Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Greenspan Has His Head Up His Housing Bubble

Well, all the headlines said Alan Greenspan said that there was a housing bubble, and it was going to pop. I read his remarks, and the fact he said no such thing means little, I guess. The front page of newspapers is the editorial page now, masquerading as news, and the editorial pages are the equivalent of a disturbed person standing on the streetcorner handing out mimeographed screeds, while wearing a sandwich board that say: “The World Will End Yesterday.”

And what does Alan Greenspan know about housing prices, anyway?

Everyone wants to report on the housing bubble, because they are mired in tired old thinking about all investments, housing included. They believe Wall Street is a big casino, not a place that uses the sale of securities to determine the value of publicly held companies. And they believe that if housing prices go up, they’ll have to go down. “Because you know, they have to, and stuff, because, like, they went up, and I don’t know why, so like, they’ll have to go down, and we’ll keep saying so until they do even if it takes ten years, and then we’ll say we told you so.”

I’d like to ask every one of the authors of this kind of drivel, after they blurt out “It’s a bubble!” to tell me what a bubble is. I doubt they could.

Let’s go to the dictionary, shall we?

a : something that lacks firmness, solidity, or reality b : a delusive scheme

According to CLNN, 300 million people joined Amway last year, and decided to sell each other houses until we all have enough money to, well, I don’t know what, buy a house?

So as you observe the desolate landscape laid out for you by CLNN, (the Chicken Little News Networks,) I advise you to keep a few things in mind:

1. Alan Greenspan doesn’t set mortgage rates.

You heard it here first, folks. Alan Greenspan’s job is to make sure there’s not too little, or too much money in the banks. That’s it. He’s done a fair job of it, for the most part, but he’s a bit of an old thinker. He waited way to long to cut interest rates six years ago or so, still fearing nonexistent inflation around every corner, while deflation was much more likely.

Al likes to say obscure things about inflation, and people at the newspapers who don’t know the difference between inflation and indigestion wax wroth about how dire it all is. Gas is $2.50 a gallon, Crazy Al jacks up the short term interest rate every time Andrea Mitchell brushes her teeth, but inflation never appears. Passing laws against imports could trigger it, but Smoot Hawley redux can’t get any traction in Congress.

Inflation is when productivity gains can’t keep up with rising wages, regulation, and ambulance chasing lawyers. Look up France and Germany for that kind of problem, we don’t have it- except the lawyers; we've got those in spades. But in France and Germany they’re running the country instead of leeching off it. Big difference.

The more Al jacks up short term interest rates, the less likely that the term of your average mortgage is going to see runaway inflation. So he jacks it up short term, and the 15 and 30 year rates go still lower. Smarter people than me, and Old Al maybe, are betting their money on long term stability.

2. Beware the Blanket Statement: “Houses are overvalued.”

What houses? Where?

This one amuses me. All houses everywhere? Says who? Based on what? Your house is worth what another is willing to pay for it. If you ask me, a house in San Francisco is worth about ten percent of what they’re getting for it. But you’re not asking me. You’re certainly not asking some community college grad working at the newspaper to put a value on it. Mr. Greenspan’s too busy to do your home inspection and appraisal, I presume. So you put a sign out front that says: For Sale. If someone gives you the money, that’s what it’s worth.

There was a joke that circulated around Japan twenty years ago. You remember, back when Japan was taking over the world, at least according to the knuckleheads now saying we’re all going to be living in our cars while Alan Greenspan and the banks decide what to do with our repossessed bubble houses. We were all just gonna be slaves, buying VCRs with borrowed money, and Japan would own the USA lock stock and barrel. For you youngsters, I didn’t just mistype “China.” It was Japan back then, the unstoppable economic force that was gong to wipe us off the money map.

Anyway, the joke went something like this:

Two men are on the subway. One says to the other: “I have a million dollar dog.” His friend says:

How do you know it’s worth a million dollars?

He replies:

“Because I traded my two $500,000 cats for it.”

That was a bubble. A real one. The Japanese were swimming in money, and being unable to buy decent real estate or any other worthwhile thing, it chased its tail around the island, looking for somewhere to land.

They saved it like crazy, and the smart ones invested it in the USA, and made even more money they couldn’t buy anything worth owning with. And Japan’s been in a recession for about fifteen years. But at least they don’t have “a trade deficit” Bubble people are crazy about trade deficits too. They’re really big numbers they don’t understand, so they make them nervous. I don’t have time to make fun of that today.

3. Beware People Who Say: All Home debt is bad.

Let me get this straight. If you borrow against a tax deductible appreciating asset, while you get 100% of the use of it, you’re a fool. I see. Since you’re certain, for reasons unknown and inexplicable, that housing prices are going to tumble, I’ll be a lot better off if the money I’m losing is all mine, as the equity in my home plummets.

Let’s say I buy a house for $250,000.00. I pay cash. You buy the one next door, and pay the same, but mortgage the whole thing. We both make the same amount of money. Houses go in the toilet, because, well, they just do, the bubble people said so. Both homes go down to $200,000.00. That’s a twenty percent loss, and just what the doomsayers are expecting, and I suspect, secretly hoping for. Who’s screwed?

Well, we both still have houses to live in. The bank doesn’t throw you out because you lost equity. You just have to make the payments every month. I paid cash, so I’m out $50,000.00 if I sell. You sell your house, and you’re out the same $50k to get out of the mortgage. But you had your money the whole time. That money returns about 11% a year, on average, if invested in the stock market long term. And you got to keep more of what you earned, because the tax deduction for home mortgage interest is one of the few really big deductions you get. I don’t write these tax laws, by the way, I just read them. The bank owned your house, but you lived in it. And you got the use of your money for yourself, and used the bank’s money for a place to live. And when your house appreciates, you keep it all, even if you have five cents equity in it to start.

I keep picturing people burying money in coffee cans in their yard, or moving to a bunker compound in Montana, when I hear investment advice like this. Owning things free and clear is nice. My house is the last thing I’d pay off.

4. Beware misinformation: “People are remortgaging their houses to go on cocaine and gambling binges.”

No they’re not. 99% of them are refinancing their homes to lower their interest rates. That makes it easier to repay whatever they owe on their houses, whether it’s 10% or every last dime. I’m in the housing business, and know lots more people who are too. Trust me, people are plowing the money they cash out on refinance mainly on two things: They add on to or improve their existing home, or buy additional property, like vacation homes. The additions make the homes still more valuable and useful, and add equity again. Many more are using their equity money to start businesses, (I did) and add home offices to their houses.

Greenspan’s comments, where they weren’t totally opaque, basically said it’s unwise to take equity out of your house and spend it on beer and cigarettes. That’s why he gets paid the big bucks, for insights like that. I doubt Mr.Greenspan would advise you to spend your rent money, children’s college fund, welfare check or your toll change on those items either, but that wouldn’t make a headline for the Bubble people.

5. Some people are going to get killed in the housing market.

They always do. And some lenders will take it on the chin. But how does that have anything to do with rising home values? People are investing exorbitant amounts in their homes in places where their homes can become almost worthless, but that’s not a housing bubble. Spendthrift and/or corrupt public administrations, who overregulate business and building but take a laissez faire attitude towards criminals, all the while jacking up taxes inexorably, are far more likely to make people overpaying for property regret it eventually. But that’s politics, not banking.

6. Will somebody please read the tax code?

It’s complicated, I know, and so much easier just to slap Greenspan’s picture on over: “Housing Holocaust Imminent”

They changed the tax code to allow you to keep 100% of the capital gains you realize when your house appreciates and you sell it. It’s the only investment available to the average Joe that does that. Even 401k and suchlike only postpone tax liability, but Real Estate capital gains tax has been voided if you stay in the property for two years. Lots of people buy dumps, renovate them and sell them. Selling your home and getting the equity money tax free is a powerful inducement for home turnover. Lots of people are doing this, and in general the whole market is more wide open to churn, with people buying and selling more often because the IRS isn’t looming over their shoulder like Kong.

Let’s recall the old formulation was you HAD to IMMEDIATELY spend your realized equity on a more expensive house than the one you just sold, or suffer crushing capital gains taxes. That was a much more potent formula for overspending and overvaluing housing than the current tax landscape. The landscape of Real Estate, taxation, and employment has changed dramatically, but the fuddy duddies are mired in the past, and think: Meltdown!

7. What about the cost of land?

This never gets any attention. People shrieking that housing will become worthless overnight never analyze what drives housing prices. Ever try to get a building permit? People who write for the newspapers about real estate bubbles must all go home to their rent controlled apartments after their all night foam party raves and think, any time you want, you can build a house.

It isn’t the same everywhere, but for the most part, a building lot is extremely difficult to get your hands on these days. And if you do manage to get one, it will have myriad of restrictions on what you can build on it. Towns like the one I live in, tax Real Estate sales and use the money to buy land and leave it fallow, because they like mosquitoes and skunks. Oops, I mean "Open Space." What do you suspect that does to the cost of real estate? Do you think the lawyers and engineers you have to hire to run the gamut of committees and officials will work for food?

The cost of a building lot in the town I live in currently is difficult to express as ratio, because there aren’t any lots. Infinity for a price, or zero as a divisor mucks up your bubble ratios. All the bubble popping in the world isn’t going to repeal one of those zoning, environmental, or building code restrictions. And I doubt we’re about to start building dikes to get more real estate like the Dutch did. They blew it all on tulip bulbs anyway. Now there’s a bubble.

8. Be skeptical of people who say: The banks are in a drunken stupor, and are loaning money to felons and imbeciles by the truckload, or are hoping to repossess the properties when they default.

I’m an American, and as such, I’m willing to listen to anything that disparages bankers or politicians, of course, but this one doesn’t hold much water either. The last thing a bank wants is repossessed property.

