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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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:

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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!

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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!
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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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?

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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:

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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.****

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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:

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

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

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——— 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.

So… Is that Cat Still in Your Wall?

Not a day goes by when someone doesn’t stop me on the street and ask, “Is that cat still in your rafters?”  Because that’s all you people care about anymore. Nobody asks how I’m feeling (pretty good, thanks); or if the kids swallowed anything interesting this week (a Lego™ C3PO® head); or even notices that I took a shower recently (yesterday afternoon, and I used conditioner). It’s always What about the Damn Cat in the Wall.

This ends now.

For those of you just tuning in: Our family adopted a pair of feral cats named Will and Mia Feral.  We* built them a little house under the back porch and feed them once a day. In exchange, Will and Mia roam the block, terrorizing the local rat community. Pretty straightforward quid pro quo, and everybody is happy (except the rats, who are too dead to be happy).

Then one chilly January afternoon, Mia Feral slipped into the basement door.  Feral cats are impossible to catch bare-handed, but we hoped that – like a party guest who’s overstayed her welcome – she’d eventually get bored enough to leave on her own.

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Turns out that wild animals aren’t so good at picking up on social cues.  However, they are good at finding secret portals into the rafters between your first and second floor and freaking you out at 2:00 a.m. with scratching noises from the floor and/or ceiling.

From then on we called her “Ceiling Cat,” based on a popular Internet Meme from six years ago that nobody but me and Scott seem to remember:

ceiling cat is watching you

For Display Purposes Only: What Mia Feral would be doing if we had drywall.

Scott tried catching Ceiling Cat with an old rabbit trap. Even though she triggered the trap door, Ceiling Cat managed to snatch the food and still slip back into her portal. For weeks, the empty trap lingered impotently in our front hall, reminding us of our cat-catching failure every time we stubbed our toes on the way to breakfast.

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Outsmarted again.

We entered into a period of Cat Detente, and even got used to her familiar scratching sounds at bedtime.  “Tomorrow,” I would promise Scott every night as we divided up the pillows** for sleeping, “I’ll get a proper cat trap.”

We cycled through month of tomorrows, until one February morning I discovered that an orderly, deliberate pile of cat shit had been deposited on my yoga mat.

This ends now. 

I raced to my computer to email Rob and Erica – our feral cat pros– asking to borrow a proper cat trap, like, NOW. By the end of the day, the trap had been delivered, along with some expert advice: Rotisserie Chicken is the Gold Standard for cat bait. Don’t even think about using baked, or fried, or grilled, or god-forbid, boiled chicken (is that even a thing?). It had to be Rotisserie Chicken, or “Rot-Chik” for short.

Since our family is relatively meat-ignorant, I wasn’t even sure where to procure a Rot-Chik. But at the school playground that afternoon, my always helpful pal Aileen casually mentioned that she was on her way to Costco*** and could sneak a Rot-Chik out for me.  Two hours later, Aileen arrived at my door like an angel, and handed me a steaming blister box of glistening poultry:

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The whole family gathered around to inhale the briny fumes and admire its greasy, seasoned flesh.  We tore off a few choice pieces for Ceiling Cat Bait, and then engaged in a vigorous debate about how to consume the rest.**** Before bed, Scott set the trap, covered it with a blanket, and went upstairs to haggle over pillows.

The next morning we raced to the basement to discover Ceiling Cat, casually lounging in the trap, the smell of the Rot-Chik on her breath and a “You Got Me!” expression on that sweet kitty face. The gig was up.

DSC_0075Scott carried the cage outside; the kids gave her a few between-the-bar pets before we flipped open the door.  At first she took a few timid steps out, then sprang back to life, sprinting around the yard, under the back gate and into the alley, where the rodent population might have been getting a little too comfortable.

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Just before posting this I saw Ceiling Cat and her brother in the back yard, enjoying the spring thaw. They rolled in the grass, played with a piece of rope and climbed around on the lawn chairs. Soon they will retire to the Cat Condo for an afternoon nap, and – like feral cats everywhere – dream of Rotisserie Chicken.

——— endnotes ———
* By “WE” I mean Scott. As with most successful partnerships, we have a pretty clear division of labor. He does pancakes and I do waffles. I do the cooking, shopping, laundry, accounting, painting, contractor supervision and external relations. He is in charge of cat and bike maintenance, takes out the trash, bathes the children, goes to a soul-less office every day, and fixes anything more than six feet off the ground.
**  Scott and I have approximately 18 pillows on the bed, and I’m honestly not sure where 16 of them came from. Nevertheless, we each have our favorites, and bicker over who gets the lumpy ones each night.
*** Costco is an American store where you have to pay money upfront to shop there. However, you can then buy palettes of toilet paper, gallons of hummus, barrels of decent vodka, and, occasionally, trampolines. Some restrictions may apply.
**** Chicken nachos, and then Chicken Pho and then a batch of chicken broth with the carcass. That’s a lot of good eating for $4.99.

