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O the things you will do!

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212 Hall StreetIn terms of things that need doing, life has reached a maximum. With all the events that come with the end of a school year anyway, add all the things that come with senior year. With all the family events that normally come around this time of year, add in a couple more special events. Work has been insanely busy, and then there's the small matter of buying a house, picking up stakes and moving.

If you've never experienced a "hot" real estate market (and if you've only lived in the Capital District, you have not), let me explain what it's like. A house that you might like comes on the market. Five minutes later, you get a note from your realtor asking if you want to see it that day; if you see it and like it and decide to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars based on a 10-minute review and some shaky iPhone pictures, then you'd better be prepared to make an offer that night, because the sellers are reviewing the offers first thing in the morning. If you need some extra time, well, you can just look elsewhere. If you want to make the sale contingent on selling your own house, well, perhaps something along the lines of a garden shed would suit you better. And those 27 perfectly acceptable houses taunting you on Zillow? They're all under contract. You need to wait for something else to be listed, and don't get far from your phone.

So that's what it is, just a whirlwind. Found a place that I desperately loved (and could afford) on Monday, scrambled to put in an offer (while also paying attention to an important meeting, mind you) on Tuesday, got beat out by a cash offer on Wednesday. (By the way, anyone with cash is suspect, in my mind, and should be thoroughly investigated.) Had all day Wednesday to experience the mixture of let-down and relief, got the same call on Thursday, checked out a place that didn't quite work but that we loved anyway, and had to put in a bid Friday night for a Saturday decision.

And while we're doing all that, we have to fit in the final (final!) dance recital, prom, a string of honors events, the graduation itself, and I'm sure I'm forgetting something. Oh, yeah: work. Lots and lots of work.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that we'll be giving up a lot, in terms of both space and personal history (not to mention the fact we largely rebuilt this house ourselves), we're both very excited about the chance to move on. If we're going to be empty nesters, why not be empty nesters in a gorgeous little community that people seem to love living in, within steps of a nicely vibrant downtown?

And as a special snub to the Capital District, I'll note that no matter what house we end up with in our new town, the Wegman's will be about four miles away.

The Farewell Tour

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Autumn 2013 049aSo weird to say this. I never really set out to make Albany (actually, Albany semi-adjacent) my home. It just happened. Grew up in Scotia, lived 11 or so years in Syracuse, landed a job in Albany, and 24 years went by. We bought our house in the Grönen Bosch in 1991, reared our kids here, were very happy here, but with our younger one finishing high school, we were thinking about a move somewhere else in the area. The job situation was unstable at best, and suddenly an opportunity arose to become much more stable and remove myself from the vagaries of political winds. But after years of dismissing offers to move to NYC and Boston out of hand, we suddenly found ourselves deciding to move to Philadelphia. Western suburbs, most likely. Valley Forge-ish; I hear the winters are delightful.

Just like our last big move, we're not going to do it all at once. I will act as scout and ensure the area is free of both Indians and Quakers before finding a new homestead and moving my spouse; both children will be safely esconced in pricey Eastern colleges by then, and unable to prevent us from tossing their precious comic books and Matchbox collections. If they had such things.

As a result, I'm on a bit of a weird farewell tour, driving and biking to places and realizing it may be the last time I get to see them for some time. I'm probably not going to be able to climb up to Dutch Church again before I go, and our recent visit to the mummies was probably the last time I'll see the Albany Institute for a bit. While I'm glad to see progress being made, I'm a bit miffed that the Black Bridge, the key to biking to Cohoes without having to try to cross a six-lane highway where the lights won't change for bicycles, is finally open now that I will almost never need it. (And actually, I've used it three times so far this week, just out of spite.) I had the sense that these may be my last visits to the Waterford visitors center, where I like to rest my legs and sometimes talk to the boat people. I even visited my father's grave, a location that doesn't carry much emotional weight with me, and realized it may be a while before I'm back. Other things are done without a chance for farewell: ice skating at the Plaza after work, for instance. The lesson in all this, of course, is to take your chances while you can, because something may change and you'll never have the chance again.

It's a weird thing to have to prepare to become unattached to a place, when not only you and your children but your parents and generations of ancestors have had some connection to it. My family in Albany and Schenectady goes back to the Norman for whom they named the kill, and even though I don't come from the kind of family where that kind of history was handed down, that sense of place resonates deeply with me, and I'm oddly emotionally connected to the history of this area.

