Tale As Old As Time Reversed

My Dad’s board is on the left, the professional on the right.

It’s a tale as old as time:  to save money and prevent potential covid germs from entering your home, homeowner attempts a desperately needed home repair herself.  The attempt goes poorly and ends with homeowner calling a professional to clean up the mess.

This is not that story.

This is the tale as old as time reversed.


As long term readers of this blog know, for a horrifying six hours in late June I had zero working toilets.  I quickly got one working, but the second is still a work in progress.

To recap:  the offending toilet leaked and water rotted out the subfloor.  The subfloor needed replacing, then new flooring laid, and only then can the plumber replace the flange and toilet.

Got it?

Today is the story of replacing the subfloor.

My Dad thought we could do the job ourselves.  He’s the best handyman I know, but he’d never done a subfloor and I figured it would cost a lot of time and frustration.  To be honest, I was lazy and just wanted to throw money at the problem to have it fixed quickly and without inconvenience.

Oh, the best laid plans.

It took a lot of phone calls to find someone willing to do the job.  It’s busy season for construction and no one wanted to waste a few hours on a tiny six- by-three-foot half bath when they have a mile long list of major renovation projects. 

I finally found someone through a handyman company and made the appointment.  The guy was here for six hours and I will bullet point the key factors to speed our story along:

  1. I asked for the entire subfloor to be replaced.  He ultimately installed a 25×25 inch square board around the toilet area, only replacing the rotted piece.
  2. He went to Lowe’s—twice—to buy wood and still ended up installing a piece that was a quarter inch thinner than the rest of the floor, resulting in:
  3. The replacement square not being flush with the rest of the floor.
  4. He removed my sink—ultimately unnecessary because he didn’t replace the floor beneath it—and informed me that he couldn’t get it to stop leaking when it was reattached.

The non-flush floor is a problem because you cannot install flooring or tile overtop it.  And I don’t know about you, but “Rural Outhouse” style flooring does not match my wallpaper.

As for the sink, at least the plumber is coming back anyway. 

You know what I did next.  I called dear old Dad.

In the end, we ripped out everything and started over. 

With a board of the correct width, properly measured cuts for the toilet flange, and a single shim, we had the floor flush and even.  It took us two hours less.

The job finally looked professional.

In the end, I paid the professional for cutting a hole in the floor, possibly breaking my sink, and wood that is now scraped and in my garage.

Oh, and the screwdriver he left behind beneath the floor, like a doctor who stitches up a body with the surgical scissors still inside.

I’m keeping it.  Even with the company’s partial refund after my complaints, it’s the most expensive screwdriver I—or anyone else—will ever own.

My Dad’s impeccable work cost four hours and a half gallon of ice cream to celebrate.

I guess you don’t always get what you pay for, after all.

A coda:  I was wary of having a stranger in my home with the covid spread, so I turned off the air and had all the windows open and fans going to keep the air moving while he was here.  It was a hot day and he was sweating profusely.

At the time, I felt bad.

I don’t anymore.

Getting Back In

Fortunately, there is no visual evidence of my flip.

Sometimes in life, everything is perfect.  The weather is fine, you’ve got the wind in your hair, and you’re sailing right along, enjoying the ride down the river of life.  Then without warning, a wake comes along and tosses you right into the water.

This happened to me recently.

This isn’t a parable about how we have to rise to life’s biggest challenges—how our plans have been derailed by coronavirus, or how anyone’s life can change on a dime with unexpected tragedy.

No, this is about the time I literally fell out of a boat.

Two weeks ago, I was rowing my little heart out on a hot Wednesday night.

I’m used to rowing in a quad boat with three other more experienced rowers.  But this summer, we’re all rowing in single shells to practice social distancing and keep each other safe.

Rowing a single is very different than a quad or even a double.  The boat is very light and very small, and the trick is to keep it balanced.  This is an endeavor that requires constant vigilance, and the use of the feet as well as the arms in keeping the oars balanced.  One false move and you end up in the Allegheny River.

Which is where I found myself last Wednesday.  It wasn’t entirely unexpected; flipping a single is a rite of passage for a rower.

Just before practice, I asked my coach what to do if I fell out of the boat.

