Category Archives: Home

We painted the dining room, and I have some thoughts on open concept houses.

The dining room was the last big room on the first floor that needed to be painted, and I was 100% sure I wanted to change the color from a tan-ish gold to something else.

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Until I wasn’t.

Until I was again.

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I waffled on the dining room color for an absurdly long amount of time. On the one hand, the room has a ton of windows and wide trim, so there isn’t a whole lot of wall – which indicated we should go with a bold color. On the other hand, there’s a lot of dark wood and art and a boldly-colored rug  – indicating maybe a subdued neutral was in order. On the third tentacle, while our house is by no means open concept (more on that in a moment!) the dining room is visible from the (green) living room and the (cream) kitchen, so I wanted the colors to flow.

I ended up choosing another color from SW’s historical collection, Calico. We freaking love it.

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It’s serene, it reflects the light beautifully, and it pulls together the whole room.

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After we put it on the walls, we started noticing the color everywhere. It’s the same gray-blue as Jason’s eyes, for example, and his car, and a sweet French Bulldog salt shaker I bought at Target several years ago. I even used some of the leftover paint on some plastic Easter eggs.

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And when I pulled out my mom’s china for Easter brunch, BEHOLD, it matched.

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I found myself grateful, once again, for the lack of open-concept-ness in our house. The color we picked is by no means bold, but it would be overwhelming in a large living/dining/kitchen area.

I would not be happy living in an open concept house – I like privacy, and doors, and retreats. That said, I have a great appreciation for the judicious deployment of an open-concept format in a renovation. I watch “Fixer Upper” with just as much excitement as the next thirtysomething female. In our former house, the kitchen had been opened to the family room, and that was great. Even in our current house, it appears that three small rooms – an entry room, a butler’s pantry, and a kitchen – were combined to make the current kitchen.

Like every other trend (although “trend” seems a bit strong of a word for a permanent change to the structure of your home!), the open concept movement is starting to see its share of vocal detractors. House Beautiful argued a few months ago, “Why We Need to Just Stop With Open Floor Plans.”  I think all their points are fair. I would add, perhaps, something I’ve noticed with televisions. Have TVs gotten bigger in response to changing design? Or has design changed in response to bigger televisions? It seems like every open concept house I’ve seen in person (as opposed to the houses staged for HGTV shows) is designed around the TV – usually in the form of a TV-shaped space above the fireplace or within a set of built-ins. The TV is visible – and audible – throughout the entire living space. This is not appealing to me, but I also recognize that I am in the minority.

 

 

 

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The Things We Carry

I spent much of spring break at my mom’s house in Jacksonville, cleaning out two large storage closets, aka The Twin Pits of Decluttering Despair. They were the final frontiers in the massive undertaking that has been clearing out my childhood home. And while I am relieved to have pushed through to this point, I am also overwhelmed with sadness at the wasted potential I saw as I dug through stacks of paper and boxes.

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(Behind that door: more stuff.)

My mother almost certainly suffers from a mild hoarding disorder. Unlike many hoarders, she does not shop, and does not Dumpster dive, and generally isn’t acquisitive. However, once items enter her house, they never leave. I started cleaning while she was in the hospital the first time, back in May of 2015. I discovered newspapers dating back to 2009 stacked on the kitchen table, a decade’s worth of telephone books, and every bank statement she’d ever received (including canceled checks). I discovered six closets packed full of clothes, in sizes ranging from 14 to 22, in decades ranging from 1980s to today. But she only ever wore the same three pairs of pants and five shirts – which were draped on chairs in her bedroom.

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When my brother and I lived at home, my parents kept things reasonably neat. I left home in 2002. My father died in 2003, which was also the year my brother graduated college and moved out. Our house went from being comfortably full to achingly empty in the space of one year, and I have a suspicion that my mother’s hoarding ramped up as she tried to fill the void in her heart.

