Reading Materials: April 2017

18. The Summer Before the War, Helen Simonson. (Library) This book is, as they say, right up my Edwardian England alley. I find the society fascinating – why so-and-so can be invited to tea or not, why one man is a suitable prospect but another is Totally Unacceptable, and the plethora of unappetizing food names. It was beautifully written, well-paced, and swung effortlessly between the silliness of manners and the seriousness of war.

19. The Couple Next Door, Shari Lapena. (Library, Book Club Selection) It would be helpful for me if all books involving babies in peril came with a big warning label on the front. This was a book club selection, so I hadn’t had the chance to read about the book before I read the book. In the first chapter, a couple discovers their six-month-old baby missing, and the rest of the book deals with the how and why. I had a hard time focusing on whodunnit because I was anxious about the status of the baby. I doubt everyone has the same problem. Otherwise, this was a well-written and twisty mystery, and I enjoyed it.

20. Definitely Dead, Charlaine Harris. (hand-me-down) After Baby In Peril, I needed a palate cleanser. As always, this was a perfect fluffy sherbet of a book.

21. The Atomic Weight of Love, Elizabeth J. Church (Library, Book Club selection) I disliked this book almost to the point of loathing it. A few years ago, I finally read The Making of the Atomic Bomb, a weighty tome by Richard Rhodes – so a novel about one of the wives of a Los Alamos scientist seemed like it would be my thing. But this book had almost nothing to do with Los Alamos, and everything to do with the giant chip the main character carries on her shoulder. In short, at the age of 19, she marries a professor more than 20 years her senior, and ends up not going to graduate school – a fact she whines about for the remainder of the novel. She allows this festering resentment to consume her. AND ANOTHER THING. In the novel, at the age of 46, she is suddenly turned from a relatively serious person into a lust-crazed, boy-crazy twit – and the boy in question is 20 years her junior. I don’t buy it. Even in the 1960s.

22. The Rook, Daniel O’Malley. (Library) This book was tremendously entertaining, and it grabbed me from the first page. The main character wakes up on page one surrounded by corpses wearing latex gloves, with no memory of who she is or what happened. She finds a letter in her pocket from herself, and then we’re off on a grand supernatural adventure. I will definitely be checking out the second book in the series.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 18
Non-Fiction: 4

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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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Sisyphus

The plan was simple. I was to take my mother to Jacksonville on Saturday for the wedding of her godson, the son of her oldest friend, and then spend the night on the same property where the wedding was being held. I felt clever enough to transport her from Point A to Point B and back in a 24-hour period. I even brought a couple of books, on the theory that I would execute my duties so competently I would have time left over to read while gazing at the ocean.

Instead, like the clever Sisyphus, I spent the weekend pushing my mother up the hill of my own hubris.

We left Tallahassee at noon. The wedding was scheduled for 5:00 at Amelia Island, a three-hour drive away. We stopped for lunch at 1:00. Mom preferred to eat at the restaurant, and I thought that with my help we could be in and out in a reasonable amount of time.

Nope.

Most people can cope with the level of stimulus generated by a busy fast-food restaurant on a Saturday afternoon. Not my mother. She was completely overwhelmed by the noises, the lights, the colors.

I pushed.

I ordered for her, helped her sit down, brought her food, filled her drink, and begged her to eat. She sat, staring in the direction of the TV without really seeing it. I had to coach her through every bite. It took over an hour.

I pushed.

Back in the car, I realized that we were now in danger of being late. We pulled up to the hotel at 4:00. Of course, check-in was in the main hotel, and our room was in a distant building.

And here’s where I made my biggest mistake. I had assumed that a normal hotel setup would be fine for mom. She walks slowly and with difficulty, but she does not use a walker or wheelchair. However, there are some very real differences between a truly accessible space and a “normal” space. At 4:20, when I pulled up to the building where our room was located, I almost cried. All I could see were stairs. There were stairs to get to the elevator, which was also located at the back of the building. There were more stairs from the elevator to our room.

I pushed.

I got her out of the car and into the room. I got both of us changed and back downstairs to catch the shuttle to the ceremony site. We arrived at 5:05, just ahead of a golf cart full of bridesmaids. The shuttle dropped us 50 yards from the seating area. The distance stretched before me like a dolly zoom shot from a Hitchcock film.

I pushed.

The ceremony was lovely, and offered me exactly 20 minutes to breathe before tackling the next challenge – another 50-yard walk over unpaved ground to the reception site. We put mom on a golf cart, a process that took three adults and 10 minutes of coaching. Once at the reception, we deposited her in a chair. She did not get up for the rest of the evening. After dinner, we wrangled her back onto the shuttle and I somehow got her up to our room, undressed, and in bed.

