Spring discoveries

Two nights ago, fireflies blinked on an off among the trees at at bedtime.  When we turned out the lights, we could see them looping in the leaves through our big, drafty windows.  When I woke up at 2:00 a.m. and again at 4:00 a.m., they went on lighting up near and far.

Last night, we saw none.

Power out, trees down

Sunday Oct. 30:

5:00 a.m.  L leaves for work but finds she can’t pass the driveway.  There’s a six-inch limb lying across it.  This isn’t surprising.  Since 9:30 last night we’ve been hearing branches cracking, popping, almost exploding as they give way under wet snow.  It sounds as though gargantuan predators are stalking us in a primordial forest.

5:15 a.m.  We find neighbors’ email two houses on the hill are without power.  I want to get onto the roof.  Even thought we just had trees removed and trimmed, a branch dropped onto our bedroom last night at 11:30 p.m.  From a stoplight on her way to work, L reports theat she got out to remove.

6:00 a.m.  L just called to say she’d arrived at the kitchen and can work.  While we talked, another branch or tree came down somehere in the dark.  When the wind blows, somehwere, something gives way.  I hunch my shoulders and hope it isn’t coming through a ceiling or a wall.  Still too dark for photos.

7:00 a.m.  It is light enough to get on the roof.  I find a tree top, about four inches in diameter at its thickest, wedged in the crotch of the tree it broke from and laying on the roof above our bedroom.  We heard it come down last night of course and since the time it crashed, hadn’t really slept.  I survey the situation and decide that the risk of it crashing through the windows is high.  I check the rest of the roof.  No damage.

I start with the easy stuff and shovel walkways and the drive.

7:15 a.m.  I start sawing the away at the big branch in the driveway.  Remove limbs with a bucksaw.  Pile them at the curb.  I run into Mr. #7, who has limbs on his roof and busted magnolias.  Having recently moved from Somerville, like me, he’s questioning whether this country living is all it’s cracked up to be.

Meanwhile, the weather is turning and it’s a beautiful, warm morning.  Wet snow on the trees gets wetter and branches continue to crash into the woods and nearby back yards.  I’m watching a tree on the north side of the house.  It’s leaning toward the living room.  Snow could melt off or the tree could snap.  All I can do is watch.

9:00 a.m.  I get second breakfast.  I’m beat.  I still haven’t finished cutting up the branch in the driveway.  But I did get the four-incher that landed on the shed roof outside the kitchen to the ground.  That’s the end of the corrugated fiberglass roof over the generator.  Thank god.  I’m still considering what to do about the branch on the roof.  There’s no good way to rope it off and contol the fall.  And the bedroom wall is all windows.  Lose that window and we’re boarding up most of the wall.  The melting snow has turned the driveway into a standing stream of water.  I can feel it sloshing in my boots as I walk.

11:00 a.m.  Now it’s clear that power is out everwhere on the hill at least.  My neighbor reports that Lexington center is out.  I’ve talked with a couple of folks and the tree damage is extensive, but house damage so far is not significant.

I’ve finally cleared the driveway, but there are still two logs laying beside it.  I borrowed chainsaw and a day or two of work will make firewood of the hardwoods.  Of course, I am supposed to be stripping paint from the windows.  And covering the windows we won’t replace right away with plastic, or “tenament storm windows” as I thinking of them.  Now that we’ve removed the old insulation from the ceiling in part of the house, we feel a stiff breeze from the eves when we sit in the living room.  Ah, nature!

12:00 p.m. I triumph against the forces of gravity and momentum!  The branch on the roof is down, the windows intact, and the deck below unscathed.  The snow on the tree over the living room has melted and blown off.  It’s feet taller and not nearly so close to the house.  If you look past all the brush, you can see it’s becoming a beautiful day.

As of Monday, Halloween at noon, still no power.  It’s predicted to return on Wednesday.  Night!

