Saturday, March 21, 2015

Small and Spring-y Foyer Art

Over the holidays, I had a wreath hanging on the foyer closet door. It was my way of jazzing up the freshly painted but small and completely neutral space:

Since there isn't much of a place to hang art in the foyer, I had that wreath hanging up throughout most of January and some of February. Since it was in greens, ivory, and browns, it worked with the living living room colors and wasn't so overtly Christmas-y that I felt like it stuck out. 

But it is a winter-y looking decoration piece, and I liked the idea of something hanging on that door year around, but I wasn't sure what to move on to. I am not any more a fan of neon-bright polka-dotty easter-bunny sicky-sweet spring seasonal stuff as I am of gobs-of-glitter Christmas stuff. 

Spring to me is the time I walk around the yard and notice tiny details I'll miss when the world is all green, everywhere. Buds swelling along a dry branch. A tiny spear of green sticking out of gray earth. The first day the bees are out, slow but warming their wings in the sun. 

I'd recently gotten a vintage postcard that looks like the way I felt about early spring, and with the subtle colors of the season. I stuck it in an inexpensive frame, backed with scrapbook paper, and put it on the door with mounting strips. 

Honestly, I think it's a little too small for the door, but it's okay for now. If it's only sticking around seasonally, I can live with a bit of a proportion problem. I love the grays and green-y golds.

Early spring also means indoor work around here, and I'll have some updates about various things soon. What's up in your household and yard this season? 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

I Surprise Myself When I Buy Furniture

Apparently, I am incapable of knowing my own mind when it comes to furniture. Because I often end a long period of careful research and total agony by purchasing items that are the exact opposite of what I thought I wanted.

When I recently bought dressers for my bedroom, I had planned for close to a year to buy new, dark, modern-style dressers from Ikea.

I ended up with vintage mid-century blonde wood dressers. And I love them.

By the time I'd decided that this sentimental but ugly little piece was not returning to my living room (which I wrote about here), I'd already done some considerable thinking about what I'd want in an armchair.

My house was built in 1939, I like mid-century style furniture, and I like a lot of retro-style home decor in general; but I'm not slavishly attached to any one era, nor do I want everything to be all one style. You may politely call this eclectic or more accurately call this confused, but as far as decor styles go, I have big commitment problems.

I know that I am not afraid of color. Builder's beige and white walls has never been my thing. I want it to look like I, personally, live in my house.

This was sort of a big deal. The chair was going to be a new furniture purchase, in fact the first significant one since I bought this house four years ago. A lot of that was driven by budget and some by taste, but either way, I wanted to make sure it was the right thing. Buyer's regret on furniture can be a lot like a Vegas marriage. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now you're stuck living with something that only looked good under the showy lights.

I took a good long look at a lot of chairs like this one from Thrive. I heart this chair pretty hard:

Image Source: Thrive

That suits a more 1950s through 1960s vibe, and I like the simple lines. Since my house touches on the 1930s Colonial Revival period, I also considered something along the lines of a more traditional channel-back armchair, like this one featured on Houzz:

I felt very "meh" about the channel-back armchair direction. "Meh" isn't a good enough justification to spend money. And several months looking and thinking online didn't get me to pull the trigger mail-ordering a chair from Thrive. If you're going to invite a piece of furniture to stay in your living room for the better part of a decade or more, you sorta want to meet it at least once before it comes home with you.

I'm glad I did. When I went shopping, I was surprised by the mid-century style chairs. That big boxy mod style is quite popular right now, finally making it a buyer's paradise for people who've loved it all along. But they are deep, front to back. Really deep. Really, REALLY deep. I'm a taller woman, 5'8", and my feet didn't touch the floor when my lower back was comfortably against the back cushions. It felt weird, and I found myself butt-scooting all over the chair, trying to find a comfortable place. They are also very wide. Very, very wide. Which in my narrow living room was going to be a problem.

That can be a problem, though, with almost all styles of chairs. Modern furniture is often too massive and out-of-scale in older, smaller homes.

I looked at a lot of vibrantly colored chairs. My sofa is deep brown, so I knew I wanted a counter-point to all that darkness. But each one seemed a little too....too. Too graphic. Too loud. Too trendy. Too not-the-quite-right-shade of whatever. It was getting pretty Goldilocks up in that furniture store.

This oatmeal tweed chair was my final choice. I am happy with it, but I am surprised, as usual, that I am. Because it totally was not what I thought I wanted.

Initially, I was worried that I was buying the arm chair equivalent of a boob light. Bland. Builder's grade. Typical. Beige. Unremarkable.

But I like the simple lines. I like the toasty, tweedy, almost sweater-like look to it. It fits the space. I like that it plays the low-key tailored gentleman to my much-loved strong greens and wilder rug, and yet still is a good contrast to my dark, dark sofa.

