Over the course of the last ten years, we’ve replaced a lot of windows in this house, by fits and starts. As we’ve worked on each room as a project, I’ve pulled the old out and put the new in, which means we’ve got a mix and match set of manufacturers, from Pella to Andersen to Mi depending on where you are. I don’t see it as a bad thing—Andersens are in the office, Pellas are in the den, and Mi is everywhere else. (Side note: the Pellas are garbage; their mullions are made of cardboard and the windows are sticky to close. The Andersens are better, easier to use and clean. The Mi windows aren’t as good looking as the first two, but are much more affordable and very sturdy).
I decided I needed to line up a project on the house for this fall, and priced out windows for the upstairs. What we’re talking about here is all of the bedrooms and the stairwell window—the master bathroom got new glass years ago. That’s nine windows in total, with the four front windows being 4″ taller than the rest. Back before ‘Rona I thought that $400 a window was a lot of money to spend, but when the price of everything went up because of “supply chain issues” I figured I’d wait it out until things settled back down. I’m now reading about inflation and recession and the End Times and figure the prices probably won’t return to where they were in 2020, so now was as good a time as any.
So today I placed an order for nine replacement windows with the remainder of our HELOC money, and in six to eight weeks we’ll have a stack of new glass waiting for me to swap out. I figure I’ll start in Finley’s room and work my way across the front of the house, then move around to the back side. I had a pretty good system going when I finished the living room windows, so hopefully I can perfect the process and make it go quickly.
Way back in early 2000’s I was playing around with home automation and had varying degrees of success. That system was pre-smartphone, so it ran on your computer and used a clever plug that transmitted signals through the wiring in the house to all the connected devices. I ran it off an old iMac I’d salvaged from somewhere and used the latest version of the software, but it was still glitchy (that was the last CRT computer I owned). It worked OK but I was never really able to build a solid case for investing hundreds of dollars into the gear and software, so I gave up on it.
These days Apple has HomeKit, which is an out of the box automation framework that hooks up to a whole fleet of (relatively inexpensive) peripheral gear. I spent $20 on two smart plugs last week and gave them a try. They are simple on/off switches, so they act as slightly smarter versions of the plug-in light timers we already own. They took all of a minute to register with HomeKit, and I quickly had a light in the living room hooked up to one. With one tap on my phone, the light turns on and off. But this kind of sucks, because I can’t just walk into the room and turn on that smart-connected light without a cellphone, and we don’t live the kind of regimented life where timer-controlled lights make sense. They’re great for when we travel, and I’ll probably swap out all of the old mechanical timers this year, but I can’t think of a use case for these plugs other than that. (I’m not buying an Alexa or HomePod to voice-activate anything, before you ask).
Now that I know it works, I’m going to explore some of the more expensive options for automation—maybe a system set up to control the door locks, for example, allowing us to open the door without a key. But what I’d really like is to replace the thermostat with something programmable from somewhere other than the keypad; our Honeywell unit is about 15 years old and takes three hours of button-mashing to program every time the batteries die. The trick is to avoid the larger monopoly ecosystems; Google bought Nest back in the day and Amazon just bought iRobot—so now Bezos knows how much lint is under our couch. A couple of years ago I picked up a cheap Wyze camera for the house to see what Hazel was doing in her spare time but recently found out their system had been hacked and wide open for several years. Glad I only used that camera for the weeklong demo period.
Meanwhile, we bought a Nest doorbell cam for Bob’s house to keep an eye on things remotely, which I installed on Sunday. The physical installation went fine but trying to set it up through his phone revealed that the Verizon rep completely fucked up his account setup, so that they were sending his bills to Pennsylvania and shut his phone off for nonpayment. We’re sorting that mess out now.
Going back in time, I realize that I’ve either partially or fully renovated five bathrooms in my life. I’ve done everything from demolition to plumbing to laying tile, and I’ve hit many pitfalls and unexpected setbacks with each one. The whore-pink tile in our house in New York was held in place with chicken wire and cement. The floor of the jacuzzi room in that same house collapsed under me while I was demoing it. The bathroom in my rowhome was built with cardboard scraps and kindergarten paste. Almost all of them have featured leaky plumbing, substandard wiring, or rotten wood. Bathrooms are great gaping maws of money and time, and it is never an easy decision to plow ahead with a remodel unless one is independently wealthy and able to live in one of one’s other mansions while the plaster dust flies. I’ve never had that luxury, so I’m used to shitting in a bucket and showering with a garden hose.
