Monday, November 8, 2010

Hardwood Floor Exorcisms

Three years ago I prevailed in a battle with the demons of hardwood floor refinishing.  The story of my victory was published in my previous blog.  I've brought it out of the archives because I'm performing one last hardwood floor exorcism in this house as a gift to the next owners.  This post is the first of several DIY stories I plan on sharing with you.  May they amuse you and serve as cautionary tales should you want to join the DIY ranks.

We are the ultimate do-it-yourself people.  If it can be done with two hands and a not-so-modest number of power tools, we will try it.  So it was only logical that we would decide to refinish the floors in two of our bedrooms ourselves.  We read up, even gathered first-hand advice from other such DIYers.  The floors were repaired and tediously patched with flooring obtained from a local architectural salvage shop.  We rented a floor sander and in a weekend we were able to remove the old finish and restore a virgin-like quality to our 80 year old white oak floors.  Everything seemed to be going as planned.

Because the white oak was indeed very light when unfinished and the rest of the house was finished in a beautiful golden blonde, we went with oil-based varathane.  In preparation for THE RITUAL of finishing, we vacuumed up all of the sanding dust, barricaded the room against the furry animals, turned off the furnace, cracked open the windows and bathed the floor.  That's right - it got a bath, 50/50 distilled water and denatured alcohol (which got us carded in the checkout line, by the way).  What started as a "damp rag" application to gently open the grain morphed into sloshing the mixture around, which now required thorough drying before THE RITUAL.

THE RITUAL began with stirring.  The cans of varathane had been sitting on the store shelf for some time, wearily settling and waiting for us to bring them home.  Mixing in the stubborn sludge at the bottom of the can was only the beginning of the patience required.  As we stirred, a song from a grade school Halloween play looped on automatic repeat in my head..."stirring and stirring my brrreeewwww...".  Just that one line.  If theres anything I remember from third grade it's that one line from that one damn play.  After stirring the murky mixture for many, many minutes, we poured some into a tray, added around 10% mineral spirits and then we mixed a little more.  The spike of 10% mineral spirits was suggested by a few sources to help the first coat of finish penetrate the wood more, and who were we to turn down such helpful advice.

We were finally ready for application.  The lambswool applicator was rinsed in mineral spirits (as suggested on the packaging), I donned some protective gloves, put on a hat to contain my hair, and took the honor of applying the first coat.  With the applicator pad attached to a broom handle, I dipped it in the tray and began applying it to the floor.  I expected that it would be difficult to achieve even coverage with the first coat.  In the somewhat dim glow of the overhead room light it appeared that the coverage was even, so my efforts to push the applicator along the floor were paying off.  It was not unlike mopping, and using mopping-type motions I had both rooms covered fairly quickly.

Later that evening we inspected the floors.  There were bubbles.  Lots of clusters of little and not-so-little bubbles.  There was disappointment, but not worry as this was just the first coat.  After some thought, I suspected the mopping motion was forcing out uneven amounts of varathane and undoubtedly causing bubble, both from entrapped air and from having little regions of lakes rather than a nice smooth coat.  Re-reading our reference material, I felt my suspicion was confirmed.

We lightly sanded both rooms and cleaned up the dust in preparation for the second coat.  Taking the results of the first coat into consideration, we tried a different application technique.  I thought that maybe the lambswool applicator was part of the problem, soaking up too much finish and making it difficult to apply even, thin coats.  For the next performance of THE RITUAL, we used clean t-shirt rags and applied the finish on our hands and knees.  No bubbles this time, and we were close enough tot he work to keep an eye on missed spots.  The oil-based finish dries slowly and the label touts its ability to self-level.  This part of the varathane must have been on vacation that day.  There was no self-leveling taking place.

When the second coat was done, it was mostly bubble-free, although even in the dim light I could see fan-like application streaks.  It is difficult to maintain the positioning of the rags because they are not on a rigid frame.  The rags also do not hold much finish so now instead of an over-generous layer we were too stingy, which is of course why the varathane did not self-level.

These problems are why even most DIYers hire this activity out.  And they are why I was more determined than ever to make it work.