Listen to NPR. They, among others, have their knickers in a twist because bankers aren’t adhering to “conforming loan” standards. “Conforming loan” refers to strict guidelines set by a bizarre government /private lending business called Fannie-Mae. Now, when I say strict, I really mean bizarre and difficult to comply with. I don’t mean to say they have any correlation to the ability or willingness of a borrower to repay his debt. It’s just that bureaucrats like a pile of paper with heft, and the paperwork they make you fill out to “conform” has that nice heavy feel they like, in that manila folder with the accordion bottom they adore, and they lift it up and say: “That’s about five pounds, here’s your half a mil”

So NPR interviews a guy that gives “no-doc” loans. No doc loans, and their many related cousins, determine your credit worthiness by reviewing your credit history, appraising the property you want to buy, and lending you the portion of the property price they feel comfortable letting out of the bank, in the unlikely event they have to recover the asset and sell it. They charge a premium rate to cover the increased risk of less documentation.

That sounds a whole lot more like sensible business, banking, and risk management practice than the bubble people and their conforming loans.

Let me give you a concrete example of which I have first hand knowledge:

I was an employer twelve years ago. I wanted to buy a house, or buy land and develop it. My brother worked for me, and wanted to buy a house for his family. We applied, by coincidence, at the same bank for “conforming” loans.

The phone rings in my office. Bank lady says, sorry Greg, but we can only lend you $89,000.00 to purchase a five acre lot and build a three bedroom house on it. You’re not incorporated, so you’re considered self employed, and you’re too much of a risk to lend more than that to, even though your credit is spotless. It doesn’t matter that the property will be worth double or triple that amount the minute you’re finished with it, and you’re a licensed builder unlikely to build something unsaleable. Click.

Phone rings again, ten minutes later. EXACT SAME BANK LADY asks: Does your brother work for you? Yes. What are his prospects for future employment with you? Pretty good, mom will be mad if I fire him. I ask the nice lady: Don’t you feel a wee bit silly telling me that owning a business makes me a risky loan prospect, but all my employees have to do is flash two paychecks from me and they’re good to go? Yes, but rules are rules. Click.

I call my brother. How much are you borrowing?

$250,000.00

There’s your conforming loan, bubble dudes.

Friday, August 26, 2005

To Be a Father

The Big One’s ten years old this week. He’s a wonder. He’s always talked like a diplomat. When he was four years old, he met a friend of mine.

“Hi, my name is William Fischer, but you can call me Bill. "

“My name is Miles Gregory Sullivan, and you can call me…Miles Gregory Sullivan.”

We still laugh about that one. Bill called him “Miles Henry Kissinger” from that day forward.
It’s not that simple any more. He’s sophisticated, and has opinions now, as you can imagine, and you can’t always tell what he’s thinking.

And you wonder sometimes if you’re a good father to him.

As he was our first child, we had to figure out how to be parents, on the run. When he sneezed in his crib, you’d stand over him, and tried to draw each labored breath out of him with your willpower alone, and prayed and listened intently for the next. It’s easier with the second child. You know he won’t die. He’ll just give you a cold that makes you run on two cylinders for the five weeks it takes to recover, just in time to give you another.

Miles was always sick. Not real sick, thank goodness, just one ear infection after another. If you’ve had the big pink bottle of medicine in your refrigerator all winter, you know what I’m talking about. He went to daycare, and back before politically correct calculations became an ironclad part of healthcare, the doctor was frank enough to tell us: He’ll be sick all the time, the daycare is a germ swapping laboratory.

Another doctor advised Eustachian tubes. They insert little drains in the tot’s ears to drain the fluid that builds up in there, the theory being that infection can’t breed there if there’s no water to do it in. The doctor warned us about the possibility of deafness if he continued to get infections, while Miles yanked on his stethoscope and made faces, and we decided to try it.

As I understand it, they’ve recently decided to stop advising this treatment. It worked for our boy, as near as we can tell- the frequency of infections plummeted after the procedure, and I recall my wife showing me the little blue tube on his pillow when it fell out some years later.
The procedure required me to be a real husband and father for the first time, and I remember it vividly. We went to a different hospital, better than the awful abattoir we were subjected to when he was born. So far so good. They specialized in doing the procedure. Everybody was very professional and as kind as you could expect from people who were busy.

They explained that our son would have to be anaesthetized, and it would be better if one of his parents was with him, because it would frighten him if he felt alone. My wife was too nervous to do it, and it fell to me. I was put in a cap, gown, and mask, and led into the theater.

My boy was upset, as you can imagine, and clung to me like a little monkey. The doctors and nurses explained that I would have to hold him still while they gave him the gas.

He fought like a tiger.

Parents know their children. My mind drifted back to the many times I carried him up the stairs, already dreaming on my shoulder, unable to keep his eyes open until I placed him in his crib. His legs and arms would gently sway as I mounted the stairs, and his hot breath whispered on my neck, and occasionally he would draw out a long sigh, and his big heavy head would sink a little deeper into my shoulder. After he went in his crib, I often stood over him and watched him sleep. His eyes would flutter under his lids, and he’d murmur and clench his fists, and then drift off again into the deep, untroubled sleep of the innocent and unafflicted. The clock would tick, and the house would emit the endless little sounds, the rhythm of the seasons working their way through the boards; and I would wait, and watch, and when he was safe and warm and content, we were both content.

As I said, parents know their children. And I knew this time, my little boy was terrified. Strangers in masks were holding a mask over his face, and he couldn’t breathe, and the light shone in his eyes like ten suns, and everything was hard and cold and strange.
And his father held him, so the strangers could kill him.

What else could he have thought? He looked up at me, just before the gas finished its work, his limbs flailing, and me using all my weight and strength to try to hold him still, and he looked into my face, and I knew those eyes- my eyes, his grandfather’s eyes- they looked at me and accused me: Father, they’re killing me. How could you help them?

It was the hardest thing I ever had to do, and remains so to this day. I spent the next forty-five minutes beside myself with doubt and uncertainty, as anyone understands who knows what it means to have your child asleep without the surety he would wake up. And the possibility was remote, of course, that it could go wrong, and he could be taken from us. But all “unlikely” means is the possibility of your life becoming meaningless, and the universe disintegrating and being ground to dust with everything in it, is “unlikely.”

And the last thing he would have seen on this earth was me, helping the monsters.
It was the longest forty five minutes of my life, and I couldn’t really explain to my wife what I felt, for you cannot share worry like that until it is over, it doesn’t diminish it for you, it multiplies on the telling.

He was fine, of course, and woke up happy as ever, and amused the staff with his antics until we could take him home.

It was a little thing, but it seemed the world to me, and I hope it’s never surpassed by any other thing in my life. But that’s not likely. Life has lots of curve balls in it.

Sometimes you have to do the hard thing, even if you’re not 100% certain. You makes your bets, and you takes your chances, as they say. It’s cold comfort I’m sure, to know you did what you had to do, if things go badly.

“It would have been worse for him if you weren’t there,” they told me, and I believed them.

Put that on my gravestone, if it’s true.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Beware Justin Gotta

Guten tag

Goodness, this house design thing is getting complicated.

Yes, yes it is.

Who’s Justin Gotta, you ask? Why he’s your consultant for house design, decorating, work, home, play, finances, politics, childrearing…

Let me explain.

I’ve discovered a rule of thumb that has carried me through my life without disappointment for many years. I came to these two realizations, this two pronged observation, observing customers’ as well as employees’ behavior. I realized only later that it applied to almost any stripe of life as well. Here it is:

Part 1: When the customer uses the word “just” in a sentence, you’re going to hear something dumb.

Example: “Why don’t you just build the second floor first, we have the lumber for that, and slip the first floor under it later? Why can’t we just do that?”

Or: “Why can’t we just make the house two thousand square feet bigger for no money?

Part2: When an employee uses the words “I gotta” in a sentence, it’s going to be followed by something stupid, or a lie, or a toxic admixture of mendacity and foolishness.

Example: "I can’t work today because I gotta…"

I’m not going to bother finishing that sentence, because it doesn’t matter what follows; it’ll be really dumb, or a fib, likely both, I assure you.

On one hand, I’ve had employees come to me and ask me if they could please leave work fifteen minutes early on Friday afternoon, because they had to go to chemotherapy. They scheduled their treatments on Fridays in the afternoon so they could recover in time for Monday.

People like that never use the words “I gotta.”

The “I gotta” is a sort of a vestigal verbal tail, left over from the teen years, used for trying to weasel out of your obligations or get treatment you don’t deserve by appealing to a deus ex machina, an overriding imaginary obligation that makes further discussion or disputation impossible:

“But I said I gotta have Wednesday off! Didn’t you hear me? I gotta! It’s not like I have a choice in the matter, I gotta pick up my brother and go to the casino and get loaded and then I gotta get another day off in a couple weeks to go to court for missing my child support payments that I blew at the racetrack on the way home from the casino and the barroom.”

“I just gotta.”

Keeping a watchful eye out for those two terms has served me in good stead lo these many years. And I always give as good as I get, so I’m careful to beware of them lest they appear in my own sentences.

Customers, beware the just and gottas on your own end, as well. Like an accusing index finger, the just and gottas generally have a malefactor on both ends of them.

If you hear: “We were going to work at your house this week but we gotta…”

Oh no. We gotta. The “we gotta” is an especially virulent form of the virus, and has been known to wipe out entire work weeks. Beware.

“Can’t you just pay us in advance? Because we gotta…”

This is the equivalent of the plague sweeping a medieval town. If you spot the dreaded we gotta, in the same sentence, or egads, the same prepositional phrase as can’t you just?, abandon all hope. There is nothing left for you but prayer.

I began to notice that the rule applied to everything in life, not just work. It’s as close to the Golden Rule as I’ve ever gotten, and I’m no philosopher. Think about it.

