In the Zone VIII: A Prairie Home Commotion

Given that three months have passed since my last post, it would be reasonable for you to have assumed we’ve been hard at work finishing all the projects that had to be postponed due to the foundation issues. Likewise, it would be reasonable for you to expect some stunning photos of a house freshly painted, and replete with new and glorious windows, swank and savvily furnished outdoor spaces, and killer landscaping.

Reasonable, yes. Correct? No.

Turns out that, just as the pandemic taught many of us that a 40-hour work week was not necessarily what had been keeping us from exercising more, having a garden, or getting stuff done around the house, having a huge and expensive project looming over your head is not what was keeping the Jarhead and me from exercising more, having a garden, or getting stuff done around the house. Because three months after the foundation work was finished, here we are with the same old siding and windows, and ho-hum outdoor space and landscaping.

Well, whooda thunk it?

To be fair, there were a few surprises that forced additional delays. Then again, at this point, you’d have been more surprised if there had NOT been any surprises. Amiright?

For example, we were chagrinned though not shocked to discover that the geniuses who put this place together opted not to insulate or install a proper vapor barrier between the studs and the siding. Thus, before the Jarhead could replace the siding (after the moat around the frost wall was filled in) he first had to purchase and install insulation and a proper vapor barrier. As of now the insulation and vapor barrier are in; the siding is currently waiting to have its fling.

We were also chagrinned but not shocked—thankfully—when the wiring to the sunroom was cut a few times in the course of digging down to the foundation. Thus, before the windows can be replaced, the concrete floor can be poured, and the stairs from there to the main floor can be built, the walls have to be opened up, the wiring has to be stripped out and rerun, and the walls have to be patched and/or replaced. Fun, fun, fun.

Meanwhile, we already knew the geniuses who put this place together had failed also to properly support the tub in the master bathroom. We had waited to address this issue until the slope in the floor was corrected because we didn’t know what impact lifting the floor would have on the tub and didn’t want to have to do it twice. Thus, before the Jarhead could close up the crawlspace, he first had to get some concrete, haul out his trusty concrete mixer, and pour a footing to make sure that tub won’t fall through the floor the first time someone tries to use it. To some of you this may not sound all that hard or time consuming, so let me draw you a picture: the man had to mix and pour a concrete footing in a crawlspace that was less than 30 inches from top to bottom.  

Along the way, we were further chagrinned and quite surprised to find evidence that an animal (most likely a small mammal, thank goodness, and not a giant snake or spider) had taken to spending time in that crawlspace. Thus, before the Jarhead could close it up, he had to set up a live trap and his trusty game cam and…wait.

After two days, when nothing appeared on the cam nor in the trap, we decided it was reasonable to conclude that the animal had moved on. And by we, I mean HE. Because I was not convinced.

Because that crawlspace, you see, could still be accessed from the mechanical room. And that mechanical room, you see, is where we keep our meat freezer. Along with our coolers, paint, painting supplies, furnace, water heater, and water softener.

In other words, once the opening at one end of the house was closed up, any critter that might be frequenting the crawlspace at Chez Diersen (be it a small mammal, giant snake or giant spider) would have nowhere to go other than that mechanical room. In other words, never again was I going to be able to set foot in the mechanical room. At least not comfortably.

As it turns out, the Jarhead was perfectly fine with that. He said he would be happy to get meat in and out of the freezer. Said he would be happy to get out and put away the coolers, paint and/or painting supplies whenever I needed. He was already responsible for changing the furnace filter, putting salt in the water softener, and alternately smacking and/or removing the batteries from the carbon monoxide alarm whenever it made annoying sounds. He didn’t mind adding a couple more items to his list of tasks.

The offer, while generous, was also somewhat disturbing. If he was so confident no critter would come running out from the crawlspace, climb my ample physique, scare me to death and consume my ample remains, why would he offer to take over all those tasks? Sure, on its face it sounds like he’s merely trying to accommodate me and my perfectly rational fears; but what if he’s actually afraid some critter WILL come running out of the crawlspace, climb my ample physique, scare me to death, consume my ample remains, and force him to admit he was wrong?

