Wouldn’t Take Nothing

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Experiencing the Great Salt Lake

Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.

I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.

My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.

When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.

How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.

Missed It By That Much

Our goal of having our new home ready before our move in day went the way most goals involving home renovation go. It didn’t happen. You know what they say about the road to hell and all that. We’ve been full-time in our new residence since the end of April. There are myriad items left to do. In terms of renovation, the boys’ bathroom still requires a complete overhaul and we have the added work of baseboards and door casings to look forward to on the main level. We hope to be mostly settled, free of moving boxes, and relaxing feet up by the time the weather is cooling down and football season is heating up.

While I’ve been on my writing hiatus, here is what we have been up to (along with selling a home, moving across town, and finishing out the end of the school year).

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The previous owner’s living room with its brass-adorned fireplace reminded me too much of my childhood home. We had a vision for this room as soon as we saw it.

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Living room…welcome to 2016. This room needs window treatments (the paper blinds, while somewhat helpful, need to go) but otherwise it is mostly complete and totally comfortable. I won’t tell you how much time we spend in here watching television, but I can tell you that I know the weeknight line up on HGTV.

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The old dining room, complete with wall-to-wall carpeting, Bonanza-reminiscent light fixture, and pointless half wall was an easy fix.

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Our new dining room is a bit more contemporary. We love our walnut dining table and had fun choosing a light fixture to accompany it. The combination of metal and linen on the fixture makes it a standout without being too much for the room. And, with the useful peninsula addition, we added an extra seating option for a quick meal.

The old kitchen had been updated since the 1964 original with high-quality maple cabinetry, but the linoleum floor and formica countertops were not worth saving.

We updated the kitchen by replacing the linoleum with grey floor tile and the formica with quartz countertops. We traded the white appliances for stainless ones and over one weekend installed a contemporary, arabesque-style backsplash to pull the space together.

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The home’s “master” bath, which is really more of a closet-sized toilet/shower hold, needed work too. That shell-shaped sink was a joy to rip out. After 13 years cleaning the much larger, doorless, 5-piece en suite master bath in our old home, I decided to appreciate the charm of the tiny bath. It’s a cozy space where I can lock the door and not have to share in another person’s dental hygiene routine. Can I get an Amen?

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Our modern take on that cramped space is one of my favorite renovations. To save our budget, we kept the vanilla shower and focused on the floors and fixtures. We created a feature wall using this super fun bubble tile I fell in love with and purchased a modern floating vanity to complement it. We replaced the ugly linoleum floor with neutral tile and added a water-conscious, one-piece toilet. In addition, we are ordering a new showerhead and clear doors to update the existing shower and complete the reno for the time being.

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The park-like backyard was what sold us on this house, and it needed next to zero help to be fabulous. It is the perfect venue to showcase the patio table Steve made. The colorful metal dining chairs add some whimsy, and the strings of patio lights brighten up the place after dark so we can play cards with the kids or enjoy drinks and conversation with friends. Coffee on the patio in the morning? Check. Dinner on the patio in the evening. Check. So different from the expanse of our old backyard and its open space view, but such a welcome change. This fall it will become my home office as I once again commit myself to writing regularly.

It’s been a crazy nine months full of immense change, expected stress, steep learning curves, and hard work, but we’re home. We love that we can now walk to fetch coffee or groceries, hit the nearby athletic club we joined for a swim or a workout, or head out on the Highline Canal Trail for a bike ride. And with the extra cash we made on the sale of our last home, we are treating ourselves to a hard-earned Hawaiian vacation. Here today. Gone to Maui soon. Stay tuned.

Wax On, Wax Off

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The would-be scene of a grisly murder

Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.

A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.

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Not blood splatter, but it could have been.

Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.

“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.

I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.

“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.” 

A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.

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Slightly less horrific

It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.

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We shall live to see another day.

In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.

