Getting the feedback I need

The cover for "Ghost in the Machine."

The cover for “Ghost in the Machine.”

I imagine that whenever any writer hands over a piece for feedback, he’s wanting (and probably expecting) to hear back just how great it is. It’s wonderful! Perfect! Ready for publication!

That’s what writers want to hear, but it isn’t what we need to hear, not if we’re going to make it better. (Still, if that’s what you want to hear, try your mom; that usually works for me.)

I’ve been putting out some early chapters of my novel to a few writer friends. Today, I got feedback from one. She said the bones are good.

Which is, you know, what you say when you’re house hunting and you come across a wreck of a fixer-upper. And as we talked, I wondered, is that what my novel is, a wreck of a fixer-upper?

But as we talked more I realized that, no, the novel’s not a wreck. But, as exhilarating as it was to finish the first draft, I do realize that I’m still in the early stages. It’s like building a house (or finishing a basement). The first draft lays out the framing. So, if I’ve got good bones, then I’ve done the framing right. Now I’ve got to wire it for sound and electricity to give it life. Put up the drywall and paint that make it look polished and finished, then install trim to hide any rough spots that remain.

In other words, it was a great feedback session that gave me what I need. Even better, she sparked an idea to transform the prologue into something that will involve the reader in the story more quickly and deeply. The idea was so inspiring, that I got right to work and rewrote the prologue. I’m going to let it sit for a day or two before I look it back over, but I think the idea worked.

This has been a slow process. Almost as slow as the basement. Since finishing the first draft nearly a year ago, progress has been sporadic at best. But I’m getting back on track, and now that I have a framework for approaching the revisions, it will go better.

And that’s a wrap

I’ve been waiting a very long time to write these words: The basement is finished.

Construction actually wrapped up on Feb. 8, but I’ve been waiting to post this until I had pictures of the basement complete with furnishings (see below). The rest of the flooring went down as easily as I had hoped. The plumbing was a bit more problematic, but not much. The main issue I had was working out all the leaks in the drain under the bar sink, which ended up having way too many joints and sections. One joint would stubbornly leak — about one small drop every three or four hours. Maddening. I finally replaced the gasket and put a small bead of plumber’s putty on both sides. That took care of that joint, but then two others started with the slow leaks. It took a lot of tightening to finally lock them down.

Once the floor was down, I painted and installed the base trim and quarter-round. That — counterintuitively, at least to me — ended up being more difficult in some ways than the crown moulding, mostly because the quarter-round needed angle cuts at every doorway. And then … that was it. Construction was complete. We still had things to do: Glassware to transfer to the backbar. Sweeping and mopping the floors. Moving office furniture from the makeshift office in the dining room down to the basement. Deciding on furniture for the theater. Deciding how to finish the stairway to the basement, which we’re still pondering.

But the basement itself? Done.

It took just over two years. And it was a learning experience. As I’ve said before, prior to this little adventure, my only real exposure to power tools was a cordless screwdriver. Now, I’m comfortable using a compound miter saw, an impact hammer drill, a nail gun, reciprocating saw and more. Some blood was spilled during the course of the remodel, but there were no major injuries, and all my limbs and digits remain intact. I learned how to use a coping saw to make fairly exact, detailed cuts to trim. And, with the help of my DIY mentor, I’ve learned a lot about problem-solving. Most important, I’ve learned that most problems can be solved, one way or another. When I first started framing, I was nearly paralyzed with fear that something I’d do wrong would spell disaster later down the line. And there were things that caused problems. For instance, my spacing was off on some of the studs, meaning drywall sheets fell short or was too long. That was a hassle, but it could be overcome. I cut a couple of studs too tight and forced them into place, causing them to bow out under the pressure by the time the drywall went up. That, too, could be overcome (you cut the stud at the high point of the bow, then attach a two-foot length of stud to the side with eight screws so the stud is straight).

But nothing was insurmountable. I didn’t screw up anything so badly that there wasn’t some sort of fix. There was no mistake that meant, as I irrationally feared, that I’d have to tear everything down and start over.

