The Arlington Chronicles – Part 1 – A Certain Madness

Some of you may remember my Ponce Chronicles and Revenge of the Ponce Chronicles, telling the adventures of house repairs in Puerto Rico last winter. Well, we’re at it again, this time on our own house, here in Massachusetts. We’re renovating our downstairs apartment, in preparation for Allysen’s mom to move in. Fay is in her mid-80’s, and there are a lot of changes to be made for “aging in place.”

old-showerYou may have thought from my recent posts that for the last few weeks, all I’ve been doing is plug my books. Indeed, no. In fact, we have been plugging the holes in our sanity, while researching accessibility, working with contractors, buying (or not buying) appliances that will work for someone Fay’s age, and so much more.

Do you like bathroom renovations? Who doesn’t, right? Right. We set out intending only to rip out the old bathtub/shower and replace it with a no-threshold shower, in hopes of preventing trips, slips, and falls. By the time it’s done (tomorrow, I hope!), we will have put in all new tile, toilet, fan, lights, walls—basically everything except the sink and the door. Fortunately, we found an amazing contractor who knew how to do everything we (Allysen) talked about. I cannot overstate the wonder of working with guys who are smart, knowledgeable, able to communicate clearly and share your vision, and do good work for a price that’s probably too low. We love these guys.

will-and-bill-ponder-what-theyve-wroughtIt hasn’t all been the bathroom, of course. I’m passing over the hardwood floors, the kitchen, the electrical work, the driveway, the porch lift… but I’ll get to those in another post.

And our role in this, besides signing checks? Painting, lots of painting; and rehabilitating the old kitchen sink cabinet that we decided, probably stupidly, to reuse. And making decisions? Oh yes…

Between us, I’m sure we spent hundreds of hours researching, measuring, and looking at refrigerators (we decided in the end to keep the old one), compact washers and dryers (used and refurbished), electric ranges, dishwashers… aaiiieee. It’s a Rubik’s cube.

Take selecting tile, for one. Oh, my head! Getting three people—Allysen, her mom, and me—all with divergent artistic sensibilities, to agree on style and pattern? And having chosen, discovering—after it was put down—that the tile company had sent the wrong tile for the floor? (Upshot: the tile stays, but the tile company refunded the money.) And selecting grout color?! Who knew it was important to pick out grout color?! And let’s not even get started on picking out the right toilet—only to discover, after attempted installation, that the one we picked out won’t fit.

shower-tile-getting-thereAll this with the date of Fay’s move breathing down our necks.

So, naw, I’ve done my fair share of hawking, but I haven’t only been hawking books these last few weeks.

More to follow.

Here’s a Job Captain Jack Would Like!

Sheepdog-sheep-switchbacks-Romania-YMThis is definitely a job Captain Jack would like.

My brother Chuck and his wife Youngmee were recently in Romania, and sent back some photos of the road they were on. Here’s a dog watching his flock. Totally what Captain Jack was born to do. But what does the dog do if the sheep start to slide?

And as for the rest of the picture, didn’t I see James Bond being pursued by international terrorists on that road? Chuck said they rented a red car, so that the wreckage would be easier to spot. Pictures by Youngmee.



Revenge of the Ponce Chronicles

A couple of months ago, I wrote of our two-week trip to Puerto Rico, where we labored like lunatic worker bees to complete extensive repairs and renovations to the home in Ponce that was built by Allysen’s parents back around the era that I was completing my undergraduate education. That was a productive but exhausting trip, and we got a huge amount done, but were left with a lot still to do before we could rent the place. Well, we’ve just finished trip two, which was exhausting on a scale that made our January efforts look like a milk run.

This time Allysen went for a full month, taking a leave of absence from her job. Her brother Andrew came for a while, our daughter Jayce came for a while, and I came for the final two weeks. I will say, as far as the physical surroundings go, it was a lot more pleasant (even in mosquito season) than it had been before. The pool was sparkling, Allysen and Andrew had already scored some nice secondhand furniture, and the work crews were starting to feel like old family friends. But the pace, especially in the last week, was punishing. On trip one, my main job was chronicling the work and making endless runs to Home Depot. This time, I was a lot more hands-on with smaller repairs, plus I kept on making endless runs to Home Depot.

