From Crack Den to Dreamy Tent Lounge: A Teen Room Transformation

Here at the Babushka House, we’ve entered that sweet spot of settling in, where our home is now supporting basic life functions. Like the successful colonization of a distant planet – we’ve got oxygen, (grounded) electricity, heat, water, food and the ability to cook it. We can take a hot shower and and use the toilet without fear of falling through the floor. Scott and I are now quite confident in our family’s chances for survival in this strange landscape of gold-flecked wallpaper and off-pink bathrooms.

And just when it seemed safe to start the long climb up Maslow’s Hierarchy of (Domestic) Needs, to start dreaming of art and bookshelves… we got an expensive surprise.

You may recall from our first house tour that the future bedroom of Max (age 14) had an unsettling bulge in the wallpaper:

IMG_5139Like some kind of mutant plaster monster about to be born: IMG_5138At first we ignored it, blamed it on faulty glue or obese wrestling spiders. We let Max pull down all the wallpaper, to reveal two or three additional, very ancient, layers of paper and glue:


IMG_5491You can even see the ghost of a playful flower pattern seared into the plaster:

IMG_5494Don’t worry, we told Max, it’s nothing that a weekend of scraping, patching, and priming couldn’t fix. We instructed him to start picking paint colors.

But then on the first rainy day, our worst fears came dribbling down the wall – a leaky roof – so old that it needs to be completely torn off and replaced.  And worst of all, the work couldn’t start until Spring.  There was no sense in repairing that wall before the roof was sealed.  So, after making such a big deal of Max FINALLY getting his own room, this is where he slept:


The stuffed puppy makes this scene extra sad.

Before you call Child Protective Services on us, know that it was perfectly safe. Just painfully ugly. Max, never one to complain, joked that it was fun… “like sleeping in a crack house from the 1990s.”*  Ooof.

But here at Projectophile, we never let rotting infrastructure get in the way of style. My original idea was to create an exotic opium den, with colorful sheets of alternating, dizzying patterns, maybe a few velvety pillows tossed haphazardly on the floor. Upon further reflection, I realized that opium den is just an romantic phrase for crack house, and perhaps not appropriate for a young man on the cusp of adolescence. Using crisp white sheets, I devised a cheap and fun way to  to transform Max’s room from Crumbling Crack Den to Airy Bedouin Tent Lounge.

• Flat White Bed Sheets (or a different color, if you’re feeling frisky)
• Staple Gun
• Ladder
• Scissors
• Two-Armed Helper

STEP ONE – SCAVENGE THE FABRIC: Technically, you don’t have to use bedsheets. But you do need yards and yards of fabric. And unless you’ve got a Jo-Ann Fabrics coupon for 97% off, head to the bedding section at your favorite neighborhood thrift store – preferably one where items are least likely to be pockmarked with cigarette burns or… ahem… protein stains.

IMG_5483Grab as many flat white sheets as you can find… the thicker the better. If possible, examine them for stains before you leave. Most of mine were marked as either $1 or $2 a sheet, plus everything with an orange tag was 50% off.

First, pull off the thrift store tags and staples. You don’t want anyone to know your secret.

IMG_5572(OPTIONAL STEP 1.2):  If you’re not entirely comfortable with the smell of your thrifted sheets, by all means throw them in the wash. I skipped this step because: 1) my store washes everything first, and 2) we still have no dryer.

(OPTIONAL STEP 1.3): Iron the sheets. I also skipped this step because 1) I’m not sure where my iron is, and 2) I’m lazy. But it would probably look much nicer if I did.

STEP 2 – HANG THE WALLS: Like any project, we start with the easiest step. Find a boring, flat wall. Start at the bottom: hold the sheet so that the bottom edge of the fabric meets the top of the baseboards.


You gotta love a man who’s got a staple gun on his belt and a staple remover on his t-shirt. And giant rubber boots, for some reason.

Shoot a staple in about every 3 feet. We found it easier to staple the bottom, then pull the sheet up and staple the top. Don’t worry about getting all the way to the ceiling in this step. But if you found some king-sized sheets, go as far up the ceiling as you can:

IMG_5501You could probably do this project solo, but I highly recommend a duet: One to hang and one to staple. And a small child to take blurry photos of it all:

IMG_5522Continue until all the vertical walls are covered. And of course, be sure to cut and staple around outlets and vents.

PRO-TIP!!  Unless your name is Minnie Pearl, cut the tags and washing instructions off the sheets before you hang them:

IMG_5546STEP 3 – HANG THE CEILING:  This is the step that, if done correctly, will transform your space from a refugee camp into dreamlike, billowy marshmallow.  Starting in the middle of the room, staple the end of one sheet to the wall, a few inches below the ceiling. Drape the sheet across to the parallel wall and staple on the other side.


For an extreme tent-like feel, you could leave the entire sheet drooping across the middle of the room. However, we found that stapling the top sheet to the ceiling every five feet still made the room feel like the underside of a cumulus during a high-pressure system, while still being able to open the door.

IMG_5605You may also have a ceiling-mounted light fixture to deal with, and I strongly suggest that you drape the sheets over the fixture for great light diffusion – like a full moon on an overcast Spring night, or a smoggy sunrise in L.A.  Ours was particularly tricky because of an old string pull.  After we secured the sheet, I snipped a tiny hole for the string to fall through:

IMG_5566IMG_5603We surprised Max with his new room last night. Despite all my globally-inspired metaphors, he declared his room transformed simply from “Crack Den to Modern Loft.” I’ll take it.

IMG_5580IMG_5575IMG_5609View from lying down:

IMG_5597Baby brother photo bomb!


* I’m not sure how a kid born in 2000 knows so much about 1990s crack houses, so as usual, I blame the Internet.

If Washing Machine Settings Reflected my Lifestyle

The three weeks we’ve lived in the Babushka House have felt a bit like camping. For most of that time, we’ve had no working living room, dining room or downstairs bathroom. One of the bedrooms is leaking, and the kitchen has zero counter space.

Worst of all, we have no dryer.

In fact, the Babushka House has NEVER had a dryer. Our plumber just ran a new gas line to the laundry area and drilled a hole in the side of our house for a vent. Good thing our house is constructed of cardboard and tar paper, or he might have had a harder time:


Yes, that is load-bearing tar paper.

We do have a 20-year-old washing machine in the basement, and Babushka kindly left the instruction manual and unsent product registration card:


“Being an early 1990s housewife is a breeze when I delegate chores to my identical septuplets”

I’m temped to send in the registration card, but not sure which activity best describes my lifestyle. Why must I choose between Moneymaking Opportunities, Listening to Records/Tapes/CDs, or Cruise Ship Vacations?

IMG_5412Technically, the washer still works. I’m not sure it actually cleans our clothes, but it definitely gets them wet. Which means they also have to get dry. Somehow.

IMG_5398Hopefully, this will be the first and last time I post pictures of my family’s underwear on the internet.  This laundry shot is a touch classier:

IMG_5400Doing laundry without a dryer (in the winter) has become such a pain that I’ve found it easier to wear the same clothes every day.* There’s nothing like letting your clothes dry to a crispy, paperlike texture in a dank, musty basement to make you appreciate the luxury of modern laundry appliances.

