Blogging about Everything

I specialize in everything.

Whatever it Takes

I was at the Piedmont Old Time Society jam last week talking to friends, making sure they knew about my party.  Because as some people forget, Facebook invites are only good if the intended guests are on Facebook.  I explained to my one friend that while I love having my friends over for a good time, the real reason I have my party is to make me finish my projects.  She laughed and said, “Alan and I do that when we need to make ourselves clean the house.” We laughed, and I don’t feel so bad about admitting it now.  I’m applying a lot of pressure to getting things done because my friends will be here, and what better motivation to get my stuff done than an audience.  And I also want them to not die from falling through a hole in the floor. While the sunroom is taking the lion’s share of my budget, my personal effort has been going into tidying up smaller things.  The first image on this post is my new porch light.  It matches the porch sidelights I installed last year.  It makes me realize how screwed up the English language is, because “sidelights” is one word.  I’ve also started my grocery list, assigning rooms for my guests who are coming from out of town, making sure the keg of beer I made for the party is ready, and making sure there are adequate chairs for the old time jam.  The first year I threw the party my concern was making sure the heat worked, and most rooms had working lights.  How things change, and... read more

Party IV

My annual party gives me an opportunity to “finish” my projects and show off a little*.  This year I’m excited to report I have a little more furniture of the grown-up variety, some wall art I’m proud of, a few less holes, and electrical outlets that shoot fewer sparks when provoked with use. That being said, every project yields two more projects. My handyman Tony was finishing the drywall in my sun room, taking down the old plaster, when he discovered more termite damage. We formed a game plan, until I asked “What’s that wire? Is that still live?” Keep in mind, we weren’t even supposed to have taken down that wall.  But that’s how these things happen. I spent this morning tracing one live wire after another, with copper exposed, eventually finding a nest of wires jammed into the space between the sunroom and the interior closet.  I eventually found the right breakers to turn it all off, and got to work removing it.  It will leave me with another dead outlet until I rewire the first floor (perhaps you’ll see it at the party next year!) Despite the never-ending nature of these projects, I’m actually excited about closure, even in small degrees.  The sun room may have opened several other projects, but it will be open and usable for the first time in years, maybe even decades.  Cutting out bad electrical may leave me with a few dead outlets, but it makes the next steps of wiring it all in correctly easier, and more near-term.  The termite damage may cost me time and money, but now I know... read more

Heroes for Ghosts

I don’t talk politics much.  And this post isn’t about left or right, or “kids these days” (though it might seem like it for a moment), or about how oddly dysfunctional is our current government.  It’s about Pink Floyd. New neighbors moved into the house next door about a month ago.  I noticed when the old ones moved out because my water bill dropped by 50-75%.  One of the guys next door is the son of the landlord: apparently dad is trying to pull the house out of section 8 because the neighborhood is rising. My new neighbors are recent college graduates.  I know this because of their affection for Pink Floyd and their budding ability to be genial when their next door neighbor says hello.  Whenever they pull off a fairly normal social interaction, I hear one of them remark as they go back to their house that, “That was awesome.” Adulting is fun. What got me thinking about the title of this post was the musical soundtrack to my Saturday afternoon, care of my neighbors.  They were working in the garage, things were still audibly “awesome,” and Floyd’s “Wish you were here” was turned up to 11. “Did you trade your heroes for ghosts?” rang into the rhetorical void of my lawn, and it struck me that yes, we have. I’ve heard the administration of our current president, whom some of my friends refer to with the anagram “Lord Dampnut,” hold Coretta Scott King, wife of civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., up as a symbol of their policies.  Certainly she would approve of their good deeds. Besides the... read more


Yesterday I wrote about my water bill, and the apparent chaos under the hood of the city utility services.  I’m not saying that they aren’t competent people: managing a million people’s water might be a bit complicated, especially when some of the homes in my neighborhood have been here longer than Winston-Salem has been a city.  I’m, saying that there may be a little bit of turmoil under the calm exterior. Today I was introduced to one more cog in the machine: the drain and wastewater department.  From what I can gather, my phone call and observation that the city might have been over-billing me substantially for years triggered a full reevaluation of my circumstance.  And I mean full. The crew came out today to verify that my house was in fact a house.  I spoke to them right after they showed up, and they mentioned the possibility that my property was commercial, in which case I’d have a “different” water rate.  They refused to say if that rate was higher.  But they cheerfully acknowledged that it is in fact a normal home, albeit a large one. They seemed a little confused about why I was so eager to see them, so I recounted my saga of calls, broken meters, high bills, and lost support tickets.  They said they couldn’t help me with the bill, but that they were simply asked to “evaluate the non-porous surfaces” of the house for billing purposes: commercial buildings with flat roofs and parking lots mean something different to the wastewater department than houses with gutters and lawns.  But though the bill wasn’t their department,... read more