After letting the floors dry for a couple of days, I stocked up on supplies.  I bought more sanding pads, applicator frames and multiple lambswool applicator pads.  I had learned from the last two coats and the third was going to be the charm.  Did you hear the floor demons snicker right there?  I swear I heard them.

I crawled around both floors on my hands and knees, sanding and knocking off the rough spots.  I vacuumed yet again and prepared once more for THE RITUAL.

Very gently (avoiding air entrapment) and very thoroughly (sludge happens), I stirred the varathane.  Then slowly I poured the varathane in the tray.  I had already rinsed the applicator with mineral spirits and now it was time.  I began the application, on my hands and knees, gliding the mixture along.  It seemed to be going fine.  In the empty rooms I worked alone, singing and wondering if perhaps this was the final coat.

I don't know if you hear them or not, but I think the floor demons progressed beyond snickering at this point.

The next morning I optimistically ventured in to inspect my work.  It was obviously not the final coat.  While the color was beautiful and the application was even, it was bumpy.  Small bubbles, much smaller than what occurred with the first coat, but still there.  The taste of defeat was very sour indeed.

Sometime during the night, there was THE EPIPHANY.  The small bubbles were occurring because there was solvent trapped underneath the surface.  Where was the solvent coming from?  From rinsing the damn applicator with mineral spirits.  Holy crap, batman!

More sanding, more vacuuming.  I even vacuumed the applicator to remove loose fibers since I observed an unwanted distribution of them hiding amongst the bubbles.  This was it.  My heart said it was going to work.  My brain said apply a little section, let it dry and see how it turns out before wasting time on the whole floor.  And then there was THE SECOND EPIPHANY.  I needed to really see the surface as I applied the finish.  The dim overhead light disguised what the demons were up to.  I dragged in the halogen light and when I turned it on, the floor demons were suddenly very quiet.

I went to the far corner of one bedroom and set down to work.  I dipped the dry applicator into the varathane and began coating the floor.  No bubbles, but wait a minute, there were little fibers.  Everywhere.  Even the Festool Cleantec dust extractor with its 134 cubic feet per minute of suction was no match for the loose fibers in that applicator.  The floor demons just high-fived each other and sauntered down the street.  The acoustics of the empty room captured my words, all coincidentally four letters long.

Suddenly, I knew what was wrong.  Our research had told us about this step.  And now a cosmic "I told you so" was reverberating around those empty rooms.  The innocent little lambswool applicators had to go through a laundry wash cycle.  I had one applicator left.  This was the last chance before sanding it all back down and calling a professional.

The applicator was washed and dried (no fabric softener).  I had taken a couple of days to regroup and prepare my constitution for what would likely be yet another disappointment.  I was going to face it and get it over with.

I had on my gloves, and for the last round with the floor demons, I added a respirator with organic vapor cartridges.  As it turns out, being nose-level with the floor looking for bubbles and fibers in the varathane does not get you high.  Not even a little bit.  It does, however, make your sinuses burn and your head ache.  I tucked a pair of tweezers in my back pocket (for fibers and errant cat hairs) and gathered ther est of my supplies.  As I closed the hallway door behind me and walked into the first room, I could sense the floor demons had taken notice of my courage, of my strong will, and the Rocky theme song began to play.

Stirring and stirring, then pouring into the tray.  The halogen light was on and positioned for maximum visibility in the room.  I began applying the finish.  It went on very smoothly and this time, no fiber trails.  No bubbles.  Yeah, that's right.  No bubbles.  The lambswool glided over the wet finish and the finish self-leveled.  It was peaceful and right, like the manifestation of a universal truth.  Every once in a while there would be a hair, a fiber, some stray speck of something.  I was prepared, my tweezers at the ready. Before I knew it, I was done with room and starting on the second.  It went just as smoothly as the first room.  Was it too good to be true?  Were the floor demons waiting outside with a victory bottle of tequila?

Not so.  The floors, needing only now to dry, were done.  After several hourly inspections, the floors were drying to their desired semi-gloss state, free of new bubbles.  After a few days, I planed to open the hallway to all household traffic, turn on some music and conduct my victory dance barefoot.


Monday, October 25, 2010

Our house needs a personal ad

Think about where you're living right now.  What is it that makes it home? What makes it yours?

