Outside of geekdom, Robert Scoble isn't a household name. Yet. But in the tech industry he's quite a celebrity; a Silicon Valley insider who knows everyone and everything and can make or break a startup just by dropping a few names in the right places. Because of this he's sometimes maligned by other San Jose techies, but those of us on the outside are endlessly entertained by his insights into that microcosm of the truly bizarre.
I had never heard of Scoble either until my early days on Google+ after a beta invite came my way via the Google Developers Group in 2011. He was one of the few geeks there who didn't work at Google, and since he actually has social skills, he dominated the conversation. That annoyed plenty of introverts but I found it…educational. Scoble welcomed all of us newcomers and provided regular banter to keep us engaged. One of my all-time favorite geek moments was being Scobleized - added to his "first geeks" circle. Without him there, I would have lost interest in Google+ early on (though as much fun as it was, these days, unfortunately, I just can't keep up with it).
Lately, Robert Scoble has been baring his soul very publicly on Facebook.
I'm lucky that I don't have an addictive personality so I can't offer any personal advice on battling those kind of demons. But last year I watched a man die partly due to the self destructive addictions of alcohol and smoking, which contributed to advanced heart disease and heart failure in his later years. He was escaping pain of his own, he knew loss far too well, which manifested in stubborn behaviors like smoking even after being told he would die. He had a pacemaker defibrillator and smoked as soon as he returned home from the ICU after it triggered. It was hurtful to all of those who love him still, that he wouldn't stop for them, even as they pleaded. And by the time he wanted to try (though I say that hopefully, I really don't know deep down inside if he did...) it was too late. Ironically, you can't smoke in the nursing home…or in hospice…even though those are exactly the places where we should all be smoking and drinking like mad.
I haven't talked about this because I don't want to highlight things that cause us to remember only the negative. But not talking is exactly the problem, and exactly why Scoble is doing this even in the face of fear of public shame. By talking he makes this big, lonely, scary world of ours smaller, and wraps a cocoon of love around us.
Scoble is also shedding light on one of the serious dark sides of the tech industry. The fraternity, beer-pong party nature of Silicon Valley that's perpetuated throughout startup culture is one of the industry's greatest liabilities: it disenfranchises the rest of us who have regular lives, families, kids…generally, any interests outside of work. It's ageist, sexist, culturally insensitive, and exclusive. And it's so oddly contrary to the healthy living practices that actually foster youthfulness and creativity: exercise and yoga, slow food, stress reduction, sleep, mindfulness, friendships, community.
Geeks aren't the most socially balanced individuals so alcohol can sometimes be a helpful social tool but if its inescapable then the office holiday party becomes the everyday party and a decade later geeks are wrecked on the floor wondering what the hell happened to their lives. Luckily for Scoble, he's managed to step back and see the ruse.
Life is far, far too short as it is to let pain make it shorter. I can say this...I do know the pain of grief well, it's the only deep pain monster I've really struggled with. And the only thing I've found that chases it away is art. It's like meditation in that it helps you turn inward, yet it provides an outlet for the emotions that you discover there once you start looking.
That doesn't mean taking brush to canvas (though why not!), I use "art" loosely here. I mean follow your craft, whether that's writing, gardening, cooking, music, woodworking, knitting, drawing, or coding. Build something with your hands. Or tear something down and rebuild it. Just make art. It doesn't have to be good, it just has to be you. And when it's you, it's art.
Scoble's not-so-secret power is social media, it's his craft and he's mastered the Internet. Scoble's Facebook page is art and we're watching it happen.
And that's how healing begins…for him, and for us.
Kudos to you, Scoble, we stand with you all the way. Thank you for bravely sharing, and for making the web a little less wide, and a lot more human.
I've never been so eager to close the door on a year as much as I have for Year 2014. Physically, this was our hardest year ever. Emotionally, our second hardest. I'd wear an "I survived 2014" T-shirt…if…so many had not. I'd laugh away the year, if it hadn't been such a damn serious one.
Let's just face it, 2014 sucked.
