Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Year of the Squirrel

This morning I was driving to work and as I sat waiting for the light to change, I saw a squirrel run across the road. I was impressed how it crossed between the standing cars. They say animals can learn those things. I remember reading "Watership Down" and there being something in there about the dangers of the road. (Which reminds me, I really need to re-read that book!)

I started reflecting on how important squirrels are when you live in the city. Often they are the only wildlife people see, unless you include pigeons, which some people love and feed in violation of the city ordinance and many people despise as "rats with wings". My Dad is a card-carrying member of the "I Hate Pigeons Club." I remember one Father's Day, we had just come from brunch and we passed an obvious pigeon-lover throwing out breadcrumbs, and my Dad said to them as we walked by, "I see you like feeding the rats."

I myself notice all kinds of animals, but I am as they say, "very tuned in." I've seen hawks, rabbits, raccoons, deer, a myriad of birds including Monk Parakeets, waterfowl, possums and of course squirrels -all in the City of Chicago. Year round, I always have an eye out and ear craned for a woodpecker or a hawk, hummingbird or unusual insect even.

Over the years, I've devoted quite a few blog posts to our grey furred friend. I've pondered their busy-ness with bemusement. They have vexed me with their mischief. They raid my bird feeder and maim my pumpkins at Halloween, but I really don't mind. Squirrels gotta eat.

I've often joked that "squirrels are my affinity animal" or "I was a squirrel in a previous life." I tend to be thrifty and I hate to waste anything, especially anything edible. I will take the smallest bit of leftovers, toss it in a salad and call it a meal. All our stale bread goes to the birds. I compost as much as I can. If I grow an excess of say, kale in my garden, I start making kale tarts and such and freezing them. I wait for big bags green tomatoes to ripen at the end of the season and make gobs of sauce. Still have some in my freezer from last fall as a matter of fact. So, you get the picture. I am squirrel-like in my storing of food. I think like a squirrel.

But the squirrel is such a humble animal and it has such a difficult and short life, an average of 6 years. Around these parts, they also freeze their little squirrel butts off in winter. Why identify with such a creature? I really should identify with a more glamorous or worldly animal, one that lives a long time like an elephant, or maybe a tiger or at least a more useful animal that is also beautiful, like a horse. Or maybe a dog, everyone loves dogs.

But no, it's this little gray squirrel that crosses my path on a daily basis. I've gotten to know its character far better than any of those others I mentioned- except for the dog. I have 2 wonderful dogs and I know them pretty well. But they have a cushy existence and thus far have not impressed me with their fortitude or resourcefulness. I would not trade their adoring gazes for the world, but they are ultimately, big time moochers.

Obviously I've given these little critters some thought over the years. I have quite a few stories too. I don't think I ever posted about this, but once a squirrel got into our basement and hid there. Unfortunately, Billie, our cairn terrier hunted him down, cornered him, grabbed him by the neck and shook him till he was dead. That was a BIG day here at the 2-flat. After that, Steve and I were certain that Billie had fulfilled her destiny and that if she had died right then, she would have died satisfied. And did I cry over the grave of this unlucky critter? Nope. Cycles of life and stuff, ya know.

Just this year, I witnessed a stand off between a cat and a squirrel. The squirrel sat underneath my bird feeder gorging his pie hole with sunflower seeds and about 3 feet away sat a house cat, just watching and waiting. The squirrel looked unworried. The cat, in an ecstasy of predatory glory. Another day, I witnessed the same cat chasing a squirrel across the alley. Just think, here in the city, we have a microcosm of predator and prey playing itself our under a bird feeder. Hilarious.

So what is it I admire about these creatures?  Besides their overall resourcefulness, they are brave little creatures existing in a world that is dangerous beyond reason. Imagine dealing with the hazards of city living when you have a brain the size of a walnut?

They are very organized and store several thousand caches of food supply each season. And for the most part, they remember where they put it.

They are simple little animals, but they are extremely tenacious and persevering. And they live their little lives without pomp and circumstance. They never get the glory. They are overlooked and maligned as "rats with tails." But they just go on about their business. I admire their fortitude.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Reclaiming space

For years, we tossed around ideas for our small foyer/entry. This was one of those things that we have really needed as we do not have a coat closet in our humble 2-flat floor plan.

Perfectionism led us to procrastinate for quite a while. Maybe Steve should build a hall tree, maybe we should find one at an estate sales, etc...

