Category Archives: whattamess

Cafe No Way

I did something the other day I have never done: I wrote in a coffee shop. Or, rather, I tried to write. And after trying, I’ve determined one thing: those sitting in Starbucks, tapping away happily on their laptop at one of those little round tables, are likely writing fiction.

Don’t tell me you’re not, because I know you are.  And I know because you don’t have your table cluttered with all the assorted crap that we non-fiction writers carry around with us.  Frankly, I’m jealous— because it looks like you’re having fun sitting there, legs crossed, a cup of Arabian Mocha Java steaming at your right hand, putting the finishing touches on your novel.  Further, you probably had to do little advance planning—you likely said to yourself, “I think I’ll go do a bit of writing at Starbucks,” picked up your laptop, and off you went.

As I said, I’m jealous. 

For non-fiction writers, it’s tougher to be that spontaneous. Case in point: the other night, I knew I was going to have about 90 minutes to kill while waiting for my daughter to finish up at volleyball practice.  So I decided I would take that opportunity to drive to the nearby coffee shop, set up my laptop, and do some writing while I waited.

That decision, however, took a bit of advance planning.  Unless I’m writing my own memoirs (which I’m not), where I have the bulk of information stored up in my head, I need to have my notes handy.  Even if I’m just tinkering with a small part of a chapter, I have be sure I’m getting everything right—and if I get stuck, I can’t devise some clever plot twist to move things along, or introduce a new character to antagonize my hero.  So I need my notes.  At the moment, I’m working out of a black binder that has all the photocopies of articles, notes, and interviews I need.  Into the shoulder bag it went.

Second, I always keep a yellow journal next to me where I write down research questions that occur to me as I write.  This is different than my black notebook, which holds the research itself; this is the book where I write down things like, “Double check events for May 1956.  Does the quote from John Smith really explain what happened? CHECK.”  Exciting stuff like that. Anyway, that goes into the shoulder bag, too.

Throw in the one or two books I’m also currently using in my research, and the shoulder bag I tossed into the back seat last night weighed about thirty pounds.  So much for spontaneously visiting  a coffee shop.  It was more like Edmund Hilary preparing for Everest.

Anyway, when I finally did make it to Starbucks, it was clear I had waaaay too much stuff to sit at one of those little round tables in the front window.  Instead, I chose the one long table they had—the one that’s reserved for wheelchairs, statutorily making me a cad–and spread out my notebook, journal, laptop, and obligatory cup of coffee.  I had officially made a mess.

It was then that I decided I won’t be writing in coffee shops or other public places. I’m better off cluttering up my space at home, spreading notebooks across every level surface, sticking Post It notes on walls and tables, and having the books I need immediately on hand. Perhaps that has more to do with the way that I work than the way other non-fiction writers work—but I would bet, at the very least, most of us are more comfortable having our notes on hand rather than winging away without them.

But for those of you who are sitting there winging away: I’m officially envious of your workspace.  And I’m all but certain you’re writing fiction.

Into the Homestretch . . . But Still A Mess

From the Thanks for Asking! Department, we’re still in the process of installing the geothermal system, so we’re not yet basking in the luxury of indoor cooling — but we’re getting there. Two 350-foot wells have been drilled and a loop of black tubing has been run down each, then grouted into place inside each well. The two open ends of each black tube are now sticking out of each well, ready to be tied into the main system. And as you can see, it’s a complete mess:

That gray sludge you see is pulverized bedrock — which, once it mixed with the bit of water that came out of the ground, has now taken on the consistency of putty. At the moment, walking across this section of our yard is like walking on a waterbed. I’ve been assured that all this yucky stuff will be scraped off and buried in the trench that will connect the wells with the house.

Speaking of messes, our HVAC crew is doing yeoman’s work in removing the old boiler-based system from the house. The 80-year-old boiler — which was too heavy for me to remove from the basement myself — has been expertly dismantled and hauled away, and now the 4-year-old replacement boiler has also been disconnected and is waiting to be shipped to the Great Scrap Iron Heap in the Sky:

All that other junk in the background? Also stuff that came out of the boiler room. Yup, it’s gross.

The rest of the work is scheduled to be completed early next week, and the system should be fired up by mid-week. I’ll keep you posted.

What A Mess!

We’re entering the homestretch of our HVAC retrofit here at Chestnut Hill, as we continue the work to install a modern geothermal heating and cooling system in our decidedly stubborn 70-year-old house.

Most of the major ductwork has been completed, but ensuring that air could move between the top and bottom floors of an old house meant sacrificing the closet in the downstairs bedroom, which is actually one of the few closets we have in the entire house. As you can see in the picture just above, the return duct is on the left, and the supply is on the right. That leaves about two feet of closet between the ducts and the door — which, I suppose, isn’t all that bad by closet standards. Look closely, and you can see where the shelves lining the walls were ripped out to make way for the ductwork.

The main unit will sit in the basement directly below this closet. We’ve been assured the system we’re installing is whisper quiet. We’ll see. They’re still working this week, finishing up the ductwork in the basement — including in the area where my new air conditioned and heated office will be — and, to our delight, disassembling the old boiler-based system we have squatting in a back room in our basement. I swear, after burning 70 years of fuel oil back there, it’s gotta be a Superfund site. I’ll be thrilled to get the huge 250-gallon holding tank out of there.

But the current mess in the house is nothing compared to the disarray seen to your left. That, my friends, is the well-drilling machinery that will drill two 300-foot wells in our backyard, which will supply the rock-steady temperatures that make a geothermal system work. The thing sits about thirty feet high (you can measure it against the two huge chestnut trees you can see in our backyard just behind it), and the 20-foot lengths of drill bit rotate in, revolver-style, to be screwed onto the end of each bit as it drills itself further into the ground. Yeah, it’s noisy.

As the drill moves into the ground, shale, bedrock and gunk come gushing out — which are then blown through the flexhose you see in the photo into an enormous bin for removal. While the system works well, our yard is already a mess of dust, clay, and mud. Fortunately, the lack of rain here has kept everything dry, so the yard’s not turning into a pigpen. There’s rain in the forecast for later this week, but the drilling is supposed to be completed by Tuesday. Let’s hope.

Messy? You bet. But worth it, if only to get off of the annual 1,100 Gallons of Heating Fuel addiction this house had. Feeling like the junkie who calls his dealer to announce he’s going cold turkey, I called our local fuel company this past weekend to tell them we wouldn’t be needing their services anymore.

“Right,” the woman on the phone said. “That’s what they all say. You’ll be back, you hear me? YOU’LL BE BA–“

I hung up on her, and went outside to look at my wells again, quivering.*

* Dramatization. Actual event may not have happened.