Salvage Value

I’ve done a lot of renovation, but never by the IKEA method. IKEA designs by choosing the end price and making the features of the product fit inside. I’m pretty confident that I can get a good price and do things economically and well, but it’s a challenge to start with the end cost. I start with the finished product. Maybe not the entire product, but I start at the other end, none-the-less, and work on getting the best cost for the finished good. I think I’d be good at rehabbing properties well, but I wouldn’t cut cost corners and unfortunately most buyers don’t recognize that. So, while I’m sure that restoration could be my vocation, I’m not so sure that I could ever make a living at it.

With all this in mind, we took a big leap on closing day. I should say intended closing day, because the leap wasn’t in signing over the future for a house. There were paperwork problems that need to be overcome. We recouped some of our lost productivity for the day in deciding to salvage some knotty pine paneling and hardwood flooring from a house that will be demolished in Avondale Estates.

These salvage items will bring warm reminders of my grandparents back to my surroundings. My father’s parents had a beach cabin on an island near Alabama Point. It had thick old knotty pine paneling. The kitchen was separated from the living room by a bead curtain that I loved to walk through and beside it was a fish net on the wall filled with seashells. Some of the shells were exotic and they fascinated me. This is where I spent the lost summer of my youth. While I won’t be adding the beads and the island décor, it will be nice to have a comfortable reminder.

My mother’s parents had the antebellum home with the twelve-foot ceilings, French doors leading to the dining and living rooms, a long stately staircase and hardwood halls long enough to run through. That house means Christmas to me. Waking up cold to light the gas heaters that retrofitted all the bedroom fireplaces was a part of the winter morning ritual (Of course, my grandfather saved me from having to leave the bed covers cold by coming in early to light mine minutes before I got up. I still hope that someday I will have a home with solid wood doors and glass doorknobs.

How much of the past can we salvage to bring forward to warm our family future? We will see where this demo decision gets us. The cost of materials is very good, but it’ll be haul. Cost of tools, not just specialty tools but also ordinary tools lost in the fire, rental equipment, gas, time and meals that would have otherwise been eaten at home, all of these things factor in. Working after hours and on weekends takes its toll. I know that we will regret the decision before we like it. I don’t know how much regret or how much like there will be. At the very least, it’s better than wasting in front of TV and getting overheated while stacking some of this flooring has caused me to re-commit to loosing some much needed weight and getting back into better condition and I was able to identify some heart pine floors that were eventually saved because I knew what they were.

Antici PAshun

This week we’re right there at almost there, or we hope we are. I went for a bike ride that was just over twenty miles, my longest ride since the house burned, but it was only a new high for now. A year ago an average ride was 40 to 60 miles and the 80s would have been a fairly comfortable high. 20 miles would have been in the home stretch for old normal and I’m only getting out once a week these days.

I deal with stress by riding my bike longer and harder, which has its health benefits, but last time I had a “training level event” I think I overdid it, and that has side effects instead. This time I buried myself in a stress cloud focused on the computer screen and set myself at finding a home. A couple of real estate agents wanted to be my buyer’s agent; little did they know that they really didn’t. I never anticipated finding our next home would be such a challenge, and several times questioned my decision not to rebuild in place. After I started looking, a couple of potential homes went away fast and before I knew it I was afraid I wouldn’t find something within what previously seemed like a generous time frame. It wasn’t going to let that lesson on what the current market was doing go wasted. I was searching for updates so often that I was finding them ahead of the auto updates generated by the listing companies. Getting back to a new normal was/is my job du jour, and I intend(ed) to do it to the best of my ability.

The big deal this week was supposed to be closing on the house. It was scheduled for Wednesday, but there was an error in some previous paperwork and it may be next week. I eased up, but never stopped watching new listings. This closing seemed like it had the potential to go that way and I never consider a deal done till it’s over.

The thrifting is still constant but becoming a real drag, we’re almost as afraid of finding that perfect thing as we are of not finding it. We’ve passed on several good deals because there’s just no place left to stash anything at all. I missed out on a great 6 foot cast iron and porcelain vintage farm sink on a metal cabinet in near perfect condition. At first I envisioned painting it red and putting on a Coca Cola logo that would remind me of my grandfather’s wholesale grocery store where I grew up playing on feed sacks, but it didn’t really need painting. It was in pristine condition. It would have been perfect for my basement cleaning station and mini kitchen in the planned in-law suite, but the price was unbelievably awesome and it sold right away. We still keep looking though, because great things come in small packages too and those are not as hard to store and move extra times. There’s that three day float too when you don’t have to pick up things,but I won’t know when I’m three days from closing until I’m there.

There’s plenty to do, things that really need doing, but what I want to be doing is digging into the house renovation and moving forward. That makes it all the more hard to concentrate on overdue paperwork. I should be using this time to get all that done so that when we do get the house it will make more time to focus on my goal. Sometimes it’s hard to make the heart obey the head.

Things I feel free to purchase at the thrifts are more like Monopoly games that I can find a corner to stash. Things I’m passing on are more like really great furniture. Not in line with our priorities, but dictated by our practicalities. I’m already storing the bike inside the apartment. I also found a great deal on a bike I could leave at my mother’s house so that I don’t have to take mine back and forth every visit, but I haven’t visited since I bought it, so it’s outside on the deck. Before the closing was put off, I was literally counting days. If I buy this now, can I wait to pick it up after closing? Deals in the thrift store are here today, gone tomorrow. So, that’s where we are right now. ready and waiting.

