Home renovations: not for the fainthearted

Nothing is simple. Or maybe some things are, but home improvement projects are not among them. Otherwise, where’s the source of drama in all those HGTV house flipper and renovation shows that I love to watch?

So I shouldn’t have been surprised when our major summer project—repainting the front, back and side porches—veered off-course.

It sounded so straightforward. A little prep work—scraping, power washing—a little paint and a little elbow grease. Voilà! Instant facelift for the house. But that’s not exactly what happened.

We knew we had a couple of spongy floorboards on the back deck, and here’s where our best-laid plans went awry. My husband was going to replace them. Easy peasy. He had replaced a few other floorboards two or three years ago, when last we painted. No big deal.

Well, remember the song about how the knee bone’s connected to the thigh bone?

Removing the two errant floorboards disclosed rot in the neighboring boards, so my husband began taking those out too, one after another after another. Pretty soon he decided that with so many floorboards gone, he might as well install a whole new deck.

To dismantle all that flooring, he had to pull out the two columns that hold up the porch roof. Uh oh. One of them turned out to have an ant colony inside—not carpenter ants, thankfully, but the grease and sugar ants that invade our kitchen every summer. We now knew where they lived. We would have to put in new columns.

Next on the hatchet list was a foundational crossbeam at the very front of the porch, one of two planks sistering each other in the important job of supporting the entire structure. Fortunately, only one of them had rot. Out it came.

At this point, there’s not much left—just a skeletal infrastructure of boards and beams. A couple of jerry-rigged uprights are wedged into place to temporarily hold up the roof.

The new lumber has just arrived and my husband believes the porch will go back together more easily than it came apart. I hope he’s right because in the meantime, I can’t use my back door. There’s no there there. I don’t fancy stepping out onto bare beams like a tightrope walker or a pirate walking the plank, though my husband has gotten used to it. The cats, too. Wimp that I am, I use the front door and circle around.

With the back porch a construction zone and the front porch a huge endeavor, I decided to start my painting on the side. There’s no actual porch there—more a landing and set of stairs. I finished over the weekend and I’m not sure about the color. The idea was to match the decking and the siding. In some lights, the colors jibe. In others, not so much.

I’m considering the side area my beta test zone, and will live with the color a while before deciding whether to change it. Meanwhile, I’m looking forward to starting on the back—once it gets rebuilt.

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Hey baby, don’t call me dear

I remember the first time I got called “ma’am.” It was at a gas station in New Jersey, on Route 3 in Bergen County. I was in my 40s and didn’t feel or look like a “ma’am”—or so I thought. But apparently the 20-something guy at the pump disagreed. Who knows, I might have been the same age as his mom.

If “ma’am” told me the world was beginning to see me as middle-aged, “dear” surely represents the next step. The lawn guy called me “dear” the other night and it made me feel 1,000 years old.

Most women I know dislike “ma’am,” but at least the word has gravitas. It’s said with respect and a tacit nod to your maturity. “Dear” is condescending and nothing more. It’s a putdown wrapped up in an artificial-sugar coating.

We usually do our own lawn but we had gotten behind and the weedy grass was embarrassingly high. Queen Anne’s lace was ready to bloom on the grass path to the front steps.

Lawn Guy and his assistant were working on the property next door, so I ran over and asked if they had time to do our yard as well. Lawn Guy is a well-built, good-looking charmer, probably in his 30s, who approaches his lawn tractor like an off-road vehicle. He’s a cowboy doing wheelies.

He said OK, as soon as he was done next door, where he was mowing the grass into a geometric diamond pattern. He laughed when I asked if he knew how to do crop circles.

It started to rain just as he was finishing our yard. As his assistant packed up the equipment, Lawn Guy bounded up the stairs to our porch to get paid. We chitchatted and he made his pitch for doing our yard regularly, at the same price he had charged that evening. I told him my husband usually did the lawn but that we’d think about it. That’s when he dropped the “D” word.

“OK, dear, have a nice evening.”

