Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Taking Stock

It’s next year already. A time when people look back and take stock of what was notable in the past year, and then look ahead and make plans or ‘resolutions’ for the coming year. 2007 was a pretty big one for us. We bought a house, we went to France, I rode PBP successfully again, and then we finished up with the flood on December 4th.

Though I was able to finish Paris Brest Paris (PBP) again, it was much harder this year than in 2003. I was a little older, I was not feeling well, and the weather was a challenge, some might say miserable. It was the highlight of my riding and the culmination of several years of planning and preparation. Hard as it was, I still maintain it is the most fun you can have on a bicycle.

Our trip to France was not as enjoyable as it was 4 years ago. In part because it wasn’t so ‘new’ to us, but also we just could not afford to spend as much time there as we did in 2003. In hind sight I think that was a mistake. If I can qualify, we will go again in 2011 and perhaps I’ll plan to set aside some time for a little non-bicycle related touring. If things continue as they have, we better start saving our pennies now!

We had been planning for the last few years to buy a house. It was not an easy decision,housing prices were rising faster than we could save, I was worried that the housing bubble would burst five minutes after we bought a house. The place in Oakville had many of the things we were looking for, and a few we didn't think we would find or could afford. The rural semi-forested character was a big plus. I’ve lived in cities and in the sticks and though I am something of a chameleon I would always prefer to take on the colors of rural. The big garage/shop was also a great feature. Imagine not having to change your oil out in the street or on the lawn! We ate food grown in our own garden, and plan to have a bigger garden next year. We moved in and were settled almost immediately.

Let’s see what else took place in 2007? Oh yes, that unfortunate incident on December 4th. More about the flood later, it’s the thing that occupies me now, more than anything has for a very long time.

Looking ahead:
I was planning to ride the Rocky Mtn 1200 Randonnee in 08’. This is a 1200 Kilometer brevet through the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia. Like PBP it is held once every 4 years. I had planned to ride it in 2004 but I got lazy after PBP (post PBP syndrome?) and was in no shape to ride such a challenging course. This year I will miss it again. I figure most of my riding will be done closer to home. I’ll be dedicating more of my time and money to the house. Speaking of riding, I usually ride into the new year. I usually ride out to Boston Harbor to watch the local polar bears take their new year’s dip in Budd Inlet. It would be a pretty long ride from Centralia, and any way my bikes and riding gear are not readily available. I think Mrs. C and I will go for a walk instead.

Of course the flood has rearranged my priorities dramatically. Last fall I was thinking that 2008 would be the year I completed the landscaping out front. I had a vision of how the place would look as you drove up. I was already scheming and had consulted with an old friend who is also an architect. I think my plans were pretty solid, though maybe a little extravagant (paving stones for the drive way and walk out to the shop). I also had the idea of putting in a fire pit/picnic area out back. And maybe fixing that pesky leak under the kitchen sink. That of course is all changed now.

My hope, (I can’t say it is a resolution) is to be back in the house by April 4th. April 4th is when we moved in last year. It would be great to be able to celebrate our one year anniversary there instead of here. Of course there are the obligatory resolutions about loosing weight and finishing projects and such. But for me, a great accomplishment for 2008 would be to get moved back into our house.

We were invited to Christmas dinner at the home of a friend from the office, (remember Christmas? Seems so long ago). My immediate reaction to these invitations is always to say no, and then come up with a snappy excuse:
"We don’t observe’ dinner’. "
"Christmas? We celebrated that yesterday!"
"I’m planning to have stomach flu that day.”
"We are just having too much fun in our empty new rental house."

We went and as has happened time and again recently, dinner in the home of friends is a great relief from the cares of the day. I realized this as we were driving back to Centralia. Not only did the cold sleety night envelop us, the reality of our problem crept in like those fingers of frost that spread from the edges to the center of a cold window pane. I can handle it but like going to the dentist, I’d rather be somewhere else. I’m so happy we have memories of great times in our little house. Without those, I’m not sure I wouldn’t just walk away from this soggy mess.

News from Rocky Acres
It has been cold and wet the last week or so, sometimes I think soggy acres might be more appropriate.

At this point we are addressing multiple disparate elements of the recovery. It's not exactly like putting a puzzle together, more like working on multiple puzzles, which have to come together at points during their assembly in a certain sequence in order for each to be completed. Or maybe like conducting an orchestra, more like conducting multiple orchestras all playing different tunes, so that somehow they all finish at the same moment, hoping that in the process the noise turns into sweet music. OK, maybe I've recruited a bad metaphor. Maybe something about food, or the making of sausage; You know; something that is unpleasant, which requires faith and turns out to be something wonderful when finished.

