Clean Up in Alley Three! Restoring a Giant Grocery Produce Sign

I don’t normally shop at Giant American Grocery Stores (G.A.G.S.); they simply overwhelm me, triggering a latent, primal agoraphobia, a fight-or-flight reflex, followed by a migraine. I’m no evolutionary biologist, but I feel strongly that human brains are not equipped to process two fluorescent-lit football fields of breakfast cereal all at once.

But one thing I do love about G.A.G.S. is their ridiculous, elephantine department signage — the static Jumbotrons® of the retail world. It’s understandable that a store the size of a small planet would need to label their meat department with a sign big enough to see from space.


If you look closely, you may be able to spot a couple of actual human beings among the Acres of Meat.

My love of obese retail signage makes sense if you understand my Taste in Art.  I adore objects rendered monstrously out of scale:  The shuttlecocks outside the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, the “Big Sweep” sculpture outside the Denver Museum of Art:

big artMy heart skips a beat when I see “DAIRY” spelled out in eight-foot-tall letters, or a photo of a hot-pink, fat-webbed steak enlarged 500 times its normal size, lurking ominously over the butchers and their blood-streaked aprons. I often fantasize about what those signs would look like if they wandered out of the grocery store and into a more human-scaled place, like my little Babushka house. How absurd they would look, and how delighted I would be!


This would look so good over my living room couch.

Now my dreams of capturing my very own G.A.G.S. signage has finally come true! A few weeks ago I rode my bike to a free outdoor yoga class* in Millenium Park in downtown Chicago. Relaxed and loose on the ride back, I spotted something in a lonely alley, tucked between an unmarked brick building and some commuter train tracks. My Scavenger Senses tingled wildly, I had no choice but to stop and inspect. That’s when I saw this:

20150808_090750The Fruit Sign was stacked among several other giant Food Posters, including an even bigger one from the Egg and Dairy (and dish towel?) Department:

20150808_090832And the ultimate showstopper – the Late 1970s Candlelit Hors d’oeuvres Platter Scene:

20150905_082834Wow, can we get a close-up of those dueling cheeseballs?

70s app collageAfter documenting the treasures with my phone, I raced home to Scott, pleading permission to drag one home. With uncharacteristic enthusiasm, he agreed that I should go back for them RIGHT NOW, before anybody else got to them first.**

I pulled out our biggest cargo bike, and breathlessly ALL-CAPS texted our next-door neighbor David – who always has what we need in his garage – for extra bungee cords. Sensing the urgency of the situation, David quickly handed over every bungee he owned. Which was a lot.

I really wanted the “70s Candlelit Hors d’oeuvres Platter Scene” poster, but the back was covered in a shaggy carpet of green mold; too gross even for me. As you can see from the photo below, the “Egg and Dairy” scene was so wide it could have only been transported by barge.

20150808_111545I felt like the Goldilocks of the Alley (without the shameless trespassing)!  I finally found a Food Poster that was Just Right for me.  I laid the Fruit Scene poster flat across the top of the bucket, looped about a dozen bungees around it, and hoped for the best. Good thing I had ALL the bungees on the block, cause this poster was big, heavy and floppy enough to cause severe turbulence on the ride home.

20150808_112947With the poster on board, I was wider than a regular lane of traffic, so I wove my way through the industrial side streets of Chicago’s west side, where there would be few cars on a Saturday morning. Things only got tricky as I entered the final, mostly residential stretch of my journey, when the poster hit a light pole as I swerved to avoid beheading a little boy on a bike.

20150808_112958The whole family was home to help carry the newest treasure into the house, or at least sneer in disgust at whatever new thing Mommy dragged out of the alley today:


What I find most charming in this picture are the glaring imperfections in the fruit. The banana is pockmarked with bruises, and the Fruit Stylist didn’t even bother trimming the dead ends off the pineapple leaves. One of the grapefruits has an open slit that would make Georgia O’Kefffe blush:

IMG_6351Ah, Fruit Art in the days before Photoshop! It’s like finding a musty box of 1960s Playboy magazines at an estate sale,* delighting in the not-airbrushed, not-surgically altered realness of it all – the chubby folds, the asymmetrical pairs, and perhaps that stray pocket of cellulite.

Ahem. Anyway, this thing was FILTHY.  No, not Playboy filthy; Splattered-with-actual-mud filthy:

IMG_6311I washed the MDF board backing several times with a wet sponge and a kiss of dishsoap. I then wiped the front side down with a slightly damp sponge, careful not to exacerbate the existing water damage.

Next, was the Art Restoration phase, where I tried to hide the gouges, scratches and water stains. Since my Fruit Art was printed on glossy poster paper, actual paint would stand out on its smooth texture and possibly warp the paper even further. I settled on Permanent Marker, which is what I hear they used to restore the Sistene Chapel.

I started easy, filling in the black background areas with a Big Ol’ XL Sharpie:

IMG_6324Then used a finer point to dab at the smaller nicks and holes:

IMG_6318Once I got acclimated to the marker fumes, it was time to go color. I touched up the grapes slightly, using a combination of brown and purple. Most of my marker strokes went into the water-damaged apple at the lower left-hand side of the poster:

IMG_6321 The Sharpies available to the general public only come in one shade of each color, which presents a challenge to an Amateur Art Restorer faced with a complex fruit scene. First, I went over the apple with a layer of yellow, then a coat of red, and then dabbed it here and there with brown for a realistic, textured effect. I also redrew the stem (in brown and black), and added shadows where appropriate. To avoid that low-brow “scribbled” look, I dabbed the marker and then smeared the ink with my finger.

