Anniversaries

Today is the two-year anniversary of the day the house burned. (As it happened, it’s also the anniversary of wedding my ex). So, I’m going to take some time for looking back on what I did right and what I did wrong. And, take time to make time to get back to writing. But I’m only looking back two years to the fire. I’m just writing a post, not a book.

The most important thing I did right was when I decided to settle with the insurance company. I didn’t want a false incentive to rebuild my life “cookie cutter” style, nor to work hard at digging deep for proof of all that I owned. “Cookie cutter” was the adjuster’s phrase. If you choose the “build your house back” option, cost overruns are only covered if you build back exactly as it was. Meaning that if you upgrade to stone counter tops or move a wall, any completely unrelated cost over runs in the basement or drive way are not covered. When you live in a house 23 years, you can’t help but see some things you’d change. I had one of the more modern floor plans for my neighborhood, but the house was more than 30 years old and trends change. It was still not what you would build from scratch for the next 50 years. I moved on and sold the lot. A builder put a spec home there. He did a nice job of building a current home that fit well in an older neighborhood and it sold for a top price. I thought the clean slate was a good result for the neighborhood that I called home longer than any other and I felt good about that.

There are drawbacks to a clean slate though. When you are building back cookie cutter, there are few decisions to make because you already made them. “Same” is the answer to everything and you just watch the contractor to be sure it’s done right. When you do that, moving on in ways unrelated to dwelling and contents moves up in the queue. When everything is a new choice, the layers of choices past aren’t there building the foundation of quick new decisions. A conscious choice to start from scratch is not for the weak at heart. Those decades of layered choices are how you ended up with the life you had, and even though stuff is just stuff, it’s the stuff you use for your life and insurance isn’t designed to improve your life, only to keep you from suffering if the worst happens. The mistakes you make while remaking your home are at your own cost, just like the original ones were. The more unknowns, the more likely it is that there will be mistakes.

The biggest surprise was how long things took. I thought there would be more Amazon.com involved in my rebuild, but things didn’t fall neatly together. There was the unexpected news that we had a seller’s market going on big time. I knew that neighbors weren’t having any trouble selling in my great school district, but I didn’t know just how hard it was to buy. We even went to a neighboring area where the school scores were a couple of percent lower, but finding a home was really tough, a big time sink. I was in that price range that has the most people in it, so well-priced houses were snapped up quickly. Now, I’m driving past houses we looked at nearly daily. I’m glad we didn’t end up in any of them and Russ says the same thing. But, there were complications and delays. We were still looking at back up houses the week before closing in case the deal fell through. I hated to ask to see a house when I had one under contract, closing in a few days, but I really didn’t have confidence in closing and I really didn’t have time to fail. If it hadn’t been for my allergies and that little hint of dog smell left in the carpet I might have jumped ship and be living in the last other house we looked at instead. Of course the irony there is that the house we bought had knock your socks off pet odors, but for that house the cure was to rip out everything and seal it with Zinsser.

The biggest mistake I made might have been having the urge to get on with things and buying before I had a permanent place to be. We had the goal to replace as much as possible through thrift stores and estate sales. It was the only way to get some semblance of the quantity and quality of what we had back. When you appreciate the quality, weight and feel of an antique tool, flimsy short term pressed sheet metal doesn’t cut mustard. We had to buy things when we could find them. They might not be available again. So, in some respects, it wasn’t a mistake to do it that way. And that may just be how it is when replacing a household, but it was definitely the hot spot. The place where it hurt was in the mix. Getting the right house meant getting a fixer because of the market, ours came with delays. We piled stuff on top of stuff inside of stuff and then rearranged stuff so that we could fit in more stuff. The irony being that 5 years from now we might have bought an Airstream (or a Spartan) and chosen not to even have a stationary home. It wasn’t 5 years from now though, it was two years ago. I replaced a lot of hobbies and do it yourself tools, household items and just plain stuff. The pile of stuff FOR the house gets in the way OF the house while we’re working on it, and it gets covered in saw dust too. My son downsized and wanted to fill my basement the day we closed. Life doesn’t stop going on just because we are still really, really disorganized and stressed. Moving stuff to do stuff. Moving stuff to clean it or clean behind it, or to keep from having to clean it. etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iSd6-EvBgN4 We thought after things settled, we might take a long overdue vacation. One where we don’t carry our food and bed on our backs. One where we walk on the beach and sleep in a bed. Russ had an injury in the spring that lasted through the summer. There’s no telling how over due that’s gonna get!

