In which I learn the meaning of ‘hard work’

When we moved into our house, the shower needed some work. Two out of three walls had tile only up to waist level; stained linoleum covered the third. The grout between the tiles was rotting away, causing a leak in the basement. I sealed the grout in silicone, which stopped the leak but looked absolutely ridiculous (I learned the hard way how quickly silicone dries).

So last spring I hired a friend to retile the shower with an oversized subway tile. He did a wonderful job and the shower looked fantastic—but for one thing. In contrast with the bright white of the tile, the bathtub was really nasty.

Since moving in, I had tried many times over to get the grime out. Ajax, Bon-Ami, Soft Scrub, bleach, what have you. Nothing worked. I soaked, I sprayed, I scrubbed—no difference. The tub still looked grimy. Behold:

There’s no point in retiling your shower if it makes your bathtub look like a biohazard. I googled tricks for deep-cleaning a tub, and found that the intertubes gave me a lot of advice like this: “I’ve always used baking soda and elbow grease!”

The next day, as my friend was placing the last of the tile, he told me to clean off the grime before he started to grout.

“So, here’s the thing about grime,” I told him. “It will not come off. I’ve tried everything!”

“Oh, come on, you can get this off. All you need is a little elbow grease.”

“That’s exactly what the internet said!”


I went to Lowe’s for supplies. Picked up a few other items while I was there, including a couple of bags of cedar mulch, which is where I met a kind elderly salesman sweeping the floor on the other end of the garden center.

“We’re closing up in just a few minutes,” he yelled across the greenhouse. “Can I help you find anything else you need?

“Actually, yeah! I’m looking for elbow grease!” I yelled back.

“Excuse me?”

“What aisle is elbow grease on?”

He cupped his ear and started walking towards me. I figured he was hard of hearing. So I yelled louder:


He shook his head and kept walking closer. “I’m sorry, did you say, ‘elbow grease’?”

“Yeah, elbow grease.”

By now, he was standing right in front of me. “Oh, my dear, elbow grease is just hard work.”

“Huh?” What did he mean by that? I thought. Too much work and not worth the effort?

The old man began to chuckle and put his hand on my shoulder. “Oh, dear. Who told you to buy elbow grease? They were just pulling your chain,” he said. “It’s just a phrase. It means ‘hard work.'”

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I am not sure what is worse—that I actually asked a Lowe’s salesman where I could find elbow grease, or that I’ve gone through almost three decades of my life without ever once figuring out what people meant when they said that something required this elusive substance.

I can tell you that I did figure out a way to get the grime out. I found a pumice stone in the same aisle as all of the heavy duty cleaners. It sure wasn’t easy, and I probably scrubbed off whatever remaining enamel was left on tub, but I did manage to clean my tub.

All it took was a little elbow grease.

What what? February already?

Hey there, Internet.

There’s but a week left in February and yet this is my first post of 2011. And it’s a picture post at that. Shame on me, the writer who never has time to write anything that isn’t for a client.

[Well… not entirely true. Check out my new food blog: Remember the Pudding.]

Behold the Great Fence Replacement Project of 2011:

BEFORE: This was in May 2010. In the background, you can see the old fence, which was precariously lop-sided. Panels would sometimes randomly fall out.

BEFORE: This was in May 2010. In the background, you can see the old fence, which was precariously lop-sided. Panels would sometimes randomly fall out.

AFTER: The fence is no longer falling down. It now features a door to the alley and a trellis, which, with any luck, will fill out with luscious grapes, hops and beans that will help mask the eyesore that is my neighbor's never-ending roof project. Seriously, that tarp has been sitting there for going on 6 months at this point.

AFTER: The fence is no longer falling down. It now features a door to the alley and a trellis, which, with any luck, will fill out with luscious grapes, hops and beans that will help mask the eyesore that is my neighbor's never-ending roof project. Seriously, that tarp has been sitting there for going on 6 months.

A closer look at the door and the trellis.

A closer look at the door and the trellis.

Not fence-related at all, obvs. Today we took the dogs to Thousand Acre Park, an amazing dog area at the Sandy River delta. A thousand acres (duh) of off-leash trails: dogs are everywhere, pathways meander through meadows and puddles abound. A 20-minute walk brings you to the protected shores of the Columbia (excellent stick-retrieving waters). Anyway, this was the car ride home—they were (and still are) completely zonked.

Alright… this Presidents’ Day weekend is coming to a close and it’s time to hit the hay. Until next time, Internet!

If it’s not one thing… it’s another

Not that this should come as any surprise whatsoever, but being a homeowner is expensive.

I love my house and I’m glad I bought it and I simply LOVE not having a landlord calling me up to yell at me for things I didn’t do, like the time she found a microwave by the garbage and accused me of dumping it there. (I didn’t even have a microwave, and it was a 10-unit building with open access to the garbage through the alley. It could have been left there by just about anyone in Portland.)

But being your own crazy landlord comes at a price, namely, in the last week alone: $1,400 worth of heating oil, $500 to replace a broken window, $80 to figure out why the hell the water has started to taste like mildew (and still does, $80 later). Suddenly my first-time homebuyer tax credit isn’t seeming quite large enough.

And now, my friends, it seems that the MDIC household will be needing a new hot water heater, which is likely the cause of the mildew odor and the weird white sediment that’s plugging up the water pressure in the shower and the kitchen sink.

Le sigh.

I signed up for this, I guess. And I’m not complaining—I’m glad I did. I’m just saying: being a homeowner is expensive.

File that one under “Yeah, DUH.”

An easy three-step process!*

Here’s the thing about “easy three-step” processes that makes me start screaming expletives while I’m installing a showerhead: very few things actually ever really ARE three steps.

