Pretty Thievery

You’ve heard of petty thieves; this summer I saw a pretty thief. My husband and I were visiting in Washington (state), seeing family, attending a fundraising event and spending a couple of days at the end of the trip where my partner was doing some work conducting a choir (comprising as its singers a batch of veteran choral conductors and teachers, a handful of whom are longtime friends of ours) in a workshop. It was all quite delightful, with the exception of the horrid respiratory gunk that my guy received as a gift along the way and that cut short the workshop fun. [He has fully recovered by now, thankfully.]

But another unexpected happy thing about the trip was that the fundraiser was held very near a condominium we own that, while it’s normally rented out as a residence—so we’ve not been inside it since we viewed it for purchase—our property manager informed us that we were getting a new renter and our visit sat right in the between-renters gap. So there was this handy opportunity for us to go in and renew our familiarity with the place where we might conceivably someday live ourselves as retirees, not to mention a chance to measure rooms, note the condition of things now that the home was actually clean and unfurnished, and so forth. All useful, along with the visit to that town itself, in reminding ourselves what had attracted us to the locale and the home in the first place.

Another attraction we were reminded of appeared serendipitously on this visit. As we were wandering through the neighborhood and trying to remember exactly how to find our only-once-visited place, we passed a house with beautiful dwarf fruit trees planted along its street side, and there stood a deer, placidly unruffled by either our passing car or the midday sun, casually balancing on two legs to reach up and nab some marvelous, rosy ripe apples and munch them one after another. We stopped, rolled down our windows to enjoy the sight, and listened to birds chorusing in the trees, and vowed never to turn in such a charming miscreant even if it one day dined on our own deck plants.Photo: Pretty Thievery

Final Residing Place

graphite drawingResidential Issues

The beaver builds a dam-fine house,

The mouse, a hole-in-one,

The moose and goose, while on the loose,

Take shelter in the sun;

The pigeon curls up in her nest;

Raccoon believes his den is best.

It seems that every one abroad

Creates his ideal home,

Yet every head at last, when dead,

Will end up in the loam.

Therefore, I say, enjoy your port,

Your burrow, hovel, cubby, fort,

And be advised that what you’ve prized

Won’t be your utter last resort,

But rather you’ll take company

With all the beasts moved on

To their reward under the sward,

And to the dirt begone!graphite drawing


Here at the ol’ Sparks Ranch (well, just a ranch-style house, but we are in Texas after all), DIY projects happen for a variety of reasons, but there are three main motivators that have the best chance of eventually getting me involved in them. The first is that I get, ahem, the spark of an idea for something that could be better than it is. The second is that I don’t often have the moolah to purchase such an item or bit of action ready-made and fabulous. And the third is that sometimes just the right piece of the puzzle arrives on my doorstep to nudge me into  motion after all.

These three inspirations converged recently when my longstanding desire to spiff up our built-in bar–an item I’d never been accustomed to having in my home, but what the heck, it came with the house–complicated by my unwillingness to spend much on the project, met with the gift of our renovating next-door neighbor’s removal of the built-in bottle and stemware rack from the bar in her house. (Thank you, LM!) As our houses are of similar vintage and share close cousins of the woodwork stain variety, the ejected cabinet was a close enough match to those already in the lower half of our bar to make a fine fit.

What began as a modest set of lower cabinets, a set-in [and nearly stainless] bar sink with a cheap but functional faucet, a nasty very fake looking ‘wood’ laminate countertop and some glass shelves on a simple bracket style rack is now, I think a reasonable bit better: it’s both a fair amount more functional and a little less sketchy looking, and I think I won’t be quite so worried about keeping it closed constantly as I had been in its shaggier state.


Homely yet functional. Kind of like me. But I always want to be a little better, so why shouldn’t my house!


Now, with more storage! And a little bit more finished look, despite its humble beginnings.

What I did: first, I remembered that I’m now over half a century old and therefore should not lift a couple-hundred-pounds cabinet up and bolt it into place solo, something I would undoubtedly have been dumb enough to try in times past. Okay, and I was silly enough to lift the thing onto the counter by myself before I decided that not being hoist on my own petard was a really appealing concept. So after I cleared all of the previous bits out of the spot and plugged up the screw holes from the old shelves, I hired a carpenter friend to come and heft the oak box up, herk it into position, and bolt it generally in place with me. I’m cheap but not [entirely] insane.

