Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Putting the Wraps on a Mixed Year

2008 was, in retrospect, not all that great of a year for the Nolley household, so it comes as something of a relief to close the door on it tonight.

Last year's New Year's Eve, we celebrated a year without pet tragedy, after a very rough 2006 in which we saw the deaths of two of the "dingoes" (Beth's dachshunds, Ziggy and Agi), our cat Moon, Beth's rescue cat Belle, and several "bappies," or baby cockatiels.  Unfortunately, this year saw the loss of Geronimo, the last of the dingoes and my favorite of our dachshunds.

Too, we bade our home in Vienna, VA, behind as the owners and landlords returned from a three-year sojourn in Europe; we'd expected to buy a home in plenty of time to move, but first I encountered an awful time selling my townhome due to a bad buyer, then we discovered just how long a "short sale" can take.  And even when everything seemed lined up to reach the finish line, we had our share of last-minute hurdles.

Then we got the Christmas Eve "present" of finding that Beth would be losing her job.  (Couple this with the premature end of my primary contract at work--due to the politics of a new director at the government agency funding us--and though I still have good job security, it's a stressful time of transition!)

I think you can see why we're anxious to be putting the bookend onto this year!

But not everything has been so bad.  I did get to do a fair amount of birding and have enjoyed the wilds of nature; we did eventually purchase Chateau Papillon and are slowly unpacking and completing some of our renovations.  And, of course, we have our health, our love of each other, and our families.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

FedEx: What Part of "Delivery by 10:30am" and "Priority Overnight" Do You NOT Understand?

As in each of the past three years, a Christmas gift for several family members was my annual "bird book," a labor of love that includes the best of my bird photography from the prior year along with narratives and facts about each of the birds and locations I visited.  And, despite the significant work on the book through the early fall, getting it wrapped up and finished came down to the absolute last minute, with my order going out on December 22rd--for which I paid a premium of $50 on top of the $54 FedEx Priority Overnight Express delivery charges to make sure it would arrive by Christmas Eve.

Everything looked good for an on-time delivery; printing house got the book printed and handed off to FedEx early on the 23rd, and FedEx then claimed a "by 10:30am" delivery on the 24th.  The package only had to go from Rochester, NY, to my house outside of Washington, D.C. (something a bit under 400 miles), after all.

On the morning of the 24th, I checked the tracking for my books and saw that they were "in transit" from Memphis as of about 7:00am.  Checking FlightAware for the day's scheduled FedEx flights to the Washington area, I figured it was on the second flight out that morning and would easily be delivered by 10:30am, as promised, and even printed out a copy of the flight path as "Santa's Sleigh."

Come that afternoon, my package still had not arrived, yet still said "in transit."  I called FedEx, waited on hold for a half an hour, and found out it was actually still in Memphis, having been "left on the ramp" and having missed that flight.  Fine; there were more flights to come on Christmas Eve, and the CSR thought I should still get it.

The next two flights were slightly delayed--not due to weather between MEM and WAS, but perhaps due to weather elsewhere delaying their arrival into MEM (though FlightAware didn't seem to think that to be the case).  And yet... my package missed both those flights, too.

I called FedEx back and waited even longer on hold and was told the package had, again, and inexplicably, had been left in Memphis.  "Somehow it didn't get loaded onto the flight," I was told, but the "helpful" CSR explained that they were operating the same schedule of flights the next day and several through the night, so it should make it by the 26th.

Now, note that the guarantee was for 10:30am on the 24th.  They couldn't even tell me it would reach Washington in time to be picked up at the FedEx counters which would be open on Christmas Day.  "I'm sorry," was the only apology I could get; no explanation as to how or why the package had been left behind so many times in Memphis.  Heck, in the 16 hours it had spent there, it could have made it to Washington on a truck; in the then-more-than-24 hours since it left Rochester, I could have driven to Rochester and back twice to pick it up in person!

I'll skip over the Christmas Day fiasco, where the package wasn't loaded onto the first truck to the local counter (and couldn't be picked up at the IAD facility, because it was "farther" away from my house)... and fast forward to today, when I had my request for a shipping refund denied by FedEx "with apologies for the inconvenience" due to the fact that FedEx's shipping terms and conditions allow them the cop-out that weather anywhere in the United States can allow them to skip out on a guaranteed delivery date.

