Friday, August 02, 2013

Back to School Shopping

In our fifth year of private schools, I no longer stuffer sticker shock at the school uniform store. These days, it's almost a relief to be able to walk into one small store, and buy a year's worth of clothes for the kids.

Uniforms had been a source of stress when my daughter started Kindergarten. Granted, that school was rather strict on some of the details.  They had one approved shoe style that could be purchased from one singular store in town.  She got a uniform violation one day because she put on a pair of white socks that had a thin pink stripe on them (oh, the horror of the non-conformist socks).

This school still has a uniform, a special plaid jumper, school-logo-printed-gym shorts (into which every child must change for gym class), etc. But we can pick our own shoes as long as they're mainly a solid color.  And for the non-logo items, we can go with some generic brands or buy from Lands End where they have a custom list setup on line for us to see exactly the items that our school approves of.

It helps that my kids are kinda small and don't blow through two or three pants sizes every year.  T-man will be wearing most of his shorts and pants from last year a second time, though I happily shelled out for all-new shirts for him.  The boys wear white polos--the uniform shop has them embroidered with the school logo.  Very sharp looking. Until they go out for recess. On a playground padded with black recycled tires. And then have ketchup for lunch.  I think you see my point. We go through a lot of oxyclean in this house.

I think I've spent about $600 so far on school clothes. Sounds like a lot but that included long-sleeved and short-sleeved shirts for both kids (they both got around 8 tops--must have a full week's worth of clothes because we just don't get to mid-week laundry), all new jumpers for my daughter (they changed styles between 3rd graders and 4th graders, so she can't wear last year's), new belts for both of them, gym shorts for both of them (T-man needs them for the first time, and his sister wears them under her jumpers every day and had outgrown some older pairs), shorts for big sister for the rare fall days when she chooses not to wear the skirt.  Big sister got soccer shoes, her brother still needs a pair.  We lucked out and found two pairs of acceptable white tennis shoes for $12 each at Walmart for her. But the same Walmart had exactly one pair (not just one style, one pair) of workable shoes in T-man's size. 

We will have to go back for leggings for our daughter when the weather cools down, and maybe buy more pants for T-man around Christmas.  Some of last year's larger pants are now a good fit, which means he'll probably grow out of those mid-year this year. 

That $600 seemed kind of expensive, but after this, the kids only need weekend clothes until next summer.  My daughter's birthday is in August, so she can usually count on receiving a few cute fall outfits from that.  And T-man will probably be in sweats and/or his soccer uniform most Saturdays all fall.   And I figure that if we went to a public school and bought each kid a pair of basic jeans ($15),  a short-sleeved shirt ($10), a long-sleeved shirt or sweater ($15) for every day of the week (5), we're already at $400 worth of clothes ($200/kid), and would probably need to replenish after 2-3 months of weekly washings.  Kids would need clothes for weekends regardless, so I'm not counting those in my calculations.  With only a few exceptions, the school uniforms hold up really well. So well that when I can make it, I can usually find nice used pieces at the school's used uniform sale (which the have an annoying habit of holding at 2pm on a week day once a semester).

Some days I miss the pre-school days of shopping the sale and clearance racks, stocking up on adorable baby clothes (usually a year ahead of when we'd need them). But as I start hearing complaints from friends with kids in the public schools as they struggle with dress codes and arguing with their children about what the parents will allow the kids to wear, I'm quite grateful for the uniforms.  We have plenty of other things to fight with our kids about already :)

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Oasis!

Our backyard is done, minus a few hostas and some decorations. It took longer than I thought--I was predicting that we'd be relaxing on our patio by the 4th of July. No such luck, which is a shame as the 4th of July was exceedingly beautiful this year. Alas, as I did predict, the yard is done just in time for a horrendous heatwave.

The heat, it kills the grass. Have I mentioned how much I despise grass? It hates me back. Actually, in the pictures it looks a bit better than it does today--it wasn't as hot two days ago and the weeds in the middle of the yard have grown like 6 inches this week (not actually an exaggeration, because you can't see them in the pictures).

Next to the deck is a tumbled paver patio.  It is pretty big--roughly 15x20.  We have a 6-seat rectangle table that will probably sit down there, plus the grill and smoker.  And there may be room left over for a low seating set with a firepit (TBP -- to be purchased).  Along the wall on the right side of the picture, I need to find some large pots or something to soften the edge of the foundation and blankness of the siding. 

Around the concrete drain are six good-sized Rose of Sharon.  There are rocks around there too--I apparently grabbed a photo pre-rocks.  If you can't hide the darned thing, make a pedestal out of it.  With the brick edging, the rocks, and the bushes, it is crying out for a Grecian Urn or a birdbath or something.  I'm not actually kidding on that (though I'm pretty sure that a 3-5 foot statue would be heavy and expensive)..

The landscaper also added rocks under the deck, and a nice border of shrubs around the base of it to soften things.  Along the back of the yard are five good-sized white pine trees with clumps of the tall decorative grass between (they are almost visible in the shot of the patio...bad light in the evenings when I'm trying to snap photos).  They aren't a wall, but do distract the eye from the street beyond it.  And they will get bigger as time goes on.  The tree line doesn't completely cover the back border, because if you look toward the other corner, there's a lovely view of a lake and open greenspace. We want to emphasize the nice view and downplay the road.