 

 

Ripping the Band Aid Off Slowly

Sunset over our big backyard

We spent most of our weekend cleaning out the home we lived, loved, laughed, and lazed in for thirteen years as we witnessed the growth of our young boys. The home lists for sale this week. I like to think of myself as a thinker more than a feeler, a pragmatic philosopher and not an emotional romantic. I am, after all, the self-proclaimed Queen of Rationalization. But everywhere I looked in that house this weekend I saw the breadth and depth of a time in my life that I sped through, head down, focused on the step in front of me like a marathon runner on Mile 20, telling myself I could get through if I just kept moving forward. All the moments, all the memories crept back in as I tried to harden my heart and make conscious decisions about what to pack and what to deposit in the gargantuan roll-off in the driveway. In a word, it was, well, suck. There was an overwhelming, unwelcome deluge of emotion. And it kind of pissed me off because, Christ, dislodging over thirteen years of your life isn’t difficult enough without tears weakening the brown paper boxes you need to move? As I worked, my head tried to distract my heart. It’s good to clear through all this junk. We’re lucky to be doing this consciously and over time. We were long overdue for a cleanse. And this slow, intentional adjustment has been good for the boys. They are so happy in and committed to their new habitat. Still, the goddam tears welled and I cursed while I imagined Luke lying on the kitchen counter under a tanning bed of bilirubin lights, Joe sculpting his own sandbox Pangea in the backyard for his plastic dinosaurs, Steve sprawled on the basement carpet causing “stormy seas” for the young sons who were passengers in his imaginary boat, and me sitting on the back patio on a spring day with a coffee and a constant soundtrack of meadowlark songs. This is suck.

 

Buddy and the boys on his last camping trip

Towards the end of the day yesterday, Steve brought me a box. This particular box had been sitting on a shelf in his office for six years. The box contained the ashes of our sweet Lab/Springer mix, Buddy. I’d like to say we’d held onto the box and his ashes out of a soft-hearted inability to let him go, but the truth is we’d always planned to release him back onto the open space where he occasionally stole an afternoon frolic by jumping our fence, an act that left me in a pickle with toddlers in the house and a dog too far away to capture with a shout. Time got away from us. We never seemed to find the perfect moment. It was too cold, too muddy, or the concern over rattlesnakes was too great. Or we were just too damn busy. And so Buddy languished in a plain, wooden box for years, buried only in good intentions. Yesterday, as the acknowledgment of limited time in this space surrounded us, we decided it was time to say goodbye and set him free at last.

 

Small memorial service

So, on a cloudy, cool, dry day (devoid of snake business), with the exhaustion of moving and daylight savings time mellowing us out, the four of us hiked out onto the open space a ways behind our house, found a lone yucca plant that looked like a spot where Buddy may have once relieved himself, and said our final goodbyes. I watched as the lighter ashes swirled and drifted in wind, the heavier remnants of his bones spilling onto the soil. It brought me a beautiful peace in the midst of all my sadness, a sense of closure not just to our time with Buddy but also to our time in this house that holds so many of our memories. While I intellectually appreciate the idea of ripping the band aid off wounds quickly, I guess I have always been more of a slow, painful band aid puller, someone whose penchant for overthinking causes long-lived and painful goodbyes that I suffer without a peep, wearing a poker face and telling anyone who inquires that I am fine.

We all grieve in our own way. We spent years mentally preparing our sons for this change. They have at times over the past few months expressed their sadness about leaving. We’ve made sure to let them know that sadness is to be expected. We’ve talked as a family about the last memories we would like to make in our old home. All the while, we’ve been pointing our noses in the direction of our new home, creating a space we love and can fill with new hopes, dreams, and memories. There have been times when I wondered if all this dragging on was a wise choice, but after our memorial service yesterday I no longer doubt our decision. We’ve had the perfect amount of time to make our peace with change and to allow our hearts to grieve and to grow. We are ready to say goodbye. And while there certainly will be tears shed in our last few hours in our old house, it is now our old house. Let’s hope it sells for a lot of money. I could really use a trip to Maui!

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Everything Old Is New Again

 

New carpet for the dog to puke on!

