Sunday, May 6, 2018

When Old House Character Doesn't Work for You.

Our home's name is Ruth. She has a personality. She's modest from the street-side, her heart is larger than you'd guess if you only saw her from the outside, she has quirky angles like many old ladies do, and yet she also has a comfortable lap, like a good grandma, and loads of charm.

Ruth's front room, circa 1963
I'm a lover of history, and have researched my house's architecture; it's a Colonial Revival Cape Cod, built in 1939. I am the fourth owner.

A house this old and older will have quite a few layers on it. I'm thoughtful about those. There's also a range of opinions out there about what to do about it, from the extreme of gutting them completely and putting modern builder's-grade interiors in them (which personally horrifies me), to being supremely dedicated to maintaining period authentic details in every way one can. That extreme I can appreciate a little better, for the sake of its desire to preserve original details from the era in which the house was built. But it's tough for me to be that rigid in my own life. I've got some pretty eclectic tastes, and being stuck in a narrow window of the late 1930's wouldn't work for me.

Besides, people don't live that way. As much as scrupulously period-authentic homes teach us about the way people lived in whatever era, they can be museum-like, and sort of artificial in the sense that it is the rare person who built a household from scratch in exactly the year, say, 1955, and kept it that way for 63 years. More often, people launch in adult life with hand-me-downs and heirlooms from previous eras, get tired of certain things and fall into the fads of the decade (shag carpet, anyone?) in the interim, feathering the nest over the years with what's needed, what works, what delights, and what feels like home.

In addition, one must embrace (me: strong simple graphic design) or survive (me: beige everything, granite countertops) the current home design trends and fashions of one's own time. "Dated" is the word home improvement shows squawk over and over again to describe older homes. Of course it is. Whether or not it's a pejorative is largely up to the house, and its owner.

My house has postage-stamp sized foyer, only a few feet by a few feet, and another, larger room we ingeniously refer to as the "front room" because it is, uh, at the front of the house. In the 1960s, someone paneled this room, and it was where the gentleman of the house lounged, smoked, and watched television.

That purple fabric across the top of the wall hid stereo speakers. It was just as attractive as you might imagine. 

While I like me a good rustic paneling, as seen on our recently renovated screen porch ceiling photo below--

...this was really not the same. It was made of a rather expensive veneer plywood (it's either mahogany or cherry) dark-stained, but not skillfully installed at all. It had gotten orangey over the years, and it made the room gloomy. Then a later owner had sawed a big, unfinished hole to get his big screen TV into the wall, and left that hole behind when we moved in. It was like the hall closet had a picture window into the front room. I hung an old sheet across the hole and put an old sofa in front of it. Which the kids used as a place to pile coats and backpacks.

Not proud, but it was real life here. I also tried to love the paneling. It's historic, I said to myself. Paneling was a thing in Midcentury houses. Part of the charm. 

And practical too. The scuffle of four boys was well hidden by those dark walls. I tried to foof it up with some of my own things:

And still really, really hated it. I just couldn't make myself love that dark room, and even if I'd been able to repair the hole in the one wall, it wasn't worth it to me to be this miserable for the sake of period authenticity. To hell with wood paneling, at least in this case. I needed light. I needed color.

It stuck around awhile though, because I didn't have the carpentry skills and budget to change things up. It's hard to bring yourself to spend money on a room that holds the coats and boots, mostly, when you've got so many other things to do with your house.

When Tom arrived on the scene, we decided that while we still did not want to spend a lot of money on this room at this point, we needed to make it one that better reflected that we both lived here now, that I work from home here and wanted it to be creative, and that we both wanted to invite the sunshine in as much as possible.

I only have two not-so-great cell phone photos from the renovation period, but they sum up the two big things that happened.

One was fixing the sawed-up wall, and adding another bookcase to the room.

You can see into our L-shaped hallway.

The second major part of the reno was paint. Buckets and buckets of primer, paint, and more paint.

If you look at the top of the above photo, you can see how dirty the ceiling tile was from the smokers who previously lived here. While it looked okay in contrast to the dark paneling, once we started painting it was obvious just how disgusting it really was.

The rest of the decor was a matter of assembling things we already had on hand.

Before we updated the room, I had put a folk-art style rug in there in colors that I loved to try to cheer the place up a little bit. I decided that would go back in, and be the inspiration for everything else.

Then Tom's hall tree went into the front of the room, so visitors have a place to leave their coats.

Tom made it from salvaged paneling and wood. I love that it is there to greet his kids when they come home.

