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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

cat house

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:


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:


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:


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.


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.

* 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.

A Sweet-and-Sour Christmas Tree

We recently celebrated Scott’s 40th Birthday: A simple affair, really. His only request was that I make all his dreams come true. Or at least the dreams that can be bought or rented for a Saturday night in early November:

  • Four Hours of Dancing in a loft-like art gallery to a soundtrack of 90s electro/pop/hip-hop while Robotech was projected onto a west-facing wall.
  • A Keg of Old-Style™ and a 5 gallons of Whiskey Sours*
  • Ten platters of Egg Rolls, Crab Rangoon and Chicken Wings from the Chinese restaurant at the end of our block.

The party was quite a success, proven by the fact that nobody – including us – bothered to take pictures. Wait, here’s one:


Photo credit Megan Avery

As we quickly learned, it takes a village to throw a party. We had friends hauling kegs up two flights of stairs; older children babysitting younger children; neighbors setting up projectors on top of scary-tall ladders; Aunts and Uncles picking up Chinese food; Grandmas organizing appetizer trays.

Chaos was inevitable, as it should be. Post-party, it took us two weeks to fully excavate and classify the party artifacts.** That’s when I discovered a mysterious brown paper bag stuffed with dozens of ketchup*** and sweet-and-sour packets that the Chinese restaurant had shoved under the appetizer trays.

20151116_091429I detest any behavior that could be classified as “wasting food,”**** so instead of tossing them in the garbage, I hoarded the packets for several weeks. I even concocted a plan to sneak back into the Chinese Restaurant and secretly return the orphaned condiments to their original crates.

I thought, “There must be a way to use these things without actually eating them!”  The breakthrough came this past weekend, when our family put up our little Technical Christmas Tree.*****

As Scott and Max unpacked our “traditional” ornaments, I stared at the bare tree. Then back at the condiment packets. And then this little box of hooks I had just bought for a friend’s tree-decorating party:

20151213_171752The translucent sweet and sour packets – glowing green and gold under the low winter sun – would look so beautiful contrasted against the blue-white shimmer of our technical tree.

I pulled a push-pin out of the bottom of my shoe and carefully punched a tiny hole in the top of a sweet-n-sour packet:

20151213_172133Next, I threaded a hook through the hole and twisted the end shut:

20151213_174447I handed the hooked packet off to a small child to hang on the tree.



20151214_092911Repeat 28 more times:

20151213_173831As I poked more packets, I heard the crash of several delicate glass ornaments, smashed to pieces by a small child. In that moment, I knew that these soft, harmless condiments were not only glamorous, but safe for the whole family.

20151213_172919I had to work quickly, before the Family Christmas Tree Traditionalists figured out what I was up to. As of this writing, they’re still in the basement looking for extension cords:

* Anyone know the plural of whiskey sour? Whiskey Sours or Whiskeys Sour? Or, as your cousin on Facebook might say, Whiskey Sour’s.
** Partifacts! See, I’ve limited myself to only one portmanteau today. Portmanteauday! Damn, I did it again. Portman-Two-Day!  Ahhh… make it stop.
*** You read that right, non-Americans. Ketchup on an egg roll.
**** My children have inherited my disdain for wasting food, as evidenced by their proclivity for eating food off the sidewalk. Which also explains their award-winning immune systems.
***** I reject the label of “artificial” or “fake” to describe a Not-Previously-Alive Christmas Tree. I prefer the term used for Contemporary Activewear, which is called “Technical Fabric” and most definitely an improvement on the Rocky Balboa-style cotton sweatpants of the past. And in this metaphor, Rocky’s sweatpants are analogous to your “real” Christmas tree.

PowerPoint Presentation to My Husband About Buying New Kitchen Chairs

Hello, my Love. It’s so nice to see you again. You work so hard, it’s time to relax and sit down; … No, not in the kitchen – those chairs are too uncomfortable. Come to the living room and put your feet up.  Have I told you how good your feet look in socks? You could be a world-famous sock model.*

Ooh, oh, careful, my Darling! Mind that braid of cables under your feet! Don’t bump into that institutional-looking roller table, or the projector that I borrowed from the neighbor.