Scott secretly snapped this one with his phone, showing how a night of Amateur Art Restoration can be a relaxing way to unwind at the end of a long day:

WP_20150922_21_14_12_ProWhen the marker had dried, I used spry adhesive to re-attach a loose flap at the corner to the backing.

Since the poster was backed by a relatively thin and floppy MDF board, we couldn’t hang it up like traditional framed art. We used 12 clear plastic mirror clips to hold it to the wall – four each on the bottom and top edges, and two on either side.

IMG_6330Hanging this beast was certainly a two-person job, as most of the pilot holes had to be drilled with the poster in place. Except here, where I took a break from holding it up to snap a picture of Drillmaster Scott:

IMG_6335I’m so surprised that we managed to hang this thing straight that I went blurry with excitement:

WP_20150923_20_58_11_ProDoes our freshly-restored masterpiece stand up to the light of day?

* Free outdoor yoga is about the only yoga I’ve been known to do.
** As it turns out, our urgency was misplaced, as the signs I didn’t take with me were still in that same alley three weeks later.
*** If shopping at estate sales has taught me anything about marriage, its that when the husband dies last, you are guaranteed to find a musty box of Playboys at his estate sale. Oh, and dozens of rusty tools. You are advised to purchase neither of these things, especially if you are my (living) husband.

Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flat-Weavery*: Meet the Shaggy Twins

* I apologize for a pun so early in the post, and any pain or confusion that it may have caused.

Do you have your own style? A personal, fresh, funky, original spin on interior design? Yeah?  NOPE. You don’t. Your “style” is like your dryer’s lint trap, sucking up loose bits and pieces from things you’ve sat on or in, or mindlessly slipped into jeans pockets. Sometimes, it’s full of gum wrappers and gravel, but look closely, and you might pick out a nickel or a movie ticket or a satisfyingly-strikethroughed** to-do list.

I’ll admit the metaphor above doesn’t totally work (hey, I spend a lot of time doing laundry). But once you admit that you have none of your own style is when you are free to fully absorb the style of others … into the lint trap of your mind.  To paraphrase a fellow patron overheard at my last visit to the Museum of Contemporary Art, “I don’t know nothing about no art, but I know what I like when I see it.”***

This week’s Journey Into the Lint Trap of Style involves rugs. Or as I call them, Floor Sweaters.  Specifically, our living room Floor Sweater, and the pain felt by anyone who has ever moved: Finding that your carefully curated furnishings don’t quite fit in your new home, either physically, stylistically, or emotionally.

Here’s a flashback to our beloved chocolate-brown-and-pink floor sweater in our last apartment (photos courtesy of old blog posts about cutting baby hair and refinishing an old chair, respectively):
living room rug collageAnd here she is in the Babushka Living room, bravely cushioning a wrestling match between a tiny tiger and even tinier wolf:

IMG_6265Look closely – Can you even see the rug? Nope, me neither. And that right there is our problem.

Rewind to last November. With the Babushka House keys in hand, Scott and I had exactly three weeks – a pinhole of time – to squeeze through a couple of messy projects before we moved in. We were delighted to find beautiful wood floors suffocating under the oppressive layers of Orange Cream Soda-toned carpet and Eisenhower-era linoleum tile:

IMG_5213We hired a crew to liberate the floors and smother the wood in a rich shade of Dark Walnut (the Official Stain™ of Projectophile).  I wanted floors the color of adult pleasures: Dark Chocolate, Espresso, Guinness, Wet Mulch, Flourless fudge brownies made with prunes.****

As a New Homeowner, I was rebelling against the floor of every crummy Chicago apartment I’d ever rented:  scuffed, warped boards the color of watered-down apple juice or sun-bleached Velveeta, or – if I was lucky – damp cardboard.

And now I adore my elegant, peat-toned planks. But as you can see, they visually swallowed up my dark chocolate floor sweater. It was like the living room didn’t even have a rug. Just a softer part of the floor.

I craved a lighter floor sweater to break up the darkness; something big, wooly, warm and bright, but not distracting enough to overshadow the Marimekko print crowning the couch. I’d scan Craigslist, or the rug websites, but nothing grabbed me. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted. But like that man in the art museum, I’d know it when I saw it. Also, it had to be dirt cheap cause the rest of this house was bleeding us dry.

After months of fruitless searching, I finally found the perfect rug for the Babushka living room in, right in my own back yard!  Oh, and by “back yard,” I mean my more stylish neighbor’s living room.

A couple of weeks back, I ran into my friend and local hero Rachel at the park, where she offered to pass along her daughters’ old scooter. I hopped up off my picnic blanket and across the street to her beautifully decorated home, oozing with Mid-Century Treasures.

Scooter in hand, I spotted it: Rachel’s living room rug. A huge, cozy, creamy, shaggy delight, tiny spindles of yarn reaching up to hug my bare toes. “This is real wool?” I asked, fingering the noodles of shag, thinking of similar rugs I’ve seen online for more than a thousand dollars, “it must have cost a fortune!”  Nope, Rachel assured me. This floor sweater was cheap, from IKEA, and was actually two smaller rugs laying side-by-side, like snuggling shaggy twins.