You could say the buildings we live in are structures, material things that we've accepted as part of our lives.  I would say they are the most intimate spaces we occupy.  They reflect us.  Our personality can be inferred from the apparent choices that fill every room: colors, styles of furniture, how we organize space.  Whether we are neat freaks or walking disasters.  Where we relax, where we work.  The music we listen to, the movies we watch, the books and magazines we read.  Whether or not we recycle.  How we balance welcoming people with protecting our privacy.  All the choices we make that add up to making these structures what we call home.

We moved into our first house almost a decade ago.  It wasn't home then with it's peachy pink, plaster and lathe walls and frilly, dusty lace drapes.  Drafty windows painted shut.  Knob and tube electrical wiring.  It took several years for it to become home.  It was a fixer-upper, and we put effort into this 80-year old house as if we would be here forever.  We performed serious renovation work ourselves, armed with power tools, respirators, work boots and several sets of "work clothes." We endured weekends full of achy muscles.  My husband spent so much time under the house with electrical and plumbing work that it should be considered an additional room.  I broke a finger and became an Urgent Care regular.  All for hand-rubbed cherry woodwork in the Arts-and-Crafts style.  Custom stained glass.  Triple-pane windows.  Insulated walls.  An abundance of outlets and switches.  A house full of intentional color.  A workshop disguised as a two-car garage we built by ourselves. Details we cared about, that met our standards.  

And now, we're leaving.

It was wrenching, at first.  The worst future buyer scenarios started playing out in my head.  They would paint over the trim and park fluid-dripping cars in the workshop.  They would discard everything of the 1920's style character we tried to evoke in fixtures and tiles and paint.  Hand-painted schoolhouse lampshades would be thrown out in favor of something on sale at Home Depot.  They would turn our kitchen into a Tuscan cliche.

Of course, I had assumed they wouldn't love this house the way that we have loved it.

And then I realized that I was assuming only one part of the possible future.  I hadn't considered the buyers that could love it like we did, or better yet, more than us.  And by finishing all the odds and ends before putting it up for sale, we are preparing it for someone else to love.

Still bittersweet, but no longer wrenching and filled with discouraging thoughts about what might happen.

This past weekend we freshened up the bathroom with new cabinets, paint and porcelain fixtures.  Before putting the new medicine cabinet into the wall, I taped a note inside the wall to be found sometime in the future.  Maybe it will be found by the very next owners.  Maybe it won't be found for another decade.  

It was my way of letting go, of passing on stewardship to someone else, another family interested in a long-term, loving relationship with this home.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

Unsettled routine

Sidewalks express embellishments of stories that have already taken place.  My eyes have traced the sidewalk as I've walked mile after mile, recording fragments and forgotten details.  Discarded food containers, dropped reminder notes, store receipts, cash, broken glass, candy wrappers, leaves, fallen fruit, crushed flower petals.  Used dog waste bags left for someone else to deal with.  Cigarettes in every variety, some still in the pack.  Lost homework pages scribbled on wildly by little hands still learning how to write.  Trash escaped from the transfer to the collection truck.  Gardening equipment.  Broken sprinklers.  Screws, bolts and springs.  Business cards, shopping bags, coupons and dirty rags.  Jackets and underwear.  Expired squirrels and birds.  Uncollected yard sale signs.  Unwanted furniture and appliances waiting to be free-cycled.  Ruined couches and chairs.  Faded messages drawn in sidewalk chalk, paint, marker.  Inscriptions and paw prints left before the concrete had set.  Survey marks and the shorthand used to mark places for repair of the unseen, underground network.

Remnants of ordinary, daily life.

I've walked past a particular block on almost every route I've taken.  The routine of it is comforting.  The same dogs that regard me with sleepy eyes and casually alert ears.  They are bored with my regularity and stopped barking at me long ago.  Regular.  Routine.  Unchanging.

Today, the sidewalks showed evidence of a different story. An exception to the routine.  An event that unsettled the comfort of ordinary.

