Home improvement: One change begets others


A new fence and weed removal provide a promising start.

In the beginning there was a mess.

In the beginning there was a mess.











I could have squandered a lot of time at Home Depot the other morning trying to figure out which of the various types of ready-mix concrete was best for my latest yard project. How much difference could there be between concrete meant for fence posts and concrete for driveway slabs?

If I were building a house foundation, maybe I would have rounded up a clerk to give me a lesson on the properties of concrete. I was planning to put concrete in a dirt hole to support a post for a clothesline that my wife, Carol, assured me would save us money on utilities and be environmentally friendly.

Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled at the request for a clothesline because I had an emerging vision of how to beautify the project area — a narrow 50-foot long strip between the house and the neighbor’s driveway. This area had received little attention over the years. The 30-year-old sagging fence was largely supported by the stumps of privet shrubs. A large mock orange tree blocked out sunlight into our bedrooms. Weeds failed to hide the struggling 18-year-old air conditioner.  The best that could be said for the area was that it didn’t require any watering.

I finally decided to grapple with this mess because of the primary law on home improvements: improve one area and you realize how tacky nearby things look. In this case, it’s the anticipation of getting of new windows to replace the decades-old casement windows that don’t open because they’ve been painted over repeatedly.

The prospect of new windows made me realize that I might actually open the shutters in my study to let in fresh air. That would mean looking at the mess outside. Did I want to do that for the rest of my life, or at least until moving into an assisted-living facility? No, I didn’t. And what about the aging carpet and walls pockmarked by nail holes in my study? Carol had already registered a minor complaint.

First, I repainted the study and had new carpet and floor molding installed. Then I found a colorful art-deco ceiling lamp and risked electrocution by putting it up myself. After that, I chatted with my neighbor about a new fence. He agreed to split the cost. But before that could be done, the mock orange tree had to come down and a stump grinder had to be called to remove nine privet stumps and heavy roots along the fence line.

My stepson and friend built a fine redwood fence and gate. I applied three gallons of semi-transparent gray-green stain. I consulted several of my books on Japanese gardens. A vision of beauty began to take hold. Then Carol requested a modest clothesline, even just a summer-only one. Perhaps I could install a removable post and put a hook on the gate, she suggested.

At Home Depot, I decided to waste no time figuring out which variety of concrete to buy. More important was deciding among bags weighing 50, 60 and 80 pounds. How much of a he-man dare I be at 68? Sixty-pounds bags would be just fine and could serve as my weight-lifting for the day, along with 50-pound bags of sand and a pile of bricks for a walkway I envisioned.

After that, who knows? Change one thing and get ready to tap into your savings.



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Grease your career at the downtown Kings arena

As a basketball fan, my best memories are connected to the old Madison Square Garden in New York City. The arena, seating 18,499, was filled with loud, knowledgeable fans who appreciated the subtleties of the game as well as the talents of the stars. I could get swept away by the fervor of a crowd that loved the game for its own sake – along with some bets on the side. Seeing Bill Bradley score 41 points as his Princeton Tigers almost upset a Michigan team led by Cazzie Russell in the 1964 Holiday Festival tournament was a thrill I still replay in my mind 50 years later.

Less appealing memories go back about 25 years when, on very infrequent occasions, I watched the Sacramento Kings play at Arco Arena while I was seated in a luxury suite leased by my employer, the Sacramento Bee. In that era, the Bee was riding high and liked to make its presence known at the arena. The suite provided a good opportunity to say thanks to moneyed advertisers and impress the fat cats in the community.

Executives at the newspaper also used it to reward managers and eager up-and-comers at the paper. Getting an invite to the suite was an opportunity to network and hobnob with the bosses. Advancing one’s career was the game at hand. One needed to follow the social dynamics in the suite, play the appropriate role and watch what you said and drank.

Had my social skills been sharper, I suppose I might better appreciate a new Kings arena downtown designed to appeal to the area’s business elite and wealthy individuals. The arena, being subsidized by about $300 million in public funds, will give the best seating in a lower bowl filled with luxury suites for Sacramento’s few big corporations, “loft” mini-suites for midsize professional firms and many rows of  “club seats” for those who can’t afford courtside seating prices.

In fact, the new arena, while increasing overall capacity by merely 200 seats, will more than double the number of  “premium” seats,  which will come with VIP perks and be among the most expensive tickets in the house, according to a Bee story Saturday.  The Kings want to restrict seating in order to increase pricing, ensure sellouts and pressure residents to become season ticket holders, the Bee said.

