Burnout

Sometimes I get really burned out on house projects. Now is one of those times.

I have taken one of the three hinges — the middle one — off the front door with the intention of painting around the space so it blends in with the rest the trim. I figured I’d complete one, replace it, and take off another so we can complete the project without having to take the door off.

The problem is that I never painted. I simply removed one and left it off and now the door sags to the point where Tyler and I both cringe when we shut it because it catches on the jamb every time.

It seems we’re in the middle of about 20 projects right now. Excited to start them on one ambitious Sunday, neglected for a busy workweek and then tired by the time the weekend rolls around again, they simply don't get finished.

Here is a list of the projects we’ve started:

  1. The front door. It's painted, has a new window and the trim is up... but it's still missing weather stripping, part of the lock hardware and the hinges and trim aren't complete.

  2. Purchased blinds for all three bedrooms... but have not put them up.

  3. Purchased giant piece of art of bedroom… but have not hung it.

  4. Purchased curtains for master bedroom… but have not measured for curtain rod, built curtain rod, put up blinds or fixed crack in window (all of which must be done before hanging said curtains).

  5. Patched wall in bathroom from what we thought was a shower leak… but have not finished painting or putting the trim back on.

  6. Bought a new doorbell and took off the old one… but now have wires sticking out of the wall in the hallway.

  7. Painted half the cat door, ran out of paint... have not painted other half. 

  8. Finished the bathroom remodel… except for caulking the countertop.

  9. Oh yes... and our half-painted house that’s been two years in process now.

There is something very powerful about momentum. On any given Sunday we might wirr around the house and yard, ticking off projects one after the other. And so long as we don’t sit down for too long and we keep hydrated, we can keep that momentum going for a long day.

But just like the ebbs and flows of anything, that Sunday wirr isn’t sustainable. We eventually run out of batteries and burnout and we sit in the living room watching our third episode of The West Wing making a mental list of all the projects we haven’t finished. But might. Someday.

We Are at the Mercy of the Rain

Our roof is leaking. The sheetrock seams have been swelling and we’ve been ignoring them for months, chalking them up to the temperature fluctuations or poor craftsmanship by the contractors. But now they’re yellowing and peeling and there is no more denying that we have water damage.

The spots follow the roofline through the kitchen and into the detached laundry shed. A leak on a shingled roof is near impossible to find without removing the insulation and sheetrock in the whole area, so we’ve resorted to guessing.

First, we got up on the roof to see if there were any missing or damaged shingles. Then we slapped some additional pitch onto the flashing, even though nothing was cracked. Now, we’re waiting until it rains to see if it happens again.

I’ve noticed this about a lot of house projects -- how unscientific problems solving is. How troubleshooting mostly consists of fixing it the easiest way first, then if it doesn’t work moving on to the next easiest. It’s the homeowners equivalent to Occam’s Razor.

We’re applying this “wait and see if it works” principle to the roof because replacing the roof is a lot more expensive than another tube of Henry and a caulking gun. But it’s scary to wait, because moisture  left unattended to can ruin ceilings and walls. It can damage infrastructure. It can cause rust. It can grow mold.

Portion of leak on the kitchen ceiling

Portion of leak on the kitchen ceiling

Evidence that the phrase "cold nose, warm heart" is actually scientifically accurate. 

Evidence that the phrase "cold nose, warm heart" is actually scientifically accurate. 

Bathroom selfie!

Bathroom selfie!

 

Monsoon season in Arizona is no joke. We get storms that put the movies to shame; hellion microbursts that tear through the neighborhood. They lend little warning. We lay in bed listening to the rain and wind slap the windows and crash against the skylight.

“This is crazy!” I’ll say even when it’s the fourth or fifth of the season and really not uncommon or crazy at all. We have been through this before.

“I’m worried about the house,” Tyler will say.

“It’s made it for 55 years. It’ll be ok.” I’ll reply.

But ultimately, one of these times it won’t be. A branch will break, the roof will leak, a tree will fall on a powerline. We’re at the mercy of the rain. All we can do is brace ourselves inside until morning when it’s over and we can assess the damage.

Betting Against the Shrubs

When we first planted the hopseed bushes against the back wall, Tyler and I took bets on which would clear the top of the wall first. For months they didn’t feel like they grew at all. Because we didn’t -- and still don’t -- have a sprinkler system, Tyler went out -- and still goes out -- to water them every day, filling the basins to the brim, just short of overflowing.

Tyler bet the third one from the left. I bet the third from the right.

It’s been about a year since we planted them, spaced apart and towering only two feet off the dirt. For months they didn’t move. Or at least they felt like they didn’t.