I am taking a break today. I am sitting in one of the newly purchased library chairs we got for a steal at West Elm, relaxing near the fireplace while two men install carpeting in the basement. It’s the first real bit of respite I have had in about a month. Steve and I have been going at breakneck speed since December, renovating one house and cleaning out another while somehow managing to squeeze in the holidays, the boys’ ski lessons, and the actual and inescapable burdens of life as grown ass adults (like paying bills and buying groceries). Some days I pause briefly to remind myself to breathe and I wonder how I ever got old enough to be here. Seems like just yesterday I was worrying if my student loan check would arrive in time to pay my undergrad tuition without incurring a late fee. Life was so much simpler when my worldly possessions fit into a four-door sedan. I’m not saying I’d like to be living back in my minuscule dorm room with a midterm paper due in American Lit, but it might be fun to visit there for a few hours. Mental vacations are the only trips I can afford this year.

Anyhoo, since I last posted a renovation update here 53 days ago, a lot has changed in this old house. Many friends have been clamoring for updates, and today seems like as good a day as any to share. Where shall I start? Let’s start in the kitchen.

 

Making the best of what’s around

I know many people choose their house based on the kitchen. It’s safe to say we bought this house in spite of the kitchen. It is an odd duck. Because of an ill-placed window and a superfluous door, the kitchen lacks in counter space and cupboards and has a less than ideal layout. That said, any attempt to redo the layout into something more ideally functional would have resulted in changes to the exterior brick. We had no desire to mess with the structure of the house and, moreover, doing so would have blown our renovation budget. So we decided to keep the original layout, but update the flooring (goodbye, linoleum), countertops, and appliances. We tore out a small wall to add some peninsula cabinets and additional counterspace. The New Carrara Quartz is being cut and should be installed sometime in the next few weeks. The tile floor is in and is a huge improvement. We have wood floors in the kitchen of our current home and decided fairly early on that tile would be a better choice for us here. Between two boys, a dog, and constant traffic into the house from the garage and through the kitchen, tile will look better for much longer. And it cost a bunch less. Score!

 

Can I fix you a Manhattan?

In late December and early January we pulled out all the carpet, baseboards, and old doors on the main floor to have the original hardwoods stripped, patched, sanded, and coated with a water-based finish. The result is way better than we had hoped. The red oak has a lighter, fresher appearance without the heavy, oil-based  finishing product. The fireplace insert arrived a few weeks ago to finish off the showpiece in our living room. The fireplace wall is exactly what we wanted. It makes the room seem taller, brighter, and more modern. We started adding a furniture this month too, purchasing a couple upholstered chairs, an accent table, and a bar cart, and ordering a loveseat and upholstered ottoman to complement the modern velvet sofa we will move over from our current house. It’s the first living room furniture we’ve bought since 1996. We were due for an update. And it’s no coincidence that the first furniture purchase is a bar cart and the first items we moved over were bar glasses and a significant share of spirits. It’s always 5 o’clock in a mid-century brick ranch!

 

Slightly outdated

In between the bigger renovations, I have painted nearly the entire main floor, including ceilings. I figure that by the time we move in, I will have painted approximately 3,000 square feet. I am SO done with painting. On the plus side, my painting skills are currently Level Expert. So I am ready to move on and tile again, which is perfect because our small, dated master bath is our next major undertaking. I am ecstatic to report that the main floor bath is nearly complete. You may remember our hideous main bath. All terra cotta-colored, square tile and sixties panache. Fairly certain the only thing that had been updated in that room in fifty years was the sink faucet and maybe the sink itself. I imagine it was once also orange hued like the walls. Well…it’s all gone.

Goodbye, 1964. Hello, 2016!

We still need to put in the baseboards and hook up the shower plumbing, but we ended up with a much cleaner, updated room that we did ourselves. We’re feeling pretty impressed with our do-it-yourself skills. On a personal note, we determined that undertaking subway tile on several full walls as our first tiling project might have been a bit overzealous. It took us forever and a day, and the workmanship is far from world class, but it is a huge improvement over the previous look.

