20 February, 2009

A Bottle of Lubricant, Two Kittens, and Another New Chandelier

We're lucky that the original wiring of our 1920s house was strung through rigid conduit, as that makes the task of stringing new wire through that much easier, and we won't have to pull down plaster walls to do it. And this evening, I had my first lesson in rewiring as I got to help rewire the line that's going to power the ceiling fan in the living room.

I had been dreading having to help Ted with the chore, because it didn't sound like it was going to be much fun. I thought trying to get new wires through the conduit was going to be really, really hard and kind of tedious. In truth, we were done in less than 20 minutes.

The original cloth-covered cord looked to be in decent shape, but still, we chose to upgrade it to new wiring. To do so, Ted attached the new wires to the end of the old wire using duct tape. Then, as he stood on the ladder and pulled on the other end of the old wire, I fed the new bundle into the conduit, straightening the wire as I went along.

Here's a view of the wires before I started feeding them in:

To ease them along, I smoothed on a light coating of Wire Pulling Lubricant. Until this month, I didn't even know there was such a thing.

In addition to the new wires, I also fed a strand of Poly Line through. This will be left in place in case we need to add another wire through the conduit at a later date. That way, we will just be able to tie the new wire to the end of the Poly Line and pull it through without disturbing the wires that are already in place.

The kittens, as always, supervised the process. We've taken to referring to them as "Kitten Fridays," because they're so helpful. (Not.) Here they're playing with the old cloth wire. Please don't enlarge the picture, as you'll only see how badly I need to vacuum the rug.

In other electrical news, we bought another new (to us) light fixture, an original polychromed 1910s chandelier that will go in the front entryway to replace the gawd-awful one that's currently there. Ted spent the last two days negotiating a price with an eBay vendor that we think is fair, saving us 35% on what he was originally asking.

Here's the new fixture:

Here's a view looking straight up at the polychrome finish:

It's BEAUTIFUL. I can't wait until it gets here. This is the light it's replacing; I've never bothered to dust it, because like some of the other fixtures, I never meant for it to remain in place for long. Besides, I'm too short to reach it without a ladder. Sheesh, between the rug and the dusty lamp, you're going to think I'm a terrible housekeeper. And yikes, is that a cobweb in the corner?

At present, there is no light switch for this fixture, it's controlled with a pull cord (and one that looks suspiciously like a shoelace). Ted will be adding a push-button dimmer switch to control it; because it's centrally located, we thought a dimmable (is that a word?) fixture could double as a nightlight.

While he works on that, I'll be stripping the wood trim on the five doors that branch off from the entryway. Here's what I'll be dealing with:

Go ahead, feel free to enlarge that picture. Seriously, how does varnish get to look that bad? It seems to come off easily enough with Soy Gel Remover. After I get this cleaned, sanded, and refinished, Mom and I will finish off the walls with Behr's Venetian Plaster. I love this stuff, and used it all over the condo (the one we're currently renting out).

And then, we'll be able to open up our front door without squirming in discomfort that someone will see the shabby wood trim.

11 February, 2009

Fan Installation Step One, or Eliminating One Electrical Fire Hazard

Mom has spent the last week in Texas, visiting my brother and his family. Ted and I had planned to have a new ceiling fan installed in the living room as a surprise for her return. But like all projects at The Box House, what we thought was a simple matter quickly grew complicated.

At present, there are no ceiling fixtures in the living room, although there is a (capped) box in the ceiling for one. There are also no light switches, just half a dozen receptacles for plugging in floor and table lamps. We want to install a ceiling fan/overhead light combo, and have it controlled by a switch.
The fan. Hampton Bay 54 inch Sauterne in Antique Umber.
We picked it up on clearance at The Home Depot.
If it looks good in place, we'll get one for the upstairs unit's living room as well.

The first step for the fan project was to trace the existing wiring to the ceiling box. With walkie talkies in hand, Ted worked upstairs testing wires and I controlled the switches in the circuit box down in the basement. Here's what we found out:

The ceiling box in the living room and the ceiling box in the dining room are on the same circuit, as is one receptacle in the living room (the rest are on another circuit entirely). Unlike the other receptacles, this one looks like a later addition. Some previous owner had cut into the baseboard trim to install it instead of cutting into the plaster, which would have to be patched around any cuts. Grrr. It upsets me every time I see a "shortcut" like that. So while the rest of the receptacles are a few inches above the baseboard, this one is in it.

Arrgh. Can you believe a previous owner cut into the baseboard like this?

Anyway, we know that the wires go up from this baseboard receptacle to the box in the living room ceiling. The problem is this: The wires leaving the baseboard receptacle are BX cable, the other end of the wires coming into the box in the ceiling are in conduit. Somewhere in the wall there is a hidden box where the BX and conduit meet--a definite hazard, since we don't know where it is. Electrical code (not to mention common sense) dictates that electrical boxes need to be accessible, not hidden behind plaster.

