Life

Jehovah’s Witnesses bought me a toilet

I have been undertaking, or paying others to undertake, a bunch of projects as I get my house ready to put on the market. I’m working to increase curb appeal and remove obvious objections to buying this place. I’m behind schedule, as I had hoped to be ready to list the house June 1. August 1 feels more likely now.

So the chain-link fence is fixed where it had been broken and mangled by the people who removed my 21 dead ash trees two years ago. And the network of cracks growing in my asphalt driveway are now well sealed. I paid people to do those jobs. Meanwhile, I’ve been painting walls every spare weekend. And I took up the worn-out carpet in the hallway to reveal the hardwood floors, and then discovered they’re in iffy shape and that carpet runners are way cheaper than having the floors refinished.

But the big job, which I finished last weekend, was fixing my bathroom floor.

Longtime readers might remember that when I bought my house, the main bathroom was a fright. Here, take a look.

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That’s fake brickface painted yellow, with laminate sheeting glued to the wallboard above. The medicine chest provided the only light in the room, except three of the four bulb sockets didn’t work. And whoever laid the floor had to have been drunk or high while they did it, as the tiles were all at an angle and didn’t meet properly at the corners. And they didn’t bother to remove the toilet to place the vinyl tile underneath it. They just cut the tile around it and squirted some caulk to fill the gaps.

I got my house at a good price after it had been on the market for a year. I assume prospective buyers took one look at that bathroom and bolted. But the price and location both worked for me, so I bit.

Side note: nine years after the housing bubble burst, after considerable investment in my home, it looks like I’ll be able to sell it for about what I paid for it. My part of town has been slower than average to rebound from the housing crisis. It’s disappointing, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

It took me a couple years, but I finally commenced Operation Lipstick on the Pig to make the bathroom look not awful. Here’s how that turned out. New sink, new light fixture, new towel bar, mirror and side cabinet replacing the medicine chest, fresh paint, and some painted railing to finish the raw edges. I even put folding doors on a closet that had none, and added shelving. A valance and a better privacy covering over the lower six windowpanes came a little later.

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But the one thing I didn’t tackle was the floor. There was a little water damage around the toilet and tub that needed attention, and I wanted to lay better-looking flooring. It all sounded expensive and possibly beyond my skills, and besides, my bathroom had been torn up for weeks already. I was tired of the mess. So I put it off for another day.

And then that day kept not coming. The water damage by the tub got worse; the subfloor by the tub became positively squishy. I slathered on some caulk to keep it from getting worse, and then I lived with it like that for six years.

Preparing a house for sale will motivate you to tackle those jobs you’ve been putting off.

I started two weekends ago. I figured I’d remove the toilet, remove the old vinyl, remove and replace the water-damaged areas of the subfloor, lay new vinyl, put the toilet back, bada bing. Oh good heavens is that not how it went.

I knew things were not going to go well when I discovered that my toilet has always been attached to the floor only with caulk. Caulk! CAULK. It’s a wonder the toilet stayed put these ten years! I said an unkind epithet out loud to the previous owner of my house as I stuffed a rolled-up rag into the hole to keep sewer gases at bay.

I removed the old vinyl with my hair dryer and a putty knife — time consuming, but not hard. But in doing that I discovered that a layer of 1/4-inch plywood had been screwed to the floor. It, too, had been cut around the toilet! Another unkind epithet passed aloud through my lips. The previous owner’s ears had to be burning. And then my weekend ran out of time. I’d have to live with my bathroom like this for a little while longer.

Fortunately, I had long planned a few days off the next week. I just never expected I’d use them to work on my bathroom. And it took four of the next five days to do it all: remove the plywood, fix the water-damaged subfloor, put on a layer of cheap, thin vinyl where the original vinyl tile was missing (so that there were no low areas), and then lay new, bright, cheerful vinyl over it all.