It’s charming to remember a time when that jug eared martian from Texas, Ross Perot was a legitimate presidential candidate, and whose whole party platform consisted of saying “Why can’t we just…?” about everything. Why can’t we just tell those Palestinians and Jews to knock it off? Why can’t we just raise the gas tax fifty cents? Why can’t we just run the federal government out of a Motel 6 in Austin?

And so forth. It’s a testament to the attraction of the “just” and “gotta” that he got as far as he did, and likewise a testament to the good sense of the electorate that finally realized he just a cross between your boss saying: “Why can’t you just work on Christmas eve for free?” and your plumber telling you he couldn’t come for two days because “I gotta wax my boat”

And so dear reader, remember, when someone says: Why don’t you “Just do it?” tell them you don’t “just” become a two hundred and seventy pound mass of muscle who runs as fast as a sprinter by buying shoes. When you hear: “Why don’t we just get five gay men to decorate our shabby apartment on television, or: “I gotta talk to the president again and dictate American foreign policy from a ditch by the side of the road, why can’t we just ..,” caution is called for.

Beware Justin Gotta.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Beating the Kitchen to Death

I warned you this room is important. Two days of me harping on it is the least worship it deserves.

Back when people were carpeting their kitchens and watching Mary Tyler Moore feed Rhoda in her apartment, there was a fetish for “Galley Kitchens.” It was the love child of the house as “a machine for living” approach to home design. If you ask me, that was simply assuming human beings were robots, and deliberately making things ugly as proof that they were more “useful.”
Well, galley kitchens were awful, and I don’t want to sit in a bean bag chair and eat fondue, with Rhoda, thanks, anyway.

Some things aren’t simple. Kitchens are complicated. People are not all identical. Simple, identical rules for kitchen design are unlikely to make even a large minority of people happy. And unfortunately, kitchen design help mostly consists of a clerk helping you to ram as many kitchen cabinets as will fit in the area you’ve got for a kitchen, and little else. And I’ve already told you- you have too many cabinets, and not enough pantry.

The idea that fewer steps between the three main work stations in the kitchen- the sink, the stove, and the refrigerator- makes the kitchen more efficient drove a design flurry of really small kitchens for a while. Then people got tired of smashing their shin on the dishwasher when they tried to get between it and the opposite counter, dodging around the refrigerator door to unload more than one item to a staging area at a time, holding five bowls of ingredients while manning the skillet because there wasn’t enough counter between the sink and the stove, or the stove and the frig, or both, and realizing that not only was their efficient kitchen too small, the designer forgot two main work areas completely: mixing, and serving.

The iron triangle of kitchen design was 21 feet total between sink, stove, and refrigerator. Period. They taught me nothing else about kitchen design at architecture school. And I ignore that, so perhaps a refund is in order. I won’t hold my breath.

As houses stated to get much bigger, and the kitchen could afford more elbow room, the idea of that 21 feet made for some really strange layouts, with a logjam in one corner, and yards of undifferentiated counters and cabinets all over the rest of the room.

Here’s what I’ve learned, watching lots of people struggle with, or enjoy, their kitchens:
-Forget the old triangle, it’s: sink, stove, microwave, refrigerator, preparation.

-The sink usually has a strainer next to it. Make a little doll that looks like your kitchen designer and shove pins in it if they claim that area counts towards counter space. Ditto any counter used to eat at. Ditto counter that gets appliances on it. If there’s stuff on it all the time, you can’t use it. You’re going to need lots of space at waist level to cook things, and you won’t find it under the dish drainer.

-If you plant the preparation area in the middle, the old triangle can expand. Take stuff out of the refrigerator, and you can place it on the prep area for use at the sink or stove. You usually do that anyway. Put the cabinet with glasses near the refrigerator, not the sink, and you’ll keep a lot of civilians out of the food preparation loop. They drink things out of the refrigerator now. Putting the glasses next to the tapwater is so, well, pre-Evian.

-The microwave has little to do with the stove. Give it its own place, as we discussed before, with room nearby, and you’ll be glad you did. Defrosted food from the microwave generally needs to be prepared further, and having it right over the stove, above eye level for many people, makes no sense. Put it in the island or something, don’t make me tell you again.

-If the counter’s not stone, put a patch of stone in whatever you’ve got for the counter, in the prep area. Good for making pastry, and double extra good for putting a hot thing from the stove, sink, or microwave down without delay, and skip looking for something to protect the counter from the heat, failing and burning yourself.

In this modern world, where we’re expected to pick over our trash like raccoons, the old paradigm of a little barrel under the sink for everything trashlike won’t cut it any more. Make easy-to-use segregated bins for however many types of trash and recyclables you need to sort, and sort them before they go in, not (ugh) after. Spend ten cents on your kitchen cabinetry and all the rest of your money on the hardware that makes the drawers and doors and slide in/out stuff work for the trash, because you’ll wear that out faster than any other thing in the kitchen, and curse the blasted thing more than any other thing that fails.

Remember the kitchen isn’t just being used for food preparation anymore. Don’t count any area that’s being used for something else domestic as food prep areas, or you’ll end up with olive oil on your kid’s homework, or butter on your television. The kitchen’s bigger because it’s not just a kitchen anymore.

-Drawers are too rare in the kitchen. In general, drawers inside cabinet doors should just be drawers. Use really nice ball bearing slides for the drawers, rated for 100 pounds, and you’ll enjoy the smooth feel of the drawer action instead of the banging around of the cabinets doors you get trying to pull out a drawer inside a cabinet with cheap nylon runners.

-If you must have wood countertops, or freestanding wood furniture instead of an island or counter, bless you, but remember to put them in the prep area, and enjoy the rich grain and color. Put it anywhere near the sink or the stove only if you enjoy the rich patina and invigorating colorations of scorch marks and mildew.

If you don’t want to make it too big, put every one of the work nodes no more than ten feet from the central work node, the preparation area. Using that arithmetic, nothing is more than twenty feet from everything else.

Set aside a place to hide in there, even if it’s just a little niche, to talk on the phone.

What’s for dinner?

Friday, August 12, 2005

How About the Kitchen?

Good morning all.

Kitchens cost all the money. Bathrooms are expensive too, especially when you figure by cost per square foot, but there’s a lot of pricey stuff in a kitchen, and lots of utilities that have to serve it.

In the modern home, the kitchen is the most important room in the house. We’ve integrated at least casual eating in the room itself, and generally the family room is at least attached to the kitchen, if not part of it entirely.

It wasn’t always this way, you know. There was a time in the distant past when the smell of cooking in the home was considered objectionable, and the kitchen was located with an eye to segregating it entirely from the living areas. Big old post-revolutionary homes sometimes had the kitchen in separate buildings entirely, and the food was brought into the house only when ready to be served.

Boston Chicken take-out notwithstanding, we don’t do it that way anymore. We’re our own scullery maids now, and the idea of banishing the food preparation to another world is alien to us.

The common folk always had it right, if the aristocrats didn’t. The average colonial home had a great big fireplace in a common room, and the fireplace served as furnace, stove, oven, and light, and the room was where the daily activities of the entire family were performed.

Gathering in a room like this is familial and pleasant. Or it should be, if your builder knows what he’s doing, and you know what to ask for. Let’s see if we can help.

The floor needs to be hard, of course. There was a short lived flurry of kitchens with carpeting in them about thirty years ago, as I recall, but the first grape juice spill changed that notion right quick, I imagine. Wall to wall carpeting for the masses was still a novelty then, and like all items for the home that suddenly become both available and inexpensive, there’s a lot of overkill for a time until people get some perspective. Now that I think about it, the cheap carpet craze didn’t stop there, people here and there carpeted their walls too.

No, I’m not making this up.

The seventies were pretty bad for interior decoration if I remember correctly. Everything was a fad, and it was all bad, like carpeting on the wall. Avocado colored appliances. Stick on mirror tiles. Parquet stick on floors. Dizzying geometric wall paper. Flocked dizzying geometric wallpaper. Hippy crap mixed in with Art Deco furniture knock-offs. Horrible ersatz cartoon colonial furniture, with the proportions all wrong, the distressing done in what seemed like a fussy fashion, but with a hatchet, and all in that drab brown stain that turned people off to the term “Early American” for two decades at least.

Paneling. Everywhere.

Blue siding with cocoa brown trim. Gold shag carpeting. Stick-on bricks. Bean bag chairs. Naugahyde recliners. Plastic drinking glasses. Chrome furniture.

Couple shiny powder blue polyester fabric on the furniture with shiny powder blue Qiana leisure suits, and the lack of friction ends you up on the floor like you’re riding down a log flume.

Unexplained track lighting. Wrought iron everything. “Mediterranean” console televisions.…
I, I, um, I’m sorry. I went down the seventies rabbit hole, and went into shock. I picture all that stuff, with the Partridge Family on the TV, and Nixon, Agnew, Ford and Carter as the decade’s Mount Rushmore, and I want to go back in time, and become an arsonist. It was all bad. Bad, bad, bad.

You don’t believe me? Too young to have known it, or older, but in denial? I typed “70s decorating” into Google, and it came back with a site featuring decorating bibliographies by decade. The 70s started with:

Goldman, Phyllis W. Decorate With Felt. New York: Crowell, 1973

Thanks, Phyllis, but I’ll pass.

Where were we before I wigged out? Oh yes, the non-carpeted kitchen. Except for a short period in the eighties where rubber industrial flooring and cork tiles were the rage, and an unfortunate period a decade ago when people resurrected Frank Lloyd Wright’s very bad idea of dyed concrete floors with the heat right in them, (I’m pretty sure we don’t think living in the garage is a bad idea just because the floor’s cold- concrete floors are AWFUL!) flooring in the kitchen has been 50/50 split between tile and wood. Pick your poison. They’re both fine.

