Gutted

I was showing a friend pictures from our demolition. The friend’s friend had an op-ed she needed to share. One that bit.

“So, if you hate your house so much, why don’t you just buy a new one?”

Ouch! That throw away comment from a grinning stranger really did burn. It freezes, too.

I, in my shock at that unthinkable thought, objected. Too much, in retrospect, methinks. Too much because her unwelcome comment was based on her observation. Of the evidence. That I provided.

Looking at the photos of the bare and picked over bones of the edifice I had sworn to protect I thought, “What hath I wrought?”

The next day, I hesitated as I stepped onto the porch as part of my daily construction inspection. I gingerly inserted my key. I slowly opened the door. There was almost no floor to speak of–just a bunch of planks that forced me to leap from one to the next at the risk of falling through to the basement below.


And I’ve been stuck here. Right here. For two weeks I haven’t been able to move this post forward. Not able to skip past it. Because I can’t skip it. It has to be dealt with. I have to deal with it.

Usually, I have posts and pieces of posts trolling through my head–all of the time. I sit down and tap them out and hit publish. That’s how it works. Sure, there’s a bit more than that, but not the writer’s black hole I’ve had.

Usually, the hardest ones come out the fastest. Usually.

I’ve been stuck in the unusual.

I’ve reopened this page again and again. I’ve tweaked some words, moved a comma about and walked away. I’ve sat down with a brew in hand and a strict self-imposed deadline to put a bow on it. Three beers later, I successfully avoid any accomplishment. I’ll do it tomorrow. I don’t.

I’d walk into the house and take more photos. I’d look at the skeleton of the house, and see that the specimen is incomplete. Some of the bones are missing. No floor, not just exposed joists, but an entirely missing kitchen floor. No stairway to the second floor, the ladder carefully balanced over the canyon of the basement stairs.

The radiators were all piled up in the former toy room, like the mountains of blocks, legos and Hot Wheels from a recent past.

This week the siding was torn off. The chipped paint along the thin wooden boards were stacked in dumpster number six. Or are we up to seven boxcars of the house toted away? What could be left?

I didn’t know what gutting the house really meant.

GUT: to clean out. strip. decimate. ravage. ransack. disembowel. eviscerate. empty.

That was it. Empty.

I haven’t been able to come to terms with what I’m doing to the house. I started counting what was staying.

  1. The roof. (Which we replaced 8 years ago).
  2. The foundation. (Which is getting parged to shore it up.)
  3. Most of the original sheathing that was diagonally hung, keeping out the elements. (It’s being covered with some kind of new-fangled water impervious wood and then foam insulation and then new man-made siding.)
  4. Most of the original posts and joists. Many of which are being sistered with new, man-made materials.
  5. All of the woodwork and trim in the living and dining rooms. The fake fireplace mantels are STAYING!
  6. I saved the floors in the first two bedrooms, now known as the den and the office. (Over objections of some/one. I can’t let them all go.)

I’m looking at this list and the house that I swore to protect that I can’t recognize and I start hearing Obi-Wan telling Luke that Luke’s father is now more machine than man.

And then I get to thinking. And I feel better. Because in the end, Darth Vader was alright. He kept his soul.

Publish!

Windows and Opportunity

East wall of the house with the big windows in the dining room, the bay at the living room and the picture window on the front.

Our neighbors, on the next block, had their door removed. They had gone to work, and at 10 a.m., the cleaning lady came by to find the door with jam meticulously disengaged from the threshold and leaned against the brick wall, leaving a gaping entry. When they replaced that door–after reconstituting a bunch of laptops, TVs and a clarinet–they installed an insanely heavy duty door that would require an army of super Orcs to remove. It’s an illegal door in NYC.

This makes me feel incredibly lucky that nobody has kicked in our borderline decrepit front door, the lower-middle third punctuated by a fault line. Maybe the luck was boosted by a wild animal howling and snarling in a vicious baritone on the other side of the door. Nobody said The Beast didn’t do his job well.

Today we got to pick out door knobs and locks for a new door. Compared to our current non-descript brass pulls, the new rig is positively sexy. The door wasn’t in the original scope, but we really needed it.

The windows weren’t on my list either.

Actually I like these old windows. Almost all of them open, and almost as many stay open on their own. There are screens and storms for the hot and the cold. They are a little heavy and make a squeaky woosh sound on open and close. Sometimes I need to get leverage from above–like standing on a chair to push it closed. But only sometimes. And only on two or three of them. There are lots of windows. Oh, and did I tell you that none are standard sizes. Glorious. Custom windows. 