The uncomfortable irony happened when we learned from neighbors that lightening had struck several times in the new neighborhood. So far, it’s been mostly tree damage. The old neighborhood was in a dip and I never worried about tornados. The new neighborhood had several new roofs due to storm damage. I noticed before we bought that several homes had new roofs, but I had guessed it was just the age of the neighborhood. Later a nearby house burned. I was coming home and saw the dreadful black plume. Every turn brought me closer to a home I’d been in for only a short time, and every turn I was unable to tell that the plume was coming from somewhere other than my home. I don’t wish loss on anyone else, but another fire before recovering from the first? I really hoped it wasn’t me. At the same time, I started going through emergency choices in my mind. I listed settling as the best choice I made, but that double edged sword also makes me wonder if it was the worst. The whole thrift replacement idea got me some cool finds, but all that time and gas… there is no reimbursement for that, and I was only able to do it because of my employment gap. I believe that if it ever happened again (please, NO!), I’d go the other route. Rent close by and rebuild. At least if you know where you’re gong to live, it is possible to know if you’re renting nearby when you sign the lease. This time no corporate apartment in an inconvenient area. Get a nearby rental house this time, and rebuild this time. Make it as fast, painless and finished as possible. I’m not sure I regret how I made my lemonade over the past two years, but the litmus test for any choice is “Would you do it again?” Right there in that moment, drawing closer and closer to a plume that could turn out to be my own? The road was long. The answer was “no.” For that house at that time, maybe my decision was right, but I hope I never find out what it would be if it happened again, and I hope you, dear reader, never have more than a passing interest in what your decision might be either.

A Rollercoaster Named Overwhelmed

My writing has drifted out to sea in the rush to get the house ready for move in. For over a month, the floors have been a plague and we’ve had to go out of town twice for family funerals, one on each side of the family. We’ve also made other trips for other family obligations. “Hurry up and wait” has gone and any sense of order is just a lofty aspiration. Things bought for the house, the booth or the Etsy stores are scattered about the house like sprinkles poured on heavy by a child. As I am writing, I am thinking of the list of the things that we’ve done over the last month and I’m not really sure how we fit it all in, but I am sure why people are telling both of us we look a little short on sleep. This has been the year when people stopped telling me that I couldn’t possibly have children and a grandchild the ages of mine, and started asking if I qualified for the discount.

These are the times when I really question myself about how it is that I choose to do things, as in- never the easy way, but this time going about things the hard way wasn’t all in choice. A lot of the things that I thought would be the easy, low stress or expedient choices weren’t. It seemed reasonable to expect that buying a house would be less complicated, lower stress and a faster recovery than rebuilding the house we lost, but the housing market in our area is so strange now that it didn’t turn out that way.

There’s enough of a recovery going to keep prices fairly high. The recovery isn’t complete though and people have trouble qualifying for higher end houses they might have bought easily not long ago. That brings them down to my price range. My price range was always where I fit, but right now it’s also a fit for far too many other people. Since the fire, a house in my old neighborhood sold in week and another sold in days.

Almost everything has been just like that, longer, harder, more complicated…it’s really just a fairly standard renovation, with overdue maintenance and an unusually bad pet problem. The trips out of town have even actually helped. We have had time to assess how bad the problem is, how well different treatments have worked, do additional research and get some additional advice. If we had been left to do nothing but work on the house, we wouldn’t have done things as well as we have been able to. But, taking it all on at once has been pretty hard to swallow. It’s that we are trying to do as many things ourselves as we can combined with our little thrifty experiment.

Buying things second hand means getting them when you find them and storing them where you can. We are taking things over in small loads when we go to ease the moving burden, both in gas and in workload. Much of the stuff we have bought is “project” quality. We plan to transform it in some way before we use it. I’m pretty sure our new neighbors may be coming to think of us as the Clampett’s of Beverly Hills. First impressions being what they are… I’m joking of course. We’ve done a lot of yard work and they can tell that we are trying to take the worst house in the neighborhood and transform it into something better.

So there’s another day in the life… My goal for July: A house that we can move into, a writing schedule that’s regular, and enough aerobic exercise to keep my energy levels high and my stress levels low.

Thankful Sunshine

by Karen

I do love the temperate rainforests of the Southeast and I’ve spent a summer in the humid cloud forests of Central America with that one particular camping trip when I finally started wearing my wet clothes because the odds of my body heat drying them out was a better bet than leaving them on the line. I’m no stranger to the rain and humidity. This last bit of weather we’ve experienced here in Marietta was not really a planned experience though.

We’ve kept the windows open while home for most days over the summer to cut that awful spike in energy consumption that gives Georgia Power its strong 3rd quarter earnings and so we’ve missed out on the de-humidifying effects of air-conditioning as well. I washed some kitchen canisters and set them out to air dry earlier in the week. They did not dry overnight. Then I noticed that the dry clothes I pulled from the dryer were damp later when I began to fold them. The dew point inside the house felt pretty much the same as it did outside in all that constant rain.

