Small salad, hold the popcorn

An old, if not necessarily great, joke says that a Catholic priest was asked what was it like to hear confession at a convent. He sighed and replied that nuns telling their sins was like getting stoned to death with popcorn.

After a meeting yesterday with the architect during which he grilled us to make a dozen different decisions, Stew and I marveled at how complicated it is to build a house, even one as relatively small as ours. Every day it seems we get hit with a new volley of popcorn.

Not that the decisions are trivial, particularly in Mexico where the preferred construction material is concrete, even for the bases on which the kitchen cabinets rest. Make a wrong decision and you’ve got two choices: Get used to a cockeyed cabinet in an unhandy place or listen to a week’s worth of hammering and chiseling of concrete to make it right.

In our case we hedged: Our cabinets will sit on wooden bases easily redone if there is a mistake or later on we want to change the layout. The architect insisted ominously that mice might set up shop underneath. I figured our three cats didn’t have much to do.

I doubt Mexican houses are intrinsically more complicated than those in the States. On the contrary. During his years as a home inspector in Chicago Stew often saw single-family maisonettes with as many as five furnaces and/or air conditioning compressors, plus miles of wiring leading to electric entrance panels with so many breakers they start to resemble the dashboard of a 747. Some kitchens had double dishwashers, morgue-size Sub-Zero refrigerators and freezers, plus trash-mashers to deal with whatever the electric garbage disposer refused to swallow.

Our off-grid house is no simple hut lit by a kerosene lamp (if only they sold kerosene in Mexico, which for some reason they don’t). There will be a dozen photovoltaic panels sharing the roof with solar water heaters, rainwater collection tubes, and an assortment of dishes and antennas to catch Internet, TV, telephone and satellite radio signals.

And don’t forget the electric wind turbine, whirring atop a 30-ft. tower. We don’t really need it but, hey, the place is starting to look like a Radio Shack anyway so might as well go for it.

But what feeds the constant stream of questions and decisions at our house are not necessarily the gadgets, but they way houses are built in Mexico. There’s no pre-approved Master Plan that guides construction–and would free you to go on a two-month vacation–but a myriad little plans and revisions popping up along the way and calling for decisions, decisions, decisions.

It’s like eating at one of those Greek diners with a 20-page menu where the waitress can’t stop asking questions and just let you eat.

A salad?

Will it be a Grand Salad, a small Dinner Salad, a Cobb Salad or a Greek Salad? Would you like chicken with that? That’ll be $1.50 extra. Anchovies? What kind of dressing? Greek, Thousand Island or…

Two days ago we visited the architect and his assistant and sat before a computer to design our kitchen cabinetry. In the States that would mean going to a Home Depot or a kitchen cabinet store, where you’d go through a catalog of, say, Kraft Maid cabinets, and basically point. “I want that one and that one, plus the lazy Susan.” The cabinets are then ordered and pieced together in your kitchen like a jigsaw puzzle, with an occasional filler strip to cover up any boo-boos or empty spaces.

Here every piece is custom made, so you start with a blank piece of paper and after an hour or so, work up to a splitting headache. Stew, probably because he does most of the cooking, retained his interest. I just zoned out.

It’s not just a base cabinet with a drawer on top and two shelves underneath, behind a door. There are really no standard sizes or configurations, so you have to decide everything from the width and depth of the cabinet, the depth of the drawers (silverware, kitchen utensils or pots and pans?) How many shelves below? Stationary or the pull-out kind?

We were there for nearly 90 minutes and didn’t even get to the countertop material or the type of wood. The center island? Square, rectangular? Where do you want the small sink? What kind of cabinets underneath? Are the stools facing the terrace, the living room or the stove?

And after all that, we forgot to put an electric outlet in the island. Get out the chisel and hammer to bring out an electric line. But wait, the box in the ceiling now doesn’t square with the island below. More chiseling, I’m afraid, to move that sucker.

Fresh pepper for your salad?

Then come main-course decisions that somehow weren’t made when the original blueprints were drawn up.

Yesterday we had to consider a sample of the outside doors and windows. Do you like the design? Clear glass or translucent for the doors? How thick? Where does the lock go? What kind of lock? What color metal? Somebody said green. Who? What shade of green? I don’t remember. Will have to look at the Comex paint block of hundreds of paint chips and dozens of greens.

What kind of potatoes? Hash, mashed, baked or home fries? How would like the meat done?

When we get to the windows, we’ll have to decide on mechanisms, size of side panels, number of openings, kind of glass, which openings get screens.

Makes you pine for the days of Pella or Andersen windows, which went directly from the box to standard-size hole in the wall. Boring but quick and convenient.

Naturally, much of the extra work in our house is self-inflicted. We wanted “interesting,” “unique” and “personal.” And instead of dragging an extension cord to the nearest electric pole, we turned the house into a high school science experiment.

We don’t regret it, despite all the head-scratching, questions and decisions. Next week we’re supposed to pick the material for the kitchen countertops. No cement or ceramic tiles, we know that. But is it granite or Silestone? What color, shade and patterns?

And what would you like for desert, folks? Key Lime Pie, Cheesecake, Bread Pudding, Apple Pie–with ice cream?–or Tirami….?

Oh, please, just bring me the check.

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