Tripping Thrift

Those thrift stores, they’re a new store every day right? That same river you can’t step in twice? Yet, like that river they’re constantly the same and still changing. There’s always the promise of adventure. You never know what you’ll see, from something exactly like what your grandfather had to something you can’t even imagine what is. I bought some tools once from a Canadian Hardware store, just because it was so odd for me, the original curiosity queen not to be able to find or figure out what they were. I thought I’d eventually find something about them. Now I have a good source in a new FB group, but the tools are gone and I’m not sure if I ever took a photo. I’m not the only one who will buy a mystery item. I asked a shopper leaving with a thing in her hand what it was one day. She said “I have no idea.” I asked her what she was going to do with it. She was going to use it to display jewelry that she made. I could clearly see that was perfect for that.

Shoppers are from all corners too. From artists to those barely getting by, from hoarders to historians, from the wealthy to the wonderers. Some shoppers are talkative and some are afraid to even acknowledge you if you speak to them. Some are proud to recycle and explore. Others are embarrassed to be shopping second hand. Some people carry as much baggage into the store as the bags of stuff that they carry out.

On one recent visit I was making my rounds and finding a few things when I looked down on the bottom shelf and laughed. There hiding in a low corner was a food sculpture with a fork suspended in the air by a tower of spaghetti shooting up from a plate like Old Faithful. Then I heard “What’s Funny” asked from behind me. I picked up the plate and showed it. We both laughed.

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My new friend of the moment said “That’s great… Well you would appreciate this”. Reaching for a wax figure, she held it up and said “I saw this and thought ‘It’s missing its eyes’

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“Then I turned it around and it’s a wizard. It’s like life. You never know what you’re looking at.”

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I laughed again. That was awesome, profound and adorable. We talked a few minutes. She was a retired science teacher and an artist and I told her about my blog, how I was seeing how much of my life I could rebuild in thrift stores and the about the Etsy store. She asked me if I was an artist, I mumbled a bit and said well I don’t really call myself an artist. She said. “That’s okay, Leonardo DaVinci didn’t either.” my new friend is Brenda Segal, a retired teacher and artist and she posed for my post with her find of the day.

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Sometimes the treasure you find in Goodwill isn’t on the shelf.

If your search is for the tangible, you can find this awesome sculpture and other treasures, at least for today, at my booth at the
Queen in Marietta.

Thrifting Update

Thrifting Update, how’s that for a mundane title? Well, it’s been a while since my post Thrifting for a Day, and it seems like time for an update on how the shopping for stuff is going, so that’s what I’ve got for a title.

I/we have had quite a few unproductive and low productive days lately. Thrift stores are the most conditionally responsive places of business on the planet. If the donations are low, or the prices that people will pay rises, they adjust with lightening alacrity. So, shopping conditions change just as quickly. One of the thrift chains advertises that it’s a new store every day because of the thousands of items they put out daily. Thrifts are also new every day because they are constantly testing price increases to see what today’s market will bear. The only signal we as shoppers have is to leave things on the shelf. That’s pretty easy on those occasions when we recognize prices that are equal to or higher than normal retail, but smaller increases aren’t always so clear and they want to know what we will pay today.

The prices I’m willing to pay are also pretty varied, depending on my purpose. I’ll pay more for the right gift, much more, because I was going to spend a certain amount anyway. I’ll also pay more for things that I was going to purchase regardless, and things I’m in a hurry to replace. But there are other things that have no particular time pressure. I’ll wait for things to show up at the bottom of their price range if I can wait. I’ve been doing some waiting lately. The number of times I’ve paid more than I really wanted, or left a store without even a “gas money” purchase has been higher.

Last weekend we had a good board game weekend though. Board games are good for crafting supplies, but often the pieces are missing. If it’s Scrabble, a missing piece or two is no big deal and I don’t count, I just check condition. If it’s Monopoly, you want most or all of those pewter pieces to be there. Thrift stores tend to tape up the boxes to prevent people from loosing or stealing pieces, but usually if you ask up by the register, they don’t mind if you open the box to check. I have been refused once (by a new employee that I didn’t see on subsequent visits). I bought more board games last week than I have in the last 6 months, most of them at weekend yard sales. When we get into the house and I start back into my Etsy world, I’ll be in good shape on board games, not as many as I had before the fire, but an impressive collection all the same.

Jewelry is also a hit or miss category. I had a good couple of weeks, followed by increased anticipation visiting the jewelry counters without significant results for 2 months and now I’m often just glancing for something that stands out as I zoom by. After my few good finds, I got a gem tester, some sensitive scales and some lighted loupes so that I could list accurate information, like which gem a color stone is and weights for metals. I had two weighty sterling bracelets before the fire that I never listed because I wanted to be able to quote an accurate weight. So, I felt some residual urgency and when I bought the equipment, I was hoping it would pay for itself quickly, but I don’t think what I’ve purchased since will do the trick.

Probably much of what I bought in the months preceding my equipment purchase will do the trick, but I won’t know until I get the stuff listed and see if it sells well. Some of my more valuable finds, the ones that will pay for the equipment, are not the ones I needed the equipment to list well. Simichrome, used to test for Bakelite may be more important.