On the flight home, we scribbled down a list of all of our deeds so that we wouldn’t forget. Here’s a small sampler of what we and our contractors accomplished:

  • Built a new concrete retaining wall to hold up the parking area
  • Widened the brick-lined parking pad, for easier parking
  • Repaired the main entry gate
  • Installed new keyless entry locks and deadbolts
  • Bought and transported nice, second-hand furniture for living and dining rooms
  • Had new table tops made by our wood guy for dining and coffee tables
  • Bought a modest smart-TV and tested streaming Netflix on it with our cellphone mobile wifi (it worked!)
  • Met with the family lawyer and learned how wills work in P.R. (differently from in the states)
  • Upgraded the alarm system (with many visits from the alarm company) and trouble-shot false alarms
  • Cleaned out gross cupboards in paneled bedroom
  • Built new cabinets and cabinet walls in area behind kitchen and closed up the ceiling in that area, to keep out leaves, bugs, rain, and wandering animals
  • Bought a modest selection of hand and power tools and used every one of them
  • Sanded and painted stairway rails leading down from parking pad to deck, to pool
  • Spent many hours repairing the dishwasher, only to determine that it really was dead, Jim; also, learned that dishwashers aren’t that common in PR, and you can’t go to Home Depot or Sears and just buy one to take home with you—so, no dishwasher
  • Began the job of replacing all the windows
  • Made a serious dent in the island’s supply of rum, lime, and assorted other drinkables
  • Semi-befriended two lovely, pregnant stray kitties
  • Checked out a few recommended restaurants
  • Got up every frickin’ morning at 6 or 7 to open the gate for workers
  • Swam in the pool (twice, anyway)!

That’s maybe a quarter of the list. Really. For the most part, we were so busy that we forgot to take pictures! Which is a bummer. But here, in a lighter moment, I did catch Allysen and Andrew:



And here are Estevan and Carlos getting started on the new wall:



The revenge? I arrived home exhausted—and instead of having a nice rest, promptly got sick. I’ve been sick for most of the last week, and am only slowly returning to normal. That just doesn’t seem fair. But I am now recovered enough that I can say this with greater confidence: Please pass me some frozen margarita.


The Ponce Chronicles (Part 18)

Emerging, blinking, from an alternate dimension.  

I do not sleep a wink on the plane from Ponce to Orlando. We land a half hour late in Orlando; our connection to Boston will be tight. Exiting the jetway, I ask the JetBlue agent where the flight to Boston is. She shrugs. “What gate is it at?” I try not to blow my stack like “Anger” in the movie Inside Out—while screaming inside, Why do you think I’m asking?— as she points to a monitor down to the left. We run to look. It’s at Gate 8. Where’s Gate 8? The opposite direction, of course. We sprint.

At the gate, boarding has completed. An agent with a clipboard says, “Carver and Palmer?” and waves us on. As we buckle in, I hear a couple of really loud clunks beneath us. Must be our leaden checked bags being hurled on by annoyed luggage handlers, I think. But nah, there’s no way our luggage will make this connection.

This flight from Orlando to Boston—oddly, given the number of flights cancelled because of the storm just two days ago—is not filled. We have room to stretch out a little, on opposite sides of the aisle. Doesn’t matter; I still can’t sleep.

The approach to Boston is unusually scenic. We fly right over Providence, and for the first time ever, I can pick out the campus of Brown University (my alma) below. Shortly after, we fly a lovely approach to Boston over the bay, circling to the north to line up for a southbound landing. It’s a perfect (but oversized) emulation of the standard general aviation traffic pattern, flying a downwind with a line of planes on final going by on the left, turning base above Beverly Airport, where Allysen (many years ago) took her first flying lesson with me in the back seat, and finally low and slow down the north shore to a perfect, if windy, landing at Logan. We are home.

Arrival BOS3_smAmazingly, our luggage is home, too. I can’t believe it when I see our two huge old suitcases on the carousel. Probably those loud clunks were our bags—tools and tree trunks and all—being thrown aboard.