The process of sorting and purging and organizing has been, quite frankly, depressing. So much of the clutter is just redundant waste. My mom had dozens and dozens of towels, most of them monogrammed. But the towels, and the monograms, belonged to long-dead family members – my mother’s mother (died 2008) and my mother’s aunt (died 1986). My mother has just a few pictures of her aunt, but 15 of her towels. Why? Why did she feel it was her obligation to carry the dead woman’s textiles? Similarly, she had sheets for full and queen beds, despite not owning beds in either of those sizes. I used the sheets and towels as packing materials, and STILL sent an entire vanload to Goodwill.

Some of the things I’ve had to get rid of were amusing, like the meat slicer my parents received as a wedding gift. It was still in the box. They also had a case of eight track tapes. Neil Diamond. AW YISS.

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I was sad about the items she never allowed herself to enjoy. I threw out pounds of food gifts she’d never opened – jams and cookies and chutneys and preserves. She raved about her friend’s homemade chocolate sauce, a jar of which she received for Christmas every year. There were twelve jars in her fridge. Only one of them was open.

I found landscape plans for the property which had been drawn up for the previous owners. A dresser drawer was filled with old film reels from someone’s world travels. When I asked mom about them, she told me she found them in the house when they moved in. So she kept them. Because of course.

At the back of the large closet, I found three cardboard moving boxes that I’m pretty sure hadn’t been opened since my parents moved into the house in 1983. One of them contained baby shower gifts from 1979, when I was born – beautiful embroidered collars, a sterling cup, hand-knitted blankets, a magic hanky. Each was still in a gift box, wrapped in tissue, with the cards attached. These made me inexplicably angry – not only did she NOT use them when I was a baby, she didn’t even tell me they existed so that I could use them for my own babies. They just took up space in her closet, and her life, for no purpose whatsoever. It’s maddening. I know this is part of a real psychological problem, but it’s hard not to be frustrated.

Most upsetting are things that she’ll never be able to tell me about – photographs of vacations she can’t remember, objects that were carefully packaged and preserved, but now she doesn’t know why or when. If we’re all stories in the end, hers is unraveling.

My biggest challenge was resisting the impulse to keep everything that might be meaningful, that might be useful. My mother kept things that other people found beautiful and useful. She kept things because people told her she should. She kept things because people told her they were valuable. In time, those things began to bury her, and now it is my responsibility to catalog them, understand them…. and decide for myself what to let go. In this endeavor, help me to not be my mother’s daughter.

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Three Quick Updates

None of these is dramatic enough to merit its own post, but here is the list of the latest home improvement projects we’ve undertaken.

In the living room, we removed all of the extraneous window foolishness, including roller shades, brackets for blinds, and wooden valances. Then Jason painted the room (Ruskin Room Green, by Sherwin Williams) to cover the drywall patches. The previous color was a tan..ish?

Before:

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After:

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Yeay for more light! And fewer patches!

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In the foyer, I used my newly-acquired picture matting skills to re-mat a set of pictures of my dad.

Before:

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After:

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Spot the upgrade!

And finally, in our bedroom, I recovered a bench. The previous fabric was in good shape, but I didn’t like it, and it didn’t go with the room. I chose an oversized buffalo check in indigo.

Before:

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After:

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Inch by inch, we’re making this home our own.

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A Tale of Two Closets

For an old house, our second floor bedrooms have enormous closets. Two of the bedrooms have two closets apiece – but alas, neither of these is the master bedroom. Tyler, a 13-year-old boy who has decided that “closet” is code for “floor,” obviously does not need two closets, and it just so happened that one of his closets backed up on the master bedroom.

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The plan was simple: hire a carpenter to remove the entire door assembly from Tyler’s side of the closet, and move it around to the master bedroom side, giving Jason and me separate closets (which would lead to increased marital bliss, and eventually our own space program).

Step 1: Cut a hole in the box

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At this point, we told Tyler we’d changed our minds and were going to leave this as a pass-through into his room. Much horrified gibbering commenced.

Please note the boxes on Tyler’s desk. Despite living in the house for six months, he has not fully unpacked. This drives me insane. To be fair, we have a couple of boxes of “things we will get around to sorting out eventually,” but we had to unpack 90% of the house, and he was only responsible for his own stuff.

Anyway.

Step 2: Move your junk from one side of the box to the other.

