Fix-It Fixations

Any homeowner or even mildly obsessed apartment-dweller who likes customizing his or her nest, office, cubicle, or living space knows that there are numerous ‘projects’ that are never officially finished. Most DIY projects of any sort, in fact, are only satisfying right about the time they’re in their last stages of preparation and very, very newly finished. Then we’re on to the next change or update we’ve been itching to see transform our spaces. For me, the Next Big Thing is perpetual: I never quite settle down and stop having new ideas and fantasies. My now-spousal partner knew even before my dad jokingly warned him when we sprang the (not especially surprising) news of our intent to marry that it was not merely in jest Dad told him to expect to come home virtually any day of the week and find the furniture moved all over the place, half the house painted, or the chairs reupholstered. Thank goodness he’s a very flexible, tolerant guy…of course, he wouldn’t be with me in the first place if that weren’t true.Photo: The '70s Called...

Nowadays I’m lazier and less willing to spend much money on concrete Stuff if I can save it instead for our various retirement plots and plans or spend on current doings. But the urge never dies; there’s always some little tweak or To Do lurking in the back corners of my brain’s attic. The one thing I’ve learned to appreciate better about the process is the slowness of it all that used to irk me immensely. Over the intervening time between idea and execution, the possibility of improving both process and product grows, and in many instances, the availability of a better set of materials and solutions arrives as well. Though I had in mind a nifty reboot of the existing dining room fixture that was, sadly, thwarted by the outdated wiring’s channels being too narrow for me to fit the necessary updated wiring through them, my time pulling apart and cleaning and fiddling with  the entire fixture in an unsuccessful attempt to bypass the problem was long enough for a more suitable modern fixture to at last appear on the market at a price I was willing to pay.Photo: Let There be Better Light!

Likewise, the wildflower and sapling “nursery” meadow I made out of half our backyard a couple of years ago has taken that long to begin coming to recognizable fruition as such a space instead of merely a raggedy weed patch. The time spent waiting for the (semi-dead, weak little one-dollar end of season) plants I picked up here and there to take root enough to survive longer term, let alone bloom, was well worth it, since those were not seasons of rich encouragement. This year’s mild winter and spring and its extraordinarily generous rainfall are providing a much friendlier environment for the plants now old and established enough for bloom to make their first appearances. So, though you can’t see it behind the blast of rose blooms in the last photo, there have been much more encouraging bursts of growth on a number of patches of chrysanthemums, Echinacea leaves, and myriad wild cousins, with some Salvia and Cynoglossom amabile (Chinese forget-me-not) throwing bright blue sparkles into the mix of pink primroses and green leafy things even before others come into bud.Photo: A Long Winter's Nap

Kind of the way that one new idea breaks in upon the muddle of all the old ones stirring in the brain while they wait to be put in order for becoming DIY projects and household fixes.Photo: Spring has Sprung

All Features Great and Small

Homemaking and decorating, housekeeping and DIY, major construction and minor tweaks: these are the things that turn a building into a true home. It might be as humble as a tiny apartment in a crowded part of town or an expansive villa, or even a palace or a tent, for all of that, but until it is arranged the way that makes the residents feel safe and comfortable enough to want to retreat there from the wider world, it’s just a space, and once it has been nested in the way that makes the residents feel not only that comfort and safety but also a sense of identity within it, it’s genuinely Home, and will remain so whether anyone moves away from it or not.

I’ve said before that I feel amazed and fortunate beyond words to have lived in regions, cities, neighborhoods, and especially Homes that embraced me in those ways over my whole life thus far, and where I have always been allowed or encouraged to express my own wishes and ideas to help me fit into them as well. And that is an incredible gift. But you also know that I can never resist personalizing “my” spaces, improving them where I can, and being extra-happy if I can do that on the cheap.

Photo: Garage Tidying

A clean, functional garage doesn’t have to look like a magazine cover, glamorous and pristine enough to lick, but when even the empty boxes (that whole left corner, plus everything behind the removed and stored interior doors on the right, for example) are in order and clean-ish, it makes all of my daily life a bit better.

Keeping a moderately clean and tidy house is the easiest way to accomplish that sort of thing, in my view. Relative wealth or poverty has less to do with how comfortable and beckoning a place is, for me, than whether anyone takes care of it, takes comfort and even some pride in it. Occasional massive cleanups of my garage (when I have one) so that I can not only park any vehicles I own in it, not just in the same neighborhood, but store what I don’t want in the house of my tools and supplies and even find them when I need them, that helps to make the place home.

