Saturday, July 20, 2013

Now You Can Find TP, But Not T-Shirts

A while back, my sister approached me with a very important directive: under no circumstances were we to put the toilet-paper holder to the right of the toilet; it causes undue difficulty for right-handed people.  Additionally, dispensers placed directly across from the toilet can be problematic should the distance between the seat and the opposing wall be great enough to require anything more than a slight forward lean. Having never actually thought about the placement of toilet-paper holders in the house-- other than my distaste for free-standing holders placed beside the toilet-- I proceeded to visit both of our bathrooms, sat on the lids, and groped around to see which were the optimum placements for our specific set-up.

Turns out, my sister was not only correct, but will have to deal with the reality that neither of her directives were heeded. The toilet-paper holder upstairs can really only be placed to the right of the toilet, since there's no wall to the left, and the bath towels hanging directly across would make any roll underneath them humid--yuck. Downstairs, there's no wall on either side-- regardless of the fact that we wanted one, if you can recall that from a ways back-- so the opposite wall's the only choice, apart from a free-stander, which is out of the question. This is all to say, however, that after living in the house for three months now, and having working plumbing for several more, we now have mounted bathroom hardware!
Now you can actually dry your hands in our upstairs bathroom.
What you see when you sit on the toilet
in our upstairs bathroom.
What you see when you sit on the toilet
in our downstairs bathroom.
My bed, with my closet sitting
on top of it. :(
As an aside, holy crap is it bright in Isaac's room!  My mom complained about it last time they were over, but I didn't think anything of it. But on the second night in there, Isaac woke us up saying he couldn't sleep, and I had no idea what time it was-- judging by the light coming through the shades, I guessed it was about 5:30, but when I checked my phone, it was barely 3:15. That street lamp outside has some major power, and is positioned perfectly to make Isaac's room the Forest Glen equivalent of Times Square. (Maybe that's why all his guppies are dying? They've all got insomnia!) Needless to say, last night we moved the pile of clothes onto the closet floor and we all slept-- soundly-- in our own beds. Still, I worry that the brightness will somehow affect Isaac, even if he doesn't complain. I'm not worried about guests like my mom, because once the guest room is up and running, lack of light may be the problem, rather than overabundance. But black-out curtains might be in Isaac's future, unless we can somehow persuade the community to let us cover up the half of the light that points at our house.

The contractors have been at the house a few times this week, if you can believe it, and have supposedly put our house in compliance with twelve of the thirteen items that had caused us to fail our inspection the last time around. The one that's left I'll discuss in a moment, but I'll note that the reason I say they put us in compliance rather than "they fixed the stuff" is our closet work-around situation. The issue in there was that my closet system, which was installed back in April and represented a big, unusual splurge for me, did not leave enough clearance for the inspector's taste when it came to the ceiling lighting. So rather than rerouting the electric and tearing drywall up, the contractors wanted to tear out my closet. Abby called me at work, asking if I would be okay with the system's temporary removal, pending the inspection. I freaked out, since part of the draw for me was that a) the system was installed by the manufacturer, and b) it has a lifetime warranty. I didn't want anything the contractors did to void the warranty, so I called Closet America to see what the deal was. Apparently, they're okay with it, but anything broken during the process would not be covered. In other words, you break it, you buy it. I communicated this to Abby, telling her that they could take it apart as long as they took responsibility for any issues. Abby confided that she trusted Fernando, the guy who'd be doing the work, so it all went down on Tuesday. As a result, our entire closet was emptied onto our bed, and we slept in Isaac's room for two nights while the kids had sleepovers in Lola's room.

My closet, stripped naked of its accouterments.