The Spouse was hot for new windows, though. I think it’s the Eagle Scout in him. You know. Camping and loving the earth and recycling and being energy smart. His Christmas is Earth Day.

I’m less jazzed. Camping to me is staying in a hotel without a closet door. You know, just hangers in a nook? And thin towels. 

New windows are so tight. They squeal versus swoosh. You work them along their hermetic guides to vacuum into an airless seal. They lock steadfastly in place with little plastic doodads. Keeps out the cold. Keeps out the heat. I get that that makes sense.

I’m not against energy efficiency, but I will NOT see these windows pay for themselves. Perhaps that’s not the point. The ancient siding is coming down. The outside of the windows are an unholy mess. New windows simply make sense. I can be good with that. 

[And mark this well, Loyal Reader. This is how scope creep happens, not with a bang but via the inevitable whisper of air held at bay by glass.]

Next, I need to learn about windows to make a choice. They have “features,” and not just finishes. You can tilt them so you can clean them. (I don’t do windows.) There are e-value and u-value. Casings. Sashes. Glazes. Rails. Latches. Layers.

I can have wooden windows. And I’m making an investment for decades. And, mostly, The Spouse will be so happy with them.

The design-build team is recommending different window vendors for the basement versus the upstairs. I’m ready to learn why at my Spring term accelerated Intro To Windows 101. I’ll let you know if anything is interesting.

End of Book I

The front yard and front porch. Stylized.

It is officially real. After pouring over the plans. After nitpicking the locations of each electrical outlet and switch by posting up in the hall and peering past what would be darkness but would be lighter because it will be like that.

After staring and staring and staring, again, at the simply white versus white cabinet paint and shuffling those samples along with the tile swatches–in this case white v. biscuit–from dining room to kitchen, from sunlight to cloudy day, to overhead fixture “on,” only to full-circle back to the original selection that was recommended by our guide. 

After sweating the doors that I couldn’t tell the difference between for an extra thousand dollars. After learning that paint selection comes at the very end. And, after kicking the decision about our floors down the road. 

After all that, we signed the contract. It was the contract and the drawings and the biggest check I ever wrote out myself, accompanied by a handshake to seal the deal all pulled close to my chest. To my center. 

It’s the big checkpoint in the game. We have reached a new, boss level, and there’s no going back. Unless we start a new game. But why would we? I like this player, and the progress is in the right direction. 

And, importantly, everyone is still breathing. Sounds like we should play on, player.  Boom shakalaka. 

The Vapors

The fireplace and hallway. See the peaceful Buddha

Sometimes I feel like it’s not just the house that is coming under fix-it.

On Friday, the contract proposal was announced by a flicker of blue on the right side of my screen. At that moment, I was reading about category management–because that’s actually a thing–and the quick slide in and out at the corner of my laptop almost escaped me.

Except not really. It was after 5 pm. To be fair, it was just barely. Like 5:04:21 pm or so. I was expecting the email. They said I’d get it by the end of the week. This firm is all about making commitments. I really like that about them.

The email was here and wasn’t going anywhere, so I followed a link to an HBR article about new-fangled procurement models. This is a joke in that I don’t know anything about old-fangled procurement models. I was studying.

The Spouse was on his ongoing work-about, in which he works for daze on end sans respite. But he does have running water. And coffee. It’s not the Outback. It’s The Mall.

My brain was twitching just behind my right eye. It wanted to open the email. It saw that glimpse of aqua and processed the letters to see that they were in the right place–like a partially completed crossword puzzle–to expose the name of our Project Manager.

Open. Open. Open.

The reptilian part of my brain was shutting down that idea. There would be nothing good exposed via that email. My internal crocodile knew that we had blown significanltly past our original scope. The number would be huge. To survive we should slither-swim by. With half-closed eyes. Our tails waving goodbye.

Open. Open. Open.

Enough croc-brain! I have the smelling salts in hand. I opened the email. And I sucked air. But I was still breathing.

The next few days I walked around with a new hallway, a new kitchen, a new bathroom, a new deck, a new den, a new office, a new staircase swirling around in my head. I really liked it.

I also turned the finances around and around and around. It seemed fair for the work. It’s still huge. Like a big rock wall in the desert. How to get to the other side? I couldn’t sleep.

