On the State of My Desk

At this moment, there’s a lot going on . . . on my desk. The standard things are there: computer, keyboard, mouse, speakers, two landlines (yes, two), lamp, my little coffee warmer hotplate thing that makes drinking coffee in any other room of the house just a little disappointing.

There are other things as well. Yesterday’s coffee mug still waiting to go to the kitchen. A piece of broken glass from the Silverdome sitting on an iridescent shell found on the sandy shore of Thumb Lake. A painted rock. A tray of nineteen Petoskey stones, all found at camp. A tray of pennies. A cactus. A tube of mostly organic moisturizer.

There’s wrapping paper and tissue paper, scotch tape and packing tape. There’s a list of gifts bought, gifts intended, check marks next to those that have been wrapped.

There’s a pincushion, a spool of thread, sewing scissors, a package of elastic, and two stuffed animals (five originally) that need some surgery.

There’s a pair of sunglasses, a couple keys, a barrette. A measuring tape, a couple catalogs, the bill from the eye doctor, the plate from my breakfast.

There’s my work binder with its lists of books in various stages of completion. Copy trackers and catalog schedules and pagination documents.

And there’s my planner, hanging out on the edge of one of those pull out trays old desks have. Ah, the well-intentioned planner.

Inside, things are just as chaotic. Files, yes. Pens and pencils. Post-Its. But also German flashcards, one of those spidery-looking head massagers, collections of state quarters and national park quarters and the first twenty presidential dollar coins. Guitar picks, silicone iPod covers, stacks of business cards I have never consulted.

Last night I finished reading White Noise by Don DeLillo, first published in 1984. After his college town is involved in “an airborne toxic event” the main character is more and more convinced that he is dying (and of course, in the existential sense, he is, just as everybody is always coming one moment closer to their deaths). Near the end of the book, he starts throwing things away, starting with things obviously no one needs — broken things, obsolete things — and then moving on to things you do need — like soap and shampoo still being used in the shower — until his daughters have to stop him.

“The more things I threw away, the more I found. The house was a sepia maze of old and tired things. There was an immensity of things, an overburdening weight, a connection, a mortality. I stalked the rooms, flinging things into cardboard boxes. . . . It took well over an hour to get everything down to the sidewalk. No one helped me. I didn’t want help or company or human understanding. I just wanted to get the stuff out of the house. I sat on the front steps alone, waiting for a sense of ease and peace to settle in the air around me.”

And later, “I was in a vengeful and near savage state. I bore a personal grudge against these things. Somehow they’d put me in this fix. They’d dragged me down, made escape impossible.”

I fully admit that I know the feeling of being overburdened with things, tired of having to organize them and try to keep them neat. I regularly go through purges. I purged when we renovated the kitchen. I recently put two chairs and an old printer from my office on the side of the road. Last weekend, my husband and I helped our son do a full cleaning of his room. We threw away an entire garbage bag of junk, sent several bags of clothes on to our church’s Love Clothing Center, half-filled a very large box with stuff for Goodwill. It took hours and hours.

It never feels like enough.

DeLillo’s character seemed to be doing it out of a sense that these objects were in some way connected to his own mortality and he was afraid to die. He waited to feel a lightness but it never came because the objects weren’t the real problem.

I, on the other hand, always feel lighter when I get rid of things.

Next year I will be moving my office to the smallest room in the house. What a perfect excuse to do a little more purging. At some point perhaps I will have little else than books and rocks and art supplies to my name. It won’t help me escape death. But it will make life feel far lighter.

Operation Kitchen Facelift Is Complete!

It’s been nearly a month, but I think I can finally call this project done! Let’s get right to the photos, shall we?

Here is the kitchen before:

Warm and sunny, but over the 12 years we’ve lived in this house, those white cupboards, which were really just painted with primer, not actual paint, got dingier and dingier and more and more like the teeth of someone who drank too much tea all their life. They needed a bleaching session.

And I’d always been bothered that the cupboard knobs and the drawer pulls were shiny rather than matte and especially that they did not actually match each other, the pulls being silver and the knobs being almost black.

Also the wood-grain-looking laminate counters had some problems, namely at the ends. On one end the endcap piece had come off, leaving the particle board interior visible when you sat at the dining room table and on the other end it didn’t meet up with the stove, so all manner of grease and particles of food made their way down to the floor, catching themselves on the dishwasher’s insulation blanket on the way.