It was, then, with some trepidation that I agreed to help my father in law rehab his guest bathroom. His house was built in the late 70’s, with all of the positives and many negatives that implies. The bathroom hosted five teenagers and shows every battle scar—it’s a miracle it hasn’t fallen through the ceiling, frankly. At some point in the distant past he got in there and pulled the tub and vanity out, and then stalled on the project. It’s been like that for years. A few weeks ago he informed us that he’d agreed to have a company come in and quote on a new bathtub, so we were sure to be on hand when the salesman came to look at it. At first we balked on the quoted price, but then deciding it wasn’t a bad idea to have them do the hardest part (the tub and surround), we signed a contract and made a plan to handle the rest ourselves.
I’d already wrapped up a bunch of other smaller projects in the house, so it was easy to pivot to demolition last weekend. I brought a bunch of hammers and chisels and saws, and had chipped all of the tile out in about an hour. Underneath that was a poured slab of 1″ concrete directly on top of the wood subfloor, which was, predictably, rotting. I was able to chip out two sections that had already cracked, but my attempt to cut through the remainder with a fiber-based wheel only created clouds of noxious dust. I backed off and let things settle, then started spraying the walls with wallpaper stripper. By about 4:30 and one run to Lowe’s I had all but two small sections offf the wall and ready for scrubbing.
This coming weekend I’m returning with a steel cutting wheel and an angle grinder, and I hope to have all of the concrete out as well as the subfloor gone. It’s going to make a mess but there’s no other way to make progress, so there it is.
Sunday was a recovery day, for various reasons. The highlight was waking up slowly and taking the family down to the Farmer’s Market for some coffee, empañadas, fresh produce, and some delicious ginger-cardamom lemonade from the same guy who sold us smoked trout. The girls made a side salad and steamed corn and we had that for dinner on the front porch, under the breeze from the fan, and it was fantastic.
This is the first weekend in a long time where we’ve been home. Like, in our own house for two days. Jen has been socked in with work for several weeks, and a lot of it has come to a head, so we thought we’d take a break from driving south to Lexington Park and stay around the homestead. I’ve had a lot of things around the house piling up in our absence, so I took the opportunity to knock a couple of them out.
The first thing was replacing two basement windows that were original to the house. I’d ordered replacements back in March and they finally arrived about a month ago; I’ve been waiting for a solid weekend to tackle the project. Pulling the old windows was pretty quick work—they were only held in by two sets of ancient brass hinges and a hook and eye latch. I cleaned up the wooden surrounds, cut and installed baffles, and slotted them into place. With some careful carpentry the inside baffles got nailed into place, and they got caulked tight. Now we can have open windows and enjoy fresh air in the basement! A miracle.
The second project is one Jen has been asking about since last year: painting the garage to match the house. I started out by scraping the west side and got it ready for paint. After cleaning both my guns and consolidating the remaining paint, I filled the compressor and sprayed out the west side and half of the driveway side before running out. I’m going to have to repair some of the plywood on the front side and do a lot more scraping overall, but it looks pretty good so far.
Finn has been binging a new videogame for the past month, and has been asking me to play with her. It’s a survival/exploration game called Ark, where you land on an island teeming with dinosaurs and have to learn how to gather food, build tools and shelter, and tame those same dinosaurs to help you advance. She’s been playing on her iPad, but I can’t load it on my phone and squint at tiny menus. I saw that it was available for the Xbox so I ordered a used copy on Amazon and installed it on the console. From there it demanded a 100GB update, so we waited days for the console to choke that down (it puts itself to sleep after an hour, so I had to constantly keep it awake) and then two more updates before we could play.
Once that was done, we picked up our controllers and started a new world together. And found, very quickly, that it was almost impossible to navigate in 2-player mode. They split the screen horizontally, so the top half is one character view and the bottom half is another, but they didn’t change the menu system to fit that resolution. So when you go into the menu system (and half the game is spent here) it’s still the size and shape of an iPad and you have to squint at tiny little icons smushed into the narrow space given. It’s like looking at the menu bar of Word 97 through a peephole: impossible unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. I tried for several nights but found it almost unusable.