Got a Bad Case of Ceiling Cheese? Ask Your Doctor if New Siding is Right for You.

Can I tell you something…personal? You promise you won’t tell anyone? I know, it’s nothing to be ashamed of, and plenty of people with Old Houses have this condition. But still, it’s hard to admit: We’ve got a bad case of CEILING CHEESE.  

Yes, right there, just above the bay windows in the front room. We knew about Ceiling Cheese last year when we bought the Babushka House. We replaced the roof, patched and painted over the Cheesy Patch and moved on to other projects.

Original Babushka-Era Ceiling Cheese

But then the Spring rains came, and the Cheese grew back. After a round of heavy storms, the Ceiling Cheese bubbled up into a rusty orange rash; more like a Pont-l’Évéque than a dry, aged Manchego:

DSC_0083 (2)Turns out it wasn’t the roof that was leaking, it was the World War II-era siding: a dreary gray “Insul-Brik™” asphalt sheet siding, applied over another layer of brown Insul-Brik™  asphalt siding, which was itself applied over the original clapboard during the height of the Ottoman Empire.

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This summer, our so-called siding absorbed so much moisture it sprouted mushrooms*:

Our contractor said that re-siding the whole house would cost more than a year of out-of-state college tuition at an accredited Midwestern University**, which we could not immediately afford. However, for the cost of a semester at the local community college, we could replace the siding JUST IN THE FRONT.  Fixing the front would not only plug the leak, it would ease the shame we feel every time a distant relative or old high school friend punches our address into Google street view*** and sees this:

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Google Street View, baby, we’ve changed. Can’t you give us another look?

The work crew arrived first thing Monday morning, when those of us with easy jobs enjoyed a day off.  The whole family huddled in our bedroom to watch the workers pound away.

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While we were excited by the prospect of a fresh face for the Babushka House, eight hours of incessant hammering on your little wood frame cottage feels like a Localized Zombie Apocalypse.  Because zombies really like banging – they certainly don’t know how to pick a lock or impersonate a Utility Worker to gain access to your house. Zombies are much more likely to climb up to the roof of your front porch and bang on your bedroom window, just like this gentleman:

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Since Zombies don’t use ladders or insulation, we can feel safe knowing these are really Siding Workers

As the afternoon wore on, we listened to the workers bang and bang, and occasionally shout at each other in Polish. I begged Scott to tell me what they were saying.**** Even though all his grandparents are from Poland, the only words Scott knows in Polish are Yes, Aunt, Butt, Sex, Cold Beer, Happy Birthday and something like “Go Home and Go to Bed,” which is an unforgivable insult in Poland, or at least on the South Side of Chicago.  Scott was able to confirm that the workers said “YES” several times. Which was mildly reassuring.

Two days later, the work was done!

Now when I invite friends (or pizza delivery drivers) over, I get to say: “Look for the blue house with the yellow door.”

And if those friends overstay their welcome, I say, “Itz da dumo spatzch!” Which I’m told is Polish for, “You smell like ceiling cheese.”

———— endnotes ————
* Cheese? Mushrooms? Wrap our house in puff pastry and you’ve got a delicious vol-au-vent!
** To my non-American readers: Here in the states, education and health care are not basic rights but commodities to be bought and sold, like corn or toilet paper.   Most of us would like to change this system, but right now we’re all busy eating peanut butter, which is very messy and time-consuming.
*** That’s right, I know all about your internet creepin.’
**** If you overhear people speaking in a language that you don’t understand, they are almost certainly saying bad things about you.

Surprise Your Valentine with a Recycled Halloween Candy Pie

Welcome to Projectophile! For first time visitors and those with life-threatening allergies, let me clarify: This is not a food blog. This is a safe space where we explore our feelings about garbage, haul it home, and then transform it into something relatively useful, and possibly even beautiful. We use the term “upcycle” a lot, even though I secretly hate that word.* Occasionally, our so-called upcycling involves food for human consumption.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, I want to give my family something sweet to enjoy. I’m also desperate for a way to lovingly recycle their old Halloween and Christmas candy before the tsunami of Valentine’s treats washes over our home.