So back to lucky #13: the foundation wall. When we last left off, we were in a weeks-long wait to get the new downstairs front wall approved, and were looking at a $4000 bill (and most definitely a fight over responsibility for that bill) to dig up our front yard for a day to show the inspector something he supposedly saw and forgot to record several months ago. This week, Mark told me there's an alternative: a third-party inspector who can approve the job by looking at the plans, figuring out where weaknesses would be that should be able to be detected even with finished walls and a filled-in front yard, and ensuring none of those weaknesses are present. All this for the bargain-basement price of about $2000. To me, this all sounds very fishy: some guy is allowed to okay a permit that some other guy can only approve once earth is moved, and all he has to do is knock around on some walls, and all we have to do is pay a fee about twenty times the price of normal?  If I were abroad, I would call the Embassy or Transparency International to get the 411 on this, but now? I just want this thing completed. I feel defeated. I don't want to do anything that would jeopardize our investment in this place, but jeez!  Meanwhile, we're steeling ourselves for what will inevitably be a brawl over the cost. But first things first: get the damn inspection!

So as it sits right now, we're potentially on track for a final inspection in the middle of next week, although I'll believe it only when the inspector physically enters the premises. But in the meantime, at least twelve-thirteenths of the requirements were completed, according to the contractors. And hey, we've got toilet-paper holders mounted on the wall now too-- and I'm totally willing to take the necessary flak from my sister.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Cabinet Marathon Complete

A year ago this week, I made my way to London for a month of working at the U.S. Embassy there during the Summer Olympics. Before I left, I made a couple of long, hard slogs on public transportation from the old house in Petworth up to the Home Depot in Aspen Hill to finalize plans for our kitchen cabinets, which required taking the Red Line to the end, then going on a bus that was labeled "Leisure World." All this, because supposedly so much was going to happen while we were abroad that it was imperative kitchen cabinets were designed and purchased before we left. Well here we are, a year later, and our kitchen cabinets have finally been completed. Yep, every cabinet is in, every door is correct, every door pull has been affixed, every appliance has been anchored, every gap has been filled. One huge box has been checked. And all it took was a year.

Not that we haven't had stuff in the cabinets since we moved in-- er, "started squatting"-- three months ago. But now, we don't have to use a paint-can opener to get peanut butter, we don't have to keep glasses away from the front of the dishwasher drawers in fear of it tipping too far forward and flinging them out, and we don't have a seemingly teeny-tiny microwave sitting in a big hole. It's done!

On Friday, before I left to pick up Abby and the kids in North Carolina-- which, incidentally, also included a long slog on a bus-- the installers came by and finished the last five items on the list.  What took so long, and who was to blame?  Honestly, at this point I don't care, but it was a mix of the installers' poor measurement, Home Depot's poor transcription, and our terrible luck with all things housing-related. But they arrived, I gave them the list, and I left. (Actually, they gave me a ride to the Metro, which was nice, considering I was late for work.) First up, they attached all of the drawer pulls and door handles, which was great because we had actually purchased them separately, and the company was under no obligation to do that; since there were so many problems, though, I think they overlooked the fact that we probably could have been charged for what they did. Next, they installed the shield that goes around the microwave, filling the gaps around the unit and centering it in the hole; again, we bought this separately, back in February. After that, they switched out the solid wood door mistakenly delivered back in April with the glass door we had paid for, so now the cabinets flanking the range match, and we can see our glassware like we wanted. Next came the dishwasher, which lurched forward every time we emptied it because it hadn't been attached to the cabinets next to it; now it is, and it stays in place like it should. Finally, the gap between the top of the fridge and the bottom of the liquor cabinet was filled; unfortunately, it was too small a space to allow for a taller cabinet, so the space is just wasted. (Actually, I bet we could have had the filler on top and brought the cabinet down a few inches, but that'd involve changes that are just not going to be made-- I should slap myself just for thinking about it!)

I trusted that the guys finished the job, and didn't call to make sure all was well, assuming if something went wrong that they'd give me a call. Went right from work to the bus to the Carolinas, only seeing the finished product last night when we got home. I had told Abby about how the contractors installed the storage room door, raised the range hood, and worked on the porch roof, and she knew I had painted (for 20 total hours!), but this was a surprise for her to see. I think she loved it, but could see she was a smidge disappointed because of the placement of some of the hardware. The installers had asked me where the hardware went on the doors and drawers before I left-- something I had never previously considered. I couldn't get a hold of my notoriously unreachable wife because she had lost her phone on the trip, and because I didn't have her mom's telephone number due to a quirk with my own phone's contact list. So it was executive decision time: for the drawers, I chose to center the handle above the inlay, because putting it inside the inlay might look too anal retentive-- too "me;" on the doors, I went with their recommendation to center the knobs between the inlay and the side, square with the top of the inlay. I think Abby may have wanted the hardware to be more cornered than centered, but what's done is done. (I also think it'll take a while to get used to how busy the cabinets look now, seeing as I've gotten used to hardware-less cabinets these last three months!)