Thanksgiving week marked the first two-month period since June 2013 that I wasn't inside a hospital, rehab center, or a long-term facility. Not for me, but for two dear octogenarians. 2014's midpoint was exceptionally low when at the end of June, both of them were in different hospitals, on opposite sides of the city, during the same week.
My mom's partner passed away in September, she was at his bedside, as she was with my father in 2005 - the culmination of weeks upon weeks of daily hospital visits and care she provided to her "third husband" (love in our later years is complicated). Having spent most of 2014 doing everything I could to make it easier for them to be together, this loss felt deeply unfair. The most I could muster was a tweet.
Today I am down an octogenarian, he passed away last eve with my other octogenarian at his side. Sbohem Miles, máme tě rádi.— Betsy Kimak (@betsykimak) September 18, 2014
After about fifteen months of intermittent caregiving, with at least eight emergency room trips at three different hospitals, a few weeks in ICUs, and a few months in four different care facilities, things are less hectic now.
Throughout this time, we managed a few big wins with the house. I planned to carve some time during the holidays to catch up on a year's worth of blog posts...then...the flu-mageddon.
I think this year more than any I learned the value of presence, of physicality. A kind word, a card, a phone call…all of those actions matter so much. But a helping hand, whether to steady a gait or to haul a dozen boxes, that's invaluable. We never know what to say or what to do during times of crisis, especially when it involves our parents. But having been through this three times now, I can say: just be there. The rest will work itself out. Yes, it's awkward at first, and uncomfortable, and distressing, and intrusive, and confusing, and painful. Just be there anyway.
So perhaps I'm being a little too hard on 2014, as difficult as a year it was, we learned to yield to chaos, disorder, change, and to gratitude.
And we discovered a deeper appreciation of the mundane.
Over a few weeks in fall we finally caught up on Sherlock. In S1:E2, The Blind Banker, Watson looks for a job after the war - this passage is gold:
Sarah: You're, um, well you're a bit over-qualified.
Watson: I could always do with the money.
Sarah: Well we've got two on holiday this week and one's just left to have a baby. Might be a bit mundane for you.
Watson: Ah no, mundane is good sometimes. Mundane works.
I always loved the feeling of starting with a clean slate for New Year's. Not so much this time, 2014 will be with us for awhile longer as we still want to document some before-and-afters, if only just for us. I don't want to let those memories go even if they represent some of 2014's less important events.
And as it turns out, mundane is good for you - documenting life's trivial moments may enhance memory and wellbeing.
So that is our New Year's wish for all: may 2015 be filled with thousands of the tiniest...most delicious...and loveliest...mundane little moments. May you find time to write about them, and we'll try to do the same. Let's celebrate the mundane. xoxo.
It's been awhile since our last update. There were some technical problems with the blog, and ongoing health problems in the family...we even passed our one-year house anniversary in February without so much as a peep. But mostly, we're flat-out exhausted.
Just consider this a reboot. We have much to share - some photos, a few ideas, and maybe even the inkling of a plan, but we don't want to wait until the chaos has settled because we're starting to realize it never will. So instead we're bringing you back in with us, embarrassing as it may be.
We didn't heed the advice and have been multitasking a few too many projects. Studies show that multitasking stunts creativity and rewires our brains in ways that make it impossible to concentrate deeply. Or multitasking may be good for the brain. So we're either wrecking our health or getting super smart.
(Sleep kills. So does lack of sleep. Ah! Don't confuse me! - Portlandia S4:E1.)
One thing we've learned so far is that absolutely nothing is easy or simple about this house. Even with the diversity of architecture in Colorado, mid-century moderns are comparatively rare here and finding people who are familiar with the house structure remains a challenge. Case in point: last summer we had four HVAC companies visit to see if there's any possibility of adding central air conditioning. These are not incompetent people! Though we did lose confidence in the one who asked where the crawl space was.
"Never give up" says Geek #1.
Before we bought the house we were living a quiet and structured existence. Geek #2 enjoyed minimal distractions in her own hacker hostel - no attachments, no worries. It was tidy and banal.
