1902 Victorian

Bringing our old house out of the disco era and back into the Victorian.

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Thursday, November 30, 2006

Relationship Role Models

I was reading Casa Decrepit's post about how to maintain a good relationship while renovating, and it made me think about the way Darwin and I handle our projects - you know, exactly the wrong way.

In a nutshell, Ayse says we should "be a team," have a good plan, "thank each other for a hard day's work," "order take-out when you're exhausted," "don't blame each other for mistakes," and "pick your battles."

Two out of six ain't bad - oh wait, yes it is. And somehow, I think our supreme affection for eating out hardly counts toward our good relationship quotient.

The wise Ayse (absolutely no sarcasm intended) advises, "I generally don't recommend that couples have one person be the only authority and the main worker. Not only does it lead to a lot of resentment on both sides ("You're always bossing me around!" and "You don't help with any of this work!"), but it's exhausting. Share the load."

Ouch. It was like she came to our house, peeped in the window of the master bathroom reno, and took down notes like an anthropologist studying gorillas in the mist.

We're in a vicious cycle of bad renovation/relationship behavior. It goes something like this:


SETTING: Our house on a typical Saturday morning.

Darwin sits on the couch in his underwear, clutching the TV remote like we're in the jungle and it's his last banana.

I come in wearing my pajamas from last night and sit beside him, lean against him, hug his arm.

"Honeypie sugar dumpling head," I say in that super-mushy voice we use when we're alone. "What're we going to do today?"

"I might wash my truck!" he says, too cheerfully. He points the remote, and the Tivo says, "Blip! Blip!"

I frown, push myself up and away from him.

"I mean what-are-we-going-to-do on the house?"

He stares at the television. Doesn't answer.

"Hell-o?" I sit up straighter, lean forward, resist jabbing him in the arm.

"Hey," he says calmly, brightly.

"I asked you a question!"

He sighs, shrugs. "I don't know."

The trouble is, neither do I.

"We have to do something!" I screech and gesticulate with both hands. "Our bathroom is an empty shell! We'll never finish it if we don't work on it!"

Darwin stares at the TV some more.

He sighs, fiddles with the remote, but doesn't turn off the TV.

"Come on!" I demand. "Let's go!"

I wait a beat and then tackle him, trying to wrestle the remote away from him.

"Give me that!" I scream. "I'm stronger than you!"

Of course, that isn't true, and we both know it. Darwin laughs and fends me off with almost no effort at all.

"FINE!" I shriek, shoving myself off the couch and lifting my chin in the air. "If I leave it up to you, we'll be like your parents, living in the middle of a renovation for 15 years!"

He laughs and shakes his head. I huff off to the bedroom and yank on pants, a paint-splattered T-shirt, sneakers.

I stomp through the house, slamming doors. I peek into the living room as I pass, and Darwin pretends to be absorbed in Two Guys Garage. I dig in the drawer for the keys to the workshop, making sure he hears me rattle them.

"What are you doing?" he bellows from the couch.

Light as air, I call, "Cutting the trim with the miter saw!"

I am out the door and halfway to the workshop when he comes out the back door, buttoning his pants.

"Just wait a minute!" he yells. "Don't do anything!"

"It's just a miter saw," I toss back over my shoulder. "They look easy on TV."

Even still, I take my time turning the key in the workshop door, flipping on the light, choosing a piece of trim from the stack against the wall.

By the time I'm searching the machine for the on-off switch, Darwin is there, glaring at me.

I insist on measuring and cutting one board myself, and then he takes over. Docile now, I find something else to do in the workshop - glue shingles on my dollhouse, maybe, or scrape some paint.

When the trim is cut, I trail him inside and hand him things like the hammer or the measuring tape. I look around for something to do myself, but the demo is done, and that's my best area.

Now that the ball is rolling, Darwin keeps working like a champ. I find something to do, something with paint - that I'm good at - but as soon as Darwin gets a break, he comes over to supervise.

"You know, it would work better if you - "

"No," I interrupt. "I don't want to hear it. You do that, I do this. Go away."

"But if you did it like this - "

"No." I keep working, don't look at him. "Leave me alone."

"Fine," he says, light as air. "If you just want to keep doing it wrong, go ahead."

Then I feel like throwing the paintbrush/scraper/heatgun straight at his overgrown skull.

