Wednesday, August 31, 2005

This Old Contractor Work: Austin

When we started this process I really thought we'd be almost done by now. Well, we are almost done -- done choosing a contractor, that is. It's taken weeks to get all the bids back, and frankly, I am wondering if it was worth the trouble. Nothing has changed at the house, unless you count the toilet flapper I replaced myself.

It's true that we had to have a builder-type person to handle to garage conversion. And at the time it seemed to make sense to get one person to handle the details of tilers, painters, carpenters, etc. But you do pay a premium for that, not to mention time while they do their estimating. And the money estimates they sent back have really given me some sticker shock.

As I've wandered about here and there asking for people to give me estimates on different line items, I've found that they tend to be lower than what I've been quoted. Sometimes quite a bit, and while I know that in some cases it’s the contractor estimating their cut for choosing and making arrangements, and in others its got be a certain fudge factor. But how much is fudge and how much is cut? I don't object to folks getting something for taking care of arrangements, but since in many cases this has to be along the lines of "Hey Joe, I need you to lay some tile for me this month" I do object to its being a fixed % of the cost of that item, rather than a flat fee, though the % thing seems to be the way its done.

Part of what you pay for is someone else dealing with the headaches of people running late, etc., but I have to drive by that house every day anyway, and from what I hear about home building, you really need to be there all the time anyway. I told Trish last night I was about that close to just grabbing people from the phone book and turning them loose individually. Probably not wise, but at least something would be happening.

Addendum: While writing this I finally got the last estimate, which has put me in a better mood by being lower than I had expected it to be. I still need to see its details, but I'm happier for the moment.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

This Old House: Austin

As I've mentioned here recently, we bought a new house. We closed on it almost exactly a month ago. We haven't moved in yet, despite the beginning of school and the arrival of Trish's "regular" work time with the Fall semester.

Actually, its not a new house. Its a different house from the one we have now that is actually about forty years older. It needs work. Well, "needs" is a bit subjective. Structurally, there is nothing preventing us from moving in. Its in excellent shape, really. But esthetically, it’s a bit of a nightmare. Okay, not a nightmare, more like thpse weird dreams you get after devournig a whole plate of cheese fries with ranch dressing and watching the end of 2001 while sipping stale Heineken. Like the pale pink walls in what will be the living room. Or the pale yellow (I call it p!ss-yellow) paint in the dining area, the too-pink laminate wood in the kitchen, the stained off-white carpet, the…well, you get the idea.

Then there is the garage, which we want to convert into a study/library/office. It's half-converted right now, but with the original car doors in place and no insulation whatsoever. Despite the fact someone ran an AC duct into it, as well as network cable for high-speed internet.

There are some minor actual repairs that do need doing, but they are mostly outside. The point is, we could move in now.

Except we would still want the walls painted, the carpet replaced (mostly with tile), and the garage properly converted. We could do this while living there. We could. With the dogs barking at the workers, and the cats, already traumatized from moving, trying to either make a break for the door (along with the dogs, who would be having a fine old time (aside from the workers) and mostly trying to sniff every molecule of new scent in a three block radius) or trying to hide in the attic. Plus our furniture getting shunted back and forth again and us dodging the dust and carpet nails and tile cement. Hopefully our computers would not get clogged with sawdust or our sinuses with insulation bits.

In short we are envisioning the sort of whole-house work that tends to make your life miserable if you have to live through it. So, since we don't have to we're choosing not to. But the waiting isn't easy, especially for poor Trish, who is still driving an extra 30-45 minutes because we haven't gotten in there yet, or me who has to drive down to pick up Jake at the school there and mow two yards. But we think the wait will be worth it. If we can just get the last bid to arrive and then get these people started.

More to come!

Monday, August 22, 2005

Book Review: The Bastard on the Couch

My wife got me this book, called The Bastard on the Couch. It’s a companion book to The Bitch In The House.

It's interesting. A series of essays by men about men and what they feel, and sometimes why they feel that. It leads off with singles, then people in relationships, men in marriages good and bad, divorced men, etc. A couple of the essays spoke to me, and I guess a couple (a different couple) might speak to anyone, but in the end I felt the book was wanting as a source of insight.

I think the book got off to a bad start with a series of essays by single men. My main thought about them was, "What losers". But not because they were single (I was single for a loooooong time); rather, because of how they viewed their singleness. One fellow refused to get involved with a woman unless she was completely independent, and had no need of anyone or anything outside of herself. From the essay, it seemed such a woman also had no need of any sort of companion to keep her happy. It seemed strange to him that the one woman he encountered that seemed to fit the bill was remarkably likely to ignore him on a date if she found something more fun to do. So he was alone, partly because because he had created an ideal that excluded about 95% of normal humans and the remaining 5% were mostly composed of selfish, narcissistic assholes. The boy had issues, as they say. Another guy enjoyed being a boy toy for older women. His appreciation of their experience and depth was ironically, totally superficial and self-centered.

I'm not sure I was able to get over my turn-off of reading these sorts of essays right off the bat.

