Track Your Tool Mooching with a Basement Borrow Board


HIM: So, where are we at with the kitchen door project?*
HER:  It’s almost done, but I still need to sand it.
HIM: OK, then finish sanding it.
HER: Fine. Bring me the sander.
HIM: I can’t find it.
HER: Didn’t somebody just borrow it? I think Matt and Megan. For their kitchen. I’ll text them.
HER: Nope, they gave it back to us a month ago.
HIM: What about Tamra?
HER: Couldn’t be. Tamra moved in July. Besides, she gave it to Mindy. And then Mindy gave it back, like, a million years ago.
HIM: MICHAEL! Michael borrowed it to redo their picnic bench.
HER: Whew! Guess I’m not finishing the door today. Who wants a snack?

          (END OF SCENE)

Home ownership requires lots of tools.  Tools for the yard. Tools for the toilet. Tools for breaking plaster, and then fixing plaster. Tools for painting, thinning paint, drying paint, stirring paint and stripping paint…


About 10% of the tools needed to reupholster a chair, which is way smaller than a house.

Scott and I are lucky. Sure, we impulsively bought a house that’s barely standing. But so did many of our neighborhood friends, and they did it years before us, and thus already bought all the tools.

Most of our friends could be described as resourceful, know-it-all socialists: folks who proudly wear thrift store underwear, but wouldn’t be caught dead letting their friends BUY a post hole digger to just to build a fence, when they’ve got a perfectly good one in their basement.

But like other popular forms of swapping (i.e., cookies, interest rates, spouses and credit defaults) it can get complicated, possibly igniting a global economic meltdown. Just look at this corner of our basement! Whose stuff is this, anyway?!

basement-corderANSWER KEY:
1)  Gin and Michael’s iron rebar spike and sledge hammer
2)  Matt’s child seat rack attachment
3)  David’s post hole digger
4)  David’s porch-scrubbing kit

Who could possibly keep track of all that stuff borrowed and loaned? To assist in preserving your official Tool Borrowing and Lending Score (ToBALS), I’ve developed this patented two-column accounting system, The Borrow Board. 


STEP ONE: Scrounge around for some type of paintable board – scrap wood, MDF or wood paneling that fell off the ceiling of your basement.**

dsc_0252 If you found some water-stained, irregularly shaped MDF board in your basement, go ahead and cut the rotten end off with your (probably borrowed) circular saw.


Wipe off the spider webs, paying special attention to the egg sacs, because spiders get really mad when you mess with their baby sacs.  Apply one coat of latex primer, or two if your board is especially moldy or if you just made a spider egg omelette.


For those of you just skimming this blog post or only reading the captions, note that we are not painting our board with Organic Plain Whole Milk Yogurt. Though if you did, that’s what you get for not paying attention.

STEP TWO: Generously slather on at least two coats of chalkboard paint, which is available at most hardware and paint stores.

dsc_0258Now there are plenty of cutesy Pinterest™ types who may “inspire” you to make your own chalk paint by adding a chalky substance – such as tile grout, wig powder, volcanic ash or pulverized goat hooves – to regular paint.  Personally, I never question the recommendation of the American Paint Manufacturers Association™ to never tamper with their products, because they probably know what’s best for me.  Also, I’m lazy.

STEP THREE: Create T-shaped grid-lines by laying down some masking tape in a more-or-less straight line. Then fill in the negative space with an oil-based white paint.


Next, count the letters in “BORROW BOARD”, including the space, to locate the precise middle point of the phrase, and mark that on the top of your board. Grab one of your kid’s junky paintbrushes and paint the word “BOARD” first, since your letters will inevitably get bigger as you go so you may as well start at the end. Refer to one of your kid’s homemade birthday cards if you don’t believe me about the letters getting bigger.

dsc_0265Then paint “BORROW,” starting with the W and then the B and working your way towards the two “R”s so you don’t squish all the letters together. Don’t be discouraged if your sign resembles something held up by a conspiracy theorist on the the side of the highway, or that guy in front of Old Navy who told me I was going to hell for smoking cigarettes.***


Hopefully, you’ve been lending out tools as well as borrowing them, so create titles for each column to reflect the spirit of your bottomless generosity.


STEP FOUR: Wait three days for the chalk paint to fully “cure.”  Before you can write, you must then “condition” the chalkboard so that it becomes accustomed to the smell and feel of chalk and won’t reject it like a baby bird that’s been touched by curious human children with Flamin’ Hot Cheeto® dust on their fingers.  Simply rub the board with the side of the chalk, and then wipe off with an eraser.


