Pensive Portrait

Before & After Pics

A few Before and After pics...just from my cellphone camera, but enough to get across the scope of the transformation.

Office before:

Office After:

Closet Before:

Closet After:
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Project Lessons Learned (Warning: Includes Small Amount of Profanity)

The new closet doors are hung, and the downstairs office remodeling is well & truly finished. So it seemed like an appropriate moment to sum up what I've learned along the way.

  1. Power tools are well worth the effort it takes to learn how to use them safely and well. While often loud and frightening, they were invented for good reason: They make every tool-bearing task easier. Make them your friends. Just bear in mind that they are the kind of friends you must always treat with utmost respect, lest they remove your limbs. Mobster-boss sort of friends. But useful.In a class of its own, in this category: The miter saw. Oh my god. I love this tool. If you have to do anything with mitered corners, you will want one of these.  

  3. If you cheat and cut corners, you will almost always regret it later. I now deeply regret my decision not to continue the Pergo into the closet. There were more weird angles to deal with in the closet, I was tired, I figured I could just throw a carpet scrap in there, etc., etc., blah blah whine whine. However, this decision came back to haunt me because it required me to add a transition strip right in the closet doorway, to cover the line between Pergo and carpet. This raised the height of the doorway just enough to make re-hanging the closet doors a royal pain in the ass. I ruined the old doors in the process. Extra expense, extra time, extra cursing and frustration. (However, I ended up with prettier closet doors, so all's well that ends well.) 

  5. Conversely, there are times you just have to say, "It's good enough." I cut the trim a little short for the piece that fits under the electric baseboard heater. It was my last piece, so unless I wanted to buy more trim, I was stuck. But c'mon, nobody is going to notice that caulk-filled gap unless they get down on their hands and knees to peer under the heater. It's good enough, and it's done. 

  7. Every home-improvement task you could possibly want to do has how-to books at the library and how-to videos online. It's a good idea to check out half a dozen or so by different people on a given topic, just to get a feel for the different approaches. 

  9. A lot of mistakes disappear under a coat of paint or a dab of wood putty.  I committed a multitude of woodworking sins, but most are hidden by baseboards, quarter-round, caulk, putty, paint or all of the above.  

  11. It's best to call it a day, or at least take a break, when you are getting overtired or frustrated to the boiling point. Weariness and bad moods should not be combined with power tools. Even if you do no harm to life or limb, you will probably measure or cut badly, and waste materials. 

  13. Cussing is cathartic. You certainly find out your favorite curse words/phrases when you do a challenging project. Mine, apparently, is "you pig-fucking son of a whore." Ahem. And me so ladylike, too. 

  15. Perseverance is more important than experience. Never underestimate the power of simply not giving up.
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The Time Has Come, The Walrus Said...

I've been deplorable about updating this journal. But here's a random sampler of What's New:
  • Just over a year ago, Theo shipped out to Army basic training and I wrote this entry. Now, he is completing his application to go to Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS), i.e. the course to qualify for Special Forces training. If you watch this documentary about the two-week version of the course (it's now three), you'll see why I simultaneously A) think this borders on lunacy for a guy who's almost 41 and B) admire the hell out of him for wanting to try.

  • My office remodeling project is nearly complete. I've painted, replaced ancient carpet with a faux-red-oak Pergo floor, and mounted the trim, baseboards, and quarter-round. Along the way I've made friends with my table saw, jigsaw, and miter saw, which kindly rewarded my friendship by not amputating any of my fingers. Now all that's left is to fill in the nail holes in the trim and apply a coat of paint.

  • The kids are home from college for the summer, Kristen from Occidental in Los Angeles and Teagan from Allegheny in Pennsylvania. It's a joy to have life and liveliness in the house again. They both had a great year. Kristen has declared as a Japanese major and will enter her junior year this fall. Teagan is following the pre-med track, and despite a lot of cussing about her chemistry class, she finished her freshman year with a solid GPA and a great attitude. I'm very proud of them both. I am also excited that Kristen wants to learn to cook this summer! I got home from work last Tuesday to find the two of them making chicken curry and naan--delicious. It'd been many months since I ate a meal in this house that I didn't cook myself.

  • I find myself reconsidering my relationship to "stuff," the belongings and physical baggage of my life. I find that many of the possessions that I once worked hard to acquire now feel unnecessary, more clutter than treasure. I've donated and sold a lot of things, even books, which have traditionally been my one truly covetous packrat possession. I find myself asking, "Do I need this? Does it serve a useful purpose? Does it have sentimental value? Would I weep if it were lost in a fire? Is it easily replaceable if it turned out I missed it?" If it is neither useful nor important, and I could find another one if I someday regretted jettisoning it, then out it goes.