This weekend, I finally got online to research new machines. Never having bought a washer or dryer before, I wasn’t sure what to look for.  Something that wouldn’t cost too much money or set my house on fire?  What I found was a dizzying array of trademarked features dreamed up by a nitrous-huffing marketing department, including:

  • Supercharged Steam Cleaning
  • TurboWash™
  • FreshCare™
  • Advanced Moisture Sensing
  • The Refresh cycle with Steam
  • Detergent Assistant
  • Quiet Spin 360 technology
  • 6th Sense Live™ Technology
  • Smart Nudges
  • Precision Dispense
  • 14 Adaptive Wash Actions
  • 12-Hour FanFresh® Option With Dynamic Venting Technology®
  • Active Spray Technology
  • Power Foam Active Bloom™ Wash Action

A half hour into my search, my phone rang.  A friend was calling to ask if I had returned her lice shampoo that she loaned me last year (I had).  Panic! Our children are close friends and spend a great deal of time hugging, and presumably, rubbing their heads together.

I hung up the phone, pulled out the clippers and buzzed my youngest child (the least likely to sit still for lice treatments) nearly bald. This would also be a good time to wash and dry the kids’ sheets on a VERY hot setting.

If only I had a new washer and dryer! But how do I know if any of those Newfangled Gimmicky Settings™ would have killed lice and their eggs? Maybe I’ll send a polite letter to the Laundry Machine Designers with some ideas of my own:


– Extra Gentle on torn right pant cuffs
– Tough on Chain grease and Street sludge splatters

KOOTIE KILLER©, for lovers of not-so-new clothes:
– Level 1: Hand-Me-Downs
Level 2: Yard Sale Finds
Level 3: Thrift Store Treasures
Level 4: Scavenger Level for Alley and Dumpster Fashions

– Cloth Diaper Poo-Eraser®, with separate settings for Newborn Poo, Toddler Poo, and Diapers That Have Been Sitting in a Wet Pile for So Long They’ve Turned to Ammonia.
– BabyVomitSensor™ adjusts cleaning power for either milk-based or solid-food-based throw-up, so you never have to guess.

PRESCHOOL PURIFIER for parents of small children:
With TWO mucus settings!
– Snot Scrubber© and Dried-On Booger Chiseling Technology
– Peanut Butter Banisher
– Glue-B-Gone Arts & Craft StainSensor™

– PocketScanner® checks for candy wrappers, chip bags, pencils, earbuds and wads of gum (sends an alert to parent if condoms, cigarettes, love notes or rated R movie ticket stubs are detected).
– High-Power Hoodie Purifier with extra long dry time
– Tough on Towels™ that have been sitting in a wet ball on the floor for a week. Again.

– Sensors automatically adjust for Old Incontinent Cat Pee and Angry Territorial Cat Pee
– Sorry, I don’t know anything about dogs, but I hear they’re pretty stinky.

Now with three separate settings:
1) Head lice
2) Pinworms
3) Bed bugs (includes can of gasoline and matches)


* Whom am I fooling? I do that anyway. PRO-TIP! Wool socks never get smelly.

Your Refrigerator: The Silent Happiness Killer

Please, sit down. Take a sip of room-temperature water. How’s your blood pressure these days? I don’t want to induce panic, but I’ve identified a silent killer in your kitchen. A SPACE killer. A happiness killer. Every year this killer grows a little bigger, morphing and metastasizing, stealthily colonizing more territory in your kitchen, sucking up more energy, growing fat on the American propensity for frozen dinners, warehouse-club shopping, and produce from other continents.

This (space) killer is your refrigerator.  It’s just too darn big.

In fact, Projectophile’s scientific team found a direct correlation between the size of the average American refrigerator and the average American coffin: coffins v fridgeI’ve always had a hostile relationship with the refrigerators in my life. As a child, one-pound bricks of frozen hamburger meat would topple onto my head every time I peeked into our family’s over-stuffed freezer.*  That appliance never once apologized.

Perhaps as a result, I’ve spent my entire adult life picking fights with refrigerators. Poor Scott has endured my grudge with refrigerators for more than a decade. The first time I brought him back to my apartment (circa 2004), he noticed that I had pushed the refrigerator into the pantry. Lucky for me (and our future children), major appliance shuffling wasn’t enough to scare him away.

In the first apartment Scott and I shared,** I was so frustrated with the fridge blocking the flow of my tiny kitchen (you could touch both walls with your arms spread), we moved the fridge into the dining room. Here’s the kitchen, with fridge intact.


Scott insists that this picture makes him look fat,  maybe cause he’s drinking cake batter out of a mixer bowl.

When we bought our condo in 2005, the fridge was a giant Black Hole, blocking a window, and sucking all the light energy out of the room: IMG_5315I refuse to choose between cold food and sunlight, so we pushed the fridge into a distant, lonely corner of the kitchen. Our last rental apartment (where this blog was born), the fridge was again the size of a small bus, its girth and awkward placement causing us again to be deprived of an eat-in kitchen. I hate to think of the hundreds of miles I’ve cumulatively walked to deliver food all the way to the dining room. Picture 037 This ivory beast would stand there, half-empty, mocking us with its largeness.  Not long after we moved there, the little ones (aged 2 and 8 months in this picture) found a way in and decided to take inventory: Picture 434Before we moved into the Babushka House, I decided to take my life back from these overgrown, tetrafluoroethane-fueled bullies.  The original Babushka had her old fridge (now gone) in the back corner of the kitchen, blocking a window to the back yard.  Here’s an aerial view of the Babushka kitchen when we bought it: IMG_5215So, instead of blocking a window, I decided to squeeze a fridge next to the stove, without blocking the entrance to the front hall: 08707241_5_0-001The problem is, the fridge would have to be TINY – by today’s portly fridge standards – not to block the hallway.  On the advice of a friend whose brother is a slum landlord, we hit up a store that specializes in “urban” appliances: cheap, used, and (most importantly) small.

The Hobbit*** Fridge was delivered exactly an hour before we moved. Happily, I was able to pack everything from our previous (massive) fridge into this one, with room to spare! IMG_5252The only thing I had to sacrifice was my gas tank full of soy sauce, which the children determined to be too large for the Hobbit Fridge: IMG_5244Here’s the east wall of our kitchen today: IMG_5279-001To give you a sense of scale, here’s me posing with the Hobbit Fridge. Scott says I could be a refrigerator model.  I think that’s a compliment. IMG_5285And the best (actually worst) part is the easy access for the Hobbits! Let’s just hope he doesn’t find Mommy’s fancy cheese. IMG_5251On second thought, I think my Refrigerator Modelling career may have to wait, at least until these two retire (where IS all that wind coming from?): refrigerator model

* One-pound of hamburger meat was the foundation for nearly every weeknight meal in 1980s Midwest America: Taco Night, Spaghetti Night, Meatloaf Night, Hamburger Helper Night, Raw Hamburger Meat Night.
** “Shared,” as in, I paid the rent and he slept there 6.5 nights a week.
*** Hobbits are know for their small size and habit of eating constantly, much like my children.

We Bought a “Before!”