New in this shot: Glass door to left of range hood,
filler above fridge, all the hardware
All said, our kitchen's not done. We still have to wait for our inspection, after which we can have the electric outlets on the backsplash moved, the backsplash itself cut down to a more manageable level, and the tiles that have been waiting so patiently in the foyer finally put up. After that, the part of the cabinetry that faces out the windows needs to be finished-- hopefully in white, so as to match the color of the cellular shades on the rest of that side of the house as seen from outside. Then? Then that's it. I think. Or rather, then maybe we'll have to start fixing things, like when they finish painting the Golden Gate Bridge and just start over at the other end. (Shoot me now.)

But in the meantime, I got to make a PBJ for myself this morning, and didn't have to use a construction implement to facilitate the simple act of opening a door. It will make all the "gourmet cooking" we plan to do in that room so much easier, that's for sure. As Martha Stewart might say, "That's a good thing." And as Paula Deen might say, "I like your white cabinets, y'all."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

White on White

With Abby and the kids in North Carolina for the week, I've been left to my own devices. And that means, in the last four days, I've made three trips to Home Depot, spent fourteen hours painting, and have somehow reinvigorated our contractors. Don't ask me how on that last one, because if I knew, I'd kick myself for not having done whatever it was a whole lot earlier.

Just like Adam Duritz of Counting Crows,
I have stepped into a fog where no one
notices the contrast of white on white.
First off, what I'm doing myself. Painting. And more painting. We have about three miles worth of trim in our house, and all of it is plain white-primed wood, just ready to be finished. No idea why it was put in prior to being painted, but I'm not about to pull it off piece by piece in order to make the painting process quicker, as my cousin Tim the contractor suggests. (Tim the out-of-state contractor, I might add; otherwise, he'd be Tim my contractor.)  I know pulling it off would speed up the painting process, but I have nowhere to do the actual painting once that happens-- no basement, no yard that isn't entirely mud (and would therefore likely force me to clean the trim after painting it), no workhorse things (isn't that what they're called?) to set up on the street outside. So for this project, it's the slog of alternating between a paintbrush and a mini-roller, laying on the ground and climbing ladders and choosing a shirt to ruin with paint-- my old, huge Albany tee, in this case.

The painting is satisfying up close, because I can see the paint going on wet, but frustrating from afar. That's because, after eight hours of painting on Saturday, I stepped back and saw pretty much no change at all. White paint replaced white primer. (At least all the furniture was moved away from the wall and my Albany shirt was sufficiently messed up, so I could prove to neighbors passing by that I had actually been doing something the whole day!) However, on day two, things changed. Only three hours of painting on Sunday left me with completed trim-- two coats-- throughout the entire upstairs. And since it's high-gloss, while you can't necessarily see the difference, you can feel it. Just run your hands across the door frame on the way to the kitchen, and instead of a blunt, matte surface, your hands are greeted with a smooth, cool surface that says "people might actually live here!"  Monday night I started downstairs, and after three hours I stopped, having completed a first coat in the bathroom and mud room-- that's it. Holy cow: whose idea was it to get trim?

This afternoon I'll have a choice: go back home and keep brush-painting the as-yet unpainted surfaces, or stop by Home Depot for a fourth time in five days to get a new roller so I can do the second coat. I tried the trick Abby told me about-- wrapping the roller in cellophane and sticking it in the fridge-- but rather than keeping it wet and usable, like the paintbrush, it just hardened the roller into a latexy rock.