The negligible increase in seating will continue to leave the Kings with the smallest arena in the NBA, ironic given their years of whining about the need for a bigger arena.

Kings executives said their new arena won’t cater just to fat cats, the Bee said. No indeed. The hoi-polloi will get to sit in the far reaches of the upper bowl, which “will be laden with nice touches, including a bridge-like overlook that will allow fans to simultaneously watch the game while taking a peek at what’s happening outside the arena.”

Wow! If you get bored watching the lackluster Kings through binoculars, you can watch the homeless pushing their shopping carts through the downtown streets.

Meanwhile, the fat cats and privileged folks will get to schmooze with each other in their suites,  lofts and courtside seats, insulated from the dregs of society outside and the humble residents  whose tax dollars subsidize their entertainment.

What a game!

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What does draft pick say about Kings’ game plan?

Throughout the Kings’ long, abysmal past season, coach Michael Malone bemoaned the team’s lack of passing and weak defense. Although astute in his analysis, Malone seemed unable to persuade his players to do what he knew they should be doing. The team finished 28-54 for the year and racked up its eight straight losing season.

 Given that, one would think he would be eager to draft a strong point guard who is a tenacious defender. Instead, Malone publicly praised the selection last week of shooting guard Nik Stauskas in the eighth round of the NBA draft.

“Nik addresses so many things we are weak in,” Malone said in a Bee article by Ailene Voisin. “Creating plays for teammates, terrific shooting, ballhandling. He is a complete basketball player.”

Well, the 6-foot-6 Stauskas is a remarkable shooter. He averaged 17.5 points a game as a college sophomore and shot 44 percent from three-point range. He did average 3.3 assists a game but his assist to turnover ratio was a mediocre 1.7 to 1.

You might notice the absence of the word “defense” in Malone’s comment. Stauskas, who played two years for the University of Michigan, has a reputation as a weak defender. An analysis on the website Bleacher Report says:

“Defense has always been Stauskas’ chief shortcoming, and it’s a weakness that could be accentuated as he prepares to adjust to an even higher level of competition. … It will take quite an effort to get that lacking part of his game up to par with the NBA. … Although he possesses deceptive athleticism, Stauskas doesn’t have the elite physical tools to make up for lacking defensive fundamentals and technique.”

In Voisin’s story, Malone adopted a wider view of team success, pointing to the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs as a team loaded with talented, all-around ballplayers who are fundamentally sound. In this, Malone seemed to taking his cue from Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro, who said:  “For where we are, we say we like passing and shooting at every position. Playmaking and shooting. Those are skills we really value, and skills Nik has.”

The concept that seems to be emerging is that the Kings will try to get the most talented players they can and hope they have the discipline, unselfishness and team spirit to coalesce into a winner.

Why Kings’ executives would think that is mystifying. The players last season were unwilling to sacrifice their one-on-one, overdribbling style or play consistent defense despite Malone’s entreaties.  The Spurs by contrast have spent years developing their team game under the direction of 18-year coach Gregg Popovich and reliable, self-sacrificing  performers like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

What the Kings desperately need is a coach who can persuade players to do his bidding and an experienced point guard who commands enough respect from selfish players to allow him to control the flow of the action.

An exceptional shooter like Stauskas might be a crowd-pleaser, but he’s not the guy to bring DeMarcus Cousins under control or inspire his teammates with his defensive intensity. One wonders what else might be going on in the minds of the Kings’ brain trust.




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Crying foul over arena “extortion” is hypocritical

The trouble with setting a bad example is that you inspire others to follow your lead. Imitation, after all, is the sincerest form of flattery. No need to get all hypocritical when this happens.

The Kings arena boondoggle is an example of the rich, powerful and the politically connected taking what they want from the public for their own self-interest. Millionaires too smart to pay for their own project have colluded with ambitious politicians to grab $300 million or so from Sacramento residents. Knowing the public’s objection to subsidizing a sports arena, this coalition of the privileged sidestepped a public vote on the issue.

The City Council suspended competitive bidding rules to speed up arena construction and give local businesses a shot at participating. Well-connected labor unions flexed their muscles and told the Kings the $448 million project would go a lot more smoothly if union labor was used primarily. Local media led by the Sacramento Bee, eager to get a share of the spoils, gave up their watchdog role and cheered on the project.