Buying an Old House is a lot like having a new baby. There’s the anticipation leading up to the due (closing) date, the last-minute, dark fantasies about everything that could go wrong during delivery (closing). As you prepare for delivery (closing), your water (hose) breaks, soaking your lucky outfit.*

After a few hours of panting, sweating and paper-signing in a drab, windowless room, you own a 120-Year-Old House! Euphoria fades as panic sets in — “But I don’t know anything about taking care of an Old House. Why would anyone trust me with this thing?” And the stark realization that you are now fully responsible for this Old House, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the next 20 years, or more. “I don’t even know how furnaces work!” You cry. But it’s too late.


No, you’re right. It’s totally haunted.

Friends and family arrive to meet the Old House, bring tools or flower bulbs; the experienced Old House owners bubble over with advice, sharing horror stories of when they got their first Old House: the tears, sleepless nights, the asbestos and mildew.  And suddenly, you’re all alone with your Old House; it’s floorboards creaking under your feet, ceilings sagging under the weight of musty, water-damaged joists.

Dear God (or Bob Vila), what have we gotten ourselves into?

This is by far the biggest project that we’ve undertaken here at Projectophile. And unlike all those old alley chairs, we actually have to live inside this one. It’s not a DIY blog without “before” pictures, so let’s start the tour:


Inside front entryway. Not bad. But come on, only 3 locks on the door? What if, someday, we have something worth stealing?

IMG_5093Let’s head upstairs first… it’s way less terrifying up there.

08707241_6_0Filthy purple carpet? No problem. Let me just pull it right up…

IMG_5147More carpet! Well, surely there’s nothing else under there.

IMG_5194These stairs are the Russian Nesting Dolls of floor covering.  Let’s check out the upstairs hallway. Hey look, more musty carpet, this time in Smurf Blue.

IMG_5172Excuse me while I just pull this up, cause there couldn’t possibly be another rug under here:

IMG_5174Now just a bare floor and a pile of black crud.

IMG_5175This will be the Junior suite, bedroom to the 5 and 3-year-old:

IMG_5211The 14-year-old gets a room of his own. Well, after we figure out why the wall is falling off:

IMG_5139Finally, we come to the Swingers’ Lounge. I mean, adult bedroom:

IMG_5144Over on this wall is where the bed’s gonna go. Scott and I can’t wait to break the seal in this… Uhh… Eww. Never mind. Sorry, Jesus.

IMG_5142The family bladders are relieved to know that the bathroom is no more than two steps from any bedroom!  But beware – sickly pinkish beige lurks on every surface. The color scheme inspired by expired salmon, or Pepto Bismol mixed with chocolate milk.

IMG_5129IMG_5134If your depth perception is compromised by the level of monochromicity, let’s head downstairs to the half-bath, or Powder Room (for delicate ladies like me who excrete baby powder instead of feces).

IMG_5204Pretty cute, huh? And almost big enough to turn around in! And what’s this down here? Oh, nothing to worry about. Just the toilet falling through the floor.  Hold on to the towel racks and you should be fine.

IMG_5207Next, we’ll cross the water wall into the Babushka Kitchen:

IMG_5216I feel like something’s missing here. Oh yes, a refrigerator. And counter space.
But the stove still works!

IMG_4811Babushka even left us the original user’s manual! Mothers with youngsters? Women with Regular Daily Jobs? Active in Club or Church?  Ladies, who’s got time to stir a pot when you’ve got naked babies to smear with lipstick?

IMG_5153The sink. Yes, it also works:

IMG_5114And these cabinets! The cabinets alone could justify a 30-year-mortgage:

IMG_4812Sliding glass doors and little hooks for teacups.

IMG_5116Quick detour to the back porch. Wasn’t it nice of the sellers to leave us their bucket and pot collection, full of dirty rain water? Nothing suspicious about that.

IMG_5217Want to guess what’s under the sparkly linoleum? Could it be… more linoleum?

IMG_5221IMG_5220PRO-TIP!  When taking “before” pictures, always use the flash on your camera, preferably with no other light source available. The pictures always look more scary, shocking and in need of dramatic makeovers.

Don’t be sad, there’s more pale pink to be had in the dining room and front (living) room. Plus, dirty carpet the shade (but definitely not the smell) of Orange Cream Soda:

IMG_5098 If you can see past the three layers of dusty treatments, there’s a south facing bay window:

IMG_5106Notice these strangely pristine, tuna-salad-pink walls? That’s painted wallpaper.

IMG_5100Happily, the wall paper fell off in even, satisfying strips. Like pulling off a giant dried band-aid.  I compulsively tore it all down, and then realized I had no idea what to do with the plaster beneath, yellowed from old glue and spiderwebbed with small cracks. Scott said it looked like a cheesy Italian restaurant, imitating an ancient Roman villa. We called it “Olive Garden Chic.”

Just then my phone rang, and local hero Kevin asked if I needed any advice on patching plaster.  Yes, please.

IMG_5186After washing with TSP, we covered the cracks with drywall tape, then applied three coats of joint compound.

IMG_5190_textAfter a sanding and wiping, a couple coats of latex primer and the walls almost seemed of this century. Or at least last century. Or not like an Italian restaurant.

IMG_5202In the process of fixing the walls, we managed to trash the Orange Cream Soda carpet:

IMG_5203Which is fine, cause we found these rustic wood boards underneath, which – as I type these words – are being sanded and refinished by a guy named Lester.

IMG_5163Come on, let Lester get back to work. Step out to the front yard for some fresh air.  Oh, don’t mind her. That’s just local hero Gin planting some flower bulbs, so we’ll have something pretty to look at in the Spring.


Let’s hope the furnace is still alive to see it.

* True story: On the final walk-through, I noticed that the toilet in the powder room was dry. So I twisted the valve on as far as it could go, the hose cracked and drenched me in cold water.  So much for my lucky sweater vest.

Going on a Couch Diet (Part 1)

Tomorrow we sign the papers to buy the Babushka House. Three weeks from today, we move. Who’s freaking out? Not me.

In preparation for the big move, Scott and I have been making some tough choices about our belongings: pack, sell, donate, or pass on to friends. We’ve made a game of circling the apartment shouting, “You live! You die!” at our cowering furniture.

The big secret is: Unless you consider the backyard to be living space, our new house isn’t really that much bigger than our apartment.

Currently on Furniture Death Row: A matching set of massive, lumpy sleeper sofas*:

IMG_5069We bought these couches off Craigslist back when I was pregnant with our second child and living in a one-bedroom apartment; it made sense to be able to quickly turn our living room into a flophouse (at our peak, we had six people living there).

The couches are what you could politely call, “big-boned.” Come on, they can’t help it. Below their firm, ample seat cushions, each one of them is hiding an entire MATTRESS — queen and twin-sized, respectively.

We loved them not only for their sleeping capacity, but for their neutral, forgiving, booger-colored fabric. In fact, it’s hard to tell what percentage of the sofa is actual fabric and what is just dried baby snot and peanut butter.

whats holding our sofa togetherBut, I would rather eat raw Chicken McNugget slime than have to move them again. Or find the space for them in our new, even tinier living room.

The good news is that exactly one year ago, I found an amazing Mid-Century, bare bones couch in the alley behind our building. My totally rational fear of bed begs forced me to leave the (admittedly lovely and intact) couch cushions in the alley. With super-human strength fueled by the adrenaline that comes with a once-in-a-lifetime alley find, I carried the frame a half block back to our yard. In review: Those leaves on the ground? From 2013.


