, and  at present needs a good cleaning and a fresh coat of paint- (yup, the rehab is not done, and it's time for another go-round). I turned the adjacent small room into  a walk-in closet, also unfinished, but serviceable- and also in desperate need of a good clean out. But, the master suite, complete  with its horribly appointed old bathroom, is wonderful, if a mess.
The heat was installed 9 years ago now. I'd had enough of 14 cords of wood warming me several times before It burned, yet never  sufficiently warming  either me or the house. My 95%+ furnace has served me well, even if the kitchen sink still freezes up occasionally during windy cold snaps. I also have central air, which was the running gag in the neighborhood for the two years I had it, but had no walls throughout the downstairs.  (I had to get the air before the walls, because the summer humidity was mouldering my floors and belongings, owing to lack of proper foundations and air space beneath half the house.)
My new electrical service is 4 times the size of the old one, and all of the remodelled rooms sport outlets in numbers that far-exceed code specifications. My goal has been to never run an extension cord again, having run so many, for so long, often supporting  entire rooms from a remote location. (This has caused more than a little muttering, and in fact occasional near mutiny among my blue board and sheetrocking  crews, as all those little holes are a bitch to cut out and line up. )
The dirt is nearly all mine now, but is far more manageable with new surfaces. I'm running out of  old house related  excuses for the grime, in other words.
The smell abated gradually.  One of my favorite memories is of bringing my cousins up during my Dad's 50th party to show them around. Only one had been there before, but not for years,  and the others were appalled when I asked her what she thought and she responded with an enthusiastic "It doesn't smell anymore!" After watching me jump around with glee, yelling "I know! Isn't it great? It really doesn't!", for about 5 minutes, and a lengthy background explanation, they were finally convinced it was in fact a HUGE compliment, and not 'the worst thing I've ever heard someone say'.
Many of my things have real homes now, and it seems this could be the year many more are finally organised into less temporary places.  But I have moved- inside this house- more times than I care to think about. At one point, for a couple of weeks,  I had one room which was living room, kitchen, and also held all the appliances and cabinetry for the new kitchen. Naturally,  I decided to make dinner for about 16 people who had been helping with the remodel. Fun night, especially when I set the casserole of enchiladas on the hot burner and shattered it all over everything and everyone (plan B dinner was shrimp scampi over angel hair). Most of them stayed. I really have good friends and family.
I have nearly eradicated all the old decor- most of the house is new from the sheathing, in, now. . The place is starting to look like I saw it in my head. The new walls are insulated, if they remain unmolded. The custom built windows work, and fit the period nature of the house. During the time I've been here, I've inherited all the furniture I loved as a kid from grandparents, aunts, and cousins. If I could bear to poke holes in my pretty walls, I could hang my pictures on the walls I painted in colors I picked.

 I look back at old pictures in  near disbelief. What the Hell was I  thinking? That place was my dream house? That  I lived in it, entertained in it-  hell, the fact that I bought it, the way it was, seems crazy at best. But I knew. I knew I could do it, and I have. More important, I've had the constant help and support  of my fantastic family and friends. The memories they have shared with me and  helped to create here are more than I could have hoped for. All those moments are what I try to bring to mind when something falls apart, or costs way too much to do, or goes wrong in whatever way; which it often does, and will continue to.
They laugh with me and at me. They allow me rants that border on breakdowns over the stupidest things which become the proverbial 'straw that broke the camel's back' house wise  and send me spiralling into  (oft alcohol-fueled) rages wherein I swear I'm putting the place on the market.  They continue to show up for parties planned and impromptu, ignoring whatever messes or projects surround us. I couldn't have done it without them, and have no intention of ever trying to.

"MY" Mice

Last night, I nearly dropped a tray of unfrozen ice cubes as I jumped back startled. There was a mouse butt sticking out from under the fridge. Said butt was, as it turned out, attached to a newly dead mouse, who I scooped up and deposited in the trash. It skeezed me out for a few minutes, which is unusual. You see, mice are a fact of life. I live in the woods adjacent to a farm. My 250 year old house has so many inroads for rodents, I could never get rid of them all.  D Con is my friend.

