Hand upon the plow.

Homeownership sucks. Responsibility sucks. Nothing like homeownership — particularly in a market with declining real-estate values — to make one yearn for the simpler days of an apartment, a mailbox with everyone else’s by the front entrance, a community pool and a call to Maintenance when things went wrong.

A little history: In true Detroit style, a previous owner of our house was enamored of gas-hungry machines, specifically recreational vehicles. In what may be a metaphor for the relationship between motor vehicles and the natural world, they used this enthusiasm to ruin the back yard. They picked up the garage and rotated it 90 degrees, plunking it in the goddamn middle of the yard. In between the garage and the house, they installed a deck. This is nice. In between the garage and the back of the property, they poured another parking slab, and in the thin stretch left before the property line, they poured gravel. (In the sales listing for the house, this was described as a “play area,” the same way “squalid shithole” becomes “handyman’s special.”) Everything else was paved.

For the first two years we lived here, we regarded this arrangement with contempt. Alan in particular was fond of referring to “the automotive engineer” who dreamed it up, even though he had no evidence that the person in question was an automotive engineer; this was just the part of him that knew sooner or later we were going to have to right the wrong, venting its entirely justified disgust. It would have been so much easier, and likely cheaper, to keep the stupid RV in a storage facility.

Well. We don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars required to either move the garage back or, better yet, tear it down and build a new one where the garage should be, break up and remove all the concrete and reclaim the back yard for the forces of good. But we had enough to get an estimate on hauling out all the gravel from the “play area” and replacing it with topsoil. The estimate was what we expected, so we told Mr. Landscaper to get a crew over here and git ‘er done. Which he did. The Bobcat had been working for an hour when they hit the surprise. “A body?” I asked hopefully. No, Alan said; they’d found giant heaps of broken-up concrete. The neighbor ambled over and explained that when the garage was removed from its original foundation, they’d broken up the slab and used it to underlay the gravel in the back corner of the lot, to support parking for yet another very heavy recreational vehicle. Mr. Landscaper said this would complicate things, that they’d need another man and a lot more dirt, but I said, “Let’s just do it the way it should be done,” and OK’d the cost overrun, which I was informed could increase the bill by as much as 100 percent.

The job got done and a good job it was. We added a couple hundred square feet of arable land to what had been weed-pocked gravel. When the bill came, I swallowed hard and opened it.

It was more than triple the estimate.

After I picked myself off the floor, I told myself all the things you tell yourself: All home-improvement projects go over budget, or It’s a real improvement, and you knew that wouldn’t be cheap and Would you rather be looking at weed-pocked gravel for a third summer? Each one of these platitudes was like a strong drink for my buyer’s remorse, and after I settled accounts with Mr. Landscaper, Alan went to the nursery and started planting. It took him the weekend, but now we have a small herb garden, two raspberry bushes, some climbing roses, a butterfly bush, some dead-nettle groundcover, new hostas and a birdbath. What had been impervious landscape is now nice and pervious again, and we’re putting oxygen into the air, plus growing raspberries. Which is more than you can say for those RVs, I hope.

Those birds better appreciate that damn birdbath, is all I can say.

At times like this, it’s important to not think like a renter. Otherwise you’d start thinking dangerous thoughts about how you might have spent that $2,000 if you didn’t have a house. In days gone by, you’d say, “Ah, but the house will be worth 4 percent more at the end of this year whether I do anything or not, so it’s just gravy.” Around here, though, that’s not the case. This just in: The auto industry is imploding. Blame the engineers.

So. The Brooklyn crew got 2/3 of the Jersey crew’s power structure last night, and at episode’s end, Tony was all alone with his machine gun in a bedroom with bad wallpaper, lying on a bare mattress in the dark, waiting for next Sunday and the last episode. I think that’s where I’m going to spend this week, too. The show is ending both the way we’ve always known it will, but not, if that makes any sense. Tony said, over and over and over in the last seven years, “Guys like me, we only end up dead or in the can,” and we keep telling ourselves, “Please, not for another season.” Well, it’s almost over, and I don’t see it ending any way but dead or in the can. I’ve been rooting for dead, but lately I’m thinking it would be amusing to see Carmela’s house sold to another family in the final montage, perhaps one of a non-white persuasion. I’m not going to be happy unless Blondie is appropriately punished, too. And I think, for her, that would be a fate worse than death.

Fave moment: When all the strippers and customers come out of the Bing to see what the excitement’s about. Was that a priest in the crowd?