I also learned that estimates are for fools. Looking back over these blog entries, probably the most consistently used phrase is: “Such-and-such took much longer than I anticipated.” I started out thinking this would be a six-month project. Often, I told myself I was within a month or so of completion, only to be tangled up in something that took much longer than I anticipated. In the end, it took two years — two very long years.

There were times as the project dragged on that I wondered if I had bitten off more than I could chew (see ceiling). There were times when, if we’d had the money or won the lottery, I would have gladly paid someone else of finish. But I saw it through, and, I think, the end result was worth the effort.

One last test of endurance

The theater flooring is finished.

The theater flooring is finished.

The bathroom, floored and equipped.

The bathroom, floored and equipped.

The floor is going down. Or I am.

It turns out that laying flooring is very hard work. I guess I figured it would be hard, but I didn’t realize the toll it would take. My knees hurt, my back aches, my carpal tunnel is kicking back in and my hands are a collection of cuts and scrapes.

I figure this is the final test of endurance. And I’m getting there. The theater and bathroom are done. With some help, I got the bathroom plumbing done and will have the wet bar plumbing hooked up by the end of the day, with luck. Once I get the office-side flooring in, all that’s left is the base trim and painting the stairs. After the flooring, that will seem like a piece of cake.

I think the office will go faster. There are no wet bars or entertainment centers to work around. The only oddity will be the angled fireplace, and the way that’s situated, it will be easy to place those planks. Plus, I’ve learned a lot on the way. For the nitty, gritty details of laying flooring, keep reading. Read more of this post

Hurtling towards completion

The ceiling in the office, finally completed.

The ceiling in the office, finally completed.

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The wet bar, fully trimmed.

So, the big news … the ceiling is finally, finally, finally finished. I’ll be honest, it’s not perfect. The shadow lines that vexed me before remain, though there aren’t as many and they’re spread out more. But the tiles are up straight and it looks much better than it did before. And it’s done. Overall, I think it’s a good-looking ceiling, and the theater especially works well with the copper look. But, if I had to do it over again, I’d go with dry wall. My wife, who had to paint 800-plus tiles with four coats of paint, then touch up the finished ceiling, would most definitely agree.

The flooring, a resilient vinyl plank I got for a good price at Lumber Liquidators, is due in today. I’ll let it acclimate for several days, then start the installation next week. In the meantime, I’ve been preparing ceiling trim and beginning to put some up. I finished trimming the wet bar, which turned out really well. I wasn’t sure how to handle the ceiling trim around the wet bar, but decided to stain the crown moulding around the bar, then transition to the white moulding that will go around the rest of the basement with decorative blocks. They look a little funny now, but when the moulding is in place, I think it’s going to look really nice.

A detail of the back bar trim.

A detail of the back bar trim.

The first section of crown moulding in place.

The first section of crown moulding in place.

The only problem was figuring out how to handle the vertical fluted trim where it met these tapered blocks. After consulting Mark, my DIY mentor, I decided to take a coping saw (a very sharp, flexible hack saw that can, theoretically, make curved cuts in wood). I traced the outline of the tapered portion of the block onto the trim and cut it out, then sanded it down, sometimes using a screw driver or other tool behind the sandpaper to help get the right curve in the wood. It took a lot of trial and error, but I think it turned out pretty well. The picture to the left shows the trim on the left-hand side, under the stained decorative corner molding.

I played around with a scrap piece of crown moulding to try to figure out how to cut the corners. I have a compound miter saw borrowed from a friend that’s supposed to make the job easier, but I could not figure out how to get the proper combination of angles on the bevel and the miter to make it work. Finally, I came across some corner pieces that others said made the process much easier. Made to mount  at either inside or outside corners, the moulding simply slides into these pieces, requiring only straight cuts. It gives the corners an elegant dimensional appearance, to boot, and makes placing the crown moulding much easier. I’ll have all the trim painted today and should have it up either later today or tomorrow.

An elegant solution to a tricky trim spot.

An elegant solution to a tricky trim spot.

Another tricky spot.

Another tricky spot.