And then Margaret asked, “Do you want the toilet that’s sitting in my garage? It’s essentially new.” I never liked the old toilet much, as it was a weak flusher, so I said yes. Margaret got her spare toilet when her employer, a large church, bought a church building Downtown to be their second campus. The building had most recently been the Assembly Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Witnesses had built a few apartments into the building. Margaret’s church removed the apartments and made the furniture and fixtures available to staff. Margaret snagged several things including this toilet, which she thought could go into a rental house she owns. The toilet ended up not being needed there.

So I took it home and installed it. I had never installed a toilet before. It took me five hours to get it done. The flange in the floor that holds the bolts wasn’t in the best condition, but I didn’t want to try to replace it so I made it work. I had to re-seat the toilet three times because the bolts kept popping out of the flange as I tightened them. I was quite cross by the time I was done. But it did get done, and it doesn’t leak. Success! Bask in the glow of this photo of the completed job.

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The new toilet flushes so well! And the new floor looks so good! Too bad I won’t be around here long enough to enjoy it.

Next house I own, I won’t put off jobs like this so I can enjoy them after they’re done.

Yeah, right.

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Life

Goodbye to the last local grocery chain in Indianapolis

Indianapolis is losing its last, and its largest, local grocery-store chain. Marsh Supermarkets declared bankruptcy in May and last week closed deals to sell some of its stores. The rest will close.

Marsh Hometown Market

Agfa Clack, Ilford Pan-F Plus 50, 2015

Although Marsh was founded in 1931 in Muncie, Indiana, its largest market has always been Indianapolis and its surrounding counties. At its height, Marsh operated 86 stores around Indiana and other businesses as diverse as a chain of florists, a popular convenience-store chain, and a catering company. The company was owned by the Marsh family until 2006, when it was sold to a capital investment firm. The Marshes said that the competitive environment was becoming much more challenging, and it seemed like the right time to exit.

In recent years, Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer have all invested in Indianapolis, building new stores and renovating old ones. Meanwhile, Marsh’s new owners largely left their chain to molder. They did rebrand Marsh’s budget LoBill Foods stores as Marsh, a welcome change. But a few years later the company rebranded again, with some stores branded Marsh The Marketplace and others Marsh Hometown Market. It wasn’t clear to shoppers what the names meant. (It turns out that The Marketplace stores were full-line and full-service stores, and Hometown Markets were budget stores.) And then, strangely, all new stores built were branded just Marsh with a new logo. Most existing stores kept the old logo. It was a confusing mishmash.

iPhone 6s, 2017

But the confusion ends soon. A subsidiary of Kroger bought 11 locations, and an Ohio supermarket operator bought 15. That leaves 18 stores behind, which should close for good by the end of the month. All Marsh stores are liquidating, selling goods at up to 30 percent off.

From where I sit, Marsh’s demise has three major reasons.

First, its owner failed to match its competitors’ investments in their chains. Few new stores have been built and old stores hadn’t been refreshed in ages. Most stores retain a distinctly 1990s shopping experience.

Second, its confusing branding may have alienated shoppers. When my nearby Marsh converted to a Hometown Market, I shopped there far less frequently as it stopped carrying many of the nicer grocery items I enjoyed, several of which you could buy locally only at Marsh. (Such as delicious, but expensive, Stewart’s coffee. How I miss it.) Actually, thanks to items it no longer carries I can’t do all of my weekly shopping there anymore.

Finally, Marsh was the most expensive supermarket in town, full stop. I’m no fan of Walmart, but when they opened a Neighborhood Market grocery near my home a few years ago its far lower prices were impossible to ignore. I do my weekly shopping there, or drive past this Marsh to go to Meijer. So, I imagine, do most of my neighbors.

But it’s a shame to lose the last local grocery chain, a name that was so heavily identified with central Indiana. When prominent local businesses close, a piece of local identity dies. Kroger, Walmart, and Meijer are fine stores, but you can find them anywhere. When you shopped at Marsh, you knew you were in Indiana.

I’ll miss Marsh. But my life won’t change much, as I’d already moved on. Clearly, too many others in central Indiana had as well.

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Life, Stories told

Spending quality time in my crawl space

We’ve had a lot of rain lately. Days on end it has fallen. Inside my house, it was strangely quiet.