 For the 9 years my dog lived, they were much less daring about asserting themselves, as she was a good mouser, but that doesn't mean I didn't occasionally find one who'd made his way into the dog food bin and died there, or have to prompt the sleeping dog to give chase.  Two days after I put her down, they were running across the living room floor while I sat watching TV. Somehow, I don't think they'd come to pay their respects.  Yet, just last week, I was marvelling at the lack of scratching in the walls, droppings under the kitchen sink, and sticks of butter with pretty gnaw marks all over them. It's been a very snowy winter here, so it seemed they should be overrunning the place by now. Of course, spring is right around the corner, and perhaps the ones who survived the winter by hibernating underground, as opposed to trying to tough it out in my frozen basement or walls,  are on their way, led by the cute pioneer under the fridge.
As I said, they are a fact of life for me. And I am usually unfazed by them. However, there have been a few memorable moments,  and persistent rodent related sources of ire, which I'll share below.

Because I mow nearly an acre- and let's pretend that I do this at least once a week consistently-  I have a nice little garden tractor. I keep it in the shed we moved up here from my parents' house  (great story for another time). Before I had the shed, I parked the then mower beside the house, and covered it- again let's pretend I did that consistently- between mowings. If you know anything about rural life or wildlife, you know that a warm engine seems a palace to a cold animal. Farm friends always check the fan for feral cats in winter (or they do after the first mess is cleaned up), and I have a friend and neighbor with a horse farm  who has pulled into Rockingham Park or Suffolk Downs innumerable times with a flaming nest of mice somewhere in the engine block. Normally, this is a spring and fall problem- spring for nesting, fall for hibernation. But,  MY mice can- and do- move in overnight, even in August. Why they feel the need to live in such a strangely configured environment mid-summer is beyond me. People think I'm exaggerating, until they witness it.
Not only do they keep it up all summer, but normal deterrants don't seem to affect them. MY mice will not only circumvent a strategically placed box of mothballs, they have more than once shred pieces of the box for bedding. Of course, that rendered those ones dead before I had to remove them. Which I prefer. My mowing day starts when I open the hood, pull the air filter, and peer inside (hoping not) to find that week's nest. Then, it goes well or poorly. I really don't like it when the occupants are home, and start scampering around the engine block before I can get the cover off , nor when a newly born litter has to be disposed of. Empty nests are best. I've had mice run up my arms and down my legs. I've had to extract them with pliers(really sucks if they aren't-or weren't- dead).  After I reassemble the mower, I can mow. Most  people add fuel and check the oil and tires, I evict the mice, too.

The shed is such a haven for the mice, sitting as it does right next to the woods, that I can store nothing that could forseeably be chewed up for a nest. Even if I hang  things from the ceiling, they are at least a mess come spring, at worse shredded. And, as I said, moth balls aren't as effective as they should be. So I'm forced to store many  items that should be in the shed in the house, where the mice have all that nice new insulation for bedding material. Which brings me to my next problem.

The house is in a perpetual state of rehab. Since moving in -17 years ago this month- I have remodelled most of the downstairs (not to completion), as well as my bedroom and walk-in closet . MY mice seem to really appreciate all the effort, as evidenced by their tendency to frequent- and alter to their own specifications- my newly renovated spaces, in stead of remaining relatively undisturbed in the unused and untouched parts of the house. I moved into my  bedroom just shy of a year after buying the house. Within a week, while ironing at 5AM, I watched as  a mouse poked a hole in the new sheet rock and ran across the beam to the other side of the room, where he descended the dresser and disappeared into another fresh hole behind a second dresser. Really?? It was the only room in the house with new walls. This pattern continues, unabated.

