Tuesday, October 8, 2013


My centenarian house

Silence on the blog usually means I am busy writing other things. For the past two months, however, something prevented me from posting—or from writing much at all. And when something keeps me from writing, I am miserable.

This terrible something is a basement remodel. Like so many things in my life, it relates to health. This summer I moved into the house I own, which I had been renting out for the past five years. The furnace is in the basement, thus pulling air through the musty subterranean realm before sending it through the rest of the house. As someone with deathly mold allergies, I was concerned about this. Basements are moldy places, and mine had that undeniably moldy smell.

I’d heard about this sealant you put on basement walls to keep the damp and mold out. I knew I needed to do that before it got cold enough to need heat. And while I was at it, I wanted to make the basement livable, so I could rent it and get added income. I arrived in July. I thought I’d have it done by September.
With one thing and another (including my tried-and-true contractor wanting to charge me 65 grand for the project—I declined) the work didn’t start until August. I thought we’d still be done in a few weeks.

Soon enough, I was confused. I kept thinking the remodel should be wrapping up. Instead, it seemed to just be underway. Why wasn’t it over? Or at least progressing to the next, more manageable stage? Instead things got more and more complicated. New problems cropped up, and the best solution always required a lot of work—expensive, multilayered, nuanced work that needed my constant input, although I wasn’t the one with the miter saw or jack hammer.

And why wasn’t I able to do other things? My bigger writing projects were on hold because of the time the basement took from my schedule, but couldn’t I work on a short story, or even do a blog post?

Apparently not. Each time I sat down to write, a contractor rang the doorbell and drew me into a half hour conversation about certain problems that came up that needed my input before more multilayered, nuanced work could go on. Other times I simply envisioned writing, only to realize I’d need to spend the time making phone calls to track down more contractors.

At last all I could talk or think about was the basement remodel. I went through days with the sensation that I used to do something creative, a sort of a calling, that had once made me very happy. I couldn’t quite remember what this thing was, that I had lost. Also I remembered that my dog used to be calmer, not barking madly all day long at strangers coming to the door and strange noises coming from the basement. And I recalled that I'd once had a routine, which revolved around taking careful care of my body, so that I felt as well as possible. All these things were long lost in the past.

And then I understood. Home renovation is a malady. It is essentially a chronic illness. You think it will be over soon, and it’s not. It requires not one, but many specialists, who are costly beyond your wildest dreams. Soon it interrupts every aspect of your life, and you feel no one in the world can understand you. In the early stages, you talk incessantly about it to everyone you know, only to realize they don’t understand your harrowing circumstances. In the next stage, you realize there are people who can understand: others with the same malady. When you find them, you huddle together, commiserating, trading tips, speaking in a vocabulary you have reluctantly acquired and now feel an overwhelming need to use.

This vocabulary includes siding, framing, flashing, flashing tape, framing, weight-bearing, beams, trim, hardy plank, house wrap, window headers, galvanized, PEX, efflorescence, cement patch, service lines, sewer lines, subpanels, knob and tube, BX, French drainage, 220 outlets, pony walls. And it goes on.

There is the phrase “down to the studs.” I heard this phrase often five years ago, when I remodeled the upper part of my house, and decided to show it to potential renters while the last of the remodeling was still underway, so as to rent it faster (in case you’re wondering, this method does not work). The phrase “down to the studs” is a boast, as in “I did a renovation that went down to the studs.” I have now realized this boast comes from those who have not truly been through the flames of home improvement, those who had general contractors taking care of most everything for them, and found their trials in the difficult questions such as location of vent fans and types of light fixtures.

I am here to tell you that I am not down to the studs. I am past the studs. By around August tenth—some seven weeks ago—my jack-of-all-construction, Leonel, had pulled off the old plywood interior walls (they were so old they weren’t even made of drywall) and demo-ed the studs (also known as framing). He then, in a good Mexican fashion, laid out said studs on my front patio for later reuse, and for all visitors to the house to see. It then rained on the studs. Other scraps and scrips demoed from my basement (such as rotting, rat-chewed insulation, rusted galvanized pipes, a six-foot Eames-era accordion thing that was something between a door and a wall, a hoary chest of drawers, and a newly-broken-down shop-vac) wound up on top of the studs, and it rained on these things, too. This was because Leonel’s truck broke down and he had problems getting it fixed, preventing him from hauling things away. At last another contractor, our neighbor Paul, descended on us like a Roman god in a golden chariot (aka working pickup) and hauled all of it— including the studs once destined for virtuous reuse—to the transfer station. (For those who don’t suffer from Chronic Renovation, the transfer station means the dump.) My front yard looked almost normal again.

What is there beyond the studs? There are the concrete walls of the basement, which are also the foundation of the house. Beyond that there is dirt (we are now outside the house) which is damp from the rainy Seattle climate, and this dampness can seep through the concrete and create mildew inside the basement. Beyond the studs and the cement walls there are also water service lines and water sewer lines, and downspouts from the roof and gutters, which may or may not be tied into the sewers, or may or may not require trenches to be dug, to direct the water away from the basement. All of these I had to address—and by address I generally mean replace. The house is a hundred years old, and apparently no one before me had dared go beyond the studs.

So if you've wondered where I am for the past eight weeks, this is where you'll find me: mentally, and often physically, among the rusting galvanized pipes, in my little studless universe.