“Get back in,” she called over her shoulder before zooming away in the safety launch.

Falling out of a shell is quite easy to do.

Getting back in?  That’s another story.

So there I was bobbing in the middle of the Allegheny, my shell next to me.  I’d lost my hat but not my glasses, so that was okay.  My coach was nearby in the launch, so I wasn’t in any danger. 

There are two main challenges when trying to get back into a racing shell.  The first is that because you’re in the middle of the river, you have no leverage other than what you can work up with your upper body strength.  You can’t push off the bottom with your legs and launch yourself into the air. 

The second, and more precarious, are the oars.  A racing shell is balanced by the oars, and the oars must stay in position.  This is what makes a racing shell more difficult to get into versus say, a canoe.  In a canoe you could throw the oars into the boat and climb over the side and in, knowing the canoe will stay balanced.

Not so in a rowing shell.  You have to throw yourself in with one hand while holding the handles of both oars in the other.

I took a deep breath and heaved myself up.  I had no sense of how to balance the oars, so I was back in the water almost immediately.  On the third try, I launched myself up onto the boat like a wet seal.  I had a death grip on the oars, and was scrabbling around on my belly to keep myself from tipping over. 

Some people look quite graceful when getting back into a racing shell.

I am not one of those people.

I inched around like a blind worm until I got my feet into position.  I had one final task—getting my butt on the seat.  The seat sits on a track so that it can slide back and forth.  I pushed with my legs—holding the oars steady the whole time, and plopped myself onto the seat.

My fellow rowers cheered my success from their own shells.

My coach threw me the bailer—a sawed off bottle of laundry detergent—which I used to bail the majority of the water out of my shell.

By now I was sweating and quite frankly exhausted.  But I was exhilarated, too.  I hadn’t given up.  I had made it back in the boat, metaphorically as well as literally. 

I was so proud and thrilled that I reared back to throw the bailer to my coach.  And in that one instant, I forgot myself.

One second was all it took to pull defeat from the jaws of victory.

I forgot my vigilance, and I let my oars dip just the slightest fraction.

And found myself back underwater, my boat flipped over above my head.

At least I still had my glasses.

The Hairball From Hell

I’ve been upping my cleaning game.

The obvious reason is that I want to wipe away germs and viruses now more than ever.  (Yes, I’m looking at you, Covid-19.)

But the other reason is that when spending record levels of time inside my own four walls, I want the place to look nice.

I’ve never been a slob.  But I am the descendent of two clean freaks:  my mother, and my great-grandmother.  These two elevate tidying up to a whole new level.  Marie Kondo has nothing on them.

So my own laissez-fair attitude toward dust and soap scum meant I wasn’t living up my genetic cleanliness potential.

I started kicking it up a notch on frequency—vacuuming and scrubbing down the bathrooms, being more diligent in the kitchen. 

(Blinker, by the way, is decidedly not on board with this program.  While cats are fastidious in their own bathing and cleanliness, they fear nothing so much as the vacuum cleaner.  As soon as I roll it out of the closet, she makes a beeline to hide under the bed until the death machine stops roaring.)

But I had more in mind than just a supercharged regular cleaning schedule.  I wanted to tackle some big jobs that were long overdue.  I started by deep cleaning the grill and the oven, two rather disgusting jobs that take a lot of elbow grease.  I figured it was best to get the toughest items checked off first.

Then I decided to do a thorough cleaning under the bed.  My bed is huge and heavy, and with eight legs, impossible for me to move by myself.  Now and then I reached beneath it with the vacuum cleaner, but I was never really able to reach beneath the headboard.

With the help of my dad and some furniture mover coasters from Lowes, we pulled the bed away from the wall.

And stood in shock at the horror before us.

Reader, I can’t believe I’m even showing you the evidence of my filth.

There was a carpet of cat hair over the regular carpet.  It was so thick I could’ve made Blinker a second coat with it.  I used a squeegee to rake it from the baseboards and form it into a football size mass.

This wasn’t a dust bunny.  This was a dust dinosaur.

I didn’t even use the vacuum.  It would’ve clogged that thing like a stopped drain.  I just picked that dust football up with my hands and punted it out the window.

The only place that’s been untouched longer than behind the bed is the attic.

