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Archive for February, 2008

Seven things for perspective

tucson-cunaz.jpgI didn’t write a blog last night only because the house project put me in a poor mood. I didn’t want to bore everyone with another screed about how the cost overruns are killing us, or the latest tedious delay (countertops, this time), or how much I’d rather be out in the Airstream having fun. You know all that already.

So last night I simply closed the laptop and went to bed early, hoping that in the morning I’d have fresh perspective on the problems of the moment. And I did.

Talking to Bobby & Danine it occurred to me that a lot of the anxiety I feel about the house may be a flashback from 1993 through 1996, when Eleanor and I took on another house project that didn’t go well. It was a massive Victorian house with huge problems, far more than we could afford to fix. After three years of financial and occasionally literal bleeding, we called it quits and sold out at a loss. It was like a college education on houses, and it cost about as much as a real two-year degree.

So here we are again, making new mistakes but generally doing far better thanks to that experience. Overall, things are going fairly well. And when things are looking grim, I have to remember to count blessings we are enjoying, to get that perspective I was seeking.

  1. Our friends Bobby & Danine have been superb company and a real comfort during a stressful period. They know what we are doing, what it feels like, and have been psychological anchors for us. We’re lucky to have lots of such friends, including many blog readers who have written in to say “Don’t worry, it will be over soon.”
  2. It will be over soon! And we’ll get back on the road to new adventures.
  3. tucson-greg-terry-danine-bobby.jpg We have been greeted by wonderful new friends here in Tucson. Yesterday we received a very nice visit from Terry and Greg, owners of an Airstream Bambi, who live nearby. They brought us a bottle of wine and stayed a couple of hours to chat. We’ll see them again for some camping this fall, I hope.
  4. While we are here, we are living in a really nice place. I was reminded of this yesterday when I led Bobby, Danine, Elise, and Emma to Sabino Canyon for an afternoon hike. At Sabino you can ride a tram up the canyon over several water crossings up into a beautiful area decorated by saguaro cactus. The girls were delighted to find that they had to walk through the chilly water (snowmelt from the Santa Catalinas) in their sandals. At one point they “rescued” the tram by dislodging a stuck log from one of the water crossings. That water was so cold it hurt, but they loved it. Emma, of course, fell in a deep spot and spent the rest of the trip in soaking wet clothes. (More photos here.)

    Bobby and I also explored another Arizona attraction today, the ASARCO Mission Mine. You can take a one-hour guided tour of this huge open pit copper mining operation for $7. For us, it was well worth it. The mine is enormous, and the chemistry of how ore containing 0.6% copper is turned into 99.9% pure copper is very interesting. (More photos here.)green-valley-asarco-mine.jpg
  5. We are getting at least half the benefit of the house already. Despite lacking a functioning kitchen, we have managed to have dinner in the house every night.

    Tonight we invited Carol to join us. Bobby & Danine grilled a marinated flank steak, Eleanor roasted some zucchini & squash, Carol made bread, and Danine raided “Beyond Bread” for a selection of desserts. Thanks also to Terry and Greg for the wine to go with the meal.

  6. Today is Valentine’s Day and I have two people who call me their Valentine.
  7. The Spring 2008 issue of Airstream Life is in the mail, which means that soon people will stop calling to ask when it’s coming out!

Seven months pregnant

This evening as I was pouring a bit of leftover red wine down the tub drain, I had to reflect on the tumultuous day (and week, and month) that having a house has caused us. I was using the tub to get rid of the leftover dribbles of wine because we don’t have any sinks yet. And we won’t have sinks for at least two more weeks. This in some way symbolizes to me the psychological challenge we are facing.

Having a half-finished house is worse than no house at all. We are committed at this point — as Eleanor puts it, we are seven months pregnant. There’s little choice but to proceed even if we have second thoughts or get bad news, both of which are happening with depressing regularity.

The day started off well. Bill is plowing ahead with the kitchen cabinets, and we continue to be impressed with his work and the way the kitchen is being transformed. I was so convinced that we had a kitchen that several times I took dishes to the kitchen sink, only to realize halfway that we don’t yet have a sink. Sometime in the next 48 hours the countertop people are supposed to call to schedule their visit to measure, and about two weeks after that we should have countertops, which will in turn lead to appliances, sinks, and a functioning house.