I masked off the space and did the most gruesome part of the job: prepping and spray painting the countertop and the lower half of the walls, along with the sink and faucet, with my old friend Hammerite paint in the bronzy brown hammered finish. The walls and hardware (including the light switch and outlet) were all in extremely rough shape and it seemed to me the better part of valor to just embrace the rugged look and be a tiny bit old-school industrial in style. Then I brought in all of the scraps of trim and moldings I had left over from our previous reno projects here, along with my little hand-saw and miter setup, and pieced together some legs to support the front of the already weighty empty cabinet and horizontal supports for shelves over the sink, cut two short shelves out of a couple of old bookshelves no longer in use elsewhere, and then trimmed out the whole conglomeration. Under all of the paint, if you look too closely, you’ll see that it’s one wild concatenation of mismatched trim profiles and caulked, spackled, sanded and glued odd parts, but I did my best to pull it all together with the finishes by painting the bottom half all in Hammerite and the top half (including the ceiling) in plenty of primer and a finish coat of satin latex in simple cream.

I borrowed a couple of unused curtain rod finials to hide some of the weirder joinery at the corners and loaded the cabinets, and I believe I’m now within an nth of Done with this particular DIY. Or, if I’m to be honest, I suppose I should admit it’s DIM (Did It Myself–and yes, dimly enough). I just took the globe off of the ceiling light and stuck a reproduction Edison bulb in the fixture for now; eventually, I’ll want to either move the fixture itself or get a swag to relocate the bulb over the sink, so it doesn’t sit right next to the wine rack and heat it up, however briefly I keep the light turned on in there. And I’m going to put some of those little chalkboard labels on the front of the ‘new’ cabinet in those flat spaces so I can write in what’s in the rack and change it as the inventory changes. At the moment, I’m done with what I have materials on hand to do, so I think I’ll just enjoy it. Probably ought to sit down and have a drink!

Cheers! Sláinte! Salut! Prost! Egészségedre! Here’s Mud in Your Eye! Skål!photo



All in the Details (Small and Large), Part 1

photoI’m an avid, and truly amateur (in both the worst and best senses of the word), changer-upper of things. My father warned my fiance, as if the poor guy hadn’t already seen it in action, that when we lived together he would likely come home from any trip–overseas or two doors down the street–and find the furniture rearranged or a room fully repainted, or possibly, that we’d moved to another house in his absence. I promised I would always leave a forwarding address and directions with his new house key if I went so far as the latter. He married me anyway. And I have indeed continued in my blissfully mercurial attitudes toward what feels comfortable and desirable, or looks beautiful, to me in my places of work, play and general living. Aside from the occasional piteous whimpers of ‘Who Moved My Cheeeeeeeese?‘ my husband has also continued to be an exemplary, even sometimes equally avid if not outright participatory, supporter of this habit of mine.

I assure you, this hobby of mine might have run even more wildly rampant had I had the time, tools, skills and bottomless budget required for such extravagances. But though I might chafe at having to think so hard or wait so long, I’m also addicted nearly as deeply to the problem-solving puzzles presented by having to prioritize and/or simplify my fantastical plots and plans. As we’ve lived our sixteen-plus years together thus far in five homes of our own plus a couple of stints living briefly in other places where we had a bit of free rein if not ownership, there have been plenty of opportunities for these kinds of happy dreaming and scheming. Since I’m unlikely to live even overnight in a motel room without itching to Improve upon something or other about it, you can well imagine that Things Happen whenever I’m plugged in for any length of time at all.

You’ve heard hints here recently that I have had a few such projects in mind and/or in hand at home once again, so I think it’s about time to unveil some of the things I’ve managed to do or have done. And some that are still early in their incubation, perhaps. When we came to Texas to house-hunt for one whole week in 2009, it was the first time I’d set foot in the state outside of the airport. My spouse had been to the town we were moving to live in as much as twice during the interview process, so between us our experience and ken of the town didn’t add up to much, so we knew it was best to hold off on buying a home until (a) we saw if the move was a ‘good match’ (or the university or denizens of our town would run us out at pitchfork-points, or we would pack up our carpet-bags in the dark of night and slink off to places yet unknown) and (b) we had some clue what part of town spoke to us and could house-hunt at leisure.