Despite the Jarhead’s generous and confusing offer, I can’t always wait for him to be home/awake to get things out of the mechanical room. And since it takes longer to find and put on steel-toed boots and arm myself to the teeth than it does to open a door, race down three steps, dash the twenty feet or so to the freezer, snatch out something for dinner, dash the twenty feet or so back to the stairs and race back up the stairs and shut the door again—all while holding my bladder and resisting the urge to scream—I usually opt for the latter. Usually.

Plus, the dude is kind of busy, what with his day job and every household project seeming to beget two or three more household projects. Like the 43 trees he had to plant after we had the scrub along the road taken down. And the patio surround he had to rebuild after the new patio was poured. And the rock border he had to put down after I took out the flower bed because I couldn’t lift the paving bricks or the bags of river rock.

With all of that on his plate, it seems the least I can do is not make him thaw the meat for his dinner.

Anyway, so we still have a boat load of work to do—much of it before the snow flies. That is, if we don’t want to have snow heaped inside the sunroom this winter.

And by we, again, I mean he. Because I’m useless at construction.

That said, the garden is doing better than ever this year. The key, apparently, is actually planting it and weeding it. Thanks to this new strategy, we’ve been able to grow something besides cucumbers and tomatoes—including potatoes, zucchini, jalapenos and watermelon. We also started an asparagus nursery, which is going strong, and the winter squash vines look very promising.

And it turns out that the freshly filled in berm around the bedroom foundation was the perfect place for this year’s basil and cilantro. It may make for a strange looking border, but I needed a spot for the herbs, and putting shrubs there would have meant more money and more work for the Jarhead. Plus, I kind of like the idea of edible landscaping.

I know. Basil may not be everyone’s first idea of edible landscaping, but this is Wisconsin, so for now it’s all we got.

In the Zone Part VI: Pause and Effect

What do you get when you cross a two-bedroom mobile home with a poured slab ranch featuring vaulted ceilings and two fireplaces, and nestle it in front of a stand of stately pines?

As the co-owner of just such a combination, I can clearly and emphatically state, that depends.

If the folks combining said structures have the skills, tools, expertise, and supervision to do it properly, you SHOULD get a gorgeous, unique hybrid home you can enjoy for the rest of your days and then pass on to your children, grandchildren, or a qualified buyer when you’re gone.

If, however, the folks combining said structures are unfamiliar with terms like plumb and frost wall; have never seen, owned, or used a level; and/or like to play it fast and loose with building codes, what you get is a big house that photographs well but which up close has more cracks, gaps, crooked lines, and shady weirdness than a cubist portrait of Tucker Carlson painted on a crumbling sidewalk.

If you’ve been following this column—which isn’t difficult since I tend to post at a pace well below that of a high-speed chase—you know which of the two outcomes we’re dealing with at our place. And in case you haven’t been following this column—feel free to catch yourself up. I’ll wait.

Fortunately, we got the pool put in the ground before the foundation issues came to light, or I may not have been able to spend the past two summers acquiring the mother of all sunburns. Then again, maybe I would have, since the Jarhead likes himself a nice sunburn, too. Preferably with a nice cold beer.

If I had needed to plead my case, I would have politely reminded him that his two hunting properties would still outnumber my swimming pools by one, and that his convertibles already outnumber mine by two, since I have none. At that point he would probably have pointed out that they were both pretty old, at which point I would have pointed out that we were too.

We could have played that game for days. Eventually, I would have been forced to play hardball and remind him that my cooking, cleaning, and bookkeeping skills exceed his by a factor too big to calculate, even for people who don’t suck at math, and that without a pool, I might forget everything I had learned about everything, including how to bake a delicious chocolate zucchini cake. (Aren’t hypothetical arguments fun?)

