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?

There was a Time…

For everything in life, there might indeed be a season. When it comes to the normal and quite predictable shift in relative values or availability, of course, I’m as skilled as the next person in forgetting to renew, rearrange, or simply release that which is no longer fulfilling. It might be an object of utility or beauty I’ve treasured and utilized until it was worn or a new and better one supplanted it. It could be a handed-down family treasure whose receipt over the years went from being an honor to onerous. It is even, occasionally, a relationship with a person that was exactly the right thing at the right time but has either shifted as our personalities and needs grew apart or has been taken from me by death or distance. The question, after any of these, becomes how and when I am able to distance my own self from them without fear of losing what was wonderful in having had them.

I worried about this each time I moved from one home to another, despite knowing it was impractical to take every single thing I owned with me to my next locale every single time, and with no surety about what would fit the new place or how I lived in it. When my husbandly person and I decided to downsize some years ago from a house to an apartment and simplify a little by getting rid of lots of what was essentially unused stuff, even though we’d both collected and enjoyed much of it happily over the years, this question arose yet again. I’ve not once regretted the off-loading of so much, even many family heirlooms, in that process. As we sorted and packed it off to new lives/homes, I decided to photograph not only the house and garden as they were but also all of the best-loved Things, thinking that if I could look at the photos when I got wistful and nostalgic later I would be comforted by the stroll down memory lane.

In the end, I almost never even looked at the photos afterward; just knowing that I could was enough, and made it quite easy, really. The very process of ‘documenting’ the stuff helped me remember it and my feelings about it even better than having it still in hand. In practice, I found that much of what I do keep around is easily forgotten simply because it’s not in constant use, so why have it at all? Somebody in need of such a thing will love it all the better, and I’ll feel more contented that the right person and the right object came together and I’m relieved of caring for something I too rarely appreciate. Out of sight, out of mind, and better out of sight in someone else’s appreciative hands than in the back of some cobwebbed cupboard.Photo montage: Stuff & Things

Attention to Detail in All Things

digital illustrationI’m far from being the world’s best gardener. I may have the perfect skill set as a lazy dilettante, loving the design process and having a tremendous appreciation for all of the non-laborious joys of a garden, whether it’s well tended or not. A bark-boring beetle or a sculptural skeletonized leaf can be as beautiful as any spectacular, pristine lily or a lilac’s heady bloom. A moss-choked stone path is as glorious as a graceful fountain encircled by perfect tea roses and rosemary. And I have had quite the aversion to trench digging, rock picking and weeding ever since I was old enough to be conscripted by my parents for the purpose.

But I also know that if a garden is to have any hope of continuity and flourishing in flower, it needs occasional attention to such details, at the least, from Nature’s seemingly random hand. The gusts and waterings, composting and tillage performed by her weather and her handyman crew of creatures all do their parts in keeping the landscape in beautiful form. Even better chance of thriving if I do my part, too, having noticed what details might better prosper under my attentions, however slight they might be.

I was reminded of it recently as I watched a family make their valiant attempt at getting a group portrait. Flanked by grandparents, the parents stood holding their two little boys: Dad, in back, held the eight month old and Mom, ahead, wrangled the three-year-old. No one seemed able to get the normally placid toddler in front to hold still for even one quick photo, or to understand why he was so unusually squirmy, until someone finally noticed what I could see better from my side angle: that the baby was cheerily leaning forward at intervals and yanking his big brother’s hair. Detail noticed, problem solved. Had that adorable little scalawag been able to keep up the practice, I have little doubt there would’ve been need, eventually, for an expulsion from that particular little Eden.

I, meanwhile, must try to keep after my own gardens, the real and the metaphorical, and make sure the little buzzing creatures and weeds don’t get too far out of hand.digital illustration

Who’s the Real Pest around Here Anyway?

photoNo fan of squirrels am I. In the abstract, I can enjoy their wild gymnastic athleticism and pranks and admire their elegant plumy tails and all of that, yes I can. But when I hear that familiar thud on the roof when they’re jumping from the red oak to the shingles and holding their miniature NASCAR events up there, what I’m thinking is not ‘how cute’ but ‘rats’.

They are, after all, rodents. The little scarpers have nice sharp claws that scrape bits off of our roofing (see: roof confetti in gutters) and nice sharp teeth that chew chunks off of our siding (see: bare wood fringe appearing on siding near where only birds or squirrels could possibly reach) and not-so-nice habits of eating every bit of bird seed that I put out if they can reach it (see: squirrel hanging upside down by ankles from gutter like trapeze artist while he stares longingly and calculatingly at nearby-but-not-near-enough bird feeder, then dashing back down to the patio below to scarf up every seed, nut, pod and shell left below said feeder before dashing back up again for another recon) and of ‘recycling’ said bird feed onto patio, porch, garage perimeter and paths for me to sweep up after them (see: squirrel excrement scattered decoratively hither and yon).