And now we’re approaching the final stretch of renovations. We are waiting on our solid, prehung doors, need to redo the aforementioned master closet (er, I mean bath), and will soon be putting in simple, five-inch baseboards. It’s all coming together nicely timing-wise because we will be listing our current home earlier than expected, sometime in the next month if the real estate market continues to pick up. I hope to be living here while the other place is listed because I don’t want to deal with the hassle of continual clean up for showings. I’ll have a longer commute, but less house to clean and that is always a plus. We have been quite fortunate with how this whole process has gone for us so far. My fingers are crossed that we will remain on budget and on time. I have grand plans to spend all summer sitting on our back patio doing absolutely nothing. I believe I will have earned it. Moscow Mule, anyone?

Good Enough

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Me and three of my favorite things

The seven and a half years between when I turned 40 and today have been the best seven years of my life. They have not been the easiest. During this time, I learned my oldest son has ADHD and my youngest has dyslexia, and I struggled to gain acceptance and create a better situation for them at school and in their lives. I had a devastating falling out with a person very close to me that caused years’ worth of complications in my family. I began experiencing the unpleasant side effects of early perimenopause. I was depressed for a while. And I went into counseling for the first time in my life as I wrestled with the external changes messing with my reality and the internal battles being waged in my head as a result of aging and staring straight into the face of the midlife beast. As a result of all these things, however, I am more at peace than I ever have been. I live in the moment. I have greater perspective about what is important to me. And I couldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t trudged through the quagmire of muck that now lies behind me.

This morning I saw a meme that riled me up. It said, “Addicted to Bettering Myself.” I’ve seen that saying before, but it has never elicited as strong of a reaction from me as it did today. Today it just didn’t sit well. So, I have been reflecting on it, and I think I finally have it figured out. When I turned 40, I was concerned about being 40How in the heck did I get so old? Is this the beginning of the downhill slide that comes with being over the hill? How can I make 40 better? What do I need to do before it’s too late? I was consumed with answering these questions. I became addicted to bettering myself. I became more concerned about my physical appearance as I noticed more readily the effects of having lived 40 years. I became intensely interested in physical exercise. I monitored my workouts and chided myself when I fell short. If I put on weight at the holidays, I hated myself. I took classes in things I thought I teetered on the edge of being too old for, and I did things that were out of character because I thought my time was running out. I expected more of myself at a time when the events in my life were requiring more of me as well. I stressed myself out racing against a clock I could never stop.

Then an amazing thing happened. I let go. I can’t say when it happened or why, and it doesn’t matter. Suddenly I was grateful more often than anxious. I was tuned in more often than tuned out. I stopped letting others tell me what was best for me. I stopped taking myself and everything around me so goddamned seriously. I chose to let go of control more often. And I stopped looking outside myself for acceptance. I decided that trying to be “better” was more harmful than helpful to me. I accepted that my existence has power, worth, and value even if I never do anything other than breathe. It sounds Stuart Smalley of me, I know. But I decided I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.

I am positive my friends who have escaped the clutches of the midlife monster are nodding their heads knowingly at me now. You were right, Leanna. Things did get better. I’ve let go of the situations, misconceptions, and lies that tortured me for years when I felt time was running out and I needed to be more (whatever that means). I’ve learned to not give a flying fig about most things because most things are background noise we choose hear over the symphony we could be enjoying if we let ourselves.

I don’t mean to belittle people who are addicted to bettering themselves. We’re all on our own journeys, and there is no right or wrong way to travel our individual path. And there’s something to be said for making the most of the time you are given, for being restless and ambitious, for wanting to age with grace and in good health. I have zero intention of going gentle into that goodnight myself. The Grim Reaper had best be prepared for a wrestling match when he comes for me. The difference for me at 47 than me at 40, though, is that he’ll be coming for a woman who doesn’t want to leave because she’s too happy to step out and not a woman who feels she can’t leave because she’s not finished becoming something she never realized she always was…good enough.

