Saturday, November 30, 2013

Choom Choom Charlie Was An Engineer

Not up to code, I think. Not the building code, Morse Code, Hammurabi's Code, my area code...

Well, it appears I'm going to have to get back at it.

My public demands I hit my Intertunnel thumb with a pixel hammer until gouts of Web blood appear amusingly on their screen. They suspect I've failed -- know it in the depth of their hearts, in the forecourt of their minds, in the alleys of their senses -- but gosh, they want to know exactly how I dropped my house on my head while trying to fix it. For the Lulz.

Of course, if I wanted to tell an audience something really interesting, I'd have made a mordant aside somewhere along the long, weary way we've traveled under my house, about how I once got a 650 pound woodburning furnace into the second floor of my house in the dead, dead, dead of winter, through a door three feet above grade with no stairs, halfway down a driveway under four feet of snow and with a pitch approaching black diamond, with no one but a teenager and his mother to help me. Now that would have been a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying, well, heat. That would be a story worth telling. But I put the audience off the scent early, and coaxed them into the basement where I keep the second-rate tales, and they're none the wiser. Of course they're none the wiser, because they're listening to me. I'm not that bright, but if I was a butcher, and a customer came in the shop and expressed an interest in an emaciated pullet with scoliosis I had hanging in the shop window, I wouldn't blurt out that I had a big roast beef in the back. I'd keep, er, selling that chicken. So forget I mentioned it.

Now that all my clothes have been washed twice since Thanksgiving, so that most of the cranberry is out of them at this point, I really should get back to it. How to jack up the back of your ramshackle Victorian and ram a foundation under it, a hundred years or so too late. We of course took the theoretical engineering course earlier in the week. Time for practical engineering.

When my dad had a flat tire -- an occurrence as common as meeting a congressmen in Hell, as dad favored "recapped" tires back in the day -- he'd make us all get out of the car while he fixed it. My father was a banker, so arithmetic wasn't his strong suit. All practical things weren't his strong suit, now that I think of it. Hell, I think we buried him in his strong suit, which was a bit shiny at the elbows and knees. He wasn't good at anything but making people love him. But how much a car weighed, and how much the jack would hold, and what additional danger would be posed by four or five relatives malingering in the car was not known to him. His calculations consisted solely of get out of the car, you lot.  It had the side benefit of an eager audience to cheer him on as he cursed gently under his breath and deftly replaced the bald tire with no air in it with the bald tire that was low on air that he kept in the trunk for just such festive occasions.

Now I'm no better than my dad; indeed, I'm much worse, because I don't care for arithmetic, and I'm as lovable as a bacterium, generally. But even I know that telling my family to get out of the house just before I lifted it wasn't going to help all that much. Houses be heavy, dude.

How much does a house weigh? That's an interesting question. It was especially interesting to me, because it might end up on top of my head. I had to know whether to wear a hard hat or a baseball cap. Go ahead, ask the Intertunnel how much  a house weighs.

Herein lies another lesson. If you enter the Intertunnel, and ask it a question of a practical nature, it generally sends you first, last, and every time, to someplace with HOW TO in the URL. I've noticed that no one at no site with HOW TO in its name knows how to locate their nether regions using cartography and hand-held portable illumination devices. The HOW TO neighborhood of the Interburbs isn't just stupid; it's concentrated, distilled, malignant imbecility.

(to be continued)

[Update: In one of life's great comeuppance moments, my wife called me this evening and told me she had a flat tire. Neither one of us can remember the last time we had a flat tire. It might be 25 years.  I had to go to the Sherwin Williams parking lot and change her tire in the sleet and darkness. My father has gone to his reward, but he still has enough existential pull to teach me a lesson about defaming him, I see. If you're listening, Dad, I wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over the Androscoggin River]

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as between an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and it was a good lamp, but now it sheds light, too, and that is its real function. And love makes one more calm about many things, and so one is more fit for one's work. -Van Gogh
I think the worst condition of man is loneliness.

It is a terrible thing to be lonely, or worse, truly alone. No one goes crazy in general population. It's solitary that eats at your mind. Even the craziest of  men, immured in stone, unable to get even a glimpse of the bright, blue tent of the sky, scratch at the walls to leave a message; to tell another that they were there.

I am not alone in this world, which is good, because I have a melancholy nature. I am married, and I have children to throw rolls over the table at one another. They are my name, scratched on the unyielding wall of the world, telling anyone that will bother to notice that I was here. My family makes me calm about many things.

It's Thanksgiving. I am separated by distance and other things from everyone except my wife and children. I do not know if I've ever understood the true nature of the holiday until recently, because to have plenty and to be able to gather together was fairly easy. People don't often appreciate things that come readily to hand. I'm a person.

We will have enough to eat, and sit in a warm room, laugh and wonder at the dogeared cards we have been dealt, and I'll try mightily to shed the light that is my true function, to make me more fit for my work. We will all pray over our plate like children. Thanksgiving is the only kind of prayer that you can be sure will work, because it faces backwards.

I tap on the wall of the Intertunnel, too. I often feel disconnected from my fellow passengers on this spinning rock, moreso each day. I wonder if some other inmate, some fellow traveler, might hear my tapping, and be braced by the thought of a fellow internee. I often hear tapping in return, and it refreshes me to carry on.

And so I offer this little word of thanks, and release it into the ether. I'm glad I'm not alone, and if you're reading this, you're not alone, either, and I'm glad to get a chance to leave a little something in the take a soul, leave a soul dish at the checkout counter of life.

[ Extra special Thanksgiving thanks goes out to Karen, Richard, Paul, Robert, Malcolm, David, Tracy Lynn, Victor, Caleb, Blake, Clare, Patrick, Andy, Mitchell, Eric, Francis, Sarah, Andrea, Julie, William, Kathleen, Nancy, Mary J, and a very generous stranger in New Jersey for not only tapping on the stone walls in our shared dungeon, but for bribing the guards into giving us a cake with a file in it.]
[Update: And Anh! Many thanks!]
[Continuing News Update: Many thanks to Karen M. from Calphalonia]
[Additional Gratitude Alert:  Dale K in Washington. Mainey thanks!]

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

There's A Very Pleasant Side To You, A Side I Much Prefer

I have a pleasant side. It's the other one. No, not that one. Not that one either. I'll turn around. Nope. Well, it must be around here somewhere.

Of course it is. My good side is in my dining room, calling themselves Unorganized Hancock and playing Mardy Bum by the Arctic Monkeys.

They're my good side. They are me, only not a jerk. I guess that means they're really not me; they must be my wife's good side. She has all good sides, so she doesn't have to spin like a centrifuge looking for hers.

The kids have been sick in bed for a week or so. They are homeschooled, so they're almost never sick. My wife and I once considered sending the little drummer boy to regular school, but we decided it would be easier for us to just drive to the Center for Disease Control and drink out of all the petri dishes they keep there.

It's been so long since the little feller was sick, and he is so young, that he'd forgotten what being sick was. He was confused, not sad, and kept asking us how he was supposed to act. He sat on a little tuffet made of pillows on his bed and watched cartoons from the forties on a little disc player and sneezed like a cartoon himself -- kerchoo. The big one layed around like a teenager. I told him he didn't need germs for that. He doesn't listen.

I think there are four takes in this video, and the big one would hack like a four-pack-a-day coal miner in between them. My wife was the key grip, or the best boy, or the gaffer or something. I was David O Fargin Selznick, waving the camera around like I had palsy. The Heir put the whole thing together by himself, and is playing the bass, guitar, and singing. The little one continued his streak of never, ever requiring two takes to do anything.

Ladies and germs, Unorganized Hancock! Enjoy! kerchoo

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Governor Of Maine Has Stolen My Children's Christmas Presents

The governor of Maine has stolen my children's Christmas presents, presents that were made possible only by the generosity of my readers.

Maine passed a law trying to extort sales tax money from Amazon, by claiming that if an Amazon Associate lives in Maine, then Amazon is a Maine company and must collect sales taxes here. That was about as wise and useful as it sounds. Amazon immediately cancelled all their Maine Associates' accounts, so the state will collect no sales tax, and everyone that derived income from their Associates accounts will lose all of that income, and so won't pay any tax on that, now, either. My situation is even worse than most. Because of some sort of clerical error, Amazon thought I still lived in Massachusetts, and never notified me that my account was being cancelled, and didn't instruct me to remove my Associates links when they notified everyone else, so in addition to forfeiting all future Amazon Associates income, I will also forfeit the last thirty days of Amazon income I've already earned. My wife and I had hoped to use that money to put presents under our Christmas tree for our children. Amazon Associates money is not "mad money" for us. I do not know exactly how I'm going to make up the shortfall in our income next year.