I consulted Mark again about a couple of areas where I wasn’t sure what to do with the trim. The entryway to the basement at the top of the stairs wasn’t quite flush with the ceiling. I envisioned some sort of transition to a flat piece of trim there, but Mark came up with a better idea: We ran the moulding across the entryway, then ripped a shorter piece of moulding to go on the stair side. Some blocking and a 1×4 set between them gives the entryway a clean, substantial look.

The soffit in the bathroom was also problematic (as it has been from the beginning). The angle of the soffit was going to be very tough to work around. I didn’t have a clue. Mark offered to come over to see what he could do. He came up with a pretty good solution. The crown moulding extends on the wall from the left far enough to cover the gap between the angled soffit wall and the ceiling and then ends in a return. He cut a piece of wood to fill in the back of the return. On the right, he put in a crown return, again, far enough in to cover the gap. But that still left the gap between the two returns. He cut a piece of 1×4 to fit between them. I’ll post a picture once I have that piece painted and put in place. I’d like to say I helped with this portion, but I was pretty useless. I really have trouble with the three-dimensional thinking needed to work with crown moulding.

Anyway, this is an exciting portion of the project, as it hurtles toward completion. Every day seems to bring significant progress, and soon the floor will be in (assuming, as I must to retain my sanity, that it will go better than the ceiling installation). After that, the base trim goes in, along with the bath fixtures and the wet bar sink hook-up. And then, it will be time for a party.

Overdue basement update

A stone fireplace.

The stone fireplace.

The wine rack, installed. We'll add more wine later.

The wine rack, installed. We’ll add more wine later.

It’s been a long time since I posted an update. Thankfully, it’s not because work hasn’t been getting done.

When last we talked, I was refocusing my attention from the $*#&$ ceiling to more constructive pursuits. I’ve been engaged in those ever since. The wet bar is done. The back bar is done except for the trim. The stone work around the fireplace is complete. The doors are hung. And I put together a built-in entertainment center under the projection screen.

I think I’ve about run out of ways to avoid getting back to the ceiling.

The side board and nailers installed.

The side board and nailers installed.

The vertical boards are all in, along with the stone inset.

The vertical boards are all in, along with the stone inset.

This has been an interesting phase of the project. The back bar and entertainment center required precision cuts, along with staining and sealing. I settled on a nice, rich cherry stain. For both, I used a construction technique I saw on Man Cave back when we still had cable. I built a base and attached it to the wall and leveled it. Then I put the bottom shelf on top of the base. I ripped down some 2x4s to the appropriate width and screwed them into the wall to use as nailers. Then I attached finished boards on either side, sandwiching them around the nailers, including identical nailers attached to the front of the finished boards.

The entertainment center, trimmed out.

The entertainment center, trimmed out.

I didn’t get real expensive wood, and I kind of like the rough look of the pine, which goes well with my rough cuts. The back bar includes a stone inset and a wine rack. Constructing the wine rack was harder than it should have been because I still need work on getting things square, but it fit great in the end. I went with edge-glued panels for the entertainment center because it came in the greater width I needed. That paint-grade wood looked even rougher, and really soaked up the stain. But, on both projects, I’m very pleased with the outcome.

The wet bar, with the stone work and countertops installed.

The wet bar, with the stone work and countertops installed.

The same goes for the fireplace and wet bar. The Ply Gem stone veneer was easy to work with and looks great. These features are really going to make both rooms, I think. There will be some quirks. The wine rack isn’t quite level, and I got the front lattice reversed, so it doesn’t line up quite right with the rear lattice, meaning the bottles will tip a little bit to the left when they’re in the rack. I’ll chalk that up to character.

So, what’s next? I’m going to paint the door trim and get it put up, then, I guess, I’ll tackle the ceiling again. Once the ceiling is finally in correctly, it’s time for the flooring. I’m leaning toward Trafficmaster Allure, a nice-looking laminate designed to be water resistant. Then the trim. After that, we’ll clean the place up, decide how to furnish it and call it done (except for figuring out how to finish the stairs down to the basement). I’m hoping to be done by Christmas, New Year’s at the latest. Of course, that depends on the ceiling. I’ve underestimated that before, so I’m making no firm commitments this time. I just know I’m really, really ready to be done.

