How to Survive Unemployment in Seven Easy Steps

Now, I know that most of you are here to see what I dug out of the trash this week. But today I’m telling a different kind of story – about an amazing person who was dumped in the trash heap of unemployment, how we dug ourselves out, and what we learned along the way.

All summer Scott and I have been trying to buy a house in our neighborhood, which was recently designated as a playground for people with disposable income who like to drink alcohol. Consequently, this has made the homes in our beloved neighborhood of 14 years suddenly “desirable.”

After months of bidding wars, we FINALLY found a house in our price range. It was exactly what we wanted – three bedrooms, a big yard, and totally haunted. The place needed work, but it had been lovingly maintained by an Old Polish Lady, not unlike Scott’s own Babushkas. On August 26, we signed the contract to buy the Babushka house.*


The Babushka Kitchen, last updated in 1943.  Definitely keeping the cabinets, but probably not the Lysol Collection. 

Then on August 27 – with no notice – Scott lost his job of ten years. Poof!  His entire department had been eliminated.

When suddenly-unemployed-Scott walked back in the door that morning, we both cried. Not so much for the job, but for the house we would not be able to buy, and for our bad luck, and for the stinging unfairness of it all.

Then we caught our breath, wiped the snot from our upper lips, and both burst out laughing. How could anyone on earth have such bad luck?

In the background of our new sadness, the radio described the unspeakable misery of people who could only dream of having our problems. Live reports from the front line of another war, from refugee camps, from makeshift hospitals in West Africa. Here we were:  Americans with college degrees, two-page resumes, and a savings account. Not to mention a happy marriage, three healthy children, and a gaggle of supportive friends. We would be fine; we would get through this.  We just didn’t know when.


One of the thousands of problems that we don’t have.

I’m happy to report that the when is now. After only six weeks out of work, Scott is at a shiny new job in a very tall building. The Babushka’s children were kind enough to extend our contract while he looked for work, so we’re on track to buy that house next month.

Experts say that job loss is one of the most traumatic life events, right behind the discovery that your mother used to be a nun. Six weeks is a short time to be unemployed, but it was one of the most stressful six weeks of our marriage. Since I work from home, I had to suddenly share my space and routine (and bathroom) with another person who only used to visit on evenings and weekends. I learned a few lessons along the way that hopefully you will never have to use. But just in case….


Immediately Unpack your “Box of Shame”: The day after Scott was laid off, the office shipped home two boxes of his stuff: 10 years of pay stubs and insurance forms, dozens of tchotchkes embossed with the company’s name. We left this stuff where it landed – stacked in our living room for a couple of weeks, and it gradually became furniture.

IMG_5027 If you can’t bear to unpack your Box of Shame right away, at least drape a colorful runner and use it to serve beverages or light snacks to your guests.

IMG_5030Give your Unemployed Loved One a Daily Assignment:  Nobody can spend nine hours a day spit-shining their LinkedIn profile. Provide your ULO with a little job each day, just something to make him trade his slippers for shoes, leave the house, and feel a sense of accomplishment. Here’s some ideas for your ULO Daily Assignment:

  • Shop for shoe laces (harder than you think)
  • Mail odd-shaped packages (preferably containing liquids or live animals) to other states or countries
  • Deposit months-old birthday checks in the kids’ bank account
  • Dispose of hazardous household materials responsibly
  • Quiz your local pharmacist on the best pinworm treatments for children
  • Go to Target on a Saturday morning
  • Visit elderly relatives without telling them why you have so much free time on Wednesday afternoon
  • Make copies of all your keys
  • Buy more toilet paper and coffee (see below)

Stock Your Home with Extra Coffee and Toilet Paper: You may not realize how much of your ULO’s coffee consumption happens at the office. That 6-cup-a-day habit doesn’t disappear just because he’s at home. To ease the transition to unemployment, try substituting your regular brand of hand-roasted, shade-grown and fairly-traded beans with something more like the office brew – I recommend off-brand Folgers’ Crystals. With extra water. And slightly burned. Served room temperature with powdered creamer.

Next, do the math: Each cup of coffee represents 1.5 trips to the bathroom, so factor that into your toilet paper budget. And air freshener, if that’s what you’re into.

coffee and toilet paperYou should also stock up on your unemployed person’s favorite comfort food. Perhaps he loves to stand in the kitchen, mindlessly smearing peanut butter across his tongue? Or eating spoonfuls of strawberry jam right out of the jar when nobody’s looking?** Be prepared for a lot of that.

Buy a Printer/ Scanner Combo: I think this is half the reason Scott got an office job in the first place. You are REALLY going to miss all that free printing.

Involve Your Kids in the Job Search: Our oldest boy didn’t seem concerned about the layoff – he still bubbles with that early-adolescent brew of optimism, invincibility and total ignorance about boring grown up stuff like unemployment and real estate. Our 3-year-old boy just discovered that dogs have penises, so he’s been pretty busy telling everyone about that.

But our 5-year-old discovered her talent as a (really lousy) career counselor. When we told her Daddy needed to find a new job, she suggested Scott work at the coffee shop, then the book store, and then a store she calls “Buckets of Blood” which actually sells paint, not buckets of blood, but you can see why she thinks that:

buckets of bloodFinally, Estelle suggested that Daddy get a job at the “Thinking Store,” a magical place where workers stand behind a counter and give customers their good ideas. About anything. “And they get paid lots of money so we can get ice cream and Mexican food every day.”

Take Everyone To The Doctor Immediately: If you’re like us, you have a few weeks before the health insurance runs out for good. Ladies, get your pap smears. Order new glasses. Take the kids for their annual checkups, with all the shots. If you haven’t already, teach your kids to wash their hands.

PRO-TIP!!   Even if your insurance ran out, you can still call the kids’ doctor’s after-hours “on-call” hotline. So, if your precious angel is sick and you’re really not sure if it’s worth taking him in, just wait until midnight and have the doctor paged. She will be groggy and a little pissed-off, but it won’t be charged to your non-existent health insurance.

