Category Archives: House & Home

Don’t Cry for College Textbook Publishers

Anyone who’s attended college or has kids attending college will not likely shed a tear for the struggling textbook publishers out there. You’re not going to have warm, fuzzy feelings for any industry that causes you to spend the equivalent of a month’s rent, or more, on books that you know you’ll only use for four months and then not be able to re-sell because a new version is already in the works. And you have to do it twice a year for the four years you’re in college!

That’s why reading this story in the Wall Street Journal on the struggles of the textbook publishers brought on a wave of schadenfreude like none I’ve felt in years:

Some opt instead to download textbooks illegally. A report last month by the Book Industry Study Group, an industry trade group, found that 25% of students photocopied or scanned textbooks from other students, up from 17% in 2012. The number of students who acquired textbooks from a pirate website climbed to 19% from 11%.

Those trends come at a time of steadily rising textbook prices. The price of new printed textbooks has jumped an average of 6% a year over the past decade, triple the rate of overall inflation, government figures show, making textbooks among the fastest-growing consumer expenses in the U.S.

Rising prices and changing buying habits have taken a toll.

Sales of new printed textbooks made up 38% of McGraw-Hill Education’s higher-ed revenue in 2013, down from 71% in 2010, said Chief Executive and President David Levin.

This hits close to home because in our house we have three college students right now. Thankfully we’ve been able to control costs by renting books through the school bookstore or through Amazon, or buying used books when possible through Amazon. Every once in a while the book will only be available from the school, and generally those are the most expensive, but still we’re talking $100-150 per book versus the $250-350 list price for many of the books for which we found rental/used alternatives.

The cost is patently ridiculous when you consider what is freely available online. In fact we should find a way to give professors incentives to utilize the information in the public domain whenever possible. It’s surely more work for them, but imagine the savings it would provide their students and how much less debt most of those students will have when they graduate.

Odd Couple Circa 2013

So these two good friends and neighbors get divorced from their wives and end up building two houses on one lot, making them something like semi-roommates. From the story in the Wall Street Journal:

Now both divorced, the two friends still hang out with each other and their current girlfriends. But they are even closer neighbors: They live in nearly identical, 1,500-square-foot, three-story wood-and-glass contemporary houses, which they built on the same lot.

The tall, rectangular-shaped twin houses, each with three bedrooms and 2½ bathrooms, are separated by about 30 feet—close enough that the occupants can see into each other's windows. It's like a modern version of "The Odd Couple", says Corey Martin, who designed the project with architect Ben Kaiser of Portland-based PATH Architecture. "On some level, it's every guy's dream. They get their freedom but they're not doing it alone. There's built-in camaraderie."



The friends say their arrangement is working well. They have dinner a couple of nights a week. They share an Internet account. They still go skiing, camping, biking and hiking together. "I know when Ted is home, who is going in and out of his house, which lights are on, what he is up to," says Mr. Zehetbauer. "It's companionship. Other people come and go. The only constant is Roland," adds Mr. Wardlaw. They share the outdoor space and are currently planning a vegetable garden together.

Not All Yurts Are Created Equal

Last summer our family spent a long weekend staying in a yurt near Charlottesville, VA.  Our yurt was luxurious and featured a nice kitchen, a nice bathroom, air conditioning, and HD television.  Although it looked very much like the yurt occupied by the family featured in this NY Times story the similarities ended there.  These folks have no running water and thus no indoor plumbing, their heat is provided by a wood burning stove and they fashioned a root cellar out of an old refrigerator. They're not totally roughing it though: they have broadband.

Apparently Something Nasty Went Through Our Neighborhood

My wife just called me to tell me that something like a small tornado just went by our house.  Tops of trees down the street have been twisted off, the siding of one of our neighbors' house has been torn off and a couple of trees are down in the street.  Don't know if it was a tornado or a sever wind burst or what, but it did some damage.  She's taking some pics and I'll post them later.

Related: Last Thursday we had 11 trees removed from the woods by our house.  I'm thinking we were just in time.

Why I’m Mud Man

This is what it looks like when you put in a new septic drain field.  I really had nothing to do with it other than contributing to the, uh, effluence that led to the old field getting saturated.  BTW, I highly recommend Frank Transou if you need to have septic repair, installation or replacement done.

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Call Me Mud Man

A couple of weeks ago we had a new septic field put in our front yard.  Why the front and not the back yard like 99% of the world?  You'll have to ask the original homeowner why they situated our lot the way they did, but my guess is that they wanted to place the house farther back on the lot away from the road.  Whatever, the result of having the work done is that a little more than half of the front yard is dirt which means for the first time in my life I'm trying to grow a lawn from scratch.  