Working on the to do list

  • Cleaned out much of the crawl space.  More on what we found in a couple of days.
  • Dug a hole in the crawl space that confirms that there isn’t a ledge where we hope we can put in a different stair to the basement storage room.
  • Dug out and reburied the gutter drain following good advice to put some heating wire on it for the most frozen days of the winter.  Global warming doesn’t mean just warmer, people, it means more climatic extremes.
The downhill run.
PVC at the top and corrugated for the twisty parts. At the bottom it ends in daylight.
  • Cleaned the sliding glass doors in the dining room.  Now I can seal them with plastic for the winter.  The aluminum was darkened to a mahogany color with accumulated #2 heating oil.  Which reminds me, I need to call about a furnace tune up.
  • Moved the dining room into the dining room and are testing what it’s like to treat it as the place where we congregate at a table.  In other words, testing the new arrangement of the rooms.  Good so far.
  • In the Mystery Machine, we moved two freezers to the ButterGirl’s rented kitchen to gear up for a big order.  ButterGirl rocks.

Oh, and last weekend:

  • Took down the rest of the living room ceiling.
ButterGirl mixing it up with the old fiberglass insulation (Sept. 25, 2011)
ButterGirl bakes and does demo. Or, my wife is better than your wife.
  • Changed a broken toilet shutoff.
  • Stripped the paint and rust from one of the vintage steel frame windows and primed it.  When I began it neither opened nor shut.  Now, it does both.  Woot.
  • Also, the tree guys were here to take down eight big trees and a good deal of brush.  We discovered we have a house under all that.

I believe in fixing stuff and imagining what’s next

The cost of having a lot of work – activity – is paid in attention.

If you didn’t have to, say, fix the gutter drain, you’d be investigating a more economical way to heat the house or replace the windows or creatively answer some other big-ish question.  You’d be designing a piece of furniture, or helping kids from the local vo-tech appreciate what the old school modern architects were up to.

But maybe all this activity steals the chance for reflection just when reflection may be most irrelevant.  There is no larger meaning to fixing the running toilet.  What’s the story of taking down the ceiling and pulling out the insulation?  Once upon a time, oil was cheaper and insulation was less effective….   Replacing the gutter drain is the story of putting worry to rest.  When I’ve finished, I can stop thinking about every rain as an enemy from the sky that is raining anxiety by eroding the bank beside the foundation.

Manual work makes you focus on stuff that is.  Doing work yourself opens your eyes to what home is – a system of stuff and objects.  Knowing the system from the inside creates opportunities to imagine it and find ways to live it, not just live in it.

A friend asked me last night where I thought the economy was going in the next 12 months.  I was hopeful.  Not because I was reading the signs.  He was thinking about the widespread economic uncertainty.  He was thinking of the financial markets.  I was thinking of the potential of our house.

With a lot of sacrifice, this place will generate experience and opportunities we haven’t imagined.  Money?  We tell our friends, “We can’t afford this place.”  That’s how we feel, even if it’s not actually true.  I should feel more anxious and fearful.  But however careful we must be, will be, I’m convinced that there is always opportunity at hand.  I believe in fixing the gutter drain first.  There’s unimagined opportunity in having working gutter drains.

It’s not a drain if…

Spent the weekend digging out the gutter drain that backs up in a fountain when it rains hard.  Discovered that it leaks and it’s filled with sand.  At the end, the formerly open pipe ends in the dirt.  I wonder if that ever worked?  Here’s my handiwork so far.

View: Diagonally, uphill. The drain turns 45 degrees and runs down. The lolly columns support a deck above. The light spot in the center of the ditch is the end of the pipe stuffed with sand. The stretch of pipe from the angle to the end is about 30 feet.

Next weekend, lay pipe.  Tee, hee.  I said, “lay pipe.”

I got some great advice from my neighbor.  The second day we were in the house, he told me the story about how his cellar flooded when it rains.  Earlier owners admitted as much, though if I remember the story rightly, that information came to light after the sale.  After living with the flooding and talking to three or four experts, he decided that he’d investigate the problem himself before taking action on expert opinion.  His center roof drain ran under the house, into the yard, and ended against a wall of hard dirt.  His experts hadn’t considered this.  So he put in his own leach field.

I thought I’d put in a dry well, a simpler version of the same idea.  That is, until he quoted me a volume calculation:  one inch of water on 1,000 square feet of roof produces 600 gallons of water.  In a house with more than 2000 square feet of living space, there’s no way a 100 gallon dry well, which is big, will solve the problem.  My neighbor – the amateur* civil engineer – and I are brainstorming non-expert solutions that don’t cost millions or involve the Army Corp of Engineers.

* amateur, from the latin root for “love.”  See definition 4.