But perhaps even weirder is that I feel perfectly prepared to become attached to a new place. Quite where that will be, we don't know yet, but living in this age of the internet, it's amazing what a sense of place you can get without leaving your wifi connection. Between Twitter feeds and StreetView, the world is a very small place indeed.

So all this will go on. This blog may become a little more frequent, if only to make "winter in Valley Forge" jokes, because the uncertainty that has been hanging over me for a very long time now is gone, and I feel more free to write about what's going on in my life. Hoxsie! will continue -- obviously I can't stop writing about the Capital District's amazing history just because I won't be here anymore. It may become a tad less reliable as the actual work piles up, but be assured it will continue.

But here is the truth of nostalgia. We don't feel it for who we were, but who we weren't. We feel it for all the possibilities that were open to us, but that we didn't take.

     -- Welcome to Night Vale

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Hannaford, you're screwing with my breakfast. It's time to stop.

Since about, oh, say, 1985, I've eaten pretty much the same thing for breakfast every day. A bowl of Grape Nuts, mixed with some form of granola, Kretschmer Wheat Germ, and blueberries, raisins or dried cranberries. All these years, nearly the same thing. It's what I want, it's what I like.

For the past few years, I've used the Hannaford house brand, Nutty Nuggets, in place of Grape Nuts, which for a while were crazy expensive. In time, I've come to prefer the house brand. Just fine. For my granola, I came to prefer something called Chappaqua Crunch. In place of the fairly pricey Craisins, I was perfectly happy with the much cheaper Nature's Place dried cranberries. And most essential to all this was the Kretschmer Toasted Wheat Germ. Tasty, fibery, and just about the last thing in a grocery store that is sold in a vacuum jar - every time you open a new jar, there's that satisfying "whoosh" sound and a mini-whirlwind of wheat germ. I looked forward to that.

Years and years and years, all this came from the Hannaford. I'm not one of those people who likes driving all over creation, to Super Saver for this or Peddler Bob's for that. I want one trip to the grocery store, some other stuff from the farmers markets, and that's it. Then Hannaford started screwing with me.

First, Chappaqua Crunch disappeared. Or stopped being available on the shelves. It was moved to the bulk section. Okay, I'll pretend no one sneezes into those bins and just go ahead and get a couple of pounds of the stuff every few weeks. That was fine. Then Hannaford put up a sign promising exciting new changes in the bulk section. Exciting! New! Changes! Which meant, as it turned out, shrinking the offerings by about half, and eliminating the brand of granola I favored. Okay, there are other granola options; I just liked that one. I can deal.

About the same time, the dried cranberries disappeared. It was like a miracle when the Natures Place cranberries first showed up on the shelves - they were about half the cost of the Ocean Spray brand, organic, and just perfect. Came in a bigger bag, too. So I can't help but wonder if they were threatened off the shelves by the Big Cranberry lobby, because they're gone, and I'm back to paying what the powers that be insist is fair for dried cranberries. I'm back to where I was, but I can deal.

But now, my precious wheat germ is gone. Kretschmer Toasted Wheat Germ, in the convenient and entertaining vacuum jar, has disappeared from the shelf, and more junk cereals have crowded into its space. It left no trace. Yes, there is another form of wheat germ in the store. It is not toasted. It is not jarred. It makes no "whoosh." I cannot deal.

Hannaford, if I have to go to another store to get my jars of wheat germ, I'm going to another store to buy everything. That's how it works with me. And know that I'm serious, because I HATE the other store. But if they have Kretschmer wheat germ, that's where I'm going. Because you've committed several offenses against my breakfast, and, worse than all of those offenses, you've turned me into a food blogger. With this, I cannot deal.

How this all got out of hand

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DSC_5953

It all started so innocently. After 80 years and several rehabs, it was time for our glassed-in porch, with its wood-on-wood sliding windows and door that wouldn't fully open, to be replaced. There was simply no fixing it back up anymore. We had a brief fling with the idea of making it a proper addition, a bit bigger and hiding a half-bathroom. The estimates (the ones we could get, that is . . . good times or bad, contractors don't seem to want my money) came in at about a third of the value of the house . . . way too much to put into a place in our neighborhood. So back to square 1.5, which was replace the walls, windows and door on the porch, ourselves.

