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.