Finally, we decided to just trim it out and add hooks. Top it off with some artwork, and this was probably one of the easiest projects we have ever pulled off. And it was an instant fix for getting coats off chairs. And now that space is actually good for something, probably it's intended purpose!

Steve got quarter sawn white oak so that the grain would match the original straight grain of old growth oak trim, which is what we have in our home.

We purchased polished brass hooks from Rejuvenation and Steve aged them using ammonia. He used 28% ammonia hydroxide, which is what is used for fuming in traditional arts and crafts furniture. He exposed it for about 5 minutes, which pretty much aged them 6 years. So they match the other brass switch plates in our home. Devil is in the details...

Bolstered by the success of this small project, I am now looking at what else I can do around here... until we are able to go crazy and make the basement into usable living space that is.

We're not going anywhere...

Simple things

Lately I have been waxing nostalgic for our days of hard labor. Life seemed so simple back then. Such finite goals...gutting and renovating a bathroom for example. And the rewards of the labor are so very tangible. I find that I like tangible things.

I've written on this blog about my visceral discovery of being so present in the moment, seeing my hands after sanding oak board after oak board one day and feeling truly connected. It was almost a spiritual experience for me. And I must say, I don't get that feeling from working with my hands on say...a computer. Talk about not being in the moment...Facebook, constant newsfeeds, email that is never those things are not satisfying to me. I find them actually extremely draining. Yet, ironically enough I sit here posting on of all things, a blog!

But I'm here talking to you who have perhaps had a common experience working on your own home and projects. And writing is my other craft, so it is a release not a chore (email) or a compulsion (Facebook).

It's easy to lament the state of things now anyway I suppose. We're worlds away from the housing boom these days. I wonder how many housebloggers lost their beloved homes the past few years. So, yes, things have changed and it does feel different.

I told Steve that I am itching for a project. We do have a "biggie" that is on the distant horizon and that will be our basement, which will require a dig out and a steel i-beam. That's the 5-year plan, which is a ways off. At this point, there are some among us, who do something drastic like buy another house and "start over." I don't see myself doing this. I've seen many housebloggers have kids and of course, then life becomes so busy, who has time to blog or DIY- as much anyway?

We haven't gone that route. Always a hesitation about the kid-thing here, so no dice. It's okay, I have a really sweet niece and nephew and I enjoy being an "auntie."

I am really so glad I documented all the work we did on this blog. It's really quite something to go back over it, which I seldom do, and think, "Wow, we actually did all that. How crazy is that?" I remember the very long days, the exhaustion, laying on the sofa watching Forensic Files together-totally zonked, slices of pizza from JB Albertos for dinner, washing dishes in the basement, sitting at my desk on Monday in mild traction... I remember how our dog Billie would lay down next to Steve no matter that he was drilling or sawing. She grew up with construction abound and remains completely unphased by such noises.

How to recapture that feeling of purpose is something I wrestle with occasionally. But, of course, we cannot go back- only forward. And it's always easy to wax nostalgic about the past. I saw "Midnight in Paris." I get it, but it doesn't stop me from doing it.

Maybe there are certain times of one's life that are the happiest. I honestly don't think these past few years with so many people suffering unemployment and hardship have been so very "happy." It's more "make the best of it" in my book. Try to enjoy, despite the horrific nightmare moment in time we have the misfortune of  living in. I guess that sounds pretty doom and gloom, but sometimes it feels that way to me. How can anyone be oblivious to what is happening around us, even if we have been fortunate enough to hang on to our jobs or homes?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween around the house

The best laid last post was...April?? Well, I did think of you my fellow housebloggers. I always do when we do house "work."

We like holidays around here. We don't get many trick-or-treaters in our neck of the woods, but I always enjoy seeing macabre or funny Halloween decor as I drive or walk around a neighborhood so...for your viewing pleasure... our spider's lair.

I always smile to myself as I clean off the real cobwebs on the front door and then put up the fake ones. We humans are such funny creatures really.

What have we been up to around the 2-flat this year? Well, nothing more glamorous than cleaning up our basement laundry room (visualize removing 1930's tile and black mastic from the floor with Soy Gel and Steve power-washing the stone foundation walls after stripping crumbling paint with more Soy Gel), concrete repairs and various and sundry in this category. Small progress, but now I can go into the laundry room without feeling like I am visiting a serial killer's lair. That counts for something.