    Part of this decluttering is mental preparation for moving. With nobody here but me for most of the year, it now feels like more of a burden than a blessing. Paying for it alone is difficult; maintaining it alone is a chore. I'm stuck in it for the immediate future, thanks to the wretched housing market, but I am slowly but surely preparing for the day it can go on the market. I only wish it could happen sooner, and that we had more than a faint forlorn hope of doing better than break-even on it. $30-$40K of equity in this place has just...evaporated. Vanished into the Brave New Economy as though it had never been.


    However, it's not all about prepping for an eventual departure from this house. I'm also increasingly drawn to voluntary simplicity, to enough-is-enough living, to questioning the difference between need and want and excess and overindulgence. This is my one wild and precious life, as poet Mary Oliver would say. How much of it do I want to spend serving as an acquirer, caretaker, and storer of stuff? People are more important than things. Doing--living--experiencing--is more important than things. I feel my priorities shifting, toward exactly what I'm not sure, but...shifting.

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What Is Government's Proper Role?

In the wake of the barely-averted federal budget showdown, I've found myself pondering a question: "What do I want and expect the federal government to do for me?"

What I do want (and am more than willing to pay for through my taxes):
  • National Security. I expect the federal government to protect the citizenry from enemies foreign and domestic. This includes maintaining trained and well-equipped military and security forces capable of repelling foreign invasions, providing border control and immigration control, monitoring potential terrorist groups and other threats, investigating and prosecuting federal crimes, etc.

  • National Health & Safety. The free market would never produce the FAA, the CDC, USDA, EPA, NTSB, the National Weather Service or the FDA. The free market would never provide emergency relief, enforce workplace safety standards, put out raging wildfires, fund massive medical research efforts, make buildings handicap-accessible, or force corporations to clean up after themselves.

  • National Infrastructure. The free market didn't build the interstate highways or the internet or the sewer system, it didn't electrify rural America, and it sure won't fill that pothole on your street. Roads, bridges, locks & dams, power grids--they are all essential to the nation's productivity, and they all require capital on a grand scale.

  • Education. Making education free and compulsory for all American children stands as one of the finest achievements of this country--one taken too much for granted today. Yes, it's a flawed system, but not irredeemably so, not if we can make a national recommitment to it, financing it democratically and fairly instead of allowing vast inequities between rich districts and poor ones. The American Dream starts with equal access to quality education for all our children.

  • Preservation & Management of National Resources. This includes natural resources--national parks and forests and other public lands, rivers, lakes, oil/gas/mineral reserves, biological diversity of plant and animal species--as well as what I'd call heritage resources: the Library of Congress, the national archives, the Smithsonian, and other precious archives of knowledge and history.

  • A Justice System. Government-run justice may be imperfect, but it is infinitely preferable to lynch mobs and vigilantism.

  • A Basic Social Safety Net. Nobody in a country as rich as America should have to starve, freeze, or sleep on the street. Nobody--but especially children--should be denied access to basic medical care.
Some of the things I do NOT expect my government to provide:
  • International Security. I don't believe my government is obligated (or entitled, depending on your viewpoint) to protect or police the citizenry of other countries, except in the most extreme cases of humanitarian need, e.g. widespread genocide or enormous natural disasters. American tax dollars should not be spent to build empires, influence elections, redraw borders, arm rebel forces, or dictate the political structure of other nations unless failing to do so would directly imperil the U.S. (and no, the simple existence of communism or socialism elsewhere in the world does not threaten the U.S., and no, the protection of corporate profit margins is not ample reason for U.S. military intervention). Most of the time, the U.S. needs to butt out and mind the Prime Directive.

  • Subsidies. Not for corporations, not for any specific industry. The only case I can see for subsidies is to keep afloat an industry without which we would be dangerously dependent on unfriendly nations for a linchpin of our national security or economy (you we already are with oil).

  • Arts Funding. This isn't a popular position for a liberal like me, but I just don't see this as the role of government. I can see a case for government preserving the finest works of art of each generation, but not for subsidizing its creation in the first place. When it comes right down to it, I believe art has to be tough enough--strong enough--to survive in the real world without help from Uncle Sam. It may be food for the soul, but I think we've established long ago that the government is not in the soul business. I can't justify spending a tax dollar on the arts that might've been spent on housing the homeless or retraining displaced workers or researching cures for devastating diseases. Those who care about the arts need to vote with their own dollars through donations to private foundations and arts organizations.