The fact that we will not receive this income any longer cannot diminish my gratitude to my readers for the kind and thoughtful gesture of trying to support this blog with their purchases. I want to thank everyone once again for reading, and commenting, and using my supplied links for as long as they lasted, and for hitting my tip jar, and for supporting my children in their musical efforts.

I hate to complicate this explanation of the disappearance of all my Amazon links, but in addition to Amazon, Google has cancelled Google Checkout as of the 20th of this month, so I will not be able to have that tip jar on my blog any longer, either. I'm very grateful to everyone that donated funds via that avenue also. As far as I know, the PayPal button still works, but it's only noontime, and the way things are going this week, by five o'clock the entire Internet might be turned off.

I must admit that I do not feel like I am a citizen of Maine any longer -- I just live here-- and I have no regard whatsoever for Massachusetts, the state of my birth. Hell, I barely feel like an American anymore. But I do feel as though I belong to a community of virtual citizens instead. They are scattered, of course, but they're generous, and intelligent, and forward-looking, kind, hardworking and salubrious, as I hope we are, and their Intertunnel nation is the only one I have any affection for now.

I was raised a Catholic, though that upbringing has done me precious little good for a long time. But I recall that I was taught, as the Bible says in Luke, to "pray for those that abuse you." So, here goes: This is me, saying a prayer for that rat-faced, greedy, grasping, porcine, boorish, gibbering, moronic stuttering clusterfark of a troglodyte pedlar we have for a Governor.

It's times like these that make me wish I had been raised by Evangelical Christians, instead of Catholics, so I could proceed directly to the "laying on of the hands."

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sippican Cottage's Handy Guide To Engineering Your House

Copyright 2013 Sippican Cottage. Don't be de-copyrighting this. I calls it. No erasies. Black magic. Eggsetera

You axed for it; you got it: Sippican Cottage's Handy Guide To Engineering Your House.

Blecch. I hated using "engineering" as a verb in that sentence. But the Intertunnel verbs all sorts of nouns these days, because reasons. I'm just going along with the flow.

Back to the topic at hand. You want me to tell you how I lifted the back of my house and slipped a foundation under it, using a few hundred dollars and a teen-aged boy as my resource pool. I'm getting to it. But first you need an engineering course. I know you've been told that you need to go to school for twelve years, and then go to school for about six more years to build anything, but I'm here to tell you you don't. You need to understand that drawing at the top of this essay -- that's it. No, really; that's all there is to designing a house.

Let's go over the players before the curtain goes up. Here's where you come in. I hate to break this to you, and believe me, it's nothing personal, but it's my duty as your architect, teacher, and friend to inform you that you're the HEAVY THING. I know you've been staying away from the break room donuts, and running in the occasional 5K for breast cancer or whatever, but it's true. You're the weight in this concrete and plywood sandwich.

It's not just you, either. It's all your relatives, if you can convince them to come over for Thanksgiving, and all the chairs you'll be sitting on -- or if you invite me over for Thanksgiving, the recliner I'll be sleeping in. Your jugs of Chanel No. 5 and your cat litter box count, too, and equally, if they weigh the same. Anything that weighs anything in your house is part of that arrow.

On to the VAGUELY BENDY THING. That's generally your floor. Take no umbrage at your floor being described in this manner. I am not casting aspersions on your floor, because aspersions are heavy, and we'll have to include them in our calculations of the HEAVY THING, which will make the arithmetic more complicated.  If you  go down in your basement and look up, you'll see rows of bendy things, spaced as regularly as a high school dropout (probably a Mexican high-school drop out at that, these days) can space them. Those are floor joists. They're in the ceiling, because you're in the basement, but they're floor joists. Ceiling joists are what you see if you go in the attic and look down. I told you all this was simple, but I didn't say it wasn't goofy.

You have to remember now, that all those VAGUELY BENDY THINGS, no matter where they are, eventually have to be added to the HEAVY THING arrow. They're called "Dead Weight," or more precisely, "Dead Load." You and your fourteen cats and furniture that smells like you and fourteen cats is called "Live Load." It's not all that important to sort them out, and you can add it all together, Live and Dead load, and enter it all under HEAVY THING and not worry about calculating it to the last avoirdupois, unless you're running a Zumba class on pogo sticks for the clinically obese in your living room or something equally exotic. It's common to use numbers like 40 PSF for live, and 10 or 20 for dead load, depending on what you're building, and who's using it. Snow on the roof, and wind blowing against the side, and those five layers of roofing you left on my leaky roof, you bastards, are all loads that must be accounted for, too. So only build your house in the summer, and when it's not windy or rainy, and the arithmetic gets easier, unless you have to explain it to the building inspector.

Now, on to the CRUSHY THING, and its very important counterpart, the OTHER CRUSHY THING. Back when humans weren't all idiots, everything in a house was sorta symmetrical like THE CRUSHY THINGS. You went through a door, or a city gate, or in my case, the portal to the jailyard, and there was a lintel (the VAGUELY BENDY THING) plopped atop two CRUSHY THINGS. It looks sensible to a sane person. Before everything in interior trim became joined with 45 degree angles like a picture frame, all your doors and windows had a frame like that around it. It looks sensible, that's why it's beginning to look out of place in a home now.

Pay attention now: The CRUSHY THINGS on some levels of your house might be VAGUELY BENDY THINGS turned upright. Your exterior walls might be made from a whole bunch of 2x4s, and your second floor would sit on top of that. VAGUELY BENDY THINGS make lousy CRUSHY THINGS when you get right down to it, so you put a whole lot of them fairly close together, generally 16" apart, and put one horizontally on the bottom and two horizontally on the top, and then nail sheathing all over the outside of it, or if it's entirely inside the house, you screw drywall all over it. Then you nail the ever-loving hell out of it, and the resulting assembly makes a pretty good CRUSHY THING. If you watch Home and Garden television, these assembled CRUSHY THINGS are called "walls," generally the very walls the realtor says you can "just" demolish so you can have a clear, unobstructed view of your microwave from the other end of the house, and to allow you to hear the dishwasher running when you're trying to watch football, even though it's nearly sixty feet and two rooms away. Nota Bene: "Just" removing these CRUSHY THING partitions results in having all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS and all the HEAVY THINGS land on your head.

Eventually, all the ad-hoc CRUSHY THINGS make their way down to sit atop the king of all CRUSHY THINGS, the foundation. That's usually a concrete affair, the only thing that keeps you from digging out under your lawn and the street to make one more room underground to watch TV in, even though there are four or five rooms to watch TV in your house already. 

So the foundation holds in all the crazy, i.e.: you. It keeps out a lot of crazy, too. People think it should keep out water, but it can't, so your feet are sitting on a sopping carpet while you're watching that TV down there. It's not the concrete's fault. It's just supposed to keep out the very largest snakes, and withstand the entire weight of all the dirt outside from pushing your house flat from the sides like a soda can ready for recycling. It transfers all the force from all the HEAVY THINGS, and all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS, and all the intermediate CRUSHY THINGS, then transfers all that to your footings, which are just more CRUSHY THINGS, lying  horizontally under your foundation walls, transferring the weight of everything but your mortgage to Mother Earth -- which is supposed to be the ultimate CRUSHY THING. Like I said, it's supposed to, but your house probably sits on peat moss or mulch or mud or sand or ball bearings or some other unsuitable substance, because the man that digs the cellar hole knows he's going to be retired before you figure out what the hell's under your house.

If you don't have any sort of basement, and your floor is concrete, you've somehow been convinced to live in a basement that's located above ground, or maybe it's more of a garage where you're the car. This is called "slab on grade," or "Texas." Don't be fooled. The concrete floor is still the VAGUELY BENDY THING in this situation. That's why it cracks. It's trying to be a BENDY THING, but concrete doesn't care for bending, it only likes being a CRUSHY THING, so it breaks pretty easily.