Finally, the part that's not visible is all the drainage work.  The long straight line of dirt leading toward the concrete pedestal is where they buried a drain pipe that comes off a downspout and the sump pump.  Previously, those outlets left a swamp on the side of the house (and made the sump pump work overtime).  They ran the drains that were in between the patio and deck out underground as well. A swath through the middle of the yard has been smoothed to remove a rut formed by water runoff. The back of the yard behind the trees used to look jagged, as though the builder had pushed dirt back there and just stopped (which is probably exactly what they did). It now has a nice rounded shape that looks intentional and a fresh layer of grass seed that we can maintain easier than the weeds that we had before.

Our inground sprinkler system has been repaired and activated, and I might relent and have a lawncare company spray stuff on the grass to make it green (I'm tempted to just buy spray you think the neighbors would notice?)  I have finally come to realize that we are going to have to fertilize the grass to make it grow, as our dirt is more gravel than soil.  And it's way too expensive to just pave the whole yard.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Deck Done

The deck is finished. It looks great. Next up (possibly as soon as this week): yard digging shall commence.

I'm hoping my husband and I can heft the grill up to the deck tonight to actually grill in our back yard instead of our driveway out front. I'm sure the neighbors will appreciate the effort as well ;)

The only issue with the deck process involved the stairs.  There is quite a drop between the house and where the stairs land, so our landscaper had to come out to figure out at what level the patio will rest.  The first attempt at the stairs ended about 18" from ground level, which would have meant some sort of retaining wall around that corner of the patio.  They re-did the stairs, and the patio will be a bit lower than where the dirt currently meets the house.

Also, once the big muddy process is done, perhaps we will actually fertilize our yard and do some weed control. It looks...kinda bad. But it isn't worth spending money on the back right now because a large stretch will be removed when the grading is fixed.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Break

I am approaching my second solid week of medical leave with my son. This is, I believe, the longest contiguous break I've had from work since he was born and my maternity leave ended.  So far, so good.

T-man is healing up really well. He is still sore right at the surgery spot but has continued to refuse any pain medication.  The soreness only affects bathroom stops and wiping (hey, you don't want to hear about  body functions, go find another blog, LOL). He's still on a bigger-than-before dose of Miralax to make sure that nothing hurts coming out. He is about 50% in underwear, 50% in pull-ups. The extra Miralax sometimes gets things moving a bit too fast for him. Before his surgery he wore a panty-liner in his big-boys every day because the prolapse would rub and bleed through his pants. This past week, when not fighting liquid stool, his pants are staying dry and clean!

Besides that part, it's just summer break.  He can't sit in a bathtub or pool, but showers are fine, so we have gotten out the sprinklers and water guns. We decorated kites then flew them at the park. He did play at the park, but knows not to go down a slide on his bottom (yes, for once I'm telling him to go on his tummy, feet first of course).  The kids have had way more screen time than average (because what's a good old fashioned summer break without some mind-numbing couch potato time). Every morning at breakfast time they also do a couple of pages out of school workbooks (multiplication and division practice for the soon-to-be 4th grader, and a variety of reading/writing/math/clocks/time/etc sheets for the little guy). We've been to the library to sign up for their summer reading program, and collected a prize each. We went to a concert (Casting Crowns, at Six Flags, in the pouring rain and thunder).

We still have a few to-do's on our wish list to check off. Paint pottery, see a movie, go to the zoo, do some drawing.  And finish writing the novel I've been working on for 1.5 years. (Seein as how I've been known to hammer out a first draft in like 3 months, this particular story is driving me insane) I'm down to 2 scenes before I can type The End and set it aside to "rest"...I think editing this one will be a breeze because my self-editing process takes more of a fixed amount of time. Also, I abhor this story. It's either the worst thing I've ever written or it's brilliant (my money's on "worst").

I think by the follow-up visit next week that I will have little to no vacation or sick time left, so my husband will be the primary sick-day-parent for the next several months. I'm not upset with that. I'm a little sad that I'm unlikely to have enough vacation left for an actual Vacation this year, but 2.5 weeks off in June isn't bad.  Wish I could do this every year (minus the surgery of course).

Thursday, June 13, 2013

It Starts

The splintery stairs are gone!  In their place, we have the beginnings of framing for the new deck, plus holes where the footings will be poured. I believe an inspector must OK the holes before the concrete is added.

I was surprised to see that the deck is only attached to the house in two small areas--both about 2 feet wide, on either side of the breakfast bay.  The deck will not be attached to the bay itself, likely because there is no foundation directly below it.  We now have two small (1ft x 2ft) pieces of cut away vinyl siding.

Also, as we are still home recuperating from surgery, T-man got a front-row seat for the building process. He is loving getting to observe the process.

Looking at the house from the back, the area to the right of the deck towards the second bay window is where the stairs and paver patio will go.  In the picture it doesm't look that tall, but the end of the deck is a good 4 1/2 feet off the ground, so there will be about 6 steps down to ground level.

The deck is not that large. At its depest, it will be about 12 feet, but from the kitchen door probably more like 9.  Deep enough for either one of our patio tables (our smaller round one is hanging out in one of the side shots, the bigger rectangle one is in the garage where it's been stored since we moved), or else a different seating group.

I have been window shopping patio furniture ideas, but want to wait and see the finished spaces before buying anything new.  We already have the two tables, though the round one would need new chairs. The old ones are the cheap plastic, two of which moved with us to the old house, and are neither attractive nor comfortable (though they may live on for extra temporary seats in case we have a big party).  The round table is wrought iron and while it wasn't expensive, seems to be holding up great. I can get matching chairs from any of several stores, just waiting for someplace to put them. Our bigger rectangle table needs a fresh coat of paint, but I still love the floral weave pattern that it and its chairs have. Ideally we will keep both, because together we can seat ten people for an outdoor dinner, or have extra buffet or prep space.

