Tuesday, February 26, 2008


One of the things that we really struggle with, like many American families these days, is time. There never seems to be enough time to get everything done. I realize that this is part of the human condition, or at the very least a part of our culture.

There are still boxes all over the house; upstairs, downstairs and in the basement. We still haven't put away a lot of the stuff that we own and we are struggling to find the time to get ahead of the mess that we created for ourselves with all of the moving we did in the last three years. So, I try to pick small wins that I can step back and feel happy about. Its really the only way to take on what seems like an insurmountable task.

The downside to this is that when I tell people what I did over the weekend or last night, they look at me with an expression on their face that says, "That's all you did? It must have been a boring weekend." And I would agree, that hanging a picture, for example, does not seem like a huge accomplishment.

But let me elaborate. In a modern house, if you wanted to hang a picture and do it thoroughly, you might get a nail or two, a tape measure, a pencil, a stud finder and a level. You'd measure the spot, mark it with a pencil, maybe mess around a bit to find a stud, and then pound in the nail(s). Hang the picture, level it with the level, and you can go back to drinking your beer.

For me to hang a picture, first I have to find a picture rail hanger, like these. That involves either a trip to a framing place or an order online. Then I need to decide what to use to hang the picture. I chose copper wire, which meant a trip to the hardware store to pick up a spool of stranded copper wire. Then I need to make sure that there is something to attach the wire to on the back of picture. If I'm clever, I've thought of this ahead of time and picked up D rings at the hardware store when I got the copper wire. If I wasn't clever, I have to go BACK to the hardware store for D rings. **sigh**

Because the walls are plaster, there is no need to measure and pound nails (which is a time saver). First I attach the D rings to the back of the picture frame. Then I measure the copper wire, cut it and wrap it around the D rings. I grab a ladder or chair, hang the picture rail hanger on the picture rail, and then suspend the copper wire (and the picture) from the hanger.

Standing back, I notice that I've cut the copper wire too long, so I take the picture back down, undo the wire, cut it shorter and reattach. Now that the picture is the right height, I can level it. I take my trusty level, place it on top and level the picture.

Standing back in satisfaction, I look at the picture and think, "It looks crooked." So I check it again with the level and sure enough, it's level. So I stand back and look again. Frowning, I "straighten" it so it looks right. Measuring it with the level shows that it's...crooked. And then I finally get it.

The entire house is crooked.

Because the ceiling sags, if the picture is level, it looks crooked. My eye naturally compares the angle of the picture against the angle of the ceiling. I might as well throw away my level when hanging a picture. And all that was for just one picture.

We don't have much on our walls yet.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Informal Poll

Spring is approaching (although you wouldn't guess it from the snow) and we are still in the process of trying to line up our projects for the summer. We've got potential contractors identified for all of the major pieces of work, except for the gutters. Whether or not we employ them all next summer and to what extent will depend upon how high all the bids come in.

The two pieces that absolutely can't wait are the gutters and the roof. If necessary, everything else could probably wait another year or two, but so long as the the roof leaks and the gutters continue to channel water into the house and along the foundation, we are at risk of the house deteriorating into a very expensive hole.

Yesterday I spent an hour with Jon, our roofer, at his office. We talked about all styles of shingles - asphalt, cedar, slate, rubberized slate, copper, aluminum, zinc, steel and tile. We went into the warehouse to look at samples of various shingles. We looked at pictures of jobs they had done in other places. And we danced around the issue of prices.

I had already gotten a bid from him on fairly standard three tab asphalt shingles, along with the price to remove the existing cement asbestos shingles. I made it clear to him then, that I wanted nice looking but inexpensive shingles and he came back with three options. Stylistically none of them suited. We'll be trying to go for the historical tax credit again, and that means that we need to be sensitive to the historic look of the house.

I'd love to put diamond shaped, asbestos slate shingles back on the roof again as they are extremely durable and have a low health risk. With the scare of cancer caused by asbestos though, cement asbestos shingles haven't been made in at least 20 years. Finding them now would be expensive and not worth the hassle, cost or negative reaction when we sell the house (someday).

That means we certainly have a wide latitude in picking a material of shingle, and we can really just focus on the look and the cost. Everything from low cost asphalt shingles to high cost tiles are available. I asked Jon to give me a rough estimate for each of the major types of materials so that we can narrow in on where we want to be. He did show us a nice scalloped type of asphalt shingle out of France, which would be priced towards the lower end and it might do. They look a bit like the shingles you'd see on a gingerbread house. Even if we like them, the State historical society could say no. That doesn't mean that we can't put them on, but it does mean that they won't grant us a tax credit for the work. It's worth our time and the hassle to try and find something that appeases them and makes us happy too.