Alternately, live in a country with universal health insurance. Which is most countries.

Give Your ULO some Mini-Indulgences: Unemployment is a combustible mix of boredom and poverty. You’ve got plenty of time to browse EBay and the latest movie and restaurant reviews, but no money for any of it.

But don’t let your ULO feel like a total pauper! Eating dinner out is a budget-buster, but what about breakfast? For less than $20, you can enjoy a meal for two with bottomless coffee. For a couple of hours, you can feel like royalty, watching other people cook and serve your meals, wash your dishes and wipe your crumbs. However, when the server asks “Is everything OK?” – try not to burst into tears and scream about how you gave them the ten best years of your life for nothing. She was just asking about the food.

I do recommend splurging on new career-wear. Scott’s old “Job Interview Suit” was also his “Funeral Suit” and his “Wedding Suit” with all the stains to prove it. It sported an outdated wide-cut and shoulder pads. Throw in some weight loss, and Scott now looked like a child playing dress up, or a teenager borrowing his dad’s suit for the prom, rather than a serious Job Seeker.  Here’s the old suit, circa 2008, 2009 and 2013.

wedding photoaprilbrian0452Picture 1322I can’t say for sure if his new “European fit” suit helped him score the new job, but it did give him a big boost of confidence. And I can’t wait for the next wedding.

Say YES to all Offers of Help, no Matter how Weird or Irrelevant.  So many friends offered to pass Scott’s resume on to someone they knew in his industry. Though none of this materialized into job interviews, it certainly made us, and our friends, feel like we were doing something. And don’t just say yes to the networking opportunities. Another friend gave us his old Blu-Ray player and a box set of “Blade Runner.” It didn’t help land a new job, but it gave Scott something to do, and the feeling that someone was looking out for us.

Think About your Future Memory Box: There are big moments in a marriage that you will never forget: The moment you met, your wedding day, your spouse’s reaction to an unplanned pregnancy. The memories of thousands of regular weekdays will eventually fade into a sepia-toned blur. But your Loved One will always remember how you treated him when he lost his job. You may be scared, you may be angry, you will most certainly be whirling in a cesspool of stress.


Sorry, no good pictures of swirling cesspools on the internet. Here’s a dirty pool that is probably causing someone stress.  

If you need to freak out, do it with your mother or your friends. But when your Loved One looks back at this time, make sure all he remembers is your gentle encouragement, your confidence in his abilities, and your excitement at seeing his rear end in a new, tight-fitting suit.

* In a Babushka haunting, the ghosts will force you to eat rye bread and pierogi in your sleep, groaning, “You’re wasting away, my dziecko…”
** No, wait, that’s me eating all the strawberry jelly.

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Projectophile Time Machine: DIY Inspiration from 70 years ago

Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you were born three generations back?


— Wavy lines indicate oncoming dream sequence –

Maybe I’ve been watching too many sepia-toned Ken Burns documentaries, but in the early 20th Century, I’m sure I’d find myself organizing lady garment workers into a union. Then I’d be a suffragette, and then a flapper, and then – after a quick nap – I’d be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. When war breaks out, I’d clip on my overalls, flex my biceps and clock in at the nearest ammunition plant.


Scott in a sailor suit, slightly too young for war.

On VJ Day, I’d head to the docks and kiss every GI on the mouth. Hopefully, one of them would be Scott, in a tight-fitting sailor suit.

However, my revisionist fantasies fall flat when I remember that 70 years ago, I wouldn’t have a blog.* I wouldn’t even have a zine, or a faxed newsletter. And without the internet, I’d be forced to get my project inspiration from books and magazines.

I recently got a peek into that dark and primitive world thanks to a pile of DIY magazines from the 1940s and early 50s.  When our friends Christine and Pete hosted an estate sale for a neighbor’s family, they set aside a stack of vintage Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and – yes, I’m spelling it right – Mechanix Illustrated magazines.**

So, what kind of projects were DIY enthusiasts buzzing about 70 years ago? In the dark days before This Old House and Apartment Therapy,  what did we have for project and home improvement inspiration?

Here at Projectophile, we love nothing more than turning old junk into something useful again. After World War II, America was awash in WAR JUNK.  If I were around back then, here’s some projects I would explore:

bullet chess setI can’t wait for the rationing on chess pieces to end!  And just what DO I do with all these old warplanes laying around everywhere?

plane parts feed birds“War Surplus” is more than airplanes and bullets! Let’s put those leftover chemical weapons to good use.

tear gasWhen shoveling the driveway is colder than the 1939 Soviet Invasion of Finland, try this Navy Face Mask. Makes a perfect gift for the dungeon enthusiast in your life!

face maskActually, you might want to keep that mask handy for your newest hobby — hunting uranium for fun and profit!

locate uraniumNow that the War is over, thousands of suddenly-bored scientists are itching to tell you how to run your life. This article warns millions of (also suddenly bored) American housewives how prevent over-exertion from cooking dinner.

kitchen designed by doctors Ladies, why aren’t you harnessing the power of the latest cheese slicing and storage technology?  Khrushchev is totally gonna lose it when he sees this!

slicing cheeseOn second thought, maybe we really shouldn’t try to piss off Khrushchev too badly. You know, because of that whole pesky Mutually Assured Destruction thing.  In the meantime, here’s a home improvement project the whole family can enjoy!

img20141007_21203207“Let children help by snooping out oily rags, furniture polish, and other fire hazards grown ups may overlook. By building your Family Foxhole, you will also be building the state of mind that can resist the pressures of aggression as well as the shocks of actual atomic war.” family foxholeAs long as we’re going to die in a fiery blast anyway, enjoy some vices! Be sure to add a touch of class to this miniature cobbler’s bench ashtray by asking Grandma*** to stitch a custom lace doily:

cobblers_bench_holds_smokesShould I smoke, or drink? Now you don’t have to choose!

ash tray tumblerIt’s such a nice day! let’s go for a drive in the Ultimate DUI Wagon, conveniently stocked for your mobile binge with booze, tumblers and ice.