I noticed two officers, taking notes in a yard across the street from me, shiny badges on dark uniforms catching the morning sun out of the corner of my eye.  It seemed odd not to see a police cruiser close by.  Half a block later, I realized I was walking on more than dropped, dried fruit from the trees along the street.  I was walking on someone else's blood, a trail of burst droplets growing more urgent and leading all the way around the corner.  It was fresh and heavy enough here to be accompanied by more officers and a line up of police cars, but old enough not to smudge or take an impression of my footprints.  A spattered, wavering line ran from the public sidewalk up to a front porch.  Pools of blood on the porch and over the threshold of the open front door.  Something dramatic had happened to someone here.  An accident, maybe.  A crime.  A misunderstanding escalated to the point of being unrecoverable.  Latex gloves sat left behind from an investigator trying to piece it together.  A stillness hung in the neighborhood punctuated by the mumble of police radios and my footfalls as I continued home.

The sidewalk knows the story.  It was there the whole time.  But it's not telling any more than it already has.


Friday, August 20, 2010

Needy is needy for a good antonym

A local headline helped me find a puzzling burr in my bonnet this evening:

Needy children get ready for school at Santa Anita Park

"Needy" is defined as being in want or lacking.  "Less fortunate" or "underprivileged" are also similarly used.

You and I have become accustomed to hearing these words and understanding their context .  Reading them just now probably evoked an image in your head.  Don't worry.  I'm not going to ask you about the image.

But I am going to ask for your help.

"Needy," "less fortunate" and "underprivileged" have something in common.  They are descriptions framed in negative perception. It's easy to depict a situation by hitting the negative items first. Think about what you notice when you walk into a room or meet someone.  Think about the last time you were in traffic. We are trained to diagnose, to identify weakness, to solve problems.  We're good at it, too.  So good that noticing a defect is more natural than noticing a strength.

This is exactly why it is so difficult to describe situations from a positive reference point, to use strengths as an index over weakness.
Is it possible for the headline to adequately capture the story from a positive reference point?  Would we understand the events that took place if the headline read "School supplies donated to community students" or "Volunteers give time to prepare children for school"?  I believe so. But I don't believe it is automatic for us to hit that perspective first, especially if the intent is to grab attention.  

Does it feel more appropriate to focus on the act of giving or the act of receiving?  Help me explore this, my friends, by sharing your thoughts.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The peril of easy money

The nuggets: 
  • You can reap fresh-fallen fruit or even low-hanging fruit just by walking up to the tree, but so can everybody else.  You can win by always being first to the tree, but you're just doing something anyone else can do.  
  • For a bit more effort, there's much more fruit to be had.
Ever have a bit of luck and hope it happens again?  How far do you go with that hope? Are people losing money for your benefit or are you delivering something of value?

During a recent evening walk I found a receipt folded up with some cash on the sidewalk.  A few steps farther was more cash.  By the end of that block I had picked up $41.

Last night I walked past that same place. I knew another find was improbable, but I slowed my pace and looked around more closely that whole block.  Of course I didn't find any more cash.  But that didn't stop me from looking.

By the time I reached the next block I felt silly.  I had fallen into the trap of doing something again, knowing it probably wouldn't work, but giving it a shot anyway just in case.  I could walk miles all over town and never find more than a penny.  If I really wanted to make sure I found more money on the sidewalk, I would have to focus on getting cash thrown about in public than random treasure hunting. Doesn't sound like an attractive business model, especially the part where people lose money purely for my benefit.

What is the result you're hoping for, and how can you let go of what you're doing now in order to try something different?

Are you going for a long-lasting result, or just a quick windfall?  Are you betting that if you do what worked once before enough times, eventually something will happen?


Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Resentment and customer service robotics: It's all about you

The nuggets:
  • Resenting a task doesn't make it faster or more pleasant.  Choose to accept.
  • Don't treat the humans that help you do a task like robots.  Choose to be human.

Grocery shopping.  Pick up from the dry cleaners.  Mail a package.  Deposit a check.  Get gas before you have to push your car home.  Typical errands, right?  Ugh.  

Want to know something about all those errands, all those mundane tasks you have to do as part of, well, life?  They take as long as they take, whether you resent them or not.  Resentment doesn't feel very good to hold on to, so there's not much risk in simply accepting the things that need to be done.

What about all those times you've waited in line, growing more irritated at how unprepared the people ahead of you are, at how much small talk is being exchanged?  How many times have you reached the counter or cashier and been so focused on getting done that you completely ignored the person on the other side?  If you treat these interactions as if they were disposable, that's exactly the kind of experience you're going to get.  As emotional beings, we don't like feeling disposable.

