Traditionally, the Christmas decorating doesn’t start until after Thanksgiving—for many families, it’s part of a ritual weekend that kicks off the holiday season. Thursday—Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends. Friday—shopping! Saturday—put up the Christmas tree.
Yet this year people got a jump on the holiday.
Last week, during my nightly evening walk, I passed a house with their Christmas tree lit and visible through a big bay window. It was a beautiful tree, covered in twinkling white lights and topped with a star.
Pretty, I thought, but an earlier outlier. It was still over a week to Thanksgiving.
I was wrong.
Two houses down, I saw another tree through the window. Then I passed a manager scene set up on a front lawn. Outdoor lights were everywhere.
Did I have my days mixed up? Did I miss Thanksgiving?
It was confirmed that I didn’t when I passed a house with a huge blow up sleigh and reindeer lit in the front yard. The house across the street still had their Halloween decorations up. Another house had a tree in the window but pumpkins and a cornucopia on the front stoop.
It wasn’t me. Christmas had come early.
Just about every other house had some sort of Christmas decoration up either inside or outside the house.
I too had the urge to put my tree up earlier than usual. Normally, I’m lackadaisical about this project, sometimes skipping it altogether. Thanksgiving weekend I start thinking about the tree, and sometimes get it up promptly, other times waiting until a week or two before Christmas.
But this year I had the urge to put it up in early November, despite the uncommonly warm, sunny weather that didn’t make it look a bit like Christmas.
I put my tree up yesterday, and when I went for my evening walk yesterday, about three-quarters of the houses were decorated. In fact, I’d bet that everyone who plans to decorate has done it already.
I was on the couch watching an old film and a sound like an oncoming train rumbled through the walls of my home. It was a vibrating sound, and it seemed to come from everywhere at once. It sent Blinker streaking to her safe space beneath the bed.
I reluctantly turned off Bette Davis and went into the basement. By this time, the noise had stopped, but I examined the furnace, the water heater, and the main water lines. There was nothing out of the ordinary to my inexpert eye.
I went back upstairs and finished the film.
Over the next few weeks, I heard the sound again and again. It wasn’t always the same—sometimes it was the vibrating, other times it was a hiss and click, and other times it sounded like water rushing through the walls.
Each time I’d run around trying to figure out exactly where it was coming from to no avail. It didn’t always seem to emanate from the same spot—sometimes I would swear it was coming from under the sink, other times from a heating vent.
I could find no pattern in when the noise would begin—it happened with the furnace on and off, the air conditioner on and off. It happened when I’d recently flushed the toilet, or in the middle of the night when I hadn’t used the water for hours.
I wasn’t sure if it originated with the heating, cooling, or plumbing.
I had no idea what to do.
So, I did nothing.
Weeks stretched into months. The sound would come and go as it pleased, and became so regular that Blinker would barely even lift her head from her nap when it began.
Who to call? A plumber? Heating and cooling?
I just kept ignoring the problem and waiting for it to resolve itself.
And then, an unexpected plot twist.
(If you’re thinking a pipe exploded and I woke up to a basement full of water, you’re wrong. That would be completely expected after ignoring an obvious problem for months.)
Instead, like my very own Greek tragedy, a deux ex machine arrived in the nick of time.
I got a letter. Snail mail.
It was my local municipal authority, telling me the meter man had visited. It seems that since the last outdoor meter reading, the meter had not moved at all. Either I had not used a drop of water in three months, or there was a problem with the meter. The letter instructed me to call and schedule a time for the meter man to examine the meter inside the house.
A week later the meter man arrived.
“Definitely broken. Needs completely changed,” he said.
“Could a broken meter make noise?”
“Like a train rumbling through?”
He was obviously the strong silent type, so I left him alone to replace the inside and outside meter.
It took him less than an hour and there was no charge to me.
I haven’t heard the noise in twenty-four hours. Could it really be the simple?
The lesson I’m taking away from this experience is that when you have a problem you don’t know how to solve, you should ignore it until some unforeseen outside force presents the solution.