I'm okay with it being a safer choice. Considering the investment and the amount of time I'll have it, I can take bigger risks with paint, drapes, pillows, and other less expensive items.

It partners well with my vintage ottoman, which is a just-right size for my living room.

And though it's not something you can see in photos, it's a comfy yet rather firm chair. My sofa is a little squishy, and I like having a mix of seating in one room. That way everyone can be comfortable.

Here is the entire east end of the living room. I'm looking forward now to painting and getting some drapes on the windows.

Have you ever suprised yourself with your home decor decisions? Did you regret it, or did you love it?

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Why I Don't Keep Reading Logs for My Kids' School

For the last several years, I 've done what many would label bad parenting: I don't do reading logs. I will not keep records of what my kids read, for how long, for how many pages, daily. My kids may bring them home from class, but they remain blank. 

I didn't forget, and I didn't get too busy (though I am, also, too busy). I made a conscious decision to ignore them. 

This does seem, on the face of it, pretty stupid. As a writer, lover of books and all things literary, and as an embracer of the whole wide world that is open to people through education, I am crazy about reading. I have a book storage problem. I have a magazine hoarding problem. I have a spend-too-much-time-on-the-internet-reading-blogs problem.

I'm also a firm supporter of public schools. My kids go to one where the principal and teachers are excellent, care deeply, work hard, and are excited about students' academic growth. My children are very lucky to be getting their education there. And if it needs to be said, I say specifically: this decision is not a criticism or disrespect of any teacher. 

But reading logs? No, thank you. I know teachers mean well. Reading logs don't work for our family. 

It took me awhile to get to this state of rebellion. My decision ended up hinging on six factors: 

1. It actually makes my children read less. 

Having a minutes-per-day reading goal makes my children read less overall than if they were not being timed. Instead of it being the minimum, they start watching the clock... and it becomes the maximum. It discourages me completely to see my boys dutifully flip pages with only half their minds on the story, slam the book shut, toss it aside, announce "done!" and run off. Compared to unstructured evenings and weekends where they spend an hour or more reading, tracking their minutes was reducing progress, not creating it. 

2. It emphasizes quantity over quality. 

Which conversation would I rather have with my child about their reading? 

"Hey, you read 35 minutes today! Good job!" 


"What did you think of a kid your age living alone in the woods like in My Side of the Mountain? Do you think you'd be scared or would you like it? Would you like a falcon as a pet, or would you choose something else?" 

For me, that choice is obvious and easy. 

3. It doesn't encourage intellectual risk-taking. 

When my oldest child was in first grade, his teacher held a competition to see how many books each child could read in a month. The winner (whose parents were likely brilliant strategists) read a lot of board books with few pages, simple things clearly below a first-grader's actual reading level, so he could get as many titles crowded onto his list as possible. My son read E.B. White's Stuart Little (his mom's lack of competitiveness is notable). It was a big challenge for him even as an advanced first-grade reader, and a much longer book than he had ever read. He wanted to read this rather than easier stuff. And his list of books for that month was also otherwise on his reading level or above. When children are tasked with maintaining an arbitrary minimum or obtaining a maximum amount of material read, they will dumb down their book choices to meet it. This is simply wrong.

4. It demoralizes struggling readers.

It might appear that I'm coming to this decision as a parent who has high-achieving, advanced readers. "Your kids already read a lot anyway, so it's easy for you to skip a log," one might say. But I also have learning-delayed children in my family, and reading is a skill that has been gained for them with a lot of very hard work. I don't take that lightly. To focus so much on the amount of time they read that they define their progress as "I only read ten pages that time" or "I only finished one book in three weeks" makes them feel worse, not better, about their accomplishments. I want them to focus on what they have read, how much they understand what they read, and whether they enjoyed it. I don't care how long it took them, and I don't want them to care either. It's an inappropriate focus for academically challenged kids.

5. It hijacks family time. 

Every day at 5 p.m., I feel like a starting gun goes off. I have to race home from work, prepare supper, clean up afterwards, supervise homework and music practice for three children, and make sure the little boys get through the shower with actual shampoo and soap in use. Two nights a week there are music lessons. There always seems to be a list of random things too; this kid needs an empty shoebox, and this one needs to go collect some leaves, and this one needs his viola tuned. We have to get it all in before the twins' bedtime, which is 8:30 on school nights. That's not a lot of time. And I don't have a partner (or staff) to help me. Somewhere in the balance of making sure the children get the important parts done, that we get a decent meal with interactions as a family, and that the younguns get enough sleep, something has to give. Reading logs are one of the things I chose to give up. We do read every weeknight before bed. On music lesson nights it's just a few minutes. On rainy weekends it may be for hours. I don't keep track. I have better things to do with that precious 3.5 hours between the end of the work day and bedtime. 

