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.

Welcome to Babuskha Island: Your Oasis in a Sea of Not-Having-Counterspace

Won’t you join me in a trip to an exotic, blissful place… where counter space is ample, and storage is plentiful? A magic place where I don’t have to dice onions over the sink, or suffer the humiliation of a Tupperware™ avalanche every time I slide open the cabinet door?

I’ve been dreaming of a Babushka Kitchen Island for at least a couple of months, to replace our “Babushka Cafe” – an old patio table and two chairs that the old lady left behind. It was fine for the kids’ breakfast or a romantic cup of coffee with Scott, but added nothing in the way of workspace or storage. IMG_5792Last week, I finally revealed my Kitchen Island Idea to Scott, who I then had to shepherd through the Four stages of Project Acceptance:
Stage 1 – Balking: That’s a crazy idea and will never work and besides we don’t need it.
Stage 2 – Curiosity + Intrigue: Maybe that will work. Go ahead and try; just don’t ask me to help.
Stage 3 – Grudging Acceptance: You’ve already gotten this far, you may as well finish.
Stage 4 – Enthusiastic Acceptance: Sometimes accompanied by Project Penance (This  New Thing is life-changing and I’m sorry I ever doubted you) or even Project Idea Identity Theft (I’m so glad I thought of this and you finally got around to making it).

To move Scott from Stage 1 to 2, I set up this “prototype” with painters’ tape, milk crates and the lid of a cooler.  I topped the whole setup with fresh baked cookies to create a positive, even Pavlovian, association with the island concept. 20150503_130649Once Scott made it to Stage 2.5 , I just scanned Craigslist for the perfect kitchen island.  I learned the hard way that islands only come in two sizes: 1) tiny microwave cart, or 2) massive suburban-style beastie, a/k/a, the “aircraft carrier.” islandcollage2red xThis Goldilocks couldn’t find one that was just right. So, as usual [dramatic sigh], I had to just make it my own damn self — by combining an old dresser, a new butcher block, and a little bit of dazzle. Here’s how I did it…

STEP ONE – Get a Dresser:  Once I settled on the dimensions, I found the perfect dresser on Craigslist — a used IKEA Hemnes.  The transaction was smooth enough, except the part where I watched this guy pull his underwear out of the drawers.* Dude had a whole dresser just for underwear! And later that day I discovered – a lot of spiders. 20150503_122030I needed this thing to be white. So I gave it a light sanding, and then one coat of oil-based primer. 20150503_162936Before I painted it, I drilled extra holes in the drawers to accommodate the new chrome pulls I bought to match the sink and Hoosier cabinet. IMG_6002Next, everything got two coats of white latex paint, and then three coats of polycrylic. IMG_6008IMG_6023STEP TWO – Bedazzle your Backside:  Like a TV news anchor or post-modern architecture**, a clothes dresser was designed to only be seen from the front. This dresser’s backside was a pathetic, flimsy, MDF board afterthought. And since the backside was the new frontside, I had to make it both functional and delightful. I turned to the nearby Upcycled Recycling Center for inspiration: IMG_5669I bought a bunch of 1.5″ wide pine slats at the hardware store, and dipped into the same can of paint I used for the recycling center slats (and also the mail box and my hubcaps). IMG_6022I tipped the dresser on its side to arrange my slats in a pleasing manner over the crappy backside: IMG_6042 Next, I secured the slats to the solid wood frame using a pneumatic nail gun that we borrowed from our friend Tamra so long ago I’m embarrassed to even mention it (Hi Tamra! Happy Birthday!) IMG_6056The nail gun shrank my nailing time by about 90%. Best of all, the compressor motor looks like a poodle! nail gun or poodleSTEP THREE – Counter top:  I needed a counter top that was heavy enough for kitchen duty, and big enough to provide knee room for casual breakfast-eaters and kitchen loiterers (you know who you are). I dreamed of making my own counter by joining together several perfect hardwood boards. I borrowed a biscuit joiner and headed to the hardware store to buy the lumber. And then my heart stopped when I saw this: butcherblock arrowA perfectly-sized, unfinished butcher block that was significantly cheaper than the boards! I called Scott in a panic, “Would you think less of me if I just bought this butcher block instead of making my own?!” His response was approximately, “What the *$&# do I care? Come home and eat lunch.”