In the interim we have more work to do. Eleanor and I still have to get on the floors and put on another coat of sealant. We need to get more furniture items and unpack dozens of boxes. Overgrown plantings outside badly need to be trimmed. New tasks keep popping up like gophers. Late yesterday Handy Randy swung by to drop the bomb (“estimate” in contractor terms) on us about the rebuilding of the shower. That was a harsh dose of reality in itself, but it was compounded today when we spent three hours shopping tile for the shower. Here we are nearing the finish line and suddenly we’ve got another project to manage. We’re not basking in the sun yet.

Still, we can’t resist using the house as-is. Each night we have cleared the office equipment off the dining room table and brought in all six of us for family dinner. It gets prepared in the Airstreams and shuttled into the house, and after dinner all of the dishes are swept back into the Airstreams for washing, and the leftover liquids go down the tub drain. There’s sawdust on the floor and cardboard boxes everywhere, power tools in the kitchen, and extension cords in the entrance hallway, but still it’s something. We spent a lot of money to get to this point, so we’ll use it as best we can.

tucson-sonoran-desert-musem-kids.jpgBobby & Danine took the girls to the Sonoran Desert Museum today, which was apparently a big success.   When they returned, the neighbor girls took the girls across the street to bounce on their trampoline.   Then this evening they ate dinner “camped” in a leftover box from the kitchen cabinets.   It has been kid heaven here lately.

Eleanor and I are reveling in the phenomenon of occasional baby-sitting, something we haven’t had much in the past two years. I know payback time is coming, but that’s fine.   Our carport guests have been earning their keep and making great company, so a little reciprocal child management is perfectly OK.   Besides, Valentine’s Day is coming up.

Cascading repairs

In the computer world, there is a phenomenon known as “a cascade of errors.”   This occurs when   a single problem triggers secondary problems, which in turn trigger tertiary problems, until the user of the computer   system is overwhelmed with a mountain of error messages.   Only one error is really at fault, but the resulting cascade makes the problem see much worse.

A similar thing happens with houses.   Case in point: the bathroom in Emma’s room.   The shower   was usable but cosmetically unattractive, and the enclosure door leaked.   (Remember that, because it was the initiation of the cascade.)

I removed the enclosure and discovered secondary problems.   The enclosure was hiding cracked tiles and failed grout. Upon preparing to replace the grout, I found a tiny trickle of water beneath the tub filler that told me the faucets were leaking — the tertiary problem.   I probably wouldn’t have noticed that trickle if I hadn’t been squinting underneath the filler looking for bad grout.

Now, to fix the leaking faucet we’ll need to remove some tiles.   Behind the wall, we will certainly find valves that need replacement, and rotted wood.   But here’s the nefarious part of a house renovation: the logic that, since we are here, perhaps we should replace the rest of the bath tile.   It’s cracked in places, the grout is a mess, and wouldn’t it look nice in a different color anyway?

OK, let’s tabulate what this means.   First, 58 square feet of tile.   New faucet and associated plumbing hardware.   Fiberglass backing board, mastic, and grout.   Two or three days of labor.   Result:   another $1000+ out the window, completely unbudgeted.

And when the new shower is done, what’s the last thing we’ll buy?   A new shower door.   Maybe this time we’ll just hang a curtain.


That’s our step backward for the day.   On the plus side, the adobe repairs in our bedroom are coming along nicely.   Once the repaired blocks are filled and colored, you can hardly tell they aren’t original.   The photos above show the same area of blocks.   On the left, as found.   On the right, as repaired.

tucson-kitchen-upper-cabs-install.jpgOur kitchen installer has also been busy.   About 1/3 of the kitchen cabinets went in today, and they look terrific. Bill, who is single-handedly doing the installation, has done a fabulous job.   His attention to detail is impressive.   Even Eleanor, who is extremely fussy about her kitchen, is thrilled.   With the kitchen going in, the whole house somehow seems more complete.   It’s starting to feel like a real home already.

tucson-emma-elise-painting.jpgEmma and Elise have been keeping themselves entirely occupied with art projects (painting the Shop Vac box, at left), and other mysterious 7-year-old projects.   Sometimes we aren’t entirely sure what they are doing, and sometimes they won’t tell.   I suspect we are being observed by Secret Agent Spies from time to time.

“Campground” life in the driveway is going very well.   It really is just like a regular campground, except that we have a private clubhouse.   Not a bad campground either, as they go. The water tastes good, the electric is reliable, we have wi-fi that works, nice neighbors, and the clubhouse has a refrigerator stocked with tasty beverages.

