Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Blog Life Meets Real Life

One of the neatest things about publishing a weblog is getting to know people whose blogs you read and who read yours. Generally that acquaintance is sustained in cyberspace and that can be good in its way. But sometimes you get the chance to meet face to face, and that's best of all.

That happened for me this evening, when I was visited by Elaine and Dylan of Bless This DIY Mess and The Old House Web. They're fellow Pittsburgh area housebloggers (actually, they're Pittsburgh housebloggers; I'm the one who lives into the "area"), but we'd never met till now. This was one of those occasions when good things come out of not-so-good events like major surgery, for when Elaine found out I was going to be activity-restricted post-op, she promised to bring me her killer Mediterranean tuna noodle casserole. And tonight was the night!

I admit that she and Dylan might have gotten back to Pittsburgh earlier were my recovery not going so well . . . I had the energy, and a totally opportunistic lack of shame, to give them the ten-dollar tour of my own DIY mess. But it was irresistible to talk to a couple who know just what you're dealing with in renovating your house. Woodwork stripping techniques, the struggle to get the right color of stain when refinishing, second thoughts and redos of paint colors, dealing with uneven walls and floors, and all the other joys of working on an older house.

And really, guys, now that you've seen the Sow's Ear, I want to return the favour. Whenever it suits us all I'll make the drive down and feast my eyes on that gorgeous stripped and soon-to-be-reshellacked staircase of yours, the exciting glowing tin ceiling above it, and all the rest of your hard work.

Tonight, though, it was fun to have my transplanted black and white soapstone Victorian mantelpiece admired (as if I were the one who'd put it in, oh yeah!) and delightful to have my little town of Beaver appreciated. True, the neighborhood showed to special advantage this evening, with the neighborhood kids making a playground of half the lawns on the block as they ran around in the brilliant warm weather.

Elaine's cooking showed to advantage, too, when I dug into the reheated casserole after she and Dylan took off home. Tuna and noodles and red sweet peppers and antichokes, yum! My dog enjoyed it, too . . . the outer corner of it, as we were outside saying goodbye-- oops! And it was hard to keep the cats out of my plate: they know good as well.

So thanks, yinz guys. I had two big helpings with a bottle of Hornsby's hard cider. And in appreciation of your appreciation of my town and neighborhood, I took the rest of the bottle over and joined the next-door neighbors at the neighbors' on the corner. Sitting on their porch talking, we hung out and watched the kids play, till the full moon had risen high over the bluffs of the Ohio, the light of day was gone, and it was time to go in.

And to happily contemplate future meals of tuna casserole and how I hope my place will look next time fellow housebloggers come by.

Monday, May 24, 2010


I'm getting better post-op, I really am. I've been feeling well enough that, once equipped with a stool to sit on and a collapsible stand to set my music folder on, I've been able to sing in all five of the spring concerts given by the community choir I'm in.

But I'm still not allowed to do really useful things around the house. Like run the vacuum. Or sand the floor. Or use the lawnmower. I have nice people who will, from time to time, come round and do 1) and 3) for me. But I hate having to wait for that. It frustrates me to see the lawn go a week past the time it needs to be cut. It distresses me even more when I come home, as I did last evening, and find my yard has been scalped. Oh, I hope we're not headed for a hot spell, or those patches of grass are gone.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised if my neighbor hasn't quite got the hang of adjusting the level of my lawnmower. Or that she doesn't understand that grass as high as mine should be cut at maximum height all over. At least she took the initiative and got it done, right?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I need to be grateful. And I am. Really.

But I can hardly wait for my six-week check-up a week from this coming Wednesday. That's when I can get cleared for regular activity. After that, I can get out there and do all this myself.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Party Time

It's festival time in my side of Beaver, Pennsylvania.

Which is to say, it's the evening before the borough's annual Large Item Pickup Day. Up and down the blocks, homeowners are bringing their discards out to the curbs, and up and down the streets wend the cars and the trucks (some with trailers), their drivers on the lookout for something great to snatch up. Up and down the sidewalks stroll the neighbors, giving sidelong looks to one another's junk, and, ever so casually, pulling out the pieces they like and making off home.

It's a hoot. I have to think that the borough trash haulers get maybe half of what is put out. The rest of it is taken by other people and reused, repurposed, and recycled.

Last year I found and rescued a wooden screen door that, with a little work, will do nicely for the back of the house. This year, I spotted some rustic-built drawers that would have made fine outdoor planter boxes and some glass shelves, one of which might have done to replace the one my kittens broke in the bedroom . . . but alas, I am not allowed to lift things that heavy and I had to let them go.