I also love the idea of low chairs around a fire pit, but that would probably have to sit down on the patio rather than up on a wood deck. Without fire, we could use the deck for a conversation area instead. I'm also not sure we can trust kiddos near fire, but they aren't babies. So it all just depends on how our existing furniture fits, what furniture we find, and how much we have left to spend after we're done paying for our landscaping adventure.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Number Six

Last week was my son's sixth surgery. Granted, #5 was tubes in his ears, a procedure that was fast and very commonplace.  But #6 was yet another bowel-related one, this time for a rectal prolapse--to repair a small amount of "mucosa" that stuck out his bottom. Looked a lot like a hemorrhoid, and it was constantly irritated.  Poor kid had to wear a pantyliner in his big boys so that the bits of blood and mucous didn't bleed through onto his clothes. And though he actually has really good bowel control (amazing, given that he didn't actually have an anus at birth), the prolapse got in the way sometimes of him feeling when he needed to go or when he was finished.

Wednesday, he got to do a "bowel prep". If you've ever had a colonoscopy, then you can empathize.  Instead of the "golightly", they had him drinking large quantities of Gatorade with Miralax.  This approach is apparently as effective as the golightly but gentler and tastes better. We started around lunchtime, and he got to choose his flavor of drink for each successive glass (we had like 6 different colors on hand to pick from). We played video games. We watched TV. For a good long while, he sat on the toilet and played on a tablet or Leapster.  I set up a small folding table in front of him so we didn't lose any electronics into the potty (something that has happened in the past..)

Thursday morning we arrived at the hospital at 7:15. He changed into hospital jammies, and tried (vehemently) to decline having his blood pressure taken. For some reason, those silly blood pressure cuffs terrify him (makes cardiologist visits load of fun). He told everyone who walked in the door that he didn't want any shots.  They gave him a relaxer, most of which he spit out because it tasted bad.  He got to choose the scent for the mask they would use for the gas that would put him to sleep.  The IV went in when he was already out (and it was more of a soft tube rather than a stiff needle).

The surgery went well. He slept for quite a while He was awake and ordering lunch by about 2pm--pancakes and sausage.  Unfortunately for us, he had a roommate for the hospital stay.  The other little boy had had some sort of spinal surgery and had already been there for a few days (and would stay a few days longer).  That kid was not comfortable, and frequently fussed, sometimes outright crying.  It bothered my husband and I more than it did our son. The two boys were of similar age, and they did occasionally watch the same TV show and talk a bit through the curtains.

T-man could go on "adventures" as soon as he felt up to it, and the nurse found us a sort of car-type wagon complete with steering wheel. The IV pumps can run on battery for hours, so we'd just unplug and try not to run over tubes as we explored. St. Louis Children's Hospital has a gorgeous rooftop garden that overlooks Forest Park. They also have a patient playroom. The first floor has a big ball track machine where rubber balls travel through a maze of tracks and spirals, sometimes bouncing into baskets, sometimes ringing bells. We visited it a couple of times.

I spent the night in the hospital while my husband and my mom (who visited from Indy) drove home to sleep.  There is a chair that pulled out into an approximation of a bed. It would have been better if our roommates had actually turned out the lights on their half of the room, or at least turned off the TV before midnight. My little guy fell asleep around 9:30 and stayed out all night.  I woke up about every hour all night as something beeped, someone fussed, the lights were on, a nurse came into the room for one kid or the other.

Thankfully, we came home on Friday.  T-man is doing great. He has some restrictions on activities, but nothing horrible. No tub baths. No climbing. Try to not sit straight on his bottom for too long. Be careful of the area (no itching!). For the moment he's wearing Pull-Ups, but even with his digestive system still off-balance from all the Miralax, he's continent.  So we may be back in big-boy underwear pretty fast. Ideally with no liners, but only time will tell if the surgery completely fixes that problem, or if he will always need a little extra backup.

I'm off work with him for about two weeks while he heals enough to go to summer day camp.  By the end of it, I will be out of sick days for quite a while, but that's fine.  As a happy side effect, my daughter gets a 2-week break from summer camps.  Neither of my kids have ever gotten a true summer vacation where they play outside and sit around the house feeling bored. That's a big downside to having a non-education career--I don't get summers off either. We can't go swimming or do big exercise-intensive activities. but it should still be a decent little break. And if the weather cooperates, we may get to watch our deck being built before we start back into the daily grind.

Friday, May 10, 2013

In Gardening News

Nothing is happening in our backyard oasis-to-be. Yet. We’ve had a lot of rain recently, which prevents landscapers from working. I'm trying hard to be patient as all of the lovely spring mornings slip away and I have nowhere outside to sit with my coffee (except on the stairs, which isn't the same thing).

My irises are blooming! These are bulbs that we divided from the old house and transplanted after we moved. They originated at my husband’s childhood home in Iowa, and they bloom every Mother’s day. Last year, we got a good crop of leaves but only one or two lonely flower stalks, likely due to the transplanting shock. This year, there are dozens. But it seems that only one variety of the four that we brought from the old house has actually survived, as all of the blooms so far are the same color pattern. I have a box full of additional iris bulb parts that I ran out of room for—I may find a spot in the yard this fall and plant them and see if any will still re-grow after a two-year vacation.

We did put in one small flower bed ourselves. About 8x2 along the side of the garage, with a basic brick-like concrete paver edging. The idea was to dress up a large square of boring vinyl siding (it’s the side of the garage, so there aren’t even windows). But we also filled it with perennials in bulb form, so we might not get many blooms this year. I'd share a picture, but right now it looks like dirt, literally. We planted clematis, peonies, bleeding heart, and callas. I still need to find a trellis or two for the clematis to climb.