The window has a simple white cotton curtain on the lower half for privacy. The room originally had wood cafe shutters, and I would like to do that again when the budget permits. The basket in the corner is to corral shoes (lots of boys, lots of tennies).

The green dresser is a crappy little old thing I rescued off a curb and spray painted. I've had it forever-- it just keeps changing color. It is tucked just on the other side of the front foyer, and holds incoming mail, change, keys, etc. The drawers hold the things you always needs right before running out the door-- mittens and hats, umbrellas, sun screen, insect repellent, etc.

My work space is usually much messier than this, but this is the "blog-pretty" version:

I have a preference for things with a history or a connection, so I'm always more likely to go with old/used furniture than with new. The oak desk belonged to a friend of my mother's. The printer stand is actually a record player/music stand from my Great Aunt Elizabeth's house. The lamp is hers too. 

The floor in this room is 1960s era vinyl composition tile. If it were new or in good shape I wouldn't mind it at all. I like the pattern. But it had carpet over it when I moved in, is full of staple holes, and has cracks and crumbles in places. The next time this room gets an overhaul, it will need to go, I hope in favor of tile or wood flooring.

I'm most pleased with the bookshelf area.

Lots of old friends live there.

Some of the shelves are extra deep, which is a plus for me. I'm famous for squirreling books away. The desk is a curbside find, and Tom uses it for his work-from-home days. The big baskets hold camera equipment and random electronic odds and ends.

I wanted to have fun in this room, so I gathered second-hand store picture frames, spray-painted them in black, ivory, orange, and green (to echo the colors in the rug), and framed family art.

I did not feel constrained by rules here. That part felt good. I like how grade school ceramic projects and family photos and favorite books mix on the shelf

And as much as the paint helped freshen this room up, having art made by people I care about, things that show their personality and humor and love, is the best part of this room by far.

When this room gets another round of attention in the future, it will most likely get some of the things that honor the 1930s Cape Cod heritage of the house, walls with painted wainscot paneling to match what is elsewhere in the house, wood flooring, and trim. In the long run, we'll have both fully respected the heritage of the house, but kept it fresh and for us. For now this redo fixed the biggest problems, and fits our personal style so much better. I only wish I hadn't waited so long.

Monday, March 12, 2018

In My Kitchen

My kitchen.

Lately, it is the only place I want to be.

It almost never looks like this, though. That photo up top is an older one, "showing the house for the blog" clean, and well, we definitely don't live like that. Ever. 

It often looks more like this, when I'm in the throes of some manic baking (that's a thing, here.)

Women aren't supposed to cook the way I do, any more. We aren't supposed to have the time. I don't either. And yet, I still shove little bits and pieces of my schedule aside, put in some prep hours on Sundays, cook two meals on a free night to have a hot meal on the busy one, anything I can do to elbow other priorities out of the way so that I can cook.

I don't always want to. I cook regularly for five, all with different tastes and preferences, some of them finicky. Some (most) days I come home tired from work, and I get out of patience for everyone's delicate sensibilities when it comes to casseroles and vegetables and whatever else. Fine. Eat a sandwich for all I care. There's a local breakfast cafe that has its cheeky motto painted on the wall: "Just like home, you can't always get what you want." True that. There's not a lot of romance to the day in, day out aspect of cooking.

When the entire crew visits, which is my kids plus Tom's kids (eight of them), I cook for armies-- grandparents and significant others and friends. We budge around the edges of rooms crowded by expanded tables and cook extra potatoes in big pots and take out the trash, hourly it seems.

The kitchen is not only hard-used, it's showing it. When we moved into this house I had installed new Formica counters and a stainless steel sink on the early 70s-era birch cabinets, refinished those, and painted. I never got to the floor, which is fake vinyl parquet, with broken corners and permanently ground-in dirt.

There's almost always flour  spilled on it; it's ugly and dirty and mopping seems to make no difference.

The dishwasher keeps chugging along, but it is more than 10 years old and I fear every day might be its last. The refrigerator drawers make me cuss.

But I want to be here. In my kitchen. Even when it's a mess, even when it's just hot dogs, even when it's crammed to bursting with people and pots, even when I think for the billionth time that those janky casement windows are going to be the reason we freeze (winter) or roast (summer).

Why do I want to be here? It's too easy to simply say I like to cook, because there's more to it than that. There's something more essential going on. I know this because especially now, with the world gone mad and work gone dull and schedule so full, I find myself, every weekend, up in my own kitchen, scrubbing the counters and making grocery lists, chopping vegetables and inventing bread recipes.

