26 May, 2008

Memorial Day Observance

My grandfather served in the Navy throughout most of World War II. On the day Pearl Harbor was attacked, he was stationed in California, and was immediately shipped out as part of a convoy from San Diego. He arrived in Hawaii a few weeks after the attack, and forty-five years later he was finally able to write about it.


As the Harris sailed into the harbor, we stood dumb-founded at the sight that met our eyes. Everywhere we looked there was only destruction and the ravages of the December 7th attack. The water in the bay was covered with thick, black, tarry oil that appeared to be several inches thick, mixed with floating debris resulting from the explosions and fires. Articles of clothing, life jackets, and a lone white sailor’s hat that had somehow remained snowy clean gave mute evidence to the loss of life. Here and there smoke still rose from smoldering wreckage. When we passed what used to be known as Battleship Row, there were gasps of disbelief. We saw nothing but the burned and sunken hulks of our once proud Pacific Fleet. The USS Oklahoma had capsized after having been torpedoed. The Maryland and Tennessee were both heavily damaged. The Nevada, victim of both bomb and torpedo attack, had been beached to prevent her sinking. The California and West Virginia had gone down at their anchorage. Even the aged Utah, an unarmed target vessel, had been destroyed. But worst of all was the USS Arizona. Struck by both heavy bombs and torpedoes, her magazines exploding, the gallant old battlewagon was totally demolished. What had remained had sunk to the bottom of the harbor with over 1,000 members of her crew trapped inside her hull. The only evidence of her ever having existed was her foremast jutting from the murky waters, twisted and burned, albeit with colors and pennant still flying from the masthead.

The entire harbor reeked with the stench of death. We were to later see other damage. The destroyers USS Cassin and Downes were nothing but burnt-out shells in a dry dock they had shared with the battleship Pennsylvania, which miraculously received little damage. The aircraft, building, and equipment losses were still being assessed weeks after the attack. The Pearl Harbor Naval Base was almost completely destroyed.

It was almost dark by the time the Harris dropped anchor. Immediately, we were transferred to the repair ship USS Whitney by whaleboats. We couldn’t see much of her as we made it to her landing stage. There was no illumination other than a few red-colored battle lanterns. We moved up her ladders in a state of uncertainty, trying hard not to stumble. Anyone who might fall into the mucky, polluted waters below, burdened with all his gear, would become a statistic. In spite of the awkwardness of moving around in the dark, our draft did get up to the main deck without losing anyone. Given life jackets with quick instructions in their use, we were told to sack out right there on deck for the night. Somebody would come around later with hot coffee and sandwiches. Considering the turmoil and confusion that existed at the time, it was no surprise that the chow never appeared. We went to sleep hungry that night, but I heard no complaints.

As we arranged our seabags and life jackets along the deck, trying to stay out of the crew’s way, it dawned on us that it was Christmas Eve—for many of us our first Christmas away from home. We were a bunch of teenaged kids, scared to death and trying very hard not to let it show. I doubt if many of us slept that night. There were a lot of whispered prayers, and every now and then you could hear a muffled sob. One of the guys down the line called out softly, “Good night guys, and Merry Christmas.” There were a few more sobs to be heard, and I think one of them might have been mine. Still, despite everything, we did have something to cling to. After all, as our buddy had said, it was Christmas. I guess as we lay there in the darkness on our first wartime Christmas Eve, we were all truly hoping for peace on Earth, and good will toward all men.

The next morning, Christmas morning, we were awakened by the growl of airplane engines as the dawn patrol was preparing for takeoff. Everyone jumped up to line the rail and watch. Several consolidated PBY patrol flying boats were taxiing through the oil-covered waters to finally rise and head out to sea. It didn’t seem likely the Japs would be hanging around for a return engagement, but we were all very new to the business of war, and no chances were being taken.

There was still a holiday dinner of turkey, ham, and all the trimmings, and church services were held for those who wished to attend. Not many guys showed up. I don’t know if it was a lack of faith or just a strong sense of survival. The chapels were all located below deck, and it somehow seemed a lot safer topside. We remained on deck, watching the base as best we could and talking amongst ourselves about what we had seen and what our hopes were for the future. It was not the sort of yuletide we were used to, but one we would get to know well in the years ahead...


Today is Memorial Day. Let us all share a prayer for our honored dead, and a thank you to all the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, or who are currently on active duty.

Covering the Fugly Battleship Gray Porch

We're still spending most of our work time on the house cleaning out decades of crud and prioritizing projects. The porch fell in the low priority category.