Therein lies the lesson. Designing a house is simple. Look at the drawing again. I'm not joking, it's that straightforward. Figuring out all the forces involved, and then sizing all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS and all the CRUSHY THINGS is as easy as looking up a few charts on the Intertunnel and walking down the derelict aisles at Home Depot, where they keep all the framing lumber and you can see all the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS on display.

My house? The HEAVY THINGS are way too heavy, The bends in the VAGUELY BENDY THINGS aren't vague at all, they're visible to the naked eye -- from space, I imagine-- and the CRUSHY THING it's all supposed to sit on has been crushed to powder and washed away. Let's see if we can restore it without us becoming CRUSHY THINGS by accident.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

OK, Off To The Store. You Need A Cobweb Rake

I give up. What's that big girder doing? It ain't holding up the house, that's fer sure

Alrighty then, we're going to fix the basement. We've got the nerve, we've got multiple hundreds of dollars at our disposal. We've got a teenage boy, or we will when he wakes up. And of course, we have our Cobweb Rake.

How's that? You don't have a Cobweb Rake? By gad, what sort of toolset have you accumulated? What about a Johnson Bar? Howza 'bout a Board Stretcher? Any left-handed paint paddles lying about? Sounds like you don't have any sort of good stuff hanging around. But above all, you're going to need that Cobweb Rake. You better get a good one. Don't go cheapskate here. You can use one of those cheap table saws made of lead and plastic by the Chinese low bidder, the ones that sound like a hive of bees and a pound of washers being agitated in a clothes dryer, they'll do fine. But you need a real, good Cobweb Rake. Don't skimp.

I suppose you'll go to Home Depot, or if you're a Unitarian-Universalist, maybe you can afford to go to Lowe's, I don't know, but when you go to the Cobweb Rake aisle, don't just settle for the first one that the Cobweb Rake salesman tries to palm off on you. I'm in Maine, so I needed the Charlotte's Web Deluxe Extra-Premium High-Strength Ergonomic Cobweb Rake. If you live in most of the rest of the lower 48, outside of Maine, maybe you can get by with a lesser model without all the features. If you live in Florida or Hawaii, there's nothing left for you but prayer. Santeria prayers work best on the bugs you've got. But none of them can compare with Maine spiders.

What's that you say? The clerk at Home Depot didn't think he could find a Cobweb Rake? You know he's lying. Guys like that hoard important stuff like that in the back and ease it out the loading dock door to select friends and assorted palm greasers. Go back there again, and lay a double sawbuck across that guy's palm, and see if you don't end up out by the dumpster, waiting for your special delivery. It's not right, I know, but it's how the world works.

Of course, I've owned my own Cobweb Rake since the early eighties. I've put it away every fall, after a generous soaking of tonsil polish, of course, to keep us both withy in the joints. I remember the first time I used it. We were installing hot and cold running potato chips in this rich guy's house, and I drew the short straw and had to make my way through his root cellar alone. I've never forgotten that afternoon -- if that's what it was; it was dark down there -- and I was proud that even though I'd just gotten the schematics for the apparatus, I got the hot pipe on the left the first time. 

Say what? The Lowe's lady didn't know what a Cobweb Rake was, either? Well, you can show her a picture of mine:

Remember to buy all your Cobweb Rakes through my Amazon Portal, I get a commission

Of course, that's the lightweight one I use for the easy stuff. I've got a metal one, too, for under the stairs, where the albino spiders go heavy on the silk. The stuff's structural, I tells ya.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I'm Fixing A Hole Where The Rain Gets In

Well, this situation looks fairly straightforward, doesn't it? I'm fixing a hole where the rain gets in. The rain, and mice, spiders, stray cats, chipmunks, squirrels, snow, mud...

[If you just toddled in, Ive been describing how I jacked up part of my ramshackle house in Maine and put a foundation under it. I have done so without mentioning anything about my house, Maine, or jacks and foundations, for almost a week. I deserve a trophy or a beating, I think]

Now, then. The Point.

I've been coming to The Point for quite some time now. I thought I was on its scent about a week ago, but I came up empty when I checked the traps. I put more thesaurus urine on the legholds and put them back in the river of words where I like to go trapping, but haven't had any luck since, either. I thought I had The Point up a tree a few days after that, but I got cold and wandered off after waiting for it to come down. In my defense, I waited almost fifteen minutes before I got bored; I'm not made of stone, you know. I don't have a pointer to hunt The Point with, so I left my cat at the base of the tree with The Point in it. He turned out as useless as a fat clerk in a Victoria's Secret.

I thought if I pretended not to be interested in The Point, he might show himself, figuring that he'd outlasted me, so I looked off into the distance a good bit, and pretended to write about other things instead of telling you about how to slip a basement under a house rather than doing it the other way 'round, like God and the building inspector intended. But instead of coaxing The Point out in the open where we could club it to death in the comments, I just ended up with a sort of Dumb & Dumber edition of Palladio's The Four Books on Architecture .

I don't know Mr. Palladio; I think he went to public school, and I had the nuns, so we're bound to travel in different circles, forevermore; or perhaps he's full-blown Presbyterian, and no one like me gets to talk to any of those. But I'm pretty sure he wouldn't approve of me putting out a version of his book with so many fart jokes in it. Worse, after a while I got tired of changing all those Latin "V"s he favors into plain old "U"s, so it wouldn't be so easy for his publisher to catch on that I was plagiarizing him, and so I pried the Vs and Us off my keyboard and tried to swap them, the duct tape I used didn't hold, they both fell off, and now I'm trying to make The Point using only 24 letters, like a drunk reciting the alphabet for a State Policeman by the side of the road.

Oh, yeah. The Point. More than a few years ago, I took the Massachusetts Construction Supervisor license test with hundreds of other schlubs at the UMASS Dartmouth campus-cum-abattoir, handed it in, and went outside.  I knew no one there. Once again, I was all alone, because everyone there knew each other, were standing outside in a kind of park that looked more like a black ops landing strip than a place for humans to congregate, and they were all talking furiously to each other. Right there, I got the only education that I was likely to get from the whole episode.

They all knew each other because they had all been taking that test, and attending those stripmall classes together, forever and a day, over and over. They always failed. They failed long. They failed hard. They failed often. They failed regularly. Miserably. Spectacularly. With bangs. With whimpers. And no one that passed finished before I did. They left forty-five minutes before the allotted time was up because they were only on the second question at that point, knew their answer to the first one was wrong anyway, and figured there was no point in continuing.

I didn't bother to introduce myself to anyone. I didn't need to, after all -- I was famous. I was the moron or genius without the tabs; a celebrity of sorts. I simply walked up to the closest big gaggle of hangdog expressions and they adopted me immediately like a pound puppy. They were all comparing notes on how exactly they failed. I gathered that they met so often that they had formed softball teams and dart leagues and began to marry each other's sisters. I didn't quite understand how it could be, I didn't think the test was that hard, but they all assured me it be.

They were all framing carpenters. They had reached the period of their careers where they had to take over for their old man the framing carpenter, and let him move to Florida with the seven fingers and one thumb he had left and be retired for at least fifteen minutes before he had his complimentary myocardial infarction. Of course their fathers never had to pass the test; they were grandfathered in, and the Building Code was small enough to be printed on an index card back then, anyway. But they had to, and they couldn't. One man, who had the rangy look and laconic voice common among framers I have known, said nothing for a good long time, and when pressed, came to The Point in one, brilliant, heartbreaking sentence:

"Not a lot of questions about wood on that test."

Unlike people like me, who are inoculated with a phonograph needle, he was prone to saying very few words and stuffing them with meaning. He was right. Dead right, and I mean that every which way. He knew, by instinct, and training, and custom, and experience, intergenerationally, exactly how to build a single-family house in the State of his birth. And that knowledge, experience, and desire was worthless to him, because there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test...

Listen to me. If you're reading this, you're the person that test is geared towards. The meek have not inherited the earth. The meek have been sent home to tell their father that there's not a lot of questions about wood on that test. The test, and the whole industry, was being geared up to be the province of people that are willing and able to wade through fens of text bogged down with legalese, much of it contradictory, a great deal of it useless, in order to have anything to do with building or altering a single-family home.