Thus, a rental for our first Texas home. We spent a comfortable year living in a very decent place in a quiet neighborhood and with marvelous landlords, but hoping to find something with better space for inviting students and colleagues and friends to visit, not to mention where we could put visiting relatives for overnight stays without having to stand them up in a coat-closet or bed them down in the bathtub. The real bonus of our rental locale was that the neighborhood was virtually across the fence from a second neighborhood that was both inviting for cooler-weather walks on the weekend and somewhat hidden–we know lots of longtime townspeople who still didn’t know this neighborhood existed until we invited them to our current place.

When we found the house we would buy, we had been ‘scouting’ the neighborhood, with its mature oaks galore and hidden charms, for a bit and we were first to see the For Sale sign sprout and the first to come and look through. A second couple had asked for a tour before we turned around and opted to make an offer, and that was about it. Both of us had an instant liking for both the house and the nice 88-year-old lady who sold it to us, but it took both of us wearing our creative goggles to see through her 30-year-old decor to see what we would make of it as our own home. So the negotiations began with our plan to remain living for an overlapping month in the rental house a short walk away while I joined the construction crew that we hired to do the many small repairs and updates and the one larger task that would lend it such personalization for us rather x 2The big idea was to open the wall between the kitchen and dining rooms, which made this three-decade-old house leap forward into the Open Concept era and our plans for group entertainment with great alacrity. The removal of lots of wallpaper and beautifully crafted but dated window treatments and a few old-looking light fixtures, and adding many fresh coats of paint throughout, went a long way toward modernizing the place, so that’s what I did to keep busy while The Guys were generally wreaking havoc in the adjoining living areas. I ripped out the wall to wall carpeting in all the bathrooms–the en suite master bath being effectively three whole rooms even without counting the walk-in closets in them, plus a Jack and Jill bathroom between two bedrooms that we’ve made into an office and a TV room, plus the guest bathroom on the other side of the house. I ripped out the carpeting in the kitchen. It was partly glued down and mostly just welded with age to the slab all around, and the baseboard was a bit brittle with age, so it was slow going, but despite that and the gritty heat of the work it was worth the effort, and a huge delight to see the unwelcome, inconveniently dirt-gathering flooring in the ‘wet rooms’ give way to concrete over which we could get something more appropriate set.

Once I had the rugs ripped up and most of the wallpaper stripped from the kitchen and entry, the contractor’s crew came in and began the kitchen renovation, knocking open the inside wall, repairing wall and ceiling cracks, replacing the refrigerator and dishwasher and cooker fan hood (with a microwave/vent), and extending the lower cabinets to fill the new half-wall with wonderful storage. New and gorgeous granite counters went in, fresh paint went on and with masterful matching, new Saltillo tiles from Mexico were laid in the kitchen and adjoining hall and guest bath and stained to match the existing entry/dining room floor. While the men were busy with the kitchen and some painting of the higher-ceilinged entry, living and dining rooms and kitchen, I kept busy repairing small holes and scratches on walls and woodwork to prep for my paint work, removing all of the broken, torn or dated window treatments, and replacing light fixtures and hardware (grouping light switch and outlet face plates and towel bars and door handles to better match each other in various rooms). My favorite improvement in that category came from removing the Oh-So-Eighties white ceramic knobs on every cabinet door in the entire built-in-filled house and replacing them room by room with new hardware better suited to each space.

Now, I must add to all of this that this is a house I would never have designed in the first place. It’s not precisely my style. But I love it. I’m an old enough hand with this stuff to know it would have been a huge mistake to take an essentially solid and well-made house and try–at least without gutting and rebuilding it with ridiculous infusions of money–and make it into something it isn’t. This is how a person who adores Craftsman style, cottage style, mid-century modern, minimalist contemporary, Gothic and Art Nouveau styles, among many others, ends up living in and paying homage to, an updated ’70s colonial. Ha! Needless to say, it requires submitting my own instincts to an appropriateness-test each time I make a tweak, and looking for whatever I do find attractive and lovable that is suited to the situation. First and foremost, of course, that category includes the people I want to spend time with in this place. (!)