It is probably as old as the house, but pretty darn sturdy yet. We'd like to redo it; if not rebuild it, perhaps by putting up insulation and drywall and extending the time we can use it. Unfortunately, that's not in the cards until more pressing things get taken care of first.

Still, it was kinda ugly, and we have to walk through it every day to get to the offices down in the basement. So, as a temporary solution, Mom decided to paint the porch on the first level a sunny light yellow. She's leaving the floor and ceiling the original battleship gray, as well as the main support posts. And the top area, which she can't reach with the ladder, we're leaving gray "for contrast."

I don't have a before picture, so just try to imagine all of this as ugly, dark, oppressive battleship gray.

Here I'm standing on the stairs that lead up to the tenants' porch. We're going to let them paint their level, too, if they want--but not the brick. The thing covered in plastic is my mom's quilt frame. She's calling this her Summer Sewing Room. The boxes stacked in the corner still have to make their way out of here, but the porch is pretty much set.

Here I'm standing on the stairs that lead to the outside back door. That gray thing between the two chairs is the back of the ice box. The little door that the iceman would put the ice in has been painted shut, but the plan is to strip and restore this to full functionality, should the iceman choose to cometh.

The painting of the shrieking head was done by Ted's sister.

We are all pack rats, and it won't take long for these walls to be covered in junk, like my lucky horseshoe.

By the way, my Mom and I have an ongoing battle about this horseshoe. I say it should be pointing down, so the luck showers down on us. She says up, so the luck doesn't run dry. Here's what the great and sometimes inaccurate Wikipedia had to say:

Horseshoes are considered a good luck charm in many cultures. The shape, fabrication, placement, and manner of sourcing are all important. A common tradition is that if a horseshoe is hung on a door with the two ends pointing up then good luck will occur. However, if the two ends point downwards then bad luck will occur. Traditions do differ on this point, though. In some cultures, the horseshoe is hung points down (so the luck pours onto you); in others, it is hung points up (so the luck doesn't fall out); still in others it doesn't matter so long as the horseshoe has been used (not new), was found (not purchased), and can be touched. In all traditions, luck is contained in the shoe and can pour out through the ends.

Hmmm. Seems we're both right.

Looking out the porch window to see our neighbor's bridal veil bushes hanging over the fence into our yard. These are gorgeous. Okay, I ran outside to take the picture, but you can still see these from the window.

Part of me hates investing time and effort in a solution that's only meant to be temporary, but it will probably be a few years until we get to a final porch solution. For now, it's definitely more uplifting to hang out on a sunny yellow porch than an oppressive gray one.

I think this is how some of those weird decisions made by previous owners actually started. A well-meaning PO does something meant to be "temporary," and years later someone else comes along and goes "WTF did they do that for"?

25 May, 2008

Joanne, the Unpredictable

We managed to get a few more boxes unpacked this weekend--I think it will be years before everything we have finds a new spot. But among the boxes and boxes and boxes left in the basement is one I can't seem to find: My collection of "Joanne" books. Oh, it's there somewhere, I remember moving it. I just have to dig down to it.

A few years ago, I started collecting books with my name or its variant, Joanna, in the title. They all look kinda cool lined up on a bookshelf. I picked up another one this weekend: Joanne, The Unpredictable, by Katheryn Kimbrough. It was published in 1976, when I was way too young to be reading such bodice rippers. The plot:

Joanne was the most stunningly beautiful and dangerously willful of all the Phenwick women. Even before she reached the age of twenty, she knew how to be all things to all men in order to turn them into puppets of her desire. And from the moment she arrived at Merrihew Manor, the ancestral Phenwick family estate in England, she began to cast her spell over everyone from her elegant, aristocratic cousin, to the handsome, virile master of the neighboring property, to the worldy, irresistibly charming man of the theatre who was visiting from London.

Life at Merrihew Manor was a whirling, intoxicating masked ball of romance for Joanne--until she realized the occult horror that ruled this ancient place, and felt the tightening embrace of a satanic force that neither her beauty nor her guile could disarm or deceive...
What a hoot. It has it all: occult horror, a gothic estate, and a beautiful young heroine. It may have to be this summer's poolside reading. Er, if I hung out at the pool, that is.

Some people collect Precious Moments figurines, I collect books with my name in the title. What's your freaky collecting habit?

24 May, 2008

When Bloggers Collide

It happens to us all sooner or later. Your spend the afternoon with your family cleaning the garage, or planting flowers, or painting the porch, and someone says to the others, "I'm making a Home Depot run. Wanna go?"

