Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas 2014: The Small Details of Joy

This has been the Christmas of small details.

In the last few years I've decided that not only can I not do everything over the holidays, I really don't want to. And that's okay. In fact, once I decided it was okay, it became better than okay, and I've regained what I thought I'd given up. More, even.

Last year I blogged about some of the hows of that decision in this post, and those are still my guiding principles for keeping our Christmas to the scale of what's comfortable for us.

But this year I seemed to narrow my focus even further. And you know what? It turned out great.

With three growing hungry boys in the house and a college student returning from a semester of indifferent dorm food, meals were important this holiday. I baked dozens of cookies. We had homemade toast and cinnamon rolls for Christmas brunch. I made pies, dinner rolls,  and noodles, and I put a lot of thought into good coffees and wines.  There seemed to be flour in the air and sprinkles on the floor all. the. time. We've had a lot of great meals this holiday. Not just for what got put on the table, but for what we talked about around it-- snow and Batman and Revolutionary War generals and the Detroit Lions and balancing redox equations. And fart jokes, yes.

We put up the tree, and decorated a bit here and there, but we didn't sweat it much. We did, however, put earrings (antler-rings?) on Bob. We thought he looked especially festive:

Every year, I get each of the boys an ornament for the tree. Sometimes I make them, sometimes I buy them, but this year I concentrated on making sure each one was thought-out and personal, either way.

Grant is off to college these days and in the process of launching himself in adult life. His ornament was this little laser-carved house (World Market). I want him to know that wherever life takes him, he'll always have a home here too.

Noah, my guitarist, got the laser-etched Strat to hang on the tree. It's from Etsy seller Miller Custom Solutions (link here).

Ben's ornament took the longest to make, but mostly because I was assembling it out of several things: a small picture frame, spray paint, old sheet music, and hand lettering.

Ben plays the viola, and music for that instrument is in the alto clef. It turns out that it is one of the only instruments for which music is written in the alto clef, so I wanted him to have something that symbolized the uniqueness of his musical endeavors. Also? No alto clef stuff to be had out there in retail.

And Joe is passionate about pears. They are his favorite fruit, and he averages at least one daily. So I made one for him out of wool felt (plus a little "test pear," to make sure I was making it the way I wanted. I made a few changes on the final version).

The little blackbird was a gift for a friend. Here it is finished:

Some years, I also get an ornament for myself. Having four sons, my Christmas tree is a whole lot of trains, bears, fish, and other masculine stuff. Sometimes I want something overtly feminine, just for me. This year it was a wool ornament from the Purple Pincushion (Facebook page here) I think I fell in love with the vintage button: 

If it sounds a little like all I did this Christmas was roll out dough and either shop for or craft ornaments, well--- yes. It was all I really focused on. Sure, other things happened, like Christmas Eve candlelight service and gifts under the tree and some other stuff. But the house wasn't all that clean and the kids wore jeans to church and there weren't any lights on the roofline and there was even a box of something, I don't remember what, that didn't get unpacked and strewn around. The Christmas cards will be late.

It didn't matter. In fact, I think it improved the overall success of the holidays. We were well fed. More importantly for me, my sons each received a small gift to show how well they're understood and appreciated. 

I don't think I really could ask anything more out of our holiday together. 

Merry Christmas to all of you! 

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Mid-century Modern Dressers Poorly Timed (but still awesome)

I had it all in my head how it was going to work out. And then these dressers happened.

In 2014, my bedroom was supposed to be one of my remodeling goals for this house. But it's ended up being the unloved step-child of the entire year, with work in this room ending up last on the list of everything else going on.

Not because I don't want a nice grown-up lady refuge from the rest of the world, and there HAS been some progress I haven't blogged about yet. But that's where I need to sleep, there are often socks and running pants piled on the floor, and the lighting is bad for pictures.....

How it looked at the beginning of the year:

And the alcove now stenciled: 

In the meantime, I'd been living out of these two dressers, one from my mother's childhood bedroom, and the small one a curb find from a few years ago:

This was not ideal, and in real not-pretty non-blog life I was frequently piling stacks of folded clothing on top of both of them, or in laundry baskets strewn about the room. To say it tended to exacerbate my already slob-like tendencies about laundry is an understatement. 

But I had an order-of-work plan that didn't include buying new dressers until the room itself was further along-- that last wall drywalled, the plaster work finished, the rest of the floor painted and stenciled. That was the point at which it would seem the right time to get new and better furniture up there. 