My own curbsite deposit was a disappointment to the eager recyclers. There was the box of broken plaster from my 3rd floor Study ceiling. The neighboring teenager who is helping with my dog offered to take it out to the curb for me. As long as I was getting rid of things, I gave his family the air conditioner my POs had in the Study window when I moved in; I'd thought of advertising it on CraigsList but they've been doing me such a big favor with the pets it was right I should let them have it for free. The kid had to call a friend to get the AC up to his room, and when they were done, they came back for my junk.

Anything besides the box of plaster? Yes . . . much as it breaks my heart, I asked them to take the worm-eaten rustic hickory garden seat to the curb for me.

I had such hopes for that seat! It was going to be my perch in my little oasis in the back corner of my kitchen garden, from whence I'd admire my garden when everything was done. Nobody mentioned, when I bought it five or so years ago, that the maker had failed to treat the wood and it'd start falling to pieces in a season or two.

I moved it away from the garden corner a couple of years ago, because its back was keeping light from getting to the sand cherry that I'd planted behind it. The sand cherry was moved, and died, and was replaced by a hydrangea. Don't know if I thought I'd repair the seat and put it back once the hydrangea got big enough, but the rot got ahead of me.

Then last night, the bench back gave my senior cat just the boost she needed to jump up to the top of the fence. She was crouched on the neighbors' side, on the top rail, and contemplating jumping off into their yard, when I caught her at it. Their gate was shut, and I suppose I could let her jump and waiting till they got home to get her back: she couldn't go anywhere, after all. But I panicked and picked her up. Which I shouldn't've done, since she weighs over ten pounds. Ouch, Wennie, dammit, you're heavy! Ouch, I hurt!

Taking things all together, I told the boys this evening, yeah, the rustic seat can go, too.

And judging from the way it fell apart when they were carrying it through the yard, it was time and past time. I wonder how much of it the trash haulers will take. It looked like garden waste by the time the kids got it to the curb.

Unless somebody needed some firewood?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Worth the Effort

Considering that my stoopy tumor turned out to be a Stage 1C, Grade 1 ovarian cancer, and considering that it was 1c instead of 1A only because it ruptured during surgery, there certainly is a little voice in me that questions whether it would have made a difference had I been able to get it all out on March 25th as originally planned.

But accepting that the bad cold I got prevented that, I have to be glad for the four additional weeks I had to do things and get ready before I went in.

Like getting my hollies planted. I am so grateful that I made the effort to get those rocks out and get that job done.

Here's some pictures taken today:

See that? That's berries. Meaning that the clerk at Lowe's was right: It was okay for me to plant two female Blue Angel hollies on my property, provided there was some kind of male holly bush within a block. I don't know the paternity of these green offspring, but there they are!

The second bush that didn't come through the winter as well is nowhere close to catching up to its sister, but it sports new growth and berries, too.

In other garden news, all the roses have buds on them and in a week or two I should have blooms.

The white lilac I transplanted two autumns ago is very happy in its new position on the east side of the house and promises to present an abundant display of blossom pretty soon.

The year-and-a-half-old blackberry bush is running riot in the east back garden border. It looks like I should have berries (yum!)-- if the birds don't get to them first.

The kerrias are the best they've been so far, and the bearded irises and the clematis lift up their heads for joy.

It's really chilly here in southwestern Pennsylvania today, in the 40s and 50s, and they say it'll get below freezing tonight. I heard on a radio garden show this morning that my perennials should weather that just fine; it's annuals, only, one needs to cover. Makes me wonder if I should put sheets over my leaf lettuce and snow peas. But both of those like being planted before the last frost, so unless I'm feeling really energetic after evening service, I'll let them take their chances, too.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Gift Horses

A commentary, while I can't work on the house:

I don't have cable TV service. With renovations and everything else going on I don't have time to watch it. And even if I took the time I don't have anything to watch it on. My A.D. 2000 model is so fried it won't pick up a signal, and the last thing I'm going to do is buy a nice new flat screen TV and end up with wallpaper paste and Big Wally's plaster adhesive all over it.

So I figured my sojourn in the hospital a couple of weeks ago would be my chance to taste the sweets of cable-TV land. I didn't watch as much as I expected to: old habits die hard and as soon as I got a connection on my laptop-- when I wasn't being poked, prodded, blood-pressured, sampled, or stethoscoped-- I spent most of my time either online or happily looking out the window (nice river view).

