Saturday, March 28, 2015

A Post In Which I Start Another Mess, Instead of Finishing Ones I've Already Started

I feel like I'm trotting out my worst personality flaw in this post.

Anyway, this will be part confessional, part renovation post. And if my brothers and sisters in home ownership can offer me any absolution, please do.

When I start thinking about what I want to do to my house, I think a long time. A long, long time. Because I am afraid of making mistakes, or getting half-way through something and changing my mind.

Then I daydream and scheme. Also, a long long time. Because that's the most enjoyable part.

Sadly, this bath will never happen in my home (Image Source: Arts and Crafts Home)

In my head I can have anything:

Again, sadly, nope. (Image source: Better Homes and Gardens)

And I don't have to buy anything, demolish anything, get sweaty, angry, or discouraged. It's all magic and glitter and marble countertops and done-ness. Can we hear it for DONE?

That's what gets me started. That's what gets me to the local hardware store, list in hand. And then real life happens. Because man, this home renovation thing is UGLY. It takes forever. It's always twice, three times, four times more expensive than I thought. There's always some snag in the renovation that I can't think or spend my way around, and I stop, get discouraged, rooms languish, and I find myself living with unfinished projects for an indefinite period of time.

It's about then I begin to think my faith in this one thing, this relationship with this one old home, is completely superficial, and that I'd be better off in an apartment, a new condo, ANY place where I could just drink coffee from my sofa and call the landlord when I was displeased. Maybe buy some new toss pillows. Luxurious yawn.

Sigh. Right here, everyone, is where I start this process yet again. With the upstairs bathroom. At least we start with the ugly part, up front and in your face.

My house is a one-and-a-half story Cape Cod colonial, so the upstairs rooms are low ceilinged. There was no bathroom up here to begin with, but sometime (I think the late 1960s) someone carved out space in one of the two bedrooms for a very small and awkwardly-shaped 3/4 bath.

That is the view from the upstairs hallway. Inspiring, isn't it? You can see the shower stall to the right, and the sink vanity, further into the room, on the left. The toilet is hidden in this photo, on the other side of the wall from the shower. The roofline is sloped up from the back of the bathroom. Let's step further into this charmer, shall we?

To the left, the sink top may actually not be that bad, if the right colors were with it and it was updated with a new faucet. But it's sitting atop a vanity that may possibly be made of pressed cardboard or something similar in quality.

On the right, we have the door to a side attic, and the toilet. People who are on my personal Facebook account know I spent a very, VERY unpleasant day a few weekends ago thoroughly cleaning the toilet, inside and out, and replacing the seat. It's in much better shape now, but I was very close to the point of either trying to sterilize it with a flame thrower, or having it replaced.

And the end of the bathroom opposite the door. There's actually quite a bit of floor space here, but it's under the roof slope. It makes the layout rather cramped in the total perspective of the room, but also odd. Notice the black vinyl baseboard slopped with white paint. Awesome. The spots on the floor are also paint splotches of various colors, mostly teal and salmon pink.

It also has charming details like this:

There's been approximately 1500 towel bars hung in this bathroom over the course of its history. And the mounting holes from them have all been repaired, exactly like this.

Super shiny paint. With low ceilings and grubby surfaces, the only thing one could do to make it worse is to paint it all (sloppily) in high gloss paint, so the whole thing is bathed in an oily, lurid glow.

The one good thing? These sconces:

Now that I've introduced you to the challenge, some considerations.

1. My excuse for starting this project is the renovation of my bedroom, ongoing right next door to the bathroom. There's a relation between the two which I will explain further in a future post. But it makes sense that some of the work needed to these two rooms comes along at the same time.

2. I have maybe a $200 to budget for this room. That's not a lot; in fact it's practically nothing. What happens in this room is going to be mostly cosmetic.

3. I've already started in small ways-- deep-cleaning the toilet and replacing the seat, tearing out all the towel bars and vinyl baseboard, sanding and repairing the walls.

4. My goal is to make this bathroom something we can live with in the meantime. Because larger chunks of the budget are going to have to go, by necessity, to the downstairs bathroom.

There. I have officially started yet Another Mess. I'll talk more about Finishing Ones I've Already Started soon. Soon. Sigh.

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.]