Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dresser Vignette, Heavy on the Vintage

So after yesterday's dramatic fail, I thought maybe I'd post about something that just involves moving already created stuff around the house, so that I could only screw it up by making it look ugly. Nothing could be destroyed in the process unless I just dropped it and broke it (or unless I decided to smear Mod Podge all over it for some reason. But neither of those things happened).

Historically, I'm pretty minimalist when it comes to...putting stuff on flat surfaces (you know, I mean putting stuff there on purpose. Piling crap that belongs somewhere else on flat surfaces I have always been very good at it. Years of practice).

Mostly when I try to "style" stuff, it either comes out looking pretty spartan:

....or my mother calls it "junky:"

I've always known I'd have to conquer the very long dresser in our bedroom at some point, but I wasn't really planning to do it so soon. But then two things happened:

Caitlin from Desert Domicile posted about her fabulous floating shelves and helpfully gave a list of tips on styling:

And then also....okay, yeah, I have just completely blanked on the second thing. But whatever it was, it happened, and it made me want to make a vignette on my dresser.

Much like in that paragraph right up there, I probably spaced out and neglected some of the ten tips Caitlin provides. But I took number 10: "practice, practice, practice" to heart. I am not a confident vignette-r, but I'll never get better if I don't try, right? Probably so. 

Also, making a vignette on my dresser means I get to use the only white wall in my house, the board and batten, as a backdrop. 

I dragged a bunch of stuff from around the house and basement up to the bedroom, played around for awhile, and ended up here:

The only thing I bought specifically for the dresser is those mahogany stems sticking out of the gold vase. I need something tallish in there, so I picked them up at Hobby Lobby today (then I had to google to see if I'm destroying the rain forest by having them. I don't seem to be. As far as I can tell. I wanted cotton balls on a stem, but they didn't have any. I think the dresser is made out of rain forest destroying mahogany anyway. Sorry, rain forest).

Mahogany stems in a gold vase. The gold vase and the wooden bowl came from thrift stores recently. My mom gave me the Nantucket tray (we went to Nantucket on our honeymoon) a long time ago, and I picked up the little black and white box at a yard sale a similarly long time ago.

I envision this bowl becoming a repository for a bunch of crap in the future, but for now it's holding the cuff links I bought on ebay for Dave to wear at our wedding. Aww!

Those are my cross-stitched pheasants from Goodwill that used to be in my den. My mom gave me the lamp. And the animatronic bird. I really need to post a video of the bird in action; it's enchanting. But for today, I just took a picture of it so that you can see how dusty it is. It's hard to dust inside its cage:

Obligatory stack of books. Look, that top one is named ME! I haven't read it. My mom gave me that, too, because it has my name. I have read A Death in the Family and at least parts of The Divine Comedy, though. And the bottom book is Margaret Atwood poetry and the only thing on the dresser purchased new. I just bought the pear at the thrift store the other day, and I'm sort of in love with it. 

Self portrait in pear:

Monday, April 29, 2013

DIY FAIL: Wrinkly Map of Boston

This is not just a DIY fail. It is a DIY fail nearly fifteen years in the making.

Let me back up.

Nearly fifteen years ago, Dave and I moved to Boston (well, Somerville). Dave had just graduated from Oberlin, and I was a year out of UGA. He was headed for an internship at the Museum of Science (that would lead to a full time job) and I was about to start an English Ph.d. program at Brandeis (that would lead to me quitting when Ari was born). We were young; we were full of dreams.....like the dream of finding an apartment we could afford that would take dogs.

Once we secured said apartment (we walked into the rental agency with dog in tow, and the woman said, "where do you want to live? ANYWHERE with a dog, right?" ....which was sort of the perfect introduction to Boston in a couple of ways...we took the one apartment in the greater Boston area in our price range that allowed a dog), we did some touristy things. Like visiting Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church.