I even had some picked out. On the budget plan, I'd decided to get some combination of Ikea Malm dressers: 

Ikea Malm Dresser (Source)

It seemed perfect for the dark woods and reds/grays/metallics I'd been using or plan to use in this room, and with good looks for a reasonable price. But I was waiting to purchase them when the room was ready, and when I'd have the time to not only make the trip to Ikea (there isn't a store in Iowa, which means driving to Kansas City or Minneapolis), but also to put them together once I got them home. 

Then I saw something in a furniture consignment store in the complete and opposite direction, and it changed everything. Including my so-called order-of-work plan. 

It was a second-hand dresser and chest of drawers, blonde wood, mid-century modern, and not what I was thinking of at all. It was exactly what I didn't know I was looking for. AND less expensive than the Ikea option. And better quality. And completely at the wrong time. Not only for the fact that I wasn't where I wanted to be on the room, but also because it was Thanksgiving week, and I had a house full of guests. 

I bought them anyway. Because duh. 

The chest of drawers features a shallow "handkerchief" drawer at the top, and the next one down is a divided drawer in three parts. My undies, hosiery, and bras have never felt so...orderly. 

The dresser has six gloriously just-the-right size drawers. 

The hardware, though a little worn, is still original. I had to vacuum glitter out of the bottom drawers, and eradicate some "old lady smell" with Murphy's Oil Soap. But that. was. all. That's been the glory of this situation in many ways-- not having to do an extensive rehab on an inexpensive but neglected second-hand piece, or getting the Ikea-induced migraine of assemble-it-yourself new furniture. 

I didn't realize how badly I needed more clothing storage until these two babes came into my life. Now I've moved on from my shuffling parade of laundry baskets. The largest of the two old dressers went into my twins' closet as off-season clothing storage, another badly needed improvement. The smaller chest may be re-purposed for another use, but I haven't decided yet. 

Of course, the the two new dressers will have to slum in their new environment for awhile, but their appearance motivates me to put the bedroom back at the top of the list in priorities for the new year. Sometimes poor timing is actually the shake-up one needs, and I'm going to take these pieces of furniture as just that. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Completely Non-Christmasy Update: Painting

Uh, hi. Been awhile, hasn't it?

Sorry about that.

After I painted my foyer, I had my sister and her clan here for the week of Thanksgiving, and that also included a guest dog, my oldest son home from college, and some drop-in visits by cousins.

It was busy, crowded, and noisy, there were lots of shoes piled near the front door, and great big pans of food on the kitchen stove. My coffee pot was in use non-stop and truth be told, my wine corkscrew was too. Meaning the whole thing was pretty dang near perfect as holidays go.

But with all my October travel and November company, I didn't really wrap up the exterior painting season on the blog.

And that's because with all my October travel and November company, I didn't really wrap up the exterior painting season in real life, either.

I left the south side looking almost exactly like it did in the spring:

But partly because I decided I wanted to concentrate on areas of the house I saw when I looked out the windows, like the patio area: 

And the front of the garage: 

The summer, between work, kids' schedules, and rain, didn't allow for much else. In a fit of frustration I slapped some paint on the screen porch: 

And I spent much of the rest of the time reglazing windows, a job that while necessary, wasn't a big show-boat noticeable improvement. 

I also had a handyman spend a day patching a rotten area of siding and a dry-rotted windowsill:

Progress, as I've said before, is progress. And writing this blog post is as much an exercise in realizing that as sharing with readers. During the summer I was too frustrated with the pace and weather delays to feel like ANYTHING was happening. Now I feel pretty good about it, and when April comes I'll be ready to start in again. 

For now though, I'm happy to just contemplate the idea from the comfort of my sofa. 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Pre-Thanksgiving Foyer Revamp

You know how sometimes you get it into your head that you'll do "just one quick project" before a major holiday, because you want the house to look nice and you think an arbitrary deadline will help you get it done?

Yeah. About that.

I did that. With my foyer. Now, honestly, it was easy to make the mental leap here. I don't have any grand entrance, no two-story lofted ceiling, no chandelier, no staircase. My foyer is barely 4 feet by 5.5 feet, and a small closet is exactly opposite the front door. On either side it opens into the living room, or into our front room (the office). This is no place for square-dancing.

Just like people are glib about bathrooms, I was glib about this foyer. That was two weekends ago. And I'm not even technically "done," I just completed a list of short-term goals.

The woodwork and doors were tired and scuffed, the paint was fleshy beige on both the walls and the trim, and there were even faint drippy stains leftover from a catastrophic coffee travel mug bomb that got dropped on the floor last winter. The whole thing was getting me down. I didn't even take before pictures. So just imagine something in your mind of that sort of tired, scuffed and grubby state that highly trafficked areas get, and sigh heavily. I did.