Uber won’t connect on my phone, so we take a cab from a stand at the curb. Gazing at the snowy, gray, dreary, landscape, we can hardly believe we have just left the land of mosquitos and sunblock.

It will take several days before it feels real to be back in Boston (and to catch up on sleep).

We are amazed and grateful at what we accomplished in those two and a half weeks. If only we had been able to finish it all. But we didn’t, and so, soon, we are going to have to go back and do this all over again!

[And with that, we return you to Pushing a Snake Up a Hill, with its regular blog musings. To read The Ponce Chronicles straight through from beginning to end, here’s the complete adventure.]

The Ponce Chronicles (Part 17)

Wheels up, Ponce.  

The pace on our last day is no different. Freddie and Heri are hard at work. Ricardo has given his exhausted crew of electricians the day off, but comes by himself to do a walk-through review of the final items that need work after we’re gone. The plumbing team is back, attending to a list of plumbing needs. Most are fixed, but not all, when they finally leave at the end of the day.

Several of the crews worked on the basis of agreed-upon prices for their jobs, and we are keenly aware that their labors have gone well beyond the scope of the original estimates. (At home in Boston, I’m certain some of this work would have cost at least three or four times as much.) We have decided to compensate them with bonuses. When I hand Ricardo the extra cash for his crew, as Allysen explains in Spanish why, he first looks surprised, and then he struggles to fight back tears as he embraces both of us. He has had to go after people and businesses for payment before—he’s told us of the money the government owes him for work done a year ago—but this might be the first time anyone has voluntarily handed him more than the agreed upon amount. We’re glad to do it. They have done a great job, without a word of complaint about the unexpected difficulties.

Cutting mahogany sliceMichael the tree guy comes by late in the afternoon to cut us some slices of mahogany tree trunk to take home as souvenirs. His chain saw should make short work of that.  Braaaaa-a-a-p-p-p! Well, it takes longer for the first piece than he thought. But it’s mahogany, after all. What do you expect? Braaaaa-a-a-p-p-p! Second slice. Braaaaa-a-a—! Wait, why is the chain hanging limply off his chain saw? Have we just killed his saw? Michael trudges off unhappily to his car for parts. Eventually the noise starts up again. And in the end we have our four slices: one for Allysen’s mom, one for her brother, one for us, and a smaller one for me to keep in my office. Someday I’ll sand it down and finish it with oil or varnish. Michael, too, receives his bonus with surprise and gratitude. “If you need me again, just call!” he says to Allysen—not in English—as he leaves.

Finally, one last errand to Home Depot, and a trip back to the Plaza del Caribe, to return the car to Avis—somewhat the worse for wear from the streets of Ponce. We never did get to the roof-sealing job. We will leave that for Heri to work on.

For a blessed hour, we enjoy wine and cheese with our neighbors Frances and Che, above the once-more-sparkling pool. We say our good-byes, and then, in a weary frenzy, throw ourselves into packing and final cleanup.  (How, exactly, do you pack several slices of mahogany tree trunk in your suitcase, anyway?) We only have until 1:30 a.m., when Freddie will pick us up and take us to the airport! Laundry to do. (What? The water’s gone off on the hill again??) Construction debris to clean up. Tools to pack for return to Boston. Sipping rum punch (Allysen’s dad’s recipe), we somehow manage—and tumble into the car for our late-night ride to Mercedita (Ponce) Airport.

This may not the most unwelcoming waiting room in the Western world, but it’s in the running. And as always, it’s packed. Flights to and from Puerto Rico are always packed. With so many people flying these routes, why can’t they fly them at civilized hours?

Onto the plane! They embark and disembark from both the nose and the tail of the aircraft. With seats closer to the tail, we get to haul our carry-ons up the outdoor stairs. I find myself remembering a line from a very funny song, Cheap Flights (“If you didn’t pay to take the stairs, you’ll have to feckin’ jump!) Settling into our seats, surrounded by masses of moving people, I suddenly realize I’ve left my winter coat in the waiting room! I fight my way back to the tail exit and tell the flight attendant. With a little twinkle, she says, “You’re the second one!” And she gets on the phone to ask someone to bring me my coat.

Finally, all buckled in, we rumble down the runway and off into the night.