No one that reads this blog can't understand how to build a house, or anything else, for that matter. It's statute turtles all the way down now. You're all intellectuals. You're all used to traversing minefields of legalese to get to your porridge. You're smart, in a very particular way.

And so, we come to the second part of The Point. As I said, you and I are smart, in a very particular way. And that way of being smart is completely useless to the problem at hand: What makes a good, sturdy, liveable house. Being that particular kind of smart has become worse than useless. It's become antithetical to good housing. It's a trifle to figure out the structural problems presented by a single-family house. The things that make a house pleasant to live in are subtle, not complicated. There's nothing subtle in the CMR.

We drove out every single person that built good houses to live in, guarded by common-sense, not statute; produced by tradition, custom, habit, or by accident --what difference does it make why someone is right? Everyone that knew what they were doing are all gone, driven out in a tide of superfluousness, and we're going to have to do it ourselves if we want it done at all. I can tell you that "the experts" in these matters don't know squat about what makes a pleasant place to live in. The "experts" built UMASS Dartmouth, and teach there. By the mark of that beast you should know them. You've been told  that building and repairing a house is an arcane, complicated business left to professionals. You're warned never to try anything substantial to repair your house. They tell you to change out the kitchen counters and the tile like they're underwear, spending the same money over and over again, but the rest of the house is as complicated as the building code is. No it's not. In my experience, if it's in your house, and it's fussy or complicated, it's bad and you don't want it. A good house is simpler than a bad house, and that rule of thumb gets truer every day.

You're plenty smart enough to know, or at least figure out, everything you need to know to build or fix anything worth living in. The only question is whether you have the sense to know what a dullard used to, and stop building and buying and living in houses a dumb person, in recent memory, knew enough not to build, buy or live in.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

UMASS Dartmouth, Class Of '16

We have him on file here somewhere. He's the guy without tabs, right?

[If you just came in, I'm explaining how to repair a 110-year-old ramshackle house. I've gotten as far as my baby pictures. Hang in there]

And so in your hearts you beseech me to lay down my cudgels and finally put lintel atop column or wiggle my spud in some girder holes --something-- but I find the need to weave wattle for my mind's pigpen just outside the jobsite again.

I describe a thing to bring a laugh but it's not a laughing matter. I'm throwing rice at a funeral. In Massachusetts they examined me to see if  I was worthy to stack one block upon another, to let a dog, or a dog's minder, get in out of the rain, and they did it in a place that should be taken apart to its component molecules, the bits burned to ashes and smeared on the faces of its patrons and architects, the very ground it squats on like a concrete animal salted to make a Carthaginian blush and a Roman envious. UMASS Dartmouth is the worst place man made. A penance is in order.

They say a bad surgeon buries his mistakes, but a bad architect can only advise his clients to plant vines. UMASS Dartmouth should plant poison ivy over every inch of it. It's not landscaping. It's a warning to the unwary. You think I'm joking? This is what it looks like:

You could dig up whatever bits of Dante Alighieri you could find and plop him at a table and press the quill in his bony hand and say, "Top that, you piker," and he wouldn't hesitate a moment, just say he couldn't raise and dare not call, and throw in.

It's not a prison. A prison acknowledges the essential humanity of its occupants by trying to thwart their normal urges. It knows what you want, and tries to take it away from you, because you want to live like a human being, at least the kind of human being that goes to prison; but UMASS Dartmouth doesn't like anything to do with human beings. It is worse than the most devilish panopticon, because every nook and cranny of it is designed to make you repudiate your own humanity. It wishes to deny the existence of humanity itself. If there were corpses hanging from those gibbets with the featureless rags hanging from them in the last picture, it would improve the mood, I think. A corpse used to be a human, after all.

So what does a place that denies the essential essence of humanity produce? What is the end product of a nursery of inhumanity like this concrete dovecote? This:

UMASS Dartmouth, class of '16

So it's the weekend, and I'm at UMASS Dartmouth, in the back row of a grim, semicircular intellectual arena, where on weekdays good ideas are slaughtered by intellectual kittens, no lions being available, for the amusement of sleeping students; but today it's jampacked with people who want to be general contractors. Everyone has already had fourteen cups of coffee, and the room vibrates a bit with it.

As God as my witness, there was no cheating. Everyone would have cheated, I suppose, but it's not possible to cheat. You are allowed -- strike that -- you're required to bring the answers with you. The whole test simply asks you to look things up in that big, powder blue looseleaf foolscap mess they call the building code, and write it down when you find it on the line that is dotted.

As we began, the opening shuffle of papers sounding like the emptying of a dumpster, it dawned on me why everyone attended those classes at the stripmall I mentioned before. Every single one of those classes taught nothing. No one knew anything more at the end than at the beginning. All they did, was to teach the students how to take apart the big, blue book of statutes about building structures, and put it in a different order, one that made a kind of sense: foundation before framing before plaster before skylights and so on. Then they gave their students fifty cents-worth of color-coded binder tabs to tell one section from another, and locate things faster.

It was a long time ago, and one forgets things, but I remember distinctly that each and every person in that room filled with hundreds of people had those color coded tabs on their books -- except one person, of course. I began to feel as though I was being looked at by every single person in a very large crowd, which is fine if you're tap-dancing or singing barbershop or whatever, but is very unsettling if you're just another schlub in the room. Oh, what ideas you can conjure about other people that are staring at you. That guy is either much smarter than we are, or very, very much dumber.

I'll leave it to you to decide which was which and who was who. But me, I was in for another shock. The test lasted for two hours, if memory serves, and I dutifully remembered the nuns, and tried to ace that bad boy, and finish first. I plunged headlong into figuring snowloads that would make a ski area blush, and figuring out how to nail off a corner post to withstand a temblor that doesn't show its face much in New England that I've noticed. I flipped furiously back in forth in that big, bad, book, and looked up what needed looking up, and read it, and puked it back up in a cloud of number two pencil lead.

An hour and fifteen minutes in, people started to get up and hand in their papers, while I was still laboring at span charts and live loads and occupancies for a theoretical bowling alley that was being converted to a ballroom for paraplegic arsonists, or some sort of arcane building use that made the rules go topsy-turvy. After a few minutes, the trickle of people leaving became a steady stream. The ghost of parochial schools past appeared at my shoulder rattling their beads like some weird Sister Jacob Marley, the face of the big industrial clock turning to a judge with a black cap, and I thought of my hubris, and the little plastic color-coded tabs, and ended up using every last minute of the allotted time, while wishing for more.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts will not tell you what your score is on such a test. They will not tell you anyone else's score, either. That would smack of a meritocracy based on, well, merit, and we can't have that. They mail you something a month later that bluntly tells you if you passed or failed, and that's it. And that's where I discovered the big secret.

(to be continued)

Monday, November 18, 2013

First Comes The Concrete Leper Colony. Then The Framing

[If you just came in, I'm describing the process for fixing the ramshackle house where I currently live in Maine. Just like all actual repair work, I lied to get the job, and it's taking way longer than the estimate. The Shirk Brothers in The Money Pit are not really fictional. I'll get to the point in two weeks! I promise]

You might expect the published rules for building a house to resemble some form of instruction book. You'd expect wrong.

This is what it looks like. (it's a pdf)

That's just an addendum or notification or supplement or appendix or amendment or notification of pending imminent continuing forthcoming wonderfulness. The actual body of the code is much less straightforward and succinct, and it's six inches thick. There's a delightful entry among the gobbletygook atop page two on the linked pdf -- don't miss it, it's a howler. It asks for an estimate of the fiscal impact of changing and adding a bunch of laws about building every sort of structure in a whole state, and it just says "None." They double down by asking about any effects on small businesses, and they aver once again, "none." I guess the rubber stamp that reads: Who Gives A Sh*t was sent back to the print shop to be resoled from overuse, and they had to settle for the None version.

The "CMR" on all such pages stands for Code of Massachusetts Regulations. That's right, you're reading legislation if you want to build a house, or more precisely: statutes.The Building Code is part of this CMR, and it's mired in Dogeared Dewey Decimal Land in the 700s. If you're curious about whether politicians have decided to cast their laser-like focus on whether gasoline-soaked foam rubber makes good wallpaper in a nightclub, you can look at the amendment of the section about what kind of chair rail  you can use in your basement in a flood zone.