I’m still working up the courage to open that can of worms.

Or should I say can of dust?

A Tale of Two Toilets

Recently, I left the house.

Surprising, I know.  But this isn’t a tale about what happened when I left the house.

It’s what happened when I got back.

I stepped into my foyer and just happened to glance up at the ceiling. There was a brown horseshoe-shaped stain against the white.  I didn’t remember seeing it before.

And it was right under where my powder room toilet sits on the floor above.

I’m no handywoman, but even I knew this was not good.

A few days later the plumber cut a hole in that ceiling and confirmed the obvious—the toilet had been slowly leaking for some time and needed, as did the bathroom subfloor and the chunk of stained ceiling.

I never liked the pattern on that floor anyway.

“You have another toilet, right?” he asked.

When I confirmed that I did, he completely removed the toilet and I stored it in the basement.  For those of you home improvement types, the toilet itself will still work, but the flange is the problem and will have to be replaced.  For clueless types like me, that’s the ring around the hole in the floor that you stick the toilet into.

At least I think so.  At this point in the plumber’s explanation I sort of zoned out and began wondering how big the bill was going to be.  It was a job I couldn’t do myself, and therefore the details weren’t all that important.

I was left with a hole in the floor, but I still had that upstairs bathroom.

Or so I thought.

When nature called after dinner, I used the upstairs bathroom, but when I went to flush, the handle on the toilet didn’t want to go down.  Perplexed, I tried jiggling it.


I took the back of the toilet tank off and nothing was obviously amiss.

I tried again, giving it some real torque, and the handle snapped off into my hand.


Within the span of about six hours, I’d gone from two working toilets to zero.

And though mathematics might claim otherwise, the difference between zero toilets and one toilet is a lot bigger than the difference between two toilets and one toilet.  It’s the difference between full on panic and temporary inconvenience.

The flooring man wasn’t coming for ten more days, and I didn’t think I could hold it that long.

After frantic further inspection, I realized the tank level was broken and the handle would’ve been useless even if I hadn’t snapped it off.

I surveyed the situation.  With desperation running high, I had a wild hope that this was a problem I could fix myself.

So I took myself off to Lowe’s with the broken part in my pocket.  My preferred method of shopping for things like this is to find a sales clerk, hold up my broken version of the part and say, “I need this.”

However, Lowe’s was packed.  Packed!  It was like Black Friday in there.  I guess there’s nothing like a quarantine to spur you on to tackle that long delayed home improvement project.

There were no free employees, so I put on my big girl panties and found the necessary part myself.  (I also picked up some hand sanitizer and a bottle of Lysol.  The Lowe’s selection of cleaning products is diverse and well-stocked.  Just something to keep in mind as you’re prepping your second wave bunker.)

I’m as shocked as anyone to say that the repair of toilet number two proceeded quickly, smoothly, and successfully.

I was back up to one working toilet.

If that doesn’t make a person breathe a sigh of relief, I don’t know what will.

Snake Season

It’s time to go on high alert!

It’s the end of May.

We’re into the best part of Spring, past the incessant rain and fears of frost.

Winter can no longer reach out and wrap its icy fist around a day.

We had the April showers, we had the May flowers.

It’s not yet relentlessly hot and humid.

It’s the absolute best time of the year.

Except that it’s Snake Season.

And yes, I know.  Snakes are great to have around.  They’re very clean, and the vast majority of the ones in Pennsylvania aren’t poisonous, and they eat disease-filled vermin.

But…can I be frank?  They’re damn creepy.

Snakes and I never had much of a problem until I started finding their skins hanging from the ceiling of my laundry room.  In my basement, the ceiling lines up with the ground line in my back yard.

After a long investigation, we discovered that the snake was getting in by crawling up under the siding and entering the house through the hole where my air conditioner connects to the house.

I shiver just remembering those days.

We looked everywhere for that snake.  We moved everything out of the basement, tore the insulation from the panels.


Then a few weeks later I walked in, and there he was, stretched across my washing machine like four feet of terror.

I froze.  For an instant, I thought it was a rubber toy snake.  Who and why someone would put a rubber snake in my laundry room was unclear, even in my delusion.

