Sunday, July 30, 2006

I want to ride my bicycle....

This renovation has been an all-consuming, exhausting project that has at times caused me to forget about things like work, family, and showering. However, either through my own self-realization or with a good smack upside the head from my wonderful wife, I am getting better and managing to take a step back and enjoy the important things in life.

Yesterday was one of those important things, a majorly proud moment for daddy, up there on the list with a kid's medical school graduation, marriage, and Nobel Prize acceptance. We took the training wheels off, and Natalie is now an accomplished bicycle rider.

She and I took a jaunt over to North Park, which I believe is named not so much for it's park-like setting but it's quantity of massive and generally unused parking lots. Natalie donned her Disney Princess elbow and knee pads, buckled her Disney Princess helmet, hopped on her "Foxy" bike with the purple tassles and sparkly paint, and and I ran alongside her, holing her seat and explaining the scientific principles of balance and velocity. Within minutes, my hand moved from her seat to her back. Seconds later, I had only two fingers just below her neck, showing her I was still there. In another moment, my hand was gone, and she was still vertical. And laughing and screaming hysterically with the thrill of new-found freedom. I continued to run alongside her, sweating profusely and barely keeping up, giving her this tip and that tip and reminding her about handy things like brakes. Finally I stopped running and Off she went, into kid-hood, her training wheels, tricycle, and stroller all distant memories.

Within minutes she graduated to the next stage of bicycle riding...chatting incessantly with others while riding around. A seven-year-old girl was also riding her bike in the same parking lot, and the two of them bagan talking to each other about the colors of their bikes, the meaning of life while they rode. Yack yack yack....until finally the inevitable happened. Too much talk, not enough paying attention, and they both crashed into each other. They got up and laughed about it, and took off for more.

Enjoy it, Natalie!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Flashbacks through carpeting

Last night we had the pleasure of ripping up the carpet in our old family room. This was a gray berber carpet with absolutely no life left in it anymore, in a room that's been used as a playroom, an office, a living room, a potty-training room, and a general dumping ground for all things Fisher-Price.

As we ripped it up, I was reminded of a Simpsons Episode, where Homer comes across a box of baking soda in the fridge and bets he can eat the whole thing. "Wow, the absorbed odors of a million meals," he says. Almost immediately, Homer is overwhelmed by the flavors of meals past, and has some interesting hallucinations. We hear a sound bite of Johnny Cochran's famous "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit" slogan, and see a hamburger with fries floating against a techno background of computerized numbers. Nixon's resignation speech accompanies some disco music, a mirrored ball and a pie. Finally, as we hear Neil Armstrong take his famous first step on the moon, a meatball sandwich bobs above a psychedelic background. The sandwich starts spinning, and we are transported back to the present, where Homer lies in a stupor on the kitchen table, with baking soda foaming out of his mouth and nostrils.

As we ripped up the festering mess of a carpet, we were reminded of the time Natalie puked. Of the time the sippy cup of milk leaked. Of the juice spills. The leaky diapers. Oh, the memories. Good times, good times.

And no, we were not greeted with hardwood floors underneath.

(credit to

Tuesday, July 25, 2006


Bob informed us that he was done, for now, until we got around to painting rooms. He said he'd come back once we've painted and finish the trim, and the little things. Things like door handles, faucets, shower doors. But I'm thinking this is what it's like when the kids go off to college. Suddenly it's silent, and no one around to clean up the mess except ourselves. But like that proverbial freshman back with a load of dirties for the washer, Bob will be back with a laundry list of things to do within the next week.

Speaking of dirties, our current decorating motif seems to be a bit of early post-Katrina, without the mold and wetness. Every room is beyond disheveled. It's like we just moved in, but the movers didn't bring in boxes. Instead they just backed the van up to the front door and dumped. as I sit here in our former dining room, now office, I look behind me to see our KitchenAid mixer stacked on top of a DVD cabinet, along with a six-pack of Coke, a telescope, a baking dish, a drafting board, notes for the plumber, and a fake plum. and that's just in the corner. In the new dining room, all the furniture is more or less in place, but the contents of the china hutch cover every square inch of the dining table.

And those are the neatest rooms.