Why the projector? Oh, well, I thought tonight we could enjoy a little homemade media, if you know what I mean. WHAT!? Um…. no, that’s not a sex thing.  It’s actually… a PowerPoint Presentation.

No, wait, don’t leave! Sip on this Armenian Brandy and… hold on a second. So, the red light means it’s ON? Or it’s broken? Now it’s off? Maybe if I jiggle this cable. Where does this one go? It’s plugged in here, but then the end is just dangling…Well, for the love of Baldur,* who the hell designed this, WHAT THE F… Oh, Ok. Here we go.

Slide1Slide2Slide3Slide4Slide5Slide6Slide7Slide8Slide9Slide10Slide11Slide12Slide13SPOILER ALERT: HE SAID YES!
*  But not a nude foot model, because of that perma-corn. And toenails made of PVC.
** Baldur is the Norse god of beauty, innocence, peace, and rebirth. So, basically the opposite of PowerPoint.

What’s Under Your [Porch] Skirt?

In our last round of metaphor abuse, I proclaimed that the Front Door is the Smile of Your Home. If so, what does the bottom of the front porch represent? Perhaps an acne-covered chin, full of warts, with little hairs poking out.

Two minutes of Googling™ revealed that the area under the porch floor is actually called “skirting.”  Which has much more potential for salacious double entendre than, say, chin.

Loyal readers know that I’ve spent most of the last year agonizing about the front of our house, a condition I’ve self-diagnosed as the Google Street View Effect©.


Due to the presence of both tulips in the yard and a Christmas wreath on the door, I can’t quite tell when this picture was taken.

A couple months ago, I lost my patience with the rotting, peeling, pale blue lattice skirting  our porch.  I tugged at it a bit, the way that one casually tugs on a scab or a loose tooth or stray body hair, JUST TO SEE HOW EASILY IT MIGHT COME OFF.* And then, I pulled a little harder, until…. SNAP….the whole panel popped off in one satisfying yank.

And since the pulling-things-apart itch is hard to fully scratch, I yanked chunks off the “cosmetic” horizontal molding.

20151129_104549I could have stopped there and let our UnderPorch (you know, like MiddleEarth) breath freely. But now that I could stick my whole head in there, I saw that our UnderPorch was actually the capital of a very sophisticated Rat Civilization. And smelled like it, too.**

20151129_104446The Easy Cover-Up Plan was to simply nail new lattice across the support beams. However, we couldn’t seal off the UnderPorch since we still needed to disinfect the pee smell, insulate the exposed house walls and keep the area permanently accessible to our colony of feral cats (more on them another time).

The best part of wearing a skirt is taking it off. So I devised a system of removable screen frames that could provide both cosmetic screening and easy UnderPorch access.

STEP ONE — BUILD THE FRAMES:  Since they would be hanging from hooks, which are in turn hanging off a porch of dubious structural integrity, the skirting screens had to be extremely light.  We headed to the big box store and bought 1″x2″ pressure-treated boards, plus a 50-pack bundle of 4-foot lath.

20151127_111129Bulk lath is flimsy, scratchy, low-quality wood — the scraps after they cut up all the good wood. Where I come from, we call it the Lips & [slang term for anal openings] of the lumber world.

The first step in any woodworking project is to borrow your neighbor’s chopsaw, which spends most of its time at our house and is very confused about who its family is. I cut the lath down to size, gave them*** a light but firm sanding, and coated them on both sides with water sealer.


While the lath dried, I cut the 1″x2″ boards to size and screwed the ends together with 2½ deck screws, leftover from our fence project. One side of our porch is bigger than the other (ladies, you know the feeling), so for the bigger side I screwed an extra vertical beam in the middle to keep the lath from sagging with time (again with the body issues).