 I’m embarrassed to say I closed the door to the laundry room.  As if I was Houdini, and I could close the door and make the snake disappear.


That shook me out of my paralysis.  I’d been looking for the snake for weeks!  I couldn’t walk away now. 

As bad as it was seeing the snake, seeing his skins and not knowing where he was hiding was worse.

Every time I did the laundry I felt like I was Indiana Jones and a snake was going to fall on my head.

So I steeled my courage and opened the door.  The snake, apparently sensing my presence, had started his escape, and was crawling up my wall.

Reader, I could not pick that snake up off the wall.

I just couldn’t.

I ran down the street to my neighbor who loves snakes, and he came running back with me, imploring me not to hurt the snake.  (As if I would get near enough to touch it, much less hurt hit.)

My hero lovingly plucked up the snake, cooing like it was a kitten, and took it away to release it into the woods.

I spent the rest of the summer sealing up the house like Fort Knox.  (Well, my wonderful Dad did.  I was afraid to go down there.  I was only forced to enter the laundry room again after dirtying every piece of clothing I owned.  I wore some colorful outfits to work that summer.)  He sealed every crack and crevice.  He put up snake fencing along the outside of the house. 

Anything we could do to make sure Howard—I named him to make him less scary—knew his eviction was final.

Thankfully, neither Howard nor his friends have taken up residence in my basement again.

In the winter, I don’t worry.

But in the summer, I go on high alert.  I never start a load of laundry without a full inspection of every crevice of the room with a floodlight I bought especially for this purpose.

People say snakes are more afraid of me than I am of them.

That, my friends, is highly debatable.

Honestly, I don’t mind much if they’re around, as long as they stay out of my house.

And preferably, completely out of sight.

Memorial Day, 2020 Edition

And we thought Mother’s Day was strange.

The days are getting longer, the weather is warming up, and the flowers are blooming.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day, the official start of the American Summer.

Marked by parades, cookouts, retail sales, the end of school, and the opening of the public pools.

Not this year.  Parades and pools are on ice indefinitely, and school ended abruptly weeks ago.  Cookouts have so many rules—masks, six feet, no touching—that they’re hardly worth the trouble.  Who knew we’d have occupancy limits in our own backyards? 

At least we still have sales.

I think we can officially add “holiday retail sales” to the list of things you can always count on, which previously included only death and taxes.

I like Memorial Day.  I like the summer holiday trio best—Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Labor Day.  They’re patriotic, they’re celebrated with cookouts and parades and fireworks, and they’re free of all the emotional landmines and family drama that accompany the Big Five—Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Father’s Day, and (as previously discussed in these very electronic pages) Mother’s Day. 

But just like Easter and Mother’s Day, 2020 Memorial Day is going to be different.  (I think we’re all sensing a theme here.)

But perhaps Memorial Day is the holiday best suited for this pandemic.  For as everyone knows and forgets when they’re at their cookout (myself included), Memorial Day is for honoring those in our military who gave their lives for our country.

It’s a solemn holiday at its heart, best illustrated by photos of Arlington Cemetery, the graves dotted with American flags.

It’s a holiday that celebrates patriotism and self-sacrifice, and pays tribute to those who’ve died in service to our safety, our security, and our ideals.

In the time of the coronavirus, so much has been made about the bravery and calm professionalism of the doctors and nurses working in the hardest hit areas.  Some of them have also died protecting their fellow man.

As we approach an inevitable 100,000 American deaths from this disease, tomorrow I plan to take a moment to honor all of those who have died while trying to keep others safe, whether they wore a military uniform or not.

Just this once, I don’t think the soldiers will mind.

The Upstairs Bookcase

My downstairs bookcase

I love to know what people are reading when they think no one’s watching.

When I’m in an airport or on a bus, I’ll pretend to tie my shoe so I can bend over and see the covers of the books people are reading.  I’ll go to the bathroom and take a quick peek over shoulders on my way back. 

Inquiring minds want to know.

Most people are reading something you’d expect, but I’m on the hunt for the person who’s got the guts to go against type.  Just once I want to find a gray-templed business executive in a three piece suit who’s reading Nora Roberts instead of Stephen Covey.

That’s why I’m against e-books.  No snooping possible.

In theory, I should be fascinated by all the recent glimpses of celebrity bookcases.