  • Limitless support of able adults with no dependents young enough to require childcare. I'm not saying that the poor and unemployed should be cut off without a dime after X number of months. But if an adult of sound mind and body with no childcare expenses is going to continue to get benefits after a reasonable job-seeking period has elapsed (and the length of that period could/should be extended during economic downturns like this one), then I think the taxpayers ought to at least get something worthwhile in return, like public service. What if, after X months, an unemployed person who wanted to continue getting government aid had to do a mandated amount of volunteer work that benefits the community, like picking up roadside trash or doing odd jobs for the elderly/infirm or delivering Meals On Wheels or planting trees or swinging a hammer for Habitat for Humanity?

  • Tax deductions for home ownership. Owning a home is a privilege, not a necessity of life, and it is entirely possible to live a perfectly nice lifestyle in rental property. Why then should people get a tax break for having a mortgage? I like my mortgage interest deduction, sure, but I don't feel entitled to it and I don't feel the government ought to privilege my lifestyle over that of a renter.

  • Tax breaks for...just about anything. Set fair tax rates and stick to them. For everyone, individuals and corporations alike. Close the loopholes, eliminate the exceptions, and get the tax form down to a single unambiguous page: Your income. What tax you've already paid in. What % of your income you owe in taxes. Difference between the two.
Undoubtedly I'm forgetting a dozen equally important issues, or being hopelessly naive about why government should (or shouldn't) be involved in any of the above-mentioned. But for what it's worth, this is my list. What's yours?
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Freedom Sale

Theo can already see the online pay stub for his April 15th Army paycheck, and it's been cut in half...i.e., it's his pay for April 1-8 only, in anticipation of the shutdown at midnight tonight.

Congress will continue to get their paychecks. But my husband and his fellow servicemembers--including those putting their lives on the line in war zones while Congress bickers--will have to work without pay after midnight tonight.

"Freedom isn't free," one of my Army-wife friends posted to her Facebook status, "but it's on clearance. 50% off!"

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Pergo Progress

It's coming along nicely! And not only do I have most of an office floor, I still have all my fingers (knock, Pergo).

Next, I will need to master the art of installing baseboards. I suspect it'll be more finicky than removing them.
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Houston, We Have Liftoff

Woo hoo, I have safely operated power tools!! I am inordinately proud of myself considering that I haven't actually laid a single Pergo plank in place yet.

However, I successfully changed the blade on the table saw and accomplished three kinds of practice cuts on my scrap wood: rip cut (lengthwise), crosscut, and a 45" mitered angle cut. And I still have all my fingers and both my eyeballs. So I'm going to count that a victory, and call it a night.

In theory I could've tried a few real cuts tonight--it's not that late--but I've decided on a firm No Power Tools When Tired rule, and I'm sticking with it. Tomorrow night I'll attempt the real deal, and at last we'll see if this flooring really snaps together as easily as advertised.
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Two Steps Back

What I really need right now is somebody with a bullhorn shouting, "Step AWAY from the internet. Repeat: Step AWAY from the internet."

Because honestly, I cannot remember another news cycle in my life that has depressed and enraged me so much as the past month. I feel as though I've fallen into an alternate universe where every headline comes straight out of a dystopic novel or a disaster movie, some circle of hell where I am forced to act simultaneously in productions of The Handmaid's Tale, All The King's Men, 1984 and Lucifer's Hammer.

Missouri wants to repeal child labor laws. Republicans want women to prove their rape was really forcible enough if they want to avoid carrying their rapist's child to term. Wisconsin's governor thinks his corporate cronies should get hefty tax cuts funded by crushing unions under his bootheel. Georgia wants to criminalize miscarriage, while South Dakota wants to legalize the murder of doctors who perform abortions. And an appalling number of self-proclaimed "Christians" think the proper response to an article about the devastation in Japan is something along the lines of "That's what they get for not believing in Jesus."

Sometimes I just want to resign my membership in the human race.

Time to stop reading news headlines and go pet my dog.
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Tina Ten-Thumbs

When it comes to home remodeling projects, I've done a lot of painting and not a lot of anything else.

I could blame this on a lamentable adherence to traditional gender roles, were I not such a tomboy in other ways. The truth is, I'm just sort of lazy. All about the path of least resistance, me. So when there was a handy man in my household willing and able to fix the leaky toilet or install the kitty door or rewire an outlet, I was perfectly happy to have him do so, and not at all inclined to wrest the wrench from his hand with a cry of, "I am Woman! See me plumb!" Likewise, Theo was generally content to leave most of  the gardening and baking and budgeting and decorating to me.