Right now, one puzzle is the insurance company. I am reluctant to say we are arguing with them, but perhaps I need to do a better job of getting them a more accurate picture of our needs. Funny how good the relationship was when we were paying the premium, now it seems getting the money to flow the other way through the pipe is almost a challenge to the laws of physics. I may be calling on my McCubbin reserves. But here I feel a little guilty; some of the costs the adjuster allowed are generous, probably more than we will spend. And yet, most things he has costed include a deduction for depreciation. When we talked, he suggested that 5% per year for depreciation is a typical standard. When I looked at the settlement offer in more detail I found deductions for depreciation in the range of 18% to 20%. I understand the concept: The stuff being replaced isn’t new so you allow for that by introducing an element of depreciation. But come on, our house is just slightly over two years old, and neither we, nor the people we bought the house from had children living at home so, is it reasonable to deduct 20% of the replacement cost for subfloors, or insulation? I wrote him a note with my comments on the estimate. This is new territory for me so I’m happy to hear your thoughts on the matter.

Then there is our mortgage company. All insurance payments are paid to us (Mrs. C and I) AND the co-insured, our mortgage company. This is a very large, national corporation. After numerous false starts I think we have finally established a processs that we will follow to get them to sign the checks and approve expenditures for reconstruction. Getting there required Mrs. C and I to play our appropriate negotiation roles. She started on the phone and was passed off from one person to another. They all seem to have the authority to talk on the phone ... but not to make more significant decisions than whom to hand her off to next. It seems that all meaningful decisions need to be made by managers, and all managers are currently unavailable. (Shades of Catch 22, remember that book?) At a certain point Mrs. C had reached her frustration limit, and was getting lambasted by a staff person at Megacorp HQ. She’d had enough: She took me off my leash and handed me the phone. McCubbins to the front, bayonets fixed! I can be conciliatory but I had no interest in another spin on the merry go round. In short order I must have tripped some wire that got us on the track to the ‘fixer’.

The fixer had found a way to help us! First though, they would have to send us the packet of forms WE needed to complete so someone there could sign the check that I was holding, had been holding for the past three days. My days of ‘negotiating’ with angry loggers served me well. A little more ‘firm’ discussion and the fixer concluded that in this case the forms could be dispensed with and the local investment account representative standing next to me could actually sign the check so that that we could deposit it and get on with paying people who are actually doing work This of course is “highly irregular” (do they have “regular” floods?) and in the future we will have to complete the aforementioned forms and send the check back to Megacorp HQ where it will be deposited in an escrow account and disbursements will be made according to the established procedures all spelled out in the fine print of the forms. They will hire a construction analyst to inspect the work and montor progress on the place. I have no problem with that, I just want to make sure these folks stay focused on the fact that it is progress and not process that is the product. It was frustrating: That it took so much time, and so much acrimonious invective to get to the obvious conclusion. But hey, sometimes you just have to push a little harder for a little longer. Shades of randonneuring 101.

It always strikes me how people frequently vilify government as being bureaucratic and inefficient, unlike the sleek, svelte, smooth running private sector. I allow that I am a biased spectator, after all I work for the federal government, but the loan process with the SBA has been much more efficient (accurate and timely) than this business with the insurance and mortgage companies.

We are also applying to the Small Business Administration (SBA) for a loan. We turned in our loan application on Saturday December 15th. Mrs. C is the chief of the Details Directorate, and I am VP of the Big Picture Division (strategy and long term planning) here at Worldwide Codfish Enterprises Limited. According to the SBA loan staff we get high marks for our attention to detail … we occasionally get compliments on our strategic approach to problem solving. We have applied to them for a loan because we did not have coverage on our personal belongings, so all the computers, furniture, curtains, clothing, linens, outside stuff (landscaping, lighting, etc) are not covered. They too have been very efficient and responsive. The construction analyst showed up on Wednesday the 19th (four days after we turned in our application) to do an inspection. He let us know that they are graded on their timeliness as well as their accuracy. Standing in my poor, tormented home I appreciated hearing that.

FEMA is another part of the puzzle. The staff at the Disaster Assistance Center (DAC) have been great. Hard working, high skill people who are making efforts to help us to the best of their abilities. Still there are forms to be filled out and documentation needed. Because we are not impoverished we won't qulaify for much assistance but every little bit helps and though I am reluctant to admit it, we need all the help we can get.