None of this really matters, except that, since I don't have a successful project to show you, I might as well tell a story. And also because the Old North Church's gift shop is where we bought a reproduction of an old map of/aerial view of Boston. I don't know why. Apparently our younger selves didn't know why either, because it stayed just how we bought it, rolled up in a tube, for nearly fifteen years.

A couple of years ago we found it somewhere or other and moved it into Ari's room at our old house, thinking we'd frame it and hang it up in there. And then it sat in the tube for awhile longer.

Then we started redoing Ari's room here, and the map of Boston still seemed like it would be a good fit. And Ari was born in Boston and all, so, you know....perfect!

Instead of buying an expensive frame for it, I had a brilliant plan. We would cut down some wood (I can't remember what they called the stuff we wound up with at Home Depot--craft board? project board? It was cheaper than plywood but more amenable to painting than MDF) to the size of the map and then the map and the board would become one with the help of some spray adhesive and Mod Podge.

Things started out just fine. I painted the edge of the board with some of the red paint left over from Ari's subway dresser (Boston HAS a subway! How fitting!):

I let the paint dry overnight, then Dave and I went down to consider how to proceed. Since the poster had been rolled up for more than a decade, we decided to weigh it down for awhile before gluing it. Dave was very skeptical at this point about our ability to get the map lined up right on the board. I, however, was confident. Yes. Confident.

We came back down a couple of hours later (AKA the next time Abe took a nap) and started gluing. First Dave sprayed on a strip at one edge and I got that side pasted down. Then he sprayed the rest and we slowly pressed it down all the way across.

And now I was feeling triumphant, because it looked AWESOME:

Look at that! No wrinkles! Lined up perfectly! It looked GREAT!

I was feeling pretty full of myself at this point. I was right, and Dave was wrong. THIS was going to be the project that finally got me on Craftgawker (oh, yeah, and it was going to look nice in Ari's room). The red edge was subtle yet the perfect touch:

I went upstairs to bask in my own awesomeness for awhile and let the adhesive dry.

Then I came back down and confidently started to put the Mod Podge on the top. Umm.

It was not good. It immediately started wrinkling and  bubbling and coming up from the board. I frantically grabbed whatever I could find with a straight edge and tried to straighten it out and get it to stick again. No use. I went back upstairs and hoped everything would look better when it dried. No:

Sigh. Looking at the pictures kind of breaks my heart. I'm very sorry, Map of Boston (and Ari).

Where did I go wrong? My best guess is with the spray adhesive step. It all seemed perfect at the time, but, in retrospect, I guess we should have used more of the stuff, given how readily it started to peel off as soon as something wet touched it. Or maybe it would have been okay if I'd waited longer to Mod Podge it.

I'm not sure if I'm ready to give up yet. I mean, I have to give up on THAT map. But we have more of the board left; I might just have to buy or print a map of Boston and give it another shot.

So there you have it. Failure! Tomorrow (or so) I'll be back with another, less disastrous weekend project to tell you about.

Friday, April 26, 2013

How to Buy a Boxy Colonial in 143 Easy Steps

Today is our houseiversary! One year ago today we closed on our house (didn't move in until a few weeks later, once we got functioning air conditioning and toilets). So I thought I'd celebrate by sharing the story of how we happened to buy the Boxy Colonial. Because I don't have cable anymore and I miss House Hunters.

Up until December 2011, we had no plans to move at all. I mean, we thought about it from time to time, but for the most part we figured we'd just have to stay put. The housing market was no good for selling, our house was....fine, and the payments were cheap. It was close to Dave's job. While all of these were very practical reasons for staying where we were, we still didn't really want to. We were close to Dave's job, but not to anything else. I spent tons of time driving kids all over the place. The house was not tiny by any means (just under 1900 square feet), but with the kids getting older we were realizing we wouldn't mind a little more space to stretch out in. But still....housing market! Moving is hard! Etc.!