Take toast-making, for instance. Here’s the easy three-step version:

  1. Take out a piece of bread.
  2. Put in toaster.
  3. Remove from toaster.

Easy, yes. But does it make excellent toast? Quite the contrary. Here’s what you really need to do:

  1. Take out a piece of bread. Or, if you have a loaf, slice off a toaster-sized slice.
  2. Insert into toaster slot.
  3. Set toaster to desired toast level and press down the button.
  4. Remember to keep an eye on your toast. Overcooked toast is a buzzkill.
  5. When the toast pops up, remove carefully from the toaster. DO NOT use a fork or you might die.
  6. Slice thin pats of butter and use a butter knife to liberally apply butter to toast (both sides if you really want a good piece of toast). OPTIONAL: Apply jelly to one side only.
  7. Serve.

Seven steps instead of three, but sometimes you just need a little extra detail to fill in the blanks.

The whole theory is that three steps sounds a lot more manageable than seven. Which may be helpful for people trying to pick out a detachable showerhead at Lowe’s, where you’re confronted by about 37 different varieties of what seems like the exact same product. “Three-step installation? Sounds great! I’ll buy it!”

Easy, peasy — right? First you remove your old shower head (pre-step 1), then you follow the easy-three step process for affixing your new one, and then you turn on the water (post-step 3). Voila! you’ve got a glorious shower in three-ish steps.

Or not. First, what the heck are you supposed to do with those little disc-screen thingies that appear to be intended as some sort of water filter? The instructions do not mention them at all. Are they optional? Or, if you do not use them, will you suffer from an inferior shower?

Then, there’s that tape-like stuff that you’re supposed to wrap around the threads of the thing your screwing in (step 2). The instructions do not address what you should do when the tape gets all twisted up and becomes more of a string of dental floss than a piece of tape. Luckily, the kind man at Lowe’s had the foresight to sell you an extra roll and you use that.

Now your showerhead is screwed in, the hose is secure and there’s a tape-like product kinda-sorta wedged in at all connection points. Do the instructions tell you to get a pair of pliers and tighten the connections? No, of course not, for that would add another step. Instead, you’re done! Good work! You turn on the water to give your new showerhead a test-a-roo.

BAM! Water barrels out through the joints, spraying not only the bathroom walls and ceiling but also your proud little face. Expletives fly; the dog, who has been watching the whole installation process carefully, bolts; you scramble to shut off the water.

Your bathroom is now soaked AND you need to redo steps two and three.

In the end, three steps turned into twelve (thirteen if you count washing the towels you used to soak up the water) when it could’ve been only seven. Wouldn’t you rather be supplied more information than you need than not enough?

Yeah, me too.


*Not really.

Fixing things

I’m not very good at fixing things.

This inability has brought me to tears on more than one occasion. Nothing is more frustrating than reading “THREE EASY STEPS!” on the package of your new Venetian blinds and then failing to  progress beyond step one. To my credit, installing blinds actually takes about eight steps that have been condensed into three for the purpose of making it sound easier than it is, with several pertinent details omitted (like what to do when the plaster chips away and the blinds fall down).

But mostly, I just don’t know what the hell I’m doing.

My father was the fix-it man around my house when I was a kid. An engineer by training, he had a knack for taking 2x4s and assembling them into highly useful objects. He built the deck, the staircase railing, the wheelchair ramp, my brother’s bed and a bookshelf. He even built a boardwalk out back so that we could walk down to the creek — not to mention that he dug out the creek to create a fork that formed a mini island to which he built a bridge. And, of course, none of his work looked homemade. Like everything else my father endeavored (or so it seemed to my young mind), his woodworking was graced with both perfectionism and professionalism.

He inherited his handiness from his father, who made, among many other things, a copper pot rack and several stained-glass lampshades. But unlike my father, I never really had the chance to learn many DIY skills from my dad. By the time he passed away, he had taught me the basics: how to sand wood, how to hammer a nail and how to know when to use a Phillip’s head or a flathead screwdriver. But you can’t very well teach a nine-year-old everything she will need to know when she becomes a homeowner later in life. At that age, I was far more interested in making mud pies out of the sawdust that spewed from his table saw than I was in learning how to hang Venetian blinds or patch holes in lathe and plaster.

So now I’m learning all of these things without his help. Tears and profanities are often involved, but I’m slowly making progress. The lessons I’ve learned to date:

  • Silicone dries faster than you might think. Do not wait until you’ve applied it to the entire wall of bath tiles before you smooth it out.
  • Many products you might buy for your house contain instructions and hardware for mounting onto drywall. If your walls are made of lathe and plaster, you may need additional hardware and you definitely will need a drill. Drywall anchors don’t exactly push their way through wood.
  • A clogged garbage disposal does not require the help of a plumber. All you need is a really big Allen wrench. Insert it into the hole on the underside of the disposal and turn. (There — I saved you $75.)
  • On a similar note, if your dishwasher starts to back up, you also probably do not need the help of a plumber. Instead, use a fitting to secure the drainage tube to the top of the underside of your counter top. (Another $75 —  plus another $200 if you first make the mistake of a calling a bad plumber who punches a bunch of holes in your walls and yet doesn’t fix the problem.)
  • It’s probably best to hang your blinds from the window frame rather than the lathe and plaster. They’re just too damn heavy.
  • Read all supplied instructions before beginning your project. (By the way, this also applies to recipes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found myself halfway through making dinner only to read, “Place bowl in the refrigerator for 24 hours.” FML.)
  • When in doubt, call a handy friend.

Next lesson on the docket:

  • Patching: AKA repairing the damage you’ve caused to your walls thanks to your failure to hang blinds.