I couldn’t quite put an age on this couch — was it truly Mid-Century, or just a recent knockoff? The only clue was this:

IMG_5051Fans of the Western Balkans may remember that Yugoslavia is no longer a country. So we know it was manufactured between 1945 and 1992. (If it was branded “Kingdom of Yugoslavia,” we could say it was made between 1918 and 1944.**).

My next dark secret: This thing has been tilted on its side in a dark corner of our living room for an ENTIRE YEAR. Close friends may recognize this sign taped to it, which somehow actually kept any (mostly pre-literate) children from pulling it over:

IMG_5073So why a whole year of avoiding my dream couch? Even though the frame only needed a few minor repairs, the thought of making new couch cushions absolutely terrifies me. It plays on my biggest DIY weaknesses: Sewing, thinking in three dimensions and zippers.

Yesterday, I fixed the frame. Today I’m telling you about it. Pretty soon we’re gonna get rid of the big couches. Meaning: I’m now publicly, internetly on the hook to make new cushions, sometime before we move.

But first, let’s fix the frame:

I knew there must be something wrong with this frame, because it was in the trash. The initial diagnosis: Slightly wobbly backrest and two loose/bent legs.

First, get the patient bottom-side-up on the operating table (your dining table).

IMG_5044Now for the low-hanging fruit of furniture repair – screw everything in good and tight. You’d be surprised how much of a difference this makes and how often people neglect it.

IMG_5042This frame had exactly two “good” legs and two “bad” legs. OK, they’re not inherently bad, they just made bad choices. Like the choice to have a crazy bent screw that I couldn’t get out of the frame:

IMG_5045Time to get a little rough. Wack the screw straight with a hammer, then pry it out with an adjustable wrench or locking pliers:

IMG_5046IMG_5047The inside of the corresponding leg was – not surprisingly – badly stripped, and would need a bigger, scarier wood screw to hold it in place.

IMG_5056Off to the local hardware store to find the right screw and make jokes about Josip Tito, which – also not surprisingly – were met with blank stares from the Hardware Guy.  “See, Yugoslavia, it says it right here on the leg!”

IMG_5059Next, I drilled out the inside of the leg even more to fit the new, thicker screw. Since this kind of screw (I already forget what it’s called), has no head, you have to painstakingly twist it in (pointy side down) using locking pliers.

IMG_5065I strongly suggest wearing rubber gloves for better grip. Even with gloves, I still grew a nasty blister on my left hand – yet another blow to my hand-modeling career:

IMG_5068Since both holes on the left side of the frame were stripped out, I had to drill two new holes – using two different drill bits because of the different screw sizes. I drilled them slightly closer to the outside edge of the frame, for better balance.

IMG_5054Twist the legs back into their freshly-drilled holes, and test for wobbliness:

IMG_5055 While at the hardware store, I bought four of these rubber “booties” to slip on the leg bottoms:

IMG_5066Although they look like your grandma’s mall-walking sneakers, it’s worth it to keep from scratching up my landlord’s hardwood floors right before I move out. That deposit money’s gonna buy a lot of primer and holy water.

IMG_5067Let’s see the not-very-dramatic after-shot:

IMG_5070Just like before, except not broken!

IMG_5072Just for fun, let’s put the old boogery couch cushions on the new couch frame!

IMG_5076Ehhh. Hmmm….Nope. Better get to work on those new cushions.

* I’m using the terms “couch” and “sofa” interchangeably here, since a team of Home Seating Experts has found no substantial difference between the two, aside from cultural interpretations and possibly armrests.
** I have yet to find any couches made in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

How to Survive Unemployment in Seven Easy Steps

Now, I know that most of you are here to see what I dug out of the trash this week. But today I’m telling a different kind of story – about an amazing person who was dumped in the trash heap of unemployment, how we dug ourselves out, and what we learned along the way.

All summer Scott and I have been trying to buy a house in our neighborhood, which was recently designated as a playground for people with disposable income who like to drink alcohol. Consequently, this has made the homes in our beloved neighborhood of 14 years suddenly “desirable.”

After months of bidding wars, we FINALLY found a house in our price range. It was exactly what we wanted – three bedrooms, a big yard, and totally haunted. The place needed work, but it had been lovingly maintained by an Old Polish Lady, not unlike Scott’s own Babushkas. On August 26, we signed the contract to buy the Babushka house.*


The Babushka Kitchen, last updated in 1943.  Definitely keeping the cabinets, but probably not the Lysol Collection. 

Then on August 27 – with no notice – Scott lost his job of ten years. Poof!  His entire department had been eliminated.

When suddenly-unemployed-Scott walked back in the door that morning, we both cried. Not so much for the job, but for the house we would not be able to buy, and for our bad luck, and for the stinging unfairness of it all.

Then we caught our breath, wiped the snot from our upper lips, and both burst out laughing. How could anyone on earth have such bad luck?

In the background of our new sadness, the radio described the unspeakable misery of people who could only dream of having our problems. Live reports from the front line of another war, from refugee camps, from makeshift hospitals in West Africa. Here we were:  Americans with college degrees, two-page resumes, and a savings account. Not to mention a happy marriage, three healthy children, and a gaggle of supportive friends. We would be fine; we would get through this.  We just didn’t know when.


One of the thousands of problems that we don’t have.

I’m happy to report that the when is now. After only six weeks out of work, Scott is at a shiny new job in a very tall building. The Babushka’s children were kind enough to extend our contract while he looked for work, so we’re on track to buy that house next month.

Experts say that job loss is one of the most traumatic life events, right behind the discovery that your mother used to be a nun. Six weeks is a short time to be unemployed, but it was one of the most stressful six weeks of our marriage. Since I work from home, I had to suddenly share my space and routine (and bathroom) with another person who only used to visit on evenings and weekends. I learned a few lessons along the way that hopefully you will never have to use. But just in case….


Immediately Unpack your “Box of Shame”: The day after Scott was laid off, the office shipped home two boxes of his stuff: 10 years of pay stubs and insurance forms, dozens of tchotchkes embossed with the company’s name. We left this stuff where it landed – stacked in our living room for a couple of weeks, and it gradually became furniture.

IMG_5027 If you can’t bear to unpack your Box of Shame right away, at least drape a colorful runner and use it to serve beverages or light snacks to your guests.

IMG_5030Give your Unemployed Loved One a Daily Assignment:  Nobody can spend nine hours a day spit-shining their LinkedIn profile. Provide your ULO with a little job each day, just something to make him trade his slippers for shoes, leave the house, and feel a sense of accomplishment. Here’s some ideas for your ULO Daily Assignment:

  • Shop for shoe laces (harder than you think)
  • Mail odd-shaped packages (preferably containing liquids or live animals) to other states or countries
  • Deposit months-old birthday checks in the kids’ bank account
  • Dispose of hazardous household materials responsibly
  • Quiz your local pharmacist on the best pinworm treatments for children
  • Go to Target on a Saturday morning
  • Visit elderly relatives without telling them why you have so much free time on Wednesday afternoon
  • Make copies of all your keys
  • Buy more toilet paper and coffee (see below)

Stock Your Home with Extra Coffee and Toilet Paper: You may not realize how much of your ULO’s coffee consumption happens at the office. That 6-cup-a-day habit doesn’t disappear just because he’s at home. To ease the transition to unemployment, try substituting your regular brand of hand-roasted, shade-grown and fairly-traded beans with something more like the office brew – I recommend off-brand Folgers’ Crystals. With extra water. And slightly burned. Served room temperature with powdered creamer.