I’ve always admired dishes that spin bits of old or unwanted food into a delicious new whole – Meatloaf, Omlettes, “Wilted” Salads, and of course, shimmery, gravity-defying aspic molds.

perfection salad

Somehow a Candy Meatloaf or Candy Omelette just didn’t feel right.  Then, I remembered that this past Fall we found ourselves knee-deep in surplus root vegetables. As winter approached, the root vegetables grew progressively uglier; some even grew defiant beards (I’m looking at you, celery root). The solution was to chop them up, sprinkle in some flour and salt, and bake all those creepy roots all into a flaky crust. Pot pie!

Could we use the Pot Pie Approach with Halloween Candy? I put the word out on the street that I was accepting slightly used Halloween, Hanukkah or Christmas candy for recycling. By the end of the week, three friends had dropped bags on my doorstep:

vertical candy bag collage

I Hoovered the internet for Candy Pot Pie ideas, sucking up inspiration as I went, masticating them with my mind, and eventually spitting out the following recipe:

PROJECTOPHILE’S RECYCLED LEFTOVER HALLOWEEEN/CHRISTMAS CANDY PIE with PRETZEL CRUST
to be served on Valentine’s Day

INGREDIENTS:
(metric measurements included for our international friends)
– 3 sacks of chocolate-based candy
– 2 cups finely crushed pretzel sticks (272 grams)
– ¼ cup packed brown sugar (55 grams)
– ¾ cup butter [stick and a half], melted (340.2 grams)
– 12 oz cream cheese (a box and a half), softened (340.2 grams)
– ½ cup granulated sugar (0.118 liters)
– ⅓ cup sour cream (78.447 milliliters)
– ⅓ cup creamy peanut butter** (78.447 milliliters)
– 2 eggs (1.97693 EuroEggs)
– ⅔ cup semisweet chocolate chips (50 grams? I don’t know, it doesn’t really matter at this point).
– 2 tablespoons whipping cream (29.58 milliliters)
– ¼ cup coarsely chopped lightly salted peanuts (a metric fistful)

First, grab the bags of candy that have been left on your porch and dump them onto the counter for decontamination, removing anything not chocolate-based, such as Skittles™, Laffy Taffy®, Blo-Pops©, etc. Your stash should now look like this:

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Heat oven to 350°F (176.667°C).  Spray a 9-inch (22.86 cm) glass pie plate with cooking spray.

To make the pretzel crust, empty a big bag of pretzels into a ziploc bag, throw the bag on the floor and step on it with your ugly House Clogs:
DSC_0008Quickly get bored with how long it takes to crush a bag of pretzels. Call your kids (and the neighbor kid who’s over) into the kitchen and tell them to step on it, too. If no baby feet are available, you may also use a food processor.

In medium bowl, mix pretzels, brown sugar and melted butter until they resemble gravelly sand, like you’d find at a Discount Beach Resort:

Firmly press the pretzel mixture onto the bottom, then up the side and onto rim of the pie plate.

Bake pretzel crust 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely on cooling rack, and reduce oven temperature to 325°F (162.778°C).

While crust is cooling, carefully choose and unwrap your candies. You may allow your children to participate in this step, with the understanding that watching you dispose of their old candy in this way may be the most difficult thing they’ve ever experienced in their short and easy lives:

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Next, chop the candies into roughly ¼-inch square (1.6129 square centimeters) pieces.

Arrange 1 cup (153.62 grams) of candy pieces in bottom of crust.  Then sneak into the bathroom and eat the remaining candy when nobody’s looking.

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In medium bowl, beat cream cheese and granulated sugar with electric mixer on medium speed until blended. Lick the beater. Add sour cream and peanut butter, beating on low speed until well blended. Lick the beater again. Add eggs, one at a time, beating just until blended.  Lick. The mixture should now resemble slightly yellowed spackling paste. Go ahead and stick your hand in it.  You’ll see.

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Note the baby hand stealing the Reese’s peanut butter cup in the bottom right corner

Spoon cream cheese mixture over candy until candy is fully submerged.

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Bake 35 to 40 minutes or until set, testing by sticking your index finger completely through to the bottom and licking several times, just to be sure. Cool completely. Cover and refrigerate 2 hours while you nap.

When cool, sprinkle the pie with peanuts and remaining candy pieces. You did save SOME of those candy pieces, didn’t you?

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Finally, microwave chocolate chips and whipping cream on high for 30 second intervals, stirring until melted and smooth. Drizzle chocolate sauce seductively over pie.

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Clearly, I need to practice the art of Seductive Chocolate Drizzling.

Cut slices very conservatively to avoid Sudden Diabetic Coma. Serve with insulin and sweatpants.