We’ve just kicked back all day and enjoyed the exceptional Tucson weather today (75 degrees, dry and sunny) with all the windows open and some nice tunes on the iPod.   Tomorrow maybe we’ll go out and explore but for right now everything is just fine, even with the unexpected bathroom project.

Two Airstreams, One Carport

The Airstream experiment is a success!   Bobby bravely and skillfully navigated his 30-foot Airstream trailer into the carport directly adjacent to ours with only inches of space to maneuver.


We had previously determined with a tape measure that the second trailer had to sit in a very specific spot in order to accomplish these goals:

  • access to storage compartments & utility connections
  • being able to open the entry door without smashing the wall
  • leaving room for us to open our entry door

I am still amazed that our carport managed to fit two Airstreams (even though theirs must stick out to allow access to the entry door).     They look pretty cool sitting there, too.   One of the neighbors gave us a big “thumbs-up” when he saw the second Airstream pulling in.   We told him we decided we needed a spare trailer, and this was the delivery.


tucson-2-airstreams-gap.jpgJust to give you an idea of the tolerances we had to work with:   our entry door now opens with 1/8″ clearance from the side of their trailer.   On the other side of their trailer, the space is too tight even to fit in a speedwrench for tightening the stabilizers, so I lent Bobby my cordless drill for that task.

Now that they are tucked in, plugged in, and hooked up to water, I think our guests will be staying for a while.   The girls have latched on to each other as we knew they would, and we’re all having a great time talking about the full-time life, destinations, houses, and homeschooling.   It’s really nice to have friends here who truly understand and share our travel lifestyle.

On the house front, I took on the task of removing a scabby old shower enclosure this weekend.   This revealed forty years of old caulk, rust stains, soap scum, and miscellaneous unidentifiable gunk.   It was almost as bad as renovating our 1977 Argosy trailer, which formerly housed rats.   When Bobby and Danine arrived, we had finally removed most of the remnants and I was re-caulking the tub.   Unfortunately, I discovered a permanent drip in the tub faucet that may be leaking water inside the wall.   It seems likely we will need to remove part of the wall and the shower tiles to repair it. One more thing for the “punch list.”

I really like having another Airstream next to ours.   We may not be able to go anywhere in the Airstream at the moment but we’ve got our own little campground going right here.   This is shaping up to be a great week.

By the way, the pictures today are taken with the new zoom lens.   You’ll notice some vignetting on the top photo; This is because I added a polarizer and forgot that the rim of the filter will show when the lens is at full wide angle (18 mm).   My previous polarizer was a low-profile type and hence less susceptible to this.

But overall I’m happy with the images because they demonstrate the range and versatility of the lens.   The long shot showing the mountains in the back was taken at about 135mm, from across the street, which allowed me to flatten the depth and bring the mountains into the image.   A minute later, I was able to step in between the two trailers and get another wide-angle shot without swapping lenses. Once I get the hang of the lens I should be able to get some more creative images.

Girl power

Tomorrow a great Airstream experiment will occur here.   Our friends Bobby, Danine, and Elise will arrive in their Airstream, which is almost identical to ours.   The original plan was for them to stay at a nearby campground, but their arrival is in the midst of the Tucson Gem & Mineral Show, which means everything in town is booked solid.   I noticed from the interstate today that even the Motel Six in Marana (about ten miles north of downtown Tucson) is charging $71.99 per night, single occupancy.   It’s supply and demand time here in Tucson, and right now the hotels and motels can demand almost anything.

So the Airstream experiment is whether we can shoehorn two 30-foot Airstreams into one carport, and still have room to open the doors.   We did some quick measuring and found that the only way to do it would be to have one Airstream halfway out of the carport so the   door could open toward the sidewalk.   Our bedroom will be about two feet from Bobby & Danine’s dining room table.   This will be the closest we’ve ever been parked to another trailer.

You can expect photos tomorrow or Monday.   I am hoping that the neighbors will not panic when they see yet another aluminum tube show up and hook up (we’ve figured out how to get our guests water & electric).   We are fortunate that most of the neighbors have already dismissed us as harmless seasonal lunatics, which is basically accurate.

Officially, we have no courtesy parking.   But Bobby & Danine have something special to offer besides their friendship.   They have a seven-year-old girl.   Both sets of parents are eager to have the two girls get together and cross-pollinate girl things, as girls like to do.   So we’re hoping our odd little living arrangement works out for at least a week.