Next, do the math: Each cup of coffee represents 1.5 trips to the bathroom, so factor that into your toilet paper budget. And air freshener, if that’s what you’re into.

coffee and toilet paperYou should also stock up on your unemployed person’s favorite comfort food. Perhaps he loves to stand in the kitchen, mindlessly smearing peanut butter across his tongue? Or eating spoonfuls of strawberry jam right out of the jar when nobody’s looking?** Be prepared for a lot of that.

Buy a Printer/ Scanner Combo: I think this is half the reason Scott got an office job in the first place. You are REALLY going to miss all that free printing.

Involve Your Kids in the Job Search: Our oldest boy didn’t seem concerned about the layoff – he still bubbles with that early-adolescent brew of optimism, invincibility and total ignorance about boring grown up stuff like unemployment and real estate. Our 3-year-old boy just discovered that dogs have penises, so he’s been pretty busy telling everyone about that.

But our 5-year-old discovered her talent as a (really lousy) career counselor. When we told her Daddy needed to find a new job, she suggested Scott work at the coffee shop, then the book store, and then a store she calls “Buckets of Blood” which actually sells paint, not buckets of blood, but you can see why she thinks that:

buckets of bloodFinally, Estelle suggested that Daddy get a job at the “Thinking Store,” a magical place where workers stand behind a counter and give customers their good ideas. About anything. “And they get paid lots of money so we can get ice cream and Mexican food every day.”

Take Everyone To The Doctor Immediately: If you’re like us, you have a few weeks before the health insurance runs out for good. Ladies, get your pap smears. Order new glasses. Take the kids for their annual checkups, with all the shots. If you haven’t already, teach your kids to wash their hands.

PRO-TIP!!   Even if your insurance ran out, you can still call the kids’ doctor’s after-hours “on-call” hotline. So, if your precious angel is sick and you’re really not sure if it’s worth taking him in, just wait until midnight and have the doctor paged. She will be groggy and a little pissed-off, but it won’t be charged to your non-existent health insurance.

Alternately, live in a country with universal health insurance. Which is most countries.

Give Your ULO some Mini-Indulgences: Unemployment is a combustible mix of boredom and poverty. You’ve got plenty of time to browse EBay and the latest movie and restaurant reviews, but no money for any of it.

But don’t let your ULO feel like a total pauper! Eating dinner out is a budget-buster, but what about breakfast? For less than $20, you can enjoy a meal for two with bottomless coffee. For a couple of hours, you can feel like royalty, watching other people cook and serve your meals, wash your dishes and wipe your crumbs. However, when the server asks “Is everything OK?” – try not to burst into tears and scream about how you gave them the ten best years of your life for nothing. She was just asking about the food.

I do recommend splurging on new career-wear. Scott’s old “Job Interview Suit” was also his “Funeral Suit” and his “Wedding Suit” with all the stains to prove it. It sported an outdated wide-cut and shoulder pads. Throw in some weight loss, and Scott now looked like a child playing dress up, or a teenager borrowing his dad’s suit for the prom, rather than a serious Job Seeker.  Here’s the old suit, circa 2008, 2009 and 2013.

wedding photoaprilbrian0452Picture 1322I can’t say for sure if his new “European fit” suit helped him score the new job, but it did give him a big boost of confidence. And I can’t wait for the next wedding.

Say YES to all Offers of Help, no Matter how Weird or Irrelevant.  So many friends offered to pass Scott’s resume on to someone they knew in his industry. Though none of this materialized into job interviews, it certainly made us, and our friends, feel like we were doing something. And don’t just say yes to the networking opportunities. Another friend gave us his old Blu-Ray player and a box set of “Blade Runner.” It didn’t help land a new job, but it gave Scott something to do, and the feeling that someone was looking out for us.

Think About your Future Memory Box: There are big moments in a marriage that you will never forget: The moment you met, your wedding day, your spouse’s reaction to an unplanned pregnancy. The memories of thousands of regular weekdays will eventually fade into a sepia-toned blur. But your Loved One will always remember how you treated him when he lost his job. You may be scared, you may be angry, you will most certainly be whirling in a cesspool of stress.


Sorry, no good pictures of swirling cesspools on the internet. Here’s a dirty pool that is probably causing someone stress.  

If you need to freak out, do it with your mother or your friends. But when your Loved One looks back at this time, make sure all he remembers is your gentle encouragement, your confidence in his abilities, and your excitement at seeing his rear end in a new, tight-fitting suit.

* In a Babushka haunting, the ghosts will force you to eat rye bread and pierogi in your sleep, groaning, “You’re wasting away, my dziecko…”
** No, wait, that’s me eating all the strawberry jelly.

Projectophile Time Machine: DIY Inspiration from 70 years ago

Do you ever wonder what your life would be like if you were born three generations back?


— Wavy lines indicate oncoming dream sequence —

Maybe I’ve been watching too many sepia-toned Ken Burns documentaries, but in the early 20th Century, I’m sure I’d find myself organizing lady garment workers into a union. Then I’d be a suffragette, and then a flapper, and then – after a quick nap – I’d be Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. When war breaks out, I’d clip on my overalls, flex my biceps and clock in at the nearest ammunition plant.


Scott in a sailor suit, slightly too young for war.

On VJ Day, I’d head to the docks and kiss every GI on the mouth. Hopefully, one of them would be Scott, in a tight-fitting sailor suit.

However, my revisionist fantasies fall flat when I remember that 70 years ago, I wouldn’t have a blog.* I wouldn’t even have a zine, or a faxed newsletter. And without the internet, I’d be forced to get my project inspiration from books and magazines.

I recently got a peek into that dark and primitive world thanks to a pile of DIY magazines from the 1940s and early 50s.  When our friends Christine and Pete hosted an estate sale for a neighbor’s family, they set aside a stack of vintage Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and – yes, I’m spelling it right – Mechanix Illustrated magazines.**

So, what kind of projects were DIY enthusiasts buzzing about 70 years ago? In the dark days before This Old House and Apartment Therapy,  what did we have for project and home improvement inspiration?