Last Friday a neighbor lost a large old tree that shaded most of his backyard because the saturated earth couldn’t hold the root system (liquefaction). It caused considerable damage to his house. Once the repair and clean-up is complete, sunshine will soak his backyard filled with shade loving plants. Russ watched the tree fall from the basement. It stretched the full width of their yard and only brushed the fence between us, but there were a few exciting moments when he couldn’t really see what was happening very well and wondered if he needed to grab Pebbles (the Shih-tzu Princess) and run for the other end of the house.

Suffering a severe case of wet cabin fever, we were really needing to get out so we decided to run an errand and stop by a Cumberland Mall for a walk. We picked Cumberland because it is near the part of the Chattahoochee National Recreation Area that is at the intersection of the river and Hwy 41. We wanted to see what the river looked like there.

The parking lot where the Chattahooche River crosses under Hwy 41.

The parking lot where the Chattahooche River crosses under Hwy 41.

While driving over the bridge we heard the radio report about the I-75-85 Connector being shut down emphatically telling people not to come down town on the interstates. By the time multiple interstates began closing yesterday, and the news reported some very sad area tragedies everyone was checking on friends and family to make sure all was well. There was a mini-river running through my back yard and as I was photographing it a board floated by.

Street water runs down my drive creating this 6-8 inch stream with a board running through it

Street water runs down my drive creating this 6-8 inch stream with a board running through it

When we went to bed last night, we were braced for more of the same, but woke to bits of sunshine peaking through and the the sound of crickets rather than the sound of rain. The humidity was at 78% and it felt comparatively dry. 81 degrees and the blue skies were calling. When I lived in Southern California I thought that people complained too much about rain when it happened. I dreaded rainy days, not because they were rainy, but because so much complaining by everyone made the day drag. However, on this Tuesday morning I was a sun worshipper extraordinaire and I’m not sure anything could have kept me inside. We headed to the Silver Comet Trail. It is about two miles further to drive there than to Kennesaw Mountain, but we were afraid that the trails on the mountain might be washed out. At other times lesser storms have left the the steep paths well washed.

We saw signs of damage on the drive over as well as on the trail, but intentionally never really got close to any significant damage on either day. Knowing that water continues to rise in low lying areas well after the rain stops, we stuck to known safe routes and were thinking about topography and which bridges in this hilly terrain had the largest flood plain as we picked our route back home, just in case unexpected problems arose.

The retention/detention basins that have been required with new construction were surely a large part of the reason that the problems in Cobb County were not any worse than they were. I would like to see research on just how much difference that made. I hope that issues regarding planning, rainwater catchment, permeable surfaces and storm water management get the attention they deserve while the media are covering the tragic situations that some people have suffered. Tragedy is not preventable, but we can use it to learn and to reduce future risk. Now, while the drought of recent years is still in our collective memory, we are experiencing extreme flooding and the deadline on the mandate that we resolve the “Water Wars” within 3 years will only draw closer. With both extremes in a few short years and a potential legal battle ahead, this is a window of opportunity for media to seek out relevant information and benefit the community.

Neighborhood storm water catchment basin with missing man-hole cover, probably washed away during high flow.

Neighborhood storm water catchment basin with missing man-hole cover, probably washed away during high flow.


My photos and my experience are tame compared to stories on the news. Today I find myself thankful for the grace of safety and for the glorious sunshine. I am hopeful that those faring less well over the last several days find as much relief as possible.

Compounding Benefits in all Walks of Life

by Karen

I read a book on Human Resources recently. It posed the question of whether of not there would be a workforce shortage in the coming years. In fact, more than one book posed the question. In light of the current unemployment rate, automation, the increasing life span and the accompanying need and/or desire to work later in life, the question was a surprise. I’ll even say it, it seemed almost silly in the current atmosphere, but the book did address the issue of a workforce that would work later in life, a “longer living workspan”. The author considered the availability of older workers to fill this expected gap in available employees to be overestimated and used numbers from the United Nations (UN) World Health Organization (WHO) for Healthy Life Expectancy (HALE) to support the argument, saying that though the United States had a long lifespan, it had the lowest workspan in developed countries. While we here in the United States are expected to live longer than people in many countries, we are not expected to spend as much of that time healthy enough to work. There is a gap. As an American I have an interest in the gap and I do not like the expectations at all.