I’m really looking forward to unpacking all the things I’ve collected over the past six months. I’m sure there will be things I’ve forgotten purchasing. It could even be somewhat like Christmas…and I’ll bet while forgetting things I’ve packed away in my hope chest for tomorrow; there will be things I’ve purchased twice, things that may go right back where they came from. As always, it will be an adventure!

Diligence Due

Well, we’ve made it past due diligence and into the last stages of purchase on a house, but it sure was a coin toss for such an important and long awaited decision. I really appreciate fine workmanship. I respect time and old world craftsmanship, absent in the new standards construction and most other features of the house we’ve chosen. The positives are: a nice layout that’s good for short or long-term purposes, a good neighborhood, the right amount of space in mostly useful places and the right schools. It even has a beautiful (possibly solid mahogany) kitchen bar, but the house is covered in hard coat stucco that has cracks, messy old repairs and mismatched colors that show clearly, even in a low light photo.

There are decorator upgrades of personal taste, but widespread overdue maintenance indicating a total fail in the wise allocation of funds. With heavy pet allergens all the carpet will need to come out, and it won’t be fun for us as heavily committed DIYs. The house has potentially Money Pit qualities and it blew me away when due diligence exposed over 36K in unexpected expenses and repairs (those I didn’t allow for in the price), but the seller wouldn’t consider any price adjustment. I’ve had to consider the money I’d flush on 2 or more years renting to make myself move forward on this purchase.

And then there’s comparison to the home I lost. I like brick. It’s low maintenance (if it’s on all 4 sides) like mine was. That brick was straight and square and solid without any settling cracks. The old house had some irritating contractor short cuts. The original plumber had dropped the kitchen ceiling a foot and put the master bath vanity on a wall adjacent to the architect’s plan. I knew it didn’t belong there, and confirmed it when I stripped the wallpaper and saw the builder notes written on the wall underneath. The original plumber saved maybe $40 in copper pipe with these ugly modifications. I spent $5000.00 just getting a certified master plumber to restore the plumbing so I could then return the ceiling and vanity to the original plan. I despise these self centered short sighted short cuts, but the 1979 short cuts in that house were still less offensive than the newer short cuts that I’ll be fixing in this house.

As much as I want to be in a home that fits as many needs and wants as this new purchase, and to get on with normalizing life for my family, a feather could have changed my mind when the seller didn’t make any allowances for the problems exposed on inspection. None. Nada. Whether the seller already knew, or simply didn’t care, I remembered well why didn’t last in real estate.

I was offended, depressed and wrung out when I let the due diligence run out without the price adjustments that condition warranted. It may be the best decision I could make, given what I have to work with, but I rarely pay the wrong price for something and when I do I feel like I’ve been had. But, I was, I am, weary of the suspension of normal life and over ready to be getting on with things.

Friday night between midnight (when the due diligence ran out) and 3am or so when I finally made it to sleep, I was upset enough that I didn’t even want to sit across a closing table from the seller and I didn’t want to move our maple tree to the new yard. There’s a beautiful Tamukeyama weeping red maple that Russ planted in the old yard when we were dating. We’ve talked about moving it. He said it might take an entire weekend, given our equipment and making sure that it would live. It seems a lot of work to move a tree that’s been in the ground for 12 years, but I wanted the tree to move with us because Russ is the person who made me want to grow things again.

The part of this move that I’m struggling to get over is not that it unexpectedly became a seller’s market in my area just before I unexpectedly needed to buy. Life is a crap shoot and you take it as it comes. It’s not that I’m buying a fixer either. I wanted to restore something (if I can actually afford to restore this). I prefer to restore something old, solid and filled with grace. Not something that’s pretty new and only needs restoration because it’s been abused.

What’s bothering me is precisely that I’m tired of people getting away with having others clean up their mess. This seller bought a foreclosure at a fraction of market value, lived in it for over a decade (the decade that included the largest real estate meltdown in history), maintained it poorly and wanted sell for over 2.5 times the original purchase price. Neat trick if you can accomplish it right? Why shouldn’t anyone be happy about the same result?

But, consider this. If I am unable to make the purchase and repairs within the limits of a current market price, then the house isn’t worth what it costs me. If I pay more, I’m giving up future appreciation (that may or may not accrue). I’m giving my future to the seller, a seller who wants the big pay off regardless of having made decisions that don’t lead to that result, and regardless of who’s pocket it comes from. People who want others to pay their tab have always existed, but I think it is a disease, an epidemic drag on the economy and on our spirits that is reaching scarier heights with each passing day.

It’s the disease that killed my marriage. More importantly, it’s a disease that’s killing our country and I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic here. From building contractors to big banking, taxes to TV, environmental waste to drinking water, NIMBY’s to Pork Barrel Politics, people are maximizing small amounts of personal gain at a heavy and sometimes extreme cost to others, the exact opposite of Spock’s Law, rather than “The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few”, the accepted value sometimes seems to be “The wants of the one justify what ever you can get away with”.

