Hey, is that a weird cube in your kitchen or are you just pleased to see me?

Okay.  So after much cursing, poking, peeking, and prodding. Also after hitting it with a hammer and something that was definitely not a screwdriver being used as a sort of chisel. And spraying it with lubricant… the lift seems to be working again.

However, because it wasn’t working we planned other things. Namely walls. And we got stuff to do them. And now we have a delightfully weird cube butting out into our kitchen. This was expected, but actually encountering it is quite different to “we’ll have a cube sticking out into our kitchen when we’re done”. 

It’s quite fun, and very angular. We, it seems, have all the angles.

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Many angles. Some of them are quite close to 90 degrees. Not many, though.

We’re almost all the way round the bathroom cube, then there’s many cupboards to attack. Well, one and a ‘sitting to put shoes on’ space, and one that I was a teeny bit short on when I was using up spare drywall. We’ll probably go back to me attacking cupboards, and Kathryn and I attacking ceilings now that the lift at least appears to be working. 

We stood around today at the end of the day talking about the cube. It’s very odd. We built this. On the exterior walls – so in every other space in the house – there’s some of the original house hiding. It may be patched, it may be modified, but it’s there. But the main bathroom has no walls that existed before we came. It even mainly stands on a sub-subfloor that we put in because the old floor was so rotten. There is no part of it not built by our hands.

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Look, more angles.

From the plywood subfloor, to the studs, to the ceiling joists, to the ducting, to the heating, to the plumbing, to the cast iron bath, to the electrics, to the drywall. It is our sweat, tears, time and effort that have made that little space exist.

It’s quite cool.

Also, angles.

And it’s broken, again.

So, today we were hoping to put up at least one of the final 3 pieces of plasterboard that make up the bottom two rows of our plasterboard ceiling in the lounge. That would be the end of the ceiling bits that we’d be lifting with our drywall lift – and then it’d be time to break out the rental lift.

But no, because our Arksen drywall lift has broken again. Now it’s just incredibly stiff to the point that we can’t lift it beyond about 8 feet with any load on it. I’m not sure if something bent, or if it’s just stiff because it has mating surfaces which are just bent metal against bent metal. At any rate, having loaded the drywall we got it to flat-ceiling height and could go no further. After several attempts to work out what was up we concluded that it’s b0rked and we can’t see where. I may try spraying some oil on it, but I suspect that it’s bent in a bit that you can’t easily get to without dismantling it, although I’m unclear how – or when – this happened. Also, I’m currently unclear whether it’s dismantleable without cutting welds. It’s hard to say when it broke because the last 3 pieces have been smaller bits that only went up to normal ceiling height on a flat ceiling, so it’s unclear what could have broken it.

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So it looks like we need to rent the posh lift, which is all very well but for the fact that I’m away for a bit in January at CES and there’s Christmas – which makes renting the lift for four weeks (which is the cheapest way to rent it for the amount of time we’ll need it) impractical; or at least wasteful. Which means that we’re not going to get back to ceiling work until after Christmas. Which is distressing.

It’s not like there’s not lots to do. But we can’t get the 12′ sheets up without a functioning lift, which means we can only do a few bits of the walls that require 8′ sheets – which restricts our choice. And again, it’s not like there’s not lots to do. It’s not like this actually really slows us down (apart from the half day we’ve lost today) but it’s irritating to have our plans thrown. And it’s more irritating because this piece of kit has cost us in time and money (although at the moment we’re out $40, which is a lot less than it’d cost for us to rent a lift for as long as we’ve had this one).

Thankfully, today wasn’t a total washout. This morning was spent working on the radiator in the bathroom. We’re tapping into the underfloor circuit (at the manifold) to feed radiant towel warmers in both bathrooms. This will involve fun with adjusting valves to get a sensible rate of flow through both circuits, I suspect. At any rate, I cut the channels in the floor (through our underlay-layer of subfloor) and laid the pipe run to the 3/4 bathroom. Then I broke out the insulation and stuffed the wall with it. It’s not pretty because this wall was built 1′ on centre (rather than 16″ on centre), so I had to chop the insulation up to get it in (I could have cut one long run, but that ends up being very wasteful). You can see the pipe run on the floor there, too, with my high-tech solution to protect the pipes.

