Personal Statement

Personal Statement

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Looking Outward

When you are forced, pretty much at gunpoint, to remodel the interior of your house, on zero notice and with no construction loan in place, the silver lining is that you end up with nice new digs - whether you particularly wanted them or not.

And then you step outside.  And "outside" pales in comparison to "inside."  Significantly.  On account of how everything inside is all shiny and new, and everything outside - well.  Let's just say that yard maintenance wasn't high on our priority list when we were mid-construction and living off-premises.  Not helping the situation:  throngs of laborers and movers beating a path from driveway to front porch (on days when it rained - ALWAYS on days that it rained, because isn't that just the way?).

So, "outside" - which wasn't looking all that fab when we left - really looks drab now.

But that is about to change.  Mainly, on account of how I have no projects left to complete indoors.  (Okay, I have a few.  I still haven't trimmed out the backsplash, and a couple of doors need new knobs.  The trim for the master bathroom shelves has been painted but not installed.  But, you know, whatever.  I have made it this long without finishing those jobs, and I certainly can push them off a little bit more.)

Onward and outward.

In roughly the order that I intend to complete them:

Project #1:  Prettifying the broad side of a barn.  Because, literally, that is what we are dealing with on the south side of the carriage house.  I don't spend a whole lot of time looking at it, on account of how the south side of the carriage house fronts on a very narrow strip of real estate - really, just enough space between building and fence to accommodate a stone pathway to "The Scary."  (More on The Scary later.)  However, our neighbors to the south just built a very large second-story addition, which, when occupied, will give them a bird's eye view of the broad side of our barn.

Project #1 will be phased as follows:

I'm going to get around to painting the carriage house the same color as the main house.  Really, honestly, I am.  Some EIGHT YEARS after I repainted the main house, and swore that I would paint the carriage house to match.  We even replaced the trim on the sliding barn-style doors on the front.  The trim, like the structure to which it was attached, has remained primer white.

But Olympic's "Prairie Dust" it shall be.  THIS is an image of NOT MY HOUSE, BUT SOMEONE ELSE'S HOUSE painted "Prairie Dust."  (But it gives you an idea.)

It is more of a greenish-khaki in real life.  I expended several months and countless brain cells trying to find just the proper shade of not-too-brown, really-quite-green Army khaki.  I found, basically, the right color on a house that was en route to the Big Kid's preschool (not the NOT MY HOUSE above - a different NOT MY HOUSE).  More than once, I thought about stopping, ringing the doorbell and asking them to share the name of their paint color - but I worried about the homeowners' reaction.  I worried that they might be serial killers.  Then, some months after I tracked down Prairie Dust on my own, one of my friends BOUGHT MY INSPIRATION HOUSE - and informed me that the prior owners were two of the sweetest gay guys you could ever hope to meet (duh - not to stereotype, but I reaaaaaaally should have known, because, after all, they did pick the BEST possible color to coordinate with their brick), who would have welcomed a pop-in and probably given me a tour of the whole joint, and then offered me a glass of pinot.

Where was I?  Oh, yeah.  The carriage house shall be Prairie Dust, with white trim, like in the picture.

Second phase - create a gutter garden to hang below the main gable and break up all that broadness.  It needs the addition of plant life, and there isn't enough space to plant a shrubbery (channeling Monty Python here), so options are a trellis or THIS:

I choose THIS.  Three lengths of white vinyl gutter, some chain and some bedding plants or herbs.   The troughs will echo the white house trim and pop against the khaki paint, and the plants will create "visual interest" (a phrase that makes Spouse roll his eyes - kinda like "pop").

Third phase (really more of a Phase 2B) is to find some rubber doormats at the dollar store that look like scrolled ironwork, give 'em a hit of spray paint, and mount them above and on either side of my gutter installation.

Cute, right?  And guaranteed not to rust, and cheap to replace when the time comes.

Fourth phase is to tame, once and for all, the unruly landing strip o' weeds that runs along the Broad Side.  Black landscaping plastic is in hand, as are step stones and mulch, and I am thinking of sinking some old, starting-to-crumble faux plaster pots in the ground here and there, like this:

Again: cute, right?  And tidy.  But how to keep the mulch from sliding into the neighbor's yard?  Given that we live in an old city neighborhood, we have cyclone fencing, not wood fencing as is typical in more suburban areas.  This means that we have problems with materials migrating from one side of the fence to the other.  A walkway border like the one above would be difficult to pull off without help. 