Now I'm on my own 90% of the time, though, and that means if anything needs doing--from shoveling the driveway to installing the new smoke detector to troubleshooting why the cable internet is on the blink--I'm the one who's gotta get the job done.

Sometimes this just makes me tired. I like my weekends filled with Want Tos, not Have Tos (see above re: lazy), and a lot of those Have Tos are just damned unpleasant. The thought of going up on a snowcovered roof to check for ice dams, or replacing damaged drywall, makes me want to go back to bed and pull the covers over my head. Until June.

But lately, seduced by HGTV and glossy home-improvement books from my local library, I have caught the remodeling bug. I suspect I was rendered vulnerable by my long stretches of solitude, the silent evenings and weekends reminding me that if I hope to live in the same state with my husband before 2014, I've got to get this albatross of a house sold. Not a small feat, in this housing market. Especially not with a comfortable but unremarkable mid-1980s split-level whose original owners cut corners on materials, probably choosing to trade quality for square footage. The remodeled kitchen and living room are quite nice, but everywhere else the details--doors, cabinets, trim, carpets, countertops, fixtures--scream cheap, cheap, cheap.

So I am embarking on a program of gradual improvements, carried out at a pace that my budget and (I hope) body can handle. My mental tally of weekend-sized projects includes:
  • Installing a new vanity in the downstairs bathroom
  • Replacing countertop in the upstairs bathroom
  • Fixing the frost-heaved section of chainlink fence (come spring)
  • New cabinet doors in upstairs bathroom and on hallway linen closet
  • New closet doors in master bedroom
  • Repainting downstairs
  • Repainting and reflooring office
That last bullet point is in progress now. The repainting is done, and I've torn out the old carpet and pad--both original to the house, I'm sure, and as nasty and smelly as you'd expect after 25 years--in preparation for the flooring work. I also pried off the baseboards, carefully, since I haven't yet decided if I will reuse them. Meanwhile, 8 cartons of Pergo flooring are acclimating to the temperature and humidity of the room, to minimize the odds of significant shrinkage or expansion after the install.

So this is when it gets scary.

This is when the serious power tools come into play. The ones with shiny deadly blades spinning at frightening, life-threatening speeds.


And OK, logically and rationally, I know I can wield power tools. I am intelligent. I can read, understand and follow directions. I own safety glasses. I know how to find excellent how-to videos online. If I can drive a car and operate a lawnmower, I am capable of using a circular saw without severing a limb.

It's just that I've never done it. And they are loud, and dangerous, and make things happen way too fast for this novice's liking.


So I'm nervous. But I am damn well going to do this, because the thought of taking a handsaw to 150 square feet of laminate flooring is just...ridiculous. And unnecessary.

This weekend will be over before the flooring is done acclimating, so I get a week's reprieve. But if I'm not heard from by the end of next weekend, somebody come over and make sure I'm not in pieces on the garage floor, OK??

I am Woman. Watch me saw.

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My Husband, The Unicorn

Every so often,  I think to myself, "My husband is a mythical beast. Something like a unicorn, except without the virginity fetish."

Last sighting of this rare and elusive creature (except on Skype) occurred on Christmas Day, 2010. Two weeks more and we get a long weekend together and ohhhh, I am so ready. He's doing fine and so am I--well, for most values of "fine"--but damn, I could use a hug, and a conversation that doesn't require technological intervention, and his scent, and his warm body in the same bed. Not to mention a reason to fix something more exciting for dinner than Lean Cuisine.

I've tried a few times to tap into the military-spouse support system during these long lonely stretches between visits, but it's problematic for me. I'm 20 years older than your average first-time military wife, more liberal and less religious than most, and I've chosen (if you can call my situation a choice) not to move with my husband. This makes me an outsider three times over. Nobody is unfriendly, but they don't exactly relate to me either. Anyway it's not easy to build a support network from afar, while not living on post or even near one. Most of the military-spouse forums suffer from the same syndrome as 90% of all online communities: a drama-to-support ratio that's just way to high to be worth the trouble.

So I just try to keep busy and attuned to my state of mind--which these days has strayed as close to genuine depression as I've ever ventured. Close enough to make me vigilant of straying even further. Some roads are hard to come back from.

Spring will help. So will good work. And most of all, the next unicorn sighting.