If someone asked for a show of hands of all the people who’ve heard “Respect” enough times that they never, ever want to hear it again, well, I’m reaching for the ceiling. Still. Make room in your head for one more, as it’s heard in Kelley Carter’s video package on Aretha Franklin’s greatest hit, “40 Years of Respect,” on Freep.com. A really nice job, with some great archival photos and interviews from people who knew Detroit’s daughter then and now. My favorite nugget: When Franklin’s son reveals that mom had a cold during the recording of the vocal, and points out the line where you can hear her falter. Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing through the Poynter Institute, uses the Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin recordings of “Respect” to illustrate the concept of “voice.” (Yes, how sad that people choose to become writers and then have to learn what voice is.) One more note: A very old-school TV guy told me once that you could teach a word person TV skills a lot easier than you could teach a TV person word skills, and boy do you ever see it here. If more TV journalists worked like this, I might watch more TV.

Posted at 8:27 am in Popculch, Same ol' same ol', Television |

31 responses to “Hand upon the plow.”

  1. Connie said on June 4, 2007 at 8:48 am

    Ah home ownership. Last week my husband said in deep despair: “My truck is falling apart, our pool is falling apart, our lawnmower has died, my kid goes to an expensive college, and my job just died.” (Really, the 90 year old man he was helping out died that morning.) This is our third year of major major patching of a pool liner that really needs to be replaced at an estimate of $4500.

    As for gravel, I am thinking a teenager could hand pick all the stones out of my landscaping so I can replace them with mulch.

    Now I am depressed.

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  2. John said on June 4, 2007 at 8:55 am

    I played hedge/bush trimmer all day Saturday and spent Sunday paying for it. My arms and back are still suffering, but the shrubbery is back under control.

    Anyone catch the spearchucker comment yesterday at Fox?

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  3. Dorothy said on June 4, 2007 at 9:07 am

    Wouldn’t it be a hoot if Tony ended up shooting himself accidentally while sleeping on the sheet-less bed? I will be in Columbus for my son’s graduation next Sunday – and I intend to be back in the hotel room by 9 PM to catch the finale.

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  4. colleen said on June 4, 2007 at 10:18 am

    Similarly, we can teach you to do radio if you can write, but if all you are is a voice with no writing skills….go away. Because it’s just too much work, and it will never be ok.

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  5. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 11:00 am

    I just dropped a hefty chunk of cash on getting all my trees and brush up to fire season standards. I had them haul away stuff like the old kiddie pool and Lil’ Tykes basketball hoop as well. We had maybe less brightly colored plastic crap than many, but more than I could stand, and it’s time in the crappy corner behind the garage was way past over.
    The weekend was spent replanting creeping rosemary groundcover and a few flats of very bright red geraniums and Spanish lavendar for the slopes outside the fenced part of the yard. It looks great out there and should be good for a few years. Older son is expanding the organic vegetable garden so a lot of level part of the yard is taken up by that, but I still have a good side yard and three decks for hanging out, sipping iced tea. I have the urban anomaly of a big yard, tiny house, which is fine with me most of the time.

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  6. nancy said on June 4, 2007 at 11:22 am

    Ah, fire season — such a foreign concept here in the Midwest, where last I checked the humidity was 78 percent. I remember my L.A. friends discussing its unique pain-in-the-assedness, which involved inspections and tickets and all the rest of it.

    I was just out looking at our little strip of heaven, and it occurred to me there may be room for a compost heap/bin over by the herbs. Why is gardening so seductive in June and repellant in August?

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  7. Barb said on June 4, 2007 at 12:11 pm

    Misery loves company, and I am not feeling so lonely anymore. Thanks for sharing your homeowners he** story.

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  8. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Fire season this year is going to be really bad. We had nearly no rain at all this winter, and everything is crispy. My neighborhood is very similar in layout and foliage to the Oakland Hills area that burned a few years ago, so everyone is really jumpy this year. The Griffith Park fire had ash snowing down on us a few weeks ago, and the refugees from that fire were sleeping in the gym of my son’s high school.

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  9. michaelj said on June 4, 2007 at 1:55 pm

    Respect is, after all, an Otis Redding song, and Sister Re’s version is very good, but the Otis at Monterrey (with the shout out–I thought Run invented that) is far better. Aretha’s finest, I think, are Chain of Fools and I Never Loved a an (the Way That I Love You).