It really seems like big business, big politics, big government and their marketing/campaign/”media”/”news” departments have been honing in on and amplifying the lowest common denominator in humanity for long enough to contribute significantly to debasing our society. The evolutionary brain’s survival technique of attempting to minimize effort while maximizing gain was pretty important when the challenge was to get enough calories to last the winter. Granted, it’s still pretty important now that we are living much higher on Maslow’s Hierarchy, but it needs to be channeled and enlightened. It is hard to overcome our baser selves when there are so many signals aimed at getting us to buy on impulse and maximize the rush, borrowing from tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the dopamine is depleted and it’s harder to get satisfaction.

Business, politicians and other entities constantly appeal to self-interest, they’re tapped in to the brain’s reward system and they use competition, salaciousness and tribalism to inflate the response of baser instincts. That makes us short sighted and easy to manipulate when we need take a long view and act with independent, conscientious thought. We need to be evolving in a changed world on crowded globe. Most of us, especially in the United States aren’t trying simply to survive anymore. We can afford ethics and balance, but too many of us have been worrying about how to get the next fix, anything from the newest cell phone, shoes, 3D TV, junk food, Facebook likes, extreme vacation or actual chemical drugs.

I’ve had a week to let my feelings about my new house and this national shedding of responsibility settle. The bigger, chronic problem is more troubling to me than my own personal run in with the latest reminder of the sickness, or even the one before that. I’ve been busy, so it’s been mulling around in the background, thankfully. Thinking about my own personal response to it all.

So, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to work on how I feel about the closing. I’m going to commit to this house. I’m going to make it the best I can with the resources I have and while it’s mine it will be maintained properly. I’m going to ask Russ to take that whole weekend and move that tree, out of the back from my old yard and into the front of my new yard. I’m going to combat the disease in my own way, in my own little space. And, if the time comes when I sell this house, I’m going to do my best to make sure it is a value.

Our 80% Bernina Bookcase

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I headed off in pursuit of a Bernina (sewing machine) advertised on Craigslist in an attempt to replace my long lost love. It was just one more small step in the whole distressing sewing machine saga, expletives expunged. The navigator on my phone has been not so great lately, and the quest took longer than I expected (though I would have gone further for my precious). The advertisement said McDonough, but the first road off the interstate kept on and on east before I reached my first turn. It was further than the hour’s drive I anticipated. The landscape was inviting and it reminded me that if my life could be down here, I could have twice the home and land with a vegetable garden for much less money.

I got to the caverns of the Misty Mountains. It was actually a beautiful house and the machine was not my precious. I was newish to my search and didn’t know the Bernina models well. To complicate things Bernina repeats model numbers. I knew before I went that this was not the exact machine I was looking for, but I didn’t know if it was close enough to do for a while. The seller and I both wanted the sale to make and we were both disappointed that it didn’t.

As I left through her garage, there was the pile of garage sale left overs. You know, the pile, the one that’s about to be donated to the closest cause. I asked about the wooden bookcase in the middle of it. It had been painted poorly. The entire bottom of one shelf was bare wood, but the other bottoms were painted. It needed re-painting, but it was solid pine construction and in sound structural condition. She asked more than I wanted to pay (the all time biggest cause of garage sale left overs). But, occasionally I will buy something that only has the potential to earn back gas money, because, hey, overhead costs, whether you cover it or not. I think we were both disappointed on the bookcase as well, but we did make that deal.

The bookcase didn’t fit in the car, but somehow I managed to get it in anyway and avoided being licked to death by her dog at the same time. When I bought it, I had a few ideas and knew that it would be a great for displaying items in our booth at Queen .

I rose above my navigator and stopped at every thrift store I could find on the way home, another attempt to get the most from my gas money and potentially find new places to hunt for treasures. Still, at the end of a long day, what I had to show for my time was one bookcase that I almost didn’t buy.

The bookcase wintered in storage because we don’t have a good place to paint in the apartment or the temperatures that the paint requires to set properly, but with this recent little burst of spring Russ has given it new life. He painted it and put some of his unique art on it. He has made a beautiful save. Russ does what we call doodling, for lack of a better word. And his fresh paint and doodling has made all the difference.

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There is this thing called the 80/20 rule that applies to our bookshelf. There are a lot of 80/20 rules actually. Most derive in some way from the Pareto Principle, 80% of the effects come from 20% of causes. Productivity coaches often use some version of the principle to teach clients to focus on the most productive activities so they can boost business to the place where the mundane 80% time sink can be hired out. In our case the 80% is in the treasure hunt and it could never be hired out. And yes, that’s a great big limiting factor for the business. What I do is often as much a buying service as anything else, one that requires a cleaning service as well.

This bookcase is a great example good teamwork though and I hope a harbinger of things to come. I sometimes call what Russ did with his 20% rebirth on this bookshelf as his Rusty magic, but I doubt that name is good for public consumption. We need a better name for his art style and we’ll give a set of his handmade notecards to the first person who sends us the name we choose.

Maaavelous Magnajector

I first saw a Magnajector as a child. It is a branded opaque projector, a black plastic device with an angled mirror to reflect an image and a lens to amplify it. It is a kindred spirit. Early ones were made of bakelite and the earliest opaque projectors, those before electricity were illuminated by lime light. My mother used hers to project small printed things like photographs or print type onto a surface like a wall for some of her art projects. This was before people had such excellent access to countless fonts and print types or digital manipulation of megapixels in nanoseconds. It was my first lesson in lenses and mirrors and I got a kick out of having to put the image in upside down in order to get an image projected right side up.