The word stopped me cold. What had seemed like a pleasant conversation between equals suddenly assumed a different spin as I realized that to him, I was not just a potential customer and friendly neighbor, but a veritable “dear”—an old lady, I suppose. If only he had called me ma’am!

I remember nurses and home aides calling my mother “dear” and “honey” in the latter part of her life. The words combined distracted faux affection with dismissiveness. You don’t take someone seriously if you’re calling them dear.

Men get called “dear” too, but only if they’re old enough. My father-in-law was addressed that way in the nursing home.

But generally speaking I think it’s more of a woman thing. My husband, for example, can’t remember ever being called “dear” by a lawn guy, gas jockey or anyone else. (Well, maybe me—but in a completely different context.)

If we ever do hire someone for yardwork, it will have to be somebody who doesn’t call me dear. And he’d better not address me as “young lady,” either.

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In praise of porches

My next-door neighbor recently told me that she pretty much fell in love with her house at first sight. Why? Because it had the front porch of her dreams. “I’ve always wanted a wraparound porch,” she confided.

I didn’t have a fixed idea of a dream home when my husband and I bought our place 19 years ago. There were lots of architectural styles I liked, from Victorian gingerbread to rustic log cabin. But in the end, I’m glad we chose our classic Pennsylvania farmhouse with its many extensions and add-ons—one of them a big front porch. It’s not wraparound, like the porch next door. But it’s roomy enough for entertaining and for sheltering our many houseplants on their summer sabbatical.

The porch is charmingly asymmetrical—there’s more lateral space in the portion on the living-room side. We have Adirondack chairs and a matching settee out there, along with my mother’s porch glider and a midcentury wire chair my husband dug out of a Brooklyn dumpster. It was a rusty wreck that cleaned up well.

On the other side, in front of the family room’s bay window, is a bench glider that a friend gave us years ago as a housewarming present and a comfy metal chair from the 1940s or ‘50s. The two sides of the porch get light at different times of day, so we move back and forth depending on whether we want sun or shade.

The suburban ranch house I grew up in had no porch, but my grandmother’s house did. I loved sitting out there with her when I was a girl. Grandma had a triple-decker house and the porch was at the second level, so it was like being in the box seats at the opera. We got a bird’s eye view of the street scene below while enjoying our shared privacy.

My porch is likewise elevated, due to the pitch of the site and the structure of the house, so it offers a sense of seclusion amid the activity on the street and nearby ball field. Perhaps because of the porch’s height, we aren’t too bothered by bugs. In the front gardens you’ll be dive-bombed by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. But on the porch, there’s only the occasional fly. This is good news on evenings when we take our dinner out there on trays.

Of course, every stick has two ends, and the other side of the dialectic of the porch is maintenance. The porch is overdue for painting, and I’ve nominated myself to get the project going.

We’ve always had a contrasting floor color—green, initially, and more recently a deep russet red. But this time, we’re going monochrome. We’ve chosen a nice khaki color just a shade darker than the house for the floor and handrails; spindles and columns will remain white.

I don’t work as fast as I used to and I take plenty of breaks, so I’m allowing myself the rest of the summer to finish the front porch, a smaller back porch and the side-door landing. First task: Buy paint.



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Happy birthday, kittens

Where did the months go? The kittens are approaching their first birthday and soon I won’t be calling them “kittens” anymore. They are emerging now as confident young cats.

The kittens, their siblings and their mother appeared on my neighbor’s back porch one night last July, in a cardboard box lined with bath towels. My neighbor has no idea who left them, but it turned out to be a fortuitous drop-off that resulted in happy endings for all five felines.

The mom is a beautiful longhaired calico, boldly splashed with orange, black and white. Among them, the four kittens bear all of those colors, but not in combination. They divide up into two black-and-white brothers and two orange kittens, a boy and a girl.

All four have adorable white feet. They could have been called Mittens, Boots, Socks and Paws. Instead, my neighbor gave them the placeholder names of Eeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe.

Moe is the only name that stuck, and he’s our cat now, a sleek, smart, athletic individual who manages to be simultaneously passionate and easygoing. I think he’s an old soul, if there is such a thing. Who’s to say the subtle white brush mark on his black-velvet forehead doesn’t denote a third eye?