Outsiders watching this feeding frenzy must have asked themselves: Hey, how can we get in on the action? A group of affordable housing advocates, environmentalists and homeless organizations came up with a creative idea. The Sacramento Coalition for Shared Prosperity suggested that the Kings contribute $40 million toward affordable housing projects, allow arena event tickets to double as public transportation passes and create a fund to help small businesses relocate from near the arena site if they can prove the project hurts their bottom line.

The coalition includes the Sacramento Housing Alliance, the Environmental Council of Sacramento, Loaves & Fishes and the Democratic Socialists of America, Sacramento chapter.

When the Kings took a pass on this idea, the group last Thursday went ahead with its threat to file a lawsuit filed under the California Environmental Quality Act challenging the environmental impact report approved last month by the Sacramento City Council for a new downtown Kings arena.

I was amused to see Bee columnist Marcos Breton, chief waterboy for the arena project, labeling the Sacramento Coalition’s pressure tactic as  “extortion.”  That sure wasn’t a word in his vocabulary to describe the Kings’ incessant threats to leave town unless the city forks over millions of dollars to help build them an arena. Indeed, the whole NBA business model is based on extorting money from cities eager either to hold a team they have or attract a one.

Breton is shocked – shocked – that the Sacramento Coalition is led by “people with outstretched hands in search of cash – lots of it.” Where on earth could they have gotten such an idea?  Breton must have missed all those arena millionaires and fat-cat developers extending their greedy hands.

Oh well, so much for watchdog journalism.

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Step two on window repair would have helped


A tad sloppy but it keeps out the mosquitoes.

A tad sloppy but it keeps out the mosquitoes.

Last weekend served as a good reminder that I am not a handyman. I was stymied for considerable time on a minor home repair because I wasn’t given complete instructions. Perhaps a native born Californian with fix-it genes in his blood would have figured out the solution, but I need step-by-step guidelines.

The fact that I was even doing the project was a testament to my psychological growth. For most of my adult life, I tried to avoid repairs around the house because I lack an innate talent for seeing how things work and didn’t grow up learning about tools from my father. Combine those two facts with a fear of failure and you understand why I was always quick to call for professional assistance. Why berate myself because I can’t fix a leaky toilet? There are more important things to do in life.

Around age 50, I became more self-accepting and slower to criticize myself. I came to realize that I could fix a fair number of things if I had the patience to wade through the instructions. I have quite a collection of “how-to” and “for-dummies” books. Internet videos  have been a godsend. Even so, technical writers – and hardware clerks – often omit salient details.

Example: how to cut plexiglass. I decided to make a temporary fix on a small window pane that got smashed last weekend. I figured that would take care of the problem until the replacement windows my wife and I ordered for the house come in next month. I found an 18-by-24-inch of plexiglass at the hardware store. I asked a clerk how I could cut it down to the 8-by-12-inch size I needed.

“Just use a utility knife,” he said. “We do it all the time.”

I found a utility knife in my toolbox and put in a new razor-style blade. I went to work cutting out a small pane. I cut and cut and cut, but got little more than an etched outline. At that rate, it would take hours to cut through the plexiglass. Heavy-duty scissors were no help. I tried a hacksaw – and promptly cracked the pane.

Rather than proceed with this folly, I went to my computer and found a video on how to cut plexiglass. Lo and behold, the grizzled guy pulled out a utility knife and slashed it across the sheet just as I had done. Then he lined up the slash line with the end of the table, leaving a foot-long section hanging over the edge. With a sharp whack of his hand, the expert cleanly broke off the section he wanted.

Why hadn’t the hardware clerk told me about step two? Was it that obvious? Had he led me to the water and assumed I knew how to drink?

I returned to the garage and whacked out a pane that fit the window – sort off.  The rough edges were a quarter-inch long. I tried for perfection and come up with a pane a quarter-inch too short and a bit jagged. Oh, well. All that remained was to knock out the broken glass, chip out the old putty, put in the pane and reputty.

For those of you with old homes – ours was built in 1937 – don’t try to chip out old putty. I spent 45 minutes at the chore and never got a clean frame. And yes, my impatience with the hammer led to a cracked pane above the one I was trying to replace.

Clear packaging tape covers the gaps in the plexiglass and putty covers some of the tape. From a distance – say the sidewalk — the window looks all right. It will serve its purpose for a few weeks. I’m sure the replacement-windows guys will be amused.


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