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Enjoy a tiny slice with your family after dinner because you’re such a dainty eater. Then, after everyone is asleep, eat the whole pie while standing in your pajamas with the refrigerator door open. You’ve earned it.***

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——— endnotes ———
* Other words I secretly hate: Webinar, staycation, synergy, diaphragm, and any statement that starts with the phrase, “You guys!
** My apologies to readers in Europe, Asia and Latin America if you can’t easily find peanut butter. Americans have a special pipe in their kitchen where peanut butter comes out, next to the one for corn syrup.  Africa, you’re good. Australia, I’m not really sure about your national peanut butter policy.
***  Nutrition Facts if you Eat the Whole Pie Yourself:
Calories: 6,500 (325% RECOMMENDED DAILY VALUE)
Fat: 432 Grams (664% RECOMMENDED DAILY VALUE)

Paw-anormal Activity: The Feral Cat in our Wall

Do you love ghost stories? A couple weeks ago, Scott and I dozed in bed, the house deliciously quiet. We sipped at sleep, savoring the surreal moments between levels of consciousness. Our little street, already quiet by Chicago standards, had been muffled by a cottony-soft snowfall.  The only sound in the house was the kids’ open-mouthed breathing, their rhythmic snores like timid waves crashing on the shores of a public (but minimally-polluted) beach.  And then….

KA-THUMP! We were evicted from our drowsy bliss — What the hell was that?  Doll-sized footsteps on the stairs, then a scratching noise, a little scramble, a bumpity-bump-bump and then… silence.  The sounds weren’t smashy enough for a break-in,  but way too loud to be the old house “settling.” Was it the ghost of Babushka, seeking revenge for the removal of her beloved orange-cream shag carpet?

NOPE!  Just the Feral Cat Living in Our Walls.

You may be wondering why we have a feral cat in the wall. If not, please sit quietly and read this celebrity magazine while I explain it to the others. Remember last summer when we gleefully tore down the ancient ruins of the Babushka garage? For decades, this garage served as the central transfer point for the Rat Subway System running just inches beneath our feet, its concrete foundation chewed down to a pile of dirt and rat turds.

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With the garage razed and the backyard freshly landscaped, our family dreamed of backyard BBQs, bonfires and other fire-based outdoor activities. But with their transportation infrastructure in ruins, the rats grew even more militant, blatantly ignoring the rat-human treaty requiring them to wait until sundown to scamper across our toes.

According to local experts,* it was scientifically impossible for our yard NOT to host a thriving rat civilization: the adjacent neighbor’s yard is a steaming buffet of dog poop, generously refreshed several times daily. Plus, we share an alley with a small grocery store and a Dunkin’ Donuts™, neither of whom practice good Dumpster Hygiene.

URBAN RAT DIET

Traps and poison seemed positively otiose in the face of the rats’ unlimited food sources. We had to fight nature with nature — that is, BIGGER AND SCARIER NATURE. 

Through some combination of local public television and neighborhood chatter** I learned about a program called “Cats at Work” Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR), operated by a devoted network of volunteers whom we’ll cat the Cat Herders. The Herders visited our yard and explained the responsibilities of a Feral Cat Colony Caretaker. Within a couple of weeks we had our own Feral Cat Colony!

— What’s a Feral Cat Colony? 

Feral cats are NOT stray or lost pets. Feral cats are born into the “wild” and are not accustomed to human contact; they are too fearful to be handled or adopted. Feral cats often live together in extended family groups, in shadowy places like abandoned buildings or garages, their lives a backdrop for your favorite Mad Max movie.

Our own kitties were discovered in an empty house a couple miles west of us, after the new owner bought it out of foreclosure. The Cat Herders trapped the cats, then spayed/neutered and vaccinated them. Remember that since these cats can’t be adopted, they needed a new Colony Home. And our back yard needed some predators.

The Cat Herders set up two large wire cages under our back porch, each containing a plastic storage tub lined with hay and insulation (for sleeping), plus food and water bowls and a litter box. In one cage, a large, grey, painfully timid kitty. In the second cage, “the twins,” a male and female pair of litter-mates.

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Yeah, yeah.  I know this looks like a scene from one of those super-sad Sarah McLaughlin ads.

For the first three weeks, our job was to feed the cats and clean their cages – at the same time each day – speaking to them in a soft and welcoming voice. We wanted them to think of our back yard as home, a safe space to eat, sleep and kill rats.

We promised each of our three children naming rights over one cat. However, when we finally opened the cage doors, the Big Grey Cat left and never came back, which isn’t uncommon in new Colonies. The twins slowly crept out to explore their new territory, and happily returned each night for dinner and some light eye contact. Our friend Caitlin gave us perfect names for the newest local celebrities: Will Feral and Mia Feral. 