I decided that the color going on my front door outside could come inside, too. I like how it's setting off all the apple greens and browns in my living room. It's a Valspar paint color called Cinnamon Cake, but done in Sherwin Williams exterior grade satin gloss. It's a bit more subdued and spicy looking in person than is showing in the photo.

The paint on the walls is Valspar's Oatbran, which is a beige that is taupey-gray enough to avoid any pinkish overtones. Super important when you're going with an orange door.

You can also see my vintage foyer light, original to the house, in the upper corner of the photo. You know what also revamps a foyer? Cleaning about 18 billion dead gnats out of the light shade. Who knew?

After having the paint and woodwork painted the exact same color (and a color I didn't like) it's been a pleasure to see the contrast of freshly painted white woodwork with the burnt orange and oatbran colors. And I hung a wreath from Target on the door. Just a wee tiny bit of early holiday decorating. I'm usually pretty strict about that sort of thing, but this seemed more "winter" than "Christmas" to me.

It doesn't solve all the obvious problems in this tiny room. The hardware on both doors needs either refinishing (closet door) or replacing (front door). The torn vinyl is still there, though it's under a new and bigger (though still not big enough) rug.

I'm glad I decided to go bold with the front door, instead of just going with white. I find myself sitting on my sofa with my mug of coffee, staring at my pumpkin pie door. It's just the right color for entertaining guests over Thanksgiving, and they'll be here soon--my sister and her family.

They'll be just in time for my other company's-coming crazy-in-the-head behavior, which is trying a recipe I've never tried before. When will I learn? Probably never. But in the meantime, here's to fresh paint on the walls!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Battlefield and Homestead: October Trip

In my last blog post I mentioned that instead of confronting the end of the outdoor/exterior house work season head-on, I put my paintbrushes down and left town.

That I did. Twice. I was feeling restless and burnt out, and even though my time was running out, I knew things weren't going to go well if I kept plugging away at it without a break. The book festival weekend wasn't quite enough for me, so I also headed south to my Dad's house in Missouri to get some fall hiking in, and to honor an anniversary of sorts. My sister Dyan met us there so we could all get some family time in.

Last year, we'd run an inaugural 5-mile race hosted by Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, in Republic, Missouri. We were so proud to do it together. And finish!

On the one-year anniversary we returned, to do some hiking and appreciate the history of this place. It saw the first Civil War fighting west of the Mississippi, and the death during combat of the first Union general, Brigadier General Nathaniel Lyon. I even wore the same shoes:

Dyan, Dad and I have developed the tradition of always bringing my Grandad's (my Dad's father, who passed away in 1996) favorite candies on our hiking expeditions. These are the Official Walter Millsaps Memorial Chick O' Sticks: 

The battlefield is a quiet place, beautiful in autumn. It's hard to believe that 535 men gave their lives here over 150 years ago. And that the Ray family, whose farm is pictured below, turned their home into a field hospital to tend to the wounded and dying.

Another day, we visited the Nathan Boone Homestead, a Missouri State Historic Site. Nathaniel was the youngest son of Daniel Boone, and the cabin and barn are preserved in an attempt to give visitors an idea what life was like when Missouri was a frontier state in the 1830s. Every year, they have a festival encampment, which includes 19th century re-enactors dressed as frontiersman, tradesmen, and soldiers, and craft demonstrations.

For some reason I've always been fascinated by stone chimneys, and Nathan Boone Homestead's are beautiful. 

I loved the underside of the porch awning, as well. 

The beautiful frontier garden was wrapped up for the year: 

The long weekend also featured a fish-fry with okra and hush puppies, large mugs of coffee, reclining deep into the cushions of my dad's big leather sofa, and watching a John Wayne movie. In other words, it was nearly perfect.

Both trips were mental health imperatives. Now that my soul's been fed and my travel itch scratched, I'm beginning to take up some small indoor projects in advance of the holidays. I'll be back with a few of them soon!

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fall Road Trip: Book Festival

All the film noir criminals know their stuff. When the situation gets hairy, you leave town. So when I was up to my armpits in dry-rotted siding and paint cans and totally behind schedule in everything, I decided the solution was a road trip. Actually, two.

The first one was to reward myself for a long-standing romance I'd been working on mending this year. I'd fallen out of love-- with books.

That situation hardly seemed probable. I was the child who fell out of trees (fortunately not far, though this may explain a few things), because she was too distracted with the ratty paperback in her hand to keep her feet braced on the right branch. It was how I passed long hot summers and snowy winters and awkward adolescence (thankfully only one of those) and ungainly pregnancies.