"I hate it when you do that," I say, very calmly. "I've told you a million and one times, and you just keep doing it."

"I can't help it you're doing it wrong," he says, full of certainty that he is entirely right and righteous.

"I'M NOT DOING IT WRONG!" I scream, throwing in a few expletives for effect, wondering briefly if the neighbors can hear. "MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS!!!"

He laughs - laughs! - and strolls away, shaking his head.

And when he's gone, I start doing things the way he suggested.

Ten minutes later, he's back behind me, circling my waist with his arms. He tries to nuzzle my neck, but I clamp my jaw against my shoulder and attempt to shrug him off.

"Get off me," I say through clenched teeth.

He laughs again, and it makes me want to laugh too, but I force the corners of my mouth to be still. I refuse to relent ... for now.

When we take a break for lunch, I pretend to be mad as he makes me a sandwich. While we eat, I forget I'm mad and start talking. Then I remember and say, "I forgot I hate you." He laughs, and I smile, and everything's okay again.

Until the next Saturday, when it starts over.


See how many rules we broke there? We never have a plan. We often blame each other when stuff goes wrong. We are rarely a team. He considers himself the boss, while I consider him an evil dictator. He doesn't seem to mind if I don't take on half the work because he doesn't think I do it right anyway. We yell at each other. We fight every single time we work on a project. We argue over little stuff, like where to put a toilet paper holder, going round and round in circles.

But somehow, at the end of the day, we end up happy anyway. We go out to El Tenampa for dinner or join our friends at Miss Melissa's. I congratulate him repeatedly on the work he did that day. We have a glass of wine. And we are happy.

So here, for better or worse, are Darwin and Kristin's rules for marriage success while renovating:

1. Fight if you want, but keep it clean - no threats of divorce or bodily harm. Swear words are perfectly acceptable.

2. Take time to make out, even if you're filthy. Dirty=naughty.

3. When your partner's on a ladder or has both arms occupied, take the opportunity to feel up his/her naughty bits. Sometimes you will get sniped at for this, but just giggle; he/she will forgive you.

4. When one partner can’t get motivated to work, start working without him/her. He/she will come sniffing around before you know it. If not, he/she is not really in the old house business.

5. Don’t criticize your partner or order him/her about. It makes him/her less eager to work next time. (We have both learned this lesson. Wait, no we haven’t, but we should’ve.)

6. Act like a baby if you want, but make sure you don't mind being treated like one.

7. Help your friends with their projects, and invite them over to help with yours. It’s harder to fight with each other when you have witnesses.

8. Talk dreamily about the future – how the project will make your life better when it’s finished.

9. Set project timelines that seem ridiculously too long, or set none at all. That way no one gets disappointed, and no one gets blamed.

10. Take plenty of time to rest, relax and enjoy other hobbies. Don't try to "keep up with the Joneses" - in this case, the other housebloggers who worker harder and faster than you.

11. Call each other absolutely ridiculous pet names, but please don't get offended if your partner accidentally calls you "poo head."

12. Laugh a lot. When someone messes up, laugh. When something goes wrong, laugh. When someone gets hurt, don’t laugh, you sadist!

and our personal favorite,

13. The promise of Mexican food at the end of the day keeps everyone happy.

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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Curious Incident of the Roach in the Night-Time

A strange and horrible thing may have happened to me Sunday night.

I've been sick with strep throat and a sinus infection for a week now, and all day Sunday I couldn't stop coughing. Every few minutes, hackhackhack. Every two hours, swig non-drowsy Robitussin.

Come bedtime, I offered to sleep on the couch so I wouldn't keep Darwin awake all night. (He needed his sleep for a rough day at work.)

I wanted a sheet from the hall armoire/linen closet, but I made Darwin pull it out and shake it because - cue foreshadowing - I've seen a roach in that closet before.

The sheet was roach-free, so I spread it out on the couch, tucked it into the cushions and made myself a comfy bed with a quilt and two pillows from the guest room. I turned off all the lamps but one, took a hefty dose of nighttime Robitussin, aimed the space heater at my feet, and arranged all my necessities - Kleenex; the TV, Tivo and heater remotes; a cup of water - within easy reach on the coffee table.

Soon, the cats settled together on the quilt behind my legs, and I caught up on the Grey's Anatomy and Ugly Betty that had been Tivo'ed while we were out of town for Thanksgiving. Then the nighttime Robitussin kicked in, I turned off the TV and drifted off to a comfortable, non-coughing sleep.