His red sister, Sassy, is tiny next to him. Where Moe leaps like a gymnast, spinning through the air before firmly reconnecting with the ground, Sassy is more like Tinkerbell. She seems to hover or levitate, lighter than air.

Moe is friendly and self-assured. He trusts in the goodness of life. Sassy is nervous. She hides when anyone comes over, only reappearing when she’s sure all is well. Moe will let you pick him up and hug him. Sassy squirms to get away. Yet, she’s the first to give nuzzles and head butts when it’s her idea to cuddle.

A year apparently isn’t long enough for kittens to fully grow up. In fact, a cat behaviorist told me that cats aren’t mature until they are 2 to 4 years old. My pair still love to frisk and play—and they play hard. Indeed, they rumble so madly that they’ve broken a few treasured items (specializing, it seems, in antique majolica flower pots, which my husband patiently glues back together). Yesterday I went into the kitchen to discover that the cyclamen in the greenhouse window had gotten knocked into the sink, spilling black dirt and vermiculite. Sassy was the perp, giving chase to a bug that had the misfortune to fly in there.

We don’t know the actual date the kittens were born, but working backward from when they arrived on my neighbor’s doorstep, we are setting July 4 as the day we will call their birthday. This way, all of America will celebrate with us. My neighbor kept the mama cat, and my longtime bestie Lisa took the other two kittens in the litter. We are one big happy extended family.

You’ve seen the seasons now, kittens, traveled once around the sun. Happy birthday, little ones!

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When a hack attack isn’t

Just over a month ago, an ominous message popped up on my iPad screen informing me that my Apple ID was “being used to sign in to a device near Lower Towamensing, PA.” Oh my gosh. Was I being hacked?

I consulted a map to locate Lower Towamensing. It turns out to be in Carbon County, near Palmerton, some 61 miles south of where I live. Population 3,228, according to Wikipedia—and one of them, it seems, had usurped my Apple ID.

Was it a professional who would worm his way into my iPad’s big sister, the Macbook, and access sensitive files? Could the hacker get into my bank and PayPal accounts? Or was it just a kid, messing around for the fun of it?

The iPad said I could either “allow” the access or change my password. Naturally, I chose the latter and considered the matter done. But no. The next day and the day after that, same message: Someone in Lower Towamensing was using my ID. I began to think of this distant rural township as a hotbed of hanky-panky. What was happening? Was I being stalked?

I changed my password at least five times, wondering how the mysterious miscreant managed to detect each new one. Was he shadowing my every keystroke? Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep up with my own passwords. I would jot one down, cross it off and conjure up another. More than once I typed in an expired password when trying to access things like text messaging. It was getting annoying.

The problem subsided for about a month and I forgot all about it. Then, last week, there it was again. Same message, again from Lower Towamensing. I changed my password three times in a row, only to be instantly told that the mystery hacker was again using my Apple ID to log in to a device. How could he snatch a password so fast?

It was time to call Apple’s help line. That’s a story in itself. You submit a query by e-mail and get a call back immediately—but it’s only a robo voice saying the next available person will be with you whenever. It took 20 minutes, and let me just say that Apple’s hold music is less than restful.

Finally, my advisor, Judy, came on the line. She listened to my story and explained what was really going on.

There was no bogeyman in Lower Towamensing mirroring my every virtual move. Because I had ticked off “two-factor authentication” for my Apple ID, my iPad was trying to tell me that I myself was signing in to one of my own devices. Thanks to Apple’s dodgy sense of direction (remember the fiasco with Apple maps?), the service thought I resided 60 miles away.

Judy told me Apple was taking geography lessons and would soon be better as discerning actual locations. I had nothing to fear from Lower Towamensing. The only person using my Apple ID was me.

Now, if only I could remember my new password….

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A tale of two dads

Even after all these years, it’s hard to talk about my dad. He died more than 40 years ago but I still haven’t “gotten over it.” Do you ever? And I find myself thinking about him in the runup to Father’s Day.