I never can’t sleep.

Big decisions are so hard. What we can do can be different than what we should do. Capacity is as much about pushing limits as being within limits. I turned to Dad.

My dad hated debt. He didn’t want to have obligations hanging over him. He was adamant about keeping things in good repair. He’d replace a roof at year 14 of a 15 year lifespan. He mowed his lawn and shoveled his walk. He was responsible and sober.

As I walked to the subway, I wondered what my father would say about this big investment.  I began the budget analysis, and I heard his words. They were coming from behind my right ear, from the back of my head. It was about those shoes. He was speaking clearly.

In middle-school, I wanted a pair of shoes. They were white and had teardrop cutouts next to the buckles. They would be my first pair of high heels. Many girls at school were wearing these very shoes. At my behest, Dad drove me to Bakers Shoes. I tried on the desired pump. I walked up to him and asked him if he liked them. He said, “If you like them, buy them.”

If you like them, buy them.

Dang. I was feeling like Ray Kinsella from Field of Dreams hearing his daddy’s voice in the cornfield.

If you like them, buy them.

That was it. He was telling me to follow my heart. Not the money.

I wasn’t expecting that. Not at all.

I’m not saying that my dad actually gave me advice. I know that he’s been dead for nine years. I know that. That said, I think that he was telling me something.

I told you. This is not just about the house.

A First Dark Day

Note the contrasting flooring. The stairs are original and the landing is new. This was from my recon trip yesterday.

The report from the trades on trades day was fine. Of course, we found yet another thing that needed to be done that was outside of the initial scope.

There’s no question that we need a new front door. The report included an option to use the entire width of the door opening. The original door was a big one and it would be so sexy to power-up to the authentic entryway.

The Spouse was providing the report, since he was there.

They had discussions about electrical boxes and radiant heat underneath the tiled spaces. There was some confusion over my second story cork floor requirement. Somebody got a crazed idea that I wanted carpet upstairs. Nope. Nope. Nope. I truly hate carpeting. I liked cork for the warmth and soundproofing of carpet in a renewable and easy-to-sweep-dog-hair-out-of-corners form.

The floor guy was less sanguine about the main floor wood. The beat up planks that mean a lot to me. The ones that I love. The Spouse’s report included words about a lack of sub flooring, about the grooves getting untongued or something, noise about exposed nailheads and a few holes that were shortcuts to the basement. The Spouse also noted that our project manager was very worried about how I would react, since the floors needed to be replaced and he remembered my resolve that that wasn’t going to happen.

And I’m like, “Nope. Not happening. I am keeping the floor.” This was not a great part of the report. Nobody [that would be The Spouse since it was only the two of us in this discussion] said I was being stubborn or ridiculous, but I felt that those concepts were just barely stopped at the back of someone’s tongue.

I was feeling like The Spouse was always taking the side of the mens. Some kind of he-man club. That I was being patted on my little emotional head and was out of my element. Even though I am the logical one in our equation. I’m the one who pushes emotions aside to solve an issue. And this is an issue that I am sure can be resolved with engineering and tools and ingenuity.

That said, it’s true that maintaining the soul of the house, respecting and honoring the bones of this structure is my top requirement for this remodel. Number one. I wrote it down first, before new kitchen or second bathroom.

It was why I was [secretly] putting off this project. I’ve been worried that I might not make the right calls for the house. The house has embraced us and our madness. It’s known families before ours, too. It’s been the keeper of our secrets. The holder of our joys. The witness to our sorrows.  Our protector. We owe it our fealty. We need to protect it back, like the special vessel it is.

After a bit of tension, the report was finished with the decision hanging in the air like the smell of Elizabeth, N.J.  Next day I hit up the Google to arm myself with knowledge. I typed in searches like

  • replace or refinish old floors
  • salvaging heart pine flooring
  • stain or varnish

The links I clicked were things like Restoring Old Wood Floors to Their Former Glory or Can I Save My Hardwood Floor? or Refinish or Replace Wood Floor from Bob Vila’s Blog.

My research turned up the same types of challenges that the Spouse described–exposed nails, separated planks and balancing the volume of floor that needs to be replaced. I read time and time again, in article after post after discussion forum that old floors can last 100 years.

Gulp. Mine are 100 years old. While floors that have been well cared for could certainly last longer, it seemed that 100 years was a good run.