Never mind that there was, according to the FAA, no appreciable weather delay between MEM and IAD (or DCA or BWI) all day on 12/24, and that according to FlightAware only a couple of FedEx flights to IAD had any significant delays--so FedEx can't seriously claim weather delayed the package.  No, they simply are using the excuse of bad weather in the Pacific Northwest (snow in Seattle and Portland, mostly) as the reason why my package got "left off the ramp" at MEM for several consecutive flights on Christmas Eve.

Next step: disputing the shipping charges with American Express.  I doubt that will succeed; FedEx will just play the "weather" cop-out with them as well.  However, this does go down as a huge black strike against FedEx in my opinion.  Though UPS seems to have more overall delivery issues in my experience, FedEx certainly has the more spectacular ones, from this Christmas fiasco to once leaving another Priority Overnight package off the fabled ramp in Memphis for five consecutive days.  Alas, DHL has been subsumed by UPS; though I used them least often, I always got shipments from Japan, Indonesia, and Hong Kong within 48 hours--and usually for less cost than a 2-day FedEx or UPS domestic package shipment!

Monday, December 29, 2008

A Very Hokie Home Office

The renovations at Chateau Papillon still have quite a ways to go; we've yet to replace the baseboards in the basement (and, in fact, still need to put down a narrow strip of cork flooring to finish the floor), and the library has been painted but little else as yet--no floor-to-ceiling shelves, no bamboo floor, no light fixtures.  But there is one room almost completely finished: my home office.

As you can see in the photo above, there's little doubt where I went to college.  I chose to paint the office walls in Home Depot's Collegiate Collection "VT Maroon" for an authentic look (more on that in the earlier blog entry, "Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Princesses"), and Linens 'N Things' going-out-of-business sale offered up these two orange curtains.  That VT football field rug came from Kohl's, I believe, via my parents.  The VT football endtable is a gift from my aunt Marian, like the Tiffany lamp.

Of course, my two diplomas were among the first things to be hung on the wall.  I'd really like to add another or two (I do need to finish my M.A. in English; a M.S. in Computer Science or a M.F.A. in Creative Writing would be nice, too)--but I'd have to move things around a bit to make space!

This disturbing Salad Fingers wall plaque (crafted by my sister and her husband, and hanging in my office only because Beth wouldn't have it out "in public" near the front door where I'd wanted to put it) holds several pieces of Virginia Tech "flair," including bowl game ticket stubs for two Sugar Bowls (including the national championship game for '99-'00), a Gator Bowl, and various Hokie-themed bead strands collected in New Orleans.

My office is a bit of a "Where's Waldo" exercise in picking out all the Hokie-themed memorabilia.  This shot of the side wall shows a Tiffany VT lamp my aunt gave me a few years ago, along with my custom-made VT shoes (from the now-defunct Customatix), a Hokie bird beanie baby, a photo of Hokies Matt, John, and Zina from the '06 UNC game, and--if you look really closely--the "Dr. Who" Hokie scarf Beth crocheted for me several years ago (yes, it's approximately thirteen feet of orange and maroon warmth).  As the library isn't finished yet, I've got many of my birding references as well as some of my signed and vintage hardbacks and favorite paperbacks set up in the office bookshelves for now.

Aunt Marian has given me several VT football-themed plates as well; I don't yet have a place set aside to hang them, though once the library is set up, I may put them atop my office bookcases.

Of course, my office renovations aren't quite complete yet; I still have to finish nailing up the baseboards and put in a strip of shoe moulding as well.  But for now, my office is certainly one of the more-complete rooms at Chateau Papillon.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Thanks, Boeing, for a Very Unmerry Christmas

We found out on Christmas Eve that Beth is losing her job.

To make a long story short, Beth works for the Institute for Connecting Science Research to the Classroom, a group currently housed at Virginia Tech which works to connect the work of real research scientists to K-12 school science teachers.  Earlier this year, defense contractor Northrop-Grumman expressed interest in becoming the sole source of funding for the ICSRC's "One Mission" program.  Despite assuring the ICSRC that "nothing had changed" and that they still intended to fund the program as late as this fall, Northrop-Grumman decided at their December meeting not to do so "at this time."  With that sudden loss of funding, the Institute will for all intents and purposes cease to exist, costing Beth her job.

You may recall that Northrop-Grumman won a huge contract with the Air Force earlier this year to deliver the next generation of tanker aircraft... and that Boeing, their primary competitor, was furious.  Boeing played every card they could, claiming that Northrop's win would "send jobs overseas" (since they were subcontracting to Airbus-parent EADS to build the airframe itself) and would "threaten US national security" (because foreign companies were involved in the group--nothing new, mind you; I've worked with Canadian companies on defense work several times).  Boeing, too, is a union shop, and they managed to pull enough strings to get the bidding re-opened (thus costing Northrop the contract).