High Water

I moved into my house a little over three years ago, and the water bill has been something of a painful curiosity since it first showed up.  I think the first one was on the order of $200, which prompted a call to the city.  It had taken nearly four month of living there before the bill showed up, so they mumbled something about it taking a while for the change of ownership to go through the system. I gave the poor phone attendant a little bit of shade, but paid my water bill and moved on with life. The next bill was in the neighborhood of $150, so I got back on the phone.  That (slightly more terse) conversation triggered a number of visits from city inspectors and water system managers in which they put blue dye in my toilets (which I was never able to completely get out).  They also broke my water meter while trying to test it. Over the next few billing cycles they broke the water meter again, and I managed to get several refunds from the city since they couldn’t explain why their own people kept breaking my water meter, and my bills seemed to have little to do with reality. Eventually my case was escalated enough so that someone with little patience came and visited and informed me that the only possible cause of the problem was a leaking pipe in the ground- on my side of the meter. The water rules here are setup so that the city only needs to get water to your property- to the meter- and the rest... read more

The Eternally Moving Broom

I ran into my friend Emily at one of the Zinc Kings gigs last week, and she asked what exciting projects I’ve been working on at the big house.  I didn’t really have a good answer, in part because of the holidays, and in part because the low hanging fruit has all been picked.  What’s happening now is a lot of mowing, sweeping, setting up and tearing down of holiday decorations, and walking the dog. In other words, the important stuff. I have some projects I’m interested in finishing, others I want to get started, but most of my “house time” is maintenance, or at the very least finishing projects that were “done” a while ago and left a mess.  I guess it’s a philosophical shift into middle age. That may sound like a rather dramatic pronouncement, but I’ve observed a shift in how I do things lately.  In part its due to the fact that I can afford to hire people to work for me, eat out every once in a while, slow down and read a book (and not feel guilty), and I don’t have to bust my butt finding gigs just to keep the lights on.  I think it’s also in part due to the fact that I’m not 20 anymore.  Or 30.  Soon I won’t be 40 anymore. Being “not as young as I used to be” doesn’t really bother me.  I feel good, and while maintenance of a house (or myself) isn’t the most sexy thing, it really fits well with my personality.  I like pushing a broom.  I like weeding the garden.  Changing... read more

Recaps, Reduxes, and Radials

I haven’t blogged in a while, but it’s not for lack of things to write about.  In fact, I’ve had so many ideas I can barely get started before I lose my thought and get excited about something else. But let me talk about the summer.  And food.  And motorcycles.  Well, since the motorcycle things is so big, let me just talk about that. A while ago, I bought an old (1980) Honda motorcycle.  It didn’t run, but it maybe could run, if I kept at it.  So I kept at it, and with the help of Racing Smith Motorcycles up the street, got it put back together.  Mostly. One afternoon I was out riding, or trying to ride as the case may have been, and I couldn’t get above 30 miles per hour.  Then the speedometer cable came unhooked.  At one point I noticed the brake lights weren’t working either and shouted to the wind, “I have a job, I don’t have to drive JUNK anymore!”  The next morning I went out to the garage and saw a puddle of oil six feet around underneath the old bike.  I decided then and there to go to the dealer and buy something new, reliable, sexy, and running. I bought something called an NC700x by Honda.  It’s a mid-sized motorcycle, practical, efficient, reliable.  It’s the same Honda that makes cars, so when you buy one, you get a Honda. At some point I decided it would be a good idea to ride my new motorcycle up to MI.  To be honest, I decided I was going to do it before I even... read more