If you've ever wondered if ADHD is a real thing, the CMR is the scientific proof for it. It's a very real condition, or syndrome, or affliction, or whatever you need to call it to get your speed pills paid for without a co-pay. You apparently catch if from touching ballots in state representative elections in Massachusetts. The general public, and even poll workers don't suffer from it, because they handle so few ballots, but the winners of the elections get the germs all over them by stuffing so many into the ballot boxes when no one's looking. They should probably wear gloves.

I promised you a big secret on Saturday, like everyone does on the Intertunnel, but here it is Monday, and no secret, and now we have to go to UMASS Dartmouth first. Sorry. Don't get me wrong, you can't learn much of anything useful about your house by going to that august seat of learning; but you have to take a test.

UMASS Dartmouth is the perfect place to take a test about building things in Massachusetts, because it is, without question, the ugliest warren of structures of any kind in the world. It's not uglier than Boston City Hall, because that's impossible, but it's built in the exact same brutalist low-bidder concrete-fetish style, and there are dozens of buildings exactly like it at the campus. If Boston City Hall is just one hobo with a giant carbuncle on his nose, bumming money from you as you hurry to work, then UMASS Dartmouth is a leper colony.

So a couple times a year, they'd schedule test for the license at state colleges. I had the "book," I read it (shudders) and signed up. I walked down a hallway in some Fuhrer bunker masquerading as a classroom building, and as I walked, the bow wave of air from my passage pulled down all the various photocopy fliers kids in college stick on the wall in corridors with entreaties to Party! or march on Washington or whatever, and they skirled on the vinyl tile behind me like Autumn leaves. The heavily textured block wall wouldn't allow any hook, and were too rough to hold even a duct-taped flyer. I thought to myself, right then, for the first time, that  I was in an insane place, doing a crazy thing, among daft people. It turned out I didn't know the half of it.

The arena where I was directed was crazier. It was one of those lecture halls that holds hundreds, the chalkboard turning into nothing more than a billboard in a flea circus by the time you reached the back row where I was seated, because the room was full. And there were people taking the test in other halls like this on campus. And on every state college campus at the same time. And they did it multiple times a year. I was agog. I began to wonder if every single person in the state was going to have a Construction Supervisor's license, and mine would be worthless.

I have a habit that goes back to elementary school taught by nuns. They introduced competitive aspects to learning that are now out of favor. They taught us that it wasn't enough to get an A. If you could get an A, you could get every question right, and should try. If you could get every question right, you should work on your penmanship, and get every question right in perfect, florid cursive. And if every form of competitive testing is already covered, you should try to finish first on top of everything else, too. I was determined to try, because I still flinch when I think of the nuns.

(to be continued, with a secret, I promise)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

So Me And Paul Newman Walk Into A State House

[If you just came in, I'm explaining how I raised my practically-free house six inches with little money and only a teenager to help. It's taking much longer to explain than it did to do the work. That's because a house weighs much less than my ego]

I was, at one time, a general contractor.

They don't call it that, officially, back in Massholechusetts where I earned the credential. You're a "Construction Supervisor." I understand they have differing degrees of construction supervision licenses, but I've never met anyone with anything but the "unrestricted" version, me included. I was licensed to pull a building permit for -- and bang the nails into -- anything from a doghouse to a skyscraper. Whoopty.

I want to share with you, my dear readers, a secret. It's a secret that might do you some good. It's a secret that might make you rethink my approach to living in a house that cost less than a Corolla, and perhaps even give it a go yourself. In the story of the license lies the secret.

I didn't technically need the credential at the time. I thought it would be handy to have. I was rehabbing people's domiciles, and a lot of times a building permit was required, but I was always working for the owner of the house, and the owner of a house can apply for a permit on their own, and hire someone whether they have a license or not. That's how it went for a long time. My expertise; their name on the line that is dotted. The process got unwieldy, so I decided to put a stop to it. I was only doing the work in the first place because the customers had tired of hiring a GC that knew squat and then hiring me to fix everything. They wanted to get rid of the middle man, and so did I, after a while. The middleman was always a rough framing carpenter.

I'm not sure what it's like now, but in the not-too-distant past, all general contractors were framers. It was the traditional way of life for them and the customers. Deal with a framer. The framer had the most to do with producing the house-y like form of the house, so at one time it seemed to make sense, but it really doesn't anymore. A general contractor used to employ all the subcontractors and build a house, soup to nuts. Now everyone, including the framing contractor, is just a subcontractor. The subcontractors have subcontractors at this point. There's no natural center in the general contracting onion anymore.

The framing contractor doesn't know anything about design, he just reads plans. He doesn't know anything about foundations, or plumbing, or electricity, or painting or any other finishes. HVAC is alchemy; masonry is a Dark Art. All he knows is cutting bird's mouths in rafter tails with a skilsaw, and how to get a sheet of plywood onto a roof in a ten-knot breeze. Those are important things to know, but it's only one or two legs of the housing centipede.

I did not come from the world of framing. I didn't even know who or what to see or do to get a license. There were courses offered at various Upstairs Stripmall Truckdriving and Mani-Pedi schools, but I had basically stopped attending school after I turned fifteen, so I wasn't about to submit to sitting at a glorified card table, under a flickering fluorescent tube, with a dull docent reading facts to me off a mimeographed sheet as an adult, either. Give me the book, and butt out, I thought.

Try to find that book. I dare you. This was before the Intertunnel was in high gear, so I had to call and go hither and yon, and no one knew nothing about nothing noplace. Bookstores would try to sell me one stupid International Building Code book after another, everyone else had bupkis. I finally asked a building inspector who was drunk in a bar I was playing music in. Pretty much every third drunk person in a bar is building inspector, anyway. Might as well get some use out of them. He told me I had to go to the State House to get one. It was the only way.

So I went to the same desk in the State House where Paul Newman asks for a phone book in The Verdict, except he's pretending he's in a hospital, and I'm pretending I'm in a bookstore. The person behind the counter was pretending to be working in both cases. Only a state worker in Massholechusetts can pretend you're not there, and avoid eye contact entirely, even though they aren't doing anything and there's only 24 inches of formica between you. It's an astonishing talent.

After they got bored of me, they asked me what I wanted like a forties detective asks a safecracker a question in the movies. I was expecting a hose if I lingered. They sent me away, to another room, to get another non-look from someone for a good long while. I was finally allowed to ask for what I wanted, and wordlessly, the State Senator's good for nothing brother in law, or whatever he was, left the room for two minutes on the clock. I didn't know whether he went to get what I wanted, or if he had decided that today he'd had enough of me, and everyone that reminded him of me, and had quit, and was never coming back, or what. I began to wonder if he was Godot, or I was.

He finally came back, and plopped six hundred pages of  shrink-wrapped drivel on the table, and said, "Fifty bucks." The pages were originally typed on a typewriter, then mimeographed, and then the mimeographs were photocopied, and then each copy was photocopied from the last copy, so I was looking at the Xerox version of The Telephone Game. You were supposed to figure out what it said back when Jack Hynes' secretary first typed the thing back in the depression. There was an enormous light blue three-ring binder that went with it, and he plopped that down next to it. I briefly considered asking why he didn't put the pages in the binder before he handed it out, but I was afraid he'd just say, "Fifty bucks" again, so I left and did it myself on Paul Newman's counter.

(to be continued)

Friday, November 15, 2013

I Think I'm Supposed To Pony Up Before And After Photos

Maybe it's just me, but perhaps instead of painting bizarre hedrons on the walls, maybe they should have opened that little door and noticed that rodents had eaten all the insulation off the wiring for that electric radiator, like I did

Ah, beloved of shelter shows, fave of DIY videos, the inamorata of second wives that just shooed the last disreputable contractor off their property after the granite countertop/laminate flooring/stainless steel appliance remuddling orgy was over in their snouthouse kitchen: Before and After Photos.

But I've already shown you before and after photos. You just weren't paying attention. It's not your fault. I'm weird and broke, so my After photos are really all During photos. There is nothing permanent in your house. Your house is a direction, or more accurately, it's one of two directions. Getting better or getting worse. There is no stasis in houses. Nothing is "modern," or "updated." Newly installed, maybe. But the hideous stuff you ripped out, usually barely a decade old, was all modern and updated when they put it in, too. What it really was, was a fad.