I snapped a grainy cell phone picture of the tag and sent a prayer to the Gods of Retail Continuity that it was still in production:

20150803_193009The next weekend, with a few hours left on a rental car, I hit the nearest IKEA to adopt my own Shaggy Twins. Sure enough, a 4½ by 6½ foot Vitten rug was only $149. Following Rachel’s example, I scored a combined 6½ x 9 foot wool shag rug for less than $300.

First, I conducted a dry run to see which sides to join:

IMG_6285Most days, our home contains higher-than-recommeded levels of naughtiness and horseplay. Simply laying the rugs side-by-side would result in at least one of the rugs in a different room by day’s end. The Shaggy Twins had to be surgically joined.

I grabbed these scary curved upholstery needles and twine leftover from the last chair I reupholstered. I keep them handy in case we find ourselves between health insurance policies and need to re-attach a small appendage or flap of skin:

IMG_6292Next, I simply pulled the sides of the Shaggy Twins together and tied a knot of twine about every ten inches, starting with the ends:

IMG_6293 sew rug collageAnd due to the woolly nature of this particular floor sweater, the twine simply disappears into the creamy jungle of shag.

Finally, I tussled up the shag and watched the seam retreat under its yarny tentacles.

IMG_6302IMG_6304Finally, the Babushka living room feels complete! Since we adopted the Shaggy Twins, I’ve observed a 300% increase in Floor Sitting and Spontaneous Snuggling.

But the fusion of the Shaggy Twins represents much more than just a bigger floor covering: Two little rugs, small and weak on their own, merge to cover an entire front room. The Twins epitomize the power of friendship, family and community. They could be easily separated by simply clipping the (now impossible to find) twine knots, but they are also held down by the legs of the sofa and chair and end table, which may represent children, or society, or capitalism, or bad weather, or patriarchy or something equally oppressive. Now, I’ve completely lost track of this metaphor, but you get the idea.

IMG_6306PS: Anybody want to buy a gently-used brown rug?
** Anybody know the past tense of strikethrough? Strike-threw? Struck-through? Streaked-threw? Strucked-throughed?
*** Note that this gentleman did NOT like any of the art that he did see.
**** Yes, that is a real dessert that I made once and it was delicious and my colon is still asking when we can have it again.

You Win This Round, Babushka: Get Your Life Back By Painting Over Wallpaper

Scott and I have a running joke about someone we once knew (probably not you) who frequently displayed symptoms of Martyr Mother Disorder.*  When MMD flares up, the patient is compelled to let you know s/he sacrifices everything for his/her child.  In advanced cases of MMD, the patient declares all the things that s/he could have achieved if s/he wasn’t busy sacrificing everything for said child/ren: Graduate degrees, book deals, gold medals, Nobel Prizes, trips to Mars, the Papacy.**

Scott and I dramatically act out the symptoms of MMD every time we are forced to complete some undignified parental task, such as wiping a poopy bottom, removing parasites, or leaving a really fun party at 8:00 p.m., right when things get interesting.


Try it with me: Deep sigh, eyes closed, forearm swept across forehead, “I sacrifice SO MUCH for my children.”

The truth is: Of course having kids is hard, dummy. But it’s also great in ways you never expected. And as the old lady who always appears behind me in the grocery checkout line just as one of my kids cracks an egg onto the conveyor belt says, “Someday, you’re going to miss all of this, dear. They grow up so fast.”

Now, back to the story of how much I …[SIGH]… sacrifice for my children.

Last weekend, the kids stayed over with their Auntie and Uncle in the suburbs. And Scott and I spent 90% of our precious kid-free weekend…. Painting their bedrooms.  During our weekend journey, we strengthened our marriage by learning some important lessons about 1) teamwork, and 2) the importance of taking shortcuts.

Max is our Nu-Teen©, a marketing term I made up to describe a kid who’s on the lower end of the teen years. Nu-Teens are great, because they are old enough to babysit and take the bus everywhere, but still too young to commit felonies. A Nu-Teen’s favorite expression is, “I don’t care,” an attitude that has served Max well as his bedroom has been falling apart for the last six months.

Long-time Projectophile readers remember that when we bought the Babushka house in November, we discovered a leak behind the sloped ceiling in Max’s room, which should have been obvious due to the Georgia O’Keeffe-like slit in the wallpaper:


Not suspicious at all.

While waiting to replace the roof, we thought it would be fun to pull down what turned out to be load-bearing wallpaper. Ooops:
IMG_5485 After a few nights of Max waking up with plaster bits in his hair, we got clever and stapled white thrift store bedsheets to the walls and ceiling to create a billowy, tentlike Nu-Teen hideaway:
The nomadic look gradually lost its charm, as those restless bits of plaster would slip down beneath the sheets. So, like the Martyrs we are, Scott and I postponed our dreams once again to make Max’s bedroom fit for human habitation. Big Sigh.

Scott says I should spend more blog time telling my readers how to do totally practical (boring) things like mix and apply joint compound, repair plaster and hang drywall. But come on, that’s what YouTube and Time-Life® Books are for.