Mom’s came in a box that looked like this:

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Years ago, when my first child was a baby, I saw one by mail order. The box hadn’t changed much. I think I found it in the back of Southern Living, but I’m not certain. I got a lot of years of sporadic, but appreciative use from the thing and my daughter had been the last one to use it. That’s three generations of Magnajector users if you didn’t notice.

When you loose your stuff, the Magnajector is the kind of a thing that feels like a splinter. Loosing it delivers the maximum amount of annoyance that something can without truly being serious. I didn’t use it often, in fact rarely, but when I wanted to take a pattern from a costuming book and blow it up on the wall to trace it full size on paper, this simple, inexpensive, old technology is so much faster than the instructions in the book for increasing the size and it allows you to adjust experimentally on the wall, rather than repeatedly on paper or fabric. It’s so much less expensive than taking it to a print shop with a plotter. Sometimes having the right tool, even if it is simple and dated, makes all the difference in how a project turns out, how long it takes and even whether or not the project is tackled in the first place.

So, today in the thrift store I found it, sitting on its side in a pile of other things, no box, no markings, unrecognized and unappreciated by anyone else, another Magnajector in shining, like new condition. It appeared to be unused, and for the bargain price of a measly $5 it was mine. If I ever find one in Bakelite, that would be really cool, but for now I’m totally happy and the difference between the price I paid and the $30-60 I would have paid to get it elsewhere does three things. It makes me feel good about replacing something I seldom use, it helps make up for all of the gas and time I spend while hunting treasure and it recycles well functioning tools. All I had to do to get it was to keep having the faith that if I showed up and searched, good things would happen.

Charlie Brown’s Field Goal

I’m feeling really down today. It’s been a tough week. A real estate agent called and asked me to re-make an offer that I made back when her listing was new. I had an appointment to view the property to see if the condition had changed. I was all set to write the offer, close quickly, have the home search behind me and dig into the hefty renovations ahead. The agent called as I was heading out the door and told me that the seller had cancelled the appointment and raised her expectations. This was the second time I had let myself become invested in that particular home, only to have my hopes dashed, this time it was at the last minute. I felt like Charlie Brown when Lucy yanks the football away and he falls flat on his back.

I threw myself into looking anew and even made an appointment to see another home in the afternoon. I’ve stayed up till the wee hours trying to figure out what to do. Because I need a certain size, a certain location and have a fixed budget, I’m looking at a lot of homes that need work. That’s fine. I’d rather work on a bargain and make it my own castle with that little increase in equity that everyone wants as a reward for the hard work. The problem is that there aren’t any bargains. Sellers are hanging on and flippers are snapping up the foreclosures and doing shameful rehabs. You know, it just doesn’t take much time or money to take a few screws and secure the floor before you lay that $10/square yard contractor grade carpet and call it golden. I see so many disrespectful “rehab” choices that had to have been made with contempt that it makes me want to scream. Bad work doesn’t increase value, but it does increase the price.

So I’m going to talk about last weekend instead.

Last weekend was great. We went for a drive to pick up a dresser being given away by someone on Craigslist. When I saw the photo, I thought we might keep it, but when we got there… Well, it was a good solid dresser, but photos can be very deceiving. I think this dresser will end up in the booth because the feet that didn’t show up in the photo totally changed the look and period. It’s a good dresser, but not my style (Russ was a little disappointed to hear this) and there were no matching pieces either. I’d like my bedroom to match. Before it had two full and separate sets with extra pieces. I think some downsizing may be in order here.

We loaded the dresser and took off, ready to yard sale home. The first sale had a couple of antique sewing machines. I didn’t intend to buy these. I had been given quite a few sewing machines before the fire because I teach. No treadles though. I’ve wanted a working treadle machine for a while. There’s just a touch of old fashioned comfort and maybe a little bit of prepper independence in knowing you don’t actually need electricity, but the cabinet on this one wasn’t the pretty Victorian style that most people think of. It was also delaminating and the home of a dirt dauber nest. It wasn’t time to buy something like that either. My stuff level is becoming unmanageable for my situation. I really only asked the price in curiosity, but the preservationist in me came out and made the purchase when a neighbor told her to scrap the machines.

These machines did have some accessories that many thrift stores separate and sell off in parts. Once these things get separated, it is practically impossible to ever get a full compliment. That adds a lot to the value for anyone with even slightly functional interests. When people buy old machines, some are buying a tool or a part, some are buying a lamp base and some are buying craft parts for a steampunk project. For me it always has to go to the highest and best use, preserving functionality if there is any or supplying a part to restore usability to another machine comes first. Craft and art projects come last. As I was leaving the seller asked me if I had been to the estate sale nearby and gave me directions.

The estate sale was our jackpot for the weekend. There had been a seamstress in that house as well. I picked up a box and saw some magnetic pincushions and scissors. Magnetic pincusions are da bomb. No spilled pins, ever, and if you ever drop one, just wave the pin cushion over it and the pin jumps for the powerful attraction. When it’s time to dust the serger fuzz from your work space you just hold the whole thing under a faucet and the dust goes while the pins stay. I asked what she wanted for the box and she said $5. I saw enough things I wanted for that price that I didn’t look at it too carefully, I just said yes. There were another three boxes on the garage floor. She wanted another five for those combined. Russ said I couldn’t buy anything else. I laughed. He said “No, literally, it won’t fit”. The boxes were small, but we hadn’t started our day with an empty truck. He was both serious and correct.