A view of the ceiling, with the old wires coming out of conduit.

Our guess is that in the past there was a ceiling fixture and a light switch to control it. At some point, the fixture was removed and the ceiling box capped, the light switch was removed and the box in the wall plastered over, and the wires were dropped down to a new receptacle in the baseboard.

So here's where we put on our forensics caps and searched the wall for evidence of a hidden box. There was a patch at about switch height where the wall was ever so slightly rough, and when we ran our hand along it, it dipped slightly. I had never noticed it before.

There was only one way to know for sure if this was our hidden box, and that was to do a test drill; and so Ted drilled a hole into the wall where we suspected the box was. Voila! We found it.

A few test holes.

We removed enough plaster to reveal the box, and discovered--to our horror--that a previous owner had filled the box with crumpled newspaper before plastering over it. Ted's best guess is that they did this to create a supportive surface for the plaster. It's bad enough that they plastered over a box; did they have to fill it with a highly flammable material first? If the wires deteriorated and sparked (which we found evidence for in another room before replacing those wires), there was a nice wad of material to get a good ol' fire going.

We pulled the paper out, which nearly crumbled in our hands, and smoothed out the bits to see if we could catch a date.

Turns out it's an advertising circular for Sears, with the address of the location on Lawrence Avenue in Chicago where my grandfather was a display manager for many years. (He would have gotten a kick out of that.) We couldn't find an exact date, but based on a few of the products advertised, including an 8 mm Revere 80 projector, our best guess is that someone in the late forties/early fifties wadded up the paper, stuffed it in the wall, and plastered over the box.

Here's a partial bit of the ad circular we found in the wall. If someone can help us date this camera more precisely, we'd appreciate it.

Bella and the bits of paper from the wall.

The discovery of this box in the wall makes one step of the fan installation easier to accomplish--adding a light switch to the circuit. The box is already there. But now I've been Shanghaied into helping Ted rewire the line, which includes pulling the old cloth wires out and threading the new stuff through.
The taped wires lunging out of the wall made me think of a hydra, its many heads rearing up.

We won't have the fan installed by the time we have to get Mom from the airport, but the project is turning out to be more interesting than I first suspected. I wonder what other treasures (or hidden dangers) are in the walls of this old house.

Ted pulled the drawer of our sideboard all the way out to access some electrical equipment we had (temporarily) stored in it; it took all of five seconds for the kittens to discover the new hiding spot. Our six-month-old kittens now weigh a hefty ten and eight pounds, although they're still only half grown. I don't think we'll be able to call them "kittens" for much longer.

Art Deco Slip Shade Chandelier for One of the Dining Rooms

I turn 40 on Saturday (OMG how did that happen?) and I decided to get myself a cool gift to celebrate. Rather, I decided to get something cool for the house, and justify the purchase by claiming it as a gift for myself.

I've long wanted to replace some of the fugly light fixtures at The Box House with period slip shade chandeliers, but they tend to be freakishly expensive. I'm constantly trolling eBay for one, bidding often but futilely because I've set a rather low limit for what I feel we can spend.

Today, I watched the seconds tick down to zero for one particular auction, sipping my Diet Coke and idly thinking about how to coordinate errands tomorrow, when it dawned on me that the clock had ticked away to nothing and I had won. Yippie!

So, some time next week, a nifty 1930s amber five light slip shade chandelier will be making its way down from Canada to be installed in the dining room of either the downstairs or the upstairs unit of The Box House. I'm just not sure which one yet.

07 February, 2009

Old-Fashioned Mustard Plaster Like the Poultices Great-Grandma Used to Make

The Keenest Mustard is the Best
I was asked about the mustard plaster I mentioned the other day, and when I looked up the instructions again I realized I had done it wrong--I forgot to soak the lower cloth, the one that goes against the skin, in warm water first. That's probably why it felt warm, but not as penetrating as I thought it should. I'm going to try it again tonight. Between sucking down buckets of onion and garlic soup and being able to open the windows today for the first time in months, I think the evil winter cough is losing its grip. And now it's time to kick this bad boy in the butt once and for all.

Here's the recipe I'm going with, which I found on a web page called Grandma's Attic. Be sure to check out some of the other home remedies they have. (Of course, I am not a doctor and only post this for information's sake, yada yada, use at your own risk.)

Mustard Poultice

A mustard poultice is a time-honored therapy: Your great-grandmother may have used mustard poultices and plasters to treat congestion, coughs, bronchitis or pneumonia. A mustard plaster offers immediate relief to discomfort in the chest and actually helps to treat infectious conditions - a much needed therapy. It works mainly by increasing circulation, perspiration and heat in the afflicted area.