dashboard refreshment barKids today think they INVENTED distracted driving. Honey, we were doing it back in the 1940s. This “portable desk” for traveling salesmen fits right over the steering wheel!

distracted drivingAnd back at the central office, these humble workers just survived the world’s first conference call, which, through a decades-long process of technological mutations would result in the world’s worst portmanteau, the WEBINAR.

conference_callNow that the horrible bloodshed of war is over, scientists and home mechanics alike can turn their attention to improving our method of…. killing people?  “From the first torture rack to the latest gas chamber, science has transformed the criminal’s execution from human butchery into a skilled profession.”

mechanics of killingDon’t worry, we have more to look forward to than just death, and more death.  This “High School of the Future” teaches boys to cook (hot dogs), and girls to (*gasp*) repair furniture!

high school of the futureAnd when all else fails, just push this Amazing Mystery Button, which transmits music to distant places and comes with a 5,000 word instruction book.

amazing mystery buttonWhat could possibly go wrong?

* Or a college degree, or a polio vaccine, or access to birth control. But we’ll save those details for another blog.
** I don’t approve of hoarding in my own home, but I do enjoy benefiting from the hoarding of strangers.
*** Before Etsy, there was Grandma.


“We Always Wipe Our Butts” Family Crest + Toilet Paper Holder

I confess: Sometimes I complain about people who don’t have kids.

“Why are my childless friends always late?” I recently griped to a child-free friend. “I’ve got three other people to get ready, and still manage to get places on time.

The friend complained right back, “Why do parents use their kids as an excuse not to go out on weekends. Get a babysitter!

Tell me this!” I argued. “Why are you people tired all the time? You can sleep whenever you want!

poochart“Oh yeah?,” he retorted, “Why do parents talk incessantly about POOP?

Well. He had me there! We breeders DO love discussing poop, especially when it comes out of the behinds of our little darlings. We don’t naturally love excrement, but we spend a big part of our days either cleaning poop, helping someone poop, or finding poop in unexpected places.*

Case in point:  One of the guests at a friend’s birthday party told a delightfully graphic story about a kid who forgot to wipe her butt for a whole day.  My pal Jessica wandered into the conversation and proudly declared, “In MY family, we ALWAYS wipe our butts.” I laughed and added, “You should put that on your family crest.”

Jessica can always make us laugh. But suddenly last week she was in need of some serious cheering up: Jess’ cargo bike (essentially a two-wheeled minivan) was stolen, just a couple of months after she’d sold off the family car.

This was devastating. When she’s not at Movie Trivia night, Jess can be seen herding about a half dozen children: three handsome boys of her own, plus handful of other people’s kids for good measure. Somehow she also finds the time to do craft projects, foster dogs, organize (really fun!) school fundraisers, and generally make our little world a better place.  Here is a pregnant Jessica using her charm to get a hold of Mayor Emanuel’s top secret plans for Chicago:483959_4365761668545_185537383_n

And somehow, Jessica makes it all look easy. Glamorous, even.

Now it was my turn to make her smile. I couldn’t replace the cargo bike, but I did have a pretty clever idea for a family crest!  Before we get started, remember this: When making a poop-themed Family Crest/ Toilet paper holder, the number one rule is: KEEP IT CLASSY.

Hunk of wood
Toilet Paper Holder and Roll of TP (2-ply)
Primer, Paint and Polycrylic
Jigsaw, Sanding Block, Paintbrushes and Old Rag
Restless 3-year Old
Latin Dictionary
Loads of Class

STEP ONE – SAW:  I grabbed scrap of wood leftover from various projects, and jig-sawed into a regal crest shape. Do a Google Image search for “family crest” to get some ideas.


(Projectophile stock photo)

Sand the raw crest down to a smooth finish with a sanding block, paying special attention to the rough edges and not-so-graceful curves.

IMG_4865STEP TWO – PRIME & PAINT:  For the background, I chose a four-panel diamond pattern in white and yellow, because it felt bright and cheerful; also I have a lot of yellow and white paint (I dismissed Scott’s not-so-classy suggestion to use yellow and brown – the palette of human waste).

First, put down a layer of oil-based white primer, to even out the dark tones and help the paint adhere. Note that I didn’t waste a paintbrush on this step, I just dunked a (clean) rag into the primer and smeared it on, then tossed the rag.

IMG_4867After the primer dried, I traced my diamond pattern in pencil, and then painted one section at a time, using masking tape to protect the other sections and keep my lines straight.

IMG_4875PRO-TIP #1: If you use cheap, disposable brushes to apply oil-based paint, try giving your brush a quick “haircut” before painting to get that perfect angle.


IMG_4885STEP THREE – APPLY YOUR MESSAGE:  In the name of Keeping it Classy, I decided to translate “We Always Wipe Our Butts” into Latin, cause everything sounds more serious in a dead language only spoken by the Pope.

I took four years of high school Latin, but now I don’t even recognize those strange words on the back of a quarter. So I got some help from my smarter friends.

Chris T. suggested: Nostrum clunes semper detergemus, which means, “Our buttocks are always clean.” Close, but not specific enough.

Then Gareth N. contributed: Semper emundabit culus, which translates to “Always cleanse your anus,” a little more…um… clinical in tone than I needed.

In the end, I chose Julie V.’s phrase: Semper extergunt tibus nostrum.

I tried to paint the family name directly on the top of the crest with a clean, modern san-serif font of my own design:

IMG_4895After screwing up a few letters, I tried mask my mistakes with some camouflaging serifs, which only made matters worse. YIKES!

IMG_4896In a panic, I primed a piece of balsa wood and wrote the family name in permanent marker:

IMG_4897Using the balsa wood, I wrote the latin phrase in a “banner” shape, and per Scott’s suggestion, drew it as a flowing roll of toilet paper. However, I couldn’t quite get the shape right, panicked, and then just made Scott cut it out for me:

IMG_4900I gently sanded down the areas where the banners would go, and used wood glue to stick them to the crest.