Some time later, I was awakened by a cat leaping off my legs. I groggily searched the half-lit room with my eyes and found Alistair darting out from under the coffee table, chasing an inch-and-a-half-long black roach, one of the awful wood roaches we have here in the South. The roach skittered under the ottoman 2 feet away.

Normally, a roach sighting so close to my sleeping place would send me into a minor panic. I would jerk upright, shudder in terror and revulsion, and begin the task of hunting down the roach. I hate killing roaches or any insects, hate the crunch, the squish of white or green guts, the slimy residue on the floor or shoe or both.

But if there's a roach nearby, I can't rest until I've at least tried to kill it, or coaxed the cats to do it. Otherwise, I'll worry constantly about where it could be, where it could turn up next.

Only this time, there was the Robitussin. It made me say to myself, "It won't bother you. The cats will get it," and I was already falling back asleep as I thought it.

The next thing that woke me was a tickling sensation on my forehead, then my nose, my chin. And I knew what it was.

I opened my eyes and saw the roach crawling on the back of the couch. Had I swatted it there? Had it crawled there?

Henry was standing on the arm of the couch beside my head, following the roach with his nose. He reached out and knocked it down, and it fell into the crevice between the cushions.

Again, my normal reaction would be to leap up, probably even to shriek. But the Robitussin made me say, "It's under the cushion now. What can you about it anyway? It won't bother you again."

I screwed up my face and wiped it with the edge of the quilt, thinking about things I'd read about roaches and all the germs they carry on their feet, but my eyes were already shutting, sleep was already creeping back over me.

Then - then! - I woke again. I could feel the roach crawling down into the neck of my nightgown. Henry was still there beside my head. Was this real? I grasped at my nightgown and felt a horrible, solid, crunchy little body on my chest.

This time I did jump up, faster than I've ever jumped before, and wiggled and jiggled and shook my nightgown. The black creature fell into a crease of the sheet, and I leaped backward. I looked at Henry on the arm of the couch, Alistair behind him, both alert, necks outstretched, noses wiggling.

When I looked back at the crease of the sheet, the roach was gone.

I grabbed my pillow, stuck my feet into my slippers - half afraid a roach would be hiding inside them - and marched myself into the kitchen, where the nighttime Robitussin bottle waited on the counter. I didn't want to wake up Darwin with my coughing, so I knocked back another large swig. It had been two hours since my last one.

In the bedroom, I announced, "Henry chased a roach down my nightgown." Darwin laughed and rolled back over.

As I lay there in our bed, trying to figure out the timeline of roach events, my stomach began to feel funny. My head, too, come to think of it. I felt paranoid and strange; I lifted my head from the pillow, and the room was spinning.

Maybe the second dose of Robitussin hadn't been a good idea. I crawled out of bed and stumbled into the kitchen. The back of the Robitussin bottle said, 4 tsp. every 4 hours. I had noticed the 4 tsp. but not the 4 hours - I was still operating on non-drowsy Robitussion time, 2 tsp. every 2 hours.

Feeling dizzy and nauseated, I dragged myself into the bathroom and leaned over the toilet. I spit and spit but never threw up.

Miserable and shaking, I finally gave up. I washed my mouth and face, drank some water, and went to bed. Somehow, I fell asleep again.

In the morning, I tried to explain to Darwin what happened with the roach, but in the light of day it didn't quite add up. It was like trying to explain a dream, only I was certain it wasn't a dream. Or at least parts of it weren't a dream.

I began to think the part about the roach falling into the crevice between the cushions couldn't have happened. My view of it wouldn't make sense unless I wasn't on the couch at the time. So I decided maybe I felt the roach crawl on my face - *shudder* - but didn't quite wake up, dreamed the part about the cushions, and then fully woke up as the roach made its horrible way into my nightgown.

That part I'm almost certain really happened. I can still feel the horror and the tactile sensation of touching that awful shape under the fabric of my nightgown. I can still see the cats, staring with me toward the crease in the sheet. The roach could have skittered away. It could easily have happened.

But I felt so crazy that night, so sleepy, Robitussin turning my brain into a lava lamp, liquid blob-blobbing in the orange half-light.

So was it real? Do I even want it to be real?