Next I had to decide whether to finish the butcher block or keep it “raw,” which would require monthly oiling. I’m not nearly responsible enough for “monthly oiling,” so I decided to keep the lovely light wood color and seal it with five coats of polycrylic. Remember to give it a good sanding and wipe-down before you coat, and then lightly sand with 220-grit sandpaper between coats.  And clear coat both sides so there’s no water absorption from spills. You know you’re finished when it looks like a bowling alley! 20150520_141803 I unscrewed and removed the existing dresser top, and arranged the new butcher block in place – flush with the drawer side and the wall side, with ample overhang on the other “public” sides. I carefully marked the screw holes by jabbing them with a pencil. 20150520_214304I drilled new screw holes on the underside of the butcher block, flipped it over and screwed back into place.  Slide the drawers back in, and…. IMG_6065Choose where to place your new Tupperware™ graveyard: IMG_6062… and drag a stool out of the alley to complete the look! IMG_6071IMG_6066Let’s just hope Babuskha Island gets along with its yellow-striped cousin Recycling Center: IMG_6073The first kid home from school today got to eat the inaugural snack (an over-ripe banana): it works Who then asked… “Mama, why is the kitchen so clean?”————————————————————————————
Free Craigslist Tip: Remove all your personal belongings from a storage item before the customer comes to see it. Especially if your belongings are tighty-whities with lots of cocoa stains.
**  I’m looking at you, Harold Washington Library in Chicago.

Is there a Hoosier in Your Kitchen? Take This Free Online Quiz to Find Out

Today, everyone’s a winner, because all three of these answers are correct! I realize this is awfully confusing, so please, let me explain.

I grew in St. Louis, Missouri, a mid-sized mid-western city. Even though we weren’t cut off from the rest of civilization by, say… an unpassable mountain range, or 5,000 miles of ocean, St. Louisans have developed our own unique and often perplexing culture. Our steaks are made of pork; we deep fry our ravioli. St. Louis children must tell jokes on Halloween before candy is released. In school, we learned that the St.Louis World’s Fair of 1904 was the apex of innovation, because this is where the ice cream cone was invented. You’d all still be eating ice cream out of bowls right now – like savages – if it weren’t for St. Louis and our culture of advanced dessert engineering.

Like other lost civilizations, St. Louis developed our own secret dialect, which includes the word “Hoosier.” In St Louisian, Hoosier is an insult, but it has nothing to do with Indiana. In fact, most of us have never even heard of Indiana (it may as well be one of those other “I” states like Idaho or Ithaca). A Hoosier is related to a Redneck, but he’s not agricultural; he lives in town. He’s not from a particular ethnic group, because every family has at least one.*  The St. Louis band MU330 says it best in their hit song, “Hoosier Love:”

Peach fuzz mustache, butt cut, El Camino pick-up truck, Aerosmith, Loverboy, Motley Crue. Holding hands just me and you. We don’t need no high school! (No high school, we’re too cool!) We’ll have kids at seventeen, getting laid at Dairy Queen.

It wasn’t until I was 23 years old and newly living in Chicago that I learned the hard way that – to the rest of the world – a Hoosier is simply a person from Indiana. Oops. Sorry, Lisa. Your hair is great!

Fifteen years later I discovered the third definition of a Hoosier, as in the kitchen cabinet. I desperately needed some proper counter space to fill the gap between the fridge and the stove, occupied by an old Ikea desk:

IMG_5789After browsing Craigslist for weeks, I scored this vintage Hoosier cabinet for $70. Scott hopped in the cargo bike to pick it up, in the middle of a rainstorm:**

cabinet in cargo bikeIn order to amuse my St. Louis friends and family, from here on I will now refer to the cabinet simply as “the Hoosier.” Because there’s one in every family.  The Hoosier fit well into the gap-toothed smile of my kitchen, but it still needed work. Here’s what I did:


The upper left side drawer is what’s called a “bread drawer,” a typical feature of the Hoosier, from a time when homemade bread was important enough for its own all-metal executive suite. This particular drawer is also a great way to give your family tetanus via sandwiches.

IMG_5986I scrubbed out the rust with a wire brush, and painted the bottom with an oil-based protective enamel paint, specifically for metal, which I already owned.

IMG_5989My store-bought loaf is feeling a little inadequate in this cathedral to yeasty goodness. Maybe I’ll just store towels in there.


The Hoosier had three more big flaws: 1) it was not quite tall enough to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the stove, 2) it was blocking a wall vent near the floor, and 3) it was hard to move. Why would we need to move a Hoosier? Because within the first two days of owning the Hoosier, we dropped about 30 grapes, half a cheese sandwich and some child’s school pictures behind it.

The answer to our all Hoosier problems is (are?) CASTERS!  Present-Day-Me is so grateful that Me-From-A-Year-Ago yanked these casters off some junky furniture in the alley, just in case I might need them someday. Because that someday is today!***

IMG_5982I flipped the Hoosier over and drilled holes in the bottom of its legs (feet?), starting with a small drill bit and gradually getting bigger, as not to shock and crack the surrounding wood.

IMG_5983Since the top pins weren’t threaded, I wanted to make the casters extra secure. I filled the holes up with caulk and then pushed the casters in, wiping away the excess caulk that oozed out the sides.


IMG_6001I let the caulk set for an hour before flipping the Hoosier back over and rolling into place:

IMG_5994A perfect fit.  And look at all this extra storage! I no longer have to store my mismatched Tupperware and ratty old dish towels out in the open like a… well… a Hoosier.