Actually, Steve built a lifetime warrantied Tenant Storage Locker and a nice laundry room table too. I will try to post some after photos, but it's not a Pottery Barn laundry room or anything.

Okay, so I managed a post. Now I need to see what you all have been up to...Happy Halloween everyone!

Thursday, April 28, 2011


In Spring the Sailboat comes out!

So it's Spring in Chicago and we know this how? Because it's raining. And because the grass is turning green--in places. I don't know about the rest of you, but for us, living in a city with dogs and a small backyard, we inevitably turn to lawn repair in the Spring...and Fall, year after year after year.
Perhaps there are some among you who have beautiful lawns that green up perfectly in the Spring, with no brown patches. You have adorable little crocus sprouting in perfect clumps that pass on just before the first moving of the year so you don't have to mow the prettylittleflowers. But alas, with two diabolical little dogs using our small yard as an (ejem) potty all winter, that is not to be at the 2-flat.

So rather than aspire to the perfect lawn, we aspire to be lawn-free! For perfectly manicured lawns are not only high-maintenance as we all know, they are not very environmentally-friendly. For now we continue dutifully repairing our sad little lawn every Spring, but we look forward to the day when we can eliminate this chore and put the push mower to bed permanently.

At least the rain helps the grass grow faster...
Our plan is to create a patio in the center of the yard surrounded by garden beds full of perennials and vegatables, maybe a pergola and a tucked away seating area where we can sit quietly and read a book in the shade. An oasis of privacy in the city. A staycation if you will, although more often than not, I can be found working in my yard rather than reclining. I'm convinced if I had more comfortable outdoor furniture, I would be more likely to recline. Time will tell...

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Missing an old friend

Art Institute Staircase March 2011
 I took my blog down for a while, mainly due to a haranguing husband, who has some issues with certain information being posted publicly. Does anyone else have this debate in their houseblogging household? I'd love to hear from you.

There is no one in the world that can drive me insane more than my beloved spouse, except maybe my co-workers, who I spend an inordinate amount of time with-- because we live in a country with such a crappy vacation policy. But I digress.

Anyway, because of my dear and beloved spouse, and life just changing and altering my needs and focus, I have seen my blogging dwindle down to 2 posts last year. A far cry from the peak of posting in 2006, when I created 156 entries. How did I do it? I have the say that the years 2005-2006 had a life of their own and I experienced both the joys and exhaustion of being consumed by our home and its projects. I remember many dinners of pizza slices from JB Albertos and salad, manwiches, and tacos because that was about all we could manage. Now we are more likely to be observed cooking something delicious from the Silver Palate or making Beef Burgundy on a week night, rather than lying flat on our backs waiting for the aches and pains to subside from a long weekend of hanging drywall. And I have been known to bake cupcakes just for the heck of it.

In 2007, I turned 40 and I remember feeling as if I was waking up from a dream. I couldn't believe the years that had passed with Steve and I consumed by our home and working together. I truly love working side by side with my husband as a team. It brings me a real feeling of contentment and connection and if too much time passes without that, I find myself longing for the experience. I will always fondly remember the "summer of the wood pile," where I experienced a moment of true connection looking down at my hands sanding board after board of straight oak trim. I realized how immensely satisfying it was to work with ones hands. Because of this experience, I relate to contractors and tradesman quite a lot. I admire them.

New Year's Eve 2010 at Zoo Lights
That same year, I said to Steve, "Oh my God, can you believe how much time has passed? We've been together 7 years!! I think we should get married this year, seriously." And Steve said, "Okay, sounds like a good idea." And we got married. And that felt right. And our lives moved gradually towards more "normal," time for extracurricular activities like the theater, dinners out and friends, volunteer work, block clubs, gardening, vacations, family etc... All of which we barely had time for in 2005-2006.

Of course, living in a 100+ year old building, we are still working to maintain it and the DIY urges have not left us. This summer we are planning to build a new fence in the backyard and plant some large evergreens among other things. We have an endless supply of improvement ideas and wish lists. I hope, someday, to convert the basement and have "a room of my own," which I think would do much for my contentment.

This morning and lately, I found myself missing my old houseblog and decided to bring it back online. I know there are oodles of you out there in the thick of things. I remember those days well and fondly. Once you've done something like renovate your own home, no one can take that away from you. It gives one a similar feeling to putting yourself through college on your own dime and effort, it's hard but builds character, something inside that is yours. That's how I feel about it anyway.