We had more bulbs than we could use in that small space, so we added some to a small bed we have going in one corner of the backyard. That spot got an elephant ear, two more peonies, and a rhododendron that we planted last spring in a spot that will soon be covered with patio. The sad part is that we had all the various bulbs sititng in the garage for over a month, but every time we would have free time, it would rain (and/or nearly freeze). I suppose this is better than last year’s drought, assuming the plantlings still grow.

On the subject of too much rain and recurring near-freezing temperatures: the really lovely purple basil plant in my veggie garden seems done for. Nary a leaf left. The green basil looks precarious. Rosemary and oregano are happy as clams (except that clams would be really unhappy in a Midwestern veggie garden). Two tomatoes look sickly but not dead yet . The first wave of lettuce is starting to come in. I’m betting that we’re done with the near-freezing, as I sowed various pepper varieties directly in the garden (they would produce faster if I started them indoors earlier in the spring, but I always lose them in the transplanting process).

Sunday, April 28, 2013

My Car

I have yet another dilemma to ponder.  This one is my car. It is ten years old and about to roll 100,000 miles. According to Honda, that either makes me right on time (at 100k miles) or 3 years late to replace the timing belt.  The timing belt, for those of us who are not auto-engine savvy, is a critically important piece of rubber that, if it breaks, will break the engine catastrophically. And it costs about twelve hundred bucks to replace (but hey, the dealership has a $150 coupon on their website...*eyeroll*).

I'm also due for spark plugs, which they estimate at just under $300. And the stereo, which also happens to be integrated with the heating/air conditioning, has lost its backlight (meaning, I have to guess at both temperature and radio station, and rely on my cell phone for a clock).  I can have Honda fix the stereo for another $275, or replace it with an aftermarket one (which could get me an auxiliary port where I could plug in my phone instead of having to rely on CDs for non-broadcast music).  According to my window ("Windows") shopping at, we're talking anywhere between $100 and $500 for a radio (depending on how fancy I want), plus another $125 for the dashboard kit that replaces the panel that has the controls for the heater (actually $250, but they give you a deal if you buy both parts from them). Plus installation (hubby and I are relatively electronics savvy, but installation in my car apparently involves disassembling most of the dash board).

We're talking $2k, give or take a few hundred dollars depending on what I do with the radio. 

Or I could trade the car in and buy something new. A hybrid, possibly, to save some gas with all my commuting. Or maybe just go smaller--I bought my Accord knowing that the trunk size would accomodate a baby stroller and a few bags of groceries. But I'm well past the stroller stage now, and my husband drives an SUV that has plenty of cargo space for soccer goals and other big kid equipment. My previous car was a Civic, and I loved the size of it.  A friend drives a Fit, and I quite liked it.  There's the Insight, the CRV if I want to keep a larger car, or the Prius  or Prius C....

New cars cost money. But then, with all this work on my existing car, it also costs money.  $2000 is several car payments worth of money.

I just wish I hadn't been warned that I'm driving a ticking time bomb while I decide on how best to solve the dilemma.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Before Pictures

We have a plan!

Well, we have two plans. One for a low deck, another for a patio.  Plus trees, and fixes to drainage problems.  I'm kind of in denial about the final cost involved. It's going to be fine. Quite pretty, actually.  I think I had visions of a relatively inexpensive concrete patio (or of laying our own pavers). The reality is...not so inexpensive. Tumbled stone pavers. A composite deck with metal railing.  Watching nice strong men do all the digging. The reality will also fit the house better than concrete.

Now it's time for the deep breath. 

And even more patience.  Because it's likely to be two or more weeks before anything else is started, while the contractors work out permits and scheduling.  And it will probably be early-to-mid-June before both the patio and the deck are fully in and usable.  I'm kinda hopeful for the patio by Mother's Day. Once that is in, we can relocate the grill and our primary table and chairs from the garage. (I suspect July's housework will include re-organizing the garage and maybe assembling some shelves to replace the giant metal table that has been holding garage junk since we moved in....).

Before I forgot, I snapped some "before" pictures.  Here is a close-up of our temporary stairs, and a shot of the full back of the house.  There will be a small deck where the bump-out in the middle is, and the patio will go across the right-side of the house near the other bay window.

In case you can't appreciate the ugliness of the stairs, the hand-rail on the left hand side is actually two pieces of wood butt-joined together. They are sturdy, but land directly on the grass and the hand rails are a bit splintery. We didn't pay the builder anything extra for them, either, so I can't complain that they are made of scrap lumber.

Had we gone with just a patio, those wooden stairs would have been changed for solid stone or else decking. They would definitely have been a focal point, which is not what I wanted.  I don't have a good side-ways shot to show the depth of the bump-out where the kitchen is.  That bump-out plus the stairs take up about 10-12 feet from the rest of the house (those stairs jutt out about 6 feet from the house).

This won't be the last time I freak out a bit about the cost of the landscaping.  And I'm already wondering if we can go an entire month without eating out (and grilling instead) in order to make me feel better about the cost (and of course, to ensure I bond really well with the outdoor living space) :)

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Project Backyard - Take 3

Being impatient, busy, and picky is not a good combination.

In round 2 of our patio/yard planning adventure, we had a very nice and seemingly very knowledgeable landscape designer come and draw a plan and give an estimate.  His plans for fixing drainage in the yard, for the plantings, and even somewhat for the patio itself.  But of course, there’s a catch.