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I’ve also started insulating the main bathroom, but I need to do the same trick of running some pipe in there, which means whacking some more screws in the floor before hand, and deciding on a pipe run. Fun, fun. Well, dusty, then itchy.

I keep having these thoughts about when we might actually get to move in. Sometimes it seems like it might be tolerably close. Sometimes it seems infinitely far away.

You may find yourself endlessly trimming a piece of drywall…

…and you may ask yourself, “How did I get here?”
(…and you may tell yourself, “This is not my beautiful house”)

We finally, finally got the corridor done. All four pieces of drywall are up and fit…sufficiently well. There’s going to be some patching, some tape-and-joint compound to cover miscuts and a joint that is pretty shonky. Since we’re skimming the whole damn lot we’re hoping it will be okay, but it turned out to be all the nightmares at once.

At first glance, it doesn’t look that bad…

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I mean, we got the first board up and apart from cutting around the light fitting that, it turned out, was just caught, not actually in need of a cut-out, it went fine. Well, it took a few goes because our hall is hilariously unsquare.

Things we have learned are that unlike building in brick with plaster over the top it’s better to have a straight wall with a nice 90 degree angle on it and suffer the fact it doesn’t look right somewhere than to try and average out the errors across the house. Our house is a non-parallelogram. It’s made of curvy sides attached at corners that approximate 90 degrees. The floor is unlevel, rising half an inch to the door across a span of about 1 meter. It’s all insane. And we made many compromises to try to make it look kind-of-right. And those are biting us at every turn, because things that should be flat often have a bit of a slope. And it turns out a lot of building materials come in flat and rectangular forms.

So our hall is not square, and yeah… it has been trouble. Despite that thet first board went up yesterday morning without too much pain.

Then we tried to make the second board.

We tried every trick in the book. It was cut slightly overlarge, then scribed to fit the shape. We measured at multiple points. But having put it up-and-down probably 10 times (please recall, these things are f’kin heavy and yet fragile), it still didn’t fit at the end of the day, and it became apparent that it was still far enough out that it wasn’t realistically going to happen without disintegrating. We ended up putting it down and coming home – which was deeply disheartening as it meant that in a day we’d put up one board that’s just under 2 ft wide.

Still; Today we took the challenge up again, and took many more measurements, then hacked off more board, cut off the corner that had been damaged in it’s 800 cycles of raise-and-lower on our shoddy-ass-wavy-wobbly lift, and finally managed to get it in place. I cut the light hole pretty well, then munged the smoke-detector hole. But it’s patchable (which is becoming a mantra).

Kathryn put pretty much all of the many, many screws that hold it up (despite our book saying that if you use glue you don’t need so many screws, that isn’t something that we’ve confirmed with Oly – and frankly, on ceilings, I like them to be screwed in place).

And then we cut the final piece of corridor board, and put that up. The light hole in that one is okay, and the fit along the edges isn’t terrible.

All in all, the corridor is probably adequate. No picture, because it was dark by the time we’d finished, not because I’m afeared to show it. I’ll take a pic tomorrow :)

The good thing is we’ve now cleared enough floor space that we can do the final 3 pieces of ceiling we can do with our drywall lift in the living room area. We’d got the bottom two sections up along the rest of the ceiling:

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and it’s just the bit above the lounge which until now has had a big stack of drywall covering the floor. Now there are just two sheets – so we can move one, and the other one goes up on the ceiling, then that one we’ve moved will get put up.

I’ve also started work on the heating plumbing, some of which has to ‘sneak’ into the walls to run to the radiators in the bathrooms, and that has to happen before we can drywall the other side of the walls (we’ve done one side of them already). Then all those interior walls need insulation, the exterior ones need special little blocks for the drywall to screw to (because our floor is 3/4″ higher than the old floor) – and then they can all be drywalled.

The fun with drywall never ends.

Yes, yes, I know, I’m whingy. But as we inch closer to a house that’s liveable, it’s increasingly painful to not be in it.

More plasterboard, more fibreglass… and more rooms.

So last time I wrote about the bathrooms I’d forgotten about the shelf that was meant to be in the 3/4 bath. We’d forgotten about it when putting up the cement board, and also hadn’t added in the framing for it. It’s just one piece of wood, in this case, so adding it in after the fact was pretty easy since we’d only done the bathroom side; cutting out the cement board wasn’t too painful either (although I think the roto-zip has suffered from cutting cement board – I think I should probably put in a new bit). I had to wait until we’d done the other bathroom to find out what left-over bits were left for making the sides – which, now I’ve finished the other bathroom, I got to do…

Yes… we have two completely walled bathrooms!