Cherry-almond bread. It wasn't a failure, but the experiment needs further research.

Some of it is in the genetics. The women who raised me cooked because they had to, but also to sustain family labor, to celebrate milestones and endure griefs, to show love. I know there are dietary experts out there who decry the use of food as way to show love, but I feel they are dead wrong, feel it so strongly that it's probably worth an entirely separate piece of journal writing.

There's an old relationship self-help book called the Five Love Languages, and it names "acts of devotion" as one of those languages. Cooking and baking are my act of devotion. That's why, when people ask me "why are you going to that much trouble?" when I've dirtied every bowl in the house making a particularly difficult cake recipe, or decide that homemade tomato soup really is better than canned, I blink at them. The word "trouble" never entered my mind while I was doing it. It is why, even though I am an introvert and am sometimes overwhelmed by a packed household, I will gladly plan meals for as many as 15-20 people at a time, populate my kitchen with volunteer (or not so volunteer) potato peelers and dish washers, and siblings being silly. I may be on the sofa with a cup of coffee and a book the next day, restoring my introvert equilibrium. But I will never regret the act of devotion inherent in those meals, those cakes, those occasions.

It's not just the cooking, either. Acts of devotion have taken a lot of forms in this room.

Like flirting with the resident handyman as he passes in and out, working on his own acts.

And represented in items from others, like this pie plate from my sister and quilted runner made by my mother. I love all the warm colors.

 Celebrations of all sorts:

Ben and Joe are 14 now. That was fast, wasn't it? They still like as much candy and frosting on the cake as I can manage, though.

Spending time together, doing whatever:

Let me introduce you to Eli, Tom's son, who was teaching himself how to knit two Thanksgivings ago.

I'll also freely admit to some pretty low-rent drinking in this kitchen. Maybe not an act of devotion exactly, but there it is, part of the mix. Some of the best times I've ever had with friends have been drinking at my kitchen table with a bowl of chips in the middle, card game optional.

That goes for the refrigerator magnets of questionable humor, as well. We have questionable humor in this house as a general rule, though, and it gets us through a lot of days where the acts of devotion are harder to manage with grace.

It's been a trite turn of phrase forever that the kitchen is the heart of the home. I think it's probably actually the hands, because I keep returning to the idea of those acts of devotion. Those acts. Just like the cooking and baking, it must be practiced daily to keep getting better at it--not just the glory and pride of serving up some beautiful thing to others, but also the time, the preparation, the work, the attention to detail, the correction of errors, the cleaning up of the daily living of life afterwards. There must be rhythm, ritual, regularity, and maintenance. Sometimes there are messes to clean up. It can't be done any other way than getting your hands on it, and getting to work.

I seem to need that part of my kitchen right now, and it's why I want to so fully inhabit it. I've got things I need to get my hands on. I can start, at least, with making dinner for the people I love. What comes next, I'll learn by practicing daily. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Love and Ashes

A Presbyterian minister friend of mine reminded me, via her social media post, that yesterday was not only Valentine's Day, but also Ash Wednesday.



Love and ashes.

First the love: Valentine's Day. Ick. For the last many years, I've been a staunch Valentine's Day protestor. Ick about the sentimentality, ick about the consumerism. Ick about about the sexism, the bad chocolate, the over-priced roses, the crowded restaurants, the unhappily married people pretending, the uncoupled people feeling left out and demoralized. Ick, ick, ick. Real love is grittier than red paper lace and candy hearts. Love in real life is troubled, loud, a little insane, playing balls out and for keeps, sweating and bleeding; but also brilliant, gentle, transcending, physical, drunken with joy and laughter. There is no greeting card that can encompass that messy glory and pain.

So much for the saint's day. I'm a little better at the religious observance of ashes, but not by much. Raised as a Lutheran, I'm (very, very) familiar with the church calendar, the cycle of penitence, death, and resurrection told and retold through thousands of years of Christianity. While I have deep respect for the tradition, faith and religion no longer inhabit the same place in my heart. I did not go to church; but I also would not refuse the ashes if a priest or pastor were to offer them to me. Because the truest gospel of all, regardless of belief, is that we are all dust, and to dust we shall return. We are all marked with that failure.

Because we fail, we also fail in love. Imperfect, selfish, uninformed, misguided, frightened, jealous, distracted, exhausted, addicted, proud, irritated, angry, bored, lazy, stubborn--we all get in the way of ourselves, even with our best and highest aspirations.