These Waning Days

Summer is closing fast.  Kids are back to school, the plants in the garden are getting rangy, and I’m thoroughly tired of mowing the lawn multiple times a week. I just got home from a trip to NY, where I discovered that hot weather is miserable even up north.  So we’re all sort of ready for it to end. Fall is my favorite season, so I’m looking forward to it, but I’m also really hesitant to wish my days away.  There are so few of them.  Instead I’m trying to take advantage of this hot and muggy time to harvest as much garden produce as possible, and I take these odd evening walks around the yard in the faux-cool of the evening.  Odd because my yard isn’t that big, and I’m usually smoking a pipe, staring into space. If my neighbors are paying any attention (and the older I get, the more doubtful I am that they are), I’m sure it looks like I’ve slipped out of the looney bin and am slow-motion careering around the yard having lusty conversations with the fireflies.  In reality, I’m in my own head, planting flowers and trellises.  I’m putting in apple trees and hollies.  I’m imagining the sweet taste of next year’s figs.  I’m imagining the climbing of the jasmine, and its energetic race toward the sun. Sammi has made her peace with the fence I put in last year, and now sits happily in the overlong August grass.  The tomatoes and okra that go overripe or woody get tossed out to the yard where she happily chases, engages in a victory lap (that all... read more

One Less Way to Die

It recently occurred to me that many of my house projects are framed around the idea that, “If I don’t fix this, someone might get hurt.”  I suppose that’s one of the joys of a fixer-upper. I posted some photos to Facebook a few weeks back about my sun room floor: The floor had been eaten by termites.  It used to be a kitchen back in the halcyon days of my castle being a rental property.  Five kitchens and six bathrooms, and none of them saw anything like care or maintenance for a long time. So it should come as no surprise that things leaked, bugs got in and found a ready source of water and food, and no one seemed to notice. That is until the floor started to cave in.  For reference, the sun room is on the east (right) side:   The boards that hold up a floor are called joists.  They are important.  They hook into a bigger board called a sill plate.  It is very important.  Apparently, tasty as well, if you happen to be  a termite. My stalwart carpenter/handyman Tony oversaw some demolition, as well as the replacement of the sill plate.  Demolition sounds fun, until you watch people do it to your own house. I helped a bit.  I removed random live electrical wires.  Because it got cut into so many apartments, and then back again, wiring ran all over the place.  Plumbing too.  I made it my job to keep my guys from dying.  See a pattern here? The previous home owner had attempted some repairs, most of which just made the... read more

The First Floor

I’ve been writing and posting some photos of my floors.  Specifically, photos of the process of refinishing and re-doing the 2nd-worst room in the house: the upstairs sleeping porch. For Northerners, or those not familiar with old houses, a sleeping porch is a room with lots of windows and ventilation for hot summer nights.  In the days before air conditioning, this room would get stocked with cots and beds in the summer by the servants so the homeowner and family could sleep in comfort.  I think it was used primarily for storage in the winter.  It’s a tradition that has since disappeared, in part because of air conditioning, perhaps in part because closets are in fashion now (wouldn’t it be nice to have a closet again…), but also because the rooms tend to be drafty and hard to heat in the winter. My cousin Emily moved in and decided that all those windows would make for a nice bedroom.  My last post about doing floors showed off the original condition of the room: asbestos tiles, blue sponge paint, and despair.  Under the tiles was 100 year old oak floor, and beige paint of sufficient quantity and quality can hide a multitude of painting sins. I did a lot of the grunt work, but Emily got every step of the process “over the hump” so to speak.  I sanded for weeks to get the glue off the floor, then down through the scratches and prior finish.  She finish-sanded, and I handed her a bucket of stain. It’s the sort of work that makes fixing up an old house worth it.... read more

Home is Where the Help Is

I’m at my parents’ house for the holidays, and there’s a lot to be thankful for.  There’s a new nephew as of a few days ago, my other nephews are growing like weeds, everyone seems happy and healthy, and there were no fist fights at Christmas dinner. One of the things you learn about coming home as an adult is that your parents are still just figuring it out as they go along, just like you.  Remember not liking Brussels sprouts (yes, with an S like that place in Europe) as a kid?  Well, it turns out my mom still hates them.  And now as an adult, I love them. She was on the phone with a friend of hers who was singing the praises of roasted Brussels sprouts; delicious, semi-sweet, slightly crunchy, and just plain good.  She was on speaker phone, so I was nodding vigorously as her friend talked about how to roast them, but meanwhile my mom just made faces.  Much like my two year old nephew makes. Yesterday while we were sitting in the living room and trading stories, we started talking about cooking.  My mom is the unquestioned boss of her kitchen.  Even if she isn’t the one preparing the meal.  We talked about Brussels sprouts again, and she told me I could make them, but I was in charge.  And I asked if it was like that time I was in charge of making pumpkin pie.  She didn’t remember, but boy I do. I was home from college.  I had moved into my first apartment and learned to prepare my favorite dessert, pumpkin pie.  I... read more