Sometimes I’ll negotiate, but I clearly saw the value in the boxes, and when I started going through them at home, I’d have been embarrassed if I had asked for a lower price. There was an assortment of tools and supplies. The kind of thing that every seamstress has on hand, but they cost a lot to accumulate. I tossed out some things, but kept others. There was a tin of presser feet, those accessories that get separated, never again to be reunited with the mother ship. Who ever bought the sewing machine that was no longer at the estate sale would have loved to have them, and the kindred spirit in me would just hand them over if the opportunity had been possible.

There were more scissors than I have ever owned. Good sharp dressmaker shears, cheep paper scissors, quality pinking shears and some that were too dull for fabric. I can use them for paper. I’ve never had a pair of pinks that I would use on paper because it dulls the blades. This is the kind of assortment that is most useful to someone in my situation. Normally a person only needs one or two pairs of scissors because they already have some, but I can use the whole assortment. I bought sewing machine oil to use liberally in all the spots it might be needed, from scissor hinges to machine parts. It took me several hours to separate the treasure, clean, sort and dispose. All the small parts take time and I clean it all thoroughly. I’m still not quite finished and a new weekend is here already.

You know what I love? Old fashioned pipe cleaners for crafts. The kind they don’t make any more, fuzzy and thick, the ones that hold their shape with a heavier gauge wire than modern pipe cleaners have. You have no idea how excited I can get over a dozen good pipe cleaners. Having them in a drawer waiting to be used represents the kind of opportunity that filled my house before the fire and will fill my home once again in time.

For the furniture, we had to invent new ways to stack and store, and we’ll need to be in a house before we can actually restore the machines and find out if they can be made to work. I bought another large piece of furniture on Monday, a beautiful teak Danish piece advertised as a “china cabinet”, but I’m planning on having it in the study (assuming that we have a study in our next home). It’s more of a credenza with bookcase than china cabinet. It has to be refinished and those wonderful guys who loaded it left it with some damage that wasn’t there when I made the decision to buy. Three days of purchases completely consumed all of the space we freed when we got creative stacking stuff.

And so now I’m full circle, finished with all the positive stuff and thinking again how much I’m ready for a home ’cause it doesn’t do much good to accumulate opportunities if you can’t restore, reach or even find them. The problem with this rebuilding plan of mine is that rebuilding a life in thrift stores and estate sales is so hard to plan. You have to buy things when you get the chance and find a way to keep them without loosing your sanity until you have a place to put them.

Crying In the Tax Office

It’s strange how some things that shouldn’t hit hard do, and others that should don’t appear to. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations or how much reserve strength you have. Sometimes you just can’t really figure out why you react in a particular way. I didn’t cry when the house burned. On the drive home I got a little lump in my throat that wound up in a tingle at my jaws and the impulse started. The tears welled up a little, but they didn’t actually form.

My experience in the Cobb County tax office wasn’t like that. When it was over I was stunned, and I wasn’t wondering at all why. I waited two months to write this article because I didn’t want to say what I would have said if I had written it when it was fresh, and I’ve waited even longer to edit and publish it.

The house burned just over two weeks before my property taxes were due. I couldn’t remember if it was billed in advance or arrears and didn’t know the effect of a total loss on the evaluation, so I dropped by promptly to get a new, accurate bill and pay it.

The first trip wasn’t too disturbing. They directed me to the assessor’s office and a tall slim man with a kind demeanor came out to talk to me at a low counter. He was really proud that someone had noticed the front-page article about my house and the file had already been updated to show my loss. He was very sympathetic about it. I told him I appreciated that, but needed to stay in functional mode. He caught my meaning and then he stuck only to facts. The value I would pay taxes on was not prorated in any way for the loss. It was based on the valuation of my property on the previous January 1st. I was checking because I hoped for something more reflective of the situation, but expected exactly the answer I got, so I moved on to the next thing.

I asked “How do I pay?” He continued to politely repeat an explaination on WHY I had to pay a full year’s tax rather than to answer what I had asked. I said “I need a bill.” He looked at me quizzically. “My bill burned. It was in the house”

He said “Oh, I’m not sure…just a minute”, went away for a few minutes and came back with a bill. I asked if that area I had passed around the corner was the right place to go. Then he said something I knew I shouldn’t have listened to. He told me I didn’t need to worry about paying it then, I could just stick it in the mail by the 15th. He was trying to be nice, but I regret taking his advice.

I had the check in an envelope days ahead of the due date, but couldn’t remember where I had put the new stamps. The hotel room was disorganized. Then I wasn’t near a post office when I was thinking about it. The whole thing had been demoted on my mental checklist because I had partially taken care of what needed to be done and also because other things came to the forefront. On the due date I was exhausted from having to think about so many different things that were no longer static in my life. I had reached the point of being overwhelmed and realized that I wasn’t driving well. I had, in fact, just driven in circles thinking about different things at different intersections when I remembered the bill and realized the post office had closed. It was a half hour drive to the after hours post office where I could get the golden postmark, but I needed to get out from behind the wheel or there might be more insurance claims for me to deal with, or worse. I mistakenly thought there must be some small period of grace and opted for the safer choice. That turned out to be a painful overestimation of reasonableness.