IMG_5995To celebrate another milestone in the progress of the Babuska kitchen, I assembled this cheesy photo collage from the last six months:

kitchen memory collage

A microwave on a stack of stolen milk crates?!  Now, that’s HOOSIER!————————————————————————
* If you don’t know who the Hoosier is in your family, it’s probably you.
** Our marriage contract specifies that Scott must appear at least once in every blog post, either as the hero of the story, or in the act of doing something that would “make all the other husbands look bad in comparison.”
*** If I ever run for political office or become an inspirational speaker, my slogan will be “Someday is Today!”

Five Easy Steps to Make your House Look Slightly Less Abandoned

Every block in an older neighborhood has that one house. You know the one I’m talking about – the house that nobody ever comes out of or goes into. The grey, torpid structure with the sagging porch, the creeping vines; You can almost smell the mothballs from the street. The one that’s TOTALLY HAUNTED.

As a child, you threw rocks at this house, or rang the doorbell just to see who would answer it (and then promptly hid in the bushes).  Yup, that’s the house that we bought.

IMG_5224I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me.  After we moved in, Scott and I spent many evenings on the front porch eating ice cream, just to show our new neighbors that the house was occupied by actual living people (who now live directly behind a Baskin-Robbins!). Would ghosts eat ice cream, outside, in December? No. Ghosts hate being cold.

Now that spring is here, I’m even more self-conscious about our neglected Babushka House. We’re slowly saving up for big renovations like windows and siding. In the meantime, I discovered few small, nearly free improvements that – like a shot of atropine into an unresponsive patient – could quickly bring signs of life to our front porch.

These improvements fall into two categories: 1) Out with the Old, and 2) In with the New.


 • TEAR DOWN ORNAMENTAL CLIMBING VINES:  A TV series called “Life After People” predicts how nature will reclaim our human structures after we all mysteriously disappear. I’ve never actually seen the show, but I’ll go ahead and spoil it for you: After the humans are gone, plants start growing on and in the buildings.  Oh look, here’s an example:

IMG_5962I don’t care if those vines are alive or dead (ours were dead). Tear it down. It’s tremendously satisfying.

 • DISMANTLE “OLD LADY” GRILLS:  These door and window grills recall a forgotten era – when fussy, ornate ironwork was all the rage, and when our neighborhood’s (and the nation’s) crime rate was a wee bit higher.

IMG_5953Fussy and ornate is clearly not my style. But even if it was, the metal was tarnished and crusty with age:

IMG_5954 Two minutes with a screwdriver was all it took. Which is why these make no sense as a security measure, either.


 • MAKEOVER THE MAILBOX:  Yes, the Babushka’s mailbox is perfectly good. It holds mail, and is squeaky enough to provide a audible clue that the person stomping around on my front porch is the mail carrier.  But the faded paint and rusty patina are the opposite of cheerful:

IMG_5867Unscrew the mailbox from your wall. Don’t be spooked by what appears to be the capital of a small but prosperous Spider City-State.

IMG_5872 Evict the spider village, scrape off the rust with a wire brush, wipe clean, and apply a coat of white primer:

IMG_5893Next, apply a coat of bright yellow oil-based paint. Loyal readers may remember this can of paint from my Upcycled Hubcap and Upcycled Recycling Center* projects; it’s like sunshine in a can:

IMG_5914IMG_5929  • BRIGHTLY-COLORED PATIO FURNITURE:  You need a throne on which to eat your ice cream, it may as well add a pop of color** to your depressingly drab front porch.  These modern orange chairs will do the trick. Especially since we already owned them:

orangechairsPRO-TIP!  Say it with me – NO STUFFED FURNITURE ON YOUR FRONT PORCH. Nothing soft: no couches, loveseats, easy chairs or beanbags. Your house will look even more abandoned, or worse – occupied by squatters (if you’re looking for ours, they’re behind the garage). You can now buy furniture specifically for the outdoors, in smooth, nonporous materials and bright, eye-catching colors. And no, milk crates do not qualify as outdoor furniture.

 • SAN SERIF HOUSE NUMBERS:  Your house numbers are your home’s smile. Do you want your smile to be yellowed, cracked and ancient-looking?

house numbersOr fresh, bright, modern, and centered rationally in the middle of your face?

IMG_5961I stumbled upon these numbers while shopping for drill bits at a certain orange-colored big box store.  The numbers were too big for the existing plate, so I had to saw down and paint a piece of scrap wood. Which was a bit of work, but now my address even smells new.

And yes, creeps of the world, now you know my home address. Not sure why I bothered obscuring it in all those other pictures, since, if you’re reading this, you’re either a friend of mine or you live in Australia.

Time for the big reveal***:

IMG_5969And for added affect, let a small child run around in the front yard unsupervised, or frantically pound on the storm door at passersby:


“Yup,” they’ll all say. “Somebody definitely lives here now.”

* I will pay good money to anyone who can give me a synonym for “upcycled.”
** “Pop of color” is required to appear at least once in every home design blog.
*** Also, every home design blog has to have at least one “big reveal” per post, even if it’s really just a bunch of little reveals.