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.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

High to Climb, Far to Fall

I don't know who said it. It may very well have been my Dad since he's got a gift for phrasing things just this way, but every time I start up a ladder I think:

"It ain't that high to climb, but it's plenty far to fall." 

I'm still mentally chewing on whether that has any greater philosophical applications, but it sure is true about how nervous I am about ladder work. I work very slowly and deliberately up there, and I don't work longer than an hour at a time without breaks.

Which is why there aren't a heck of a lot of pictures about my window-glazing work, not even quick cell phone shots.

Pictures or not, please know this: since late August, I've been in an intimate relationship with this tub of goo:

Just between you and me, I'm glad it's over. The tub is empty, I'm running out of warm weather, and I am done.

I would like to gloat, however, about how proud I am that I replaced a broken window pane all by myself. From beginning to end, that was me.

Here it is mid-situation, after I'd removed the broken pane and put in a cardboard and sheet plastic temporary filler, but before I'd put in the replacement pane (the fire rescue sticker is also gone from the window now)

I feel irrationally proud about this. Like, Freddy Mercury singing "We Are the Champions" to a sold-out Wembley Stadium proud.

The little black thing right of center on the bottom window sill of the top window is
my putty knife, which I didn't realize I'd left up there until I looked at the photo. 
It's not very exciting to look at, is it?

The windows were finished at the end of September, and the storm windows have arrived. They'll be mounted next week, and this face of the house will be done, at least as far as windows are concerned.

I'm on to seeing what I can get accomplished before it's too cold during the daylight hours to paint. Last weekend I worked on some trim:

Working toward making a little more mauve disappear:

And right now my screen porch is a makeshift priming station for siding lumber. More on that situation in a future post:

Everything is a scramble (except on the ladder, please) to make it before truly cold weather sets in, and I still haven't decided what to do about my broken sliding glass door.

It's too bad I can't fix it with another tub of goo.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

A Thank You Note to the Hive Mind

As much as we tend to joke about the "hive mind" when it comes to the internet, I've begun to take it seriously. Especially when all the while I've been absent from regular blogging, the bloggers I read regularly are all writing as if they've been inside my head the entire time I've been up a ladder (which has been a lot lately).

While I've been thinking about the dangers of perfectionism, they've been writing about it. And about comparing ourselves to impossible standards. And about all those difficult, emotional decisions we make about how we own the life we have and the place in which it unfolds.

Rita at This Sorta Old Life posted about when blogging and home ownership, both, become complicated just like any long-term relationship does, and then later about the keeping-up-with-the Jones' and self-esteem pitfalls of Pinterest. Meryl over at Picardy Project posted about finding the sometimes very fine balance between inspiration and pressure on the internet; and of course, many of us have been watching and talking about the departure of the lovely Petersiks from blogging over at Young House Love.

It's a good thing. It's like we're all having a conversation about what's valuable in our home life, in writing, and in sharing our lives with others. All of these bloggers, and I'd like to include myself in that bunch if I can, have realized that while our physical world has weight in our psyches and it's the reason we pick up those paintbrushes and power tools, so much of how we create and live in our homes is much bigger than that. It's complicated, and it's hard. And I'm so grateful to have met, through the magic of the internet, bloggers who have the courage to wrestle with that idea.

I'd also like to thank them for keeping me company in my own version of not-so-perfect reality. Over here at On the Doorstep, my version of "real" hasn't been all that pretty, completely lacking in crisp chevron stripes or trendy brass accents, and even, really, pictures. It's been more about jumbled piles of hand tools and uh.........swearing. There has been some swearing.

But there has also been some progress and some set-backs, some decisions made, some road trips, and some lovely, messy, loud meals around the kitchen table. And a feeling that I need to get back to writing about my life, just to make some sense of it.