Maybe I prefer to believe it was only a vivid, awful dream. And the tickling I felt was only Henry's whiskers and questing nose - not a roach's grotesque black legs, tracking their hideous way across my face.

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Let There Be Light!

I bought a new/old light fixture for the back hall on Oct. 30, it arrived about a week later, and now it's up! That's the fastest turn-around time for a light fixture yet. We usually let them sit around in the front bedroom (also known as The Black Hole) for a year or so before we get around to putting them up. I'm proud of us!

The light fixture, a refurbished and rewired antique brass "early eclectic" has one down-pointing electric light and one up-pointing gas light. Of course, they're both electric now.

The hall is so much brighter now. It even looks a different color.

The previous fixture (one of which is still in place at the other end of the back hall) had yellow glass and hadn't been cleaned in our entire residency, so the hall looked dingy and worn-out.

It's already a rather unattractive space. It was once exterior, and the clapboards - long ago painted beige - are still in place on the wall. Also, there's an unpleasant-but-necessary added-on closet, which houses the water heater and an assortment of tools. The floor is the dreaded brick-print vinyl, which will be banished to the roadside pile one of these days.

This is also the hall where we enter, so there's an umbrella propped against the wall, a file cabinet piled with junk mail, and a wall of hooks for my many purses, jackets, scarves and other accoutrement.

And of course, this is the first place most people see when they enter our house.

Fortunately, the new light makes a world of difference. It turned an unhappy space to one that makes me smile, just like that!

I anticipate a whole other world of difference when we replace the second light, too. Just got to find one to semi-match. And scrape up the bucks to buy it.

More photos


Friday, November 17, 2006

Gifts for Old House People

Being the obsessed, addicted shopper that I am, I often come across random items that would make excellent gifties. Lately, I've found so many perfect gifts for old house people that I wish I had more neighbors (and money)!

I decided to compile this list instead of breaking the bank buying stuff just because it was so darn cool. Maybe this will help if you're stuck in a gift rut (like poor Darwin, who until recently received shirts for every gift, and me, who is hard to shop for because I buy everything for myself before anyone gets half a chance).

So ... what do you get for the old house lover who has everything? (when power tools aren't in the budget)

Pink Hard Hat and Pink Safety Glasses

For the girl who's really into demo. Hard hat - $19.95, glasses - $9.95

Smell Killer

The Smell Killer neutralizes odors in a 400-square-foot area ... I haven't tried it, but it sounds perfect for getting ridding of that musty, damp smell I call "old house funk." $60.00

Little Pink Tool Kit

A pale pink and black carrying case with 10 pink-handled tools - hammer, screwdriver, pliers, even a little pink level! A portion of each sale donated to breast cancer research. $79.95

Saw Cake Server (my personal favorite)

Possibly the cutest thing I've ever seen - a stainless steel cake and cheese knife shaped like a saw. I MUST HAVE THIS. $20

Home Maintenance Organizer

For a lot of us, our blogs are our organizers, but sometimes it helps to use an old-fashioned pen and paper. I can just SEE things better that way. This organizer has tips for how to handle home maintenance issues, a calendar for each season, a tool glossary, graph paper for planning things out and a place for task lists and project worksheets. $25

Hammer & Saw Cufflinks

Dress your old house lov-ah up in these adorable sterling silver cufflinks by artist Debbie Howe. The tools even have wood grain textured handles! $70

Level Necklace

Practical and purty, a necklace with a little working level hanging on a silver-link chain, handmade by artist LeeAnn Herreid. Also available are level bracelets, earrings and cufflinks. $60

Philips Head Screw Cufflinks and Earrings

Made of sterling silver and designed by LeeAnn Herreid. Cufflinks - $80, earrings - $24

Tile Pattern Plates

Created by artists training at the Savannah College of Art and Design, this set of four square melamine plates reminds me of Victorian and Craftsman tiles. And I just adore melamine. $40.

Colorful Tool Belt

These leather tool belts come in purple, royal blue, red, black, candy pink, and dark pink. You can also get them personalized with an initial in rhinestones, though that might be a little too girly even for me. $49.95

Pink Tool Belt

Yeah, another tool belt. But this one's a little cuter (and cheaper), so I had to include it. $19.99

Year-Round Terry Cloth Robe

This is the robe I got for Darwin for his birthday, perfect for warding off the old house chill on the way to the shower ... especially if you have gas heat, and you're trying to keep your bill from skyrocketing. It's a heavy, soft terry cloth and feels great on. I'm tempted to steal it from him. $39, plus $5 for monogramming to make him feel special.