Our yard has a couple of design challenges, and so far neither of the two contractors we’ve talked to have (in my opinion) adequately addressed one of those.  Our breakfast room is in the middle of the back of our house, and bumps back into the yard, with an additional bay-window-shaped bump. The glass door (currently a slider, though I’d like to swap it for a French door) is in the middle of the bay.  The threshold of the sliding door sits about 40” above the grass level.  That’s too high for a simple step or two down to a ground-level patio.  Our current, temporary, wood staircase required 5 steps down to the grass, and juts about 5-feet into the yard (remember that the whole breakfast room already juts into the yard).

In short, because of how our breakfast room sits on the back of the house, the stairs out of it to the yard cut the yard in two.  

The stamped-concrete contractor suggested we have a nicer set of decking steps built.  We could choose composite for the stairs, handrails that were vinyl or pvc (and these days those come in several colors that would coordinate nicely with the house). Great, except that what we end up with, looking down from above, is basically a 6ftx6ft square out of the middle of a section of patio that is approximately 12x12 (there would be another larger section of patio where we could actually put the table and grill). That’s a lot of concrete whose sole purpose seems to be making a focal point out of stairs, since the space around the stairs is too narrow to actually put furniture on.

The garden landscape designer basically suggested the same thing, except that he proposed to build the stairs themselves out of paver stones to match the proposed paver patio. So his 6ftx6ft chunk out of the middle of the 12x12 patio would be solid stone. And his way would leave this strange little 3 foot high by 3 foot wide by 7 foot long crawl tunnel under the bay window itself. (I'm sure the kids would be thrilled, but it's going to look silly from the side)

*sigh* With both guys, I told them that I hate the stairs and that I want something else. I didn’t mean just a different material. I don’t want to spend my money buying stairs and concrete for under the stairs. I want to actually sit there or grill there or have it look pretty. Patio with stairs taking up the middle doesn’t accomplish any of those objectives.

If we stick to the patio idea, the best option for "something else" is to make the patio in two levels. The higher level would be 2-3 steps down from the breakfast room, and would require building-up the space with fill dirt and a retaining wall. It would then step down 1-2 more steps to a lower patio off the side. Stairs would still be required, but would be split up, smaller, nothing quite so huge and dramatic and did-I-mention-huge. But building up a retaining wall and laying a patio on it is even more expensive than building giant stone monolithic stairs, and would trade the crawl-tunnel for a 4-5 foot ledge that the kids can jump off of (see, the door is 40" from ground level, but the yard slopes away from the house).  

On to plan C.  This time, a deck designer. If I’m going to give up a chunk out of the middle of our yard, I want it to be useful. I'm thinking a 12x12 deck off the breakfast room, with stairs off one side down to the patio (rather than toward the middle of the yard, further severing it in two).  The stairs would only need to be 36 or 48 inches wide, not 72, and that 12x12 foot space in the middle of the yard become seating area instead of a shrine to the stairs.

Then we call the garden landscaper back to re-work the stone patio at ground level (about 2/3 of the original patio, with no stairs), plus the rest of the grading, drainage, and trees that he proposed.  I am probably being overly optimistic that this will be the final iteration of our landscape design.

What I would really love at this point is for one of those tv shows to come in and make me a new yard in two days. The whole thing, start-to-finish, concept-to-bbq-party. Every communication with a contractor takes a full week—one week from initial contact to when they show up at your house, another week before you get a quote back, another week before they come back to discuss revising the plan. Maybe it would go faster if I didn’t work every day. But then, we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for anything.

I should have started in January, and called everyone in the phone book at once. Maybe then we would have  hada nice yard in time for spring.  Because right now, I'm not sure we will get this pulled together before Memorial Day.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Quit Helping Me

There needs to be some universal sign--a sticker I can wear, a little flag I can flip on a shopping cart, something--that will tell store personnel to leave me alone. Anyone got an invisibility cloak?

Someone must have done a study in which lonely people complained that they didn't have anyone to talk to. Or else that they were shopping in stores so poorly designed that there was no way to actually peruse goods without an employee there to show you merchandise. So they all over-do it on the "helpfulness". To the point where I dread walking into some stores because they keep me from shopping.

Maybe I should explain my rant. It starts with me being a bit grumpy. I've got a long list of errands to run and a short time in which to do it. And I have the kids with me, whose behavior ranges from annoying to actively destructive. (Neither threats nor bribes seems to work with them. Usually, bad behavior gets going-out privileges revoked. Which doesn't exactly help with the long list of errands and short time frame.)

Here's the scenario:  Kids in tow, me already in a bad mood from previous incidents, we enter Big Box Home Improvement Store in search of blinds or something for a couple of the bedroom windows. Note, I don't like blinds, but we need something other than the decorative panels. So I'm already attempting to shop for something I don't like. There are several other things I'd like to look at too: light fixtures, maybe the garden center, bird seed, possibly chair rail molding.  Note that none of these things are going to be found together. And I'm pissed at kids and about to just go home. 

Upon entering the store, I'm greeted by two sales people who interrupt me as I am attempting to get kids into the cart, just to ask me if I need anything.  I start walking. I am scanning the aisle signs, thinking of the best route so that I don't spend an hour walking in looping circles. I am greeted by at least two more salespeople. As each greeting interrupts my train of thought, I must stop and re-start the route calculation.  At this point, one of the kids has to go potty. We go potty. As I leave the part of the store where the restrooms are (behind kitchen cabinets, which was not on the list), I'm accosted yet again. I still haven't made it to the blinds section, and the kids have begun to argue loudly. I've pretty much given up on looking at anything but the blinds, because kids are on my nerves.  I finally arrive in the aisle of blinds. Before I can even look at the first small display, I am asked yet again, "Can I help you?"