"I decided my life is too simple, I wanna complicate the hell out of it," Harrison Ford's character Quinn Harris utters in Six Days Seven Nights, which about sums it up for us: we were too comfortable. But there have been days where we've yearned for the old apartment living. Things didn't work better and they certainly weren't cheaper, but now we've skewed a bit too far outside of that comfort zone - both emotionally and physically.
"Life is all about tradeoffs, and most good things - whether successful startups or great relationships with your family - require you to put in the time," says Chris Yeh, a Silicon Valley angel investor who writes about technology startups and work-life balance.
Yeh's blog is just the motivation we need to keep moving forward with our little bootstrapped mid-century startup. As we head into Year 2, we've already had two HVAC visits to see if we can at least make it a more comfortable one.
You know what it's like when you encounter some code that you know needs to be rewritten but you're nearing launch and there isn't enough time? You're cruising along rolling functions thinking everything is just fine and then...bam. It's staring you in the face and you know the product isn't finished how you want. It's not even a matter of perfection, it's just not done right. But it's functional. At what point do you stop?
This is exactly like that. Here's what's going on:
1) There's a 10'4"L x 7'H x 4"W wall with exposed concrete block at the top that collects dust and bugs. It wasn't as noticeable until we removed a door frame and piece of drywall leading into the room. Now the top of this wall is in the sightline from stairs that lead into the room.
(Top drywall section)
(Existing door frame. Bars and brass - we didn't do it.)
(Gone, thanks Randy!)
(New corner, ready for painting)
2) In trying to figure out how to cap this wall I have talked it through with about eight people and the best suggestions were to either skim coat the top with concrete or drywall compound, or construct a shelf along the top and trim the edges.
(Top of unfinished wall)
3) Capping with wood seems like the way to go. So after a very long discussion with one of the Home Depot lumber experts I bought two 6-foot lengths of pine board cut to 4" wide and an 11-foot piece of trim.
(Wall with rounded trim along edge. Hey now, look at all of that mahogany.)
4) There was a small bit of trim along the top of the wall which, after being removed, exposed an edge of unevenly cut drywall. And the trim I purchased isn't long enough to cover this extra inch of wall. Also important to note, we've already sanded and painted the wall.
5) Removing the trim made it easier to understand the structure of this wall. It originally may have been just unfinished concrete block. Previous owners may have built out the wall either as an attempt to better insulate the room or to disguise the brick.
(Old trim removed)
6) The drywall is new and in fine shape but there's a bit in the corner with some moisture damage where it lines up with the hose spigot in the carport, probably from a frozen pipe sometime in the past.
7) So of course I said, "We should probably replace the drywall."
"I really wish you wouldn't," said Geek #1.
I had a feeling that working on the house would help me be a better programmer. In fact, it's so hip they now have a woodworking shop at Facebook. But I didn't expect my software experience to help the other way around. Project manager, meet construction foreman. Agile coder, meet agile painter. This is House 1.0.
It took me awhile before I realized this. Four hours in the moulding aisle of Home Depot, to be precise. That includes one solid hour trying to find different trim, just standing in the aisle, picking up a piece and trying to visualize how it would look, then putting it back. I'm sure the folks there thought I'd lost my mind. How hard can it be to pick out a piece of trim?
And instead of doing any actual work I spent hours researching how to hang drywall.
"I have no doubt that you can learn how to do it, but the question is do you want to and is there time to do it?" asks Geek #1. "Is this the best use of you?"
There isn't time, or money, or tools, or knowledge, or desire to rehang the drywall. I feel the same way about learning how to hang drywall right now as I do about learning ruby: it'd be fun but am I really going to use it? So for now the drywall stays but it's on the bug list for the future.
One January evening eight years ago we were visiting my parents, on the way out the door while listening to my dad talk about an upcoming cruise, he slurred his words in an odd way. It was just strange enough to give us pause, but then again, he was tiring easily from the chemotherapy.
We don't have a lot of regrets in life but that moment is one of them. Even though we had been visiting regularly had we been spending even just a little bit more time with him we might have noticed the warning sign: in the wee hours after, he had a stroke.
Ultimately an intervention may not have changed the amount of time he had left, the stroke had resulted from a brain tumor, a new cancer was spreading. But his remaining days would have been better spent.