The other day I looked back at pictures of when we first planted them. They seems so little. They’ve grown substantially since then but I haven’t ever walked outside and said “Wow, look at how much those bushes have grown.” Their growth from day to day has been too insignificant to notice.

They’ve grown so gradually that it feels like they were at a standstill.

Until you take a year at a time.

Tyler and I celebrated our five-year anniversary last weekend. And it seems to me that change is constant and yet completely invisible.

At any given moment in these last five years I would have told you my marriage and my life looks the same as the day before, the week before, the month before.

But when I stand back and I see it from a distance, I have a much different perspective. Our one-year anniversary was far different than our five-year. We’ve figured a few things out. We’ve learned how to have disagreements instead of fights (at least most the time); we’ve learned unloading the dishwasher is always a safe bet and that discussing things when hungry or tired is a terrible idea. We’ve learned to find the gray area among the black and white.

In the end, neither one of us won the bet. The fifth from the left outpaced them all. 

In another year or two the Hopseed bushes will be fuller than they are now, hopefully blocking all the old-lady laundry hanging on the clothesline in our neighbors backyard. They’re getting more dense and taller and continuing to put one small leaf in front of the other.

Tolerances

For the most part, my life doesn’t make me pay attention to ⅛ inches. But furniture assembly requires such minute margins.

We had a guest bed delivered. It came off a truck, straight into the guest room and sat on the floor for a few weeks until we got a mattress to fit. Black, minimal, we figured since it wasn’t IKEA, it would be a breeze to put together.

When we finally get to it, we work on it for hours. We can’t get the foot to sit flush against the support beams, but we can't figure out why. We argue because Tyler’s imagining having to cut and weld, and is frustrated because he'll have to do so, and I am thinking he's crazy and why can't he just shove it together and call it a day already?

Tyler spends the next hour trying to figure out what part of the bed is causing the problem and eventually, he centers in on a bracket welded to the larger piece about an eighth of an inch higher than it's counterpart on the other side of the bed.

Trying to avoid the future (imminent) sawing and welding accident, I ask him to call CB2 in the morning and tell them what's wrong with the faulty part.

I'm learning a lot about tolerances.

The bed won't go together with an 1/8-inch difference. Maybe it would be fine if it was only off by 1/16 of an inch or a 1/32 of an inch. Tyler tells me about projects at work that require tolerances of only 1/100th of an inch.

I'm learning about them in terms of exactness and room for error, yes. But also in terms of marriage. Marriage must fall within a certain margin to work.

Tyler’s mind is exact. It is flush. It is accurate to a fraction, while I round up. And as long as I’m close, I’m happy.

He’s analytical. I’m practical.

He weighs options. I’ve already decided.

All the things I let go of so easily sometimes do matter. If we can’t fit the bed together, they matter! But, some of the things he can't let go of, just don't matter; they simply take up space and cause stress.  

It's just a hairline, a give-and-take on both sides. Somewhere between what he wants and what I want, what he needs and what I need, who he is and who I am. It's all a constant effort to stay within the tolerance -- between fitting together perfectly and still being separate, imperfect pieces.

 

The Cat Door

When my parents come to town, our house gets a lot of love. My dad gets project happy and goes with Tyler to Home Depot to buy all the supplies for enough projects that they will not -- for sure not -- run out of things to do before my parents head back home.

With that in mind, my parents are in town and we have made "the Home Depot run" and lugged stuff home in the back of my new wagon. I took the day off from work to do house projects with my parents. One of the projects on my list: fix the cat door.

I'm pretty sure a cat lived here before us, because it had its own closet. A square cut right out; the entrance to what I imagine was a place for the litter box. I tell myself it was a cat that lived here because I don't want to imagine what other animal it could have been.

We don't have a cat and never plan to have a cat and for this reason, we decided to patch the hole instead of getting a new door. When you're fixing up a house, you save money where you can. I took the door off the hinges and put it onto a pair of sawhorses on the patio. I cut wood to the right size and glued it to fussing strips. 

Tyler texted me mid-way through the project, wood glue on my hands. I replied and put my phone down for another hour stint of spackle and sanding.

The conversation went something like this...

Tyler: What are you doing?
Me: Dad is painting the siding. Mom is cleaning the windows. (I don't think we've ever cleaned that glass slider --embarrassing!). I am fixing the car door.
Tyler: Why?
Tyler: What happened?
Tyler: What did you do?
Tyler: Stop.
Tyler: What could you be doing to fix the door?
Tyler: Seriously.
Tyler: Why aren't you answering your phone when I call you?