Even The Great Ones Die

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Closest I ever got to David Bowie. Section E, Row 36, Seat 2

“It never even occurred to me that David Bowie *could* die.” ~Michael Ian Black

Yesterday was a weird day for me. Like many people my age, I imagine, I spent the day steeped in memories, stunned by the loss of David Bowie. David Bowie has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Literally. One of my first memories is waking up hearing Fame on the radio in my bedroom. I was seven. I remember it so vividly because I’d been dreaming and that song was playing in my dream. When I awoke and heard it playing in my room, I honestly thought I had some sort of psychic powers. It was much later that I learned that happens to everyone and I did not have the gift. Oh, how it sucks being average.

David Bowie was the anti-average. He was the coolest man who ever lived. That is how I will always think of him. He was bold. He didn’t apologize for who he was or what he did or what he created. And he did all this without being a self-absorbed, self-serving jerk. He was talented, elegant, handsome, enigmatic, and yet somehow accessible. His music made me feel and reminded me that I belong to the universe. It made me think of things beyond myself. And that is just so damn cool.

Right after I saw the news of his passing, I was scanning my Twitter feed and I saw this tweet from Michael Ian Black. It took everything I was feeling and put it into a convenient package. It never occurred to me that David Bowie could die either. Legends don’t die. And they certainly shouldn’t pass away quietly from cancer at the relatively young age of 69. My big takeaway yesterday was a kick-in-the-gut reminder that we all die. Every last one of us. Even the coolest man on the planet.

Last night I was a bit more circumspect than usual. I could not look at my husband or my sons without acknowledging what we all know but bury deep inside. Death happens. It’s the only guarantee life presents when you are born. You will die. People you love, people who inhabit your soul, will die. I stood in the doorway to my sons’ room last night, staring at them while they slept. For a few moments, with teary eyes, I remembered things outside myself. I remembered to breathe and to feel and to take it all in.

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.” 

The Great Sausage Meltdown of 2015

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Homemade pierogies frying in butter

I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.

My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.

Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrorsfor our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.

With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.

Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.

“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”

“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.

“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.

“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.

“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”

After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.

I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.

 

 

Blood, Sweat, and the Tears of Eternal Home Improvements

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Isn’t a closed entry an oxymoron?

To start our new year, hubby and I spent the day in our fixer upper. We will be spending most of the weekend there to get things ready for the wood floor guy who is starting on Monday and will be adding in new boards in the entry way to replace the outdated tile, as well as sanding off the old, oil-based stain and putting down a colorless, waterborne finish for us. To save money on the floor work, we agreed to pull out the worn carpet, remove the tack strips and staples, and take off the baseboards. There is no love lost in these changes. The two-inch baseboards are unimpressive at best and the carpet is the physical equivalent of a perpetual yawn. It has been fun slicing it up and yanking it out. There is something oddly cathartic about ripping up the old on the first day of a new year. As I slashed that beige carpet and its companion pad and tossed it unceremoniously into the garage, I thought about the things that didn’t go the way I had hoped in 2015. I imagined ridding myself of last year’s mental baggage as easily as I jettisoned that floor covering. A fresh start is therapeutic and invigorating. And, in my case, about six months overdue.

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The tile job from hell

The first task of the day was finishing grouting the wall and the tub surround in the hall bath. We squeaked by on the bag of grout we had, just barely completing the job by literally scraping the bottom of the grout barrel. Although the end result didn’t pan out exactly as I imagined it in my mind, it feels good to be moving on. As a learning experience, tiling this bathroom has been exceptional. I can now say that I have the know-how to remove tiles, pull out a toilet, operate a wet saw, lay tile, use a grout float properly, and tell you the difference between porcelain and ceramic tiles. I also know what rectified tile is and why you might want it. I will never look at another tiled surface in the same light again. Everywhere I go lately, I am finding it far more interesting. It’s amazing what a little education can do to your world view.