If you’re wondering why the photo resolution has taken a sudden, steep drop in quality, it’s because Sam dropped my camera in a bucket of soapy water and sawdust. From now on, these are all cell-phone pics.

I used a pneumatic nail gun to staple the lath to the frame.

20151129_113853Many of your cheap lath boards are sure to be stained or disfigured, so try to make the best of it. In the spirit of American Thanksgiving,**** I grouped the “dark meat” and the “white meat” together to give the whole wood platter a delicious sense of balance.

Finally, I screwed hooks onto the top of the frames.

20151201_100628STEP TWO — FIX THE PORCH:  With the hooks screwed in, we needed a place to screw the eyes, or as I call them, the “hook holes,” which makes a lot more sense than “eyes,” because repeatedly sticking a “hook” into an “eye” sends the wrong message to children.

We had already purchased an attractive 1″ x 6″ x 12″ board to replace the outermost “molding” on the front of the porch. However, when we fully pulled off the rotting molding, we discovered that the structural beam under that was also rotting!

20151129_105119AND THEN we discovered that the structural beam housed a colony of winged carpenter ants, which look a lot like termites. It’s unclear how this porch is still standing, but for sheer willpower.
20151129_115801Faced with an unexpected Russian Nesting Doll of rotten beams, Scott rushed off to the hardware store and brought home this bad boy:*****


The red flag tied to the back is a nice touch.

Clearly, this is not how we all planned to spend Sunday afternoon. Hey look, there’s Josh again, who always seems to wander over in the middle of a Home Improvement Crisis.

20151129_130017We poked and prodded til we found some solid wood to screw the beam into. And then screwed the outer beam on top of that. Looking better already!

20151201_080522Whew. The final step, positively facile in comparison, was to screw the corresponding hook holes into the outer beam.  I held my breath as I gently slid the hooks into their waiting holes, hoping that the plan actually worked:

20151201_102242Fresh from his nap, my precious 4-year-old camera-destroyer came out to pose for the “after” pictures:

20151202_09210020151202_092225Google Street View,™ please update your files!

*  As Scott can attest, since we’ve lived in the Babushka House, I’ve developed a particularly destructive habit  of pulling on various parts of the house, “just to see what happens.”
** The smell of rat droppings is similar to cat droppings. That is, if your cat lived on a diet of rotten donuts, cigarette butts and dog poo.
*** I just decided that the plural of lath is lath. Like deer or moose or fish. You know, all the recreationally hunted animals.
**** We recently hosted Canadian friends for Thanksgiving dinner and learned that Canada is a different country with its own proprietary Thanksgiving. So I developed the habit of saying “American Thanksgiving,” which both avoids confusion and makes me seem Sophisticated and Worldly. It’s fun to greet friends and family with “Happy American Thanksgiving!” or ask, “How was your American Thanksgiving dinner?”
***** Our marriage contract dictates that I must show you at least one photo of Scott’s Extreme Husbanding in each blog post.

Transform your Smile from Grey to Yellow

Sorry for the confusion! Despite numerous requests, we’re still not a Dental Hygiene blog. Yup, still just blabbering on about fixing up my spooky old house. Specifically, the SMILE of my house, which is the front door. Is your home’s smile bright, cheerful and welcoming? Or brittle, grey, cracked and scary?

Loyal readers know that I’ve never been happy with the “face” of the Babushka House. I’ve written several letters to Google requesting retakes for our StreetView™. It was captured in early December – peak season for bare trees and dead grass; the sun a burnt-out bulb flickering on for just a few hours a day…

3436-W-ParkerAfter this photo was taken (and seen by friends and family who wanted to know how much we paid for the house), I freshened things up by replacing the address plate and painting the mailbox bright yellow. The house now looked like people lived there again:

IMG_5976But still, so much GREY.  And then fall came and the plants died, and our home’s spooky grey smile frowned at every passerby, scowling, “Get off my lawn! Only melancholy and decay are welcome here!”