 

Progress and setbacks on the basement

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I wrote an update for the blog. I’ve been working on the basement a lot, but, I don’t have as much to show for it as I’d like. Oh, there’s been some progress I’ve mentioned on Facebook, but not here. Like finishing the wet bar framing and installing the kegerator. The countertop for the wet bar has been ordered.

Tiles, out of whack.

Tiles, out of whack.

But, unfortunately, I have a few days ahead of me of undoing work already accomplished. Yes … I did it again. I don’t quite know how I managed it, but, after getting the ceiling tiles up properly in the theater room, I somehow managed to let them get out of whack in the hallway. By the time I was almost done with the office ceiling, I realized, once again, that the result wasn’t acceptable. I tried to tell myself, like last time, that no one but me would notice. Then my wife came down to check the progress and said, “Whoah, those don’t line up.” Unlike last time, I could have completed the room without running into any unsurmountable problems. But when I looked at the ceiling, I realized I didn’t want to live with that look for the next 30 years (give or take). So, I’ll take them down. The entire room, plus a good portion of the hallway, getting back to the one twisted tile that I think started it all.

Cutting stone.

Cutting stone.

But before I get to that, I decided to do some constructive work. I bought a tile saw and started laying out and cutting the stone for the fireplace. The stone veneer, Ply Gem True Stack, had been delivered a few days earlier, about 1,000 pounds worth. The tile saw, a cheap 4.2-Amp 7-Inch Wet Tile Saw made by Skil, is quite the mess maker. The saw blade spins through a water bath to keep it cool. The water mixes with the concrete shavings and sprays out. There’s a shroud to direct the water back down, but I have to remove that when I’m making lengthwise cuts to the stone. Without the shroud, the water sprays straight up. After cleaning mud spots off some ceiling tiles (ones that WON’T be coming down), I vowed to do the rest of the wet saw work outside.

The stone goes up.

The stone goes up.

I cut and laid out the stone up to the top of the fireplace, then decided I better go ahead and put what I had up to make sure my measurements weren’t off before I cut everything else. That was a good idea. I was a little bit off on both sides of the fireplace — a little short on the left side and a little long on the right. I recut the pieces without too much waste. Once I get above the fireplace, it will be smooth sailing. I won’t be able to finish the whole thing before I take down and replace the tiles, because the plan is to butt the stone right about against the ceiling, but I’ll get it most the way up. That’ll get some stone off the floor and out of the way, and give me some much-needed sense of progress.

The frame, put together.

The frame, put together.

I did get one other major project done, and I’m pretty psyched about it: The projector screen is built and installed. That turned into an all-day project. Actually, a multi-day project. Mark, my DIY mentor, helped me cut the poplar boards for the framing one day, then I spent the entire next day wrapping them in black velvet, putting them together using biscuit joints and brackets, then stapling the screen material on the back. I used an acoustically transparent screen material from Seymour AV, and followed their very handy and complete directions for a DIY frame.

Our first movie on the big screen: The Godfather. It was spectacular.

Our first movie on the big screen: The Godfather. It was spectacular.

It’s a nice-looking frame, if I do say so myself. My wife and I got the projector hooked up and decided to go ahead and have our inaugural movie, even though the room’s far from complete. We dragged a couple ratty chairs over from the other side of the basement, put a small table between them, dimmed the lights and put on The Godfather Blu-Ray (after pouring a couple of frosty mugs of Blue Moon from the kegerator, of course). The picture was awesome. The sound was fabulous. Even on a concrete floor with power tools and assorted other messes around us, it was better than a movie theater.

So, yeah, I’m disappointed about the tile. The ceiling has been a major, major pain and I cannot wait to have it finally finished. But, in the meantime, some good things have been coming together. And while I continue to work on taking tiles down and putting them back up correctly, we’ll be able to watch a movie anytime we feel like it.

Back on the straight and narrow

The framing for the wet bar.

The framing for the wet bar.