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Living Room 1964

As much as we’d love to take all the credit in this latest installment of Little House in the Mid-Size City, the biggest improvement this week came courtesy of our contractor, Simon. He transformed the tired, dated fireplace in the living room into the modern focal point we envisioned. One of the things that stood out to us when we first found this house was the two fireplaces, one upstairs and one down. Both are wood burning and use their own flue. We decided early on to add a gas insert to the fire box upstairs and leave the basement fireplace as is so we can enjoy the occasional crackle of an old-school, indoor fire. Before we could schedule the install of the gas insert we selected for upstairs, though, we had some remodeling to do to create the sleek, streamlined look that will match. The brick facing needed to go, and the faster the better. Early on we settled upon a look we had in mind and set out to recreate it as closely as possible. We found some tile that fit the bill perfectly and were smart enough to leave its install to a professional.

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Living Room 2016

I have to say, I think Simon rocked it. He found the best configuration for the tile and created a custom, walnut mantle that is taller and deeper than the previous one. Our taste in living room furniture leans toward modern contemporary, so we will at last have a room that suits us completely. We’ll be mounting our television over the mantle. We debated this for quite a while after reading myriad articles about this placement on the Internet. There are a lot of opinions about this practice, but ultimately we decided that for the furniture configuration we wanted this was the best option. Setting the television to the right of the fireplace would put it too close to the eight-foot wide window and create too much glare. Besides, we’ve always wanted a spot for cozy reading chairs, and they belong in front of that expansive window. We bought an angled mounting bracket for the tv so we can reduce the potential for neck strain looking up at the screen. With the can lights we added back in October and the flawless hardwoods that had been hidden for decades finally exposed, this room is coming together better than we imagined. I’m beginning to see the potential hubby saw in this house while I was still dragging my heels and clinging to my doubts.

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Banged and bandaged

Looking back to when we first took possession of this home on October 5th, I wish I had kept track of how many hours we have logged working on it. We knew when we bought the house that this would be a growing experience for us both. We’ve stepped way outside our wheel house here. I’ve never had an eye for design because, frankly, it’s never mattered. We don’t spend much time in our home. Our house is a big container that holds all the crap necessary for our exploits. We like travel and the great outdoors, and we don’t spend a lot of time hanging out at home. We come in, drop our stuff, grab new gear, and head back out. Our home is a place to do our laundry, eat, sleep, and wait for our next adventure. With this new home, we’re becoming invested in a way previously unprecedented for us and not just through the ever-increasing budget necessary to turn a 1964 house into a 2016 home. We are committing blood, sweat, and tears here every day. I am sore, bruised, and banged up. Today I cut myself three times in an hour, each time running a mental check on the date of my last tetanus shot. 2010, I think. At least I hope that’s right.

Who knows? Maybe when we’re done grouting tile we really love and hanging doors we’ve chosen, when the wounds from nails we’ve impaled ourselves on have healed, we will decide to stay put more often in a new, old house that fits our family, dreams, good intentions, quirks, missteps, and all.

It’ll Be Grrrreat!

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Looks good on the outside

So, a couple months ago we did this crazy thing. We bought a fixer upper that we plan to move into next spring, after we fix it up. At the time, I promised that I would blog about our experiences renovating a 1960s ranch house. Honestly, it seemed like an easy enough thing to promise at the time. I was looking for things to write about and this redo seemed like easy fodder. Along the way, however, I learned a few things about renovations. One: They suck up a lot of waking hours. Trying to balance every day life in one house with two children and a dog while trying to tile a bathroom in a house across town is a lot harder than I thought it would be. Two: Projects are messy. I am solid Type A-. I would like to blog about something in a linear fashion, from start to finish, and tie it all up with a neat little bow. This would be a lot easier to do if anything we started months ago was actually finished by now. Three: Physical labor is exhausting. I am a writer. I sit on my butt in bed with a laptop and only my fingers get a workout. Ripping up linoleum, lugging out toilets, and tiling bathrooms is tiring. By the end of the day, I fall into bed and pray morning will miraculously arrive two hours later than usual the next day. And, for  all these reasons, it has been problematic for me to blog consistently (or, let’s face it, at all) about this (or any other) experience. That changes now, ladies and gentlemen. Today I make good on my promise and present our mess in progress.