There was a slight snag in the proceedings. In Tyler’s room, the door was a left-hand outswing – meaning the hinges were on the left and the door swung out into the room. In our room, it would need to be a right-hand outswing, which means the carpenter had to flip the door inside-out. Or something. I didn’t watch.

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So that’s done. And by “done” I mean “except for puttying, sanding, and painting….and also putting rods and shelves inside.”

Basically, done.

This was a somewhat nerve-wracking project for me. I want to be respectful of our house’s history and the original intent of the architect, but I also want it to function for our family. Adding the gas lamps and painting the walls didn’t change the house in a meaningful way. This did. I’m very happy with the result, and I hope the ghosts of the previous owners are, too.

 

 

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Hack This Recipe: Chicken & Wild Rice Casserole

I love to cook. Nothing makes me happier than spending time in the kitchen with a glass of wine and a Cook’s Illustrated recipe, dirtying every one of my pans in the pursuit of a good meal.

Most of the time, however, I do not have the time or energy to meticulously craft a meal for our party of seven, so I “dumb down” recipes for large-family use. It occurred to me that this might be useful for other families as well.

I love a good chicken and wild rice casserole, but I’d never made one myself until this week. After reviewing several options, I decided to use this one, from Better Homes & Gardens, as my starting point.

First step: Double that action. “Serves 4” sometimes means “serves 4 skinny people as a side dish.” Plus, leftovers are glorious.

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Second step: Halve the meat. (Or, since we just doubled the recipe, keep the meat the same.) Add a vegetable to make up for it – in this case, mushrooms and carrots.

Now let’s look at the ingredients! I’ve mentioned before that I don’t use single stalks of celery, so that’s right out. I also try not to use “cream of” soups, because I have very limited pantry space and making your own is easy. In the summer I grow basil, but in the winter I’m not paying $4 for a handful of basil so I can use 2 TB of it. Dried basil it is. And while I sometimes cook a big batch of chicken to have on hand for recipes, I didn’t this week, so I needed to factor in the chicken cooking time.

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Next, the method. If I cooked chicken, made cream of chicken soup, and followed the recipe, that’s four pans. I looked for ways to consolidate. I was kind of SOL on the rice, but reasoned that it could do its thing while I was cooking everything else. I decided to cook the chicken, then saute the vegetables, then make the soup, then assemble per the original recipe.

Here’s what I ended up with:

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Weeknight Chicken & Wild Rice Casserole

Serves 8

2 6oz. packages long grain and wild rice mix
2 TB olive oil
1 chicken breast, sliced in half (butterflied)
Salt and Pepper
4 TB butter
1 large onion, chopped
8 oz. sliced mushrooms
2 carrots, peeled and chopped
1 tsp. minced garlic
Celery salt (about 1/2 tsp.)
4 TB flour
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup milk
2/3 cup white wine
1 cup sour cream
1 tsp. dried basil
1 cup Parmesan cheese (grated or shredded)

Preheat oven to 350.

Prepare rice mix according to package directions.

Heat the olive oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and cook about 4 minutes a side, or until cooked through. Remove to plate. Add the butter to the pan, then the onion, mushrooms, carrots, garlic, and celery salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are softened, about 8 minutes. Add flour, stirring until  totally incorporated into the vegetable mix. Add chicken broth, milk, and wine to skillet, stirring until mixture is thickened and bubbly. Turn off heat, add sour cream and basil. Chop chicken, add to pan. When rice is finished cooking, add that to the pan as well. Adjust seasonings. Transfer mixture to a casserole dish and top with Parmesan. Bake at 350 until bubbly, about 20 minutes. This recipe can be prepared in advance – adjust cooking time accordingly.

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January Highlights

January 1: After 37 years, I have finally managed to properly cook rice. Yes, rice. Up to this point, my rice has been mushy, sticky, and unattractive. But tonight, it was glorious. I used Alton Brown’s technique, which didn’t take any additional time or dirty any additional cookware. It was a win for everyone, basically.