IMG_4903IMG_4912STEP FOUR – FINAL TOUCHES:  Since the crest would (ideally) be used in a bathroom setting – in close proximity to many acidic fluids – I gave the whole crest three thin coats of Minwax polycrylic clear finish in spray form. This is the first time I’ve used aerosol top coat – I found a can among dumpster full of half-used spray paint and decided to give it a try.

PRO-TIP #2: Shaking a can of spray paint for two minutes is a very boring, but totally necessary step in many projects. Instead of wasting two minutes of your valuable grown-up time (when you could be thinking about fiber, taxes or real estate), let your three-year-old do the hard work for you. The average preschooler has nothing better to do (he still thinks orange is a letter); and shaking a can with a marble inside will provide valuable stimulation, improve hand-eye coordination and build both fine and gross motor skills.


Can’t you just feel his self-esteem exploding?

When the finish is dry, screw some mounting hardware on the back – Remember, this is a practical, useful gift.

IMG_4911Finally, install your toilet paper hardware and spring for a fresh roll.** I recommended two-ply for maximum butt wiping resistance.


IMG_4924IMG_4925STEP FIVE – PRESENTATION: Gather up the girlfriends and head to Movie Trivia Night at your local theater. Sit silently for an hour sipping your beer, because you can’t even remember the title of the movie you watched two weeks ago, much less the name of Meatloaf’s character in Rocky Horror. Present the gift to your friend. She doesn’t even remember saying “We always wipe our butts,” but you get a smile out of her anyway.

IMG_4927* Did you know that every year the average human being produces about 1,200 pounds of feces and urine combined?
** You weren’t really gonna put a half-used roll of toilet paper on there, were you?

Sidewalk Hustle: 10 Secrets for Yard Sale Success

Yard Sale season is winding down here in Middle America, but in Australia – where most Projectophile readers reside – the scavengers are just now rousing themselves from a long winter hibernation, ready to forage for bargains.

Scott and I hosted our own yard sale this past weekend, and learned that informal commerce is more than just throwing your junk out on the lawn. It requires a detailed marketing plan, inventory control, and lots of quarters and $1 bills.  Follow these ten easy steps for a successful sale in any hemisphere!

IMG_4832BRAND YOUR SALE:  A few days before the sale, you’ll want to post an ad on Craigslist and various neighborhood online forums. As you draft your ad, be sensitive both to regional customs and deeper shades of meaning. I called mine a YARD SALE, even though most sales in Chicago are actually conducted on the sidewalk. Other possibilities include:

Garage Sale:  Is your sale actually inside a garage? Unless it’s raining, this is a terrible location. Garages are dark and musty. Your customers will be surrounded by grease spots, spider webs, and lots of rusty items that are not actually for sale. Take it outside.
Moving Sale: This name suggests an expansive inventory and many big-ticket items that the seller can’t fit in his dad’s station wagon.


You think these two know each other?

Moving out of the Country Sale:  A more drastic version of the Moving Sale, it adds an element of intrigue. Diplomat? Spy? Arms Smuggler? Either way, she’s selling everything she can’t fit into the airplane’s overhead compartment.
Divorce Sale: If you don’t mind sharing a few details about your failed relationship, you can entice drama-hungry shoppers with a love of Schadenfreude. But check your pre-nup agreement first.
Estate Sale: Appropriate only when the owner of the merchandise is actually dead. Attending an Estate Sale is more than just a shopping trip; it is a chance to trample through a person’s house and most intimate belongings.

At this Estate Sale advertised below, we find remnants of a well-rounded life — Christmas decorations, Precious Moments figurines and Pornography (emphasis mine):

preciousmomentsandpornDEVELOP YOUR SALES STRATEGY: Ask yourself: Do you want to get rich, or get rid of stuff? You may be tempted to mark up some of your nicer items, but consider how much cash the average person at your yard sale will be carrying in his pocket. If your stuff is really that nice, sell it separately on Craigslist.

Feel free to print out this IRS-inspired worksheet to determine which items to sell on Craigslist and which to sell at your yard sale:

matrixCONDUCT SOME LIGHT BAIT & SWITCH:  Take a few sample pictures of what you plan on selling at the yard sale: A pair of shoes, a chair, a kitchen gadget… that sort of thing. Next, take pictures of one or two really nice things that you are NOT selling: An $800 stroller, your Danish Teak Mid-Century Modern Dining Room Set in Perfect Condition. Casually mix the pictures together in your ad. Remember, you don’t have to actually sell these things, you just want to give your Yard Sale a certain je ne sais quoi. You will inevitably be asked about these items at the sale, in which case you respond, “Oh THAT? It already sold. But can I interest you in this bin of obsolete cell phone chargers?”

DON’T BE A XENOPHOBIC, CHILD-HATING CRANK: This fellow didn’t notice that our neighborhood is full of children and non-English speakers. But he does have “leather pants & more.”

yardsaleadcirclesV.I.P. PREVIEW: If you truly care more about shedding stuff than raking in the Benjamins,* then consider holding an exclusive, Friends-Only Preview sale the evening before. Dim the lights, pour champagne, spin some light jazz, and watch your possessions melt away.

STAGE YOUR SALE:  Is your sale easy to find? We held ours on the sidewalk and parkway, so that innocent pedestrians had to squeeze past our bargains to get to the end of the block. We hung the better garments on the fence so that passers-by were forced to make eye contact with the ghostly remnants of my pre-baby, mid 2000s business casual wardrobe.

IMG_4841Don’t make your customers assume undignified positions – limit the squatting, kneeling and bending over that must be done to examine your product. Instead of throwing them on the ground, place items on a table or hang them on a tree or fence.

And please, take stuff out of the boxes and garbage bags before you try to sell them (and preferably before you take pictures):


I wonder if their punctuation marks are at the bottom of those boxes?