It should not have been. My sump pump should have been running, and I should have heard it.

Dagnabbit — that meant it had pumped its last.

The old, failed sump pump sitting on my deck. Which tells you where this story is going.

I’m not deeply experienced in the ways of sump pumps. My last house had one. It was there when we moved in, and it pumped faithfully for years. The crawl space was always a little damp, but that pump kept it from being wet. That wasn’t enough to satisfy my wife, so we had a perimeter drain dug, an additional sump pump sunk, and the whole place encapsulated. Holy frijoles, was that ever expensive. Point is, however, that I never personally had anything to do with our pumps. I didn’t even know what one looked like.

When I was deciding whether to make an offer on this house, the crawl space was the biggest point of risk. A lot of insulation was lying on the ground, having fallen out from between the joists. The vapor barrier looked pretty ratty. And there was no sump pump. But there was also no evidence the space had ever been wet, and the price was very right on the place. So I rolled the dice.

What I didn’t consider is that a crawl space that has been wet to the joists shows little or no evidence. A foot of water might leave a line on the foundation’s cinder block. But water to the joists leaves no such line.

I crapped out. Shortly after I moved in, a very heavy rain flooded the crawl space. I cleared it with a borrowed portable pump. (And got the worst case of poison ivy in my life. Read that story.) I promptly paid to have a pit dug and a sump pump installed.

Unfortunately, the lowest spot in my crawl space was under my bedroom, and so that’s where the pump had to go. I slept ten feet from it. And it roared like a diesel engine every time it cut on. WHAAARRRNNNNsplooooooosshhhhh, over and over, all night. When it rained hard I had to go sleep in the family room.

Last week we got a ton of rain. After the first night I knew there was trouble under the floorboards, because I awoke refreshed from a good night’s sleep.

Thank God for YouTube. Everything you ever wanted to know how to do is there, usually shot by some random dude on shaky mobile-phone video. This video showed me how easy it would be to replace the pump myself.

It took me two hours to do the job, including a run to The Home Depot for the pump and associated supplies. Not bad, right? Except that I had to do it in two feet of water. Cold water. Cold, dirty water. And immediately upon entering the crawl space, I slipped and twisted and suddenly cold, dirty water met my nether regions. That will take a man’s breath away.

Success!!

I emerged sopping wet. I sloshed my way into the garage, where I stripped and dropped my soaked, dirty clothes into the washer. I grabbed a quick shower. And then as I was dressing, I noticed the quiet.

It should not be quiet! Was my new pump even working?

I looked out the window and saw water gushing out of the exit pipe. I listened more carefully, and realized I could actually hear a slight tinkling sound coming from below — the sound of water running gently through the pipe. That was it.

Silent sump pumps are a thing?!!? I had no idea. If I had known, I would have replaced that sleep-depriving old pump years ago!!

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Life, Stories told

Adjusting to the changes as court-ordered parenting time ends

Meet my youngest son, Garrett, who turned 18 yesterday. It’s a big milestone for any kid. But it’s also a different milestone, a sad one, for me.

Garrett

It’s the end of “parenting time.” That’s what they call it here in Indiana, the court-ordered time a noncustodial parent spends with his children. It ends at 18.

The parenting time guidelines grant every Wednesday evening and every other weekend during the school year, plus holidays on alternating years, half of winter break, all of every other spring break, and half of every summer. We were fortunate: our judge also ordered parenting time every Monday night and an overnight stay every Wednesday when school was in session.

I have not needed to be compelled by court order to spend time with my sons. I always wanted to live with them every day of their childhoods. Parenting time limited me, constrained me, bound me. I always ached to be present with my sons more often.

Obviously, I could have had every day with my sons had their mom and I worked out a healthy, happy marriage. We were not capable of it. Our destructive relationship was ruining us all. We are all healthier and happier since it ended.

I reminded myself of this each time I pushed through the worst rush-hour traffic in Indiana en route to my sons. Each time we left for their suburb at 5:30 am so they wouldn’t miss their school bus. Each time my sons went home at the end of our time together, leaving me alone in my empty house. Each time they had an especially good, or an especially bad, day and if we could talk about it at all it was over the phone or via text. Each time I did alone a thing that would normally be done as a family.