Over the years, even my more squeamish friends have grown accustomed to seeing the mice, and the evidence of their status as co inhabitants here. I do have good friends, as evidenced by the following story. One subzero night, early on in my tenancy, I had scheduled a Tupperware party, both to help a friend get more free stuff, and to get some for myself (so I could stop feeding the mice so well). Since I had no heat, we all huddled close to the wood stove, while the poor demonstrator tried with freezing hands to steady the samples, which kept blowing over, owing to the wind barrelling through the living room.  After she and the 3 or 4 mere acquaintances in attendance had left, my other friends informed me that several mice had  run across the dark floor, toward the warmer wall behind the wood stove, throughout the party. These friends  had simply pulled their frozen feet up into their laps and endured what- for at least 2 of them- was the longest Tupperware sales spiel  ever.

I've tried reasoning with the mice. I've tried yelling at them. I put the DCon out when they seem to be taking over. But mostly, I've resigned myself to life with them. I dislike finding them dead in corners and under cabinets (on average once a month), but I prefer it to them running across my feet (yup, more than a few times).  I plan to get a new dog this year, so that should help- although  mice LOVE dog food. Better the dog's food than mine. Spring is coming, so the battle front should shift back to the shed and the mower, soon. Wish me luck! 

Temporary measures II- Ongoing Battles with the Shower

My house came with the original cast iron, claw footed tub. The enamel has a few worn spots,  the outside has been partially (WTF, partially- but that status was repeated throughout the house) painted, and the indeterminate strength of the floorboards prevents me ever filling it to soak in diva style (although it does provide a comfier bath than a more modern, straight sided tub). All things considered, I like the tub, and people claim to be jealous of it.  However, it lacked one essential- a shower.

After filing the deed (and the mortgage) on my 23rd birthday, Dad and I stopped at a supply house to purchase a shower set-up. This is NOT an item you'll find at your local Home Depot, because  people who are installing these tubs now either have an additional stand-alone shower, or an adjacent wall through which to run pipes for a shower. I have neither. The house was built over a century before the advent of indoor plumbing, so a room was repurposed, and the tub kind of sits along a wall, not near either end of the room. (The remodel I have in my head will fix this problem, but hell if I know when that one will happen.) So, I have three shower curtains, which have to be cut to fit, and with which I occasionally do battle while showering, because they tend to billow. But, it works, We were lucky, both in locating a reasonably priced setup, and in removing the original faucets with no massive breakage. That was 17 years ago, this month.

I am quite the expert at dis- and reassembling my faucets to replace gaskets, and clean out decades of gunk. Of course, given the number of times I have had to do so, it's not surprising that I could do it in my sleep. And, since I didn't have the money for a top-of-the-line shower, it, too has needed attention over the years. However, I now have to buck up and buy a new one. The old innards of the tub eat the washers more quickly than I can replace them (OK, that's only because I procrastinate) and I ignore the leakby problem for too long, until the day I have to run from the second floor bath to the basement to shut the water down, and  truck RIGHT THEN to the hardware store for a replacement. That's if I'm not on my way to work. Regardless, at that point it has to be (well, it should be) done before my next shower, because even I'm not willing to turn my shower on and off from the basement for any length of time. (For the record, four days seems to be my limit. Yup, I am lazy enough -  and get into such a state of denial - that to avoid the tedious disassembly, trial and error at the hardware store, and reassembly, I WILL descend and climb the two flights, brave my cave of a basement, and possibly have someone find out I'm performing this ludicrous maneuver for four days until I realise that the Plumbing Fairy is not coming.

But, I digress. I need a new shower. I fixed it four times last year.  Do you know what happens when you repeatedly take  apart cheap plumbing fixtures? The screws strip, the housing for the gasket breaks, and they just don't go back together anymore.  So, after I had to call my father to help me mickey-mouse it in December, I resigned myself to the need for replacement. However, it was nearing Christmas and  I was going to Disney World the first of the year- so money was a consideration (more than usual).  Further, as you may have gathered, I'm just plain lazy and sick of the whole process. Denial is a wonderful thing, until you have to run to the basement again.