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As has been one of the most enjoyable things throughout this process, the building has changed again. It’s fascinating the way it feels bigger or smaller, and the way the light changes… The gradual addition of plasterboard walls to our framing changes the space in a new way. It’s been a case of having to try and imagine the walls and how the light will be, and now we’re getting to see the walls and the light. It’s interesting in a way that I’d not considered; because while we’ve changed one or two rooms in a house before, we’ve never changed anything so wholesale as the entire structure.

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And it’s starting to feel more like a house again, which is interesting. Adding the insulation was the last big change to the feel, with the road suddenly becoming much less audible. Adding in the new front door when we get it should really quieten things down too, because the current one fits so very badly. Unfortunately, it’s rained and rained and rained, which makes going to get a new door somewhat tricky.

Anyhow, today I set to on the next section of the plasterboarding odyssey. The pantry and the laundry. Much up-and-down with plasterboard later, and we have a completed pantry (at least the walls-of).

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It is the world’s smallest pantry (about 30cm wall-to-wall), and we’ll have to either make or get someone to make a really narrow pull-out set of shelves. It may need some kind of bumper thing to prevent it from destroying the wall, because otherwise it’ll probably shred the plaster. But it is possible to get in there, which means that we should be able to tape and plaster it.

I’ve also made fairly significant progress on the laundry – with two of the walls plasterboarded. I did screw up one section up – unfortunately. I couldn’t use the roto-zip on the sockets in there because that circuit is live and has actual outlets screwed in. It also made using the magnetic blind socket finder less accurate (because the board couldn’t be positioned in it’s proper place – ending up much further from the wall than is ideal).

Unfortunately, the first board I cut for the lower section ended up disintegrating around the socket because I hadn’t quite cut the hole in the right place. It was close enough that it looked like it would fit – but as I lifted it a little to put screws in, it caught and then cracked around the socket. I whipped that one off and recut it, but ignored an earlier smaller error – the light switch has a somewhat large hole, which we’ll have to repair. I also stuffed offcuts of insulation (what I’ve been referring to as ‘scruff’) in the wall in between the laundry and the pantry. There are some slightly bigger bits which I’m hoping will be easier to use in the wall between the bathroom and the laundry – but that’s always going to be a less well insulated wall (because of the shelf – and because it’s full of plumbing). So that’s tomorrow’s tasks… and then I’ll start laying the pipe routing channels in those rooms for the heating.

I’m thinking I’ll use the left over mould-proof bits in the central-heating boiler room, since that’s also got the water supply in it too. At any rate, it’s all quite exciting.

1.5 (of 1.75) baths

So, we’ve been continuing on with our plasterboard odyssey. We have managed about half of the main attic ceiling, which we’ve had to do by cutting the drywall into handleable sections, slipping them into the attic and then manually lifting. Slow, and tiring, but effective. Thankfully, the local welders did a solid job on the broken bit of the lift (it’s now better than new), and the lift is functioning again (and not making rending metal noises when lifted, and because they straightened it out (which I asked them to do), the cable now doesn’t foul the lift mechanism) which means that we can lift the boards up to the attic rather than attempting to carry them up.

We’ve also been applying cement board to the bathroom walls.

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The 3/4 bathroom walls are finished. We realised that we were intending to do a built in shelf in the 3/4 bath, so I need to throw in a shelf support, and cut out a chunk of board from that wall. Which is a little irritating, because I thought it was done, but actually I’d’ve needed to run that cement board over that area and cut it out anyway.

The main bath is 3/4 done – or there abouts.

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And finally, the back of the house is – at last – completely treated with ceder.

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We still have the battens to do, and to cut around the door. And the door still needs the frame sanding and the whole lot needs painting. Only it’s now not warm enough to paint….

Careful now, that looks like a room. If you squint.

Today was a bit of a tough day. I’m not sure why. I think something about the headspace I was in. Something about our car being broken (now allegedly fixed again), and the inordinate amount of time wasted on travelling up and down to Tacoma to get it fixed… I dunno.

This morning progressed okay. I put up some more furring strips (two more left on the back, five on the front, and that’ll be it), planed and put more cedar up on the back.

