Sippican Cottage

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Dancing on the Ten Yards Line

Well, the driveway’s done. Er, I mean the dooryard’s done. It’s not really a driveway, if you ask me. I ordered 10 cubic yards of reclaimed asphalt paving, and there wasn’t a teaspoon left when we were done. But then again, we weren’t a teaspoon short, either.

It took three days. I got off easy on the third day because my neighbor Rich wandered over on the second day and shoveled along with me. Good neighbors like that are hard to find. They’re especially hard to find when you’re shoveling reclaimed asphalt into a wheelbarrow and it’s ninety degrees out. Hide and Go Seek was perfected at such times. But you don’t have to find the very best neighbors. They find you.

The new reclaimed asphalt parking area isn’t perfect. It’s way more solid and put together than a gravel driveway would be. It’s somewhat less put together than a hot asphalt paving job would be. But good enough is good enough, I guess. A good plan now is better than a great plan later, and all that.

We’re broke-ass losers ain’t got no moneys, but we do our best. I coveted a flat, orderly place to park the chariots outside the front door for many moons. That crossbuck railing on the right hand side keeps you from falling to, if not your death, at least the installation of a second set of ankles if you tumbled over into the driveway. It leads down to a paved area out back. When we moved here, that right-hand side looked like this:

As you can spy with your little eye, the old railing lost interest about fifteen feet short of the corner, and the parking surface was a maze of pits and cracked asphalt and busted concrete. We’ve changed a lot of stuff there over the years. The new parking surface is just the last installment. It looks like this now:

So if you’ve got more gumption than sense, and a good neighbor, you too can buy a plate compactor for $350 or so, and get 10 yards of recycled asphalt pavement for about the same price, and have a pretty good driveway. The dump truck driver who delivers the material will shake his head when he shows up, and snicker all the way back to the yard after he sees your wheelbarrow and shovels, but if the world isn’t laughing at you these days, all it proves is that you’re as crazy as everybody else is. I’m not. I’m an entirely different kind of nuts.

New Driveway. Some Assembly Required

That’s not really a driveway. Here in Maine, we call that a dooryard. Maine has different terms for many everyday things. Then again, not many other places pave their front yards and park on them, and save the garage for socializing and working on motorcycles and snowmobiles. Our dooryard was a patchwork quilt of ad-hoc pavement, concrete, and dirt, seasoned with moss and dandelions. The pavement was just dumped on the earth many moons ago, and then subsided a lot. When you pulled in, your front tires would eventually drop into a gully, and your bumper would flirt with the spidered pavement in front of the trench. We decided to finally do something about it.

Pavement has a hard time here in Maine. “Frost heaves” doesn’t refer to indigestion after you eat a banana popsicle. In the winter, the ground freezes very hard and very deep. The moisture in the soil under the pavement expands, and it pushes up the pavement, at least until the spring rolls around and the pavement can collapse back into a proper pothole. These frost heaves get very large indeed, like impromptu speed bumps. They are generally ministered to by crack road crews who scramble out as soon as a frost heave is reported, and put up a sign placed just after it to warn you about the frost heave you just went airborne over.

So here at the Cottage we’re the usual amount of broke and can’t afford to hire a paving contractor to come and install next year’s frost heaves in our dooryard. We’re going to have to rely on our wits and mettle to end up with a blackish patch out front. We’re going to start with Plan B, and work down from there.

We bought a plate compactor. It’s a gas-powered sledge with a heavy steel slab for a base. It vibrates, and compacts soil, or pavement, or paving bricks, or your foot if you’re not paying attention. We bought it at the Orange Place and had it shipped to us. The FredEx driver showed up and informed me that plate compactors are heavy, so stand back, let a girl that knows how to lift heavy things handle this. She tried and failed to budge it, and then dropped it out the door onto the sidewalk. I was grateful that I didn’t have to drop it myself. Luckily, it’s not possible to break a plate compactor. Bang on it all you like, but it’s like trying to break a panzer tank with an upholstery hammer.

We called the semi-local materials dudes and ordered 10 cubic yards of recycled pavement, which people call RAP around here. When you see those huge grinders peeling up (scarifying) roads, it all gets reused. Some recycled pavement gets mixed back into new, hot asphalt pavement. Stuff like we bought gets crushed and mixed with sand and maybe some aggregate, and sold as RAP.  Most people just use it for a sub base under hot asphalt paving, but you can spread it and compact it,  and get a fairly durable almost-pavement. They use lots of eco-type adjectives to make you feel better about avoiding tarring Gaia with your driveway, and perhaps feathering it, too, if you don’t shoo the pigeons away first. I’ve never gone in much for that sort of foolishness. The stuff is just cheap and effective and available. Funny, that would probably make a better sales pitch, but it’s never been tried, so there’s no way to know.

