Monthly Archives: August 2014

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Years ago I stood by a river in Mexico on a sunny day, caught in a congeries of tourists. The person handing out tubes to float the river asked me and my then-boyfriend which we preferred— a tandem tube, shaped like a figure-eight, which would accommodate the both of us? Or two single tubes?

Tandem, said my boyfriend. Single, said I.

In the end we each got our own, but my partner held them together the entire time we drifted, while I sulked and thought: but I don’t want to be a tandem-tuber down the river of life. I liked the guy; it’s just that I was a Khalil Gibran, let-there-be-space-in-your-togetherness, sort of girl. Actually, I was more of a maybe-a-little-bit-of-togetherness-in-the-space sort of girl. The relationship didn’t last.

What makes this relevant to renovating is not just that I spend a lot of time fantasizing about vacations in exotic locations, but also: I spent about 18 hours over two days standing side-by-side with my husband in a bathtub, and I. was. glad.

The thing about my last post, when I said that we were Goodbye, New House (Almost)—the almost was key. We like our new tenants and I think they like us, which is good, because we basically lived in their apartment last weekend. We finished a lot of things before they moved in. But…

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that was the upstairs shower/bath. Still not tiled. We told them from the start it wouldn’t be done by the time they moved in, and they were relaxed about it, but we couldn’t wait to finish so that we could return to renovating one disaster at a time.

Tiling is Gibran’s ethereal dictum manifested in porcelain and grout. What you want, when tiling, is a field of tiles separated by precise, thin grout lines. What you get is tiles colliding towards each other or careening away from each other, because you cut something wrong or didn’t realize the walls in your old house bowed out, or because you accidentally knocked one out of place while putting in another, and also and mostly, because you (that would be us) don’t know what you are doing. Kyle and I have, separately, both faced down tiling and lost. Spaces in the togetherness, ones which don’t stretch too wide or disappear, aren’t easy.

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White groutr: it’s like those terrible grout lines never happened.

So this one, we did together. We also: actually checked to see if the bathtub was level before laying the first row, nixed subway tile in favor of giant tile, and bought a wet saw. It’s nice to feel like we are finally learning some things. We finished with the tile quickly enough that there was time for me to finish a Tim O’Brien book, and time for Kyle to watch a movie (Swamp Creatures 7, I think). And this time, instead of a post-tile defeat, we went out for a fancy French dinner and celebrated, grout still speckling our hands.

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Kyle believes renovating calls for work boots. Things that lace up and beat heavy against the floors and probably—this is just a guess—make your feet sweat. I, on the other hand, have worn boots exactly twice during renovations.

Once I borrowed Kyle’s boots to crawl into the as-yet-unseen, and therefore scary, attic in the Old House. And once I pulled on my rain boots to clear out the piles of cardboard boxes that had been moldering in our dirt-floored basement for at least thirty years. Not just boots: I put on a hazmat suit. I wasn’t risking Death by Spider.

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I can understand that work boots are, objectively, a way, way better idea. But I also know that practicality and preparation have taken us only halfway through these renovations. Blind optimism and a willingness to jump in, prepared or not, have done just as much.

So I wear sandals. I’ve worn them to sweep up the plaster and lathe pried from ceilings and walls and to haul buckets of dirt and to paint houses inside and out and to lay flooring and to move piles of wood. I believe in whatever gets you through, and they’ve gotten me through a lot.

Especially this last week, as we’ve worked to finish the two bed/two bath unit in the New House. Here is the general state of that unit Friday evening of last week:

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What? Are your kitchen appliances NOT dangling from the walls?

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As of last Friday, we still had to—among other things—lay new flooring in three rooms, refinish the stairs, run new wiring in the kitchen, install new appliances, hang new blinds and curtains, install and caulk shoe molding throughout, paint all molding and railings, paint and/or install lighting in several rooms, tile a bathroom floor and install new fixtures, clear out what looked like a jungle in the backyard, and—what felt like the biggest feat of all—get all the tools out and clean up the house so that people could actually live there.

And our tenants wanted to move in the following Saturday. Which meant: one full weekend and one week of post-work evenings to accomplish the list above.

It was a crazy week. But we had Kyle’s family for the weekend, who tackled the re-grouting and made magical things happen outdoors and who ran errand after errand. We had lovely friends spend two nights with us painting and doing electric. We had the friend who sent us renters in the first place (we need more time we said! you need a deadline she said!) bring us vegetables and reassure us it looked great. We had each other. For everything.