Women's Coveralls

Designed by women for women, these coveralls come in full and capri lengths and a good selection of sizes. My only complaint? They need to expand their fabric choices - allover giant flowers? Just no. $59.95

Sorry guys, I know these gift ideas are a little girl-centric. I like girl things! If you've found any really cool gifts out there in the wide Internet, please share in the comments!

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Wednesday, November 15, 2006

He's At It Again

About this time last year, we had an ongoing battle with our cat Henry over where was an appropriate place to pee and where was definitely, absolutely not.

Blog commenters and many resources on the web told me he probably had a urinary tract infection, so we made a journey to the vet in town. Henry hates riding in the car, so that was a fun time. Then we had to pin him down twice a day for two weeks and massage his throat into swallowing antiobiotics.

As we'd been told, once they start peeing outside the litter box, it's hard to break them of it entirely. Henry's occasional "accidents" took on a more determined quality - he peed on my coat and anything else of mine I left lying around, and whenever he escaped into the office (where I'd first caught him peeing behind my desk), he immediately, determinedly peed on the first object he could find.

So we also made some "lifestyle changes." First, no more clothes or plastic bags (his favorite target) lying about the house. He was no longer allowed in the hall bathroom or the office, his two favorite pee spots, and we thoroughly cleaned the carpet beside the chair in the living room.

To make Henry's litter box appealing to him again, we got a second, larger litter box (apparently, you're supposed to have one per cat) and established a better routine of more frequent scooping. We also used a special, expensive herbal litter that's supposed to attract Wandering Pee-ers.

All of that seemed to work, mostly, and we gradually weaned him off the special litter. We relaxed and left the bathroom door open again. For a while, things were good. We still suspected him of occasional sneaky transgressions - I'd catch a whiff of something and travel around the living room floor on hands and knees, sniffing - but could never find anything definite.

Somehow a year passed this way. Then, suddenly, it started again. I brought a plastic bag out of the office and found pee on it the next day. Then I went to wipe my face on the hand towel in the bathroom and was hit with the unmistakable aroma of cat pee. Darwin felt angry; I felt like weeping. And washing my face. Twice.

This weekend, I caught him in the act of peeing on my bath towel, which was draped over the bathroom counter. Then this morning while I was getting ready in the hall bath, Henry strolled right in and peed on the bathroom cabinet.

There was none of that pitiful mewling or pained expression from the time I caught him last year, the time that persuaded me to take him to the vet the very next day. Maybe he is defiant. Maybe he is spraying instead of peeing. Or maybe it's just still in an early stage of UTI.

I don't know, but it's back to the vet and the special litter he must go. And if anyone has helpful, practical suggestions, I welcome them.

However, if you - like the belated commenter to last year's Henry UTI post - think I should "keep the house, get rid of the cat," feel free not to comment. That is one solution - along with, "put him outside" - I will not consider.

Bath towels and even furniture are disposable - animals are not.


Monday, November 13, 2006

A Very Darwin Weekend

This weekend we celebrated Darwin's 30th birthday. I bought him a monogrammed robe and slippers, and I made him "cakelike" brownies, the way he likes them. Part of his present was that we did not go to the Tuscaloosa Ballroom Dance Club's Thanksgiving Ball. He appreciated it greatly.

We went to dinner with friends Saturday night, and we went to dinner at his parents' house on Sunday. Good times were had by all (I hope).

Today, the Very Darwin Weekend is officially over, which means he is required to attend ballroom dancing lessons with me. Tonight is tango and samba night. He doesn't know it yet, but he's going to have a super fun time.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Blame it on Anne

Last Friday night, when I was home alone with nothing but the TV to entertain me, I decided to meet up with an old friend.

She’s fictional, but she sure knows how to keep a girl company.

That Anne Shirley, Anne-with-an-e, talks nonstop, is a bit melodramatic, and has an imagination bigger than Green Gables itself. And, I realized, she’s part of the reason I’ve wanted an old house for as long as I can remember.

Anne of Green Gables was one of my favorite books as a child. I probably read every book L.M. Montgomery ever published – all the Anne books, of course, and the Emily books, the Pat books, the various collections of short stories about the semi-fictional town of Avonlea (supposedly based on the town of Cavendish on Prince Edward Island).