I love the local folks. I had to give directions to my house, and they instructed me to institute a fail-safe, foolproof method to locate the property for the driver. Google Maps? No. Satellite location? hardly. They asked me what color my house was, and told me to put a bucket out front.

That’s 10 cubic yards. If you’re unfamiliar with material estimating, it’s either way too much or not nearly enough for the job. You can’t order extra, because what the hell are you going to do with it if you’re done and there’s still a heap of it? Halloween isn’t for months, and filling up baggies with it and handing them out is a lot of work, anyway. And missing on the low side is deadly. The materials yard has a 16-yard minimum, and I had to talk pretty fast to get them to bring me only 10. Asking them to bring me 2 more would have resulted in a request for me to memorize their phone number, and then throw away my head.

I estimated the amount by tying a string to a couple of bricks, pulling it taut, and measuring the gap between the string and the slumpy dooryard it was supposed to fill in. The shallowest measurement was 2″, and the deepest was 6″, so I averaged it out to 4″. Multiply the length in feet by the width in feet by 1/3 of a foot for depth, and then divide by 27, which is how you speak cubic yards. Then check your math because grammar school was a long time ago.

So sane people rent a bobcat (skidsteer), a sort of miniature front end loader, They spread the stuff around and backblade (drag the bucket while going in reverse) it to the proper grade. Then they rake it out a little, and get a big roller and ride up and down to flatten and compact the RAP. However, I don’t know many sane people, and don’t count myself among them. I’ve got a wheelbarrow, a shovel, and a gravel rake. It’s only like 12 or 14 tons of shoveling. I’m not sure what that works out to in snowstorms, but I think it’s only approximately half the weight of Rhode Island, so, no biggie.

I spread some out and revved up the compactor. Those wily Chinese like to play tricks on gweilus like me. After assembling the compactor and running it back and forth for a minute, a big, shiny nut appeared on the pavement. I spent ten minutes trying to find out which bolt had let go, cursing myself under my breath for not tightening them properly, before I realized it was just a spare nut someone had dropped in the factory between the bottom plate and the engine. Good one, Won.

You spoon the mix into the wheelbarrow, spread in in little heaps where your driveway is supposed to be, but isn’t quite, rake it flat, and then run the plate compactor over it.

The plate compactor is pretty lightweight, despite the FredEx driver’s lament, so you have to put the deepest parts in using “lifts.” That’s excavator lingo for thinner layers that you build up. The shoveling and raking is demanding work, but if you’ve ever worked the Irish banjo before, you learn how to move material without expending more effort than you need to. And walking behind the compactor is restful after shoveling for a while. You always wear ear protection. It muffles the sound of your neighbors complaining about the compactor noise.

So how far can one man get in a day? Well, about 2/3 of the pile is gone, and wonder of wonders, you can park a car next to the house again. Not bad. Alas, I won’t be able to finish tomorrow. I have to go to the mental hospital, to ask for an estimate. Maybe Wednesday, if they let me out.

It’s How You Push the Rock That Matters

I’ve been remodeling a bedroom in our house. It’s in a turret on the second floor. It’s my son’s bedroom, and was my other son’s bedroom before that. It makes an excellent defilade position for covering any invasions from up or down the street. The topic doesn’t come up all that often, though.

The ceiling was spangled with brown blobby spots from the ghost of roof leaks past. There was an abandoned light fixture in the middle of the ceiling, formerly serviced by the original knob and tube wiring, which has long since gone the way of congressional probity. The walls are still wallpapered from a century ago. They’ve been painted over numerous times, so I left it in place. The floor is all marked up from a million kid feets, but it’s plenty solid. The windows and doors had a spartan head casing made from two plain, square blocks in the corners, with a flat casing in between. I yanked them off and fabricated a four-piece head casing out of lumber yard pine.

The walls were dirty off-white and spidered with cracks from the house settling. I beefed them all up with quick-setting drywall compound and paper reinforcing tape. The ceiling cracks got the same, and it looks vaguely flat and smooth again. I had to hit the brown spots with two coats of shellac primer, and one of Kilz oil-base primer, to get the stains to finally shut up. Water filtered through a hundred-and ten-year-old attic gets evil indeed.

The ceiling is now spanking white. The walls are — well, I don’t know what they are. I mixed all the odds and ends of paint in the basement together to make a sickly blue and then squirted in some raw umber and raw sienna and got that green. The doors and the floors are orange-y colored and complement it nicely.