6. It doesn't allow children to have their own intellectual life. 

So much of children's lives these days--in school and out--is observed, supervised, scrutinized, evaluated, and judged. As a person who grew up mostly during the 1970's as a free-range kid, I find that the worst thing about our current parenting ethos. That applies especially to reading. When I was a child I read widely and wildly, with no parent or teacher involved. I read backs of cereal boxes, horsekeeping manuals, Judy Blume novels, Fantastic Four comic books, and the ancient back-issues of New Yorker magazine piled in the musty periodical room of my hometown library. Some of it was age appropriate. Some of it wasn't. Some of it was literature. Some of it was utter trash. And you know what? I think I turned out okay. Better than okay. I think sometimes grown-ups make the well-meaning but wrong assumption that every single thing children learn has to be taught to them. But that isn't true: a lot of it is discovered, and that can't happen if we don't leave children to their own devices long enough for it to happen. I want more than anything to give them that time. 

[Note: because I've had good response over the last couple of years with blog posts that were about family life rather than home improvement, like this post, and this one, I'll be experimenting a little more with them this year. This one was a soapbox piece that's been brewing a long time, but I plan to explore other subjects as well. Comments are welcome, both on the topic of this post and on the decision to expand this category on the blog.]

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Wrapping Up More Home Organization

I think of myself as an artistic sort of person. Most of the time when I say that, I mean writing; but I dabble in other things. I sew, cook, enjoy garden design, and other things people would consider to be artistic in one sense or another. Or at least crafty.

Which is why this truth about me makes me cranky:

I cannot wrap gifts.

There, I said it. I'm pretty clumsy at it, and packages from me look like they may have been scotch-taped together by a drunk raccoon. All my crafty efforts in other areas seem to make no difference when I'm confronted by a roll of paper and a gift box. It makes me highly, childishly irritable.

Over time, it's dawned on me that part of my problem with gift-wrapping is that it was such a big production in this house. I had two places where I stored some of the supplies. Tissue paper was scattered in multiple places too. And then I had to run down the tape and scissors from wherever the kids had squirreled it away.

By the time I got to the actual wrapping, I was already annoyed. Not a good way to go into anything crafty, or what's supposed to be an act of generosity. So it made sense to have a dedicated place to do this: a gift-wrapping center.

I actually resisted that idea for a long time. Because gift-wrapping centers smack of all the things I dislike about the Land of Lifestyle Magazine Make-believe-- that everyone's got loads of space in a blank slate of a suburban house and all the money in the world to customize it for a single-purpose use. And all the stuff on the shelves is color-coordinated with everything else and the room itself.

I am not saying that I wasn't attracted to the idea of that. This layout from Country Living is relatively simple and sweet and entirely doable:

Photo Source: County Living
But even doing something like that added a lot of time, effort, and costs to a household that already has several projects ahead of it in priority.

I did decide that finding a dedicated space for gift-wrapping was worthwhile. It just wasn't going to be beautiful.

This was a few hours of effort, with mostly existing stuff, in the corner of the furnace room in the basement. The table is a surplused metal lab/study table from the local university that I moved from another area. The shelves and pegboard were already hanging there. The boxes and basket I already owned, and they hold bows and gift tags.

I purchased the dish organizer on the shelf to hold folded gift bags, and I bought the small metal trash cans to hold the giftwrap. Um, about that. I have an embarrassing amount of giftwrap, I know. I am of the opinion that about 5 rolls at a time are plenty. But my mom gave me her stash, and I got carried away at a sale, and here I am with two buckets of gift wrap. On the upside I should be good for giftwrap for the next 5 years, and I hope to empty out one of those cans for another use down the road.

The window a/c units under the table, which I use in the upstairs bedroom windows during the summer, were already there and I didn't have the gumption to move them just for this picture. They'll be stored elsewhere next season, and I might hang some curtains under the table to store extra shipping boxes out of sight. I also haven't really done anything with the pegboard, but that can also come at a later time.

One other small expenditure: this tape dispenser.

It's a double dispenser, with a small reel for adhesive tape and a larger one for box tape. It has a cubby for scissors and pens. It's also hard to walk off with.

I need to stock up on tape and fill the dispenser, and I'll be ready to go the for the next round of birthdays, or Christmas. I cannot promise that my gifts won't still be looking drunk-raccoon-esque, but at least getting the job done will be less of an ordeal.

As a bonus, the area is not completely dedicated to gift wrapping alone; it will be multi-tasking, and soon. But that is another blog post.

What organizing projects are you up to in your home? What's working for you?