Fads rule in everything in American public life. There used to be fewer choices for everything you used or owned. There were only three TV channels when I was young, and yet people had a more varied outlook than they do now, even though basic cable has three hundred. Everyone had to have Corian counters when Clinton was President. Everyone had to have granite counters when Bush was President. Everyone wants repossessed granite countertops in Obama's second term, which is almost continuity, but my point stands. In two years every one will sniff at your granite and say quartz is where it's at, dahling, and you'll tear it all out again.

I didn't do anything in particular to my $25,000 house, though I'm always doing something. A Home Depot brochure didn't explode in there. I really only did one thing: I reversed its direction. The period before 1968 is shrouded in mystery, but I know pretty much what's been going on here since then. It was all bad. Everyone had their own version of  bad to visit on the sticks and bricks, but like most people, they were all human termites. They ate at the fabric of the house, and pooped in it. The poop of a human termite isn't sawdust. It's ceiling fans and wallpaper borders and sheets of paneling and dozens of tin barnacles on the window headers for curtain rods and shutters and shades and drapes and sheets of plastic and venetian blinds.  I began to suspect that this house has only had one direction since it was built, and then, in a moment of inspiration, looking at some substandard thing or another, I wondered if it was going down the shitter even before it was finished. Did the original occupants move in before it was completely built and start the cavalcade of entropy before the paint was even dry?

It's very likely. The house was built in a very unusual way for 1901. It's timber framed. The outside is standard-issue Queen Anne, with wrap-around porch, a curved and a turreted roof, a mix of siding textures, big windows, public rooms enfilade. But it's framed like a barn: big timbers socketed into one another, and not enough framing between them. I would have expected balloon framing, maybe, and there is some mixed in, but this house wasn't a palace, ever. It was for regular folks, or the just slightly better off than regular folks, and it was built by people that were used to having horses for customers. It's a testament to their innate good sense and the quality of even below-average building materials and methods from the turn of the twentieth century that the house is still standing after a century of people trying to wreck it.

When we moved here, I think I spent over two hundred dollars on window glass. Window glass is cheap. If I gave you a bag of baseballs and a half an hour, I doubt you could break two hundred dollars-worth of window glass. But when the direction of a house is south for a century, all sorts of tabs can be rung up. All I did was stop this Lusitania of linoleum and turn it around. I try not to make anything worse, and if my wife and I ever lay our hands on twenty-five dollars and thirty minutes, we can improve our lives in a demonstrable way, just by pushing the shingled rock up the entropy hill one more inch.

So here's a picture of our dreary living room, leading into our shabby dining room, just as we found it, replete with a moronic ceiling fan where a light should be, purchased with money that might have fixed -- oh, I don't know, a broken window-- in a room that faces north in a climate that has shown me twenty below zero in recent memory:

But you've all already seen the After, er, I mean During photo. It's a video, though. The Heir and The Spare are in it:

Remodel your house in the only meaningful way possible. Turn that ship around. Turn that frown upside down. Find a mate and have some kids and put some life back in your house. But Just between you and me, I'd skip the trombone. It's like brass bagpipes.

(You can see more Unorganized Hancock videos here. The drummer's only nine years old in that video. He's ten now, and a lot better. No, really)

 (to be continued)

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Praying For Anti-Freeze

Our bathroom, just as we found it. I think that's anti-freeze in the toilet. I mean, I pray that's anti-freeze in it.
I'm a fairly effective forensic carpenter.

There, I lied again. I'm a really good forensic carpenter. I've had as much experience with old homes as four Bob Vilas. I've also spent an inordinate amount of time reading about old homes, especially American versions of old homes, because I'm profoundly strange, so it's hard to spring anything new on me. I'm a little sketchy below the Waffle Hut/IHOP line, it's true. But then again, there wasn't much down there in the first place to miss out on. It took air conditioning to get people living down there in big numbers, and air conditioning for the masses is a recent development. And Sherman burned everything else down, anyway.

By "forensic carpentry," I mean that by taking a house apart, or better still, looking at the benighted surfaces visible to the naked eye after generations of neglect and visits to Home Despot, I can usually tell what used to be there, or at least make an educated guess at it. My current house in western Maine was really easy in this regard, and really hard at the same time. It was really easy to tell what the original roofing from 1901 was, because it was still on the roof. It wasn't doing anything rooflike up there on the roof, but I could look at it if I wanted to. The original service entry for the electricity was there, the original electrical wiring, flooring, door and window trim, window sashes -- where they weren't removed entirely and boarded up. Hell, when I repaired the central stairwell and upstairs hallway, every single layer of wallpaper going back to William McKinley was still on the wall. The original was beautiful. It was a rich green, flecked with a bronze-y tone in metallic ink. The layer over it was a less fine but still nice 1940's block print in a sort of classical revival motif. There was a fifties chinoiserie attempt on there after that --not bad. There were two or three more layers of meh. The room got bigger just by removing the wallpaper.

Three of the bedroom ceilings still displayed their original coatings on the ceiling, two of the three completely untouched, the third on patchwork display after sleeping under a 1970s attempt to put textured paint over calsomine. Calsomine paint -- isn't. It isn't paint. It's paste, like something Tom Sawyer would con you into painting Aunt Polly's fence with. People tried painting over calsomine paint for decades back in the day, and it would peel forevermore, because it's essentially a coat of chalk, and everyone got disgusted with trying, some putting in asbestos tiles, others drop ceilings, desperately trying to keep the lead paint chips out of their Wheaties. That usually worked until they were able to solve the problem once and for all by burning their house to the ground. They often accomplished this by plugging in their leg lamp and their Christmas tree at the same time, using that socket that already had the radio, four other lamps, and an extension cord for a toaster in the next room. The lamp was a major award, so you just had to plug it in. It wasn't their fault.

Just because I've been tasked with (unsuccessfully) repairing calsomine ceilings a couple hundred times in the past, doesn't mean I was ready to see one essentially fresh off the brush. It wasn't like unearthing a triceratops skull -- it was like finding an actual triceratops rummaging through your trash cans. It was like a wonder to me. The ceiling in what's now my older son's room, the nicest room in the house, was a lovely canary yellow color. In the Spare Heir's room the ceiling was a delicate robin's egg blue. The decrepit room where the kids play music had a yellow ceiling too, slowly exposing itself like a hobo in the library as the crust of pointless attempts to cover it up sloughs off.

All the woodwork in the public rooms is oak. Big, blocky, oak. Barbarous oak. Ropy, solid, Arts and Crafts oak. Like so many houses built early in the twentieth century, it straddled the line between Victorian and Arts and Crafts. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are like that, or were, before the owners decided they'd prefer to straddle the line between Home Depot and Lowe's instead. My neighbor across the street lives in a four-square house that would look at home in the midwest, if it wasn't half taken with old Yankee Victorianism, too. He keeps his house in good repair, which is not easy. He's a hell of a guy, and a great neighbor.

He was born and raised here, and his father worked in the big mill that squats over the river in the center of town. He moved away, then came back and bought the family homestead. I told you you could buy any house in town any time you wanted to, but you didn't believe me. Anyway, wonder of wonders, he was poking around his house and found pictures of mine -- in 1968. Awesome!

Before you go off on a jag, making fun of me for living in an arctic wasteland, I'd like to double down and point out that these pictures are taken in Autumn, at least a month before Winter even  begins. Snerk. But there's my house, halfway between being built and having us infest it. My neighbor Rich pointed out everyone in the photo by name; they all still live around here. The dog is dead, though.

This is Rich's brother, standing on his lawn, looking down on ours. Rich still looks down on us, every which way, and with good reason. And to give you some of the local flavor, Maine in the sixties, let me point out that Rich's brother is casually holding a hatchet.

If you look at the first picture, you can see a catwalk with a railing that led to a screened-in kitchen entry at the back of the house, which was a 16 foot plunge to your death without a railing when we moved here. Don't worry, I instructed my children to play in the street, where it's safe, and stay out of the yard. We're devoted parents in such matters.

Look closer, and you'll see a Zenith sign on the front roof. A previous owner fixed and sold televisions and radios out of the basement here. I work down there now, and find evidence of his labors here and there from time to time. There's a basement under that basement, too, about the size of a two-car garage. The fellow had a nifty Dodge delivery van parked out front.