Besides, some tasks are just too painful to recall.  First, we had to pull a few big patches of rotting plaster of its lath, and then screw drywall right onto the lathe. It’s as difficult and messy as you might imagine – we were all picking plaster-dust boogers for days:

20150703_104226We had to mix and apply about seven layers of joint compound to smooth out the spaces between the old ceiling and drywall patches. Once we were sufficiently exhausted and high on ethylene-vinyl acetate polymer, we decided to leave all the brittle patches of old wallpaper that had fused to the plaster, smooth them over with more joint compound, coat it all with primer, and retire to a nice ice cream dinner.

Earlier that week, I had presented Max with about a dozen (pre-screened) paint swatches to choose from. Displaying a undiscovered gift for interior design, he immediately handed back the perfect shade of greyish blue.

Unlike SOME lesser home-improvement blogs, I don’t clean up or style rooms for the “after” pictures. I value authenticity and honesty. Which can sometimes be confused for laziness:

The two younger children (6 and 4), are collectively referred to as “the Babies” because for most purposes – eating, sleeping, playing – they are essentially the same person.  This is their shared bedroom when we bought the house. Wallpaper covered the walls and ceiling. Dingy, yellowed, but otherwise intact:

IMG_5212Originally, we planned to complete the same excruciating process we had done in every other room:  pull down wallpaper, scrape and scrub walls, patch plaster, prime and paint (also known as PSSPPP — which is another acrotomotopeia for the satisfying sound of wallpaper peeling off in one yank).

And then a friend of mine*** casually suggested that since the walls and paper were in relatively good shape, we could simply paint OVER the wallpaper.

I nearly FAINTED at the idea of finishing The Babies’ room rehab in a matter of hours, not weeks. It was the same feeling I had 8 years ago, when I realized that Scott and I could just get married at City Hall instead of hosting the fairy-tale wedding that I never dreamed of.****

Before The Babies left for the weekend, I rhetorically inquired, “So, if we ever decided to paint your room, what color would you want?” Pink!, one shouted. Green! the other declared. Seconds later, they had changed their minds to Red and Purple. And then Blue and Orange. And then finally: One wall “Christmas,” one wall “Halloween,” One wall “Easter” and the other wall a detailed portrait of our family. Also, everything should be in polka dots.

“So, green and pink then?”

On the first morning the kids were gone, Scott and I slept til 9 a.m., ate cookies for breakfast, and then rolled a coat of primer over the wallpaper. Now you can really see just how dingy these walls were:
IMG_6219To add to the sacrifice, we had to apply TWO coats of primer since the Babushka had a thing for “basket-weave” textured wallpaper. Here it is under the microscope:

IMG_6221After a coffee milkshake for lunch, we ran to the local paint store to pick out colors. Inspired by Max, my paint color savant, I grabbed the first green-and-pink paint combo I saw on display:

IMG_6253Please note that this paint isn’t for just anyone. Precious Babies ONLY!
precious baby certifiedWe didn’t have enough time before The Babies got home on Sunday to finish painting. However, I did make sure to write a special message for their return:

IMG_6229Since Scott hates to paint, he was in charge of dinner and bedtime, while I finished up the painting that night. The next morning was the big reveal:

IMG_6241IMG_6252IMG_6237To My Precious Babies: I hope you remember this 20 years from now, when you inevitably blame all your shortcomings on me.
*  To be fair, we’ve known just as many Dads with this Disorder – if not more –  but I’m going for the easy alliteration points here.
** I don’t want to exclude people without children. You should blame all your current shortcomings on your parents, or ex-spouse, if you have one. In a pinch, blame the government (local, state or federal).
*** Actually, this “friend” was Russell the carpenter, who was here on unrelated skylight business. I don’t usually pay people to hang out with me, but when I do, they give great advice.
**** And that I could buy my wedding dress for $23 at Dress Barn. However, I was disappointed to discover that the dresses were not modeled by pigs or displayed on steaming bales of hay as the store name would suggest.

The Cold War in Our Backyard: Tear Down this Garage!

Fixing up an old house feels like a decade-long game of Aesthetic Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you fix one mess, everything around it instantly becomes doubly ugly – doubgly.

Moving into the Babushka house in winter meant that for the first few months, we could easily ignore the Babushka Back Yard, otherwise known as the Chicago Urban Rodent and Deadly Plant Wilderness Preserve (CURADPWP – which is also the sound* made when the flat side of a shovel lands on a rat).

In June, we kicked off the backyard cleanup by cutting down several lanky, mangy Blue Spruce trees, including one that towered over the three-story apartment building next door.

IMG_6077As soon as the trunks hit the ground, sunlight flooded into our dining room like a bunch of East Berlin teenagers in 1989 (the dining room is West Berlin in this metaphor). The tree cutters – who, despite their cavalier daily use of chainsaws, still boast their original arms and legs – left us with a handful of “sittin’ stumps,” and a perfectly clear view of the rotting garage at the back of the yard:

IMG_6179Perhaps if we had snobby neighbors, or lived in a city with a better-functioning government, we would have been ticketed and forced to tear it down months ago. But the crumbling Babushka garage has been our dirty little secret, our private pocket of sadness.

Are you ready to be sad? Here’s the roof, or what’s left of it:

IMG_6195Like an adolescent snake, the west side of the garage seems to be molting its outer layer:
As long as we’re dabbling in snake metaphors, here’s where the rats go in and out:

rat holes in redEven the parking pad was trashed. Rats had burrowed underneath and up through the foundation, transforming the concrete floor of the garage into a dusty mound of dirt and rat turds. I didn’t get a good picture of it, but just imagine that a truck full of Fiber One™ Cereal had spilled into our garage:

fiber one or rat poo

Guess who’s too classy to post a picture of actual rat poop?

