Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Tree Hugger

Not all trees last for centuries. Even some of the ones that are meant to.

One real point of pride with me is the number of trees I've planted. Just as part of this renovation project, I've been responsible for the planting of six trees (seven if you count the pomegranate, which borders on being a very tall bush.) And really, can you think of any single negative thing about a tree? They are majestic, and provide life-perpetuating oxygen, and shade, and beauty and jeez I could go on. And to plant one is to bring all that into the world for potentially a century or more.

At least that's what I had in mind when I went in search of a willow tree for our front yard.  A tree that would grow to be formidable in size, but with a soft, weepy embrace. The tree of choice for romantic comedies set in the Deep South.

"They're not native," they said. "They need a lot of water," they said. I got a lot of disparaging advice from professionals. Cut to me installing a lovely willow sapling in our otherwise low-water yard.

My hopes were high. I even took a picture of my son, who was just two at the time, next to the tree, because I had visions of him as an old man standing next to same tree reminiscing on his happy childhood climbing its branches.

And for a while the tree grew. And when I was really regular about deep soaking it like clockwork every two weeks, it did well. It came to be green. But there was one episode, which i don't have pictures of, when the tree came unbound from its supports and bent fully over. It really never recovered after that. It came to have an odd, unappealing shape and eventually, it died.

So, finally, we took the plunge and had the bad boy removed. Now it looks like a 5,000-lb. brick slammed into our front yard.
Or like we're about to bury a small (but wide) coffin.
I'm hoping when I get home from work tonight, this hole will be history and a peppy pepper tree will begin its reach from this location toward the sky. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Stagnation Nation

I'm writing this because I'm having a lot of feelings about our house and I have to put them somewhere. I think it might make me feel better.

The key feeling is frustration. But maybe something more -- something in the vein of unhappiness. And the source of these feelings is my back yard. Not the yard itself, exactly, because the space has a lot of potential. What is frustrating me is my inability to get the yard project moving.

One thing you learn when you embark on almost any house project is that elements of a house are often deeply intertwined with other elements of a house, and things have to be done in a certain order. Or you open up one project only to find you've opened up a Pandora's box of other projects. You go to buy a garage door and suddenly you realize the material on that door has to match the material on the side door of the garage, and that material, it turns out, has to match the material in the entryway, and now you're suddenly replacing $10,000 in stupid doors. This is the issue with our yard.

Before I get into the succession of changes that we don't seem to have any ability to make and why, let me just show you the thing that drives me the most crazy. Here it is:
This is dirt. It's what I stand in when I stand in my yard.

So, getting rid of dirt is easy, right? The answer is beautiful, creative landscaping. However, landscaping must be done in a certain order. You start with the hard-scaping -- the decks, the pathways, the fountains, whatever -- and then you do the plants. 

For our hard-scaping, we knew we wanted a new deck off the back of the house.  What we have right now is just sort of a cement slab -- though I've always kind of like how it curves. 

So, here's where things get tricky. We had an idea that we would merge these two glass doors. It drives Jim crazy that the tops of the doors don't sit on the same plane. The bottoms don't either, and the reason is that the rooms they lead to have floors at two different heights. Our living room is somewhat sunken. Only by about four inches, and for no particular reason except that the front of the house is an addition that was made in the 60s.

The decision to merge the doors brought us on a bit of an odyssey. We had a contractor to do the job, but he wouldn't do it without plans drawn up by an architect. I talked to friends who were architects, and none of them had any interest in a job this small. I won't bore you with the back-and-forth of finding and losing architects and engineers, but suffice it to say years have passed and the doors are not merged, and the deck is not built.

I actuallky started this post months ago, and though I published it just today, I don't really have more to say about it. Instead, I'll let the pictures from that moment tell the story of my frustration about the yard. Here they are:

Saturday, May 16, 2015

The $10,000 Mistake

So, this happened.

We tore out the entire floor of our bathroom. The shower floor, the stone kickboards, the cement float underneath, everything. Why, you ask? Well, it all goes back to 2009...

We had finished the bathroom, and it was glorious. We had taken it from looking like this:

To this:

There was only one problem. It didn't work. To start, the floor wasn't level. And we had installed a "gutterless shower" proposed by our designer at Home Expo. A beautiful design, but hard to execute. Our contractor didn't put the regulation 1/2" slope in the shower, so instead of the water staying in, it flowed out and then pooled on the other side of the bathroom. We always needed lots of towels to catch the flow.

At the end of every shower, I squeegied the glass walls, but then I also took to squeegying the water back into the shower.

I'd known since the very first shower that the floor had to be redone. I talked to my contractor, and he said he'd be willing to re-do the work if I just got him the materials. I began to gather them, and they collected in the space that was supposed to be a finished cabinet:

That junk pile sat in our bathroom for six years.