You know what I’m talking about.  Now that every celebrity, newscaster, and talk show host is Zooming (we can use this as a verb now, right?) from home, we get a look at their home offices.

And their bookcases.

This has prompted a rash of Twitter posters to painstakingly identify blurry titles and newspaper articles analyzing the contents of said shelves.

Cate Blanchett’s downstairs bookcase

Much has been made of the fact that Cate Blanchett owns all twenty volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Kate Middleton has a collection of Penguin Classics (including titles by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, of course) that quite frankly, look like they’ve never been opened, much less read.  Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, has biographies of U.S. presidents by Doris Kearns Goodwin, among other history books. 

Kate and the most downstairs book collection ever

No less than the New York Times ran an article that asked, “What Do Famous People’s Bookshelves Reveal?”

The article begins, “In quarantine, people are inadvertently exposing their reading habits.

Au contraire, New York Times.  There is nothing “inadvertent” about these books.  Every book was carefully selected—or at the very least, undesirables were culled from the shelves—before they turned the cameras on.

They are showing their downstairs bookcase.

I should know, because I have one myself. 

The downstairs bookcase is the one you want guests to see.  Bookworms always peruse each other’s shelves.  The downstairs bookcase is a testament to your literary bonafides, your good taste, your identification papers proving you’re in on the zeitgeist.

No reader is immune to the temptation of bragging in their downstairs bookcase.

Mine has Harry Potter, a hardback Jane Austen anthology Kate Middleton could love, literary novels, some poetry.  All are in pristine condition.  I’ve read them all (only a complete literary poseur would dare showcase books they hadn’t read in their downstairs bookcase).  I enjoy them all.  They’re not just for show.

And yet.

If you want to know the heart and soul of my reading life—of anyone’s— you have to find their upstairs bookcase.  The one that’s tucked away in the office no one else enters.  It doesn’t even have to be a bookcase.  It can be the back of a closet or the bottom drawer of a bedside table.

It’s the place you keep your books with spines cracked from all the re-reading, with coffee rings, and beloved passages marked with stars.  The books you would run into a burning building to save, because while you could buy a new copy, they are irreplaceable.

It’s where you keep the books that are pure pleasure, guilty pleasures if you believe you must feel bad about what you read.  Books you take to bed with you and read until dawn.  Books whose movies you detest because they got the casting and the ending all wrong.  Books that cut so close to the bone they hurt to read.

My upstairs bookcase (one of several) – I promise I didn’t pretty it up for the picture…

To see a downstairs bookcase is to see a person’s reading dressed up for a black-tie wedding—lipstick on, every hair sprayed and pinned into place.

The upstairs bookcase?

That’s your reading life in a cozy bathrobe with nothing on underneath.

So famous people, don’t waste my time with your carefully curated picture-perfect libraries that show me nothing other than how you want me to see you.

Have some guts.

Show me your upstairs bookcase.

Mother’s Day, 2020 Edition

Well, this is a strange Mother’s Day.

Normally the biggest day of the year for restaurants, there will be no champagne brunches this year.  No picnics in the park, no living rooms crowded with grandchildren and cake.

I know this might come as a shock to some, but holidays are not always as joyful as they are portrayed in Hallmark movies.

Holidays are loaded with emotions, not always good.

Everyone has strange Mother’s Days throughout their lives. 

Maybe it’s the first Mother’s Day since your own mother passed away, or maybe you’re away from her for the first time on the holiday.  Or maybe you’re a new mother and today’s the first time you’re the one being celebrated.

Maybe you’re not on good terms with your mother or maybe you never had a mother in any true sense of the word.  Or maybe your mother’s been gone a long time and you wish you could cut this day out of the calendar every year.

So let’s not forget that Mother’s Day is sometimes weird for all of us.

The difference is we’re all having a weird Mother’s Day at exactly the same time.

I know a lot more mothers than I used to, and many of them are my age.

Talk about weird.

If your mother is in your quarantine bubble, you’re probably tired of each other after weeks of enforced togetherness.  Maybe celebrate by letting Mom take a bubble bath or go for a walk all by herself.

If you and your mother are both alive and healthy but unable to see one another, there are plenty of other ways to let her know you love and appreciate her.