The penalty bill was sent so fast that I wondered how it was even possible. I couldn’t figure out why it looked like I had under paid the bill, but I didn’t spend too much time studying it and I wasn’t in a huge hurry to stop by again to request that they forgive the penalty. I expected they would. The payment had been mailed a mere 8 hours after the required postmark and the mitigating factors were understandable.

Had I figured out that they paid the penalty with funds I directed toward a tax payment and shorted my actual tax payment by the amount of the penalty, I would have also realized the implications of a policy like that and I might have at least have had some inkling of what I was about to experience.

I went back to the tax office and explained my abbreviated story to the clerk in the payment window and asked if the penalty could be forgiven. She started quietly repeating every trite absolution from responsibility that exists. She started with “Just doing my job” went through “The computer system won’t allow it.” and kept right on going, but part of what disturbed me was the thinly veiled power rush that lit her eyes. She told me some people had paid several times as much in penalties. Then totally confused me when she said “Just pay the 20 dollars.” That was much less than the penalty and not evenly divisible into it either.

“What?” I asked.

“Well you’re asking for hardship aren’t you? Make payments.” (something I can only see as an opportunity to pay an interest rate that resembles usury accompanied by multiple additional opportunities to repeat missing a postmark by a whisper and earn additional unreasonable penalties).

“No, I’m not asking for payments. I can pay my bills. I’m asking not to be charged $150 for being eight hours late to the post office.” I was asking for humanity.

I had my checkbook out and had started to write several times, but stopped because she kept on. She seemed to be taunting me. It was the set of her jaw, the line of her brow and the fire in her eyes. I kept stopping to look at her. She said “It’s not like I get to keep the money.” Why would she keep going while I was actually writing out the payment? Why would she spontaneously deny a bizarre misconception?

I asked to speak to her manager.

“Oh, you want to take it there? We can take it there.” Nodding a challenge at me. How was it that she felt challenged by someone who had both hands busy writing a check?

“Yes. I’d like to speak to your manager”

“All right, we’ll take it there.”

I was shown to a small room with a partial glass wall. The clerk spent more time prepping the manager to see me than I had spent speaking with her in the first place. The manager came in. I told her briefly why I had asked to speak to her, she said to me “Well I’m sorry you FELT it that way.” She talked about how “unlike her” it was to do anything inappropriate and asked me if I would like for the clerk to apologize to me. I declined.

The manager explained to me that the penalty could not be forgiven because “I had already paid it”. The tax commissioner’s policy is to pay the penalty with funds that I had actually directed to pay my tax bill. What I actually still owed, she said, was taxes in arrears.

I wasn’t sure that was even legal. The full implication of what it meant affected my breathing. Unpaid taxes make me subject to streamlined, non-judicial foreclosure. The distinction was a matter of choices and technicalities that were very deliberately policy (and still reversible, as all policy is in a democracy).

The likelihood that mail delivery might be sketchy when the house behind the mailbox had become a charred shell of molding remains increases the odds of delivery issues, mail tampering or any number of other ways I might fail to receive a bill that I never expected. There was no compassion or even reasonable care to the situation that the Cobb Assesors office had put me in. I was a mere missed letter away from being blindsided by a non-judicial foreclosure on everything I had left.

When I told her that I had made responsible effort to acquire and pay the bill under difficult conditions she asked me why I hadn’t paid the bill when I received it. I told her it was not my habit to pay bills months in advance and I couldn’t know that my house would burn down. She made it seem like everyone should know that their house could burn down and they should, in fact, pay months early. It never occurred to me to even mention the employee who had encouraged me to put off the payment at a much later point, much less blame him. I was now crying in public. I felt helpless, at risk from a government that was supposed to protect the public good and at that moment I wanted out of Cobb County. Badly and Forever.

I don’t mind paying for the public schools that brought me to the home I chose by school district, the infrastructure that brings new business or any number of things I have no choice about. And I paid my taxes. But knowing that they deliberately set things up in a way that would foreclose on what remains of my property for an eight-hour delay was the most defeating thing that I have felt in some time.

Consider this. Maybe I was too emotional to remember or report my visit to the tax office accurately. I was stressed. It’s possible. Maybe that manager wasn’t using a particularly vile form of condescension combined with bullying when she suggested that I should have paid my bill months before it was due. Maybe I “felt” the behavior of that clerk who seemed to get perverse pleasure in the pretense of power that went with her bottom rung position as something other than what it actually was. I did after all actually break down in tears in the office, wait months before attempting to write about it, and actually cry again when I did write.

The thing I’m definitely not wrong about is that when my payment was postmarked on the 16th instead of the 15th, they immediately charged a penalty that they deducted from my tax payment and told me that I had unpaid taxes. Not even a loss of most of the value I was paying taxes on, or duress, made any difference.