My father was tall, handsome, gentle and athletic—the favorite brother in a family of seven, favorite uncle among the cousins on his side of the family, or so many of them have told me. He had a wonderful singing voice and for a while did local amateur musical theater productions (he made a cute sailor in “South Pacific”). He could whistle double, something I’ve never heard anyone else do. When Dad whistled a tune, it sounded like two people whistling in harmony.

Dad had a keen sense of the absurd and he loved verbal shenanigans—puns and every other form of wordplay. “If you can mend a situation, mend it. If you can’t mend it, darn it,” was a favorite line. On a family road trip out West, we learned of a bird called a goshawk. Dad would point to the sky and say, “There’s a goshawk. Gosh, what a hawk!”

He taught my brother and me to skate, swim, ride bikes and drive a stick. And he took part in our pickup softball games even though his trick knee sometimes brought him down. In the end, leukemia was what brought him down, at the age of 52. We’ll never know if exposure to the chemicals of the industrial workplace—he was a quality control inspector in a factory—was the cause. It might just have been bad luck, as apparently is the case with most or many cancers.

I often wonder what my father would have been like as an old man. Would he have lost his hair? His marbles? My second dad, aka my father-in-law, kept the one (he had the impressive head of hair of a Hollywood-style Southern senator—think James Whitmore) but not the other.

If I never knew my dad as an old man, I didn’t know my husband’s father as a young one. I came into the family late—it was my second marriage—and he was already in his 70s. Then, Alzheimer’s came creeping inexorably in. My mother-in-law did her best to compensate for his deficits. When she died, they became frighteningly apparent.

He spent his final years in a VA nursing home across the river in New York state, and he was happy there. The nurses liked him and he enjoyed being fussed over by them. My husband visited faithfully every week and I went with him when I could. Although the two of them had butted heads repeatedly when they both were younger, the Alzheimer’s sandpapered my father-in-law’s rough edges and made it easier for them to relate. It was a weird but welcome gift from an otherwise remorseless disease.

My father-in-law passed away at the age of 90. I’ll be thinking of him as well as my father this Sunday. RIP, Dads.

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Take me out to the ballgame…as long as the Red Sox are playing

I once won an office Super Bowl pool, but not on account of my knowledge of football, which is nonexistent. I simply picked at random from a grid someone had created of possible outcomes and plunked down $5. I used part of my winnings to buy a Super Bowl cake from a supermarket bakery (half price, since it was the day after) for my colleagues to nosh.

I’ve never cared about the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup or pretty much any other sports contest. There’s only one professional sport I follow, if only sporadically, and that’s baseball—the great American pastime. And the team I love is the Red Sox.

I grew up in Rhode Island, just an hour away from Fenway Park. As a family, we listened to all the games on scratchy transistor radios, caught them on TV when we could and occasionally trekked to Boston to sit in the bleachers and cheer.

The Red Sox were not winners back then. Some fans whispered of a jinx. This was, after all, the team that traded Ruth (1919)—the team that opened its ballpark just as the Titanic sank (1912).

Rooting for them through thin and thin, I learned about heartbreak, and the hard truth that in this life, the good guys don’t always win. We called them the Red Flops, but meant it affectionately. They might be stumblebums, but they were our stumblebums.

I moved from New England long ago, but my team allegiance didn’t change as my geography did. I’ve been in the New York City orbit since the late 1970s, but I could never cheer the Yankees. No self-respecting Red Sox fan would.

I don’t mind the Mets, heartbreakers in their own right, but they are a National League team and don’t play the Sox during the regular season. It’s hard to forget, however, the way they won the 1986 World Series, when a Boston error in game seven, bottom of the 10th, handed New York the game. Sic transit gloria mundi.

Unlike my brother, also a lifelong fan even though he likewise has left New England, I don’t watch every game. But once in a while I like to catch one. My husband finds televised baseball slow moving and a little boring. I disagree.