With friends coming tomorrow and the kitchen cabinet installers coming on Monday, we realized that today was our only chance to get up to the Phoenix area for a day to shop for house stuff.   So we hopped in the Fit and drove the 100 miles or so up to Tempe, where there are so many furniture places (clustered around a giant IKEA store) that we could visit them for days and still not see them all.

The trip was a complete success except that we found so much stuff to bring back that we couldn’t FIT it all in the Fit.   It can only FIT so much.   The little car did surprisingly well, however, bearing assemblies for two 3-drawer dressers, a bookcase, three lamps, track lighting, a curtain system, and a bag of frozen Swedish meatballs from IKEA. We didn’t even have to strap Emma to the roof, although I threatened to.

We’ll have to make another trip in a couple of weeks.   Since we plan to pick up several six-foot long items next time, we’re going to haul up the Airstream, spend a night in Tempe, and then bring the Airstream over to the furniture stores for loading.

Emma took the opportunity of the long car ride and hours of kid-boredom in stores, to crack the first Harry Potter book.   We had some concern about whether she was ready for reading at that level, but once again she has surprised us.   She sucked down half the book today and will undoubtedly finish it tomorrow.   We have tested her comprehension of the book by asking questions about what’s happening in the book as she pauses, and she seems to be absorbing it quite happily and without fear of the mysterious happenings in the story.

At this rate we have made it a priority to get to the local branch libraries (three within a few miles of us) and start checking massive quantities of books.   They will that on Monday or Tuesday, depending on how crazy things are when the work starts on the kitchen.   We’ll lose the opportunity to take books from the library once we get back on the road in March, so we need to borrow as many as possible while we can.   I was hoping Emma would take to reading, but this is getting ridiculous.   I asked for a little rain and have nearly gotten washed out to sea by the flood.

In karate class last week the teacher led an exercise involving headstands.   Only the older kids wearing orange belts were even close to being able to do a headstand, and I noticed Emma   was particularly challenged due to having insufficient arm strength, and not being familiar with the sensation of carrying her weight with her arms.   So we’ve been practicing in the house at night.


The challenge at the moment is for her to climb up the wall with her feet, then walk backward on her hands until she is nearly vertical.   Then we grab her ankles and try to get her to walk forward.   This is going to take some practice, but it’s fun for everyone when we try.   I’m hoping she can come into class and do a headstand soon, and completely freak out all those older boys in the class.   We’ll show them what “girl power” is.

A slow boat on the ocean

Progress is measured in lots of ways.   In the case of a house renovation, the moves forward are sometimes indiscernible.   It is like a ship sailing in a vast sea — are we sailing ahead of the waves or are they rolling into us?   We have to take our measurements from the stars, it seems, hoping that celestial signs will tell us we are headed in the right direction.


Today’s task was   to get the adobe blocks in the new master bedroom cleaned up.   Adobe is a very delicate building product — not as hard as cement blocks or bricks, and susceptible to water damage.   The interior side of these blocks was damaged by several things, and now we need to clean it up.

First of all, these blocks were never intended to see the light of day.   The original blueprints from the house show that the room was specified to be covered with birch paneling, which it was. We ripped down the paneling to see if we could expose the block, as it is exposed in other rooms of the house. Unfortunately, the block was not cleaned up during construction, so excess mortar and other blights were visible on it.

The cosmetics of the blocks got worse when we removed furring strips that were holding the paneling.   Pulling a nail out of burnt adobe block results in   a big chunk of the blog spalling, meaning that we created dozens of craters in the faces of the blocks.   You can see some particularly obvious examples to the right of the window.

Finally, there was a roof leak at some point in the past which resulted in the discoloration of the block in the corner (left hand side of the photo above).   All of these problems made us consider covering up the blocks again, but we really like the look of them, so we brought in an adobe specialist to see if they could be restored without breaking the bank.

It turns out they can, and our adobe specialist, Leigh, showed up today to start the process.   With some bleach and water she removed much of the discoloration and efflorescence, and then started in with her secret mix of adhesives, cements, and colorants to fix the blocks.   Adobe block repair is almost an art, and so the specialists protect their processes from their competitors, so I didn’t get many specific answers to my questions about what exactly she was applying to the walls.   She’ll be at it for a few days.

tucson-wrong-sink.jpgChris and Sergio came back today to finalize the windows, which look great, and we discussed a few other projects they’ll come back for in the next few weeks. Eleanor happened to mention her new composite kitchen sink, and Chris had a few things to say about the quality of certain types of sink.   He casually dropped a steak knife into the sink, as you might when washing dishes, and the sink chipped.   Not only did it chip, but it chipped white — the color is only about 1/16″ deep!