But I used to work as a newspaper writer, and I'll just say it plain: journalism makes you stupid. It can be an honorable profession at its best. But at its worst, it strips away everything but the now and the next deadline, the context, the background, the poetry of words, and eventually, your attention span. By the time I left the job two and a half years ago, I had the concentration of a fruit fly. I had trouble making it through a magazine article, let alone an entire book. Always having child-rearing and home improvement responsibilities piled up around me made it even worse.

This year I decided to work on that, with the idea I'd reward myself somehow if I got through more than one book. It wasn't easy at first. I felt like my brain was broken. Which turned out to be true in a way-- the internet has rewired our minds, studies say. I got through five, plus a book of poetry. It felt gooooood. Like getting reacquainted with an old lover--slowly, over many glasses of wine, and with flushes of fresh pleasure over old stories.

I rewarded myself with a weekend overnight in early October at the Iowa Book Festival, in Iowa City (which is a UNESCO City of Literature). It's not that far from me, but I decided to get a hotel room and just throw myself headlong into author readings, literary panel discussions, coffee shops, and bookstore browsing. Even the nearby interstate rest stop celebrates the city and state's literary heritage:

It was marvelous. And because I hadn't done so in a really, really, really long time, I allowed myself to spend money on books. A drug habit may have been cheaper, but I'm not sorry. I went to Prairie Lights, a bookstore that should be on every book lover's pilgrimage list. It's small, but densely packed. And who can't love a bookstore with categories like this?

It was a quick weekend, but memorable for all its fine moments. I got to listen to one of my favorite authors, Marilynne Robinson, discuss her new novel "Lila." I revisited my college love of literature class in a panel discussion about Irish American writers. I ran into an author in the elevator of my hotel. It felt like meeting a rock star, and I was about as awkward and tongue-tied. I even had enough time to connect with an old friend and meet his family.

My purchases were typical of my usual stack-of-book binges: backwards and forwards in time, always one large, wonky history book with lots of footnotes, a classic I haven't read yet, something new I picked up on a whim, gift books for my dad and sister.

It was a too-short, coffee-fueled, splurgy weekend that I spent mostly inside of my head, pushing my glasses up my nose while I listened, read, and scribbled notes. It was just what I needed after a summer of the messily physical. And the old romance and I are doing just fine, too. 


The Book List That Got Me Back on the Road
1. Looking After Minidoka; An American Memoir, by Neil Nakadate
2. The Prince of Frogtown, by Rick Bragg
3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
4. The Ascent of George Washington, by John Ferling
5. The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
6. The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats

The Book Festival List (Those with an asterisk were featured authors at the festival. The rest were random purchases from browsing the bookstores.)
1. Lila, by Marilynne Robinson *
2. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, by Ayana Mathis *
3. A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James *
4. Love Medicine, by Louise Erdrich
5. Bearwallow, by Jeremy B. Jones
6. The Plantagenets, by Dan Jones

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Making Progress With A New Paint Primer

I left the south side of my house only done half-way last fall, and it's looking like the peeling gable may get left again this fall. Why? I'm a big chicken-headed coward about heights. The ladder scaffold system I used on the front part of the house, now on the south side, has freaked me completely out this time. I didn't understand why my entire being kept saying "nope. NOPE. No way" when I'd sucessfully navigated it last summer. But the elevation on this side is another two feet higher, and on concrete instead of earth. And it all adds up to me being so incredibly nervous that I decided it was a bad, bad, bad idea. I'll be taking it down to work off a single ladder instead. I'll make slower progress, but feel a little less wobbly about being up there. 

In the meantime (I have to round up helpers to take down the scaffold. It's too heavy for me to manuever the parts alone), I've been making progress on.....the garage. The front of it faces the street, and in turn the kitchen sink window faces it, so it's a matter of making the house look better, and my view better too. 

My garage siding is different than the house. It's dutch lap siding, meaning a wide curved groove at the top of each lap. The paint is in even more miserable shape than the house. 

While a ton of paint came right off, the surface was really patchy, and I had no time and no plan to go down to bare wood everywhere. It just wasn't worth the effort on a secondary structure. That said, I didn't want to paint and have it all come back up again after three seasons. As much time as this nearly overwhelming project is taking me, the thought of that happening is nightmarish. 

Sherwin Williams makes a product called PrimeRx Peel Bonding Primer, which according to my internet research was a new product in their line of primers in 2013 (Just a note: I wasn't solicited by SW to write this post, and I paid for my own materials. My opinions are purely my own). At $47 per gallon is isn't cheap, but I had a 30 percent off coupon and a willingness to see if this couldn't help because with old houses, peeling paint isn't just a little patchy thing here and there. It can be the entire project. 