To me, there’s something kabuki-like about baseball. There’s ritual to it, a rhythm in the stately march of the innings. The gameplay is almost balletic—the pitch, the swing, the dashes and leaps of the infielders and outfielders in pursuit of a ball. Just look at the cadence and coordination of any double play. It’s nothing short of beautiful!

Now that I’ve “liked” the Red Sox on Facebook, I have a new way to keep up with the games. Facebook tells me when they are playing, informs me of the score and lets me “celebrate” the wins on my timeline, if I so choose.

The team is doing well this year. I won’t say more because I don’t want to jinx them. Go, Sox!

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No easy job disposing of your stuff

How to get out from under a lifetime’s accumulation of STUFF is a problem we baby boomers face as we declutter, downsize or otherwise streamline our lives in anticipation of—well, the final chapter.

“We’re all doing same thing—decluttering,” Colleen commented on my Facebook post about the big yard sale my husband and I planned over Memorial Day weekend. “I want to leave a small footprint, tho’ my former possessions will lie in landfill.”

“I’ve been rehoming many of my things,” another friend chimed in. “Don’t want to leave a lot for others to do.”

“Me too,” said a third. “Trying to make it easier for those left behind.”

I hasten to add that these are healthy, active people who are not facing imminent demise. They’re just taking a level-headed look ahead and planning for the inevitable, whenever it should arrive.

My experience with my mother shows how tough it is to do a clean sweep. Mom lived in the same house for almost 50 years and never threw anything away—except, sadly, my brother’s baseball card collection, featuring players going back to the 1950s. In her active years, she saw no need to discard anything. By the time she reached her 70s and was preparing to move near me, she had health issues and couldn’t manage it alone.

My cousin and I got the ball rolling by helping organize a yard sale the spring Mom sold the house. We got rid of the first level of clutter and made a little money, and it was kind of fun doing it together.

Mom then had several months to sort and pack the rest, but somehow she never got to it. Maybe she felt overwhelmed; I can relate. A friend came over to help but the two of them did more yakking than packing. So when my brother and I arrived a day or two in advance of the moving crew, the house looked much as it always had—stuffed to the gills.

We did what we could (props to my brother for tackling the no man’s land of the basement), but by necessity there was lots for the movers to pack. They were overly scrupulous. We later opened packing boxes containing old jars of rusty nails and other junk that should have been tossed, not moved.

Like Alice in Wonderland after drinking from that mysterious bottle, our lives get smaller and smaller as we age. The traditional arc moves from big, bustling house to apartment and then, one day, nursing home. Final stop: a coffin.

My husband and I, still immersed in the big-bustling-house phase, are gamely trying to make a dent in our mountains of materiality. Hence the yard sale.

Memo to any nieces and nephews who might one day get stuck clearing out the rest: Don’t curse us. Take what you want, then hire an auctioneer to cart away the rest. Enjoy the money you make from the sale.

I suggest Bob Dylan’s “Too Much of Nothing” as background music.

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Good bugs, bad bugs

Words I never imagined speaking to my husband: “Honey, don’t open the nematodes in the kitchen.”

The Priority Mail box of beneficial nematodes, ordered off the Internet, had been sitting in the refrigerator for a couple of weeks waiting for the right conditions. George was about to mix them in water preparatory to using a sprayer and watering can to spritz them around the yard. But I preferred he not do it where we prepare food.

Beneficial nematodes are a natural way to keep down fleas, grubs and other insects. It’s kind of like unleashing ladybugs in your garden—the creepy crawlies that are a plague to you are dinner to them. We had used nematodes once before, some years ago, and they worked well. Our cats barely had fleas that year. But this year, preparing for them proved to be a chore.

The instructions advised spraying around foundations and under porches. We have a large, elevated front porch that offers room underneath to store our lawn tractor and other outdoor items—lots and lots of them. It functions as a quasi garage, in a house that doesn’t have one.

To prepare for spraying, my husband had to clear it all out, pulling tools, an outdoor Santa and six reindeer, a bin full of plastic flamingos and several large, heavy, folding tables that we use for yard sales onto the lawn, along with many smaller items.