"Now real people can use me!"
Well, while that excitement was forming in the refrigerator, something was actually happening just a 90-degree turn to the left. Yes, contractors were in our house, and they fixed the problem with the range hood-- namely, that it was positioned about nine inches above the range itself, so as to aid denizens of Munchkinland in their cooking travails, should they ever need to make use of our kitchen. In their defense-- the contractors', not the Munchkins'-- the range hood had been placed level to the bottom of the cabinets, so there was a pretty line from one side to the other. But then there was that whole pesky not-being-able-to-reach-the-back-burners issue to deal with. Rory called me at work, asked me a bunch of questions pertaining to the things on our list, and surprised me when he said he saw what I was talking about-- meaning he was actually at the house. His being sent out is probably a sign that I have pissed Mark off enough that he wants to shut me up, but I think that's a good sign. Especially since when Rory's on the scene, things get done.

It all probably emanated from my frustrated email last week.

Mark + Rory: What is going ON? No one has been here for at least ten days. Meanwhile, we're living in a construction zone, and people are downright laughing at us. We would be too-- this is beyond ridiculous. There is NO acceptable reason your guys were not here this week. NOT amused. We need action immediately on the items we emailed you with already three times. There are NO excuses. Gregory + Abby

I'm not usually an emphatic capitalizer, but come ON.  Actually, I bet it came from the fact that I copied Rory on the email, rather than just sending it to Mark; that's worked in the past, and I don't know why I had stopped doing it. Whatever reason, something was done yesterday, and a large piece of drywall was left on our front porch, so who knows what else they're planning for this week?

Other than painting and the stove, the only other movement on the house has been self-initiated. After seeing the constant influx of cricket spiders and regular spiders and fruit flies and now wasps inside and out, I made an executive decision to get us some pest management. Terminix came out and sprayed the place, and now there are clumps of dead little bugs in the corners of the bathroom that I have to sweep up every day. I was told to wait two weeks, then call for another round, at which point everything should be dead. The exterminator was amusing-- he started the appointment by telling us how he's pretty sure he and his friends used to get high in our house back when it was abandoned (then apologized if that offended us, which hopefully you know it wouldn't, especially since he's not the first to tell us he'd done that!), then told us our house had an inordinate number of bugs in it, finishing up by asking if he could grab a ziploc bag to take a few back to the office, since there was a specific bug-- teeny tiny white ones-- he'd never seen before. Always ones to be unusual, we are.

I also finished the row of bushes planted over the last two weekends by filling in the holes with nine bags -- 360 pounds -- of topsoil. The holes were the result of taking huge clumps of rock out of the bed. I guess I could have left 'em in there, but we want those bushes to grow, and I don't want rocks I left in the ground to be the reason all those bushes may get stunted. And as far as stunted bushes go, there's one issue I've been avoiding: our front yard.

They're gonna have to dig it up. And someone's gonna have to pay. A few weeks ago now, Mark was telling me that he was fighting the inspection issue with the county, because the inspector had looked at the retaining wall, regardless of their records. Rory concedes that he probably should have called to follow up with the inspector, who had been there to look only at the footer, but that he definitely had done the inspection. I didn't believe Mark 100%, but I do trust Rory. Thing is, Mark mentioned the inspection while noting he had explained to the inspector how it "would be unfair to have to charge the homeowner $4000 to re-dig."  No response from me, other than quiet bewilderment. So Rory mentions this time that they had feelers out to get quotes on the dig. So that sounds like they're at least trying to get the cost down... But I feel we shouldn't have to pay at all. It's not our fault, and although I'm now unconvinced that it's entirely the contractors' fault, it's not our fault. Similar to how I expect not to have to pay for the patching of two spots in the porch roof where recent downpours have revealed leaks, this was not a repair job-- it was a job from scratch, and we shouldn't have to pay to fix their mistakes.

But something tells me what I think ain't what's gonna happen. Sigh.