Here at Projectophile, we love nothing more than turning old junk into something useful again. After World War II, America was awash in WAR JUNK.  If I were around back then, here’s some projects I would explore:

bullet chess setI can’t wait for the rationing on chess pieces to end!  And just what DO I do with all these old warplanes laying around everywhere?

plane parts feed birds“War Surplus” is more than airplanes and bullets! Let’s put those leftover chemical weapons to good use.

tear gasWhen shoveling the driveway is colder than the 1939 Soviet Invasion of Finland, try this Navy Face Mask. Makes a perfect gift for the dungeon enthusiast in your life!

face maskActually, you might want to keep that mask handy for your newest hobby — hunting uranium for fun and profit!

locate uraniumNow that the War is over, thousands of suddenly-bored scientists are itching to tell you how to run your life. This article warns millions of (also suddenly bored) American housewives how prevent over-exertion from cooking dinner.

kitchen designed by doctors Ladies, why aren’t you harnessing the power of the latest cheese slicing and storage technology?  Khrushchev is totally gonna lose it when he sees this!

slicing cheeseOn second thought, maybe we really shouldn’t try to piss off Khrushchev too badly. You know, because of that whole pesky Mutually Assured Destruction thing.  In the meantime, here’s a home improvement project the whole family can enjoy!

img20141007_21203207“Let children help by snooping out oily rags, furniture polish, and other fire hazards grown ups may overlook. By building your Family Foxhole, you will also be building the state of mind that can resist the pressures of aggression as well as the shocks of actual atomic war.” family foxholeAs long as we’re going to die in a fiery blast anyway, enjoy some vices! Be sure to add a touch of class to this miniature cobbler’s bench ashtray by asking Grandma*** to stitch a custom lace doily:

cobblers_bench_holds_smokesShould I smoke, or drink? Now you don’t have to choose!

ash tray tumblerIt’s such a nice day! let’s go for a drive in the Ultimate DUI Wagon, conveniently stocked for your mobile binge with booze, tumblers and ice.

dashboard refreshment barKids today think they INVENTED distracted driving. Honey, we were doing it back in the 1940s. This “portable desk” for traveling salesmen fits right over the steering wheel!

distracted drivingAnd back at the central office, these humble workers just survived the world’s first conference call, which, through a decades-long process of technological mutations would result in the world’s worst portmanteau, the WEBINAR.

conference_callNow that the horrible bloodshed of war is over, scientists and home mechanics alike can turn their attention to improving our method of…. killing people?  “From the first torture rack to the latest gas chamber, science has transformed the criminal’s execution from human butchery into a skilled profession.”

mechanics of killingDon’t worry, we have more to look forward to than just death, and more death.  This “High School of the Future” teaches boys to cook (hot dogs), and girls to (*gasp*) repair furniture!

high school of the futureAnd when all else fails, just push this Amazing Mystery Button, which transmits music to distant places and comes with a 5,000 word instruction book.

amazing mystery buttonWhat could possibly go wrong?

* Or a college degree, or a polio vaccine, or access to birth control. But we’ll save those details for another blog.
** I don’t approve of hoarding in my own home, but I do enjoy benefiting from the hoarding of strangers.
*** Before Etsy, there was Grandma.


“We Always Wipe Our Butts” Family Crest + Toilet Paper Holder

I confess: Sometimes I complain about people who don’t have kids.

“Why are my childless friends always late?” I recently griped to a child-free friend. “I’ve got three other people to get ready, and still manage to get places on time.

The friend complained right back, “Why do parents use their kids as an excuse not to go out on weekends. Get a babysitter!

Tell me this!” I argued. “Why are you people tired all the time? You can sleep whenever you want!

poochart“Oh yeah?,” he retorted, “Why do parents talk incessantly about POOP?

Well. He had me there! We breeders DO love discussing poop, especially when it comes out of the behinds of our little darlings. We don’t naturally love excrement, but we spend a big part of our days either cleaning poop, helping someone poop, or finding poop in unexpected places.*

Case in point:  One of the guests at a friend’s birthday party told a delightfully graphic story about a kid who forgot to wipe her butt for a whole day.  My pal Jessica wandered into the conversation and proudly declared, “In MY family, we ALWAYS wipe our butts.” I laughed and added, “You should put that on your family crest.”

Jessica can always make us laugh. But suddenly last week she was in need of some serious cheering up: Jess’ cargo bike (essentially a two-wheeled minivan) was stolen, just a couple of months after she’d sold off the family car.

This was devastating. When she’s not at Movie Trivia night, Jess can be seen herding about a half dozen children: three handsome boys of her own, plus handful of other people’s kids for good measure. Somehow she also finds the time to do craft projects, foster dogs, organize (really fun!) school fundraisers, and generally make our little world a better place.  Here is a pregnant Jessica using her charm to get a hold of Mayor Emanuel’s top secret plans for Chicago:483959_4365761668545_185537383_n

And somehow, Jessica makes it all look easy. Glamorous, even.

Now it was my turn to make her smile. I couldn’t replace the cargo bike, but I did have a pretty clever idea for a family crest!  Before we get started, remember this: When making a poop-themed Family Crest/ Toilet paper holder, the number one rule is: KEEP IT CLASSY.

Hunk of wood
Toilet Paper Holder and Roll of TP (2-ply)
Primer, Paint and Polycrylic
Jigsaw, Sanding Block, Paintbrushes and Old Rag
Restless 3-year Old
Latin Dictionary
Loads of Class

STEP ONE – SAW:  I grabbed scrap of wood leftover from various projects, and jig-sawed into a regal crest shape. Do a Google Image search for “family crest” to get some ideas.


(Projectophile stock photo)

Sand the raw crest down to a smooth finish with a sanding block, paying special attention to the rough edges and not-so-graceful curves.

IMG_4865STEP TWO – PRIME & PAINT:  For the background, I chose a four-panel diamond pattern in white and yellow, because it felt bright and cheerful; also I have a lot of yellow and white paint (I dismissed Scott’s not-so-classy suggestion to use yellow and brown – the palette of human waste).

First, put down a layer of oil-based white primer, to even out the dark tones and help the paint adhere. Note that I didn’t waste a paintbrush on this step, I just dunked a (clean) rag into the primer and smeared it on, then tossed the rag.

IMG_4867After the primer dried, I traced my diamond pattern in pencil, and then painted one section at a time, using masking tape to protect the other sections and keep my lines straight.

IMG_4875PRO-TIP #1: If you use cheap, disposable brushes to apply oil-based paint, try giving your brush a quick “haircut” before painting to get that perfect angle.


IMG_4885STEP THREE – APPLY YOUR MESSAGE:  In the name of Keeping it Classy, I decided to translate “We Always Wipe Our Butts” into Latin, cause everything sounds more serious in a dead language only spoken by the Pope.

I took four years of high school Latin, but now I don’t even recognize those strange words on the back of a quarter. So I got some help from my smarter friends.

Chris T. suggested: Nostrum clunes semper detergemus, which means, “Our buttocks are always clean.” Close, but not specific enough.

Then Gareth N. contributed: Semper emundabit culus, which translates to “Always cleanse your anus,” a little more…um… clinical in tone than I needed.

In the end, I chose Julie V.’s phrase: Semper extergunt tibus nostrum.

I tried to paint the family name directly on the top of the crest with a clean, modern san-serif font of my own design:

IMG_4895After screwing up a few letters, I tried mask my mistakes with some camouflaging serifs, which only made matters worse. YIKES!

IMG_4896In a panic, I primed a piece of balsa wood and wrote the family name in permanent marker:

IMG_4897Using the balsa wood, I wrote the latin phrase in a “banner” shape, and per Scott’s suggestion, drew it as a flowing roll of toilet paper. However, I couldn’t quite get the shape right, panicked, and then just made Scott cut it out for me:

IMG_4900I gently sanded down the areas where the banners would go, and used wood glue to stick them to the crest.

IMG_4903IMG_4912STEP FOUR – FINAL TOUCHES:  Since the crest would (ideally) be used in a bathroom setting – in close proximity to many acidic fluids – I gave the whole crest three thin coats of Minwax polycrylic clear finish in spray form. This is the first time I’ve used aerosol top coat – I found a can among dumpster full of half-used spray paint and decided to give it a try.