For a small example, I need go no further than the kitchen and a look at an object I’ve been using about once a week for many years: my slow cooker. The first I had is long gone, but this model has been around for nearing two decades, I guess. It’s not the newest or fanciest model, but it still looks fairly decent, at least when I give it a major scrubbing, and it still works with impressive reliability. Unlike my creaky old oven, this little appliance is so dependable that I can confidently leave it on the low setting for a couple of days at a time, only checking to be sure that it sits where if it did sputter or overheat it has nothing overhead to damage and my big enameled-steel broiler pan underneath to catch any small volcanoes. Neither of which has ever happened, but still. The heavy crock insert is still, astoundingly, un-chipped and good-looking in its black glazed ruggedly handsome way, enough so I can haul it to the table without transfer to a different serving dish.

The one part that finally died this last year is so small that I was loath to replace the whole rigmarole for want of “a nail”—but I wasn’t about to spend huge amounts of my time hunting for such a little replacement part, for a probably obsolete model anyway, so on the day that the former lid handle literally dropped off in my hand, the hardware corroded through after years of various kinds of steam attacking it, I made a quick-fix with a wooden spoon and a piece of string. Better than scalding my hands while my soup stock was evaporating into thin air. But of course, that wasn’t going to last. When I finally did get time to go through my hardware, the obvious solution was stainless steel with rubber gaskets: stainless, to avoid the previous corrosion problems for as long as possible, and rubber, because the lid itself is glass and the steel, especially bolted under pressure, would put it at high risk of shattering. Like a similar glass pot lid had done the very first time I used a very expensive pot. Insert angry-face here.

Photo montage: Stainless Steel & Rubber

Hardware-store replacement for a pot handle: not just a little life-hack but a useful reminder not to overcomplicate things.

The little fix, though hardly an aesthetic thrill, seems to do the trick perfectly well, so as long as the electrical innards of the cooker hold up, there will be broth and sauces to fill my homely home with slow-cooking perfumes and our bellies with well-integrated nutrients.

A bigger problem in our household was that while we had lived for so many years near family members with bigger houses and the visiting relatives and friends had always stayed in those places, whether with us or without, once we moved across the country it was clearly time to return the favor and see that there would be welcoming space for overnight guests chez nous. The space itself was easy to finagle, both in our rented house of the first year here and the place we’ve now owned for five years, but putting in a comfortable and versatile bed for the intermittent users without breaking the bank was another issue entirely. We had our old slatted bed frame, nothing fancy but perfectly adequate (once I did some serious shoring-up of the flimsy joinery that had suffered a bit over the years of use and house-moving), but mattresses are so expensive!

For a while, I used an air mattress on the platform of the bed, because those are, after all, much cheaper and generally better made than those with which I’d grown up, and the slats are designed to be used without box springs. But after the night when Mom and Dad Sparks had slept (very little) on a mighty ridiculous slope because one end of the mattress had sprung a slow leak, it was definitely time to find a better solution there, too. Turns out, I did. I made a Bed Sandwich. Or a sandwich bed. Whatever it is, we’ve had a number of guests offer to move in with us. Or pack up the bed and haul it home with them.

It’s a hodgepodge of a bed and looks decidedly lopsided and goofy. The Princess who was so sensitive she could detect that irksome Pea under a mass of mattresses would undoubtedly turn up her royal nose at the very idea of reclining upon such an odd-looking conglomerate bed. But our visitors, from those of a certain vintage with replacement body parts and dodgy spines to youngsters who do daily yoga and could go ziplining in their sleep, seem to love how it feels so much that they feel at home in our guest room, and that is my idea of a good DIY project. I’ll bet even the Princess would be willing to give the bed a try, if persuaded by those reviews.

Photo montage: Bed Sandwich

From slatted bed frame, through a series of offbeat layers, to a humble-looking bed that guests don’t want to leave, the Bed Sandwich is one of my most successful homemaking DIYs thus far.