But then, in December, we were jarred out of our complacency by a sort of wild hope that we might be able to buy my late grandparents' house. Long story short: that didn't work out. But the more we thought about really and truly moving, the more reasonable it seemed. Sure, we'd lose money on that house, but we'd get a great deal on the next one and interest rates were crazy low. We called a realtor, starting working frantically to get our house ready to sell, and began exploring the fairly small area that was close to friends and kid activities but not too much longer of a commute for Dave (he's since transferred to a closer school, but we had no idea that would happen at the time).

I'll save the house selling story for another time. To sum up: it was a lot of hard, stressful work; we had TWO offers fall through before one finally stuck; we did indeed lose money; and we wound up with two mortgages for a few months (which was only possible thanks to the very creative financing our mortgage holders--who, it just so happens, are my in-laws--helped us out with).

We looked at far more houses before buying the Boxy Colonial than in either of our other house buying experiences. Our first house, in Boston, we actually saw as an open house before we were ready to really start looking, then fell in love with it and scrambled to make it happen.

(I snagged a picture of it off of google maps street view. Isn't it cute? The picture makes it look kind of weird. But look how close the neighbors were! I am not really cut out for the city, it turns out. Or landlording. ANOTHER story)

And then with the next house, we were moving from Boston, so we only had a couple of days while we were down here for Christmas to look. We looked at half a dozen houses or so and then picked the best one.

But this time we had forever  to look while we were waiting on our house to sell.

Our first day of house hunting was pretty encouraging. We looked at three houses in our price range, and all of them were varying degrees of acceptable.

The first one was our favorite for a long time, and would have been strong competition for the Boxy Colonial had it not sold before we were ready to make an offer:

It was HUGE (the only one we looked at over 3,000 square feet, I think), and it had 5 bedrooms, which was the hardest to find thing on our wish list. It had an absolutely enormous great room with hardwood floors that Dave and I were both in love with. And the part the kids liked the best was that there was this deeply bizarre SECRET ROOM halfway up the stairs....it had this little door sort of floating halfway up the wall in the stairway. It was a challenge to get into it, but then it opened up into this groovy secret hideout sort of place. I really wanted to give the kids a house with a secret room. But I also was worried about them jumping around in it at all hours immediately above the dining room. The main drawbacks of this house were that it had no basement and it backed up to a busy road. Oh, and it had this seriously quirky floor plan. Which most people would see as a drawback, but I thought it was awesome. Aside from the strange hobbit room, the whole first floor went in this odd circle. You walked into the foyer and then, going around to the left, you'd come to the formal living room, then the dining room, then the big great room, then the kitchen, then the master and the other downstairs bedroom, then back around to the foyer. There was no way to cut through the middle (well, once you got to the dining room, you could bypass the great room and cut through the kitchen instead). Probably the feng shui was terrible, but I love a house that keeps you guessing.

Then, in the same neighborhood, we looked at this house:

The kids loved those columns out front (pretty much every house we looked at was built in the 80's....we had to go back that far to find the size yards (I wouldn't look at anything under a third of an acre and I preferred at least half an acre) and houses we wanted in our price range. Not much was built in this area before the late 70's/early 80's....so, all of that to say, if the houses look older and a bit dated, it's because they were). This was a ranch on a finished basement. From the pictures, I thought I was going to love it, but once we got inside it felt kind of cramped. It had a great yard, though, with a row of little baby peach trees. It went under contract very quickly after we looked at it.

House #3 that day was the first colonial!

The main thing this house had going for it was that it was cheap. It also had a HUGE backyard--a full acre. But it was oh.so.boxy. Four rooms downstairs and four up, all nearly exactly the same size. Someone had bought it to flip, but they'd done the bare minimum--kitchen upgrades that were supposed to look fancy, but looked cheap to me. There was carpet everywhere except the kitchen, and it smelled like smoke. The master bedroom was indistinguishable from the others except for the tiny, outdated bathroom attached to it. it had a finished basement, but it was laid out kind of weirdly and unpleasantly. It was also a little farther from Dave's school than we preferred. But still. Cheap! And bigger than our old house, although it didn't really feel like it.