That said, I don't think it was meant to be slapped on without any prep. I scraped away every last bit of loose paint I could, than then sanded with 80-grit sandpaper to get off any stubborn small bits and to smooth the edges of paint patches. Below is a look at the siding before it started going on. The greenish-tan stuff on the two siding courses in the middle of the photo are wood grain filler I'd used to even out some pretty rough boards. 

I suspect the SW people wouldn't take kindly to me comparing their formula to school glue, or decoupage medium, but that is what the product is like. It is thick, a little viscous, and goes on milky white. It dries clear. It is a little smelly, and I'm glad I was outdoors for this. I understand that it can be tinted so you can see where you've been, and if it performs well I may do that next time. It helped in some places to work the primer into the surface with a little stippling effect. 

If the prep was done right, the product should work to seal the edges of paint patches to prevent them from lifting. Reading a few reviews on line it seems that some users thought that this product would function as a leveling product; it doesn't really do that and if you expect a perfectly smooth board prepare to be disappointed. That said, it did a remarkable job evening out a horribly rough surface. 

Here's what the surface looked like when painted: 

You can still see the unevenness of the paint surface, but it's pretty subdued. I can definitely live with this on my garage, and I think it's a quality-looking result for the house too. I plan to try this product on my peeling south side of the house as well. Only time will tell on duration, but so far I'm impressed. 

Here's my before/after corner of the garage, with the front face done on the left (and before I had time to sweep up), and the north-facing side undone on the right (and with a mass of weeds instead of a garden bed). The planter box you see is built of old barn boards from a farm my mother used to live on. One of my next projects will be replacing the side-entry door, which is currently a plywood veneer hollow-core interior closet door (insert massive eye-roll of disgust here). 

Next weekend calls for mostly clear skies and crisp days, perfect for painting. We'll see how much I can get done at the finish of the season. Deadlines are motivating, aren't they? 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Knowing My Limits

I've made some noise lately about preferring real blogs rather than ones where everything is relentlessly and perfectly staged. So in the interest of embracing that philosophy I'd like to disclose:

1. There was a pair of jockey shorts on my living room coffee table all week. Clean, yes (and thankfully), but nevertheless--underpants.

2. My children's diet has lately been a modern American nightmare of breaded frozen meat things, processed cheese food, and canned soup.

3. I still don't have any decent photos for a blog post.

Despite the fact I was on total overload in several areas of my life, instead of being a grown-up-type woman about it I decided to leave town. Twice. While I'll blog about those October trips in a bit, getting away from the scene of the crime (and really, jockey shorts on your coffee table is sort of a crime) helped me make some sanity-saving decisions about when it's time for do-it-yourself to become don't-do-it-yourself.

My conclusions:

I am not going to deal with those #$%@-ing shutters another minute. 

Those old wood shutters that seemed so promising in the beginning:

Became this: 

I decided that while it was entirely possible to rehabilitate them, it wasn't without hours and hours of tedium (and additionally purchased tools) that added up, time-versus-money-wise, to new sets of shutters being the marginally less expensive way to go. Also? I was pretty sure this job was going to be at least infuriating and possibly soul-killing. To the curb they go. I feel better already.

Sometimes, getting out the checkbook is the right thing to do. 

Did I mention that I discovered a patch of dry-rotted siding and window sill on the northwest corner of the house this summer? Or take pictures of said dry-rot? No. Because honestly, it nauseated me to look at it. I admit I fretted around for a solid two months about what to do, until I realized that winter was coming, and I just couldn't take it on. I didn't have the tools, the time, or the expertise. More importantly, I didn't want to do it. I found a handyman that showed up, patched the siding, did a good job for a fair price, finished in a short day, put up my new storm windows on the front of the house too, and took a load of worry off my mind.

I'll be following up with a little caulk and paint, but I can do that part. The sense of relief on the rest was worth every penny. I'm also hiring out the sliding glass door replacement, and maybe even some of the house painting next summer.

I need to run the house, not the other way around.

I've posted about home improvement/family life balance many times before, and I am still struggling to make it work the right way. I made some good decisions in that regard so far this year, but they still felt more like random (and desperate) concessions than a well-thought-out plan. I'd like to get away from feeling like I'm alternating between scrambling around like a lunatic with a paint scraper or completely ignoring an enormous pile of work. Another problem? Home improvement has completely overtaken housekeeping, and it shows (please refer to aforementioned jockey shorts). A little more sleep might be nice, too. So once the exterior work season has wrapped up for the year, I'm going to take the extra free time to right the household and re-examine my strategies. I might even get the laundry off the coffee table.