— Where do Mia and Will Feral Sleep?

OK, here’s the UpCycling™ project that I’m contractually obligated to show in every post: Scott dragged out the old European steamer trunk*** that Babushka left in our basement, transforming it into a luxurious Cat Condo. He built two “floors” out of scrap wood, and cut small holes for egress and exit, following all local zoning rules regulating Cat Coziness. Cat Condo features two decks with great views of the backyard, plus an electric heating pad with just a touch of cat vomit for charm.

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We lined the inside with straw, the currency of coziness in the Cat Condo Community. The hinged lid provides easy access for cleaning. Cause maybe someday we’ll do that.

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Master bedroom, plus den, leads to a romantic lanai.

The whole housing complex is discretely hidden behind a sheet of corrugated plastic, providing additional protection from the elements:

MAP OF YARD

I’m not entirely certain what’s holding up our back porch.

— Do Will and Mia Feral Only Eat Rats? Gross. 

I don’t know what percentage of Mia and Will’s diet is rats, and frankly, you should never ask a lady that question. In fact, the cats don’t actually HAVE to MURDER any rats, they just have to prowl around, looking (and smelling) tough. It’s the IDEA of cats – the mere suggestion of cats – that keeps the rats away. In fact, the rats left our yard before the cats were even released from their cages.

Every day at dusk, Mia and Will Feral stand on the back steps waiting for their daily can of wet food. So even if they’re not hunting, Mia and Will get a full daily serving of goat lips, pig udders, horse nostrils, earthworm testicles, porcupine ears, and amino acids.

Nothing says, “I hope you survive the winter” like heated food and water bowls.

Recently, the kids did see one of the Ferals running in the yard with a rat in her mouth, trailing blood across the fresh white snow. I’m thrilled that the children are are learning an important lesson about the prey-predator relationship, which should serve them well should they choose a career in Corporate America.

— So, What’s Up with the Feral Cat in Your Wall? 

Right. One chilly day in early January, one of the cats (we’ll call her Mia Feral) slipped into the basement while I was putting my bike away.  We didn’t know she was in there until Scott pushed against a plastic tub of Legos… and IT PUSHED BACK.

Feral cats are impossible to catch with your bare hands.  We learned this the hard way after chasing her to the first floor, where she tore through our kitchen, broke the radio, scratched Scott’s arm and then tried to jump through a (closed) window. After that episode, we just left some food out for her in the basement and went to bed.

The next day we played CSI: Cat Scene Investigators in order to track Mia’s nocturnal wanderings. We sprinkled corn starch on the basement steps and around a food bowl in the front hall. The next morning we followed her tracks:

BEFORE AND AFTER

I’m not sure what this sleuthing proved, other than YES, she did sneak up the stairs at night, as evidenced by these faint white paw prints on the hall rug:

evidence

But where was she hiding all day?

A few days later, while sitting on the toilet of our first floor bathroom **** – which is just outside the basement stairs – I heard a scratching noise in the ceiling. Then I saw a furry tail poking out from under the paneling on the back of the basement stairs. I pulled my pants up, and peeked into that space where I saw the tail. Sure enough, by crawling up behind the stairs, Mia had discovered a tiny portal into the rafters between the first and second floor, where no human could possibly reach.

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How do we catch a ninja cat who can magically slip into other dimensions?

Soon enough, we’ll call the Cat Herders, borrow a proper cat trap, and send Mia back outside with her brother. Until then, she’s our own friendly ghost; an elusive creature with so many secrets; a ghost that we still have to feed and clean up after.

But that’s life with Feral Cats. Even though we’ve never held or petted them, or even maintained more than five sweet seconds of eye contact, we love Mia and Will Feral.  Like a celebrity crush, we love them from afar, catching little glimpses of them nibbling their dinner or slipping out from under the neighbor’s fence and scampering across our now blissfully rat-free yard.

————endnotes——————————
* Scott was an exterminator for nearly two years and thinks he knows a lot about pests. Next time you see him, ask him to tell you that story about the roaches in the drop ceiling at Portillo’s. You’ll never look at drop ceilings or soda fountains (or Scott) the same way again.
** Public television and neighborhood chatter are my primary sources of information on most topics, followed by pizza flyers and middle-school love notes I find on the ground.
*** If you’re one of those Antiques Roadshow types and know that old wooden trunk is worth thousands of dollars at auction, please just keep it to yourself.  Because now that trunk has some, ahem, “condition issues.”
**** I know I’m not the only one who experiences major discoveries while on the toilet.