I think I growled at the last person. 

The kicker? Turns out that if I want to buy the blinds that I don't like, I'm going to have to get them specially done because stock sizes are 31" wide or 35" wide, but we have 34" windows. So I probably did need help, except that by then I was so mad at the constant stream of interruptions (plus the shoving match in the shopping cart), that I just left. I'll order something online, where I can click the "And don't ask me again" button to anything that pops up.

Earlier in the morning, we'd gone to the mall. In one home store, the sales person greeted me with the usual, "Can I help you find anything?". I said "no thanks, I'm just looking." She then stood in front of me, essentially blocking me from entering the store.  I nearly growled at her, too.  In a shoe store while I was attempting to make the 6-year old sit still long enough to look for shoes, while trying to figure out where the 8-year old disappeared to, the saleslady  wouldn't stop talking long enough for me to look at the options. I just ignored her.

Frankly, the biggest help that most sales people can be is to shut up and keep to themselves and wait until they're called over. I don't need help shopping. Unless I ask one of them for directions, I don't need directions.I don't want to explain my shopping list to anyone. I have lists of criteria in my head for what I'm looking for, and often-as-not, the top priority is "I'll know it when I see it." Usually, I just want some peace and quiet

Stores with multiple sales people need to set a rule that no more than one person is allowed to greet a shopper. I will give them one, solitary, interruption into my time. Otherwise, get out of my way. I'm not here to talk, I'm here to purchase something. Waste my time, keep me from making a decision or from doing the idle browsing that I would like to do, and I will purchase nothing. Which is exactly what I did in the home store, and in the Big Box Home Improvement store.

Alas, the kids really did need shoes and I didn't feel like repeating the shoe store experience elsewhere, so I got us out of there as fast as I could.  Then she congratulated me for finding the rack of socks on sale (which were right next to the shoes, near the cash register).  Gee, lady, you made my day.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Patio - Step 2

Almost two weeks ago, we had a contractor give us a quote on a stamped concrete patio. I had called that company in part because their website advertised that they did both concrete and paver work. I love the look of paver patios, but I've seen nice-looking stamped concrete also, and I know the concrete is less expensive. Alas, the actualy company rep said that they were no longer doing the pavers. The quote on the concrete work, however, was fast and reasonable, and I am confident that they would produce a nice-looking space.

But, we need more than just a patio. We need help with drainage and trees and visual screening from the road and updates to our sprinkler system to support all of the above. Last night, a landscape designer from a local nursery came. That was fun. Way too much fun.

We walked around the yard, and he frequently pointed out problem areas that we want addressed before we could get to them--the bad runoff from our sump pump, the trench in the grass where uphill runoff pools instead of runs, the big concrete square catch basin where all that runoff is supposed to go (it's an eyesore), the ragged back edge of the raised side of our yard (there's a bit of a stream back there, so we want a big berm-like structure to stay, but what we've got looks half-finished). You could watch the options flitting through his mind.

His company does paver work, so the hardscape portion of his design will reflect that. He's also talking trees and boulders and fixing the drainage issues, and said that they work with the irrigation companies on the sprinkler systems. He will be coming back early next week to measure and sketch and will be presenting us with a nice color design. He also was respectful of potential budget limits (though we aren't exactly sure what our budget limit really is, and are probably willing to stretch it a fair amount for a comprehensive design). He easily talked through things in "phases" and mentioned options (i.e build the patio vs build patio with seating walls vs patio w/walls w/columns, opting for smaller trees or more mature ones depending on price, etc).

Interestingly, he never mentioned the word "fence". Given that our lot sits between a straight-line fence that borders the neighborhood, the next neighborhood's bordering fence, and our next-door neighbor's fence, ours almost looks like it is missing a few sections. And while I quite like a fence (clear limits are good for defining where we can put our stuff and where the kids can play), my husband shudders at the thought of a fence. (I don't quite understand why, but his immediate family shares the aversion...). Anyway, the f-word never came up, but various trees and boulders and knockout-roses all did. Maybe we shall get a nice plan that both defines our lot's limits and yet doesn't contain a row of metal pickets.

The process just got fun. I know it will get ugly when we have to start forking over real cash. And uglier when our yard turns into a dirtbowl more while they work. Then ugly again as we dig our pretty patio table out from a year's worth of accumulated junk in the garage (and probably have to stop and clean the garage). But I am feeling hopeful.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Project Backyard: The Beginning