Survey your possessions and write down whatever doesn’t belong to you, along with the name of its owner, if you still remember.  Try to recall everything you’ve borrowed out**** to others, which hopefully looks balanced.

Hang your finished borrow board in a discreet place in your basement, so visitors won’t see how much of a mooch you are, or be reminded that you still haven’t given back that sledge hammer even though you finished building the fence more than a year ago.


By the way, do any of you have my copy of “Confederacy of Dunces”?

* In our house, we are not allowed to use the question beloved by ineffective middle managers worldwide: “Sooooo… Where are we at with ___?”  Because by “WE,” you mean “ME,” otherwise you wouldn’t be asking ME, would you, Brad?
** OK, maybe that MDF panel didn’t actually “fall off” the basement ceiling. Maybe I pried it off because I couldn’t stand not knowing what was under it.
*** In his defense, that’s actually what it says on cigarette boxes in Canada. Also, I don’t even smoke.
**** In our family, we use the verb “borrow” both ways; you can borrow something FROM others or TO others.  While not grammatically correct, it’s easier than remembering the past tense of LOAN.  Loaned? Lent? Loan’t? Loanded? Leaned?

A Ladies’ Guide to Stripping

Every now and then, usually during an awkward lull in conversation, a friend will ask for blogging tips. My fifth piece of advice, after “never blog about blogging”* is “Never write about why you haven’t written in a while.” Nobody pays that much attention to your life, much less your blogging schedule, to notice. Besides, do you really need to draw attention to your lack of discipline and productivity? In blogging, as in life, it’s best to keep expectations low. Then nobody is ever disappointed.

Today, I’m breaking all the rules to announce I haven’t posted any finished projects all summer** because I’ve discovered an exciting new project that I am unlikely to finish in my own lifetime. The upside is that I’ve learned enough to slather you with some pro-tips about: Stripping Paint!

You see, the Babushka House is held together with acres of Charming Original Woodwork (ChOW), or, more accurately, Original Unchanged Character-building Hardwood (OUCH). While the doors, trim, and door & window frames are almost certainly original to the house, and thus hopelessly charming, all this OUCH was more recently slathered in a coat (or six) of off-white*** paint.


During Babushka’s 50-year reign, the policy was to paint directly over shiny-slick lacquer, which is like trying to glue a squirrel to an ice cube.  So now those miles of painted wood – in every single room of the house – are molting quicker than an adolescent rattlesnake with a rat in its belly.

Not only am I horrified by the so-called “shabby chic” look of chipping paint, I am also skeptical of the American Paint Manufacturers Association™ recommendation that children consume 3 tablespoons of paint chips per day.  So early this spring, I decided to finally tackle the flaky elephant in the room**** and strip off all that old paint.

It wasn’t yet open-window weather in Chicago, so I tried the more “natural,” low-odor type stripper.  I couldn’t be bothered to conduct actual research on brands, so I bought one that smells like orange peels, and another that smells like baby powder and waged a Stripper Battle in my living room.  Here they are, side-by-side, soon after application:


If my deodorant is any guide, I know that NATURAL = WEAK. These dainty chemicals must sit for 12 HOURS before anything even remotely cool or destructive happens. The next morning, I sprang out of bed for the Inaugural Scrape:


OK. Well, that got a little bit off. Apply again, wait another 12 hours, put on a slightly different green hoodie, then scrape:
dsc_0136And again…. and again. It took four applications, plus a final scrub down with mineral spirits, to get to bare wood. By then I had completely lost track of which brand worked better. But probably the one on the left. dsc_0148The first properly warm day, I opened the windows and bought a can of Real Stripper. Real Stripper doesn’t smell nice like lemons or baby butts; it smells mean and terrible like war or a chemical plant explosion. As for paint-melting power, it’s the difference between a Crock-Pot® and a deep fryer, which is also a good metaphor for the pain it inflicts on bare skin.


Stripper Family Photo: Mom, Dad and Junior.

Despite the smell, the mess and the likely brain damage, stripping paint has become one of my favorite DIY activities. Do you enjoy picking scabs, peeling labels off sweaty beer bottles, biting your fingernails and popping zits? If you are anxious and slightly destructive, then stripping paint may be right for you.