She then found a new game called Albion and started playing that. Seeing that it was available for the Mac, I downloaded a copy and tried it on my 8-year-old laptop, which slowed to a gelatinous crawl, cooling fans struggling to keep the processor from melting. I thought about it for a day or so and decided I’d pull the trigger and finally buy the iPad Pro I’ve been looking at since they were released. Playing games with Finn was a big part of the decision, but the other reason was that I want to work in Procreate with the Apple Pencil and learn how to illustrate with the system. I bought a new 11″ unit with the Pencil and picked it up at the local Apple Store this past week. The early review is very favorable: playing Albion on it is easy and fun! We spent a couple of hours on Friday getting me set up in the game and understanding how not to die. Now I have to catch up to her character level.
This is the first device I’ve owned with Face ID, and it’s very slick. The Pencil is fast and responsive. I bought Procreate and started fooling around in the program but it’s going to take a lot of time to sort out how I use it and get the most out of it. Getting used to the way the brushes and pressure work is an uphill battle, especially for someone as picky about the tactile feel and orientation of scratchboard tools as I am. I’m going to start out trying to mimic what I know and love, and then see where the app takes me.
I finally got around to updating the idiotking post count in an interactive visualization instead of a flat graphic. I’m going to see if I can find a way to overlay the category counts next.
I’ve been working on some sketching projects at work which required me to lower my desk chair, bust out the pencils, and get close to the drawings I was making. After a short while working without glasses, I put my progressive safety glasses on and used those to switch back and forth between the drawings and my computer monitor. Those glasses work OK, but I look like a total dork if I have to take a call wearing them.
Warby Parker made me new progressives and shipped them on February 22nd by USPS. When I check on it with their tracking service, it arrived at the Baltimore sorting station three days later and hasn’t moved since. No updates, no movement, no nothing. USPS offers an “extended tracking service” which I’m sure would provide me absolutely zero further detail; I’m going to call Warby Parker on Monday and see if there’s anything they can do—but I’m not holding my breath.
Meanwhile, a friend recommended me to her client for a quick linework illustration job that I knocked out in a couple of hours this afternoon. I like making extra money on the side.
I made a list of projects to tackle around the house this year in my notebook the other night before I went to bed, mainly as an excuse to collect them all and quell anxiety:
- New basement windows. I’ve been back and forth with my rep this week waiting for her to get the quote correct, but when that comes in I’ll sign off and get it paid for. I’m told it’ll be 4-6 weeks for delivery, just in time for some warmer weather.
- Find a fixed basement window with a dryer vent. I really don’t want to close off the window over the washing machine with glass block, but we may have no choice.
- Basement step rebuild. The concrete pad right outside our basement door has been tilted toward the house since we moved in, allowing for rainwater to spill over the edge of the stairwell and flood our basement doorwell. This pad needs to be broken up and removed, and the yard regraded away from the house. I’m going to mix a couple of bags of concrete and pour a higher threshold for the stairwell while I’m at it.
- Bust out the concrete walkway out back. Running over the walkway with an eight ton boom lift broke it up into lots of portable chunks, so it should be easy to lift and haul away.
- Clean up the treeline behind the greenhouse. This is a Sisyphean task that never seems to amount to much, but it’s got to get done. I think I need to nuke it all with Round-Up and then take the mattock to the earth. Or maybe rent a tiller…
- Repair and paint the garage. It’s never been painted since we’ve lived here, and the front “doors” make it look like we’re cooking meth inside. I’m going to pull the front off, reinforce the doorframes, and build new doors that look and work better. Then the whole thing will get sprayed to match the house.
- Pressure wash and paint both rear porches. This didn’t get done with the rest of the house last spring; both of them need a freshening up.
- Finish scraping the outside windows. There are a couple at ground level that need some attention, but everything on the second floor got painted properly with the boom lift.
- Polish the headlights on both Hondas. I did this for the CR-V three years ago and it made a huge difference, but the plastic has broken down again and fogged over. Time to buy another kit and have at it.
It’s been quiet around these parts lately. Work is going full-steam-ahead, which means I spend about 80% of my day going from meeting to meeting even though I have the small free spots in my work calendar blocked out with a big purple NO MEETINGS meeting. My organization was pretty immune to the Great Resignation up until the beginning of this year, when a trickle became a flood, and it seems like every all-hands meeting starts out with someone announcing they’re leaving. We’re doing more than we ever have with the same number of people for dumb financial reasons, and it feels like every loss hits us harder and harder. I know it’s sapped my morale but I don’t know how to talk about it with my staff in a way that doesn’t sound like a rah-rah Kool-Aid dispenser or Debbie Downer. I still work for an excellent organization, and I don’t think our morals or mission have changed, but I know we’re strained by manpower and that has taken a toll on our collective psyche.