I present to you . . . GUTTER PROJECT NUMERO DOS.  Don't have an image of this one, because I made it up.  I'm going to hit some more vinyl gutter with a little brown vinyl spray paint (so it blends in with the mulch), drill in some drainage holes, and sink the gutter all along the length of fence.  A little soil, some bedding plants, and you have a floral border that will stay put.

At least, that's the theory.

Project #2:  Creating shade on the patio.  I really want a pergola over my backyard patio, which sits in front of and along the length of the carriage house, but figuring out where to put the footings for a pergola is an issue.  I really DON'T want to drill into my existing, attractively stamped and stained concrete.  So I'm thinking about a triangle shade, in a khaki color to match the carriage house's new paint job.

Two corners can be easily anchored to the side of the carriage house - but where to anchor the third?  This got me thinking about one of my mom's upcoming yard projects, which is to cement a patio umbrella inside a very large planter pot, and plant flowers on top of the cement, creating a sturdy base for her umbrella which is also green and pretty.  Basic idea is like the one below:

Theoretically, what is to stop me from cementing a redwood fence-type post into a pot like this, and anchoring the third corner of the sun shade to the top?  Nothing, Spouse tells me.  Bonus:  if you want to take the shade down in the winter you can roll the stand out of sight and out of mind.

Yeah, this is so happening.  Existing redwood dining table with umbrella will create height (and shade) in the southeast corner of the patio), and the new shade structure-of-sorts will offset it in the northwest corner.

Project #3:  Achieving sustainability on the Near South Side.  Sounds like some sort of city initiative, right?  Our front porch wraps around the house at the southeast corner, and there's a little terrace area between the porch and our master bedroom, bordered by two large raised planters.  Nice in theory, but the sun beats down on that little terrace area like no one's business, and logistically it's difficult to irrigate over there - options are to drag a hose from the front, or one from the back.  Another triangular sun shade, coming off of the back of the porch, will add both visual interest (there's that phrase again!) and relief from the heat.  And then I'm adding one of THESE bad boys:

DIY RAIN BARREL!  DIY RAIN BARREL!  I love all three of those words.  And the gutter downspout just so happens to come down in the perfect spot.  Spouse is not only on board with this concept but thinks it's a pretty fab idea.  Not that we get THAT much rain to make this a consistent watering solution, but it will help some, and it's certainly environmentally friendly.

Project #4:  Tackling The Scary.   "The Scary" is my name for the rather large area behind the carriage house - said carriage house having been built, rather inexplicably, in the middle of  our backyard, the result being to create a large, unseen and unutilized VOID between the carriage house and the back fence.  It's not completely hopeless - there's a big shade tree in one corner, and a funky bois d'arc tree in the middle, and the areas in between get enough sunlight during the day that I am thinking that I could do some vegetable gardening back there. Weedy grass is an issue, but if I utilize raised beds, and underline them with black plastic, then I can choke out weeds and grow veggies at the same time.

Project #5:  Creating a succulent Death Star.  Because, seriously, why not?

I have a ton of unused shepherd's crooks hanging around, and at least one hanging basket.  I may even have two of the same size.  I just need to buy new coco husk liners, some soil and some succulents.

It's supposed to be a really nice weekend, so I think that I'm going to drag the boys to ReStore to look for used gutters and other raw materials, and then we will shop the carriage house for fun and funky stuff to repurpose.  Hoping that I find an old faucet and a rusty old bucket, because I know that I have an old chandelier crystal that I could turn into a drip, like this:

Hmm . . . Carriage House Scavenger Hunt.  Coming soon to a sunny weekend near me.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

He Who Shall Not Be Named

When it became apparent that the end was near for my dad, I did a little research into the grieving process as it manifests itself in mid-elementary school-aged kids and teenagers.

The last time we went down this road, Big Kid was a not-so-big-kid of six, and Little Kid was a mere eighteen months.  Big Kid's reaction to the news that his dad's father had passed away was philosophical:  "Well, I'm sad, but that's kind of selfish of me, because I know that Granddaddy is in Heaven, and he's with his parents, so he's probably really happy, and I should be happy for him."