Let’s review the basic process for stripping paint: 

  1. Put on thick rubber gloves that make your hands sweat. If your hands aren’t sweating, the gloves aren’t thick enough. If you’re working on a thing that you can take outside, take it outside.
  2. Unscrew the Mother Can of Stripper, let it burp a few times, and pour several ounces of stripper into a can or jar. Be sure to eat whatever was originally in the jar first. Put the Mother Can in a place where you won’t knock her over. Don’t drink your iced coffee out of jar that looks juts like the jar of stripper, dummy.

  3.  Grab a disposable brush that you don’t mind ruining.  Brush the stripper on THICK. Imagine you’re a mom in a peanut butter commercial and the wood trim is your child’s toast. Pay special attention to the nooks and crannies.


  4. Wait about 10 minutes for the chemicals to work. Be sure to have another activity planned to fill those empty minutes, such as mowing the lawn or taking a pregnancy test: Something to distract you, but not for too long.
  5. Now for the fun part, when you get to scrape the paint off in big, satisfying strips and feel like you finally have power over some small part of your life:

    big-scrape…but then discover four more coats of paint underneath. Repeat this step as necessary.

  6. After stripping and scraping down to almost-bare wood, scrub everything with steel wool soaked in mineral spirits in order to wash off the stripper residue and loosen those last stubborn bits of paint.img_6609

Those are the basic rules of stripping. But what about the SECRET TIPS that only seasoned amateurs like me can tell you?

KEEP IT TOASTY: Stripper loves heat. Remember the last time you ordered waffles at a diner and tried to spread those frozen rectangles of butter?***** Like butter on waffles, stripper wants to be room temperature.  On a chilly day, keep a space heater blazing nearby so you can open the windows.

BUT DON’T STRIP IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT:  Strong sunlight will make your stripper pop and sizzle, which may sound like the stripper is working extra hard. But really, the stripper is just evaporating more quickly. And when stripper evaporates, it leaves behind a stiff, rubbery, tarlike slop, like the stuff the dinosaurs got stuck in when they went extinct. Scary, right? Here’s a meta-pro-tip for a hot, breezy day: Place cling wrap over your stripper to let it work without evaporation:
img_6603USE THE BUCKET METHOD: Speaking of sticky messes, do you have an end game for the wads of rubbery goo that you scrape?  Maybe you’ll just flick it into the air or wipe it on your husband’s shirt? NOPE. Grab one of your kid’s beach buckets and line it with a plastic bag. You can wipe the stripped paint off on the side of the bucket, and then dispose of the bag in your neighbor’s trash when you finish up for the day.


WEAR CLOTHES:  Have you ever been splattered with hot oil, or stung by bees plural, or forced to get a home perm when you were 12?  That’s what stripper feels like.  Respect it and cover up as much skin as you can. Neil Armstrong didn’t land on the moon in a tank top and hot pants, and neither should you.

PROTECT THE INNOCENT: If you must strip inside because the thing you’re stripping is part of your house, then make like you’re potty-training or carving pumpkins – newspaper everywhere.  You may  be tempted to lay down your Good “Forever” Tarp, but you’ll quickly regret it after you turn your dining room into a Superfund site. If plastic makes you feel better, cut a plastic trash bag in half and slide it under the paper.

KEEP KLEENEX HANDY: Paint stripper makes my nose run. Which is probably a symptom of my brain dissolving. And without a tissue handy, you will reflexively wipe your nose with the back of your hand, which is itself covered in stripper, thus smearing stripper into your nostrils, which provides a shortcut to your already dissolving brain.

VISIT THE DENTIST SUPPLY STORE:  As you get into smaller crevices, you will need finer tools, which happen to be directly related to dental hygiene. Ask friends and neighbors for their used toothbrushes.  Save up toothpicks. Go to the dentist and discreetly pocket the tarter scrapers and periodontal scalers at your next checkup.


EAT MORE FAST FOOD: You’re going to quickly destroy any tools you use to strip. Next time you grab a burger, stash the plastic utensils for later scraping. The knife, spoon, and fork all have wonderful serrated edges and tines that are perfect for picking at stubborn bits of paint. Don’t be afraid to try new foods in your quest for tools: Chopsticks, toothpicks, sporks, chorks and trongs all work great!


Only a fraction of what you will need to strip paint of a Victorian-era kitchen door.

Wherever your stripping journey takes you, be sure not to lose interest in it after a few weeks and leave half your dining room covered in masking tape.  But if you do, just hang some decorative BEFORE and AFTER signs and your husband will totally understand.