And speaking of the dishwasher, there was nothing holding up that end of the counter but the dishwasher, which made it hard to open and shut.

These are all things you can live with, so we lived with them, knowing that kitchen renovation can be disruptive and expensive. But finally the right time came. We planned and priced things out, went with the cheaper and easy-to-care for option for the countertop, bought paint and knobs and pulls, and then settled in for at least three weeks of patching and painting during every spare moment.

And this is what we ended up with after:

Every choice we made for this project grew out of the choice of the countertops, which are laminate slate basalt (or basalt slate, I can’t remember which) which were chosen because we knew we wouldn’t ruin them, we could install them ourselves, and they would keep the costs down significantly. So the paint on the wall (Glidden, Hazy Seacliff Teal — the color is a bit off in the photo and actually looks very different in different lights) was chosen to work with the deep grey and black of the counters.

I moved my cookbooks to the top open shelves above the sink and got new spice racks. And the sink itself was kind of an odyssey.


This is the fourth one I bought. Our house was built in 1939 and these are the original cupboards, so they are smaller than today’s standard, and a standard 33″ sink will not fit. I wanted a single basin so I had room for my big pots and canners, and so that I didn’t just mindlessly fill one side with dirty dishes but instead had to empty the dishwasher. The faucet is the kind where the sprayer is built into the end and can be pulled out and retracts automatically.

The wine rack on the wall to the left in the above picture was, like the spice rack, found on Amazon after going to eleven stores looking for both. Apparently everyone has more counter space than I do and is just fine with wine and spice racks sitting there, taking up space, because not one store had a selection of wall-mounted varieties. But in a small 1939 kitchen, space is at a premium. In fact, all of my “decorations” on the walls are functional.

The things on either side of the clock above the window here are commonly used, easily adaptable recipes. The idea came to me when I was going through my cookbooks and moving them to the shelves above the sink. Two that I use more frequently than the others are binder-type cookbooks that don’t stack well and anyway I thought ought to be more accessible. But really the main things I get out of the one are the pancake and waffle recipes, which I know by heart but compulsively double check because I don’t want to confuse amounts of ingredients in my head.

So I thought, why not just make them a design element and put them on the wall?

But just a couple recipes isn’t enough for decor, so I found more that, while I don’t make them frequently, I make them more frequently than others. Shortcake, banana bread, pancakes, waffles, blueberry muffins, pound cake, sugar cookies, and chocolate chip cookies. I’m hoping that having them on the wall will make me think to make some of them more often.

I also wanted a chalkboard to replace the little whiteboard on our fridge where we write all the things we’ve run out of so we know what to add to the grocery shopping list. This I also could not find in a store to save my life. Either they were too big or too small, and none of them seemed to be an actual, real chalkboard. They were largely just a flat surface that was painted black and didn’t have the feel of something that would properly interact with chalk, if you know what I mean. So again, Amazon to the rescue.

The little thing on the wall beneath it is actually a tray-style birdfeeder I’ve had there for years and that’s where the chalk and eraser go. Originally we had put our garage door opener in it, but the garage door opener has been broken for years.

One thing I had wanted for years was to move the cabinet knobs to the corners where they could more easily be reached and get the cup-style drawer pulls. This meant a lot of spackle before I could paint, especially on the drawers. The people who had this house before us had replaced the original 3 1/2″ drawer pulls with 3″ drawer pulls. But rather than spackle and drill new holes to ensure that the pulls were centered, they drilled one new hole and used one old hole and the style of the pull was such that it hid the old unused hole. So all this time, our drawer pulls have been slightly off center. And while we never noticed visually, the drawers have always been hard to pull out and push in without getting them crooked. Remember, old cupboards. There are no metal tracks that the drawers travel on — it’s just wood on wood.

So I went ahead and did it right, though it took more time of course. I also decided to remove some doors on some more of the upper cabinets entirely. I love the idea of open shelving when I see it in magazine or pinterest photos, but not for my whole kitchen. I know what’s in some of these cupboards and it isn’t pretty enough to be on display. But there is certainly room for some open shelving in my life.

Once everything was light and bright with new paint (seriously, look back over these photos at the amount of woodwork and you will see that this was indeed a laborious task) the floor looked sad and meh, and maybe someday we will tackle that (or rather have someone else tackle it) but not right now. I’d love to see it with old-style shiny hexagon tile, white with a black stripe all around the outsides and dark grout.