Local Officials represent a couple more puzzles. We are working with them because we would like to raise the house (Sheila and I both agree we don't want go through this again, … ever). How are local officials involved? Well, it seems that the FEMA mitigation money goes to the State, and somewhere along the way decisions are made concerning which mitigation projects get funded. We live in Oakville, which is in Grays Harbor County, which is in Washington State, all governed by local officials.

I suspect, protecting flooded homes in Oakville may not stack up well against fixing I-5 so that it does not get closed due to flooding again. I had hopes that we could generate interest in a mitigation project that would raise homes in Oakville. But the more I learn about this the more I get the impression that if the big house at Rocky Acres is going to be raised, it will be on our dime. So, we are going through the sofa looking for all that change that has slipped between the cushions. I will still pursue meaningful mitigation efforts for our little town, it’s a nice place and we deserve to be protected from something like this in the future, but I expect that getting our house elevated will be our own project. I think financing this effort will probably come down to a combination of loans, personal savings, and borrowing against retirement. Once we get the loan offer back from SBA (any day now) we will have a better idea of what is possible. Stay tuned.

Our General Contractor is another puzzle. He's great, a local guy who built many of the homes around us and he is treating this like it's his babies that got muddied up. He’s being pretty patient with us, I’ve told him the we may be able to make out the picture on the financing puzzle either late this week or early next, and then we should be able to get on with the business of raising the house (or not) and repairing the damage. The contractor has also urged us on to the materials suppliers puzzle.

To that end, we went window shopping again (to get the cost estimate piece of the financing puzzle). We were looking primarily at flooring options, and counter tops. It’s not like the old days where you picked one slightly boring pattern of linoleum from a limited collection of slightly boring patterns and called it good. I knew this before we started, but I was not prepared for the staggering array of options. Fortunately we worked with a young fellow who had enormous knowledge and the patience required to answer all my child’s mind questions: How long will it last?, What is it made of?, What about stains?, What are the differences between this one and that one?

Did you know that you can now get carpet that is made primarily from recycled plastic containers? This stuff is not only environmentally friendly; it is more durable and less costly than some of the other, more standard products! I didn’t ask how it stood up to flooding, though the guy probably would have known; the showroom we were in had about 15 inches of water in it three weeks earlier. When we left we had armloads of linoleum, flooring laminate, carpet, and counter top laminate samples. We took all this stuff over to the house and actually tried to visualize how it was going to look. (Does this counter top, go with that flooring sample and the wall colors in here?) That kind of thing. It took a long time, but it was a pleasant diversion and again, I got to visualize our little house all dressed up and ready to show off.

Later we went and looked at furniture. That too was exhausting. We went to a couple of those giant furniture showplaces. It was approximately 8 minutes into this that my eyes glazed over. The ‘walk around and look’ technique just does not work in this environment. You really have to find someone and ask if they have any of what you are looking for. Fortunately Mrs. C and I are both attracted to Craftsman style furniture. Unfortunately, it does not seem to be very fashionable currently. I also had an epiphany: Furniture, like a hamburger and fries has really grown in the last few years. Much of what we looked at seemed huge to me, then I thought about all those 3,500 square foot houses I’ve seen springing up and it occurred to me: McFurniture for McMansions!

Frankly, I would rather be back at it with the hammer, pry bar, and wheelbarrow. But no one cares quite as much about the cost estimating, the color of the paint, the type of flooring, the counter tops, etc as us so this is our job for the time being. These days the job I come to 8 to 5 is not getting the attentio it deserves. I have not provided thehughest standards of service lately, it's hard to focus and I seem to have to work harder t get projects completed. Once we are back in the house, mowing the lawn and changing the light bulbs, then my day job will get the attention it deserves.

Through it all we have been the beneficiaries of amazing support, from friends, relatives and co-workers. I've tried to keep track and say thanks to all of the people who have helped us out. I've done a poor job of it, so if you’ve paid us a kindness or otherwise helped us out please accept our thanks.

I know this has run long but don’t think I just plopped down and banged it out. I’ve stopped at times along the way to capture a thought or two, and then today I took some time to stitch them together. So if this reads like one of those writing projects put together by many authors, just understand, I’m often a different person when I’m pecking away on this thing.

Thanks for reading. We’re hoping for a better next year ... for us and for you.

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