The person receiving the treatment should sit or lie down comfortably. The best poultices are made from black mustard seeds ground fresh in a coffee grinder, but ordinary yellow mustard powder will do in a pinch. To prepare a mustard poultice, mix 1/2 cup mustard powder with 1 cup flour and stir hot water into the mix to form a paste. Spread the mixture on a piece of cotton or muslin has been soaked in hot water. Cover with a second piece of dry material. Lay the moist side of the poultice across the person's chest or back.

Leave the poultice on for 15 to 30 minutes; promptly remove it if the person experiences any discomfort. The procedure is likely to promote perspiration and reddening of the chest. Give the individual plenty of liquids during the procedure and encourage her to take a warm or cool shower afterward, then rest or gently stretch for 1/2 hour.
Do not administer this treatment to a young child, elderly person or the seriously ill without consulting a health care professional.

The Keenest Mustard is the Best print courtesy of Allposters.

06 February, 2009

New Light and New Wiring for Enclosed Back Porch, Part One

Well, we managed to complete items one through four (of seven) on our list of home improvement resolutions for January 2009. Phooey, I thought we'd do better. We made some progress on item seven, select a sink and toilet for the first floor bathroom, but haven't made any final decisions. In a day or so I'll post our February 2009 resolutions, carrying some of this stuff over.

I have to say, doing a month by month list does keep us focused, even if we don't accomplish everything. It's all about laying out those goals.

Anyway, Ted did manage to tackle item three, which sounded simple at first: Install new light on back porch. It turned into an all-weekend project. Rather than have me try to describe exactly what he did, here it is in his own words (more or less):


To Start: We're replacing the light bulb that illuminates the landing leading to the upstairs porch. Click on any of the following pictures to enlarge them. At present, it's a bare bulb. We need to get out our big ladder to even change it. The light is controlled by a switch in the kitchen of our unit. The tenants cannot control this particular light from their unit, although it would benefit them the most to be able to do so.

Here are the steps to this project:
  1. installed a heater cable in roof gutter, bringing cord into top of enclosed porch
  2. removed old porch light (old light was a bare bulb installed sideways, and so was burning paint off of the porch siding--we're amazed it hadn't burned the porch down)
  3. installed a single receptacle in the upper corner of porch, at the point where the heater cable plug enters; we had left the can of foam sealant on the ledge next to the receptacle, and the next morning found it had continued to ooze
  4. ran conduit from the heater cable receptacle to a new electrical box for the porch light
  5. installed the new porch light, at an angle so that it's away from the porch siding; if you click on the image to enlarge it, you will see all the nails coming through the bead board--some *grumble* previous owner used nails that were way too big, destroying the bead board in the process
  6. ran conduit from the porch light to a new electrical box accessible from the landing
  7. installed a GFCI receptable and a switch/pilot light combination device in the electrical box
  8. The GFCI receptable, in addition to providing power at the landing, also supplies power to the heater cable receptable so that the heater cable has GFCI protection.
  9. The switch/pilot light is wired to the heater cable receptacle, allowing it to be controlled from the landing. The pilot light is wired so that it is lit when the switch is on, in order to make it obvious when the heater cable is in use.
  10. All the newly installed electrical stuff is powered temporarily by the BX cable that powered the old porch light, but that will eventually be replaced by a new circuit, run through more conduit leading down into the basement.
  11. Sought out extensive validation.
So, quite the endeavor, eh? We had picked up the porch light, normally $70, at a going-out-of-business sale for $10. In the near future, Ted will replace the rest of the flexible BX cable with conduit and install the rest of the new lights; we only paid between $7 and $15 for each one.

I can't show you what the top porch itself looks like, the one this landing leads to, because it is used by our tenants. But here's what our porch looks like, when it isn't covered in junk accumulated over the winter. If you're fairly new to the blog, the gray thing between the chairs is the back of our ice box.

03 February, 2009

Onion and Garlic Soup Has Saved My Sanity


I have had this gawd-awful cough the last few weeks that I can't seem to shake, the kind that seems to settle in for the winter, and even when I'm not hacking up a lung, I end up making these little
*ack ack* noises throughout the day to clear my throat. Very annoying, to myself and to those who must live under the same roof with me. Probably more annoying than the cough itself.

It's lucky I work from home; I remember when I did work in an office how I wanted to throttle the woman in the cubicle next to me who was constantly snuffling back her allergy-related post-nasal drip. It wasn't her fault, she couldn't help it, but I still would gladly have booted her and her box of tissue out the window if I could.

I won't go to the doctor for antibiotics--I'm kinda stubborn like that and don't like taking them unnecessarily so as not to build up a resistance to them. I want them to work, and work well, when I actually do need them, like I have in the past when traveling.