We’ll touch up the scrapes in the floor with some yellowish dye I made for some tables a decade or so ago, and put a coat or two of clear gloss varnish over the floor, because I’ve been looking at the can on the shelf for twenty-five years and I’m getting tired of it.

I made that dresser about twenty five years ago for my older son, and now his little brother stows his rags and bones and feathers in it. It’s made of curly birch, a wood that’s as hard as Chinese arithmetic. I don’t really remember making it, exactly, but I remember distinctly that after I ran a drawer front through a shaper that the edge of the board was so sharp that it cut my hand like a razor. I used to make six of those shelves at a time about thirty years ago, and still have a few of them kicking around. They were probably the first woodworking projects I ever tried.

While I was working in the room, I was in a dreamlike state. I went back in time, like paddling up a stream, past the hundreds and hundreds of rooms just like it I’ve painted or banged nails in or whatever. It was all so familiar that it started to feel strange to do it again. The restoration of rooms like this one feels ephemeral at this point, and nearly useless to anyone but me. People do not value what is in my head or hand or heart the way I do.

Sisyphus is cursed to push a rock up a hill every day, and every night it rolls back to the bottom. But no one much understands Sisyphus. We’re all cursed to push the rock of life up a hill we can never surmount. It’s how you push the rock that matters.

Do Your Best, With What You Have, Where You Are, Going as Fast as You Can

So you’re like me. You’re fixing an abandoned house in the butt end of nowhere. The question is not how good a job you can do. That doesn’t enter into it. The only question is how good a job you can do, with what you have, where you are, going as fast as you can. I know it’s a riff on Teddy Roosevelt, but he’s a fellow traveler for me, not the inspiration. I figure no one should judge anyone else using any other slide rule. It’s the question I’ve been answering for over ten years in this house. Maybe my whole life.

I’ve had my fingers in all sorts of construction projects over the years. Some vanishingly small, some pretty big, and lots in between. I’ve performed ridiculously fussy work, for substantial sums, and barbaric constructions where that was required. Our current house is a very particular kind of project for me, one I’m not sure I chose, but don’t mind that it was chosen for me, really. How good a job you can do, with what you have, where you are, going as fast as you can, between snow-shoveling sessions and firewood stacking interludes and scratching out a living is more accurate. The length of time it’s taken to turn this beat around bugs me. It punched me in the face to see a time date stamp from ten years ago on the house lifting pictures. But I was going as fast as I could, where I was, with what I had. I may be disappointed, but I’m not sheepish about the whole thing.

Readers are always curious about these sorts of projects. Home Improvement, they used to call it. What is it now? I’m not sure. I need a consultant to help me buy $35,000-worth of kitchen counters. My god, have you seen Pinterest, or egad, Houzz? Have you watched This Old House in the last decade? The question seemed to be how exacting a job can you expect with an unlimited budget and an army of workers in zip codes where I’d be arrested for trespassing if I got out of the car. Finished immediately, while being documented like a WPA project, by the way.

So I’m doing my bit by writing about making a hellhole into a livable home in a downscale, somewhat wild, faraway place. I’m not pretending to be a farmer or a rancher or whatever to cadge internet attention, either.  I see many younger people on the intertunnel longing for something like that, although their image of it seems to be glamping more than real homeownership to my eye. In the same way that going on vacation isn’t the same as traveling, looking longingly at pictures of log cabins in trackless forests on Tumblr won’t give you a real idea about how the domicile world works out where the roads only have one stripe on them. I live in a regular (Victorian) house in a village. Get your yurt fetishes and tiny house dreams elsewhere, I don’t mind.

But I’m telling you kids, you could do it. Give me an hour on Zillow and I’ll find you seventeen houses for fifty grand or less that need less work than mine did, sprayed all over the map. If I can fix a house, you can, because I’m not born to it any more than any of you. I just got interested in it early on, and kept going. You could too. Kids spend four years in college learning nothing and borrowing a hundred large for the privilege. You’ll get a better education and a house without a mortgage for the same money and time invested with my method. Find a place and fix it. You can do it.

So my readers will have to look at pictures from years back for a while, until I catch up with real-time and you see the other seventeen projects I’ve gotten up to recently. And I’ll look at the few pictures I have, trying to illustrate what I was doing with words, because I was going as fast as I could and didn’t have time to take many pictures. I’ll fib about some stuff, and guess about other things, because I moved on to the next thing too fast to remember what I just did. You’ll wonder how thing went from demolition to cabinet hardware without enough steps in between, and I’ll shed a tear over images of my children with childish faces that have disappeared into the calendars.