But on the Sunday night, knowing I was going home the next day, I decided to take advantage. Thus I had my first look at a program called Holmes on Homes, a home reno reality show with a twist. On this series, Mike Holmes, the General Contractor with a Heart, comes to the rescue of homeowners who have been screwed around by previous builders and puts their dwellings right.

What's not to like? It doesn't hurt (let's get this out in the open right away, shall we?) that Mr. Holmes is built like a blond crewcut Greek demigod, with musculature that gives the impression he could hold up an entire house like Herakles if called on to do so.

He knows exactly what he's doing in the construction field and he's dedicated to doing it right. And if a little matter of bathroom leakage should lead to replacing a house's entire plumbing, electrical, and HVAC systems, with a new roof to top it all off, so be it. I like the way he explains what the previous contractors did wrong and presents how he's going to do it right-- if HGTV would post detail drawings on their website of the correct assemblies, somebody like me could earn architecture continuing ed credits just by watching this show.

Holmes on Homes is a home renovation series with meat and muscle to it (lol). So once I got home I went online to see if I could pick up other episodes. After some experimentation, I determined that HGTV has the best streaming, so while recovering from my surgery I've happily been watching Mike and his heroic crews work their virtuous construction magic.

Well, pretty happily, until the two-part episode I viewed yesterday. Ah, alas, it never fails-- the best of us do. Fail, I mean. Even paragons have their flaws. And Mike Holmes' flaw is that although he's great with construction and pretty darn good at contemporary domestic design, he has no feeling for historical work.

It was painful. The project centered on a Craftsman bungalow in Toronto or Ottawa or somewhere (Holmes on Homes is a Canadian production and 99% of the locations are north of the border). The homeowners had suffered a fire and subsequently from a dishonest and incompetent contractor hired by the insurance company (no reflection on the insurance company, Mr. Holmes is careful to say) and from the deaths of the grandmother and husband/father of the family. So in comes Mighty Mike Holmes, to undo what the previous wood butchers did and obliterate the fire damage and rectify any other problems the house might have.

And it had plenty. A sagging center support, a leaking old underground oil storage tank in the backyard, and raccoons that had had the run of the place for the eight months since the fire, thanks to the previous GC having failed to make the place tight. And that wasn't the end of it, either.

But this house had plenty going for it too. A lovely Craftsman box newel post and grillework at the main stairs. Graceful arches between the rooms. Leaded glass metal windows (Hope's brand, I'd guess) in the living room. A charming rustic stone fireplace. True divided light upper sashes on the second floor. Not to mention the room arrangement and flow that the remaining members of the family, mother and daughter, had been used to and had enjoyed for the previous eighteen years.

Never mind all that. Mike knows best. Mike was going to come in there and give them new, new, new. And damned if he didn't. Silly new ersatz-Colonial stair balusters with a volute newel for the stairs. Boring new single-light casement-and-picture units with white enameled hardware replaced all the windows. The fireplace stone (which he pronounced "ugly") was covered over with new one-color, unvariegated red brick with a new electric fire. And oh, now since the fireplace wasn't woodburning anymore, he had the roofers take down the chimneys. So much for the bungalow roofline! Most of the walls on the first floor he removed, so it acquired a very modern open plan. Upstairs, the bedrooms were totally reconfigured. Outside, the old porch railing (brick, I think it was, to match the brick of the house) was replaced by a totally incongruous 3/4 height unpainted wood railing all-but-impossible to see over or through.

To be fair, both mother and daughter were brought into the house during the work and Mike explained to them what he was planning to do. Somehow, I don't think they grasped the implications. Or they felt such a debt of gratitude they thought they had no room to object. But now that they've been back in for awhile, I have to wonder how they feel. At the "big reveal," they both agreed that it was "Beautiful, beautiful." And so it was, for what it was. But was what it was what it ought to have been? "It really doesn't seem like our house," they said, and they were absolutely right. It wasn't.

I imagine there's some sort of agreement people who go on shows like Holmes on Homes or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition sign saying they'll accept whatever plans and finishes the show's designers or contractors come up with, in return for not having to pay for the work being done. And of course, it's said you shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth. But if you need a sturdy nag to pull the plow and they land you with an expensive racehorse and tell you you can't sell it, what are you going to do?

Frankly, if I had a beloved Craftsman home and it was transmogrified into generic (but high-quality!) Modern, I would be utterly dismayed. The very mention of the word "gratitude" would make me want to spit. Forget the free reno, let's just sell up and move.