One of the distinctions of this house’s style is the aforementioned large amount of built-in cabinets everywhere. It makes for an atypical ’70s house to have such abundant storage. I don’t even use all of the space in any one of the rooms. I can credit a bit of that to being a pretty good organizer and fondness for occasional purging rampages on both our parts, but much of it’s simply having more space than we really require. We quickly found in house-hunting that nothing in our expected choice of home sizes (two bedrooms, two baths so we could accommodate our overnight guests) ever had enough contiguous living space for a dozen dinner guests, let alone twice that or more as we’ve sometimes had on hand. We have, therefore, much more space than absolutely necessary for a whole lot of other things besides mere hospitality purposes. I do find it’s nice, over time, to figure out what use serves us best in which part of the house.


Need more storage despite the cupboards? A wire rack cut to fit over the door jambs keeps the laundry basket out of the way, close by and dust-free. Doors cross each other when they’re both open and pinch your poor hands in between? Replace one of the two with a bi-fold door.

That’s how what at first seemed like a uselessly illogical cabinet in the front hall became the ideal mid-house location for my most-used small hand tools and hardware stash so that no matter where the need occurs, everything is in fairly quick and easy reach. An innate urge to find the easiest route to every necessary task drives me to make many of those changes that can drive change-haters and husbands batty at first but often lead to eventual simplification in daily life. Having two supposedly unwanted extra bedrooms led to our having a place to keep and watch a giant television without it living in our guest space and distracting from lovely conversations with visitors in the living room. Coincidentally, it makes a very cozy ‘away’ space for reading or napping that means neither of us ever has to be underfoot if the other wants to do something different (or more asleep) than the other is occupied with at the moment. It also gives us an expansive home office space so that my spouse can continue his university tasks after hours as needed, without stealing my favorite desk space as I work. No dueling over desks here. No dueling at all, really, in such a big house that I now have my own comfy recliner in front of the TV too. No, I’m not even going to try for custody of the remote; I don’t know what is on when or where anyhow.


From the kitchen, an open view: dinette at lower left, door to laundry at upper left, guest bedroom with its frosted window shining just beyond it; a big built-in hutch for kitchen storage; living room at upper right, with its opening into the dining room at the very far right, and on the lower right, the kitchen counter over which *that* room opens into the dining room.

The latest round of fix-ups and mix-ups around the house waited a couple of years after our buying the place so that we would not only have saved up a little to do them but also, one hopes, have a far better idea of how the house works and how we can best operate in it. The guest room furniture got reoriented so that there was enough more room to add in our exercise cycle and more importantly, also a small desk for guests’ use. One of the happy quirks of room re-arrangement is that sometimes even when there’s more stuff in a space, if it’s better arranged it can feel bigger. Physics aren’t always obviously logical. Go figure. The living room furniture underwent a similarly needed reorientation and now allows room for a small tertiary dinette–besides the eight person dining table and the kitchen one that can stretch for six, we can now put a few diners in the living room too without even moving the conversational seating group. My small seating group out on the back patio is very rarely used. It’s almost always too hot, of course, for sitting out there, even if there weren’t also the Texas-sized insects lying in wait to chew us right out of our skins, not least of all those recently arrived terrorists, the West Nile carrying mosquitoes. Still, there’s something both comforting and welcoming in the mere sight of a pretty outdoor ‘room’, so that’s on my list: how shall I make the space outside our kitchen windows extend our sense of place out into the greenery? How can I bridge the gap between my dream garden out there and the small changes I can bring that will improve the yard much more affordably in the short term? The plot thickens, indeed. The outdoor chandelier has moved closer to the seating area now, and more will come soon. I hope.photoHaving begun the recent round of improvements with a new TV room recliner (a supposed outdoor piece, and bought at the grocery store, of all things) and that blessed new cooktop I was bragging of recently (where eggs do not perpetually run downhill and cook from one end to the other over time anymore), we moved on to more complicated

(To be continued tomorrow . . . )

Solace in Silence

Let us look for our peace wherever we can. Let us embrace it and rest in it. And let us always share that peace with whomever, whenever and however we are able, inviting them all into our places of peace so that they and others all around the world, too, can find and disperse the sweetness of true and deep repose.

graphite drawing + text