Worst of all: Boeing wasn't even ready with a new bid of their own!  They whined to the Pentagon and complained that they needed "more time" to put together a bid.  (And the tactic worked: the Air Force decided to delay a decision on the re-opened contract to allow Boeing more time to assemble a workable bid that wouldn't simply be rejected out of hand.)

While Northrop-Grumman didn't single-out the loss of the tanker contract as the reason they declined to find the ICSRC, it's pretty clear the loss of that much money had to have been a major role in the decision.

So now Beth is out looking for a new job, surely at a significant pay cut given the current economic situation we face.  Boeing's argument that Northrop's contract win would cost US jobs has come back to bite them, for at least three US jobs have now been lost by reversing that decision (and I am sure Northrop themselves have had to curtail hiring and potentially even lay off employees involved in the original contract effort).  Thanks again, Boeing (and Northrop-Grumman) for giving us a very un-merry Christmas this year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Celebrating the Holidays Early--Gotta Make That the Plan!

Each year, the holiday season--Christmastime, to the vast majority of Americans, myself included--seems to arrive sooner. I'm never ready. No matter how much shopping for gifts I've done ahead of time, there's still those last few to find and wrap. The menu doesn't get planned out, so hopefully the pantry's well-stocked for those forgotten-but-critical items needed after even Wal-Mart closes its doors on Christmas Eve. Decorations still need to be put up. And for someone creative like myself, the deadline for completing those hand-made gifts looms like the proverbial freight train at the end of the tunnel. Don't forget, either, the visits to friends and family spread out across several states--even though both Beth and I enjoy spending Christmas at home together.

Beth and I came up with what we thought was a pretty good idea to help address these stress-inducing holiday problems a couple of years ago: celebrate on the Winter Solstice. That leaves us Christmas itself to spread out, round-robin, amongst the family we want to visit.

Too, for the pair of us atheists, it helps divorce our own celebrations from a Christian holiday. Not that we object at all to "Merry Christmas" or decorating our "Christmas tree," mind you (we're not soliders in the religious right's preceived "War on Christmas" at all, and we both absolutely love Christmas time!)--but we would like to have people realize our celebrations aren't so much for the birth of the central figure in their mythology but rather to enjoy the spirit of giving and of family and companionship that this time of year brings.

(To go off on a brief tangent, if the average Christian were honest with himself, he'd realize that "Christmas" as practiced by 99.99% of Americans is an absolutely secular holiday with but a passing nod to the birth of Jesus--who, if he existed at all, almost certainly wasn't born anywhere near December 25th, the date chosen by the Church to try winning over converts who observed the Roman Saturnalia or various other "pagan" celebrations set around the time of the Winter Solstice. Charlie Brown's decades-old lament about the commercialization of Christmas should be truer for Christian observants today than ever!)

Anyway, though we've talked up that notion before, we've yet to actually incorporate it into our holiday planning. As was the case the past two years, a major gift to several family members is going to be my bird book, which highlights the best of my bird photography for the past year.  Let me tell you something: putting that book together is NOT easy! I thought I'd made good progress this year well ahead of schedule, as I had done a good two-thirds of the layouts by September, leaving room for the inevitable photos I'd get on several fall business trips to the west coast. Alas, despite several late nights and a day taken off work, I still got the book off to the publishers about two hours past the cutoff for Christmas delivery (though there's still the chance they'll ship today, I guess). And there are gifts I've still to make for others: artwork to be done, cards to be designed, and photos to be presented.

Perhaps if we really set the Solstice as our deadline to celebrate, we'd not be running right up to Christmas. Next year?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Trials of Glued-down Carpet

Neither Beth nor I are much fond of carpet in the home. First, we both suffer various allergies, and not only does carpet typically harbor a fauniferous zoo of dust mites and their sneeze-inducing feces (yech!), but its fibers trap various outdoor allergens tracked in by humans and animals alike (pollen), and liquids can transform the padding and backing into mold and mildew factories. Our relatively short time in a temporary apartment saw increased congestion and related allergic symptoms in both of us no matter how much vacuuming we did, due I suspect to the wall-to-wall carpet.