Yet this yin met its yang when I put to good use the time I wasn’t actively being my sons’ dad. Half of my days I could behave like a childless man, directing my energy to my own interests. Photography and blogging. Deep involvement at church. Founding and running a nonprofit. Doubling down on my career, which really took off.

I’ve felt guilty that I did these things rather than being home with my sons. Yet I’ve also reveled in these things. Fortunately, I processed those conflicting feelings years ago and have found contentment in this life.

What I have not processed yet, what I have experienced as looming for months, what is now irrevocably here, is loss. The loss of my decade-long routine with my sons, a routine to which I clung, around which I organized my life. And anew, the loss of what I never could have but desperately wanted for me and my sons: the ability to be a present parent every day. It was never going to happen,

Now it’s up to my sons and I to figure out how and when to see each other. My older son, Damion, has been very good about making time for his old dad. Will Garrett do likewise? I hope so.

There are no state guidelines for mapping adult relationships with your children. No court can compel it. And I have no personal experience to use as a guide. My parents are still married, more than 50 years now. When I was college-aged their home was always open to me. It was where I returned on break, and our normal family life largely resumed as if never interrupted.

That’s what I wanted for my sons. More than that, it’s what I wanted for me. But it’s not what we got.

We will make the best of this, too.

I’m sharing two bonus posts later today, reruns of stories that involved Garrett. If you’ve read my blog for a long time, perhaps you will enjoy now seeing Garrett’s face as you revisit those stories.

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Life, Stories told

Happy life in a modest neighborhood

It’s a modest house in a modest neighborhood. Isn’t the aspiration supposed to be for more, for a fresh build in a tony suburb? But I’ve been happy here, surprisingly so. It has been a good place to rebuild my life after my first marriage crashed and burned.

My humble home

The homes here are ranches, usually faced in brick, largely built in the 1950s and 1960s as people moved out of the city proper. But a couple lots remained vacant until almost 1990, which is about when the golf course was built behind us, putting an end to flooded back yards on each heavy rain. And the cornfield across the main road finally succumbed to suburban sprawl in about 2010 when the megachurch went up. Thanks to the city’s MapIndy site and its historic aerial imagery, you can watch my little neighborhood go from farmland 80 years ago to what it is now.

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I’ve been here ten years now. I probably shouldn’t have bought this house; my divorce left me broke. But I’d moved three times in three years and I craved permanence. And this house was less than a mile from where my sons lived with their mom. And my credit was very good. So I got an ill-advised 100% mortgage and moved in.

I couldn’t see the looming housing bubble about to burst. I couldn’t see my ex-wife soon remarrying and getting that fresh build, that tony suburb, 20 miles away. I wanted to move to live closer to my sons, but my house was suddenly worth less than what I owed on it. And so I remained.

It’s worked out; my sons and I have been happy here. But now my sons are grown and all but gone. And the housing market has recovered. And I’ve remarried; my new wife and I would like to share a roof. This one is too small and would take her youngest son out of his school, so now I’m preparing to put my house on the market.

I’m thrilled to move into the next part of my life, but sad to leave this home behind. I’ve been so content here. Preparing to leave has me in a reflective mood, which drove me to look through my photographs. I was surprised by how many I’ve made around the neighborhood. Could this be the most-photographed neighborhood in Indianapolis? Let me share it with you.

The homes are spaced wide and set back deeply on broad streets. Lots are about a third of an acre.

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In the late autumn and early spring, when the trees are bare, the neighborhood looks dingy and tired. That’s in part because so many houses here have become rentals and receive minimum care. Strangely, all corner houses here are duplexes and have always been rentals. And during the worst of the housing crisis a good number of these modest homes went abandoned into foreclosure.

My front yard

1967 Ford F250

In my neighborhood

But the neighborhood wakes up in the spring, thanks to so many flowering trees the original owners planted.