I like differentiating the food preparation areas from the informal eating and casual rumpus areas by putting tile on the floor. I’ve put a two foot wide strip of tile along the flooring at the cabinets, with the rest wood, with good results too. Make sure there’s no bump of any kind where the disparate flooring meets, lest ye find yourself face down on the floor in a bowl of hot something. These are the details that matter, and are often overlooked, and haunt you day and night.

Okay, now blow twenty five thousand on cabinets.

What else can I say about them? They cost a fortune, even though they’re made in the land of the fortune cookie now, probably.

In general, there’s too many of them. If you have a plan that shows very long runs of cabinets, trash it and have the builder put in a pantry. A real walk in room, with open shelves on three sides, and a window on the end, don’t forget that, is so much nicer than opening a million cabinets looking for what you want. You can close the door on the clutter, too, so the open shelving’s terrific. If you don’t have the space, a pantry closet adjacent to the food prep area will do.

In general, they’re numbingly repetitive. Box after box, hanging on the wall, all essentially the same, is dull. Mix in open shelving, vary the counter heights, Vary the cabinet heights, make some deeper than others, and generally make the place more interesting and useful by doing so.
Cabinets are often distressed these days, and might as well be right out of the gate. They will be sooner than later anyway. The room gets a lot of use now, and not just for cooking, so make it as homey as you can.

Dishes stack neatly, and open shelving for them won’t look as messy as it sounds. Putting lesser used patterns behind glass doors protects them from dust between holiday meals, and you can still display them.

Lay off the oak on the cabinet doors, will ya? It has a coarse, sawtooth grain that’s at odds with many of the common styles of cabinets. Mission yes, medieval, yes, colonial revival, no. And when you tire of them, (trust me, you will) the open grain paints up lousy.

Never let the side of the refrigerator show. Build an enclosure for it or something. Cabinets on both sides, anything.

Island cooktops shouldn’t be across a short stretch of countertop to counter stool seating. Getting second degree burns from bacon splatters while eating your cereal is an overrated morning amusement, in my book.

Rethink the ubiquitous microwave integrated into the range hood. It locates the item coming out of microwave, some times scalding hot, above eye level for many people. It’s a greasy location too, over the burners, and either the microwave has to be small, or the clearance between it and the burners suffers. Sometimes bad ideas become industry standards. This is one of those.

Try locating the microwave in the island. It’s dead storage in there for the most part, anyway, and you don’t need as much of that now that you have that pantry. Our nine year old son can make his own popcorn at that height, and hot items come out and are placed on the counter just above, instead of being dropped all over yourself, the stove, and the floor if the microwave’s over the stove, five feet up.

A few more things:

Make sure there’s countertop on both sides of the cooktop. Even in cramped quarters, avoid the mistake of placing the refrigerator right next to the stove. You need places to stage the items coming on and off the stove.

The cabinet over the refrigerator should be flush with the face of the refrigerator, or it’s worthless.

Window, or windows over the sink. I will brook no argument on this. A blank wall, or, egad, a cabinet face, should get a designer jail time.

Anyone who gives you a detailed reason why the dishwasher HAS to be to the right of the sink, because most people are right handed and blah blah blah, is drinking cooking sherry and after-shave when no one’s looking, I suspect. You load the dishwasher with both hands, and unload it in every direction. Put it where it fits.

And look out for people who tell you to put the dishwasher near the seating area, not the sink, “because that’s where the dishes are.” I suppose that’s true for people who lick their plates like a puppy instead of scraping gristle into the trash, and rinsing the dish before loading, but with that sort of logic, you’ll have a washer and a dryer for nightstands, “because that’s where the sheets are.”

More Kitchen Ruminations on Monday.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Okay, Now Where Do We Put Them?

Bon Jour

Windows and doors cost a fortune, and they’re all terrible. Got it.

No, no, that‘s not what I meant to say. The windows are fine, really, and I’m sure you’re smart enough to avoid the pitfalls.

Now there’s two ways to look at these things. For example, let’s look at vinyl siding. I’ve told you I don’t like it, and wouldn’t live in a house that was encrusted with it. Plenty of people share my sentiments. Many don’t, as a cursory look out the window in the car reveals. (By the way, my vinyl friends, no matter what the salesman told you, I can tell it’s vinyl at ten thousand yards, and I can barely read the road signs)

But I understand vinyl siding. People couldn’t get a straight answer about painting their house. Why does it peel? Why can’t I find someone to paint it? Do you really expect me to climb that ladder every four years and fight the bees and scrape that shingle? The football game’s on! Both the vinyl installer and the painter have a parole officer, but the vinyl guy only comes once.

And so, people who value neatness, and haven’t the funds to hire someone or the Wallenda gene for ladders, choose vinyl. Different strokes, as they say. I might suggest you might be happier with masonry of some sort, but what’s done is done.

My questions are different. I ask: “Can I paint it?” not “Do I have to paint it?” I know from long experience that something that requires regular maintenance can be rejuvenated. And it will last much, much, longer than something that is very durable, but can’t be refreshed. Paint is a sacrificial layer, and one that can add color, and texture, and you can change if need be. I’ve painted 275 year old windows, still going strong. They were surrounded by the vinyl siding of their day, weathered shingles. The shingles were over a hundred years old, and weathered to a lovely color you couldn’t ever mimic. I assure you, “permanent” things like vinyl siding won’t last that long. It seems counterintuitive, but the stuff sold as “the last thing you’ll ever need” is really disposable. It’s that stuff you have to take care of that lasts forever.

And with windows and doors, there are two ways of looking at it too, in general. There’s the hi-tech approach, and the old fashioned approach. I’ve taken both, at one time or another. What’s the diff?

Go to a window showroom, and they’ll lay the hi-tech jargon on you. Low-E glass, hermetically sealed glass, with a vacuum between the sheets, or perhaps argon gas in there if you want to impress your neighbors. Space shuttle rubber for weatherstripping- Check.

You can still buy old-fashioned windows. They’re really not old-fashioned. They are made of wood, and can be painted or stained, but they have modern jambs or crank hardware, locks, and weatherstripping.

The best windows I’ve ever seen are on the front of my home. They are true divided light windows, 12 over twelve, wood, in wood frames. You can tilt them in to paint them or wash them, and they don’t slam on your fingers like old windows use to, but in all respects they are the real deal. They get their requisite energy efficiency by the installation of a glass panel, which is routed into and fitted to each sash panel on the exterior side with a few clips. You can get the glass with low-E coatings, which protect the interior contents from damaging UV rays, while reflecting the hot sun in the summer, but not the winter. Don’t ask how it knows; it’s like your thermos, it just knows.

If someone tosses an errant baseball, and breaks a panel and a pane, you can remove a panel from an adjacent window and cover the broken pane. The exterior side of the muntins has old fashioned putty glazing holding the window panes in, but because the putty is inside the glass, and protected from the elements, it doesn’t degrade like it does when exposed to the weather; mine are over ten years old, and haven’t required repainting yet. The exterior side of the sash frames can be painted by tilting the windows in, and running a brush around them. Easy.
The windows are wonderful in use, because they allow you to grab any of the muntin bars and operate the window. Sooner or later, either you or your children try that with the fake muntin bars, and make kindling out of them. And they have a real depth to them, and throw real shadows and reflect the light, and look authentic and fine.

The rest of the windows on the house are of the more usual vacuum sealed double pane glass variety. About a third of these “low maintenance” windows now feature a fogged sash, as the seals didn’t last, while the “high maintenance” windows are just getting warmed up on their three or four hundred year run. The “permanent” ones didn’t all last ten years. And they can’t be rejuvenated in any cost effective way. The whole sash has to go.

So pick your poison, and let’s get on with it. Where do we locate them? How many do we want?
I’ll try to make this simple:

-Don’t leave any room you enter, bathrooms and walk in closets included, without a window.

-Don’t put skylights in your bathroom. Ever.

-Don’t put a big window in your bath over the tub. I don’t care how secluded your yard is, you won’t bathe in front of it anyway. Even women who dance around a pole are generally wearing a thong. I doubt you’re more of an exhibitionist than them. And no matter how many ads you see for towering vaulted bathrooms with skylights, it’s always a bad idea. No amount of ventilation and lighting is going to fix it, either. Trust me, I’ve talked to hundreds of people after they’ve lived in their homes for a few years. It’s always, always, a bad, bad, idea.

-Surprisingly, a window over your bathroom sink is pleasant. It’s nice to look out the window at the birds and flowers while you’re brushing your teeth. Put the mirror off to one side,or on a stand on the countertop. No one ever seems to do this though. They do often put the window over the toilet, which I don’t get; facing either way, it’s no use to me.

-Don’t light any room you want to stay in for any amount of time from one side only. Light means natural light, by the way. Two adjacent walls is great, three is superb, but hard to come by. Four is weird and disorienting.

-If you can’t get windows into adjacent walls, the room will be harder to fenestrate, and requires a lot of thought. Gang windows together, put transoms over them too, and raise the ceiling height some, if you can. Paint the walls lighter colors to try to get that light as deep in there as you can and bouncing around. A real big mirror on the wall opposite the windows can help too. Look, I’m warning you, this is the most common mistake in housing today. A bedroom with a window on one wall is a prison cell. Don’t do it.

-If at all possible, in almost any clime in the USA, orient your house to face the southeast. That’s where the light is. In the winter, where I am, it’s your only hope. If your house can’t face that way, get the windows working as much as possible in that direction.

-Put a window you can see out next to, or in, the door where people call. Read my rant about having a door people can find to call at in my snout house rant.

-If you seek privacy in a room, like facing a busy street or too close to your neighbor’s house, use bands of monitor windows to get light in the room, and a view of the sky. Monitor windows are bands of horizontally configured windows with a sill no lower than your chin. If you use awning windows for these, you can leave them open in the rain, too.

-Interior glass is a forgotten art. Use transom windows and interior glass, translucent for privacy if need be, to get light into the middle of your house.