So here's how it starts to get out of hand. This is my one chance to insulate the porch, something I should certainly do to justify the fancy new windows, and make it a good 3-1/2 season room. And that meant crawling underneath, insulating the joists and sealing it up. And if I do that, I have to insulate the ceiling, which means pulling down the old tongue-and-groove ceiling that we love, and realizing that it really needs to be refinished, so that's 76 pieces of t&g that needs sanding and staining. Oh, it's also my one chance to spread some electricity around the porch, and get light from something other than a centered fan, so let's run some wiring, outlets all over, two new sconces, a ceiling light, a new fan. And power for a closet that we haven't designed yet. And if we want to get the most use out of it, wouldn't a little space-heater make more sense than trying to get ductwork out there? And when I get to the flooring, just putting it down over the old stuff won't work, so let's cut a new subfloor layer.

And then, of course, there's the matter of siding. The house has 50-year-old asbestos siding, which lasts forever, insulates beautifully, is easy to paint and nearly impossible to get rid of. But it's getting brittle, it's hard to repair, it hurts the value of the house, and I'll have to put something else on the new porch, so let's just get new siding at last. Well, if we're going to do that, that's the time to replace the kitchen windows, which take up too much wall space and ruin the layout.

Oh, and I'll need to repair a couple of pieces of garage wall before it's sided. And replace a window that was never really a window (just a tacked-on aluminum storm window). And repair the rotting roof deck at the eaves.

Oh, and after the workers yank off all the old siding, I'll notice exposed wire on the electric service to the house, and decide that now is also the time when I need to finally replace the old cloth-wrapped wire on the electric service, get a new meter box, and get a new desperately needed circuit breaker box. For that, for the siding removal, and for the new siding, I've turned to contractors. Otherwise, the pain is all mine.

Sometime soon it'll all be done. Well, not the inside of the porch, that'll be another few months, but all the noticeable stuff from outside. It'll all look sensational, like a real house. And I will be, as I am now, absolutely and utterly exhausted.

How I spent my summer vacation

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DSC_6722As usual, July is gone. This year, it was a flurry of 2x4s, drywall, windows, and, when I could stay awake in the evenings, the Tour de France. The Tour is over. The renovation project continues.
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Let me add to the list of new tools that are making my home improvement project so much easier the simple expedient of a new lightweight, high-powered Milwaukee circular saw. After just a couple of days of working with this modern marvel, I want to get into a time machine, go back 20 years and beat myself for the next 20 years for holding onto and using my father's and grandfather's 1960s vintage circular saws. WHAT WAS I THINKING? This baby cuts through OSB like butter. Butter! If you could cut butter and leave a clean, straight edge without that initial drift that I had just accepted as part of the process. Power, weight, accuracy, ease of adjustment: let's be clear, I have wasted days, perhaps weeks of my life struggling with those old saws when I could have had something better all this time. As Tom & Ray always said, it's the stingy man who spends the most.


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The curse of home repair

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Renovations DSC_5946.jpg
I'm never sure whether to thank or curse my father for whatever he taught me about carpentry. My mother's father and grandfather were carpenters, my father was a carpenter for a period of time, and all through my life, if something needed doing on the house, we did it ourselves. So I'm cursed with just enough knowledge to believe I can do almost anything myself (except I know I'm bad with concrete), just enough skill to get by (though in my sixth decade, I'm almost good at it), and a hatred of paying contractors outrageous rates to do something I can do myself. So when estimates for replacing our 72-year-old porch came in somewhere in the stratosphere, my wife asked, "Well, can you do this?" Uh, yeah. Sorta.

The challenge with house carpentry is that if you don't do it all the time, you don't really know how to do it. You just know how to figure it out. Figuring it out takes a lot longer. And because it's my house, and my yard, I'm way more careful about the demolition part, especially the millions of nails and shards of glass that come from demolishing a glassed-in porch. I'd like to walk in the yard again someday, so I have to try to be careful about where the pointy stuff lands. (Can't get that from a contractor).

A few minor technological revolutions have made this vastly easier than any other project I've undertaken. First, let me sing the praises of the laser-guided chop saw. Somehow I've gotten by for more than 20 years of home ownership without a chop saw, and no, I don't know why, but man am I glad I have one now. There is a little red laser light that tells me precisely where the blade will cut. It is unbelievable. If I make a mistake, it is only in measuring, no longer in figuring out where the kerf will be. No need to get out the square and draw a cut line -- just find the right measure, mark it, line it up with the laser, and chop away. Not to mention that I get the perfect square cuts that always seem to elude me on the table saw.