A couple weeks ago, the toxic mix of garage sadness and disgust combusted inside me. I called a few garage contractors, but none would build a new one for less than $10,000 – not including the initial demolition or (if we wanted to get real fancy), city permits.

Later that day, I caught my next-door neighbor Bill smoking on his front porch and explained my dilemma. Bill told me that in the 50-plus years they owned this house, the Babushka family never actually parked a car in that garage. In fact, the Babushka herself didn’t even know how to drive. “Oh yeah,” Bill coughed, “she walked to work, she walked to the store; I don’t know why they even owned a garage.”

Suddenly, the answer was obvious: WHY DO WE EVEN OWN A GARAGE? I’ve never owned a car, and never will, so what’s the point?

And before you know-it-alls start grumbling about resale value, please know that we don’t plan on selling this house for another 30+ years, which is beyond the life expectancy of any garage we would build today. Besides, who needs a garage 30 years from now, when we’ll all either be 1) dead, or 2) flying around with solar-powered jet-packs?

not sure why fatal is in quotation marks

Not sure why “fatal” is in quotation marks here.

To my delight, simply demolishing the garage was well within our arbitrary backyard budget (coincidentally, the same as our tax refund).  Now, to persuade Scott of the brilliance of my demolition-only plan, I summoned the ghost of Ronald Regan, circa 1987.

Admittedly, in 1987, I was more worried about what tampons were for** than the state of Cold-War Europe. But President Regan, who was probably not scared of tampons, made a speech in West Berlin, perched dramatically before the Brandenberg Gate of the Berlin Wall. He said (sort of):

As long as this scar of a [GARAGE] is permitted to stand, it is not the German [BACKYARD] question alone that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind. Yet I do not come here to lament. For I find in [THE BACKYARD] a message of hope, even in the shadow of this [GARAGE] a message of triumph. General Secretary Gorbachev, [SCOTT] if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this [GARAGE]. Open this [GARAGE]! Tear down this [GARAGE]!

Tear down this garageDespite being a lifelong Democrat, Scott agreed.  I picked the skeeziest, face-tatooeeyist (not coincidentally, the cheapest) guy to do the demo.

A few days later, Face Tattoo’s crew showed up with the cutest little Urban Compact Excavator you ever did see. Estelle chose to watch the demolition from the safety of her cardboard house:


By lunchtime, they had crushed the structure and began digging up the Fiber One™ foundation:

20150724_102240Later that day, it was our turn to host the neighborhood fortnightly Friday night potluck party. I warned our gaggle of friends that they could browse the weeds and rubble that was now our backyard, but that they probably wouldn’t want to hang out there, especially with kids. 

Despite my warnings, curious friends wandered out back with their drinks, eager to toast our Liberated Backyard. Then somebody dragged out a cooler, then a box of water balloons, and a speaker, and a tray of chips and dip, and before you know it we had a makeshift party circle, with folks sitting on plastic chairs, milk crates and tree stumps. Kids happily picked through the rubble, discovering ancient bottle caps, and an old pipe wrapped in a copy of a November 1979 Chicago Sun-Times.

IMG_6205Suddenly, our yard fell twice as big as before. Because it was! My mind swirled with possibilities (our neighbor’s bathtub whiskey also helped) – what to do with all this space? By Chicago standards, our backyard now was positively Versailles-aian.

Enthusiastic friends, of course, submitted their plans. “Winter hockey rink!” shouted our hockey friends. “Urban Farm!” yelled our gardening friends. “Archery range!” squealed our toxophile*** friends. The ideas flowed: Bocce ball court. Corn maze. Lap swim pool. Underground trampoline. Mud wrestling pit. Jell-O™ wrestling pit. Pet cemetery. Golden Girls– themed lanai. Cage-fighting octagon. Improv amphitheater. Skunk pig**** sanctuary. Hubcap museum.

The future of our backyard – now liberated from the tyranny of the Garage – is bright. As a certain Cold War president once said:

“[Garage] Freedom leads to prosperity. [Garage] Freedom replaces the ancient hatreds among the nations [neighbors] with comity and peace. “[Garage] Freedom is the victor!”

*  I’m thrilled to combine two of my favorite devices – acronym and onomatopoeia – into a brand-new, genetically modified word form, the Acrotomotopeia (patent pending).
  **  Tampons still kind of scare me, with more health warnings on the box than a pack of Marlboro Lights.
*** Toxophile is a lover of archery, and has nothing to do with tampons.
**** Or really, any breed of the New World Pigs.

Welcome to the Bed Bug Club!

Pssst!  Hey you. Yeah, you there, staring at that screen. Do you want to join a top-secret club? A club so exclusive that most members won’t even talk about it? A club with lots of mysterious Latin-sounding code words like “cimex lectularius” and “thermal remediation”? You may already qualify for membership in this club and not even know it.

Welcome to the Bed Bug Club.

The Bed Bug Club sounds almost cute, like a Disney cartoon about a gang of adorable, six-legged invertebrate pals who embark on wacky adventures and feast on the blood of humans. There are plenty of other repulsive vermin with their own books, movies, and clubs, right? (I’m looking at you, Mickey).  Thanks to Scott, my husband and personal illustrator, the Bed Bug Club now has its own irresistible cartoon mascot, Blotchy the Bed Bug:

Bed BugThis is the story how my family joined the Bed Bug Club.