Our house came with almost no landscaping. We have grass. A poorly done (and half-finished looking) raised garden bed on the front of the house.  A set of temporary stairs to get out of breakfast room and into the back  yard. There is a sprinkler system that has served to keep the grass alive, though one of the sprinkler heads was placed below the afore-mentioned breakfast room sliding door and therefore waters our temporary stairs as much as it waters as the yard. 
We did add a bunch of “trees” last year. By “tree” I mean “twig with roots”, most of which we lost to some combination of drought, excess water (ironically, from poor drainage around where the sump pump empties), and our lawn service’s mowers.  Guys on commercial mowers don’t recognize six-inch twigs as landscape features unless they are surrounded them with large patches of mulch or edging. Yes, we paid for mowers and not for trees—mowers were cheaper.
We have exactly  two trees that are bigger than a foot tall, and both are more bush-sized than tree size. Neither are in the front of the house. The raised garden bed and another small patch of yard between the driveway and the front steps both have some perennials, including irises that were divided from ones we grew at the old house (which in turn came from my mother-in-law’s garden in Iowa).  So the yard is not completely bare.
It is time for some landscape work. Actually, it’s way past time for some landscape work, but we finally have the financial resources to attempt something.
First up: the back yard. The temporary stairs need to go.  I would really like to move our patio table out of the garage (where it has been collecting random boxes of junk). I would like to grill in the backyard rather than the driveway. I’m sure our neighbors will appreciate that as well.
We don’t have a good idea what we want in the yard. Just a vague idea that it should look “nice” and “in keeping with the house”. We need trees. We need some privacy screening along one side of the house for noise and headlights from the nearby road. We need a place to sit, and a place to grill. We want to keep a large grassy area available.  We are not planning a large swing-set (as one kid doesn’t care to swing and the other will outgrow it all too soon), but do have one smaller climber to install and want room for the kids to play. We have kicked around the idea of someday putting in a pool, though we aren’t sure and the kids aren’t old enough for that yet. We love the idea of an outdoor kitchen or a screen room or a fire pit or any number of other fancy features, but kind of want  to take things in phases and not overspend right away.
We do not have a walk-out basement, but the breakfast room door is about four feet above the grade of the yard, and it is smack in the middle of the back of the house.  That makes part of the design harder. We could go with a low deck, or steps down to a patio, or some combination thereof. We could build it toward the street-side of the house so that the entertaining space is closer to the road (with some traffic sounds) and runs behind the family room. Or we could build it towards the opposite side of the house, farther from traffic but right next to our master bedroom windows. 
We are incapable of doing this job ourselves. Though at least one friend has told us how easy laying a paver patio is, we have neither the time off work, the brute strength and/or tools to dig and level that much sod, nor the inclination to spend our vacation time digging. We are definitely hiring this out.
Last night, we took our first baby step towards figuring this mess out: we had a concrete contractor come for an estimate. They do stamped and stained concrete work, which is a slightly less expensive alternative to pavers. We also like the look of pavers, but a poured concrete patio with a brick-or-stone look is a definite option, especially if it leaves room in the budget for more of the trees and possibly some drainage work, or a few new pieces of patio furniture. And it would take less time—only about two days rather than a week or more.
I was disappointed that the contractor expected us to know exactly where and how big and what shape we wanted—I wanted more design guidance and he wanted to measure.  I had no quarrel with the price that he quoted: the price-per-square foot was within what I had seen online, and though he quoted a much larger area than I had anticipated using, the price was reasonable.  Oddly, he was busy talking us away from more expensive options.  One of my biggest pet peeves among salespeople is ones who attempt to down-sell us.  Frankly, I want someone to let us dream big, and show us where we can maximize value (or where we can split a big job into pieces that can be spread across a couple of years so we aren’t financing everything).
Next up: calling an actual landscape designer or two. We probably should have started there.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Working From Home -- The Good, The Bad, The Cartoon Theme Songs

At the beginning of this year, I changed jobs within my company. I'm still in software, but with a different group of software folks. It's new. It's exciting. It came with a laptop.

It has been over ten years since I last had a work laptop and any expectation that I could work from home, at least occasionally. I feel like I'm a bit behind the times, but catching up fast. And I kinda like it.

The Good:

I've had a part-time schedule for years (4 days a week) so I can help deal with the craziness of kids. But even with that, it was still hard to squeeze in enough hours sometimes. With this new job, I have gained flexibility to go with my part-time schedule.

After less than two weeks at my new position, my kids had a day off school and I had a teleconference to attend. I found myself sitting in my home office on my laptop with a headset plugged into my cell phone while the kids watched a movie right above me.  It worked pretty well.

Working from home lets me squeeze in an extra 2-3 hours on a school half-day or a day with some other interruption, without having to spend a little over an hour round-trip in the car going to work.  That commute isn't too bad, unless you compare it to such a short amount of work.

The Bad

You know how tempting it is to surf the web if you have downtime? Well, from home I have access to the web on my personal laptop, my Kindle, my phone. There's a TV. There's laundry.  Having a dedicated office space helps. My space doesn't have a door, but nor is it the kitchen table where I have to look at last night's dirty dishes. Did I mention my personal laptop? It totally lives on the same desk where I set up my work laptop...

Sometimes its just too quiet in here. It helps that my work teammates are just an IM away (and since many of them actually work from different cities and/or occasionally from home, IM'ing is a normal method of communication). But still, sometimes I wish the cats would answer me with words.

Having access to a fully stocked pantry and a fully functional kitchen can lead to much fresher, tastier lunches than what I can fit into a lunchbox and nuke at work. It also leads to snacking.  Lots of snacking. No quarters required. Frankly, this could be good or bad.

The Cartoon Theme Songs

With my youngest home sick for three days this week, hubby and I took turns staying home with him.  By day three, he had basically no fever and just a persistent cough. And way too much energy. Happily, he can now run the TV remote. Unhappily, his show of coice is Sponge Bob.  Or Dora. Or Max and Ruby. Or Umi Zoomi. 

Oh the noise.

There is something surreal about attempting to concentrate on work while Dora is singing about the Colores Lindos in the next room.

The Rest

Everyone likes to joke about working in their PJs. I suppose I could, but I feel the need to get dressed in the morning. Helps me wake up.  I could totally see the benefits of working a few morning hours in my exercise clothes, squeezing in a Zumba class, and then showering and heading back to the keyboard. Not that I've managed to do that, yet.

Did I mention that in the previous eight or so years I probably attended one telecon total? I have been used to working directly face-to-face with people, or else not at all. For all that working at home can lead to isolation, I was probably more isolated working with a limited group of people in a single location than I am sitting in my home office with a headset and Webex.