-If you live in any climate that requires heating for any portion of the year, don’t put windows right over your bed. This is a common fad these days. Skylights are pretty bad too. In heating seasons, room air hits the glass, cools, and heads to the floor. This is what is commonly termed “a draft.” This is not desirable. Put the windows on each side of the bed instead, and the breeze will come in in the summer, and you won’t feel like you’re sleeping in the bottom of a Siberian mineshaft in the winter. And if you want to gaze at the stars while in bed, put a window or skylight on the opposite side of your room from the bed, not right over it. Last time I checked though, you did very little stargazing while you were asleep. File the “stargazing window” over the bed under “goofy ideas.”

-Every stairwell needs natural light, at every landing. The big window on the second storey over the doorway in a stairwell is there for a reason. The stairwell is usually hard to light from the back end, it generally ends smack dab in the middle of the house. So use the advice for rooms with windows on one side. Skylights are superb here, generally. Designers are getting better at this, in general.

-Don’t buy great big sheets of glass. Gang smaller units together.

-Use windows to frame views. Huge expanses of glass gaping at the landscape makes even spectacular views into a kind of wallpaper. The Mona Lisa has a frame. Your ocean view should too.

-Don’t use sliding glass doors for any door you use often. Think of them as windows with a really low sill that you can climb out of. That’s about how convenient and easy to use they are, no more.

-A regular door at the top of your cellar stairs instead of a bulkhead is a luxury you should spring for.

-Insulated metal doors are cheap and durable. Use them for your high traffic areas. Choose a formal entry door made from real wood. It will get less use, but you’ll feel like a squire when you can turn away the Jehovah’s Witnesses and hear the door close with that satisfying thunk, the one that says: “…and stay out”

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

What About the Windows?

When a house is being constructed, there comes a day when it’s ready for the doors and windows. The roof is on, generally, or at least sheathed and papered. No siding yet. But the framing, except perhaps interior partitions, is done. The doors and windows are expensive, sometimes the most expensive single outlay for a house, so they’re rarely stored on the site during construction. When you’re ready, they bring them, and you try mightily to put them all right in the framed holes that very day. When they’re in, the house is said to be “tight to the weather,’ and the contractor is happy that his crew can work under the roof if it rains and the house can be locked up at night, at least enough to keep honest people out. Your house looks like a house now.

That’s quite a laundry list of benefits, and you don’t even live there yet. For something so important, and expensive as the windows and doors, you’d think they’d given more attention.

In today’s rant, I have to talk about subtlety again. Sorry. You thought you were off the hook after we covered paint, and we could talk about things that require hammers again.

Look, there’s lots of things in your house, and they affect you deeply, sometimes so you can notice, others in ways that you can’t quite put your finger on, but they annoy you just the same, and they cause most of the endless tinkering I see people doing to their homes, trying to solve the same problems over and over again.

For example: You want to watch entertainment on a screen. You wish to have a place to do so, that can accommodate you and the furniture and necessary equipment. And you tinker with the rooms you have, and then add room after room, until your house touches the neighbor’s houses on all four sides, and is four stories tall, trying to find a place to do it. Your formal living room was too small. You couldn’t dodge around the furniture, and got tired of cracking your shin on the coffee table, and the windows behind the couch always seemed to reflect on the screen, so you made it a dungeon with curtains, and then it was too depressing a room to stay in, and you cast a longing look at that vaulted family room off the kitchen, there’s a TV in there already, let’s try again. And you have more room for the furniture and equipment, but you get tired of the dishwasher noise, and you can’t make out the dialog in the movies because the acoustics are terrible, and the sliding glass doors make glare ten times worse than the living room had, so you get blinds for them, but the dog is always whacking at them to get out, and you’re constantly having to fix them and clean them, and you think, I’ll build an addition. But it’s just another version of the same thing, only now the windows are behind the screen, facing you, and the sun’s in your eyes. Or something.

You try the basement. Bang Bang Bang. No glare. Privacy’s nice. Kinda cold in the winter, though, and the concrete under the carpet is tough on your ankles. And after the third time you rip out the carpet when the basement floods, you try again somewhere else. And so on.

The best houses avoid problems, and additions add to the sum of the dwelling, they don’t try to address the same problems over and over. You can save yourself a lot of problems by intelligent design, suited to your lifestyle, and starting with a house that has the bones that allows you to make it your own, and not be an uphill battle the whole way.

The easiest way to make rooms in your house unlivable is to botch the windows and doors. Get them wrong, and Martha Stewart, Norm Abram, Frank Lloyd Wright and Harry Potter won’t be able to fix the rooms for you. And many times, the reason for your dislike for certain rooms will be subtle, as I mentioned, and you’ll waste a lot of blood and treasure trying to fix them, and never know why you still find yourself avoiding them.

I live in a colonial house. That means certain things. For windows, it means that the widow glass is divided up into panes. Some of my windows really are divided light windows, and some mimic the look with muntins that snap in the frames.

Of all the crimes against windows, the bizarre nature of false muntins is the worst.

Let’s reject any window with flat aluminum grids sandwiched between the sheets of glass right off. They look like a prison window, even from fifty yards away. A pleasant house is not a prison, unless you’re Martha Stewart. The muntins, even if they’re false, are there to look picturesque. Steel grids between the sheets of glass cannot be picturesque. Don’t do it. Cased closed.

The main reason colonial houses had windows with small panes of glass, is that glass was expensive, and big pieces of glass were either unavailable or crazy expensive. So window sash dimensions were based on multiples of fairly standard sizes of relatively small glass panes. 6x8 inches, 7x9, 8x8,8x12, and if you’re rich, and needed stately windows back then, perhaps you could afford 9x12, set in bigger frames.

Now, you could get various proportions of height to width by varying how many panes a sash held, like 6 over 6 (very common,) or 12 over 12, and so forth. Vary the height to width even further by having 9 panes over 6, or 6 over nine, or 8 over 12, and so forth.

Nowadays, you can get glass any size you want. There’s no controlling factor for the dimensions. Windows are chosen without regard to proportion, and then divided up willy nilly by clip on, between glass, or applied muntins. And they look bizarre, if you know how strange the proportions are, and even if you don’t, they are the kind of subtle detail that you might miss, but affects you nonetheless. The windows look really squat, or too tall, or the panes look wrong in number, and the effect cuts up the view in disturbingly proportioned boxes. The worst offender is when the false panes in a really wide window are wider than they are tall, and you feel like you’re in a funhouse.

In general nowadays, the capstone to this foolishness is using a brickmould for the exterior frame, in a shingled or clapboarded house. The thin, 2-1/2 wide moulding brings the siding right up to the sashes, and the house looks like a face with the eyebrows shaved off. The windows are like holes punched into the siding, as they would be if they were in a masonry wall, but are vaguely weird looking, like a black eye in a deep socket. Builders save a few pennies on the 4 inch frame that should surround the window, and tell you it’s low maintenance because there’s no frame to paint. It’s not worth it. Don’t do it.

Now mistakes like these are essentially unfixable. Even if you noticed the difference and wanted to change things, you’re not going to rip out the most expensive items in your house and start over. Even if you did, the window opening is still the same (badly proportioned) size. It’s got to be right from the get go.

When choosing windows, determine a pane size, even if the panes will be false, and stick to it. Use appropriate multiples of the panes to get windows of various sizes and shapes, but that will look like they all belong in the same house. If your home isn’t of the colonial variety, the windows are still based on a proportional system of some sort. Have your designer find out what it is, and stick to it. It’s actually easier to specify windows if you can just extrapolate everything from one pane size, than it is to simply look at the window catalog, and the hundreds of available dimensions, and wonder how tall and wide each should be.

Tomorrow:

Okay, Now Where Do We Put Them?

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, White.

Hiya.

Have you folks seen Mr Blandings Builds His Dream House? It’s a great movie from 1949 about an ad executive from New York City and his family that move to the “wilds” of Western Connecticut, and the adventures they have building a house there. It’s great fun, and still has a lot to offer the modern viewer. The foibles are universal, and the relationship between the owners and the contractors really hasn’t changed much in the intervening fifty years or so.
There’s a scene in the movie where Mrs Blandings (Myrna Loy) collars the Painting Contractor, and goes over the color scheme for the interior of the house. It’s priceless. Benjamin Moore liked it so much they made the scene into a television commercial a few years back. Having been on the receiving end of the same transaction countless times gave it the frisson of recognition you get with something familiar in a movie, well portrayed.

Mrs. Blandings recounts to the contractor, who never says anything more than a few mumbled words and grunts of agreement, the litany of adjectives, moods, and elaborate examples she has for the colors in the house. She describes butter, and a certain apple, and supplies him with a piece of thread, and points out a tiny dot on a scrap of wallpaper, and so forth. The descriptions are so involved and specific, in the vaguest sort of way, that the contractor seems barely able to drink them all in. Of course the white for the kitchen is “not a cold, antiseptic hospital white, but not to suggest any other color than white” to Mrs Blandings.

The woman leaves, and the contractor’s previously solicitous face grows blasé, and he turns to his foreman, and asks: “Got that Charlie?” The man points to all the rooms, one after another, and reels off: “Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, White.” They exchange “Oh, Brother” looks. Priceless.

Look, they’re just colors. They name them after things, and moods, and so forth, but trust me, when the contractor goes to the paint store, it’s still “give me a gallon of #285 in the flat latex.” The fact that you call it “Essence of Euphrates Washed Babylonian Sand of Ninevah” won’t change that. It’s just tan.

Houses are getting to be big plastery spaces. The amount and complexity of the millwork and flooring shrinks all the time, and people are relying on color more than ever to differentiate rooms, and add interest, so it’s important to choose them wisely. And it’s not all that easy.
The human eye is the most sensitive in the animal kingdom to minute differences in color. I doubt that ability is some vestigal leftover from Paleolithic times to see berries on bushes far away. Humans are constructed to be sophisticated animals. And what you look at affects how you feel. So paint your walls pleasant colors, in good combinations, or you’ll be sad, perhaps miserable. And if you’re miserable already, painting your house like a Goth Rocker’s dungeon is unlikely to help you any either.