So I'm trying to follow the usual advice of drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest. Still, I've ended up sleeping on the bed in my office a few times because I didn't want to bother Ted during the night. I've tried a few over-the-counter medications to alleviate the cough and even mixed up a good old-fashioned mustard plaster
to break up the congestion. And while the plaster felt wonderfully warm, it wasn't doing the trick.

And then I thought to whip up a batch of onion and garlic soup; both onion and garlic are said to have many health benefits, including combating respiratory infections. So I browsed the Internet until I found one I liked in particular. I've been sipping it since yesterday, slept pretty well last night, and today woke up feeling the best I've felt in weeks--greatly reduced wheeziness and congestion, almost no coughing.

It's too early to tell, but I've got my fingers crossed this will do the trick. (Although from the amount I'm consuming, I'm sure I have this onion-and-garlic cloud hovering around me, and that's probably more annoying than Vick's Vaporub.)

What old-fashioned remedies would you recommend?

Roasted Onion and Garlic Soup

I made a few modifications to the recipe below. I used bottled lemon juice instead of fresh because when it came down to it last night I couldn't be bothered to zest and juice a fresh lemon. I also skipped the shallots because I was feeling cheap--$2.79 for 3 dinky little bulbs--and just added a yellow onion in its place. I know, I know, it's not as sweet or mild, but I figured with all the spices in this soup I probably wouldn't notice the difference. And because I'm temporarily giving up dairy products until I can clear my lungs, I only put a small dollop of cream on top. All in all, it's a very spicy soup mix that really cleans out your sinuses and warms the chest.

4 to 6 large red onions, quartered
Cloves from 2 large heads of garlic, peeled
2 shallots, peeled
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons Essence, recipe follows
6 cups chicken stock
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh sage leaves
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup cream


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Combine the onions, garlic, and shallots in a roasting pan just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Add the olive oil and Essence and toss to coat. Roast until well browned, about 1 1/2 hours.

Remove the pan from the oven and set over 2 burners on medium-low heat. Add 2 cups of chicken stock, sage, thyme and salt. Cook for 10 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to incorporate any of the caramelized bits from the bottom.

Transfer the mixture to a blender and puree until smooth, about 2 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a large pot over medium-low heat. Add remaining 4 cups chicken stock and balsamic vinegar, and stir to combine. Bring to a simmer and stir in cream. Serve with French bread.

ESSENCE Creole Seasoning

I think you can buy a commerical version of this, but I just mixed up a batch in the kitchen and stored the extra away for later use. I cut the salt down to 1 tablespoon Celtic Sea Salt.

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon black pepper
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all ingredients thoroughly.

Yield: 2/3 cup

Recipe modified from "New New Orleans Cooking" by Emeril Lagasse and Jessie Tirsch, published by William and Morrow, 1993. Illustration Arrangement by Teresa Saia.

01 February, 2009

Seriously, Burpee?

To save money this year, we're buying flower seeds instead of plants from the nursery. I've grown a few things from seed in the past, but this will be pretty ambitious.

It's been a blast pouring over the 2009 gardening catalogs and making up imaginary orders (that quickly get whittled down to the practical). I'm going to stick with the fairly simple: morning glories, petunias, impatiens. Things that are pretty tough and can hold their own against a scorching Chicago summer.

Burpee was one of the companies I wanted to order from. I selected $15 worth of seeds--California poppies, a mix of loose leaf lettuce, coleus, and butterfly weed among them. Do you know what the shipping charge was going to be? $8.95. Are they freakin' kidding me? Nobody else was charging anywhere near that much. $8.95 for a couple of packets of seeds seems unreasonably high.

I may go back to buying seeds from other gardeners on eBay. It's a hell of a lot cheaper.

Famous Book Covers as Posters

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

My B.A. was in English Literature, which I earned from the University of Iowa. While I concentrated on Medieval and Renaissance lit (yeah, I know, it wasn't a particularly marketable focus), I did study a wide range of European and American authors of the 20th century. I would take classes devoted to a single author (Hemingway, Fitzgerald) or to a particular movement or genre (magical realism, Caribbean authors, Harlem Renaissance). For four years of my life I would read almost non-stop; during my heaviest semesters I would read 8 to 10 books or plays a week. I've not had that kind of luxury since, and these days I'm lucky if I find time to read a novel a month.

So anyway, last night I was trying to come up with some interesting art for my office. I've been lugging around the same framed paintings and prints for years, and while I love them, it may be time for a change. So imagine my delight to discover that AllPosters.com sells posters of classic book covers. I think I want to get the one of The Great Gatsby for certain, but I have space for two more, and I can't quite narrow it down. Should I get Brave New World by Aldous Huxley? How about Kerouac's On the Road? Or something whimsical like The Wizard of Oz? The choices seem endless, and I wish I had more wallspace.

But first, we will have to finish the basement remodel, whenever that will be...