So then, in the following weeks, we looked at a LOT of boxy colonials:

There's a sampling. Colonials were incredibly popular around here in the 80's, it seems. They all have very similar layouts, so you pretty much know what you're getting before you go inside. Here is what we learned about buying a boxy colonial in our price range:

*There are three basic things to set boxy colonials apart from each other: size, degree of updating, and presence or absence of a basement. If you need to stay under $250,000 or so, you can have a big colonial, or you can have an updated colonial, or you can have a colonial with a basement. If you can find two of those things, snatch it up!

*Colonials need to be at least 2,500 square feet before they start to feel a little less boxy. Under that and you have 8 or 9 very cozy rooms. As I mentioned, our old house was not quite 1,900, but it used space much more efficiently than your typical colonial, so it felt bigger. It had only 7 rooms in those 1900 square feet, for one thing, and just one narrow hallway. Most of the colonials we looked at had 9 rooms and a center hallway + foyer downstairs in addition to a long (and often wide) one upstairs.

So I won't pretend that a colonial was my favorite style. There is much to disapprove of, with all that wasted space and relentless repetition. We got kind of excited when a non-colonial popped up for us to look at.

But I was also excited when I found our house. Here is my first recorded reaction to it, when I sent a message to my realtor after spotting it online:

Location is perfect, and it's huge. A foreclosure, right? If you have time, maybe we could run by this one this weekend, too?

It IS huge....just under 2900 square feet. And the location IS perfect....it's in a neighborhood 2 minutes away from two very good friends and about a mile from the place where Gus does plays and Milo takes guitar....and a very reasonable commute for Dave (both at his old school and even more so at his current one). We can even walk to TWO different frozen yogurt/ice cream places!

And it was a foreclosure and well within our budget--much cheaper than most of the houses we'd looked at.

So we went to see it. I would like to say that I immediately knew it was the house for us. But I didn't. I liked it a lot. It had a lot of things wrong with it. Our realtor met us at the door with the greeting, "come see the indoor water feature!" and proceeded to show us a massive leak in the sunroom. It needed two new furnaces. There was stained carpet in all the bedrooms, non-functioning toilets, a deck that needed a lot of help...the list was and still is long. It had been sitting empty for nearly 2 years. But it also had a lot of updates/nice features that we hadn't seen much of in our price range like granite in the kitchen and hardwood floors everywhere except the bedrooms. And most of the things that you can't change were right: location, neighborhood (a small subdivision with no HOA, in a town that allows chickens, even!), a big lot (1/2 an acre), a full basement.

I think the main thing holding me back from fully embracing the Boxy Colonial at first sight was this not-a-colonial:

....we went to see it a few days later. I loved it, I really did. It had a beautiful yard. It had 5 bedrooms (TINY, except for the master). It had a basement. It was a rambly story and a half house with a giant screened porch. It was too far away from Dave's job. It was way too expensive. It sold nearly immediately for much more than we could have paid.

And THAT was when I fell in love. Suddenly we really, really wanted the Boxy Colonial. We wanted it so much and were so worried that we'd lose it (because it really was an AMAZING deal; I still can't believe we got it. I think the giant sunroom leak scared people off) that we put in an offer before we sold our old house, something we'd never intended to do.

But, after some frustrating dealings with Bank of America (who owned the house and neglected it utterly and completely--there were two liens on it by the time we put in an offer: one for unpaid water bills and one for never, ever mowing the lawn) and some nail biting about the house selling end of things, it was all worth it: we really do LOVE this house. Dave spent months just randomly bringing it up out of nowhere: "I really love this house."

So Happy Houseiversary to us and the Boxy Colonial....and many returns (because we're never moving again!)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

The 15 Most Beautifully Written Books for Babies and Toddlers

A few disclaimers and notes first.