So all of this leads me to an informal poll question. I've looked around the web and talked to co-workers, and trying to get costs for doing any of this work is really hard. I'm not talking hard costs, I'm talking rough estimates. For anyone who has never done this before (like me), I don't have a clue what the cost is to re-wire a house, or re-do the plumbing, or get the masonry re-pointed, or put on a slate roof. I really had to do some head scratching when it came time to buy this house, because I had to know what it would cost to fix this house and add that to the purchase price. Only then would I know if we might be able to afford it.

The informal poll question is two-fold. Is it tacky to list the prices of some of these bids? Do you think it has any value considering how different requirements are for different jobs?

In the Midwest, people tend to be very conservative and tight lipped about their money. I've been other places where that's not the case, and I've talked to some people who talk about their home countries where everyone knew what everyone else was making. I've lost my sense of what's appropriate and what's not. What are your thoughts?

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Rest Easy mr bitterman

At times, writing a blog has been a very frustrating for me. I had kicked around the idea of writing a blog for a long time before we bought the House of 42 Doors, but I couldn't figure out what the blog should be about. I didn't think that my life was interesting enough to start a daily or weekly blog. I was afraid the whole affair would devolve into some form of "Dear Diary, today I had eggs and bacon for breakfast..." I also knew that the little muse in my head that controls writing is bipolar. At times she is maniacal with energy and wit, enough so that I feel jittery and edgy with communicative purpose. Other times, I'm pretty sure she has skipped town to go relax on a sun soaked beach in the South Pacific. At these times, it's not just my ability to write that is affected. I find it difficult to speak in anything other than two syllable words.

And Ms. Huis was doing a fabulous job of keeping people up to date with our lives via her blog or via e-mails. But she didn't cover everything I would have (we ARE two different people after all), and occasionally when my muse was busy applying a vice grip to my creative centers I would start a "posting" that I felt would be my inaugural post. For a long time, I kicked around the idea of a website where my alias was mr. bitterman. As mr. bitterman, I could rant on and on about the injustices of the world. mr. bitterman had opinions on everything. And I had hoped that as mr. bitterman, I could "hide" and actually write about those things that really made me angry. But I'm a computer guy and I know that anonymity is extremely difficult to preserve on the Internet. And I have a strong suspicion that the ability to remain anonymous on the Internet will continue to grow more and more difficult. That coupled with the fact that anything put on the Internet is likely to stay there for a very, very, very long time implies an unknown future impact.

The problem with blogs is that they aren't truly anonymous. All of our friends and family know about this blog and everyone from my boss to my mother-in-law could be reading this. That was one of the advantages of using the House of 42 Doors as a topic. It allows me to focus on one thing and stay out of those things that you don't talk about in polite company, namely sex, politics and religion.

When I went back to Ireland in January, some of my co-workers there mentioned that they had read the blog. I couldn't remember giving the web address to any of them but I must have because they all seemed to know about the House of 42 Doors. Reading a blog does give a certain voyeuristic thrill. But beyond that, I know that some of them had hoped that this blog would give them my "true" thoughts on my time in Ireland and my thoughts on them. I hope they weren't too disappointed when I didn't comment on any of these things.

So what's the point of this post? Well, mr bitterman is trying like hell to get out and rant. I'm hoping that this will satisfy him. If not, be sure to dig around the dusty corners of the Internet. You may find him lurking somewhere. :)

Monday, February 18, 2008

More Snow

It snowed over the weekend...and snowed...and snowed. I woke up yesterday to the pitter patter of tiny ice pellets hitting the window. I'd slept through the worst part of the storm, about a half inch or inch of freezing rain that coated everything. After that came almost nine inches of snow.

Snow is bad enough, but freezing rain is the absolute worst. It breaks branches off trees, brings down power lines and makes the roads really slippery. It clogs up my failing gutters. And if it really rains hard, it floods my basement.

We've gotten a lot of snow this year. I didn't realize how much until I saw an article in the local newspaper saying that we were officially in the third snowiest winter ever recorded for the area. And we are only three inches away from the all time record, set in in the winter of 1958-59.

I wish that the poor weather had held off one more year. The house is not in good shape to deal with it. We will be replacing the roof and the gutters next summer, and if the weather could have just held off one more year, the house would be in a much better position to deal with it. We've noticed some leaks in the attic and I'll be heading up there tonight with a flashlight to make sure that there are not torrents up there. We've become resigned to keeping buckets up there.