It was the penultimate week of school; the calendar pregnant with picnics, talent shows, weddings and graduations.  On Thursday, I noticed little pink spots on both of the younger kids’ (6 and 4) hands, forearms and legs. The spots didn’t itch or bother them at all.  Probably just mosquitoes, I thought, nothing to worry about. [CUE OMINOUS MUSIC]

Besides the bites, the biggest red flag was that our life lately was just, too…NORMAL. Quiet. In the last 10 months, Scott and I had survived job loss, unemployment, a new job, buying an old house, moving into that house and scrambling to make it livable for our family, without a refrigerator or dryer or working roof for the first two months. We were finally settling in, ready to pop the cork on a carefree summer routine. Life just seemed so…. easy.  Too easy. We were starting to get soft.

A few days after the pink spots started, Scott and I returned from an especially delightful date night (Mad Max at the theater down the street, then a drink at Moe’s Tavern*). I peeked into the kids’ room, and saw it:  a bug – reddish-brown, as big as an apple seed – skitter across Sam’s bed. Reflexively, I swatted it. Its bloated body burst into a puddle of sweet baby blood.


The original bug, now drained of its life essence.

My skin went cold, my vision blurred, my internal organs shifted uncomfortably.  I knew instantly what that critter was, and what it meant.  I called out to Scott, “Time to clock back in! Our next Little Crisis has arrived.”

A wise friend of mine recently said that when you’re faced with a crisis, you should call everyone you know who’s been through it before – your personal Panel of Experts.

I immediately called two friends who’ve had bed bugs, a couple whom I’ll call Golgotha & Hazarmaveth (not their real names). Golgotha ordered me NOT to throw everything away, or start dragging mattresses and people around the house. Stay put until you get professional help — the right kind of help. Her and Hazarmaveth initially hired a traditional exterminator who used steam cleaning and poison. After four or five treatments (and $500 wasted), the poison did nothing but sicken the family cat. Finally, Golgotha and Hazarmaveth tried thermal remediation, a fancy term for heating your whole house up to 120-140 degrees Fahrenheit, baking the bugs to death. “Just do the heat treatment,” Golgotha promised, “They are going to kill those brothersuckers** and you will be done with it forever.”

Five minutes later, I was on the phone with the Thermal Remediation Guy.  He would see us in a week for $1,200 (yes, that’s one thousand, two hundred American dollars, and we gladly paid it).

After the kids left for school, I inspected the crime scene.  Mattress covers don’t matter:  The kids’ wooden bunk bed, with its dozens of little screw holes, was the perfect Bed Bug Apartment Complex.

The first clue was the little black spots around the screw holes. Bed bugs will happily drop a load right outside their “front door:”


FIGURE A:  Those black spots are bed bug turds.

The hole below had poo stains and a bug in it. Excuse the quality of these cell phone pics, but I wasn’t really thinking about a blog post when I took them:


FIGURE 2: That reddish-brown blob in the hole is a bed bug, resting after a long night feasting on the blood of innocent children. 



FIGURE III:  Ugh. Eeew. Just… blecchh. Yuck.

I stuck contact paper over all the screw holes, which made me feel like I was doing something proactive, other than setting my house on fire:


Please note that contact paper is not an EPA-approved remedy for bed bugs.

After initiation into the Bed Bug Club, I had a choice to make: 1) Keep the infestation a secret from friends and family, or 2) own my infestation proudly. Or at least, honestly.

Really, I had no choice – in the past two weeks, we’d had about two dozen people visit our house. Any of them could have brought the bugs into our home, or brought them home from us. As much as I feared social pariah-ity (sure, that’s a word), I had a responsibility to inform all my favorite people.

First, I told my neighbors Liz and David (their real names).  I had just given them a bag of hand-me-down clothes, and our children are constantly running in and out of each others’ houses (Email subject line: BURN THOSE HAND-ME-DOWNS). To my relief, their response was quick and gracious, full of sympathy and understanding, I’m sorry you have to deal with this, what can we do to help? And David, who has experience managing apartment buildings (and thus infestations) assured me that bedbugs don’t spread disease and they can’t hurt you.  “It’s just like having lice in your bed,” which I found strangely comforting.

Next, I contacted the parents of six preschoolers who were scheduled to play at our house the next day, and had all been in our house the previous week. Everyone was great: That really sucks, I’m sorry this happened to you.

At the school talent show the next day, friends didn’t avoid me. Instead, they touched my arm, or gave me a hug. They asked me questions – How did you find them? What do they look like? And more importantly, How are you doing? How can I help?

That night, our friends Pildash & Zobebah (nope, not their real names, either) walked over in the pouring rain to give us some fresh-baked muffins and a “I’m Sorry You Have Bed Bugs” card.*** Their family had joined the Bed Bug Club four years ago and (after thermal remediation) have been bug-free since. While their muffins warmed my belly, their advice and reassurance propped up my sanity over the next few days. They were in the club, they understood.

Turns out, I wasn’t a pariah or an outcast. I was a regular person who just got some really bad news.   And happens to have some really great friends.