He was on our minds a lot this summer while we sat in hospital rooms with my mom. Her eyes and face bruised and a bloody gash on her forehead, she mentioned often how brave he was. Me, telling her she was equally brave as I watched her heartbeats, powered by a new pacemaker, tick across a computer monitor. In the weeks that have followed her recovery has been remarkable, the stubborn fog of a concussion slowly lifting day by day. This time around, I can see almost imperceptible changes, she's multitasking better, tracking conversations more easily, and sailing through the grocery store.
One day I helped her delete her Facebook account and I realized I hadn't checked my account for a few weeks. Now it's been three months. I didn't set out to quit Facebook I just couldn't summarize everything in a status update.
Yet in that time I have met more neighbors than I have in the past decade. We lived next door to a family for seven years and said maybe a half a dozen words. Now my neighbors are emailing and texting me regularly.
Everyone I know is grappling with loss. This is our new normal: colleagues and their families dealing with cancer, a sibling losing her eyesight, friends around my state dealing with wildfires and floods, all mired in grief.
Whenever I apologized for my slow progress on the house, several neighbors said, "There are more important things than houses."
True. And yet...
One of the oddities of working in technology is grappling with impermanence. It is perhaps the only profession where your work is routinely destroyed right in front of you. Or never finished. Or finished and then torn down and rebuilt (by you or someone else) in a totally different way. Or just cast aside and never used. Even after 17+ years I'm still shocked by this. Early on, it's acceptable in a mindful zen kind of way. But as you work your way through your career, it can be brutal looking back.
For Geek #1, this isn't as troublesome since he sees positive results of his work every day. He's The Fixer and at the end of the day everyone leaves smiling, everything is working, everyone is moving forward. It's the sweet spot of technology.
As The Creative, however, sometimes this throws Geek #2 into fits of existential despair. When you've spent an entire week of your life choosing a font for a website that you designed, built, and then a few years later, deleted from known existence, you begin to question how you're spending your time on this planet. Do it dozens of times and you question your sanity.
So this is a major reason why we bought the house, the opportunity to nurture something that outlasts us. Most people would have children; for us, the house is our new baby, we're welcoming a bit of scope creep into our lives.
Kevin Ashton wrote an outstanding piece on creativity called Creative People Say No, arguing that all of us need to say "no" more often if we ever want to accomplish anything.
I'm terrible at saying "no." So bad at it that my ability to manage my projects often spirals out of control. And I see the consequences: always making room for another request (or idea), no matter how small or big, means something (or someone) suffers neglect. It means nothing (or no one) gets 100% of me, or even 50%. On the micro level, things get done, deadlines are met, food is on the table. But on the macro level - having a life - not so much.
So instead, I'm saying "yes" to the house. At least for awhile. What that means is that sometimes I am making an actual effort to be away. Somewhere other than in front of a screen. Where hopefully, those moments spent will feel more significant than a fleeting "like", or be larger than a few pixels of space, and last longer than a puff of air.
Hot. Hot. Hot. Hot.
Sometime back in June the thermostat inside the house hit 90 and seemed to stay there. Late at night the thermostat would dip down into the low 80s, even the 70s briefly, but the temperature would slowly climb again and by early afternoon 90...91...92...93.
(image: Geek #2, vintage iPhone 3G photo)
And that was with two portable fans running 24/7. Around June my brain also stopped functioning. Granted, there was a lot going on we haven't shared with you yet, but I just dropped everything. All of my projects have sat idle for months. I ignored WordPress updates. Emails from me were just nonsensical outbursts from random neurons. Free moments were few and far between, and when they came, frankly, it was just too hot to code.
Colorado is known for its extreme weather but we really felt this summer. Our past summers were spent in air conditioned offices, Geek #1's at the university and mine (Geek #2) at the apartment. But no matter how we ran the numbers we just couldn't work air conditioning into the budget this year. And without a basement we have no escape from the heat.