And you know that you shouldn't leave the house, because you know you look a fright. But why bother to change out of your gardening clothes or put in your contact lenses or even, for gosh sake's, brush your hair, when you know you'll be out and back in no time at all and back to work on the house.

And really, who else is going to be at The Home Depot on a Friday night?

Other house bloggers, that's who.

Mom and I had pretty much dropped whatever it was we had been working on and jumped in the car "as is" to drive on over to the local Home Depot. She was in search of better lawn chairs and I wanted to get a weed wacker, because I was so coveting the one Sparkle Plenty had just bought.

And while walking past the checkout lanes on my way to grab a shopping cart for the brick-red plastic Adirondack chairs Mom found ($9.95 each), I saw a couple buying concrete who looked kinda familiar.

Naw, it couldn't be, could it?

I looked down at my mismatched socks (at least they were both green), remembered that I still had on my frumpy glasses, contemplated the fact that I was actually wearing pajama bottoms in public, and thought oh, what the heck.

"Um, Jocelyn?"

The couple turned around and yep, I was right. It was Jocelyn and her husband Steve from Chicago Two-Flat. Small world, indeed, eh? I read their blog all the time. They have a two-flat in Rogers Park, not too far away from The Box House, and serve as my general inspiration for our own two-flat. We had never met before, but I had corresponded with Jocelyn a few times, and she had given me some good advice about renters.

We chatted for a few minutes, and I found them as nice and genuine as they seem on their blog, and we joked about where else would home restorers be on a Friday night but the local home improvement store. Jocelyn had mentioned before that we should have a get together for Chicago-area house bloggers. I love that idea. It would be a great way to meet other like-minded people, because most of my family and friends think we're crazy for taking on the renovation of an 82-year-old building. I hope that happens.

So after a few minutes, I waved good-bye to Jocelyn and Steve, and made my way back to the chair section to tell Mom of my encounter, feeling a little bad that she hadn't been with me to meet them, too. And when we got back to The Box House, I told Ted of the meeting, and how I would not leave the house again without properly combing my hair and making sure I had, at the very least, washed off all the garden dirt first.

"Um, Joanne, isn't that yellow porch paint in your hair?" he asked me.

I looked in the mirror and, *gasp*, a big ol' glob of yellow paint was in my hair.

Oh, good grief.

22 May, 2008

Where the Wild Things Are Part II, or Maggie Finds a Friend

My mom hates it when I take the dog out for a walk late at night, because you never know what you'll encounter. I never would have done it in my old neighborhood in Chicago--heck, I was often hassled during the daytime there. But here, where I encounter junior high kids walking their dogs at 10 o'clock at night, I'm not going to worry about it too much.

So a few nights ago, I put Maggie in the back yard without even bothering to turn the porch light on. There was enough light from the moon, and the street lamp, and the neighbor's security light across the alley to more or less make my way around the yard without tripping over anything. So I let her out and followed behind her. She immediately spotted something underneath the lilacs. With tail wagging, she was dancing around whatever it was, trying to get in for a good sniff. I figured it was a mouse or a rabbit--we are overrun with rabbits in the 'hood, bunnies who are so fearless they sometimes quietly sit and watch us as we walk by within feet of them.

I sighed and went back inside to flip on the light switch, which is through the door and six steps up. When I came back out, Maggie was gone. I called her and called her, but there was no response.

Now, I was a little bit worried. I didn't smell skunk when we came outside, but that didn't mean much, since my sinuses are completely stuffed this week from allergies and I have to practically be on top of something before I can smell it.

It was now deathly quiet. No cars, no wind rustling through the trees, and I couldn't even hear Maggie's tags jingling. There was only one place she could be, behind the garage, where the light from the porch doesn't reach.

So I carefully made my way back there, calling her the whole time, and found her at the far side of the garage, at the gate to the alley, ears perked and staring straight up at this:

The opossum was only a foot or so above her head. It was as still and silent as Maggie was.

"Jeezus, Maggie, get over here," I said. I'm such a city girl. Although I would spot them fairly regularly in the wee hours of the morning in the back alleys of Chicago, my general knowledge of 'possums amounted to "they hang from their tails or something, don't they?" I had certainly never been this close to one.