And this Saturday morning, as we shuffled the final tools out the door, our tenants moved in. I’m throwing some before/after in, but fair warning: we never took real-real afters, because, you know, you forget things when you are delirious and sleep-deprived.

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Dining room before

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Dining room now.

 

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Stairs: stained, polyed, painted.

 

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Upstairs loft area then.

 

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Upstairs loft area now.

 

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Back bedroom then.

 

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Back bedroom now.

 

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View down the hall into the back bedroom.

 

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Kitchen then.

 

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Kitchen now. In Renovation 2.0 we will paint the cabinets.

 

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We were so grossed out by the bathroom we forgot to take a then. This is it now.

 

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Our tenants started moving in a few days early. This is what it looks like when renovations + moving in collide. One big mess.

It’s strange to be suddenly exiled from a place we’ve spent so much time in. It’s strange to be nearly done with the New House. But that’s how goodbye time is: it’s better when it’s sudden. Especially for people like me, who excel at nostalgia. I can miss things that weren’t important, that weren’t pleasant, that have barely passed me by. This summer I’ve been missing last summer, which was mostly spent patching one million holes and steaming wallpaper off. What gives me affection for those days is not what we were doing, but who we were with—those late-night dark n stormys out on the patio with neighbors—and also, who we were—entirely undaunted by our broken-down old house, full of naïve faith that we would finish Old House by Christmas.

It’s not like this summer has been bad. It’s just that this is the summer I will miss next year. Not too far off in the future, the dust of exhaustion from last week will rub off. And what we will remember, which will leave us just a little bit in awe and also a little bit longing, is how we pulled off this sort of impossible thing with the people around us.

And, I would like to note: at least one of us did it in flip flops.

 

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There comes a time in renovating when you stare at the project before you and can only think: No. Way. Most recently, for me, that happened while attempting to remove the nailed-down subfloor/laminate combo in a New House bathroom. This is how far I made it in 30 minutes:

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I can do math. Approximately one million hours left to go.

I peeked around the corner, because the grass is most-of-all greener when renovating, and saw Kyle painstakingly scribing a row of floorboards to nestle just-right against the uneven wall of exposed brick. No. Way.

So I went back to the bathroom floor and started again, trying to do, not to think. This time Kyle stuck his head around the corner. “Hm,” he said. “I think that’s going to take you forever.”

That’s the thing about renovating old homes. Sometimes there are shortcuts and tricks. And sometimes it just takes forever.

We are not the only ones who know this. On our walk Godiva and I pause at the home of a neighbor, an original renovator who (after 30 years) must renovate again. He’s sitting on an overturned bucket, trowel in hand, working fresh, creamy mortar between the bricks.

We talk about crooked houses and how misery loves company and what it was like to renovate decades ago. Also, what it’s like to renovate now. He says: “I just keep telling myseIf I need to finish with the brick I’m working around. I don’t let myself think about all of the rest.” The wall before him stretches long and nearly out of sight and at least 20 feet up.

Kyle and I try to move forward in the same strange way, knowing what we must do and also hiding it from ourselves. What we need to do is finish the New House. What we need to think about is the tiny world of whatever we are attempting: the floorboard we are laying down, the drywall mud being daubed on, the paintbrush carefully cutting the line of the ceiling. Things like this:

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Our friends, who are renovating pros, come over and check out our progress. We ask what their trick is for taking up subfloor. “There’s a trick, right?” I say. I look to the husband, who is nodding his head.

“Yeah,” he says. “There is. Just keep doing it.”

Which is not wrong. Enduring is half the art of renovation. But there is also this: what you really need to pull up a nailed-down subfloor is somebody with upper body strength, a crowbar, and a saw. Then you get this:
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That’s right. All of that energy spent pulling up a subfloor in one bathroom in one unit, just to put a subfloor down again, and what we really have to do is: finish a house. So we can finish another house.

This is why renovating, like most big tasks, is best tackled brick-by-brick. I mean, if you want to stay sane. Which is optional. To see only what is directly in front of you is necessary nearsightedness, the type that makes moving forward feel possible.

Kyle and I, we have one fresh, clean floor ready for tile. We are ready for the next thing.