And looking at the pictures now I wonder if a white beadboard ceiling or even a tin ceiling would be cool. No, I don’t wonder. It would be. So sometime down the line I can see the ceiling and floor getting redone. But for now, this is quite a transformation in its own right.

Operation Kitchen Facelift Has Begun

I didn’t notice it happening , but our black walnut tree has already dropped all of its leaves and stands tall and bare back behind the garage. It’s been an odd fall, not nearly so colorful as last year’s. The trees were stressed from a dry summer, then it turned cold and we thought the fall color might be a week ahead of schedule. But summer returned and the trees are confused. My maples are still green and the walnut looks on, either embarrassed at jumping the gun or smug at his preparedness for winter, I don’t know which.

A similar confusion exists in our house right now. We’ve started a kitchen facelift of sorts that has progressed slower than expected because of the little absurdities and quirks of an old house that doesn’t fit today’s standard dimensions. We’re on our third sink purchased for this project and now waiting on the plumber for professional installation (we don’t mess with plumbing if we can help it) who had come earlier this morning only for us to discover our sink conundrum.

I’ve picked a color to paint the walls and realized with the new, very dark countertops that the cupboards really do need a new coat of fresh, bright white paint. That’s a long time coming, as the people who lived here before us had the entire house painted but all the white woodwork and cabinetry is actually only white primer, not paint, and it gets dreadfully filthy. So I’ll be removing doors and drawers, filling in all the old hardware holes, painting everything, repositioning the holes for the hardware, and installing new knobs and pulls.

This all takes time, of course, so it may be a while before I can share a before and after post with you, but I’m hoping to do so in the next couple weeks perhaps. I suppose the nice new countertops are like my walnut tree: clean, bare, and ready for the next chapter of life. Everything else in the kitchen? Green maples, all of them.

Imagining a Room of One’s Own

We interrupt these UP road trip pictures (yes, there’s more…I just haven’t had time to edit them yet!) to bring you this special announcement.

I’m scheming and measuring and graphing and starting a new Pinterest board…

 

…because I’m hoping to move my office to another room in the house (which will be ALL MINE…muahahahaha!!!) sometime in the next, oh, let’s say six months.

There are walls to paint, additional outlets to install, shelves to build, and some of the most cumbersome furniture we own to move in order to make it happen.

But it will happen.

And I’m so excited.

Sloughing Off Winter

Maybe it’s the sunshine we got this morning, or maybe I’ve just had too much coffee, but I feel like it’s time to start spring cleaning despite the fact that our temperatures are only in the low 20s and there’s a dusting of snow on the ground. I won’t be throwing open the windows or anything, but the thought of clean laundry and shiny wood floors suddenly excites me far more than it should. I’ve recently noticed the layer of dust on the printer, the general stuffiness of the house, the discombobulation under the kitchen sink. The atrophy that occurs after months of insideness. The piles of junk begging to be organized or put into bags and dropped off in a bin at the back of the thrift store.

Everywhere there is evidence of neglect.

In the office, a box containing Christmas wrapping, a chair I’ve been meaning to re-cover, the buckets I used to condition the aquarium water for fish now long dead.

In the kitchen, a waffle maker that hasn’t been used in weeks still on the countertop, an empty space on the wall that should hold the 2017 calendar I never got around to buying, a Tupperware cupboard in complete disarray.

In the living room, the air conditioning cover that blew off in high winds weeks ago, the snow pants that haven’t been necessary since January, the basket of Christmas cards I forgot to recycle.

And there’s more, so much more! When people ask me how I can write as much as I do when I work full time . . . this is how! I let other things go.

But the robins and red-winged blackbirds and sandhill cranes are back. The buds are swelling on the bare trees. The rivers are swollen with rain. They’re telling me that it’s time to clean up my act — clean up my house — and get ready for a new season.

The 130-Year-Old Surprise under the Stairs

In my ongoing quest to maximize storage as we remain in our house, I suggested to my husband that we should clean out the space under the basement stairs, build a custom shelving unit under there, and store hiking gear and luggage in a more efficient way. He was game and began the project a week or so ago, sawing and pounding and generally making it sound like he was removing the very foundation of the house. There were some things under there we expected to find — leftover paint, old area rugs that for some strange reason we had decided to keep even though we replaced them with other rugs we liked more, some things we used to have on the walls of our old apartment and I guess weren’t ready to get rid of, even though there was nowhere for them in this house, etc.

But there was one thing that surprised us — because we weren’t the ones who put it there and because the closed off closet under the stairs was so dark we never even noticed it.