We've got a long way to go.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Progress amid chaos

Okay, so I've been out of touch for a while. It's been a non-stop, insanely-paced week. my parents came in, and we tackled a huge number of major projects this week. We:

-installed the floor in the family room
-installed the floor in the dining room
-Wired all the switches and light fixtures
-installed the tile floor in the bathroom
-painted the family room
-painted the bathroom
-installed the bathroom cabinets
-worked with Bob to stain the trim and dig a drainage pit
-moved a whole lot of furniture around

Electrically, I only managed to nerf up one circuit, hooking up a couple of outdoor lights without remembering to deal with the switch wire. Oh well, they are fixed now. Dad also made a challenge for himself when he discovered he wired the lights in the mudroom in such a way that would have made Thomas Edison go, "huh?" After an hour of pondering wiring diagrams, he finally came up with a way to get them successfully wired and we were done.

So, about the flooring. A lot of people asked about the fact that we decided to put a laminate (think Pergo) floor into the family room and dining room. In the end, I have this to say. It's about as hard to put in as I expected, and much harder than the ads say it is. In the ads, you simply click the pieces together like a jigsaw puzzle. In reality, you need three people and a minor in geometry. You also definitely need a miter saw AND a table saw. The stuff looks fantastic once it's in, and it's certainly a lot easier than a hardwood floor. It's also extremely durable, and really, really slipperly. My kids love careening into the furniture.

Paining the bathroom and installing the bathroom cabinets gave us a real sense that we are close to completion on this. The bath looks awesome. Can't wait to poop there. Should have a sink and toilet by aug 5th or so. Of course, we ended up selecting a really nice set of bronze wall sconces, which means the brushed nickel faucet I bought on clearance needs to be returned for one that matches the sconces....and of course we'll probably spend three times as much. The cabinet was a close call, in that once part of it was 24" wide and 24" deep, and the door frame is exactly 24" wide. If it had been a more humid day, I think the wood would have swelled too much to get it in the room.

Meanwhile, we've moved into the family room, and are emptied out the old dining room to bring the computer up desk tonight. Progress!It's now sunday night, Dad and I are completely exhausted, and I need to go to work tomorrow. Thank goodness...I need the vacation. While we made tremendous progress this week, the house is still a complete disaster. Imagine moving into a new home, but rather than using boxes you simply put all your belongings into a dump druck, dumped on the floor of your new home, then covered everything with drywall dust. That's what it looks like here.

But it looks like we're on schedule to host a LOST premiere party in September. In fact, there might even be seating by then.

One last note of thanks to my 12-year-old niece Tova. My parents dragged her along, and we put her to work. "Amp Girl", as she's known by those in the electrical world, was given the tasks of testing circuits, laying flooring, and painting. She worked like a dog. Funny thing is, she told me her mom (my sister) wouldn't let her do anything when they renovated their house. Sucker. Little did they know what a good day laborer they had in the family.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Really Poor Customer Service

So we purchased our family room and kitchen flooring a couple of weeks ago through a local flooring company that has this "shop at home" deal. A salesman came over with his floor samples and we bought directly through him. We purchased an in-stock laminate floor that we would pick up and put in our family room ourselves, and also purchased a replacement vinyl floor for the kitchen that would be professionally installed. We told the guy that the kitchen floor couldn't be installed until August when a wall was taken down and new cabinets were installed.

So a day after we place the order, the store calls us to ask if they can come the next day to install the floor. We tell them no, and explain the above to them. Okay, so the sales guy failed to tell the store the part about waiting until August. No biggie.

Yesterday, the installer called our house to say he was on the way there to install the vinyl, and needed directions.


So I called the store back. Before I could ask anything, the guy who answered the phone asked if there was ANY way they could install today, so as to not mess up the schedule, and not to worry, the guy is a totally trustworthy born-again Christian, and blah blah...

When I finally got a word in edgewise I told him that he couldn't install not because we weren't home, but because there's a WALL IN THE WAY.

Meanwhile, the in-stock laminate floor we ordered for some reason still wasn't at the store to pick up after over a week. Each day I would call the store, and they'd tell me "tomorrow." Early this week, I called the salesguy and asked him to check into it. Yesterday he told me it's in the store warehouse, ready to pick up. He said the warehouse guy put his hands on the order, and it's definitely there.

So I called the store back to find out how late they were open, and the guy at the store tells me the order isn't there. I not-so-politely told him to get his butt on the phone with his sales guy and tell me something that actually makes sense.

Today, I called the sales guy once more, and dropped the L-bomb. I told him if he didn't have the order available for pickup by noon I was canceling the whole thing and going to Lowes.

An hour later, the flooring was delivered, free of charge, to the house. This entire time (two weeks), it was in a warehouse in Penn Hills, about 20 miles from here.