And so he was.

I am told by my sister-in-law's mother, who was watching PJ in the waiting room while we were saying our goodbyes in ICU, that PJ looked skyward and let out a happy chortle of laughter at pretty much the exact moment that his granddaddy passed.  Having always suspected that young children still have a hook-up with "the other side" (having so recently come from there), I am 100% convinced that this confluence of events wasn't coincidental.  Pretty clearly, the kid was tuned in to something.

Years later, PJ advised that he remembered well "the day that we strapped Granddaddy to the top of Grandma's SUV and drove him to Heaven.  It was me, Daddy and Grandma in the car, and we drove him to Heaven and then came back."

Um, no.

"Oh, you're right.  I wasn't there.  But you told me about it later."

Ohhkay, sure.

This go-round, the Big Kid was provided with a heads up that we were approaching a crossroads.  He only stayed in the denial phase for a split second before proceeding to bargaining:  "Well, if his heart is failing, can't they give him one of those pacemaker things?"  No, I explained to him as patiently, and gently, as possible.  He wasn't healthy enough for surgery, for starters.  And, if a device could resolve any of his issues at all, it couldn't eliminate the root cause of those issues.  Notwithstanding that his tumors were actually on the retreat, the combined effect of cancer and chemo had nudged him into a downward spiral, and everything was contraindicated by something else:  feed him what he needed to bulk back up, and his sugar would spike, or his kidney function would drop.  Keep him on a diabetic/renal diet, and malnutrition would be the result.  "Wasting" was the term that they used, and - realistically (and I was trying to be realistic for my child) - the process could not be reversed.  We weren't talking about if, we were talking about when.

Within thirty six hours of this conversation, we had moved Dad to hospice and been handed the rather heavy piece of information that he might not make it through the night.  We scrambled:  everyone grabbed toothbrushes and pajamas, and Mom and I headed to hospice while Spouse and the kids bunked in with my grandmother.  The next morning, Dad was still with us - and the Big Kid announced that he wanted to go to church, which I considered an incredibly healthy thing.  I had already notified his youth minister of the situation, which turned out to be a mistake on my part, because C walked in, people reached out to him, and outreach was not what he wanted at that particular moment.  On the way home from church, he announced to his father that he would not be attending his youth group's "Thrift Shop Prom" (only one rule:  attire can't cost you more than ten dollars, inclusive of accessories) because he couldn't stand people being so nice to him.

At this point, I made one of those tough sandwich-generation choices and left hospice for a bit - checked in with my grandmother and Spouse (not so much because I was worried that he wasn't taking good care of her, but because I was worried that perhaps Spouse was feeling the need to kill her) and kidnapped the Big Kid for a half hour.  We drove to our house, I took a much-needed shower, and we assembled his Thrift Shop Prom outfit (burnt orange skinny jeans - there's a story behind those that I will share at a later date - and a purple-sequined puffy pirate shirt that was part of Spouse's "pimp daddy" costume a few Halloweens ago).

"Mom, I don't want to go."

Fully understood.  The first time my dad fought renal cancer, I was a freshman in college.  He was diagnosed over Christmas break and had his kidney removed shortly after New Year's.  I went back for spring semester unsure of how things would play out for him.  The last thing I wanted to do was talk about my situation, but there they were - my well-meaning dormmates and sorority sisters.  Some of them got it exactly right:  "Hey, I'm here if you want to talk."  Simple, to the point.  Others were more awkward and tried to force me to talk about my feelings.  Or touched me a bit too much.  Or tried to draw parallels to events in their life that were not, even remotely, similar.  Some planted their feet firmly in their mouths,  Others were afraid to make jokes around me, and a few avoided me entirely.

It was agonizing.  But, with the benefit of hindsight, it was also beautiful.  Because it's very affirming to know that people care about you - even when that care is making you, kinda-sorta, miserable.  So you have to take the attention in the spirit in which it is attended, and you have to shape it.  Thank people (because, above all else, you should always be gracious), and then tell them what you need:  "I appreciate your prayers, but right now I just need things to be as normal as possible."