PRO-TIP #2: Shaking a can of spray paint for two minutes is a very boring, but totally necessary step in many projects. Instead of wasting two minutes of your valuable grown-up time (when you could be thinking about fiber, taxes or real estate), let your three-year-old do the hard work for you. The average preschooler has nothing better to do (he still thinks orange is a letter); and shaking a can with a marble inside will provide valuable stimulation, improve hand-eye coordination and build both fine and gross motor skills.


Can’t you just feel his self-esteem exploding?

When the finish is dry, screw some mounting hardware on the back – Remember, this is a practical, useful gift.

IMG_4911Finally, install your toilet paper hardware and spring for a fresh roll.** I recommended two-ply for maximum butt wiping resistance.


IMG_4924IMG_4925STEP FIVE – PRESENTATION: Gather up the girlfriends and head to Movie Trivia Night at your local theater. Sit silently for an hour sipping your beer, because you can’t even remember the title of the movie you watched two weeks ago, much less the name of Meatloaf’s character in Rocky Horror. Present the gift to your friend. She doesn’t even remember saying “We always wipe our butts,” but you get a smile out of her anyway.

IMG_4927* Did you know that every year the average human being produces about 1,200 pounds of feces and urine combined?
** You weren’t really gonna put a half-used roll of toilet paper on there, were you?

Sidewalk Hustle: 10 Secrets for Yard Sale Success

Yard Sale season is winding down here in Middle America, but in Australia – where most Projectophile readers reside – the scavengers are just now rousing themselves from a long winter hibernation, ready to forage for bargains.

Scott and I hosted our own yard sale this past weekend, and learned that informal commerce is more than just throwing your junk out on the lawn. It requires a detailed marketing plan, inventory control, and lots of quarters and $1 bills.  Follow these ten easy steps for a successful sale in any hemisphere!

IMG_4832BRAND YOUR SALE:  A few days before the sale, you’ll want to post an ad on Craigslist and various neighborhood online forums. As you draft your ad, be sensitive both to regional customs and deeper shades of meaning. I called mine a YARD SALE, even though most sales in Chicago are actually conducted on the sidewalk. Other possibilities include:

Garage Sale:  Is your sale actually inside a garage? Unless it’s raining, this is a terrible location. Garages are dark and musty. Your customers will be surrounded by grease spots, spider webs, and lots of rusty items that are not actually for sale. Take it outside.
Moving Sale: This name suggests an expansive inventory and many big-ticket items that the seller can’t fit in his dad’s station wagon.


You think these two know each other?

Moving out of the Country Sale:  A more drastic version of the Moving Sale, it adds an element of intrigue. Diplomat? Spy? Arms Smuggler? Either way, she’s selling everything she can’t fit into the airplane’s overhead compartment.
Divorce Sale: If you don’t mind sharing a few details about your failed relationship, you can entice drama-hungry shoppers with a love of Schadenfreude. But check your pre-nup agreement first.
Estate Sale: Appropriate only when the owner of the merchandise is actually dead. Attending an Estate Sale is more than just a shopping trip; it is a chance to trample through a person’s house and most intimate belongings.

At this Estate Sale advertised below, we find remnants of a well-rounded life — Christmas decorations, Precious Moments figurines and Pornography (emphasis mine):

preciousmomentsandpornDEVELOP YOUR SALES STRATEGY: Ask yourself: Do you want to get rich, or get rid of stuff? You may be tempted to mark up some of your nicer items, but consider how much cash the average person at your yard sale will be carrying in his pocket. If your stuff is really that nice, sell it separately on Craigslist.

Feel free to print out this IRS-inspired worksheet to determine which items to sell on Craigslist and which to sell at your yard sale:

matrixCONDUCT SOME LIGHT BAIT & SWITCH:  Take a few sample pictures of what you plan on selling at the yard sale: A pair of shoes, a chair, a kitchen gadget… that sort of thing. Next, take pictures of one or two really nice things that you are NOT selling: An $800 stroller, your Danish Teak Mid-Century Modern Dining Room Set in Perfect Condition. Casually mix the pictures together in your ad. Remember, you don’t have to actually sell these things, you just want to give your Yard Sale a certain je ne sais quoi. You will inevitably be asked about these items at the sale, in which case you respond, “Oh THAT? It already sold. But can I interest you in this bin of obsolete cell phone chargers?”

DON’T BE A XENOPHOBIC, CHILD-HATING CRANK: This fellow didn’t notice that our neighborhood is full of children and non-English speakers. But he does have “leather pants & more.”

yardsaleadcirclesV.I.P. PREVIEW: If you truly care more about shedding stuff than raking in the Benjamins,* then consider holding an exclusive, Friends-Only Preview sale the evening before. Dim the lights, pour champagne, spin some light jazz, and watch your possessions melt away.

STAGE YOUR SALE:  Is your sale easy to find? We held ours on the sidewalk and parkway, so that innocent pedestrians had to squeeze past our bargains to get to the end of the block. We hung the better garments on the fence so that passers-by were forced to make eye contact with the ghostly remnants of my pre-baby, mid 2000s business casual wardrobe.

IMG_4841Don’t make your customers assume undignified positions – limit the squatting, kneeling and bending over that must be done to examine your product. Instead of throwing them on the ground, place items on a table or hang them on a tree or fence.

And please, take stuff out of the boxes and garbage bags before you try to sell them (and preferably before you take pictures):


I wonder if their punctuation marks are at the bottom of those boxes?

CHECK YOUR JUNK:  Every sitcom in history had the “rummage sale” episode – when the kids accidentally sold Grandma’s love letters from Mussolini, or the cookie jar with $40,000 inside. Empty the pockets of your coats and pants, and shake out your books for sentimental bookmarks, especially if you keep your place with $100 savings bonds.

Also, make sure your kid doesn’t put a pair of his tighty-whities in the yard sale pile:

IMG_4848MAKE IT A PARTY!  Ask your pals and neighbors if they’d like to display their own wares. It’s an easy way to double your inventory, and the extra bodies milling about will generate buzz in the neighborhood. You might call this “SYNERGY”**, but it’s also a fun excuse to have pizza delivered directly to the yard sale.

IMG_4836¡PRO-TIP!  Before yard sale-ing with friends, initiate a frank discussion about trades. For example, allow each family to take three things of similar value from the other before the sale is open to the public. Be very careful that you don’t end up with more stuff than you started with.

CHILD LABOR IS OK FOR A FEW HOURS: We thought an affiliated lemonade stand would be cute; we even let the 5-year-old design the marketing materials:

IMG_4834However, the kids guzzled down all of the product within 15 minutes. The bees made sure nobody touched the rest.

And, while it’s fun to let the kids sell their own stuff, you may want to give your little Robber Barons a crash course in business ethics. For example, when a customer indicated that she wanted to buy a book with $1 price tag, one of the kids (not mine!) told her the book now cost $2.  Never negotiate with a 7-year-old.

CONSIDER A “FREE BOX”: Let’s be honest: You have things that are just plain worthless. Save yourself the humiliation of putting a price tag on your kids’ old underwear and throw it all in a “FREE BOX.” Not only does the free stuff help move inventory, the free-loaders might actually buy something.