Another problem is typical of these sorts of books. Most of the essays have a tendency to speak for all men. "Men do this" "men feel like this" when of course, I'm a man, and I'm thinking, "Actually no, I don't do that".

Then there was where they came from and what they did. There about 21 essays all told. Nineteen gave me an idea of the writers location. Twelve of them were written by men from what I would call "back East". New York City (6), Massachusetts (2), Vermont (2), and two who gave a location as "East Coast". Three others were West Coast, two in California and one in the Pacific Northwest. One in Ann Arbor, one in Gettysburg, PA, one in Chicago. One lived in Arkansas, and one wrote from prison.

Of the occupations I could determine, eleven were writers of some kind. One was an artist. Then we had a stay-at-home-dad, and a bouncer. And the fellow in prison, which I thought was a good addition, even if he didn't discuss how he got there, something I thought was important.

No essays from men living in Georgia, Florida, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, etc. No obvious computer programmers, engineers, firemen, cops, bus drivers, car salesmen, farmers, ranchers, retail clerks…

Not exactly what I would call a representative sample. Granted, if you're asking for essays, you're a lot more likely to get writers than shop foremen. But if you're trying to get a look at the gamut of actual living breathing men…well, I think its lacking. I think the editor could have cast a wider net.

So if you want to know more about men and what they think and want, I don't think The Bastard On the Couch is for you. Unless you need info on men who are writers living on the coasts, the east coast especially.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Kids Can Be Observant

Jacob asked Trish why he changed schools every year or two. She (and I) were taken aback by this, but we realized that it was true. He's been to four different day cares ("school") and now two schools. I doubt he recalls the first day care, but we left it when we moved from Kansas to Austin. The next place was semi-convenient to our places of work, but not to home. The third was a good place, but we didn't care for the woman who would be his main caregiver, so when a brand new place opened up (Bluebonnet School of Cedar Park) even closer to us which got raves from some people who had left the third, we moved him there. And it was very good place. He went in to kindergarten, and continued at Bluebonnet in after-school care until I began to move into SAHD mode. And now we're moving to a new house (more on that later -- remodeling, even minor remodeling, is way expensive) and so a new school. We were so concerned and worried about keeping things stable for him, and yet we were shuffling him around anyway. Granted, some it could not be helped. And granted, the price to be paid for overdoing that stability would have been excessively high. I don't regret anything we did. But it was still a surprise to have him comment on it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

I'm Going To Disneyland

Well, I guess actually "I've been to Disneyland!".

Nobody said anything, so I guess I'll talk a bit about our vacation, the Disney part of it (since many families are apt to want to go there at least once).

One thing I would strongly suggest to anyone thinking about a trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld is to invest a few bucks in a book called "The Unofficial Guide". The Guide is great. It goes over travel arrangements, describes the hotels around, describes all the rides and reviews them, describes all the fixed dining areas and reviews them, and provides many handy tips of a miscellaneous nature. Examples of miscellaneous tips include hidden quiet areas in the parks, short cuts, and things to look for when on the rides. The books also include itineraries to use in order to get in as much as possible as efficiently as possible. Some folks might be put off by that, but if you only have a single day to spend in the park, it could mean the difference between a fun (if exhausting) day and a series of incredible frustrations.

This was our third trip to Disneyland (plus one to Disneyworld) so we are getting to be old hands and didn’t use the books. One thing I'll put in up front: If you can stay in the park, or very close by, and especially if you are spending more than one day there, try and take a break in the early to mid afternoon. Go back to your room and hop in the pool or take a nap for an hour or two. The park stays open till 10pm or even Midnight, and is much much cooler (Southern California is a desert area, and so is very hot in the day, but cools off fast at night) than the afternoon. If don't or can't, you'll probably hear yourself saying things like "Shut up and have fun, dammit!" by 8pm…

By the way, Disneyland is sort of two parks these days. The old Disneyland, and California Adventure, which is a more like your average theme parks (more doesn't mean exactly -- plenty of the extra touches which set Disney apart even today). Adventure was never as crowded as Disneyland proper, and I expect it filled more with locals or people like us who were staying three nights or more. Oh, and make use of Disney's call-ahead service if you plan to eat in the resort area. The nicer and more popular places can fill up quickly, sometimes even days ahead of time.

We decided to take three days this time, and stayed at Disney's Grand Californian. Very Nice. For some reason this summer three nights there was only 50-75 more than three in the older Disneyland hotel, so we went for it. Gorgeous. Jacob had a bunk bed all to himself. Our room would have suited a larger family just fine, as the kid's bed was a bunk with a trundle; three could have slept in it just fine. My and Trish's bed was supposed to be a queen, but it seemed more like a double to me.

We did pretty much all the thrill rides. Trish wasn't prepared for what the California Screaming roller coaster did and took an hour to recover. Later I rode it, but I'd gotten so much scary talk beforehand the actual ride was not that bad.

We did the Tower of Terror, which is one of those dropping elevator type rides. The first time I didn't know where the handholds were, and was trying to keep my hat, camera and T's bag from flying everywhere. It was disconcerting. The second time we did know where the handholds were, and although I think I got very sore muscles it was okay for a ride. The bad part is the fast ride up, 'cause you know its going to stop suddenly!