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

Spring flowering trees

And a few owners have taken great care in their landscaping, which looks best during the summer. And even now, after so many dead ash trees have been removed here, the neighborhood remains heavily wooded and deeply shaded all summer.

Neighbor

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Home in my neighborhood

Because of the tree cover, autumns here can be spectacular.

Neighbor's house under the yellow canopy

Neighborhood trees

Autumn leaves

Autumn Street

Even the wintertime has its charm as the snow hangs in the tree branches. However, the city has plowed our streets but one time that I can remember, making it challenging to get in and out. One snowstorm a few years ago stranded me at home for a week — the snow was simply too deep for my car to cut through.

Snowy day

Mild winter in old suburbia

Snowy day

Snowy neighborhood scene

Down the street

It’s quiet here. Neighbors mostly keep to themselves; I know few of them. But I guess that’s the age. It’s also safe here — crime is very low. About once a year I drive to work and forget to close the garage door. Never once have I found anything missing or even disturbed upon return.

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I won’t miss a few things. The houses that need upkeep but never get it. The one fellow who parks his giant trailer on the street; it’s so hard to see it at night. The neighbors who forget to keep their storm-sewer grates clear, leading to flooded streets under heavy rain. I certainly won’t miss going out in my raincoat and waterproof shoes to rake the drains clear in front of their houses. But I’ll miss a lot of the rest.

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Life

On enhancing a home’s appeal

It’s funny what house problems a person will adapt to and not notice anymore.

My brother lived for years with a bare wire sticking out of the wall over his kitchen sink. He kept meaning to install a new light. But the kitchen’s ceiling light lit the room well, and other more urgent jobs kept claiming his time. And soon he didn’t even see that wire anymore, even though it was a foot from his face when he washed his dishes. But then he got the itch to move. Facing putting his condo on the market, he decided it was time to deal with that wire. One thing led to another and he ended up remodeling the whole kitchen. New cabinets, new appliances, the works. He barely got to enjoy it all before he moved out!

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Near the end of the bathroom remodel

I’ve done a lot to improve my house in ten years. Still, I’ve never addressed a couple things that I hardly notice now, but which you’d notice the second you set foot in here. The previous owner did a criminally lousy job of patching holes in the walls before painting them all (and every ceiling) a sad, yellowy beige. Before painting the kitchen, they stripped off some (but not all) of the wallpaper. And the carpet is obviously 20 years old.

When I moved in I had to immediately fix a couple serious problems. I removed a closet to make one tiny bedroom big enough to hold a bed, a job without which this house wouldn’t have worked for us. I also did a quick and cheap remodel to make the bathroom not frighteningly awful.

I also removed some ugly bricks the previous owner inexpertly and inexplicably used to widen the end of the driveway. The asphalt driveway badly needed resealed, and the deck badly needed re-stained, so I did both jobs. (Both need it again already.)

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Hardwoods in my home office

I feel good about the work I’ve done here. Repairing and remodeling some things that truly badly needed it make a bad, boring paint job and worn carpet seem acceptable somehow.

I did finally take up a little of my carpet. My now-departed dog loved to lie in my home office, and thanks to the problems of being elderly she stained the carpet in there so badly it finally wouldn’t come clean anymore. So out it went.

I’ve spent plenty of money on this house: new sump pump, new heat pump, new storm windows, roof repairs, connection to the city sewer, and removal of 21 dead ash trees. The total bill exceeds my equity. But except fot the ash trees, all of this is invisible.

Now that my wife Margaret and I are moving toward living under the same roof, it’s time to make strong progress getting my house ready for sale. I need to make visible improvements that make the house look better.

It’s a modest home. Its modest neighborhood gives people of modest means a way to put their kids into a still-desirable school system. It has that going for it. But in ten years I’ve seen signs of slow decline here. Several homes have gone into foreclosure and a couple have been outright abandoned. More homes are rentals now, probably one in four. Several properties look shabby: chipping paint, sagging gutters, weedy yards. It’s not surprising that home prices in other nearby neighborhoods recovered faster from the housing crisis than those in mine. According to Zillow, for what that’s worth, my home became worth what I paid for it again only about 12 months ago.