When I was reading up about L.M. Montgomery just now, I found out that a prequel called Before Green Gables will be published in 2008, the 100th anniversary of our Anne Shirley’s first emergence onto the literary scene. I’m not sure how I feel about a new chapter being added to the Anne story, even by a famed Canadian author (Budge Wilson) hand-picked by Montgomery’s family.

I am excited about another project planned for 2008, Imagining Anne: The Scrapbooks of L.M. Montgomery. I see it becoming a self-gift as soon as possible.

However, Friday night I decided to enter Anne’s world through the DVD of the Canadian miniseries from the ‘80s. I remember it from the times it played on the Disney channel during my childhood, the way it fascinated me and captured the book’s – and Anne’s – spirit just so.

I bought the DVDs – Anne of Green Gables and Anne of Green Gables – The Sequel -- from Amazon a while back, but I guess I’ve been waiting for a special occasion to watch them. Even as impatient as I am, sometimes waiting is part of the pleasure. It’s like the way I eat a Milky Way candy bar, munching off all the chocolate, then the nougat, saving the caramel (in my mind, the best part) for last. That little delay makes it all the more delicious when I get to it.

Maybe that’s why Anne delighted me so. Many movies I loved as a child – The Labyrinth, The Great Muppet Caper -- I watch now with a feeling like I’m trying to hold onto running water. The affection is still there, the childhood feeling – faint, a whisper – but it’s fading so fast.

With Anne, it was still so bright, so tangible. If possible, I loved her even more. And as I watched dreamy, determined, hot-tempered, book-worshipping little Anne, I found myself wondering – did I love Anne because she was like me, or did I become me because I loved Anne?

I started this post intending to write about the Victorian house outside Toronto that was used as the set for Green Gables in the films. Its stark-yet-homey kitchen with the enormous black wood-burning stove, the spindly chairs, the spoon collection. The butler’s pantry with the to-die-for built-in cabinets (from which Anne fetches the pudding and finds a mouse drowned in it). The fretwork, the staircase, Anne’s little room under the eaves.

But what strikes me now is that Anne – and Emily, and other authors’ characters too, like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Sara Crewe – may have been the reason I first daydreamed about an old house. I loved reading their turn-of-the-century tales, about the coal-burning fireplaces, the red currant wine, the wedding dowries of rag rugs and embroidered linens, the high buttoned boots, the petticoats, the poetry recitation, the letter writing, the general stores with sacks of sugar and flour, the attics with trunks of old clothes.

They made me want to live in a piece of that time. In my daydreams, a big old house was a place full of mystery, quiet hiding places, window seats, books.

The reality is different and not different. Certainly, I never imagined an old house cloudy with demolition dust, strewn with tools and containers of wood putty and denatured alcohol. I never imagined how hard it would be to decide what sort of sink to have in the bathroom.

But I was right about the mysteries – who lived in the house, what were they like, why was it built, what did it look like when it was first built, when was this or that change made?

And I was right about the quiet hiding places. I can curl up with a book in the green velvet rocking chair in the guest room, with a cat sitting in the rectangle of sunshine at my feet. Or go out to the hammock on the porch, hidden from view by the magnolias.

I love my old house as much as I dreamed I would, and I’ll take the trouble with the good.

But next time something goes wrong, I’ll blame Anne. It was she who got me into this.


Monday, November 06, 2006

Plaster Party

The Work Day Club of Eutaw lives again! This time the work day was dedicated to plaster removal, a task we’ve read about but could only dream of doing ourselves since our house was de-plasterified well before our arrival.

Okay, even I never really dreamed about plaster removal. But it wasn’t so bad. We got very very dirty, and then got to go home to our own clean house. Not so bad at all.

The plaster removal occurred at the house across the street. Last year, our brave and industrious friend Denise bought the house and began steadily proceeding through a long checklist of all the major repairs you’d expect from a wood frame house built in 1896 and neglected for the past several years. Foundation, electrical, plumbing, climate control, nonexistent kitchen, roof. Not least of these was a house full of plaster, much of it cracked, falling off the walls and ceiling, or previously (badly) patched.

We share two connections with Denise: 1. We have the same last name (but are not related, at least not in the last 100 years or so). 2. Our houses have the same original owner.