I may re-design this blog (with Steve's help as he is a graphic artist). I offered this option to him as a compromise, he who wants me to edit my blog and keep some things offline. I want my spouse to be happy, but I think I still need my blog. Writing can be extremely therapeutic and there's a whole world of brethren out there. I'm not done with you just yet.

Happy Spring everyone...!

Out of the Closet

I've kept a pretty low profile with my houseblog for a while. I didn't mention it too much to acquaintances or co-workers. Sometimes people from my past would happen upon it and drop me a line, and my family has started to read it a bit more, but otherwise it was mostly strangers reading. Quite a few strangers that have become "blog-friends" I like to say.

Then, blogger forced me to upgrade to the new blogger and I merged my two blogs. My "secret" identity on the neighborhood blogs

When good projects go bad

I've hesitated posting about this because it doesn't fit my image of us. We are seasoned DIYers after all, we know what we are doing and we are perfectionists (at least Steve is, it only takes one anyway). I've singlehandedly refinished over 1000 feet of oak and a dozen doors after all. Steve builds furniture by hand (the hard way/the craftsman way). We don't make mistakes. (cough cough)

But then I thought to myself, "Self, you haven't got that much going on with the house that you can post on the blog to be so choosey" and "Self, aren't you supposed to be all about keeping it real?? This isn't some HGTV show after all. I mean, really."

So I decided to share our recent disappointment with one of our previous projects. The thing with DIY is you don't want the work just to look good when you finish it, you want it to last a really really long time so you don't have to do it again for God's sake.

Sometimes, it doesn't work out that way. And yes, this even happens to people like me Steve who do their homework and have been doing DIY for almost a decade. It happens because....(hear this all ye disgruntled contractors!!)--we are not professionals. And actually, now that I think about it- things can go wrong for a professionals too. So there.

So now you want the dirt right? Everyone always does.

It was late in the season, November 2007 to be exact and we were worried our dilapidated garage door would not make it another winter and would splinter and crack into pieces leaving a garage without a door, which would be certain disaster (relatively speaking of course).

We would have started sooner, but we got behind and didn't find a a replacement door  until mid-October...

From that point, it was a race to finish the door before it got too cold. The door was painted and needed to be stripped. That was my job.

I did my usual heat gun and strypeeze combo outside in the backyard and all seemed well until I put the first coat of primer and some red dye seemed to be bleeding through. Uh oh.

As it was now November and getting colder fast, we perservered and continued painting. Steve replaced the glass panes, fabricated muntins for the missing pieces, and concentrated on framing the door.

It was one of those times I felt bad for Steve because he was working outside in not very nice weather and there was no turning back. Kind of like when you go on a hike and the weather turns bad, really bad. You have to hike back, no option. That's the kind of project replacing an outside door is. You can't just leave it till next year when the weather is better etc... From this and other such experiences, I don't recommend starting a project like this so late in the season. Live and learn.

Anyway, Steve managed to get the new framing and trim in though I recall some choice words uttered and real frustration with the fit. He wasn't 100% happy with the finish carpentry.

I remember he said (almost as a warning to the errant trim), "I'll be redoing this in the Spring!" And I was like, "Oh, great. Can't wait." I didn't say that out loud mind you, just thought to myself. I'm not that dumb. Rather, I behaved more along the lines of, "I'll make dinner tonght okay?" and "I'll do the grocery shopping and bake some cookies for you okay, honey?" And Steve said in reply, "grrrr. okay."

Painfully, he managed to get the door finished before Christmas. And after that punishing end to the season, we took a much deserved break.

Happy ending right? Not exactly. This is a good project gone bad so it doesn't have a happy ending.

Remember that red stain bleeding through the white primer? Well that seemed to effect the bonding of the paint to the wood. It was either that or the cold temperatures that caused the paint to fail in several places.

So, for the past two years, I have scraped, caulked and painted that door . Steve hasn't redone the trim yet either. We've had other fish to fry and there's still some healing to do before we revisit this project.

I never posted about this because it was so annoying and I couldn't stand to write about it, but now after a few years have gone by, I have enough detatchment it's okay now. These things happen when you are a DIYer and in life. Things don't always go as planned. It's another important lesson and another life lesson that we have fully actualized through our DIY activities. Life as a house. It really fits sometimes.