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There’s just one more full 12′ stretch and then I’m on to the bit by the back door. Then the other side of the back door. Then the front porch (which is, to be fair, a painful one with a billion nails and a complex pain-in-the-arse L-shaped bit that has to be installed (almost certainly) as one piece. Anyhow, that took up my morning, then I broke for lunch, and then feeling somewhat chilled from the morning of mizzle, I decided to put up some bathroom concrete board.

That actually went okay, although the edge by the door is a bit rough (it doesn’t like being cut with a drywall saw).

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By the time I’d finished there’s just the bottom strip around the back and right side of the room to do, and a couple of bits on the sliding door. It actually looks like a room (or perhaps, a large cupboard, or what it is: a very, very small bathroom). At any rate, when Kathryn arrived we were able to start on the laundry room ceiling. However, the minor mistakes I’d made in the morning were not quite so significant as the ones I made in the afternoon. I’ve still not quite got the hang of the roto-tool which cuts around the outlet boxes. I still don’t have any real feel for when I’m correctly following the box, or when I’ve wandered off into space.

And the first box I wandered off into space.

After a monumentally ridiculous amount of grumping on my part, we managed to continue, whereupon I promptly cut the hole for the fan in entirely the wrong place. I thought I had hit the inside edge of it, hopped a bit across and then realised I’d actually started on the outside edge, and was now cutting an enormous hole in our just put up drywall. We haven’t bought any extra of the special mould-resistant, fire resistant ceiling drywall, so Kathryn hatched a cunning plan to use some offcuts to do the job. Which we’ve done. Because frankly it’s going to get slathered in joint compound and smoothed down afterwards, and hopefully we can hide that shoddyness, and if not, it’s the fracking laundry cupboard.

At any rate, after the mistakes, that was all that we managed to get done. Well, I precut the tiny bit that goes above the pull-out-pantry. But other than that… Which didn’t feel like a lot. But given that we actually did it twice…

See, a good friend recommends that if you make two mistakes, that’s when you should stop. Which I try to stick to, or at least, switch activity. But today we didn’t…and that was an error.

But still.

This:

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is now this:

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It doesn’t smell of cat urine, or of some sweet smelling stuff to cover up the scent of cat urine. It’s not rotten and the hot-water system is not about to drop through the floor. The dryer vent actually exits the building, and the plumbing does not (at least does not appear to) leak (touch wood). The electrics are all new. The windows are actually attached to the building. The drains run downhill.

Progress has been made.

A bit of this and that

Today has been a day of bits. While I’d made it down both sides and as far as I can on the front of the house with the cedar, and I’d cut and painted a few furring strips for the back of the house, I’d not made enough to actually start putting cedar strips up. So I started this morning with cutting and painting more furring strips – made more complex by the need for some extra wide ones to go either side of the back door – and those needed planing down to the right thickness.

That whole process took a while, because I had to work out how many I needed – and what the spacing is going to be on the back*. It’s tricky because I’m trying to minimise wood usage, but also trying to work it so that it looks the way we want. The balance is tough.

Anyhow. The strips given their first coat I popped into the bathroom to put up a bit of concrete board. It’s not a high priority job, but the board had got a big chip out of it while it’s been stood in the hall (also, we have had to move it a few times… so why not attach it to the wall).

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(The space on the right of the wall will be a built in shelf for the shower/bath, the space on the left is an obscured glass window to let some real outside light into the bathroom).

It’s odd, and you don’t really get the impact of it from the photo, but it has a weirdly progress-feeling effect. Despite only being a bit of wall that I’ve put up purely because it’s handy to have stuff out of the way, it makes the room feel more complete – and because it obscures the view through the house a bit, it makes the whole house feel more like a house.

Anyhow, that took a little time, so then I put a second coat of paint on the furring strips. Then I started planing the strips for the back of the house… like I said, lots of bits of jobs today.

I paused to go around our trees with our arborist, who’s coming to prune them back for the winter, then ran out and grabbed lunch before heading back for the application of more cedar. It took a while, as it always does, to mark up the position of the furring strips and this was the moment when I worked out that I wasn’t fond of my proposed strip layout. Having pondered some more, I managed to come up with a plan that I think should work and so started attaching the furring strips (well, actually, I’d attached some already, so there’s a random extra strip that’ll be hidden behind the cedar).