The Symphony of Sammi and Gertrude

Sammi snores.  Loudly.  Usually when I’m on the phone.  But she’s adorable, so it’s just become part of the fabric that is life at Castle Danchester. Gertrude is still rumbling and rattling the house.  For those not into click links, Gertrude is my boiler.  I’ve installed heat pumps over the last couple years to do the bulk of the heating, but on cold nights, Gertrude wakes up and reminds me of her presence.  I say “wakes up” because it truly feels like some enormous beast is shaking off a long slumber and plodding out to meet the world. Some folks might find that sort of analogy, or that kind of sound, to be discomforting.  But for me, it’s very comforting.  Each year, she wakes up reliably and without fuss, and makes her presence known.  As I get more of the house fixed and opened up, I turn on more radiators, and she lengthens her stride a little bit more. On a night a few weeks back, temperatures plunged, and right on cue Gertrude woke to her job.  Sammi snored contentedly in her crate as the house thumped and hissed, and all was right with the... read more

Falling in Love is Hard on the Knees

I love my house.  I spend a lot of time and energy working on it, getting it back to its former glory.  Obviously I’ve learned a lot.  One of the most important things I’ve learned while working on my house is how stupid and stubborn I can be.  I’ve also confirmed the fact that I’m not 18, over and over again, to the loud complaint of my lower back. The big project this fall has been getting the “sleeping porch” turned into my cousin Emily’s bedroom.  Despite the blue sponge paint, asbestos tile and creepy fake bear skin rug (I have pictures somewhere), it’s actually a really nice room.  Albeit creeptastic. Emily has done a huge amount of work, some of it psychological.  She painted, pulled tile, and swept.  We both sweep.  A lot. Now that work is underway, it’s apparent that I know how to do all of it, have the tools and skills, I was just daunted by starting.  The photo above is the early stages of cleaning and paint-prep.  Below is one of the new ceiling fan going in. The biggest task is the floor.  I say “is” in the present tense, because while I started working on it a month ago, I’m still working on it.  but progress is very encouraging.   You may notice some swirl marks on the floor in this photo.  You can see that the wood trim is in good shape, and the floor is really great hardwood; I was a little worried that the tile was covering up some serious problems.  No serious problems, but the swirl marks are from someone... read more

A Year of Sammi

Yesterday morning my dog threw up on my sandal-shod foot while I was on a client phone call.  It reminded me that we’ve had an entire year together. I adopted her from Project Pearl, who re-homes dogs through the county animal control.  I recommend adopting a rescue pet.  She was so thrilled to be just about anywhere. Road trips? Check.  Lazing on the rug? Check.  Sitting on the couch when she thinks I’m not paying attention? Check. But she’s really affectionate, only slightly smelly, and TOTALLY ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT FOOD.  And cuddles.   As it happens, she’s also about three years old, so we’ll consider it her birthday.  I’m going to get her some treats and let her run around the lawn. Speaking of lawn, those of you who follow my blog or facebook know that I recently got a new fence. I let her out the back door without a leash for the first time ever, and she did exactly what she always does when she slips her leash: run like hell while looking back at me to make sure I’m chasing.  She made it halfway across the lawn before seeing the fence, stopped completely, and looked back at me like I’d played some terrible prank.  Then she rolled in the grass for a while. Tough life. So dear Sammi, Miss Fedorah Sandwich of Castle Danchester, happy 3rd birthday, happy one year anniversary, and here’s to many more years of looking like no one ever does nice things for... read more