Because to love is to aspire. To die is to fail. We do both, but we are rather more honest about our aspirations than our failures, even the ultimate one. For me, right now at age 50, with aspirations and failures in roughly (I hope) equal measure, it's time to reflect. I will keep my aspirations, because even though they're battered, they still sing to me when I dream, and that makes them worth keeping. But it's time to be just as honest about the failures. It is time to gather my ashes, sweep them into a pile, inventory the remains of what has burned down.

That all sounds pretty dark, doesn't it? It definitely does in comparison to our culture's current, relentlessly cheerful continuous quality improvement model. The one that says if we can only buy this one thing or stick to that diet or earn that promotion, we'll be some better more perfect version of ourselves in some sunshiny point in the future, chasing an ideal of perfectibility that is always just out of reach, on the horizon. It keeps us forever on the hook of hope and optimism, which are awfully shiny and attractive concepts, but shallow ones. They never pay off, ever, with contentment or harmony or self-knowledge, which are ultimately more satisfying, but require an honesty so brutal that it's easier to stay distracted than face it.

Instead of darkness, though, I'm finding freedom and relief, coming to terms with the failure. Realizing that it's built into the system. All systems, all things. Relationships, bodies, cultures, objects. Me. You. Everybody. That doesn't change (or excuse) the consequences. People hurt because of failures. But the acknowledgement seems to bear a certain kind of witness and power, though, like the crosses of ash on the foreheads of Christians all over the globe. We are all weak together. So now what?

New things arise from failure. That's built into the system too. It runs through our folklore and myth across cultures, from Native American legends to Christ to Brahma and Shiva. It's right there in nature too-- organisms fail and die, are subsumed into the soil that feeds the freshest blooms, the sustaining crops, the ecological chain of life. Out of the ashes of failures and death, something else is born. But we can't love-- we can't aspire-- until we see our failures with clear eyes. Label our mistakes, repair our gates, tend to the wounded, grieve our losses, sort through the rubble to find what was worthy enough to survive and use again. The hard truth is that we'll cycle through love and ashes many times and in many forms throughout our life. I'm beginning to realize that although that part is unavoidable, trying to ignore the ugly half pretty much guarantees we won't get the half we want--anyway not in any form that really sustains us.

I'm living at that transition right now, learning to fully see and account for my failures while I build something new out of the rubble. My hands are dirty, my heart is full, and I'm making little piles here and there of what to keep and what to discard. I finally see that this is the real work of a fully lived life.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Start Writing

When I worked for a newspaper, the editor-in-chief was a kind, bespectacled man, but with a sort of roll-up-your-shirtsleeves attitude toward writing. While he firmly believed good print journalism can be both literary art form and an act of service to society, he also had a small and sometimes unruly newsroom of reporters he had to herd toward a press deadline every day.

News journalism has a standard form they call the inverted pyramid; there's a lead (spelled "lede") sentence containing the most newsworthy priority piece of information. Then other important and supporting details come next. Then, background details that help flesh out a more complete picture.

My problem as a reporter was that my mind did not and does not work that way. It does a lot of sorting of small details first, and then builds a picture of an entire situation. I'm not looking at the time of day, I'm looking at the back of the clock, and noticing how all the gears turn. I'd often return to the paper after interviews, research, and events with such a disorganized swirl in my head that I'd pace the larger circle of the first floor, through the coatroom, through the front office, back through the newsroom and loop through the print shop, restlessly, trying to wrangle my lede into place mentally.

The ticking deadline clock usually caught up with me. "Start writing," Editor would say, more advice than command. And so I would know that regardless of the state of my thoughts, it was time to pour the coffee, get my ass in the chair, and get something to the copy editors before they became volatile.

While his words were primarily about meeting the demands of the news cycle, it also put a simple, two-word directive on the circular conundrum of my writing life. I want to write words that have order and meaning.  But I also depend on words to help me find order and meaning. I cannot seem to have both at once, so I'm both afraid to start (where is the meaning?), but afraid if I don't I will never find it or the right, beautiful, true words.

That conundrum has had me stuck in place for months, both professionally (I still write for a living, though not for a newspaper), and personally. I'm supposed to love this. This is supposed to be who I am. But for the longest time, writing has been an act of pacing the perimeter of the room. For the longest time, I forgot the wisdom of "start writing."

I'm trying to remember it now. I'm trying to put my finger down on a place in that circular conundrum, and write forward toward meaning, rather than trying to pluck all the right words from the swirl of chaos, both good and bad, that life presents to me.

Stay tuned. Because my ass is in the chair.