We also went out on Saturday and found a really cool store. We stopped into a place called The Olive Cellar. Generally I'm not a big olive fan. But there are a few kinds that I really do like, and it's not the crummy green ones with little red pimentos stuffed in them. So I was excited to see a store that might carry a wider selection of olives, maybe somebody who supplies the olive bars at the more upscale grocery stores.

I was extremely surprised when we walked in and there was not an olive to be seen anywhere in the place. Just lots and lots of two foot high, stainless steel urns. They looked a bit like coffee urns and there were probably around fifty of them. Each had a little spigot and small ounce or half ounce plastic sample cups, like the ones that liquor stores hand out with samples of wine. It turns out that the place sold olive oil and vinegar. That was their focus.

They had olive oils from all over the world, including Italy, Greece, Spain, and Australia. They had olive oils infused with basil or garlic or porcini mushrooms. They had spicy olive oils and mild olive oils. It boggled my mind. And then there were all the vinegars - pear vinegar, white vinegars, pomegranate vinegar, fig vinegar and so on.

And they encouraged you to taste the vinegars and the olive oils with little sample cups. We were there late in the day, so we couldn't stay long because the girls hadn't had a nap, so we cut or stay short and bought a bottle of their number one selling olive oil (garlic infused) and their number one vinegar (18 year balsamic vinegar). The vinegar is up there with fine scotches. It is unbelievable - tangy and sweet. Worth every penny. That night we went home and had homemade bread with olive oil, salt, pepper and balsamic vinegar. I'm smiling just thinking about it.

The Olive Cellar is the kind of place where Ms. Huis and I took sample sips of things, looked at each other and said, "This would be perfect with that strawberry orange desert." or "This would be perfect with the pasta dish that has those mushrooms." Absolutely divine.

I hope the place stays in business. It's a fabulous resource. Take a look if you get time.

Oh, and guess what the weather is doing right now? Yup, it's snowing. Today may be the day we break the record.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Angry? Try This

Sometimes when I've had a bad day and people are doing things that really make me angry, I find it useful to do the following exercise.

I imagine that I'm sitting in an interview room in a police station and a very angry detective is shouting at me. He asks me why I murdered the person I'm mad at. What possibly could have driven me over the edge?

And I reply,

"He told me my documentation was incomplete and I had to rewrite it."
"He won't use schema names in his database coding."
"She crashed the server."
or even
"She left the butter out, again."

The whole situation seems so ludicrous that I just have to smile. I also find that saying the word "monkey" in place of any swear words that come to mind adds some levity to the situation (and it keeps me from swearing).

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Saturday saw another inch or two of snow fall on the House of 42 Doors. We are getting a very proper winter this year, which is not at all what I expected. In an effort to continue my emphasis on productive exercise, I decided to slip outside first thing and shovel the driveway and sidewalk by hand. Good for me and good for the environment.

All of this led to a pleasant and amusing conversation with my neighbor Joe, who happened to be using a snowblower to blow out his driveway. I think the story highlights clearly what sort of things can happen in an old house.

The first owner of our house, William, had several children, including Edward and William, jr. Edward ended up inheriting the House of 42 Doors from his father, but William jr acquired the land next to our house and built a very cute brick house stylistically similar to ours. I'm dying to get inside and see it.

I'm not sure how old that house is, but I'd guess it's from the 20's or 30's. Joe and I got to talking about electrical wiring, since we're almost done with ours. Like our house, they have a brick fireplace in the house and they opted to put in a wood burning fireplace insert. This included putting in a steel liner down the entire length of the chimney to provide air intake and venting. If you are not familiar with these wood inserts, they fit inside of the fireplace opening, are fully enclosed and often have an electric blower to capture the heat and blow it out into the room. They are usually highly efficient, very good at heating a space and generally a good investment.

After installation, Joe went to plug in the blower and as soon as he did so, he heard "Bang!" and he blew a fuse. He reset the fuse, tried again, and same result. After a few false starts with the fireplace installation guys, he finally called an electrician who found the problem.

Sometime in the past, a previous owner installed a bathroom fan in his house. This vented out a steel tube, which fed into the chimney and then out. Not happy with his heating bill, Joe asked a contractor "friend" to blow insulation into his attic. So this friend crawled up into the wooden rafters to blow insulation and saw an somewhat rickety, unsupported steel tube stretching from above the bathroom over to the chimney. Fortunately, there were bare wires in the attic that he was able to use to support the bathroom steel venting tube.