Raking leaves is a two-part process. Step One: Rake leaves into a pile. Step Two: Bag leaves.
On a balmy Pittsburgh November morning, Step One can be downright pleasant. The heat of the summer is behind you, and with a sweatshirt on you brave the crisp November air. I’ve always thought they should add raking leaves sounds to those sleep machines that play waves crashing, birds chirping, and rain falling. It’s every bit as soothing.
Step Two is the backbreaker. Getting your lovely piles of leaves off your lawn and into trash bags will break your back and destroy your sanity. Scooping the leaves into the bag requires you to bend over approximately one thousand times per bag. No matter what method you use—pushing the leaves into the bag with a broom, or scooping them up with a rake, 75% of every scoop ends up back on the ground and not in the bag. You can always get on your knees and pick up the leaves with your hands, but that adds about 5,000 more scoops to the process.
It’s enough to have you hauling out a chainsaw and cutting down every tree you see.
The leaf blower takes pleasant Step One and replaces that soothing noise with a ridiculously loud motor that is interrupting all of your neighbor’s work-from-home conference calls.
For Step Two, it does nothing at all.
I don’t need a leaf blower. I need a leaf sucker.
Last week, I was out taking one of many walks while waiting for the election returns to come in when I saw what I longed for.
A leaf sucker.
They’re actually called leaf vacuums, and they’re leaf blowers with the ability to suck instead of just blow. They have an attachment with a wide mouth to suck up the leaves, and a cloth backpack that holds the sucked-up leaves.
Yes, such a thing exists. A neighbor had one, and after a brief conversation I was immediately off to Lowe’s to purchase one.
I strapped it on and looking like a Ghostbuster, I went to work, sucking every leaf in my yard and my neighbor’s yard, just for the fun of it.
No more bending over, no more scooping. If you really want the joy of Step One, you can rake the leaves into the pile and then suck them up, but I just swept back and forth across the yard like a weirdo at the beach with a Geiger counter looking for loose change.
When I was through, I unstrapped the cloth backpack, unzipped it and dumped it into a waiting plastic trash bag…where half of the leaves missed the bag and ended up back on the ground.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Ladies and gentlemen, a modest proposal: If and when a covid-19 vaccine is developed, let’s all agree to put Chick-fil-A in charge of its distribution.
Hear me out.
Back when I had a commute that involved more than the stairs leading into my home office, every morning I’d drive by a Dunkin’ Donuts.
If there were three cars or less in the drive-thru line, I’d pull in and order a dark roast coffee. Even with only three cars ahead of me, there was still a significant chance I would be in line for over twenty minutes and they’d get my order wrong.
If there were five cars in line, I’d maybe get my coffee in time for lunch.
Now I acknowledge this Dunkin’ Donuts is universally recognized as exceptionally slow.
And yet contrast this with every single Chick-fil-A I have ever visited. These people have the lunch time rush down to a science.
The Chick-fil-A drive-thru is always mobbed at lunch time, and that’s only increased since they’ve shut down their indoor dining.
But reader, I tell you, I would wait in a Chick-fil-A line with fifty cars in it, knowing I would get my lunch faster than my coffee at the three-car pile-up at Dunkin’.
(I believe I’m exaggerating for effect, but this might be factually true if we time tested it.)
At my local Chick-fil-A, there is a woman with a flag directing traffic. They’ve made a two-lane drive-thru, with about six people along the way taking your order, your payment, and finally giving you your food.
They get approximately one million people served per location in a lunch hour, and they never make a mistake. And not just the big stuff.
When I ask for three ketchups, I get three ketchups.
I want to give these workers a cash tip, but there’s so many of them I’d go bankrupt.
This is how you adjust to covid restrictions and get the job done.
So why wouldn’t we put these folks in charge of the vaccine distribution?
I trust Chick-fil-A not to screw this up more than my local pharmacy or any level of government.
And can we cut out the insurance companies and have Chick-fil-A handle the billing too?
Then we could skip the ten-page explanation of benefits and go straight to combo orders.
“Yes, I’ll take a number one with cheese, fries, and a vaccine. Three ketchups, please.”