What’s the secret? Nothing fancy. Layers. The bottom layer is, literally, pieced together hunks of 6″ thick foam rubber, old camping mats, that I’ve had for years, assembled into a queen-sized mattress shape and held together with old cotton bedsheets, several layers of them to be sure none of the foam rubber falls or is squeezed out. The middle layer is the one that cost real money, back in the day: when we bought our master bedroom mattress, a very expensive and entirely-worth-it natural latex behemoth, we’d invested in a mattress topper, three inches of natural wool encased in a beautifully hand-stitched natural cotton cover, that was cushy and comfortable, but as it turned out, also a little less smooth and level than I typically like. I bought a memory foam topper for our bed and put the cotton-and-wool one on the guest bed. On top of that, I decided to put a memory foam topper as well, and it works both for additional padding and to smooth out the middle layer’s wavy surface further. Evidently it works. The bottom foam rubber layer, together with the slatted platform of the bed, is firm enough to support those who prefer or need a firm mattress, and the middle and top layers of padding seem mighty popular with both firm-mattress fans and those who just want the bed to give them a big hug all night long.

I am more content both because our guests seem to sleep very well, and I sleep better knowing that they do, especially since I have my sweetheart handy to give me a big hug all night long. Did I mention that as another thing that really turns a domicile into a home?

Foodie Tuesday: Dad Goes Grocery Shopping, Too

Photo montage: Grocery BonanzaNot everybody grows up with a dad who likes grocery shopping, but I got lucky. My father was the son of a grocery man and had his first real job working for the same grocery business as Grandpa did, so it was not entirely unusual that Dad would be the one who took us kids grocery shopping when it was time to stock up again. Even summer vacations followed a little in Grandpa’s tradition; instead of the stereotypical roadside tourist attractions, he was wont to stop at any grocer’s the family passed on their travels, wanting to see what ‘the competition’ was doing and reveling in the interesting inspirations he might find along the way. My dad, too, had enough of the bug from watching his father in action that when we did go to the grocery store, it wasn’t one of those stomp-through-at-top-speed reluctant shopper experiences that so many have with their parents, notoriously fathers most of all.

We meandered up and down every aisle, having a happy, leisurely look through everything on display, and more often than not, we came home with something new or unusual or just plain frivolous. Much to the delight of Dad’s junior shopping contingent, of course!

Mom was a good grocery shopper and fed us well, and taught us the kitchen skills to use the stuff we were buying, but Dad got to play the primary role of finding the unusual fun in visiting the store. Between the two, then, they gave us kids not merely those practical survival and sustenance skills we needed but a sense of pleasure in exploring what food does beyond keeping us alive and healthy. Thanks to their teamwork, it became a focus for community, artistic invention, entertainment, and exploration, and this all made it easier to expand those ideas far beyond our home walls.

That my parents’ ideas about division of labor and gender roles was generally more practical and individualized than American, middle class, mid-twentieth-century standardized was a boon to us as we grew in many other parts of our lives. It was Mom who taught me by example to do the fix-it stuff for general home maintenance, having been brought up in a carpenter’s household herself, and both parents took part in helping us with homework, counseling us, playing with us, and much more. Dad was a neatnik by inclination as much as Mom was a careful homemaker, so there wasn’t much obvious differentiation when it came to keeping the house up and running on a simple organizational basis.

But that’s all peripheral to my thesis, which is that I was fortunate to have two parents, not just one, who took an interest in the choosing and assembling of what we ate. Dad never demonstrated a huge urge to Make things with recipes, so sandwiches and cereals and the occasional barbecue tending was his main realm of preparation, but he did those with aplomb and enthusiasm and played sous chef many a time. Mom was the chief in the kitchen. Having two skilled shoppers in the house, though, that was, and still is, inspiring, and I am the better and happier for it. If your household consists of more than your lone self, or you share meals and their preparation even occasionally with younger people, I hope you’ll consider creating such an atmosphere of joy and adventure in the process as well!

Foodie Tuesday: Potato Famished

photoI’m going to keep this supremely simple. I love potatoes. Among my ridiculously long list of edible loves, potatoes rank pretty high on the list. It’s clear that my Viking ancestry designed my particular corporeal form to be composed of 70% potato water, so I’m spending my years just fueling it up as best I can.