Second, I finally invested in a new tape measure with engineer's marks. This means it's in English measures, but provides decimal fractions of feet. Instead of having to figure out English fractions (and divide them, which is always the challenge), I measure something out as 4.1 feet. Still in feet, with the easy math of metric. Flaming brilliant. (Though I will ask, why have all tape measures gotten so thick? The smallish-handed among us can hardly maneuver the things.)

Third, I invested in a new Milwaukee drill/driver, with the hope that when its batteries can no longer take a charge I'll be able to get replacements . . . which has not been true for the past two Craftsman drills I've had. And not only does this magnificent device show me how much charge is in the battery, it shines a brilliant LED light right on the space I'm drilling. Suddenly, I can see what I'm doing as soon as I put up the drill, instead of having it block the light. So obvious, so brilliant.

Last but not least, the very process of ordering the major parts, doors and windows, has become considerably simpler because you can download all the dimensions and specifications from the internet, figure out your spacing and what will fit there, and start to draw up your plans before you even set foot in the home improvement store. When you order windows every decade or two, it's a bit of a daunting task, but being able to read through all the specifications and installation instructions makes it much easier.

So if you don't hear from me, it's because I'm lashed to my laser-guided chop saw.

Centrally located

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Albany Troy map

Albany Troy map (Photo credit: carljohnson)

This started out as a long, dreary post about why I live where I live, but I thought I'd cut the dreary. The "Non-Urban" part of My Non-Urban Life is that I'm in an early suburb, set just across the river and up a hill from the filth and noise of the city, advertised as a place for healthful living just minutes away by trolley. We're on little village lots, close to our neighbors (in good and bad ways), on streets that should have had sidewalks but don't. I live a block from a lovely little lake that has been the center of neighborhood activity since a neighborhood was installed on historic old farmland more than 85 years ago. The schools are good, the politics petty, and diversity almost non-existent. So sometimes I wish I lived in a place where I could tuck down the street for a morning coffee or an evening decaf or grab some groceries without getting in a car (although honestly, there are limited places in the city where that's true). Since the number one thing I hate about my current location, perhaps the only thing, is one of my current neighbors, going back into a city setting and getting even closer (physically) to my neighbors seems unappealing.

But there are some other parts of the urban fabric I miss. Sidewalks, for instance. Stoops. Looking at the details on the brownstones. Somehow taking a walk through our neighborhood and looking at one sloppy vinyl siding job after another isn't the same as tripping down Second Street in Troy and looking at the ornate doors and window casings. I miss wondering what goes on in the secluded back patios, what little gems of gardens are hidden there. And I miss being able to walk to work, as I could and did for several years in Syracuse and Albany. While it's hard to figure out where jobs are going to take you, I've worked a substantial number of my years in downtown Albany, and my wife now works in downtown Troy, and it would be nice for one or the other to be able to roll out the door and down the street for a brisk 20-minute walk, rather than having to contend with traffic and bus schedules and the problems of crossing the bridge by bike.

So as we've just refinanced and are looking at finally making this into the house we wanted it to be, it's also tempting to just re-assess and see if there isn't a better location. I find downtown Troy absolutely charming and have enjoyed the residents I've met, but wonder if it could fit my lifestyle. Right now it doesn't seem that way -- I don't see city houses with off-street parking, room for bikes and boats, and a decent separation from neighbors at a price I can pay. Or where I do, they're essentially in neighborhoods just like mine, not adding a lot of walkability or diversity; they're just suburban houses in a city.

So I think we're staying put in our little slice of non-urbia.
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Heritage tool

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sheetrock knife
My great grandfather's sheetrock knife.

Floored.

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Home ImprovementBusy. Not all good. Winter's finally here, or at least the cold and blowy parts of it, and I've been off the bike, which is fine because I always need a break from it. Been on the skates a bit though,which has been fantastic for my old broken knee. Turns out to be just what I needed to finally, after a year, get it back to feeling normal. I can even kneel again, which I proved over the weekend by installing a new floor in the hallway. Usually when I finally get around to a project that I've put off for 20 years, I find out exactly the reason I've put it off -- they prove to be nightmares. This one wasn't like that, it proved to be a dream, especially with my new laser-guided chop saw. That thing's a frickin' dream, and for the first time ever I got the trim exactly perfect, everywhere.

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