Which is where I will be, almost certainly, within a week's time. Since December, there has been  a set of channel locks, an adjustable wrench, and two screwdrivers next to the tub. I clean around them. I'm used to this sort of state of affairs. It is now March. No excuses, I just don't wanna do it.  Because  this time, I have to take the whole thing off, and risk damaging the tub, the very old fittings, or both. And, barring no major complications, there WILL BE something. There always is. No 5 minute project gets done around here without at least a 4 hour delay due to old house complications. So, I dither. I avoid it. My daily pep talk to the faucet, gently coaxing it not to fail, alternates with threats against its family.  I should have bought a new one yesterday, and installed it today. Maybe tomorrow.  -Tea

Monday, February 28, 2011

Temporary Measures and Coping Mechanisms- I: The Laundry Buffer

Owning a 250 year old house is a job in itself. Being single, on a severely limited budget, and having bought a condemnable 250 year old house, relegates my life to servitude. Well, it sometimes feels that way. I've been here 16 years, 11 months now, and I don't regret having bought it. I've learned to pick my battles with the house, and to summon to the forefront of my mind my vision of the finished house, when the reality in front of me threatens to render me sui- , homi-, or housicidal (should be a word, because it figures largely in my life). This visualization exercise has saved me on countless occasions, and is my ultimate coping mechanism. That vision of the finished product reminds me that whatever the day's problem is, whatever mess I'm staring at, is TEMPORARY, and someday I will live in the fully refurbished, fully functional, fully appointed house I see therein. 

Of course, not every day necessitates that level of coping. Usually, I can take a look around at how far I've come, and convince myself it's worth it. Or  post a humorous rant on Facebook, and feel better for having vented- better still when the conciliatory replies and LOLs roll in.  And, sometimes, I just have a drink- or several. But, I digress. Back to that bold-typed word. Many of facets of my home, from decor to infrastructure, are or are comprised of TEMPORARY MEASURES.

A temporary measure- in Tea's House- can take any form, and may persist indefinitely. Basically, the whole place is a system of temporary measures, strung together. Projects large and small in various stages of completion, repairs I haven't made or have mickey-moused until time or funds allow a permanent fix, seasonal adaptations to life in an old, unfinished house- all these and more are temporary measures.

Today, for instance, I performed maintenance on one of my seasonal temporary measures- the laundry buffer.  That is to say, I folded a large pile of laundry. "Huh?", you're saying , but my explanation will show you (I hope) how flexible and ingenious I am. Basically, my utility room is at the rear entrance to the house. The door to said room needs replacing. It is  an oddly-sized (of course), old, multiply cracked, loose in its jamb, wood door, which has long since outlived its useful lifespan. In the winter, the wind howls through the door, and, even absent wind, the cold seeps in at a nearly uncombattable rate. So, I fixed it, by hanging a few blankets over the door and surrounding wall area, to cut the draft. Effective solution.
But, folks, I've refined this measure over the past few years. (Yup, temporary measures can be improved upon without being made permanent.) I noticed that my folded laundry, atop the dryer, made a nice buffer to the draft at that level. So, a few years ago, I resolved not  to put away the folded items in the winter. Stacked there, they add an extra layer of insulation, and -  BONUS- I had less laundry to put away. (Way to incorporate less housework as a heat saving measure, huh?)  This year, however, I've further refined the system. Since the door is the biggest source of draft, and the piled up laundry tended to cascade when the washer was unbalanced, I decided to pile the folded laundry, three stacks wide, across the already shrouded back door. It works.