But there are as many fans of squirrel-dom as there are less sympathetic critics like me, and there are certainly many, whether among squirrel friends or not, who think many other creatures more dirty, pesky, or persistent than I do. Take pigeons, for one. I’ve heard them called ‘flying rats’ more than once, and know that they are at least as frequently cited as disease carriers and civic troublemakers as are squirrels. Other than the remarkably tiny headed (and I confess to thinking them remarkably tiny brained in equal proportion) mourning doves that visit our place occasionally, there are rarely pigeons around there, so it’s probably simple arithmetical odds that make me like them perfectly fine when I’m so prejudiced against squirrels. As long as you don’t swing by for the seemingly sole purpose of eating my food and then expelling it back out upon me and mine when you’ve had your fun with it, I guess I’ll give you a free pass.

I should very likely just cut the poor squirrels some slack, too, in exchange for the hijinks they provide as compensatory amusement. After all, they, along with all of the other critters that call our garden, yard, ravine, neighborhood and planet home, must surely look on me as a dirty, self-centered, gluttonous and destructive interloper on their home turf, and they would not be wrong. And I sure don’t expect to be able to repay the affront by amusingly hanging by my ankles from the gutter anytime soon.

Housekeeping with a Flamethrower

Why should I do anything on too small a scale, with too little passion? If I’m going to go to any trouble at all for any sort of reason, why shouldn’t I just take it to the greatest extreme I can manage? Anything worth doing, as my father has assured his children all of our lives, is worth overdoing. This, of course, is the same man who told us that ‘they put low dosages on these’ before taking double or triple the prescribed quantity of medication, and who when sent out to prune the trees left something that to his loving spouse resembled less a suburban backyard than a moonscape. Still, he’s managed to live a pretty healthy life and hold down very respectable jobs and raise happy daughters and all of that sort of thing, so he can’t have been all that far off the mark.graphite drawing with digital highlightsAnd, truth to tell, I think that engaging our full strength and will and enthusiasm whenever we can is a pretty good strategy for living altogether. Even though I’m an admitted loafer and a lollygagging lout at heart, I do believe that if I’m going to go to any effort, it might as well be to do something to the best of my ability and, if I’m dedicated and lucky enough in the process, something of value. And I can either thank or blame Dad for my belief in that. (I guess it means that you can, too.) Why, when I got old enough and lucky enough to attach a second Dad, my father in law, to the family, I quickly learned that he has a similar attitude about doing things with complete dedication and raising kids who show that same kind of committed involvement, so I can say that in my experience of fathers in general, they have a remarkable aptitude for living life to the fullest. And really, isn’t it that fine idea after all? I know it inspires me!

Happy Father’s Day to two standouts in the field!

Hot Flash Fiction 5

The Duchess was inordinately fond of animals. Though her courtiers would never dare say so to her face, they imagined she ought to have been born a zookeeper, or at the very least a farmer. This idea was strengthened, especially, by the fact that it always fell to the housekeepers and servants to make the palace tidy enough for Her Ladyship’s dainty passage through life and to freshen the air when the royal menagerie had pranced, prowled or otherwise paraded through its rooms and left unseemly gifts along the way. The Duke, who was as allergic to all things animal as the Duchess was attracted, considered for some time whether he oughtn’t to have a team of expert taxidermists and artisans solve this problem once and for all, creating a large display of preserved zoological beauty that might be both lower maintenance and less powerfully scented than the living creatures populating his estate indoors and out, day and night.digital collageUnfortunately, the Duchess’s sisters who lived in the east wing of the palace did not support the Duke’s enthusiasm for the design, making noises of disapprobation at least as loud as the Duchess’s favorite dogs’ barking or donkeys’ braying. Perhaps, the Duke thought, he had been a little incautious in discussing this artistic concept with his secretary while within earshot of the sisterly ladies-in-waiting, for they both appeared quite ready to dash off squealing with rage to their unsuspecting sibling, or at the least, to imitate the household fauna in some other impolite fashion.digital collageAs it fell out, the Duke, however incautious he may have been in heat of the moment, was not without the wit born of hard experience. Working swiftly with his retainers, was able to resolve the situation quickly and suitably merely by shifting the subject of the new art to a slightly different one featuring the Duchess and her sisters. As an added benison of this resolution, it was discovered that he wasn’t allergic to winged or four-legged pets after all. The palace staff found maintaining the menagerie surprisingly less onerous afterward as well, even with the added curatorial duties of dusting off the Duchess and polishing her sisters from time to time.

Foodie Tuesday: Hospitality as Apotheosis

photoBeing good and doing well make us just a little bit more like angels. Making good food and treating guests well is just that much better. It’s a feeding not just of the stomach but also of the spirit. It puts one in a state of grace that can be earned, but at the same time is the richer for being given without thought of such recompense. A simple cup of hot coffee proffered with kindness becomes through this transubstantiation the elixir of joy.