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Family room paint update

The first thing we tackled was painting. Most of the home’s interior had been painted what I can only describe as a pale blush, not quite beige, not quite pink, but definitely not a basic, warm white. Pink was not flying for the boys or for me, so it was the first to go. I started in the basement with the boys’ rooms and the family room. Along the way, though, I sadly discovered that three different variations of white had been used on various ceilings throughout the house, which led to my painting every ceiling to achieve consistency.

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Luke’s space

What a pain in the neck, literally and figuratively. It looks great now, but painting ceilings is a chore best left for your worst enemy or your grumpy teenage son. You’re welcome for the torture tip.

Luke and Joe both chose Benjamin Moore Gray Huskie for their rooms, which I love. Luke added a bit of his characteristic ‘tude by requesting some bright orange paint accents (which I did on a section of ceiling) and a funky IKEA pendant light fixture. I really love how that turned out. It’s so Luke!

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Lipstick on a pig

We desperately wanted to replace all the interior doors, but after doing the math we decided to replace only the doors on the main floor for now and to paint the ugly doors in the basement. It sounded like an easy enough plan. Two coats of primer and two coats of fresh white paint were added to twelve doors. Easy peasy. When we went to rehang the three doors in Joe’s room, though, we ran into a snag. Apparently doors like to live where they were originally hung. We had to use trial and error to figure out which door went where and of course we only figured that out after we had installed the hardware. I’m not going to tell you the number of expletives offered during that process, but it was a hefty amount. But, we are learning robots, so we labeled all the other doors to avoid that shell game again. In the end, the result is adequate. New doors would look infinitely better, but they will have to wait until other, more pressing updates are made. Or until we draw the winning lottery numbers.

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Goodbye pointless wall

Meanwhile, upstairs we began destroying things. We tore out a couple old walls with spindle openings. Good riddance. We removed the ugly tile at the entry way to replace it with oak hardwoods to match the rest of the main floor. We had a contractor tear out every door and its frame on the main floor. At one point, I stood in what was once a move-in ready (albeit outdated) home, and shook my head in disbelief wondering what we had done. Tearing down walls is fun. Realizing that you have to fix your mess is something else entirely.

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Hideous 60s bathroom

The biggest project we’ve undertaken thus far is the full bathroom on the main floor. We demolished it with plans to add new tile floors, subway tiles on the walls and in the tub surround, a new cabinet and toilet, updated lighting, and a huge mirror. We have the incredible fortune to have talented friends in the plumbing industry. They have sacrificed full days teaching us how to mix mortar, cut tiles, properly install tile on walls, lay out floors, and even weld plumbing. They have taken what would have been a $5k bathroom project and turned it into a project half that cost.

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New tile for everyone! 

We’ve spent four full days with four full grown adults trapped in this small bathroom. The end is in sight. We hope to grout the tile this weekend. If we can get the plumbing hooked back up by the first weekend in January, I will be thrilled. I will definitely share before and after photos once it is completed. Once that bathroom is operational, we move on and tackle a light update in the closet that constitutes our new master bath all by ourselves. At least, that is the plan…until we really mess something up and have to call Ron and Carol to save us.

January is going to be a big month for our new home. We’re having the original wood floors sanded and sealed. The outdated brick fireplace is getting a facelift with new tile and mantle. We’re ordering new carpet to be installed in the basement. And I will continue to paint living areas and bedrooms upstairs while we update our tiny master bathroom. Somehow we are going to manage all this while fitting in the boys’ weekend ski lessons. We will. Trust me. I am determined now. We’ve been staying at the house one night a week on ridiculous air mattresses, and it already feels like home. It’s hard for me to visualize how it will all come together, but I know it will. Time is flying by during this process and sometimes it is hard to keep my eyes on each ball as it is suspended mid air, but I’m doing it. It can be daunting, but I am leaning into it and learning more than I thought possible. I just keep on keeping on with Tony the Tiger roaring in my head. It’ll be grrrrreat!