* As a rule, I avoid matching verbs and gerunds in my creative life, and thus would never write about writing, dance about dancing, or cook about cooking. But I will often dance about cooking or sing about sleeping or run about sewing.
**  The bigger blow to my creativity this summer was perhaps working a part time job with no child care.  I haven’t finished a sentence in nearly three months.
*** My favorite shades of off-white paint include: Expired Sunscreen, Yesterday’s Brie, Musty Latte, Elderly Schmear, Afternoon Potato Salad, Pimple Squirts, Grandpa’s Toenails, Marlboro Molars, Jaundiced Norwegian and Forgotten Bathtub.
**** Normally, I don’t recommend tackling elephants, regardless of their skin’s moisture levels.
***** PRO-TIP: Ask for the butter as soon as you order your waffles. Then place the frozen packets in your armpits while you wait. By the time the waffles arrive, the butter will be wonderfully warm and spreadable and your armpits perfectly refreshed for dinner!

World’s Slowest Before-and-After: Micro-Bathroom Makeover, PART 2


When we left our bathroom remodeling heroes, they had fixed the toilet, tore out the floor, installed a new floor, and then stepped out to get cigarettes.*


The bathroom was now officially “functional,” and cleaning was a breeze because they could just sweep dirt into the ½-inch gap between the floor and wall. But there was still the case of the Missing Ceiling: Local toilet-goers could gaze upon the underbelly of the upstairs bath tub, imagining themselves in their favorite Steampunk novel; a fine mist of rotting house dust drifting down on them with every upstairs bump and stomp.

Our Heroes (now downgraded to Protagonists) left the open sore of the ceiling exposed for more than a year. They were trapped in the awkward adolescence of fixing-upping: Things functioned well enough to sustain life, but they weren’t exactly nice. Why couldn’t they just have one single room that was finished?

And since a “ROOM” is generally defined as having a floor and a ceiling,** they started by mending the ceiling wound with a fresh sheet of drywall, handily scavenged out of the neighbor’s garage:


While waiting for the spackle to dry, I pulled out that funky trapezoid cabinet over the toilet – both to give our toilet passengers some extra breathing room, and to give our kitchen some much-needed Secondary Bean Storage.

With the cabinet down and the new ceiling up, the bathroom was flush with light!  But just like when the tavern lights flicker on at closing time, that new brightness revealed walls that had yellowed to a shade of nicotine-stained teeth.***

That margarine yellow couldn’t be scrubbed away, even with a strong dose of TSP solution. So after a light sanding, I reached for my industrial-sized bucket of white primer. Putting a layer between me and the Bathroom of Babushka Past provided instant relief, and reinforced the decision to paint the walls a crisp, clean white (also, we had half a can of white paint leftover from whitewashing the bedroom).


Painting the walls and ceiling white was the easy part. But what to do about that nasty tile and its grid-work of yellowing grout?

Since most problems can be solved with procrastination, I pivoted to this rusty gold toilet paper roll holder. I’d briefly considered pulling it out of the wall to install a new one, but Scott warned me in an appropriately low and spooky voice, “We don’t know what lies behind that toilet paper holder.” So I painted it silver, dipping into my stash of Rust-Oleum’s Liquid Mercury™ Line of extra-toxic finishes, recycled from old thermometers.

toilet paper holder before and after

When my vision returned to normal, I turned back to the tile, and learned the hard way that tile can’t be simply popped off the wall like a dried up booger (can’t you kids just wipe it on your shirt like normal people?).  We either had to live with the haggard old tiles forever, or tear out the walls and start fresh. Like Scott said, who knows what lies behind those walls?

Like most of life’s problems, there’s usually a shortcut. No, shortcuts are lazy. Let’s call it a compromise. And today’s shortcut compromise is: PAINTING THE TILE.

My local paint store carries a special kind of super-charged EXTREME BOND****  primer made especially for “problem” surfaces like tile, which I’m sure resents being called a “problem” surface:


Let the Extreme Bonding begin!


Another coat, just to show that problem surface who’s boss:


No need to adjust the settings on your device: The light in the bathroom really is that bad.

PRO-TIP:  Though I would normally advise you to sand any surface before you prime and paint, I skipped this step. The glaze on the tile is so slick and shiny, it would be like trying to sand Jell-O. Like trying to sand… something just out of reach, like a quickly evaporating dream first thing in the morning, or like this sentence. Like trying to sand post-modernism, which is already so slippery. Also, my friend Megan just painted her kitchen tile and tried sanding it first and sanding achieved absolutely nothing, so the real tip is: Just Wait for Megan to Do It First and then Copy Whatever She Did.