We rode lots of times on Star Tours, and Indiana Jones. I think Indy is my favorite ride.

We did the new Space Mountain. It's a little darker, or at least harder to catch glimpses of anyone. They've added speakers to the seats and play fast music while you're in it, and I think its just a bit faster. The line was always very long, except early in the morning. Our first night we waited well over an hour, and I don't think it was worth that.

Another major piece of advice is to use your Fastpasses! The FP tries to manage lines by giving you an hour-long window later in the day to skip most of the line on a particular ride, allowing you to go elsewhere and ride something else, eat lunch, or whatever. Depending on the popularity of a ride, your "return time" could be in 15 minutes or 6 hours later. The really popular rides like Splash Mountain and Space Mountain get FP times running late in the day very quickly, and usually run out at some point. Oh, and some rides don't use them (like Matterhorn, and almost everything in Fantasyland). I won't go into all the limitations and strategies now, since they change from time to time, but read up on the rules when you go. Judicious use of these little guys really helps a lot.

As I said this was our third time. I found it interesting how standing in line was not all that bad, most of the time. A 45 minute wait was no big deal. It might have been helped by the fact that this time around, Jacob was able to read. So we brought some paperback books into the park with us (Harry Potter, which Trish had purchased so she could read them in the tub without worrying about inadvertent soakings) which he would read while we waited. This kept him entertained and allowed Trish and I to talk. We have several pictures of him in line at various rides sitting or standing with his nose in a book.

It was Trish's birthday while we were there. I told our check-in person, and got us some "autographed" pictures of the Disney characters, a birthday button, and a few other little extras. Trish wore her button into the park, and got a zillion "happy birthday's", plus a couple of free desserts.

We had fun our three days. It was nice to not be in a rush to see everything we could. I think we could have done a fourth day as well, but five would have begun to get a bit stale, I think. Unless we took a day off from the parks just to hang out. There are certainly things to do just outside the parks and in the hotels.

For example, about the coolest thing that happened there was at the hotel one afternoon while we were resting from the parks. Jake and I did the "Grand Quest". Its a very simple scavenger hunt-like thing in the hotel where you go round and collect words and phrases from different locations, then go on to the next location give them your word or phrase, then they give you a new one for the next area. We did it and got free cookies. But that wasn't all. The cool part was that (maybe because only two groups did it) we got to be Grand Family of the Day! This meant some extra goodies (chocolate, ballons), AND admission to the Concierge Lounge that night to watch the nightly fireworks show from Disneyland, complete with music. Plus all the treats and drinks we wanted from said lounge free. Pretty cool.

Man, I'm sure I'm leaving out something else interesting and or useful, but there was so much that went on. Well, if I think of something or Trish reminds me, I'll add it in.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

For Want of A Nail; or As The Drying Fan Hums

My apologies for not blogging more. With the Jakester doing the Summer Camp thing all day I thought I'd have more time. Ha!

Part of the reason for that is humming in the background. You see, one night I noticed the sink in the hall bathroom (its not really a hall bathroom, it’s the upstairs bathroom shared by Jake and the guest room, but that takes too long to type) was draining rather slowly. This is odd all by itself since the things that normally get drains clgged up don't go on in there, unless the dogs are using it to trim their whiskers or something. Anyway, I made a note to try doing something about it in the next day or two. Because you are reading this here, you know where this is heading.

Well, the next day or two were busy. And Monday night I headed upstairs after cleaning to get Jacob to bed early. I headed for the hall bath to get his toothbrush set up and discovered a lake had formed. The water had not been completely turned off at the sink (something I had fussed at him before) and had overflowed. It was probably 3/4 of an inch deep.

I screamed threw down a couple of towels on the carpet and ran to grab a wet-dry vac to suck up the water. Actually, that was not the best idea; the vac is really for cleaning floors, not for flood control. Trish got about a zillion towels thrown down in order to soak up the water. Somewhere in the dashing about we saw that water was forming on the ceiling of the room below, and even dripping down from a fluorescent light fixture (which we turned off and in a calmer moment I taped over the switches, because every time I went in there I wanted to turn on the light).

At this point Trish suggested it might be a good idea for me to contact a water removal and remediation service. Actually, I think her words were more like "I think you should call somebody RIGHT NOW!" I was not frankly, operating at a high level in this mini-crisis. My high point was that bit with the tape. Anyway, I did call places, and the first ones to make it got the work.

By the time they arrived, which was actually fairly quick, all things considered, we had sopped up pretty much all the standing water, and the dripping down into the kitchen had slowed considerably. After looking things over this is what was done: several holes were drilled in the ceiling of the kitchen to get airflow to the subflooring, and four largish fans were set up to blow air under the carpets and up into those holes.

That was Monday night. Its Wednesday morning right now, and the guys are supposed to come this afternoon to see if the fans can be removed. I've also summoned a plumber to deal with the drain, which mysteriously refilled itself at least twice since we shut it off.