Let’s take it from the top, shall we? Everything you think is a “warm” color, generally speaking, is as about as warm as Pluto in winter, at night. “Warm” used as an adjective for color has become an absolute good, like everybody’s children being “above average.”

Black’s cold, and any grey made with it usually is too. Red’s cold, usually although everyone will tell you it’s a hot color. Hot ain’t warm. Most pastels are cool tones. Neon colors are called hot, but usually are cold looking too. You’ve got to get those earth tones in there, or the color is cool to the eye.

I remember a fellow I used to work with, many long years ago, that taught me how to mix colors with pigments. The rack of pigments was different than what an artist uses, and I’ve noticed that artist’s brushes are way too small to get your living room done in time for that dinner party you’re throwing too.

As I was saying, the fellow amazed me, in that he could make most anything, colorwise, out of most anything else. He knew his color wheel, and more important, he knew how to make it work with the traditional palette of pigments that painters use.

I lived in a dilapidated but architecturally interesting apartment. I wanted to paint the built in shelves in one room a rich, dark grey color that I saw my coworker making. He said sure, I’ll make you some, and scanned the mismatched mess of half-used cans that were left from failed samples proposed to the owners of the large house we were working at. He picked up a can of light rose colored paint.

This I had to see.

Thalo Green, the opposite on the wheel, and all the red in the pink disappeared. Light grey now.
Raw Umber darkened it, and gave it a richer tone.
Raw sienna warmed up the color, which was flirting with a kind of purplish tone.
He pondered a moment.
A drop of burnt sienna, and we were done.

Really rich, warm color. Not “warm” like everyone bandies about for things like blue, which is pretty much glacial, by the way, but earthy, complex, sophisticated…

Okay, I almost lapsed into Myrna Loy territory there. But it was a handsome grey. It must have been, Jimmy Carter was President back then, and I still remember it to this day and wax poetic about it.

And so I learned how to make those colors, and what makes them tick. And I’ll give you some easy advice on how to get rich, interesting, um, well, warm colors for your walls: Throw away all the color brochures you’ve got. There’s generally upwards of 2000 colors in those color wheels, and they’re nothing but trouble on roller skates, I’m telling you. Just because you’re sophisticated and don’t decorate like you live in a trailer park doesn’t mean you’re ready to navigate through that, any more than having a driver’s license means you know how to weld a monococque automobile chassis. You need an editor, and fast. And if you think that you’re always going to get good advice from your decorating magazines, go to the library and look at the back issues from just five years ago. They look pretty terrifying when the bloom is off the rose, generally.

Instead, go to a paint dealer that sells exterior paint, in any brand that has something called “Historical Colors.” Some have interior colors, but get the exterior colors too. they'll work, and the colors can be mixed in any product.

Ben Moore’s good, and familiar, but many other manufacturers will fit the bill. Cheap paint generally has two problems with it. The paint itself is fine, but the materials the manufacturers supply with it, like color selectors, stink, and the pigments they use are plastic looking and used in overly simple formulas to make unsophisticated colors. The trouble with cheap paint is that it’s just as good as good paint, and so will last a s long as the good stuff, and look bad the whole time.

Pick your interior colors out of there. They really are all warm in there, because back when they were making the paint colors that are mimicked in the Historical Colors, the pigments needed to make electrifying colors were scarcer than good advice is now, and they got interesting effects by juxtaposing interesting colors next to one another, not by tossing in screeching pigments like chrome yellow and candy apple red and so forth.

Get a quart of anything you’re thinking of buying more than a gallon of. Paint a portion of the wall, say, three feet square, and look at it for a couple of days. Forget the postage stamp sized strips of colors you get at the displays in the Home Depot I warned you about yesterday. Even an experienced pro has trouble using those to pick colors appropriately, and the presence of several closely related but different colors on the card can throw you way off. The exterior color selectors generally have suggested color combinations too, and you can find related colors to paint your millwork, and to thrust in front of the person who’s asking you what color your couch pillows should be too.

I worked at a very old house when Ford was president, and it was painted a medium grey, with a sort of dull coral pink front door. It poked you right in the eye, but each color taken alone was almost somber. It was the juxtaposition that made them jump out at you. It’s hard to achieve that kind of sophisticated and subtle interaction, so let someone else do the legwork for you, someone that knows what they’re doing, and studies colors for a living. Like all good executives do when making decisions, have a few excellent choices placed in front of you, and choose from those. Just don’t tell the designers that you’re using the exterior chart for interiors, or they’ll excommunicate me.

But I assure you, the clerk in the store will just nod and smile when you specify exterior colors in interior paints, and the formulas work just the same.

I bet he’s mumbling, under his breath the whole time he’s mixing them, too: “Red, Green, Blue,Yellow, White.”

Monday, August 08, 2005

Beware Home Depot

Hello all.

Please don’t get me wrong. I adore Home Depot, and its Blue counterpart Lowe’s. A cottage industry has sprung up ascribing various malevolent forces at work in big box stores, ranging from denuding the rainforests to destroying all small businesses. I don’t see it. It’s just a big store where you buy useful things.

Big box stores are a supremely handy tool. But all tools have a function. Using a tool for things that they’re not designed for leads to bad outcomes. And a fetish for Home Depot has ruined many a home. To paraphrase their advertising: You can do it. But they can’t help.

I’ve renovated hundreds of houses over the years. And the most successful renovations, and the ones that add the most value to the property, are the ones that involve houses that have been neglected. Really. Because neglect is preferable to hamfisted remodeling, or remuddling as we call it in the industry, which expends resources but doesn’t increase value.

You scan the real estate listings. You see a house, barely recognizable behind and under the vinyl siding, and the pressure treated, well, everything, the plastic detailing in a cornucopia of styles, all foreign to the original structure. But in there somewhere was a house with good bones. Someone spent all the money necessary to make it valuable again, but they squandered it. That doesn’t mean they’re going to sell the house for what it’s worth minus their mistakes. It means it will be listed as “move in condition” or “recently updated” or my favorite: “pristine.” Pristine is one of those real estate ad words that the writer has no idea what it means, like calling ranches “colonial.”

What it means, really, is the bracketed cornice over each window has been hacked off to make room for cheap plastic replacement windows, with badly proportioned rectangles of aluminum masquerading as muntins put in between the sheets of glass to mimic a “colonial” window, but looking like a window in a reform school. . It means the wood front door has been removed because it needed painting every five years, and been replaced with a plastic one with a bizarre” Moorish New Orleans” look to it, that sounds like a refrigerator door instead of giving you that satisfying thunk when you close it.

It means the porch is gone, and replaced with pressure treated everything, even though only the underpinnings that had contact with the ground or concrete needed the rot resistance of pressure treated wood; the whole thing is made from the nasty green stuff, or at least the part that that isn’t made of Trex, which is plastic and sawdust, and looks it. And the railing spindles are only available in two styles: a bastard version of a William and Mary post, or a modern looking square section that looks out of place on almost everything. Don’t get me started on the spindle spacing and proportions.

Inside, there’s rubber flooring, and wood carpeting, and plastic everything. The tile is simultaneously gaudy and bland, because there’s too much of it laid in no particular pattern that makes sense. It’s got a cheesy sawdust and glue particleboard boxes wrapped in woodgrain paper for all of its cabinetry. There’s an expensive, permanent granite countertop atop the disposable cabinetry. There’s a lot of unexplained interior wrought iron, everywhere except where you might have found it in a real colonial: the hardware. There are ceiling fans everywhere, like we all live in Casablanca. In short, there’s a bewildering mish-mash of styles, materials, colors, proportions, and patinas, and you’re stuck with them.

This week’s circular from the big orange box has a big splash page touting metallic interior paint. Take it from someone who has credentials going back to the 1970s in faux finishes: a gallon of metallic paint in the hands of an amateur is a very dangerous thing.

It really would be “pristine” if it still had peeling paint on the clapboards, and plank flooring with water stains all over them. I can fix those problems. I can’t fix vinyl siding, if I don’t want it. I can only tear it off and throw it away.

There’s plenty of good stuff at the big box stores, but it’s all mixed in with everything else. And most of the “bad” stuff is good for something, too, it’s just used badly, or in the wrong place. I’m not arguing against different strokes for different folks, it’s incongruity, slipshod design and execution, and unintentional gaudiness or barrenness I’ve got a problem with.

I’ve used the box stores both as a homeowner and a contractor. And I see people wandering around in there, looking at everything quizzically, and about to ask a clerk a question that would better be answered by Martha Stewart or Norm Abram. And I know that they’re going to do awful things to their house. The materials can’t tell you what to do. And the saleshelp are going to point you to the gaudiest thing, every time. You have to know what to do, what you’re after, before you go there, or you’re going to get into trouble.

I love the big boxes because I can go in there, and get hook and loop sandpaper, a junction box, nine volt batteries, chalk, paint thinner, fluorescent light bulbs, a pressure treated four by four, a dishwasher, a screen door closer, a handicapped parking sign, and ten or a hundred other odd bits of stuff that construction projects require. They have everything, and it’s inexpensive, relatively.

But the one thing I can’t get is advice. Luckily, I’m not looking for any. Be careful in there, if you are.

Tomorrow:

Green, White, Yellow, Red, Blue

Friday, August 05, 2005

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Who Needs a Front Door?

Top of the Morning to ye.

Who Needs a Front Door?

You do, I assure you.

I’ve lambasted the snout house in this space before, while trying to make some sense of the forces that create it. And the A Number One reason I don’t care for the genre is that they don’t have a front door.