This book was using 2001 figures and I wondered if there were more recent numbers. I went to the WHO database website. In fact, there are numbers updated in 2003. This page has a convenient filter on the side so that you can isolate only the countries of interest rather than page through all 191 internationally recognized countries. Not knowing exactly which countries this researcher chose as “developed”, I picked the G-7 nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States According to the 2003 data the United States has improved the healthy life expectancy a bit, however, we still lag behind all of the other G-7 countries in healthy or working life expectancies and Japan remained on top, improving by a much larger proportion. The HALE expectancy for someone in the US born in 2003 is 71 and the same number for someone in Japan is 78. Let’s put the workforce shortage question aside for a moment and focus on something that I find enormously disturbing. Weather or not I am fortunate enough to be able to retire when I wish, I still want to be healthy enough to work because healthy enough to work is also healthy enough to play.

I have been to Japan twice and I love it. What ever they are doing I am likely willing to adopt. So, what is different in Japan and how can I get 7 more years of healthy life expectancy? Stress is known the “silent killer”, but that would not be the difference because they have equal if not greater levels of stress when compared to us.

One thing they do have that we do not is widespread public transportation. What difference does that make you ask? In Japan they use the public transportation and that means that they walk. People walk from the train station to home, to the market etc. They also bicycle a lot. In some places there are bicycle garages. Some are even quite large and resemble American parking decks in many ways.

Is their solution to commuting the answer to my health question? It could be. There are countless articles and studies from reputable, unbiased organizations showing the benefits of walking. Here is what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has to say on the health benefits of walking, or other “moderate intensity aerobic exercise”. The minimum level of recommended exercise is not optional for them, it is built in to every day.

That’s not all though, there are compounding effects when using public transportation. When you take Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit (MARTA) you change your carbon footprint and help to increase the number of summer days when Kennesaw Mountain is visible from Stone Mountain and vice versa. You decrease the number of days when ground level ozone is above healthy levels and reduce the number of SMOG alerts. This also helps us to keep our federal funding for road projects, so public transportation even benefits motorists (in more ways than one).

Change is scary though and we Americans love our cars. I have had more than one friend who didn’t like public transportation and didn’t want it to be funded or built. One couldn’t even really articulate why, she just liked her Suburban and didn’t want to consider anything else for anyone else. I have argued that one doesn’t need to use public transportation to support it or benefit from it. If drivers could support my ability to have public transportation, I wouldn’t be on the road competing for space in and we would both spend less time commuting, and have an over all lower tax burden per capita. Sometimes working through a change in attitudes is worth the work.

So, if you are open to a committed relationship with public transportation what would that be like? It is something I can only dream about. I chose my current home for reasons that at the time were more pressing than access to MARTA. That meant moving into a public transportation black hole, at least as far as commuting into Atlanta is concerned. However, I know people (outside NYC) that do not own, and never have owned a car. One of my grandmother’s never learned to drive. I really thought long and hard about Granny’s decision. It would be easy to see it as a weakness, a disability. My grandmother was born before 1919. In other words she was born into a world that did not consider a woman eligible to vote by reason of gender. She wasn’t weak though. She was really quite independent. In her home town there was a single taxi. She had to plan because there was only the one. If someone was using it, she was out of luck. But she did plan. She went where she wanted to go and had her groceries delivered (from two blocks away).

Pamela and her walking shoes

Pamela and her walking shoes

I know someone much younger though, Pamela, who has a committed relationship with public transportation. A friend and former co-worker who is also quite independent, she never chose to learn to drive either. I don’t know if I could be that committed, especially in a country with the limited options we have here in the US. I would need at least one car for the household. Occasionally I just need to get out of the city. Ironically, I need my car to get away from all the cars! But, Pamela doesn’t feel limited any more than my grandmother did. She does what she wants to do, and I’ll admit that there are times when I’m fascinated and a little jealous of her decision. She has no auto expenses. I love the sound of it, No auto expenses! Do you know what that means?

The average person (not the high end person) spends a little over $600 a month on auto expenses once insurance, fuel and maintenance are considered. Many companies subsidize public transportation for their employees, but let’s look at the numbers for someone who doesn’t work for one of those companies. Let’s take that over six hundred number down to $500 so that it allows some money for both local and occasional distance travel. What happens when your budget gets a monthly $500 shot in the arm? Let’s say that you were able to save that money and get the proverbial average of 8% return on it. Over a 40 year work life that comes to $1,757,147. Yes, better than 1.7 million dollars. I could give up my car and my lottery habit for that kind of money! Yes, a change could do me good.

So to recap, if you have the option and become totally committed to public transportation, you can feel better, reduce health risks, increase healthy lifespan, reduce carbon and other emissions, breathe easier and when it is all done have a big pile of money! It is time for a change isn’t it?

I used the savings calculator here if you would like to check your own figures and see what could happen in your own situation.