Barring allergies or outright dislike, it’s hard not to admire the potato regardless of one’s lineage. It’s one of the most inspiringly versatile foodstuffs on this little old planet. There’s hardly anything that a potato can’t gussy up nicely. Let me just commune with the spirit of the potato here for a moment:

Boiled, roasted, fried, baked, steamed. Even raw. Yes, on rare occasions Mom gave them to us sliced like cold little potato bruschetti, buttered and salted and munched out of hand. Odd, but not unpleasant. Still, I’m a little more of an old stick in the mud and like them best cooked up one way or another. Grated, mashed, bashed, diced. Sliced and made into insanely tasty (and of course buttery as can be) Hasselback potatoes. Cooked and smashed, with lots of gloriously rich cream. French fried, skin on, in beef fat. Scalloped with a passel of cheese. Okay, you caught me. I’m stuck as always on my beloved theme of delicious FATS. Yeah, I yelled. Ahem. Now, back to our regularly scheduled swooning over potatoes. Tenderly toothsome cubes in vegetable soup or clam chowder or some dreamy slow-cooked stew. Crisply golden-browned hash browns tenderly steaming at heart. Silky smooth in a luscious cool Vichyssoise.

And of course, sometimes nothing else can possible compare to a fine and dandy baked potato. Say, served with tonight’s very simply cooked steak and very simply plain romaine and tomato salad. Just halve the russet potatoes, coat well with coconut oil, place cut side down in a baking pan and then stab them thoroughly in the back with a fork or knife to prevent in-oven explosion (or zombie resurrection, if that’s your concern), salt them well with coarse good salt, and bake until they’re tender inside and crispy outside (circa 20-30 minutes, depending on the oven and the size of your potatoes) at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Some things can’t really be improved, now, can they.photo

Foodie Tuesday: A Little Latin Love

photoIt was Tapas Tuesday today. Since we were having the Collegium crew over after their performance of the exquisite Requiem that concluded the compositional career of the magnificent Spaniard Tomás Luis de Victoria, it seemed only appropriate to feed them some Spanish-influenced food and drink. I am neither a Latina–though much of my Norwegian ancestry did come from the southernmost part of Norway, so that makes me virtually Mediterranean, no?–nor knowledgeable about Spanish cuisine, but I took my usual loose and playful approach and didn’t get any complaints.

It’s wonderful to start learning a cuisine by means of a party rather than a full meal, to be sure. Numerous bite-sized dishes offer a much more forgiving palette for pleasing a large number of guests. Among the attendees were some who needed vegetarian, peanut-free, and gluten-free options, a couple of underage visitors and a nursing mother, all of whom would be needing non-alcoholic drinks–and then there were those for whom none of that was relevant. Again, the variety of items possible in a tapas party easily lends itself to such flexibility. It’s no wonder hors-d’oeuvres and cocktail parties and bar menus have remained tremendously popular since their inception.

What I don’t wish to do is to attempt to be all-things-to-all-people. It’s futile. It’s overly precious and annoying anyway. I’m just not willing to attempt that in any aspect of my life, least of all when I rather hope that people are visiting us at home because they actually want to visit with us, not because they’re looking for some mythic party experience. The funny (and not at all surprising) thing about it, of course, is that it still took me all day to get ready for the shindig before my husband got home from school to get ready and head over for the performance before 6 pm. Because, large or small, food and drink items take some prep work.

I did want to squeeze in some time for house tidying, at least in the rooms we were using tonight, and of course there was a load of laundry to be done and a kitchen-full of dishes to be washed and put away, a batch of bone broth to set to cooking, and oh, yeah, some errands, some garden watering. You know, the usual. Which is all to say that there is a reason or two that it’s a shade after midnight, and yes, I can tell time, so I know it’s not Foodie Tuesday, strictly speaking, anymore. Therefore I’m just posting this with a teaser photo or two (murky and fuzzy at that) to assure you that tomorrow I will tell a bit more about what I made for today. Come to think of it, perhaps I’ll get to eat some of it tomorrow. Because as you all know, when you spend the whole day fixing things for a party and then have fun people show up for the event, chances are pretty good that you’ll go to bed without having actually eaten any of what you fixed, other than a quick taste here or there while in mid-prep.

But I got to meet a few new people, or at least visit with some I’d not yet gotten to chat with before, and hold the exceedingly charming 5-month-old daughter of one of the singers. So I’m not complaining in the least! Still, it’s past my bedtime and well past when I would like to have posted this, so I’ll just bid you all a good night and sign off until tomorrow. Stay tuned, my friends!photo