(Coming in our final installment, stepping from another dimension.)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]

The Ponce Chronicles (Part 16)

National Ferret Area.

This is the day we would have arrived back home, if not for the storm up north. The place is strangely quiet. It’s raining, and the mountains are wreathed in fog. The clean, freshly filled pool sparkles and dances with raindrops. It’s just Allysen and me. We were expecting Paul Bunyan the tree cutter at 10, but he may have decided it was pointless to come in the rain. (Or perhaps pointless to come for people who can’t get money out of an ATM without a Broadway show.)

We have discovered that the skylight over the new washer leaks in the rain.

Pool at night1_sm

On the other hand, I think how beautiful the place looked last night, with strategically arranged LED floodlights illuminating the trees and the steps and the pool, and things like a little old roof leak seem not so bad. Also, last night Allysen found the wall sconce lamps for the dining room that tenant Veronica had taken off the walls and buried in an old closet. They are back up, and add a very nice touch to the dining room.

Dining room with new and restored lights2

Today will be something more like a day of rest, with cleaning and small repairs on the docket.

Heh. Day of rest? We continue shopping for needed parts. Our destination, National Ferreteria (National Hardware). My repeated attempts to get my GPS to recognize the word “ferreteria” finally end in searching on “ferret area,” which instantly becomes our new name for the hardware center. Bonanza! Jelly jar lights for the outside corners of the house! We have spent hours and hours searching for exactly these lights—including trying to buy them on Amazon, only to discover that nobody ships to Puerto Rico. Well, here at National Ferret Area, we find a large stack of them on an end display, for $7 each!

So far, so good. We end up back at the mall (dark now, still raining hard). While Allysen shops, I move the car to a better location. Oops. In the dark and the rain, I drive over something. A bag? Box? Plastic jug? Whatever it is, it’s now stuck but good under the car, scraping along the asphalt. I get out with my tiny pocket flashlight to peer under. Something is definitely wedged there. Only one way to get it out, and that’s to lie on my back in the downpour and inch under the car. Damn, it’s hard to reach; why do they make cars so low to the ground these days? I finally get a finger-hold and yank it free. It’s… no, not a box. It’s a glove compartment from a car. That’s right, someone has ripped the entire glove box out of a car and thrown it into the parking lot, probably just so I could drive over it. Who does that?

Sopping, I ooze back into the car, and call Allysen. “Can you come out soon?” She recognizes the sound of my voice, and hurries out.

Back home, we change into dry clothes and attend to small repairs. In the laundry area, I discover that the electricians forgot to hook the washer drain hose back up after installing the new electric circuits. Rain continues dripping from the ceiling onto anyone who dares stand in the laundry area. Think you’ll get clean and dry, do you? I get the various hoses reattached, get them to stop leaking, and shove the machine back into place. We’ve got wet clothes to wash, you know?

After dinner from the food court, I tackle the dishwasher. It has power now, but still doesn’t run properly. I’m going to check the water inlet filter, which I know from our own machine at home can clog and keep a dishwasher from filling. I turn off the water supply under the sink. I start to loosen the fitting—and get a spray of water in my face. Surprise! The shutoff valve doesn’t work! I am half soaked again. Actually, water is everywhere; the dining area is open to the elements on one side, which is open enough when water is blowing from the sky. The tile floor looks like a swimming pool. The pool itself is threatening to overflow.

With so little time left, I keep trying to fix things. I seem always to need a tool that’s in the other section of the house. Did I mention that the living and dining areas are separate, with an open deck between them, the better to commune with Nature? Well, Nature is pretty damn wet tonight.

Tilley hatThe one thing I have going for me is my Tilley hat, the best hat in the known universe, bought for me by my daughters a few years ago. At least my head stays covered as I dash back and forth across the deck. Here’s me in my Tilley hat, in a drier time.

But you know what? I think I’ve fixed enough for tonight.


(Coming next in Part 17, our last day.)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]

The Ponce Chronicles (Part 15)

Cash, cash, wonderful cash!