Thank God, Maggie actually came when I called her, her tail wagging and a big cheesy dog grin on her face. I hustled her back inside and of course got Ted as I grabbed the camera. When we went back out, the 'possum was still there, still as stone. That's apparently what they do when they feel threatened--er--play possum, that is. Thanks to Wikipedia, I later learned this about them:

When threatened or harmed, they will "play possum," mimicking the appearance and smell of a sick or dead animal. The lips are drawn back, teeth are bared, saliva foams around the mouth, and a foul-smelling fluid is secreted from the anal glands. The physiological response is involuntary, rather than a conscious act. Their stiff, curled form can be prodded, turned over, and even carried away. The animal will regain consciousness after a period of minutes or hours and escape. Many injured opossums have been killed by well-meaning people who find a catatonic animal and assume the worst.
The article went on to say that they're nocturnal, solitary, and nomadic, and not really a problem unless cornered. And no, the adults do not hang from their tails, although the wee ones will, briefly, do so. Bummer.

(Of course, now I'm wondering what new visitors Google will bring to my page because I used "anal glands". Um, twice.)

So, because it was playing possum, I actually got to step up within a few feet of it to take its picture. (In the photo above I was crouched down so I could get a picture from Maggie's perspective.)

"Hey beautiful," I said softly. "Let me just snap this and you can go on your merry way."

Ted laughed from behind me. "I doubt they get called beautiful very often."

Probably not. This little guy was drooling and he had snot hanging from his nose. But heck, that's just his nature. And he did have such luxurious-looking fur. I ran around to the alley side to get this picture:

Of course, now more than ever, Mom does not want me taking Maggie out after dark.

19 May, 2008

Interview on Simmer Till Done

Marilyn at Simmer till Done grilled me about my eating habits for her always entertaining cooking blog. You can read all about my food fetishes at Tell Simmer.

Marilyn's hometown is Wilmette, which is just north of The Box House, and she currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas, where Ted went to school. Small world, eh?

18 May, 2008

Gardening and Autobridge

Today we went to the Garden Fair. I had been looking forward to it for weeks. It's hosted by the local Garden Council, and numerous garden clubs from around town get together to sell both annuals and perennials, with proceeds going to the clubs and the Garden Council. And would you believe we didn't buy a single thing? The fair was smaller than I expected, and many of the plants looked just...okay. There were hostas selling for $12. After dividing and transplanting literally scores of them the last two weeks to other parts of the yard, I couldn't bring myself to spend that kind of cash for just one. But that's me, I'm cheap. What can I say?

Still, it was a nice day to get out. The fair was along Central Street, which is host to an assortment of cute little shops and boutiques. Not the kind of place I'd shop all the time, but definitely nice to visit or take visitors to dine and shop. We also went to several yard sales, decided not to buy a 120-year-old organ although its seashell motif matched my headboard, but did come back with a couple of Autobridge playing boards.

According to Board Game Geek, this is how it's played:

Autobridge is a bridge teaching and solitaire playing device and series of play sheets dating back to at least 1938.... While the specific materials and details of design have varied over the years, the fundamental design has remained. It is a board which may be opened to insert a sheet with cards indices and suits printed on it. The covering board is closed and the hand is played by opening windows. The player decides on their own play and reveals the next window to see what the expert recommends. An accompanying booklet explains the expert's recommendation. The system can be used to teach the completely naive novice to highly advanced players. Many supplementary sheets were produced over the decades. Mainly a teaching aide, there is no scoring, per se... Most versions found in online auctions appear to date from the 1950s.
Both the ones we picked up were copyright 1938; one has plated slides, the other plain silver. The silver one came with this notice:
This is one of the last of the famous Autobridge Textolite model playing boards. There will be no more available during the war. We regret that we had to give you unplated slides. Those in your board were made before the war and government restrictions now prohibit plating for non-essential purposes. If friends who see this set wish to buy one, please advise them that they may still be able to obtain an occasional one in some of the largest department stores. If they are unsuccessful, they can purchase directly from us a set containing our attracting Prestwood model playing board, made of masonite base and leather-grained fibre top, at $4.00.
I love finding war notices like this; many of my children's books from the forties talk about how they are printed on cheaper paper as part of the war effort. These little mementos are a unique sort of connection to what day-to-day sacrifices must have been like for my grandparents, who were in their late teens and early twenties during WWII.

I never learned how to play bridge, and even with this self-teaching tool, I don't see myself investing the effort. But I thought these Autobridge sets were kind of neat, and I plan to actually hang them on the wall in the porch stairwell. (I'm going for the Crackerbarrel Restaurant look with junk like this.) The two sets, with several books, manuals, and dozens and dozens of "practice hand" inserts, set us back $6.00.

My dad had learned to play bridge when he was still very young. He was raised by his mother and grandmother, and they taught him the rules so that they could use him as a fourth if they needed one. I don't know if his siblings play as well; I'll have to ask them sometime. But I like the image of my dad as a child, curly blond hair and bright blue eyes peering over the edge of a card table, his legs swinging because they are too short to reach the floor. He'd no doubt get a kick out of these boards.