That's right. He used bare wires in the attic and wrapped them around the steel exhaust tube to support it. If you haven't guessed by now, those were live, knob and tube, electrical wires. It's only by the Grace of God and wood rafters that the "friend" wasn't electrocuted on the spot. So, not realizing what he'd done, he insulated the attic and went on his merry way.

As Joe said, they were very lucky. Nothing ever happened to them over the years while changing light bulbs, standing in water, showering, etc. This disaster wasn't found until the metal insert in the fireplace made contact with the metal bathroom venting and then the blower was plugged in. This caused the short, which blew the circuit.

It's a good lesson to learn. You need to watch all contractors carefully. They know their specialty, but that's it. And sometimes "friends", while meaning well, aren't necessarily the best option.

I certainly learned this lesson with our plumber. He did a great job with the plumbing, but that's it. He doesn't know anything about concrete work and next time I'd certainly do a better job of watching his excavator.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Who needs a treadmill?!

I know Mr. Kluges mentioned it before, but here's a photo of his exercise plan!

Go, honey! Build those biceps! :)

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Vagaries of Word Choice

Most people know that different English speaking countries use different words to represent the same thing. A lot of these we're familiar with, thanks to TV and radio, such as flat (apartment), boot (trunk), bonnet (hood) or lift (elevator). When visiting overseas, these are jarring initially and they stand out in everyday conversation. Then there are those that seem just plain wrong.

All my life, I've always envisioned things. Envision a better life, a better plan, a brighter tomorrow. And that word makes sense as it's based off of vision (to see). In Ireland, I thought I heard this too, but after time, by listening a little more carefully, I started to hear envisage, and then when I saw it in writing, I knew that this was indeed what they were using. Now this just didn't make sense to me, especially since the root word was visage (face). So the question is have you (as an American, Irish can't weigh in here) ever heard the heard envisage and seen it used interchangeable with envision? Are they synonyms?

Another one I'd never heard before was bespoke. I had to look that one up. And when did testing become vetting? The strange thing about vetting was that I started to hear it over here AFTER I'd left Ireland. Is the term invading?

(I know this posting has nothing to do with the house, but I had a lot of ideas rolling around in my head after my two week trip back to Ireland, and this blog is probably the best way to get them cleared out. Otherwise they rattle around up there and the noise it makes is embarrassing.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Question #1

Why is it that the soundest sleep a person gets in a night is the 30 to 45 minutes after the alarm goes off? Or just as bad, the ten minutes before the alarm goes off? I'm starting to think that I should set my alarm for an hour before I really want to get up. That way, I can shut it off, go back to bed, get an hour of divine sleep, and wake up refreshed.

I'll let you know how I get on.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Back In Town

Well, it's been a long hiatus from the blog, and I've gotten out of the habit. There are a lot of ideas rolling around in my head, and not all of them are related to the house.

During my trip overseas, I found out that there are several people reading the blog who I didn't know about. Most of them mentioned that they couldn't wait to see what I really thought of Ireland and the people there. I'm sure they were disappointed to instead be treated to a blog about catching mice.

To that point, sometime between my last post and the time I got home, Ms. Huis caught mouse 43. I'm hoping that these guys are coming out either because it was so cold that they had to move around, or because they ran out of food and had to go looking. I've been all around the basement with Great Stuff foam, steel wool and insulation, trying to plug all the holes I can find, and there have been a lot of them. I'm hopeful that this and the mason next summer will finally close up the mouse highway into our house. I also think it's funny that there have been no more mice since I came back. Guess they know they are doomed. Hah!

We had our first clogged drain this week too. In our only bathroom. Not much of a story there, as a container of Drano seems to have fixed the problem. considering that almost everything in the house turns into a bit of fiasco, it cheers me up to report when something behaves as expected. The Drano did not melt through our pipes, nor did noxious fumes cause the paint to peel off, nor did the clog get worse. It just worked. Amazing.

Although I do feel duty bound to report that the paint in our bathroom is peeling off, just not due to the Drano. Long time readers of the blog will remember that our entire house has a base layer of calcimine paint and that as moisture is applied, the oil or latex paint on top of it often fails. I don't think there is a single room in the house more humid than a bathroom. We did opt to get a fan put in by the electrician, but we are still losing paint. To be honest, I'm not too bothered. we'll get to it, eventually. I'm still more worried about the roof and the gutters.