    An estimate is an implied contract. It can be exceeded reasonably without consultation, but not trebled. Unethical, like Dick Cheney, most likely illegal, like Dick Cheney. I’d write a check for the estimate plus maybe 50%, and copy the BBB. They will not go to court. Otherwise, starting a job is a contractor’s license to larceny.

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  10. sdh said on June 4, 2007 at 2:02 pm

    Those birds better appreciate that damn birdbath, is all I can say.

    I have fond memories of being a homeowner–now a renter, but that’s a complicated story. Over the years at my old place I grew to love gardening. The best thing about it was not doing it in August–just sitting on the back patio drinking and wasting time while watching all of that green that I had planted.

    I miss my garden… but i don’t miss the hassles of owning an old house.

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  11. michaelj said on June 4, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Of course, Aretha never loved a Man, not a definite article. It’s hard to type in Hurricane Season, with nothing but the Uninterruptiple Power Supply and the monitor for light. Far as Dickless, I meant to include this. Is there a Nobel for arrogance?

    We’re not supposed to have fire season on the barrier islands, but, day to day, everything here smells like burned wet dog thanks to the Okefenokee immolation. Maybe 40 mph wind will alleviate the annoyance.

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  12. 4dbirds said on June 4, 2007 at 2:20 pm

    I feel your pain also. I have two mortgages, yikes I need a renter fast, and if one little thing goes wrong my houses of cards will fall.

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  13. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 2:25 pm

    What will we do without Silvio? Aside from offing Adriana, he was my fave.

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  14. nancy said on June 4, 2007 at 2:33 pm

    We saw as much of Silvio as David Chase dared. Love him or not, Steve Van Z. is NOT an actor, and nothing showed it as well as the last season, when he had to carry the episode immediately after Tony’s shooting. God, it was painful to watch. Nearly as bad as “Christopher.”

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  15. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 2:45 pm

    I know he sucked as an actor, but his hair made up for it.

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  16. Dorothy said on June 4, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    He sure did suck as an actor. And I’ll have to rewind my tape and see if there was a priest in the crowd outside of the Bing. Wonder if Carmella had time to gather up all the cash hidden in the house before she bolted? We’ll probably never know.

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  17. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Speaking of violent crimes, I was at the vet’s office Saturday morning with Smokey the Lab, getting the annual vaccinations, and I was looking at the lost/found bulletin board while I waited our turn. There was a poster with a photo of a very nice purebred English Bulldog, but instead of it being lost, the poster said it was stolen at gunpoint at the dog park. How awful. I know the dog park has seemed empty everytime I’ve driven past in the last week or so. Now I know why.

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  18. Dorothy said on June 4, 2007 at 4:03 pm

    Mary that’s just awful!! I’ve heard of dogs being stolen out of yards before, but that story is a first for me. My daughter has a beautiful little cocker spaniel, who is admired by strangers constantly when she’s out and about. Hope that never happens to her.

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  19. LA mary said on June 4, 2007 at 4:52 pm

    It’s terrible. The guy with the gun could have shot the dog or the owner if there was resistance.

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  20. brian stouder said on June 4, 2007 at 7:23 pm

    Shooting the former would certainly defeat the purpose!

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  21. Cynthia said on June 4, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Hey, Nancy, how about some pics of your now pervious plot?

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  22. Cathy said on June 4, 2007 at 8:54 pm

    The big joke around our house is that our new $12K roof is my 50th birthday present. It is, after all, big and expensive.

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  23. brian stouder said on June 4, 2007 at 10:14 pm

    We’re about to do the roof and gutters – and indeed the cost estimates are through the roof, prompting guttural groans all around.

    But here in good ol’ Fort Wayne, and in our neighborhood – I am relying heavily on a hybrid of Nance’s “Ah, but the house will be worth 4 percent more at the end of this year whether I do anything or not, so it’s just gravy.” nugget, modified by my firmly held belief that we’ve put it off for so long that we really cannot help but gain from the improvement (even if the gain is only to being us up from sub-par to par value!)

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  24. Dorothy said on June 5, 2007 at 6:42 am

    ’twasn’t a priest – it was a guy in a black shirt and pants. No priestly collar on that guy. I rewound it 3 times to be sure. Painful to see Sil get shot over and over again like that!!