Sunday morning, I woke up pushing.

I got her out of bed. I packed all our things, dressed her, and loaded the car. I asked if she was ready to go.

“I’m ready to go back to bed,” she pouted.

I made her use the restroom before we left. The toilet was low, and configured such that I could not stand in front of her to help her up. The awkward angle, combined with her inability to assist, caused me to wrench my back trying to keep her from falling to the floor. I spent the drive home with increasing stiffness and soreness in my mid-back.

Yet I pushed.

I arrived home just after noon and I was a wreck. I had spent every waking moment of the last 24 hours pushing my mother, pushing her to move, pushing her to focus, pushing her to cooperate. Even when we’re at home, I have to push her to drink water, push her to use the bathroom, push her to eat, push her to bathe.

I’m glad we went. It was the right thing to do. The wedding was lovely. But the amount of work required to execute a relatively simple plan was staggering. I consider myself to be pretty smart, but I was humbled by the number of factors I failed to adequately consider. And while I would love to say, “Next time will be better!” I honestly don’t think there will be a next time.

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Reading Materials: March 2017

12. Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton. I purchased this book in college and only now got around to reading it. It was a tough read, and not just because of the references to institutions and people who were current events in 1908 but are now British history. Chesterton wrote this account of how he came to embrace orthodox Christianity after years of trying to work out his own interpretation of faith. However, many of his statements continue to ring true in 2017, and I found myself nodding along to many of his arguments. I’m glad I read this book, even if I had to do it with a pen in hand and no distractions.

13. The Nest, Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. (Library) I loved this book, about four siblings who have to grapple with money and its influence on relationships and people. It’s difficult to write a book with a large cast and make every character seem three-dimensional, but Sweeney succeeds. I also loved the sense of place in the book, which is set in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Westchester.

14. The Last Days of Night, Graham Moore. (Library) I forced myself to wait until the last page before I rushed to the internet to see how much of this book was fact, and how much was fiction. The novel tells the (embellished, but historical) story of the War of the Currents. For those who don’t know: at the dawn of the electric age, there were two competing electricity delivery systems – alternating current, favored by George Westinghouse, and direct current, favored by Thomas Edison. The two men fought in courts and in the press for years over whose system was better and safer. This book examines one facet of that fight, the battle over the light bulb patent, and is told from the point of view of Westinghouse’s lawyer, Paul Cravath, with a special guest appearance by Nikola Tesla. I learned a lot about the conflict I hadn’t known before, and enjoyed the author’s take on Westinghouse and Tesla. But Edison came across as a two-dimensional villain. You could practically hear his cartoon cackle. I really enjoyed the story and did find it suspenseful – despite knowing the end.

15. Little Nothing, Maria Silver. (Library) This was a frustrating read. It’s meant to be a dark fairy tale, and it’s very well-written, but…. even fairy tales have their own twisted logic. If you speak the forbidden word, the kingdom will fall. Only a person of pure heart can remove the talisman from its chamber. If you tell anyone the secret of your beauty, it will be taken from you. This book looks like a fairy tale, and smells like a fairy tale, but it does not have even fairy tale logic to hold it together. A couple has a baby who is born a dwarf. She is sent to a terrible doctor who tries to stretch her on a table… and she becomes a normal-sized woman with a wolf face. Why a wolf face? THERE IS NO WHY. Later, she becomes a wolf, for no apparent reason. And finally, she becomes a normal-sized person, with a different face, again without real explanation. There is no other magic in the novel. In fact, the writer goes to great lengths to describe non-magic systems that work like magic in the world of early-20th-century-Eastern Europe, like the clockworks of an old clock tower, or an efficient system for excavating tunnels, or the intricacies of indoor plumbing. And the character cannot remember any of her previous incarnations, so there’s no character development per se. The writing itself is lyrical and lovely, but the story leaves much to be desired.

16. The Infinite, Nicholas Mainieri. (Borrowed) This was our church book club selection, and we got to Skype (and drink!) with Mainieri at our meeting. I enjoyed the book, which was well-paced and thoughtful, but I enjoyed it more after hearing the author talk about the process of writing it, and about his adopted hometown of New Orleans. Set in Louisiana and Mexico, my initial impression was of a modern day Romeo-and-Juliet story. But the novel also makes insightful commentary on the drug trade, and the threads that run from cartel wars in Mexico to low-level street dealers in the U.S. As a bonus, the author devotes some ink to nutria (if you don’t know what nutria are, imagine Rodents of Unusual Size from The Princess Bride). Nutria are a non-native species to Louisiana, and there are parallels to be drawn between their plight and that of the heroine and her family, who are illegal immigrants. It was a good read, and I recommend it.