You’d have your lunch and vaccine in five minutes flat.
There’s a lot of preliminary discussion about who should get the vaccine first—front line workers, vulnerable populations, etc.
But if we put Chick-fil-A in charge, we can have the whole country vaccinated in one lunch hour.
Overnight, phone greetings changed. After a brief hello, we inevitably asked, “Where are you?” because we could no longer take it for granted that the other party was at home.
We wanted to fix that person in our mind—to know when we were pouring our heart out over a recent breakup the other person was listening intently on their back deck and not rushing through a supermarket checkout line.
During the Great Pandemic of 2020, we don’t need to ask—we’re all at home, all the time, or at least it feels that way.
Instead, when catching up with friends and family we have a whole new crop of questions:
“Are you back in the office? Any idea when?”
“How are the kids doing school? Full remote, hybrid, or attendance with masks and plastic cones around their desks?”
“Did you skip Trick-or-Treat last night or shoot the candy to the kids through a six-foot pipe while wearing a hazmat suit?”
And if you thought politics, religion, and sex were taboo topics, try asking someone these controversy inflaming questions:
“What are your plans for Thanksgiving? Oh, and what does your mother think about that?”
“Are you eating in restaurants?”
So since I haven’t done one of these Sunday blogs since July, here’s my covid condition:
I’ve been working from home since March 12, when we were sent home on a Thursday with the instruction to work from home for one day to test our IT systems “in case the virus progressed.”
Spoiler alert: It progressed.
Since that time, I’ve been in my office for exactly ten minutes when I stopped by to pick up my Sam’s Club bulk box of oatmeal and my desktop monitor.
My feelings on working from home cycle like the seasons: I go from loving the flexibility and quiet, to being indifferent, to longing to see my co-workers, even the ones I hate.
I’ve got newly hired co-workers I talk to everyday whom I’ve never met.
My house has never been cleaner: if you’re boring me on a conference call, rest assured I am dusting something. If you’re really irritating me, I’m drowning you out with the vacuum cleaner.
I worry most about how Blinker will react when I finally go back into the office.
I haven’t seen most of my friends since my friend Allison threw a prohibition-themed Leap Year Party. If I knew then what I know now I would’ve played Jeopardy and drank sidecars until dawn.
My friend Ginger, who I’ve known since junior high school, was married in September and I wasn’t there. That one, more than anything else I’ve missed, tears my guts out.
I swear off following the presidential election coverage five times a day but am always lured back in.
I tamed my desire to hoard through most of the summer, but with the prospect of a long winter I’m starting to obsessively acquire toilet paper, cat food, and coffee again.
I stopped cooking over the summer. Back when I went into the office every day, I was disciplined in preparing all my meals for the week on Sunday. Lunch and dinner, pre-made and packed into Tupperware containers. But now that I was home all the time, I kept telling myself I would cook a brand-new lunch and dinner each night, like a normal person.
It would be wonderful, I thought, having something new at each meal.
It was not wonderful. It was torture. Thinking of something new to eat, every day, twice a day?
I don’t know how people do it.
So reader, I started eating toast. Forget my bulk box of oatmeal, I had toast for breakfast.
Then one day I ran out of cheese and lunchmeat, so instead of having a sandwich for lunch, I had toast. The next thing I knew I was eating toast for lunch all the time.
It wasn’t a plan, it just happened.
And since addiction only goes from bad to worse, eventually I started eating toast for dinner.
I’m here to tell you that woman can live on toast alone.
It’s hot, it’s easy, and it’s delicious smeared with butter.
And even though it’s butter and carbs, if you consume literally nothing but toast and black coffee, it doesn’t do much to your waistline.
But it’s also madness.
Fortunately, as the weather has cooled, my desire to cook—and my sanity—has returned. I’m back to making a big batch of soup, stew, salad, or casserole on Sunday.
And though I dread the upcoming winter, at least I have something to look forward to besides toast for dinner.
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.
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:
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.
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:
The replacement square not being flush with the rest of the floor.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.