I was on my knees, with my hands running along the floor boards. I looked right inside those crumb filled gaps. I felt the nail heads with my fingertips. I laid my cheek on the rough floor. A surprising liquid welled in my eyes and dropped to wet the ancient surface.

Where the hell did that come from? I stood up and pushed my hair back behind my ears. I strode into the bathroom to wash my hands and found myself oddly agitated, pacing along a four foot path. What was I doing? If the floors have to go, maybe I shouldn’t even do this project.

I sat down at my 1917 built mahogany table that desperately needs to be refinished and pushed my coffee cup back and forth in front of me. I flipped the newspaper away from me and a sob escaped my throat. In the split of a second, The Beast bounded from his perch on the couch and I found his paws supporting his 85 pound body in my lap. He put his snout next to mine and lapped up the wet salt streaking my face. He wasn’t going to stop until I stopped. He really hates it when I’m sad.

I looked for solace from the floors in dining room. They hate it when I’m sad, too.

 

Overbite

Sight line From the living room through the dining room to the back door of the kitchen.

“What do you think about moving the door over a little?” He asked the question very gently. I guess I’d been pretty adamant about leaving things as built. Perhaps a notch or two above adamant. I think that’s why he just barely poked the bear.

I don’t know much about the history of architectural trends. I don’t know how homes were designed in 1915, what the fashion dictated. I do know that the window placement on the two sides of the center hall mirror each other. There are bays in the front rooms and twin trios of windows surrounded by the impressive frames in the middle rooms. The rooms themselves are not identical with an array of fireplaces, closets and some room transitions being archways versus doors.

I never noticed that the door between the dining room and kitchen was off center. I mean I knew, because of furniture placement, but I didn’t notice. The fact that there are non-standard nooks, bends or placements is part of the charm. Like the gap in Michael Strahan’s smile or Eva Mendes’ overbite, imperfections that are unique and memorable.

I’m obviously not a designer, trained in the beauty of symmetry. I’m not a mathematician seeking the beauty in a balanced equation. I’m not a quilter like my mother-in-law who made a coverlet that matched perfectly when folded. Although I can spy a double space in a sea of words, I sometimes forget how many scoops of coffee I put in the pot. I still add water and drink it. I’m okay with a little slop.

I had a very delightful colleague who would place four pens on her desk each morning. A red pen, a black pen, a green pen and a blue pen perfectly aligned, parallel to the edge of her desk, just above her blotter. She would remove the caps and carefully snap them to the top of the pens. Sometimes when I was meeting in her office, I would nonchalantly use one and return it haphazardly. She would reset it within about 45 seconds–even after she realized I was teasing her. She’d look up at me from above her glasses and underneath her curly bangs when she caught herself. We’d both laugh.

I don’t know where my pens are, and I have a lot of colors. I hang my kitchen utensils on any old empty hook. They don’t have a specific place to go. Sometimes I wear two different socks. My right eye is shaped a little different from my left eye. I’m randomly random.

I like things a little unbalanced–to have to solve a puzzle that may not have a neat solution.

The door stays off center. We won’t have a clear line to the back porch. I like that. That’s how the house was built. I’m centered by being a bit off-center, by imperfection.

So what makes an overbite a little cute?

Autonomy

A shot f some tile samples---black and white hexagon, if you must know--and a snippet from the kitchen drawings.

Dear Lord Jesus, please. Please help me. Please help me breathe. Because I think that I might have stopped. I’m not sure. And I’m worried that it might have been long enough to have killed some brain cells. You know, those cells that let you think. Like those ones that are responsible for decisions.

Like, do I like the tile pattern? Sure. It’s awesome. So how about it in the bathroom? No. It’s nice, but I was thinking of something simpler.

Like, you said storage was important so we have cabinets to the ceiling. But how will I get the platter from the ten-foot cabinet? Oh, there’s a ladder we can store in the toe kick. And it’s cool because we can have it so when you kick it slides out.

And, there I am, wondering, what the hell is a toe kick???  Oh. That.

But my guides are amazing. They are keen listeners and they are interpreters, too. They are accommodating and kind. They make me feel smart instead of stupid.

And then I’m home. Am I still stupid? I wonder if I’m like a baby who demands his way and feels a win because a wise adult pointed me in a direction that I thought was my own. That was what I wanted, wasn’t it? And I am content–like a thumb sucker with half closed eyes, aimlessly and with direction curling a lock of hair around my opposite index finger. Wait. Did I just shit myself?