I was writing that that line, Do as good a job you can do, with what you have, where you are, going as fast as you can, referring to fixing a house, but it occurs to me it applies to most anything, especially raising children. And upon reflection, it’s the part about going as fast as you can that really matters. If you have big time resources and lots of help and plenty of time to think and plan and worry about your children, and oodles of free time to spend with them, you have a leg up on the average parent. But the speed is the same for everyone, I think. You better not hesitate, or linger over a single aspect of parenting, or the whole thing will disappear down a rabbit hole before you know it. You’ll be standing there blinking, with adults staring at you, wondering where did it all go? You’d kill to get down on the car carpet and play Matchbox cars with them one more time, but they want the car keys. Go big, go fast, or go home. A rest home. One of the ones they feature on Sixty Minutes.

I used to make a kind of joke at work, but it wasn’t really a joke, it was wisdom in disguise, though I didn’t realize it at the time. “I can do it faster than anyone who can do it better, and I can do it better than anyone who can do it faster.” It’s the kind of invincible stupidity that you need to tackle a home improvement project. I have it in spades. Get some. You’ll be glad you did.

[I’ll get back to pestering the side porch tomorrow. Thanks to everyone who reads, comments, buys my book, or hits the tip jar. It is greatly appreciated]

All He Needs Now Is a Manifesto

A fine effort. I gave it a solid 6 out of 10 on the Dick Proenneke scale of bushcraft. Then I discovered he’d disabled embedding on websites other than YouTube, so I knocked it back to a 5. The insulated, “captured” floor is the shizzle. I love the auger holes and the wooden pegs. The whole thing is a nice, quiet job. He knows enough to come in out of the rain, too, which is not usually a distinguishing mark of the outdoorsy breed. The door hinges are pretty slick, too. Even Proenneke waterproofed his moss roof with a layer of plastic film, so we’re not going to fault him for that. And his foldable rocket stove is fantastic.

Of course, if I received a package from a guy like this, I’d put it in a bucket of water before I opened it. Just sayin’.

Eight Things That Won’t Happen in Heating

Before I continue my peripatetic recounting of trying to heat my children’s rooms, we need to go over some fundamentals. Well, they’re fundamentals for me. For you, they are black arts, voodoo, base lies, mistakes, tomfoolery, and blather. You’ve been reading the newspaper again, and everything sensible begins to sound like black arts, voodoo, base lies, mistakes, tomfoolery, and blather after you do that. So I’m warning you: I need to talk sense, and sense is going to sound weird.

You see, articles on websites are written by the girls that used to sit next to you in grammar school drawing little smiley faces instead of a tittle over “i” and “j.” They had very elaborate, bulbous erasers and other gewgaws on the end of their pencils where a simple eraser once lived. They were forever raising their hand and tattling on you to the teacher, because you were bored and were misbehaving all the live-long day. They eventually went to Directional State College where they got an associates degree in Solo Cups and Oppression, and then they went to work pulling on bent oars in one of the tatty triremes still afloat in the Newsgathering Navy.

They don’t know anything, or more accurately, they know a lot of stuff and none of it is true. Everything they know they found out by reading news articles written by people just like them. Their research method is to get drunk on appletinis four nights a week using their divorced dad’s credit card, and on Friday at noon they ask a question on HARO to get the straight dope and deliver their writing assignment. They interview whoever responds, usually a kindly vinyl siding salesmen who explains that vinyl siding cures cancer. Even though the article is supposed to be about improving your gas mileage, it’s dutifully transcribed, because deadline, duh.

For hard info, the Intertunnel is like the Telephone Game, with the same information being plagiarized and re-transmitted over and over until it bursts out of its final chrysalis into a listicle on Buzzfeed that explains the Top Ten reasons Bieber brought down the World Trade Center.

So bear with me. Everything you know about heating is wrong. It’s not your fault. Allow me to help. Here are Eight Things That Won’t Happen in Heating:

A Ceiling Fan Will…
See, I stopped the sentence at the verb. I did that because this is the Swiss Army Knife of heating advice: Ceiling fans have nothing whatsover to do with heating, so anything that talks about using a ceiling fan in any way related to heating your home is a dog’s homemade meatloaf.