Despite the love and the muffins, it was a very long week. When I put my kids to bed each night, I felt like I was laying them out for sacrifice. Their bedroom was a War Zone, and all we could do was sleep in the trenches and wait for backup.

Awww... totally clueless.

Awww… totally clueless.

TURNS OUT I’M NOT BETTER THAN ANYBODY ELSE:  Membership in the Bed Bug Club includes a complimentary dose of Humility. Whenever I hear bad news about other people – job loss, illness, divorce, bankruptcy, or yes, bed bug infestation – my brain secretes a special protective coating that tricks me into thinking those things will never happen to me. The protective coating is a polymer of all the ways (real or imagined) that those other people are different from me; all the things they did wrong that I would have done right.

Wondering if YOU have what it takes to join the Bed Bug Club? Blotchy the Bedbug doesn’t care if you shower every day, pay your student loans on time, or do yoga four times a week. He doesn’t even care that you can explain how World War I started, or that you can spell chrysanthemum out loud without closing your eyes.**** As long as you are a living, warm-blooded animal, Blotchy will take you!

Now that I’ve thoroughly bummed you out, how about a happy ending? To prepare for the Thermal Remediation, the exterminators ordered us to cut down on clutter so they could move things around as necessary.  Suddenly freed from the chains of sentiment and frugality (who wants hand-me-downs from the Bed Bug Club?), we tossed ten garbage bags of clothes, shoes and toys.

The internet told me that under-bed storage was a good hiding place for bugs. In less than an hour, I had emptied ALL OF IT, mostly into the garbage.


Anybody want four, um… kiddie pools? One even has wheels!

The cleaning was ruthless, liberating, and magical.

The morning of the Thermal Remediation, we shoved all the crayons, alcohol (rubbing and drinking), aerosol cans and toiletries into our tiny fridge so they wouldn’t melt and/or explode as they heated our house up to 130 degrees F:


Doesn’t every family keep Axe Hair Gel and WD-40 in the fridge?

By 8:30 a.m., the exterminator’s trucks had arrived, and to my great relief did not say “YOU HAVE BED BUGS” in bright orange letters on the side. They deposited a bunch of fans and giant, but discreet, portable heaters into the front yard, further confusing curious neighbors:

20150623_083843It was a blindingly bright, blissfully warm June day, perfect for getting kicked out of the house for ten hours.

Since every great moment calls for a new portmanteau, we called it our INFESTI-CATION: we visited the Field Museum, then took a long walk along the lake front, ate ice cream cones, played at the park, and wrapped up the day with burgers and beers at a musty underground diner. Other Bedbug Club Members called to check on us, and we could honestly say that we were doing great:


Greetings from our Infesti-cation! Wish you were here!

That day was the most fun we’d had as a family in a very long time.  Maybe too much fun for some of us:

20150623_192633On his way out, the exterminator, whose name is also Scott (no relation), assured us that 98% of his heat treatment customers will never see him again. I had to ask, “What about the other 2%?”

“Those are the folks who refuse to change their ways,” Scott the Exterminator warned me. “You got your international travelers who don’t inspect their luggage,” – which of course is not me – “and folks who like to drag things out of the dumpster.”

Uh oh.

* Moe’s Tavern is an actual bar in the Avondale neighborhood of Chicago. Go on Sunday night for the Jazz, followed by a Psychedelic Jam Session (bring your own Theremin). But whatever you do, don’t order an Old Fashioned.
** The word she used was not brothersuckers but another word that rhymes with brothersuckers and is not appropriate for an International Family Blog like Projectophile.
*** The “Sorry You Have Bed Bugs” card was homemade. Hallmark™ does not yet carry a line of “Infestation Sympathy” cards. Not yet.
**** Note that none of these things apply to me.

Solstice Special: Force Your Kids to Sleep Later with Customized Roller Shades

I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE. But first, I need all parents of young children to cover their ears. Everyone else, listen up: My children are really good sleepers. Not because I’m a great parent, but because (like me), my kids are lazy and derive genuine, soul-expanding pleasure from hours of unconsciousness. Just how good are they at sleeping? Sam (now 4), started sleeping through the night after one month. Which is especially impressive since at the time – due to an unfortunate real estate situation – his crib was in the dining room.* My children sleep through parties, sirens, fireworks and hailstorms. Estelle has been known to fall asleep in a puddle of her own vomit. I’m not sure why I’m proud of that.


This is how they trick you into keeping them.

But the one thing that wakes them up is the bright morning sun. This being June in the northern hemisphere, the sun is up before 5:00 a.m., bringing my kids with it. A few times we’ve groggily ordered them to get dressed, which may result in some little boy getting tangled up in his underwear (both legs in the same hole again?). We might tell them to go make their own breakfast, which means that they start the day with a heaping bowl of peanut butter, jelly, raisins and chocolate chips.  Or worse: file photoMy neighbors Liz and David, who have their own early-rising little boy, recently procured a alarm clock that turns green when it’s OK for him to leave his room in the morning.  Early results have been mixed, proving that even the cutest and most high-tech solutions may not be powerful enough to persuade a Two-Year-Old Morning Person.

magic clock

Note the absurd “suggested” wake time of 7:00 am. 