Big Kid nodded.  Then we talked about his granddad, and how the knowledge that his condition was making loved ones put their lives on hold made his situation seem that much worse.  Granddad would hate the idea that C was missing a fun night with his friends because of him.  (Another nod.)  I opined that the one mistake that kids consistently make when a loved one is sick or dying is to assume that they are no longer allowed to have fun, or be joyous.  Being joyous is not disrespectful.

"No, Mom, you're right - it's the opposite."

So Big Kid put on his wildly clashing shirt and pants, accessorizing with a pair of electric blue lace-up Vans.   (With his then-still-shaggy hair, the overall effect was pretty Mick Jagger-ish.)  Spouse was pulling out of the driveway with him when I made the call:  Dad had just passed away.  We decided that now was not the time to make an announcement.  Big Kid was deposited at the door of the youth building.

An hour or so later, the text messages started to come in:

"Is everything okay?"

We considered our responses very carefully.  Yes, everything is okay (because it was).  Mom says to quit worrying and have fun - but if you can't have fun, call us, and we will pick you up early.

He stayed until the end of the event.  He filmed (badly) his friends performing (slightly less badly) their version of the Harlem Shake.  His youth director drove him home, based on arrangements that we had made in advance - so when we broke the news to him, she was there, and can I tell you what a huge blessing that was?

Little Kid got the news first, before his dad had had the opportunity to return from Prom drop-off duties.  My mom and I arrived home at the same time, and - being pretty much in shock - my mom started disclosing details about what had happened to her own mother, so I made the executive decision to talk to PJ before he heard something that confused him.  His responses, in order:

"Oh."  [Oh, indeed.]

"Does my brother know?"  [Gotta love sibling rivalry.]

"Maybe I should be there to help break the news to him."  [Thanks, but we've got this.]

Over the next few days, he processed the information out loud, as I guess eight year-olds are wont to do.

"My granddad's dead."  [Yup.]

"Now that you-know-who is dead, I don't have any grandfathers."  [No, you still have them - you just can't see them.  And, also, HE'S NOT VOLDEMORT.  YOU CAN SAY HIS NAME.]

We have had some positive conversations since.  Silver lining has been discovered:  Granddad is no longer suffering, and Nana no longer has to drive him to two doctor's appointments a day.  She will finally have the opportunity to visit the new herpetarium at the zoo, and see the elephant and the lemur that Granddad sponsored for her this last Christmas and the Christmas before.  She can take advantage of the science and history museum charter membership that she and my dad purchased but never got to use.

Summer is coming, not a lot of structured activities have been planned, and that's okay - Camp Nana will be in full effect.  With reciprocal therapeutic benefits for all.

And hopefully by then, PJ will deem it permissible to name He Who Shall Not Be Named.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Hair Issues

So, in preparation for my dad's memorial service, I took the Big Kid to get a haircut - on account of how his grown-out shag was threatening to completely obscure his eyeballs, and the overall dimensions of his head were approaching parade balloon proportions.

I did not take him to his regular stylist.  Mistake #1.

When Not-His-Regular-Stylist asked if she could use electric clippers to take out some bulk in the back, I assumed that she was referring to tapering the shape at the very bottom.  Mistake #2.  She made her first cut just under his occiptal lobe - right about where you would shave things if you were giving a kid a chili bowl cut.

Big Kid has not had a chili bowl since age five or so.

I tried to keep my freak-out on the downlow, so as not to alarm my son who was already twelve shades of ticked about having to have ANY of his hairs cut.

"Um, you're going to blend that in with scissors, right?"

Oh, she blended - and blended, and blended, until he, basically, had a short haircut in the back, but a really, really choppy short haircut.  Meanwhile, everything in the front was still flopping over his eyes and ears.  It was like a reverse mullet, or something that you might see on a terrier at Westminster.

At this point, I was, I think, in shock.  I mumbled a suggestion about trimming his sideburns a bit, to connect what was happening in front to what had happened in back.

It didn't make it better - just a different kind of worse.

Still in shock, I allowed myself to be talked into purchasing anti-chlorine shampoo for the kid, and I ended up overtipping her (tipping 20% of the bill inclusive of product).