I certainly don't claim this list is definitive, and, in fact, I hope you guys will chime in with additions for me to check out. And there are plenty of close runners-up that I'm leaving out. And I'm sure I'm forgetting some that I would have put in if I'd only remembered them. And of course, "most beautifully written" is entirely subjective, and everyone's list would be different. All of that said, I've read an awful lot of books to babies and toddlers in my time, and I've come across many great ones. And right now I'm lucky enough to have a baby who finds books delightful. And I like making lists.

It's hard to know exactly where the toddler vs. preschooler book cut-off is (because I'm totally making a preschool list in a few years, too). I've got Corduroy here, but I'm saving the Alfie books for later, and that's not a decision for which I can offer any particular justification. Likewise, I'm putting Blueberries for Sal here and setting aside Make Way for Ducklings, and that may be entirely because I think Robert McCloskey deserves to be on all the lists.

I'm titling the list very deliberately: it's not intended to be my favorite books or the best books. I'm focusing in specifically on language (which is not to say that most of these books don't also have fabulous illustrations. But that wasn't a requirement, and many books with gorgeous art and at least slightly less impressive language didn't make the cut).

So here, in no particular order, is my list:

1. Turtle in the Sea by Jim Arnosky

And now onshore, as she has done so many times before, she lays her eggs one by one, and covers them all with sand.

But she will not stay to see them hatch. That is the turtle way.

I always like Jim Arnosky, but he kicks the pathos up a notch here with this tale of a sea turtle to whom terrible things keep happening. But she triumphs over it all and lives to make gazillions of baby turtles. Bonus points for repeated use of the word "tiny," which invariably makes me cry these days (I, umm, think it might be the hormones).

2. Blueberries for Sal by Robert McCloskey

Little Bear and his mother went home down one side of Blueberry Hill, eating blueberries all the way, and full of food stored up for next winter.

I love the calm, matter of fact approach to the bear/human encounter, with its reminder (echoed in so many children's books) that grown-ups tend to be silly and alarmist, and the perfect symmetry of the two intertwining storylines.

3. Freight Train by Donald Crews

Moving in darkness. Moving in daylight.

Okay, there's not a whole lot to the text of "Freight Train." But put the spare text together with the simple but  engaging pictures, and you have pretty much a perfect book for toddlers. It teaches colors; it teaches parts of train, and it does it all like a poem. Crossing trestles, indeed. How perfectly lovely.

4. The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

...and they went out together into the deep, deep snow.

Just the right amount of plot for toddlers. Do fun things in the snow (fascinating for Georgia toddlers, in particular) then the manageable crisis of thinking maybe all your snow's gone. Before the happy, more snow ending.

5. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

And Max the king of all wild things was lonely and wanted to be where someone loved him best of all.

Right? The perfect summation of what it's like to be a kid, with that ongoing struggle between a desire for autonomy and a desire to feel safe and cared for. And if you haven't seen Stephen Colbert's interview with Maurice Sendak, then you really, really must.

6. Hip Cat by Jonathan London

He hopped on the night train--
the faster-than-light train--
and in no time he came
             to a city by a bay.

This book is tons of fun to read. And it's great because it teaches kids that if you want to be a jazz musician then, yeah, you can totally make a living doing that. No problem. Umm, I mean, it teaches them to follow their dreams and all that.

7. The Very Busy Spider by Eric Carle

"Whoo? Whoo?" asked the owl. "Who built this beautiful web?" The spider didn't answer. She had fallen asleep.

It had been a very, very busy day.

I know "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" and "Call me Ishmael" have their fans, but for my money you can't beat, "Early one morning the wind blew a spider across the field," for great opening lines. Eric Carle does have a somewhat unhealthy dependency on the word "very," but aside from that he does good work here. Abe loves this book even though I accidentally dropped it on his face one time. You can't really get a better endorsement than that.