Later this afternoon, I got a call from the store, informing me my order is in and ready to pick up.

Sad. Really, really sad.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

So, what have we learned?

The following is a feeble attempt to provide some advice to those thinking of attempting their own renovation. This is not a step-by-step, but rather a list of things you might not have known about, or would be surprised to hear.

Have an architect in the family
Lucky for us, my dad is a retired architect. Granted he's probably responsible for this project happening in the first place because, if it hadn't been for that damned home improvement gene he gave me, we'd probably have bought a new house by now. but instead the sawdust in my veins caused me to convince my wife that renovating was a good idea. Let's hope I'm right. So far it's about 50/50.

Whatever it costs, you don't have enough
Some say a figure of $100 per square foot is a good rough figure when you start planning. I'd say that's not far off. But then you go to Pottery Barn, or a custom cabinet maker, or that place that sells the showers for ten grand, and all bets are off.

Turn your garage into Ikea
There's no avoiding it. You will lose at least one garage bay due to temporary relocation of crap. Stay on top of it. Don't let it get disorganized, because the moment you do you will need something at the bottom of the pile. So why mention Ikea? If you've shopped at Ikea, you know that browsing the showroom involves following a single pathway through the entire store. Use that same concept in your garage. No matter how packed it gets, make sure everything remains accessible even if you have to wander through a maze to get there. If you let stuff pile up, that wall sconce you need will be under the three-hundred pound sofa table.

Use every cubic foot of space you have, creatively.
Think about it. You have a home that needs more space. so what's the first thing you do? Make your house even smaller for the next few months. Couches get moved to the basement, toys get stacked under the crib, dogs get tethered to the piano. It's chaos. And then, when the builder asks you at 9pm on a Thursday night if he can tear down that wall in the kitchen tomorrow, you've got to find even more storage space at the last minute. Just where do you think you're going to put that collection of cow-shaped tea kettles, bub?

Here's a real example. I had to stash our entertainment unit away to make room for the demolition of a wall. So the stereo cabinet got emptied and stored in a corner next to the piano. which, by the way, is behind two couches and an ottoman. The receiver is on top of the stereo cabinet, and the speakers are on top of that. The 400-disc changer got stashed in my daughter's closet. The VCR went under our bedroom VCR, making the TV rest only inches from the ceiling. The DVD player is under our bed. The TiVo, well, that's still connected to the TV, but sitting on the floor in the hallway. The trick is to a)remember where you stashed everything, b)keep it a livable space, and c)don't expect that you will ever be done finding places to stash stuff. If Carnegie Mellon University taught me only one thing, it's that living in a two-room dorm with three fellow students, all of whom came to school with more crap than your average Wal-Mart, forces you to get creative with storage.

Get a Home Depot Rewards Mastercard
This isn't a Home Depot store card, but an actual Mastercard. A point back per dollar spent, plus 2 points for each dollar spent at Home Depot. We've done well with that. As have the good folks at Home Depot.

Get one of these
I came across this tool, the Skill iXO palm screwdriver, at a Home Depot sale. It's incredibly useful. Worth every penny.

Get a portable accordian file
You have no idea just how much paperwork is involved with this. Bids, receipts, special orders, estimates, brochures, swatches, catalogues, photos, sketches, drawings. If I hadn't thought of setting one of these up from the beginning it would be chaos. And making it portable means I can take it to Home Depot with me so that, when I come across a great sale on bathroom tile, I can whip out the sample of the bathroom vanity color to compare it against.

Another advantage of this is that you always know what you've spent, and can compare against your budget.

The disadvantage of this is that you always know what you've spent, and can spend many sleepless nights wondering how you're ever going to pay for it all.

Murphy's law always applies
As we began tearing down a wall this past week, we never once thought that there might be, say, a heating duct inside it. Naturally, there was. And if you think that last thirteen-foot piece of wire is enough to reach between the last two outlets, it will of course be six inches too short. And If you are handed a set of vinyl siding samples with three price ranges, the only good colors will be in the more expensive range.

If you're planning to replace your carpeting...
...consider potty-training your kid before the new carpets go down. It's a perfect opportunity.

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Eudora Enamel

Natalie hit a major 5-year-old milestone this week when she lost her first tooth. She was so proud. Of course this sort of thing is as important to a 5-year-old kid as completing construction of the first space shuttle was to NASA. It's no small accomplishment. So naturally, we celebrated in style.