So for now, I'm gonna focus on painting enough that it looks like something was actually done when the fam gets back, and hoping the contractors do enough that it can be a decent surprise to both me when I get home from work every day and Abby on her return. Hey, stranger things have happened. Like, for instance, work restarting this week.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Easy Being Green

While we're waiting for our stalled inspection-- more about that later-- we've worked on making the place greener over the last week or so.  We started last Saturday with a trip out to Johnson's Nursery in Olney, where we bought "The Irenes" -- four three-foot arborvitae that we placed alongside the SE side of our house, under the kids' bedrooms, between the window banks.  This weekend, I hinted to Abby I wanted to finish the job, but she had been noncommittal to the various plants the Real Irene had showed us.  There was, for instance, a series of Japanese hollies that came in normal, dwarf, and giant varieties that we'd be able to plant in between The Irenes and, right away, have the look that everything was the same size-- given the fact that the side of the house is on a slant.  Or any number of other plants.  But nothing doing.  So I suggested we go back to Olney this weekend and revisit the decision.  Abby suggested we go to Merrifield Garden Center out near Tyson's, since she thought it was bigger and had better choices.  If it meant I got to buy plants, I was all about it-- plus, we have had really good luck with their stuff; W.C. Merrifields, one of our favorite plants from the backyard of our old house, was in their clearance section, and now he's so big that our tenant tried in vain to suggest that we trim him back this spring.  NEVER!

So we went off to Merrifield, and spent a good couple of hours browsing around.  After about 20 minutes, the kids decided they'd had enough-- after only about five, Lola was pulling her "I'm tired of walking" shtick. No, sorry Lola, you're related to Gregory and Abby, so you're gonna have to deal with walking.  So while Abby pondered and pondered, as she's apt to do, I took the kids over to play with the fountains and the koi pond.  After an hour or so, we headed back to see what Abby was up to, and found she had arranged six plants from side to side, smallest to the left, largest to the right, in a display of what she thought would be good on the side of the house.  They were really pretty, but all together they cost almost $400.  Plus, I really didn't think we'd have enough room for them all.  Sure, we do now, but when they grow, they'll totally bunch up, and not in a charming-garden kind of way, like we want eventually out front.  So we winnowed them down to four-- although I think only three were necessary-- and brought 'em home.

The area we have is 30 feet across, and 32-34 inches wide-- about the width of a sidewalk.  It's at a crazy slant so that at the far left there is a clearance of about two inches between the ground and the window sills, but at the far left there's almost five feet.  So clearly, there was math involved.  With The Irenes positioned at the ends and between the windows, we had ten feet between the first two, nine between the next two, and another ten between the last two; however, each Irene will get about four feet wide, so that left us with three spaces of six, five, and six feet in width.  Follow?

They say a picture's worth a thousand words?
Well, this one's worth at least a few paragraphs.
Three of the four bushes we bought are really cool.  Funny enough, we ended up buying two more arborvitae (although way different looking than the originals), and two differed cypresses.  The shortest of the three cool ones went in the middle of the left space, right under Isaac's bank of windows.  It's a Whipcord Arborvitae, and the only way I can describe it is by referencing Side Show Bob from The Simpsons.  It's only about a foot tall right now, but it's got dreadlocks, and will grow to about four feet tall at maturity.  I think this one will be called "Marley," for obvious reasons, but also because Lola has a friend named Marley, and it's better that than the crazy thing Isaac thought of in his stream-of-consciousness style of thought.  Next, in the middle, is a Rheingold Arborvitae, which is rounded, about two feet tall, and is colored bright green with a tinge of yellow/orange-- hence the name.  It's smack-dab in the center of the stretch, right where the wall between the kids' rooms is.  Hopefully, it'll grow big and bushy enough that it'll block the direct view of the kids' bed areas, although with the curtains in, that matters less.  Finally, on the right side in Lola's windows is my favorite-- the Curly Tops Cypress, which is blue like a spruce, really soft to the touch, and looks like a bush made of poodle hair.  It's really cool, and can supposedly grow 8-10 feet tall, which would be awesome.  Ideally, all of the bushes will grow high enough that the bottom halves of all the SE-facing windows will be obscured... but that won't be until the kids are probably in middle school at least!

Interestingly enough, while I'm not "that dad" at all, I had very much been considering buying plants with thorns to put under the windows.  For Abby's sake, it was to deter people from stealing our kids through their windows, but for my sake, it was to deter my kids from using their windows to sneak out an night when they're older.  That said, they could just walk over to the back door, and it'd be easier and probably quieter, so there goes that idea...  We had found an amazing plant called a Mock Orange Flying Dragon that would have been amazing for that reason-- it was all spindly with big thorns, but produced beautiful flowers and tiny inedible oranges year round-- but Abby didn't like how it looked in the winter, so that was nixed in favor of the other three-- all of which are perfectly soft and quiet to brush against.  Oh well.