When I returned to my phone I saw the 2 missed calls and the 7 unread messages.

Me: Ha. I see what happened here. :grinning emoji:

Eventually Tyler recovered from his near-heart attack about the new car. My patch job didn't work well. Instead, I bought a door for $28 at Home Depot. Even brand new, we still refer to it as "the cat closet."

Three Painted Pillars

Painting a house is redemptive.

We’re nowhere near finished, but we’ve painted the three pillars in our backyard.

We’ve sanded these pillars three times. They have cracks and gaps from faulty pine and the rain splinters every time. It splatters across the paint and leaves hard water stains. Each time we sand -- you’re thinking, each? and yes, at least three times -- we wipe the posts down and fill the crevices with putty, sometimes epoxy. It’s never an easy process. It involves kneepads and split skin on my fingertips. We use TSP (which makes my hands dry) to wipe down the posts before we paint.

Primer first, which the wood soaks up into a gauzy white. Once it dries we paint on dark gray. It goes on speckled with two rolls, covered on three.

They’re gratifying layers and we've worked hard for each. These pillars are unlike the rest the house. There will be one more coat. And then upkeep. Every time it rains.

Mom spackling the backyard pillars.

Mom spackling the backyard pillars.

An Open Letter to Whomever Lived Here Before Us

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This is our first house. We liked it because it didn’t have a pool (that’s hard to find in Phoenix) and because it was not in a manufactured tract. We liked that it had years under its belt, some personality; strong brick; a single story.

But this house needs leveling.

Tyler asked me the other day if I felt bad for buying a house that a family lost. I don’t feel bad for buying it, I told him. The bank would have owned it whether we were the buyers or not. But I do think about your family a lot.

I wonder how many kids lived here. About whose room was whose. About what the backyard was like before the bank got ahold of a weedwacker. I wonder if you had a garden. Or a slip and slide in the summer. Or fruit trees. We’re starting to paint the outside. Starting to scrape and sand and spackle and sand and prime. It’s a process. A tedious one, unrewarding until the final coat of paint. But we are replacing the peeling layers with a fresh coat, one Sunday morning at a time.

There are handprints in the cement in both the back and front yard. Sydney Marie, 1998. The neighbor said your family lived here for 20 years; that she used to babysit for your youngest daughter. We’re planning to repour the patio. Cracks and fading have taken its toll. But these handprints will stay. They’re part of its character.

I cleaned out the kitchen when we first moved in. Wiped down the inside of the cabinets that had been empty for the better part of a year. The large bottom drawer to the left of the oven kept catching. I reached back and pulled out an oven mitt that had fallen back behind, folded and squished against the rails. I doubt the mitt was sentimental. It was dusty, like it had been stuck back there for a while. I imagine Thanksgiving turkey and Christmas cookies on these stained and nicked countertops. I wonder about the family traditions you made here.

I think about the cracks in the tile floor, the strange fixes you found for the phone wires, whether the fireplace ever worked. I wonder what fell apart. Did your family split up? Did you refinance when interest rates were low and variable? Did you have friends over for 4th of July block parties? Did you feel level?

Every time we try to hang a window blind or a picture or a bike rack, the bubble on our level deceives us. It always takes us more than one try, a new nail, a dollop of spackling, a reboot. The ceilings or the floor or the windows, something isn’t parallel. A fight, a spilled glass of wine and two hours longer than we thought, we can usually find the error, but it always involves a series of concessions.

In so many ways, we’re working to level.

Before: When we were optimistic

Front of our house

Front of our house

Back of our house

Back of our house

These pictures were taken when we were optimistic (by the appraiser) before we had moved in. 

You have to be optimistic if you're going to buy a fixer upper. You have to see past the poorly chosen paint colors and the stained living room carpet through to the house's bones. You must be willing to dedicate three of four weekends each month to scraping and sanding and leveling and spackling, commit to long evenings working in the yard by headlamp. You have to consent to sore muscles, to disagreements spurred by impatience, to scraped knuckles and to the inability to keep a manicure in tact for more than 24 hours. It's all part of the deal.

We, of course, knew all of this when we signed those papers at the title company. But instead of beat up hands and broken windows we saw potential. We saw the winter evenings inside by the fireplace, the home office, the someday-nursery. We saw games of corn hole and bocce ball next to citrus trees on cool fall evenings in the backyard. 

This optimism tricked us; we're now the owners of a 1962 fixer upper in Phoenix, Arizona. We don't yet have a functioning fireplace and there is no grass on which to play bocce ball. But we're working on it. Follow the progress (and the lack of progress!) here.