Back to the store with that!   Our last composite sink (Swanstone) never chipped and the color went all the way through.   I had no idea there was such diversity of composite sinks.   The one we put in Project Vintage Thunder never chipped either.   We searched online for an emergency replacement and bought it ten minutes later.   It should arrive in plenty of time for the appliance installation at the end of the month.


Several bits of good news arrived today.   Bobby, Danine, and Elise will be arriving here in their Airstream on Sunday, which is fantastic for all of us.   We’ll enjoy the company, the girls will have playmates, and there are a lot of family things for us to do together in town.   The really nice thing is that when your house is in a state of renovation, nobody expects it to be clean, meaning that we have very little prep work to do.   Besides, they’ll be in their own home.

tucson-new-lens-test.jpgThe other good news to arrive was the UPS truck bearing my new camera lens.   I finally broke down and bought the Nikon 18-200mm VR zoom.   Boy, is it sweeeeeet!   It’s a bit heavier than the 18-70mm zoom that was my prior utility lens, but it has the benefits of Vibration Reduction and no need to swap to the 55-200mm zoom.   That should reduce dust on the camera sensor and give me a lot more flexibility in changing situations, which is critical to the way I shoot.

The photo at left and the one above were just quick tests.   The mountains in the upper photo are about three miles away, shot from the back yard at 200mm in dim light.   The chandelier was a quick snap from the other end of the living room, also at long zoom.   I’m going to have some fun getting to know this lens, and hopefully you’ll see the results in the blog as well as the magazine.

In all respects, progress has been made today.   With good friends coming to visit, the end of the project within sight (although still about three weeks away by current estimations), and the weather warming into the 70s, all seems well.   We may still be somewhere in the vast Pacific, but our renovation journey is moving forward.   Soon land will be in sight.

That new house smell

After a couple of weeks of apparent lull, the house project is moving forward again, on two fronts.   We’re only 39 days from our next long Airstream trip, so this is really good news.   We need to get this house done before we go.
First, the kitchen and bath cabinets arrived.   That means something like 28 large boxes plus assorted flats and poles. I have no idea what most of them contain.   In many cases, the shape of the box in no way resembles anything that I remember ordering, so it will be interested when the installer comes and starts opening them.   That will begin on Monday, and probably continue all week.


We’ve staged the boxes strategically around the house, and now the entire place smells like cardboard.   That’s atop the faint odor of fresh latex paint.   Ahh, that new house smell.

Second, Chris and Sergio arrived to work on the master bedroom windows.   Our bedroom has two windows plus sliding glass doors, which means glass on three sides.   The east facing window is cheezy single-pane glass, leaks air like crazy, and lets in too much solar heat most of the year, so it needed replacement.   Since it has a view of a wall, we decided to replace it with glass block rather than an operable window.


It took no time at all to remove the   old window.   I liked the open-air look of things without the window in place, but it would be a little chilly at night.     In this photo you can see very clearly that our house is constructed of burnt adobe block.   No insulation.   No siding.   Nothing but blocks.   Simple, yet surprisingly effective against the heat of summer.


We chose Decora glass blocks 12″ square.   They’re four inches thick, which should yield some small amount of insulative value (quite a bit more than the useless window they replaced).   Just as importantly, they give the bedroom some privacy.   They are not frosted as they appear — that’s just leftover mortar that hasn’t been cleaned off.   They have a clear wavy look that distorts images.   We’ll also add a light-blocking window shade for light control, since the window faces east.   In the morning in April and May, sunlight arrives very early at this window!


The other task in the bedroom was to replace the giant 5×8 window that faces the mountains.   This window, like all the others in the house, was yet another leaky single-pane el-cheapo 1970s era junker.   It was permanently etched and fogged from who-knows-what, and you could feel the breeze blowing through it.

We bought a new double-pane “low E” window to replace it, and the guys managed to get that installed today as well.   The Santa Catalinas look even nicer through the new glass, and it’s nice that the room is now finally sealed against air infiltration properly.

Tomorrow the adobe repair specialist arrives to begin some repairs to the bedroom’s block walls.   That will take a few days. Once she’s done, the bedroom will be complete and we can begin to move our stuff into it, another major milestone on the project.

With luck we can really live in the house for two weeks before we hit the road again.   That’s not much time, but we’ll be able to go off on our next multi-month trip with the knowledge that our house will be ready and waiting for us to return.   Should be a nice feeling.

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