When we first moved into the house at the end of 2005, there was a little shelf in the basement with the exact same design on it. We gave it to my in-laws because it didn’t quite fit our style. We knew it was either Eastlake or a later Eastlake-inspired piece. It would stand to reason, then, that this bundle of wood was a related piece. But just what was it, we wondered?

We brought it upstairs and started to unwrap it. It was partially packed with a September 1941 issue of The Detroit News (which I’ll show you all in a separate post because there was some great stuff in there). We laid out the pieces and started to ponder.

Some of our early theories were a mantle piece, a huge frame for a long lost mirror, or a headboard. A bit of putting the puzzle pieces together and searching for photos of Eastlake furniture online, this is what we came up with.

It’s a twin-sized headboard. It is missing at least two short pieces that would go vertically on either side of the darker piece of veneered wood in the middle. Whatever happened to those (and why the rest was saved even though it could not really be used again unless those pieces were present) will never be known.

What is quite interesting to me, knowing the history of our house, which was built in 1939, is that it is unlikely this 1880s headboard was ever used, or if is was, it wasn’t used long. The first resident of our house was a single female pediatrician named Frances Kenyon. If she moved in in 1939 or 1940, she would have used the headboard less than two years before packing it away with a 1941 newspaper (unless the paper had been around for a while before the bed was packed away).

I can envision her moving in with some hand-me-down furniture that she replaced with something more modern (perhaps something advertised in the very newspaper that was used to pack this old-fashioned piece away) when she had the means. And why did she keep the headboard she was no longer using? First of all, I know from a very knowledgeable friend of mine who is a historic preservationist that some bedsteads in past times were the finest and most expensive furniture you might own and they were passed down within families. But I’m not sure this was the case here.

More likely, I think, is that she kept it in case she might need it in the future — perhaps for a child? Frances Kenyon never married and she handed her house (my house) down to her niece, Sarah, who lived here until the early 2000s, when a young family bought it. That young family was transferred to another city, and that is how we came to own it. But maybe she wasn’t single by choice all her life. Maybe she had hoped to start a family and kept that twin headboard for a child who was never born.

And now we are left to decide what to do with it. It’s definitely been damaged while sitting on a basement floor for perhaps 75 years. It would need specially made replacement parts to again function as a headboard. And it’s just not our style. So we’re sending it to live with the shelf we already gave away. My clever in-laws will be thinking of a way to repurpose it in their home.

For me, the best part about my husband’s discovery of this artifact beneath the stairs was the pre-Pearl Harbor newspaper packed with it. I can’t wait to share it with you in a later post…

Bringing Back the Morning Room and the Drawing Room

A couple new pieces were added to the Cigar Room over the long weekend. While the menfolk were out geocaching and shooting off rockets on Black Friday, my mother-in-law and I went antiquing. I had two very specific items on my list — a small, round drink table and a vintage lamp for right next to the Eames style chair. I found the lamp right when I walked in the door of the first shop. The table was discovered in the back of the second. It’s the perfect size for the lamp, a drink, and a little candle.

We do still need to put a few more things on the wall, but the room is nearing completion. Both my husband and I find ourselves there at some point almost every day. Sometimes all day when we are writing or editing. It is perfect for sunny morning coffee and reading, afternoon tea or cigars and writing, and evening wine or decaf paired with pleasant adult conversation.

Though it’s far more masculine than the traditional morning room that a large estate may have had in the 18th or 19th century, I find that it is a nice substitute in our neighborhood of small homes built in the 1930s and 1940s.

A morning room, if you’re unaware, is just what it sounds like. A room used in the morning. Traditionally it would have been used by the lady of the house to receive visitors, plan meals, make shopping lists, and work on correspondence (I do have all my stationary there now). Lots of windows and strategic placement on the morning side of the house meant lots of natural light by which to read and write. The term is used more in Britain than the US, by why not borrow it to add a touch of formality to our stubbornly casual lives?

The morning room’s cousin is the more commonly encountered drawing room. Contrary to my childhood misunderstanding, it is not a room reserved for drawing (a fact which deeply disappointed me when I discovered it). The term is short for withdrawing room. It’s a room to which you and your guests might withdraw after a meal for conversation and drinks. Alternatively, it might be a room to which one would withdraw alone in order to escape one’s guests.