While we were cruising the streets looking for a good bargain, we stopped to look at other peoples' gardens. Here are a few ideas I particularly liked:

A trellis made of twigs.

A wooden fence. We have been vacillating between an iron fence, or creating something like this ourselves, to fence off a portion of our yard to create a bigger "back yard." The wooden lattice looks more authentic to the bungalow/twenties era, and might shield us a bit better. Having a corner lot, where your yard is essentially exposed to every neighbor who walks by, can be a bit like living in a fishbowl.

What looks like terracotta (or possibly resin) architectural pieces on the facade of a two flat. Now something like this--but with a more deco flair--might spice up The Box House.

Looking at other peoples' houses and playing outside all afternoon didn't leave much time to work on The Box House today. Oh well, it's nice to take a day off occasionally.

12 May, 2008

A Little Birdie Told Me...

...to stop messing with the blog and go do something more productive.

I know I already posted this evening, but I wanted to upload a photo of this little guy as well. He's been acting as foreman for the yard work these last few weeks. When he is around, he never seems to be more than three feet away from whatever I'm working on. Today, I was planting a star magnolia in the front yard, and as I dug the hole, he sat on the edge of the pot, watching it all. Occasionally he'd hop down to peer right into the hole to see if I dug up anything interesting. He's scooped up ants and bugs and tugged at the occasional worm.

He's also really camera shy. He'll hop around my feet while I'm working, but heaven forbid I should go inside to get the camera. He takes off the moment he sees it in my hand! I don't know who he's trying to hide from...

But I did manage to snap this somewhat blurry picture of him this afternoon. I kept the camera in my pocket, and while sitting crosslegged next to the hole for the tree, I snuck it out and took a quick pic. All was fine until he heard the click of the camera; he looked up at me, and flew off in a shot. Oh well. Maybe next time.

Does anyone know what kind of bird this is?

I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment, while I was hoeing in a village garden, and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance
than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn.

— Henry David Thoreau

Standard Grounded Outlets

Wow, it's been almost a week since I've found the time to post. We've been working almost non-stop on the house and yard as well as trying to get work-work done, that we've pretty much collapsed into bed at the end of each night.

The tenants moved in last week, and we worked on their unit until the night before they were to move in. Ted had gone about the task of swapping out the old outlets in their unit with brown standard grounded outlets. I found some nifty new cover plates for them, and they go a long way toward updating the look of the place. The outlets are from Lowes or Home Depot, I forget which, but the deco-style oil rubbed bronze plate covers came from Classic Accents. I love these. We'll be using them in the downstairs unit as well, and eventually will get the matching push-button switches.

Old--why do people paint over these? They're not hard to remove. It drives me crazy.

New. Pretty spiffy, eh?

As Ted replaced the outlets--some of which were practically hanging out of the walls--he also checked the general condition of the wiring. We do have some cloth wires, but a lot of the wiring looks like it was updated at some point and is in good condition.

Unfortunately, whoever did the update also took some shortcuts. Not everything was properly grounded, and some of the wire was strung bare in the wall. This is a recipe for disaster when you have bare wire coming into a sharp-edged box. For one outlet, the wires were actually sliced into by the box, and there was soot coating the wires and the box. Power had been arching in the wall for who knows how long.

So Ted replaced the wires and got them strung properly through conduit. While he did that, I had my first experience with plaster and lathe repairs. We had to move the outlet over about four inches in order to get the wires into conduit, which is probably why the previous owner didn't do it properly in the first place. Unfortunately, I don't have a photo of my awesome plastering skills. The job was small enough that I just used Plaster of Paris. Because there was a hole in the lathe, we used metal screen pulled flush with the backside of the plaster at the opening to act as a support for the new plaster. With several coats of plaster, it's now smooth.

Checking to make sure everything was installed and grounded properly took way more time than planned, but I think that for now--touch wood--we don't have to worry about anymore updates or repairs to the top unit and can focus our energies elsewhere.

07 May, 2008

A New Contest! Into Every Life a Little Rain Must Fall...

...but why does it have to collect in our basement?

It looks like a naughty previous owner might have painted over a hairline crack in the foundation with ugly green paint prior to putting the house on the market. And how do I know it was a recent job? Because I clearly remember the agent saying that her uncle refreshed the paint on the basement floors with this very same green paint to help them look cleaner. He probably did the wall at the same time to hide this crack. (I doubt we'd ever be able to prove it was intentional, however.) There are a few other minor hairline cracks we were aware of, but those don't seem to be a problem.