CHECK YOUR JUNK:  Every sitcom in history had the “rummage sale” episode – when the kids accidentally sold Grandma’s love letters from Mussolini, or the cookie jar with $40,000 inside. Empty the pockets of your coats and pants, and shake out your books for sentimental bookmarks, especially if you keep your place with $100 savings bonds.

Also, make sure your kid doesn’t put a pair of his tighty-whities in the yard sale pile:

IMG_4848MAKE IT A PARTY!  Ask your pals and neighbors if they’d like to display their own wares. It’s an easy way to double your inventory, and the extra bodies milling about will generate buzz in the neighborhood. You might call this “SYNERGY”**, but it’s also a fun excuse to have pizza delivered directly to the yard sale.

IMG_4836¡PRO-TIP!  Before yard sale-ing with friends, initiate a frank discussion about trades. For example, allow each family to take three things of similar value from the other before the sale is open to the public. Be very careful that you don’t end up with more stuff than you started with.

CHILD LABOR IS OK FOR A FEW HOURS: We thought an affiliated lemonade stand would be cute; we even let the 5-year-old design the marketing materials:

IMG_4834However, the kids guzzled down all of the product within 15 minutes. The bees made sure nobody touched the rest.

And, while it’s fun to let the kids sell their own stuff, you may want to give your little Robber Barons a crash course in business ethics. For example, when a customer indicated that she wanted to buy a book with $1 price tag, one of the kids (not mine!) told her the book now cost $2.  Never negotiate with a 7-year-old.

CONSIDER A “FREE BOX”: Let’s be honest: You have things that are just plain worthless. Save yourself the humiliation of putting a price tag on your kids’ old underwear and throw it all in a “FREE BOX.” Not only does the free stuff help move inventory, the free-loaders might actually buy something.

NO TAKE-BACKS: When the yard sale ends, bag up the clothes, shoes and books, and drop them at the charity box. Leave everything else in the alley or the street corner – nothing comes back in the house except leftover pizza. The invisible hand of the free market has spoken, and it doesn’t want to pay $1 for your women’s studies textbooks from the early 1990s.

IMG_4850CELEBRATE: You’re now 50 pounds of junk lighter and $67 richer. Most of your profits are in the form of $1 bills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t imitate your favorite rock star, rapper, or hedge fund manager. Fan the dollars out and wave them in your friends’ faces, or spread them over your bed and roll around in them (and then promptly wash the sheets). Just don’t set them on fire, because I’m pretty sure that’s a felony. You’ve already broken enough laws today.


* For my Australian friends, “Benjamins” is American Slang for $100 bills, which display the face of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was not actually a U.S. president, but is well-known for inventing electricity, libraries and tight pants.
** The words synergy, webinar and deliverable are not allowed in our house.

Rusty Victorian to Danish Modern: Cover your Radiator with Old IKEA Bed Slats

On a recent date night, Scott and I split a bottle of champagne at our favorite sushi restaurant, then stumbled the five miles home, strategically zig-zagging past every apartment we’d lived in.

I approached a young woman smoking on the front stoop of the 6-flat* I’d occupied when I first met Scott a decade ago. In the time it took her to finish that cigarette, I spun a frightening tale of my cheap, but (lowering my voice to a gravelly whisper) truly terrible apartment.

The first time I saw that apartment ($700 for a huge 3-bedroom!), a young couple with a baby were scrambling out the door, the old Polish landlady warning them, “This is no place for children!”

The place in question was heated by a “Visual Gas Flame Vented Room Heater;”  the apartment version of a burning trashcan: Hot enough at the core to melt lead, but a few steps away and you’re back in the tundra. My neighbor across the hall had snapped this blurry shot of the death furnace, featuring my two cats who – coincidentally – are now both dead.


Squint your eyes — this picture was taken before megapixels were invented.

We only shivered through one Chicago winter before moving up to a place with steam radiators — the apartment equivalent of a being hugged by a really warm panda bear. And, there’s no better place to hang your wet socks after a long romp in the snow.**

But, radiators are a design nightmare. Awkwardly-placed hunks of rusting iron standing between you and your Interior Design Fantasies.

IMG_4721IMG_4723I’ve been dying to camouflage the ugly radiator in our kitchen – which we use as a shelf for bike helmets and hats, and an occasional “buffet” for overcrowded parties. I’ve seen plenty of schemes for fussy D.I.Y. radiator covers, but they all seemed more at home under a doily and an orgy of Precious Moments figurines. I wanted something more sleek and modern.

As usual, inspiration struck from the alley, where I spotted an IKEA slatted bed base: 16 birch slats stapled to two polypropylene ribbons (Sweden doesn’t allow box springs within its borders). The slats seemed about the size of my kitchen radiator, so I dragged them home and hid them from Scott while I planned my Scandinavian radiator makeover.

IMG_4730_arrowIMG_4728This is how I transformed my rusting old radiator into a light, modern shelf space. Drilling only four tiny holes in the wall, this project is not only beautiful, but very renter-friendly.

Gently-used IKEA Slat Bed Base
Big Slab of Scrap Wood from the Pile Next Door
Any length of quarter-round wood moulding
Staple remover
Staple gun
Power sander (optional)
Polycrylic finish
Drill and wood screws

STEP ONE – CONDENSE THE SLATS: Clear off your radiator and place all that crap in the middle of the floor for your family members to trip over. Next, drape the wooden slats over your now-naked radiator.

IMG_4732I loved the look – the blonde wood perfectly matched my kitchen’s cheap pine flooring. But the slats were too far apart to effectively hide my shame, and would look too much like a ladder to a curious three-year-old (or a drunk 38-year-old).

I measured the radiator, grabbed my staple remover, and pulled out all off the extra slats that had been draped over the BACK of the radiator.


IMG_4737Next, I placed the liberated slats in between the existing ones and stapled them to the ribbon.

IMG_4746The slats fit perfectly, but I worried that the two ribbons wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the now densely-packed slats. Remember, this product was designed to lie flat under a mattress, not to be hung by its ribbons.