17. The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead. (Borrowed) This was supposed to be an innovative take on the standard issue slave narrative. In this book, the underground railroad is imagined as a real thing – with tracks and cars and tunnels and stations. However, this device does not do enough to distinguish it from other books about the slave era. Whitehead also has a tendency to use modern turns of phrase where they are out of historical context. Despite these linguistic choices, the story of the book was entertaining enough.

2017 Totals
Fiction: 13
Non-Fiction: 4

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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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Skillz: Picture Framing

We inherited most of the furniture and art in our house, which means that it’s all old and sentimental. Actually, that could be said of our house itself. Hm.

Anyhoo, we have a lot of framed art that is starting to show its age. Among these are four watercolors of the beach painted by Jacksonville artist Eula Bull. Her daughter was friends with my mom, and Ms. Bull gave my mother the watercolors in the late 1960s or early 1970s. They hung in the hall near my bedroom in my childhood home. When we moved them here, I hung them in our bedroom. They helped with the serene feel and watercolor palette I was hoping to cultivate. (<— That statement was 90% fancier than reality.)

The pictures were soothing, the frames were fine, but the mats were looking a little decrepit.

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At first I considered caving to the barrage of Framebridge ads and having the pieces re-framed in a quasi-professional manner. But a simple frame and mat was estimated to cost $70, times four, and I am not in the mood to pay $280 to change the mats on free watercolors.

Many, many Pinterest posts encourage a DIY enthusiast to “pick up frames at Goodwill” for re-purposing. But most of these projects turn the frame into something else – a tray, or a chalkboard thingy, or a photo display. I could not find a tutorial on re-using a picture frame….as a picture frame.

I decided to roll up my sleeves and take a crack at it. WITHOUT A PINTEREST TUTORIAL. I know.

Here’s my arsenal of re-framing tools:

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Self-healing mat & ruler, pliers, glass cleaner, razor knife, pencil, and tape.

First I unwound the hanging wire from one side of the frame, and laid it to the side.

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Next, I cut away the paper backing on the frame. Using a razor knife, I (carefully!) slashed the paper along the edges and pulled it away. This was the only part of the frame I did not re-use.

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This was underneath. It’s a layer of cardboard held in place by little metal teeth. I pulled the cardboard out next.

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Under that was a piece of mat board, the watercolor, and two more mat boards. I removed each layer.

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To get the glass out, I had to remove the little metal teeth with pliers. It turned out they were diamond-shaped pieces of metal that were wedged into the wood frame. I’m sure they have a fancy name, but I shall continue to call them teeth. I took out the teeth on the top and sides of the frame, and put them aside.

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I pulled the glass out and cleaned it. Then I got to work on the new mat.

I purchased a 32″ x 40″ piece of off-white mat board for $8.00. NATURALLY, the mats I needed were 16.5″ x 20.5″, which means instead of getting four mats out of one board, I could only get two. Grrrr.

Using the old mat as a template, I cut out my pieces. Then I measured the inside of the old inner (blue) mat to get the opening, which was 10.5″ x 14.5″. I marked the lines on the back of the new mat, using my fancy ruler and a pencil, then used the razor knife to slowly cut the mat board. Straight lines are stressful! It took me three passes to get through the mat board.

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Moment of truth: I put the old mat on top of the new one, to show how dingy it had gotten over the last 50 years. Bear in mind that the new mat is not white, but cream-colored! Yikes!

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With the new mat cut, it was time for re-assembly.

First the sparkly clean glass went in.

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Next, I taped the watercolor to the back of the new mat board and put that in.

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Then the cardboard, to make sure everything was secure.

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I couldn’t get a picture of the next step,  because it required two hands, but I re-inserted some of the metal teeth along the sides and top. Last, I re-strung the wire and hung it back on the wall.

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A watercolor with the original mat is on top; mine is on the bottom. So much fresher! And cleaner-looking!

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I re-matted a second picture the following day, and (no surprise here) the process took about half the time.

It will cost me $16.00 and a couple of hours to re-do all four, and I’ll have plenty of extra mat board to frame (or re-frame) other art. VICTORY IN OUR TIME.

 

 

 

 

 

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