We had a torrential rain come in directly from the north today. We've been checking after each rain for evidence of leaking, and this is the first we've found anything. First rainstorm to come from that exact direction, too, I think. Enough moisture is seeping in that it has bubbled the paint away from the crack, and water is collecting behind the paint on the wall. It's not even the right kind of paint for a basement, either. It's scraping right off with the water. (It used to be solid green; now it's all patchy.) None of our stuff is damaged; everything at floor level is in plastic tubs, and we already knew that water was making its way in around the window above this crack.

*Sigh* Just another thing to add to the to-do list, although I don't think it will be that big a hassle.

So, I'm curious. What cover-up or pending disaster did you uncover only after you closed on a house? To encourage the stories to flow, I'm sponsoring a contest. The funniest story or the one I sympathize with the most wins a prize. It won't be a major award, so don't get all excited on me now. You may enter as many times as you want. Contest ends at noon (Central Time) on Saturday.

Soldier at BAMC Receives One of Mom's Quilts

A few weeks ago, I posted an update on Mom's sewing room /quilt room progress with a photo of her working on a lap quilt. The quilt was sent to the Brooke Army Medical Center (BAMC) in Texas to be given to one of our soldiers who is receiving treatment. This morning, the woman who coordinates this particular quilts-for-soldiers program sent us a photo of Mom's quilt with the soldier who received it. (My guess is that the woman in the photo is his mom.)

Killer Ants! In Search of Organic Ant Repellent Advice

Growing up in the seventies, I was absolutely convinced that fire ants were going to swarm up from the south and infest Chicago or that bees were going to run amok and sting us all to death. It was all thanks to movies such as Empire of the Ants with a pre-Dynasty Joan Collins (above) or Killer Bees, a cheesy made-for-TV thriller that serves as a final film to the legacy of Gloria Swanson.

I'm not sure when I outgrew my aversion to ants. I no longer get creeped out by them, and do find them fascinating to watch--the one's on my mom's willow trees actually kept herds of aphids lined up along the trunk so that they could collect the honeydew. It was funny watching them guide or carry the aphids around. And when Ted and I were hiking to Machu Picchu in Peru, we would see trails of them along the path dozens of yards long. Now those were huge ants.

Ted in Nazca, Peru.

Sure, I like ants well enough now. Just not in the house.

Over the last week, we've been finding a stray ant here or there in the kitchen. "Sugar ants," my mom called them, a name she picked up from her grandma. "They're pretty teeny," I said. "I can't get all that worked up about them." They weren't like the carpenter ant infestation we had at our condo last summer. Now those were some big ants--as long as my thumbnail, so big you could actually make eye contact and know they were looking right at you. In comparison, these little guys at The Box House were not a big deal.

Until they got to the chocolate cake sitting on the windowsill. That was an act of war.

So I went to Lowe's in search of boric acid; it's what we used last year to get rid of the carpenter ants. It came in liquid form, and we squirted it into gaps in the baseboard trim where we suspected they were making their way inside. It took a couple of weeks of repeated applications, but eventually the scouts must have taken it to the queen and killed her off along with the rest of the colony. There haven't been any ants spotted since then.

Only, Lowe's didn't have any straight boric acid. I was forced to scout the shelf for a suitable substitute. The one I settled on--and don't make me tell you which one, because I left the box upstairs and I'm typing away in my basement office now--is good for pavement ants (a.k.a. sugar ants) as well as fire ants and carpenter ants. It's also good for little black ants (really? that's a scientific name?), acrobat ants (like a flea circus or something?), odorous house ants (who comes up with these names?), and crazy ants (based on the name alone, I certainly don't want to come across one of those). So, it should be just a few days until we have an ant-free kitchen.

But now that I have the bait set, I'm not happy with my decision to go the man-made chemical route. Has anyone tried any of the organic remedies kicking around the Internet? I know what I bought will do the trick, but if I can find an ant killer/repellent that won't be harmful to any canines or humans in the household, I'd feel better about using that the next time there's a problem.

At high tide the fish eat ants; at low tide the ants eat fish.
—Thai Proverb

04 May, 2008

Dandelions, Clover, and My First Lawnmower

Oh dear. My neighbor down the street is going to hate me. I watched him today out of the corner of my eye as I racked thatch. With weed tool in hand, he carefully scanned his yard for any interlopers, deftly pulling out offending dandelions and other noxious weeds by the roots and tossing them into a pile at the curb. His lawn is a verdant expanse of cool grass, interrupted only by carefully laid out flower beds, trees, and shrubs.