I scoured the house for something strong, thin and flat, and then remembered that I had found a box of these promotional aprons in a dumpster last year:

IMG_4748Since I don’t believe in the militarization of baking, I gave most of the aprons away, but still had one I could scavenge for the neck and back ties, which I stapled to the slats for reinforcement.

IMG_4750To attach the slats to the front of the radiator, simply tie the top of the ribbon and apron ties under and around the pipes (depending on your radiator layout), knot, and hope for the best.

IMG_4779Like anything from IKEA, these slats are sixteen times heavier than they should be, so ask a spouse or lover hold them up while you fasten the knots. And like all IKEA products, expect some sweating, swearing and struggling before it finally comes together.

STEP TWO – CREATE THE SHELF:  Shady developers are gutting the house next door, which means plenty of free scrap wood for me! Grab a nice piece of pine or birch (plywood is OK), and place it over your radiator to mark the desired width and length. You want it to be slightly cantilevered for a dramatic, Mies Van Der Rohe-inspired effect.  If necessary, mark a cut-out for the pipes leading to the ceiling:

IMG_4754PRO-TIP!! Have a little fun with your wood scraps before you begin the hard work of sawing it down to size.  Create a “bear trap” for unsuspecting family members by placing a cupcake, magic wand or a hardcover copy of the art of Jean Giraud Moebius under some precariously balanced planks:
IMG_4752Use a jig saw to cut your wood down to size, including the pipe-hole.

IMG_4757IMG_4758To keep the shelf from shifting laterally, we need to install discreet “stabilization slats” on its underside. Find a piece of scrap wood and cut a couple of slices off that will fit in the space between the pipes. Mine were about 8 inches long and ½ inch wide. Drill wood screws to secure the slats to the bottom of the shelf – it doesn’t have to be pretty.

IMG_4771This is what I’m going for:

IMG_4775Sand the top and sides of your cut wood to a smooth finish:

IMG_4769 Finally, give it three coats of water-based polycrylic, sanding lightly between coats to eliminate unsightly “lacquer boogers.”

IMG_4776STEP THREE – INSTALL SHELF BRACKETS: If you don’t have a good pile of scrap wood next door, head to the hardware store for an arm’s length of quarter round wood moulding. Cut two pieces: The first piece should be about the length of the wall where your shelf will rest. The second piece will be hidden, so who cares how long it is. After marking where your shelf will sit, drill the two pieces to the wall using wood screws on either end.

IMG_4767Slide your shelf between the two pieces of moulding to make sure the fit is snug. Take a few beautifully-staged pictures before your family starts to pile their crap back on top of it again!

IMG_4784Discover all the new uses for your radiator cover. Display your collection of over-ripe tomatoes:
IMG_4786You’re only steps from the stove! Try a new recipe from the internet:

IMG_4790…Or invite a few friends over for cocktails. Discuss who among you keeps leaving bottles of Costco Vodka behind:
IMG_4787* Six-Flat is Chicago-talk for a building with six apartments: Three stories tall (if you count the basement), and two apartments deep.
**  Projectophile does not condone hanging wet socks on pandas. They’ve got enough problems already.

Test Your Marriage by Re-Upholstering This Alley Chair

Scott recently declared a moratorium on chairs. Specially, a ban on anyone (me) hauling more junk chairs into our apartment.  Our front room is a halfway house for furniture that’s been rehabilitated, but ain’t quite ready for the outside world. Our dining room (slash studio) is a no-kill shelter for my favorite four-legged friends, the alley chairs.

But a few weeks after the moratorium was announced, on the way home from grocery shopping, I spotted this fuzzy four-legged fellow wimpering behind a row of trash cans:

alley (2)He was tattered, dirty, and soaking wet from an overnight storm. Awwww! There was just enough room in the bucket bike to haul him home:

IMG_4459I stashed him in the crawl space under my landlord’s back porch (technically not our apartment) and checked out every book the library had on upholstery – for some reason, all written in England in the late 1980s. I was ready to test out my new academic understanding of (British) upholstery, which I thought would mean simply tearing off and replacing the fabric. But like all good projects, it got complicated, fast:

A few of the supplies you will need for this project. Not pictured: Power drill, electric sander, tea kettle, flask of bourbon and marriage counselor.

A few of the supplies you will need for this project. Not pictured: Power drill, electric sander, tea kettle, flask of bourbon and marriage counselor.

Even though this project caused me to ignore my wifely duties for days on end, Scott became quite attached to the chair, and finally, welcomed him into our home.

STEP ONE – DISMANTLE:  My favorite part of any project! Especially during the summer when I can do it in the backyard while “supervising” my children. First, I flipped the chair over and pulled out all the staples from the bottom rails.


Screw this. The next day I bought a dedicated staple remover.

Two hours and 1,031 staples later, I still couldn’t get the fabric up from under the arms. But I did get a peek under the fabric — cotton padding over rubberized hair (yes, that’s a thing). It makes me itchy just to show you this picture:

IMG_4611I desperately wanted to play Romance Novel, recklessly tearing the fabric off the carcass* in a frenzy of passion.  However, I needed each panel intact in order to create a pattern for the new fabric. Which meant patiently, lovingly, and tenderly removing each and every @#$%* staple on this chair.

PRO-TIP! It’s summertime! Be sure to lather yourself in a thick, creamy layer of sunscreen while dismantling old furniture. Then all the dust, rotting fabric and decades of snack food crumbs will stick right to your skin.  Like all this stuff in the crevice of the seat cushion:

IMG_4569Scribble notes and snap pictures of your chair at every step to remember how you took it apart. Rehabbing takes many days, and your mental trail of bread crumbs will vanish minutes after you walk away. Try writing clues like “front of seat cushion” on the fabric with marker. You’d be surprised at how stupid you are, especially after using paint stripper.

Once all the bottom staples were removed, I unthreaded the back cover, which was slip-stitched up the sides of the back cushion. Then I pulled the staples from the tack cushion to remove the entire back panel.

IMG_4557The fabric had been liberated from staples, but the arms and legs were holding the fabric in place, even though it wasn’t clear how the legs were attached to the main carcass.