Warm Air Will Rise
That’s actually true, but so what? People think the
conversation ends there. Hot air will not run up your chimney if you
leave the damper open. Hot air will not go upstairs and slam the door
and refuse to interact with you in the living room like a hot teenager.
Hot air rises, and then something else happens. Which leads us to:

The Stratification of Air Will Need to Be Dealt With  
No, it won’t, because it’s impossible to have stratification of air in a house. It doesn’t happen. Your cure for this stratification, a ceiling fan, cures a condition that doesn’t condish, to coin a term. It doesn’t solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Stratification is a fancy way of saying layering. News articles and ceiling fan makers talk endlessly about this imaginary condition, and how they’ll solve it. Actually, by solving an imaginary problem, ceiling fans in heating season cause a real problem. Even fairly warm air delivered too quickly to a human is a draft, and drafts make you feel colder.

Warm air is less dense than cold air and newspaper reporters. It rises naturally to the first barrier it meets: the ceiling. It then travels across the ceiling until it reaches the next barrier, usually the wall opposite the heat source. Then it drops to the floor. It then travels across the floor to where it started, because air is being evacuated from that spot when the warm air rises. This is called a convection loop. This has to happen. It’s warmer at the ceiling than the floor because the air is only halfway through the convection loop. If you interrupt it with a ceiling fan, you accomplish less than nothing. You feel a draft, half the room gets less heat than it would.

You’ll Be More Comfortable If Your Furnace/Boiler/Heat Pump Runs Less
By weatherstripping and insulating your home until you turn blue if you stay home for more than four hours at a stretch, you’re supposed to save money on energy and be comfortable. Actually, your energy supplier saves on energy because they don’t have to produce as much, and your bill stays the same because reasons. You shiver just like before.

That’s because your heating system doesn’t like turning on and off all the time. When it comes on, it gives you more heat than you need to feel warm. It’s set to deliberately overshoot the temp setting so it can rest when it gets where it’s going. Then it waits until the temperature is substantially lower than you want it before it turns on again. That keeps it from cycling on and off all the time.

The perfect heat source runs continuously at exactly the correct setting required to keep the house comfortable without ever turning off unless it’s time to open the windows. My pellet stove can do this in some seasons, but a regular furnace in a regular house will never even attempt this form of stasis. Everyone’s too worried about hoarding heat instead of producing enough, and how comfortable the furnace is instead of the occupants.

Energy Efficient Windows Will Be Energy Efficient
No, they won’t be, if you have a dictionary and look up “efficient.” A single-pane window from a century ago is titanically efficient. A hole in your wall has zero R-value, after all. A sheet of window glass placed over it is R-1. That’s, like, infinity and beyond in energy improvement. Well, it might not be an infinite improvement, but I was bored and goofing off in Math class, and you ratted on me, remember? It’s some amount of big improvement.

Super duper energy efficient window manufacturers like to use percentages to advertise the improvement you’ll enjoy when you purchase their products, because super duper energy efficient window manufacturers like to lie. A 100-percent improvement in the performance of a 90-cent piece of window glass takes you from R-1 to R-2. Whoopty! And to think it only costs an extra $250 per window. Your walls are R-13 and your attic is R-30, but hey, rock on, super duper energy efficient window dudes.

Weatherstripping Will Be the Key to Everything
You can’t live in a mason jar with the lid screwed on to save on heat. I mean, you can, but not for very long before your estate takes a hit from the professional mourner bill. You need fresh air in your house, and spending thousands to mew yourself up, only to call the HVAC guy back to add a fresh air exchanger to let the cold air back in, is silly.

If you do the easy weatherization stuff, everything that follows costs a lot and lowers your quality of life. It’s similar to the way government works.

A Bigger Circulating Fan Will Help
Everybody’s house is designed by Dr. Caligari but they blame the HVAC system when they’re chilly or hot. They ask the intern who writes everything at This Old House dot com if a bigger circulating fan will spread the heat more thoroughly into their sunken fondue-eating area next to the combination solarium/darkroom. There’s a problem. Heat moving slowly is heat. Heat moving quickly is a draft. A bigger fan or more fans is rarely the answer. And remember, a ceiling fan never is.
Your Fireplace Will Send 143 Trillion BTUs an Hour Into Space 
This one could be true. I don’t know you personally, and you could be a Bond villain stroking an Angora cat and plotting world domination by sending 143 trillion BTUs an hour into space. Then again, you might be an obese pipefitter with halitosis wondering if Tom Brady’s wife might be trying to call you for an erotic liaison. That could happen, too.

I’m the last living human that knows the actual, proper name for an open fireplace made of masonry: An ornamental fireplace. Look up the word “ornamental.” It’s not a furnace. It’s not supposed to be used to heat your house efficiently, so solutions to fix the problem of it not being a good furnace are of doubtful utility.