Next, I slathered on two generous coats of high-gloss latex paint, a cool shade of grey that roughly matched the color of the floor grout, which makes it seem like we actually planned all this out ahead of time: DSC_0235


Finally, there was the issue of that pesky gap between the floor and the wall. I could have thrown down some bland wood trim (also scavenged out of the neighbors’ garage), but now I say: No more shortcuts compromises! Wood trim would have been like wearing a burlap cummerbund over a sequined tuxedo (yes, I did just watch that biopic about Liberace).

I found a deal on some glossy white ceramic trim at my local Big Box Store. But since our bathroom was designed by a Victorian-era madman, we had to cut the trim to accommodate FIVE corners. I dropped more money on a new diamond-wheel attachment for our Dremmel than I did on the actual tile.


Liberace exclusively used diamond-encrusted tools as well!

DSC_0240 We secured the trim to both the wall and floor with a stinky construction adhesive called Liquid Nails, and filled in the weird gaps with plain white caulk.

Since bathroom guests could no longer stare up at the ceiling entrails for amusement, I gave them something new to contemplate while doing their private business. This print by my friend The Book Designer and Collage Artist Matt Avery added a pop both of color AND social justice theme to our two-toned water closet:


With the finishing touches in place, Scott and I both exclaimed, “It looks like a bathroom in a restaurant!” But, you know… a nice restaurant; not those restaurants that have cold bathrooms that you can only access by walking through the kitchen and that have weird puddles of liquid in unnerving locations and ashtrays on the toilet. No, a nice restaurant bathroom.





 * Don’t worry, it’s just a metaphor – Scott and I don’t actually smoke. But when we were kids, “running out for a pack of smokes” was a euphemism for when a grownup casually walked out the front door and never came back, or came back a week later with a mustache, a bad sunburn, and – if you were lucky– a puppy.
** Each of you define “room” differently, and I honor that journey. Your room doesn’t have to have four walls and a floor and a ceiling. I’m not the Room Police (though they do bring me in for questioning from time to time).
*** I’m sending some pretty negative messages about tobacco use in this blog post. However, I still maintain that smoking on the toilet is hopelessly glamorous, and 90% safer than smoking in bed.
**** This is also a new style of attachment parenting, as seen in the classic children’s book, “Love You Forever.

World’s Slowest Before-and-After: The Micro-Bathroom Makeover, PART 1

Having two bathrooms for a family of five is a major life accomplishment, which we achieved exactly 1.5 years ago when we bought the Babushka House. The timing was perfect: Our youngest was potty trained,* and now five fully-formed humans all needed to use a toilet, usually at the same time.

Babushka’s downstairs half bathroom was tiny and yellowed with nicotine,** but had the tools to get the job done. And so, so many shiny gold towel racks:


The excitement of Double Bathroom Achievement was short-lived, once we realized that the mystical Second Toilet was falling through the floor:
IMG_5207For years, upstairs bathroom had been inflicting water torture onto its smaller cousin below; the incessant leak destroyed the ceiling, and rotted out the bathroom’s sub-floor. Sitting on this toilet felt squishy and wobbly, as if the slightest (ahem) strain or push might send both the toilet and its passenger tumbling into the basement.

The first step was to pull out the toilet, tear up the rotting sub-floor and build a new one.


I’m quite proud to add “Sub-Floor Artist” to my resume! Note my visionary interpretation of where the toilet base and water supply line should go. Feel free to add to you Pintrest page of Bathroom Sub-floor Inspiration.

subfloor captions

The easiest part of this project was choosing the tile: a modern-yet-traditional two-toned scheme. But Scott and I were devastated to learn that we couldn’t just throw new tile down on the sub-floor. First, we had to buy, measure, cut and install cement board, which is like drywall for the floor, only scratchier.

basement door cement board shot

Next, we had to conduct a “dry fit”, which is like a game of musty Tetris™ where we cut the tile to match our weirdly shaped bathroom. Note that our bathroom is extra weird because you have to go through the bathroom to get to the basement.  And surprisingly, I’ve only once walked in on a house-guest with their pants down (not pictured).



This tool is also useful for the annual Springtime “Dad Pedicure.”

