Beauty in simplicity

As I was browsing through the latest This Old House magazine the other night, I saw a suggestion that people write in about their longest-running, never-finished house project. Boy could I relate. And I guess it was a little comforting to know we are not alone in our disheveled state (not really, but I think it’s supposed to be comforting).

My neighbor hit upon a smart, simple solution, though — the same one we had come up with just a few days before.

You see, she knows all about (because she can see) our trail of half-finished works in progress. She looked over at the giant dirt pile in the driveway for more than a year while the retaining wall awaited. She’s seen us transform the back yard from blah and overgrown to a nice little garden — collapsed fire ring notwithstanding. She’s seen us disassemble the front porch and leave it that way for a while now.

All winter long, when she saw Mike out in the garage with the table saw, she knew it was because of the powder room. When she invited us to her St. Paddy’s Day feast, we almost didn’t go because we were working on the powder room. When we were late to emerge in the yard this spring, she asked why and we told her — “It’s the powder room.” (and we’ve been sick).

Sunday, when she walked over (with a beer for Mike) to see what all the commotion on the front porch was about, she had a suggestion…the voice of wisdom from a woman who all but single-handedly refurbished her childhood home when she moved in a few years ago.

Her suggestion: “You’ve lived without the powder room this long, why not just close the door and come back to it next winter?”

You know, I think that’s just what we’re gonna do.

After all, who would know (or care) if what what lies beyond the small door in the front hall… (HA! Just noticed the devil cat lurking on the landing — spooky!)


is this…


or this…?


Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
~ Confucius

A saint for all seasons

If you’re not Catholic, you might not realize that we have a saint for everything. As explains:

Certain Catholic saints are associated with certain life situations. These patron saints intercede to God for us. We can take our special needs to them and know they will listen to our prayers, and pray to God with us.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cashed in on that ticket in my life…along with devotion to Mary, which, in my opinion, is the best thing about being Catholic (or being raised Catholic in my case, as I don’t practice anymore. Long story. But, if you are Catholic and remember your catechism, you know that every sacrament, from Baptism to First Communion to Confirmation to the other four leaves an indelible mark on your soul — a holy tattoo so to speak — so basically, you’re Catholic for life.) 

But I digress.

Since becoming a homeowner, and particularly over the last few years of living in fixer-upperhood, my saint of choice has become St. Joseph. (Not to mention having to sell 5 houses over the years. I never buried him in the yard, but I sure did pray a lot.) He was a carpenter, you know, so in my book, that means he was a supreme DIYer and, of course, an expert. So what if they didn’t have electricity or plumbing and he didn’t have anything to do with concrete or garage door installation or clik-lok floors. He’s my go-to guy when we’re doing any sort of home-improvement project that’s particularly difficult or frustrating or dangerous or tedious or just short of impossible — so, pretty much all of them.

This past weekend he heard from me a lot. For the past three years, I’ve been besieged by an ugly spot in the hardest possible place — on the upstairs hall ceiling above the stairs. jaggededgeOur hallway has layers of paint over wallpaper, and when I painted after we moved in, the tape I used to get a clean edge at the ceiling tore the wallpaper, leaving ugly brown underpaper exposed. I daubed some white paint on most areas to disguise them, but I just couldn’t reach that 2-foot scar over the stairway. Every day it taunted me, “You’re a loser. Martha wouldn’t tolerate me. Everyone sees me. I’m ugly. Ha. Ha. Ha.”  Kind of like the talking stain in the Tide-to-Go commercials.

Last year sometime (yeah, I know, it was on sale) we bought crown mold to completely cover the bad edge. Finally, this past weekend was “the one,” given that it was too cold to work outside on the porch. With the best of intentions, we cleared the space, assembled our ladders (one purchased months ago just for the occasion and still in its wrapping), and got to work.

Within 10 seconds, it got difficult.

Thinking it would make the job a breeze, we had bought those corner moldings that keep you from having to miter the corners — a nightmare task anytime but particularly in an old house where walls and corners are never true and square. Well, duh, if they’re not true and square, the corner blocks don’t fit right either. And Mike didn’t like them anyway, saying they were too Victorian and our other rooms with crown mold didn’t have them.

That left us (by us I mean Mike) with a lot of complex figuring and endless trial and error to cut those damn corners. As he perched on a ladder on the landing holding an 8-ft piece of molding over his head, and I perched on a ladder along the side wall next to the stairs, holding a 12-ft piece of molding, I prayed a lot. Over and over.

As always, it worked (rather, Mike and St. Joseph made it work). They persevered, long after I abandoned the effort to put up Christmas decorations, and got that blasted molding installed, including some complicated piecing. And without the nice nailgun we had bought for the job as well (but have used for numerous other projects in the meantime) because even the longest nails it holds were just too short. All that remains is a bit more caulking, and then painting.

Of course, it looks beautiful. I’ll share a few photos when it’s all done. In the meantime, I have some pretty serious “Thank you dear St. Joseph”-ing to attend to. Always appropriate, but especially at this time of year.

Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when,
whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees. 
                                                                       ~ Victor Hugo

Home Ed 101

Life in renovation nation goes on. We’re replacing part of the garage floor so we can replace the charming-but-beyond-repair swinging doors with new overhead doors.

garage doors before  Before

 pouring new garage floor New floor in process

And we’re rebuilding from scratch the wall that supports the two columns that hold up the front porch roof as it extends over the driveway (aka the porte cochere). 

leaning pier before    pier removed 
Leaning pier before                          Waiting for new pier

It has been a big, messy project, requiring a lot of demo, hauling broken concrete and dirt, digging new footers, stacking old bricks to save for some future project, pouring new concrete, laying new block, setting new columns, finishing the block with stucco, reframing for the new garage doors, and installing the doors and openers. We still have the last 5 of those steps to go. It seems endless.

More than anything, projects like these renew my awe of people who know how to do this stuff. (Who are few and far between, apparently, based on how hard it is to find people able and willing to do home repairs.) I wish I knew how to do more of it — frame up something, lay brick, build a concrete form. I’ve been around all of this in the process of building a couple of houses (or rather, having them built), and in helping to do DIY building and remodeling projects, but I couldn’t do it myself. (The key seems to be having the right tools and equipment, along with the know-how.)

Considering that most Americans will become homeowners one day (66.2% according to the 2000 Census), why not teach kids how to be better at it? 

I bet you took home ec and shop class in junior high like I did. Basic sewing and cooking was useful, I suppose, but in shop class (“Industrial Arts”), the projects required equipment like a forge and a lathe and a drill press that isn’t likely to be had in most homes.

What would have been helpful? Learning how to install a dimmer switch or hang a ceiling fan, how to change a faucet or repair a leaky one, how to replace the guts of a leaky toilet, how to rewire a lamp, how to spackle & paint — not rocket science, just basics that every homeowner is likely to encounter.

Sure, some people learn this from their parents (but I didn’t), and you can learn it later through books, the Web, workshops at Lowe’s & Home Depot, and trial & error. But why not get kids familiar with it early on? Maybe foster an interest in renovation and historic preservation. Maybe instill the idea of pride of ownership. Maybe inspire a new generation of architects, builders, electricians, masons, plumbers…or a generation that can actually handle a little of all of those themselves.

We have HGTV. How about HGED?

You can get all A’s and still flunk life.
                                   ~ Walker Percy