Overall it was cooler than 2012, when Colorado experienced its hottest-ever July and a horrible wildfire season. But 2013 still ranked as the sixth hottest summer on record. And there was the Black Forest Fire, the most destructive wildfire in the state's history. We had 54 days of 90 degrees or higher, at least that many when it got just as hot inside as well.
(Image credit: National Weather Service, Denver/Boulder)
And now it is not.
Colorado does this, summer comes on slowly but fall happens in a week. Maybe not today, but it is coming and we are ready. It's 60 outside and raining, I no longer want iced lattes. And I want to code again.
But the room isn't done.
I just recently heard of the ninety-ninety rule. I'm dumbfounded as to how I've managed to make it this long without ever hearing it before:
Finally everything makes sense, with coding and caulking. I've been telling Geek #1 that the room is 90 percent there. For weeks.
We took a walk around the neighborhood on Sunday and saw a ladder in the front window of the house a few doors down. And ladders at a few more houses. I started feeling better about the ladder that's been in this room for six months - until we ran into a neighbor. When we joked about it he said the ladder has been in that window for at least two years.
Oh hells no. Everything hinges on getting this room done, it has to be finished. So I'm setting a deadline, next week this time I will try to be finished. Here's a list of what still needs to be done, the last 10 percent:
tape off entry, hand-sand door frame, window frame and wall (this is the second pass after the power sander) clean up sawdust
find piece of wood or paneling to cap end joint at wall corner
buy more stain
stain all wood in room and entry
apply top finish to all wood in room and entry
caulk windows with clear sealant
caulk floor trim with white sealant
caulk ceiling gaps with white sealant
touch up paint on ceiling
paint trim to match wall, or touch up with white
patch small section of missing trim
match/buy texturizer or mud (or not)
texturize and paint wall corner bead (how to blend this?)
choose and buy paint color for entry wall
paint entry wall
buy a new register for paneled wall
put switchplates back on
replace patio screen door
scrape paint drops from flooring
clean up tool space
wash windows, patio door
Ok, so maybe two weeks?
We went to an open house in our neighborhood last week. While there, we ran into Expert Dave who was chatting with the seller about their wood doors. He motioned toward me and said, "there's an expert right here."
It was laughable.
You see, I (Geek #2) have been restoring the wood trim in one of our rooms, part of our first renovation project that we started in February. Much more on that soon. Anyway, what's so funny is that this is the first time I've ever done this. I didn't take a carpentry class, I didn't apprentice with Ye Olde Master Woodworkers & Sons, and I've told everyone I have no idea what I'm doing. I just read some stuff (ok, a lot...) on the web and gave it a try.
Recently we had to hire a handyman, and when I showed him what I've been doing he simply said, "Nice job!" Both generalist and specialist, he worked in construction for decades and has done just about everything. I was stuck on a few things and when I shared my trepidation he reassured me and gave me a few pointers.
That's all I needed, I felt confident again to press on.
So I surprised myself by answering, "Yes?" when Expert Dave called me an expert. The woman pointed out a tiny spot on a door where she had made a repair and tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to match the stain of the wood. Even though I knew that if it was my door it might have looked better, her work was good enough. I gave her a suggestion and reassured her that she did a good job, that the wood looks good, don't worry too much about it.
Here I was stepping into this title with ease for a brand new skill, but after almost two decades of building websites, I still don't call myself an expert.
Why? Because as soon as you do someone will make a point of telling you that you aren't.
Technology is a gamified industry. The prevailing culture is one in which you actively strive to take down the other guy, to prove that you know more, that you are the expert. And if you are brave enough to work in this industry and even braver to put yourself and your work out there publicly, for all the world to scrutinize, then you are a sitting duck. The shots will come. It's like being an actor in a room with a bunch of bad movie critics (there was only one).
I'm a coder not a fighter (a total pacifist, actually. I hate gun analogies like the one I just wrote.) I try to speak through my work, not words. And that's worked out pretty well for me. So well, in fact, that I've been scared to say much of anything. I'm not so worried that people will like my work less if they get to know me better; rather, I want my work to stand on its own despite who I am: a woman.
But I also don't want my work unfairly discredited because I'm a woman. I'm (still) learning that sometimes good work just isn't enough, sometimes you also have to speak up. And that's partly the reason for starting this blog: I'm hoping to find a voice. Hopefully mine.