I’m moving forward with the purchase of two new basement windows but holding off on the larger double-hung window in the hallway for pricing reasons. If I order now it’ll be here sometime in May, which won’t make a difference in our heating bill but should make airing out the basement much easier.
Meanwhile, I realized after I was sprung from quarantine that Mom’s old TV actually has a built-in client for Netflix and Prime. After running a wire to the network drop on the wall, I plugged our account information in and had it up and running in five minutes. Then I went back into the settings and shut off data sharing. Wish I’d thought of that when I was laid up, but oh well.
In my news feed today, I stumbled on an article that mentioned the 818 Market downtown closed earlier this week.
But as of Tuesday a sign on the door notified customers “818 Market is closed” and urged people to check the business’ Facebook page for updates. As of Thursday, 818 Market’s most recent Facebook post is dated Jan. 30 and invites customers to pick up a bottle of wine for championship games; there is no mention of an upcoming closure.
We’re really not surprised; the idea was a great one, and they definitely went all-out on the execution. But Jen and I have been saying the same thing since before it opened: their scope was too broad. They tried to do everything—bakery, deli, produce, groceries, booze, and a restaurant—all of it admirable. But the baked goods were mediocre, the deli, produce and groceries were twice the price of anywhere nearby, and they were a block from a much better liquor store. And worst of all, their coffee sucked.
So 12+ years after we first broke ground on the new bathroom, and 2 years after the actual cabinetry and countertops went in, we’ve got a mirror on the wall. The story of how it finally got here is long and winding, and there have been many detours and delays along the way, but it’s up and permanently affixed to the wall.
To fit the odd dimensions of our room, I had to custom order the mirror. We didn’t want to just stick a mirror on the wall, so I built a frame to fit the mirror—I actually built two frames, the first using a router, back in early December. The cuts on that didn’t come out clean enough, so then I cut the second one the way I should have from the start, with the table saw. There was some experimentation with how it would be joined securely (the mirror itself is something like 40 lbs.) but once I had that figured out it went together quickly. I then assembled the whole thing and hung it on the wall and then realized that we could see unpainted wood reflected in the mirror because I hadn’t painted the backside of the channel the mirror sat in.
So I took it apart, sprayed the inside, reassembled it, and hung it back on the wall. Screwed it to the wall, actually; I don’t trust simple hangers to hold it so I put six exterior screws through the wood into the 1/2″ sheathing behind the drywall and covered the holes with wood putty. The whole thing got taped off, sanded, and repainted. That fucker ain’t going anywhere.
Then I touched up the paint around the whole thing, hung a towel rack to the left, and glued and screwed both thresholds down for good. It’s really coming together! Now we need to settle on some lights for over the mirror.
Wow, I hadn’t realized the fireplace mantel is fifteen years old this week.
When it comes to carpentry I’m definitely an amateur. Maybe a Pro-Am. I’ve done enough paying work that I maybe could sneak into the union, but I know there are years of tools and tricks I’ve never heard of or seen. Watching my friend Brian work humbles me. He can eyeball up a cabinet or a floor or a section of wall and have it measured out correctly in minutes, and know exactly how to tuck something too big into a place too small with ease. He’s got tools I’ve never seen before rolling around in the back of his truck, and he knows how to use them the way God and the engineers at Craftsman intended. I learn tons of stuff just by watching what he’s doing.
I can mill and frame wood with the best of them. I’ve built mantles and cabinets and toolbenches and all sorts of smaller objects, and most of them have come out square and clean and sturdy. I’ve milled and installed all the moulding in five rooms of this house. If there’s anything I’m professional at, it’s cobbling together some kind of jig out of scrap wood and hose clamps to get the saw or the drill or the router to do what I need it to do; the mantle I mentioned earlier was put together with nothing more than a miter saw, a circular saw, and a shit-ton of backwoods engineering. I bought, disassembled, and jury-rigged a crappy old router stand to mill a 15˚ angle on the thresholds for the bathroom upstairs, and then, having pretty much ruined it for any other purpose, threw the whole thing in the garbage.