Fences and Boundaries

Nothing at my house has happened on time.  When I bought the place, my friend Mark helpfully stated, “It will always take twice as long and cost three times as much.”  Because Mark is a dick sometimes, I let it slide. But he’s right. So imagine my shock when the fence company called to say they could start two weeks early.  I immediately said yes.  And after the crew had shown up and was busily drilling fence posts, I recalled a chore I hadn’t gotten around to doing: removing a tree from the fence line. Let me start by saying I’m so glad I hired a crew for the fence.  They brought all the right tools, three guys, lots of cement, and proceeded to tear through the work in impressive time.  They got all the posts in the ground in less than a day. But at five o’clock and the end of my work day, I had to take that tree down.  I wrote last time about being a butthead.  You’d think I would learn my lesson.  But no, buttheads don’t learn their lesson.  They go buy a bow saw instead. In the light of day this scene looks pretty good.  But upon closer inspection you realize that the one tree going diagonal sort of messes up my plans at a fence.  That’s my target.  I had to cut down the diagonal tree without crushing my house, that of my neighbor, her car, or knocking over a fence post.  It’s a skinny tree, but it’s 35 or 40 feet tall, so of course I’m the idiot who decides to do... read more

On Being (A Butthead)

This last spring my washing machine started making The Sound.  It was something like a jet engine, or perhaps an avalanche of fresh smelling undies.  At any rate, I started closing the laundry room door when the washer went on spin cycle to preserve my sanity. Then a few weeks ago The Sound transformed from ambiguous avalanche jet to angry cement mixer.  Full of clean undies.  I knew what was wrong, which was part of the reason I put off fixing it.  It was the main bearing. For those not in-the-know about the finer points of laundry mechanics, which is to say, most normal adults, the tub of a washing machine rotates on a bearing.  There’s a motor, and some switches, and some underpants gnomes, but most of the moving parts depend on that bearing to keep everything swishing along.  And mine was near the end of it’s spinny little life. Here’s where I put my own stamp on the situation.  Most normal adults, the ones who aren’t in-the-know about laundry machines, would call a repair man.  Not I, nay.  I decided I should fix it.  Alone.  So I ordered the part.  Let me say for the record, that even finding out what the part was took some persistence.  But I did it, and I was proud.  Like an idiot. So I took the machine apart, following directions from a youtube video.  Those directions looked oh-so-good.  They were in fact completely misleading.  I spent probably two hours doing work I didn’t need to do.  But with perseverance and 17 different tools I got the tub apart. Then came the hard... read more

The Path Less Traveled By

I was thinking the other evening about how I got here.  Not in the cosmic sense, but in the explain-it-to-a-stranger-in-the-bar sense.  I’m a programmer, a musician, a potter, and I live in a grand old house I’m dragging back from the cliffs of decrepitude.  I like to ride and work on old motorcycles, be in the woods, be in front of crowds, write long-form letters by hand, and invent new technological wonders on the web. I get paid to do this stuff.  Eighteen-year-old me is confused and totally geeking out.  This is way better than my initial life plan. Many people are familiar with Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” about having chosen the path “less traveled by” and it making all the difference.  I get the impression most people understand it wrong.  That’s a pretty awful and contentious thing to say- in truth you’re allowed to understand great poetry any way you feel like.  But focusing on the end, on the retrospective view of it, skips the part where he admits to not knowing which way to go. When you are staring at the future, yours generally, don’t pretend you know anything more than the next person.  The famous physicist Niels Bohr one said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”  That’s a sentence that could just as easily have been attributed to Jack Handy or Yogi Berra.  It still rings true though.  So when Robert Frost says of the paths ahead, “both that morning equally lay,”  he’s saying you will often not know the “right” way.  But choose a path you must, and the very act of... read more

Live Free or Buy

Some years ago I came across the word “freegan” in my day-to-day reading, and I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. In short, freeganism is the practice of eating food that has been thrown out from groceries, restaurants, or other sources, under the (usually correct) notion that it’s still healthy and edible.  I’m not comfortable eating from the dumpster, but I do see that we throw out a lot of good and usable stuff in this country.  Food is just one example, but just think of the things people leave out for the garbage man: furniture, working electronics, clothes that don’t fit. Of course there are thrift stores that operate entirely on donated goods, but that sort of underscores the point that we have so much stuff.  We have so much in fact that we can just give it away. I’ve spent most of my adult life in college: either taking classes, or standing in front and leading them.  The upshot is that I’ve spent most of my adult life making do with very little income.  Ironically, I lived in section 8 housing while working as a professor, but that’s a discussion for another day.  I’ve gotten pretty scrappy with my material belongings though: repair before you replace, know the difference between “needing” a thing and “wanting” a thing, and experiences are more valuable than things, no matter the cost. So three and a half years ago when I became a programmer full time I jumped in salary but tried to keep my head.  My first focus was dumping some of my student debt, and the second was on getting a... read more