What happened in those six years??
  • The economy collapsed.
  • Home Expo went under, taking our designer and the archives of all we had ordered with it.
  • I stockpiled stone tiles, picking whatever unchipped remnants I could find from the remaining stock at Solistone out in San Bernardino.
  • I searched for the shower floor tile. Didn't know it's name. Didn't have a sample of it to take around. I searched in vain for -- not exaggerating -- two years? Finally got lucky and stumbled across a leftover remnant in our back yard. Found a match at Mission Tile West in South Pasadena.
  • My contractor disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.
  • I tried to sue my contractor but could never find him to serve the summons. Learned about statutes of limitation on claims against contractors (2 years). 
  • Got angry. Got frustrated. Got wide-ranging bids from other contractors to fix the problem ($3,500 on the low end, $10K on the high)
I became suspicious of every contractor. The ones with bids too high must be gouging me, while the ones on the low end must be incompetent. And I battled with myself over spending so much money on the same job twice. Yet every day the water spilled out. Every day the clutter pile grew bigger. It was a crazy circle. And it was me driving myself crazy because I just couldn't deal with how big a mistake it was.

Then I finally found someone to help me chuck the albatross off the deck. Enter Benjamin, a contractor recommended by some good friends who regularly re-do houses. Benjamin was their man, and I figured that gave me some additional leverage. He wouldn't want to screw me and have it get back to my friends.

So we dove in at long last. We set out to rebuild the shower basin, raising it up, giving it a dam to keep the water in, and making a couple additional changes along the way.

We installed an infinity drain, which hadn't even been invented when we started the project six years ago: 
The first time around, because of the screw-up, we never really finished the bathroom. We never got to the finishing touches, such as towel racks and an actual toilet paper holder. For six years our roll just kicked stupidly around the bathroom space, usually in a puddle under the sink. But look! These small details made a huge difference!

And at Benjamin's recommendation, we installed a vent in the ceiling.

But most importantly, we built up the shower flower. And I don't really feel like we lost anything aesthetically in eliminating that smooth entry into the shower. Benjamin did a lovely job with the step, and it looks pretty slick. We also brought Aladdin Glass of Canoga Park back in. They did the shower walls the first time around, and this time they replaced the front panel and door to accommodate the new step up.

And so, without further delay, here is the final result:

We never did build out the cabinet in the space that housed the six-year junk pile, but we're working on it.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Target Eyesore in Hollywood: Blame the La Mirada Avenue Neighborhood Association

On the corner of Sunset and St. Andrews, directly across from a bustling Home Depot sits the unfinished Hollywood Target. It's an eyesore. It's a fiasco. And the blame for the construction stoppage falls squarely on one group: The La Mirada Neighborhood Association. This highly litigious organization filed the suit, along with a few other neighborhood groups, that resulted in the cessation of work on the Target retail complex as of August 2014. Their issue is that the building was designed to reach a height of 74 feet, in an area where heights are limited to 35 feet. This is one of many suits brought by these self-proclaimed saviors of Hollywood, who are opposed to growth.

Their supporters talk a lot about the rule of law. They say it's not the size of the structure that's the problem — it's that the city council circumvented existing zoning laws to give special permission to Target. To this, I have two things to say:  YES they did. And THANK YOU, City Council. Sometimes, to make progress, you have to push the limits of a law — sometimes even violate it — to get the change you want. I shudder to think where the civil rights movement would be today without the courageous law-breakers who put their lives on the line toward the goal of changing the law.

The name and tag line of one of La Mirada's sister associations fighting for the same cause is "Save Hollywood." What, the ugly, seedy, wonky, run-down Hollywood of my youth? Back then the old 'hood was low-slung and sprawling with no reason to walk the star-paved boulevard other than the sidewalk itself. Look at it now! We are a pedestrian hub anchored by three glorious metro stops! Help me understand what it is about the old Hollywood you are trying to recapture. Was it the prostitutes or the drug dealers? The graffiti? What.

Sure, La Mirada would like you to blame the city council for the work stoppage. They would like you to blame the mayor. And if by "blame" you mean "give credit where credit is due," then in fact, I do blame the mayor. I blame him for backing projects that are taller and not perpetuating the sprawl L.A. is known for. I blame him for bringing retail shops to the sidewalks instead of pushed back behind an expanse of paved parking lot, creating a more pedestrian-friendly streetscape. I blame him for promoting density and making Hollywood more bike-able. I blame him for improving my neighborhood in numerous ways. Shame on you, Mayor Garcetti! I blame you!