If for any reason you’d rather just skip Mother’s Day, I fully endorse pulling the covers up over your head and not coming out until it’s over.

You may want to consider this strategy for the rest of 2020.

If you can swing it.

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, and all the mothers I know and love.

This is one for this history books.

Mind Reader

These days whenever I need to know something, I do what everyone does.  I fire up my phone or my laptop and consult Google.

I have the answer in seconds.

Which, to be quite honest, I’m not longer stunned by.  It’s an accepted part of modern-day life that one can look up any fact, television clip, or famous photograph in an instant.

Google has the answers.

But I’m still amazed by how often Google knows the question before I even finish asking it.

And not just the easy ones, like this:

Google’s not getting any points from me on that one.  Everyone on planet Earth has googled that at least once in the past eight weeks. 

But Google knows things that are rather specific, like:

Has Google been reading my Golden Age of Hollywood blogs?

Or this:

How did Google know I was looking for a show that’s been off the air for thirteen years?

And Google has definitely been reviewing my skyrocketing Amazon bill:

And how does Google explain this autofill if it hasn’t been using my webcam?

I mean, seriously, Google.  Cats climb trees, curtains, and poles.  But your first thought was that I wanted to search cats climbing on my back?  And you’re telling me you didn’t read my Facebook post this week?

[Side Note:  The life of a writer means that you can spend hours researching, writing, and perfecting a piece, and it will never get 1/100th the amount of likes as a picture of your cat on your back.  This is the way the world is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.]

I feel like I’m forever locked in a game of “Name That Tune.”

Google:  I can name that search in six letters!

Since Google obviously knows everything, they also know I am on to them:

But Google swears they are protecting my privacy, and we all know Google would never lie to us.  So the only logical explanation is:

I don’t even need to click to know the answer is YES!

Google finishes my sentences.  Google always knows exactly what I want.  Google anticipates my every need.

So one question remains:

For once, Google has nothing to say.

Field Trip

Last Wednesday, I opened my basement chest freezer.  I had to reach all the way to the bottom for a package of frozen chicken breasts.

I pulled out the chicken, surveyed the empty freezer, and rejoiced.

I could finally go back to the grocery store.

I’d made myself a rule, you see—I couldn’t shop again until I’d eaten everything in the freezer.  This rule had a dual purpose—to reduce grocery store trips, and to make sure that five years from now I didn’t find a bag of freezer-burned soup that had to be tossed.

I’d spent all last summer cooking and freezing, so now was the time to finish it off.

Finally ate it all…

But I finally made it to the end—gallons of soup, frozen berries, zucchini muffins, chicken stock.  I ate every last bit of it.

And now, after 4 weeks without entering a store, it was time for a field trip.

In 2020 BC (Before Corona), I shopped for groceries every weekend, often with a mid-week trip to supplement my supply of fresh fruits and veggies.  I’d cavalierly drop in for one (one!) item, or leisurely browse the aisles musing over what to make for dinner.  I’d make separate trips to Giant Eagle, Target, and Sam’s Club.  My list was a general guide.  It was the Age of Innocence.

In 2020 AD (After Discovery of the virus), I plan my shopping trips like a Navy Seal on an extraction mission.

I spent days making my list to ensure I wouldn’t forget anything, then categorized all the items together based on store placement—there is no backtracking in 2020 AD.  If I missed it the first time through, I would have to leave it behind.

I chose my time to strike—7:00 am Saturday morning, just as the store was reopening.  It would be maximally (if not fully) stocked, recently sanitized, and uncrowded.

I donned my mask and gloves, and tucked my credit card and list in my back pocket.  I left my phone and purse in the trunk, as I didn’t want to touch either inside the store.

When I entered the produce section, I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz, going from black and white to brilliant technicolor.  There was fresh food everyone—green lettuce, red peppers, mushrooms not from a can!  My old friends bananas and strawberries were there.

I wanted to take them all home with me.  The main mission—which I fear I did not complete—was not to buy more fresh produce than I could eat before it spoiled.

Which is why I’m having a tomato and mushroom salad over butter lettuce for my Sunday breakfast.

I couldn’t be happier.

I missed you, Giant Eagle.  See you next month!