The  day after Halloween hit 75 degrees (F), sparking a home-improvement mania deep inside me. The clock was ticking on projects that required fresh air and the use of nasty, fumey, Hazards-Known-to-the-State-of-California chemicals like paint stripper. Projects like…. repainting the front door!

Open wide and let’s have a look. It’s not just that our door needed brightening, it needed a full-on root canal: Multiple layers of cracked, warped, chipping lead paint:

IMG_6591IMG_6584It all had to go, and it had to go now, before the sun died again.

STEP ONE – STRIPPING IN PUBLIC:  Remove the patient from its hinges and lay it flat on the operating table, in this case the picnic table that for some reason is still in our front yard.

Pour some stripper into a glass or metal container. Try not to place your jar of toxic stripper next to your jar of iced coffee, because as I always say, “Wrong Sips Remove Lips!”


… And definitely don’t put your jar down next to a bowl of tortilla chips!

Use a brush you don’t care about ruining to slather the stripper over a small area. Don’t be stingy – pour it on good AND thick (not just good OR thick). Then pour on some more. Let it marinate for 15 minutes, or whatever the can says.

And please don’t follow my fashion example – shorts are certainly NOT the best costume for stripping.  The resulting chemical burns on my legs reminded me of my first home perm.*  In fact, this whole process reminds me a lot of a home perm – just waiting around for nasty chemicals to help you meet the beauty standards of the day, be it curly hair or yellow doors:

seperated at birth

Separated at birth?

Just as I applied the first coat of stripper, my neighbor Rachel** and her baby stopped by with a plate of fresh-baked oatmeal cookies. We got to yapping, as ladies do, and suddenly 20 minutes had passed on my 15 minute-stripper.***  If stripped properly, the paint slides off the door like whipped cream off a lemon meringue pie. Instead, mine re-dried and turned rubbery and stubborn like a Skittle in your filling.  To prolong the stripper’s drying time, cover the stripping area with plastic wrap:


Then just slide a plastic scraper along the paint to remove layer after satisfying layer of grey sludge. Compulsive scab pickers and zit poppers will find this step to be incredibly satisfying. Look at how big this one is! It’s like, two feet long!!

IMG_6607PRO-TIP: If you find yourself stripping in your front yard, be prepared to accept unsolicited admiration, advice and criticism from dozens of passersby, almost all older men:***** A heat gun would work better on that!….Don’t get that stripper into your eyes!… Why don’t you just sand it off?….Ouch, that’s gonna HURT!

And of course the always-drunk guy on the next block who passed me no fewer than 5 times, giving strange, slurred advice at each visit, as if it were the first. “I know just whatchoo need for that… it’s like a thing.. like a triangle thing. Yes, it’s defelley shaped like a triangle….”

If anyone has information on the magic triangle-shaped thing, please let me know.

STEP TWO – SAND: As I patiently explained to the dozens of know-it-alls on the sidewalk,  I couldn’t remove the paint with a sander or heat gun because it is clearly LEADED.The only safe way to remove lead paint is by chemical stripping (no heat fumes or dust). However, after most of the paint has been stripped, you are now free to hit the big panels with an electric sander (medium-grit paper) and then go over the nooks and crannies by hand.

20151103_121743Suck up all the dust with a shop-vac, and then wipe everything down with a ball of steel wool saturated in paint thinner to “clean up” whatever cooties were left behind by the stripper.

(I really hope to never use that last phrase in a non-home improvement context.)

STEP THREE – PRIME:  Here at Projectophile, we always, always prime before we paint. In fact, I’m still taking suggestions for my pro-priming Public Service Announcement:  Beat the Grime if you Prime!It’s a Crime Not to Prime!When you Prime, the Results are Sublime!

I taped off the windows and hardware, gave it one coat of sticky, oil-based primer, then let it dry overnight.

20151103_165231STEP FOUR – PAINT:  Give your primed door a light sanding, paying special attention to those stray leaves and bugs that fell on your door when it was drying outside. Wipe down with a damp rag and let dry.