The lingering question, though, is why isn't good work good enough? It is everywhere else, why not in technology?
Amy Nyugen asked this same question in a recent piece called, I Need Terrible Female Engineers - possibly the best thing ever written about women in technology. Some people misinterpreted the article as favoring untalented women but it was really an action call to accept women's expertise and the lack of it:
I'll tell you right here, right now, that I am not perfect. However, I have tried very, very, very hard to be. And that pressure has been stifling. I think the real subtext to Nguyen's article is that we, as women, need to cut ourselves some slack. We need to tell ourselves first that good is good enough, and then someday in this industry it will be.
And once in awhile, we need to give others some slack, too.
As humorous as it was, being called an expert did make my day. Maybe after I do the entire house, I will be one. Maybe this is my Office Space moment, my newest Fallback Position. But that's absolutely not my goal. Sure, I'd love to have the wood in my house look like a French Polish applied by a dozen craftsmen, but I will be 100% perfectly content, on the deepest metaphysical level, if people who see it just say, "Nice job."
In the boss-killing world of technology (that's what the big monster at the end of a video game is called, not necessarily a real boss, though not necessarily not a real boss), we could all use a little more of that.
On a side note, I'm not much of a gamer. That kind of talk is best left to Geek #1, maybe he'll serve up a better analogy, or just check out John Scalzi's Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is.
We closed on our house over the lunch hour on a beautiful warm day in February. After weeks of emails and one terrifying hour of signing documents, the owners slid the keys across the table and that was that.
Suddenly, we were on our own.
We honestly had no idea what to do next. Both realtors, the guy from the bank, the sellers, our leasing agent, and our family and friends asked when we were moving. We hadn't thought that far ahead, the very act of acquiring the house felt like accomplishment enough.
For awhile we had two homes. We hadn't begun packing so we started slow, packing a box here and there in the car, driving it over to the "new" house. On one of those trips we were outside staring at the front "yard" when a mailman emerged from the mass of overgrown shrubs and trees and introduced himself.
He commiserated with our first-time homeowner jitters, told us all about the renovation he and his wife are starting, and said three very helpful things: 1) prioritize, and 2) you have snakes.
The house has its own way of prioritizing things for us. Once Mom saw the kitchen she couldn't stand the thought of Geek #2 cooking on the dirty old stove (even though Geek #2 can barely boil an egg and Geek #1 does most of the cooking), so she bought a new stove. A week after we moved in, the fully-stocked refrigerator died and had to be repaired. Geek #2 spent every day for eight weeks just cleaning stuff: walls, floors, closets, bathrooms, cabinets, doors...and she's still not done.
It's just been like that. There is so much work to do and our focus shifts from hour to hour - everything seems urgent. So we finally made some lists, for now: House Tasks, Yard Tasks, and a Wish List. We hope these help keep us on track and motivated when we are feeling overwhelmed.
The second thing our mailman said was a really good tip. Otherwise, we would've been pretty freaked out at seeing this:
And the third?
Geek #2 geeked out on him a little and started asking questions about mailboxes and whether he had any preferred mailbox styles, specifically, locking mailboxes. After years of communal mail stations, having mail delivered at right at our door still amazes us.
Ove the Mailman said that it's a good neighborhood and he hasn't seen any problems with mail delivery, and "when people are worried about security, I usually tell them to get a dog."
In 1946, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe built a glass and steel house, a prelude to the modern office glass skyscraper that he is most known for designing. A partial description of this house, called the Farnsworth House, written by historian Maritz Vandenburg, reads:
No one would actually (comfortably) live in a house like the Farnsworth House, but Mies was making an artistic statement. About man vs. nature, structure vs. space. About reducing things to their simplest form.
This made me think about how I (Geek #2) code.
Computer programming entails significant trial and error, even more so for self-taught coders like myself. Sometimes I'll copy a snippet of code and stick it in the middle of the code I'm building, just to see what it does. Then I start breaking it apart, taking away the stuff I don't need. As I get better, the code becomes more streamlined until that moment when I actually learn. At that point, I reduce it not by the number of lines of code but by process.