There has to be a better way to get these kids to sleep longer!  Deep down I knew the solution would involve 1) a trip to the hardware store, and 2) a can of spray paint. STEP ONE – BUY STUFF:  Measure your window and make the hardware store cut you a custom-sized roller shade – the really thick “blackout” kind. They ain’t pretty, but they block light far better than blinds or curtains. Here’s the kids’ window with the plain old vanilla blackout shade installed: IMG_6094Such a passive, cowering shade. Nothing we can’t fix with a couple cans of fabric & vinyl spray paint: Picture 036Long-time Projectophile readers may remember this paint from the chevron roller shades I made for our last apartment. This time I had to order the paint online – I couldn’t find any fabric spray paint in a recent trip to the suburbs, though you might have better luck at an Auto Parts Store (just not in Chicago where spray paint is outlawed). As you can see from the label, this stuff was invented so people could spray paint car seats, for some reason.  Or maybe that’s a dentist chair. If so, you could look for some at your local Dentist’s Supply Store. And before you leave the hardware store, grab a roll of any color contact paper. STEP TWO – LETTERS:  Lay the contact paper flat on a piece of cardboard or some other surface you don’t mind scratching (so, not on your vintage dining table or on your lap). Measure out some “boxes” so your letters are roughly the same size. IMG_6102Think hard about what you want to say in your shades. Be concise and direct.  If there is an “S” in your message, you may want to rethink your message, cause S’s* are impossible to draw.  The best I could come up with was “GO TO SLEEP.”  I briefly considered “REMAIN UNCONSCIOUS” but that phrase has 2 S’s, and if one of the kids ever fell into a coma I would feel really bad about having those shades up. If you must use the letter S, grab your preschooler’s writing homework for guidance. IMG_6098If your message includes two or more of the same letter, draw them next to each other to maximize uniformity.  Your message won’t be taken seriously if one “O” has a fat bottom and the other a fat top.


I apologize in advance if the word “goots” is an offensive slang term that I’m not yet aware of. Cause it kind of sounds like it.

Use a scissors to cut out the square-ish letters, and an X-Acto knife for the more squiggly ones. If you plan to write your message in, say, Arabic, or Malayalam, definitely use the X-Acto knife.IMG_6101STEP THREE – STENCIL AND PAINT:   Arrange the letters on your shade. I suggest sticking them as low as possible, so the message is still visible even at half-mast. IMG_6104 Lay your shade down over a tarp, strap on your face mask, and start spraying. IMG_6110Spray in continuous, thin, even coats. Imagine that your shade is a parched landscape thirsty for rain. A misty drizzle will quench the thirst, but a torrential downpour will cause erosion, flooding, and also gooey, rubbery paint blobs that will never dry. Here we are after about five minutes of gentle, patient spraying: IMG_6119….After another five minutes. Note the empty can tossed to the side. Time to crack open another one: IMG_6120Another half can of paint and we’re done! IMG_6121STEP FOUR – THE BIG REVEAL:  Wait for 30 minutes, then carefully peel off the letters and squeal with delight at your accomplishment. IMG_6124Leave the shade to off-gas overnight. Discreetly hang it in the window while your children are away or distracted, then casually pull it down for their next nap. IMG_6130The know-it-all kindergartener will suggest that you add an exclamation point. Or at least SOME kind of punctuation, like a real sentence. IMG_6128See, the message still works at half-mast: IMG_6137It’s difficult to capture how dark it gets in their room with my crummy camera, but this may give you an idea: IMG_6143Yawn. Is anyone else feeling really drowsy right now? ——————————————————————— * Parenting tip: Try not to have multiple babies in the middle of a worldwide financial and housing crisis. ** Normally I frown on using possessive apostrophes to indicate a plural. But when expressing multiples of the letter S, it’s important not to confuse your reader, who may think that you are talking about the armed wing of the Nazi Party, or the sound of snakes, neither of which are endorsed by Projectophile, its subsidiaries or affiliates.

Don’t Just Stand There! Five New Desks to Fit Your Active Lifestyle

Experts say sitting is the new smoking.  And for the past two years, I’ve felt pretty darn smug about all the hours I spend working upright at my DIY standing desk: 

Picture 112BUT – How much you wanna bet that those even smuggier experts will soon declare that STANDING is the new deep-fried heroin candy bar?

Since we all struggle to find the time for both office work AND exercise, Projectophile [me] has teamed up with King Crow Comics [Scott] to launch five new work desks to fit your Active Lifestyle.*


jumping sans caption2)  SQUATTING DESK:

squatting sans caption3) CLIMBING DESK:

climbing sans caption4) KNEELING DESK:

Kneeling sans caption5) HANGING DESK:

hanging desk sans caption6) SWIMMING DESK:

swimming sans captionRight now you’re thinking, “I need a poster of all of these desks to hang in my office!” You’re in luck, because King Crow Comics [Scott] at this very minute is at Kinko’s printing up a bunch of beautiful full-color 11″x17″ prints, like this one:

Desk poster 300 low rezTo buy your own, visit Scott/King Crow at the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo on June 6-7.  Or email me directly at
Ideas and lettering: Clare @projectophile
Artwork: Scott @krollcrow
*  Active Lifestyles may be Actual or Aspirational.
** Projectophile, King Crow Comics, and their wholly or partially-owned subsidiaries shall not be held liable for any death, injury or embarrassment that may occur from use of these desks. By laughing, chuckling, chortling, or even politely smiling, the reader agrees that this is just a joke and not real at all, even though it’s on the Internet.