As I type this, my efforts are accompanied by Heri whanging on a stone chisel shaping a large brick (loud), Michael cutting up a fallen tree trunk with a chain saw (really loud), and the quiet gurgle behind me (when I can hear it) that reminds me that the pool is filling again. By the end of this workday, the electrical work is almost done.

money_bag_in_handWe have a number of people we need to pay in cash, which is something we hadn’t quite thought through before coming. Somehow we had assumed we could write checks. But that’s not how the service economy works down here. This means daily trips to the ATM, to pull as much money out as permitted, and going online to move funds around from the sources that are funding this effort. The trips to the ATM are not enough. All these guys have been working like Trojans, and they all need the money now. It doesn’t help when I go downtown with Michael to withdraw the money we owe him, and the ATM rejects my request. What? Soon comes a robot call on my cell from our bank: We have made so many withdrawals we have triggered a fraud alert. I try to explain this to Michael, who is growing restive and clearly wondering if this North American is scamming him. Michael does not understand a word of English and I speak very few of Spanish. I must call Allysen to translate. In the end, I must also call our bank back home (still open on a Saturday!) and get them to lift the freeze on the ATM withdrawals.

I really do not like walking around with wads of cash in my pocket, especially when that money is owed to someone else who worked hard for it. And in this case, the someone else who needs the money could bench press me with one hand.

Plus, I worry that the retirement accounts of everyone in the extended family, from my mother-in-law ( the primary owner) through me, to my children, will be gone by the end of these two weeks. And yet, it all must be done—whether the decision is made in the end to rent the house, or to sell it. The alternative is to let it decay and fall down around us. It’s far too beautiful a place, and holds too many memories, to let that happen. We press on.

(Coming next in Part 16, the National Ferret Area.)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]

The Ponce Chronicles (Part 14)

You thought you were going home?

Keep thinking. Our two weeks in Puerto Rico are drawing to a close—or so we once believed. Winter Storm Jonas is slamming the eastern seaboard with snow and ice, crippling more than one major city. Although Boston is not expected to get more than a few inches, our flight home takes us via Orlando, and a great deal of winter chaos lies between there and home. (Here’s a picture from space, courtesy of NASA/NOAA.)

winter storm jonas8

As of bedtime on Friday, JetBlue still shows our flight a Go. I’m skeptical.

Around midnight, a thunderstorm moves over the hill. The lights flicker, then come back on. I hear a bass drum boom a little further down the hill, and think I see a flash over the houses that way. The boom sounds different from thunder; more contained and resonant. The lights go out and stay out. A blown transformer, I’ll wager. A few minutes later, I go to use the faucet. The water’s out, too. I crawl into bed, thoroughly discouraged. I am, I realize, getting really tired of this. Allysen sleeps. I sweat, in the absence of AC.

The morning brings neither power nor water. Allysen makes phone calls to report both. Our electricians are already at work. Power went out in a lot of the city, though some of it was protective, because of the storm. Ricardo looks tired; he was up all night, because his wife had a medical emergency. (She is apparently okay now, we are glad to hear.)

Fortunately, we have enough battery on phones to make calls. JetBlue still says our flight is a Go. I still don’t believe it. A half-hour on hold brings a live JB agent, who confirms our suspicions: we are going nowhere Saturday night. We rebook for Tuesday and wonder where we can get coffee.

Somewhere around 10 in the morning, both power and water come back! Another miracle! Coffee, wonderful coffee!

coffee-304584_640(Coming next in Part 15, Paying for all this work.)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]

The Ponce Chronicles (Part 13)

Running out of time!  

We have been in Ponce for almost two weeks now, and there is still so much to do. Is it raining outside the open dining area? Nope, that’s Estevan power washing the concrete roof (for the second time). We need to go up with 5-gallon buckets of special sealant to weather-proof the concrete, a treatment that is years overdue. I cannot wait.

Actually, I have to wait. The electricians are not yet finished with the wiring and the lights on the roof. Saved by the bell.

But there’s still the staining to be done. We have gone round and round with various suppliers, trying to get solid-color deck stain that might vaguely match what’s on there now. Language difficulties abound. Even with Allysen doing the talking in Spanish, there is persistent confusion about whether we mean interior stain (which everyone has) or exterior stain (which no one seems to have). No, we do not want it with polyurethane. One can say “exterior” many time before the light goes on. “No, I’m sorry, we don’t have it.” Finally, we establish that Home Depot does have transparent stain that can be colored to barn red. It will be transparent, but it’s better than nothing.