New sidewalk, new bushes, new hose,
and lots of unearthed stones
(Oh, and the fourth tree-- the most expensive, and the smallest-- was a Tsukumo Dwarf Cypress that's about the size of a bowling ball, and grows in that shape.  I convinced Abby it didn't belong with the rest, with the hope that we could return it, but she liked it a lot, so right now it'd just in a planter until we can think of something else to do with it.)

I planted them all on Sunday afternoon, and was lucky enough to have a huge rainstorm about an hour later, so didn't have to water them.  The number of big rocks I pulled out of that yard is ridiculous-- the area under the Yew tree in that corner is strewn with unearthed stone right now-- and the topsoil is a patchwork of colors right now, from the orangey-brown clay that was there originally to the brownish-gray topsoil and the black nutrient-rich fertilizer I bought, plus some other stuff thrown in.  But it's there, and I love how it looks.  There's just something about planting stuff-- especially stuff that'll stay around for years-- that's so satisfying to me.  Now, if we can just get to that damn front yard.

So now for the front yard update.  Meaning: what the heck is going on with the inspection.  Get a load of the latest: You all know we're waiting for our Certificate of Occupancy inspection from the county, and that  while we failed 13 different things, the main issue was that there was no record of an inspection of our new foundation wall at the front of the house.  You may also know that Mark said he might have to re-dig the area in our front yard so as to show the inspector what the now-buried wall looks like, thus precluding us from doing anything in the front yard,  But what you don't know is that Mark more-than-alluded to the fact that it would cost us $4,000 to have that done.  Yes, for him to dig up the yard to show the inspector who he claims inspected a wall, but who claims he did not, more than a year ago, he wants to charge me, and that charge would be $4,000.  When I mentioned this to Abby the other day, she flipped out.  Honestly, although it would be so much easier for the county to "realize" they had inspected the wall after all, part of me wants them not to, just so I can see my mild-mannered wife go ballistic on whomever it is that broaches the subject of us paying for that dig.  Ballistic, I tells ya.  For now, the news is that Mark has petitioned for them to approve the wall without a dig, seeing as he had to have the footer under the wall inspected at the same time, and the county does have a record of us passing that.  While it would totally make sense that both things would have been done at the same time, I don't put it past our contractor to have bypassed the one because the other would be done easily enough later on.  (If you can't tell, they're no longer getting even a modicum of a benefit of the doubt from us.)

Our bathroom window and the resulting
post-shower leak.  Oh, and that white stone
to the left of it is positioned where the roof leaks.
Also, as I mentioned last time, we "won" a giveaway from Montgomery County for a free home-energy audit sponsored by the Maryland Historical Trust.  I guess ten historic homes from each county were selected from among all the applicants-- and we applied, thanks to a heads-up from Bonnie (thanks!)-- and we were one of those chosen.  Originally, we had been told they might bring a film crew along to record it for local TV, but that never happened, which is good, since our house is pretty much a disaster inside right now, with us still in squatter mode and all.  But the guy came late last week and ran his tests all over the house, and we're supposed to get a report back one of these days on what we can be doing better.  I can only imagine the exclamation points that will be all over the thing.  So hopefully we can get going on whatever recommendations they make, without having to rely on Servicez Unlimited to do the job.  As it is, we've been going back and forth with Mark for weeks now on our list of stuff to do.  It's taken about the last four days to get the same damn list to him, this time broken down between stuff they have to wait until after the inspection passes to do, and STUFF THEY CAN DO RIGHT FREAKING NOW!  One thing on that list: fix the leak in the porch ceiling that I noticed yesterday while I stood outside during a downpour and Lola ate her ice cream cone.  Oh, and the fact that when we take showers upstairs, water trickles out the windows and pools on the floor of the porch along the wall.  Great.

But hey, we've got bushes, right?