Because this door would be exposed to the elements, I chose oil-based paint, which may be upsetting to more sensitive readers. More importantly, I wanted to use the exact same paint as the mailbox, and that can was still half full!  That is, until I tried to open the can with an old chopstick, causing me to lose control and splatter yellow paint all over my neck, chest, arms, legs, floor, fridge, and stove. Who knew a paint thinner sponge bath could be so refreshing?!

20151103_135657I slinked back to the hardware store and instead of buying another medium can of paint, I bought two little ones. Perhaps they would be easier to control.

20151105_105830Pour one little can of paint in a disposable container, then stir in a couple tablespoons of Penetrol oil paint conditioner, which extends the drying time of the paint. Oil paint dries really fast, and is awfully judgmental. It leaves terrible brush marks as it dries, especially if, like me, you use a super cheap disposable brush made out of old wigs and possum hair. Think of it as covering your tracks.

In fact, oil paint is a such a diva that it dries both too fast AND too slow, requiring 24 hours of rest between coats. Be prepared to leave your door off, or open, for up to 48 hours.  If you do have to leave the house or go to sleep, be sure to scatter some broken toys and rusty tools in the yard, just in case someone thinks you have something worth stealing.

And then when you come home, you will be greeted by… a bright yellow smile!

20151106_08495420151106_085008  —————————————————
* I got my first home perm around the same time as I was “taught” how to put on pantyhose.
** Not to be confused with my other neighbor Rachel who gave me the idea for the white shag rug. Though I’m sure she also makes wonderful cookies.
*** 15-minute stripper also works for a Bachelor Party on a Budget. Or in a hurry.
**** As women who dabble in home improvement already know, older gentleman need to explain things to us. Last week at the hardware store, one of their species tried to convince me that I was buying the wrong toilet plunger.  And here I though that managing and containing human defecation was women’s work!

The Fence that Broke All the Rules (and maybe a couple of building codes)

First, a tearful confession: Remember this summer when we tore down the Babushka garage like it was the Berlin Wall? Remember how Scott and I were such big heroes for bravely destroying that ugly monument to Car Culture, reclaiming green space for Mother Earth and our children’s future, blah blah blah?

The Truth:  If we had a spare $13,000 we would have just paid somebody to build us a new garage. Since we didn’t have $13,000,  we simply tore the garage down and pretended like it was the original idea that it had nothing to do with being broke.

To our delight, we realized NOT having a garage was pretty amazing. I don’t normally advise living paycheck-to-paycheck, but we couldn’t have been happier with the results.

The thrill of that decision wore off quickly: We nearly doubled the size of our back yard, but we still couldn’t enjoy it due to clusters of poisonous weeds, rusty nails, rat burrows, concrete and miles of old pantyhose.*  We also discovered the pit where Santa buries the presents of naughty boys and girls:

We hired a crew to exfoliate the toxic layer of debris, and lay down some grass seed and mulch. Definitely an improvement, but with the garage missing, our back yard was still a fresh wound exposed to the alley.  It now attracted litter like a magnet in a paper clip factory:  Empty doughnut boxes, beer cans, chip bags. After discovering the third pile of unidentified feces (the evidence suggests an alcoholic dog), we got some quotes from “professionals” to build us a new fence.

The bad news? The lowest quote was $1,500 and we didn’t HAVE $1,500 to spend. The good news? We had just enough money to buy some wood and build the fence ourselves. “The real bad news,” replied Scott, the resident Home Improvement Realist, “is that we don’t know HOW to build a fence.”

We sat quietly for a minute and thought about that poopy, trespassing alcoholic dog. It was time to learn a new skill. It’s just a fence, we told ourselves, nobody will die if we screw it up.