But I'm not going to waste my time pointing fingers. I'm going to spend my energy on fighting to get this development finished. I've written to the mayor's office to ask what I can do to help. A petition? A protest? I’ll jump in with both feet. The La Mirada Neighborhood Association may like to think that they are the voice of the neighborhood, but they do not — DO NOT — speak for me. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Four Years Later ...

OK, so it has been a little while since I last posted. Funny now to look back over my last few posts, which add up to a snapshot of a period in my life that was uncertain, scary and dark. I didn't know it at the time, but that last post about the garden was me at a threshold. After that, my world turned upside down. We halted all renovations on the house. My mom had been sick, and a year-and-a-half later she died of a lung condition that was never properly identified. I slid into a deep funk, accompanied by a long period of strenuous soul-searching. I kept trying to spin my situation -- our situation -- as temporary, like the dip in the economy. It would get better. But years go on, and it gets really hard to see what you're living as temporary.

But a couple weird things happened. For one, we survived. While my career fortunes waned, my husband's ascended, and we ended up scraping by with change to spare. We never lost the house or anything else. And all that soul-searching I did? It changed me. It gave me a better understanding of myself than ever before. After 20 years as a desk jockey, I realized I'd hated every job I'd ever had and found a new appreciation for the life I was leading outside of my career. I had little kids and a sick mom and I was there for all of them at a time when they needed me. I reshaped how I lived -- Like, instead of waking up in the morning and saying "What do I have to do to get by?" I said, "This is your ideal world. You have no limitations. What are you going to do today?" And then I did them. And this attitude brought me to do some crazy, interesting, fun, weird, sometimes embarrassing stuff. But that's for a different blog post on a different blog. This is a renovation blog.

So the key thing that happened that is pertinent to our house project is that I started working again. Yes, this was the undoing of a lot of the self-discovery I'd just been through -- but again, different blog. Working again meant moving forward again with the house project.

Or you'd think it would -- but it's been a year-and-a-half since I went back to work and the number of renovations we've done amounts to zero. But that's OK, right? It takes a while to build up resources, to get plans together, to hire people, to get bids, to pick materials, to make decisions and to GO!

So here I am at another threshold (I hope). And if the months to come bring all the changes to this house that I am hoping for, I will be sure to document them here, for your consumption. Feels good to be back!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Brightness in the dark

As you already know, if you read my previous post, this hasn't been a particularly sunny period of my life. Since I lost my job in March, I've had the displeasure of watching our family sink into an ever-deeper financial abyss, bringing our home renovation to a screeching halt. But I don't want to dwell on that today. In fact, I'd like to do just the opposite. At times of darkness, sometimes that stupid cliche about looking on the bright side holds some merit. So I offer you a subject of brightness. Here it is:

This is the parkway in front of our house as it looks today. At this size, it's probably kind of hard to see anyway, but this picture doesn't really do it justice. The flowers when you see them live and in person are pretty spectacular, and walking along side them makes you feel like you're strolling through a lush suburban garden. It is exactly as we intended it to be. But better. Just looking at these flowers brightens my mood. Just tracking their progress from little sprouts into glorious, bloom-happy full-sized plants has been an inkling of pleasure in a period where such delights are too few.

This brings me to another bright spot: Our neighbors. With the spring and the explosion of flowers and blossoms all over our property, I've had the happy occasion to speak with numerous residents near to and far from our house. My encounters with them are not accidental. They stop me cold, usually as I'm climbing into my car, so they can rave to me about the work we've been doing on our property. It almost never fails. As soon as I walk out of the house, whatever person is there, walking by, walking a dog, delivering mail, jogging — whatever — that person feels compelled to come tell me that they love what we've done with the house. They wince as they describe the house as it was previously. A blight on the neighborhood. An eyesore. A shit hole. On one occasion, a woman ran nearly half a city block to get my attention. She said she lived up the way in Beachwood Canyon and had been hoping to catch me for a while.

These encounters make me feel like a movie star who just appeared in that role that for some reason everyone connects with. I guess a renovation isn't only about what you get out of it. It can also be about what you give.

If it sounds like I'm bragging, let me say here that I am fully aware that my husband and I can't take all the credit. It has taken a cast of thousands to get the front of our house looking the way it does from where it was when we started. Notable among the players are:
  • Pia Dominguez of Barefoot Landscaping who did our initial landscape design including choosing the plants on the front parkway — though not on the side parkway, which is fodder for another post.
  • Stumper Landscaping — They did the actual work on the landscaping. Bill Weber at Stumper, I must say, is a sprinkler genius and one of the nicest men I've ever worked with.
I'll post a more thorough list if and when we ever finish the front of the house. For now, the parkway will have to suffice. I guess a dark side of this bright side is how crappy the curb looks, broken and crumbling in many places. With the city and its financial crisis, I'm not expecting any repairs soon.