So it doesn’t make sense to dump tons of money into the house. I won’t get it back in the selling price. All I want to do is increase curb appeal and remove obvious reasons for buyers to say no.

I actually started work last year, focusing on landscaping. Thanks to the sewer and ash-tree projects the yard was a right mess, full of bare spots. Seed worked in some spots but not in others. So I laid about 70 rolls of sod.

Wagon Full of Sod

Wagon full of sod

One great thing about owning a small, battered station wagon with north of 180,000 miles on it is that I don’t much care how dirty it gets. I had no idea how much sod I would need, so I brought it home one wagonload at a time until I’d completed the job.

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Sod freshly laid in the back yard

For about six weeks this autumn I came home every Tuesday night with another wagonload of sod and laid it. Then I watered that spot twice a day until the next Tuesday.

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Bordered front bed – thanks Mom!

Also, thank heavens for my mother, who’s old enough to have a 49-year-old son but is in good shape and loves to work. She’s done a lot of jobs small and large around my house. Two summers ago she scrapred, reglazed, and repainted all of my exterior windows. Last summer she cut and placed spare landscaping timbers to create definition around all of my front beds, and did a fair amount of planting and replanting in my beds. Everything looked fabulous during blooming season.

And now she’s asking me what jobs I want done around here this year. The first project: scrape my interior windows and get them ready to be painted.

Weighed down

Weighed down

I got one other job done last year. I’ve never liked the giant overgrown evergreen bush/tree right outside my front door. The thing had to be 20 feet tall and it looked terrible. It was trussed up inside to keep it from splaying under its own weight. It did splay every time we got a heavy snow.

While I stopped seeing my yellow-beige walls and my worn carpet, I noticed — and grumbled under my breath about — that tree every time I exited or entered my home. The only good thing about it was that it blocked the view of my front door, hiding any packages UPS or FedEx drivers left on my stoop. But I’ve always wanted that tree gone. But it looked like such an ugly job to remove it that I kept putting it off.

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Going, going…

And then one day last summer when I was working from home, someone knocked on the door. A fellow covered in what were obviously prison tattoos, weilding a chainsaw, wanted to know if I had any trees I wanted removed.

I almost never hire people who knock on my door looking for work. I appreciate their eagerness and drive, but I don’t like the risks. What if they get injured or damage my home? There’s no way they’re bonded and insured. And what if they’re quietly casing the joint while they work? No, I’ll research and find an established contractor or company to do any needed work, thanks.

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…gone.

But I thought this might be my chance to be rid of that tree at a good price. And it should be a straightforward enough job, and it’s not like felling that tree could cause it to land on anything valuable. I decided to take the risk, and we quickly struck a deal.

He husled hard and within 30 minutes had the tree down, cut into pieces, and loaded into the back of his truck. I was thrilled to hand him his cash and watch him drive away.

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Filling in the space

I wondered what I would put in the empty space until I happened to be at the Home Depot one day late in the autumn when they were clearing everything out of their garden center at fire-sale prices. For next to nothing I picked up three little bushes that ought to grow in a couple years to fill this space and even probably hide the old tree’s stump.

I think I’ve done enough on my home’s landscaping. There are a few jobs left to do out front, including fixing some serious cracks in my driveway and resealing it, and painting my front stoop to hide its surprisingly unattractive concrete.

But otherwise, it’s time to turn my focus to my home’s interior. It’s finally going to get that coat of paint and a few other cosmetic improvements.

But a couple big jobs loom. One is to repair a water-damaged spot in my bathroom floor and put down a new floor covering. Another is to do something (I’m not sure what yet) about challenges with my tub and surround, some of which led to the water-damaged floor. I jury rigged a solution to prevent further damage, but I need something permanent and attractive. Finally, I would like to strip the painted wallpaper off the kitchen walls, re-mud, and repaint.

I have my work cut out for me. Fortunately, my mom and Margaret both are waiting for instructions from me about when and where they can pitch in.

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