NO TAKE-BACKS: When the yard sale ends, bag up the clothes, shoes and books, and drop them at the charity box. Leave everything else in the alley or the street corner – nothing comes back in the house except leftover pizza. The invisible hand of the free market has spoken, and it doesn’t want to pay $1 for your women’s studies textbooks from the early 1990s.

IMG_4850CELEBRATE: You’re now 50 pounds of junk lighter and $67 richer. Most of your profits are in the form of $1 bills, but that doesn’t mean you can’t imitate your favorite rock star, rapper, or hedge fund manager. Fan the dollars out and wave them in your friends’ faces, or spread them over your bed and roll around in them (and then promptly wash the sheets). Just don’t set them on fire, because I’m pretty sure that’s a felony. You’ve already broken enough laws today.


* For my Australian friends, “Benjamins” is American Slang for $100 bills, which display the face of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was not actually a U.S. president, but is well-known for inventing electricity, libraries and tight pants.
** The words synergy, webinar and deliverable are not allowed in our house.

Rusty Victorian to Danish Modern: Cover your Radiator with Old IKEA Bed Slats

On a recent date night, Scott and I split a bottle of champagne at our favorite sushi restaurant, then stumbled the five miles home, strategically zig-zagging past every apartment we’d lived in.

I approached a young woman smoking on the front stoop of the 6-flat* I’d occupied when I first met Scott a decade ago. In the time it took her to finish that cigarette, I spun a frightening tale of my cheap, but (lowering my voice to a gravelly whisper) truly terrible apartment.

The first time I saw that apartment ($700 for a huge 3-bedroom!), a young couple with a baby were scrambling out the door, the old Polish landlady warning them, “This is no place for children!”

The place in question was heated by a “Visual Gas Flame Vented Room Heater;”  the apartment version of a burning trashcan: Hot enough at the core to melt lead, but a few steps away and you’re back in the tundra. My neighbor across the hall had snapped this blurry shot of the death furnace, featuring my two cats who – coincidentally – are now both dead.


Squint your eyes — this picture was taken before megapixels were invented.

We only shivered through one Chicago winter before moving up to a place with steam radiators — the apartment equivalent of a being hugged by a really warm panda bear. And, there’s no better place to hang your wet socks after a long romp in the snow.**

But, radiators are a design nightmare. Awkwardly-placed hunks of rusting iron standing between you and your Interior Design Fantasies.

IMG_4721IMG_4723I’ve been dying to camouflage the ugly radiator in our kitchen – which we use as a shelf for bike helmets and hats, and an occasional “buffet” for overcrowded parties. I’ve seen plenty of schemes for fussy D.I.Y. radiator covers, but they all seemed more at home under a doily and an orgy of Precious Moments figurines. I wanted something more sleek and modern.

As usual, inspiration struck from the alley, where I spotted an IKEA slatted bed base: 16 birch slats stapled to two polypropylene ribbons (Sweden doesn’t allow box springs within its borders). The slats seemed about the size of my kitchen radiator, so I dragged them home and hid them from Scott while I planned my Scandinavian radiator makeover.

IMG_4730_arrowIMG_4728This is how I transformed my rusting old radiator into a light, modern shelf space. Drilling only four tiny holes in the wall, this project is not only beautiful, but very renter-friendly.

Gently-used IKEA Slat Bed Base
Big Slab of Scrap Wood from the Pile Next Door
Any length of quarter-round wood moulding
Staple remover
Staple gun
Power sander (optional)
Polycrylic finish
Drill and wood screws

STEP ONE – CONDENSE THE SLATS: Clear off your radiator and place all that crap in the middle of the floor for your family members to trip over. Next, drape the wooden slats over your now-naked radiator.

IMG_4732I loved the look – the blonde wood perfectly matched my kitchen’s cheap pine flooring. But the slats were too far apart to effectively hide my shame, and would look too much like a ladder to a curious three-year-old (or a drunk 38-year-old).

I measured the radiator, grabbed my staple remover, and pulled out all off the extra slats that had been draped over the BACK of the radiator.


IMG_4737Next, I placed the liberated slats in between the existing ones and stapled them to the ribbon.

IMG_4746The slats fit perfectly, but I worried that the two ribbons wouldn’t be strong enough to hold the now densely-packed slats. Remember, this product was designed to lie flat under a mattress, not to be hung by its ribbons.

I scoured the house for something strong, thin and flat, and then remembered that I had found a box of these promotional aprons in a dumpster last year:

IMG_4748Since I don’t believe in the militarization of baking, I gave most of the aprons away, but still had one I could scavenge for the neck and back ties, which I stapled to the slats for reinforcement.

IMG_4750To attach the slats to the front of the radiator, simply tie the top of the ribbon and apron ties under and around the pipes (depending on your radiator layout), knot, and hope for the best.

IMG_4779Like anything from IKEA, these slats are sixteen times heavier than they should be, so ask a spouse or lover hold them up while you fasten the knots. And like all IKEA products, expect some sweating, swearing and struggling before it finally comes together.

STEP TWO – CREATE THE SHELF:  Shady developers are gutting the house next door, which means plenty of free scrap wood for me! Grab a nice piece of pine or birch (plywood is OK), and place it over your radiator to mark the desired width and length. You want it to be slightly cantilevered for a dramatic, Mies Van Der Rohe-inspired effect.  If necessary, mark a cut-out for the pipes leading to the ceiling:

IMG_4754PRO-TIP!! Have a little fun with your wood scraps before you begin the hard work of sawing it down to size.  Create a “bear trap” for unsuspecting family members by placing a cupcake, magic wand or a hardcover copy of the art of Jean Giraud Moebius under some precariously balanced planks:
IMG_4752Use a jig saw to cut your wood down to size, including the pipe-hole.

IMG_4757IMG_4758To keep the shelf from shifting laterally, we need to install discreet “stabilization slats” on its underside. Find a piece of scrap wood and cut a couple of slices off that will fit in the space between the pipes. Mine were about 8 inches long and ½ inch wide. Drill wood screws to secure the slats to the bottom of the shelf – it doesn’t have to be pretty.

IMG_4771This is what I’m going for:

IMG_4775Sand the top and sides of your cut wood to a smooth finish:

IMG_4769 Finally, give it three coats of water-based polycrylic, sanding lightly between coats to eliminate unsightly “lacquer boogers.”

IMG_4776STEP THREE – INSTALL SHELF BRACKETS: If you don’t have a good pile of scrap wood next door, head to the hardware store for an arm’s length of quarter round wood moulding. Cut two pieces: The first piece should be about the length of the wall where your shelf will rest. The second piece will be hidden, so who cares how long it is. After marking where your shelf will sit, drill the two pieces to the wall using wood screws on either end.

IMG_4767Slide your shelf between the two pieces of moulding to make sure the fit is snug. Take a few beautifully-staged pictures before your family starts to pile their crap back on top of it again!

IMG_4784Discover all the new uses for your radiator cover. Display your collection of over-ripe tomatoes:
IMG_4786You’re only steps from the stove! Try a new recipe from the internet:

IMG_4790…Or invite a few friends over for cocktails. Discuss who among you keeps leaving bottles of Costco Vodka behind:
IMG_4787* Six-Flat is Chicago-talk for a building with six apartments: Three stories tall (if you count the basement), and two apartments deep.
**  Projectophile does not condone hanging wet socks on pandas. They’ve got enough problems already.