My own lawn, in turn, has been somewhat neglected over the years. It's more clover than grass, and hundreds upon hundreds of sunny dandelions and cat's ear dot the surface. I have no intention of trying to eradicate all the flowers, as I rather like dandelions.
(Dandelions are related to sunflowers, and I suspect that if they did not wither and wilt when you plucked them, they'd be held in high regard by gardeners.)

Another neighbor stopped by while I was working to introduce himself and to let me know he and his wife were delighted to see that we were investing time and energy into transforming the yard with new bushes and trees. (There really wasn't much in the way of landscaping before we moved in.) But then he bent down to poke the lawn with his finger, and sort of hopped up and down on it, proclaiming that it was choked with thatch (hence the springiness) and lacking in nitrogen (a veritable welcome mat for clover). I cheerfully told him I liked the clover, and kind of hoped it would turn out to be the white and pink clover of my childhood. He looked at me like I was crazy. But he's probably forgotten how wonderful it is to lie in the grass on a summer's day, plucking clover.

Still, as much as I like the idea of letting the lawn go wild, perhaps even scattering wildflower seeds here and there and letting it all return to a prairie-like state, I do concede that I live in an urban area. And so, I'll try very hard to keep the grass trimmed and I'll try to minimize the impact my dandelions have on my neighbors' lawns, perhaps by deheading them before they go to seed.

But I think lawns are kind of unnatural, and over the years I hope to reduce the actual grassy patches, increasing the space for flower beds and planting native greenery that won't hog water or demand lots of attention.

Still, for the moment, we do need to keep the grass cut. Now here's where I need to make a confession. Before today, I have never mowed a lawn. Yes, I'm 39 years old, and I had never, ever, in my entire life, had to cut the grass.

How'd that happen?

Well, when we were kids, the chore fell to my brother Ed, plain and simple. I had other tasks, mostly indoors. Ed's chore was to cut the grass. Then throughout my days as a renter, I was never held responsible for keeping the grass cut. That was the landlord's job. Later, living in a condo, the association hired a company to cut the grass (what a ripoff that was, too, at $50/week for five minutes of work).

So now, with The Box House, there's a fairly decent size lawn that needs a'trimming. It's small by most suburban or small-town standards, but for a city lot there's actually quite a bit of grass. Mom thought we should hire a service, but I'm cheap and said we could do it ourselves. Ted has mowed more than enough lawns over the years to be enthralled with cutting this one, and so the task has fallen to me. I'm actually a bit excited.

So this week, I bought a lawn mower. I feel so grown up. It's a Scott manual push mower (trying to minimize my carbon footprint and all). And so far, I love it. It's soooo incredibly easy to use, and contrary to any reservations I might have had, it's actually pretty lightweight. I got the entire yard done in about 20 minutes.

I do need a few other tools--edger, string trimmer, etc.--to really do a good job, but I think I might actually enjoy the chore of mowing a lawn.

Just don't ask me to take out all the dandelions.

EPA Factoid:
Lawn mower exhaust is full of hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds (V.O.C.s). An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study found that approximately 9% of some types of air pollution nationwide comes from the small engines required to run lawn and garden equipment. In metropolitan areas, the concentration of lawns causes this number to increase in some instances to 33%.

I am not a lover of lawns. Rather would I see daisies in their thousands, ground ivy, hawkweed, and even the hated plantain with tall stems, and dandelions with splendid flowers and fairy down, than the too-well-tended lawn.
—W.H. Hudson, The Book of a Naturalist, 1919

01 May, 2008

Electrical Hazards, Courtesy of Uncle Jimmy

Part of getting ready for the tenants' arrival was cleaning the kitchen top to bottom. Sounds simple enough. Aside from the ironing board repair, we didn't anticipate having to do much else. So Ted moved out the stove and refrigerator to get at years of accumulated dust behind each one, and found one hell of an "Uncle Jimmy" setup.

A while back we started calling any dubious home repair, amateur fix-it, remuddling job, or downright dangerous setup an "Uncle Jimmy." It goes back to our home-search days, when our agent would say things like "Ugh, it looks like they got someone's Uncle Jimmy to fix that" instead of hiring a professional. So, basically, anything shoddily done is an "Uncle Jimmy."

I was fiddling with the blog when Ted came to find me. This "Uncle Jimmy" needed a second witness. I arrived with camera in hand.