Celeste and I talked about getting a landscaper to put in sod, but after plunking down a chunk of change on the septic system we decided it would be financially prudent to try and seed and grow the grass ourselves. Easier said than done.

First we needed to get the ground prepared and let's just say it was more than one man and his three unhappy teenagers to do with a few rakes, at least if you wanted it done in less time than it took to build the Great Wall.  So we called Zeke Mock and asked him to come over with his tractor and get the ground nicely even and raked for us.  He had to wait for the ground to dry after last weeks rains so that the tractor wouldn't damage our brand new septic lines so he showed up last last week and did his thing.

F74e1dc7c84da9d4faef0032894dfde5 Of course we needed grass seed.  The weekend before last Celeste picked up a couple of bags of Scott's Turf Builder Heat Tolerant Blue Mix at Lowe's and a seed spreader to go with them so that meant that Saturday morning I was up and rarin' to go in my role as Jon-ny Lawnseed.  Spreading the seed took about 20 minutes, which was great, but upon reading the instructions I realized that once the seed was down I was going to have to water the dirt twice a day.  What a pain in the butt!

To understand how much I dislike yard tending you need only know this: I actually like the fact that we have lots of weeds in our yard because if I set my mower at its lowest setting  you can't really distinguish the weeds from the grass unless you're standing on it and the lawn stays green pretty much year round and during the most sever droughts.  Bonus!  So the idea that I have to actually water my dirt just seems, well, sucky.

Oh well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.  Celeste had also purchased a sprinkler, the kind that sends about ten streams of water in a nice gentle arc (the kind that kids jump through on hot summer days), but after I hooked it up and it did its thing for about five minutes it decided that it wouldn't rotate and would just spray in one direction.  Damnit!  So I put a sprayer on the hose and started spraying our massive dirt patch by hand.  Unfortunately I didn't plan well and got the hose all kinked up and I kind of sprayed myself into a corner which means I had to walk through mud to get everything straightened out.  By the time I was done my shoes weighed approximately 52 pounds each, and I could swear there were sprouts coming out of the toes.

It gets better.  Yesterday I woke up early so I could water the dirt before church.  Seems kind of Biblical, no?  After fighting the hose again I went inside to take a shower and when I got out I noticed that it was raining quite nicely.  Most people would have checked the weather before going out to water their lawn, or maybe even looked up while outside, but not me.  In my defense I hadn't had coffee yet so I really was semi-comatose. But still.

And of course this morning I was out there once again at 6:30, bed-head and all.  Neighbors politely honked as they departed for work or taking their kids to school, but I was inclined to reply with a one finger salute because watering dirt at 6:30 is not my cup of tea. I refrained and just gave 'em the "neighbor nod" but I was sorely tempted to take out my dirt rage on them.

Thankfully this isn't supposed to last forever.  The seed bag instructed me to water twice a day for a week or until I see my first sprouts, and then I can scale back to once a day.  I'm hoping that our septic field will contribute lots of nutrients so that the process is expedited, but I'm not banking on it.  In the mean time if you're driving through Lewisville and you see a tall, disheveled, mud splattered man you'll know you've found me.

Playing Quarters (Not the drinking game)

One of the problems with having a saturated septic field is that you really want to avoid putting any more water into it.  That becomes problematic when you have three teenagers, so we've been taking measures to limit our water use.  This week that's meant making a couple of trips to the laundromat to do mega-loads of laundry.  Consequently I've come to a few conclusions and realizations:

  • Our kids have too many clothes.  Seriously, how many sweatshirts does one boy need?  How many pairs of socks can one girl possibly use?  Sheesh.
  • Having your own, properly functioning washer and dryer at home is one of the great luxuries of modern living. 
  • Using a laundromat launches you out of your little cocoon of comfort.  Watching the people who obviously use the laundromat on a regular basis, evident by their systematic use of the machines to optimize both time and quarters, makes you realize exactly how easy you might have it. 
  • My habit of throwing my change in a box on my bedstand every night over the last couple of years has resulted in me accumulating something like $451 in quarters.  Those come in quite handy at a laundromat. 
  • I'm going to be pushing our septic contractor hard to get our system fixed ASAP.  Dragging clothes to the laundromat and worrying about every flush of the toilet is no fun.  
  • We've used the laundromat in Clemmons that's right next door to the food pantry.  Seeing people who are truly struggling definitely puts things in perspective.  All things considered having a funky septic system isn't really that big a problem so I'm going to stop whining about it. 