I use the term “Front Door” because it is a handy shorthand for the most prominent entry in a house. In a snout house, the garage door is made into the front door, ostensibly because we worship “truth” here in the States, and the truth is we arrive home by car more times than not by a large margin, so why not acknowledge it?

A. Because it’s ugly

B. Because the truth ain’t true- you haven’t arrived yet when you’re sitting in your car in the garage.

C. Because everything needs a head, or it’s visually disorienting.

Can we please take “A” as a given, and not waste time explaining it? Maybe not. People in snout houses have the same pride of ownership and regard for their dwelling as everybody else. It’s not a heresy trial here, we seek to persuade, not shout down the apostate. They just don’t think the front door is important, and don’t miss it.

Well, look at it as you may, the garage is a utility structure. Barns are utility structures. Outhouses are utility structures. Gardening sheds, even Playhouses are utility structures of a kind, and no-one thinks they can’t be picturesque, or at least presentable and appropriate in the landscape. So why beef about garages? They’re just stables for horsepower, instead of the horse power that used to be in them.

Would you nail your house onto the butt end of an outhouse? Or a barn? Or a shed? I didn’t think so. It’s not the primary occupation of the home to shelter automobiles, and to place the garage front and center is to place the human occupants lower on the domestic totem poles than the cars. That’s what makes the home visually disorienting to the passerby, as well. It shows no way for the human to enter. It confuses the viewer by offering no visual clue of the purpose of the structure but one: Park the cars indoors. And so it makes the street a forbidding scene for people, and discourages the very IDEA of approaching the occupants. And it’s the idea that matters here, not the practicality. The Jehovah’s Witnesses and Cable Guy will still interrupt your dinner. Your forbidding streetscape emits a vibe to the passerby that says: No people here.

If you take a sort of Omega Man delight in looking fortresslike on the streetside, you’re fooling yourself. You’re only weeding out the nice people. The people committed to annoying you will find the entry door the designer hid around the side, or worse, knowing that you ignore that too, will walk around back to your sliding glass doors and surprise you.

You are prepared for a surprise visit from anybody 24/7, right? I was just wondering what that mirror next to the front door used to be for, the one you looked in before you opened the door. I guess people in snout houses get up early, and never hang around their houses in their pajamas.

The front door has become mostly ceremonial, it’s true. But that ceremony is important, no matter how diminished the frequency of use is. The home is a manifestation of the highest form of human cooperation, the family, and it deserves to have a way for visitors to the home to approach it, and its occupants, properly. The front door is the star on the map that says: “You are here.” It’s good manners to display one, even to the people who never ring your doorbell. It is a visual as well as practical detail.

B. There’s a kind of infantile logic afoot in the world that’s as old as the Apple. The fruit in the garden, not the computer. It consists of mistaking correlation for causation, or makes a puerile observation about a minor detail and claims it proves or disproves the whole thing. And the argument, such as it is, is followed up with a “talk to the hand” gesture. Case closed, because I said so.

Well, the lament you hear, followed by “talk to the hand,” is that the house is for the occupants, and the occupants enter through the garage, so snout houses are fine, and did I mention talk to the hand earlier?

You haven’t entered the house yet. You’re still in the garage.

So the whole house of logical cards is built on sand, to mix the metaphor. What’s missing is the realization that the snout house occupants enter it every day like burglars, or hired help.

The garage is grim inside. You get home from work, and the first thing you see is the weedwacker, and the trash you forgot to place on the curb yesterday, but now you can’t see it any more because the door closer light winks off, and you’re fumbling with your keys, and you dropped your briefcase on your toe, and Ow! I cracked my shin on my kid’s broken bike that we can’t hang on the hooks we got for it because I ran it over in the darkened garage yesterday, and the frame is bent.

Elegant huh? This is the real “truth” in the snout house entry. And in a Northern clime, you’re freezing your patoot the whole time you’re fumbling with those belongings.

And when you finally get inside, what do you get? You’re in a grim hallway, no sense of entry, a utility area most likely, piles of laundry, the coats and bookbags your kids shrugged off right on the floor. No wonder you head for the liquor cabinet first.

C. Let’s reshuffle the deck, and get a better hand.

If at all possible, the home needs three entries, if you ask me. Since you read this far, I assume you’re asking me, anyway: Formal, Casual, Utility. The garage door is the utility one, in my little world, by the way.

Put the garage to the side, or in the back, or attached to the house with a passageway. A driveway to a garage behind the house, with a port cochere roof over a side entry is nice. Your children can play in the driveway when they need a hard surface, instead of the street. You can have a roof over you head if you’re unloading groceries and such into the house. The side entry can be the defacto, casual, everyday entry for the occupants, and you can trail your hands along the tall phlox or whatever you have along the short path to the house from the garage. Ah, that’s better.

Have this side entry be a decompression chamber from outside, the outside which is the decompression chamber from the garage, with a place both inside and out to place a parcel for a moment, while you’re in out of the weather. The coat closet is just inside here, of course, but it’s not grim spot, it has a little bench to sit on, and a window that shows late evening sun, if you’ve got it, and it welcomes you home like part of the family, not a scullery maid or dustman. If the weather’s really beastly for a good part of the year where you live, the decompression from travel and the exiting the vehicle to the house can be accomplished entirely enclosed or under cover, of course. But you can do it.

The front, ceremonial door, the one you take your kid’s pictures in front of in their Easter dresses and suits, the one you invite your colleagues from work to approach when they come over for a Christmas fete, the one the paperboy approaches when he’s “collecting” if they still do that, the one the trick-or-treaters can see to approach, is there to show the world that even though your house wears sneakers most days, you have wing tips in the closet, as it were. Or Prada pumps, or whatever.
Tomorrow:
Beware Home Depot

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

The Open Plan

Hi.

We shall not wax poetic today. I trust this will not make you wax wroth.

Let's talk about the home. Um, your home. Er, my home. Ah, you know, homes.
Man that's a lot of ground to cover. Is there any advice I can give you about Homes, that's applicable to all of them, or at least many of them? I think so. We'll endeavor to leave local idiosyncrasies out of it, and stick to general themes that have served me and my clients well over the years.

1.Beware the open plan.
Look, I'm not telling you not to go to the zoo, but I am warning you against sticking your fingers into the cages without reading the signs first. The open plan has become the industry standard for housing layout in America. Every home improvement show for years had some avuncular host in a newly plastered room, waving his arms like Mussolini at the balcony and talking about "the space." Ah yes, " the space."

Now, I went to Architecture school in the seventies, and Bruno Zevi and his text, Architecture as Space was the default design text. I learned all about it. I got an "A." Aren't I swell?

Well, I took my "A," and then burned that book, and discarded all that hooey. The kind of affectation that it takes to say you're in a space, instead of a room, or a series of rooms, is beyond my meager ego. And every time I hear someone say it, I smirk, because I know I'm gong to hear something trite and silly in a moment, about "the space."

Worrying about "the space" is what designers who are amusing themselves and making an unlivable house are busy doing instead of their jobs. Which is to say, they're not thinking of the occupants of the house, and their comfort, but are looking to impress, to be heroic. Well, you can't live in the Arc de Triomphe, and you can't live in a space. You live in a series of rooms, which are defined in a myriad of ways, sometimes only as suggestions, sometimes as partitions, but always giving the occupants and their guests the visual and tactile clues they require to be comfortable in a home.

The open plan became an absolute good to the space crowd, and I've been in really enormous houses, tens of thousands of square feet, no expense spared, and the only difference between them and a two bedroom ranch with an open plan is that one is a bowling alley, and the other is a dirigible hangar. The effect is similar, though; the poor humans rattle around in there like pinballs, and never get privacy, intimate acoustic qualities, segregation of activity, or even the simple thrill of slamming a door on your antagonist in an argument.

The open plan was designed to accommodate post war America's very small house for the masses. Everybody needed a house, right now, and big Victorians and Colonial Revivals were out of the question. They had to be built right away, fit on small lots, and be affordable. So wise designers integrated several rooms together, to make the whole seem like more than the sum of the parts. They avoided claustrophobia by increasing sightlines in houses that were sometimes only 32 feet long. Well, I've been in many houses with open plans recently that have single rooms over twice that long. Linking them together willy-nilly is madness. It's not claustrophobia that's the problem anymore, it's agoraphobia.

The ultimate manifestation of this trend is the vaulted family room. The kitchen, dining, casual dining, and family room is all ganged together, and the family room has a trussed peaked ceiling, or worse, a plastered vaulted ceiling. Everybody sees that and thinks: how capacious, how luxurious, how easy it will be to accommodate my brood in that big space.

Then they try to live in it. The family room is the media shrine. You can fit some big couches in there, no doubt, and a big screen, and the cook isn't isolated in a kitchen alone, away from the family any longer. But the acoustics are AWFUL. The sound bounces around in there, and the dialog in movies, already mad indistinct with music and THX, is indecipherable because of the echo. So the volume goes up, and everyone in that home has to hear it, at flight deck volume, and the phone call becomes a plea to TURN THAT THING DOWN! What? What did you say? Bruce Willis just blew something up, and I didn't catch that.

Even simple conversation is difficult, and you grow weary of your voice clanging off that far away ceiling and making you shout, when a whisper should do.

And that open plan maybe doesn't seem so swell, when you've got several teenagers, and maybe a toddler too, and the zoo of noises makes everyone miserable, and makes every connected room into one big rumpus room.

Imagine this. The kitchen's really big, and has a table right in it, that can hold your family and the food, hot from the oven. Your children can do their homework under your watchful eye there too. The kids finished with their homework are watching the screen in room adjacent, a room with a lower, cozier ceiling height, and enclosed enough to allow some privacy. How about a big arched opening, with glass doors that can be closed to keep the sound in, and allow the studious cohort to concentrate, and the entertainment crew to avoid hearing the sink running, and the appliances, and so forth.