Natalie was looking forward to the tooth fairy. During the days leading up to the big loss, she would wiggle her tooth back and forth, each morning exclaiming over her toast that she thought it wiggled just a little bit further today than it did yesterday. It finally came out in the middle of lunch at Rotelli's Pizza. The waitress kindly provided her with a little take-home salad dressing cup to carry it in, which Natalie cradled like a young ring bearer cradles a wedding ring on a pillow.

That night, we explained to her the rules of a Tooth Fairy visit. Natalie had to go right to bed, with the tooth tucked under her pillow. In the morning, the tooth would be gone, and in its place a gift in exchange. You see, the Tooth Fairy uses the teeth she gathers to build her castle. And, while the going rate of construction is about a buck a square tooth, a new kid opening up a new castle building account got an extra bonus with that first tooth (can you tell we've been dealing with this renovation a little too long?).

While we were explaining all this to her, my cell phone suddenly vibrated. Or, at least Natalie thought it did. I proceeded to have an imaginary conversation with our local Tooth Fairy, who was calling for directions to our place. When I asked the Tooth Fairy for her name, she told me it was "Eudora Enamel". She also told me that, although her castle was complete, she was looking for more teeth to build a hot tub and would be willing to pay a little extra for some prime Pittsburgh Chompers. She explained that I should lock the doors, but make sure nothing was in the way of the fireplace because that's how she would get in. I told her to be careful, because the chimney's been raised about 4 feet higher because of the renovation, and I didn't want her cracking her skull open in the dark.

After Natalie went to bed, we sat down in front of the computer and made up a nice pink envelope, with a picture of Eudora and a personalized message ("keep on brushing!") and snuck a few bucks under her pillow. The next morning, our little hockey player was beaming with pride, toothless grin a mile wide, waving her envelope in the air. She told us that at first she didn't believe the tooth fairy was real, wbut when Eudora ACTUALLY CALLED, well, she knew everything was kosher.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Progress, Setbacks and you wanna tear that down when??

This July 4th weekend was spent mostly twisting wire. I went room to room, installing outlets. 32 to be exact, with about eight more to go, followed by a variety of switches and light fixtures. Considering that an outlet takes anywhere from 5 minutes to 15 minutes to wire depending on the number and guage of the wires coming into the box, I'd say that's pretty mediocre progress.

My worst fears were realized this weekend, when we had one of those violent 12:15am thunderstorms. As the lightning flashed and the rain streaked down, the only thing I could think of was, "is it dry in there?". You see, from the beginning, we found that the corner where the addition hits the rest of the house (the corner just to the left of the pile of drywall being loaded in this pic) presented something of a challenge for us. There's not a lot of area for a gutter to be hung and rain from both the new roof and the old roof all flows to this corner. As Bob was building the structure, that corner was constantly leaking to the point where I thought the floor was going to cave in.

So as I lay there listening to the rain, I figured I would sleep better knowing we're all dry.

We weren't.

Even after the roof was up, the siding was hung, and all was sealed in, we found that there was still a leak. Not a bad one, but is there such a thing as a minor roof leak? So the buckets came back, the towels and rags were laid down, and in the morning I called Bob.

I gotta hand it to Bob. In the pouring rain Tuesday morning, he and his roofing guy climbed up on there to inspect. But first, while standing in the pouring rain, he lit a cigarette. John Wayne woulda been proud. Anyway, he had a hunch as to what the problem was, so he spent all day Wednesday tearing it up and redoing it.

On the progress side, we also ordered flooring over the weekend, as well as some new kitchen cabinetry and bathroom countertops. but then we get into a whole chicken/egg scenario. What goes first? The floor? The paint? the cabinets? These all need to be worked out. Meanwhile, Bob is pushing to get this done, cuz he just got awarded another job.

Speaking of which, he called me Wednesday night around 9pm asking if he could tear out the wall between the kitchen and the dining room the next day (today). One one side of this wall is the fridge and a cabinet. On the other side is currently a bookshelf, the stereo cabinet, the TV, and a crapload of temporarily relocated toys. In the wall are various electrical wires. There was about 3 hours of unwiring, storing, and relocating work to do. I told him he had to be f'ing kidding me. So that happens Monday.

It's weird. We're really down to the wire now. As of today the siding is done (pictures to come), and the drywall finishing begins. Then Bob's got to paint the ceilings and prime the walls (which we will then paint) and after a few minor chores he's outta here. but then that's where WE come in. We're doing the flooring. We're installing light fixtures. We're getting the furniture. We've got a long way to go.