Last weekend, this was the point where the old black pipe and the replacement PVC fit together.


The progress of taking possession

Cleaning and repairing home are ritual acts of taking possession.

Chores:  Cleared away more yard waste: leaves, windfall twigs and branches, three-foot high weeds.  For our once-per-property, per-owner, Lexington big-trash, take anything collection, we put beside the road six colonial-style chairs, two side chairs, a vinyl upholstered arm chair, a deteriorating recliner, a TV table, a washer and dryer, four big boxes full of boxes and eight cans of trash.  All of it disappeared except the washer, dryer, glass shelves of the TV table, and the vinyl arm chair.  No one likes vinyl.

Cleaned a shower in a bathroom.  Moved boxes to storage.  Raked around the paths on the property and ran out of yard waste cans.  Started trenching out the broken buried gutter drain under the deck.  Next weekend, I’ll replace it.

Ate a delicious burger from our own grill on Sunday night.  So it’s still summer here.

Sunday night we watched a harvest moon appear in the trees over the east end of the house.  When I awoke early in the morning, one side of the house was still flooded with light from the first moon at 12 Moon Hill Road.

Finally a moment to report on progress

It’s hard to believe that we moved in nine days ago.  The place seemed so clean, relatively speaking and yet we’ve spent every third free hour cleaning.  The furnaces are not efficient or sufficiently tuned up.  The forced hot air is also forced soot particles, which wash off as a gray water that clung to woodwork, walls, and really every surface.  I don’t look forward to the heating season.

The most challenging emotional trick I’m trying to master is settling into the new place while knowing that we’re going unsettle ourselves as we fix up and make improvements, some sooner by necessity.

Some other discoveries:  a family of foxes living in holes near the north facing foundation; the house was host to many mice once and we think they’re gone, for now; also, in the woods there are always spiders; this modern house doesn’t have much storage or we have a lot of stuff that should be gotten rid of.

I propose the principle that nearly nothing needs to be stored.  Either the thing is useful and beautiful.  That makes it worth placing within reach and sight.  Otherwise, why hold onto it.

Discoveries continued:  the dryer vents into the same room in which it sits; a bathroom tub leaks; the outside post light switch that has stumped us for days  was discovered yesterday next to one of the bathrooms.  Thank goodness we found that.  It’s dark here in the woods.

Big house v tiny house

The rhetoric of modern tiny-house living begins with the assertion that big houses, aside from being wasteful and environmentally noxious, are debtors’ prisons.  Their owners work in order to afford them, and when they actually occupy them, they’re anxious.

“Let’s Get Small,” by Alec Wilkinson
The New Yorker, July 25, 2011, page 29

Repairing deferred maintainence: Worrying about enough

We’re trying to estimate, or guess the cost of repairs and deferred maintenance.  I suspect that if you’ve been though this you have done the calculus.  Can I afford to fix this?  Can I afford not to?

Could we get a return on the investment in ten years?  What about fifteen?  What about five years, if we find that the house is owning us instead of the other way round?

Calculus of Variations
Solve for "Why?"

In 1947, houses were not built with the same expectations about efficiency.  Just look at this place.  We hope there is six or eight inches of rock wool in the 10 or 12 inch roof joists.  Sounds pretty good.  But we’ve been told that after sixty years of humidity infiltration, the insulation, which did not have a high R value to start, has probably collapsed and condensed.

We need to find ways to keep the heat we’re making by insulating ceilings and walls, replacing many of the windows, and cutting the amount of heat we need to make with a different or better or re-made and re-tuned heating system.  If we do this, can we hope to be comfortable?  And I mean both “warm” and “not broke.”  These repairs are the dog wagging a tail of upgraded electric, among others, either to meet current code, or to prevent having to open the wall or change the [fill in the blank] again in a few years.  What’s just enough?  Are we going to be here for five or fifteen years?

This week we meet with the architect we’d like to work with.  The simple story is that he’s the perfect guy for the job.  I suspect that his rates are typical.  Because we only have one house fund, I’m acutely aware that using him cuts the amount we have to spend.  Smart money is in an architect, but the dumb money wants to replace more windows.  I hope to have more information that will help us weigh these decisions by the end of the evening.  Whether that will help me sleep, well…we’re a long way from being comfortable.