It’s Good to Set a Poor Example

photosI’ve been looking through a batch of old photos, ones taken at the home where my partner and I lived in our first years together, and find it quite striking how time changes my attitudes. Yes, of course, my tastes change dramatically as time goes by, like everyone else’s, and sometimes when I look at old photos (of house, hair, habit–) I am mortified, sometimes I’m mystified, and much of the time I’m just too busy falling all over myself laughing at my ridiculousness to worry much about it all. This time, however, as I looked at my pictures I was struck rather pointedly by another aspect of surprise in revisiting what had once been familiar almost to the edge of invisibility.photosThe photos looked remarkably foreign. It felt a little odd that I’d forgotten so much so completely in a relatively small number of years; is my personal fad-of-the-moment so shallow that it’s obliterated from my memory the instant it’s not in front of me anymore? Well, yes, probably so. I know when we downsized significantly to move from that place we sold or gave away tons, including beloved antique and heirloom items that I feared I’d regret losing, yet in truth hardly ever even thought about again afterward. But the stronger effect was that I am amazed to remember now, on seeing this former home of ours, how much of its DIY character and even the design choices I made were directed and colored by the modesty of our income. Just as I had never clued in when growing up that my family wasn’t rich because I wanted for nothing truly important (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the choices you made!), I never thought of it in those terms either when my husband and I lived in our first together-house–au contraire! I was happy that not only did we live in a place that reflected our tastes and comfort level and our own labors but our friends and family seemed to enjoy visiting there, feel at ease there too, and even admire it as a nice place. No one would ever have mistaken it for upscale, palatial or a showplace, but its humble charms seemed to be more than enough for us to feel glad of it.photosPeople even hired me to do design (interior, objects, exterior and garden) projects based on what they liked of my work in, at and on our home. I was asked to allow a garden club to tour our yard the year after I had it bulldozed and reinvented it to my own tastes. I got hired to redecorate and consult on homes and offices and churches. Was it the swanky air of chic pouring out over every windowsill and sprouting in every flowerbed of our home, the hipness of our up-to-the-minute styling? Certainly not. But would I ever hesitate to invite any trustworthy person who came to the door to come in and make him- or herself at home or fear that I would be unkindly judged or seem uncool? No, even in my shyest and most anxiety-ridden moments, my insecurity never moved outside of my own being: I have always been confident of the niceness of my nests.photosThing is, I was most taken aback by recognizing in these old pictures a home happily occupied by a couple of people getting by on teachers’ incomes and setting up our grand estate on the masses of free time afforded by our having two full-time teaching jobs, his having two additional ‘outside’ choir gigs and my doing extracurricular commissioned design and art projects. As an adjunct faculty member I was in the familiar position of working over a decade full-time before getting to the pay level of the New Kid who came into the department that year straight out of grad school into an assistant professorial position (and I got to argue plenty for a huge percentage raise in my paycheck just to scrape up to that point)–those of you who have worked in higher education know full well what I’m talking about and also why teachers rarely work ‘only’ the fabled nine-month year of the academic calendar without having to supplement by taking side and summer jobs. Still, we were most certainly affluent compared to many, just not in that fairytale way of Having Money to Throw Around.photosSo the intriguing thing I saw in these photos was that much of my fanciful decorator achievements were then, as now, created by use of the designer’s equivalent of sleight of hand, smoke and mirrors. DIY. And lots of throws, slipcovers, repurposed and recycled and upcycled goodies of every sort. All of this to say that, far from being ashamed at the obvious poverty of my resources, I was and am proud of finding ways to make whatever I do have the best it can be and making my surroundings better with what I can manage. Nowadays I tend to think in those terms less because I actually can’t afford the more extravagant approach and more because I’d rather do it in a way that conserves and respects the resources more fully. And because I’m enough of a snob to know by now that what rich people consider Simplifying or Conservatism or Mindfulness is a far cry from the poor person’s point of view. The beauty of Home lies far less in decorative statements than in clean, secure shelter, in warm hospitality and kind hearts. If being impecunious can be motivational, then why indeed not do it well!photos

DI-Why-Not

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.

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

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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

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