When I said the forensic carpentry was both easy and hard at the same time here, I told you all the easy stuff. Hell, nothing's easier than looking at pictures of it. Now the hard part: Everyone destroyed everything else. Ripped it out, tore it up. Sold it into slavery, I think. Hell, down in the basement basement (that's not a typo) they tried to burn it to a cinder to put me off the scent. There were at least five doors gone from the first floor alone, and I counted eleven (eleven!) windows that had been removed and boarded up. In the infinite wisdom of people who board up windows, all those windows faced South. They boarded them up because someone told them that windows leak heat, so they took out the ones facing the sun, their only hope of any real comfort in this climate, and installed ceiling fans in every room, figuring the heat must be in this house somewhere -- maybe it's up by the ceiling, refusing to cavort with us down on the floor.

We moved into the house without any central heat in it, and not even any decentralized heat for the first week. Trust me, if there was any heat in there, I would have found it.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm Fixing A Hole Where The Intertunnel Gets In

I fear I must go back to the beginning.

It wasn't my intention. I started writing about fixing the foundation I keep under my money pit in western Maine, because that's what I did this summer, but one thing led to another, and people got interested in the birth of the baby, even though I was trying to talk about junior high school, as it were. The public is demanding the bathwater, too.

I'm familiar with one thing leading to another. After all, I have two children. House purchases and babies often happen under the same kinds of circumstances. Bad lighting, slightly inebriated, running up tabs you really can't afford, being shown strange people's bedrooms, that sort of thing. Well, if it wasn't for bad judgment, I'd have no judgment at all, so why should a house be any different? We were supposed to live in Turner.

Turner's over an hour closer to, well, everything. We'd gone on Zillow and Google Earth and MLS night after night, looking for the cheapest nearly habitable place we could find. We thought we found it in Turner. I talked a few times with the realtor, and they were as helpful as realtors usually are: not helpful. They couldn't answer any important questions for me, because realtors don't know anything important about the properties they sell. Well, that's not entirely true. They often know very important things about the properties they sell. Those are invariably the things they're hiding from you, hoping to entice you into standing in the decrepit shack they're listing while they perform their Svengali perorations about its potential. Weave a tapestry of possibilities in the air that'll have you frisking yourself in no time, looking for your checkbook before that handyman that's interested in the property snatches it from under your nose.

Oh, I know that handyman. That guy gets around. I never learned his name, but he seemed to be interested in every property I was interested in Maine. No matter where I went -- Turner, Cornish, Peru, Livermore Falls, Norway, Rumford...

Anyway, that polymath handyman with the lead foot and the nose for diamonds in the rough was always one step ahead of us, ready to stuff our defeat into the jaws of his victory. He was very interested in Turner, I hear.

I had one request for the realtor on the phone, and by email, and then by the phone again, and by email. Go to the house. Stand outside. Take four photos: North, South, East, and West. Show them to me. That's it. I'd researched the house to a fare-thee-well already, knew every owner it had ever had, what the taxes were; hell, I even had the septic plan for it on my desk. Just take the the pictures, willya?

Well, that realtor must have been the most notable realtor since the Algonquin Century16 office did that handshake deal with the Dutch. She was always too busy to travel the 5000 yards from her office to the house and take the pictures. My, how busy some people get.

We drove the four hours to get there on a weekend. We had an appointment with the realtor at 10:00 AM, which I gather is considered 3AM on Christmas in realtor time. We decided to go early and drive by the house alone. It was a three-bedroom, end entry, Greek Revival farmhouse, with an attached ell and a barn attached to that. It looked like Dresden, 1944, but near a fire hydrant. And about fifteen feet from one side of it was another house, which appeared as if someone with the decorating chops of Ed Gein owned it, but rented it out. On the front porch, which was really just some crumbling concrete steps, was a man that looked like he had just cooked and eaten his entire family, and was still hungry. He was smoking a cigarette, standing outside in the snow -- in his socks.

My wife told me to keep driving, because my wife likes to tell me to do things I'm already doing. It's like a hobby with her.

We kept driving, following signs to one strange place after another, until we found the house we live in now, with a For Sale sign standing drunkenly on the lawn. We stopped and stood on the Queen Anne porch, and peered in the windows. The house looked like it had been picked up six inches and dropped. It had been decorated by someone that didn't like their customer, or human beings in general, very much. There was ice -- not frost; ice -- on the inside of the windows. We were looking as best we could into a triptych of windows in a bay, under a sort of turret, and my wife said, "That's where our Christmas tree will go."

The rest was conversation. We bought the house that winter, snatching it from under the very nose of that handyman, the dastard, but the For Sale sign stayed out front until June, because it was frozen solid into the ground. Now I'm the only thing that stands drunkenly on the lawn, and that's the way we like it.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Real Estate, Red In Tooth And Claw

What do you see out your kitchen window?

I'm a little slow on the uptake from time to time. Occasionally people mistake this form of aphasia for things right in front of my face as a kind of aplomb -- it isn't. To coin an aphorism by butchering Kipling quotes: If you seem to be keeping your head because you're a little dimwitted, while everyone else is smart enough to be losing theirs, they'll often put you in charge of that pack of panicking headless men, for all the wrong reasons, and then you'll be a man in a world of trouble, my son.

Anyhoo, I read the Instapundit most every day, but it wasn't until Sunday that I realized he's got comments on his webpage now. When did this happen? I didn't get the memo; someone must have forgotten to put a cover sheet on my TPS report again. Ah, well, comment sections have comment sections now, and there are aggregators of aggregators all over the place on the Intertunnels, so I guess it was inevitable.

After the Instapundit's latest link to this page, someone left an interesting comment. Well, it was interesting to me; I'll let you make up your own mind. Of course we're discussing my entry about buying my house for twenty-five grand, and then fixing it in a desultory and substandard way. Here's what Jack had to say about our little scheme to shiver and hit our thumbs with hammers in Maine:

Not to be a buzz kill, but that's not a $25,000 house. Sounds very much like is needs around $50,000 of work to make it livable (though less if completely DIY) and probably another $25,000 - $50,000 to make it "nice".

Could you. Please. Excuse me. For. A. Moment...

OK, I'm back. I bwah hah ha... ouch... snort... ouch... I went to the local hospital to get  an estimate to have my ribs glued and various organs stuffed back in where they belong, because I busted my gut over that. Jack, put your hand on your forehead and tell me if you're feverish. Check carefully, because if it's cool, you're nuts, and the co-pay for that is much higher.

It's not Jack's fault. It's wise to be a skeptic on the Intertunnel, otherwise you might end up with carbon taxes out the wazoo, or perhaps with fully immunized children. Can't believe everything you read. The world might not be run by lizard people. It prolly is, but there's a scant chance they're just regular jerks, not lizards.

It's also not Jack's fault that everyone's forgotten what a house is supposed to be, and what it's for, and what would make one more habitable than another. He says it's not a house until I dump a hundred gees or so into it. (Ow, ow, ow --snorting coffee out your nose with your ribs in disarray hurts like the dickens) So I disagree with Jack. It's ipso facto "a house" if my wife, two children, and I move into it and live in it. Because that's exactly what we did, a month or two after I took that picture. A house is shelter, first and foremost. Almost everything else is gravy, or more likely, beside the point altogether.

If I had a hundred grand...

Sorry, I passed out with pain and laughter again. Me, with a hundred grand to throw around in the foreseeable future? And then dumping it into this place? Just for a place to live?

Here's an experiment: Stuff that hundred grand we're going to need into an attache case. Don't worry about where we'll get it, I'll poop out the hundred grand later, out by the magic money tree in the back yard, after we re-elect Warren G. Harding and there's an economy again. Now take that attache case to any address in my town, ring the doorbell, stand there for an hour, realize that there hasn't been a working doorbell in Western Maine since Eisenhower, then knock. Any door. I guarantee you that every single person you encounter will take that case from you and walk right past you, leaving their steaming bowl of gruel on their kitchen table, and let you have their house. Hell, they'll give you their funeral parlor, or the library, or maybe the fire station for a hunny large. Most people in western Maine are leery of anything too good to be true, and would probably count out twenty-five thousand, hand it back to you, and run away laughing with what's left.