Having cut some cedar strips I spent some time applying them. My back, knees and neck are now all killing me… hunching over to paint, plane, cut and apply them for much of the day is not…ideal

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I realised that I didn’t post a picture of the ceiling from yesterday… so here it is:

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And Arksen said they’d refund the cost of the lift, which is good. But bad, in that now we don’t have a functioning lift. I had a look at it to see if it is fixable, and I think if I take this bit, with the hideous failing weld, down to a local welder they could probably fix it.

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It is utter shit though, I mean, it’s half-assedly welded around less than half of the off-centre tube which acts as part of the brake – and which takes all of the load from the drywall from the moment it’s lifted from its endstop. I’m inclined, also, to find some *BIG* washers, so that the load is spread onto the metal arm that supports it, and the bracket, rather than just onto that bit of tube and the weld.

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So we’ll see. It’s either that or rent a better lift for the whole of the job.

* I realised later that while my plan would work, it’d end up with two joints closer than I’d like further down the wall, so ended up tweaking the positioning of the furring strips.

Scaling great heights

So, as the mizzle switched to drizzle to rain, I continued my quest to attach all the cedar to the house. I ran around and used the pinpunch to get the nails I’d not bothered to put in all the way in (some on the south side, some on the front), and I reached the very top of the two runs of 2′ either side of the door*. Now we need the bit that goes across the top of the door, which I need Kathryn present for. I can do one of them, but the rest of them require me to be properly up on the ladder. Which we’ve agreed is a two person activity (as in, we need a second person at the house).

Still, it adds some form to the building.

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When Kathryn arrived we switched back to drywall. After the heady heights of yesterday’s rapid** installation, todays went somewhat slower. We didn’t get it quite as well balanced on the lift (although it looked okay at ground level, as it went up things started to go a bit skew-whiff), and getting it to align was a struggle. Also, it turned out that we had cut it very slightly too large. It was actually perfect except for one stud which was out of line enough that it jussssst fouled at the top (not ours, for once). Eventually we got it installed, but it was fiddly.

Then we had to cut the bits of wood that make up for the uneven framing of the walls… (it’s really that the two layers of the angled top-plate aren’t quite aligned where they meet the slope of the ceiling). That took a while because they each need to be made for their specific spot. Then glued and screwed to the trusses (because we want them to move with the trusses, not the wall). Then we attached the x-crack which went up okay… And then it was time to head home. Frustrating, as we’d both hoped to get that bit of drywall up.

However, during that process our drywall lift started making some…worse noises than it has made. And the winding mechanism is now, I think, at a worse angle than it was. And it looks like the bolt that holds that mechanism on may be pulling through the metalwork where it’s held on.

Did I mention it’s a piece of crap?

It’s actually “rated” for a 150lb piece of drywall, and the sheets we’re lifting are just over 100lb, so it should be fine. Buuuut… it looks like someone was learning to weld using the cheapest, thinnest metal they could find when they made it:

Scabby Drywall Lift

We’ll see what Arksen have to say – it’s warrantied for one year, so hopefully they’ll ship a replacement.

* It’s actually 1′ 11¾” because…err, because. I think because we concluded it was a better size for the green sheets (which we still haven’t quite put up). Also, it means you can definitely get 6 out of our not quite 12′ strips. Some are 12′, some are 12’¼”, some are 11′ 11¾”.

** By our standards

Another day, another piece of drywall

So today went better than yesterday. Sleep helped, unsurprisingly. This morning I tracked down some more of the stainless steel finishing nails that hold our cedar strips onto the house – despite our local Bob saying they had them in stock, they couldn’t find them, so I trekked over to Lacey and grabbed some more. It’s a bit more of a schlep, but it allowed me to get back to the cedar application.

I also had to plane down some more of the strips. I’m trying to be as frugal as possible, because we are probably not going to have enough to make it around the house. But we might. The calculations we did were based on a vast overage, but also on 2″ wide strips – forgetting that 1″x2″ is really about 2/3″ x 1.5″. So while we thought we had 40% overage before we started, we realised very early on that we had made a fairly massive maths error, and then re-ran the numbers and came to the conclusion that we may, or may not, have exactly enough. I think we have about 1% overage. Which is not really appropriate given the quality of the lumber we’re using. But it’s what we’ve got.