However, as much as I usually want to keep working at it to make it perfectly "clean", that's impossible - once it works it's time to move on. It's a matter of diminishing returns, and next week there will probably be something new that does it better anyway. The working life of the programmer is always unfulfilled, never opportunity to build a masterpiece.
What must it have been like for Mies to realize and execute his dream?
Perhaps the only true obstacle architects have is opportunity. Basically, if they have the vision and the means, they can build. The materials stay more or less the same - it's not like one day they are building a house out of brick and then the next day they have to use something bizarre they've never worked with, like Jell-O.
For software architects (and programmers, graphic designers, and all of us building things on the web) it's simply not as easy. The materials and tools are constantly evolving. The convergence is never reached, there is no Platonic ideal, there is only the Minimum Viable Product. It's the hardest thing for non-geeks to understand, that your best is always a trade-off between money + time + talent.
Sometimes it's amazing that anything gets built. And only a few break out and create something truly remarkable.
Mitchell Joachim is building houses out of mushrooms.
"These guys push the boundaries so that other buildings can be more interesting. You have to make it possible."
So says Geek #1. Words to code by.
...think a lot about glass.
Our house has 96 panes of glass. It actually used to have more, sadly, some were sacrificed in the renovations of previous owners.
These panes of glass are contained in a variety of windows and doors, some original, some brand new, some in between. We were lucky that none of them had been painted over or blocked in with wood or siding, which happens a lot in MCMs. But all were coated with adhesive, dirt, and specks of paint, which I (Geek #2) have been scraping clean with a straight razor and rubbing alcohol.
I still have two rooms to go.
It took several conversations with people pointing at things before it sunk in that our original windows are not normal. At least not like a traditional window that has a frame that is seated into a square hole in a wall.
Denver is a city that had its first housing boom in the early 1900s; it's full of lovely Craftsman-style brick bungalows and wood cottages with sash windows, fairly basic square windows that open by sliding upward. The second big boom was in the mid-70s, where brick ranch and split-level homes began dotting the close-in suburbs. All of these came with metal single-pane windows that slide open horizontally. These are the same windows that are found, mostly in white vinyl, in the new two-story frame houses built during Denver's third housing explosion in the 1990s and 2000s.
In the midst of that, a couple of small pockets of homes in Denver were built in the 1950s and 1960s by a few architects and builders who studied, and adored, Frank Lloyd Wright.
They didn't just love windows, they built houses around windows.
Specifically, they took a single pane of 1/4" thick plate glass and sandwiched it between pieces of wood trim, decorative hardwood on the inside and a wood stop (a long piece of wood trim) on the outside. And then connected those windows with other windows, and occasionally an actual "wall".
Yes, plate glass. I know this because it is supposed to be tempered glass. And I know that because of the people who have been in the house pointing at things. Apparently, new houses are not built with plate glass because it can slice you into a thousand bloody pieces if you so much as breathe on it.
I've been stripping layers of paint from the window trim in one of the rooms - I'll rewind to that shortly - but after learning this I was stuck on a decision point: should we replace the glass before finishing and re-sealing the trim? A quick call to a glass shop for pricing helped: the largest pane (approximately 82"H x 36"W, using the cheapest glass type) would start at $350 before installation - just one of six panes in that room.
Installation isn't exactly easy, the window stops need to be removed and the glass needs to be cut or broken so that it can be removed. The old sealant is scraped away, then new adhesive is applied and the new pane of tempered glass is glued into place. Finally, the window stops are nailed back into position. (History geeks at the 1949 Philip Johnson Glass House offer a very deep dive into this glass replacement process.)
We have bigger fish to fry, so we moved that down the project list for later. Then this morning, I was looking at the window stops on the outside and found this little gem etched in the corner:
It's the only one of the six that is tempered, but it represents a huge green light to move on...one piece of glass at a time.
Before this year, I (Geek #2) had been inside Home Depot for a total of maybe a dozen times, mostly for CAT-5 cables. Now it seems I'm there a dozen times a week. And I don't even mind. It's crazy that it's now one of my favorite stores.