Mary Julia McGiffert Murphy Dunlap lived with her first husband James Murphy, a banker, in Denise’s two-story Victorian house. When poor James died at 29, leaving her a widow with three young children, Mary Julia remarried, sold the house (for $3,200) and built a new, smaller house across the street on her brother’s land. That new house was, of course, ours.

Darwin and I feel a special affection for Denise’s house for that reason. Our affection for Denise herself aside, it just felt right to work on that house, our house’s older, fancier sister.

The members of the (unofficial) Work Day Club of Eutaw convinced Denise that we’d all gladly come help with her plaster problem. Give us beverages and lunch, we’ll be there.

So she set the date (Saturday, which stretched into Sunday, too) and we all showed up.

Denise is living in Tuscaloosa for now, while her son finishes high school. Her goal is to finish the upstairs of the Eutaw house before he graduates, so she can move in and work on the downstairs.

Naturally, Denise wants to save as much of the original plaster as she can. She carefully evaluated what had to go and what could be saved. With some input from her volunteers (us), she decided to take out the walls and ceiling in one bathroom, the master bedroom and the hall; the ceiling only in another bedroom; and one wall only in yet another bedroom.

Let the games begin.

When we showed up Saturday morning, the ceiling and walls in one bedroom were already half done, and the dumpster outside the window was already littered with debris. The Work Day Club doesn’t mess around.

Darwin and I donned our heavy-duty dust masks, protective eyewear and gloves (mine were new and pink), and picked up hammers – the first of a variety of tools we’d wield over the course of the day. Darwin taught me how to hit the plaster at an angle, and I figured out on my own how to punch holes in a line to loosen a chunk, then pry it away with the claw end of the hammer.

Later in the day, Darwin climbed up on scaffolding with Ken – as the two of them always seem to end up doing – and worked on the ceiling with a long-handled, flat-ended tool and a similar one shaped like a giant fork.

When the ceiling came down, we shoveled up cardboard box after box after boxload of debris, toted them to the window, emptied them over the edge into the dumpster. My arms quickly learned the best technique for emptying the boxes – one hand grips the top edge, other arm supports the box underneath, lift out and over. The best technique for shoveling – stay low, stay steady. Scoop, empty, scoop, empty, scoop, empty until the debris was reduced to a small enough pile that we could gather up the tarp like Santa’s bag of toys and shake its content into a box.

Then we picked up the plywood sections and tarps protecting the floor, moved it all to the next room and repeated the process.

As we worked I felt a mixture of relief and disappointment that we don’t have to do this kind of work at our house.

By the end, we were all satisfyingly filthy. Darwin, who’d decided on a whim to clean out the chimney in the master bedroom, was perhaps dirtiest of all – gray-black dirt and soot clinging to his hair, face, clothes and even teeth.

(More Plaster Party pics here.)

When we finally called it a day, more work was left to be done, so Denise tentatively asked if we’d be willing to come back Sunday. We all agreed, though I ended up staying home to nurse my laryngitis/bronchitis/some-kind-of-itis.

Darwin came home Sunday afternoon reporting that they’d nearly finished. Now Denise can work on booking drywallers, and then all the things that will make her upstairs feel like a home instead of a construction zone.

Today, I am tired and the muscles of my hands (from hammering) and thighs (from shoveling) are a little sore. I probably have dirt left in some crevices I haven’t discovered yet. But I feel so satisfied and pleased with myself.

Sometimes I wish for a life that simple – work hard, get dirty, get clean again, eat hearty, go to sleep.

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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Toilet Siesta

During the Halloween Party, the toilet in our hall bathroom starting leaking. That makes two toilets out of commission, one to go. I sincerely hope Darwin fixes the hall toilet before we have to find out what it was really like to live at the turn of the century. We're pinning a lot of hopes on that one remaining toilet.

Of course, today when he went to the local hardware store to get a new wax ring, the store was closed. So silly of us. Today's Thursday, the day when every business and government office in Eutaw takes a little breather in the afternoon. I don't know who started that custom or why, but it's really getting on my nerves.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Maple Red

We have two maple trees beside our house, and every morning when I get out of the shower, our cat Alistair is standing in the window soaking up the view. So I go over, pet him, and soak up the view a little while, too. Lately, the view is a little different every morning, a few more red and orange leaves on the ground, a few less on the fig tree, the light changing, too.

Don't you just love fall?

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