Think I'm wrong?  Next time you go to the grocery store, smile, even just a little, as you walk up to the line.  The person in front of you may not acknowledge you as you walk up, but if they do, give them your smile and I bet they'll smile back

Give the cashier a smile, too, and the most sincere greeting you can muster.  Can you imagine what it must be like to deal with customers that treat you like a robot, as a purveyor of inconvenience?  Chances are you shop at the same grocery store with the same cashiers every time you shop.  Find a favorite and be happy to see them again.  

The opportunities for human interaction as we go about our routine business are less than before.  We have automated phone menus, ATMs, pay at the pump gas stations, even self-checkout lines at some stores.  It is possible (and dreadful) that we can go through a series of errands without ever being acknowledged by another person, without having our questions answered, without any emotional involvement other than what we bring to the situation.  If by chance there is an actual human waiting there to help you, be human. Because being acknowledged is so much better than being ignored, right?  And is there anything more enriching than sharing a smile with someone?

It's your choice.


Saturday, July 24, 2010

Why choose separate burners when you can build a big fire instead?

"I’ve said all along that life-work balance is overrated. If you’re not happy with your life, you should change it like plenty of other people have done. If your job sucks and you’re miserable, you should quit." From Chris Guillebeau's post The Four Burners Theory - Your Thoughts? If you're not reading Chris Guillebeau, you should be. You can find him at The Art of Non-Conformity and depending on where you live, you might even be able to meet him in person during his Unconventional Book Tour kicking off in September 2010.

Reviewing a bit, the Four Burners Theory says that our lives have four burners: family, friends, health and work. To keep life under control, it might be tempting to keep all the burners on but set them on low heat. The theory proposes that successful people sacrifice one burner and really successful people sacrifice two in order to burn hot somewhere else.

The Four Burners Theory doesn't jive with me, not right away at least.  Dividing life into separate burners implies having to control them all.  This feels too rigid for real life, like freedom is slipping away. Without freedom there is no play and without play, the flow of fresh air stops and the fire suffocates itself.

From this perspective, a really successful or even just successful life doesn't seem satisfying.  How can an unsatisfying life feel...balanced. Are you following me with this?

Another word for balance is equilibrium. It's something that can be re-established when there has been a shift.  Think about gymnasts or ice skaters.  There are inconsistent athletes, the ones that either hit their elements in perfect form all the way through or execute a disaster from start to finish.  They never fall in-between.  Then there are the ones that are much more consistent because when they bobble, they quickly recover their equilibrium.  They have an inner strength that allows flexibility and readjustment when the unexpected happens.

Here's how I think it works.  First, you have to know what you want out of your life.  It's not about what other people want out of theirs since the only person responsible for living your life is you.  An interesting way to find out what you want from life is to write your obituary.  I've had the opportunity to do this (which you can read about here) and I recommend going through the exercise.

Second, you have to decide how you're going to use your energy to get what you want.  As the Cheshire cat told Alice in Wonderland, "if you don't know where you're going, any road will take you there."  This is where strength comes in.  You have to be strong enough to say no, to stand up for what you want.  Some of your most important decisions are not about what you will do, but what you won't do.  If you're not willing to be that strong, is there any point in worrying about your life balance?

Third, you have to be willing to be out of equilibrium, to let balance shift from time to time.  Re-establishing equilibrium is often uncomfortable, but worth it because you get better at it the more it happens.  Think about our ice skater friends learning a brand new routine or skill.  Over the course of a career they will have to learn many routines.  They get past the falls, the uncertainty, and eventually they get through it.  You will, too.  Lance Armstrong reminds us that "If you worried about falling off the bike, you'd never get on."  Do you dread the shifts or welcome them?  Do you put off making changes because you'd rather stay in an unsatisfied state of balance than experience the adjustment towards a new equilibrium?

Ultimately the life you feel you are living is where your emotions are present.  Achieving life balance is not about analysis, magic equations or helpful analogies.  You can divide up priorities in life, give them equal attention and be unsatisfied.  What's important is to be fully present wherever you are giving your attention.  If you're not distracted, you detect when your foot is slipping so you don't have to land on your bottom to realize you've lost your balance.