I don't mind this temporary measure at all. As long as I remember to preselect clothes and bring them upstairs when I shower, they have time to warm up- I  learned that one the hard way. It is a huge labor saver, in that I don't have to schlep the foldable clothes upstairs and put them away, and this excuse is the best one I've ever come up with for not putting them away- I really dread spring, on that front.  I do have to shift the leftmost pile when I do laundry to access the dryer, but no temporary measure is perfect- or it would be permanent. As far as I'm concerned, I've effected a solution to a serious winter problem in my old house.

 So, if you stop by before, say, May 1st, remember to use the front door, and do not judge when you notice the  three 4 ft stacks of laundry at the back door. Hell, they're clean and folded, and serving a larger purpose.

Greetings from the Couch- An Introduction

Good Afternoon. Since re-entering the modern age last summer, with the purchase of my laptop, I've enjoyed reconnecting with friends both dear and peripheral, via Facebook and E-mail. It's great to finally have the world at my fingertips, and should be promoting more general productivity in other facets of my life- right? Wrong. So here I sit, not folding the laundry, not shoveling the walk for the umpteenth time this winter, (although I did toss a little calcium out the front door),  trying to motivate myself in any new direction.

I remember purchasing my first -and previous, you can see how long it's been- computer, a Gateway, probably fifteen years ago. I bought it so I could start writing. Uh-huh. The life of a  single woman in her twenties with a mortgage to pay on a dilapidated 250 year old house,  the reality of work scheduling  and upkeep on said house, hanging together with my tendency to stagnate, has led to no progress on the writing front.
Next month, I'll be forty. I'm looking forward to the party, ( there had better be one),  to the milestone the age represents, to the proximity it gives me to eligibility for senior discounts. I am not lamenting my lost youth, because I've not lost it, yet.
I'm still single, and childless. Neither of which reflects the vision I had of my future self as I saw her 17 years ago. Yet, I am currently involved with a good man, who knows me, loves me, and makes me laugh. Further, I have been constantly and closely involved with the lives of three children, (1 neighbor and 2 family members), -  now grown- who have afforded and continue to afford  me the experience of  all the joys and pratfalls of parenthood, and then some.

The homestead has come a long way, and remains simultaneously  my biggest life joy and the bane of my existence. I'm proud of what I've accomplished here, and grateful for  the help of my family and friends along the way.  But if you didn't see it 17 years ago, you might find it hard to believe that its current state reflects progress.

My professional life has blossomed, although not in a way that I could have predicted when they handed me the diploma I still can't fully read (I never took Latin) and sent me out into the world ready to  conquer it. At my last reunion, several of my classmates were able to introduce me to my professional peers- their nannies, who they'd brought along for the weekend. An odd spot, but only the nannies seemed confused- I guess my classmates saw the perfect fit I'd found.  I know far too many people whose working lives bring them none of the joy or satisfaction that I enjoy, so I try not to spend too much time explaining my choice. It was obviously a good one.

I still tend to stagnate, between periods of frantic activity, in nearly all aspects of my life. However, I've always found that when I'm writing something, anything, it seems to stimulate me. Perhaps it's as my high school English teacher said; "you're going to need to write".  So, I'll start here.  My life thus far has provided me with a wealth of stories to tell. As the man in my life is constantly telling me, "You need to write a book, Tea."  I'll change or combine a few personalities to protect the innocent, the not-so-innocent, and the downright guilty. But I'm best at self-deprecating humor, so my intimates need not worry, further than owning up to their association with me.
 I  enjoy blogs' expansion of moments in time, the way one small encounter can lead us off into flights of thoughts and memories, can inspire us to new heights, can bring us so low. I've always believed that we are changed every day, sometimes by what everyone would consider 'life-altering events', but more often than not by much smaller, sometimes seemingly insignificant experiences, which lead us somehow to tweak something of our selves. And, further, that the 'size' of the experience cannot predict, and does not determine its impact. 
Enough of the biographical, philosophical, postulatory exposition. I hope you enjoy hearing from me, and please do comment. Conversation is much better than speaking in a vacuum. Besides, I live alone; I can talk to myself any time!