Time to amputate. First, I removed the only two visible screws from the bottom back. It loosened the back legs a little, but not enough to free the fabric.

Then, I used a syringe to inject HOT VINEGAR into every joint I could find, in order to dissolve all the wood glue. If you share a home with small children, diabetics or IV drug users, then you probably have at least one syringe in your medicine cabinet or purse. If your lifestyle veers towards meat and firearms, try a turkey baster or water gun.

IMG_4572Now that you’ve softened the glue and smell like pickles, it’s time to get angry. Use a large chisel or the back of a hammer to pry the joints apart:

IMG_4575OK, now just start banging on stuff with a rubber mallet. There’s no other way to do it. You will cuss and spit and your husband will take unflattering pictures. And you will let him.

IMG_4580Whew! The effort paid off.  We now have three intact pieces of fabric – 1) the seat cover, and the 2) front and 3) back cover of the back rest. And now now you can refinish the wood in convenient, bite-sized pieces, if you can get your kids to stop hitting each other with them.

IMG_4582STEP TWO – REFINISH LEGS AND ARMS: First, use toxic chemicals to strip off the old orange varnish.  IMG_4587Apply with a disposable brush and scrape off the resulting goo with a plastic scraper. If you did it right, you should have a pile of what looks like baby poo.  Wipe it on one of your kids’ rejected paintings for full effect:
IMG_4590With the finish off, smooth off any scratches with a power sander.

Before you apply a new finish, you have to remove all this dried wood glue from the dowels and joints so that the new glue will work. This might be an even bigger pain-in-the-ass than those staples.

IMG_4596You can chisel off the dry glue, or wrap it for a few minutes in a rag soaked in hot vinegar to soften it first.  If you’re really desperate, use your kettle to steam it off.

IMG_4598All my joints were held together with dowels, and a couple had cracked off. I had to drill out the pieces and locate fresh replacement dowels. Apparently, 3/8 and ½ inches were not standard dowel sizes in 1962, so I had to chisel my own 2/5-inch dowels.

Now that the wood is clean and bare, I applied one coat of pre-stain wood conditioner, so that different parts of the wood absorb the stain at the same level. You don’t want your Mid-Century Modern chair looking like a bad spray tan from 1998.

IMG_4600Then apply a sloppy coat of stain (I chose “walnut”), let it sit for 5-10 minutes, then wipe off the excess. I stopped after one coat, but you can go darker with more coats. Just like spray tan, I guess.


I let the stain cure for 24 hours, then applied three coats of polycrylic in satin finish, with a light sanding between coats. We’ll put it all back together after the upholstery is done.

IMG_4623STEP THREE – RE-UPHOLSTER!  First, I covered the entire chair in polyester batting to smooth out the lumps and keep the stuffing intact, and (let’s be honest), to create an additional barrier between me and the cooties (real or perceived).

IMG_4612As you can see, I covered about 85% of the chair before I ran out. It was nighttime and I was too lazy to get more:

IMG_4615The next day, I used a 40% coupon to buy a couple yards of the most forgiving home décor fabric I could find in solid, serious gray. Since this is my first “real” upholstery project, I shied away from patterns or prints, which I would have to keep straight and aligned between sections of the chair (and inevitably screw up).

Lay the original fabric carefully over the new fabric and trace the outline, following every nook, cranny, slit and hole. They are all important. Cut the new fabric and iron flat.

IMG_4610Based on my notes, I knew to start with the bottom seat cover, which was also the easiest. Position the fabric carefully over the seat, making sure it is even on all sides. Push the back of the fabric through the “crotch” of the seat (my term) in order to staple it onto the bottom rail.

IMG_4617Flip the chair over and begin stapling the fabric to the bottom rail, starting in the center front, then to the center of the sides, and moving gradually towards the corners. Don’t be afraid to pull some of your first staples out in order to re-position or pull the fabric as tight as you can.

IMG_4620 To achieve the smoothest finish, you should have no more than 1/8 inch between staples – basically back-to-back. Don’t you want the person who finds this in the alley 30 years from now to have to work as hard as you did to take it apart?

When you get to the corners, tuck the extra fabric in for a nice square fold and staple down.

IMG_4630Now we repeat the same process for the front of the backrest. Looking back at my pictures, I knew that the sides should be stapled first. But before I did that, I centered the fabric over the top of the back rest and punched one staple to center it in place. Position the fabric carefully over dowels or dowel-holes for easy re-assembly. When in doubt, refer back to your original fabric, noting the slits, holes and areas crusted with wood glue.

IMG_4628Staple up the sides, ending at the corners. Fold, tuck and staple the corners down.

IMG_4632Now, for your final test:  The back of the backrest. This is tricky, so pay attention..

First, we need to staple the fabric to the top rail using a cardboard tack strip, which creates a straight edge for your fabric to drape over. You can buy tack strip if you want, but I just cut a ½-inch strip from a cereal box. And yes, they do sell organic Cherrios at Aldi:

IMG_4636 Lay the fabric wrong-side up over the top of the chair, so that the bottom edge is parallel with the top rail of the chair (where you just stapled the top of your front back rest). Lightly tape or pin the tack strip over the bottom edge of your fabric (which is inside-out), and staple down in a very straight line.

IMG_4639Remove the tape or pins, and flip the fabric over to be right-side-up, draped over the back of your chair:

IMG_4641Turn the chair back to an upright position.  Fold the sides of the fabric in, and pin it to the front cover fabric that’s already stapled to the side rails:

IMG_4642This is the only act of sewing in this whole project, but it requires the use of a special curved upholstery needle and a special stitch, sometimes called a blind stitch, slip stitch or ladder stitch. I could try to explain it to you, but this old British lady does it best:


Terrible shot of my amazing slip stitch. Note the curved needle.