Frankly, I’m kind of sick of that shit. I would love nothing more than to have a barn with a dedicated woodworking space, where there’s a large flat clean table to do joinery on, an area with a full-size table saw, miter saw, sanding equipment, and proper lighting. All of my carpentry is done in the basement, tucked behind shelving and assembled on plywood sheets atop an old table. I have to open the basement door to ventilate the dust out of there, and Jen gets pissed when the laundry comes upstairs covered in sawdust (I don’t blame her). The lighting sucks. I’m always tripping over cords or piles of wood or boxes waiting to be reshelved. The truth is, I don’t do carpentry enough every day to warrant this kind of space—but I’d love to pursue that hobby.
This weekend I decided I’d put together a frame for the mirror that’s going in the upstairs bathroom. We don’t want to just glue a mirror to the wall, so I’m constructing a frame with wood slightly narrower than the door moulding and beveling the inner edge to accept the mirror. Normally I’d rig up a jig on my table saw and make two cuts per board, but this time I thought I’d use the router and a square removal bit to accomplish the same task. For anyone with a router stand this would be a 10-minute job, but as mentioned I threw out the last stand, so I mounted a fence to the router and did it all by hand, generating a pile of sawdust higher than my knees. And because it was handheld, the results were less than optimal—the inside edge of the bevel was a bit wavy because the fucking bit began to come loose—and I’m a careful guy. But I thought maybe I could salvage what I had, so I kept going.
I also thought I’d use this project as a reason to buy a Kreg jig, which is basically an inexpensive joining tool, and use that to bolt the parts together. The jig is nice but not made for 45˚ angled cuts, so the test runs I did all came out too short or too long and I couldn’t replicate success with any precision. So I started drilling and countersinking screws, but on the first corner the grain of the wood carried the bit downwards and I busted through the front of the frame with the screw. That ended Saturday’s attempt.
On Sunday I bought more wood with Hazel and started on Version 2. In ten minutes I cobbled together a clean jig on the table saw and had three boards down neatly—exactly what I should have done in the first place. Then I set up a jig on some plywood, clamped the frame ends down, and pre-drilled countersink holes on the top and bottoms, where nobody will see them. With a carpenter’s angle and a screw gun I had the whole thing assembled in about an hour. It needs some filler and a little sanding, but it’s clean and ready for a mirror. I’m all about learning new skills and trying new things, but sometimes it’s cheaper and faster to go with what you know.
Sunday’s Advent activity was a Bad Santa Challenge: we each picked a name out of a hat and had to buy the tackiest gift we could for our chosen person. We decided we’d pick out but not buy anything so that we didn’t drag tacky crap we’d never use home with us. Jen and I figured the best place for this was the thrift store: where else to find the most tacky in the smallest space?
In Laurel we hit the Second Avenue and each had 20 minutes to find our treasures, with an imaginary cash limit of $20. I had Jen, so I immediately went to the tchotchke area and started looking; a woman was putting a 16″ porcelain statue of a nude couple embracing in her cart just as I was walking towards it. Dammit. I looked through that area, then went over to the women’s clothing thinking I could find something super-trashy like I used to in the Saks North Avenue days. But these stores turn over much quicker than Back In The Day and my tack-o-meter isn’t finely tuned; some of the stuff I saw could have been tacky or could have been high fashion. I did a circuit of the store, beginning to panic, and went back to the tchotchke area to discover a huge carved wooden sign saying LIVE LAUGH LOVE over some banal decoration; this is as diametrically opposed to my wife’s tastes as anything I’ve ever seen. I figured I’d hit it big but I was still a couple of dollars under my limit, so I picked out a battered golf driver from the racks of sad sporting goods and hurried over to meet them.
Finn had picked out a hideous birdhouse, a random crime novel, a strange army belt and a moldy 50’s pop music record for me. Jen presented Finn with a strange and frightening porcelain hobo statue, which (when powered by batteries) played “When the Saints Go Marching In.” After laughing over our presents, we returned them to the shelves and looked around the store for real. I found a Pelican knock-off case originally created to hold hideous overpriced watches and scored it for $5; the compartments are sized perfectly for camera lenses:
Five minutes with a knife made a comfortable waterproof house for my Fuji rig with the big lens, and the rest of the kit fit neatly inside. Now I just have to spray-paint over the stupid watch logo on the top.