So, after determining that I had gotten them inexorably screwed up, we decided to take all the tiles I had put up back down and start over. Shannon took most of them down while I worked on other things, like getting the framing done for the wet bar. Then my friend and mentor came over to get me off on the right foot. We snapped a couple of straight lines across the room and got the first three rows of tile squared up. About halfway across, we hit the first snag: The furring strips (you know, the ones I put up twice) were out of alignment, and the way things were going, we were going to run out of furring strip to staple the tiles to by the time we made it across the room. Luckily, the furring strips are in two pieces across the room, so we were able to make adjustments without too much issue.

I felt a little better about my own mistakes once my friend got going, though. As careful as he was, he was still seeing variations in how the tiles came together. He managed to even things out, and taught me some tricks for getting the tiles in tight, like fitting a scrap piece into the edge and tapping on that to move the tile into position without damaging it. I don’t know if it’s true, but I could at least tell myself that if he hadn’t had my example of how not to do it, he could have made the same mistake.

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Now that’s a straight line of tiles.

The jagged edge.

The jagged edge.

Getting it right is s a slow process. He and I worked three hours and got maybe six rows of tiles up. Working the entire next weekend, I only managed to get about two-thirds of the theater room done. But, slow as it is, at least it’s going up right. Check out the photo to the right. See that edge? Compare that to the photo on the left, which is what was happening before. So, I’m pleased. Despite the despair at the decision, I know it was the right one. This will be a ceiling to be proud of. There won’t be mistakes I think only I’ll notice. And, more important, I’ll be able to get all 800 square feet up without running into major issues.

I wish I had gotten it right the first time, and I’ll be very glad when the ceiling is behind me, or over me. But I’m very happy to be getting it right this time. I knew this would be a learning experience. The ceiling has, I think, been the most painful lesson so far.

My long dark night of the soul

The theater ceiling

The theater ceiling

I have been working on the basement ceiling for going on two months now. I’ve encountered more than my share of missteps and delays. But I had also made some real progress.  It’s been harder than I thought it’d be. There were times putting up the furring strips when it felt more physically demanding even than the drywall. And I had nagging doubts about the fact that the tiles had somehow gotten out of kilter. They weren’t lining up exactly as they should.  Click on the picture at the left to see what I mean. Look at the ridge along the far right side. That should line up evenly, instead of jumping to the left and right. I told myself it didn’t matter. Minor imperfections would simply give the ceiling character. No one would notice but me.

The jagged edge.

The jagged edge.

But I’ve come to the realization that it will matter, and that the errors magnified across the 800-square-feet or so of basement ceiling will reach the point where things simply will not work. Because of the way the tiles are affixed to the furring strips, I needed to run a line of border tiles from the hallway down to the end of the office room. I realized that when I brought the next row back, the jagged edge of the hallway tile, which you can see in the picture on the right, will cause insurmountable problems. The only solution, I fear, is to start over.

Some people believe that every story ever told is a variation of The Hero’s Journey, a concept popularized by Joseph Campbell and used to terrific effect by George Lucas in the original Star Wars.

And even something as mundane as a basement remodeling project can fit in those parameters. I started out in the ordinary world, where I knew nothing about construction or remodeling. My experience with power tools didn’t extend beyond an electric screwdriver. But my wife and I bought this house, and it had this magnificent unfinished basement that I believed we could transform. Only we didn’t have the money to pay someone to do it. Could I do it myself? Would I let myself be pulled into that adventure? A DIY friend told me I could. Another mentor came along to help. And I undertook the journey.

I encountered tests — tests of endurance, strength, intellect. I made incredible progress, I thought. I didn’t have a light saber, but I did have a nail gun. My wife and friends were amazed at how it was coming together, and so was I. Even my original DIY friend admitted he didn’t think I’d make it so far.

Now this. The realization that I need to pull down about 400 ceiling tiles, trying not to damage them, and start all over.