8. On the Day You Were Born by Debra Frasier

"Welcome to the spinning world," the people sang, as they washed your new, tiny hands.

This book was published in 1991, and I didn't start having babies until ten years later, so what I want to know is: why didn't anyone ever tell me about it?! I did not read this book to any of my first three kids. I came across it at the thrift store a couple of months ago and picked it up for Abe. Now I've read it to him 50,000 times, and I don't think I made it through without crying the first 40,000 or so. Look! It has the word tiny in it, and that alone would be enough to do me in.

According to the back cover of my copy, Entertainment Weekly said of it, "Reading this picture book aloud to a child, even the most jaded among us may feel again the sheer miracle of our human existence." Yes, we just might.

9. The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown

"If you become a rock on the mountain high above me," said his mother, "I will be a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are."

Projecting one's own particular paranoia/psychological needs/what have you onto "The Runaway Bunny" seems to be a popular past time. Looking around last night, I came across a couple of Orwellian reads on it (one commentator compared the mother bunny to Nancy Pelosi, rather specifically). I can't really read it the same way I used to since seeing a production of the play Wit (when Ari was 4 months old, so it heavily informed most of my readings of the book) wherein the story is read as an allegory for God searching for lost souls. I'm sympathetic with this more generous reading. It's a book for toddlers after all. They honestly DO want to know that their parents will always be there for them and do not find that idea terrifying and sinister. The carrot at the end  is not laced with anything, people.

(incidentally, Abe HATES "The Runaway Bunny." Even though I never dropped it on him. But I bet he'll come around).

10. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown

And a comb and a brush and a bowl full of mush
And a quiet old lady who was whispering "hush"

That's right: Margaret Wise Brown gets TWO entries, because she's just that awesome. "Goodnight Moon" does not invite deconstruction the way "The Runaway Bunny" does...but you can spend a lot of time pondering the double meaning of "goodnight noises everywhere" (is goodnight modifying noises? or are you supposed to say goodnight TO the noises?)  and wondering why the quiet old lady is a rabbit. Is SHE Nancy Pelosi?

11. The Day the Babies Crawled Away by Peggy Rathmann

Remember the way
They followed you home that day?
Through the cave and the trees,
On their brave, little knees....

"Their brave, little knees:" it kills me! Peggy Rathmann is probably best known for the nearly wordless "Goodnight Gorilla." Here you have a lot of the same kinds of playful illustrations with patterns and repetition to look for as in Gorilla, but you also get a great story, beautifully told, about babies who crawl away and the heroic little boy who brings them back safely.

12. The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton

The moon is high. The sea is deep. They rock and rock and rock to sleep.

Sandra Boynton is an excellent rhymer. We're big fans of many of her books (Barnyard Dance, But Not the Hippopotamus, Snuggle Puppy....we have LOTS), but this is one is my very favorite, and it's all because of those last couple of lines about high moons and deep seas. Love it.

13. A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Eloise Wilkin

The rain is raining all around,
    It falls on field and tree,
It rains on the umbrellas here,
    And on the ships at sea.

I'm cheating a little bit in specifying the Eloise Wilkin version, but I had it as a kid, and I can't really separate the poems from those illustrations. I remember thinking of them as at once exotic and accessible, somehow.

14. Corduroy by Don Freeman

"Could this be a mountain?" he wondered. "I think I've always wanted to climb a mountain."

Another one with a perfect plot for toddlers....simple, easy to follow, but with a bit of magic. And "A Pocket for Corduroy" is equally enchanting.

15. Dr. Seuss's ABC

Big A 
little a
What begins with A?

My favorite alphabet book, hands down. I read it as building to a sort of frenzied crescendo by the time you get to Z. I'm not sure if that's what Dr. Seuss intended or not.

Your turn! What am I leaving out? Tell me your favorites--Abe needs more books!

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