«« WARNING! »» This is not a technical tutorial on fence-building; we completely made this up as we went along. If you want to build a fence, I’ve gone to the trouble of watching nearly half an hour of YouTube videos about fence-building, and this was the best. Tell me if you think this approachable yet ruggedly handsome everyman with the radio voice is an actual handy man or just an actor:

Another, less urgent, warning: Most of these videos are set on pristine suburban lawns with acres of virgin grass and soil. We were dealing with a Chicago city lot: Our east property line is a brick wall, our west line is a crumbling concrete parking pad. Our yard – even three feet down – is infested with concrete and debris (and subterranean pantyhose) dating back to the Harrison administration. Yes, this  guy was president when our house was built. And no, I’ve never heard of him, either:

SUGGESTED TOOLS: 4-foot level, string level, post level, power drill, impact driver, chop saw, nail gun, post-hole digger, two-person auger, shovel, iron rebar spike. Note that almost all these items were borrowed from friends and neighbors. If you don’t have friends and neighbors, then hopefully you have a lot more money than we do.

STEP ONE — MEASURE:  Mark the area that needs a fence with a bright orange string, because bright orange is the Official Color of Construction and Safety. Determine where the posts will go based on the length of your panels (pre-made picket panels are usually 8 feet wide). Remember to factor the thickness of your posts into the equation. For example, our posts were 6 inches thick, so we measured from the center of the post, at 3 inches. You’ll also have to figure out where the gate will stand, and sort of work your way out from there. If you have access to one, I recommend getting a high school freshman to do the math, cause all that algebra and geometry is still fresh in his head.

20150920_143611Either way, you will screw up the measurements at least once.

STEP TWO — ERECTING FENCE POSTS: This is the worst part of the entire project, or at least the dirtiest and back-breakingy-est. Dig the post hole three times wider than the the post – 18 inches for our monster 6-inch posts – and (I’m totally making this part up) 1/3 as deep as your fence posts (about 2 ½ feet for an 8-foot post). We started with a shovel, then moved on to a post-hole digger:

The post hole digger was giving up a teaspoonful of dirt at a time; its delicate petals helpless against solid debris. When it hit concrete, I just went crazy on that hole with an iron rebar spike. You have no idea how emotionally satisfying this was:

fence collage1You can leave the pantyhose intact; it won’t affect the stability of your fence.

The second day of digging, we rented a power auger** from the big box store. We imagined that the ground was a Giant Bottle of Wine that only we could open with our magical Giant Cork Screw, and that any minute we would hit pay-dirt and Spanish tempranillo would squirt 6 feet into the air. Back in reality, the auger was useless the second it hit a chunk of concrete; then it was back to Neolithic times with the iron spike.

Whew. This would be a good time to take a break and walk the kids to the park. Oh look, there’s your friend Josh with his kid. Tell Josh about the dirty, backbreaking work you have planned for that afternoon. Coincidentally, Josh is looking for something to do that day, preferably something that builds upper-body muscles. An hour later, Josh shows up in your back yard with a six-pack of Old Style. Josh, someday you’ll learn that WE’RE the ones who are supposed to buy YOU the beer.

josh and joshs beerWith all this help, the holes practically dig themselves. Set the first post in its hole and check for levelness (levelity? levelation?) with a post level. Pour a bag of quick-set dry concrete into the hole, and then pour a gallon of water over that, and mix it up with a stick (not your Good Stick). Check to make sure your keys, wallet and phone are accounted for, because that stuff sets quick. Or as the bag says, “QUIK!” Repeat with all the other posts, obviously.

20150920_153229STEP THREE — BUILD THE SKELETON:  We didn’t want to screw the rails directly into the posts, like savages.  Scott chose a more gentlemanly approach, installing brackets on the inside of the posts, near the top and bottom of where the pickets would hang, and then tenderly slipped 2x4s into the brackets.

For extra stability, we then screwed one 2×4 to the horizontal rails between each post. This is to prevent the final pickets from sagging in the middle or becoming warped over time, as we all tend to do.

20151004_115938With the skeleton complete, the finish line was in sight! Now, according to the Handsome Man on the Internet, all we had to do was grab some pre-assembled fence panels from the hardware store, screw them on, and within hours we would have a fence just like everybody else’s.