The refrigerator was plugged into an adapter, which in turn was plugged into a 99-cent power cord:

This cheesy white power cord, along with the cord for the microwave, was plugged into a beat-up, cracked, badly damaged (and very, very cheap) black power strip:

The power strip was plugged into another cheap power cord:

This snaked behind a counter and behind the stove to join this mess:

At first, I couldn't entirely make out what was going on here; the entire thing was coated in thick, greasy dust. It's amazing there was never a fire. Clearing off some of the dust revealed that each half of the outlet had one of those 3-in-1 adapters, setting it up to hold six appliances/extension cords (even though the refrigerator/microwave extension was the only thing plugged in on one side).

Ted cleaned up the whole mess; unfortunately, I didn't get an "after" picture before moving the appliances back. He moved the microwave to the other side of the kitchen, where it is now plugged directly into its own outlet. The refrigerator is plugged into a cord that is rated for heavy use, and that goes directly into the outlet. The other half of the outlet powers the stove. Uncle Jimmy would be awed.

I know The Box House is an old house with only a few outlets in the kitchen at present, but sheesh. What were they thinking? We'll be installing some GFCI outlets in both kitchens--and more outlets period--sometime in the future.

Here's some additional info from the U.S. Products Safety Commission:

Limit Extension Cords To Reduce Risk Of Fire

WASHINGTON--If you use a lot of extension cords in your home or apartment, government safety experts say doing away with as many cords as possible can improve the safety of your home.

Noting that May is National Electrical Safety Month, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said homeowners can use fewer extension cords by taking the simple step of relocating floor lamps, clocks, radios, television sets and other electrical products closer to wall receptacles.

According to CPSC estimates, there are some 4,600 residential home fires each year associated with extension cords; these fires kill 70 persons and injure some 230 others annually. Apart from fires, another 2,200 shock-related injuries happen with extension cords every year.

CPSC offered the following safety hints for using extension cords:

  • Don't use an extension cords unless absolutely necessary. If you do, it must be marked #16 or some lower AWG number (the lower the number, the larger the wire and the more current the cord can safely carry). Also, the cord should bear the certification label of an independent testing laboratory. Do not use #18 extension cords which were previously used for floor lamps and other low-wattage electrical products.
  • Always use 3-wire extension cords for appliances with 3-prong plugs. Never remove the third prong which is a safety feature designed to reduce chances of shock or electrocution.
  • When disconnecting cords from outlets, always pull on the plug rather than the cord itself. Discard any old, cracked, worn or damaged extension cords.
  • Don't overload cords by plugging in appliances that draw more watts than the rating of the cord. You can check this easily by examining the cord to see what its wattage rating is. Use heavy-duty cords for high wattage appliances. Use extension cords labeled for outdoor use when powering tools and garden products outside the home. Also, it is good practice to plug into an outlet protected by a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GFCI). The device shuts down power in milliseconds if the consumer is exposed to an electrocution or electrical burn hazard.
  • Don't run cords under carpets or rugs since they prevent heat from being released by the cord.
A free brochure on safe use of extension cords is available from CPSC by sending a postcard to Cords, Washington, D.C. 20207.

Built in Ironing Board and Ice Box

Monty, I'll take what's behind door number one...

Eek! The new tenants are moving in on Saturday. Where did the month go?

In getting the top-floor unit ready for our paying guests, we found ourselves with a longer to-do list than we originally anticipated. Isn't that always the case? While the electrical and plumbing systems take priority, it was fixing the ironing board and cleaning up the ice box that were the most satisfying tasks.

The built-in ironing boards were definitely one of those vintage details that sold us on The Box House in the first place. Each unit has one. But the one on the top floor was off its hinges and the screw holes were stripped. There was no way they'd hold new screws. There were also some dowel rods on the underside that needed replacing.

To take care of the screw holes, I filled them with PL Fix Wood Repair to create a new surface. We were very impressed with how it worked. Ted was able to screw the hinges back into the ironing board and said it was "almost" like screwing into wood. So we do recommend this product.

Voila! Now if someone opens the door, the board will not come crashing down on his or her head.

There's even a separate board for ironing sleeves.

I'm not sure if the tenants will actually use this, but it's a fabulous vintage detail, and one that really makes me feel connected to the women who toiled in the kitchen before me. Yeah, right. Like I really toil in the kitchen.

As for the ice box "repair", that was a bit of a surprise. When I was at Home Depot for my 20th trip of the week, Ted secretly stripped off the old and ugly contact paper that was covering the tenants' ice box in the pantry:

So now it looks much more presentable.

We should be able to wrap up the final tasks on our list Thursday, and spend Friday doing a last clean-up before the tenants move in. I'm excited because they seem like very nice people, but slightly apprehensive because we've grown somewhat accustomed to having The Box House to ourselves.