So I’ve tried to make sure I’m using as much of every board as I can; even gluing some strips back together where they’d split, and gluing knots in to boards where they’ve worked loose but are still intact.

Anyhow, I cut probably fewer of the short strips that go either side of the porch than we need to reach the top, but enough that we should get close (allowing me to work out exactly how many we need when we’re closer) – and continued working up either side of the door.

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They’re actually not quite in line on either side I realised, so I’m trying to correct for that as we go up because at the top of the door the two sides have to meet up again.

Still, I really love the look of the cedar, and am quite looking forward to the interesting little momentary glimpses of the street you’ll get as you come out of the house.

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When Kathryn arrived we set to – and finished – the first coat of the white/grey paint on the trim boards and eaves. The weather started to look suspicious for rain (despite Dark Sky’s promise that it wouldn’t (and it didn’t)) so we traded for drywalling. The first of the sheets in the second bedroom went up much better than either of the last two we’ve done. It still took us at least 90 minutes, but it was a fairly organised 90 minutes and all of it went fairly smoothly (assuming it’s still attached when we get there tomorrow).

So then there’s just one and the diddy bit up at the ridge more for us to do in there, and then it’s on to the lounge. At least until we rent a drywall lift that can actually reach the top of the ceiling.

Roughing it

So the past few days have been rough. I’m starting to come out the other side of feelings of utter despair – so far I’ve proven something to myself about bending, not breaking, although some of that is down to a lot of time with my wife holding me and giving me somewhere to hide from the world. Most of this is down to the evil ongoing in the world. Watching as more facists get power, watching the institutions I grew up with (the BBC, the Guardian) amplify the words of those who would have me dead and ask if it’s just “a refreshing alternative to political correctness”, seeing locally bigots running around with pride… It’s been tough.

There have also been the appalling events in the news, hate crimes happening at least every week, and most likely every single day. Murderous terrorists running around while the GOP conflate the discomfort of being called out for being an arsehole over dinner with being gunned down in a supermarket, and then having the press bothsidesism it to be comparable.

It’s left me profoundly worried about our safety here.

It’s left me profoundly disturbed and considering where we should go. The vague “we should have a plan” has become a more and more incessant clamour in my brain.

It’s made more tricky by the fact that the inside of our house still looks like this:

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Which is not conducive to selling it.

Thankfully, my wife pointed out to me that while we may not be happy with contractors as a general rule, they’d be fine if we were selling it, and a good team of contractors could probably have the place done in a month, maybe two.

As it is I’ve started to nose at Canada. My wife reminded me that if we want to leave the US and don’t want to go back to the UK (where they’re still debating whether I should be a person in the press on a regular basis, and hate crimes against minorities and LGBTQIA people went up dramatically last year), then I might have to get over myself and get some more OB/GYN education and some more surgical experience. Although, that said, I also now have an MSc in Critical Care (which I didn’t have when I applied last time) and I’ve completed the NCLEX (which again, I didn’t have last time). We should probably think a bit about where we’ll go if we do, because the application timeline wasn’t terribly short.

Of course, particularly Sunday night, after I’d curled up and cried for a bit, I slept like absolute shit. That led to a bad day yesterday, where pretty much every job had some mistake in it. Basically my day started badly when the store had run out of the specific stainless steel finish nails we use for our cedar trim and then…

– I picked up the wrong paint – and instead of priming the last two sheets to go on the outside of the house, I instead painted them with the top-coat intended for the trim (which is just off white). I realised this as I closed the can. There is some debate about whether the paint will adhere online if you do this, with some arguing the main purpose of primer is to soak into the wood and prevent you wasting the more expensive top coat, and some arguing that primer has some binders in it to make it stick to the wood better. Fuck knows. I put top coat on all the same, but I’m not sure whether we should go ahead and put it up.

– I misscut the trim I’d carefully left long on the front of the house. It’s marginal, I think less than a mm, maybe a mm at most. But still, depressing. I’m going to have to get a sander and see if I can blend it with the ones around it to make it ‘fit’.

– I forgot to pre-paint the vertical of the furring strip next to the door. That’s meant to be black, not white, which meant I had to try and paint around the cedar I’d put up yesterday. In that process I managed to get paint onto the cedar (not a lot, and not anywhere visible, thankfully).

In the end I switched to digging the trench (which will be filled with stones) around the front of the house, which is a less stressful thing to do.