STOP RIGHT THERE.  You are now free to do WHATEVER THE HECK YOU WANT with the rest of the fence.  At this point it’s just decoration; You could make the “skin” of your fence out of peacock feathers or mastodon bones or baby socks or macramé or 3½-inch floppy disks or even pantyhose.***

Perhaps you’ll come home from a funeral and casually pick up the fence brochure that one of the contractors left. You contemplate the Conventionally Beautiful Blonde American Family, and their Photoshopped Blonde Dog and realize through your tears that life is too short for ugly fences.


Also, why don’t they have feet?

Later, you go for a walk around your neighborhood, and in a surge of fresh air it hits you: YOUR PICKETS SHALL BE HORIZONTAL.  In the algebra of your aesthetics, Horizontal = Sleek + Modern + (A Little Bit Sexy).

You barrage your husband with more YouTube videos until he agrees. You spend a rare child-less Date Night at Menard’s ordering wood. Sure, it’s more expensive than the pre-made vertical panels, but what could be more romantic than a husband submitting to all his wife’s aesthetic desires, and then going out for ice cream? (don’t answer that).

Once the wood is delivered, you may have a second revelation: Unlike your TOTALLY CONVENTIONAL neighbors, who have obviously given up on being fun or interesting, you are going to hang the panels on the inside of the fence, leaving the skeleton exposed to the alley. You don’t wear your clothes inside out, or serve pancakes with the burnt, pockmarked side up, do you? NO. You want to see the finished side. The good-looking side.

STEP FOUR — HANG THE PANELS: Simply place the first panel over the bottom rail, level it, and shoot some nails into the posts and middle rail with your nail gun. Keep adding panels until you reach the top.  What a great father-son bonding activity!

IMG_6353Repeat the whole process on the next section, but check to make sure that the panels on adjacent sections are are always lined up. The goal is to create one continuous horizontal line across the entire width of the fence.


Just making sure that the neighborhood creeps can still peek over the top…

Once all the panels are nailed in place, drill pilot holes wherever the panel meets a post or a middle support rail. Then go back and insert a deck screw into each pilot hole with your impact driver. Our fence required 324 pilot holes, and then 324 screws. That’s 648 individual screwing events, most of them done by me.

IMG_6362Even though the little ones aren’t much help, they can have hours of fun playing with scrap wood. Be sure to unplug the chop saw and other power tools first!

IMG_6372STEP FIVE — BUILDING THE GATE:  Go to the hardware store and buy a gate kit – it includes brackets and hinges – and four 2x4s. Follow the directions and build the gate frame, hang it on a post, then fill it in with the same panels you used for the fence.

IMG_6399Now bitten by the “unconventional fence” bug, Scott had the brilliant idea to extend the panels past the outer edge of the gate frame to achieve that seamless, “gate-free” look that every man dreams of:

IMG_6441When our 15-year-old saw the final result (he was 14 when we started this project), he said, “Wow, it looks like a solid wall – no way in and no way out.” Yeah, something like that.

IMG_6451IMG_6480And since it wouldn’t be the Internet without a proper “before-and-after,” let’s take a look at three months of progress in the Babushka yard:


*  For those of you too young to remember, pantyhose are a special nylon or polyester casing for women’s legs designed by evil men to invoke itching, sweating, and an overwhelming need to overthrow the patriarchy. Kids, if you encounter a pair of pantyhose, quickly leave the room and tell an adult.
** The tool rental catalog calls it a “one-man auger,” since you can also rent a “two-man auger.” However, when arriving at the rental counter, Scott inflicted a major blow against sexism by loudly requesting a “one-PERSON auger.”
*** I hope none of you are under the impression that this fence is keeping bad guys out. I’ve jumped higher fences while 6 months pregnant (hint: you climb on top of a trash can first).  Also, bad guys can just walk into our front door, at which point they will trip over some toddler shoes, become impaled on an action figure and run away screaming.

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

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

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


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

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

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


This would look so good over my living room couch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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