I’m glad my insurance adjuster told me not to put in a change of address until some other important mail had come. She said it sometimes causes things to get lost or delayed. I’m glad the USPS continued to deliver to mailbox that clearly had no residents. I’m glad that no one took my mail in my absence and I’m glad that I didn’t wait any longer than I did to go ask for what I thought was somewhere between common courtesy and human decency, because if any of those things hadn’t happened, the tax office would have advertised in a paper I had no reason to monitor about a debt I wouldn’t have known I owed to take property I didn’t know was at risk over a tax bill that was paid in full after an eight hour delay.

Of course, there is a redemption period. IF I had found out during the time period when remedy is allowed, I could get my property back, by paying more fees, penalties, special assessments, their advertising costs and a percentage interest. I wonder just how many more tax office employees I would encounter, what the eventual penalties and fees could add up to and how long it all might take… if I even found out that it had happened within the time period under which I am allowed remedy.

And, the reason all of this would have happened would be because I had a really rotten couple of weeks, listened to a government employee, became exhausted and didn’t judge myself safe to drive on one particular night and overestimated my government.

Policies are changeable though. I hope that this one comes to be seen for the excessive harshness that it represents and gets amended.

Replicate, Replace or Rebuild ?

After the twin towers came down, they didn’t try to replicate what had been before. It wasn’t appropriate, practical, fitting or even possible to put things back exactly as they had been. Yet when one takes out an insurance policy, that is the focus, to replace everything, to put things back precisely without change or loss. Marketing departments sell the idea that you could and should replicate what you had before because it’s comforting to believe it possible.

The idea doesn’t account for recognition that a life is built on a stack of decisions, and that starting anew doesn’t mean ending up in the same place that you were before. That is part of the reason that I chose not to rebuild on the same lot where my home had been. I hate the way people try to take advantage of insurance companies as well the people who have claims. Figuring things out to the letter and needing to rebuild my home, as the adjuster said, exactly “cookie cutter” the same as it was before was not something that seemed like a winning strategy. (Of course, I’m not sure the strategy I picked will turn out to be a winner either.)

Because the damaged brick walls of my house could collapse without warning, it was dangerous to enter the ruins after the fire. I won’t likely ever know if there were more salvageable things than the few we have. I value my life. At the same time, I wasn’t really so sure that everyone else saw things the same way and was never completely sure that other people didn’t go in.

IMAG0044With this in mind, I was in the thrift store nearest my house maybe two months after the fire and I was literally stunned by something I saw there. Before the fire, I had a poster from a castle in Japan. I bought it for the equivalent of three dollars, then hand carried it on both of the planes that brought me home. Uncharacteristically, I spent 100 dollars (even with a half price coupon) putting it in the perfect matte black frame with just the right raised gold design running through the middle. The frame really made it pop, so it was displayed in the family room and I enjoyed it immensely.

There in the thrift store was my poster. I noticed right away that the tone was a little darker and my immediate thought was smoke damage. I grabbed the poster and dropped my jaw. I stared into it and tried to imagine what smoke might have done and whether or not this could actually, in fact, be my poster. I was staring so deeply into the tones of the poster that it took me several seconds, maybe even a full minute, to realize that I could read the poster. The words on the poster were Romanji (English letters to be specific) not Kanji characters. This poster had been from a traveling exhibit that was in The National Gallery of Art in D. C. several years earlier than when mine had been printed and it was in a cheap plastic frame with a plastic protective sheet instead of the glass with sunscreen that was on my own, something else I should have noticed sooner. And this poster had the writing on a separate black space rather than on top of the artwork. There were really a lot of differences I should have seen instantly, but the surprise of seeing such an unexpected and unusual one of the items I had collected over the years had its effect. I shared my experience with a stranger there. I couldn’t tell if she was interested.

After settling down, I needed to decide whether or not to buy it as an addition to the piles of things I’m accumulating for the home I seek. I called Russ and asked him to recall the poster and if he liked it. Did he want to see its equivalent around again. It was $8. He said “Well, we like Japanese things. I’m sure we’re going to have them again. I’d say it’s your call.” It was a nice and generous response, but not effective in moving a decision forward.

I cloistered it in my cart and mulled while continued to shop. I knew that I would want to re-frame this poster because the frame added so much appeal to the other one. Eventually I photographed it and put it back. It would be half price the next day and I’d be driving by. As silly as it sounds to wait for half price when the frame would be so much pricier than its subject, that’s what I decided. It put an element of fate into things. As I was checking out, the lady with whom I had shared my story couldn’t believe I had not decided to buy it and I almost walked back to get it. The next day I forgot to check until late in the day. It was gone and I wasn’t disappointed. I guess it was the right decision.
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Last night I found a beautiful carved wood mask in a thrift store. I thought it was Japanese. It was similar to so many that I had seen while I was in Japan. I had shopped through several tourist spots intending to buy one, but they were fairly expensive and I never settled on the right one. Or, more exactly, once I knew which one was the right one for me, I wasn’t at that temple any more and I wasn’t able to go back. This mask was above the range of what I normally spend for something like it as a thrift store purchase, but it was still significantly less than I would have paid in Japan. It was also much less than I would have paid to frame the poster that I didn’t choose to replace.

I’ve accumulated a few masks since the fire and some of them are impressive. As it turns out my new mask is a Korean Hahoe mask. I hope that my new home has a good place for an eclectic collection of wall masks from places I’ve been and from places I’d like to go. I have a bit of a vision of what it might look like. I think I will like it.