Recent Rain Fills Reservoirs and My Front Yard

According to this story at WXII the rain over the past weekend combined with the snow has gone a long way to catching us up on our yearly rainfall totals.  Local reservoirs are approaching full which is a good thing.

Here on the home front the rain fall has exacerbated our septic issues.  To catch you up on what I'm talking about:
  • During the really rainy spell in December and January we notice a muddy patch in our lawn near the road that runs in front of our house.
  • Muddy patch occassionally smells a little funky. 
  • We get septic tank pumped and that seems to help. 
  • We notice that whenever it rains a lot we get the return of the funky smell.  
  • Three weeks later we notice that the patch is still there and call a septic repair guy who's the friend of a friend.  He recommends we have the county come out to look at it.
  • A very helpful representative from the Forsyth County health department comes last week and says that while our system isn't failing our septic lines are saturated.  Basically we don't have enough septic lines for the number of people living in our house.  That's actually good news compared to what we were worried about (total failure and system replacement). 
  • He lays out a plan for more lines in our yard (thankfully we have plenty of room) and pending a test showing that our soil percs well we will get a permit to put in those lines some time in the next five years (if the system was failing we'd have 30 days). 

So that brings us to this weekend.  I'd dug a hole about two feet deep and three feet in circumference to get to the lid of our septic tank so that the county guy could access it if he needed it.  I decided to leave the hole in case I needed to call the septic pump guy to empty our tank again.  Well, when we got the monsoon over the weekend that hole started to fill with water and I worried that a couple of bad things might happen: one, the concrete lid might start leaking some of the stuff inside the tank into the water in the hole, or two, that the water would freeze overnight and crack the lid.  So guess what?  Sunday after church I was the idiot bailing water out of a hole in the middle of massive rain showers and then filling it with mud.  I'd love to know what my neighbors were thinking when they drove past.

Here's where we stand now:  We're waiting for the permit from the county so that we can get the septic contractor out here to put in our new lines.  We're probably looking at a couple of weeks before everything is done, and in the interim our yard is saturated.  Luckily it's not sewage, it's just that the gray water has nowhere to go so it sits on top of the ground and provides us with the occassional whiff of putridity (Is that a word?).  It smells kind of like swamp.

While the good citizen in me realizes that we need the rain the selfish homeowner is hoping for a three week drought.

Money Pit Strikes Again

As I’ve documented extensively here our house is an absolute money pit.  I must have written over 20 times about the travails of owning this heap, but it seems that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

My most recent post was about our bathroom reclamation projects.  Well, Celeste and I decided that we could handle putting the new linoleum in the kids bathroom as well as replacing the sink and cabinets.  On Sunday we went to Lowes and picked up the necessary materials and on Monday we tore out the old cabinets, sink and toilet.  We got busy with normal work/family stuff and put things on hold, and then Tuesday night I drove to Charleston, SC for business.  I drove home last night through four hours of rain, surviving the maniacal drivers on I-77 near Charlotte, and walked into what can best be described as a crap-storm.

Celeste had been working to tear up the luan and was visibly upset.  It had become apparent to her that there were problems with the sub-floor that were probably going to be beyond our means and she wasn’t happy.  I helped her tear up the remainder of the luan and I quickly came to agree with her assessment.  She had called Greg Hester, the miracle worker who’s saved our house on numerous occasions, and luckily he called her back just as things seemed darkest.  He was already planning to send one of his guys out to do the finish work around the bathroom and when he heard Celeste’s voice he simply said his guy would do whatever needed to be done to get us set up.

This morning Jeff, who’s been here enough this year that we’re thinking of adopting him as an honorary Lowder, showed up and looked at the floor, particularly where the toilet had been.  He went down to the basement to look at it from underneath and when he poked the floor from below with his screwdriver it went straight through the inch of wood.  Just a little water damage!

I started thinking about the scene in Money Pit that Keith pointed to in the comments on my last post and now pasted below, and then imagined someone taking a squat on our toilet and finding themselves sprawled in the basement wondering what they’d eaten that day that would cause a toilet to explode through the floor.  I’ve used that facility on a number of occasions and now consider myself very lucky not to have plummeted 10 feet to an unceremonious landing and porcelain embedded in my hind end.  I’m very, very close to breaking into the uncontrolled, hysterical, laughter exhibited by Tom Hanks in the movie.

FYI, if you ever have a home improvement project that needs doing just contact Greg Hester.  The work is excellent, he and his guys are reliable, and they come through in a pinch.  If you want his number just give me a shout.