So in moving to Chateau Papillon, one of the first orders of business was the reworking of the floors. Though the kitchen, dining, and entry hall were done in stone tile, and the living room left in original wood, the three upstairs bedrooms had been carpeted, as had the entire basement. We opted for bamboo for the bedrooms (true tongue-and-groove planks, mind you, and not cheap laminate), planning for the light-toned wood to offset the rich color palette we'd selected and help keep the smallish rooms as "open"-feeling as possible--with the added benefit that the Premium Green Bamboo we selected was inexpensive and represented a "green" flooring option in that bamboo is a largely- and rapidly-renewable resource, unlike traditional hardwoods.

But more on the bamboo in a later post. For the basement, Beth opted for cork, another renewable resource (the bark is harvested every five years or so, with the trees themselves never cut down) and one well-suited to her living space, providing a softer, warmer floor surface than other woods or materials like tile. Cork installs like laminate flooring, "clicking" together in either a floating or glued-down installation. But first things first: the basement floors were very nice carpet, which we'd hoped to salvage and make into a few throw rugs...

I'm cutting strips of carpet to pull up in the basement--tedious work!... until we discovered the basement carpet had been glued down instead of stretched and tacked as was done in the bedrooms. While not unusual for installations over concrete or tile, the carpet glue made our renovations quite painful.  I initially tried pulling up the whole carpet, but quickly discovered how sticky the glue was and gave up on salvaging the carpet.  At that point, I had two options: cut the carpet into strips (which individually would be easier to remove), or apply some solvent to help dissolve the glue.  Given we were trying to avoid fumes--recall we chose low-VOC paints for the basement--and the furnace and water heater would have to be turned off to prevent a possible explosion from the flammable solvent vapors, you can guess which option we chose.

Chance makes his home in one of the strips of carpet we'd cut.Chance decided he'd "help" as he so often does: by climbing atop (or, as in the photo above, into!) the carpet as we were removing it.  Crazy Chance!

We had to remove the carpet in stages; between cutting the strips (itself a difficult task which wore out my hands and several utility knife blades), pulling them up, and using an industrial-strength floor scraper to help pry up the carpet and padding and remove any particularly-stubborn patches of glue, it was back-breaking work.  As a reward to ourselves (and a break from the carpet removal!), we started on the installation of the new floor before we'd even finished taking up the carpet.

Two layers of 6 mil polyethylene sheeting went down atop the old vinyl tiles to act as a vapor barrier and help keep moisture away from the new cork floors, followed by a layer of half-inch OSB sheeting to act as a subfloor (this I had to "shoot" into the old floor using .22-propelled concrete fasteners; I'm sure the neighbors wondered if World War III was breaking out with all that noise!).  After that, the cork "tiles" (approximately 3' x 1') went down, with painter's tape on the seams to help keep prior rows from moving as new ones went in.

The last few rows of flooring to be completed... showing the vapor barrier before subfloor installation.
We're almost done with the basement flooring; above, you can see the last bits of exposed vapor barrier along with a bit of the OSB subfloor.  We've finished now up to the last strip, a 3" or so border down the edge of the wall; once that's done and I fill in some gaps along the base of the wall with foam sealant to keep out bugs and moisture, it will be time to put in the new baseboard.

Although it was a LOT of work, I think the cork floors look great.  They're environmentally-conscious in that cork is incredibly renewable, and the brand we chose had very low VOC content (the glues used in their construction make next to no use of formaldehyde).  They're soft underfoot and warmer than I'd expect for installation over a concrete slab.  Overall, we're both quite pleased with the work so far!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Human Rights Day + "A Day Without Gays"

Today was Human Rights Day, and also, incidentally, "A Day Without Gays"--the latter an event staged to express support for gay rights (expressly, opposition to the travesty which was California's Proposition 8), whereby gays and those who support their basic human rights were to take the day off, and ideally devote themselves to activism.

Although I'm happily straight (and married!), I did take today off from work. I'd toyed with the idea of doing so in support of equality and rights for all people when I first heard of the event, and given the amount of work Chateau Papillon still needs, the 2008 bird photologue which is still to be completed (and needs to be at the printer's in time for Christmas gifts!), and a Friday deadline for a Bird Watcher's Digest submission, I decided that indeed, today would be a great day to stay home from work.

I'm no closer to having the bird book done and have spent a lot of the day on photo editing for my magazine submission, but I do feel good that in some small way, my day off expressed some support for the equality which every human being deserves.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Mothers, Don't Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Be Princesses

Or, at least don't let them paint their rooms that way! When we first visited what would become Chateau Papillon, a couple of rooms stood out as testimony to the family's little girl in residence: fuchsia walls, lavender ceilings, and the whole nine yards of Disney's princess motif. Although I'm sure the decor worked quite well for the little girl, it wasn't going to stay when Beth and I began our renovations. One room would become our library, and the other my home office.