And at least I know with our own financial crisis we're in good company.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Money Talk

I’ve been fighting with myself over this post for a while now. Like a lot of people, I was raised to believe you don’t talk about money — at least not any of the money matters that actually matter. You don’t tell people how much you make, and you never, ever ask what they make. You don’t ask how much a person paid for their house, their car or really anything, though you are free to discuss whatever figures a person volunteers. But on the flip side, you don’t volunteer that information either. Money is sensitive and relative and can cause hurt feelings or jealousy or disrespect when people know the actual numbers. You’re just better off not talking about it.

And yet, what is more crucial to a renovation project than money? And what benefit is this blog if it doesn’t help you through the big decisions in a renovation – and don’t so many decisions revolve around money?

What makes me think about money today is that I lost my job again. It’s actually the second time I’ve been laid off in two years. Both lay-offs were not performance-related, just the economy doing what it’s want to do. But regardless of the reason, I’m out of work, which cuts our total household income almost exactly in half.

After my first layoff, I was out of work 10 months. As frightening as that was, there was also a lot of joy in it. My previous job environment had been pretty ugly, and being free from it held some relief. I’d been burning to work on some of my own projects and potentially start a business. And as a working mom running a home renovation, I’d had so little down time that boxes from our move — two years earlier — still lurked in corners around our house, not yet unpacked. Having some time to cut through the household clutter was just a delight, whether or not we would sink like rocks financially. And don’t get me started on having more time to spend with my kids.

This time around, the situation is different and more dire. I relied on my credit card a lot during my last lay-off, and in fact ran the card to its limit. And there at the limit it remains, leaving me without any credit cushion this time around. This time around the layoff was so sudden and so unexpected that it happened to catch us right in the middle of landscaping the front yard — a moment when we were particularly cash poor with all the payments to landscapers and fence-building contractors. In fact, my last conversation with the fence builder went a little bit like this:

Fence-builder: So, we are finished with the fence and ready to take it for powder coating. Oh — we mentioned before the powder coating would be extra, right? That will be an extra $1,800.
Me: I don’t have that money.
Fence-builder: OK, then we won’t do the powder coating. That means the fence is finished, so you need to make the last payment it. That will be $2700.
Me: I don’t have that money. I can try to have it for you in a week.
Fence-builder: We need it today.
Me: I don’t have it today. I could write you a check, but it would be bad. Can you wait just a week so that I can gather my resources a bit? I just lost my job.
Fence-builder: You lost your job? Then we definitely need that money today.
Me: Well, I can give you blood. Perhaps that’s worth something on the open market? I do not have $2700 today, but I have blood.

The fact that this conversation took place rather noisily in our front yard did not, I imagine, do wonders for our reputation around the neighborhood.

If you don’t know me personally, perhaps this whole story sounds a little trite. The economy has, after all, been bad for a good, long time. How long, exactly? Let’s see — how long have we been in this house? Four years? Yes. The economy has been bad approximately four years. And maybe, if you don’t know me, you are thinking that I am irresponsible. I ordered the fence — how dare I order something that I don’t have the money to pay for?

But my point is that this is a really integral, fundamental part of a renovation for any regular working person. There are times when your chips are up and other times when they are down, way down. For us, at this moment, the chips are so far down that it’s hard to imagine there is a place called up. It’s funny — I thought the chips were down back in 2007 when we spent six months without a kitchen and washed all our dishes in a decaying green pre-renovation bathroom sink. I thought they were down when we slept with our six-month-old baby on an air mattress in the only room in the house that had finished walls and an actual light fixture (but no curtains, mind you). I thought they were down when we had to have hydraulic pumps brought in to actually lift the entire house from its center because we learned a pipe had let sewage seep for nearly 20 years, causing the whole structure to sink. The list goes on and on. But the hardest of all to face is the idea that after suffering through trial after trial, our efforts may still be for naught. We could lose it all. Even if we don’t foreclose, if we have to sell (clearly at a loss in this market), it means some other person or family will reap the benefit of our efforts. The house we custom-designed for ourselves and our family will be someone else’s property.

Standing where I stand today, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have no job and no job prospects. Maybe some great job will come my way tomorrow — or maybe we will stop paying our bills and watch as the empire slowly crumbles around us. If you are reading this post because you stumbled across this blog while trying to decide for yourself whether to take on a renovation, I hope it does you some good. I hope it forces you into a gut check of sorts. If you found yourself in the same situation, would it all be worth it?

This isn't my last post on this subject. There is a lot left to be said about the money issues surrounding a home purchase or renovation. And maybe if more people had put their manners aside and had these conversations five years ago, the housing crisis would never have happened, the economy would never have slowed to a near stand-still, and I'd still have a job.