Monthly Archives: November 2013

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It doesn’t take long for nostalgia to kick in. We are a whole month into fall and I long for the days of summer. Not for the heat, which never visited Ohio and which I don’t like much anyway, but for the long-stretched days that allowed us to renovate in full light and walk home, tired but satisfied, still bathed in sun.

Now it is dark by the time we shrug off work clothes and make it to the house for our renovation shift. We work in the cold (downside of no walls and no heat), noses running like little children.

Each day I am reminded of my brief life as a runner. My friends run marathons. Me? I always hit the mental wall of “can’t-do-this-gonna-die” a whole five minutes in. But I would keep going, and then that miracle-thing would happen, and I would find myself going further than my body or mind believed was possible. In my case, that would be approximately a mile.

On workdays I come home tired and night is moving in and what I really want is make dinner and stay warm. Instead I pull on my renovating clothing: it feels like smashing into that five minute mark.

But then it gets better. Not like the “This is so fun!” better, which summertime renovating sometimes felt like, but survivable. I’ll take it. We are moving forward. The hole in the ground is now this:


On the inside it’s like this:


And Kyle, entirely by himself, made a very pretty roof that looks like this:


It should be noted that, in the land of renovations, Kyle has the eerie endurance of a marathoner. Or a postman. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night… He has swept snow off the roof so he could finish laying shingles, jacked up a house in pouring rain, and worked wearing a dollar-store slicker. Man is crazy.

I still don’t like running and I don’t always like renovating, but I think I may now understand the fanaticism of my runner friends. There is something about pushing yourself past a loud “no” from your body or mind. You find yourself wondering what else is possible. You find yourself thinking: anything.


In Texas we sometimes had rains that poured down like an in-the-sky bathtub had been left to overflow, and with big rains came flash floods, water rolling off of a packed-hard dry earth that couldn’t begin to absorb it. I used to live off of “flash flood alley,” the I-35 corridor spanning the way from San Antonio to Dallas. And so I would sometimes see, posted on the highway marquee, words so obvious they seemed ridiculous: Turn Around, Don’t Drown.

In Ohio we generally don’t get flash floods. The land is used to rain, well enough, and it knows how to drink it in. Besides, the rain mostly comes in half-hearted spurts. That it rained a lot the week after Joe disappeared seemed about right. We were already feeling pretty miserable. Big project, down a man. And now drizzle and mud. Of course.

But we had to pull it together if our kitchen was going to be rebuilt. When they slapped the kitchen on in the early 1900s, they basically made a scratch in the dirt, called it good, and put the house over it. Modern code doesn’t like that, so the very first thing we needed to do was excavate and rebuild the foundation. Luckily, as Kyle and I learned, there is an easy three-step process.

Step 1: Try to dig a giant hole.

The plan Joe sketched out before he left called for a Bobcat excavator. Kyle and I weren’t sure we were up for that, and besides, we’re not afraid of a little hard work. So Kyle went out with a shovel to dig the foundation.

An hour later he came back. Surprise: that was a terrible idea.

Step 2: Start renting an excavator and arranging for concrete.

Back to the original plan. I found a few rental places and began pricing out excavators. I don’t want to brag, but there was a whole five minutes of my life where I could knowingly discuss bucket size. Then I started pricing out concrete. I mean, I really really hate to brag, but there was a whole ten minutes of my life where I could confidently request a psi number and order up a certain wetness of concrete.

Kyle said he was pretty excited about driving the Bobcat. He also said: “I hope I don’t knock the house down.”

Step 3: Hire someone. Just hire someone.

I know I said “Turn Around, Don’t Drown,” seems painfully obvious, but here’s the thing: it’s not. Or it is, in the sense that it’s clearly a good idea to step away from disaster, but it’s not, in the sense that we rarely seem to realize we are making a choice one way or the other. Texans don’t plow into flash floods hopped up on machismo and the power of a pick-up truck, looking to dare the odds. They drive forward for the most boring of reasons: they are pretty sure it’s going to be okay. It occurred to me, as I realized we might actually knock our house down, that a team of novices buoyed by each other’s misplaced confidence might make some very bad decisions. (I’m behind in posting–this is now certified fact.) So that’s when we canceled the Bobcat and concrete and hired professionals.

We found a father-son team willing to do our foundation. They could do it in a few days, they said. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it is supposed to be, and after days of rain, an old cistern that needed to be filled, and a block wall that had to be fixed, a few days became a week. But eventually we had this:

A mess. A ready to build mess. I never thought I’d find a cinderblock rectangle so beautiful.

There’s nothing especially heroic or exciting about playing it smart. But Joe is back now (kind of) and watching him pull his life together reminds me just how hard the struggle up to air can be. When the rare flash of awareness allows us to turn back in time, I’m for it. Knowing that most of the time, in most of life, it’ll be a determined dogpaddle that gets us through.