My home office to-be, 'before'

A consultation with the paint desk at Lowe's on how best to prime the walls and ceiling for repainting led to some "Maximum Color Hiding" primer plus a can of flat white ceiling paint; Home Depot provided the wall paints in a Virginia Tech maroon and a grey primer to go beneath it.

Let me tell you: priming walls is no fun at all. I put an entire gallon of that "maximum hiding" primer onto the small room's walls (my office is approximately 10' x 10') in two full coats and some additional touch-up, and you could STILL see the fuchsia shining through. Likewise, the ceiling was even less pleasant and took two coats of primer as well, leaving a hint of lavender showing, too.

Several coats of primer later...

The ceiling then took two more coats (four total!), this time of flat white ceiling paint. I think I removed all traces of purple, but it's tough to be sure. At any rate, nearly two gallons of white paint later, and the room was ready to get its new colors. Beth painted a coat of grey base to go beneath the Hokie maroon (recommended by Home Depot to help the maroon show up properly), then I followed that up with two full coats and some spot work in maroon paint.

Almost done! The second coat of VT Maroon is drying.

Though the above photo shows the maroon paint in various stages of drying--and thus appearing fairly streaky and purple to boot--the end result does look good, and once I have the baseboard in place and the furniture arranged, I'll post a photo of the finished product. After painting, I put down a layer of bamboo flooring (full tongue-and-groove boards--no laminates!) and have cut, but not fully installed, baseboard; shoe moulding is going to be one more required touch to fully conceal the floor's edges. And, of course, I hung orange curtains...

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Lost Chapters in the Saga of the Gas Range

In covering the saga of the gas range, I managed to leave out a few details (and have subsequently discovered a couple more verses in this long Edda as well). Actually, well before the wall had to be notched to accommodate the new range's wider-than-specified console, I had to take out an ancient through-the-wall kitchen vent (a major draft source!)

My grandmother's house had one of those vents next to its range, too, if that gives you a better idea as to the age of the fixture--and from the amount of grime on the vent fan itself, this one could have certainly been an original to the house circa 1964.

First, I had to pry off the faceplate; I then was able to unplug the fan itself and pull it from the duct. I considered routing the range hood's vent out the same hole (the hood currently vents into the kitchen--less than ideal--but direct venting the hood outside would require knocking another hole in the exterior wall), but the ductwork necessary was going to be problematic (two tight 90-degree elbows which would likely become grease and gunk traps).

So, I cut a piece of cardboard to the size of the existing duct and caulked it into place, blocking off the end of the duct from further drafts. After that, I filled the rest of the duct with fiberglass insulation, caulked around any gaps, and put a heat shield in place to cover the now-filled hole through the wall (no need to redo the drywall when it's behind a piece of metal!)

As for those new discoveries? Well, don't order a gas range online. I've read and re-read the specs as presented on the Sam's Club Web site, and nowhere does it say that the range is 31" wide at its widest point (the failing which led to my having to notch the wall); to be fair, GE's own specs don't list the 31" dimension, either, unless you dig pretty deeply. But also nowhere on the site does it say the range has a broiler drawer and not a standard waist-high broiler! In effect, there's only the lower gas burner in the oven, with none at the top, and the drawer underneath the oven holds a broiler rack. Problem is, large things (like turkeys) cannot be broiled in the drawer--only stuff like toast, steaks, and fish fillets, and broiling involves bending over to floor-level; any decent chef knows the mise en place for a good kitchen minimizes awkward movements and actions for tasks done frequently (like broiling).

I'll have to live with the limitations of a broiler drawer for now, because I'm not about to buy another new range (nor can I afford one at present). I think I could have spent $100 more and gotten a range better meeting my expectations--problem was, the Web site presented it as having a smaller oven (probably so--to account for the additional waist-high broilers). I guess when we tackle some major kitchen renovations--such as expanding the kitchen itself when we build a sunroom for the birds and extend the kitchen over it (and add a sunny little breakfast nook), we'll replace with a couple of in-wall ovens and a cooktop on an island; 'til then, we're stuck with this range.

I tried doing a lot of Web research in picking out the right model for our budget and feature requirements, but never could find the exact model numbers anywhere to make sure everything lined up (and, to be fair, GE has several dozen models nearly identical and within a few hundred of each other in price, making things even more difficult). Shame on me for not doing more research, and shame on Sam's Club for such poor description of their items on their Web site.