The parent can still see in there, through the glass, and know when to go in and say Knock It Off, as required. Add a niche somewhere, close at hand, with a table top for the phone, and perhaps a laptop, and the phone. There's room to sit, just a perch if need be, where you can talk a bit, and lean into an enclosed area, and hear, and concentrate, and not shout. There's a passage to the outside nearby, with a place to put your "going out" belongings and gear, but the slamming door and the blast of winter air, if you've got that, doesn't chill the occupants and distract.

If there's a stairs for access to the second floor, it's nowhere near the seating areas, it's enclosed in its own room, to keep the noise down, and the endless draft that rolls down it away from the seating area. And you won't have to hear the refrigerator hum all night even when you're uptairs, or the disconcerting plop of the icemaker turning over. The dishwasher churn and the clink of plates and so forth can be banished from the sleeping areas if you can close a door on it. And heaven help you if you have a pet and you want to keep them out of somewhere in an open plan, and don't own a cattle prod.

Well, you already spent those hundreds of thousands of dollars building the medieval hall for your common rooms, and housing doesn't allow many of us to tear it down and start over again. You can tinker, but you there's no do-over. The bones have to be good, or you'll never get the flesh on them properly. All you can do is suffer along with it, or move, and sell your house to the next guy.

You can listen to the realtor bring them in, wave their arms around in the cavern you tried to live in, and say " Just look at this space."

Try not to smirk.

Tomorrow:
Who needs a front door?

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Content to Be Alive

Word.

We had quite a weather evening last night. It's been warm and dry for, well, since I wrote complaining that it was cold and wet, which is a long time ago. I blame myself.

The lawn crunches underfoot like shredded wheat. The flowers bloom profusely, as long as you water them daily, but woe be to you who forget for a day. If you are a member of the local constabulary, why no, that last sentence is fiction, we only water for an hour in the morning on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, being on the "odd" side of the street, and never on Sunday.

Anyway, nature always solves everything, one way or the other. And last night, she "brought it," as they say in baseball. Rolling peals of thunder announced the change in the weather, accompanied by almost continuous flashes of lightning, for hours late last night. The power winked out last night around eleven, and so we returned to the America of our farmer forebears, and retired because it was dark.

A delightful puff of air came in the window, cool and ionized, and then the rain came, hissing and popping on the sill. You could almost hear the earth outside sigh, and drink, and smack its lips.
The children sleep right through it, every time, and you wonder when the last time you slept like that was. Twenty years ago? They don't owe anybody any money. So they sleep. And on top of any cares they might have, unlike their parents, they're not worried that their children might be woken by the thunder and be frightened. And so the thing that doesn't affect them affects their parents because it might affect them.

And so you are awake, when you'd rather not be, and you are slightly on edge from the booms, but the rain patters on the shingles, and the paradiddles and flamadiddles begin to lull, and the gentle sigh of your mate gulls you, and you drowse and dream, and start a little when the lightning strikes a little closer, and return to your reverie when it passes for a time, and are content to be alive.

Content to be alive sounds almost mystical, and I'm sorry for that, but I don't know how else so say it. Peace of mind? I'm not selling insurance, that's furniture one page over. Happiness? Happiness is a memory. You never know happiness while it's going on, you only recognize it in hindsight. You mistake thrills for happiness, until the tilt a whirl makes you see your lunch a second time, and you realize your error.

That little sigh of the mother of your children, still nervous when it thunders, some dim childish thought she carries forever, as she drifts off to sleep because you are with her, the whisper of your two sons breathing and snoring down the hall, dreaming dreams of childish intensity and amusement, the languid patter of the warm summer rain on the roof that shelters you all, and the puff of cool air through the window. The house, like all houses, ticks and creaks and hums and pops ever so slightly, as the unfamiliar moisture permeates its very bones. But the sounds are all faint and familiar, like a wordless lullaby.

You never remember falling asleep. It steals up on you, when you're finally content to be alive.

Monday, August 01, 2005

MoMo


What's up?

In an obvious attempt to lose half my readership, I write today about cats.
It doesn't matter what I write. If I write that I like them, the dog people ... (crickets)

See, they're gone already, they didn't even stick around to see if I was going to link to the haha funny home video of the cat grabbing at a string on a ceiling fan and going helicoptering around for a spell before being hurled into the sliding glass door. But they've all already seen it ten times, and e-mailed it to their friends, they know if you're not in on it already, you're not in on it at all. You are an apostate. You like those cats.

Yes, yes I do. When I was growing up, I wanted a dog. My dear mother was petrified of animals, and disliked untidiness, so no go. And your parents know you better than you know yourself, after all, and knew I couldn't care for such a beast. Not for more than a week. Now, the information available about dogs is very sketchy, too patchy for me to make a valid assessment really, but I gather the creatures live longer than a week. No dog for you.

No cats either, a creature that gave poor mom the willies more than a dog, even. At least a dog, well, how do I put this? The dog goes outside. Any Venusian who visited our planet would know who's in charge around here immediately, by observing which one craps in a box, and which one empties it.

And so as a child, we had a succession of wildlife that taught you nothing about the wild, or about loyalty, or about ferocity, or greed or want, or anything else. Goldfish, gerbils, that sort of thing. For a while, we had little turtles in a dish. You can tell you're through with them when they turn white, by the way.

And so my mother was right of course. I've killed more fauna than a hunter gatherer tribe. But the desire is not a slave to the intellect. I needed another mammal around the house, one that wouldn't do anything I'd tell it to, and the best I could hope for is predicting its behavior a little. No I'm not referring to my wife, although the description is an apt one. Cats.

Cats are the pet for you, if you must have a pet, but don't deserve one. They are what all housepets are, animated furniture. They become part of the fabric of your lives, no question, and fray all the fabric in your life, it's true, but they're in the background, and don't bother. Feed them in a desultory fashion, and every twenty five days or so, they'll deign to sit in your lap and go prrrrrrrrrr. I'm up for that.

My friends have dogs. They never go anywhere, or do anything, without first thinking of how this will affect their creature. They're better people than us, it takes so much tenacity of will to sign up for that kind of responsibility, to be trusted so supremely with the wellbeing and care of another being. One that will never grow up and mow the lawn for you, I mean.

Get up one half hour late one morning, and go to the door to let the cat in, and he'll be gnawing the head off a rodent outside the door, and look up at you and you'll know what he's thinking: "I had to do this myself, you big stiff; and I'm going to throw up parts of this on your couch later, that'll learn you to sleep in."

And so I like the solitary nature of the cat, and its mystery, and the fact that the minute he goes outside, he reverts to his feral self, and the only difference between the little beast and a tiger is its size, and the pink collar he's wearing. He'll shred my wife's clothes for saddling him with that, I bet. Ruins his feral vibe with the woodland creatures.

Two cat is best, three cats is madness, four or more and you're a newspaper article. We got two black cats at the animal rescue place, to replace the two beloved animals we buried in our yard after living at our new house for a short while.

Of course they were dead before we buried them, what are you, dog people? Anyway, they had lived a long and happy life, and dreamed every night by the fire of mice with lead shoes, and passed away old.

The Big One was just a little lad then, and we asked him to name the new ones. Moonshine and Sunshine he said. I laid some groundwork for editing by pointing out that they were both identically black, and neither was likely to answer to "Sunshine." He liked "Lady Godiva," for the chocolate color, not the streaking incident, and so it was Moonshine and Lady Go.
Two black cats. Bad luck perhaps. Moonshine was headstrong and roamed far afield, and I found her after a short spell by the road, where curiosity... well, you get the picture, and I buried her in the woods next to the others. Tears were shed. Lady Go was sad, if cats can be sad.

My wife loved that animal. She is kind to all things great and small, and raises we three male beasts in addition to the cat. Pets are tests of your kindness and reliability, and Moonshine tested our hearts.

He appeared out of the woods that surround our house not long after, skinny, sickly, disheveled, wild. White with gray and black, mottled. He'd pace around the perimeter of the lawn like a panther, lean, hungry, feral. My wife considered it a sign, so soon after Moonshine's demise, and she fed that beast. She'd put out food at night, though I told her it was crazy; raccoons and possums and foxes and god knows what else would show up each night looking for the buffet. No matter, HE might get some of it, and that was enough for her. Occasionally we'd see him, closer now, but you couldn't approach him or he'd disappear for days.

My boy remarked the patch of grey atop his head made him look like he had a page boy haircut, although he didn't know to call it that, he just said: He looks like Moe!

So Momo it was.

My wife is kind, and animals know "kind" when they see it. But a cat is cautious, oh yes. After nine month of patience and caution, he allowed her to touch him once, while he ate greedily from the bowl, still nowhere near the house. Just like me, he was finished.

Soon he was eating on the back step, and sleeping on a pile of straw left over from a Hallowe'en display, at the corner of the house. And then one day, when a year had passed, she put the food in the back hallway, and left the door open.. He came in over a period of ten minutes, still terrified, but curious. She closed the door behind him. And he went CRAZY.

He made that traverse of 38 feet from end to end of the house over and over, launching himself at the windows in the doors, crashing to the floor, and racing to the opposite end for another leap and collision. My wife and little boy scurried around shrieking and trying to reach the doors to open them before he got there, but he was everywhere, and frantic, and they were trapped in the house with a wild beast. They finally got one open, and he was gone.

As my wife recounted the tale to me when I arrived home from work, I had to stifle a smile. She thought she had blundered, and he was gone forever. She doesn't know men very well, I thought to myself. Though all she gets all day is we three men, men, men. She had become the sun around which that little creature orbited, as had we all, and sure enough the next day he was back.

And shortly thereafter, he was sleeping by the fire, and making that prrrrr noise, a little peeved about THAT UNFORTUNATE INCIDENT AT THE VETERINARIAN, but exhibiting to this day the only attitude that cat owners generally envy their dog friends: Gratitude.