Even if you leave your damper open when your fireplace is not in use, not a lot of air will go up your chimney, or come down it, either. If you feel a draft near your chimney, it’s because your house is weatherstripped like a mummy’s tomb, and your furnace or boiler or whatever is burning all the air inside your house for combustion. It will then desperately try to draw in more air from outside so the fire doesn’t go out, and as a by-product, so you don’t die of asphyxiation.

You’re supposed to have a fire in your fireplace once a year to get rid of Christmas wrapping paper and a couple of logs from that tree that blew down when Reagan was president. You’re supposed to sit beside it and enjoy the look of the flames, and feel the radiant heat from the fire on your face. That’s what it’s for.

On Our Next Episode:
I may, if you’re nice to me, write something about actual ductwork. Maybe.   

First Comes The Concrete Leper Colony. Then The Framing


[If you just came in, I’m describing the process for fixing the ramshackle house where I currently live in Maine. Just like all actual repair work, I lied to get the job, and it’s taking way longer than the estimate. The Shirk Brothers in The Money Pit are not really fictional. I’ll get to the point in two weeks! I promise]

You might expect the published rules for building a house to resemble some form of instruction book. You’d expect wrong.

This is what it looks like. (it’s a pdf)

That’s just an addendum or notification or supplement or appendix or amendment or notification of pending imminent continuing forthcoming wonderfulness. The actual body of the code is much less straightforward and succinct, and it’s six inches thick. There’s a delightful entry among the gobbletygook atop page two on the linked pdf — don’t miss it, it’s a howler. It asks for an estimate of the fiscal impact of changing and adding a bunch of laws about building every sort of structure in a whole state, and it just says “None.” They double down by asking about any effects on small businesses, and they aver once again, “none.” I guess the rubber stamp that reads: Who Gives A Sh*t was sent back to the print shop to be resoled from overuse, and they had to settle for the None version.

The “CMR” on all such pages stands for Code of Massachusetts Regulations. That’s right, you’re reading legislation if you want to build a house, or more precisely: statutes.The Building Code is part of this CMR, and it’s mired in Dogeared Dewey Decimal Land in the 700s. If you’re curious about whether politicians have decided to cast their laser-like focus on whether gasoline-soaked foam rubber makes good wallpaper in a nightclub, you can look at the amendment of the section about what kind of chair rail  you can use in your basement in a flood zone.

If you’ve ever wondered if ADHD is a real thing, the CMR is the scientific proof for it. It’s a very real condition, or syndrome, or affliction, or whatever you need to call it to get your speed pills paid for without a co-pay. You apparently catch if from touching ballots in state representative elections in Massachusetts. The general public, and even poll workers don’t suffer from it, because they handle so few ballots, but the winners of the elections get the germs all over them by stuffing so many into the ballot boxes when no one’s looking. They should probably wear gloves.

I promised you a big secret on Saturday, like everyone does on the Intertunnel, but here it is Monday, and no secret, and now we have to go to UMASS Dartmouth first. Sorry. Don’t get me wrong, you can’t learn much of anything useful about your house by going to that august seat of learning; but you have to take a test.

UMASS Dartmouth is the perfect place to take a test about building things in Massachusetts, because it is, without question, the ugliest warren of structures of any kind in the world. It’s not uglier than Boston City Hall, because that’s impossible, but it’s built in the exact same brutalist low-bidder concrete-fetish style, and there are dozens of buildings exactly like it at the campus. If Boston City Hall is just one hobo with a giant carbuncle on his nose, bumming money from you as you hurry to work, then UMASS Dartmouth is a leper colony.

So a couple times a year, they’d schedule test for the license at state colleges. I had the “book,” I read it (shudders) and signed up. I walked down a hallway in some Fuhrer bunker masquerading as a classroom building, and as I walked, the bow wave of air from my passage pulled down all the various photocopy fliers kids in college stick on corridor walls with entreaties to Party! or march on Washington or whatever, and they skirled on the vinyl tile behind me like autumn leaves. The heavily textured block wall wouldn’t allow any hook, and were too rough to hold even a duct-taped flyer. I thought to myself, right then, for the first time, that  I was in an insane place, doing a crazy thing, among daft people. It turned out I didn’t know the half of it.

The arena where I was directed was crazier. It was one of those lecture halls that holds hundreds, the chalkboard turning into nothing more than a billboard in a flea circus by the time you reached the back row where I was seated, because the room was full. And there were people taking the test in other halls like this on campus. And on every state college campus at the same time. And they did it multiple times a year. I was agog. I began to wonder if every single person in the state was going to have a Construction Supervisor’s license, and mine would be worthless.