With the tile layed out, we mixed up some thin-set mortar and schmeared it generously across the cement board like cream cheese on a bagel.


Then we (meaning, Scott) quickly and carefully arranged the tiles over the mortar like, um…. lox and capers and delicate slices of cucumber and red onion. ***

After the tile was set, we (meaning, Scott) mixed up a batch of grout, which is sort of like mortar, but scratchier, and fills in the space between the tiles. We intentionally chose dark grey, which is the color of white grout after you haven’t cleaned your bathroom in five years:


Spread the grout all over the tile and rub it into the cracks like lotion on a dry elbow.  Then wipe up that huge stupid mess you just made in the bathroom with a comically-big sponge:


While waiting for the grout to set, it was time to shave 50 years of other people’s nastiness from the base of the toilet, which was resting sideways in our kitchen.

That brown stuff that looks like the turds of a carnivorous drifter is really just a petrified wax ring. Or, that’s what we kept telling ourselves.


Repeat after me: NOT POO NOT POO NOT POO

We (Scott) then installed a new wax ring and flange — pronounced the French way, FLÁN-JAY —  and somehow got the toilet back onto its original hole. A fresh coat of caulk around the base adds a touch of class.


With the new floor installed, our micro-bathroom was now mostly functional!


After all that hard work, Scott and I decided to take a little breather before tackling the walls and ceiling. That “little breather” lasted more than a year. Did we ever “finish” the micro-bathroom makeover?  See how it all ends in Part 2…

* Some of you may be offended by the authoritarian tone of the term “Potty-Train” so instead we might say, “Defecation Education,” “Urination Leadership Initiative,” “Juvenile Flow Control Systems Support,” or “Human Waste Disposal Enlightenment and Direction Understanding.”
** I imagine when Babushka and her family bought this house in the 1950s, it was considered quite glamorous to smoke on the toilet.
** Metaphor Alert! Please do not attempt to schmear mortar on a bagel, or cream cheese on your cement board floor, or onions or smoked fish on top of any home improvement project.

Compressing my Sadness: Good-Bye to a Friend

This week at Projectophile, we bid farewell to an old friend – the “Toolshop” brand 2-in-1 Pneumatic Nail Gun and its adorable one-gallon air compressor – nicknamed “Pokie the Poodle” for her ability to penetrate the most stubborn blocks of wood and her obvious resemblance to a standard poodle, if poodles had very long red curly tails.
nail gun or poodle

So why the tearful goodbye?  You see, Pokie never really belonged to us in the conventional tool-ownership way.*

Our friend Tamra purchased adopted Pokie at a school-sponsored bazaar.  Before she ever used it herself, Tamra loaned us the shiny red-and-black nail gun so we could build a new subfloor for the Babushka half-bath. True to her characteristic generosity, Tamra made the loan open-ended, urging us to keep Pokie for as long as we could use her. She would only ask us to return Pokie when her services were needed at Tamra’s house.

And did we use it!**  In fact, I’m not sure that the sprawling Babushka Estate would be the shimmery palace of completed projects that it is without Pokie’s tireless nail-shooting.

Pokie saved me hours of manual nailing while building up our IKEA-dresser-turned-kitchen island:


And who could forget the hundreds of nails she shot into our Backyard Fence Project? Definitely not my right hand!  Here’s Pokie taking a break with all her power-tool buddies Twirly the Impact Driver and Screwy the Drill, as her human handlers look on.


Even the front of the house got a taste of Pokey’s powers! I’ll never forget how she sacrificed herself to make us a fresh new Porch Skirt:


Perhaps all these stories about “projects” and “home improvement” give you the impression that Pokie was just a tool to us; just an object that we pulled out of the box every so often to use for our own selfish reasons.

No, Pokie was a valued member of the family. 

She loved sharing family meals with us.  But we never added salt to her food due to her high air pressure:


On Sunday mornings she loved to kick back and read the New York Times. She always started with the “Sunday Styles” section.***


On nicer days, Pokie enjoyed sitting in the back yard with the Feral Cats, who never seemed as skittish around her, except when her compressor unexpectedly turned on:


Sometimes the kids could coax her off the patio furniture for a game of soccer, but Pokie grumbled that just because she didn’t have real legs, she ALWAYS had to play goalie:


Yes, the kids looked up to Pokie like a big sister, though it didn’t stop them from teasing her as much as a “real” sibling.  Pokie, watch out for that Whoopie Cushion!