We use it to escape the messy kitchen and dining room after dinner, or the toy-strewn living room at almost any time during the day. We also use it to withdraw from noise when we are trying to read or write with other people in the house. It is mostly separated by the brick wall that used to be the outside of the house, so with the door shut it is quite insulated from the sounds of video games in the basement or music in the living room. It is an absolutely adult room — no toys allowed — and the only part of it that can get messy is the table, which is easily tidied by emptying the ash tray and putting coffee mugs into the dishwasher.

This uncluttered space has helped my state of mind immensely. It is a room in which it is equally easy to concentrate and to let the mind wander and dream. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so pleased with how a sudden redecorating whim has turned out.

Staying Put and Scheming about the Future

A couple summers ago, we began considering putting our house up for sale. Driven by a number of factors, one of the most important of which were schooling options for our son, we started cleaning stuff out, sprucing stuff up, and living on Zillow.com. The plan had been to possibly list the house this past spring. That didn’t happen.

We still weren’t in as advantageous a position as we were hoping as the Lansing real estate recovery stalled. The urgency to move was lessened by us finding a good private school we love that isn’t too terribly far away. And then this summer I thought, hey, if we’re probably staying here at least a few more years, why not make some improvements, and thus began the transformation of the sunroom into the cigar room.

Our space and storage issues remain, but some recent scheming has made it plain that it would be possible to stay long term, just as we had originally planned when we moved in. This would mean some thoughtful reconfiguration of rooms, some creative storage solutions, some updates and upgrades around the house, and hopefully (please, please may it be so) some willingness to let go of some STUFF.

We’d like to do some updates in the kitchen, someday I’d really like to replace our deteriorating driveway and squirrel-hotel of a garage, and we’ll have to tackle the issue of closet space when we eventually move our bedroom into the current office. But some of these repairs and changes open up opportunities.

For instance, moving the master bedroom to the main floor got me thinking about adding French doors to the back yard, redoing the upper patio, and having my morning coffee out there. Updating the kitchen will mean adding functionality and style. Moving the boy into our current bedroom will mean he has room for all his STUFF in there and I won’t see it all over my living room. And the small size of his current bedroom, which would become my office and studio space, means it can only be mine and no one else’s stuff will fit in it.

Muahahahahaha!!!!! A room of one’s own, the holy grail of rooms. It almost makes me want to start moving stuff around now.

The decision to stay put for a while has lit our creative spark, which is a good thing. Last month Zach made more custom built-in shelves in the fun room (aka, family room) and a couple days ago we starting scheming about new custom shelves beneath the basement stairs to house all the hiking gear.

I’m sending away a bunch of little-used STUFF from the basement, garage, and yard through liberal use of our area Freecycle group. A number of things I’ve saved over the years “for if we ever have a bigger house” can now be let go of. Things I packed away when I was thinking about showing a house and then moving, well, if I don’t miss them over the next year and they’re nothing of sentimental value, that will be the next wave of stuff to go out to new owners. And if you know me, you know I love getting rid of STUFF.

We may still find that in a few more years we’ll want to move and the opportunity will be just right. If that’s the case, we’ll hopefully have less STUFF to move and an updated house to sell. But in the meantime, we’ll get to enjoy any improvements we’ve made, rather than just doing all that work for the next owners.

Or, maybe the feeling we had when we first saw this house back in 2005 — that we could live here forever — was right all along.

 

Only time will tell.

 

Estate Sale Win for the Cigar Room

I am in love.

EamesChair

The cigar room continues to slowly come together with this Eames-style mid-century chair for which I got up at 6:00 AM on a Saturday. I got my name third on the sheet and should have been third in line when the sale opened, but the first two ladies were slow and apparently not too eager, so I was the first one in the door at 9:00 AM. One of the estate sale workers had already told me exactly where in the house to go for it. I snagged the tag a split second before the lady whose name was after mine on the list (and then avoided making eye contact with her).

Victory!

The lady who checked me out told me they’d gotten a lot of calls about the chair, so I bet there were a number of disappointed people out there this morning. But I’m not going to worry too much about them. Instead, I’m going to sit smugly in my awesome new chair and get back to drafting my next novel. In fact, I used the time waiting in the car this morning between 7:00 AM and 8:30 AM to get more than 700 words written, so I’d say it’s been a pretty productive morning.

Now, I say Eames-style because it is not an authentic Herman Miller Eames chair. Here’s a great article on how to tell the difference. But the estate handlers advertised it and priced it accordingly. I never would have bothered going if it were authentic.