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  25. Pam said on June 5, 2007 at 7:15 am

    I know no one will read this because I’m maybe the twenty something-th poster but…… You think you got problems? Wait ’til you hear this! Got a quote for $8K to reface the front of the house with Hardie siding, reframe the windows etc. Lots of wasps nests behind the old cedar and all the boards were splits and popping off the house. Things go fine until they start the front windows. I will make a real long story very short. They discovered that the reason all the boards in front were popping off and not level is because the whole front wall of the house bows out!! Upon further inspections and quotes, the house has jumped the foundation due to a very very faulty installation of support beams in the basement when the house was built. One of the guys who looked at it got visibly agitated! It was probably one of the most exciting things to happen in his basement foundation job all summer! The final tab is not in, but I’m pretty sure it will be about another $8K or more. Here’s the REAL FUN — we have to remove ALL of the landscape plants and bushes and stacked stone wall in the front so that they can excavate down to foundation level and hydrolically push the wall back in place. The guy said we might not want to be here when that happens. He said the noise is really bad! Have you ever tried to get a landscaper on short notice in the summer?? We may end up doing this ourselves. But I just don’t know how we can get the heavy root balls up. We’re thinking about just trashing 2 of the bushes and planting new ones. Boo Hoo!!! I LOVE each one of those dearies! We are already executing Part I of my master plan. They need 10 feet of clearance in front of the basement walls so the basement is getting a MASSIVE CLEANING OUT. We’re doing more basement stuff next Monday because Tuesday is trash day in W’ville. Then we have to address the water in the basement problem which I’m fairly sure (because our luck has been so bad on this) is going to involve removing all the heavy stones in the shade garden, trenching for a new drain system, and re-installing the heavy stones. Hello, Dean? Can I afford this? Needless to say, we are FREAKING out!! I would never have contracted a bathroom remodel if I’d know that we would have this escalating series of foundation, drainage and brick problems. Oh, did I mention? Guy says, “You may want to call a mason, the bricks on the front might collapse when we do this.” Argh! Too bad you can’t get rid of the entire landing strip in your back yard. But at least you now have a little greenery. And the birds will appreciate the raspberries. RV owners can be totally nuts about their vehicles and it’s a passion I don’t understand. A man I knew at my last job had an RV. When everyone knew we were all getting laid off, he had a 2nd garage added on his property with 2 of those GIANT doors to park his RV in. The cost of the doors alone!! I can only imagine. And yes, he got laid off about 3 months after the garage was built.

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  26. nancy said on June 5, 2007 at 7:22 am

    This is what will happen to Carmella Soprano’s spec house in a few more years.

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  27. Dorothy said on June 5, 2007 at 7:59 am

    Oh Pam I think it will take me about an hour for my mouth to stop gaping open after reading all that. Great googly moogly!! And Nance, you really made me laugh with that comment!

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  28. michaelj said on June 5, 2007 at 8:01 am

    LA Mary. It’s criminal to name any dog Smokey. Like branding him (I’m assuming) with the effulgent crimes of Phillip (Can’t Fool the Fatman) Fulmer.

    As far as Silvio is concerned, the great moment was his dream about the missing cheese. I think this was an inside joke. There was never any cheese missing on The Sopranos. There was The Godfather and then everything else, including Goodfellas that was purely the crappiest movie critics went nuts over that wasn’t called Raging Bull. Really asinine, by Rocky standards.

    Sopranos is undeinably entertaining, but when people start in on “morally ambiguous”, well so’s Karl Rove. Jesus, creeps are creeps. Lee Atwater wouldn’t tolerate Karl Rove. It’s the HBO flagship, but one. That would be Deadwood. Can Robert Altman sue these people? We’d rather watch McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and the outright theft of intellectual property is stunning. They couldn’t duplicate the incandescence of Julie Christie, or Senator Bulworth, for that matter.

    Actually, and I’m certain about this, the quintessential mob movie is Atlantic City. Elmer Gantry a tired old oil tycoon at the beach. We’d all have been a whole lot better off if he’d been president. Or Atticus. Instead we got the guy that wished he was Charlton Heston, and thought Grover Cleveland had been president.

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  29. LA mary said on June 5, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Threatening to shoot the former could motivate the owner as much as threatening to shoot the owner.

    I’m going to tell my kids what you said about Smokey’s name. They will likely cry, and I hope you feel terrible about that.

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  30. DWF said on June 5, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    We are renting a house in Seattle. Renting. We just spent $2700 to put in a fence, because we have a very large dog and a very large yard, and it needed a fence. Renting. And that’s money we’ll never see again, either. Though maybe we can take the fence with us when we move and burn it for firewood, since we won’t be able to afford heat.

    We really love our dog.

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  31. Andrew Jarosh said on June 6, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    Once you’ve owned a condo, you can never go back to weedwackers.

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