Jayce, hours before leaving for her flight, has pitched in to help me get started with decking sections that are new wood and must be protected. I continue with new railing and some work down on the pool deck. We are all getting very tired. But there is so much left to do!

The electrical work should be done tomorrow. But where can we find light fixtures that can stand exposure to wind and damp, and not make Allysen want to throw up at their ugliness? Can we get the plumber back to reinstall the hot water heater in the kitchen that Veronica disconnected and moved? What about the faucets that need replacing? What was the source of the water in the downstairs closet? Many questions remain.

It is now Friday, and we are scheduled to fly back at 3 a.m. on Sunday. Freddie and Heri can do some work for us after we’re gone, but there is so much left to do! Still, there is so much we have accomplished. The concrete pillar for the electrical box looks like a brand new obelisk, set down by visiting aliens.

Concrete pillar being rebuilt_7 Concrete pillar rebuilt_1 Pool refilled

The house really looks as though it has been brought back to life. It feels like a miracle. Quite possibly it is a miracle.

(Coming next in Part 14, Are we going home now?)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]


The Ponce Chronicles (Part 12)

Tax Man.

Allysen again:

Next bureaucratic stop, CRIM, home of the tax man—to pay the property tax and get copies of 5 years’ of tax records for my mother.  I’ve been putting it off—who wants another celebration of paperwork?  Finally I steel myself and go.

The lines at CRIM aren’t bad, I’m told; no need to rise at dawn.  I arrive at 10:15 and walk into a room full of waiting people.  A man at a table asks my business and then gives me a number.  3017. I really hope that means just 17th in line.  I sit. I wait. This feels exactly like waiting at the RMV back home.

I snooze, startling awake to check the numbers on the board every time the bell dings. I chat with my neighbors. The savvy woman sitting next to me tells us all how to avoid pitfalls at various government agencies. The circle of chat grows, then quiets again.

An hour passes.  Other sets of numbers are progressing—the 1000s go at a reasonable clip; that group is for people just paying bills, explains my neighbor. The 5000s are climbing, if slowly. The 3000s don’t budge.  They were at 3005 when I walked in, and they’re at 3005 now.

At 11:30 the 3000s begin to move—at last. Ding. Ding. My savvy neighbor, number 3016, gets up.  Ding. I leap to follow her.  In a back room a man leads us, a dozen hopefuls, toward a small sea of cubicles.  He proceeds rather like a sower, tossing citizens into cubicles, right, left, right, left… I sit down with a cheerful young woman who has the usual Puerto Rican courtesy—and something else.  I’m struck by her efficiency as she checks my papers (the usual—passports, my father’s will, authorization letter, death certificate, past bills, social security numbers, etc.), makes copies, changes the name and billing address.  Someone is watching over me; this woman is quick.

Hector the taxmanThen… copies of past payments?  She gets a supervisor.  When did my father buy the property? Um, 1969? She blanches. We can’t possibly give you 45 years of records!  No, no, just since 2009. A bit of back and forth with my clerk, and the computer system, and a man who consults and then heads, with some hurry, downstairs to magic up the copies. The supervisor escorts me back out, telling the man at the numbers desk to put me in line, immediately, to pay the bill. The numbers maven pops me in and politely tells me to hurry. I head to the bill pay window. I’m pleased at their speed and coordination (all done with that Puerto Rican courtesy that looks so relaxed) but a bit puzzled.  Why the sudden rush?  At 11:58 I finish paying and the bell dings for the next in line.  My guardians motion me downstairs.  I jog down and spot my man with the copies just coming out of a doorway.  He smiles and hands me the papers.

And then I find out why the rush.  At noon the office takes lunch.  Anyone still sitting in a chair, clutching a number, must wait another hour until the windows open again at 1 pm.  Yipes! My team at CRIM has been racing to beat the clock. Bless them!

Me again.

Here’s George Harrison and Eric Clapton performing the Beatles classic, “Taxman”:

(Coming next in Part 13, we’re running out of time!)

[To read The Ponce Chronicles in order, start here.]


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