So I was in looking for a hose nozzle and was approached by an enthusiastic sales rep who told me they were offering free in-home evaluations and asked if I had any problems with roofing, siding, or windows.
HD: Why, yes.
Me: Do you do clerestory windows?
HD: Of course.
Me: Screens, too?
HD: Of course.
Me: Come on over!
A few days later a very kind man came to visit, with a thick catalog under his arm. I showed him in, pointed up and started explaining the problem: we have three clerestories that need screens, they used to open but now they don't, they...
HD: We don't do trapezoids.
He texted the warehouse to confirm.
HD: We can do rectangles or triangles, though.
Sigh. We've been on this quest for weeks. We're learning that with an old house, nothing is simple. However, thanks to Expert Dave we finally have the correct terminology: they're called hopper windows. Ours hopped away with the previous owners.
That's our new motto.
We caught a marathon of Wheeler Dealers a few weeks ago and now we're hooked. In one episode, expert mechanic Edd China is staring down a huge rebuild and says, "there's so much work to do it's hard to know where to begin, just pick a spot and start at it."
We know your pain, man. One of the reasons we chose this particular house was that we knew we couldn't make it worse. Sad but true. However as first-time homebuyers, we also hope that's a good approach: it gives us room to learn and make mistakes.
The flipside is that it's overwhelming at times. It seems that everywhere we look something needs to be repaired or replaced, but just understanding the house has been the first hurdle. The process has involved a combination of researching mid-century Modern design, talking with neighbors, researching the problem at hand (What is this? Is this how it works? Is it broken? Can it be fixed? Should it be fixed? How is it fixed?), and then understanding its context.
Context is key. For a house that has had as many changes as it has had owners, it's a bit like an archaeological dig. And for the past few months, we've been digging.
Some things we were aware of when we bought the house, mainly the non-period finishings (six-panel doors! marble tile!) Other alterations are more evident now after seeing the homes of some of our neighbors. And then there's the whole turf war between historic preservation purists and contemporary renovators, don't even know where we stand on that yet. These people argue over whether or not to paint wood paneling with the same fervor as we argue GIF vs JIF. (BTW, it's JIF).
So to gain some context, I (Geek #2) met with a local historic preservation consultant today. Much of that meeting will be the subject of future posts, and it most certainly helped me gain perspective for what kinds of projects we can attempt on our own (I'm getting fairly skilled at refinishing trim and Geek #1 can wield a mean chainsaw) and where we might need to hire the pros (probably everywhere else).
I'll call him Expert Dave, or MCM Geek #3. He's #3 because you haven't been introduced to #1 or #2 yet. Expert Dave was early on the MCM craze in Denver, he and his wife have lived in their MCM since 1999. Houses in his neighborhood are regularly featured in design magazines; theirs was even the backdrop for a spectacularly cool Mad Men-themed photo shoot.
In walking though our derelict little mod, Expert Dave said, "there's so much going on, so much to do, the only way to approach it is to make up some lists and pick your battles." Though on his way out, he admitted feeling overwhelmed at the loss for what once was and frustration at some of the general thoughtlessness we've seen in past repairs, tiny details that no one but geeks like us would notice.
So we're aligning allies on our side, people who are generous with their knowledge, who genuinely care about craft and community, who can help guide us as we move forward.
We've decided that while we don't know if we can restore the house fully, we want to do what we can while we're here - whether that's one year or 100. And that means whenever the sense of doom washes over us and we feel out of control, just pick a spot and start at it.
We did it. After a decade of renting we finally bought a house. But not just any house. Being geeks, we had to challenge ourselves so we bought not just an old house, but an old historic house. Sometimes we think we bit off more than we can comfortably chew. We'll admit it, we've had night terrors. But we're giving it a go. And we think it'll be an interesting ride, so we'll use this blog to share our progress and thoughts along the way.
For our blogging platform, we've chosen Fargo. It's shiny and new, and super geeky. Plus we have A LOT of lists, so it's a perfect fit. We're grateful to Dave Winer & Co. for building this awesome software.