We knew we’d have to give Pokie back some day, but didn’t expect it to happen so suddenly. We were devastated when Tamra – Pokie’s original Metal Mommmy – told us that she is moving her family to another Midwestern city, about 300 miles away, and Pokie was going with them. This new city happens to be the one where I grew up and where I still go frequently to visit family, and Tamra assured me that we could see Pokie on Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter for brief, supervised visits.

With a heavy heart, we packed Pokie into her protective box and delivered her back to Tamra for the long journey to the next state.


But when we got to Tamra’s house, she had left me a parting gift – a red-and-black “tool purse.”  How did she know I needed one of those?  I think I’ll name her in honor of my Irish grandparents: Mrs. Baggie O’Toole. 


I know that Mrs. O’Toole could never replace Pokey, but she will be a wonderful addition to our family. What section of the Sunday Times will she want to read first?

—— endnotes ——
* Nobody “owns” a power tool, such as you would never say that you “own” a child or a goldfish. We are temporary caregivers, preferring the term “Metal Mommy” to “owner.”
** That’s a rhetorical question in the form of an interjection.
*** Pokie is a big fan of Modern Love. But she is critical of the Times’ practice of listing the occupations of the brides’ and grooms’ parents in “Vows,” which we suspect triggers her class-consciousness. Her mother was a hammer and her father a bike pump.

Do-It-Yourself or Call a Pro? Use this Fun & Free Flow Chart to Decide!

This time last year, Scott and I decided to tear down the dying trees and melting garage in the overgrown Babushka Backyard.  Well-meaning friends and relatives offered advice, usually in an exaggerated Chicago South Side accent:*  Hey, uh… me and a coupla buddies can do dat for you no problem. All it’ll cost ya is a case of Old Style and a carton of Winston Lights.**

Doing a home improvement project yourself is a great way to both save money and feel better about having no marketable job skills. Most of us know that for highly specialized tasks like pediatric dentistry or political assassination, it’s best to hire a pro. But what about those grey areas, where maybe you COULD do it yourself – sort of – with the help of a YouTube video? How do you decide when to give in and call the handymanperson?

george clooney original hearthtrob handyman

George Clooney, the ORIGINAL droopy-eyed, flannel-wearing heart-throb handyman.

Personally, I struggle to make even minor decisions without the help of a flowchart, or “FLHART” for short. Here’s a few FLHART that I’ve developed to help me decide when to pick up my (neighbor’s) chop saw, or pick up the phone to call a pro.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, our water heater started spraying gallons of steaming hot water out of its T&P valve. The fact that I could identify the T&P valve suggested to me that I could fix it myself.  Was I delusional?*** Let the FLHART decide!
does this involve water_cropped

Like me, perhaps you’re a bit claustrophobic, and dream of “opening up” that pesky, old-fashioned wall between your kitchen and dining room. Nothing a few booze-fueled whacks with a sledgehammer can’t fix, eh? First, let’s consult the FLHART:

is this a load bearing wall

 Sometimes you have the know-how and YouTube videos to do the job yourself, but simply lack the specialized tools needed to dig that hole or weld that I-beam to professional standards. How do we proceed, FLHART?

do you need special tools

We did call the pros to tear down our garage, but it left a big dent in our social media presence. What kind of loser posts a picture of a total stranger driving heavy machinery through their back yard on Instagram?

does it require a bulldozer

When faced with a sticky life problem, I keep from asphyxiating on my own stress by asking the simple question, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” This usually helps me put things in perspective. Except when the answer is moving my family to the underside of a bridge, or having to wear pantyhose.

what's the worst that could happen

— « endnotes » —————
 * These suggestions were usually whispered into our ears, as if undercover agents from the Buildings Department had infiltrated my kid’s 4th birthday party looking for amateur tree cutters plotting to destroy a dying Blue Spruce without a permit.
** Due to the overhead electrical power lines and the high risk of death, we hired professionals to do the job.
*** Spoiler alert: Scott convinced me to call a plumber, wisely pointing out that the water heater was 25-years-old, and that we didn’t want to set a precedent of allowing barely working 25-year-olds to live in our basement.
****  I tried to go on a real date once when I was 21, and over dinner my date announced, “You’re not fat now, but I can tell by looking at you that you’ll be fat in a few years.” Instead of dating, I much prefer to develop irrational, all-consuming secret crushes on people I already know, and if I’m lucky, eventually marry them.