What a mess. I’m a Virgo and I like things to be tidy. But in the end, the cleanout turned out to be a good way to reorganize. We sorted out the trash and threw lots away. George then sprayed the nematodes and put things back under. The area is now neater and less cluttered.

If the nematodes (actually a microscopic worm, not a bug at all) were the bright stars of the critters we encountered this spring, moths were the dark side. We’ve had a problem with clothing moths for several months. We’re not sure where they came from—possibly an old rug in the basement—but unfortunately, they destroyed some of our woolen garments before we realized we had them. Thankfully, they spared our Icelandic wool sweaters.

We cleaned out closets (including cedar closets; who knew moths could withstand cedar?), rolled up wool rugs, sent clothing to the cleaners and, as a last resort, bought moth balls. I hate using moth balls because of their toxicity, but we kept them confined to one locked wardrobe into which we put as much wool clothing as would fit.

We thought we were at the end of it until suddenly, we again began seeing the occasional moth. At that point I called a pest control company, a step I had hesitated to take for fear of harsh pesticides. But it turns out there’s a natural way to deal with moths: pheromones.

We now have little moth houses set up near ceiling level throughout the house, emitting their siren scent to any lingering moths.

If only the nematodes ate moths, life would be pretty much perfect.

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Not feeling well? Cue up Internet TV

It’s been a long, slow slog into spring, but I’ve barely been troubled by the cool, rainy weather. I’ve been stuck indoors anyway, with a nagging cough that turned out to be pertussis, aka whooping cough.

Whooping cough seems like an illness from the history books—something children contracted in bygone times. But in fact, pertussis is still around. I know two people who had it in the winter of 2015 and another who, like me, is just getting over a bout this spring.

I was never terribly sick with it—no fever or body aches, not even a head cold. Just an eyeball-popping cough that wouldn’t quit for weeks and weeks. At times I coughed so hard I couldn’t breathe and feared I would pass out. It’s not unheard of for sufferers to crack a rib from coughing.

Other than that, my main complaint was exhaustion. Whooping cough makes you want to lie around like the consumptive heroine of a 19th-century opera, if it weren’t for the fact that lying prone can trigger a coughing attack.

So, what is there to do if you’re spending a lot of time in bed or on the couch, propped up by pillows? After reading a 587-page novel (“Americanah,” by the Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) along with Patti Smith’s memoir “M Train,” I turned to TV, in the form of Amazon Prime.

I knew about Prime from the prompts I got at Amazon.com every time I ordered something. The program offers fast, free delivery and access to proprietary video, music and books. I took the bait and signed up for the free 30-day trial.

We’re a Netflix household, but I knew that Amazon too had its own homegrown TV content, as well as some HBO series that we don’t get with basic cable.

The first series I binge-watched was “Transparent,” a comedy about a dysfunctional family whose patriarch is a transgender woman. The actor who plays Maura (born Mort), Jeffrey Tambor, is far from Caitlyn Jenner cute. This is a quirky and interesting show, though I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to see Season 2.

Then I moved on to “The Newsroom,” starring Jeff Daniels, since I love anything involving the news business. Next came “Girls,” Lena Dunham’s series about an aspiring writer and her hipster friends; “Bosch,” a police procedural set in L.A.; and “Catastrophe,” a hilarious sitcom about an American man and Irish woman living in London. I dabbled with other titles too, but didn’t like them enough to watch more than a snippet.

I don’t think I’ll buy a Prime membership once my free trial is over. How much entertainment do I really need? But I enjoyed it while I had it.

Now that I’m feeling better and life is circling back to normal, I’ve returned to Netflix, and “Midsomer Murders.” This English detective show is recommended by none other than Patti Smith, who confesses to a taste for murder mysteries in “M Train.” That’s reason enough to watch.

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    Jacqueline Damian

    Jacqueline Damian is a writer and editor living in Milford, PA. The author of "Sasha’s Tail: Lessons from a Life with Cats" (W.W. Norton), she has worked in newspapers, magazines, book publishing and technology journalism. Read Full
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