Stitch down to the bottom of the chair, and staple the remaining fabric to the bottom rail.  All the fabric should fit very tightly over the chair:

IMG_4646STEP FOUR – REASSEMBLE:  It’s 9:30 p.m., you’ve finished the upholstery. All that’s left to do is pop the arms and legs back on.  Easy, right? You call your husband away from his own Important Creative Work and ask him for JUST A FEW MINUTES of help.

It’s so romantic:  he holds the beautifully restored chair arms while you squirt wood glue into their holes.  He’s even wearing that robe you bought him 9 years ago that says “Snuggle Champ” on the back:


Why yes, we DO have a “Tite Bond!”

But again, things get complicated. Dowels don’t quite fit into their corresponding holes and must be chiseled out, the puzzle pieces don’t snap together so easily and must be banged on with a rubber mallet. At midnight.

IMG_4648All this glue will set in the next 20 minutes and you can’t figure out how to keep it all together! Clamps, saran wrap, cookbooks. But in the end – together – you figure it out. You always do. Three hours later, you go to bed and hope the wood glue sorts it all out. The next morning, your new throne awaits!


IMG_4659* No, this isn’t an endorsement of necrophilia. “Carcass” is what we expert re-upholsterers call the frame of the chair. It is also the name of an extreme metal band from Liverpool.

Thrift Store Scavenger Hunt (with FREE printable game form!)

Shopping at thrift stores is for people who have more time than money. To show you what I mean, please refer to this garish infographic that I spent all night making. If your green (money) lines are lower than your orange (time) lines, then thrift store shopping might be right for you!

infographic 3As the graph shows, in my late twenties I experienced a brief span of having more money than time. I actually bought clothes and stuff brand-new, at fully-staffed retail outlets with working bathrooms. It felt so indulgent: The dressing rooms had mirrors and the price tags weren’t stapled to the clothes. I didn’t even have to check the sweaters for burn holes.

Then my two youngest were born in quick succession, and suddenly I had neither time nor money, but — perhaps out of boredom — the urge to thrift grew even stronger.

Most kids won’t fight a trip to the thrift store. It provides endless stimulation and lots of new smells. Now that they’re too big to be strapped down, I let them play with whatever they find in the toy aisle… Until I get a friendly reminder from the manager that the toy aisle isn’t a drop-off day care center. IMG_4478To maximize my scavenging time, I decided to give the kids jobs. “Go find mommy a giant bra!” or, “See which one of you can find the most disturbing clown figurine!”  Guess what? It worked! No longer were they playing hide-and-seek in the plus-sized men’s pants, they were busy discovering the magic and wonder of second-hand retail.

As a public service to the other Scavengers with bored children or spouses, I’ve developed a Thrift Store Scavenger Hunt, guaranteed to give you at least 45 minutes of carefree shopping time.

INSTRUCTIONS: Print out this FREE scavenger hunt form and hand out to your whiny spouse or children:

Give each player a time limit and a shopping cart. When you have finished your shopping, add up the points and give the winner a special prize, like a half-used bottle of hand lotion. Each time you play, encourage your little scavengers to take their game to the next level.


Now, let’s start scavenging! Below is a preview of the items and their point values…


  • Microwave cookbook ①

Now you, too, can make Moroccan-themed baby poop in your microwave.

  • Church cookbook ①
  • 100% non-English cookbook ①
  • [Anything] for Dummies ①
  • Chicken Soup for [Anybody's] Soul ①


  • Outdated Pregnancy, Baby, or Parenting Books (1 point for each decade old)
  • Christmas Album ①
  • Polka Album ①
  • Vintage Striptease or Erotic Polka Album ②


  • Tupperware in the shape of food it’s containing ①

Only a MILLIONAIRE would take a slice of pie to work in its own custom Tupperware!

  • Coffee mug expressing frustration at having to work ①
  • Coffee cup expressing ethnic pride ②

Can’t argue with that logic.

  • Jell-O mold in the shape of an aquatic animal ①
  • Someone’s crappy art project being resold as a legitimate, food safe container ①


  • Taco Holder ②


  • Sheer, lacy, “grandma” curtains ①


  • Clown-themed porcelain figurines ①

The placement of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on this shelf could be inspiration this year’s Nativity Scene.

  • Framed portrait of Pope John Paul II ①
  • Framed portrait of Pope Benedict ⑩
  • Any furniture seen on the set of the “Golden Girls” ①

Note the rain barrel full of golf clubs

  • Antique Furniture re-upholstered in Muppet fur ②


  • TVs more than a foot thick ①


  • TVs more than two feet thick ②
  • Grab bag of cables, wires or chargers ①


  • Grooming appliances that Mommy used in 8th grade ①


  • Unsealed pack of adult diapers ①
  • Sealed pack of adult diapers ②


  • Bra sized 32-AA to 44-DD ①
  • Bra sized 44-DDD to 58-J* ②


  • A real Muu-Muu dress** ①
  • A Bridesmaid’s Dress ①
  • A Wedding Dress ③


  • Three-ring binder albums ①


  • Albums with photos still in them ②
  • 3½-inch floppy disks ①
  • 5¼-inch floppy disks ②
  • 8-inch floppy disks ③


  • Corded telephones with giant numbers ①
  • Electric typewriters ①


  • Disney Princess Sleeping bag ①


  • Assortment of plastic toys in a sealed plastic bag ①
  • Dolls that are missing either a shoe or a whole foot ①


  • Board games that reinforce outdated gender stereotypes ②


  • Trophies ① (Bonus points available for oldest trophy, most obscure sport, and furthest location)

Is anyone gonna call that foul?

  • Golf clubs ①
  • Baseball or golf cap bearing the name of an alcoholic beverage ①


  • Find a thing you already own that you probably bought new at IKEA

Yup, that’s our bedspread.

  • Find a group of unrelated items in a pile and create a theme. For example: Suitcases on top of Foosball on top of patio furniture = Vacation Fun?


  • Untangle all the vacuum cleaner cords


  • Locate a working and sanitary bathroom.


* I looked it up, 58-J is the largest bra size on earth.
** The plural of Muu-Muu is Muu-Muu.