Today I woke up thinking of such hospitality as I was remembering a time thirty years ago when I was the fortunate beneficiary of it. I was a recent college graduate, working for my uncle’s construction company while I paid off undergraduate loans and contemplated the prospect of taking out more for grad school, and I was sent out with a couple of fellow workers to spend a few days laboring on the repair and renovation of a hundred year old farmhouse out in the country. The weather was pleasantly warm and the house only moderately shaggy for its vintage, and the owners were friendly on our arrival.photoThe work, still, was dirty enough–removal of and repair from exterior dry rot and moss that was encroaching on the northerly upper story window frames and trim, and some interior rebuilding that the lead carpenter on the team would start framing in as a new arch between living and dining spaces as soon as the group effort of tear-out was finished on the second story outside. It was a pretty and classic old farmhouse, with a wraparound porch hugging it so that we were able to set up on the porch roof’s venerable cedar shakes to do our second-story work without having to run our ladders the full height from the ground. But therein lay the problem: by the end of the first day of demolition, the aforementioned carpenter was almost demolished too when the footing he’d installed on the roof for his ladder gave way, the ladder went flat with its top end spearing through an upstairs window and its base making a perfect slide for said gentleman to go shooting straight, if uncomfortably, off the roof.

The other guy and I were close by on either side of Chuck, but neither Jake nor I could, in the split second it took for this to happen, stop the ladder or him from going straight down into the gloom below. There was a terrible moment of near-silence while we scrambled over to the gutter to see whether we could get to him; the first thing we could see was the steel post of the truck bed spearing upward menacingly right about where he’d fallen, so we were breathless with horror as we peered over the edge into the dusk. To our immense relief, Chuck was lying in the spiny shrub next to the truck bed, where he’d slid instead, and though he had some impressive bruises afterward, he’d neither been impaled nor broken a single bone. Needless to say, there was a different wrap-up to the day than we’d planned, what with boarding up a broken window for the night and assuring the owners of the house, who’d come running at the crash, that all was going to be fine. No deaths, no lawsuits from either side, and an even better-repaired window, since we’d now rebuild the thing and re-glaze it rather than just scraping and painting.

Perhaps it was a bit of bonding brought about by the emergency that made them adopt us afterward, the homeowners, but whatever the cause, our next few days were among the most pleasant I ever spent on the job (along with those spent working in the house of the lady who afterward became another uncle’s life partner!), and the sweetness of it lingers in my memory. The second day was such a benevolent spring day that I opted to stay on the roof and eat my lunch while reading an Agatha Christie novel. That worked out remarkably well, for when the man of the house came out to see why I hadn’t come down with the others, he chatted me up about my enjoyment of British mysteries, disappeared, and reappeared later with a grocery bag crammed with said delicacies. It turned out that he was an English professor at the University and taught a course in this very topic, and that along with the house’s ‘issues’ for which we’d been hired there was one of steadily decreasing bookshelf space thanks to his and his wife’s reading habits.

The next day, there was to be no reading on the roof. All three of us workers were summoned into the house at lunchtime and seated at table. While the Professor expressed his kindliness in the gift of books, his wife expressed hers in culinary largesse. I had already thought her a very beautiful woman, with her elegant and mysteriously foreign-looking features, deep-set warm black eyes and smooth brown skin and all, her patrician carriage that belied a gentleness of manner, and her sleek black hair, but I think I fell in love with her more than a little when she put the food in front of us. It wasn’t terribly complex, perhaps, this meal, but it was heavenly. She served us robust bowls of satin-smooth potato-leek soup with slices of dark pumpernickel bread covered in rich Brie. When we thought we might be entirely filled up, we made room for more, because she came back to the table with a freshly baked, perfectly spiced apple pie.

It may be that these things have long since disappeared from the minds of all of the other players (though I find it hard to imagine Chuck has forgotten his scary adventure entirely), but the beauty of that meal so suffused me with happiness that I find it coming to me intermittently still, after all these years. I have no idea who the Lady and the Professor were and don’t even know precisely what became of Jake and Chuck, so I can’t check my facts let alone repay the kindness. I can only hope to pay it forward. I do have some of my home-brewed chicken broth in the fridge; might have to fix someone some soup soon.

Potato-Leek Soup (as remembered)

Boil a few medium-sized potatoes in enough well-seasoned chicken broth [vegetable broth, if you’re not a meat-eater] to cover them fully. While the potatoes are cooking, saute a bunch of sliced leeks in butter with a little bit of salt until melted. Deglaze the pan with a hearty splash of dry Sherry or brandy or whatever dry white wine happens to be handy.

(If you have to open the bottle for the occasion, why then you’ll probably have to have a sip whilst you cook. This is all the better if you have a friend or acquaintance standing by for the meal; you’ll enjoy the visiting all the more.)

When the potatoes are cooked and softened through, add the leeks to the pot, along with (optionally or–if you ask me–optimally) a splash of cream. Using a stick blender, puree the lot until as smooth as possible, adjusting the thickness with any of the three previously introduced liquids as desired, and tasting for seasoning. If you don’t have a stick blender, a regular blender will do as long as you take the necessary precautions against blending hot foods–or just use a potato masher and have a more rustic soup. This soup won’t lend itself perfectly to chilling like a Vichyssoise, because the butter and cream can curdle or separate, but warm or hot it should certainly be filling and definitely warm the spirits.

Cook. Share. Polish your halo. Enjoy.photo