I have a habit that goes back to elementary school taught by nuns. They introduced competitive aspects to learning that are now out of favor. They taught us that it wasn’t enough to get an A. If you could get an A, you could get every question right, and should try. If you could get every question right, you should work on your penmanship, and get every question right in perfect, florid cursive. And if every form of competitive testing is already covered, you should try to finish first on top of everything else, too. I was determined to try, because I still flinch when I think of the nuns.

(to be continued, with a secret, I promise)


Way, Way More Than An Hour On The Stage

Shall I sing you the song of my people?

Shall I strut and fret an hour upon the stage? Wait a minute, I don’t take music gigs any more. What I mean to say is, do you want to hear a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying, well, not nothing, but not much, either? 

I said earlier that if I describe my life accurately, no one believes me. If I tell the truth, I’m disbelieved, or excoriated, to taste. People think I’m bragging when I’m expiating my guilt, and they think I’m being modest when I’m thumpin’ my chest. I have some problems explaining that I don’t like explaining jokes, especially if I have to explain that I was joking before explaining the joke. 

But enough about me; what do you think about me? (There. that’s a joke. Drat. I’m doing it.) Should I tell you what I did this summer? Think before you answer. By proxy, you’re asking me a direct question. That’s like making eye contact with panhandlers or people handing out flyers in front of the alternative bookstore. You’re going to have to shoulder some blame if you look me directly in the Intereye and say, Sippican, what did you do this summer? 

If you ask a normal person what they did this summer, you figure they’ll tell you about their tedious trip to Disney World, or whatever normal people do in the summer; how would I know what normal people do? I haven’t talked to a normal person in years. I’ve retreated to my mountain bolthole and only get to espy circus families in the Walmart to gather intel on my fellow citizens. I gather you like NASCAR and Funyuns more than I do. Other than that you’re all a mystery.

So be warned; if you answer in the affirmative, I’m not going to tell you about vacation, because I haven’t had one in fifteen years or so, and I won’t tell you about the interesting things I saw on television, because there is no such thing, and I can’t take pictures of my food in funky restaurants and Instagram the shite out of them because I never leave the house, never mind go to restaurants. 

All I can tell you about is lifting my house six inches with no money and a seventeen-year old to help. If you’re not interested, say so now.

Ancient Posts Currently Under Assault By Skeevy Spammers For Some Reason: This Old Cave

[Editor’s Note: From 2009. Alice doesn’t live there any more]

Back porch on cave broke. Again. Caveman broke again, too. But must fix. Cavewoman tired of ants massaging bottom of feets. Caveman fix once and for all.

Caveman fixed porch two years ago. Not caveman’s fault porch not last. Porch made from leftover framing lumber scraps from house because caveman never have budget. Caveman not know what budget is. Some kind of bird, I think. Lasted fifteen years anyway.

Must make mark in life. My mark is upside down, like everything else in Caveman’s life. Caveman is mystified by runes on unholy measuring tape. Only use if necessary.

Caveman have cave tan. Caveman asks reader to note that leg is moving too fast to be seen clearly. Caveman only has two afternoons and a few hundred bucks to finish. Make holes! Caveman qualified for that.

Caveman digs hole 30″ deep, where frost not go. Caveman tamps. Caveman either bending down or lost lower right leg in horrible tamping accident. (Caveman checks) Leg OK. No worry.

Gravel, precast concrete mushroom footing, 4 x 4 Pressure treated post. No one tell friend Gerard 4 x 4 is only 3-1/2 by 3-1/2. Upsets him.

No measure if caveman can help it! Use stick for straightedge and plumb with level. When level is plumb, post is plumb level. Caveman know what desk jockey thinking. What with Caveman wearing gloves? Caveman is caveman, not barbarian.

Make mark, use lumber for straightedge now. Like Caveking coronation, make sure crown of lumber faces up. Caveman is swaybacked, caveporch is not. Caveporch will be two times bigger now. Cavelady will forgive everything now. Cavecubs will have place to expose themselves to sun god now, but not in the mud for a change.

Caveman use something called newmatic or some other sorcery to pound nails. Must hurry. Have tables to make after dark.

Caveman has all the barbarian tools. Sawzall great for de-boning large prey and tax assessors. Caveman just kidding. Tool is too dirty to use on large prey.

Pressure treated wood used to scare non-cavemoms with scary arsenate word. Laws passed. Lumber now treated with other harmless stuff. Of course new stuff rots nails. Caveman shrug and back up everything with galvanized plates and hangers and double hot-dipped galvy nails. Big Cavecub bang many nails in hangers. Little Cavecub only one who understands runes on tape, so he measure:

Only measure first and last decking board! Waste of time to measure and cut all one by one. Install all crooked anyway. I show you what to do. You think caveman smart, but caveman just lazy and in a hurry.