The Adult Bedroom Goes Beyond the Pale

Have I told you lately how much I –[BIG SIGH]– sacrifice for my children? The sleepless nights, the butt-wiping, the cooking,* the cleaning; the belly button that used to be vertical but is now stretched horizontal, thus ending my lucrative career as a hernia belt model:

hernia-beltAnd nowhere is this selfless martyrdom more evident than in the slow renovation of the Babushka House.  We’ve improved every room in the whole house, at least slightly. Except for one:


Yes, I intentionally messed up the bed before I took the “before” picture. But we really do have that many pillows.

The adults’ bedroom has not seen lick of progress since we moved in more than a year ago: Not one drop of paint has been smeared upon its dingy walls, its dreariness preserved in time, like it was forever 1974, when Babushka was at the height of her pale-pink, gold-flecked wallpapering powers.


As soon as we moved in, we started working on the teen bedroom, probably because of the ½-inch crack in the wall, or maybe because the ceiling resembled a Saltine cracker left in the bottom of my purse for six months.   Next, we painted the little ones’ room while they visited their Aunt and Uncle —when Scott and I should have been enjoying a romantic weekend of thrift store shopping and eating ice cream for dinner [SIGH].

Our bedroom was simply the easiest room to ignore, since it was the last place that visitors were likely to wander, the most “private” space in the house. Simply shut the door during parties, and nobody would see how decades of dust have drawn a permanent outline of Babushka’s bedroom furniture and religious icons:


In case you’ve ever wondered where Babushka put her dresser.

This is the last thing Scott and I glimpsed as we drifted to sleep at night, and the first thing we saw when we woke up in the morning:


Despite its dinginess, the wallpaper is in pretty good shape; any tears or droops that you see are the result of me peeling it back to see what’s underneath…. Layers and layers of Victorian-era wallpaper, warped plaster, and the prospect of multiple weekends spent sanding, patching, scraping and painting.  Let’s just put that right back, shall we?


As soon as the temperatures hit 50°F (30°C), I announced to Scott that Spring Painting Season had officially begun, and that painting the wallpaper was a perfectly acceptable way to exorcise the Ghost of Babushka from our bedroom.

Since I’m hopelessly indecisive about colors, I scratched the itch by slathering the whole room in a coat of white primer:


As I whitewashed a lifetime of dust and decay, my emotional response was visceral and sudden: Waves of blinding white joy and relief. And that’s when I decided: The Adult Bedroom Shall Be White.

I’ve always resisted white in my home decorating, equating it with the walls of hospital waiting rooms or cheap rental apartments. Then I remembered that white is not only the color of Institutional Complacency. White is fresh, clean, modern and minimal. It’s the color** of snow, of eggshells, of endless ropes of soft-serve vanilla ice cream at the Chinese Buffet up the street.

Forget the ice cream – my white would be pure, bright, shining white. The white of celebrity teeth, or a fresh pack of undershirts. The kind of white that could wash away the past of dead strangers and make this room feel like it belonged to ME!***

Sam and I headed to paint store, where we stared down dozens of flavors of white, all with equally unhelpful names: White Flour, Ice Cube, Choice Cream, Big Chill, Nuance.****


Sam learned that the hardest part of being an American is constantly having too many choices.

Finally I instructed the man at the counter to just give me the can of paint that you start with before you add other colors. They named it, without irony, “Extra White.”

After one layer of white paint on the walls and ceiling, I was ready to call it quits. I ran into my buddy Kevin at the school playground, who wisely advised,  “You’ll never regret a second coat of paint, but you might regret stopping at one.” He was right. On the way home from school, we bought another can of Extra White, and the next morning I went back to work.

That night, Scott and I pushed the furniture back to the wall and enjoyed low volatile organic compound-fueled dreams. The next morning, the view from the bed was much brighter:


For dramatic effect. I don’t normally sleep in my clothes, at least on weekdays.


It wouldn’t be the internet without a little “Before and After:”

adult bedroom before after

——— footnotes ———
* Note to friends who have recently been over for dinner: The butt-wiping and cooking are usually separated by a thorough hand washing by at least one of the parties involved.
** Okay, smartypants. I know that white is not actually a COLOR, but a mixture of the frequencies of all the colors of the visible spectrum, containing all wavelengths of visible light. When you get your own blog, you can find a catchy way to say that.
*** Technically, the room belongs to Chase Bank™ until the third quarter of 2045.
**** If I ever change careers and become a rapper, I will look to the paint chip section at Sherwin-Williams for my stage name.