January 10: I stopped buying the hype. Some time over the last few years, I began believing that baking soda and vinegar was a clean-all miracle that would Save The Children From Exposure to Evil Chemicals and Probably Also Get Them Into Harvard. I used it to clean my shower, my kitchen sink, my jewelry, my coffeemaker, etc. In some of those applications – most notably the jewelry cleaner and the shower scrub – it performed admirably. But on two notable occasions, the baking-soda-vinegar combo let me down. Way down.

The first time was in the laundry room. When we moved, we inherited a set of front-loading, stacked laundry machines. The washer, as is common with front-loading washing machines, was pretty nasty. I washed it and washed it with vinegar and baking soda and my tears, to little avail. Finally, wedged in among the well-lit photographs and amusing mommy anecdotes on Pinterest, I found a woman who was brave enough to state a truth. Every week, she washed one load of whites with 1/2 cup of bleach. (Bleach! I couldn’t clutch my pearls fast enough!) Her machine never got moldy and never smelled bad. I gave it a try. It worked perfectly. Now we have sparkly whites and a clean washing machine. LIVING. THE. DREAM.

The second instance was in my oven. I cook a lot, so my oven gets a ton of (ab)use. I made pastes with baking soda and vinegar, I sprinkled and sprayed and scrubbed and cursed. Nothing was getting the gunk off the inside of my oven.

You know what gets gunk off ovens fast? Easy Off Extra Strength Chemical Shitshow (TM). I cleaned the new oven for the first time today, after spraying it in last night and letting that funky junk do the hard work for me. Clean oven. Zero tears. Beautiful.

January 29: After looking at photographs of my freshly-painted foyer, it seemed a little austere. So I spent some time re-hanging a gallery from the old house, and creating a new grouping by the front door. Here are the updated results:

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The front door group includes an antique barometer. FANCY.

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On to February!

 

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Forty Eight Hours in New Orleans

Because “Forty Eight Hours in New Orleans with Two Tweenagers and a Toddler, Thank God for Alcohol” is just too long for a post title.

Very occasionally, Jason gets to travel somewhere awesome for work. On Monday, he had three depositions scheduled in New Orleans, so we decided to take advantage of the long weekend and haul everyone over there. Well, everyone except Hollyn, who chose to stay behind so she could train with her crew team for the upcoming erg sprints. Noble, but foolish.

Every time we go to New Orleans, we do several touristy things requested by the kids – this time, beignets at Cafe du Monde and browsing the French Market. But I also like to try a few new things each time I go, to keep things interesting.

On this trip, we used AirBnB for the first time, and booked an apartment in the Garden District/Freret area. Overall, I was pleased. The price was reasonable and the apartment was comfortable for the five of us.

I am unable to resist a used book shop, and this trip I found one I’d never visited before. The Librarie Book Shop has a well-curated collection of used books and the proprietress was extremely knowledgeable about New Orleans and the authors who call it home (or spiritual home). I picked up A Pattern Book of New Orleans Architecture, by Roulhac Toledano.

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Traditional pattern books were like DIY manuals for amateur builders, especially in areas where there weren’t established architects or designers. They are filled with sample floorplans as well as detailed drawings of architectural elements like mantels, doorframes, columns, and windows. Iconic architect Palladio published one in 1570, and pattern books were an invaluable resource to American colonists trying to build homes and municipal buildings in the wilderness.

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This is not a pattern book in the historical sense, but is nonetheless a great resource. It outlines the various styles of architecture, including floorplans, used throughout New Orleans, and includes vintage real estate advertisements.

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When I put it on the checkout table, the bookseller confided that it was her favorite book in the shop. For a moment, it looked like she might not let it go. I promised to give it a good home.

Monday morning, Jason boarded the streetcar for work (he reports this was an awesome way to commute) and the kids and I headed somewhere new – The Bank Architectural Salvage & Antiques. Located north of St. Charles Avenue on Felicity St., this place was packed with salvaged doors, mantels, hardware, corbels, windows, and other decorative bits from old New Orleans buildings.

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I had to force myself to walk away empty-handed.

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As should be pretty obvious, we love the architecture of New Orleans and seek to incorporate it (in tasteful ways!) in our Tallahassee house. This trip provided plenty of ideas and inspiration for future projects.

 

 

 

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