Housing here is red and tooth and claw. There are no Joneses to keep up with. People compare shotguns and four-wheelers, maybe, to see who's fly and who's a dork, but they don't know Martha Stewart from Jimmy Stewart. I knew that. I wanted that. I did a very detailed search for a liveable place that had real estate I'd be interested in that I could afford. That's what I got.

See, what didn't happen to me was this: no one got to my house before I did, and took $100,000, went to Home Depot, then destroyed this house with what they bought, and then tried to charge me for what they did. To me, everything the average person wants in and on their house nowadays is an abomination, or a waste of money, or both; and to make me pay for it on top of having to live with it is like charging more to use a public toilet because a hobo filled the bowl just before you showed up.  My house might be a toilet, but it's an empty toilet, by gad.

This house has been a nice place for us to live, although life here has been very challenging. We know that if  your life's too easy, you can end up sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber with a pet monkey and the Elephant Man's bones, breathing through a gelded nose, so we don't mind the privations as much as others might. They haven't done us any harm. My children sleep quietly and contentedly in their beds. There are four rooms on my ground floor that are sixteen feet square each, with nine foot ceilings. My office is big, has faceted walls filled with giant windows that look out on a greensward. Many of the windows in the house look out upon things a normal human would want to see, and let in sunshine and fresh air where I want it. What would I do to this house with a hundred grand? Buy granite counters, as gaudy as Liberace's Christmas tree, and place them atop Chinese kitchen cabinets made from equal parts sawdust, formaldehyde, and lead? Buy a jacuzzi? If I wanted to get in a shabby, flimsy fiberglass tub half full of water that goes WUB WUB WUB at flight-deck volume, I'd be a lobster fisherman. I don't want vinyl siding and plastic floors that look almost woodlike. I don't want a water heater that costs more than a car, which produces water ten degrees below hot, but saves enough energy in a year to heat my left foot for fifteen minutes on one day in October.

I wouldn't want to blow a hundred grand on this house even if I could. This is not the parable of the sour grapes. I'm fixing it, which costs a little money and a lot of effort, it's true, but when I'm done, someone will give me a hundred grand for it instead of the other way around. Let them put granite countertops in it. I'm with the people that built the house in the first place, and used the granite for the foundation, like a sensible person would. 

(to be continued)
What's a lupin worth?

Monday, November 11, 2013

Veterans Day

[Dave from the wrong coast, that faithful reader and generous contributor to my sons' musical education, asked me in the comments of yesterday's blogpost to rerun the rather widely-read essay that I wrote about my father, in honor of Veterans Day. I can refuse Dave nothing, sorta, but I know Dave well enough to figure he, and others, might rather hear about my father's sister instead. She's gone to her reward now, which better be a big one.]

For Dorothy

They load them on the plane roughly, it seems to me. But that is the end of it. They are rough men with tender hearts steeled against their task. Leave them to us, now.

The men with wounds that won't show later, except at the beach or to a lover, look sheepishly around them. Can you be ashamed to have all your parts? They look it. Their bandages are still pink, and they want to get up. Lie still. You've done nothing wrong.

I know many things about the inside of a man. I was trained to pull men whole from their mothers, like some Greek deity on a vase. They showed us the pictures in school of the parts meshing seamlessly, like a damp watch made by Einstein himself. When the doctors let us trail them around the hospital, finally, we saw the faces in the trim white beds whose watch ran a little fast, or slow, or made a bit of a whirring sound. What prepares you for the watch smashed, or plunged into the sea, or its hands pulled off? Nothing. The surgeons are in a hurry, always. I handed them the tools as they edit the men. They cannot write. It's as if they are trying to see just what a man can lose, and still be a human man.

There are the bottles and pills and blankets to be attended to. Then I sit next to the worst of them, mummies still alive, lost to sight and sound. There is nothing to do but put my hand on their arm. It is the hand of every mother and wife and daughter and girlfriend and nurse and stranger I wield. Of every human woman that ever walked and talked. I know their face is just a smear on the back of the bandages, and it's a long way to Okinawa. Let them feel our hand one more time.

[We also recommend you read our friend Gerard's remembrance of his namesake uncle today: The Name in the Stone]

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Got Very Little Foundation And A Case Of The Shingles

Of course the former owners put shingles all over the interior walls instead of the holes in the roof. Why do you ask?

Please forgive me, but sometimes I lie a little, or play dumb to tell a joke, or point over there and say "look" if you're watching your spoons too closely. But I'm not a bad person; I just act like one. I featured a video with a jolly fellow Mainer splitting granite into blocks to use for his house foundation on this site last week, and said I had a passing acquaintance with his Fred Flintstone foundation method. That's a version of fibbing. I know a lot about it.

I've seen, and had to monkey around with, more foundations made out of big, granite blocks, plain old granite boulders, and just plain rubble than you can shake a stick at, built by the low bidders of antiquity, most looking like they were organized by a government webmaster by the time I got a crack at them.  So there's something I learned a long time ago: If your foundation is assembled in any way, instead of mixed out of four or five ingredients and dumped in a form, your foundation sucks. And my current foundation is no exception to that rule. It sucks. Or it would, if it were still there.

The Granite State is just a short drive from here, and God and Nature didn't put those dotted lines on the maps, so granite is just as common as earthworms in the ground here in Maine as it is over the border. The men that built my house tried to cadge a benefit from a drawback, and assembled big, granite blocks into a foundation under my house, instead of having to haul away all that granite they encountered in the ground where they were digging my fourth-generation money pit in the first place. Strike one. Granite blocks seem really permanent, but they have to be joined together, and that sort of pointing requires maintenance. Strike Two. And late Victorian builders didn't like exposing the granite blocks above ground level, so they'd often put courses of bricks on top of the stone below for you to look at while you're gardening. Strike Three, looking. Bricks sitting on rocks make a foundation that wanders from where you put it.

Civilians see a brick wall and see permanence. But brick walls, especially old ones, actually can flex and move around quite a bit. The mortar they used to use to assemble all masonry was made with much more lime than we use now, and was much less rigid than what you buy at Home Despot nowadays. You could rake out the mortar and repoint it much easier than modern mortars will allow, and the walls will move around more easily without popping the mortar joints first. The old mortar also used to weather away more easily. In the basement, the one below the other basement, there's three feet of bricks atop four feet of stone, and at the foot of the whole assembly, there's a kind of sandy beachfront for about six inches along the wall. That's the sand from the mortar that's shuffled off its mortal coil, the brick wall, and fallen on the ground. On a sunny day, I can see through that brick wall here and there.

Well, in the back of the house, four storeys under the leaky roof, right next to the pavement  behind the house, where rainwater would splash and soak the bricks and spall the mortar out of the joints, the entire masonry wall that's supposed to hold up my house was entirely gone. It must have left a tablespoon at a time at first, then a brick here and a brick there for a decade or three, and then, eventually, there was nothing. I didn't bother inspecting what was walled up in there very closely before I bought the house, because why bother? I knew whatever it was wasn't any good.

That realization, that everything is bad, so no one's going to try to charge you much for it, is the most calming attitude one can have when looking for a house to purchase for no money. You regular people do it all backwards. You ask home inspectors to go look at your prospective two-bedroom ranch in the 'burbs, which costs a half-a-mil because it's only an hour and fifteen minutes from your cubicle job, and ask them to find something wrong with it. Me? I go to a closing at the credit union and dare the banker to find anything right with the house he's selling me. There was a realtor involved too, of course, who was from Central Casting for Realtors, and she tried wanly at first to wave her hands around in the house and inform us of all the possibilities the house had, and all its wonderful features, at least until I grunted and scowled a few times and then mentioned that every goddamned particle of this dump was bad and she should feel bad. We got on famously after that. She just unlocked the door and stood like a plastic plant in the corner the second time we went to look at the place. She did make one more cack-handed attempt at realty, a half-hearted effort to convice us that there was a "handyman" interested  in the place, so don't wait, act now, operators are standing by...

Lady, if you assembled a Prussian army regiment of Norm Abrams they couldn't get the front door to hang straight in this place. Stop telling me about imaginary people. If I wanted to hear about imaginary people I'd ask you about an honest congressman. Put a sock in it, tell the bank to knock 25 percent off the price before I come to my senses, and I'll consider it, and let us get back in the car where it's above zero, will you?

(to be continued)