This is the part of the hero’s journey they call THE ORDEAL. This is where the hero faces a seemingly insurmountable obstacle, and hits bottom. The hero maybe even appears to die. All seems lost. This is the part where Frodo and Sam are floundering in Mordor, the ring becoming an unbearable burden to Frodo, one he now doubts he can bear all the way to Mount Doom. This is when Sam gives that great, stirring speech:

I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

When Frodo asked Sam what they were holding onto, he says: “That there’s some good in this world and it’s worth fighting for.”

Me? I’m holding on to the vision of this basement, finished. Sitting with my family and enjoying a movie on a 110″ screen with a cold beer from the wet bar in my hand. Of having an office that isn’t jammed into a small dining room but actually has space for book shelves and musical instruments, maybe even an electronic drum set so friends can come over and jam. There is some good in this world, and it is worth fighting for.

So I’ll pick myself up from this disappointment. Start taking tiles down, then put them back up right. This darkness will pass, and a new day will come.

But maybe I’ll do this first: Build the wet bar, and plug in the kegorator.

USA Today runs a stunningly dishonest commentary

A recent commentary in USA Today is one of the most stunningly dishonest opinion pieces I’ve seen in a long time.

Ilya Somin, a law professor at Koch-funded George Mason University, wrote about several recent unanimous Supreme Court decisions that she claims served as a check against overreach by President Obama:

When a president pursues policies that require such expansive federal power that he can’t get a single justice to agree, something is probably amiss.

The problem? Every single case she mentioned, while decided by the Supreme Court in the last couple of years, actually originated during previous administrations. The facts in Horne v. Department of Agriculture date back to the Clinton Administration. Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency and Arkansas Game & Fish Administration v. United States both date back to the Bush administration. A unanimous decision regarding religious employees also dates back to the Bush Administration, as did United States v. Jones, dealing with whether a search warrant is required to place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car.

Every single example, in other words, dealt with a position originally taken by a previous administration then subsequently defended by the Justice Department as the case wound through the court system. Not one of these represented a policy pursued by Obama.

I presume that Somin knew this. If not, she should not be teaching law. If so, she should not be publishing commentaries in national newspapers. The editors at USA Today owe the readers they have allowed to be misinformed an apology. They should have fact-checked this piece before running it. The only ethical recourse left to them now is to retract it. Otherwise, readers will be left to wonder if they can trust the facts in any commentary that appears in the newspaper.

A ceiling over our heads

The bathroom ceiling.

The bathroom ceiling.

The theater ceiling

The theater ceiling

It’s been awhile since I’ve written an update. The ceiling is progressing, up in both the theater room and the bathroom. I have to extend furring strips across the hallway and put them up in the office, then I can put the tiles up.

My wife’s paint job on the tiles is great. The tiles really look good, I think, especially after she touched them up after they were hung. The tiles are more difficult to work with than I thought. As I mentioned before, they’re extremely delicate. But it’s also hard for some reason to get them lined up exactly right, and small discrepancies are magnified as the rows build on each other. I doubt anyone is going to study the ceiling closely enough to notice unless I call their attention to the variations. I’m going to train myself NOT to do that. Getting the cutouts right for lights, outlets and vents was also challenging. I had to remember to cut the openings wide enough to allow room to maneuver the tongues of the cut tile into the grooves of the adjacent tiles. And with the vents, the cuts were so wide that the keeping the tile in one piece took a lot of doing.

This gives you an idea of how big the screen will be.

This gives you an idea of how big the screen will be.

I got the last two speakers installed and the projector mounted. Of course I needed to test everything out. The sound with all seven speakers and the subwoofer is incredible. The picture, even projected on a green wall instead of a screen, looks great. And it’s going to be big enough to make the 50″ Sony upstairs feel tiny (it has less than a quarter of the screen area as the projection screen will have).

The ceiling’s taking a lot longer than I anticipated, which is par for the course. I’m really hoping to have the basement finished by my birthday on Sept. 2. We’ll see. Still left to do after the ceiling is done: The wet bar build; the tiling the bar area, the bathroom and in front of the outside door; building the projection screen; the stone work around the fireplace and the wet bar; the flooring (leaning toward bamboo) and putting in the doors and trim.

I may need to start working nights as well as weekends.