In any case, the pool was a done deal when the foundation issues came to light, at which time—as luck would have it—all other related work had to be put on hold. You can just sense my disappointment, can’t you? I exude it like sunscreen oozes from an overheated tube in the hot summer sun…

Seriously, though. You don’t want to replace even the oldest and crappiest windows with fancy new energy efficient windows only to have them crack when the foundation experts jack up the walls to lay your fancy new concrete blocks. Likewise for the doors, shower tile, and bathtub. Unfortunately, I’ve already tiled the master bathroom floor, so who knows what will happen in there once the excavators have had their fling. Same goes for the new ceiling in the family room.

Anyway, with the windows, doors, decks, and landscaping all off limits, we could only putter around with things that aren’t situated in or just outside rooms where the walls are sinking.

Like the living room fireplace surround, which was covered in soot the likes of which I had never seen. Having never entered into such a battle before, I figured I was going to lose. Big. Still, I wasn’t going to walk away from the fight. Those rocks couldn’t turn out any worse, I figured. Although I knew there was every chance they could. But, to my surprise, they didn’t.

I started with vinegar and a kitchen brush. And I sprayed and scrubbed, and sprayed and scrubbed, and sprayed and scrubbed. For about four hours. Then I let it dry for a day.

The next day, I mixed some Dawn dish detergent with some backing soda, grabbed an old toothbrush, and scrubbed. And scrubbed. And scrubbed. For four more hours. I won’t say I won the battle, but at least I didn’t lose.

After that, I decided to test out the new color scheme we have planned for the exterior after the walls are fixed. Being at least a bit smarter than I look, I tested it on the shortest wall on the place, which is protected on two sides from the insane winds that tear through our yard. This turned out to be a lucky call since—being also somewhat dumber than I look—I decided to start this project in October…

Meanwhile, as you can see from the wider view of the porch, below, the Jarhead replaced the old split rail fence along the driveway with new cedar-toned split rail fencing. Now, you may be saying to yourself, “Who would replace that nice old rustic looking split rail fence? Why, it was doing its job just fine.”

Now personally, I’ve got nothing against weathered split rail fencing myself. Or the mint green lichens that live on it. Or the skinny PVC tubes that the previous owners had used to mount the exterior lights on top of the old fence posts. It’s just that, well, water-stained cedar siding goes much better with cedar-tone fencing than it does weathered gray fencing. Or mint-green lichens. Or PVC tubes.

More importantly, cedar-tone fencing goes much better with gray siding and white trim. Which is what we’ll have when we finish painting the rest of the house. That is, IF we ever finish painting the rest of the house. We still need to find a contractor to fix the foundation, after all, and it doesn’t make any more sense to paint the exterior walls just to have them scraped by backhoes and shovels than it does to replace windows and tile just to have them crack when you jack up your exterior walls.

Anyway, so we’ll keep plugging along on other things.

Like more fencing. Last fall, the Jarhead put up cedar-tone split rail fencing around the garden plot (because cedar-tone fencing goes better than barbwire fencing with cucumber and squash plants and the deer that like to eat them—obviously.) So, this spring he plans to install a gate, put wire fencing on the inside of the cedar-tone fence, and probably do a fair amount of swearing.

As for the fireplace, there’s still work to be done there as well. The plan is to paint the gold trim around the fireplace opening (seen here without the lovely green throw before I went to work on it.)

You may find this hard to believe, but before I started cleaning it, I had asked—nay, begged—the Jarhead to tear down the rock and start over again, and the answer was a resounding “why?” In the *conversation* that ensued I learned that it would cost more to rebuild that rock surround than the time it would take to clean it was worth in US dollars, Canadian dollars, Euros, Bitcoin, and even the lowly Russian ruble (that line would have been far less funny if Russia hadn’t invaded Ukraine, so thank you Putin, you effing lunatic.)

Ultimately, I was glad we decided to keep it. And there’s absolutely NO way we’re taking it down now. Not after all the time and effort I put into cleaning it. Nope. Unless it falls apart on its own, that baby is staying right where it is.

But we are converting the fireplace itself from wood to electric. And in a recent *conversation* I learned there are solar panels in our future, which I also learned will make the electric fireplace and other appliances more cost effective and ecofriendly.

I am going to do my best to stay positive here, but since nothing in this place ever goes according to plan, I foresee even more swearing in our future.