I can see how this type of working environment could easily lead to a manager or employer abusing their people's work expectations. So far, I don't see any of that. I'm working with a group of people who are spread out geographically, who habitually flex their hours around family, and who seem to be given the trust and independence to get their job done without undue pressure from above or the dreaded micro-management (which would totally kill any benefits of working from home on a disjointed schedule).

Gosh I hope it stays that way. Because I can totally get used to this.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Digging Out

One year ago, our family had barely hidden most of our moving boxes. We were paying two mortgages and enjoying a short breather in the mad rush of keeping our former home sufficiently kept up for showing. We had painted out the last of the bold colors that had garnered snarky remarks from house shoppers (a butter-yellow dining room and bubblegum pink laundry room were the final victims of the neutral paint).  There was, for a month or two, no need to mow grass. We had not yet been invaded by birds or attacked by a massive hail storm.

The Christmas decorations had been put away, leaving corners and walls looking a little sad. School was in session. There were hints of drought, but only in the form of an unseasonably warm winter.

We were getting by. I guess that’s not too bad, in the grand scheme of things.

We were buried under too much credit card debt (too much for our own personal preferences, anyway, though it was a number that seems lower than many “average” credit card debt figures I see online). We were paying too much for a school where both of our children were struggling (despite both being well above average in intellect). Though were certainly paying our bills on time, we had almost nothing leftover for unexpected expenses, let alone niceties. We were frugal with extras for the kids, slow in signing them up for school activities, cringed every time they got a birthday party invitation. We shopped every grocery sale, cutting back on nicer items like steaks and alcohol, focusing on sandwiches and other low-cost foods.

I was stressed out and frustrated everywhere I turned. The house needed a few things (like a patio, and bedroom furniture, and some area rugs), but I had no money to make any of that happen. Lots of ideas, no way to implement them.  I had finally achieved one of my lifetime goals—to publish a novel.  But instead of basking in the fun of promoting a new book, I had no money to spend on a few basic items for giveaways or inexpensive advertisements. And I was published through a small press and digital-first, and really tired of other writers either rolling their eyes at the situation (after all, I hadn’t received an advance and wasn’t with a well-known press, didn’t have a print run, etc). I was tired of explaining to non-writers that I had an e-book and there were no print copies available. And really tired of folks asking me if that was a picture of me on the cover, or if the story was about me and my husband (its Fiction!  Fiction means make-believe! Really! My real-life love story would put a reader to sleep because it is so wonderfully normal and boring).

I had too many people wanting too many things from me, and no one ever seemed happy with anything I did.  My book wasn’t good enough, wasn’t legitimate enough, wasn’t promoted enough. The day job was full of conflicts. The new house felt unfinished. No one wanted the old house. My youngest was acting out in school and not listening (we were just learning that he couldn’t pass a hearing test, so “listening” was not his problem—“hearing” was), my oldest thought she was no good at math because she had bad handwriting and a messy desk (!). And all of our spare time was spent cleaning, painting, sprucing the old house, or else working extra hours to pay for its mortgage. There was no money in the budget for hiring a babysitter so my husband and I could have some much-needed adult time (nor was there money for a dinner out even if we had a babysitter).

I should have been feeling great about myself. New house, fancy school, beautiful kids, two blossoming careers of my own, a scout leader.

Instead I just wanted to crawl under a rock and hide.

If you are wondering what that kind of stress does to a person, well, if the person in question is a writer, it stops her from writing. I barely wrote a handful of pages for nearly a year. I mostly quit blogging (here, at my writing blog, or at my cooking blog). For the family, it made us yell. A lot. (I’m sure that didn’t help with our kids’ self-esteem or behavioral issues).

In some ways, it was good for us. We ate at home together. We got in the habit of having family movie nights (pulling from our collection of DVD’s or a free on-demand movie on TV). We found low-cost ways to play together (and I scrounged a lot of coupons for things like trips to the movie theater). We didn’t shop so much, and we all worked on fiscal responsibility. We appreciated how lucky we were (we weren’t “poor”—poor people don’t own two houses and attend private schools!). My husband and I grew closer, if you can believe it. Sometimes I think stress can drive a couple apart because of hurt and blame. But we both realized that we weren’t blaming each other, and that the way out of the stress was to work together and not against each other. We had to re-assure each other of that frequently.

After way too much time and effort and stress, we finally sold the house in November. No, the house was not the sole source of our stress. But it was the most visible sign of it. Getting it off our minds (and off our budget) brought a huge sense of relief, though it wasn’t really the first change that happened.  First, We moved our kids from a more expensive private school to a more local parish school to save money, driving time, and sanity. While the youngest still struggles with sitting still and listening to directions, he has come a long way. My oldest was recently disappointed at her lowest grade—a 94%.  My husband’s job situation both improved and stabilized. Then came the sale.

We have regained money, and time, and sanity. My day job has now shifted a little to one that allows me to occasionally work from home (helpful for managing the frequent school breaks and for squeezing in enough hours around the family schedule). I have actually been writing! (finishing one short work and most of another novel-length one, plus looking at my options for getting more of my work published)  We started going out to eat again. We are starting to finish some of the unfinished work on the new house—buying some furniture, thinking about landscape plans, putting up decorations (like we intend to stay in the house for a while). We are even  evaluating hiring out lawn care and house cleaning so that we can spend our after-work time on things like homework, soccer practice, and actual relaxation.

This year I hope for peace. I hope for a return to normalcy, whatever the new normal is for us. I hope to laugh more and smile more. I hope to help my children laugh more and smile more.  I hope to be able to really enjoy my new job, really enjoy the writing and publishing process. And I hope I don’t need to move again for a long, long time.