Cut first and last with circular saw older than caveman. I changed the blade when Reagan was President, so saw is ready for additional decades. Use Speedsquare as fence for straight cuts.

Caveman told you: do not measure with runetape. Use prop and line things up. No understand measure twice cut once. No measure at all, be drinking mead and eating roasted grill flesh while Norm is still trying to finish in dark while mosquitoes feast on his flesh.

I tell you one last time: No measure. Nail first board, last board. Flop other 2 x 6 PT boards down. Shove 3-1/2 inch dipped galvy ring-shank nails between boards for spacers. Pound rest of nasty nails into boards at joists. Use big nasty framing hammer or you have no shot, because wood is like wet iron. Caveman not use newmatic gun because nails would rot, and newmatic would set nail in, making many thousands of little holes filled with water. Pressure treat cheap and no rot, but water in holes freezes and pulls boards to pieces.

Caveman turning into harpy: Do not measure. First and last board right length. Stretch chalkline string between them, snap it and cut on the line. Caveman use hot pink chalk because caveman is in touch with his feminine side.

Caveman lay bricks left over from demolition of gas station ten years ago in running bond pattern in sand from little cavecub’s old sandbox. Even caveman knows step should be very deep and wide outside, and land on transition to grass, not grass. Rake out soil, throw down seed and go make a table.

Caveman will paint entire thing when it dries out. Cavelady likes bigger porch. Maybe show Caveman her feminine side too.

I Don’t Think Anyone Really Thought I Was Serious Because I Was Eleven Years Old At The Time

As is occasionally the case, I don’t know whether to write about Ben’s Tiny House here, or on The Borderline Sociopathic Blog For Boys. Ben belongs both places, I imagine.

Ben Norton was an ambitious eleven-year-old when he became captivated with the idea of building his own tiny house.

Now, adults have lost their minds, and have started talking about how they’re going to live in a shed, or a phone booth, or an apartment it would be illegal to keep a death-row inmate in, because they’re going to save the environment — whatever that is — but Ben is talking sense. He’s got the urge. He wants to build shelter. That’s what a normal boy does. He makes things, and maybe dreams about making bigger things.

Take a big bite, and keep chewing, as the old saying goes. Building shelter is interesting, and important, but at its most basic level, it’s not rocket surgery. It’s amenable to plain effort coupled to curiosity. Ben obviously had help, but the Leaning Tower of Footings he’s got going on underneath his mahal hints that he really did do the work by himself, along with his mates, and wasn’t just posing for the pictures.

iPhone people constantly blog about their desire to mechanize the construction of home building. They figure everything they care about is made in a factory, preferably overseas where people they don’t care about as much as they protest they do risk getting Bhopaled instead of them. Why not houses? What they are really daydreaming about is not having anything to do with other people, especially people whose fingernails have something besides Cheeto dust under them . They’d prefer to order an Ikea house and have it dropped off by FedEx, like everything else in their life. That’s fine, I guess, but there’s an enormous flaw in their thinking: Building housing for humans is already one of the most efficient, mechanized, and orderly processes there is in the American landscape. It takes so long, costs so much, and seems so mysterious and infuriating to people with skinny glasses because the process is filled with people like them — clerks, nabobs, government officials, endless ranks of rulemakers telling the people that build shelter, and the people that occupy said shelter, exactly what they’re allowed to build and live in. All that foolishness, and more, will still happen when housing becomes all pre-fab; it will just be hidden from sight at a factory instead of on display where the house goes. Then a truck will come with your Ikea double-wide and plop it down and you can live in the shabby thing without talking to anyone with muscles on their bodies that aren’t the residue of mouse clicks.

That’s why Ben’s barn, or shed, or whatever you want to call it, is so wonderful. It is the essence of a house. It is shelter, in its simplest form — stripped-down, straightforward, homemade. It is not trying to do much besides keep the rain off your head, and the bears out of your food. It is as iconic as a crayon drawing of a house by a child. It’s an example of why the tiny house people are right, for the wrong reasons. Shelter for humans should be straightforward.

Ben has shown you something, if you’ll just see it. You’ve forgotten what you’re trying to do. Ben wasn’t old enough to forget anything, so he got it right the first time.


Ben’s Tiny House on The Tiny House Blog

[Thanks to the lovely and talented Joan of Arrggh for sending that one along]

Tag: home improvement

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