We ran three errands after that, and the entire time Big Kid was whining:  about having gotten a haircut of any sort, and about THIS haircut in particular.  While he was whining, I was stifling the bout of word vomit that was threatening to erupt outward through my mouth parts.  In the middle of errand #3, I found that I couldn't keep it in any longer:

"You got a bad haircut, okay?  In fact, it's a HORRIBLE haircut.  Actually, it's TWO horrible haircuts - a horrible long haircut in the front, and an attack-with-a-weed-whacker short haircut in the back.  You look like a mashup of Suze Orman and real estate expert Barbara Corcoran.  But it's DONE.  Either we live with it, or we take you someplace else and have it fixed - and, likely, that's going to mean losing more hair in the front.  Pick your poison."

He picked option B.  Actually, Dad picked option B, because Big Kid was too busy wailing and gnashing his teeth.  It took 45 minutes to fix the mess.  He ended up with a little length remaining in the front, which wouldn't have been my choice - if you are going to have a short haircut, commit to it - but the overall effect is far less offensive than version 1.

At some point in the middle of Hairgate 2013, it occurred to me that this whole snafu had my dad's name written all over it.  I truly believe that deceased relatives mess with you from Heaven, always with a wink and a smile.  For years, I felt the presence of my dad's father every time I drove the car that he handed down to me.  (Wood-paneled station wagon.  Best car to take to college EVER, particularly if you happened to go to college in Austin.  You could fit a keg AND a fully inflatable raft in the back.  I always had to have a raft handy, in case my day took me to Barton Springs - which it frequently did.)

My granddad was born and raised in the Deep South and, therefore, was fully immersed in a culture of "separate and not entirely equal." Case in point:  while he was fond of his "yard boy" - who was in his sixties when I first encountered him and, therefore, not technically a "boy" - Tee was never allowed to step foot in the house, even on the hottest of days, and my grandmother always served Tee water in the same plastic cup.  A cup that, one day, I retrieved from the cabinet, intending to drink from it.  "That's Tee's cup."  That's okay - Tee's not here, and I don't think he will mind.  I mean, I'll wash it and put it back and stuff.  "No, you don't understand - Tee DRINKS OUT OF THAT CUP."  So what?  It's not like he has cooties - oh.  Wow.  Okay.  (But not okay.  I drank out of the cup.)

Thus, it was terribly funny to me when I came into possession of my granddad's old car, and discovered that (1) only the AM radio receiver chose to work and (2) the only station that came in clearly was a funk/soul station.  NO MATTER WHAT RADIO MARKET I WAS IN.  Austin, Houston - didn't matter.  One station, and one station only.  And the first song that came on, every morning like clockwork, was the theme from "Shaft."  I took all of this as Granddad's way of saying, "Hey, I'm up here, and I'm enlightened now, and - well, I get it."

So I totally think that Big Kid's botched haircut was my dad's way of ensuring that he would look clean-cut at the memorial service.  After all, I come from Pentagon people - both sides - and long-haired hippie freaks draw raised eyebrows.

After C's hair was, sort of, fixed, the whining continued:  "People will laugh at me."  No, they won't, because you will tell them that you cut your hair out of respect for your grandfather.  Period, paragraph.

New Haircut made its debut at Youth movie night at our church Sunday evening.  When C got home, I asked him if he told people about his granddad's passing.

"No, it was like they already knew.  Oh - because you told my youth minster last Sunday before church."

No, I didn't tell your youth minister that your grandfather was deceased last Sunday before church, because last Sunday before church he was, actually, factually, still alive.

"Oh, but they knew because it happened during Thrift Shop Prom last Sunday night."

Correct, he did die in that time frame - but we didn't tell YOU about it until you got home, remember?

"Huh.  Well, somehow, they already knew."

Did anyone comment on your hair?

"No, because I announced upfront that I had cut it short for Granddad's memorial service."

Wait for it . . . .

"OH.  They probably figured out that he was dead when I mentioned that we were having a memorial service for him."

Proof that the blonde goes all of the way to the roots.  It just doesn't have that far to travel these days.

Back On the Grid

My father passed away a week ago Sunday, after battling Stage 4 cancer for 21 months.  I saw him take his last breath, and it was both sad and beautiful at the same time.

I will talk about the sadness, and the beauty, later.  For the time being, though, I plan to focus on the funny.  Because deaths affect families, and family interaction is (at least in my personal experience) inherently funny - perhaps never more so than during times of stress.